Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216
Peter B. Murray, Macalester College
In some influential post-structuralist commentary on Shakespeare's representation of character, Hamlet is regarded as psychologically incoherent, and humanist critics are said to project onto the inscription of this character the notions of inwardness and an essential self which were fully developed only in the century following the composition of the play.1 Francis Barker argues that Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because his interiority is merely "gestural," so that at his center there is "nothing" (36-7; cf. Belsey, Subject 41). Contrary both to the views of the post-structuralists and to the view attributed to humanist critics, I will argue that Hamlet is not psychologically incoherent but has the divided and only partially self-aware and self-controlling subjectivity that in Shakespeare's time was said to characterize human beings. Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because he has a complex interiority that makes self-knowledge difficult. Thus this character is himself able to think about how his thinking may be in error. After all, his own statements that his inaction is caused by cowardly thinking are the main source of the theory that he rationalizes to delay revenge (esp. 4.4.32-46; cf. Belsey's opposed view of how to interpret Hamlet's soliloquies, Subject 50, 52).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22955
Regarding the general question of how to think of the text of a play in responding to a character, there is certainly a sense in which a character exists only in the performance of an actor; but on the other hand insofar as we are aware of the actor performing, we are aware, too, that he or she is performing a text. The text is the starting point for both actor and reader. As Harry Berger argues, we infer a character from the text of a play, and this has an important corollary: "a character or dramatic person is the effect rather than the cause of his or her speech and of our interpretation" (147). Whether we are actors, audience, or readers, however, according to the Elizabethan ideas developed in Chapter 1, our imaginations will mostly assimilate scripted speeches and actions to imagined persons who, like real persons, are the cause of their speech and action. And because we respond to imagined persons as if they were real, we infer "inner" thoughts and feelings from scripted words and deeds in the process of interpreting the characters as the effect of these phenomena in the way Berger says.2
As explained in Chapters 1 and 3, the text is—and was for the Elizabethans—a score for a performance, and a critic who has seen many performances may be able to perform the analysis of the psychology of a character by responding to the text and to memories of performance as evoked by reading the text. My readings have been arrived at in this way, but what I write is based on the potentialities and the constraints for any kind of interpretation that I find inscribed—or implied by what is inscribed—in the text. When I say a character thinks or may think this or that, I mean that the text implies such thoughts, and I do not assume that the character is a real person. The "I find" and "may" here indicate my recognition that any interpretation is inevitably subjective and uncertain, however much one tries to achieve objectivity by taking into account the interpretations of many others and all of the relevant contexts.
In sum, when I infer what Hamlet thinks and feels, I regard him as an imagined person created by Shakespeare to be entered into imaginatively by an actor and imagined or construed by an audience. The audience needs to be able to respond to Hamlet as an imagined person in order to respond appropriately to the play Hamlet.3 For the tragic effect, we must remain sympathetic even when Hamlet does dreadful deeds, and this requires an understanding of his character and situation so that we can see both the qualities that move him and how these lead to tragic error. Hamlet intends to act for the sake of dignity and integrity and the obligations of love, duty, and justice. If he acts wrongly, it is because, as he responds to his very complex and painful situation, his sensitivity and intensity distort his concern for these values, resulting in an error he is unable to see. He has keen awareness, but paradoxically this awareness, joined with his sensitivity and intensity, results in a self-absorbed blindness in crucial situations.
Of course this is only one possible interpretation of Hamlet's character, even using a behaviorist analysis. One strength of a behaviorist analysis is that it suggests that motivation is multiple as well as complex—that thought and action have as many motives as they have reinforcing consequences—so that a single reading can include a number of interpretations usually found only in competing readings (or such motivation is sometimes referred to without much analysis as "overdetermined"). Because a behaviorist analysis focusses on what a character specifically experiences from moment to moment, it is an analysis that could be especially helpful to an actor seeking a psychological understanding to use as a basis for performance.
The explication of text in a behaviorist interpretation occupies so much more space than does the accompanying technical psychological analysis that at times the interpretation may appear not to be specifically behaviorist. I have tried to strike a balance between showing that a behaviorist analysis can be written without excessive use of technical terminology, and explaining phenomena in technical terms sufficiently to show how a behaviorist analysis works. I will count on a reader's recognizing that certain terms having a common-sense meaning have a similar but more specific meaning in behaviorist psychology. In Chapter 2 I have explained Skinner's powerful analysis of the relations between emotions, thoughts, and actions. That chapter explains the technical use of terms such as "avoidance," "escape," "aversive," "reinforced" or "reinforcing," and "evoke": an event or thought evokes a "response" a person is "disposed" to because it has been made probable by conditioning. "Disposed" is used similarly in the proto-behaviorist tradition—we are disposed to act a certain way because of our habituation. Readers will also be able to tell that my analysis is behaviorist in its ways of discussing what a character sees and does not see, how certain thoughts are displaced by others, how absorption in a point of view affects thinking, how intentions arise and change, how intentions and emotions affect and are affected by actions, and so forth. Thus it should be clear that a distinctive psychology is being used even when technical terms are not employed, as is also the case in some psychoanalytic essays on literature.
I analyze Hamlet in detail in order to demonstrate how his character is psychologically coherent throughout the play. I discuss the play Hamlet first because none of Shakespeare's works has more to do with ideas about intention, motivation, and action, with the psychology of role-playing and the link between the psychology of acting and of personal life,4 and with the proto-behaviorist ideas about habit and character. The play contains statements that refer to all the most important ideas in the proto-behaviorist tradition. Early in the play Hamlet draws on the traditional idea that we are creatures of nature but also of habituation. He explains that as a custom which is a vice causes a whole people to lose the respect of others, individuals lose respect "for some vicious mole of nature in them," or "By their o'ergrowth of some complexion," or "by some habit, that too much o'erleavens / The form of plausive manners . . ." (1.4.24-30). When Hamlet arraigns his mother in the closet scene, he suggests that her habitual vice may have "braz'd" her heart so she cannot feel the evil of her life with Claudius (3.4.34-8). In the graveyard scene, Horatio refers to the related principle that habituation makes unpleasant activities become easy in explaining that the Gravedigger sings because he has become accustomed to his work (5.1.65-9). The closet scene, again, has the most complete statement of the psychology of habits in Shakespeare. When Hamlet urges his mother not to go to bed with Claudius, he explains that although custom or habit is a monster in making us unaware of the evil in our vices, by the same token if she acts virtuously she will come to think virtuously, too (3.4.162-72). Attitudes follow behavior.
Each of these passages poses a question about Hamlet. Is he one in whom a "complexion" such as the humor of melancholy "o'ergrows" to break down "the pales and forts of reason" or in whom "some habit . . . too much o'erleavens the form of plausive manners"? In the closet scene, is Hamlet becoming "braz'd" so that he is callous to the death of Polonius as he turns from stabbing him to speak daggers to his mother about her sins? Does such conduct as the role-playing of the antic disposition change him? In the graveyard and at the end of the play have gravemaking and thoughts of death come to have "a property of easiness for him"?
Now, I am certainly not the first to suggest that the psychology of habits may be important in Hamlet.5 A. C. Bradley repeatedly uses the word "habit" in discussing Schlegel's and Coleridge's ideas about Hamlet. He says that in their view Hamlet's excessive thinking "proceeds from an original one-sidedness of nature, strengthened by habit, and perhaps, by years of speculative inaction" (85). Bradley's thesis is that Hamlet's "imaginative and generalising habit of mind" causes his melancholy over his mother's conduct to affect "his whole being and mental world." Hamlet's "speculative habit" helps cause him endlessly to dissect the proposed deed, and the frustration and shame of his delay make him even more melancholy (93). Bradley sees Hamlet becoming caught up in a vicious circle of thought, feeling, and inaction that deepens his melancholy and renders him less and less able to act. Bradley tends to attribute most of Hamlet's feelings, attitudes, and behavior to his melancholy (99), regarding the antic disposition mostly as an effect, as a form of inaction, not also as an important cause, an "act" having an important effect on Hamlet.
Some nineteenth-century interpreters of Hamlet did think of the psychology of habits in connection with the antic disposition as an "act," however. C. A. H. Clodius wrote in 1820 that Hamlet's pretended madness "eventually becomes a habit" so that he is "really melancholy and insane" (2:280), and this view was echoed by Hartley Coleridge in 1828 (2:198). Clodius's reading is an interesting effort to synthesize the poles of the nineteenth-century debate on the question of whether Hamlet's madness is real or feigned. This question could then—before Freud's thinking displaced the older psychology—still evoke the answer that what is feigned may become real through habituation. Although I do not think Hamlet becomes mad by pretending to be mad, I will argue that his "habit" of mourning and his antic disposition do affect him, directly in a way related to the psychology of habits and indirectly through his interpretation of others' responses to his behavior.
It is a convention of dramatic literature that the audience should make inferences about characters' dispositions and motives and even about some influences in their earlier lives based on what they do and say and what others say about them: consider what is conveyed by Hamlet's anguished "Must I remember?" (1.2.143) Hamlet's first soliloquy expresses dispositions that we see repeatedly in the play and that we can only imagine have been shaped by his upbringing and education (1.2.129-59). His life at Wittenberg may have heightened a disposition to reflect on experience. He has also developed a concern for Christian values and for the values of noblemen, and it is important that in his situation these two sets of values oppose each other. Hamlet's earlier life has also of course shaped his attitudes toward his father and mother. Hamlet regards his father as noble, and he remembers his mother to have seemed so until she wed Claudius (139-45). In its context, Hamlet's exaggerated idealization of his father as a "Hyperion" is especially reinforced because it emphasizes the baseness of Claudius as a "satyr" (139-40).
Hamlet's ways of thinking and acting have depended on his being reinforced for regarding his father and mother as ideal models whose position held great promise for their son, "Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state" (3.1.154). Because his father is dead and the monarchy is now corrupted by his mother and uncle, the activities of a prince are no longer reinforced for Hamlet. This, along with his grief and outrage, has caused him to fall into a lethargic depression in which "all the uses of this world" seem "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable" (1.2.133-4). Further, his mother's conduct, especially, has made noble thoughts aversive as they remind him of what she has done (143, 146). In proto-behaviorist terms, we see that it is his character—his disposition ingrained in habits—to think idealistically, valuing honesty, loyalty, love, and noble action. Because he is strongly disposed to think in this way—reinforced by self-esteem—he continues to do so, which means that now his own thoughts add to his torment.
The offensive behavior of Claudius and Gertrude moves him to such great shame, scorn, despair, and rage that in the soliloquy he does not directly express grief for his father. However, real grief must accompany what he says to let him be reinforced by a sense of justification in his outrage over his mother's having mourned so briefly. And Hamlet's grief itself is indirectly expressed in his sense of loss and his idealization of his father.
Hamlet's expression of a wish to die is evidence less of self-rejection than of concern for self-respect—the wish is reinforced as a thought of escape from life's anguish and indignity. The Prince's outraged sense of honor clashes with his Christian values as he finds it reinforcing to think he does not kill himself only because God forbids it. The thought of suicide seems mostly a gesture of protest: he articulates it only in explaining why he cannot do it. Hamlet does not blame himself for any of the wrongs that have occurred. On the contrary, there are hints of self-righteousness in his attitudes. His princely concern for self-respect and noble ideals makes it especially reinforcing for him to think that all the shame comes from his mother and her world.
Yet Hamlet does feel his life has been stripped of value, does feel some contempt for himself because he feels helpless, unable even to speak to remedy what his mother has done. Hence this soliloquy expresses a peculiar mingling of contempt for self with self-respect and self-righteousness. Hamlet's thoughts of how he is sullied primarily evoke a heightened bitterness and vehemence of response from his disposition to affirm his ideals and to scorn those who are truly base. The scorn he expresses is strongly reinforced when it generalizes to all the world and all women because then it all the more expresses the superiority of his father and his ideals and justifies his thinking that he cannot prevail against his foes. This kind of thinking creates the danger that Hamlet will find it reinforcing to think everyone associated with his mother's world is corrupt, or to exaggerate their actual corruption. Also, insofar as he may respond to attacks on his self-respect by seeking grounds to affirm it, he will be strongly reinforced for selectively seeing what he himself does and thinks in an approving and even self-righteous way.
There is no clear evidence that anything Hamlet says here is specifically shaped by Oedipal or pre-Oedipal motives; that is, there is no evidence that his strong idealization of his father is a reaction formation or that his emotional agitation over his mother's conduct is a result of repressed sexual wishes or anxieties. It is impossible, however, to rule out such interpretations, since his feelings about himself and his mother and father and about what his mother and uncle have done may support them. Perhaps we should conclude that here the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal background from Hamlet's early life does not contribute much to the specific shape of what he expresses beyond the conscious manifestations of idealizing his father and being emotionally involved with his mother's nature and behavior.
There are indications that Hamlet avoids reaching the most aversive conclusions about his mother. He may say all women are frail because it is less painful to think this than to think his own mother is an exceptionally frail woman. Also, he could have interpreted Gertrude's brief effusion of tears before her speedy marriage to Claudius as less frail than hypocritical. Such an interpretation could then have led Hamlet to suspect adultery and, given his hatred of his uncle, murder. Hamlet's strong emotional absorption in his response to the open wrong he sees—his mother's hasty remarriage to a base man—may also contribute to blocking any suspicious thoughts that might occur if he were more detached. He wants to believe the worst of his mother because she has hurt him so terribly, but because she is his mother and can hurt him so much, he does not want to believe the very worst of her.
Hamlet's not dwelling on his grief when alone prompts us to compare his emotions in the soliloquy with his earlier protestations to his mother that he feels grief to the depths of his being (1.2.76-86). Hamlet's continued mourning is customary, for Claudius concedes as much in his first speech (1-4). But is it only his father's death that motivates Hamlet's mourning in defiance of his mother and uncle? This question goes to the heart of the play's exploration of the causes of human behavior and the connection between an intention and an act. In traditional terms, we want to know whether Hamlet intends or has an "unconscious wish" to punish Gertrude and the King by constantly reminding them that they are wrong to have mourned so briefly and married so hastily. If we infer an intention to punish, we may see hypocrisy in Hamlet's claim that he knows not seems and is grieving to the very core of his being. That is, he does not explicitly say he feels only grief but implies this while merely saying he has inside him more than can be shown. If we see what "passes show" as including an intention to punish Gertrude and Claudius, we may think Hamlet is a sly role-player in his speech claiming he knows not seems.
