Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


The psychoanalytical criticism of Hamlet is dominated largely by discussion of Hamlet's apparent oedipal issues, namely his focus on his mother's sexuality and his murderous intentions toward the father-figure in his life, his stepfather (and uncle) Claudius. In fact, Philip Edwards (1985) notes that the psychoanalytical criticism of Hamlet was sparked by a single footnote regarding Hamlet's Oedipus complex in Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud notes that "Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father's place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized." In addition to Hamlet's oedipal anxiety, his delay in obtaining revenge as commanded by the ghost is also a source of psychoanalytical study.

C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler (1986) introduce their analysis of Hamlet by reviewing Freud's views on individual and social development. The critics assert that the psychological framework of Hamlet is informed by Hamlet's efforts to "cope with the desecration of his heritage." While they argue that Hamlet's problems cannot be simply reduced to the Oedipus complex, Barber and Wheeler state that an understanding of Hamlet "must be consistent with the presence of that complex, for the Freudian explanation clearly works." Emphasizing Hamlet's guilt, which is focused on his father, not his mother, the critics argue that this guilt refers to Hamlet's wish to kill his father, which he cannot do since Hamlet's father is already dead. The wish, Barber and Wheeler explain, is diverted from Hamlet's father to his uncle. Taking another approach to Hamlet's oedipal issues, Janet Adelman (1992) centers on the role of the mother. Adelman illustrates that in earlier Shakespearean plays, such as Henry IV, the son must choose between two fathers and shapes his own identity in relationship to his image of his father. With the appearance of a mother/wife—Gertrude, in Hamlet—the father takes on a sexual role; this disables the son's relationship with his father and creates in the son a sexualized image of his mother. In Hamlet, Adelman points out, Gertrude's sexuality "is literally the sign of her betrayal and of her husband's death." H. R. Coursen (1982) identifies a number of problems related to the Freudian analysis of Hamlet, including, among others, the tendency of Freudians to focus on Hamlet's inner conflicts, while ignoring the external issues with which Hamlet is faced. After surveying several Freudian analyses of Hamlet, Coursen suggests that a Jungian approach may help clarify some of the problems with Freudian analyses: "the oedipal problem may itself be symptomatic of a deeper disturbance within Hamlet's psyche, that is, his inability to contact his 'feminine soul' or anima." Coursen defines the anima as the energy of the male's recognition and integration into consciousness of "his androgynous nature" and goes on to demonstrate a link between introverted thinking (such as the kind that occupies Hamlet), the fear of women, and the Oedipus complex. While Coursen accepts the Oedipus complex as symptomatic of Hamlet's larger psychological problems, Arthur Kirsch (1981) dismisses the notion that Hamlet is motivated by unconscious psychological fantasies or disturbances. Kirsch argues that "the source of Hamlet's so-called oedipal anxiety is real and present, it is not an archaic and repressed fantasy." Rejecting the idea that Hamlet's thoughts and actions are psychological responses to repressed fantasies, Kirsch argues that they are legitimate reactions to external events, specifically Hamlet's mother's incestuous marriage within a month to his father's brother and murderer. Additionally, Kirsch maintains that "such oedipal echoes" are an inextricable part of Hamlet's grief, and...

(This entire section contains 799 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

that Hamlet is forced to deal with them while still mourning the death of his father. After reviewing Freud's distinction between grief/mourning and depression/melancholia and noting that Freud fails to incorporate the emotions of anger and protest (against mortality) in his discussion of grief, Kirsch traces Hamlet's personal journey through his grieving process. Kirsch concludes that Hamlet's preoccupation with delay, with the relationship between thought and action, demonstrates that no action "can be commensurate with grief, not even the killing of a guilty king. . . ." Where Kirsch comments on the relationship between Hamlet's grief and the delay of Hamlet's revenge, Joanna Montgomery Byles (1994) focuses on the psychological origins of revenge inHamlet. Byles discusses the concept of the Freudian superego "as heir to the Oedipus complex, the internalization of parental values and the source of punitive, approving and idealizing attitudes towards the self." In Hamlet, Byles argues, revenge is presented as "an inward tragic event" motivated by the aggression of Hamlet's superego and externalized and emphasized by destructive family relationships. Byles concludes that the delay Hamlet experiences stems from the conflict between his ego and his superego, and by the end of the play, the self-destructive superego wins, and Hamlet dies.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Stephen Booth (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "On the Value of Hamlet" in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, edited by Norman Rabkin, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 137-76.

[In the following essay, Booth reviews the events of Hamlet from the audience's perspective, arguing that the issues which critics have identified as problems with the play are made bearable in performance since the play provides the audience with "the strength and courage . . . to flirt with the frailty of its own understanding."]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hamlet as we have it—usually in a conservative conflation of the second quarto and first folio texts—is not really Hamlet. The very fact that the Hamlet we know is an editor-made text has furnished an illusion of firm ground for leaping conclusions that discrepancies between the probable and actual actions, statements, tone, and diction of Hamlet are accidents of its transmission. Thus, in much the spirit of editors correcting printer's errors, critics have proposed stage directions by which, for example, Hamlet can overhear the plot to test Polonius' diagnosis of Hamlet's affliction, or by which Hamlet can glimpse Polonius and Claudius actually spying on his interview with Ophelia. Either of these will make sense of Hamlet's improbable raging at Ophelia in III.i. The difficulty with such presumably corrective emendation is not only in knowing where to stop, but also in knowing whether to start. I hope to demonstrate that almost everything else in the play has, in its particular kind and scale, an improbability comparable to the improbability of the discrepancy between Hamlet's real and expected behavior to Ophelia; for the moment, I mean only to suggest that those of the elements of the text of Hamlet that are incontrovertibly accidental may by their presence have led critics to overestimate the distance between the Hamlet we have and the prelapsarian Hamlet to which they long to return.

I think also that the history of criticism shows us too ready to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something, but, as I said before, the accidents of our texts of Hamlet and the alluring analogies they father render Hamlet more liable to interpretive assistance than even the other plays of Shakespeare. Moreover, Hamlet was of course born into the culture of Western Europe, our culture, whose every thought—literary or nonliterary—is shaped by the Platonic presumption that the reality of anything is other than its apparent self In such a culture it is no wonder that critics prefer the word meaning (which implies effort rather than success) to saying, and that in turn they would rather talk about what a work says or shows (both of which suggest the hidden essence bared of the dross of physicality) than talk about what it does. Even stylistic critics are most comfortable and acceptable when they reveal that rhythm, syntax, diction, or (and above all) imagery are vehicles for meaning. Among people to whom "It means a lot to me" says "I value it," in a language where significant and valuable are synonyms, it was all but inevitable that a work with the peculiarities of Hamlet should have been treated as a distinguished and yearning failure.

Perhaps the value of Hamlet is where it is most measurable, in the degree to which it fulfills one or another of the fixable identities it suggests for itself or that are suggested for it, but I think that before we choose and argue for one of the ideal forms toward which Hamlet seems to be moving, and before we attribute its value to an exaggeration of the degree to which it gets there, it is reasonable to talk about what the play does do, and to test the suggestion that in a valued play what it does do is what we value. I propose to look at Hamlet for what it undeniably is: a succession of actions upon the understanding of an audience. I set my hypothetical audience to watch Hamlet in the text edited by Willard Farnham in The Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1957), a text presumably too long to have fitted into the daylight available to a two o'clock performance, but still an approximation of what Shakespeare's company played.


The action that the first scene of Hamlet takes upon the understanding of its audience is like the action of the whole, and most of the individual actions that make up the whole. The first scene is insistently incoherent and just as insistently coherent. It frustrates and fulfills expectations simultaneously. The challenge and response in the first lines are perfectly predictable sentry-talk, but—as has been well and often observed—the challenger is the wrong man, the relieving sentry and not the one on duty. A similarly faint intellectual uneasiness is provoked when the first personal note in the play sets up expectations that the play then ignores. Francisco says, "For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,/ And I am sick at heart" (I.i.8-9). We want to know why he is sick at heart. Several lines later Francisco leaves the stage and is forgotten. The scene continues smoothly as if the audience had never focused on Francisco's heartsickness. Twice in the space of less than a minute the audience has an opportunity to concern itself with a trouble that vanishes from consciousness almost before it is there. The wrong sentry challenges, and the other corrects the oddity instantly. Francisco is sick at heart, but neither he nor Bernardo gives any sign that further comment might be in order. The routine of sentry-go, its special diction, and its commonplaces continue across the audience's momentary tangential journey; the audience returns as if it and not the play had wandered. The audience's sensation of being unexpectedly and very slightly out of step is repeated regularly in Hamlet.

The first thing an audience in a theater wants to know is why it is in the theater. Even one that, like Shakespeare's audiences for Richard II or Julius Caesar or Hamlet, knows the story being dramatized wants to hear out the familiar terms of the situation and the terms of the particular new dramatization. Audiences want their bearings and expect them to be given. The first thing we see in Hamlet is a pair of sentries. The sight of sentries in real life is insignificant, but, when a work of art focuses on sentries, it is usually a sign that what they are guarding is going to be attacked. Thus, the first answer we have to the question "what is this play about?" is "military threat to a castle and a king," and that leads to our first specific question: "what is that threat?" Horatio's first question ("What, has this thing appeared again to-night?" I.i.21) is to some extent an answer to the audience's question; its terms are not military, but their implications are appropriately threatening. Bernardo then begins elaborate preparations to tell Horatio what the audience must hear if it is ever to be intellectually comfortable in the play. The audience has slightly adjusted its expectations to accord with a threat that is vaguely supernatural rather than military, but the metaphor of assault in which Bernardo prepares to carry the audience further along its new path of inquiry is pertinent to the one from which it has just deviated:

Sit down awhile, And let us once again assail your ears, That are so fortified against our story, What we two nights have seen.


We are led toward increased knowledge of the new object—the ghost—in terms appropriate to the one we assumed and have just abandoned—military assault. Bernardo's metaphor is obviously pertinent to his occupation as sentinel, but in the metaphor he is not the defender but the assailant of ears fortified against his story. As the audience listens, its understanding shifts from one system of pertinence to another; but each perceptible change in the direction of our concern or the terms of our thinking is balanced by the repetition of some continuing factor in the scene; the mind of the audience is in constant but gentle flux, always shifting but never completely leaving familiar ground.

Everyone onstage sits down to hear Bernardo speak of the events of the past two nights. The audience is invited to settle its mind for a long and desired explanation. The construction of Bernardo's speech suggests that it will go on for a long time; he takes three lines (I.i.35-38) to arrive at the grammatical subject of his sentence, and then, as he begins another parenthetical delay in his long journey toward a verb, "the bell then beating one," Enter Ghost. The interrupting action is not a simple interruption. The description is interrupted by a repetition of the action described. The entrance of the ghost duplicates on a larger scale the kind of mental experience we have had before. It both fulfills and frustrates our expectations: it is what we expect and desire, an action to account for our attention to sentinels; it is unexpected and unwanted, an interruption in the syntactical routine of the exposition that was on its way to fulfilling the same function. While the ghost is on the stage and during the speculation that immediately follows its departure, the futile efforts of Horatio and the sentries (who, as watchers and waiters, have resembled the audience from the start) are like those of the audience in its quest for information. Marcellus' statement about the ghost is a fair comment on the whole scene: "'Tis gone and will not answer" (I.i.52), and Horatio's "In what particular thought to work I know not" (I.i.67) describes the mental condition evoked in an audience by this particular dramatic presentation of events as well as it does that evoked in the character by the events of the fiction.

Horatio continues from there into the first statement in the play that is responsive to an audience's requirement of an opening scene, an indication of the nature and direction of the play to follow: "But, in the gross and scope of my opinion,/ This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I.i.68-69). That vague summary of the significance of the ghost is political, but only incidentally so because the audience, which was earlier attuned to political/military considerations, has now given its attention to the ghost. Then, with only the casual preamble of the word state, Marcellus asks a question irrelevant to the audience's newly primary concerns, precisely the question that no one asked when the audience first wanted to know why it was watching the sentries, the question about the fictional situation whose answer would have satisfied the audience's earlier question about its own situation: Marcellus asks "Why this same strict and most observant watch/ So nightly toils the subject of the land" (I.i.71-72). Again what we are given is and is not pertinent to our concerns and expectations. This particular variety among the manifestations of simultaneous and equal propriety and impropriety in Hamlet occurs over and over again. Throughout the play, the audience gets information or sees action it once wanted only after a new interest has superseded the old. For one example, when Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus arrive in the second scene (I.ii.159), they come to do what they promise to do at the end of scene one, where they tell the audience that the way to information about the ghost is through young Hamlet. By the time they arrive "where we shall find him most conveniently," the audience has a new concern—the relation of Claudius to Gertrude and of Hamlet to both. Of course interruptions of one train of thought by the introduction of another are not only common in Hamlet but a commonplace of literature in general. However, although the audience's frustrations and the celerity with which it transfers its concern are similar to those of audiences of, say, Dickens, there is the important difference in Hamlet that there are no sharp lines of demarcation. In Hamlet the audience does not so much shift its focus as come to find its focus shifted.

Again the first scene provides a type of the whole. When Marcellus asks why the guard is so strict, his question is rather more violent than not in its divergence from our concern for the boding of the ghost. The answer to Marcellus' question, however, quickly pertains to the subject of ours: Horatio's explanation of the political situation depends from actions of "Our last king,/ Whose image even but now appeared to us" (I.i.80-81), and his description of the activities of young Fortinbras as "The source of this our watch" is harnessed to our concern about the ghost by Bernardo, who says directly, if vaguely, that the political situation is pertinent to the walking of the ghost:

I think it be no other but e'en so. Well may it sort that this portentous figure Comes armèd through our watch so like the king That was and is the question of these wars.


Horatio reinforces the relevance of politics to ghosts in a long speech about supernatural events on the eve of Julius Caesar's murder. Both these speeches establishing pertinence are good examples of the sort of thing I mean: both seem impertinent digressions, sufficiently so to have been omitted from the folios.

Now for the second time, Enter Ghost. The reentrance after a long and wandering digression is in itself an assertion of the continuity, constancy, and unity of the scene. Moreover, the situation into which the ghost reenters is a careful echo of the one into which it first entered, with the difference that the promised length of the earlier exposition is fulfilled in the second. These are the lines surrounding the first entrance; the italics are mine and indicate words, sounds, and substance echoed later:

Horatio. Well, sit we down, And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.Bernardo. Last night of all,When yond same star that's westward from the pole Had made his course t' illume that part of heaven Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself, The bell then beating one—

Enter Ghost.
Marcellus. Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.


Two or three minutes later a similar situation takes shape in words that echo, and in some cases repeat, those at the earlier entrance:

Marcellus. Good now, sit down, and tell me he that knows,Why this same sttict and most observant watch, So nightly toils the subject of the land . . .

. . . . .

Enter Ghost
But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!

(I.i.70-72, 126)

After the ghost departs on the crowing of the cock, the conversation, already extravagant and erring before the second apparition when it ranged from Danish history into Roman, meanders into a seemingly gratuitous preoccupation with the demonology of cocks (I.i. 148-65). Then—-into a scene that has from the irregularly regular entrance of the two sentinels been a succession of simultaneously expected and unexpected entrances—enters "the morn in russet mantle clad," bringing a great change from darkness to light, from the unknown and unnatural to the known and natural, but also presenting itself personified as another walker, one obviously relevant to the situation and to the discussion of crowing cocks, and one described in subdued but manifold echoes of the two entrances of the ghost. Notice particularly the multitude of different kinds of relationship in which "yon high eastward hill" echoes "yond same star that's westward from the pole":

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.Break we our watch up. . . .

(I.i. 166-68)

The three speeches (I.i. 148-73—Horatio's on the behavior of ghosts at cockcrow, Marcellus' on cocks at Christmas time, and Horatio's on the dawn) have four major elements running through them: cocks, spirits, sunrise, and the presence or absence of speech. All four are not present all the time, but the speeches have a sound of interconnection and relevance to one another. This at the same time that the substance of Marcellus' speech on Christmas is just as urgently irrelevant to the concerns of the scene. As a gratuitous discussion of Christianity, apparently linked to its context only by an accident of poulterer's lore, it is particularly irrelevant to the moral limits usual to revenge tragedy. The sequence of these last speeches is like the whole scene and the play in being both coherent and incoherent. Watching and comprehending the scene is an intellectual triumph for its audience. From sentence to sentence, from event to event, as the scene goes on it makes the mind of its audience capable of containing materials that seem always about to fly apart. The scene gives its audience a temporary and modest but real experience of being a superhumanly capable mental athlete. The whole play is like that.

During the first scene of Hamlet two things are threatened, one in the play, and one by the play. Throughout the scene the characters look at all threats as threats to the state, and specifically to the reigning king. As the king is threatened in scene one, so is the audience's understanding threatened by scene one. The audience wants some solid information about what is going on in this play. Scene one is set in the dark, and it leaves the audience in the dark. The first things the play teaches us to value are the order embodied in the king and the rational sureness, purpose, and order that the play as a play lacks in its first scene. Scene two presents both the desired orders at once and in one—the king, whose name even in scene one was not only synonymous with order but was the regular sign by which order was reasserted: the first confusion—who should challenge whom—was resolved in line three by "Long live the king"; and at the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus, Tightness and regularity were vouched for by "Friends to this ground. And liegemen to the Dane." As scene two begins it is everything the audience wanted most in scene one. Here it is daylight, everything is clear, everything is systematic. Unlike scene one, this scene is physically orderly; it begins with a royal procession, businesslike and unmistakable in its identity. Unlike the first scene, the second gives the audience all the information it could desire, and gives it neatly. The direct source of both information and orderliness is Claudius, who addresses himself one by one to the groups on the stage and to the problems of the realm, punctuating the units both with little statements of conclusion like "For all, our thanks" and "So much for him" (I.ii.16, 25), and with the word "now" (I.ii.17, 26, 42, 64), by which he signals each remove to a new listener and topic. Denmark and the play are both now orderly, and are so because of the king. In its specifics, scene two is the opposite of scene one. Moreover, where scene one presented an incoherent surface whose underlying coherence is only faintly felt, this scene is the opposite. In scene one the action taken by the scene—it makes its audience perceive diffusion and fusion, division and unification, difference and likeness at once—is only an incidental element in the action taken or discussed in the scene—the guards have trouble recognizing each other; the defense preparation "does not divide the Sunday from the week," and makes "the night joint-laborer with the day" (I.i.76, 78). In scene two the first subject taken up by Claudius, and the subject of first importance to Hamlet, is itself an instance of improbable unification—the unnatural natural union of Claudius and Gertrude. Where scene one brought its audience to feel coherence in incoherence by response to systems of organization other than those of logical or narrative sequence, scene two brings its audience to think of actions and characters alternately and sometimes nearly simultaneously in systems of value whose contradictory judgments rarely collide in the mind of an audience. From an uneasiness prompted by a sense of lack of order, unity, coherence, and continuity, we have progressed to an uneasiness prompted by a sense of their excess.

Claudius is everything the audience most valued in scene one, but he is also and at once contemptible. His first sentences are unifications in which his discretion overwhelms things whose natures are oppugnane The simple but contorted statement, "therefore our . . . sister . . . have we . . . taken to wife," takes Claudius more than six lines to say; it is plastered together with a succession of subordinate unnatural unions made smooth by rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and syntactical balance:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state, Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole, Taken to wife.


What he says is overly orderly. The rhythms and rhetoric by which he connects any contraries, moral or otherwise, are too smooth. Look at the complex phonetic equation that gives a sound of decorousness to the moral indecorum of "With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage." Claudius uses syntactical and rhetorical devices for equation by balance—as one would a particularly heavy and greasy cosmetic—to smooth over any inconsistencies whatsoever. Even his incidental diction is of joining: "jointress," "disjoint," "Colleaguèd" (I.ii.9, 20, 21). The excessively lubricated rhetoric by which Claudius makes unnatural connections between moral contraries is as gross and sweaty as the incestuous marriage itself The audience has double and contrary responses to Claudius, the unifier of contraries.

Scene two presents still another kind of double understanding in double frames of reference. Claudius is the primary figure in the hierarchy depicted—he is the king; he is also the character upon whom all the other characters focus their attention; he does most of the talking. An audience focuses its attention on him. On the other hand, one of the members of the royal procession was dressed all in black—a revenger to go with the presumably vengeful ghost in scene one. Moreover, the man in black is probably also the most famous actor in England (or at least of the company). The particulars of the scene make Claudius the focal figure, the genre and the particulars of a given performance focus the audience's attention on Hamlet.

When the two focuses come together ("But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—") Hamlet's reply (I.ii.65) is spoken not to the king but to the audience. "A little more than kin, and less than kind" is the first thing spoken by Hamlet and the first thing spoken aside to the audience. With that line Hamlet takes the audience for his own, and gives himself to the audience as its agent on the stage. Hamlet and the audience are from this point in the play more firmly united than any other such pair in Shakespeare, and perhaps in dramatic literature.

Claudius' "my cousin Hamlet, and my son" is typical of his stylistic unifications of mutually exclusive contrary ideas (cousin, son). Hamlet's reply does not unify ideas, but disunifies them (more than kin, less than kind). However, the style in which Hamlet distinguishes is a caricature of Claudius' equations by rhetorical balance; here again, what interrupts the order, threatens coherence, and is strikingly at odds with its preamble is also a continuation by echo of what went before. Hamlet's parody of Claudius and his refusal to be folded into Claudius' rhetorical blanket is satisfying to an audience in need of assurance that it is not alone in its uneasiness at Claudius' rhetoric. On the other hand, the orderliness that the audience valued in scene two is abruptly destroyed by Hamlet's reply. At the moment Hamlet speaks his first line, the audience finds itself the champion of order in Denmark and in the play, and at the same time irrevocably allied to Hamlet—the one present threat to the order of both.


The play persists in taking its audience to the brink of intellectual terror. The mind of the audience is rarely far from the intellectual desperation of Claudius in the prayer scene when the systems in which he values his crown and queen collide with those in which he values his soul and peace of mind. For the duration of Hamlet the mind of the audience is as it might be if it could take on, or dared to try to take on, its experience whole, if it dared drop the humanly necessary intellectual crutches of compartmentalization, point of view, definition, and the idea of relevance, if it dared admit any subject for evaluation into any and all the systems of value to which at different times one human mind subscribes. The constant occupation of a sane mind is to choose, establish, and maintain frames of reference for the things of its experience; as the high value placed on artistic unity attests, one of the attractions of art is that it offers a degree of holiday from that occupation. As the creation of a human mind, art comes to its audience ready-fitted to the human mind; it has physical limits or limits of duration; its details are subordinated to one another in a hierarchy of importance. A play guarantees us that we will not have to select a direction for our attention; it offers us isolation from matter and considerations irrelevant to a particular focus or a particular subject. Hamlet is more nearly an exception to those rules than other satisfying and bearable works of art. That, perhaps, is the reason so much effort has gone into interpretations that presume that Hamlet, as it is, is not and was not satisfying and bearable. The subject of literature is often conflict, often conflict of values; but, though the agonies of decision, knowing, and valuing are often the objects of an audience's concern, an audience rarely undergoes or even approaches such agonies itself. That it should enjoy doing so seems unlikely, but in Hamlet the problems the audience thinks about and the intellectual action of thinking about them are very similar. Hamlet is the tragedy of an audience that cannot make up its mind.

One of the most efficient, reliable, and usual guarantees of isolation is genre. The appearance of a ghost in scene one suggests that the play will be a revenge tragedy. Hamlet does indeed turn out to be a revenge tragedy, but here genre does not provide the limited frame of reference that the revenge genre and genres in general usually establish. The archetypal revenge play is The Spanish Tragedy. In the first scene of that, a ghost and a personification, Revenge, walk out on the stage and spend a whole scene saying who they are, where they are, why they are there, what has happened, and what will happen. The ghost in The Spanish Tragedy gives more information in the first five lines of the play than there is in the whole first scene of Hamlet. In The Spanish Tragedy the ghost and Revenge act as a chorus for the play. They keep the doubt and turmoil of the characters from ever transferring themselves to the audience. They keep the audience safe from doubt, safely outside the action, looking on. In The Spanish Tragedy the act of revenge is presented as a moral necessity, just as, say, shooting the villain may be in a Western. Revenge plays were written by Christians and played to Christian audiences. Similarly, traditional American Westerns were written by and for believers faithful to the principles of the Constitution of the United States. The possibility that an audience's Christian belief that vengeance belongs only to God will color its understanding of revenge in The Spanish Tragedy is as unlikely as a modern film audience's consideration of a villain's civil rights when somebody shouts, "Head him off at the pass." The tension between revenge morality and the audience's own Christian morality was a source of vitality always available to Kyd and his followers, but one that they did not avail themselves of. Where they did not ignore moralities foreign to the vaguely Senecan ethic of the genre, they took steps to take the life out of conflicts between contrary systems of value.

When Christian morality invades a revenge play, as it does in III. xiii of The Spanish Tragedy when Hieronimo says Vindicta Mihi and then further echoes St. Paul's "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord," the quickly watered-down Christian position and the contrary position for which Hieronimo rejects it are presented as isolated categories between which the character must and does choose. The conflict is restricted to the stage and removed from the mind of the audience. The effect is not to make the contrariety of values a part of the audience's experience but to dispel the value system foreign to the genre, to file it away as, for the duration of the play, a dead issue. In its operations upon an audience of The Spanish Tragedy, the introduction and rejection of the Christian view of vengeance is roughly comparable to the hundreds of exchanges in hundreds of Westerns where the new schoolmarm says that the hero should go to the sheriff rather than try to outdraw the villain. The hero rarely gives an intellectually satisfying reason for taking the law into his own hands, but the mere fact that the pertinent moral alternative has been mentioned and rejected is ordinarily sufficient to allow the audience to join the hero in his morality without fear of further interruption from its own.

The audience of Hamlet is not allowed the intellectual comfort of isolation in the one system of values appropriate to the genre. In Hamlet the Christian context for valuing is persistently present. In I.V the ghost makes a standard revenge-tragedy statement of Hamlet's moral obligation to kill Claudius. The audience is quite ready to think in that frame of reference and does so. The ghost then—in the same breath—opens the audience's mind to the frame of reference least compatible with the genre. When he forbids vengeance upon Gertrude, he does so in specifically Christian terms: "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven . . ." (I.V. 85-86). Moreover, this ghost is at least as concerned that he lost the chance to confess before he died as he is that he lost his life at all.

Most of the time contradictory values do not collide in the audience's consciousness, but the topic of revenge is far from the only instance in which they live anxiously close to one another, so close to one another that, although the audience is not shaken in its faith in either of a pair of conflicting values, its mind remains in the uneasy state common in nonartistic experience but unusual for audiences of plays. The best example is the audience's thinking about suicide during Hamlet. The first mention of suicide comes already set into a Christian frame of reference by the clause in which self-slaughter is mentioned: "Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (I. ii. 131-32). In the course of the play, however, an audience evaluates suicide in all the different systems available to minds outside the comfortable limitations of art; from time to time in the play the audience thinks of suicide variously as (1) cause for damnation, (2) a heroic and generous action, (3) a cowardly action, and (4) a last sure way to peace. The audience moves from one to another system of values with a rapidity that human faith in the rational constancy of the human mind makes seem impossible. Look, for example, at the travels of the mind that listens to and understands what goes on between the specifically Christian death of Laertes (Laertes: ". . .Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,/ Nor thine on me."—Hamlet: "Heaven make thee free of it" V.ii.319-21) and the specifically Christian death of Hamlet (Horatio: ". . . Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest . . ." V.ii.348-48). During the intervening thirty lines the audience and the characters move from the Christian context in which Laertes' soul departs, into the familiar literary context where they can take Horatio's attempted suicide as the generous and heroic act it is (V.ii.324-31). Audience and characters have likewise no difficulty at all in understanding and accepting the label "felicity" for the destination of the suicide—even though Hamlet, the speaker of "Absent thee from felicity awhile" (V.ii.336), prefaces the statement with an incidental "By heaven" (V.ii.332), and even though Hamlet and the audience have spent a lot of time during the preceding three hours actively considering the extent to which a suicide's journey to "the undiscovered country" can be called "felicity" or predicted at all. When "Good night, sweet prince" is spoken by the antique Roman of twenty lines before, both he and the audience return to thinking in a Christian frame of reference, as if they had never been away.