A behaviorist reading can provide a different kind of answer. Hamlet's mourning is reinforced by several consequences, among them punishment of his mother and Claudius, though he may only think of his feelings for his father. Thus mourning is reinforced because Hamlet does indeed feel grief, and mourning for his father is the only expression of his ideals and character that he feels he can enact. However, the mourning does vex the King and Queen, and Hamlet is aware of this. Hence, since his anger at them causes punishing them to be reinforced, their vexation inevitably reinforces Hamlet's mourning. If it would be aversive for Hamlet to think he mourns in order to punish them, then it is not likely that this thought will occur to him or, if it does, that he would believe it. His protestations that he knows not "seems" indicate that it would be aversive for him to think his mourning is not wholly for the sake of his father.
Here I think the play strongly evokes empathy with Hamlet, and a behaviorist analysis validates this response by saying that while his mourning is motivated partly because it punishes the King and Queen, Hamlet is not necessarily conscious of this at all, that his scorn of seeming, along with everything else he says here, indicates he is not a conscious seemer himself. But Hamlet's character may change as a result of the combination of his painful circumstances and his own disposition and behavior. His mourning may become obsessive through a process that proto-behaviorism related to becoming habituated to the behavior, as is perhaps implied in the reference to Hamlet's "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78).6 Hamlet may be caught up in a vicious circle, something like the one Bradley proposes, in which (1) his father's death motivates sincere grieving, (2) this behavior becomes strong because it is reinforced by several results, as explained above, (3) these strong expressions of grief induce more grief (as a conditioned response) and an increased tendency to be unsocial and solitary, and (4) solitariness in turn increases melancholy. And so on and on until Hamlet is completely obsessed with his grief and anger, at which point, in Elizabethan terms, the habit or "adustion" of melancholy and choler would make him not only sad and angry but long in deliberation, full of doubts but obstinate once he has made up his mind, deceitful, and suspicious or fearful of others without factual basis, and so forth—all the symptoms of melancholy that scholars have made familiar to us because they seem to fit Hamlet at times (e.g. see excerpt from Bright in Hoy 100-11).
When Horatio and the soldiers enter at the conclusion of Hamlet's soliloquy in 1.2, it takes a moment for Hamlet to recognize his friend (160-1). Then as he greets Horatio we see that Hamlet's disposition as a noble prince and a friend is still strong. He is gracious to Horatio, interpreting generously his embarrassed answers about why he has come to Elsinore, inviting him to criticize Gertrude's behavior and then quickly confirming his friend's reply (163-83). Hamlet's response to the news that his father's spirit has appeared shows that in these circumstances he can make a quick resolution to act in a risky way. He immediately decides to join the watch that night, saying "If it assume my noble father's person, / I'll speak to it though hell itself should gape / And bid me hold my peace" (244-6). There is a note of bluster in this, as though Hamlet is rising to meet a challenge rather than expressing a resolution habitual to his character, but meeting a ghost is not the sort of challenge one accustoms oneself to meet. Hamlet is eager especially because in his frustration he finds it very reinforcing to take action that links him with his father and confirms his feeling that the world is corrupt (255-8).
As they wait that night for the ghost to appear, Horatio's question about the King's drinking is answered by Hamlet in terms that, as I suggested earlier, may apply to himself (1.4.12-38). Many critics have suggested this, of course, and sometimes the speech is interpreted as an explicit statement of something like a theory of the "tragic flaw." Interestingly, it becomes such a statement through the way it is only indirectly such a statement. That is, Hamlet is not explaining how "one defect" in a trait or habit causes the doom of men who are otherwise noble. Rather, his point is that such a flaw causes such men to suffer dishonor. Hamlet's disposition to be a noble prince causes such loss of nobility to be the kind of doom that moves him to feel the tragic qualm.
The Ghost appears, and Hamlet responds in fear, love, and awe, as we would expect on the basis of what we have seen of his characteristic dispositions. Hamlet rejects his companions' warnings of danger and follows the Ghost because he is strongly disposed both to be with his father and to think he has nothing to lose in dying (64-5). Hamlet may also be brave in his habitual character, but it takes more than habitual courage to follow a ghost into the midnight darkness.
In the next scene, once he understands that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet is eager to obey the call to revenge. His cry of "O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" (41), does not necessarily indicate that he has earlier suspected his uncle of murder, however. Each of Hamlet's responses to the Ghost before this line indicates more a questioning attitude than an eager suggestion that the Ghost should quickly confirm what he already thinks (7-8, 25-6, 29). Hamlet may speak of his prophetic soul thinking or wishing he had suspected his uncle of murder, or perhaps he means that his hatred of his uncle was an intuitive response to the man's villainous nature. "O my prophetic soul!" may refer specifically to his suspicion at the end of 1.2 that there has been "some foul play" (256). Foul play may be what was prophesied, and "My uncle!" may express a mixture of surprise and confirmation of an intuition that is reinforced because of his hatred.
Hatred of his uncle makes it very reinforcing for Hamlet to believe the Ghost and to accept the command to revenge (1.5.92-112). Hamlet's passionate tone here can be explained by his fierce hatred of Claudius, by the overwhelming nature of what he has just experienced, by his gladness to be released from frustration in having a noble deed to perform, and by his being able to act for his father. As a result of all these reinforcing consequences, Hamlet represses whatever doubts he might otherwise feel. Thus he is not consciously whipping himself into a vengeful rage. There is a highly theatrical quality to his reaching for hyperbole, his rhetorical questions and assertions, and in general the near-fustian quality of the entire speech. But I think this character, who is now so strongly disposed to nobility and honesty, will speak in such a hyperbolic way only if he is entirely absorbed in the feeling and its rhetoric. The speech is an immediate response to an overwhelming experience and he is in a state of vengeful rage from the start.
What Hamlet swears in this speech is to obey the Ghost's final injunction, "Remember me" (91). Both he and the Ghost mean that he should remember his father partly in order to remember to take revenge. Ironically, Hamlet keeps this vow and yet delays revenge: cognitive acts do not in themselves produce physical action. That Hamlet assumes a person simply does what he thinks to do is also suggested in his earlier asking the Ghost to tell him about his murder quickly so he can "sweep" to revenge "with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love" (29-31). The irony here is very clear—Hamlet does sweep to his revenge on wings as swift as meditation; he does not yet realize that meditation and the thoughts of love can move slowly. The obviousness of this irony is a sign we should take the error into account as implying a question about the relation between thoughts and deeds.
In Hamlet's vow to think of nothing but the Ghost's command and to wipe out of his mind all he has ever learned, there is a danger he will become obsessed. In his excited state, Hamlet is strongly reinforced for thinking that absolute single-mindedness regarding his purpose is fitting. Such single-mindedness would not only be dangerous psychologically but also morally and practically in making him unable to gain perspective on what he is to do. However, Hamlet's vowing to think only of revenge is part of his excited hyperbole, and once his excitement passes, he can be expected to recover the disposition to reflect on his situation.
Until nearly the end of this scene Hamlet remains in an excited, almost hysterical state. The forceful assurance he gives Horatio and Marcellus that the Ghost is honest shows he continues to be powerfully reinforced for believing the Ghost's story. Hamlet's belief is actually strengthened by his past thinking, which he has not wiped away, including his own earlier hatred of his uncle. Indeed, Hamlet's phrasing suggests that he affirms the Ghost's honesty so forcefully in part because the Ghost has validated this hatred, though Hamlet does not indicate awareness of such a motive:
HOR. There's no offence, my lord.
HAM. Yes by Saint Patrick but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.
When Hamlet finally comes down from his state of excitement, his words suggest that his speech to the Ghost also helps to calm himself: "Rest, rest, perturbed spirit" (190). Following this he is more gracious to Horatio and Marcellus, more the friend he was in 1.2. As he begins to think less excitedly of what he has vowed to do, Hamlet's feeling about his mission changes: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" (1.5.196-7). He accepts the necessity of taking revenge but sees what he is to do as a vast and burdensome undertaking. This is a realistic perception, and so we can easily sympathize with him. These words may go far toward explaining the difficulty he experiences in bringing himself to kill Claudius.
It is just before Hamlet becomes calm that he tells Horatio and Marcellus that he may "put an antic disposition on" (1.5.180). As many critics have suggested, Hamlet may say this first of all because in the continuing excitement of his "wild and whirling words" he is already in an antic disposition (139). Whether he also has a purpose related to his revenge in saying this is uncertain, since he never explains why he puts on the antic disposition. To explain the behavior, then, we can look for the consequences that reinforce it, with the understanding that Hamlet may not be aware of all these. This understanding can help explain how Hamlet can say in his soliloquy at the end of Act 2 that he does not know why he has not yet killed Claudius. If he could see how the antic disposition interferes with turning himself toward revenge, he might be able to understand his delay.
Let us review the possible reinforcing consequences of the antic behavior, any of which Hamlet may think of as a purpose for it at some time. First, Hamlet may hope that the antic role will protect him, though its actual effect is to draw the King's questioning attention. Second, it may be Hamlet's intention to move the King in this way so that his reactions will reveal his guilt. Third, the King's indulgence of the antic humor may help to catch his conscience by disarming whatever suspicions he might otherwise have regarding Hamlet's staging a play about a royal murder. Fourth, the antic disposition enables Hamlet to feel detached from the Court and to evoke or expose folly, baseness, and treachery in Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Thus the antic behavior enables Hamlet to manipulate and dominate his foes. It also enables him to speak freely though in a somewhat disguised manner what he really feels, perhaps functioning in this way as a safety-valve allowing him to express his deep bitterness in a form that is less aversive for him than the deep bitterness itself. In addition, the antic role gives Hamlet time to consider what to do, and hence also allows delay of a deed he may find aversive even if he feels strongly committed to doing it.
The antic role may be a way to avoid acting, but of course the antic role itself is an "act," and Hamlet's expressions of scorn in this role could cause him to become absorbed in this activity, tending to displace action as a revenger, a role that calls for using daggers rather than merely speaking them. In behaviorist terms, since the antic role does enable him to speak daggers, it would certainly be reinforced as a form of revenge, and absorption in it might be reinforced very strongly because it also enables him to avoid the aversive aspects of thinking about blood revenge.
Although the antic role is marked by an alienated detachment, this could be more a detachment from others than from self. It has often been suggested that Hamlet is an eiron who has a self-detachment enabling him to see himself well. If instead he becomes absorbed in the righteously alienated viewpoint of the antic role, he might see only those of his own faults that allow him to retain a fundamentally self-protective view of himself. The antic role gives Hamlet the impression that he has a detached, objective perspective on others, but this impression could be reinforced because it masks from himself a use of the role to confirm his worst suspicions of everyone. As mentioned earlier, since his feelings about Claudius and Gertrude strongly dispose him to see evil in anyone he links with them, Hamlet would find it reinforcing to interpret any strange responses of characters such as Polonius as evidence they are false to him. Revealing or finding evil in others could further arouse hatred in Hamlet, and his preoccupation with their evil could heighten any tendency in him toward self-righteousness, a tendency reinforced by self-esteem. The more detached and isolated from others he becomes, the less he would be able to engage in role-taking (taking others' points of view) or in fellow-feeling of the sort depending on the acknowledgement of faults or frailties similar to theirs in himself. Thus through playing this role, he might become increasingly suspicious and crafty, hostile and self-righteous, his penetrating intelligence narrowed so that although he expresses profound insights, he fails to consider matters of great importance adequately.
On the other hand, insofar as Hamlet is not absorbed in the antic role's viewpoint, the process of "acting" feelings that are partly sincere and partly "put on" could tend to blur his emotional reality for himself and turn him into one who self-consciously performs his emotions. In this sense Hamlet may become an actor: through putting on an antic disposition he may become less an antic than one who puts on. This would interfere with his ability to identify with any role, and hence help to explain his difficulty in becoming a revenger. But although a number of critics write that Hamlet needs to be able to fuse himself fully with the role of revenger, it is not clear that the play suggests this would be a desirable result either morally or psychologically or even practically. It seems more important for us to see whether Hamlet remains true to his noble character and whether he taints his mind in revenge (1.3.78, 1.5.85).
Turning from hypotheses about the antic disposition to the text, we should consider more specifically the shape of the antic behavior. Although the court thinks Hamlet is mad, we can take it for granted from his behavior when he is alone or with Horatio or the players that he is not simply insane in the sense of being out of touch with reality. Thus Hamlet is pretending to be mad when he seems to be unable to recognize Polonius or remember whether he has a daughter (2.2.174, 182). This episode also suggests an alternative interpretation which has frequently been offered, that Hamlet is not so much pretending to be insane as he is playing the Fool, using his reputation of madness as the Fool uses his reputation of natural "idiocy" as a mask preventing the others from fully understanding and taking offense at his pointed witticisms. I do not mean to suggest that Hamlet has a playful involvement with the antic disposition. Even when he may act as if he thinks he does, I think the text shows he is confined by his antic role in a bitterly narrow perspective.7
Statements of other characters describing the antic disposition give the impression that at least some of Hamlet's behavior is more mad than Foolish; in the behavior we actually see, on the other hand, Hamlet is more Fool than madman. The most bizarre conduct the audience sees is in 4.2 and 4.3. Then it is not entirely certain that Hamlet controls his behavior fully as he does such things as play hide-and-seek with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the others who are trying to make him tell where Polonius's body is. Hamlet's behavior in these scenes, however, comes too late to influence greatly our impression of the antic disposition.
In Act 2 Ophelia's description of his conduct in her chamber especially gives us an idea of the behavior which convinces other characters that he is mad (2.1.75-100). We cannot tell whether Hamlet controls this behavior as part of what he deliberately "puts on" in his antic role. His pallor suggests genuine feeling, but his disordered attire and knocking knees are more "playable." There is a strong expression of what troubles him in his "look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors" (82-4). These lines imply virtual identification with the Ghost and its mission, an obsession with "horrors" that is sickening Hamlet's thoughts and emotions. He expresses the depth of his anguish in a "sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being" (94-6). Hamlet thus reveals to Ophelia something of what he cannot put into words for her, his preoccupation with horrors loosed from hell that he feels are ending his being. He is evidently reinforced for sharing his suffering with Ophelia as someone who will pity him. He would also be reinforced for inflicting pain upon her, since she has refused to see him and since his bitterness may now* extend to her as a woman and hence frail.
It is clear, then, that Hamlet's conduct is not always and only foolery. During the period of the antic disposition, Hamlet's behavior from the outset has elements of both Fool and madman, as in the near hysteria from which it arose at the end of Act 1. In either of these modes the antic disposition would enable Hamlet to express his emotions in a way that is not well controlled while being reinforced by the thought that this behavior is under his control. The behavior is so strongly reinforced by its effect on the court that any thought which justifies it to himself and explains it as sane will also be strongly reinforced: I must be in control of this behavior because I know I am putting it on: "I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft" (3.4.189-90). Hamlet means he only pretends to be mad, but he lacks control of this claim itself, since he does not intend the ironic meaning that he may indeed become mad in craftiness, enjoying the "sport" he finds in plot and counter-plot.
We first see Hamlet put on the antic manner in his dialogue with Polonius in 2.2. Hamlet plays the Fool as he says that Polonius is a fishmonger: the joke is that Polonius thinks Hamlet is too mad to recognize him and does not see he is being called a whoremaster (174). But in the light of Hamlet's recent behavior, even a lesser fool than Polonius might think that Hamlet is mad. Indeed, most of Polonius's responses here simply reflect his presumption of Hamlet's madness: if Hamlet says something sane, Polonius can only respond that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" (205-6). Polonius has learned to think a certain way and is therefore reinforced for interpreting whatever happens as confirming what he thinks.
But is not something like this occurring in Hamlet's thinking, too? He presumes that Polonius is a fool, and he is strongly reinforced for thinking that the old man's responses merely confirm this conviction (219). For another example, when Hamlet later induces him to say that a cloud is shaped like a camel and a weasel and a whale, Polonius must think he is humoring a madman. Yet Hamlet manipulates Polonius's responses to confirm that he is a fool (3.2.367-75). Each man finds it reinforcing to think himself intelligent and the other mad or foolish, and each is partly right, partly wrong. Hamlet's tone with Polonius in 2.2 suggests that he finds it very reinforcing to give full credit to his wit as the cause of his triumph. Since it would be aversive for Hamlet to see how truly mad he has seemed or to acknowledge any validity in Polonius's point of view, he does not do the role-taking that could enable him to see how his earlier mad conduct affects Polonius's responses.
At the end of this dialogue, Hamlet expresses a death-wish when he says he would not part with anything more willingly than Polonius, "except my life, except my life, except my life" (215-17). Hamlet's feeling about Polonius may partly prompt him to say at this moment that he wishes to die. "These tedious old fools" (219) inhabit the unweeded garden of Hamlet's world and add to his weary despair of life (1.2.133-5). Ironically, insofar as Hamlet is responsible for the mode of his dialogue with Polonius, he is himself the creator of the tediousness. Hamlet's antic behavior contributes to the folly and falseness he rails against in the antic role, so that a vicious circle is created in which he is increasingly alienated and less able to see how he partly causes what he sees as contemptible in others. The more he scorns them, the more he will find it reinforcing to see that he is right to scorn them. This in turn will make it progressively less likely that he will be disposed to see that their behavior with him is in part shaped by his own behavior.
We see this pattern develop further in Hamlet's following dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These friends of his (and Hamlet himself insists that they have been good friends: 2.2.224, 284-6) have been told that Hamlet is mad, and so far as they know, the only purpose of the King and Queen in sending them to Hamlet is to help him recover by finding out what is troubling him (2.2.1-39). There is no hint here that they think of themselves as the King's spies: this is Hamlet's inference and it is important to see how he arrives at it. In the first part of their dialogue he expresses a gladness to see them and a willingness to engage in witty repartee, yet they are aware he receives them "with much forcing of his disposition" and with what appears to them a "crafty madness" through which he evades their inquiries (3.1.12, 8). Hamlet's first greeting seems to express surprise as well as friendliness, and when they respond with witty remarks on their relation to Fortune, he continues the dialogue at the level of banter about the parts of Fortune instead of bringing them closer as friends by asking more personal questions (2.2.224-36). Soon we hear the main tone of the antic voice in the bitterly wise wit of his melancholy assertions that Fortune is a strumpet, that if the world is becoming honest doomsday must be near, that the world and especially Denmark are prisons, and that the seeming great of the world are but the outstretched shadows of beggars (235-65).
In the midst of this, Hamlet explains that the reason he sees Denmark as a prison is that his thinking has made it so (249-51). In saying this, Hamlet implies that the cause of his suffering is more in his mind than in the facts of his situation, distorting if not falsifying what he believes. He again implies that his problem is only in his melancholy state when he says he suffers from "bad dreams" and not from thwarted ambition (254-6). Clearly Hamlet holds his friends at arm's length, concealing the true causes of his griefs. Yet he suddenly demands that they "deal justly" with him and "be even and direct" in answer to his question about whether they were sent for by the King and Queen (276, 287). Because they hesitate so long in answering this question, he begins to think of them as being on the King's side and against him (290-1, 294-5). There is no sign he takes into account that his supposed madness, his forcing his disposition, and his failure to be even and direct have made it difficult for them to be even and direct.
Hamlet sees himself from his own point of view, as a sane person justified in self-concealment and suspicions of others, and his righteous tone suggests that he does not take their role in order to observe himself from their point of view. Hamlet himself needs what he expects the players to provide for the King and Queen, a mirror to be held up so he can see all the features of his antic behavior that so strongly influence others' responses to him. He creates the impression that he is mad, but evidently expects his friends to respond to him as a normal person. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not know what to expect or how to deal with a friend who is mad, and it is reasonable to infer that they should be played as anxious in their repartee from the start.
If Hamlet errs here, the error is a main cause of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so let us look more closely at the evidence that Hamlet judges them unfairly. When he asks if they were sent for, his choice of words in asking them to "deal justly" implies that he will regard an acknowledgement that they were sent for as a confession (2.2.274-6). This makes it difficult for them to answer honestly, and as they hesitate to speak, he says their looks confess that they were sent for, implying that this fact taints their friendship (278-9). In addition, Hamlet apologizes so strenuously for the poverty of his thanks for their visit that they may find what he says unconvincing (272-4). If the Prince were to take the role of these two "indifferent children of the earth" (227), he might not speak of himself as a beggar. Moreover, there is a sarcastic thrust at them in his remark that "sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny" (273-4). Although this may mean his thanks are of little worth, the words imply that even such thanks are too good for them if they were sent for. Addressing them as "dear friends" in the midst of all this can make Hamlet seem an insincere friend himself, and he is surely dishonest if he exaggerates the closeness of their friendship to coerce them to be honest: "by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love . . ." (284-7).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's responses to Hamlet's questions show they have been put on the defensive and are uncertain how to answer. They do not lie: "To visit you, my lord, no other occasion" is not a lying answer to his question "what make you at Elsinore?" (270-1). The answer equivocates about whether they were sent for, but they do finally acknowledge that they were (269-92). They are only as false to Hamlet as he is to them in not being "even and direct." Their reluctance to be more direct can perhaps be largely explained by the nature of the truth: they believe he is mad and they want to help his family cure him. Alas, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "have not craft enough to colour" their discomfort (280), nor Hamlet, absorbed in his craft, enough perspective to interpret their discomfort justly: "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (249-50). The result is truly tragic, for Hamlet's disposition to be concerned for honesty and loyalty is what heightens the crafty wariness of his antic attitude so that his perception is severely narrowed.
As the scene continues, Hamlet behaves in a friendly manner with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but this manner appears to mask a preoccupation with his private concerns. In the dialogue about the players, Hamlet immediately hints at the reason why he warms to this topic: "He that plays the king shall be welcome" (318). A little later he commiserates with the boy actors because they are required to "exclaim against their own succession" (349). Also, he compares the triumph of the boys over the adult actors to Claudius's succeeding his father in the affections of the people (357-64). When he then formally welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore, the terms he uses suggest more concern for social propriety than a wish to be truly a friend (366-71). Next he hints that his madness is not real, but his words about hawks and handsaws are mystifyingly antic enough to confuse his friends and perhaps even to make them think he is mad (372-5). The hint that he merely feigns madness is probably lost completely when he then plays the antic strongly for Polonius.
Hamlet again lays aside his antic manner when he welcomes the players and asks for a recital of Aeneas's narrative of the revenge slaying of Priam. As the First Player performs, the text does not indicate whether Hamlet's conscience as a revenger is caught, or whether he sees how Gertrude's conscience might be caught by the grief of Hecuba for her slain husband. However, when he stops the Player, he comments on how the theater reflects the realities of the time, and he sets in motion the use of a play to catch the conscience of the King (519-36). This suggests that in his request for a recital about Priam's slaying, Hamlet continues to be preoccupied with his own situation.
When Hamlet is alone a few lines later, he does not respond directly to the grief of Hecuba or to the ruthless action of the revenger, but to the passion of the actor. Hamlet may seem to say it is "monstrous" that the Player has been moved so greatly by the "force" of a mere "conceit" in a fiction (545-54), but I think the context of these words suggests that this is not his real point. In saying that the actor forces his soul to his conceit and thereby produces emotion, Hamlet says no more than writers on rhetoric and poetry said about the power of vivid language to move a speaker, as explained in Chapter 1. What Hamlet finds monstrous is that he himself has not been moved even though he has great personal cause, and the monstrosity of this is especially revealed through comparison with the actor, who is moved by a mere fiction. This comparison, and the self-judgment it prompts Hamlet to make, is indicated at the start of this speech, as he begins to speak of the actor: "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! / Is it not monstrous that this player here . . ." (544-5). Hamlet uses the comparison to lash himself with thoughts of how the actor would be moved to an amazing height of passion if he had cause for revenge, while he, Hamlet, has been dull and muddy-mettled, peaking like John-a-Dreams (561-4). Hamlet attacks himself vehemently because doing so is less aversive than failing to oppose his shameful state. That is, because he is strongly disposed to be noble, he feels guilty, which makes it negatively reinforcing for him to punish himself.
When Hamlet asks himself what has caused him to delay his revenge, all he thinks of is cowardice, but he asks if he is a coward: he speaks of cowardice as what "must" be holding him back, since he has failed to act, not as what he knows he has felt (566-76). This invites us to try to see for ourselves why he has delayed, and, needless to say, critics have offered many possible explanations, usually explanations suggested by the whole pattern of his action in the play. In my reading, the speech suggests that the psychology of acting helps to account for Hamlet's delay and his inability to explain it to himself.
The key to this idea is to see how Hamlet has not so completely differed from the actor as he thinks he has. I have argued that Hamlet is absorbed in his antic role and that this absorption could tend to displace the thoughts that might lead to his taking revenge.8 In effect, there has been a reshaping of vengeful behavior into the expression of hostile suspicions and witty verbal attacks that are reinforced strongly because they punish his foes and avoid more aversively bitter thoughts about his dreadful situation. Since he is making his foes suffer, an act of blood revenge can seem less urgent except when he stops to reflect. He can think and speak hatefully, but the role in which he does this is not one that leads to plotting and acting revenge. While Hamlet is absorbed in the antic role, he cannot see the full effect of the role on himself: "Am I a coward?" (566).
It is not true, then, that Hamlet has failed to act; he has acted, but more as an actor than in acts leading to violent revenge. What an actor actually does and does not do points to another aspect of Hamlet's relation to the actor that he does not seem to see. When he speaks of what the actor would "do" if he had a revenge motive, he seems to mean that the actor would do terrifying deeds, but all he literally says is that the actor would display great emotion. Actors emote and they speak daggers, but the theatrical mode of action does not include actual stabbing. This may imply that any role undertaken in an actorly way will not lead to "real" action even if strong emotion is felt. Condemning himself for not being like the actor, Hamlet suggests the way he is like the actor in asserting that he "can say nothing" (564), as if speaking is what is demanded of him. Of course he means that he cannot even say anything against the evils he sees, let alone do anything. If he saw the opposite irony, that he has said a great deal, he would attack himself for it at this point, rather than later in the speech when he does see it. In this again he shows how absorbed he is in his own conceit as he does not see how he is like the actor in the way his conceit moves his soul to "say" much in a great outpouring of passion.
It is sometimes suggested that in this soliloquy Hamlet attempts to whip himself into a passion so he can "put on" the revenger role. But in concentrating on how he is unlike the actor, Hamlet does not suggest that he thinks he is imitating the actor in his passion. Indeed, nothing Hamlet says suggests he has the deliberate intention of working himself into a vengeful passion, and in such a passionate tirade, what is said expresses what is felt and thought unless there are indications to the contrary. It is true that his expression of rage is reinforced because it works up his hatred of Claudius, but if Hamlet were thinking of working himself into a vengeful passion, he would likely emphasize his reasons to hate his foe more than he does. He does mention early in his self-condemnation that a "damn'd defeat was made" upon his father, but the passive construction implies that his anger even in saying this is not immediately directed against the agent of this damnable act (566), and following this for several lines his anger is entirely directed against himself. At this moment Hamlet's thought and feeling are turned away from pursuing revenge because, ironically, thoughts about his failure to take revenge absorb him in an expression of shame that threatens to perpetuate the failure it reacts against.
Hamlet expresses his shame by imagining someone insulting him as a nobleman might mock a coward. If this shows that Hamlet is especially concerned about how others judge him, it may suggest that his selfcondemnation is not fully internalized. It seems clear, however, that the person who insults Hamlet is Prince Hamlet himself. Up to this point, the text gives no hint that anyone else alive knows he has any reason for such shame. Thus he evidently attributes his view of himself and his ideals of noble action to an imaginary interlocutor (his father?) in order to punish himself severely for his shameful inaction. In the process of condemning himself, Hamlet finally states what he has failed to do, and so his anger is more or less automatically directed against Claudius, too (574-7). But immediately he rejects such passionately vengeful verbal assaults as inappropriate (578-83)—another likely indication that he has not been intentionally whipping himself up into such a passion thinking that it would move him toward revenge.
Hamlet's reason for rejecting his passionate speech is not that he thinks his emotion is like an actor's and hence invalid and unlikely to lead to action. Instead, he continues to focus on how his behavior is shameful, saying he has been "like a whore" in unpacking his heart with words (581-3). Hamlet's repetition of base terms for prostitutes implies that he means they are base, weak people who curse their lot but do not change what they do, and he thinks that his cursing shows him to be like them, that his cursing will not lead to action. Thus Hamlet does not consciously relate his rejection of unpacking his heart with words to his ideas about the actor, does not think he has behaved like an actor. He has not been markedly histrionic here in an unconscious sense, either. He has the motive and the cue for the passion he expresses in the soliloquy and is not responding with emotions in excess of what his whole situation provokes. All the world's a stage at this moment especially in the sense that Hamlet as the tragic character he is—and is becoming—feels and thinks in a way that absorbs him in a perspective preventing him from seeing fully how this very absorption affects him.