The audience is undisturbed by a nearly endless supply of similar inconstancies in itself and the play; these are a few instances:

The same audience that scorned pretense when Hamlet knew not "seems" in I.ii admires his skill at pretense and detection in the next two acts.

The audience joins Hamlet both in admiration for the self-control by which the player "could force his soul so to his own conceit" that he could cry for Hecuba (II.ii.537), and in admiration for the very different self-control of Horatio (III.ii.51-71).

The audience, which presumably could not bear to see a literary hero stab an unarmed man at prayer, sees the justice of Hamlet's self-accusations of delay. The audience also agrees with the ghost when both have a full view of the corpse of Polonius, and when the ghost's diction is an active reminder of the weapon by which Hamlet has just attempted the acting of the dread command: "Do not forget. This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose" (III.iv.111-12).

The audience that sees the ghost and hears about its prison house in I.v also accepts the just as obvious truth of "the undiscovered country from whose bourn n o traveller returns. . . ."

What have come to be recognized as the problems of Hamlet arise at points where an audience's contrary responses come to consciousness. They are made bearable in performance (though not in recollection) by means similar to those by which the audience is carried across the quieter crises of scene one. In performance, at least, the play gives its audience strength and courage not only to flirt with the frailty of its own understanding but actually to survive conscious experiences of the Polonian foolishness of faith that things will follow only the rules of the particular logic in which we expect to see them. The best example of the audience's endurance of self-knowledge is its experiences of Hamlet's madness. In the last moments of Act I Hamlet makes Horatio, Marcellus, and the audience privy to his intention to pretend madness: " . . . How strange or odd some'er I bear myself/ (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on) . . ." (I.v. 170-73). The audience sets out into Act II knowing what Hamlet knows, knowing Hamlet's plans, and secure in its superiority to the characters who do not. (Usually an audience is superior to the central characters: it knows that Desdemona is innocent, Othello does not; it knows what it would do when Lear foolishly divides his kingdom; it knows how Birnam Wood came to come to Dunsinane. In Hamlet, however, the audience never knows what it would have done in Hamlet's situation; in fact, since the King's successful plot in the duel with Laertes changes Hamlet's situation so that he becomes as much the avenger of his own death as of his father's, the audience never knows what Hamlet would have done. Except for brief periods near the end of the play, the audience never has insight or knowledge superior to Hamlet's or, indeed, different from Hamlet's. Instead of having superiority to Hamlet, the audience goes into the second act to share the superiority of Hamlet.) The audience knows that Hamlet will play mad, and its expectations are quickly confirmed. Just seventy-five lines into Act II, Ophelia comes in and describes a kind of behavior in Hamlet that sounds like the behavior of a young man of limited theatrical ability who is pretending to be mad (II.i.77-84). Our confidence that this behavior so puzzling to others is well within our grasp is strengthened by the reminder of the ghost, the immediate cause of the promised pretense, in Ophelia's comparison of Hamlet to a creature "loosèd out of hell/ To speak of horrors."

Before Ophelia's entrance, II.i has presented an example of the baseness and foolishness of Polonius, the character upon whom both the audience and Hamlet exercise their superiority throughout Act II. Polonius seems base because he is arranging to spy on Laertes. He instructs his spy in ways to use the "bait of falsehood"—to find out directions by indirections (II.i.l-74). He is so sure that he knows everything, and so sure that his petty scheme is not only foolproof but brilliant, that he is as contemptible mentally as he is morally. The audience laughs at him because he loses his train of thought in pompous byways, so that, eventually, he forgets what he set out to say: "What was I about to say? . . . I was about to say something! Where did I leave?" (II.i.50-51). When Ophelia reports Hamlet's behavior, Polonius takes what is apparently Hamlet's bait: "Mad for thy love?" (II.i.85). He also thinks of (and then spends the rest of the act finding evidence for) a specific cause for Hamlet's madness: he is mad for love of Ophelia. The audience knows (1) Hamlet will pretend madness, (2) Polonius is a fool, and (3) what is actually bothering Hamlet. Through the rest of the act, the audience laughs at Polonius for being fooled by Hamlet. It continues to laugh at Polonius' inability to keep his mind on a track (II.ii.85-130); it also laughs at him for the opposite fault—he has a one-track mind and sees anything and everything as evidence that Hamlet is mad for love (II.ii. 173-212; 394-402). Hamlet, whom the audience knows and understands, spends a good part of the rest of the scene making Polonius demonstrate his foolishness.

Then, in Act III, scene one, the wise audience and the foolish Polonius both become lawful espials of Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia. Ophelia says that Hamlet made her believe he loved her. Hamlet's reply might just as well be delivered by the play to the audience: "You should not have believed me . . ." (III.i.117). In his next speech Hamlet appears suddenly, inexplicably, violently, and really mad—this before an audience whose chief identity for the last hour has consisted in its knowledge that Hamlet is only pretending. The audience finds itself guilty of Polonius' foolish confidence in predictable trains of events. It is presented with evidence for thinking just what it has considered other minds foolish for thinking—that Hamlet is mad, mad for love of an inconstant girl who has betrayed him. Polonius and the audience are the self-conscious and prideful knowers and understanders in the play. They both overestimate the degree of safety they have as innocent onlookers.

When Hamlet seems suddenly mad, the audience is likely for a minute to think that it is mad or that the play is mad. That happens several times in the course of the play; and the play helps audiences toward the decision that the trouble is in themselves. Each time the play seems insane, it also is obviously ordered, orderly, all of a piece. For example, in the case of Hamlet's truly odd behavior with Ophelia in III.i some of the stuff of his speeches to her has been otherwise applied but nonetheless present in the play before (fickleness, cosmetics). Furthermore, after the fact, the play often tells us how we should have reacted; here the King sums up the results of the Ophelia experiment as if they were exactly what the audience expected they would be (which is exactly what they were not): "Love? his affections do not that way tend,/. . . what he spoke . . . / Was not like madness" (III.i. 162-64). In the next scene, Hamlet enters perfectly sane, and lecturing, oddly enough, on what a play should be (III.ii.1-42). Whenever the play seems mad it drifts back into focus as if nothing odd had happened. The audience is encouraged to agree with the play that nothing did, to assume (as perhaps for other reasons it should) that its own intellect is inadequate. The audience pulls itself together, and goes on to another crisis of its understanding. Indeed, it had to do so in order to arrive at the crisis of the nunnery speech. At exactly the point where the audience receives the information that makes it so vulnerable to Hamlet's inexplicable behavior in the nunnery scene, the lines about the antic disposition (I.v. 170-73) act as a much needed explanation—after the fact of the audience's discomfort—of jocular behavior by Hamlet ("Art thou there, truepenny?" "You hear this fellow in the cellarage," "Well said, old mole!" I.v. 150-51, 162) that is foreign to his tone and attitude earlier in the scene, and that jars with the expectations aroused by the manner in which he and the play have been treating the ghost. For a moment, the play seems to be the work of a madman. Then Hamlet explains what he will do, and the audience is invited to feel lonely in foolishly failing to understand that that was what he was doing before.


The kind of experience an audience has of Hamlet in its large movements is duplicated—and more easily demonstrated—in the microcosm of its responses to brief passages. For example, the act of following the exchange initiated by Polonius' "What do you read, my Lord?" in II.ii is similar to the larger experience of coping with the whole career of Hamlet's madness:

Polonius. . . . What do you read, my Lord?

Hamlet. Words, words, words.

Polonius. What is the matter, my lord? Hamlet. Between who?

Polonius. I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet. Slanders, sir, for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am if, like a crab, you could go backward.

Polonius. [aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't. . . .


The audience is full partner in the first two of Hamlet's comically absolute answers. The first answer is not what the questioner expects, and we laugh at the mental inflexibility that makes Polonius prey to frustration in an answer that takes the question literally rather than as it is customarily meant in similar contexts. In his first question Polonius assumes that what he says will have meaning only within the range appropriate to the context in which he speaks. In his second he acts to limit the frame of reference of the first question, but, because "What is the matter?" is a standard idiom in another context, it further widens the range of reasonable but unexpected understanding. On his third try Polonius achieves a question whose range is as limited as his meaning. The audience—composed of smug initiates in Hamlet's masquerade and companions in his cleverness—expects to revel further in the comic revelation of Polonius' limitations. Hamlet's answer begins by letting us laugh at the discomfiture inherent for Polonius in a list of "slanders" of old men. Because of its usual applications, the word "slander" suggests that what is so labeled is not only painful but untrue. Part of the joke here is that these slanders are true. When Hamlet finishes his list, he seems about to continue in the same vein and to demonstrate his madness by saying something like "All which, sir, though . . . , yet are lies." Instead, a syntactical machine ("though . . . yet"), rhetorical emphasis ("powerfully and potently"), and diction ("believe") suitable for the expected denial are used to admit the truth of the slanders: "All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for you yourself, sir. . . ." The speech seems to have given up comic play on objection to slanders on grounds of untruth, and to be about to play from an understanding of "slander" as injurious whether true or not. The syntax of "I hold it not honesty . . . , for" signals that a reason for Hamlet's objections will follow, and—in a context where the relevance of the slanders to Polonius gives pain enough to justify suppression of geriatric commonplaces—"for you yourself, sir" signals the probable general direction of the explanation. So far the audience has followed Hamlet's wit without difficulty from one focus to another, but now the bottom falls out from under the audience's own Polonian assumption, in this case the assumption that Hamlet will pretend madness according to pattern: "for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am if, like a crab, you could go backward." This last is exactly the opposite of what Polonius calls it, this is madness without method.

The audience finds itself trying to hear sense in madness; it suddenly undergoes experience of the fact that Polonius' assumptions about cause and effect in life and language are no more arbitrary and vulnerable than its own. The audience has been where it has known that the idea of sanity is insane, but it is there very briefly; it feels momentarily lonely and lost—as it feels when it has failed to get a joke or when a joke has failed to be funny. The play continues blandly across the gulf. Polonius' comment reflects comically on the effects on him of the general subject of old age; the banter between Hamlet and Polonius picks up again; and Polonius continues his self-confident diagnostic asides to the audience. Moreover, the discussion of Hamlet's reading is enclosed by two passages that have strong nonlogical, nonsignificant likeness to one another in the incidental materials they share—breeding, childbearing, death, and walking:

Hamlet. For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?

Polonius. I have, my lord.

Hamlet. Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to't.

Polonius. [aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first. 'A said I was a fishmonger. 'A is far gone, far gone. And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this. I'll speak to him again.—What do you read, my lord?

(II.ii. l81-90)

Polonius. [aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.—Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

Hamlet. Into my grave?

Polonius. Indeed, that's out of the air.[aside] How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. . . .


From beginning to end, in all sizes and kinds of materials, the play offers its audience an actual and continuing experience of perceiving a multitude of intense relationships in an equal multitude of different systems of coherence, systems not subordinated to one another in a hierarchy of relative power. The way to an answer to "What is so good about Hamlet?" may be in an answer to the same question about its most famous part, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

The soliloquy sets out with ostentatious deliberation, rationality, and precision. Hamlet fixes and limits his subject with authority and—considering that his carefully defined subject takes in everything humanly conceivable—with remarkable confidence: "To be, or not to be—that is the question." He then restates and further defines the question in four lines that echo the physical proportions of "To be or not to be" (two lines on the positive, two on the negative) and also echo the previous grammatical construction ("to suffer . . . or to take arms"):

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them.


The speech is determinedly methodical about defining a pair of alternatives that should be as easily distinguishable as any pair imaginable; surely being and not being are distinct from one another. The next sentence continues the pattern of infinitives, but it develops the idea of "not to be" instead of continuing the positivenegative alternation followed before:

To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.


As an audience listens to and comprehends the three units "To die," "to sleep," and "No more," some intellectual uneasiness should impinge upon it. "To sleep" is in apposition to "to die," and their equation is usual and perfectly reasonable. However, death and sleep are also a traditional type of unlikeness; they could as well restate "to be or not to be" (to sleep or to die) as "not to be" alone. Moreover, since to die is to sleep, and is also to sleep no more, no vocal emphasis or no amount of editorial punctuation will limit the relationship between "to sleep" and "no more." Thus, when "and by a sleep to say we end . . ." reasserts the metaphoric equation of death and sleep, the listener feels a sudden and belated need to have heard "no more" as the isolated summary statement attempted by the punctuation of modern texts. What is happening here is that the apparently sure distinction between "to be" and "not to be" is becoming less and less easy to maintain. The process began even in the methodically precise first sentence where passivity to death-dealing slings and arrows described "to be," and the positive aggressive action of taking arms described the negative state, "not to be." Even earlier, the listener experienced a substantially irrelevant instability of relationship when "in the mind" attached first to "nobler," indicating the sphere of the nobility, and then to "suffer," indicating the sphere of the suffering: "nobler in the mind to suffer."

"The thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to" further denies the simplicity of the initial alternatives by opening the mind of the listener to considerations excluded by the isolated question whether it is more pleasant to live or to die; the substance of the phrase is a summary of the pains of life, but its particulars introduce the idea of duty. "Heir" is particularly relevant to the relationship and duty of Hamlet to his father; it also implies a continuation of conditions from generation to generation that is generally antithetical to any assumption of finality in death. The diction of the phrase also carries with it a suggestion of the Christian context in which flesh is heir to the punishment of Adam; the specifically religious word "devoutly" in the next sentence opens the idea of suicide to the Christian ethic from which the narrowed limits of the first sentences had briefly freed it.

While the logical limits and controls of the speech are falling away, its illogical patterns are giving it their own coherence. For example, the constancy of the infinitive construction maintains an impression that the speech is proceeding as methodically as it began; the word "to," in its infinitive use and otherwise, appears thirteen times among the eighty-five words in the first ten lines of the soliloquy. At the same time that the listener is having trouble comprehending the successive contradictions of "To die, to sleep—/ No more—and by a sleep to say we end . . . ," he also hears at the moment of crisis a confirming echo of the first three syllables and the word "end" from "and by opposing end them" in the first three syllables and word "end" in "and by a sleep to say we end." As the speech goes on, as it loses more and more of its rational precision, and as "to be" and "not to be" become less and less distinguishable, rhetorical coherence continues in force. The next movement of the speech begins with a direct repetition, in the same metrical position in the line, of the words with which the previous movement began: "To die, to sleep." The new movement seems, as each new movement has seemed, to introduce a restatement of what has gone before; the rhetorical construction of the speech insists that all the speech does is make the distinct natures of "to be" and "not to be" clearer and clearer:

To die, to sleep— To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause. There's the respect That makes calamity of so long life.


As Hamlet describes his increasing difficulty in seeing death as the simple opposite of life, the manner of his description gives his listener an actual experience of that difficulty; "shuffled off this mortal coil" says "cast off the turmoil of this life," but "shuffled of f and "coil" both suggest the rejuvenation of a snake which, having once thrown her enamell'd skin, reveals another just like it underneath. The listener also continues to have difficulty with the simple action of understanding; like the nature of the things discussed, the natures of the sentences change as they are perceived: "what dreams may come" is a common construction for a question, and the line that follows sounds like a subordinate continuation of the question; it is not until we hear "must give us pause" that we discover that "what dreams may come" is a noun phrase, the subject of a declarative sentence that only comes into being with the late appearance of an unexpected verb. In the next sentence ("There's the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life"), logic requires that we understand "makes calamity so long-lived," but our habitual understanding of makes . . . of constructions and our recent indoctrination in the pains of life make us likely to hear the contradictory, illogical, and yet appropriate "makes a long life a calamity."

Again, however, the lines sound ordered and reasonable. The rejected first impressions I have just described are immediately followed by a real question, and one that is largely an insistently long list of things that make life a monotonously painful series of calamities. Moreover, nonlogical coherence is provided by the quiet and intricate harmony of "to dream," "of death," and "shuffled of f in the metrical centers of three successive lines; by the echo of the solidly metaphoric "there's the rub" in the vague "there's the respect"; and by the repetition of "for" from "For in that sleep" to begin the next section of the speech.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th' unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of?


Although the list in the first question is disjointed and rhythmically frantic, the impression of disorder is countered by the regularity of the definite article, and by the inherently conjunctive action of six possessives. The possessives in 's, the possessives in of and the several nonpossessive of constructions are themselves an underlying pattern of simultaneous likeness and difference. So is the illogical pattern present in the idea of burdens, the word "bear," and the word "bare." The line in which the first of these questions ends and the second begins is an epitome of the construction and action of the speech: "With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,. . . ." The two precisely equal halves of a single rhythmic unit hold together two separate syntactical units. The beginning of the new sentence, "Who would fardels bear," echoes both the beginning, "For who would bear," and the sound of one word, "bare," from the end of the old. Moreover, "bare" and "bear," two words that are both the same and different, participate here in statements of the two undistinguishable alternatives: "to be, or not to be"—to bear fardels, or to kill oneself with a bare bodkin.

The end of the speech sounds like the rationally achieved conclusion of just such a rational investigation as Hamlet began. It begins with thus, the sign of logical conclusion, and it gains a sound of inevitable truth and triumphant clarity from the incremental repetition of and at the beginning of every other line. The last lines are relevant to Hamlet's behavior in the play at large and therefore have an additional sound of Tightness here. Not only are the lines broadly appropriate to the play, the audience's understanding of them is typical of its understanding throughout the play and of its understanding of the previous particulars of this speech: Hamlet has hesitated to kill Claudius. Consideration of suicide has seemed a symptom of that hesitancy. Here the particular from which Hamlet's conclusions about his inability to act derive is his hesitancy to commit suicide. The audience hears those conclusions in the context of his failure to take the action that suicide would avoid.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.


These last lines are accidentally a compendium of phrases descriptive of the action of the speech and the process of hearing it. The speech puzzles the will, but it makes us capable of facing and bearing puzzlement. The "To be or not to be" soliloquy is a type of the over-all action of Hamlet. In addition, a soliloquy in which being and its opposite are indistinguishable is peculiarly appropriate to a play otherwise full of easily distinguishable pairs that are not easily distinguished from one another by characters or audience or both: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; the pictures of Gertrude's two husbands (III.iv.54-68); the hawk and the handsaw (II.ii.370); and father and mother who are one flesh and so undistinguished in Hamlet's farewell to Claudius (IV.iii.48-51). The soliloquy is above all typical of a play whose last moments enable its audience to look unblinking upon a situation in which Hamlet, the finally successful revenger, is the object of Laertes' revenge; a situation in which Laertes, Hamlet's victim, victimizes Hamlet; a situation in which Fortinbras, the threat to Denmark's future in scene one, is its hope for political salvation; in short, a situation in which any identity can be indistinguishable from its opposite. The soliloquy, the last scene, the first scene, the play—each and together—make an impossible coherence of truths that are both undeniably incompatible and undeniably coexistent.


The kind of criticism I am doing here may be offensive to readers conditioned to think of revelation as the value of literature and the purpose of criticism. The things I have said about Hamlet may be made more easily palatable by the memory that illogical coherence—coherent madness—is a regular topic of various characters who listen to Hamlet and Ophelia. In the Reynaldo scene (II.i) and Hamlet's first talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the power of rhetoric and context to make a particular either good or bad at will is also a topic in the play. So too is the perception of clouds which may in a moment look "like a camel indeed," and "like a weasel" and be "very like a whale" (III.ii.361-67).

What I am doing may seem antipoetical; it should not. On the contrary, the effects I have described in Hamlet are of the same general kind as the nonsignificant coherences made by rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and others of the standard devices of prosody. For example, the physics of the relationship among Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, and Pyrrhus, the four avenging sons in Hamlet, are in their own scale and substance the same as those of the relationship among cat, rat, bat, and chat. The theme of suicide, for all the inconstancy of its fluid moral and emotional value, is a constant and unifying factor in the play. So too is the theme of appearance and reality, deceit, pretense, disguise, acting, seeming, and cosmetics which gives the play coherence even though its values are as many as its guises and labels. The analogy of rhyme or of a pair of like-metered lines applies profitably to the nonsignifying relationship between Hamlet's two interviews with women. Both the nunnery scene with Ophelia and the closet scene with Gertrude are stage-managed and overlooked by Polonius; neither lady understands Hamlet; both are amazed by his intensity; in both scenes Hamlet makes a series of abortive departures before his final exit. There is a similar kind of insignificant likeness in numerous repeated patterns of scenes and situations like that of Hamlet's entrance reading in II.ii and its echo in Ophelia's show of devotional reading in III.i. Indeed, the same sort of thing can be said about any of the themes and images whose value critics have tried to convert to significance.

The tools of prosody and the phenomena I have talked about show their similarity well when they cooperate in Hamlet's little poem on perception and truth, a poem that is a model of the experience of the whole play. Polonius reads it to the king and queen:

Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.


I suggest that the pleasure of intellectual possession evoked by perception of the likeness and difference of "fire" and "liar" and of "move" and "love," or among the four metrically like and unlike lines, or between the three positive clauses and the one negative one, or between "stars" and "sun" or "truth" and "liar" is of the same kind as the greater achievement of intellectual mastery of the greater challenge presented by "doubt" in the first three lines. The first two doubts demand disbelief of two things that common sense cannot but believe. The third, whose likeness to the first two is insisted upon by anaphora, is made unlike them by the words that follow it: disbelief that truth is a liar is a logical necessity; therefore, "doubt" here must mean "believe" or "incline to believe" as it does earlier in this scene (1. 56) and several other times in the play. To be consistent with the pair of hyperbolic impossibilities to which it is coupled, and to fit the standard rhetorical formula (Doubt what cannot be doubted, but do not doubt . . . ) in which it appears, "Doubt truth to be a liar" must be understood in a way inconsistent with another pattern of the poem, the previously established meaning of "doubt." Even the first two lines, which seem to fit the hyperbolic formula so well, may make the poem additionally dizzying because their subject matter could remind a Renaissance listener (once disturbed by the reversal of the meaning of the third "doubt") of doubts cast upon common-sense impressions by still recent astronomical discoveries, notably that the diurnal motion of the sun is an illusion.

The urgent rhetorical coherence of the poem is like that of the play. As the multitude of insistent and overlapping systems of coherence in the poem allows its listener to hold the two contradictory meanings of "doubt" in colloid-like suspension and to experience both the actions "doubt" describes, so in the play at large an alliteration of subjects—a sort of rhythm of ideas whose substance may or may not inform the situation dramatized—gives shape and identity, nonphysical substance, to the play that contains the situation. Such a container allows Shakespeare to replace conclusion with inclusion; it provides a particular and temporary context that overcomes the intellectual terror ordinarily inherent in looking at an action in all the value systems it invades. Such a container provides a sense of order and limitation sufficient to replace the comforting boundaries of carefully isolated frames of reference; it makes its audience capable of contemplating more truth than the mind should be able to bear.

In summary I would say that the thing about Hamlet that has put Western man into a panic to explain it is not that the play is incoherent, but that it is coherent. There are plenty of incoherent plays; nobody ever looks at them twice. This one, because it obviously makes sense and because it just as obviously cannot be made sense of, threatens our inevitable working assumption that there are no "more things in earth" than can be understood in one philosophy. People see Hamlet and tolerate inconsistencies that it does not seem they could bear. Students of the play have explained that such people do not, in fact, find the play bearable at all. They therefore whittle the play down for us to the size of one of its terms, and deny the others. Truth is bigger than any one system for knowing it, and Hamlet is bigger than any of the frames of reference it inhabits. Hamlet allows us to comprehend—hold on to—all the contradictions it contains. Hamlet refuses to cradle its audience's mind in a closed generic framework, or otherwise limit the ideological context of its actions. In Hamlet the mind is cradled in nothing more than the fabric of the play. The superior strength and value of that fabric is in the sense it gives that it is unlimited in its range, and that its audience is not only sufficient to comprehend but is in the act of achieving total comprehension of all the perceptions to which its mind can open. The source of the strength is in a rhetorical economy that allows the audience to perform both of the basic actions of the mind upon almost every conjunction of elements in the course of the play: it perceives strong likeness, and it perceives strong difference. Every intellectual conjunction is also a disjunction, and any two things that pull apart contain qualities that are simultaneously the means of uniting them.

Philip Edwards (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "The Play and the Critics," "The Action of the Play," and "Hamlet and the Actors," in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, edited by Philip Edwards, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 32-61.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards surveys important critical interpretations of Hamlet and offers his own critical review of the play's events, characters, and themes.]

The Play and the Critics

It is probably safe to say that in the world's literature no single work has been so extensively written about as Hamlet Prince of Denmark. There are numerous histories, summaries and analyses of this great body of criticism, or parts of it, and numerous anthologies give selections from it. . . . What follows here is not an attempt to provide, even in the most summary form, a history of Hamlet criticism. It is a personal graph, linking together some moments in the history of the interpretation of Hamlet which I find important. It provides a starting point for the critical essay which follows. . . .

The eighteenth century was not disposed to sentimentalise Hamlet. Dr Johnson (1765) spoke of the 'useless and wanton cruelty' of his treatment of Ophelia, and of the speech in the prayer scene, when Hamlet refrains from killing Claudius for fear he will go to heaven, he said it was 'too horrible to be read or to be uttered'. The reader or the audience has a right to expect the 'poetical justice' of the punishment of Claudius, but this expectation is thwarted by the death of Ophelia, and the death of Hamlet as the price of killing the king. Hamlet indeed is 'rather an instrument than an agent', and 'makes no attempt to punish' Claudius after he has confirmation of his guilt. Johnson's brief remarks convey his strong sense of Hamlet's failure (and the weakness seems to him as much the author's as the prince's). 'The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose' (NV 11, 145-6).

George Steevens (1778) was strongly and unfavourably impressed by Hamlet's violence and callousness; he said it was the more necessary 'to point out the immoral tendency of his character' 'because Hamlet seems to have been hitherto regarded as a hero not undeserving the pity of the audience' (NV 11, 147). But for Henry Mackenzie (1780) Hamlet was a man of exquisite sensibility and virtue 'placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct'. Hamlet was not perfect, but from our compassion and anxiety concerning him arises that 'indescribable charm . . . which attracts every reader and every spectator' (NV 11, 148). This is very much the tone of Goethe's famous comments in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-6; translated into English by Carlyle, 1812). Hamlet essentially is a story of the inadequacy and impotence of sensitivity in the face of the stern demands of action. An oak tree has been planted in a precious vase fitted to receive beautiful flowers; as the tree's roots spread out the vase is shattered in pieces. 'A beautiful, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off; every duty is holy to him,—this too hard.' Much less often quoted are some later remarks which show how completely off the mark Rebecca West was in The Court and the Castle (1958, pp. 64-5) in supposing that Goethe was impatient with Hamlet for not saving himself by effort and action, and in associating Goethe with the 'pelagianism' of believing that the world offers its rewards to those who really try. Quite the reverse; Goethe says that poets and historians flatter us by pretending that man's proud lot may be the single-minded accomplishment of great purposes. 'In Hamlet we are taught otherwise.' Purgatory is shown to have no power to bring about what it wishes and nor has man. Inscrutable Fate has its way, toppling the bad with the good, mowing down one race as the next springs up. Hamlet's impotence, therefore, is only an extreme form of a powerlessness general to mankind (NV 11, 273-4).