Hamlet rejects his passion when his guilt and shame, which first turned him toward passion, turn him away from passion as itself shameful. There is psychological complexity here, as Hamlet first responds to the actor and then to his own response to the actor. A secondary cause of Hamlet's rejection of passion may be that the strong expression of a behavior causes it to weaken so that another becomes prepotent and replaces it. Or in Elizabethan terms, perhaps Hamlet has expended his passion so that he only has the energy needed to think of what he should do (cf. 3.2.191-2, 4.7.113-17).
As Hamlet withdraws from absorption in passion into cool thinking, he examines his idea of using "The Murder of Gonzago" to catch the conscience of the King. As many critics have suggested, it may be that Hamlet no sooner finishes condemning himself for having delayed revenge than he finds a rationalization for further delay. This view does not depend on his rationale for the delay being a poor one; rather, even if a rationale is sound, it is a rationalization if it is in part reinforced as an avoidance of behavior that would be aversive. Yet our suspicion that Hamlet rationalizes should be tempered by relief that he has thought to raise the question whether he can trust the Ghost's word, and hence for the first time moves toward a resolution of the moral issues concerning the revenge (2.2.594-600).
Interpreters often assume that delay is bad, if not because it prevents revenge, then because for Elizabethans it was a sign that Hamlet has a weak character. However, most writers in the tradition I have reviewed say furious anger, not delay, is a weakness and they recommend delay in order to gain time to cool off and think better about what to do—even if revenge is still to be pursued as a result of careful thinking. Some writers recommend almost any rationale or rationalization to prevent angry, unthinking revenge.9 Thus although in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle recommends a moderate anger that can be controlled by reason to carry out forceful actions such as revenge (1125b-6b, 1149a-b), most writers thought anger is difficult to restrain, that it tends to become immoderate and take control from reason.
Seneca writes on the danger of injustice to others in anger because in that emotional state we defend harsh judgments and resist any evidence or thought opposed to our hostility ("On Anger" bk 1, ch. 18, sec. 1-2; ch. 19, sec. 1). In anger a person acts rashly, meaning in haste and without due consideration. In his essay on "How One Ought to Governe His Will," Montaigne especially condemns angry, rash action as lacking discretion and therefore being ineffective, but he too couples angry indiscretion with injustice, and this second fault of rashness is important in the long tradition of writings on this subject (3:259, cf. Plutarch "On the Control" 458c-60c). Hamlet makes an issue of rashness by going against the traditional view and praising it as having assisted him in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death (5.2.6-11). The issue is whether rash "indiscretion" does serve him well when he judges others, or whether his anger makes it reinforcing for him to condemn those he thinks are evil on the basis of inadequate evidence.
In his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine writes of rashness as the sin of condemning others for the mote in their eye while ignoring the beam in one's own eye. He says that "those parties especially judge rashly respecting things that are uncertain, and readily find fault, who love rather to censure and to condemn than to amend and to improve, which is a fault arising either from pride or from envy . . ." (bk 2, ch. 19, sec. 63). If anger is of long duration, it hardens into hatred, and then a person "cannot wish to convert" his foe (sec. 63). When men who hate reprove evil in others, "they are acting a part which does not belong to them; just like hypocrites, who conceal under a mask what they are, and show themselves off in a mask what they are not" (sec. 64). Especially troublesome are those "who, while they take up complaints against all kinds of faults from hatred and spite, also wish to appear counsellors." And then follows a passage which scholars think Shakespeare might well have drawn on for important statements on this theme in Measure for Measure:
And therefore we must piously and cautiously watch, so that when necessity shall compel us to find fault with or rebuke any one, we may reflect first whether the fault is such as we have never had, or one from which we have now become free; and if we have never had it, let us reflect that we are men, and might have had it; but if we have had it, and are now free from it, let the common infirmity touch the memory, that not hatred but pity may go before that fault-finding or administering of rebuke. . . . (Sec. 64)
Jesus's statement that how we judge others determines how God will judge us means that the "very same rashness wherewith you punish another must necessarily punish yourself" (ch. 18, sec. 62).
Hamlet's behavior repeatedly invites comparison with Augustine's hate-filled reprover who does not see how his hatred compromises the integrity of his view of others and who is finally punished through his own rashness. In Act 3 his preaching as "Virtue" to his mother's "Vice" while he stands unrepentant over the body of a man he has rashly killed may be an instance of reproving another for evil while disregarding a greater evil of one's own. I will especially argue that Augustine's ideas about rashness help to explain the psychology of Hamlet's dooming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and how he is then killed when he judges Laertes to be like himself and a noble youth.
In considering Hamlet's soliloquy at the end of Act 2, however, my main point about rashness is that the dangers of indiscretion probably justify Hamlet's delay. But the dangers of indiscretion are also manifest in the thinking Hamlet does when he cools off in this soliloquy and speaks of his scheme for using "The Murder of Gonzago." He speaks more coolly, but his hatred for Claudius is still at a peak. In wanting to test the conscience of the King, Hamlet thinks well insofar as it is true that the Ghost might be a devil lying to him in order to tempt him to murder. But Hamlet does not think of the corollary to this that Elizabethans would easily have thought of, that the devil can tell truths to tempt us to evil—as Macbeth learns, for example. Even if his uncle is guilty, it may be damnable for Hamlet to kill him, especially if this is done as a hate-filled act of private revenge and not as a political act to displace a regicide from the throne.
Hamlet's failure to think this through can be explained as avoidance. In the first part of the soliloquy he reaches a passionate conviction that he must take revenge, and he has a scheme to allay his anxiety that he might damn himself. But his hatred of Claudius makes it reinforcing to think in a biased way: he says not that he will test the conscience of the King, but that he will "catch" it—he speaks as if he has already found the King guilty (2.2.601). Claudius needs only to flinch at the sight of a staged murder to doom himself (593). When Hamlet is thus disposed it would be aversive for him to consider further whether his scheme will really resolve the moral question about revenge. Now, especially, when he has felt great shame for taking no action, and when his hatred of Claudius has been roused to a peak of intensity, it will be reinforcing to think only of actions which clearly lead to revenge or clearly end the need for revenge. He feels good about this resolution of his dilemma, and it would arouse great anxiety to think that his scheme may fail in some way.
This reading does not preclude the possibility that while Hamlet is strongly disposed to think here that he wants to take revenge, the plan he has hit upon is reinforced also because it rationalizes avoiding revenge. The strong conscious desire to kill Claudius may thus co-exist with factors tending to cause Hamlet not to kill him. Hamlet may have a revulsion against killing, he may hate the thought of the whole sordid business, he may fear failure and death, or death as a result of killing, as he evidently fears damnation. And he may delay because he unconsciously identifies Oedipally with his uncle.
In the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet is still in the relatively calm if intensely absorbed state that marked the end of the 2.2 soliloquy. Just before Hamlet begins to speak in 3.1, we learn that Claudius, the villain, has a conscience which functions in a straightforward way, causing him pain when he is reminded of his guilt (49-54). Hamlet, however, questions the value of conscience by arguing that it prevents the enactment of important undertakings (56-88). This contrast of course does not show that the villain has a better conscience than the protagonist, but it raises an interesting question about how to compare them. The King's speech may mostly serve to show that a suffering conscience is no guarantee of moral behavior and so prepare us to accept Hamlet's probing toward a more sophisticated view of conscience in the soliloquy.
Because this soliloquy has been interpreted in many ways, it will help to provide a summary of what I think is the most obvious way to read the surface meaning of the speech, as a basis for further discussion.10 Ostensibly, the question is whether to live or die, and the criterion for the answer is which is nobler if to live is to suffer life's torments passively and to die is to fight against myriad evils and be killed in the unequal contest against the King (56-60). Hamlet finds death desirable so long as he can think of it as a peaceful state of dreamless sleep (60-4). He is perhaps too absorbed in his reverie to think of the Ghost (78-80), but perhaps Hamlet's experience with that spirit evokes the thought that death can be a state of night-mare torment (65-8). The fear of this torment is all that keeps us from committing suicide to escape life's pains (66-83). Thus conscience makes cowards of us all by making us fear punishment for suicide or for carrying out "enterprises of great pitch and moment" such as "taking arms" against a foe. The resolution to act is sickened into pallid thinking about the possible consequences of our actions (83-8).
Although Hamlet's judgment of conscience is negative, it may arise from a more honest conscience than most. Hamlet acknowledges that he longs to escape the evils of the world and that he refrains from suicide or revenge not because he feels they are morally wrong, but because such acts may be punished after death. In this Hamlet is honest about his conscience, saying he does not deeply accept its moral judgments, yet is afraid to disobey it. Hamlet errs, however, in saying that fear makes "us all" obey conscience. Since Claudius has just mentioned his conscience, we note that it has not kept him from doing evil, and various enterprises proceed apace in Hamlet's world undaunted by conscience.
Indeed, Hamlet reveals here a more potent conscience than most. Although his frustration may make it reinforcing to condemn his conscience as mere cowardice, he says he has felt compelled to obey it. His concern not to cause his own damnation is serious, for he has referred to it in each of his major soliloquies, in 1.2, at the end of 2.2, and again here. Originally this concern may have been an opportune rationalization to justify the avoidance of deeds—suicide or revenge—he could not bring himself to perform for other reasons. But in order to work as a rationalization, this concern had to be believable to Hamlet as an intention. Therefore as an intention it can act as a rule guiding his behavior as long as it and the behavior it guides continue to be reinforced. There may be another rationalization here, too. Torn between his nobility and his morality, Hamlet's saying all humans suffer his malaise lets him see his problem as a general one he should not blame himself for too much.
Perhaps Hamlet is both drawn to and diverted from taking revenge because it will lead to his death: drawn to revenge because it will lead to death as escape (60), diverted from it if this makes him see revenge as a form of suicide and hence a cause of damnation. Also, he may think of a mode of revenge that will result in his death (taking arms against a sea of troubles), because suicidal behavior—not including consciously suicidal thoughts—is strongly reinforced even when he intends to think of a revenge action. In this sense suicide may be a theme from the very beginning of the speech, and it can be linked with Hamlet's desire for nobility, which is also expressed in the heroic imagery of taking arms against a sea of troubles.
The strength of noble thoughts for Hamlet can perhaps especially be seen in his discounting conscience as mere cowardice. His disposition to be concerned about integrity and virtue suggests that he would usually value conscience, but when behavior that violates his conscience is strongly reinforced as noble, his thinking alters. Hamlet illustrates very richly the way thought and action can change with changing circumstances and with changes in the behavior that is prepotent.
A psychological analysis should also take into account Hamlet's agony of soul in this soliloquy. Conscience in the sense of "consciousness" achieves a victory here as Hamlet is able to open his eyes wide to the painful conditions of human life as he sees them. Even if he has unknowingly made his world seem worse to him than it is, he shows the tragic figure's capacity to question deeply and to suffer heroically. Hamlet exemplifies Marsilio Ficino's tragic conception of Promethean man, great in his intellectual capacity, but in his use of intellect "uncertain, vacillating, and distressed," "made wretched by the . . . most ravenous of vultures, that is, by the torment of inquiry" (208).
This is the first of two scenes in which Hamlet speaks a monologue while another character seems to be praying (cf. 3.3). Comparison of the two speeches leads to the question of why Hamlet no longer thinks of fears of damnation in the prayer scene. The scene with Ophelia that follows the "To be or not to be" soliloquy is also paralleled in the scene with his mother that follows the prayer scene. Comparison of Hamlet's bitter attacks on Ophelia and Gertrude strengthens the impression that his disposition toward his mother at least partly shapes his response to Ophelia: "Frailty, thy name is woman" (1.2.146). Hamlet does not attack Ophelia only because he is bitter at his mother, however. Ophelia returns his love-tokens, and he shows that this hurts him when he replies by denying he has ever given her anything (3.1.93-6). This reply hurts Ophelia, and her response appears to be an effort to retaliate, since she says he has proved "unkind" (97-102). Then this speech of Ophelia's, in turn, may well evoke Hamlet's attack, which begins immediately in his line "Ha, ha! Are you honest?" (103). He may think she is dishonest because she accuses him of being unkind when she is the one who ended their courtship, or because he senses the falseness of her pose of religious devotion when she has brought all the tokens he has given her and has a self-righteous couplet ready that rhymes her "noble mind" with his having proved "unkind" (100-1).
Hamlet's feelings toward his mother and Ophelia heighten each other here. His mother's behavior has disposed him to be angry at all women as frail, and hence to be reinforced for attacking them. Then he is hurt by Ophelia's rejection and angered by her dishonesty, which in turn may make him think more specifically of his mother. Thinking of his mother presumably increases his anger, and it evidently contributes greatly to the specific things he says—many of his particular accusations seem to be much more strongly evoked by his mother's conduct than Ophelia's (esp. 111-15, 136-51). Thus Hamlet and Ophelia at first attack each other in a vicious circle of hurt provoking greater hurt, and Hamlet's bitterness toward his mother feeds his responses to Ophelia and is fed by Ophelia's responses to him, so that his attack is savagely in excess of anything Ophelia has done to provoke him.
Insofar as Ophelia's rejection hurts Hamlet, it appears not only that he loved her once, as he says at one point (115), but also that he still feels love for her. In telling her to go to a nunnery, he intends to help her escape from corruption and from the evil he feels welling up in himself (121-31). Although "nunnery" could mean "brothel" here as part of his attack on Ophelia, the context each time he uses this word suggests that she should go to the nunnery to escape from evil. Hamlet is profoundly ambivalent toward Ophelia here: he knows their love cannot survive what is to happen, and he is bitter at his mother, Ophelia, and himself for complicity in creating their hopeless situation. Indeed, his attack on Ophelia may be an expression of ambivalence, since it may partly be reinforced as behavior that will end her love for him and so lessen her suffering as well as his for the loss of their love. Hamlet's behavior can be reinforced both by this consequence and by the hurt inflicted on Ophelia.