The impotence of Hamlet as understood by Coleridge (1808-12) is quite different. His Hamlet is not a man broken under the weight of too demanding an obligation, but a man incapable of acting. 'Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth, that action is the chief end of existence.' Hamlet knows perfectly well what he ought to do, and he is always promising to do it, but he is constitutionally averse to action, and his energy evaporates in self-reproach. The world of the mind was more real than the external world; his passion was for the indefinite. 'Hence great, enormous, intellectual activity, and a consequent proportionate aversion to real action.' Coleridge confessed that Τ have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.'1 The habit of identifying oneself with Hamlet, which is far from being as widespread as is sometimes supposed, is enshrined in the remark of Hazlitt (1817) that the speeches and sayings of Hamlet are 'as real as our own thoughts . . . It is we who are Hamlet' (NV 11, 155).

To return to Germany, where so much was contributed to the study of Hamlet, we reach a landmark with A. W. Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, delivered in 1808. Hamlet is a 'tragedy of thought' (Gedankentrauerspiel). This 'thought' is not Coleridge's habit-of-contemplation, inevitably inhibiting action, but a profound scepticism which questions the value of action. Here, powerfully, is Hamlet the doubter, and not the amiable dreamer: a restless sceptic of uncertain principles.

Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or in anything else: from expressions of religious confidence he passes over to religious doubt . . . The stars themselves, from the course of events, afford no answer to the questions so urgently proposed to them. A voice, commissioned as it would appear by Heaven from another world, demands vengeance for a monstrous enormity, and the demand remains without effect. The criminals are at last punished, but, as it were, by an accidental blow . . . The less guilty or the innocent are equally involved in the general destruction.

(NV II, 279-80)

It was left for Herman Ulrici (1839) to focus Hamlet's doubts on an area which had attracted little discussion, the morality of revenge. Ulrici's work has been neglected because Bradley was so dismissive of the 'conscience theory'. 'Even though the King were trebly a fratricide,' wrote Ulrici, 'in a Christian sense it would still be a sin to put him to death with one's own hand, without a trial and without justice.' Of the Ghost he says, 'it cannot be a pure and heavenly spirit that wanders on earth to stimulate his son to avenge his murder'. In Hamlet, therefore, the Christian struggles with the natural man. It is his task to make the action imposed on him one that he can undertake freely and by conviction as a moral action. His 'regard for the eternal salvation of his soul . . . forces him to halt and consider'. However, he is betrayed less by his vindictive impulses than by his own creative energy in trying to 'shape at pleasure the general course of things'. He thus rejects the guiding hand of God, and his aspiration to be a kind of god himself is a sinful overestimate of human power. Here, I think for the first time, is the view that Hamlet errs in trying to act as Providence, a view which has been considerably developed in the twentieth century.2

Almost every writer and thinker of the later nineteenth century had his say about Hamlet. Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) found that Hamlet 'speaks more superficially than he acts'; there is something deeper going on in the play than finds appropriate expression in the speeches. It is with Hamlet as with Greek tragedy—'the myth . . . never finds an adequate objective correlative in the spoken word'.3 At this level deeper than speech, Nietzsche saw Hamlet as an example of Dionysiac man who has pierced through the illusions by which we live and sustain ourselves and who, if forced back into 'quotidian reality', views it with detestation.

Dionysiac man might be said to resemble Hamlet; both have looked into the true nature of things; they have understood and are now loth to act. They realise that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things, and they regard the imputation as ludicrous or debasing that they should set right the time which is now out of joint. Understanding kills action, for in order to act we require the veil of illusion; such is Hamlet's doctrine, not to be confounded with the cheap wisdom of John-a-Dreams, who through too much reflection, as it were a surplus of possibilities, never arrives at action.

(section 7; p. 51)

In this last sentence Nietzsche dismisses the Coleridgean contemplator. It is not reflection but understanding which debars action: 'the apprehension of truth and its terror'. 'The truth once seen, man is aware everywhere of the ghastly absurdity of existence, comprehends the symbolism of Ophelia's fate and the wisdom of the wood sprite Silenus: nausea invades him' (pp. 51-2). (Silenus thought it was better not to be born at all or, failing that, to die as soon as possible.) Hamlet is not fixed enough in his nature for Nietzsche's portrait to have general applicability, but, as I shall argue, Nietzsche's words are a profound comment on the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy.

The observations of Stéphane Mallarmé on Hamlet first became widely known from Joyce's use of them in Ulysses (1922). In 1886, Mallarmé wrote of the tentativeness of Hamlet as a person (le seigneur latent qui ne peut devenir), and of his failure to translate potentiality into achievement, as being the very stuff of drama, which primarily concerns itself with the quarrel between men's dreams and the calamities of fortune. Mallarmé stressed Hamlet's solitariness, as an alien wherever he appeared.4 This emphasis was resumed in some remarkable lines in an article 'Hamlet et Fortinbras' in La Revue blanche in 1896.5 'He walks about, and the book he reads is himself (Il se promène . . . lisant au livre de lui-même). He denies others with his look. But it's not just the solitude of the contemplative man which is expressed. He is a killer. He kills without concern, and even if he does not do the killing—people die. 'The black presence of this doubter causes this poison.' (Il tue indifféremment ou, du moins, on meurt. La noire présence du douteur cause ce poison, que tous les personnages trépassent: sans même que lui prenne toujours la peine de les percer, dans la tapisserie.)

Mallarmé saw Hamlet by flashes, and the sinister figure whom he glimpsed seems as far removed as possible from the prince as he appears in A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy of 1904. Bradley's masterly work on Hamlet was the most considered and extended examination which the play had up to that time received. It stands as a kind of pillar at the end of the nineteenth century, reviewing and assessing what had gone before, the last and greatest statement of a prevailing view of Hamlet (though the preceding review indicates that it had already been undermined). It is a view of Hamlet as a noble and generous youth who for reasons inexplicable to himself is unable to carry out a deed of punishment enjoined on him by divine authority. What causes this paralysis? It is not conscience, it is not the immorality of revenge, it is not the frailty of his nature nor the fatal habit of contemplation. Hamlet procrastinates, Bradley argues, because his true nature is blanketed by the melancholy ensuing from the death of his father and his mother's remarriage. It is this affliction which inhibits the fulfilment of his purposes and makes him seek any excuse for delay.

Bradley's book as a whole was dismissive of the religious element in Shakespearean tragedy and Elizabethan drama as a whole (it was 'almost wholly secular', p. 25), but he saw Hamlet as something of an exception.

While Hamlet certainly cannot be called in the specific sense a 'religious drama', there is in it nevertheless both a freer use of popular religious ideas, and a more decided, though always imaginative, intimation of a supreme power concerned in human evil and good, than can be found in any other of Shakespeare's tragedies.

(p. 174)

It is because of the sense of Providence in the play that 'the apparent failure of Hamlet's life is not the ultimate truth concerning him'. The figure of the Ghost is 'a reminder or a symbol of the connexion of the limited world of ordinary experience with the vaster life of which it is but a partial appearance'. He 'affects imagination' not only as 'the apparition of a dead king who desires the accomplishment of his purposes' but as 'the messenger of divine justice'.

A, C. Bradley, like Edward Dowden (who contributed a notable edition of Hamlet to the old Arden series in 1899), was a professor in one of the departments of English Literature which were being created in universities new and old throughout the English-speaking world towards the end of the nineteenth century. The number of studies of Hamlet increased enormously as the academic study of English literature burgeoned. A great deal of attention was now given to the difficult problem of the text of the play; to its sources, to the relationship of the play with its predecessor; to its date; to the status of the first quarto; to the theatrical conventions of the revenge play; to theatre conditions and audience response; to contemporary history; to contemporary thinking about spirits, second marriages, melancholy, incest, elective monarchies, purgatory and punctuation. Yet it has to be said that with some notable exceptions like Bradley the academics have not always been the leaders of opinion on Hamlet, and the understanding of the play owes as much to writers and thinkers who were not professional scholars as to the scholars themselves. A good example of this is the influence of Freud, whose mere footnote on Hamlet's Oedipus complex in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 has had gigantic influence. Ernest Jones built on this in 1910 for the first of his several psychoanalytic studies of Hamlet, arguing that Hamlet's problems were caused by his unconscious wish to supplant his father and lie with his mother. Psychoanalytic explanations of Hamlet's delay lurk behind T. S. Eliot's lofty and capricious essay of 1919. 'The play is most certainly an artistic failure', because Shakespeare was unable to transform the intractable material he inherited from the old play and the sources into a vehicle or 'objective correlative' capable of conveying the issues and emotions which it strives to express. 'Nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.' Hamlet's emotions are 'in excess of the facts as they appear'. Shakespeare's failure lay in trying to convert a father-and-son play about revenge into a mother-and-son play about—something else. The reason he couldn't get it into shape was the extent of his own hang-ups. 'Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.'6

Eliot was a greater poet than John Masefield, but the essay on Hamlet which Masefield wrote as an introduction to the play in 1911 is more interesting and valuable than Eliot's better-known pages. Masefield saw Hamlet as the embodiment of a very special human wisdom caught between two opposing forces which were trying to complete themselves. The one force is seen in a murderous take-over of the kingdom; the other in a cry for revenge. A bloody purpose from outside life matches a bloody purpose within. Life has been wrenched from its course and an attempt has to be made to wrench it back, or it is to be allowed to continue on its new course. Hamlet's wisdom baffles both alternatives. The Ghost, representing 'something from outside life trying to get into life', presents Hamlet with a simple task—'All tasks are simple to the simple-minded.' The translation of this act into practical terms is 'a defilement' which it is 'difficult for a wise mind to justify'. But if Hamlet in a sense defeats both the principles which are presented to him, he is himself defeated by life. 'She destroys the man who wrenched her from her course, and the man who would neither wrench her back nor let her stay.'7

There is something in Masefield of Ulrici's theory that Hamlet could not take revenge unless he were able to metamorphose the barbaric act by coming to it with a voluntary inward motivation and equate it with Christian moral law. Masefield stressed the superiority of Hamlet's ethical principles to those of the Ghost, and the defilement that Hamlet is in danger of by an incautious obedience. This looks not only back to Ulrici but forward to what one might call the 'contamination theory' much in evidence in the mid twentieth century. This holds that Hamlet's chief perplexity is one of translation: of finding a way to convert the Ghost's injunction into action without being stained by the corruption of Denmark or becoming like the murderer whom he is to punish. Versions of this view can be found, for example, in Maynard Mack's well-known essay, 'The World of Hamlet' (1952),8 H. F. D. Kitto's Form and Meaning in Drama (1956), Harry Levin's The Question of Hamlet' (1959), G. K. Hunter's 'The Heroism of Hamlet' (1963),9 and Nigel Alexander's Poison, Play, and Duel (1967). Mack writes: 'The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt' (p. 103). Alexander writes: 'The certain proof supplied by the inner play does not solve the problem of Hamlet. The question remains, how does one deal with such a man without becoming like him?' (p. 125).

One of the most striking and important contributions during the first half of the twentieth century was George Wilson Knight's essay, 'The Embassy of Death' in The Wheel of Fire (1930). Although few people have expressed agreement with it, and though the author later retreated and modified his position, the essay swiftly and silently infused itself into the consciousness of literary criticism.10 Knight refused to accept Hamlet's jaundiced view of the Danish court. Denmark is a healthy and contented community with Claudius as its efficient and kindly administrator, sensibly not wishing to let memories of the past impede the promise of the future. By contrast, Hamlet is a figure of nihilism and death. He has been poisoned by his grief, and he has communed with the dead. He has been instructed never to let the past be forgotten. He is 'a sick soul . . . commanded to heal' and is in fact a poison in the veins of the community, 'an element of evil in the state of Denmark'. Knight strongly stressed Hamlet's apartness: 'inhuman—or superhuman . . . a creature of another world'. Neither side can understand the other. Claudius is a murderer and Hamlet of course has right on his side. But which of the two, he asked, 'is the embodiment of spiritual good, which of evil? The question of the relative morality of Hamlet and Claudius reflects the ultimate problem of this play.'

A balanced judgement [he continued] is forced to pronounce ultimately in favour of life as contrasted with death, for optimism and the healthily secondrate, rather than the nihilism of the superman: for he is not, as the plot shows, safe; and he is not safe, primarily because he is right.

(p. 40)

Prompt vengeance might have saved the day, but, in view of the disasters that Hamlet brings about, Knight's judgement was that 'Had Hamlet forgotten both the Ghost's commands [to remember the past and avenge the dead], it would have been well, since Claudius is a good king, and the Ghost but a minor spirit.' Claudius a good king, and the Ghost but a minor spirit—this is a deeply significant opposition for later criticism to digest. Having quoted Hamlet's words, 'The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil . . . ', Knight added 'It was.' Or at least, 'The Ghost may or may not have been a "goblin damned"; it certainly was no "spirit of health".'

Knight's essay seems to me brilliant and wrong. I have treated it at some length because a mass of criticism of the fifty years following can in some ways be considered as footnotes and codicils to it. Moreover, in setting up an opposition of an alienated, inhuman prophet and a smoothly running, kindly society, and opting for the latter, the essay vividly shows the alteration of the play's tragic balance which is so striking a feature of contemporary criticism.11 Although for a long time the orthodox interpretation of Hamlet as taught in schools and universities (in Britain at any rate) remained predominantly Bradleyan,12 it becomes harder to find critics who to any extent 'believe in' Hamlet and his mission. Extreme forms of distaste for the hero are to be seen in Salvador de Madariaga's On Hamlet (1948) and L. C. Knights's An Approach to Hamlet' (1960). Madariaga stressed Hamlet's cruelty, egocentricity and aristocratic disdain. Knights stressed Hamlet's immaturity and his lack of 'a ready responsiveness to life'.

Wilson Knight's essay presented the identity and the authority of the Ghost as a major point of debate. What the Elizabethans were likely to think on this matter became a primary issue for scholarship. John Dover Wilson, whose pioneering and indispensable research into the text of Hamlet had been published in 1934, included in his What Happens in 'Hamlet' of 1935 an early study of Elizabethan attitudes to ghosts. His conclusion that there were three degrees of scepticism, with Catholics being less sceptical than Protestants, has proved too much of a simplification. Later research is reviewed, and the investigation carried further, in Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge (1967). It is impossible to ignore, in considering Hamlet, the deep caution and scepticism with which Shakespeare's contemporaries, whether Catholic or Protestant, viewed ghosts and reports of ghosts. They might be hallucinations, or angels, or demons out to ensnare one's soul. That a ghost might be the soul of a dead person revisiting earth was a very remote possibility.13 Hamlet's early affirmation of the Ghost's genuineness has come to look more questionable than his later doubts, and the confidence of generations of critics, and hence of schoolchildren, that Hamlet's profession of scepticism in 2.2, with his plan to test the Ghost, is mere procrastination now seems insecurely founded. Not many would go as far as Eleanor Prosser in holding that the Ghost was a demon. But one of the important achievements of modern scholarship is to have unsettled the Ghost and made it impossible to accept his credentials and authority as a matter of course and without question. The ambiguity of the Ghost is not just Hamlet's problem. Much is to be built on Nigel Alexander's perception that Shakespeare's guardedness about the Ghost is an essential feature of the play: 'the nature of the Ghost is intended to be an open question'.14

Associated with the issue of the origin of the Ghost is the question of the morality of what he enjoins on Hamlet, revenge for murder. As we have seen, this question has been asked for a long time, since Ulrici at least. Scholarship has concerned itself for many years with what would have been the Elizabethan answer to the question. Massive evidence has been assembled that private vengeance was abhorrent to Elizabethans as anti-Christian and anti-social—and also that the Elizabethans were a pretty vindictive lot. Once again, Eleanor Prosser's book can be cited for its review of the debate. And once again her own position is at the extreme edge of the spectrum, namely that the donnée of the play is the conviction that revenge was evil in the extreme. It is best not to be too keen on certainties in this matter. The Elizabethan revenge-play, and Hamlet in particular, is concerned with exploration, not preachment. It devotes itself to the whole issue of the legitimacy of violence and the responsibility of the individual in pursuing justice, finding in the revenge convention an extraordinarily rich source of conflicts to exhibit and illuminate the many faces of violence and redress. To prejudge the plays by saying that for the Elizabethans revenge was of course evil or was of course acceptable is to defeat them completely—as completely as does the superior view that the whole revenge convention is barbarous and silly. Some of the best pages of the mid century on Hamlet arose from a sharp reaction against simplistic conclusions about Elizabethan attitudes to revenge. In The Business of Criticism, 1959, Helen Gardner wrote excellently of the division of mind that must exist for every thinking person in every age who tries to achieve justice without outrage to conscience.

I conclude this 'personal graph' of criticism with a look at the very small group of twentieth-century critics who have seen Hamlet as a religious play. Middleton Murry (Shakespeare, 1936) believed that Hamlet's fear of damnation was an immensely important factor in the play, overlooked by us because we provide Shakespeare's tragic heroes 'with every modern convenience' including our indifference to an after-life. E. M. W. Tillyard (Shakespeare's Problem Plays, 1950) wrote: 'In Hamlet if anywhere in Shakespeare we notice the genealogy from the Miracle Plays with their setting of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell . . . Hamlet is one of the most medieval as well as one of the most acutely modern of Shakespeare's plays' (p. 30). C. S. Lewis's British Academy Shakespeare Lecture of 1942, 'Hamlet: the prince or the poem?', was a curiously directed piece with a lot of shadow-boxing which seems quite unnecessary for the main argument. The particularity of Hamlet as a character was for him as unimportant as the particularity of revenge. Hamlet is 'not "a man who has to avenge his father" but "a man who has been given a task by a ghost'". The appearance of the Ghost 'means a breaking down of the walls of the world'. Chaos supervenes: 'doubt, uncertainty, bewilderment to almost any degree is what the ghost creates'. Hamlet goes through a spiritual region, traversed by most of us. Hamlet's phrase, 'such fellows as Γ (3.1.124) 'means men'—'and the vast empty vision of them "crawling between earth and heaven" is what really counts and really carries the burden of the play'. 'Its true hero is man—haunted man—man with his mind on the frontier of two worlds, man unable either quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural.'

The Action of the Play

The Platform

Hamlet opens with soldiers on guard at night in a scene full of perturbation and anxiety. It is nervousness about the apparition which predominates, of course, 'this thing', 'this dreaded sight', looking exactly like the late king in full armour. It is an ominous thing, and the sceptic Horatio, who is quickly converted, fears that it 'bodes some strange eruption to our state'. The state is already in turmoil, being hastily put on a war footing. Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to invade Denmark to recover lands which his father lost to the late King Hamlet a generation ago. Recollection of that old combat coming on top of the apparition focuses all attention on the dead king. The practice of calling the king by the name of his country enforces an identity between king and kingdom, the health of the one reflecting the health of the other, so that the old king's death seems to mark the end of an era. 'The king that's dead' is referred to as 'the majesty of buried Denmark'. Much later, the first words of the mad Ophelia are 'Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?' Even a routine cry like Bernardo's 'Long live the king!' in the third line of the play takes an additional meaning as we sense the apprehension of the watch for what may be the consequences for Denmark of the loss of their hero-king.

Hamlet is about Denmark as well as its prince. How Denmark fares as a society is in our minds all the time. But of course it's not just Hamlet and Denmark. Though Hamlet is at the centre of the play, he exists in his relationships, familial, social, sexual, political, divine; and even Hamlet, the most famous 'individual' in drama, is not so exclusively the centre that he diminishes the importance of what he is related to: family, society, God.

Since it is his threat to the kingdom which is the cause of the watch being set, young Fortinbras may be said to start the play off. In fact he encircles it, seeing that he enters at the very end to take over the kingdom without having to fight for it. Having so satisfactorily concluded his business, he will be able to give his 'landless resolutes' whatever they would like to have. Fortinbras succeeds where Hamlet fails, though Hamlet has been trying to right a great wrong and Fortinbras has been interested only in reversing the lawful outcome of his father's reckless challenge.

'I know not seems'

Prince Hamlet in black carries into the court (in 1.2) that memory of the dead king which Claudius and Gertrude are anxious to erase. His grief, he says, is real not assumed, unlike (he implies) the emotions being expressed around him. But the most determined candour could scarcely reveal in public what he pours out when he is alone: his feeling of total despair, of taedium vitae, of the weary meaninglessness of 'all the uses of this world'. He has no wish to continue living, but divine law forbids suicide. Why is all this? Because his father has suddenly died and his mother has speedily taken a new husband. Too slight a ground for despair? Hamlet's protestations are extreme. To call Claudius a satyr—a lecherous goat-like creature—does not make much sense to an audience who has just seen the new king efficiently managing his courtiers and the affairs of the nation. His mother's remarriage makes him call in question the constancy of all women. 'Hyperion to a satyr!' 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' Such passionate attachment to his father, such contempt for his uncle, such disgust with his mother, may seem pathological, what Eliot would call 'in excess of the facts'. Hamlet's indignation does indeed go deeper than the 'facts' but its source is not morbid.

The story of Cain and Abel is brought into the play during this scene (105) and appears again twice (3.3.38 and 5.1.65).1 That first murder shattered the human family; it resulted from and betokened man's falling away from God. The identification of Claudius with Cain—which he himself makes—gives us the context in which we should put the 'unreasonable' bitterness of Hamlet, though as yet he knows nothing about any murder. In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Girard argued that cultural breakdown in early society, what he terms the 'sacrificial crisis', involves the failure to recognise acknowledged distinctions and differences. The erasure of difference shows itself in myth in the mortal rivalry of two brothers for what cannot be shared, a throne, a woman. Girard quotes the 'degree' speech in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida as an inspired perception of the chaos and violence which flow from the weakening of accepted distinctions. If, instead of the reading 'each thing meets in mere oppugnancy', he had followed the quarto text with 'each thing melts in mere oppugnancy', he would have shown how even more forcefully the passage conveys the rooted fear of the loss of category, of identity, of distinctiveness.

The obliteration of distinction, before Hamlet knows anything about fratricide or adultery, lies in Claudius taking his brother's place as king and husband and in Gertrude tranquilly accepting him as substitute. Their acts may offend against taste and ethics but the deeper offence is the undermining of an ideal of the person enshrined in antiquity and law. Hamlet's expressions, 'Hyperion to a satyr' and 'no more like my father / Than I to Hercules', show a mythographic ordering of the human differences. So in the closet scene Hamlet tries to force the distinction of the two men on to his mother by means of the two pictures. 'Have you eyes?' he shouts at her—

See what a grace was seated on this brow; Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars, to threaten and command; A station like the herald Mercury . . .


This matter of the blurring of distinctions in a man claiming to be his brother helps to explain Hamlet's passion against Claudius as a usurper—

A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings, A cutpurse of the empire and the rule . . .


Denmark is an elective monarchy as Hamlet knows quite well (see 1.2.109, 5.2.65, 335).16 But Shakespeare plays off this elective monarchy against his Elizabethan audience's deep emotional commitment to primogeniture and the right of a son to inherit. The Danish system condemns itself; a country which chooses its kings ends up with the rabble-cry of 'Choose we! Laertes shall be king!' (4.5.106). It has chosen for its king one who, did they but know, organised the vacancy by murder. For the audience, the system is a legalism which runs counter to their instinctive sense of Tightness. There is a higher court than the court of Denmark, and in that court Hamlet is the dispossessed prince. Hamlet himself is both a Dane and an Elizabethan; whatever Danish law says, Claudius has usurped his brother, and violently appropriated a kingship he has no right to.

Gertrude's offence in confusing the two brothers is much deepened in the audience's eyes later in the first act when they learn that she committed adultery with Claudius while her husband was alive. (There is no mistaking the plain sense of the Ghost's words; 1.5.46.) The willingness of this complaisant woman to sleep with either of two brothers is a forceful image of the failure of discrimination which is central to the tragedy of Hamlet.

In this second scene Hamlet is unaware of adultery or murder. But he has repudiated with contempt the appropriation of that vital distinction of fatherhood which Claudius grandly tries to add to his other appropriations. 'But now my cousin Hamlet, and my son . . . ' Hamlet will not accept the relationship; it is 'more than kin'. He knows he is not Claudius's son, and the same knowledge tells him that Claudius is not Gertrude's husband, nor Denmark's king. It is this knowledge, as well as grief for a father's death and the shallowness of a mother's love, which makes the whole world an unweeded garden.

The Ghost

Hamlet is galvanised into activity by the news of the appearance of a ghost that resembles his dead father. On the platform that night he sees it and is determined to speak to it whatever happens. It is explanation he wants; explanation and a course of action. 'Let me not burst in ignorance', he cries. 'What should we do?' Though it is specific explanation—why the Ghost has come—and a specific course of action—what the Ghost wants him to do—that he seeks, his words have a wider perspective. The Ghost may have some secret, some unimaginable truth to bring relief from those 'thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls', an explanation why things are as they are and a directive for meaningful action. To his demands in both their specific and their general senses he receives, or thinks he receives, a more than sufficient response.

The Ghost declares that he is his father's spirit, gives him the extraordinary tidings of murder and adultery, and asks him to take revenge. His injunctions are summed up in the three imperatives, 'Bear it not', 'Taint not thy mind', 'Leave her to heaven.' These interconnect. 'Bear it not' looks both backwards and forwards. The idea of retribution is implied by the Ghost's appeal to Hamlet's 'nature', that is, his filial piety. 'Bear it not' means that as a son he is not to acquiesce in and accept what has been done to his father. But it looks also to the future. The abuse of Denmark by the very continuation of this pair in sovereignty and in marriage is not to be endured: 'Bear it not.' The second imperative is very strange: 'howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind'. Whatever the exact meaning of 'taint' . . . the tone of the remark is that the Ghost does not consider this matter of revenge too difficult an act, and is anxious that Hamlet should not become too disturbed about it. No doubt for the Ghost the challenge is like that which he accepted all those years ago when he agreed to face old Fortinbras in a single combat: a matter of honour, determination, courage and skill. The final injunction, 'Leave her to heaven', must temper our feeling of the Ghost's personal vindictiveness. It is more important, however, in giving a religious context to the punishment of Claudius and Gertrude. Gertrude's earthly punishment is to be her conscience: 'those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her'. Whatever further punishment or exoneration is hers to receive belongs to an after-life. With Claudius it is different. By his words 'Leave her to heaven', the Ghost must imply that a higher justice requires the exemplary punishment of Claudius on earth, by the hand of an appointed human being. The Ghost's commands indicate not the pursuit of personal satisfaction but the existence of a world beyond the human world responsible for justice in the human world. Whether the Ghost has the authority to convey this the play never makes clear.

Awful though it is, Hamlet now has his explanation. What had seemed the degeneration of the world turns out to be a condition which is clearly and starkly the consequence of a double crime. He now also has his directive, a commission that is also a mission. His reaction to the Ghost is like a religious conversion. He wipes away all previous knowledge, all previous values, and baptises himself as a new man (1.5.95-104).

And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmixed with baser matter.

The commandment is summed up by the Ghost as 'Remember!' 'Remember me', says the Ghost, and Hamlet repeats the word three times in his dedication. The Ghost is to be remembered 'whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe', that is to say so long as this now-disordered world attributes any value to the past and its traditions, to the established standards of virtue and justice. . . . In this speech, to remember means more than to keep in mind; it means to maintain and to restore. In the section 'Of Redemption' in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche deplored those who could not accept the 'It was' of time. He saw vengeance and punishment as an imprisonment of the will in concentrating on the past in an effort to undo what could not be undone. 'This, yea, this is very vengeance!—Will's abhorrence of time and its "It was".'17 It is quite clear that Hamlet is not prepared to accept the 'It was' of time, and that he regards revenge as a task of creative remembrance, that is, the restoration of a society that has fallen to pieces. The act ends with

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right.

This is a terrible moment as, all exhilaration gone, he faces the burden of his responsibilities. But who has told him that it is his responsibility to put the world to rights? to restore the disjointed frame of things to its true shape? No one but himself. It is the entirely self-imposed burden of cleansing the world that he now groans under.

The Antic Disposition

'As a stranger give it welcome', says Hamlet to Horatio about the supernatural visitation.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

He identifies himself with the world of the stranger, and shows his alienation from Denmark and its values by adopting the garb of madness. The 'antic disposition' (an essential element in the old Amleth story) puzzles and worries the man who is now his enemy and sworn victim; it also has symbolic significance in denoting that Hamlet, like Bunyan's Christian, having received his call, considers himself a pilgrim and a stranger in his own city of Vanity Fair. Madness is conduct which does not conform to society's standards. Very well, says Hamlet, I am a madman.18

Shakespeare carefully marks a considerable lapse of time between Acts 1 and 2. . . . The first event in Hamlet's mission that we hear about is his silent ritual of divorce from Ophelia. Ophelia's tragedy, like Hamlet's, is the tragedy of obedience to a father. Only she really goes mad. And then—always going one step further than the prince—she doesn't stop at thinking about ending her life. At this stage in the play, she has obeyed her father and refused to see Hamlet. She now tells Polonius of the very peculiar encounter she has had with him. Hamlet, in a set piece of antic theatre, went dishevelled to her room and in total silence carried out what we might interpret as a ceremony of questioning, denunciation and separation. By this, he cuts the closest tie that binds him to the court of Denmark, and takes his school-fellow Horatio as his only confidant.

What are the values of 'Denmark' as we are shown them? The court party, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, are much given to expressing their beliefs in resonant platitudes. Claudius knows the proper response to death, Laertes to sex, Polonius to everything. With each person, we see the insufficiency of their moralising. What Claudius is hiding we learn in 1.5 (though it is not confirmed until 3.1.50), and he is hiding it even from his new wife, who in turn tried to hide her double-life from her husband. Laertes is suspected by both his sister and his father of an inclination towards the primrose path of dalliance. Polonius advocates reticence, truth and straightdealing, but is loquacious and devious. It is the ever-ready platitudes, betrayed both by their rhetoric and by the conduct of those who utter them, that Hamlet discards as mere 'saws of books' as he enters his new life. It is interesting that the heavy moralising of the court party accompanies a low view of human nature. Polonius and Laertes both expect Hamlet to be the insouciant seducer that is their stereotype of an aristocrat. (Hamlet, on the other hand, is an 'idealist', expecting mothers to be above sexual desire.) Polonius's proclivity for spying—which leads to his own violent death—is shown in the grotesque commission to Reynaldo to keep an eye on Laertes in Paris and then in his schemes to find out what's wrong with Hamlet. Claudius has much greater need than Polonius to find out what lies behind Hamlet's strange behaviour; his elaborate plot to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as decoys is quickly uncovered by Hamlet.

What Hamlet is really thinking about during the long scene 2.2 is impossible to say. Everything he says to Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has its irony, and if his hearers do not know when he is being sane and serious, nor do we. When he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is 'most dreadfully attended. (255) he is not really talking about his servants. He may have the Ghost in mind, but chiefly he must mean his own thoughts. We are sure enough of him when he says he finds Denmark a prison. And with that extraordinary end to his joke about Polonius taking his leave—'except my life, except my life, except my life'—we must feel the warning note that the taedium vitae which lifted from him when the Ghost spoke is descending again and that the ultimate dilemma of 'To be or not to be' is at hand.

What we should discount as an index of Hamlet's feelings is the famous speech 'What a piece of work is a man' (286-91). So often pointed to as a brilliant perception of the anguish of Renaissance man in general and of Hamlet in particular, it is a glorious blind, a flight of rhetoric by which a divided and distressed soul conceals the true nature of his distress and substitutes a formal and conventional state of Weltschmerz. At the end of it he punctures the rhetoric himself.

Rogue and Peasant Slave

We are often reminded that Pyrrhus is, with Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras, another son avenging the slaying of his father (Achilles). But Hamlet swings into the rant of his second soliloquy not in any desire to emulate the cruel fury of Pyrrhus but out of shame that an actor's emotion for Pyrrhus's victim, Hecuba, should outdo his own emotion for Claudius's victim, his father. He has done nothing—it is true enough. But the effect of the eloquence of the old play and the actor's moving performance is to make him confuse doing with exhibition. His outburst is violent but essentially comic. His guilt runs away with him. Feeling that if he were a proper avenger he would exhibit a huge amount of passion he lets go a mammoth display of self-accusation and rage, culminating in a great stage-cry, Ό vengeance!'

With this, he becomes ashamed of his hysterical attitudinising and rebukes himself for unpacking his heart with words. He turns from rant to action. What has to be done? The idea of using the players to test the Ghost's veracity was in his mind before he fell 'acursing like a very drab' (see 2.2.493-5). Hamlet had approached the Ghost knowing it might be either a demon from hell or a spirit from heaven. Perhaps he accepted it as an 'honest ghost' with too little question. That he should test the Ghost's account before he proceeds to take the king's life is the most obvious precaution. He says all that needs to be said on this subject (551-5). The Ghost could be a spirit from hell taking advantage of his distress to lure him into an act that will damn his soul.

That Hamlet in deciding to use the test of a play is guilty of procrastination is scarcely tenable. . . . Procrastination means putting off until tomorrow what you know ought to be done today. Hamlet is indeed a tragedy of delay, but procrastination is only one special form of delay. At least part of the reason for his delay so far must be Hamlet's fear that he is being deluded by the devil into imperilling the life of Claudius and the fate of his own soul.

'To be or not to be'

Act 3 begins next day, the day that the court play is to be given. But even if we are aware of this lapse of time since Hamlet decided to use a play to test the king, it is a shock to us to find Hamlet speaking as he does, for the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy throws everything back into debate.

What is the question, 'to be or not to be'? All sorts of answers have been given. I can't doubt that Hamlet is asking whether one should go on living or whether one should take one's life. He is back in the depression of the first soliloquy, longing for the oblivion of death. But now the question whether life is worthwhile has much more knowledge and experience to take account of and brood over, and it assumes an entirely new significance. It is extraordinary that, at this moment in the play, the soliloquy should seem so indifferent to the immediate problem of killing the king. Implicitly the issue is there all the time, but never explicitly. The reason for that is that killing the king has become part of a much wider debate.

To be or not to be, that is the question— Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep— No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished.

The question is which of two courses is the nobler. The first alternative is 'to be', to go on living, and this is a matter of endurance, of contriving to accept the continuous punishing hostility of life. The second alternative is 'not to be', to take one's life, and this is described as ending a sea of troubles by taking arms against it. There is only the one opposition to be made against the sea of troubles (which is the definition of our life) and that is the constructive act of suicide. Suicide is the one way in which fighting against the ungovernable tide—that mythical symbol of hopeless endeavour—can succeed.

If we accept that Hamlet's alternative in these opening lines is the course of enduring or the course of evading life's onslaught, there is an important consequence. The life that has to be suffered or evaded is described as a continuous, permanent condition of misfortune, and must therefore include the state of the world even after vengeance has been taken and Claudius killed—supposing that to happen. The whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong—there is no indication that these can ever disappear from the world, except by disappearing from the world oneself. By his stark alternative in these opening lines Hamlet implicitly rejects the possibility that any act of his could improve the condition of the world or the condition of its victims. Revenge is of no avail. Whether Hamlet kills the king or not, Denmark will continue to be a prison, a place of suffering ruled by fortune. The only nobleness which is available if one goes on living is not the cleansing of the world by some great holy deed, but endurance, suffering in the mind.

But, as the soliloquy proceeds, the one positive act available to man, suicide, has to be ruled out. The sleep of death becomes a nightmare, because of the dread of damnation. What began as a question which was more noble ends as a contest in cowardliness. What is one the more afraid of, the possibility of damnation or the certainty of suffering on earth?

And so we do nothing, frightened to take the one route out of our misery. 'Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.' 'Conscience' means what it normally means, what it means when Claudius uses it just before this (50) and when Hamlet uses it in the previous scene (2.2.558); that is to say, it has its religious meaning of an implanted sense of right and wrong. It is with this reflection that Hamlet moves away from suicide; it is with this 'regard'—this examination of the consequences of things and worrying about how they look in the eye of eternity—that other 'enterprises of great pitch and moment' lose the name of action. Hamlet must be thinking about killing Claudius. So, although only by inference and indirectly, Hamlet twice refers to his revenge in this soliloquy. On the first occasion we gather that he no longer has any faith that killing the king would be a cleansing act setting the world to rights; on the second, we gather that his resolution to exact revenge has been 'sicklied o'er' by respects of conscience. His conscience cannot convince him that the act is good; and, whether good or bad, it cannot change the world. We are condemned to unhappiness and to inactivity. Although this speech represents a trough of despair into which we don't see Hamlet fall again, the whole of the rest of the play is coloured by the extreme pessimism of this soliloquy.

It certainly affects his behaviour to Ophelia in the painful, cruel interview which now follows. All he says is backed by a loathing of the world, a loathing of himself, and a loathing of sex. It is hard for Ophelia that she should be in his way just at this moment, to trigger off an eruption of anger and disgust. At the same time, we realise that Hamlet sees his victim as life's victim. Her innocence cannot survive; she is unavoidably subject to the contagion of living; she will be corrupted by men as inevitably as, being a woman, she will corrupt them. When he says she should go to a nunnery, he means a nunnery. Only if she is locked up in perpetual virginity can she be saved. And there will be no more marriage. Hamlet begins to work at a new way of saving mankind—sexual abstinence.

Although I believe that Hamlet is primarily a religious play, and that Hamlet perpetually sees himself in a relationship with heaven and hell, yet it is noticeable that Hamlet voices very few really Christian sentiments—as contrasted with both Claudius and Ophelia. Only once, and then in his usual ironic manner, does he talk of praying (1.5.132). It is in this scene of cruelty to Ophelia, if anywhere, that behind the restless, unending teasing and taunting we might feel Hamlet's strong sense of his personal unworthiness and need of assistance. 'What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?'

Play, Prayer, Murder

Hamlet is not content to let his 'mousetrap' play on the murder of Gonzago take its toll of Claudius's conscience without assistance. He forces its significance at Claudius as he later forces the poisoned cup at him (3.2.237-9). His insistent commentary gives Claudius the opportunity to cover his departure with righteous indignation against his nephew's impossible behaviour. At any rate, Hamlet has achieved his purpose. He is convinced of Claudius's guilt and he has made Claudius know that he knows. Hamlet does not lack courage. But what to do with this knowledge now? There is no way of avoiding the fact that at this critical juncture, with the Ghost's story confirmed, he chooses to do precisely what the Ghost forbade, take action against his mother.

First there is the difficult problem of how to take his extraordinary speech about drinking hot blood.

Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother. O heart, lose not thy nature . . .


Some say that this speech is a sign that Hamlet has committed himself to hell; some say that he is rather awkwardly trying out the traditional role of the avenger of fiction. There is a grain of truth in both these theories, but neither can of itself explain the speech. We have just seen Hamlet, who has been at a peak of emotional intensity during and immediately after the play scene, in a keen and fierce verbal attack on Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius. That he should at this point in all seriousness bellow out like some Herod of the stage 'Now could I drink hot blood' is to me incredible. The rant of the 'rogue and peasant slave' soliloquy, induced by the emotion of the Pyrrhus speech, was understandable, but this seems quite out of keeping with character and situation. But that Hamlet should fear his declension into hellish activity, should fear himself slipping into the role of the stage-avenger, I could well imagine. The contagion of hell is what he wishes to avoid, and the last thing he wants to do is 'drink hot blood'. He says the words with a shiver of apprehension and disgust. Then, 'Soft, now to my mother.' As so often in this play, 'soft!' is a word of warning to oneself to turn away from some undesirable train of thought and attend to an immediate problem. . . . Ό heart, lose not thy nature.' He really does fear he may do something terrible.

Action is now hedged about with all sorts of warnings and limitations concerning the good it can do to the world or the harm it can do to him, But there is one task of primary urgency, whatever the Ghost said: to shame and reclaim his mother. On the way to see her, he comes across Claudius at prayer. He goes over to kill him, then pauses as he had paused over suicide, to reflect on the consequences. Again it is the after-life that is uppermost in his mind, but the fear about damnation now is that Claudius may not be damned. He wants Claudius damned, and he is not prepared to take the risk that if he kills him while he is praying he will go to heaven. He will wait for an opportunity that will make revenge more complete and damnation more certain.

Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damned and black As hell whereto it goes.


Savagery of this order is familiar to students of Elizabethan revenge fiction.19 Perhaps the contagion of hell has touched Hamlet. But, repellent though it is that Hamlet so passionately wants the eternal perdition of his victim, it is perhaps more striking that he should think that it is in his power to control the fate of Claudius's soul. It is surely a monstrously inflated conception of his authority that is governing him, distorting still further the scope of the Ghost's injunctions. In this scene the arrogance of the man who is trying to effect justice is strongly contrasted with the Christian humility of the man who has done murder.

Hamlet means what he says in the prayer scene. The procrastination theory held that once again Hamlet was finding some excuse for not acting. This cannot be right, for a minute or two later, thinking he has found Claudius in the ignominious and dishonourable position of eavesdropping behind the arras in Gertrude's chamber, he kills him—only to find that it is Polonius. The killing of Polonius is a major climax. In spite of whatever doubts and mental stress about the authority of the Ghost and the meaning of its message, about the need to do the deed or the good it would do, here deliberately and violently he keeps his word and carries out his revenge; and he kills the wrong man. This terrible irony is the direct result of his decisions since the end of the play scene, which imply his belief in his power to control the destinies in this life and in the after-life of both Gertrude and Claudius, his assumption of the role of Providence itself.

From the killing of Polonius the catastrophe of the play stems.20 This false completion of Hamlet's revenge initiates the second cycle of revenge for a murdered father, that of Laertes for Polonius. That revenge is successful and ends in the death of Hamlet. By unwittingly killing Polonius, Hamlet brings about his own death.

The Closet Scene

Nothing in the play is more bizarre than that Hamlet, having committed the terrible error of killing Polonius, should be so consumed with the desire to purge and rescue his mother that he goes right on with his castigation even with the dead body of Polonius at his feet. No wonder the Ghost enters again to whet his 'almost blunted purpose'. Hamlet well knows that in this present heat ('time and passion') he should be obedient to his vow and apply himself to a grimmer task. But he does nothing. It is remarkable that he fears the presence of the Ghost will actually weaken his resolve to kill Claudius: that his response to this shape of his dead father will be pity not retribution. The Ghost could 'convert / My stern effects' and there would be 'tears perchance for blood' (3.4.126-29). This fear for the strength of his resolution should be compared with the heavy-heartedness at the prospect of carrying out the execution as he looks at Polonius's corpse: 'Thus bad begins and worse remains behind' (180).

There seems no deep compunction for Polonius's death, however, and no lessening of the sense of his privilege to ordain for others.

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


Poor Polonius! Hamlet is at his worst in these scenes. His self-righteousness expands in his violent rebukes of his mother and his eagerness to order her sex-life. 'Forgive me this my virtue', he says, going on to explain that in these upside-down times 'virtue itself of vice must pardon beg'. Yet the force of his words, and what appears to be the first intimation that her husband was murdered, instil into her that sense of difference which he has fought to re-establish. At the beginning she asks in indignation and bewilderment, 'What have I done?' But later she says, Ό Hamlet, speak no more', and 'What shall I do?'

To England

From this point onwards there are two plays of Hamlet, that of the second quarto and that of the Folio. I have argued . . . that the Folio version with its omissions and additions has much to be said for it, knowing what its hero has become by the end of the closet scene in a way that the seemingly more tentative and exploratory version in the second quarto does not. The changes in the Folio substitute for a rather contradictory talkativeness in Hamlet about being sent to England with his revenge unaccomplished a silence as mysterious and suggestive as the silence that lies between Acts 1 and 2. They also add a central passage in 5.2 in which the problem of damnation which has occupied Hamlet throughout is given an answer.

There is a real want of resolution concerning his revenge in Hamlet's going away to England, though it is concealed in the exciting scenes in which he courageously and scornfully spars with Claudius, who is now absolutely determined to destroy the man who knows his secret. It may be that he is biding his time, or is baffled and mortified by his own inability to act, as the two main passages omitted from the Folio suggest, but we feel that there are deeper things restraining him, hinted at in what he says to Horatio when he comes back.

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting That would not let me sleep.


While Hamlet is away, we see the effects of what he has so far achieved, in the madness of Ophelia and the furious return of Laertes. To avenge his father is for Laertes an inalienable duty, whatever may be its status in the eternal world.

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes, only I'll be revenged Most throughly for my father.


For Hamlet it is quite the contrary. Revenge in itself is uninteresting and foreign. It is only the question of its place as a creative and restorative 'remembering' deed within the values of the eternal world that is important to him.

The Return

The news of Hamlet's return astounds the king, and he hastens to employ Laertes in a scheme to destroy him finally. Act 5 opens with the two clowns digging a grave for Ophelia. The joke of the senior of these, the sexton, that of all men he who builds strongest is the gravedigger, is something to ponder on at the end of the play. The sexton is the only person in the play who is a match for Hamlet in the combat of words. He manages to avoid answering Hamlet's question, 'Whose grave's this?' Not until the funeral procession arrives does Hamlet learn that the grave is for Ophelia, and it does not appear from the play that he was aware of her madness. Many people feel that in Hamlet's reflections over the empty grave on the vanity of life and the inevitability of death there is a mature and sober wisdom. But the presentation of this wisdom is entirely ironic. His truths are based on a chasm of ignorance. He speaks his words over a grave which he does not know is intended for a woman whose madness and death he is responsible for.21 The fact of the dead girl punctures his philosophy. For us, at any rate. He never speaks of his regret for the suffering he caused her even before Polonius's death. On the contrary, when Laertes leaps into the grave and expresses, too clamantly perhaps, an affection for Ophelia which he genuinely feels, Hamlet will not accept it, and chooses this moment to advance and declare himself, with a challenge to Laertes' sincerity. He claims I loved Ophelia'—with a love forty thousand brothers could not match. It is hard to know what right Hamlet has to say that when we think of how we have seen him treat her. The dispute over Ophelia's grave seems very important. Laertes is more than a foil to Hamlet; he is a main antagonist, diametrically opposed to him in every way of thought and action, who is scheming to kill him by a dreadful trick. But Shakespeare refuses to belittle him or let us despise him. And he refuses to sentimentalise his opponent or whitewash his failings. For those of us who to any extent 'believe in' Hamlet, Shakespeare makes things difficult in this scene. It is tragedy not sentimental drama that he is writing, and our division of mind about Hamlet is partly why the play is a tragedy.

In the all-important colloquy with Horatio at the beginning of the final scene, Hamlet tells him of the strong sense he has that his impulsive actions on board ship were guided by a divinity which takes over from us 'when our deep plots do pall' and redirects us. This is a critical juncture of the play, implying Hamlet's surrender of his grandiose belief in his power to ordain and control, and his release from the alternating belief in the meaningless and mindless drift of things. His recognition, vital though it is, is his own, and we do not necessarily have to share it.

The sense of heaven guiding him reinforces rather than diminishes his sense of personal responsibility for completing his mission. The discovery of the king's treachery in the commission to have him murdered in England has fortified Hamlet's determination. Yet it is with a demand for assurance that he puts the matter to Horatio.

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon— He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother, Popped in between th'election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such cozenage—is't not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned To let this canker of our nature come In further evil?


It is difficult to see how we can take this speech except as the conclusion of a long and deep perplexity. But if it is a conclusion, that question mark—conveying so much more than indignation—makes it an appeal by this loneliest of heroes for support and agreement, which he pointedly does not get from the cautious Horatio, who simply says,

It must be shortly known to him from England What is the issue of the business there.

Horatio won't accept the responsibility of answering, and only gives him the exasperating response that he hasn't much time.

Once again Hamlet has raised the question of conscience and damnation. Conscience is no longer an obstacle to action, but encourages it. As for damnation, Hamlet had felt the threat of it if he contemplated suicide, felt the threat of it if he were to kill at the behest of a devil-ghost; now he feels the threat of it if he should fail to remove from the world a cancer which is spreading. This new image for Claudius, a 'canker of our nature', is important. All the vituperation which Hamlet has previously thrown at Claudius seems mere rhetoric by this. Hamlet now sees himself undertaking a surgical operation to remove a cancer from human society. Whether the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune continue or not is immaterial. To neglect, ignore or encourage the evil is to imperil one's soul.

The Silence of the Ghost

When in reply to Hamlet's unanswerable question Horatio tells him that if he is going to act he had better move quickly, because as soon as Claudius learns the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet won't have another hour to live, Hamlet exclaims 'The interim's mine.' But of course it isn't, because the plot against his life has already been primed and is about to go off. Hamlet has no time left to act upon his new conviction that it is a religious duty to strike down Claudius. He accepts the fake challenge of the fencing match in the awareness that something may be afoot, and he faces it without any exhilaration: 'Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart.' When he says 'If it be now, 'tis not to come . . . the readiness is all', we assume he has some kind of prevision of what actually happens, the coming together of his revenge and his own death. Laertes wounds him fatally before he is able to make his second attempt to kill the king. The first time, he killed the wrong man; the second time, he kills the king indeed, but not until he is within moments of his own death.

There is no doubt of the extent of Hamlet's failure. In trying to restore 'the beauteous majesty of Denmark' he has brought the country into an even worse state, in the hands of a foreigner. He is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With more justification, he has killed Laertes and Claudius. But if his uncle is dead, so is his mother.

What does the Ghost think of it all? He has disappeared. There is no word of approval, or sorrow, or anger. He neither praises his dead son nor blames him. Nor, if he was a devil, does he come back to gloat over the devastation he has caused. The rest is silence indeed.22

In Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, the ghost of the dead Andrea and his escort from the infernal world of spirits, named Revenge, were on stage during the whole of the play. It was absolutely clear that the ultimate direction of things was entirely in the hands of the gods of the underworld. At the end of the play Andrea rejoiced in the fulfilment of his revenge and happily surveyed the carnage on the stage. 'Ay, these were spectacles to please my soul!' He helped to apportion eternal sentences, whose 'justice' makes our blood run cold.

In spite of the seeming crudity of The Spanish Tragedy, it is a subtle and sinister view of the relation of gods and men that the play conveys. Kyd's gods are dark gods. Men and women plot and scheme to fulfil their desires and satisfy their hatreds, they appeal to heaven for guidance, help and approval, but the dark gods are in charge of everything, and they use every morsel of human striving in order to achieve their predestined purposes. Hieronimo's heroic efforts to obtain justice, which drive him into madness and his wife to suicide, are nothing to the gods except as they may be used to fulfil their promise to Andrea.

Hamlet resists the grim certainties of Kyd's theology and the certainties of any other.23 Hamlet's own belief towards the end of the play that a benign divinity works through our spontaneous impulses and even our mistakes is neither clearly endorsed by the play nor repudiated in ironic Kydean laughter. Hamlet is a tragic hero who at a time of complete despair hears a mysterious voice uttering a directive which he interprets as a mission to renovate the world by an act of purifying violence. But this voice is indeed a questionable voice. How far it is the voice of heaven, how its words are to be translated into human deeds, how far the will of man can change the course of the world—these are questions that torment the idealist as he continues to plague the decadent inhabitants, as he sees them, of the Danish court.24

His doubts, at one edge of his nature, are as extreme as his confidence at the other. His sense of his freedom to create his own priorities and decisions, and indeed his sense of being heaven's scourge and minister privileged to destroy at will, bring him to the disaster of killing Polonius, from which point all changes, and he becomes the hunted as well as the hunter. Eventually, in a new humility as his 'deep plots' pall, Hamlet becomes convinced that heaven is guiding him and that the removal of Claudius is a task that he is to perform at the peril of his immortal soul. He does indeed kill Claudius, but the cost is dreadful. What has he achieved, as he dies with Claudius?

It is very hard for us in the twentieth century to sympathise with Hamlet and his mission. Hearing voices from a higher world belongs mainly in the realm of abnormal psychology. Revenge may be common but is hardly supportable. The idea of purifying violence belongs to terrorist groups. Gertrude's sexual behaviour and remarriage do not seem out of the ordinary. Yet if we feel that twentieth-century doubt hampers our understanding of the seventeenth-century Hamlet, we must remember that Hamlet was actually written in our own age of doubt and revaluation—only a little nearer its beginning. Hamlet takes for granted that the ethics of revenge are questionable, that ghosts are questionable, that the distinctions of society are questionable, and that the will of heaven is terribly obscure. The higher truth which Hamlet tries to make active in a fallen world belongs to a past which he sees slipping away from him. Shakespeare movingly presents the beauty of a past in which kingship, marriage and the order of society had or was believed to have a heavenly sanction. A brutal Cain-like murder destroys the order of the past. Hamlet struggles to restore the past, and as he does so we feel that the desirability is delicately and perilously balanced against the futility. Shakespeare was by no means eager to share Nietzsche's acquiescence in time's es war. This matter of balance is an essential part of our answer about the ending of the play. It is a precarious balance, and perhaps impossible to maintain.

The Elizabethans too doubted ghosts. Shakespeare used the concern of his time about voices and visions to suggest the treacherousness of communication with the transcendent world. We come in the end to accept the Ghost not as a devil but as a spirit who speaks truth yet who cannot with any sufficiency or adequacy provide the answer to Hamlet's cry, 'What should we do?' Everything depends on interpretation and translation. A terrible weight of responsibility is thrown on to the human judgement and will. Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, spoke of Abraham hearing a voice from heaven and trusting it to the extent of being willing to kill his own son; and he wrote brilliantly of the knife-edge which divides an act of faith from a demoniacal impulse. In Shakespeare's age, William Tyndale also used Abraham as an example of where faith might go outside the boundaries of ethics, but he warned against 'holy works' which had their source in what he contemptuously called 'man's imaginations'.25 These distinctions between acts of faith and the demoniacal, between holy works and works of man's imagination, seem fundamental to Hamlet. We know that Hamlet made a mess of what he was trying to do. The vital question is whether what he was trying to do was a holy work or a work of man's imagination. Shakespeare refuses to tell us.

Hamlet's attempt to make a higher truth operative in the world of Denmark, which is where all of us live, is a social and political disaster, and it pushes him into inhumanity and cruelty. But the unanswerable question, 'Is't not to be damned / To let this canker of our nature come / In further evil?', if it could be answered 'Yes!' would make us see the chance-medley of the play's ending in a light so different that it would abolish our merely moral judgement. Bradley's final remark on the play was that 'the apparent failure of Hamlet's life is not the ultimate truth concerning him'.26 But it might be. That is where the tragic balance lies. The play of Hamlet takes place within the possibility that there is a higher court of values than those which operate around us, within the possibility of having some imperfect communication with that court, within the possibility that an act of violence can purify, within the possibility that the words 'salvation' and 'damnation' have meaning. To say that these possibilities are certainties is to wreck the play as surely as to say they are impossibilities.