This analysis of why Hamlet unleashes his tirade against Ophelia obviates the need to assume that at some point he realizes they are being spied upon: if Ophelia's behavior seems dishonest to him, he may infer on this basis that they are being watched. But does Hamlet behave as though he thinks they are being watched? Does he shape his attack to create a certain impression on an audience, perhaps the usual impression that he is mad? The evidence that he tries to affect a hidden audience more directly, such as his reference to his vengefulness and the statement that one who is married will not live, can instead be used to argue that he is not aware of having a hidden audience, since these lines betray his secret purpose (125, 150). But the crucial point is that if Hamlet pretends at all, this does not prevent his becoming caught up in an emotional tirade. In this scene he is first so absorbed in his meditation that he does not notice Ophelia; then when he does notice her, he is drawn from his meditative mood into a nearly hysterical state, and he remains at this pitch of intensity until just before his exit.
Hamlet's instructions to the actors and his dialogue with Horatio in 3.2 show that when he is not with those who provoke his passion or evoke his antic role he is capable of normal behavior. He may especially urge the players to hold the mirror up to nature in their acting (1-35) because their performance must be natural enough to catch the conscience of the King by mirroring his guilty image. Although Hamlet is moved in expressing his admiration and affection to Horatio, his emotion is not unbalanced and it subsides immediately when he begins to explain his purpose for staging "The Murder of Gonzago" (54-87). Hamlet is presumably moved to praise Horatio as a man who is not passion's slave partly in response to the pain of his own passionate behavior. Yet, whatever regret he feels for his passion does not seem to include regret that it has most recently hurt Ophelia. He plays cruelly with her feelings as part of his antic performance for the court following this dialogue with Horatio (108-49). Telling Horatio that "I must be idle" as the others enter (90), Hamlet indicates that he quite deliberately puts on the antic disposition, yet his wit has a hectic quality suggesting he is caught up in the excitement of his expectation of triumph over Claudius. In this excitement he finds it especially reinforcing to gloat in the power of his wit to make everyone squirm, and Ophelia is easy for him to victimize.
Hamlet identifies the murderer in the play-within-the-play as the "nephew to the King" (3.2.239). In some interpretations this reveals that Hamlet unconsciously identifies with Claudius as the murderer who killed his father. This is possible, but there are also more immediate causes to consider. Hamlet now thinks that he wants to kill the King and so may speak in a way that identifies himself with the murderer of the King because it would be reinforcing for him to kill King Claudius, and he may not notice the import of his words if it would be aversive for him to see that he reveals his purpose. He can be unaware that he identifies himself as the murderer, for his statement about the murderer's identity is evidently a fact in "The Murder of Gonzago," and he need only see this to explain his behavior to himself. Further, his excitement and his hatred could make frightening the King so reinforcing that Hamlet blurts out these words without noticing how they undermine his avowed purpose in staging the play by making it uncertain whether the King's emotional response to the play is guilt or fear.
Once again it is also possible that Hamlet, without being aware of it, recoils from killing the King, so that the statement that the murderer is the nephew of the King is reinforced because it warns Claudius of the threat Hamlet poses. Since Hamlet thinks he wants to kill the King, however, he would find it aversive to think he recoils from the deed, so awareness of this will likely be repressed. Saying the murderer is the nephew of the King may then be reinforced because frightening the King is one kind of revenge still possible for Hamlet. According to this view Hamlet is ambivalent: two opposed behaviors are strong in him, to revenge and not to revenge, and each controls what he says and does in some degree.
Others in the court think the play threatens or falsely accuses Claudius, and the only reason Hamlet can be so sure of his interpretation of Claudius's reaction is that he knows what others do not, that the play mirrors the Ghost's story. But this suggests that Hamlet's interpretation is at least partly based on a prejudgment and on his hatred of the King which makes it reinforcing for him to find confirmation of the King's guilt. Horatio's agreement with Hamlet's view might show that the King's reaction is unambiguously a guilty one except that Hamlet has shared his knowledge and his prejudgment with his friend. Horatio is not embroiled in Hamlet's personal passions, but he has the same "reasons" to see the King as guilty. To Horatio, as to Hamlet, the King's reaction to the play itself is the thing to watch and there is no reason to relate Hamlet's remark about the nephew of the King to the moment of testing the King's conscience. When the King reacts strongly to the murder, Hamlet and Horatio therefore see no reason to doubt that his reaction is guilt and not fear, or horror that Hamlet should falsely accuse him of so awful a crime. Yet the courtiers who are ignorant of the Ghost's "facts" and Hamlet's reason to focus on the play by itself will interpret the episode as a whole, so that Hamlet's remarks about the play appear to convey his purpose for staging it. The play scene shows how much our responses to events depend on complex contingencies of character, situation, and point of view.
Although Hamlet's situation may lead him to err about the King's reaction to the play, the King is nevertheless guilty and presumably should be punished. But Hamlet's thinking about Claudius also affects his thinking about others, and his actions against them are not so justified. His treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here seems especially erring. Between 2.2 and late in the play scene, they have reported their observations of Hamlet to the King and Queen (3.1.1-28), but in that episode there is no sign they are evil spies or that their report is not intended to help the King and Queen cure their friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think Hamlet is suffering from melancholy and hence needs to be helped by friends in a manipulative way,11 and nothing the King and Queen say to them suggests any motive other than to restore Hamlet to health.
The dialogue of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with Hamlet following the play-within-the-play shows how tragedy arises from mutual misunderstanding. Hamlet thinks he has proven the King's guilt, and in his excitement he does not seem to understand that his friends think he has threatened to kill the King instead (as they say in 3.3.8-23). Their speeches to Hamlet have a tone of impatience and rebuke. In the first part of the dialogue, Guildenstern's impatience gradually increases as Hamlet interrupts with what his friend can only perceive as irresponsible wit (3.2.289-310). Guildenstern feels that Hamlet has behaved outrageously and he dares to be openly critical of these interruptions (300-1, 306-10). On his side, Hamlet is offended by his friends' manner and by their taking what appears to be the King's point of view. Unable to see the possible alternative causes of his friends' conduct, Hamlet evidently infers betrayal. This inference would be reinforced because it fits his earlier suspicions of them and his general view that all at court are corrupt.
The episode reaches its crisis when Rosencrantz halfexasperatedly and half-imploringly says "My lord, you once did love me" (326). But it is too late—Hamlet now interprets everything by his inference that his old friends have betrayed him (327-63). What seems a sincere if desperate and pathetically ill-timed plea for Hamlet to let his friends help him evokes a response that they are only trying to trap him and to play upon him. Guildenstern's last effort to reach Hamlet is "O my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly" (339-40). This statement expresses the traditional idea that an honest friend or courtier who loves his prince should tell him boldly but courteously when he does wrong and should seek to help him improve his conduct (Castiglione 297; bk 4). The statement is certainly not too hard to explicate for a person of Hamlet's wit—Guildenstern claims that he has been doing his duty and that if he has been too bold in doing it, he is motivated by his love of Hamlet, which transcends mere courtesy and custom. Hamlet's response epitomizes the tragic theme of the scene: "I do not well understand that" (341). When Polonius enters, once again there is mutual misunderstanding caused partly by Hamlet's absorption in his own point of view. As explained earlier, Hamlet thinks he shows Polonius to be a fool by playing the Fool while Polonius evidently thinks of himself as humoring a madman (367-76). Hamlet remarks that these men are pushing him to the extremity of the role of Fool (375), but once again his absorption in the narrow viewpoint of his antic disposition, coupled with his excited and threatening behavior, contributes to the folly of what happens.
Thus Hamlet is tightly enclosed in his alienated vision by the end of the scene, when he asks to be left alone. The first lines of his soliloquy echo the imagery of hellish midnight in the speech of Lucianus, suggesting that Hamlet has now come to think as the murderer does, that the nephew of the King has become Lucianus (249-54, 379-83). This parallel prompts comparison of the revenger's psychology with the murderer's, and we may wish we could find that Hamlet is exaggerating his murderousness as a way to work himself up to kill Claudius. But Hamlet is already worked up to a demonic pitch at the start of the soliloquy, and in his second sentence he begins to cool as drinking hot blood is something he merely says he "could" do (381). Following this he thinks only of how he should behave when he goes to his mother.
But why does Hamlet go to Gertrude instead of killing the King now that he is convinced his revenge is just and he feels ready to do bitter business? The first lines of the soliloquy imply that he takes for granted that in his present mood he is already prepared to act vengefully, and it seems this is why his attention so quickly focusses on the need to separate his violent intentions regarding the King from his purposes regarding his mother. Hamlet sees the danger of killing her, too, in his rage, but not the reverse of this, that thoughts about not using daggers on his mother, but speaking them, may divert him from stabbing the King.
The vehemence of Hamlet's attack on Gertrude in the closet scene suggests that the main cause of his deciding, in this soliloquy, to go to her and not to the King is that speaking daggers to her is powerfully reinforced. Then, too, his mother has asked to see him now. Her request could function as a conscious pretext for delaying his revenge if going to her is partly reinforced because it enables him to escape from anxiety associated with killing his uncle. Nothing Hamlet says in this soliloquy suggests, however, that he perceives himself to be delaying revenge in a sense that casts doubt on his strength of purpose.
Hamlet's monologue in the prayer scene is an extreme example of absorbed thinking that narrowly focuses only on one way of analyzing a situation (3.3.73-96). He analyzes what revenge demands if he is to seek full retribution for what his father has suffered, but the analysis becomes more and more passionate as it proceeds, and he does not consider what he will do to himself by deliberately seeking to damn Claudius. Since Hamlet is familiar with ideas about self-damning acts, we may infer that he has heard (or could figure out for himself) that to seek someone's damnation is such an act. Earlier he has repeatedly expressed a concern that he should not damn himself. Now, however, his newly confirmed hatred of Claudius makes it so reinforcing to think of damning his foe that such thoughts are entirely absorbing, entirely prepotent over thoughts which would lead away from such a goal, so that any concern about damning himself is repressed.
Nonetheless, killing Claudius could still be aversive to Hamlet for any or all of the reasons reviewed earlier and also, at this moment, because it would be horrible to kill a person in the attitude of prayer. Hamlet's passionate determination to damn his uncle may then be regarded as a rationalization, enabling him to delay revenge and also to avoid thinking he does so for any purpose except to punish Claudius more severely. If, however, Hamlet's idea that he wants to damn his uncle is at all a rationalization, it is a passionate one and may become his purpose. Indeed, even if this rationale were a totally false explanation of Hamlet's behavior, once it occurs to him and is strongly reinforced as his purpose because of his anger and because it justifies his delay, it can guide future behavior as an intention—a discriminative stimulus. The reinforcement of this way of thinking could cause it to become strong behavior for Hamlet to seek the damnation of his foes.
The view that Hamlet spares the King at prayer partly because he so urgently wants to confront his mother appears to be confirmed in the closet scene. Hamlet's purpose and his anger so totally absorb him that he is nearly oblivious of all else. He brushes aside his mother's efforts to lecture him (3.4.8-19); her wrongdoing, not his, is the issue. He says he will set up a mirror to show her the innermost parts of herself, but he has no mirror to show him how his rage might evoke her cry for help (3.4.17-21). In some performances, Hamlet draws his sword to keep his mother from leaving, or still has it in his hand from the preceding scene, and he unthinkingly holds it up so its blade can be like a mirror turned toward her. Somehow it seems to Gertrude, as she cries out, that Hamlet's speaking daggers is about to become physical action. Then Polonius, too, cries out, startling Hamlet in his rage so that he reacts "rashly" and stabs through the arras. The act of stabbing is powerfully reinforced because Hamlet is in such a rage, and the person stabbed might be almost any of the several people he now hates. This stabbing could also be reinforced because it strikes at a foe while avoiding the aversive process of preparing a purposeful revenge. Indeed, this stabbing could conceivably be reinforced as well because it might allow Hamlet to avoid a purposeful revenge altogether by resulting in his being restrained from future action. In any case, Hamlet's words suggest that he does not consciously think it is the King behind the arras as he stabs. His mother asks him what he has done and he says he does not know; then he asks whether it was the King (25-6). At most he hoped it was the King as he stabbed.
When his mother reproaches him for his "rash and bloody deed" (27), Hamlet minimizes what he has done, not only to avoid guilt but also because he is now so strongly reinforced for speaking daggers to her that he will not let anything divert him. His deed is, he allows, "Almost as bad" as hers of killing a king and marrying his brother (28-9). His absorption in her evil will not let Hamlet see how his killing Polonius undercuts his righteous indignation, showing him to be rash in the sense of attacking others' vices while overlooking his own. Gertrude's surprise at the accusation of murder (30) appears to convince Hamlet that she did not know of that crime, since after this he reproaches her only for her marriage to Claudius. If Hamlet no longer thinks she is guilty of murder, then evidently his thoughts about her relationship with Claudius are enough to absorb him intensely. On the other hand, if he continues to think she is guilty of murder, his preoccupation with this relationship is so strong that thoughts of the murder are crowded out.
Hamlet also judges rashly in putting all the blame on Polonius for his own death. Hamlet says Polonius was a "wretched, rash, intruding fool" (31), but if he saw how these words could apply to himself he would not use them so scornfully of Polonius. Hamlet's statement that Polonius has been too "busy" may also apply to himself (33). In the Elizabethan translation of Plutarch's moral essays by Philemon Holland, a person who looks for evil in others while not seeing his own faults is called a busybody ("Of Curiosity").
"I took thee for thy better" again reveals more about Hamlet than about his victim (32). Hamlet now finds it reinforcing to believe that when he stabbed he thought it was the King behind the arras. Moreover, these words say the King is Polonius's "better," suggesting that Hamlet vaguely rationalizes Polonius's death as not very significant because he is a social inferior. Hamlet's thinking here is at least as strongly rooted in princely ideology as in morality, since he does not believe Claudius is morally better than Polonius. Later the same kind of judgment is part of Hamlet's attitude toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when he speaks of their "baser nature" as contrasted with Claudius as well as himself (5.2.60-2).
Hamlet brushes aside his mother's anguish over what he has done and insists that she should let him wring her heart (3.4.34-5). Hard as his own heart has been toward Polonius, he now suggests that "damned custom" has "braz'd" her heart so it is "proof and bulwark against sense" (36-8). Especially in the context of the other ironies here, these lines suggest that as "custom" or habit is hardening Hamlet to hate and scorn most of the people in his world, he is losing his sensitivity to others' suffering and his ability to see from any point of view but his own.