So the silence of the Ghost at the end of the play leaves the extent of Hamlet's victory or triumph an open question. To answer it needs a knowledge that Horatio didn't have, that Shakespeare didn't have, that we don't have. The mortal havoc is plain to our eyes on the stage; the rest is silence. . . .


1 NV [Hamlet, ed. Horace Howard Farness, 2 vols., 1877; reprinted 1963 (A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare)] II, 152-5; but see more fully Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 1930; 2nd edn, 1960.

2 NV II, 292-3 gives brief selections from Morrison's 1846 translation of Shakespeares Dramatische Kunst; see further L. D. Schmitz's 1876 translation of Ulrici's third edition.

3 Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, section 17; translated by F. Golffing, Anchor Books, 1956, p. 103. The word translated as 'objective correlative' is Objectivation.

4 Mallarmé, Crayonné au théâtre; Oeuvres complètes, Gallimard, 1945, pp. 300-2.

5Oeuvres complètes, p. 1564.

6 Eliot, gSelected Essays, 1932, pp. 141-6.

7 Masefield's Introduction is reprinted in his William Shakespeare in the Home University Library, n.d. [1911].

8 Reprinted in Shakespeare: 'Hamlet': A Casebook, ed. J. Jump, 1968, pp. 86-107.

9 In 'Hamlet', ed. J. R. Brown and B. Harris, 1963, pp. 90-109.

10 As late as 1981 we can find John Bayley repeating Knight's view that Claudius's advice to Hamlet to forget his father's death shows a mature understanding of 'how life must be lived' (Shakespeare and Tragedy, p. 179). See note to 1.2.102.

11 See P. Edwards, 'Tragic balance in Hamlet', Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983), 43-52.

12 Except in those advanced places which followed Lascelles Abercrombie and E. E. Stoll in denying that there was any problem of delay to be solved. See Abercrombie, The Idea of Great Poetry, 1925, and Stoll, Art and Artifice in Shakespeare, 1933 (using Hamlet material from 1919).

13 Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 102-6.

14 Alexander, Poison, Play, and Duel, pp. 32-3.

15 See Rosalie L. Colie, Shakespeare's Living Art, 1974, p. 230, and Honor Matthews, The Primal Curse: The Myth of Cain and Abel in the Theatre, 1967.

16 See the discussion by E. A. J. Honigmann in 'The Politics of Hamlet', in 'Hamlet', ed. Brown and Harris, pp. 129-47.

17 'Des Willens Widerwille gegen die Zeit und ihr "Es war".'

18 I am indebted here to Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance, 1950, p. 626.

19 See Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 261-75.

20 Compare A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904, p. 136.

21 See the excellent comment by Dover Wilson, What Happens in 'Hamlet', 1935; 3rd edn, 1951, p. 268.

22 The absence of the Ghost at the end, in contrast with The Spanish Tragedy, is noted by H. Levin, The Question of 'Hamlet', 1959, p. 98. A view of the reason for the Ghost's disappearance which is very different from mine is given in two adjoining articles in Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977), by Philip Brockbank (p. 107) and Barbara Everett (p. 118).

23 The view that Shakespeare is making a positive comment on Kyd is developed in Edwards, 'Shakespeare and Kyd', in Shakespeare, Man of the Theatre, ed. Κ. Muir, J. L. Halio and D. J. Palmer, 1983.

24 For the relation of this passage to Lucien Goldmann's The Hidden God, 1955, see Edwards, 'Tragic balance in Hamlet', pp. 45-6.

25 Edwards, 'Tragic balance in Hamlet', p. 51.

26Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 174.

Psychoanalytic Interpretations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

H. R. Coursen (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "'Who's There?': Hamlet," in The Compensatory Psyche: A Jungian Approach to Shakespeare, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 63-99.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1982, Coursen argues that a Jungian analysis of Hamlet clarifies some of the critical problems of traditional Freudian analysis. Coursen suggests that Hamlet's oedipal issues are themselves symptoms of "a deeper disturbance within Hamlet's psyche, that is, his inability to contact his feminine soul' or anima."]


Tragic man rejects the compensatory energy of the psyche. In tragedy hamartia can often be defined as the hero's alienation from the anima, or the feminine principle within him. Iago flatters Othello's self-conception, or persona, into alienation from a Desdemona who had seen "Othello's visage in his mind" (I.iii.255), not just in his "occupation" (III.iii.362). Lear discovers the feminine in him, or it discovers him after his passionate efforts to keep "this mother" from his "heart" (II.iv.55) have obliterated his former consciousness. He awakens to the loving gaze of his "child, Cordelia" (IV.vii.72). Macbeth's nature, "too full o' th' milk of human kindness" (I.v. 17) is discarded for a "mind . . . full of scorpions" (III.ii.39). Hamlet, however, is the preeminent example of the rejection of the feminine.

All Hamlet criticism must be "psychological criticism," even when it claims to be anything but. The play is uniquely framed to elicit from its auditors a subjective response. No matter how "objective" a critic may try to be, he must, in dealing with Hamlet, answer the question with which the play opens: "Who's there?" (I.i.l). Any claim to critical objectivity signals an inevitable surrender to unperceived subjectivity. The critic invariably stands and unfolds himself even as he believes that he is illuminating that universe of shadows that is Hamlet character and Hamlet play.

The greatest critics, I believe, admit their subjective stance and do not claim to tell us "what Hamlet means," but "what Hamlet means to me." It follows then, that the quality of the critique is not a function of any particular critical approach but of the human qualities of the critic himself.

We would not normally term Dr. Samuel Johnson a "psychological critic." Johnson, however, had the courage—not always shared by his 18th century colleagues—to admit that the plays moved him profoundly. His reaction to the death of Cordelia, for example, must be attributed to more than that the ending of King Lear may have violated Johnson's critical criteria:

I might relate that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play 'till I undertook to revise them as editor.1

These words emerge, of course, during the almost century-and-a-half that Tate's happier version of King Lear was performed exclusively.

Johnson's comments on Hamlet suggest that he looks upon the character as somehow "real," or, at least, that Hamlet conforms to Johnson's sense of "nature." "I wish," Johnson says, "Hamlet had made some other defence [to Laertes, before the duel]; it is unsuitable to the character of a good or brave man, to shelter himself in falsehood."2 Placed against Dr. Johnson's standard of "suitability," Hamlet disturbs the critic. In objecting to the psychology Shakespeare attributes to Hamlet, Johnson reveals his own psychology, one predicated on solid 18th century norms of decorum and stereotypic humanity.

Johnson could have read neither Thomas Erskine's defense of James Hadfield (26 June, 1800)—perhaps the first defense by reason of insanity—nor Darrow's defense of Loeb and Leopold, both of which Shakespeare anticipates in Hamlet's apology to Laertes. Hamlet, of course, is his own attorney. Later experience seems suddenly to illuminate what Shakespeare already knew. And, although Johnson's moral criteria are not our own, he turns out to be right. He can wish for another defense, but Shakespeare gives Hamlet the only apology he can make for the sudden, impulsive, and destructive actions of someone who is and is not Hamlet:

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


Since I do not believe that Hamlet is ever mad, except "north-north-west" (II.ii.278). I believe that he does fabricate an elegant falsehood here, one that does not square with anyone's sense of goodness or bravery. That his repressed feeling level leaps past his rational persona—as it does so often in this play—and incites actions that puzzle Hamlet, making of him a Hamlet who does not square with his own sense of his personality, can only be termed, at best, "temporary insanity." The arm that struggled to put the sword back on its hanger as Claudius knelt at apparent prayer leaped out, almost by its own volition, to impale Polonius. But Hamlet "thought" it might be the king. Was he insane, or just mistaken? His mistake, however motivated by a sudden flash of feeling, becomes, later, "His madness." But, by then, before the full court, Hamlet cannot say to Laertes, "I thought your father was King Claudius."

We would agree, I believe, that Coleridge is a psychological critic, perhaps the first to whom the term can be applied, in that Coleridge is conscious of the admixture of his own personality that enters into his response. The results are brilliant and eccentric, profound and idiosyncratic, as great Hamlet criticism must be, for a reason Coleridge arrives at in discussing the Prince:

Hamlet's character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical. He does not want courage, skill, will or opportunity, but every incident sets him thinking; and it is curious and at the same time strictly natural that Hamlet, who all the play seems reason itself, should be impelled at last by mere accident to effect his object. I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so . . .3

All of us, perhaps, have a smack of Hamlet ourselves. We do not, however, see Hamlet as Coleridge did— Hamlet as ineffective intellectual, "Hamlet as Coleridge"—or as the romantic Hamlet of Henry Irving, laying the back of his hand against his brow as he ponders the enormities of Elsinore, or as the slender delicate vase in which an oak tree is planted, as in Goethe's brilliant metaphor.4

If we extend Coleridge's insight, however, we may discover a generalization that incorporates it. Here is one possibility, presented by Bradley Pearson, the protagonist of Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince: "Shakespeare [in Hamlet] makes the crisis of his own identity into the very central stuff of his art. He transmutes his private obsessions into a rhetoric so public that it can be mumbled by any child . . . Shakespeare cries out in agony, he writhes, he dances, he laughs, he shrieks, and he makes us laugh and shriek ourselves out of hell."5 Even if Pearson incorporates a rather radical interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis and the fallacy of reading back to an author's creative process, he accounts for the continuum of energy that gets exchanged between Shakespeare's creation and our own psychology of perception. The case for that continuum is made brilliantly in Norman Holland's book, Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis. Holland restricts his thesis to Freudian concepts of psychic energy by suggesting that a play like Hamlet moves us to respond by recapitulating our own infantile fears and fantasies. It may do that, of course, but it does much more than that, eliciting, as Coleridge proves, our response to who we think we are as adults as well. Hamlet may be, as T.S. Eliot says, "the Mona Lisa of Literature,"6 but Hamlet is a play, an action that imitates action, not a painting. As Bradley Pearson says, "Being is acting. We are tissues and tissues of different personae, and yet we are nothing at all."7

The fiction that is Hamlet, then, reveals whatever "reality" inheres in us and, in turn, exposes the fictional premises of that perceived reality, particularly if we, like Coleridge, respond to Hamlet from the level of our own mere persona. Pursued to its conclusion, Pearson's thesis that being is acting and acting being would seem to equate not to a set of existential premises but to a cultural and personal nihilism. Hamlet the play will not support that conclusion, even though nihilism is one dimension that Hamlet and the play surrounding him explore. We might pursue Pearson's suggestion further to suggest that Hamlet's belief that "things" only "rank and gross possess" his "unweeded garden" (I.ii. 135-136) signals a "mid-life crisis," that terrible moment of pause, often activated by catastrophic personal emergencies, when psychic content, dormant for a lifetime, explodes within us with bewildering force. Suffice it that the principals of this play had reached Elizabethan mid-life by 1601: Hamlet is 30. Richard Burbage, playing Hamlet, is 34. And William Shakespeare is 37.

The 19th century critic who tended to read the plays back to the psyche of their creator was, of course, Edward Dowden. His work has been undervalued because of his simplistic categorization of Shakespeare's "moods" and his assignment of the plays to those moods. But here is Dowden's remarkable description of Hamlet's behavior after the play-within-the-play: "Hamlet is forever walking over the ice; his power of self-control is never quite to be trusted. The success of his device for ascertaining the guilt of Claudius is followed by the same mood of wild excitement which followed his encounter with his father's spirit; again he seems incoherently, extravagantly gay; again his words are 'wild and whirling words.'"8 Dowden's Hamlet is hardly Coleridge's, "who all the play seems reason itself." Dowden captures Hamlet's erratic nature, as does Derek Jacobi, who played the role recently both at the Old Vic and in the BBC-TV version: "Hamlet swings into sudden intensely traumatic states."9 Interestingly, Jacobi does not include Hamlet's behavior after "Gonzago" in his catalogue of these traumatic states. At that moment in the play, Hamlet believes that he has won:

"For if the king like not the comedy, Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy."


I shall suggest that Hamlet himself has dictated, only moments before, something other than comedy for himself, and for the play which bears his name.

It remained for perhaps the greatest of Shakespearean critics, A.C. Bradley, to provide a version of Hamlet's character that would account for its inconsistencies. Bradley's thesis, of course, is "melancholy," which Bradley says is "neither dejection, nor yet insanity."10 Bradley rejects the inherited view that Hamlet's actions and inactions emerge from an unfortunate synthesis between the thesis of revenge and the antithesis of Hamlet's character, or, as Bradley states the case, that Hamlet is "sure he ought to obey the ghost: but in the depth of his nature, and unknown to himself, there is a moral repulsion to the deed." "We are meant in the play," Bradley asserts, "to assume that he ought to have obeyed the Ghost."11 Perhaps we are, although I believe that Bradley's certainty is open to question. What do we mean by revenge? How could Hamlet have obeyed the Ghost and remained true to "the depth of his nature"? That, of course, depends upon what we take Hamlet's nature to be. To define that "nature" is perhaps impossible, since the character of Hamlet forces our own natures to participate in his. It may be, however, as J.C. Maxwell suggests, that Hamlet is an incomparable revenge play precisely because its brilliant and introspective central character does not raise the issue of revenge per se to the level of his conscious consideration.12 Thus, a basic issue of the play remains an underlying—and unconscious—energy within Hamlet. I shall suggest, however, that Hamlet fails to coordinate his perceived mission with his own nature.13 Tragedy is the result of this disjunction between outer and inner imperatives.

Bradley goes on to suggest how much his thesis of "melancholy" incorporates. It accounts for Hamlet's lethargy as well as for his sudden leaps of energy, for Hamlet's procrastination and, crucially, for his inability to understand why he delays. Thus does Bradley create a pre-Freudian unconsciousness in Hamlet, a level of his psyche unavailable to him. Hamlet's doubt about the Ghost, Bradley claims, "is no genuine doubt; it is an unconscious fiction, an excuse for his delay and its continuance."14 Of Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius in the Prayer Scene, Bradley says, "That this again is an unconscious excuse for delay is now pretty generally agreed."15 Bradley invokes consensus when it suits him, as we all do. But he is hardly consistent. "Although Hamlet's own account of his reasons for arranging the play-scene may be questioned," Bradley says, "it is impossible to suppose that, if his real design had been to provoke an open confession of guilt [from Claudius], he could have been unconscious of this design."16 Since Hamlet expresses the possibility of open confession, even if imputing the possibility to a generic "guilty creature . . . sitting at a play," one could argue that, as he speaks the lines, he is conscious of the design Bradley denies to Hamlet's consciousness. Bradley is very selective about what Hamlet is conscious of and unconscious about, as perhaps, we all are. While neither Bradley nor Bradley's Hamlet contemplate the possibility of Claudius's open confession, I suggest that Hamlet does do so. Suffice it for now that the confession does not occur.

I conclude this survey with a recent qualification of "character" criticism delivered by Phillip Goldstein. He will serve to introduce the Freudian approach to the character of Hamlet.

Goldstein argues, as Francis Fergusson, Michael Long, and Philip Brockbank have,17 that psychological critics neglect the public reasons for Hamlet's inaction. By narrowing the play to the context of an inner psychic struggle, the psychological critics ignore the social and political realities that impinge upon Hamlet's potential range of action. Thus Coleridge, Goldstein says, "In his reduction of Hamlet's hesitation to an unwarranted need to think . . . neglects not only the complexities of the new ethics of revenge but also the dilemma of the new politics of absolute monarchy."18

I am not sure what Goldstein means by "new" in either instance. He does, however, extend Hamlet's psychological problems into the world of the play, discerning in the latter area some sources for Hamlet's "inner" problems:

Hamlet's dilemmas transcend his peculiarities because these dilemmas include the large ideological conflict between the Elizabethan faith in the great chain of being and the court's bourgeoise subordination of reason to passion . . . [Hamlet's] recognition of the heavy requirements of rational action turns his analyzing into more than a weak withdrawal into a private world, and the disorder of the universe, the degradation of reason by bestial passion, turns his melancholy into more than a morbid sensitivity.19

Thus the Marxist critic places an isolated psychic structure into a context which, among other things, defines the nature of Hamlet's isolation. It could be argued, however, that even the Ghost, a figure of the "old order" and, presumably a refugee from Purgatory, is guilty of the subordination of reason to passion for which Goldstein indicts the court of Claudius. Goldstein seems guilty, as well, of placing a 19th century version of Hamlet against a society conceived by Hermann Hesse. Yet the "world of the play"—its conflicts and those factors over which even a crown prince has no control—do tend to be ignored by psychological critics, in one version of the "misreading" against which I. A. Richards warns.

As I have argued elsewhere,20 Denmark would seem to have been torn away from the protective and positive powers of the supernature. Denmark cannot contact the outer mystery with any effective ritual. A regicide reigns. More than "the time" is out of joint, however basic time is as a palpable rhythm of the supernature. Hamlet's task is impossible, is it not?—to revenge and at the same time to restore Denmark to its former status—an edenic model akin to the England that Gaunt remembers in Richard II. The earlier play is also shadowed by a murder committed before the play begins, and Gaunt is trapped with "this England" (II.i.50) in an inexorable historical process which cannot be reversed. As Gaunt speaks, it is already too late. Hamlet, however, is involved in a tragic action. If he is a tragic hero, his is the decision—the hamartia—that determines his destiny and that of Denmark. If it is also too late for Hamlet as the play begins, then he becomes merely a victim of social, political, psychological, and cosmic context—not the hero on whose "choice depends/The safety and health of this whole state" (I.iii.20-21).

I agree with Goldstein that the Freudians tend to concentrate on the inner conflicts that render Hamlet incapable of killing Claudius, thus ignoring the titanic external issues that confront Hamlet. Such neglect of the play's "world" equates to thinking too precisely on a "psychic" event isolated in Hamlet's unknown infancy and excited into potency by events that have occurred shortly before the play begins. A more important question, however, may be—should Hamlet kill Claudius? The Ghost, after all, does not so demand, unless we equate his word "act" with "kill":

But howsomever thou pursues this act, Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven . . .


The Freudians suggest that Hamlet's "mind" is already "tainted," and that the source of the contamination is his mother. If they are correct, Hamlet is trapped in a dilemma that all men face, caught in a psychic crossfire that can destroy the souls of the best of men. The Ghost's positive injunction in re Gertrude has already been cancelled by negative forces in Hamlet's psyche.


The classic of psychoanalytic criticism is, of course, Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus. Jones argues that Claudius has taken Hamlet's place with Gertrude, and that although Hamlet's incestuous desire is, obviously, unconscious, it blocks him from killing his alter ego, Claudius. Lucianus "nephew to the king" (III.ii.242), as Hamlet identifies him, can do so in "Gonzago," when "something like the murder of [Hamlet's] father" (II.ii.596) is conflated in Hamlet's psyche with his wish to kill Claudius, a point I shall develop more fully later. Lucianus, then, is not a "Claudius figure" but a psychic substitute for Hamlet's desire to kill his uncle. Hamlet interrupts "Gonzago" after the murder of the recumbent Duke, but before the "murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife" (III.ii.261-262)). The son's oedipal fantasy is fulfilled in the murder of Hamlet Sr.-Claudius, and Hamlet blocks his new rival, Lucianus-Claudius by stopping the further fantasy of play-within. As the Closet Scene makes clear, Hamlet would keep Claudius from Gertrude in "reality." The play-within-the-play, as Hamlet experiences it, involves a confusing meshing of identities. Hamlet, however, under the compulsion of the oedipal drive interrupts a play that never begins again. In identifying Lucianus as "nephew to the King" (III.ii.242). Hamlet identifies his current status. The play-within, after all has been about a Duke, and Claudius is brother to the king. It follows, from the Freudian perspective, that Hamlet himself would be the illicit lover of Gertrude-Baptista, His interruption of "Gonzago," then, signals the psychic pressure imposed by the incest taboo.

Jones argues that Hamlet can only kill Claudius once Gertrude is dead. At that point, Hamlet has no compunctions about going after Claudius with both rapier and chalice. It could be argued, of course, that Claudius has, at last, provided Hamlet with sufficient and public reasons for the King's "execution," and that Hamlet knows that he himself is doomed at that point. While he has ample knowledge already that Claudius would have him dispatched, and should therefore have more than a premonitory fear of the duel, Hamlet's response to Claudius before the duel is that of a renaissance prince with his sovereign, as Knight has pointed out. Strange behavior in view of the list of grievances Hamlet has presented to Horatio, which, for Hamlet, justifies his "quit [ting Claudius] with this arm" (V.ii.68), but behavior arguing some continuing "mental—or psychic—block" within Hamlet. The use of poison—a fate often reserved for lust, in Middleton, Tourneur, and elsewhere in Shakespeare—enforces the Freudian case. Father, Uncle, Mother, and Son die by a poison bubbling out of sexuality, real or fantasized. The son is the victim of an oedipus complex that blocks Hamlet from killing his alter ego uncle until the mother is dead. The case is compelling, and cannot be dismissed merely because, as Kenneth Muir says, "some critics . . . argue that as Freud's theories were not propounded until 300 years after Shakespeare began to write, it is absurd for us to interpret the play in the light of psychoanalysis."21 The play's suggestion of an "oedipus complex," some 2100 years after Sophocles created his vivid version of the myth, may at least account for the fascination of male critics with the character of Hamlet, even those critics—perhaps particularly those critics—who reject the Freudian formulation vehemently. We can never neglect Shakespeare's "final cause"—our continuing response to his art.

"Hamlet," Jones argues, "is . . . in a dilemma between on the one hand allowing his natural detestation of his uncle to have free play, a consummation which would stir still further his own horrible wishes, and on the other hand, ignoring the imperative call for the vengeance that his obvious duty demands. His own 'evil' prevents him from completely denouncing his uncle's, and in continuing to 'repress' the former [his incestuous desires], he must strive to ignore, to condone, and if possible even to forget the latter [that is, Claudius's usurpation of Hamlet's place with Gertrude]; his moral fate is bound up with his uncle's for good or ill. In reality his uncle incorporates the deepest and most buried part of his personality, so that he cannot kill him without killing himself (Jones's ital.)22 While I find Jones's unquestioning acceptance of Hamlet's "obvious duty" suspect, this argument is compelling. Hamlet could, it seems, kill Claudius if not facing a mirror held up to Hamlet's inner nature, and given the impulse of a recently frustrated rapier. The man behind the arras, however, turns out to be Polonius.

We might argue against Jones that Hamlet—except before the duel—does not do a very good job of ignoring, condoning, or forgetting Claudius's occupation of Hamlet's motherland—hardly "a little patch of ground" (IV.iv.18) in the psychic sense. The Freud-Jones thesis, however, is seductive. It explains motivation that seems unarticulated in the play, and action or inaction that seems unmotivated. Certainly Hamlet and Claudius—"mighty opposites" (V.ii.62) as Hamlet recognizes—are bound together in an inextricable fatality. The psychic linkage reaches its climax in "Gonzago," as I shall suggest, a play to which Hamlet responds far more vividly than does Claudius. Certainly Hamlet does swell with disgust upon his mother's matron-boned sexuality, perhaps even projecting his own unconscious wishes into his hissing "to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets" (I.ii. 156-157). Hamlet extrapolates her "frailty" (I.ii. 146) to include all women. He berates himself for his own "unpregnant" response to what Jones calls and Hamlet seems consciously to see as "his obvious duty." Hamlet's incapacity, as he views it, equates to the activity of the basest of women. He "Must, like a whore, unpack [his] heart with words,/ And fall a-cursing like a very drab; a stallion" (II.ii.587-588). He compensates for his perceived failure with torrents of self-accusation in which his own frailty must be equated to the "hire and salary" (III.iii.79) of female prostitution.

Against the Freud-Jones theory, however, other Freudians launch objections. Here we begin, perhaps, to discern the reductio-ad-absurdum of "method" in the hands of lesser practitioners. Avi Erlich, in Hamlet's Absent Father, calls Freud's "hunch" about Hamlet "misleading."23 Erlich isolates the problem in what could be termed a sector of the oedipal dilemma, in Hamlet's difficulty in dealing with his pater abscondus. "Perhaps," says Erlich, "Shakespeare disguised a fantasy of an infantile son witnessing his father's castration at night by having an adult son encounter a victimized nocturnal ghost of his father."24 Perhaps. For me, the play deals in sufficient depth with the problems of appearance versus reality, even if that depth entices others to seek yet a deeper level. Suffice it that it follows, as Erlich argues, "that if Hamlet needs to weaken himself, make himself antic, wish himself away, in order to prove his father strong, he is unfortunately going to deprive himself of just the strength he needs his father to model for him." "Thus," says Erlich, "one reason for Hamlet's not being strong enough to kill Claudius is . . . that his father, his model and namesake, was also not strong enough to kill him."25

This view projects Hamlet into a self-destructive search for a male role-model for the action Hamlet believes he should perform. And, since Hamlet cannot find positive "maleness" within himself, but discovers, instead, negative "femaleness," the case has merit. Trapped between contrary fantasies of masculine power and feminine impotence, Hamlet is himself unmanned, frozen "between two worlds/One dead, the other powerless to be born"—to borrow Matthew Arnold's remarkably useful phrase. The problem, as Erlich expresses it, is not the desire for the mother, but the need within Hamlet for a present and consistent image of maleness. The argument does not rule out the oedipus problem, but complicates the "solution" Jones claimed to have discovered. Erlich's thesis, however, may suggest that we need more comprehensive theory, as opposed to a "corrective" based on psychoanalysis.

One is tempted to respond to Erlich on the level of persona and say, "Dammit, Hamlet's father was strong, physically, at least." Yet, he let Gertrude slip away to Claudius, before, it would seem, the poisoning in the orchard. Perhaps she sought something in Claudius that the "macho" Hamlet Sr. did not provide. Claudius, as characterized, is far more sensitive and loving than either Hamlet or critics of the play tend to suggest. One is further tempted to argue that part of Hamlet's problem may be his effort to emulate his externally powerful father. Young Hamlet, however, is of a different generation and a different culture—a renaissance prince, not a feudal strong-man. His father, for example, is not described as a patron of the "tragedians of the city" (II.ii.329). One might ask, furthermore, whether one can kill a brother who plans to murder you. Perhaps you can, if you are king and privy to the plan. While death is, among other things, a kind of castration, I do not believe that the pouring of poison in the ear is symbolic of castration—unless, in the Freudian sense, it signals the destruction of the female organs of reproduction. If castration, it did not occur at midnight. The Ghost himself explains the reasons for his nocturnality. Still, however, the son of a physically powerful father can have his problems. We notice, however, that Prince Hamlet proves more than a match at rapier and dagger for the seemingly matchless Laertes. I suggest that Erlich's point is relevant, even if an already ambiguous text submerges under the weight of his thesis. The point, however, is paradoxical: Hamlet cannot discover what is "masculine" in him, unless he accepts the "feminine" in him. Since he cannot, any search for an external masculine role model can only plunge him into the self-laceration we witness.

Yet another neo-Freudian approach is that of P. J. Aldus, in Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in 'Hamlet '. Aldus argues that the "Mousetrap" is really aimed at Gertrude, not at Hamlet's defined target, Claudius. "Who is the mouse?" Aldus asks. "Surely not the King. Hamlet calls him goat-like, satyr, adulterate beast, paddock, bat, gib, ape, but he is no mouse. Again we remember the opening challenge to the wrong person. In the mousetrap, it is to the queen."26 The opening challenge (Who's there?) is delivered by the wrong person, by Bernardo, who is approaching the sentinel-on-duty, Francisco. And, while we might agree that Claudius is no mouse and does call Gertrude "his mouse" (III.iv. 190), as Hamlet constructs their love-scenes, Hamlet calls the figure behind the arras "a rat" (III.iv.25). Of course, a rat can copulate with a mouse, but farewell the animal analogies. Suffice it that Hamlet does confuse himself about the trap he sets ostensibly for Claudius.

Aldus would, by indirections, find directions out. And he is right: the play-within is at least partially an attack on Gertrude, who is herself sensitive to Baptista's over-protestations. The play-within-the play is obviously an attack on women and their meaningless vows, and might have continued that attack had Lucianus been permitted to woo Baptista. To narrow "Gonzago" down to a single vector, as Aldus does, however, is to over-simplify a moment of remarkable complexity.

Aldus suggests of the Closet Scene that, "In simple terms Hamlet desires the Queen agonizingly, but will substitute words that are sexual attack even as they excoriate the act."27 Yes, that beautifully phrased sentence captures the ambivalent fascination of Hamlet's "Not this, by no means, that I bid you do . . ." (III.iv.l88ff.). Aldus, predictably, adduces the line, "I will speak daggers to her, but use none" as a phallic prop to his position.

Aldus, then, isolates the Oedipus complex in Hamlet's response to Gertrude. Erlich discovers it in Hamlet's unconscious response to his "absent father." Each offers a working out of and a corrective to the Jones thesis, but each merely validates a more comprehensive original, which, regardless of its crudities, does account for the complex interactions of father-son-mother-uncle, and, to some extent, for the conflations of father-son-uncle, mother-Ophelia, and Lucianus-son-father-uncle. That those conflations confuse me is true, but if drama is a "dream of passion" (II.ii.552), then both dreams and drama do the same thing. They confuse us insofar as we lack a comprehensive definitional frame.

A thesis that might, mutatis mutandis, combine the views of Erlich and Aldus is that of Peter Loewenberg.28 In examining the rise of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s, Loewenberg suggests that German boys of the WW I years experienced the absence of fathers in war and, if they returned, their return in defeat and ineffectuality. These boys also experienced the humiliation and exile of a "father figure," Kaiser Wilhelm. Thus, after the failures of Weimar, Hitler represented a powerfully magnetic "father figure" for cohorts coming to young manhood in the early 1930s. As boys, these young men had also, often, experienced the absence of mothers who worked in war plants and had little time or energy left for cooking what food there was, cleaning, or nurturing. Hitler also played, as Harold Lasswell noted in 1933, "a maternal role for certain classes in German society." National Socialism, Lasswell suggested, was "essentially the bundle of 'don'ts' of the nursemaid conscience."29 Hitler, Erikson argues, "was a ruthless exploiter of parental failures."30

It follows, then, that while Hamlet consciously excoriates Gertrude for what he perceives as her vivid infidelity, he represses his sense of his father's failures. While the defection of Hamlet's parents would seem to occur later in his life than did the similar deprivation in the lives of the German cohorts, we remember that King Hamlet was off at war on the day his son was born, that is, if we believe the First Gravedigger: "I came to't that day that our last king Hamlet overcame Fortinbras . . . It was that very day that young Hamlet was born" (V.i. 143-147). Loewenberg suggests that "parental deprivation in childhood . . . assumes increasing importance in later years as the child approaches and works through the oedipal conflict [and] has a profound impact on the personality and ideas of youth concerning father images, political authority, and sources of power."31 It may follow that Hamlet's repression of his hatred of his father—a repression that would fix him at the adolescent oedipal stage—suggests why he, in contrast to Laertes and Fortinbras, is strangely apolitical.

If we make the large and questionable assumption of "Hamlet's absent father," it follows, according to George R. Bach, that "the mother may modify the child's personality development in the period of father-absence. The father is not available for imitation of or identification with masculine social behavior, and there is now more opportunity to imitate feminine attitudes and manners, and values of the mother."32 In Hamlet's case, however, the mother is Gertrude. Hamlet's rage at her betrayal of his father—and of him—and his definition of all that is feminine as "fraility" drives him into stereotypic feminine behavior for which he berates himself. His self-hatred emerges partly from the masculine ideal he holds up to himself and from his misunderstanding of how that ideal distorts his perceptions of his own psyche. As Loewenberg argues, "the absent father is idealized [as a] defense against hatred toward the father by replacing those repressed hostile feelings with their conscious opposite."33 The psychodynamics of Hamlet's family, then, have left him helpless between the destructive crossfires of the oedipal conflict.

A betrayal by both mother and father—the latter repressed in Hamlet's case—might drive a son towards the embrace of "negative value systems," where inner rage would be projected upon a scapegoat (Jew or Claudius) and where that rage would find its outlet in a negative code of behavior—Hitler Youth or the lextalionis, which for Hamlet becomes "a soul for a soul." Loewenberg argues that, for Germany, the effort to escape the past brought only its more devastating recapitulation: "What [the German youth] created was a repetition of their own childhoods. They gave to their children and to Europe in greater measure precisely the traumas they had suffered as children and adolescents a quarter of a century earlier."34 The pattern repeats in Hamlet as well, but "with a difference." King Hamlet overcame Old Fortinbras on the day Hamlet was born. On the day he dies, young Hamlet, who has failed to resolve the issues that resided in him and in Elsinore, allows Young Fortinbras to become King of Denmark without drawing a sword.

The Freudians, we notice—assuming I have interpreted them fairly—do tend to remove Hamlet from the social context for which Goldstein argues. It is as if the play surrounding Hamlet were somehow a projection of his psychic imperception—and that is partly true. I suggest, however, that the unmoved mover, Shakespeare possessed a more comprehensive view than that of his title character. Nor, of course, would Freudian critics disagree. Another approach, however may clarify some of the critical—and dramatic—problems I have outlined thus far. And that brings us to Jung.


To begin to apply Jung to Hamlet it is best to examine one of the more superficial layers of the psychic structure Jung describes—the persona. The persona corresponds to our self-selected image of ourselves; it is that fictional person we hope that others will accept as the "real us." It is that aspect of the ego, or "consciousness," that is oriented towards the objective world. We design it to create a specific impression of ourselves and, conversely, to conceal our inner nature from other eyes. Inevitably, that concealment of those energies that we do not want in our "image" leads to repression. Thus is born that threatening personality known as the shadow.

The persona, says Jolande Jacobi, is our "cloak around the ego." It includes three often competing aspects: 1) the "ego ideal," the behavior formed by social and parental conditioning, and by our perception of that conditioning, 2) the environment's view of the individual, particularly of the individual's role or career, a view that is often stereotypic and that thus forces us into stereotypic stances, and 3) the psychic contingencies that limit our ability to fulfill either ego ideal or our environment's vision of us.35 The third factor can be a strength, in that it compensates for and negotiates with the demands of the first two components of the persona. If, however, we base our actions solely on collective demands, we neglect that inner nature to the point where it may activate itself to our inconvenience, as in the so-called "mid-life" crisis experienced either by the career-oriented male or the home-orientated woman, If, however, we insist exclusively on that inner nature, as introverts like Richard II, Brutus, and Hamlet tend to do, we may lose out on external rewards—marriage and career, for example. The persona requires the tension between its components to develop healthily.

While what may have been healthy negotiations become destructive conflict within Hamlet, the concept of persona accounts for the external energies that Goldstein defines. What constitutes correct action for a crown prince of Denmark whose father revisits the glimpses of the moon to demand that his son revenge regicide? The concept of persona accounts for Hamlet's specific response to the Ghost's demand. Hamlet's ego ideal would seem to have evolved—or changed, at least—from his father's military orientation to that of student, patron of the theater, and renaissance gentleman. He is able, even amid his trauma, to remain "in continual practice" (V.ii.209) with his rapier. Swordplay would seem to have developed from the previous generation into aristocratic exercise. Hamlet's ego ideal would seem challenged by the Ghost's demand, which, as Hamlet interprets it, would involve the use of the sword to kill. Hamlet, then, seems to impose upon himself the stereotypic role of revenger. And, regardless of which specific Freudian interpretation we accept, the "inner Hamlet" is troubled by conflicting energies for which he cannot account. In view of his later suggestion about "continual practice," we may not believe all that Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Hamlet does, it would seem, define his symptoms accurately: "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises: and indeed it goes so heavily with me that . . . man delights not me, no, nor woman neither . . ." (II.ii.296-310). We know, however, that external events—the sudden death of his father (which, even before the Ghost's narrative, Hamlet suspects was not the work of a random serpent) combined with his mother's "o'erhasty" (II.ii.5-7) marriage to Claudius—have triggered Hamlet's inner reaction. That reaction, however is predicated on what already lay "hidden" in Hamlet's psyche—an unresolved oedipal dilemma perhaps. The question then becomes—is there any action Hamlet could take that would fulfill the demands of the persona, with its seemingly contradictory pull towards personal ideal (renaissance prince), collective expectation (the code of revenge), and inner imperative (which may be the need to resolve the oedipal conflict)? I believe so.

But before I suggest what that action or inaction might have been, I wish to mine a little below the surface of the persona, to suggest who Hamlet is in a Jungian sense.

Jung isolates two basic human orientations—extraversion and introversion. The energy of the extravert is drawn to the object. His "attitude is characterized by the subordination to the demands which the object makes upon him." Even when Claudius, for example, introverts for the moment in his attempt at prayer, his crown, queen, and his own ambition keep his thoughts below, in the extraverted world of power politics, one complicated for him by his love for Gertrude. The psychic energy of the introvert is directed toward the subject. His inner value system is the important criterion. "The introverted attitude is characterized by the subject's assertion of his conscious aims and intentions against the demands of the object."36 That extraverted Lady Macbeth and introverted Macbeth cannot communicate effectively is a function of their different basic orientations. Macbeth translates his inner arguments into quantitative terms—"Golden opinions" (I.vii.34)—perhaps because Lady Macbeth can understand no other. Macbeth's "wrong reasons," however, open himself up for immediate counterattack and ruthless manipulation. "The introvert," says Jung, "interposes a subjective view between the perception of the object and his own action, which prevents the action from assuming a character that fits the objective situation."37 Macbeth's hesitation at killing Duncan is akin to Hamlet's over the kneeling Claudius. The "subjective factor" equates to hesitation in the face of any external action that may not square with the character's perception of his inner nature. Action for the introvert must be played out satisfactorily on an inner stage before it can be achieved effectively in the outer world, unless, of course, the introvert behaves in contradiction to his own nature, as the Shakespearean tragic hero tends to do. The tragic hero may believe in what he is doing, as Lear and Othello do. He may believe, as Hamlet does, that "This thing's to do" (IV.iv.44). He may not believe in what he is doing as Macbeth does not. In each case, however, "consciousness" is the criterion, and in each case consciousness dictates the wrong choice. Othello and Lear, at least, are forced to admit as much. Macbeth becomes merely a frantic extravert, admitting all the good things he has lost, not merely "Golden opinions" (, but his "eternal jewel" (III.i.67). Hamlet dies, as Danby suggests, "a baffled young man,"38 never having penetrated to the "heart" of his own inner "mystery." While both Macbeth and Hamlet provide eschatological reasons for their hesitations, Macbeth is right both in his assumptions about the world in which he lives and in his sense of what his killing of Duncan means to that world. Hamlet also lives in a world rounded by a palpable supernature, but he is, typically, incorrect in taking Claudius's stance of prayer for its reality. That is not to say, however, that he should kill Claudius at that point, or that he is consciously rationalizing his delay. The soliloquy convention insists that we believe that Hamlet's wish for Claudius's damnation is Hamlet's "real reason." We can see, however, that Hamlet is indeed interposing a subjective view between his perception of the object and his own action which prevents the action from assuming a character that fits the objective situation—as Hamlet interprets it. The Freudian, of course, would attribute the subjective interposition to the oedipal problem.

To the primary orientations of extraversion and introversion, Jung adds four functions: the evaluative functions of thinking and feeling, and the perceptive functions of intuition and sensation. Each function inheres in human beings, of course. Sensation tells us "that something is." Thinking "tells us what a thing is." Feeling "implies an evaluation." Intuition is "perception of the possibilities inherent in an object" (Jung's ital.)39

One function dominates in each person. This "superior function is always an expression of the conscious personality, of its aims, will, and general performance."40 The conscious function, then, suggests how the libido—or psychic energy—of the persona is directed. In spite of an individual's self-conscious "image-making," however—and because of it—he remains unaware of the compensatory and often explosive power of subordinate functions, "opposed to the conscious aims, even producing effects whose cause is a complete enigma to the individual."41 Such enigmatic effects can overwhelm the extravert, who overlooks the possibility of an inner life. Richard III, Henry V, Lear, and Lady Macbeth are examples at various extremes of what can happen to the extravert. Subjective factors can also engulf the introvert, who tends to overlook external determinants and to allow his often inappropriate subjectivity to emerge unbidden and against his conscious will. For all of his awareness of an inner life, the introvert is often a poor interpreter of its meaning.

Jung's typology allows us not merely to define the phenomenology of characterization—that is conscious attitude and its unconscious opposite—but also to grasp the way the plays work as interactions between characters: i.e. the introverted Macbeth vs. the extraverted Lady Macbeth. If Hamlet represents introverted thinking and Gertrude extraverted feeling, we have a way of understanding the relationship between son and mother than can incorporate psychoanalytic theory without having to define a specific "reason" for the mystery of Hamlet's character. It helps, I believe, to view Gertrude not merely as "mother," but also as a psychological type precisely opposite to Hamlet's type. In a sense Hamlet demands of Gertrude—why do you not evaluate things as I do? The answer is that Hamlet is a thinking type. "About, my brains!" (II.i.588) he demands of himself. And, "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" (II.ii.249-250). And, of course, he is an introvert who would not understand the extraverted ease with which Gertrude slid from one husband to another and thus remained Queen. Hamlet does, of course, force a moment of painful introversion upon Gertrude:

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.



I do not wish to deny the possibility that the oedipal problem accounts for Hamlet's behavior and for part of our response to his characterization. I suggest, however, that the oedipal problem may itself be symptomatic of a deeper disturbance within Hamlet's psyche, that is, his inability to contact his "feminine soul," or anima. The anima is the energy whereby the male recognizes and integrates into consciousness his androgynous nature. The introverted thinker is particularly susceptible to alienation from his androgynous nature. It follows that he is likely to be alienated from his specific mother, and to be "distanced" at least from the father who loved that mother. Here, I am emphasizing not merely the physical act of sexuality, but the emotional energies that flow into the act—the act that produced Hamlet, for example. In describing the conscious attitude of the introverted thinking type, Jung might be drawing a sketch of Hamlet, one that fills in Coleridge's perception that "Hamlet's character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the particular":

Whether introverted thinking is concerned with concrete or with abstract objects, always at the decisive points it is oriented by subjective data. It does not lead from concrete experience back again to the object, but always back to the subjective content, [i.e. "The time is out of joint./O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.189-190), "How all occasions do inform against me" (IV.iv.32), and Hamlet's dying insistance that his story be told—the impossible task he assigns Horatio]. External facts are not the aim and origin of his thinking, though the introvert would often like to make his thinking appear so. It begins with the subject and leads back to the subject, far though it may range into the realm of actual reality. With regard to the establishment of new facts [such thinking] is only indirectly of value, since new views rather than knowledge of new facts are its main concern. It formulates questions and creates theories, it opens up new prospects and insights, but with regard to facts its attitude is one of reserve . . . facts are collected as evidence for a theory, never for their own sake.42

I suggest that Hamlet's "about my brains" (II.ii.588) and the elaborate strategy whereby Hamlet will at once validate the Ghost's "word" and "capture" Claudius's "conscience" (II.ii.606) reflect Hamlet's reserve in the face of facts, facts that his "prophetic soul" (I.v.41) glimpses even before the Ghost unfolds his tale. One of the reasons that the play unfolds as it does is that Hamlet must devise a method whereby to test theories he has spun out within his brain since his immediate acceptance of the Ghost as "honest." He seems constantly to require "grounds more relative" (II.ii.605) than what he had previously accepted as facts confirmed by his "prophetic soul." While "more relative" means "more pertinent," the word also suggests that Hamlet is, like the introverted thinker Jung describes, falling back into an infinite regress of "relativity." To send the mere "brain" about is to await an incomplete answer. It may be that Hamlet's play is compromised-in-advance by his perception that it is wholly "rational." Hamlet's plan for "Gonzago" emerges from introverted thinking, as Jung describes the type:

[Introverted thinking] wants to reach reality to see how the external fact will fit into and fill the framework of the idea . . . the creative power of this thinking shows itself when it actually creates an idea which, though not inherent in the concrete fact, is yet the most suitable abstract expression of it.43

Thus—drama as imitation of an action, a mimesis Hamlet appreciates. The players are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time" (II.ii.523-524) who will play, says Hamlet "something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle" (II.ii.569-597). While the Freudian formulation may illuminate Hamlet's creation of a fictional alter ego in Lucianus, the play-within itself can be viewed as an inevitable product of Hamlet's habit of mind, one that creates abstractions of reality that imitate concreteness but are themselves merely "a fiction . . . a dream of passion" (II.ii.552). That a mimesis can activate psychic reality into being is an idea Hamlet expresses but ignores, until his production has its way with him. I shall argue that, in designing "Gonzago," Hamlet has done much more than to create the most suitable abstract expression of a thought. He has, potentially, opened a fictional doorway that leads out of appearance and into "reality." "Gonzago," however, accomplishes merely a return, for Hamlet and his world, to fictions and facades.

Jung's further description of the introverted thinker captures other aspects of Hamlet's character and behavior: "He will follow his ideas like the extravert, but in the reverse direction: inwards and not outward. Intensity is his aim, not extensivity."44 Or—as Hamlet says—"O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreams" (II.ii.255-256). "Although [the introverted thinker] will shrink from no danger in building up his world of ideas," Jung says, even if those ideas "might prove to be dangerous, subversive, heretical or wounding to other people's feelings, he is none the less beset by the greatest anxiety if ever he has to make [his ideas] an objective reality."45 It is precisely that fear of fact as opposed to idea that contributes to Hamlet's destruction of his single opportunity to save Denmark and himself from the corpse-strewn "field" (V.ii.404) of the final scene. That moment occurs because Hamlet has viewed his play-within only in relationship to his need to "prove" the Ghost's honesty. His placing of a narrow hypothesis against the "abstraction" of drama denies him the vision that might allow him to achieve a solution to the problems that unfold even as he thinks about them, and because he can only think about them. As the introverted thinker hollows out his own capacity to do anything but think, he potentializes the energy of his repressed function, which is feeling. Hamlet, afraid of confronting the concrete fact, will be undercut by the data of his own emotions, which, although not concrete, are nonetheless, just as "real." The reality that Hamlet invites by narrowing a perspective that might have opened out to a saving inclusiveness is that of his own psyche, which itself incorporates much more than mere "thinking makes." The introverted thinker, Jung suggests, "begins to confuse his subjective truth with his own personality [i.e. 'Seems, Madam! Nay it is. I know not "seems";I.ii.76]. He will burst out with vicious, personal retorts against every criticism, however just ['Why man, they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience':V.ii. 57-58]. Thus, his isolation gradually increases. His original fertilizing ideas become destructive, poisoned by the seeds of bitterness. His struggle against the influences emanating from the unconscious increases with his external isolation, until finally they begin to cripple him. He thinks his withdrawal into ever-increasing solitude will protect him from the unconscious influences, but as a rule it only plunges him deeper into the conflict that is destroying him from within."46 Among the defense mechanisms Jung attributes to this type, if a male, is a "vague fear of the feminine sex."47 Hamlet's fear of women is vague—however projected vehemently into general excoriation—because he has no effective contact with the woman-in-him. Even the most realized of androgynous natures might fear a specific woman—a Tamora or Cymbeline's Queen—but the unintegrated male psyche can only condemn a stereotypic totality.

If the introverted thinker tends by predisposition to fear women, his tendency might be a precondition for the constellation of an Oedipus complex. In Hamlet, the problem might be a symptom, activated by a specific Gertrude, of a deeper psychic disjunction. If so, as helpful as the oedipal theory may be in explaining Hamlet's behavior, it remains a manifestation of the "personal unconscious," which is the sum of unperceived or repressed personal experience. Personal experience, obviously, is conditioned by and is a function of psychic typology. Beneath both the personal unconscious and the conscious orientation of the psyche that dictates the contents of the personal unconscious lies the collective unconscious. Among the archetypes of the collective unconscious, in the male, is the anima, the energy of the male's significant and powerful female minority. If unintegrated, the anima can become "minority rule."


The "anima," according to Aniela Jaffe is the "personification of the feminine nature of man's unconscious . . . This psychological bisexuality is a reflection of the biological fact that it is the larger number of male (or female) genes which is the decisive factor in the determination of sex. The smaller number of contrasexual genes seems to produce a corresponding contrasexual character, which usually remains unconscious."48 One might add that the coding that creates a male foetus does not occur until some months into the process of gestation, meaning that no matter what a patriarchally motivated Book of Genesis may suggest, the female is a priori, as principal and as principle. Uncannily, Shakespeare describes the process in Sonnet 20. Jung's description of anima, is, predictably, less biological: "Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definitive feminine image. This image is fundamentally unconscious, an hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic system of the man, an imprint or 'archetype' of all the ancestral experiences of the female, a deposit, as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman . . . Since this image is unconscious, it is always unconsciously projected upon the person of the beloved, and is one of the chief reasons for passionate attraction or aversion."39 While our birth, if we are males, may be a "dream and a forgetting," it would seem that we bring with us into the world not an unconscious image of the women from whom we have been born but of the woman we were biologically only months before. Our male lives, then, involve the search, almost invariably unconscious, for that which we were and for that which our consciousness and our physiology denies we ever were or could be. The "male ego" does all that it can, of course, to deny the feminine component of his psyche, thus must project his own feminine upon his biological mother, and thus may become trapped within the oedipal dilemma.

Suffice it that Hamlet is alienated from his anima. In discussing the upcoming duel with Laertes, Hamlet says: "I shall win at the odds; but thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart—but it is no matter . . . It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a woman" (V.ii.210-214). Obviously, Hamlet has a deep and negative feeling about the duel, a misgiving that springs from his inmost heart. Even as he relegates such "foolery" to a womanish fear, however, he sneers at the woman-within who would warn him, at an augury emerging from his own repressed anima.

The man alienated from the positive energy of his anima will "forget himself," that is, fall victim to the "I don't know what came over me" syndrome, as Hamlet does when he discovers that the woman he loved "once" (III.i.116) is dead. He then exaggerates his "love" to a "sum" larger than that of "forty thousand brothers" (V.i.269-271), but later regrets his wild hyperbole: "But I am very sorry, good Horatio,/That to Laertes I forgot myself (V.ii.76-77). He may, Jung suggests, find himself acting "in a very womanish way"50 when repressed feeling leaps out to contradict male "rationality" radically. Such a man, says Edward Whitmont, will exhibit "all sorts of compulsive moodiness, sentimentality, depression, brooding, withdrawal, fits of passion, morbid oversensitivity or effeminancy—namely emotional and behavior patterns that cause [him] to act like an inferior woman"51—inferior because the man alienated from his own feminine principle can only react from his stereotypic version of woman. While Whitmont defines several of the "sub-texts" that have informed actors depicting Hamlet, Hamlet himself is aware of precisely the behavior Whitmont and Jung ascribe to the "anima-alienated" male:

This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing like a very drab, A stallion.


Aware of the manifestations, Hamlet cannot penetrate to their source.

Hamlet's "problem", then, is deeper than his mere relationship with Gertrude. When the archetype of the anima is not integrated into consciousness, its energy emerges as projection, pouring out as impulsive activity conditioned only by personal experience, that is, as a manifestation of that shallowly concealed alter ego Jung calls the shadow. Hamlet's inability to integrate his feminine energy into his consciousness and thus to respond effectively to his specific mother causes him to project negative feminine qualities onto Ophelia, in the nunnery and play scenes, and, as Whitmont indicates, provides a rationale for Hamlet's often bizarre actions—at Ophelia's funeral, for example. Such "reflex-like irruptions of the anima," Whitmont says, "come from the area of inferior function [which, in Hamlet's case, is feeling]. The instinctual and intuitive-emotional response is what the male is usually least capable of providing consciously."52 Since Hamlet does behave compulsively, even pauses to praise the principle of "rashness," in a rationalization typical of the introverted thinker, we can accept Grebanier's description of "rash Hamlet."53

But Grebanier is among those critics who elevate a half-truth to the "whole truth," however corrective the process may be to other fractional versions of Hamlet's character. How do we account for the Hamlet with whom Coleridge claims a kinship—the troubled intellectual, the withdrawn philosopher? Does the Jungian thesis account for the obvious inconsistencies in Hamlet's behavior while at the same time providing a consistent theory of characterization? Marie-Louise von Franz describes the activity of the "negative anima," that is, the archetype's ability to create behavioral patterns. In doing so, she also describes the introverted thinking type: "The anima in this guise involves men in a destructive intellectual game. We can notice the effect of this anima trick in all those neurotic pseudo-intellectual dialogues that inhibit a man from getting into direct touch with life and its real decisions. He reflects about life so much that he cannot live it and loses all his spontaniety and outgoing feelings . . . Within the soul of such a man the negative anima will endlessly repeat this theme: Τ am nothing. Nothing makes any sense. With others it's different, but for me . . . I enjoy nothing.'"54 The "moods" of men, even depression and deep melancholy, can be attributed to their divorce from the feminine-in-them, the principle that fertilizes the male ego.

While one must account for the powerful forces working on Hamlet as the play begins, his response is his response, and his efforts at resolving the problems he faces—for himself and for Denmark—emerge from his psyche, and no other. A theory that accounts for his conscious orientation and for its inevitably opposite unconscious activity, which can be positive if integrated, negative if repressed, permits us to accommodate erratic patterns of behavior, even to incorporate the oedipal dilemma, within a comprehensive description of character.


The play, however, is that context within which theory either succeeds or fails.

A particularly brilliant moment in the recent BBC-TV production occurred when Derek Jacobi borrowed a skull-mask from the actors as an emblem of his "idleness" before the Mousetrap. "How fares . . .—our Cousin Hamlet" (III.ii.91), Claudius inquired with sour amusement, recognizing a kinship, perhaps even an alter ego in Hamlet's antic mask. Hamlet could almost have said, "Not where he eats, but where/'a is eaten!" (IV.iii.19)g. The skull-mask nicely anticipated the graveyard of Act V, and reminded us that, among other roles, Hamlet plays that of jester in Elsinore, the role vacated by Yorick some 23 years earlier. The court of Claudius is characterized accurately by Michael Long as "manipulative, expeditious and politic, a matter of espionage and the political use of man by man against man," a place that holds "psychic energy [in] contempt."55 In a Jungian sense, such a situation demands a compensatory response. Some of Hamlet's energy must flow towards the role of "fool," "foil" (V.ii.253), or Jungian shadow. In that role, Hamlet can show the court its unperceived and repressed inner nature, can hold the mirror up to the form and pressure of a psychic context that Claudius and his court would ignore as it floats along on the superficial surfaces of political "success." That is not to say that Hamlet is not, at times, his own jester. In a marvelous moment in the 1979 Theater at Monmouth Hamlet, Sam Tsousouvas also borrowed a prop from the players—a mirror. He was looking at himself when he said "virtue her own feature," then sneered and put the mirror aside as he said "scorn her own image" (III.ii.22-23). He was sneering at himself, of course, dismissing a feminine virtue with, as he perceived it, the more powerful feminine icon of scorn. Each, however, was an image of his own character, and each suggested the conflict emerging from the feminine within him, which "cannot come to good" (I.ii.158) if his tendency towards introverted thinking does not surrender to the saving energy of the anima which the introverted thinker represses so forcefully.