Gertrude's responses show that he "roars" and "thunders" in his tirade against her (52; cf. 39-40). Later in the scene Hamlet claims that he is "cruel only to be kind" (180), that he speaks daggers only to bring Gertrude to repentance. But he does not assert this intention until the Ghost makes him look to his own behavior as well as hers. Before going to her chamber he has said he would be cruel to her, would speak daggers to her so she would be "shent" (3.2.387-90). Editors have usually been kind to Hamlet by glossing "shent" as "rebuked," "reproved," or "censured." The Oxford English Dictionary tells us, however, that to shend is to disgrace, to put to shame or confusion; to blame, revile, or scold; to destroy, ruin or injure, including to disfigure, corrupt, infect, soil, and defile. That Hamlet intends something like this in saying he will shend her is clear when he says the shending must be only in words and not also in murderous deeds that would confirm the thrust of his words (389-90).
Before the Ghost comes, there is no indication Hamlet intends to do anything except force his mother to see her inmost evils in order to hurt her. He may also have a dim intention to bring her to repentance, but if he does have such an intention, it is in some degree a rationalization, since in his extreme anger his behavior is of a sort that seems more calculated to "Make mad the guilty" than to enlighten her (2.2.558). Hamlet gives no hint of any compassionate understanding; indeed, he takes the view that Gertrude's behavior has been well-nigh incomprehensible in human terms (3.4.63-81). When she says Hamlet has succeeded in making her see her corrupt nature, he continues to stab with his imaginings of her vile sexual encounters with Claudius (88-94). She replies that his "words like daggers enter in my ears," confirming that he has sufficiently spoken daggers to her if he is attacking her only so she will repent (94-96). Yet when she says this, Hamlet intensifies his attack (96-103).
If Hamlet's purpose were to bring her to repentance, he would by now begin to preach as he does later in the scene when this becomes his stated purpose. As it is, his attack is ended only by the Ghost, who expresses fear for what the "conceit" Hamlet has forced on his mother's soul may do to her, and urges him to help her (112-15). To argue thus that Hamlet's attacking Gertrude is reinforced because it punishes her is not to say this is the only cause of his behavior. The Oedipal attachment makes speaking daggers to her be reinforced as a way to create emotional intimacy between them as they break down together. In addition, hurting his mother, especially speaking daggers to her, could be reinforced as a form of sexual sadism.
The re-appearance of the Ghost causes thoughts of using daggers to become prepotent over speaking them for Hamlet. Even before the Ghost speaks, its presence reminds Hamlet of its command and he thinks of how he has been "tardy" in his revenge (107-9). Hamlet's saying he is "laps'd in . . . passion" is interestingly ambiguous: he probably means he has let the passion for revenge lapse in himself, but part of the cause for this is that he has lapsed into passion, has failed to act as much because of the passions he has experienced as because he has lacked passion.
The Queen sees no Ghost and so her thoughts are turned from her own sins to Hamlet's madness. The situation is similar to the start of the scene, as Gertrude and Hamlet see each other to be erring, but they are now more compassionate toward each other and more aware of a need to respond to the other's point of view. Gertrude pities her son for his madness, and because she does not see the Ghost, Hamlet thinks he must explain his behavior to show that he is sane and therefore to be listened to when he tells her about herself (142-51). It would be very reinforcing for Hamlet to believe his explanation that his purpose has only been to move her to repentance (151-7)—especially after the Ghost has urged him to help her—and not that he spoke earlier in vengeful rage.
Thus Hamlet may sincerely think he was cruel "only" to be kind (180), yet his thinking this is also a defensive rationalization. His rationalization becomes extreme when he asks Gertrude to forgive his "virtue" and personifies himself as Virtue in deploring how Virtue must beg pardon and bow and "woo" to be allowed to help Vice reform (154-7). He did not speak in a submissively courteous tone earlier, and the body of Polonius lying on the stage shows that Hamlet is wildly mistaken to regard himself as so near to Virtue.
Hamlet urges Gertrude to reform by habituating herself to sexual abstinence (159-72). He knows that being moved to repentance is not enough, that if she is really to change, her sexual behavior must be habituated so she will no longer desire Claudius. Ironically, Hamlet's statement also applies to the way he himself is changing through his own actions and thoughts, becoming brazed to killing and perhaps "mad in craft" (190). At the moment, however, his intention to reform Gertrude and his thinking of himself as virtuous make it reinforcing for him to repent the killing of Polonius (174-9). Hamlet accepts responsibility for his deed (178-9), and he also speaks of his revenge as a punishment of himself. In this he shows how aversive he finds the Ghost's command: "heaven hath pleas'd it so, / To punish me with this and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (175-7).
This part of what he says also weakens his repentance insofar as he claims that he did Heaven's will in slaying Polonius. For the first time Hamlet hints that revenge requires the death of more than Claudius, and it seems he thinks this way chiefly because such thoughts allow him to feel justified for killing Polonius. It would be much less aversive to think Heaven has used him to punish Polonius, and through him the King, than to think he has killed a foolish old man in a wild rage. It may even be less aversive to think of himself as a damned agent of God—one meaning of "scourge"—than to think he is a damned agent of his own murderous rage in an act that foolishly dooms himself and has no moral or political value at all. If this reading is correct, Hamlet's concern with his mother's repentance and his turning to repentance himself have deeply ironic consequences insofar as his repentance leads him to see the death of Polonius as providential.
The plurality of evil ones who are to die is next expanded to include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet thinks they know he is to be killed when they reach England, for he speaks of destroying them with the weapon they mean to use against him (206-11). Their dialogue with Claudius in 3.3 shows, however, that they believe Hamlet is to be sent to England because he has threatened the King: there is no evidence anywhere that they think the King's sealed commission orders Hamlet's death.
The nature of Hamlet's error in wanting to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is revealed when he takes pleasure in anticipating their destruction, speaking of the "sport" of hoisting the engineer with his own petard, and saying "'tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet" (208, 211-12). To find it "most sweet" to pit deadly craft against deadly craft is to be essentially "mad in craft" in proto-behaviorist terms, for the pleasure shows that such craftiness is becoming a habit and therefore a characteristic of Hamlet. By the end of the scene, these thoughts have led Hamlet away from repentance for slaying Polonius: as he removes the body he expresses a sportful, mocking contempt that minimizes the importance of the slaying (213-18). In addition, once Hamlet's preoccupation with his mother is out of the way here, his intensely pleasurable anticipation of destroying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is prepotent over any movement toward killing the King. Hamlet accepts his being sent to England, and here he seems almost to welcome it as an occasion to kill his former friends. Thinking of this kind may well be reinforced partly because it allows him to avoid killing Claudius.
This analysis of the closet scene illustrates how a behaviorist interpretation can unfold the moment-to-moment dynamics of a drama. Particularly valuable is what such an analysis suggests about the importance of thoughts and intentions and how they change. At one moment Hamlet may not have a very clear intention in mind, as perhaps in his rage at the beginning of the scene. Then when the Ghost has prompted him to cease this rage and his mother's doubts of his sanity make it highly reinforcing for him to explain himself, he thinks of an acceptable rationale for his behavior. He is reinforced in believing this rationale by the assurance it gives him that he has behaved sanely and even virtuously. Hence it becomes his sincere intention to reform his mother, and this intention guides his behavior as he tells her how to reform. This brings him to thoughts of his own need to repent, but then he finds it reinforcing to think his actions are fulfilling the intentions of Heaven and he widens his revenge to include Polonius. Once Polonius is seen as having fallen under Heaven's doom, the revenge can widen further, to include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Thus intentions can control behavior, but the intentions are part of the behavior and are subject to the same contingencies of reinforcement as other activities.
This view of Hamlet does not mean he is insincere in his concern for virtue or his mother. He intensely feels what he says at each moment; indeed, it is the intensity of his sincere thinking which so absorbs him. And it is not that Hamlet behaves in merely contradictory ways. The changes in his behavior reflect a coherent character, a character having the complexity to be moved in complex ways as the action unfolds.
In my initial discussion of the antic disposition I said that some of Hamlet's behavior in Act 4, scenes 2 and 3 may be out of control. Thus his saying that he has "Safely stowed" Polonius's body seems out of touch with reality if he thinks he has adequately disposed of the body by putting it in the lobby upstairs. Hamlet has evidently been absorbed in hiding the body and thinking about its being safely stowed, for when he is called he expresses surprise, as if he has been wakened from preoccupation: "Safely stowed. [Calling within.] But soft, what noise? Who calls on Hamlet? O, here they come" (4.2.1-3). Most of what Hamlet says in these scenes, however, has the tone of the antic wit at its highest pitch of controlled intensity, and any element of apparent madness may reflect hectic excitement. Certainly Hamlet now has cause to play the antic disposition as madly as possible to give the impression that he has not "murdered" Polonius but killed him in a mad fit. Hamlet's concern with seeking cover by hiding the body of Polonius and then hiding himself in his antic disposition blocks any action against the King. Hamlet's anxiety about confronting his foes after he has killed Polonius evidently makes self-concealment prepotent over other behavior.
Hamlet's soliloquy in response to the sight of Fortinbras's army invites comparison with the soliloquy at the end of Act 2. Again Hamlet's disposition to act nobly makes it reinforcing to punish himself when he sees someone who acts vigorously with less cause than he himself has to act (4.4.32-66). As before, he suspects himself of cowardice, but now he denies that he lacks will and strength and more explicitly blames his disposition, as an intellectual and a Christian moralist, to think about outcomes. As a subject in the psychological sense, he is divided between the disposition to nobility and honor and the disposition to think morally. He defends reason as given by God, but disparages careful foresight as more cowardly than wise. Hamlet does not question the validity of the reasoning he did earlier so much as he suggests that his thinking was to justify a delay caused mostly by fear: "some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th'event— / A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward—" (40-3). Hamlet here accuses himself of what we call rationalization. There are references to rationalization in other works of Shakespeare,12 but Hamlet is one of the few characters to ever see it in himself.
Yet Hamlet has little insight here. When he thinks of cowardice as an explanation of his delay, he examines himself no further. The accusation of cowardice is especially painful to a prince, and hence is especially reinforced as punishment. Hamlet wants to discredit himself, but his conclusion that he has been a coward, though it may have some truth, allows him to avoid probing for other causes of delay, some of which might discredit him more. Thus he uses Fortinbras as a model to torment himself with the thought that he has failed to act greatly when his honor is at stake: "a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, / Excitements of my reason and my blood" (57-8). His emotion makes it reinforcing for him to think that henceforth his thoughts must "be bloody or be nothing worth" (66)—he does not want any "thinking too precisely on th'event" to block the bloody deed of revenge. Evidently he intends no longer to think of how he may damn himself or others in what he does, since such thoughts about consequences have especially delayed his revenge. But Hamlet's passionate concern for honor in thinking about "th'event" makes it reinforcing for him to renounce the kind of thinking necessary for truly honorable action. Ironically, to avoid the dishonor of thinking himself a coward, he may think in a way that leads him to act dishonorably in the treacherous means he uses to destroy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet does not appear again until he returns from the voyage to England, but in 4.6 his letter to Horatio shows he is not a coward in the ordinary sense, for he was the first to board a pirate ship when it attacked. We cannot say, however, that he did this in order to return to Denmark for revenge. Hamlet's apparent purpose was to help repel the pirates, and he became a prisoner when the pirates then broke off the fight (4.6.15-18).
Hamlet and Horatio enter in the graveyard scene as the First Gravedigger sings of his youth and love while digging Ophelia's grave:
HAM. Has this fellow no feeling of his business a sings in grave-making?
HOR. Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
HAM. 'Tis e'en so, the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.
These lines refer to the proto-behaviorist idea that the most unpleasant activities become easy and even pleasant through habituation. The passage recalls Hamlet's suggestion that his mother has been so "braz'd" or hardened to sin by habit that she may be incapable of sensing the evil of what she has done (3.4.35-8). In 5.1 perhaps more than in the closet scene the statement about habituation raises a question about Hamlet, inasmuch as the Gravedigger is less a character than a figure whose primary function is to be a mirror held up to Hamlet's antic disposition as this disposition fades.
Thus the statement about the Gravedigger's habituation leads to the question whether Hamlet now finds it easy to jest about death, too. If Hamlet comes to terms with death here, he does so on the basis of a hardening of his sensitivities in which he excludes awareness of matters that might cause him pain. By now Hamlet has killed Polonius with his own hand, has used his hand to write Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's death warrant, and has fought the pirates in hand-to-hand combat, so perhaps his hand is no longer the "hand of little employment" that has "the daintier sense" of death. Hamlet may be insensitive in part because he avoids thinking of the deaths of Polonius and his father: the graveyard evokes no remark at all about either of them.13
Hamlet's response to death here shows no grief or compassion until his personal relationship with Yorick begins to bring death closer to him. Until then, the single exception tends to confirm this generalization, for it comes at the start in what Hamlet says about the Gravedigger's insensitivity that lets him treat a skull as though he did not know it "had a tongue in it, and could sing once" (74). After this through line 115 there is no sign that Hamlet responds to death as destroying a creature capable of song. Hamlet's comments on death in these lines take a sardonic view of life as a base pursuit of worldly goods that death shows to be futile. Although a similar view is found in Christian thinking, there the idea is to renounce worldly values for the sake of the soul. Nowhere in this scene does Hamlet express any hope, or any concern for the human soul. In this part of the graveyard scene, Hamlet's only regret seems to be that death ends all distinctions of social class. He comments that the Sexton's spade striking Lady Worm's skull is "fine revolution," and he continues, "Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with 'em? Mine ache to think on't" (87-91). We hear this complaint again when the Gravedigger insolently equivocates in answering his question of who the grave is for, and Hamlet says that "the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe" (135-8). Yet even in these complaints Hamlet gives the impression that he feels detached from individual human lives and deaths.
Hamlet shows he is detached, too, in the way his concern about the Gravedigger's insolence diverts him from the question about whose grave is being dug, immediately after he has been told it is for a woman, to the question of how long the fellow has been digging graves (130-8). We know that this is Ophelia's grave, and as we respond to the structure of this scene we are waiting for Hamlet to be jolted out of his impersonal attitude by the news of her death. Hence the statement that a woman had died prompts us to think Hamlet should ask who it is—not be so easily diverted—if he is really concerned and not merely curious in his questioning.