Claudius, of course, can afford no jester. Yet it is precisely the intention of the play-within to ignite a truth within the King, and to force him—even against his extraverted will—to express that truth openly. Beneath the extraverted thinker lies the repressed function of feeling, which will leap out, not as in Hamlet, in a sudden flash of manic energy, but in an expression of the truth of one's nature. That truth, if encouraged into being, takes precedence over conscious intention, and expresses as Claudius does, issues more ultimate and eschatological than mere kingship. Some might agree with G.R. Hibbard's claim that "the Prayer scene . . . reveals unequivocally that repentance and the giving-up of the crown are actions of which the King is incapable."56 What the scene demonstrates, I believe, is that extraverted thinking has had a chance to reestablish itself within Claudius, even as other imperatives struggle to free themselves within him. Goldstein is only partially correct to suggest that "if not for the play-within-the-play, why should Claudius's conscience, which has been quiet until the prayer scene, suddenly start to torment him?"57 Goldstein isolates the potential power of the play-within, a potentiality squandered in Claudius's anti-cathartic effort at prayer, but Goldstein ignores Shakespeare's characterization of Claudius. The conscience of the King has been aroused before the performance of "Gonzago" by the sententiousness of a mere Polonius:

Poloni us: 'Tis too much prov'd—that with devotion's visage And pious action, we do sugar o'er the devil himself. Claudius: (Aside) O, 'tis too true! How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art, Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it, Than is my deed to my most painted word. O heavy burden!


Claudius seems "fit and season'd" for a "passage" (III.iii.86) other than that which Hamlet would arrange as he puts up his sword behind the kneeling King.

Hamlet may be a jester to the court of Claudius. But the jester, or fool, speaks truths unavailable to a king's consciousness. He is, then, like Lear's Fool, a kind of conscience. What happens to Hamlet is that he speaks from his unconsciousness during the performance of "Gonzago" and thus allows the conscience of the king to be caught only in its self-laceration. Hamlet mousetraps Claudius, but is himself an equal victim, perhaps a greater victim of the trap he has set. Hamlet ignores the deeper spring from which his plan for the play-within has come.

The skull-mask Jacobi employed linked his play-within-the-play with ancient drama, with the Greek drama which reported terrible off-stage events via breathless messengers—Sophocles's Oedipus and Euripides's Medea, for example, and the lengthy report about Priam and Hecuba in the Player's Speech. That is the drama Hamlet the perennial graduate student prefers, as Marchette Chute suggests in an incisive passage from Shakespeare of London:

Hamlet ['s] idea of true theater was to hear the sorrows of the characters described at second hand in dignified and interminable blank verse . . . The proper thing to do was to describe [Hecuba] from afar . . . The play from which Hamlet quotes so admiringly represents the best practices of university stagecraft, with Hecuba's agony filtered through Senecan blank verse.58

The preference of the introverted thinker for experience "second hand" is reflected even in Hamlet's theatrical tastes. While "Gonzago" is of a different subgenre than is the Player's speech, it is an old play, formulated of sententious couplets, frozen firmly within its melodramatic premises, and conducted within the "unities" of time, place, and action. "Gonzago" stands as anti-type to the sprawl of the play surrounding it. The outer play represents the "reality" in which Prince Hamlet lives. Indeed, he seems to be a character in a play of which he would disapprove. He would seek "reality" via a fiction, through an end-stopped drama whose lines—except for his "dozen of sixteen" (II.ii.541)—have already been written. The irony is that fiction can be an avenue towards reality, as Shakespeare has shown in Rosalind's disguise, for example. The tragic irony is that Hamlet, so conversant with the trappings and shows of drama, does not grasp its potentiality. Or—if he does—his unperceived psyche cancels his conscious insight.

The inner play, for all of its antique formality, has the power to translate the outer play into something other than tragedy. As Hamlet's psychic energy explodes to destroy "Gonzago," he coerces his own play towards tragedy. That play, too, is a fiction, but Hamlet has an opportunity to allow the fiction he commissions to become a profound truth for the world he inhabits. If we look through "Gonzago" and extend the glimpse Claudius has already given of himself, we discern, in what might seem to be a tiny mirror at the end of an infinite regress, a reflection of a universe—that is the microcosm known as the soul.

I suggest of Hamlet what I suggested of those critics who would be "objective" about a drama, about this play and its title character. The "detached" stance, based on a set of derived "rules," merely encourages unperceived energies to flow forward. It is what happens to those of us introverted thinking type professors, when a class suddenly and unaccountably goes awry. Hamlet, the intellectual critic of theater, cannot accept his own standards. His own feeling explodes through his own too-rational plan, which has expressed the possibility of feeling, but is translated only into a rationality that becomes a tragic rationalization.

Hamlet merges with Lucianus, a case of alter ego inundating consciousness and becomes a character of whom he would disapprove in a bloody revenge play, in which only the relatively peaceful drowning of Ophelia and the presumed execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are delivered by report. The Jungian shadow, the unconscious personality formed by consciousness, leaps forward to evoke in Hamlet a fantasy of murdering Claudius "on the psychic plane," as Harold Goddard suggests.59 That the fantasy of poisoning Claudius in the play-within becomes a double reality in the outer play confirms the moment of Hamlet's tragic "decision"—a decision made for him within a matrix of conflict that he could not control. Hamlet is the subject of a profound satire. He may prefer drama that is "caviary to the general" (II.ii.436-437) but his selection of the only script available to depict "something like the murder of [his] father" (I.ii.596) may signal a surrender of his own aesthetic system of values. It is his psyche, however, that caves in before his own melodrama, a surrender that suggests his own shallow sense of his original conception of what even melodrama might accomplish and his superficial grasp of who he is, as opposed to what his ego conceives him to be. The ego mis-conceives because it ignores the deeper conceptions and energies that lurk beneath our soap-opera daily lives. Hamlet's inability to abide by his old-fashioned rules, both in choice of play and in attitude of spectator, is one factor that makes Hamlet the play a masterpiece of the new drama, with, as Chute says, "its mixture of comedy and tragedy, its failure to observe the unities, and all its other sins against decorum that any young gentleman from the universities would have noted immediately."60

The melodramatic "Gonzago," however, offered a kind of "comedy" to the soul of Claudius and a redemption for the world of Elsinore. Hamlet had to glimpse that possibility—as he did—and cling to it—as he did not. His smashing of the melodrama forces the "other play," the reality in which Hamlet lives, into the tragic mode. The play is Shakespeare's, of course, not Hamlet's, although the inner play is, in a sense, Hamlet's. (I do not believe that we ever hear "the speech" [III.ii.1]—Hamlet's insertion). Hamlet's "misinterpretation" of his own play allows "Gonzago" to draw Hamlet's psyche out destructively. He fails the decorum of even the melodrama of which he himself is the impressario. The play does capture Claudius's inner nature—later and too late. It captures Hamlet's sooner—and too soon. Once it has done so, it is too late for almost all of "Gonzago's" immediate spectators. Hamlet coerces not Claudius's confession, but his own.

The play-within represents a potential solution to the seemingly insolvable issues with which Hamlet has been wrestling. It is, at least, worth trying, is consistent with the various facets of Hamlet's persona, represents his control, at last, of the enigmatic energies of appearance and reality, and is a potential manifestation of Hamlet's creative soul, or anima, not just a product of his "brain." In all the play, it is his only "considered" action:

I have heard That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, Have by the very cunning of the scene Been struck so to the soul, that presently They have proclaim'd their malefactions; For murder, although it hath no tongue, will speak With most miraculous organ.


Hamlet articulates the plan clearly, and expresses its ultra-rational possibilities—in "soul" and "miraculous." He further suggests that his "guilty creature" may "proclaim presently"—that is express guilt both publicly and immediately. This product of the "brain" seems to have transcended its biological and merely mental premises. While his own conception of drama does not encompass the complexity of the play in which he himself is captured, he might absorb a lesson from the First Player about "the realities of drama":

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wanned, Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit; and all for nothing For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her?


Even here, Hamlet describes the male soul as feminine (that is, assuming that "from her working" refers back to "his soul"). But here we have a male weeping for a woman, a male evoking a subtext of a compassion that Hamlet, perhaps remembering a Gertrude "like Niobe, all tears" (I.ii.149), can find only baffling, if not hypocritical. In the Player, sub-text became a "reality" that convinced his auditors. Hamlet might draw three conclusions—might, if not swept into one of his outbursts of passionate feeling: a) revenge, as it is represented by Pyrrhus is a "hellish" activity; b) a fictional version of Claudius's crime, although perhaps the fiction of a Ghost, might force Claudius's soul to reveal its subtextual energy—the Player, after all, has moved from inside out on the basis of a remote fiction; and c) Hamlet had better not let his own soul be moved by his own conceit, as he observes his play, lest his own subtextual energies unkennel themselves to destroy his melodramatic masterpiece. Such a three-part formulation might seem the product of a scholar sitting in his study. So it is. If, however, we listen to Hamlet as he discusses guilty creatures sitting at plays or actors playing roles, and if we remember Hamlet's injunction about staying in one's role ("let those who play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them":III.ii.38-39)—even if that role be defined as that of spectator—we might recognize that Hamlet has expressed these possibilities and more. It is the tendency of the introverted thinker, however, to blast apart even those well-laid plans he has "thought" out in advance. The psychic moment is always charged with an energy that the thinking type cannot have "thought" about. In Hamlet's case, that energy emerges from his repressed anima. The incomplete conclusions Hamlet draws from the Player's response to Hecuba are a product of Hecuba's mourning for her dead king. Hamlet knows what "bisson rheum" (II.ii.506) is worth! A Player responding to the likes of Hecuba can only be "monstrous" (II.ii.551), because even passionate mourning can only be temporary and becomes, finally, less meaningful than the actions of "a beast that wants discourse of reason" (I.ii.150). While Hamlet may project his mother's example onto "all occasions" his inability to respond to any positive feminine action signals not just the contamination of his "personal unconscious" by personal experience, as in the case of the oedipal dilemma, but his alienation from the feminine principle within him, a psychic divorce that may dictate the negative working out of the oedipal problem.

The man controlled by the negative anima inevitably responds to women on the specific level of his perception of his specific mother. Such a man cannot penetrate to the deeper level of his own maternal being, to the a priori principle that precedes mere biology. Mere biology becomes, then, one of Hamlet's chief preoccupations when it comes to the two women in his life. It would seem that Hamlet wished to come to Hecuba so that he could believe in her, at least, but that the Player's "belief interrupts the potentiality for Hamlet's contact with a compensatory example of woman. So, too, do Ophelia's contrived "orisons" (III.i.90), whether Hamlet perceives the "lawful espials" (III.i.32) or not. He may, but it does not matter. The perverse and often moving love scene devolves into a brutal rejection of Ophelia by a Hamlet who, like so many would-be lovers, rejects his own hopes in the process. His affections may not "that way tend" (III.i.165) but the words and actions of the introverted thinker too often contradict the wishes of his nature. For Hamlet, the activity that emerges from the feminine nature of man, whether the Player's mimesis of response to the antique sorrow of Hecuba or Hamlet's intuitive grasp of the meaning of the duel, is bound to be rejected. Hamlet is programmed to scorn the principle of the feminine soul, even as he elsewhere berates his resultant womanish behavior. Whether Ophelia is a "worthy object" of Hamlet's affection is irrelevant. She is the human screen upon which Hamlet's unconscious anima is projected. She must get to a nunnery and become a nun or get to that nunnery which, in Elizabethan slang, was a brothel. The anima-alienated man can see women only as saints—in which case they do not exist as women—or as whores—in which case they also do not exist as women. A woman exists for a man only insofar as he can elevate the feminine principle from the depths of his psyche into consciousness.

The failure of "Gonzago" results partially from Hamlet's projection of his own shadow personality onto the figure of Lucianus, with his "Thoughts black" (III.ii 253). The play may resemble "something like the murder of [Hamlet's] father" (II.ii.596), but it becomes, as Hamlet begins to interact with it, something like the poisoning of Claudius, here on the psychic plane, in Act V, on the level of physical action. In one sense, Hamlet is Claudius poisoning King Hamlet, a mimesis of Hamlet's oedipal fantasy. In another sense Hamlet is Lucianus killing Claudius, as Hamlet allows his shadow personality to become "nephew to the King" (III.ii.242). It is neither incidental nor accidental that the play-within does resemble the Ghost's description of his demise. What it comes to mean, however, is something else. Rather than eliciting the penitential imperative in Claudius towards open confession, it summons forward Hamlet's own unperceived psychic content. The "murderer" does not "get the love of Gonzago's wife" (III.ii.261-262) because Hamlet has interrupted the "anon" he promises. One could argue, then, that while the death of the father has been achieved, Hamlet must stop short of the possession of the mother by Lucianus. Both the oedipal dilemma and the incest taboo pertain, if we accept the Lucianus-Claudius-Hamlet conflation. If the recumbent "king" is Claudius, however, as it will be in Act V, when Hamlet forces the contents of the chalice down Claudius's throat, then Hamlet is responding to the inner drama of the shadow, responding from a shallow but powerful plane of the personal unconscious. Hamlet may have wished to play this role in Elsinore, with his "nighted color" (I.ii.68), but now the role plays him. In the psychic sense, "it is as easy as lying." Hamlet's confusion before his own production culminates as he breaks up the play, leaving the actors on-stage to gaze at a fleeing audience. Polonius's command is redundant. All Claudius asks for is "some light" (III.ii.267). Hamlet's inflation may term the result a "comedy" (III.ii.291), but his chance to achieve the King's "purgation" (III.ii.305)—and his own—has passed. He is quickly, and again, victimized by discrepancies between appearances and realities.61

Conventional wisdom on "Gonzago" is represented by Ruth Nevo:

The King breaks down; Hamlet has triumphed. He has made the galled jade wince and the truth unkennel itself. It is his text that the players, the court, the King and the Queen all play. He is • master of reality, making his will prevail, no fool of fortune. His elation is unbounded . . .62

His elation, indeed, is unbounded. While we can understand, perhaps, how and why Hamlet feels he has succeeded, here is what has actually happened:

Lucianus On wholesome life usurp immediately. [Pours the poison into the sleeper's ears.]

Hamlet A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago. The story is extant and written in very choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

[Claudius rises.]

Ophelia. The King rises.

Hamlet. What, frighted with false fire? Queen. How fares my lord?

Polonius. Give o'er the play.

King. Give me some light. Away! Polonius. Lights, lights, lights!


While Horatio may be willing to grant Hamlet "Half a share" (III.ii.277) for the half of "Gonzago" Hamlet has permitted to be performed, I see no evidence here that Claudius has broken down. Alfred Harbage claims that "As the act of poisoning occurs, Claudius rises, crying for lights and rushing out."63 In the superb 1964 Gielgud production, Alfred Drake rose slowly, looked at Hamlet with profound anger, and exited with dignity.

Patrick Stewart smiled at Derek Jacobi's BBC-TV Hamlet, as if to say, "So you know? You should not have let me know." Tim Wheeler, in the 1983 Monmouth production reached for a courtier's sword on "Give me . . . ," paused, said "some light" (III.ii.267) and strode from the room. I believe that the script shows two things: a) that Hamlet interrupts "Gonzago" for the last time, and b) that only Hamlet believes that Claudius has unkenneled his guilt. Horatio hardly confirms Hamlet's perception. Indeed, as McElroy argues, "Hamlet . . . accepts the Ghost's account and hence should be in no need of proof . . . Hamlet the enthusiast is once more caught up in the game, sanguinely anticipating the outcome: 'The play's the thing . . . "'.64 The play-within proves nothing about Claudius, except to Hamlet and those critics who accept Hamlet's interpretation of "success." That Claudius is guilty turns out to be true. But that Hamlet wastes his precious knowledge is also true. As Granville-Barker says, "it is a barren victory, lacking its conclusive stroke, and to be turned against its victor."65 In other words, it is a defeat—not of Claudius, but of Prince Hamlet. It is Hamlet who is left on stage to leap about excitedly. I have never seen a production that allowed Claudius to exit in fear or panic. In anger, yes. Claudius does succeed in suggesting to the world of Elsinore that he is angry. Hamlet has convinced no one of what his "prophetic soul" already knew—that Claudius is guilty. Hamlet has forgotten the principle he articulated in his "guilty creatures" speech and becomes the victim of Holland's description of drama:

By projecting what is in the characters outward into externally visible events and actions, a play paves the way for the audience's own act of projection. We find in the external reality of a play what is hidden in ourselves. Drama shows virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Watching a set of events in a play feels, for this reason, very different from reading them in a novel.66

Hamlet's failure can be understood in both the Freudian oedipal and the Jungian shadow contexts. It results more basically, however, from his creation of a work of art—a play—that can function on a level deeper than that of his own conscious understanding, or rationalization, of the way drama can work. "Gonzago" catches Claudius, powerfully but ineffectually. But it shows Hamlet to be the murderer in the garden. He has failed the creative and feminine principle within him that inspired "Gonzago." "The creative process," Jung says, "has feminine quality, and the creative work arises from unconscious depths—we might say, from the realm of the mothers. Whenever the creative force predominates, human life is ruled and moulded by the unconscious as against the active will, and the conscious ego is swept along by a subterranean current, being nothing more than a helpless observer of events. The work in progress becomes the poet's fate."67 If Hamlet could remain merely an observer, saying "Now, let it work," then his plans for "Gonzago," seemingly fitted precisely to the tortured conscience Claudius has told us is there . . . well, that is another play, true. Hamlet merges with "Gonzago"—"a chorus" (III.ii.243), as Ophelia calls him—until he does prove helpless before the content his production activates in him. "Gonzago" as "success"—as most critics call it? The label may be a product of the critic who has made Hamlet his "moral interpreter," as Robert Ornstein, for example, claims Hamlet is in this play.68 "Gonzago," I suggest, is hardly a "success," even if Hamlet wildly and whirlingly sees it as one. It is, instead, the play's tragic climax. The premature closing of "Gonzago" drives the outer play towards its negative fatality. The actions immediately after "Gonzago"—often elevated as Hamlet's "climax"—emanate from the potentially positive dynamic Hamlet has shattered. He is summoned to Gertrude's closet, discovers Claudius in the chapel and passes up his chance to kill the kneeling King, arrives in Gertrude's chamber, and kills Polonius. The pattern that includes the sparing of Claudius and the slaying of Polonius and that shows Hamlet again confused about the nature of "reality" emerges directly from the suddenly cancelled performance of "Gonzago." And for all of Hamlet's elation immediately after the Mouse-trap, the pattern hardly argues success. The "other ending" expressed by Hamlet in planning his play is forever unavailable. For Hamlet, now, revenge is not revenge unless the victim's soul can be dispatched to hell, although an incidental murder can be justified because the victim was "too busy" (III.iv.34).

Hamlet's play and its intrinsic failure capture the anima problem profoundly. Claudius's ex post facto invocation to "the sweet heavens" (III.iii.45) and his wish that his heart might become "soft as sinews of the newborn babe" (III.iii.71) combine with the "heavy burden" (III.ii.55) of guilt he acknowledged before the play-within to suggest that he had it within him to be redeemed—if temporally doomed—by the reenactment of his crime, by a "dream of passion" (II.ii.552) that projected his own "truth"—even if consciousness would call it a "nightmare"—irresistibly before him. The negative anima—Hamlet's "whore" (V.ii.64) or Claudius's "harlot's cheek" (III.i.52)—might have been translated into the energy of salvation. While a specific Queen stands between both Claudius and Hamlet and their deepest self-expression, her power manifests itself only on the "personal" level. Hamlet is guilty of wasting his command of a potent fictional force that might have activated a deeper than personal level within Claudius, that level where the anima resides, with its command over the eternal, the feminine-in man, and with its ability to mediate, like the Catholic Virgin Mary, between the soul of man and God. At the very least, Hamlet fails to recognize that, as Leslie Fiedler says, the play-within has "an archetypal meaning quite independent of any individual's conscious exploitation of it."69 The play elicits Hamlet's negative psyche; it does not give Claudius's inner imperative a chance to proclaim itself Thus Hamlet becomes a tragic hero acting in defiance of the ground of his own being, a ground inhabited by a feminine principle that expresses itself only to be scorned.

Shakespeare sets Hamlet up as a potential comedy. While we accept, ponder, and celebrate the play he gives us, we must, I believe, recognize that the play deepens into tragedy at the precise moment that Hamlet cancels the possibilities he has set loose in "Gonzago." It may be that Hamlet's production, coming as it does from his deepest creative instincts, that is, from the woman-in-him, must be rejected because Hamlet mistrusts that woman. His castigation of women in his outer world argues his hatred of the feminine within.

The Jungian approach allows us to describe Hamlet within the context of a failed androgyny. Such a failure is characteristic of the introverted thinker and can incorporate an oedipal dilemma. The Jungian approach, however, does not force us to reduce dramatic action to the activity of a specific complex in the title character. We can, then, accept the thesis that the complex is there, without coercing the complex into an "explanation" of a character and a play that will always remain seductively mysterious. Whatever he meant and whatever his character may mean as he is exposed to the litmus of our psyches, Shakespeare meant the mystery. Jolande Jacobi, for example, describes a basic human problem that Hamlet would seem to manifest. While the passage I quote would seem to be a response to the Freudian critics I cited earlier, it is in no way a direct response to the character of Prince Hamlet:

Material deriving from the collective unconscious is never "pathological"; it can become pathological only if it comes from the personal unconscious, where it undergoes a specific transformation and coloration by being drawn into an area of individual conflict . . . Only an interpretation on the symbolic level can strip the nucleus of the complex from its pathological covering and free it from the impediment of its personalistic garb . . . If a complex embedded in the material of the personal unconscious seems to stand in inexorable conflict with consciousness, its nucleus, once laid bare, may prove to be a content of the collective unconscious. For example, the individual is no longer confronted with his own mother, but with an archetype of the "maternal," no longer with the unique personal problem created by his own mother as a concrete reality, but with the universally human, impersonal problem of every man's dealings with the primordial maternal ground in himself . . . how much more bearable it is for a son to conceive the son-father problem no longer on the plane of individual guilt—in relation, for example, to his own desire for his father's death, his aggressions and desires for revenge—but as a problem of deliverance from the father, i.e. from a dominant principle of consciousness that is no longer adequate for the son: a problem that concerns all men, and has been disclosed in the myths and fairy tales as the slaying of the reigning old king and the son's accession to the throne . . . Everything depends on whether the conscious mind is capable of understanding, assimilating, and integrating the complex, in order to ward off its harmful effects. If it does not succeed in this, the conscious mind falls victim to the complex, and is to a greater or lesser degree engulfed by it.70

Fortune, for Hamlet, is a "strumpet" (II.ii.236). While Fortune is a goddess no doubt fickle and inconsistent, Hamlet's projection of whorishness upon her signals his view of women, not necessarily Fortune's view of men. But Hamlet predicts what his fortune will be if he clings to his vision of woman—and of the woman-in-him—as strumpet.

The Freudian tends to approach a character as a "real person." The Freudian tends to posit an inevitable and perhaps valid infantile experience that Shakespeare does provide for Juliet, Leontes, and Polixenes perhaps, but not for Hamlet. Jung provides a thesis that coincides with characterization and that suggests that Shakespeare's plays imitate human actions that may emerge from premises deeper than those of personal complexes. Hamlet's tragedy—unique, royal, and superbly phrased—captures within it our own specific struggle towards identity. "Who's there?" (I.i.l) we ask of ourselves, perhaps even pausing for a reply. Hamlet's own reply must give us pause because it—like our own—is inadequate. Hamlet is forced into "the faction that is wronged" (V.ii.236). In so profoundly exploring his own identity—and insignificance—Hamlet helps us to explore our own, perhaps allowing us to transcend, for the moment, our insignificance even as we recognize that Hamlet transcends, even in tragic failure, whatever such as we might be, "crawling between earth and heaven" (III.i.129-130). The Jungian approach helps us account for inconsistencies in behavior—whether in a dramatic character like Hamlet or in ourselves. We may have a smack of Hamlet in us. In his own desperate and losing struggle to discover his identity and in his radical misinterpretation of the basic message of his selfhood, Hamlet makes our own identities possible—the imperative available in a great work of art, even in a lesser work like "Gonzago", which we accept or reject as we will. Hamlet's conscious effort to exploit even a melodrama like "Gonzago" leads to the drama's sudden exploitation of his unconscious.

Hamlet, "had he been put on," "might have prov'd most royal" (V.ii.399-400). But he trapped himself in an unsuccessful working out of a myth of identity. He has become mythological, of course, but his status as enigma cannot ignore his having proved himself a guilty creature sitting at a play. He exits, "loudly" and ironically, to "soldier's music" (V.ii.401-402). But that is Fortinbras' interpretation. An old regime is born again, where a new one might have reigned. The point was nicely made in the recent RSC Hamlet, when Fortinbras, suddenly remembering that he is king, moved back into center stage and coerced obeisance from the survivors in the throne room.


1Samuel Johnson onShakespeare, ed. W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1960), p. 98.

2Johnson: Prose and Poetry, ed. Mona Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1951), p. 617.

3Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes (New York: Capricorn, 1959), pp. 139-140.

4WilhelmMeister's Apprenticeship, I. IV. xiii.

5 Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince (London: Penguin, 1975), p. 200.

6 "Hamlet and His Problems," Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), p. 124.

7 Murdoch, Black Prince, p. 200.

8Shakspere: His Mind and Art (New York: Capricorn, 1962), p. 156.

9The WNET Dial (Nov., 1980), 28.

10 A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Meridian, 1955), p. 103.

11 Bradley, pp. 86-87.

12 "Shakespeare: The Middle Plays," The Age of Shakespeare, ed. Boris Ford (London: Penguin, 1960), p. 210.

13 That is to say something very different than Eliot and others who impute the failure to Shakespeare. Cf. Virgil Whitaker: "In Hamlet Shakespeare failed to make his borrowed plot and his moral interests coalesce." The Mirror Up to Nature (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1965), p. 201.

14 Bradley, p. 111.

15 Bradley, p. 113.

16 Bradley, p. 84.

17 "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Analogy of Action," The Idea of a Theater (Garden City: Doubleday, 1953), pp. 109-154, The Unnatural Scene (London: Methuen, 1976), pp. 123-157, "Hamlet the Bonesetter," Shakespeare Survey XXX (1977), 103-115.

18 "Hamlet: Not a Word of His Own," Shakespeare's Studies XIII (1980), 74.

19 Goldstein, 77.

20Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Bucknell, 1976), pp. 89-167.

21The Singularity of Shakespeare, and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 120.

22Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City: Doubleday, 1949), pp. 99-190.

23Hamlet's Absent Father (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978), p. 24.

24 Erlich, p. 63.

25 Erlich, pp. 65-66.

26Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in "Hamlet" (Toronto: U.T. Press, 1977), p. 162.

27 Aldus, p. 166.

28Decoding the Past (New York: Knopf, 1983), pp. 240-280.