Even when the Gravedigger unearths the skull of Yorick, Hamlet responds with personal feeling only briefly. Soon Yorick's skull becomes an impersonal symbol to use in expressing the traditional warning that the life of the flesh is transitory, that we should remember death (178-89). Again, Hamlet says nothing of the soul; instead he follows the skull into the earth and comments on the "base uses" to which "we may return" (196-209). Hamlet's thinking continues to be narrowly focussed even in the words that express the part of the traditional memento mori idea he does utter: "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that" (186-9). Hamlet has no intuition that his lady is already dead. Only his ignorance lets him speak this way: he has not fully hardened into a person who can laugh at death, for when Ophelia's body is brought in he is overcome with emotion.
Hamlet's use of Yorick's skull as a symbol and his speaking of his lady as a social type lead him back to his concern about how death makes noble bones ache: "Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'th' earth?" (191-2). Hamlet's perception that death brings human greatness to "base uses" moves him to a deep sense of loss that he counters with irony: "O that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw" (208-9). These lines do not express an acceptance of death that frees Hamlet to act but a tragic prince's concern with death as the destroyer of human greatness. Paradoxically, Hamlet's disposition as tragic prince has displaced concern for the soul, choked off compassion for the loss of song, and provoked scorn of petty worldlings.
When Hamlet asks "Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole?" (196-8), Horatio's reply, "Twere to consider too curiously to consider so" aptly indicates how Hamlet's thinking has led him away from what he most needs to think about if he is to act effectively or greatly (199). In ancient, medieval, and Renaissance writers "curiosity" is often used to mean a vice of inquiring about things in a way that leads to the wrong kind of knowledge. Even so free a thinker as Montaigne sometimes uses "curiosity" in this sense (esp. "Apologie" 2.199, "Upon Some Verses" 3:95, 97). Hamlet's thinking that minimizes character and spirit as essential greatness does not lead him to think about the fundamental moral and human qualities which his particular greatness depends on. The narrowness of Hamlet's thinking is emphasized by the juxtaposition of his concern for greatness with the entrance of Ophelia's funeral procession. She is a pathetic, not a tragic figure, a victim of the struggle between "mighty opposites." As her body is carried on stage, Hamlet's sensibility could not be further from an intuition of her death.
When he sees that Ophelia is dead, Hamlet becomes so emotionally distracted that for a time he loses his ability to recognize how his killing Polonius has affected Laertes and Ophelia (5.1.239-42, 247-56, 283-5). That Hamlet actually cannot think how he may have offended Laertes—"Hear you, sir, / What is the reason that you use me thus? / I lov'd you ever" (283-5)—may also show how strongly he represses awareness that he has killed Polonius. Laertes has forcefully reminded Hamlet that he killed Polonius (239-42), and it may be part of the point that Laertes's description of Hamlet as a "cursed" one who has committed a "wicked deed" presents the Prince with an image of himself which he cannot recognize. When he later says that the image of his own cause shows him the portraiture of Laertes's (5.2.77-8), Hamlet sees the parallel between himself and Laertes as revengers, but evidently does not see how from Laertes's point of view he appears only as Claudius does to himself, as the murderer of his father—Laertes knows nothing of Hamlet's revenge cause. Again Hamlet interprets a mirror held up to him in a way that reflects his absorption in his own point of view.
Insofar as Hamlet's failures in 5.1 are caused by the overwhelming shock and anguish he feels upon learning of Ophelia's death, sympathy for him is evoked throughout this episode, even in response to his seemingly empty protestations of what he would do to show his love for her. Hamlet is reinforced for thinking and speaking in a way that powerfully expresses his love for Ophelia and thereby not incidentally denies any guilt for her death. This is not to say, however, that he deliberately puts on emotional shows, since Hamlet most needs to convince himself, and he will not be convinced by emotional protestations he sees he is putting on. At the end of his tirade he realizes that he has spoken rant—it has become characteristic of Hamlet to recoil from his own emotionality—but it is in his next speech that he is least in touch with reality, asking Laertes how he has offended him (283-5).
The crucial evidence that Hamlet feels what his words claim he feels about Ophelia is the way he speaks with righteous indignation as though he were simply a faithful lover who has a right to object when his lady's grieving brother expresses great love for her (261-6). In this Hamlet is so preposterously oblivious to the realities that he is probably sincere. In saying he will match Laertes's expressions of grief, Hamlet does not see that Laertes's grief is heightened to a furious passion by vengeful anger. Hamlet says "I will fight with him upon this theme / Until my eyelids will no longer wag" (261-2), meaning the theme of who loved Ophelia more, but this is not the theme upon which Laertes wishes to fight.
Hamlet is calm at the beginning of 5.2, perhaps partly because of the influence of Horatio and partly because passion spends itself (see esp. 5.1.279-83; cf. 3.2.189-92, 4.7.109-14). Here a crucial question is what to make of Hamlet's belief that he has been guided by providence in having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed in England. I have explained that according to the traditional meaning of rashness, it is doubtful that Hamlet should praise rashness as a mode of providential action. Hamlet's belief that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have betrayed his friendship is what makes him so bitter toward them. The evidence, however, does not so clearly support Hamlet's suspicions as to justify sending them to death with no chance of defending themselves. And if they did not know the content of the King's sealed orders, once he destroyed those orders Hamlet had no need to have them killed for fear they would have sought to contrive his death in England.
The text of 5.2.6-48 and the relation of this to what Hamlet says at the end of the closet scene indicate that Hamlet was guided by habit, not providence, when he stole the King's commission and forged a replacement. In part Hamlet believes he was guided by providence because before he could address his "brains" regarding what they should do, they began to write a new scenario (30-1) in the forged commission: that is, he wrote intuitively, without thinking first. But his action here carries out his earlier intention to use craft to destroy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern through the means that were to be used for his own destruction (3.4.206-11). The thought of forging a commission for their deaths is precisely what could be expected to occur intuitively to Hamlet when he finds a commission for his death and is disposed to hoist the engineer with his own petard. There is also evidence that Hamlet acted intuitively on the basis of habit in the suggestion that he took pleasure in forging a new commission—he certainly is excited and pleased as he tells Horatio about it (5.2.38-55). Hamlet's pleasure suggests that he was "mad in craft," habituated to its "most sweet" "sport," so that he is insensitive to the reality of what he has done.
Hamlet's thinking seems paranoid when he says he was "benetted round with villainies" (29). Although the sealed commission has proven only the King's villainy, Hamlet forged orders that would harm only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This was an opportunity for Hamlet to act as the rightful King of Denmark, but what he says does not indicate he thought of this, and what he wrote was a parody of the voice of Claudius in the original commission, using fair words to cover a treacherous deed (32-47). Hamlet indicates no awareness that he has come to be at all like Claudius in craftiness or that his actions have been base. He especially shows insensitivity to the substance of his act when he emphasizes the style of handwriting he employed. His perception of what is base here is that he once thought it "baseness" to write clearly, so he labored to un-learn his ability to write in a clear hand (32-6). Yet his earlier learning—the habit of being able to write clearly—still survives, and this habit enabled him to write "fair" or clear copy. That he applies his concern for what is "fair" only to clarity of handwriting parallels the insensitivity of his reference to "baseness." And perhaps it is significant that even fairness in handwriting was an earlier habit Hamlet has practiced to overcome.
When Hamlet turns to "Th'effect" of what he wrote (37), his concern is more with the statesman's rhetorical style than with the substance of his command (38-47). Hamlet is gleeful as he tells of piling up clauses to parody this style, and as he puns on "as" and "ass" (43). This speech contains eight lines of mock-rhetoric and one-and-one-half lines telling what he commanded, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should be "put to sudden death / Not shriving-time allow'd" (46-7). Horatio's question about how he sealed the forged commission evokes the response that "even in that was heaven ordinant" (47-8). The "even" here suggests Hamlet finds it reinforcing to think Heaven was ordinant in the action he has just been narrating. He feels that Heaven has approved of what he has done when he says his indiscretion has served him "well" and this shows there's a Divinity that shapes our ends (8-10). Moreover, his entire narrative has a self-satisfied tone, and he goes on to say that the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does not "come near" his conscience (58).
But if Heaven was ordinant in Hamlet's sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death without shriving time—an evil if not Satanic act—this could only mean that Heaven used Hamlet as an evil instrument of its vengeance. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have been guilty of betraying Hamlet, he may have been justified in having them executed and also in having this done "Without debatement further more or less" so they could not argue that he was the one to be killed (45). But Hamlet could have stopped here or he could have used other words to emphasize and enforce his point than "not shriving time allow'd." In their context these words go beyond callousness to suggest that Hamlet feels some gratification at having found justification for letting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be damned. He draws attention to the nature of his act by his following claim that Heaven has guided him. However guilty Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be, in a Christian context they should not be deprived of a rite that they, at least, might think could save their souls. Hamlet's judgment is deeply tragic as his sense of destiny and right lead him into this dreadful error.
Hamlet does not claim that when he acted on board the ship he thought Heaven was guiding him. He says he did not think about what he was doing, but simply did it intuitively. This may suggest that his idea about providence is a rationalization after the fact to explain and justify his intuitive behavior. Once he has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death, Hamlet would find it very reinforcing to believe that Heaven directed his actions, but he indicates that he was conscious of his crafty wit at the time he forged the lethal commission, and this challenges his claim that he was not guiding his own conduct. Yet his self-satisfied tone indicates Hamlet is sincere now in thinking providence guided him, and because he believes this, faith in providence can guide his future action.
Ironically, Hamlet's reliance on rashness as providential contributes to his doom. As we saw in the earlier discussion of rashness, Augustine wrote that the rash judge is doomed through his rashness: he judges unjustly, not seeing the "beam" in his own eye while condemning others for "motes," and he is punished through his rash misjudgment of others. Hamlet is killed through his blind trust of Laertes, which is partly caused by his adoption of rashness as providence. Convinced that there is "special providence in the fall of a sparrow," Hamlet now refuses to avoid the potential danger of the fencing match with Laertes (208-20). Hamlet trusts Laertes in a way that expresses the most erring aspect of his rashness. In the graveyard scene he spoke of Laertes as "a very noble youth" (5.1.217), and now he confirms that opinion in saying to Horatio he is sorry he "forgot" himself to Laertes in the graveyard and will "court his favours" (5.2.75-8). This shows that Hamlet still forgets himself to Laertes: Hamlet's reason for being sorry about his earlier behavior is that he sees himself and Laertes to have causes which are the image or portrait of each other, suggesting that Hamlet is inclined to identify with Laertes and to judge him accordingly. But if Hamlet saw his own actions in a clearer light, he would know that he has destroyed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not nobly but treacherously, so if Laertes is the image of Hamlet, he may be expected to be treacherously vengeful. Thus Hamlet does not expect Laertes's treachery partly because he does not see his own.
To recapitulate the entire ironic pattern of Hamlet's rashness: he judged Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rashly, interpreting their conduct without enough attention to the effect of his behavior on them, assuming they knew they were taking him to his death in England and presuming the nobility and hence justice of his own view. Then this rash judgment led him to doom them rashly, and to avoid guilty thoughts of this he finds it reinforcing, according to the psychology of cognitive dissonance reduction, to think even more strongly than before that his judgment of them was right. This intensifies his sense of himself as noble and hence helps to induce a rash misjudgment of Laertes when he identifies with him. In this sense, the too-harsh judgment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is part of what leads to the too-uncritical view of himself and Laertes, To look at it another way, Hamlet's rash judgment of himself helps to induce his opposite misjudgments of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as base and of Laertes as noble.
In the dialogue with Osric, the subject is for a time Laertes and his fine qualities, but Hamlet mostly attends to Osric's affectedly elaborate style of speech. In a peculiar way, Osric is another mirror in which Hamlet does not see himself. It is partly because they are both admirers of Laertes that, instead of questioning the substance of what Osric says, Hamlet imitates and parodies his speech (106-23). This echoes Hamlet's account of how he parodied the rhetoric of royal commissions, in which he did not consider the deeper implications of imitating the King. Hamlet says that Osric has collected many things to say by rote or habit, but has no character that can be the source of things to say when he is tested beyond what he has collected (184-91). This, like the play's other statements about habit, invites us to consider whether it applies to Hamlet. Whatever habits Hamlet may have, as his trial reaches its climax in the duel scene what do we see has become of his character? Habits of virtue and vice become characteristics, but has Hamlet become a person whose words and thoughts, however sincere, are habitually rationalizations and other forms of self-justification? Has he become evil or false through the ways he has treated others?
Let us take a wider look at Hamlet's thinking in the last scene. He now insists he should kill the King; indeed, he says he would be damned if he did not end the King's evil deeds (63-70). Here Hamlet comes close to claiming a right in law to execute justice on Claudius. But in giving Claudius's original commission to Horatio to read "at more leisure" (26), Hamlet apparently does not think of using this proof of the King's treachery and criminal injustice to further his cause. Evidently Hamlet's new belief that "divinity" "shapes" his course lets him think he does not need to plan any action of his own (10-11, 73-4, 215-20). His thinking that providence will guide his revenge would be strongly reinforced not only because he has been unable to plan revenge but also because thinking that providence is guiding him enables him to avoid anxiety about what he has done to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Yet even if it is in a sense "self-deceiving" for Hamlet to believe he has acted nobly and that providence guides him here, the most important question is whether these beliefs help him to confront his final trial with integrity and courage. Hamlet is aware of peril and he shows courage in his statement that "The readiness is all" (208-20). On the other hand, because Hamlet's disposition to regard death as a state of "felicity" (352) may be one cause of his readiness, his trust of the King and Laertes in the fencing match might be more suicidal than courageous. Now, it appears to me—as to most interpreters—that following the dialogue with Osric the play primarily emphasizes Hamlet's nobility. His rash judgment of Laertes as noble may be predicated on a faulty self-perception, but—again—even an erring notion sincerely believed in can become an intention guiding future action, and so his perception of Laertes and himself as noble guides him back toward nobility. The one constant in all this, and it is a crucial one, is that Hamlet is always disposed to do what he thinks is noble.
In his speech asking Laertes's forgiveness for slaying his father, Hamlet is noble to Laertes in acknowledging he has done him wrong and in appealing to Laertes's own gentlemanly honor and "most generous thoughts" for pardon (222-3, 227, 238). Still, this could be rhetoric calculated to manipulate Laertes by appealing to his vanity. Also, there seems to be more self-exculpation than honesty in Hamlet's saying his madness and not he killed Polonius (226-35), even though Hamlet could have come to believe he was mad when he killed Polonius because this enables him to avoid more aversive explanations of the act. The most important basis for believing that Hamlet intends to make a true peace with Laertes is that he has stated this intention to Horatio in a context suggesting sincerity (75-80). In sum, although Hamlet's apology to Laertes is surely in part reinforced because it placates a man who might kill him, Hamlet's intention is almost as surely to give an accounting that will be acceptable to a noble person and will preserve his own image of himself as noble. Thus Hamlet may use manipulative rhetoric but avoid the aversive awareness that he is being manipulative.
Of course in this speech Hamlet conceals crucial facts because he thinks he cannot publicly explain that his cause is the image of Laertes's and that he killed Polonius in a moment of vengeful rage at the King and his mother. Even if Hamlet thinks he deliberately lies in saying his madness and not he killed Polonius, he could be reinforced as a person disposed to be noble if he thinks this is a guiltless lie because the real truth, if he could tell it, would put him in an even better light. Perhaps because Hamlet cannot demonstrate his nobility by explaining to Laertes the facts of his past action, he speaks in a way that expresses his noble character in tone and manner.
Hamlet also acts nobly in fencing with Laertes, showing courage and bending his best efforts to win the match. His not examining the foils despite his suspicion that he is in peril (208-20) may indicate that his conduct is reinforced partly because he is disposed to die. However, not examining the foils also shows he trusts Laertes and so is further evidence he is the noble man the King counted on him to be (4.7.133-5). Hamlet's surprisingly aggressive fencing suggests that despite his brotherly intentions he is strongly reinforced for attacking Laertes. The possible sources of reinforcement here are many: Hamlet intuits his danger and the King's purpose; also, the fencing is an opportunity to take violent action showing the King what he can do and indirectly attacking the King. Hamlet could even attack Laertes as an image or portrait of himself, if this would be reinforcing, without conscious awareness of this as a supplemental source of strength for his action.
Hamlet acts aggressively, too, in things he says. It is disingenuous for him to say that Laertes's skill will contrast brilliantly with his own ignorance (5.2.252-4), for he has told Horatio he expects to "win at the odds" (206-7). More significant, when he has scored two hits to none for Laertes, Hamlet tauntingly suggests that Laertes wants to shame him by not fighting his hardest (301-3). This remark comes at a crucial moment, for Laertes has just indicated in an aside that his conscience makes him reluctant to stab Hamlet (300). In taunting Laertes, Hamlet intends to provoke him to his best effort, but he does not know of this conflict of conscience. Laertes is evidently angered by the taunt (304), tries again to score a hit on Hamlet, fails, and then immediately stabs him when they are not fencing (3056). If Laertes's determination to stab Hamlet has been strengthened by Hamlet's taunt, there is tragic irony in Hamlet's success as a fencer moving him to a moment of hubristic insolence that seals his fate. The tragic irony is intensified in the way the blindness of Hamlet's hubris is caused by his inability to take the role of the other, to put himself in the place of the very man he thinks is an image of himself.
Until Laertes treacherously stabs him, Hamlet has been trusting, and the violation of that trust moves him to a controlled anger and a disposition to take revenge that governs his behavior through the killing of Claudius. Obviously when Hamlet kills Claudius his revenge is for himself and his mother as well as for his father, which allows us to speculate that Hamlet might not have taken revenge even now for his father's death alone or if he himself were able to continue living. But such speculations should not be allowed to obscure the main impression created in Hamlet's slaying of the King, that he acts in a purposeful and composed manner with a sense of full justification. He is noble in his exchange of forgiveness with Laertes, in his concern that Horatio should report his cause "aright," and in turning his dying thoughts to the future of Denmark (337, 344-5, 360-3).
Whatever changes Hamlet undergoes in the course of the play, it is most important that it is always his characteristic disposition to act nobly: he never becomes unjust in Aristotle's sense of being such a person. There is something to the Gravedigger's assertion that an act has three branches, "to act, to do, to perform" (5.1.11-12). In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes that it is "possible for a deed to be unjust without yet being an 'unjust act' if the element of voluntariness is absent" (1135a). Hamlet would act unjustly only if he performed an unjust deed in the way an unjust person does—for the sake of what he knows is an unjust end because he thinks he should act unjustly for the sake of a wrongful motive. In this sense Hamlet never acts unjustly and therefore never becomes an unjust person. Although his deeds and thoughts may become unjust, he never intends to act or think unjustly as an unjust person would. He may acquire the habits and therefore the characteristics of judging rashly and acting craftily, but he does not acquire the habit of thinking he is right to act unjustly—indeed, he does not ever think that what he does is unjust.
These ideas are important, I think, for understanding the complexity of Hamlet's divided subjectivity—the way his intentions and his thinking, his underlying character and his habits, relate to each other in complex and dynamically variable ways as he responds to his changing circumstances. Moreover, if the analysis here has been persuasive, it will be clear that to respond to Hamlet with tragic compassion we must understand him as an imagined person whose behavior can be studied for what it reveals about how and why he thinks, feels, and acts as he does. Only with such an understanding, whether arrived at intuitively or through a psychological analysis, can we see how profoundly erring deeds and perceptions can arise from an intense, sensitive, and anguished concern for love, duty, nobility, and justice.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1664
1 For the view that Hamlet is psychologically incoherent, see Barker 39-40, Belsey, Subject 41-2, and Weimann, "Mimesis," and for an important earlier essay that has contributed to this view, cf. Booth. Ferry sees Hamlet as having an inwardness we can recognize as like our own (2-3), but she is not specifically concerned with the cultural materialist concepts of the subject: see my discussion of these concepts in Chapter 1, 5-22 and my notes there. Ferry argues that the tradition before Shakespeare provides very little sense of the sort of inward life we find in Hamlet. For powerful defenses of the view that Hamlet's character has a certain identity within its great variability, see Frye; Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet, esp. ix-xv. Cf. Friedman; Morin; see Cruttwell for an earlier essay with this view, esp. 121-8.
On Hamlet as a subject, cf. also Edward Burns 139-58; Eagleton, William Shakespeare 70-3; William O. Scott; States, Hamlet; Wilks 100-24; Luke Wilson. Wilks's use of Renaissance ideas of conscience, reason, and passion to analyze Hamlet's moral struggle converges with my analysis on a number of points.
I am not persuaded that the variability of Hamlet can in part be attributed to revisions in the second quarto edition making him a different character from the Hamlet of the first folio edition (see David Ward and also Werstine on this possibility). Thus I use the conflated text of Hamlet ed. by Jenkins, not least because I want to discuss the Hamlet of our cultural and critical tradition.
In his book on much the same topic as mine, Character: Acting and Being on the Pre-Modern Stage, Edward Burns defends the (near) "absence of psychology" from his "discourse of character" by analyzing Hamlet's response to Horatio's questions about the Danish custom of drinking (155-8). In Burns's reading, Hamlet locates all the "forces and effects" of the subject "outside it," and thus "The subject position, the 'I' from which a Shakespeare 'character' speaks is . . . separate from, anterior to his or her 'character' (in the sense of the word known to Shakespeare) . . ." (157-8). This may justify, as Burns says, not analyzing Shakespeare's characters in terms of a post-romantic notion of the subject which "would locate the reality of" psychological forces such as humoral temperament, reason, and habit "within the individual subjectivity" (158). His logic, however, leads not to a dismissal of psychology but to an analysis based on pre-modern psychology and its formulations of the sort of divided subjectivity Hamlet describes. In premodern discourse we typically find humoral temperament and reason within individual subjectivity, and we certainly find habit within both individual subjectivity and character, with character as habit a crucial source of subjectivity and its expression.
Thus Burns employs an inadequate analysis of premodern psychology, and he also errs in treating Hamlet's speech as a representative explanation of that psychology. Perhaps most importantly, Burns tends to take Hamlet's discourse as Shakespeare's. This is a general tendency in his analyses, deriving from his tight focus on character construction as a rhetorical practice. Rather than tracing the psychological tradition in relation to character, acting, and being, Burns comes to Shakespeare by way of Theophrastian character description, ancient biographical writing, the Psychomachia of Prudentius, and the Tudor allegorical drama. Thus Burns tends to write of Hamlet as constructing a subject position or an interiority in his metaphors and his grammar (147, 153; cf. 154, 157-8). Burns argues that Hamlet's use of the infinitive in "To be or not to be," and also his of "we" in this soliloquy, show that the speech is an "almost subjectless utterance." Only the "we" suggests "a subject position," and it "evades any sense of a particular subject, any urgent individualism, or special subjectivity" (154). But Hamlet's grammar is not used by him or Shakespeare to construct a subject position in Burns's sense; Hamlet's grammar is an expression of his subjectivity as constructed by Shakespeare in the rhetorical mode of mimesis. Thus Hamlet as speaker expresses his thoughts and feelings about his dilemma, so that the use of the infinitive and "we" conveys Hamlet's characteristic tendency as a subject to think and hence express himself in a generalizing and philosophical manner. The speech also conveys Hamlet's characteristic concern for nobility, and much more—see my analysis in this chapter.
2 For the defense of reading as a mode of character construction and the relation of reading to acting, also see Buzacott 1-13, 88-91, 137; Cole, Acting as Reading; Desmet; Goldman, "Hamlet"; Marvin Rosenberg, Masks of Hamlet ix-xv.
3 A. C. Bradley held that "the psychological point of view is not equivalent to the tragic . . . ," but that to comprehend Hamlet's tragedy it is necessary to understand how and why he thinks and feels as he does (101-2). See again note 2 in Chapter 1.
4 It is impossible to cite all those who have discussed Hamlet's character, but for discussions that at least implicitly consider the psychology of role playing in relation to Hamlet which have not been cited earlier in this chapter regarding this psychology, see esp. Abel 41-58; Allman 211-54; Battenhouse 252-62; Calderwood, To Be, esp. 18-50, and "Hamlet's Readiness"; Calhoun; Cartwright 89-137; Charney, Hamlet's 15-34, Style 267-95; Danson 22-49; Draper 95, 103-5; Eagleton, Shakespeare 39-65; Ellrodt 41-8; Garber, Coming of Age 198-205; Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies 79-93, Actor's Freedom 146-57 and Acting and Action 17-45; Gorfain, "Toward"; Gottschalk; Granville-Barker 1: 245-50; Greene, "Postures"; Joan Lord Hall 34-48; Hedrick; Peter Holland; Lanham 129-43; Harry Levin, esp. 111-26; Mack, "Engagement" 286-87 and "World"; Mann, esp. 44-53; Nardo 15-34; Paris, "Hamlet"; Rabey; Righter 142-7; Harold Rosenberg 68-102; Marvin Rosenberg, Masks of Hamlet, esp. 167-85; Siemon 108, 116; Soellner 135-8, 172-94; Ure, "Character" 21-8; Van Laan 171-80; Walcutt, esp. 20-32; Weimann, "Mimesis"; David Young 9-44.
5 A number of critics since Bradley have made more than passing mention of the psychology of habits in their interpretations of Hamlet and Hamlet: see Battenhouse 255-9; Calderwood, "Hamlet's Readiness"; Hankins 210-13; McDonald 342-8; Shenk 189-64, Siemon 108, 116; Skulsky 25-6, 44-5; Stirling 72; Walcutt 23-32; Whitaker 271-3. Cf. Parker, who alludes indirectly to the psychology of habits, 108-9.
For Coleridge's thesis on Hamlet and habit, see 158; cf. 175. That habit could have its full traditional meaning for Coleridge is seen in a comment that Claudius does not have the "guilt of habit" because his conscience still speaks (170). Cf. Hazlitt's statement that Shakespeare "has kept up the distinction . . . between the understandings and the moral habits of men" (237).
6 John Keble quotes the Puritan Thomas Cartwright as opposed to wearing mourning clothes because he believed that all outward expressions of mourning provoke a deepening of grief (l:491n). And this was not only the Puritans' idea, for we saw in Chapter 1 that Montaigne believed outward expressions of grief, even insincere ones, induce the feeling. Montaigne's favorite, Plutarch, says in his "Consolation to His Wife" that mourning clothes and other outward displays of sorrow, such as shearing one's hair, make the mind "dispirited, cramped, shut in, deaf to all soothing influences, and a prey to vain terrors' (609F-10A).
7 Here I agree with Nardo's view that to be in "deadly earnest" is opposed to being playful, but I disagree with her view that Hamlet is playful: see Nardo 10-11, 15-34.
As the reader will see, my analysis also finds no basis in the text for the actor to make us aware that he is "playing" Hamlet in any way that would detach him from the character. Hamlet's self-absorption is unusually intense and should be strongly communicated by the actor to the audience. Hamlet comments on the drama and himself in theatrical terms, but the nature of his comments can always be plausibly construed as expressing his own perspective. This is not to say that we should not infer further metatheatrical commentaries from the text, but these are authorial irony.
8 Now of course if Hamlet were an actual person, it might not be realistic to think of him as so absorbed in his antic disposition when he thinks of his foes that he tends not to think of what to do for revenge. However, we are analyzing the text of Hamlet, in which nearly all that exists of this character after he says he will put on an antic disposition until the news of the actors is his playing that role.
9 For these writers it does not matter that a reason to delay may be self-deceiving or even evil so long as it diverts one until more thought is possible. Thus Montaigne writes of how he diverted a young man from revenge by spurring his ambition to seek honor in rising above revenge in a noble forgiveness, and he says he once diverted himself from revenge with a love affair ("Of Diverting" 3:56-7). Bacon says that in anger the best way to make oneself delay is to think that the time for revenge has not yet come ("Of Anger" 511). Seneca writes that one may tell a person to delay revenge in order to take a heavier revenge later, apparently with the understanding that when the anger has passed, the heavier revenge will not be sought ("On Anger" bk 3, ch. 39, sec. 3). There is a variation on the theme of this kind of thinking in Sidney's Arcadia when Pyrocles is about to commit suicide and a voice, possibly that of "his good angel," urges him first to seek revenge, in order to divert him from his suicidal purpose (483; bk 3, ch. 22, sec. 7).
10 On most important questions, my reading agrees with that of Jenkins in the Arden ed, 484-93.
11 Robert Burton writes of how a friend should keep a melancholy person busy, and, if all else fails, resort to threats and even whipping: 331-3; pt. 2, sec. 2, mem. 6, subs. 2.
12 See Walley on Lucrece, esp. 483-4, and in the plays see passages such as Tro. 2.2.164-74.
13 Hamlet speaks here to other characters, so we cannot assume he says what he feels. However, he generally speaks what he feels to Horatio. Further, the text does not suggest he has any other thoughts, but it does indicate considerable absorption in the narrow line of thought his speech conveys.
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