29 "The Psychology of Hitlerism as a Response of the Lower Middle Classes to Continuing Insecurity" (1933), The Analysis of Political Behavior (Hamden, Conn., 1966), pp. 240-241.

30Childhood and Society (New York: Second Ed., Rev., 1963), p. 337.

31 Loewenberg, p. 264.

32 "Father-Fantasies and Father-Typing in Father-Separated Children," Child Development XVI (1946), 71.

33 Loewenberg, p. 264.

34 Loewenberg, pp. 279-280.

35The Psychology of Jung (New Haven: Yale, 1943), pp. 17-20.

36 Campbell, Portable Jung, p. 311. CW XV, par. 114.

37 Campbell, p. 229. CW VI, II, par. 620.

38 "The Tragedies," The Living Shakespeare, ed. Robert Gittings (New York, 1960), p. 123.

39 Campbell, PF ). 25-26. CW VIII, p. 141

40 Campbell p. 190, CW VI, par. 574.

41 Campbell p. 200. CW VI, par. 588.

42 Campbell p. 237. CW VI, par. 628.

43 Campbell p. 230. CW VI, par. 608.

44 Campbell p. 241. CW VI, par. 640.

45 Campbell p. 242. CW VI, par. 641.

46 Campbell p. 244. CW VI, par. 643.

47 Campbell p. 245. CW VI, par. 644.

48 "Glossary" to Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Vintage, rev., 1965), p. 391.

49CW XVII, p. 198. Elsewhere, Jung says, "a larger mind bears the stamp of the feminine: it is endowed with a receptive and fruitful womb which can reshape what is strange and give it a familiar form." Quoted in Marie-Louise von Franz, CG. Jung: His Myth in Our Time (CG. Jung Foundation: G.P. Putnam, 1975), p. 145.

50CW IX, Part 2, par. 19.

51 Whitmont, Symbolic Quest, p. 194.

52 Whitmont, p. 190.

53 Bernard Grebanier, The Heart of Hamlet (New York: Crowell, 1960). For a Jungian approach to Hamlet that relies heavily on Grebanier—with unfortunate results, I think—see James Kirsch, Shakespeare's Royal Self (New York: Putnam, 1966), pp. 3-183. An excellent psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet is Bernard Paris, "Hamlet and His Problems: A Horneyan Analysis," The Centennial Review, XXI #1 (Winter, 1977), 36-66.

54 Marie-Louise von Franz, "The Process of Individuation," Man and His Symbols, ed. C.G. Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and John Freeman (Garden City: Doubleday, 1964), pp. 178-179.

55 Long, The Unnatural Scene, p. 127.

56 "The Year's Contributions to Shakespearean Studies," Shakespeare Survey XXIII (1970), 149.

57 Goldstein, 79.

58Shakespeare of London (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1949), p. 227.

59The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1951), p. 369.

60 Chute, p. 227.

61 On Hamlet's failure to accomplish Claudius's "purgation," see O.B. Hardison, "Three Types of Renaissance Catharsis," Renaissance Drama (1969), 3-22.

62Tragic Form in Shakespeare (Princeton, 1972), p. 160.

62William Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide (New York, 1963), p. 324.

64Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies (Princeton, 1973), p. 66.

65Preface to 'Hamlet' (New York: Hill & Wang, 1961), p. 98.

66Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York, 1966), p. 238.

67 "The Poet," The Norton Reader (New York: 4th Edition, 1977), p. 229, originally from Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933).

68The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1960), p. 235.

69 "The Defense of the Illusion and the Creation of Myth," English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia, 1949), 76.

70Complex/Archetypes/Symbol in the Psychology ofC.G. Jung (New York: Pantheon, 1959), p. 20.

C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Sight Lines on Hamlet and Shakespeare Tragedy," in The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, University of California Press, 1986, pp. 255-72.

[In the following excerpt, Barber and Wheeler maintain that the psychological pattern in Hamlet involves Hamlet's "struggle to cope with the desecration of his heritage." The critics stress that this turmoil is the social reality which enables the play's psychological constructs to be expressed and which ensures the historical relevancy of Hamlet.]

Piety, Outrage, and Theatrical Aggression in Hamlet

A psychological pattern is always an aspect of social life, an abstraction we make from observing an individual's way of coping with his relations to others. Hamlet is a play about disinheritance, experienced in its most drastic form, at the heart of a fully dramatized social world. It presents a hero who, though he should be the embodiment of the heritage—"The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th' observ'd of all observers"—is "blasted with ecstasy" (III.i.153-54, 160). Hamlet's struggle to cope with the desecration of heritage, his outrageousness in response to outrage, his piety in spite of it, his struggle for expression—it is these social realities and gestures that make the play's psychological configurations expressible, and that enable Hamlet to keep its relevance through changing historical situations.

Freud provided a bridge from individual to social development in observing that the individual conscience, the cultural heritage as reflected in one's system of values and sense of self, is formed through the child's internalization of the culturally shaped values of the parents.14 So too are individual attitudes toward and conceptions of the larger powers that sustain life. In a culture with an effectual religion, God is manifest in one's awareness of what validates and supports society, history, the universe. In a secularized culture, we still arrive, at maturity, at an awareness that the validating ground of individual life is larger than individuals. Acceptance of the parents' finitude and imperfection is part of the transfer of piety that recognizes the larger, culturally confirmed context as the source of the parents' being as well as the being of the child. A broader piety takes over from infantile dependence and, insofar as it does that, frees the child from the parents, permits him, in becoming a child of God, or a child of the times, to become a man.

Successful development permits the child to forgive the parents for not being gods; fixation along the road of development results in crippling investments of love and hate in idolatrous objects, parents or parent-substitutes. The deferred afflictions of the Oedipus complex, whether at the crisis of adolescence or erupting in later life, represent a crisis in the piety that normally sustains one's identity. In Hamlet, the father's return as a Ghost makes him the object of the son's idolatry. An idol is an inadequate image of the divine because it intervenes between the individual's worship and his awareness of the larger force in which he and his world are grounded. But his father's spirit is all that Prince Hamlet has. His lack of a stable, integrated image of the father at the core of himself makes the Ghost walk, creates the need to find him outside. And it allows filial piety to become an obsession. The Prince is trapped because his piety cannot get beyond the Ghost of his noble father, murdered by another father, ignoble, gross, revolting.

The Ghost, because it embodies the whole valid moral and social heritage, cuts off the protagonist (and to a large extent the play) from any wider allegiance. The nexus with what should be is almost entirely through Hamlet. Christian commentators, Roy Battenhouse, for instance, or Eleanor Prosser, point out that from a Christian point of view Hamlet embraces a sinful course in accepting the Ghost's charge to avenge his father's death, for "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."15 Hamlet pursues his ghostly father's will in place of God's will. To see the play from this vantage point, however, is to let us, and Hamlet, out of the modern world that this play helps to usher in; it is to propose an alternative that simply is not present within the play's fable. The fact that Hamlet is the legitimate heir makes him, will he nill he, the final court of appeal and authority that should bring Claudius to justice. It is an appalling situation of aloneness, an appalling task.

Hamlet has to meet the dismaying isolation of his secret, which Shakespeare makes us realize as soon as the others rejoin him after the Ghost has gone:

I hold it fit that we shake hands and part, You, as your business and desire shall point you, For every man hath business and desire, Such as it is, and for my own poor part, I will go pray.

(I.v. 128-32)

Already there is the sense that nothing ordinary—"business and desire, / Such as it is"—matters. Hamlet's "and for my own poor part, / I will go pray," in its terrible sense of aloneness, edges on ironic recognition of his situation, in which the religious dimension, the supernatural beyond the Ghost, is already out of range. We see the intensity of his suffering and isolation through the eyes of Ophelia in the next scene, where she reports that he has come to her closet looking "As if he had been loosed out of hell" (II.i.80). We feel his isolation too in the false diagnosis of Polonius, in Ophelia's helplessness, in his situation of being spied on, both by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and by the King and Polonius—with Ophelia as bait. Hamlet's heroic identity, his greatness, is his power of maintaining himself in his relation to the Ghost and in the vision of the world's corruption that goes with it.

In dramatizing this heroic striving, Hamlet, more than any other play, invites identification with the hero and yet does not fully guide us in what we are to make of him. We identify with all the tragic protagonists, of course; but we also regularly feel horror, dismay, or even something like amusement:

LEAR: Dost thou call me fool, boy?

FOOL: All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with.

(Lr. I.iv. 148-50)

We are aware, regularly, of more than the protagonist is, and this awareness balances the claims of the protagonist on us. But once Hamlet has seen the Ghost in the third scene, there is scarcely a moment in the action when anyone in the play, or in the audience, knows more than Hamlet knows. He even intimates that he sees through to the King's purposes in sending him to England: "I see a cherub that sees them" (IV.iii.48). Such judgments as are made on Hamlet are pointedly not to the point. We see through others with him, while the others are unable to see through him, to pluck out the heart of his mystery.

A curious impunity surrounds Hamlet. Although he is outrageous, insulting, impudent, people do not call him on it. After Hamlet has described the repulsiveness of old men to Polonius's face, the old man diverts indignation into objective observation: "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" (II.ii.205-6). Or again with Ophelia:

HAMLET: I did love you once.

OPHELIA: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

HAMLET: You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov'd you not.

OPHELIA: I was the more deceiv'd.


The lack of direct response to Hamlet's outrageousness goes with the assumption that he is mad or deranged. Ophelia, who does not know how deeply his jilting has hurt her until she goes mad, says "O, help him, you sweet heavens!" and finally, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (lines 133, 150).

Even the King holds himself almost entirely in check, not taking up Hamlet's insults and insinuations:

KING: How fares our cousin Hamlet?

HAMLET: Excellent, i' faith, of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promisecramm'd—you cannot feed capons so.

KING: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet, these words are not mine.


Part of the other characters' helplessness, of course, comes from the sudden, shifting, half-hidden wit with which Hamlet attacks, as here, where he takes the would-be agreeable "How fares our cousin," how do you do, as though it were how do you eat, and answers "I eat the air" (your promises), implying promises instead of the substance of the succession that you have taken from me. "You cannot feed [even] capons so"—and, by implication, I am no capon. No wonder the King can say no more than "I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet, these words are not mine."

Only the Queen, in the pitch of excitement after the play-within-the-play, sets about wholeheartedly to rebuke her son, and she gets back, at once, better than she gives, as Hamlet turns her phrase: "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended." "Mother, you have my father much offended" (III.iv.9-10). When he has killed the man behind the arras, her natural humanity cries out: "O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!" only to be put down at once by "A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother" (lines 27-29). Part of the tragedy, of course, is that his mother has forfeited the moral authority that might provide a vantage point from which to grieve for the "unseen good old man" (IV.i.12). There is thus no one to comment on the frightfulness with which Hamlet dismisses the death of Polonius when he discovers whom he has killed: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy better" (III.iv.31-32). Instead, Hamlet immediately returns to upbraiding his mother: "Leave wringing of your hands. Peace, sit you down, / And let me wring your heart" (lines 34-35).

As we watch the play, or are swept along in reading it, we are not invited to pause over the cruelty of Hamlet's taunts. The killing of Polonius makes more real the violence pent up in Hamlet; there is relief that he has reached to action, even if only in unpremeditated response, together with regret that it is not, as for a moment he thinks possible, the King he has killed. Polonius has been exhibited as something of a fool in his own right, a dotard version of the father-figure. The lack of compunction Hamlet feels about a man dead functions for us as a measure of the intensity of his deep sense of outrage about the people who matter. Indeed, his ruthlessness is somehow a testimony to his all-absorbing, heroic commitment to feeling the outrage done to life by the murder of his father and by what he perceives as his mother's infidelity.

The play is blind to Hamlet's faults except insofar as they are expressed by Hamlet himself. To insist on them, to go beyond Hamlet's own perceptions in dwelling on his destructiveness, his egotism, his ineffectualness and irresponsibility, is in a curious way discourteous, doing violence to an alliance with the sweet prince that audiences enjoy. When Hamlet plays hide-and-seek with those sent to find where he has hidden the body of Polonius, we enjoy his exhilarated fun in baffling everybody:

ROSENCRANTZ: What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?

HAMLET: Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.


There is a curious beauty about Hamlet's answer: it puts the death in the context of last things, suggesting a vision of mortality that makes life scarcely matter. But at such a moment, what an evasion, and how arrogant, how upstaging! That this is Hamlet's intention is manifest in the sequel about the sponge and the son of a king. And yet we are with Hamlet here as he puts the little eager terriers in their place.

We are with him even more, of course, when at last he is brought in, guarded, face to face with the King, who has seen the play, so that the chips are down between them:

KING: NOW, Hamlet, where's Polonius?

HAMLET: At supper.

KING: At supper? where?

HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots; your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table—that's the end.

(IV.iii. 16-25)

This is the high point in the antics of Hamlet's madness and worth pausing over as a marvelous example of the way he keeps everyone else off balance by the displacements of wit: "At supper." "At supper? where?" The King, who should be on top, is maneuvered into the position of fall-guy. This technique of setting up the loaded leading question is of course standard with the Shakespearean clown or fool, and the discipline of writing such parts lay behind Shakespeare's handling of Hamlet's antic disposition. In effect, the Prince plays the fool's part as well as the hero's; his assumed madness gives him the equivalent of the court fool's license, which Shakespeare had recently exploited as a dramatic resource in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Part of the fool's stock in trade was the pithy sententious generalization, suddenly brought home by fitting it to present company. Hamlet turns Polonius into a supper for politic worms, with as much relish as disgust—leaving behind all question of his own particular responsibility for the old man's death as he rises to sweeping statement: "we fat all creatures else to fat us." And meanwhile his invisible fool's-bladder keeps bobbing the King, showing him "how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar" (lines 30-31). His direct access to aggressive action against the King blocked, Hamlet plays the fool to enable himself to maintain the integrity of his hatred.

If we stop to add up Hamlet's actions and inactions, we find a catalogue of outrage and failure. But the play does not situate us to stop, does not provide anyone to help in the process of evaluation. No one in the play observes that Hamlet fails Ophelia. We see her and can collect from the fragments of her madness an idea of her profound shock from the cruel disappointment of maiden ardor, along with her grief for the father Hamlet killed. Her loss of Hamlet, indeed, is partly expressed through grief for her father. But Hamlet is off at sea; he is not brought to confront anything of how he has failed her. On the contrary, at her grave he is able to say, without any environing irony:

I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum.


Hamlet arranges for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be "put to sudden death, / Not shriving time allow'd" (V.ii.46-47). "So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't" (line 56) is the only comment, from Horatio, on the drastic expedience with which Hamlet deals with what are, after all, only ignorant agents. Again, no one comments on his complete lack of a viable plan of practical action, even after his return from England. The nearest thing to such a comment is Horatio's practical reminder, while Hamlet rails against the King, that time is passing: "It must be shortly known to him from England / What is the issue of the business there" (V.ii.71-72). Hamlet's response—"It will be short; the interim's mine, / And a man's life's no more than to say 'one'" (lines 73-74)—is one of the great, heroic moments of the play. The current of resolution, so long diffused and roiled, sweeps deep and silent through the magical word "interim," as that word opens up after the strong monosyllables. But the fact remains that he does not make any plan, accepting instead the initiative of the King and Laertes, with the result that it is not the King alone who dies, but also the Queen, Laertes, and Hamlet himself

In creating the role of Hamlet, Shakespeare, exploiting fully the resources of the new theater, could define a new position with respect to heritage, expressing loss of heritage with all its doubts, uncertainty, loathing of self and life, but also exhibiting a hero with strength to protect integrity against acquiescence in the corrupt world, on one side, or acquiescence in self-loathing, on the other. Hamlet is a potentially great man protecting his greatness, the greatness of the demand he makes on life, even as life fails or betrays that demand. What Hamlet has to meet this challenge, to master the enormously disruptive energies it releases in him, is his power of expression. He must save himself from suicide, and he does this in part by expressing his need for it, both directly and in violent self-contempt. It is also essential that he turn aggression outward, affirming the reality of corruption and violence. His power of expression works to prevent or divert him from taking direct action even as it gives theatrical release, assertive and ironic in the terms he establishes, to his aggression; but without it Hamlet could not maintain his wounded identity at all.

It is Hamlet's need for expression that lightens his spirits as soon as he hears that the players are coming. He uses them at once, calling for a speech that serves to identify what is working inside him. As in 1 Henry IV, where we have a "play extempore" about a son's confrontation with his royal father, here we have a speech extempore, part of which Hamlet has by heart, about the destruction of a revered, aged king by a figure who is not restrained from action by any scruples whatever, "rugged Pyrrhus." It is a speech that, in its poised ambiguity, objectifies both Hamlet's feelings of grief and outrage "for a king, / Upon whose property and most dear life / A damn'd defeat was made," and Hamlet's wish that he could "make oppression bitter" by fattening "all the region kites / With this slave's offal" (II.ii.569-71, 578-80). We and Hamlet can experience both the horror of the killing of good old Priam and the terrible zest of it. It even swings around a moment of delay when Illium "stoops to his base," and Pyrrhus, distracted by the hideous crash, "like a neutral to his will and matter, / Did nothing" (lines 476, 481-82).

In developing Hamlet's preoccupation with the players, Shakespeare makes much of the use and abuse of expression and of its inadequacy as an answer to his protagonist's whole need. Hamlet's comments on acting rigorously subordinate the actors' need for expression to "the purpose of the playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (III.ii.20-24). Self is to be wholly absorbed in the discipline of playing as it looks beyond itself. Hamlet's whole discussion notably leaves out the personal motives, the need for self-preservation or reduplication, that animate the playing: "for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness" (III.ii.5-8). The individual's acting must fulfill, not disrupt, the team enterprise: no "necessary question of the play" (lines 42-43) must be neglected.

It is striking how fully Hamlet dramatizes the personal need for playing and formal theatrical action that is left out of Hamlet's account of the process as a professional discipline. Hamlet has "that within which passes show," but he is preoccupied by "actions that a man might play" (I.ii.85, 84). He feels the pressure toward theatrical violence that Kyd played on in The Spanish Tragedy, and he will often "tear a passion to tatters" (III.ii.9-10) in response to it. Dismayed by his own inaction, Hamlet laments:

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


But in fact, of course, he is carried away in a torrent of words:

Am I a coward? Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across, Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie Γ th' throat As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this? Hah, 'swounds, I should take it.

(lines 571-76)

Hamlet, as usual, is the only one who sees the irony about Hamlet. And, as usual, unaffected by it, he proceeds at once to a further use of expression:

I'll have these players Play something like the murther of my father Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks, I'll tent him to the quick. If 'a do blench, I know my course.

(lines 594-98)

"The Murder of Gonzago" is intended by Hamlet to move acting to action by making the King proclaim his guilt. When it comes to the test, however, Shakespeare has Hamlet himself interrupt the necessary business of the play by aggressively summarizing its action instead of waiting for it to have its full effect on Claudius:

'A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate. His name's Gonzago, the story is extant, and written in very choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murtherer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.

OPHELIA: The King rises.


That the poisoner is the "nephew to the king" (line 244), as Hamlet blurts out at his entrance, makes what is acted, while replicating the crime of Claudius, simultaneously present a figure in Hamlet's relationship to Claudius reenacting the murder, as though to fit the crime exactly to the punishment, to "re-venge by re-presentation."16

The enormous poetic and dramatic creativity achieved in Hamlet depends in good part on this pressure to turn speech and acting into action. The need to channel aggression through verbal and theatrical expression in turn depends on the initial, given situation of the two powerful fathers, one murdered by the other, with Hamlet identified with both. Hamlet asserts himself by loathing Claudius; he asserts his father by loathing himself, including the repressed part of himself identified with Claudius's double crime of murder and incest. The constant discharge of cruelty at others is Hamlet's relief from the hideous suffering of his aggression toward himself. Release reaches manic proportions in the rhapsody of elation that follows the play-within-the-play. But the deep movement of the aggression that occupies Hamlet looks toward death, so that by the fifth act the universalizing of death in the graveyard is lyric release. The final havoc carries out the death-directed wish in action.

But whatever our conclusions when we add up Hamlet's actions, we are left with a sense of Hamlet as a moral hero in defeat, a sense of tragic loss, not just the sensational excitement of a revel in a blood bath. Why should this be so? Part of our high sense of Hamlet in death is Shakespeare's skillful manipulation. In the previous scene, the satiric-lyrical universals of the graveyard have opened the floodgates, and the burial of Ophelia has given occasion for a new sort of self-affirmation. Then in the last scene Hamlet's gracious, sociable self is recovered and brought home to us at moments—with Osric for foil, for example—together with the resolution born of the acceptance of death:

If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.


There is a staginess about some of it: Hamlet's apology to Laertes, for example, and Laertes' to Hamlet. But there is also Hamlet's concern, as he dies, about the succession, and about his "story," which Horatio must tell: "Report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied" (lines 339-40). And we do feel, through these gestures, the abortive effort of a younger generation to renew society, a striving toward health.

Yet the tragic dignity and loss must be more than these final heroics—must be something earned, on the basis of a deeper striving. It must be something beyond the meaning we get if we simply reduce Hamlet's problem to the Oedipus complex—and yet it must be consistent with the presence of that complex, for the Freudian explanation clearly works. T. S. Eliot puts us on the way to part of an answer, I think, in his famous criticism of the play as "an artistic failure."17 Eliot observed that "Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem" (p. 125). Eliot, responding to his own deepest preoccupations, as manifest later in his dramatic version of the Orestes-Hamlet theme, The Family Reunion, concluded that "Shakespeare's Hamlet, in so far as it is Shakespeare's [and not an adaptation of a lost earlier version, probably by Kyd], is a play dealing with the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the 'intractable material' of the old play" (p. 123). Hamlet's disgust for his mother "envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him" (p. 125).

What Eliot ignores, focusing only on Hamlet's disgust in response to his guilty mother, is Hamlet's own sense of guilt—what the Freudian explanation makes central. Hamlet's guilt refers to his father not his mother; more accurately, it refers to his parricidal wish. It is this that cannot be given objective expression. The "possible action" that would correspond to this wish is not accessible, because the Ghost is a ghost. Hamlet cannot kill a ghost. Nor can he realize that the destructive force of his effort to serve the Ghost, to retrieve the heritage of his lost father, has its roots in the filial bond he struggles to keep intact by making it the entirety of his life. The given situation, Claudius's murder of the elder Hamlet, demands absolute loyalty to the memory of the idealized father and permits the diversion of the son's murderous wish from father to uncle. But since this repressed wish is unconsciously tied to the assumption that its enactment means death, Hamlet's hatred cannot be directed at Claudius without being deflected back onto himself as well. In the end, Hamlet is able to accept his destiny only when he has accepted death; he finally kills Claudius only when he himself has already received his death blow. It is Hamlet's "bafflement" in this situation that extends into the play the problem confronting its creator.

But Hamlet is, as Eliot said, a "puzzling" play, and "disquieting as is none of the others."18 It is a play in which something gets out of hand. In it Shakespeare poses—and leaves open—the problem of control that later tragedies will master by an ironic balance. Fully achieved tragedy shows us, typically, a heroic protagonist rich in human values and commanding sympathy, but ultimately destructive. The action, in leading the protagonist to his death, moves us toward ironic awareness of his role in necessitating the tragic outcome. Poised against the hero's aggressive self-assertion, and shaping our understanding of it, irony is the aggressive assertion of a vantage point on the protagonist by means of the dramatist's control over the whole action. Ironic awareness enables us to see, from the outside, the limitations and the destructive force of a figure who, like King Lear, is simultaneously the object of our full sympathy. In Hamlet we are invited to identify with the hero at the expense of comprehensive ironic perspective; there is no adequate basis for an outside, controlling perspective. The single-sided attitude it creates toward its hero is one of the striking differences between Hamlet and the ensuing tragedies. What the play does not provide is ruthless awareness of Hamlet, such awareness as we are to get of Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus.

The play's failure to situate us to see its protagonist from any vantage point beyond that which Hamlet provides on himself extends Hamlet's failure to see past the Ghost, to develop a perspective on his majestic father beyond his immediate and absolute dedication of himself to identification with the Ghost. We said earlier that the Ghost gives theatrical embodiment to the overwhelming pressure of a potentially disabling predicament. The Ghost is theatrical in the straightforward sense that it is the enactment of a fantasy possible only in the theater. The fantasy comes in answer to the wish Hamlet has earlier recognized as beyond fulfillment in remembering his father: "'A was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again" (I.ii. 188-89). But with the appearance of the Ghost to him, Hamlet is subjected, as we are with him, to a devastating theatrical power. The creation of the Ghost is an experiment in theatrical aggression that forecloses the possibility of ironic control. Shakespeare mimes omnipotence of mind to transform an impossible fantasy into theatrical actuality, unleashing the profoundly disruptive powers of the new theater in an open-ended way to engage and unsettle the audience as well as those who, within the play, encounter this "dreaded sight" beyond the reach of any controlling perspective.

The harrowing force of the Ghost's presence is registered fully, first in the responses of Horatio and the sentinels in the magnificent opening scene, then in Hamlet's agonized questions on the battlements:

What may this mean, That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon, Making night hideous, and we fools of nature So horridly to shake our disposition With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls? Say why is this? wherefore? what should we do?


As the Ghost departs Hamlet thinks he can participate in this power, which answers to a deep need within himself:

My fate cries out And makes each petty artere in this body As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve. Still am I call'd.

(lines 81-84)

But despite the Prince's conviction here that the Ghost beckons to him with the call of enabling fate, and despite his subsequent absolute commitment to avenging his father's death, for Hamlet the Ghost's appearance puts out of reach the solution it seems at first to provide.

In Hamlet's confrontation with the spirit of his dead father, the overpowering pressure that Shakespeare copes with by creating the Ghost becomes the situation the protagonist must cope with within the play. Hamlet's means of coping is his use of theatrical aggression to engage and unsettle his audience within the play. In taking on a theatrical role like that of the licensed fool and adding to it the special heroic dimension of his extraordinary power to generalize skepticism and disillusion, Hamlet can keep his enemies at a distance while maintaining himself in the face of a potentially self-destructive predicament in which the inhibitions blocking direct action are insurmountable. And by using the players to stage "something like the murther of my father / Before mine uncle" (II.ii.595-96), he can give aggressive theatrical embodiment to the traumatic event revealed to him by the Ghost, releasing himself from its paralyzing force, at least momentarily, by directing it against Claudius.

In presenting the play-within-the-play, Hamlet is preoccupied with a motive and a cue for passion that come not from the fiction and the rhythm of an integrated dramatic performance but from within, and from offstage. To look at the place of Hamlet in Shakespeare's development is to consider how the cue for the whole play comes from Shakespeare, as the cue for the play-within-the-play comes from Hamlet. In Hamlet we can see the shift from the earlier work, with its base in a cherishing, parental sensibility that avoids full confrontation with fathers, to the confrontations with authority and heritage, grounded in relationship to the father, that characterize the great tragedies. The next section will take up the matter of how the hostility toward a good father not dealt with in Hamlet can be seen in what animates Iago in his enterprise of bringing out the weakness of a martial hero rather like Hamlet's father. Iago uses only what is potentially within his victim to make Othello destroy himself in the belief that he had been betrayed by his wife, as King Hamlet was betrayed. The naked parricidal motive against a gracious figure, in the attempt to become "no less than all" (Lr. III.iii.24), only finally gets physical enactment in the dagger that so horrifies Macbeth as he makes his way toward the murder of Duncan. In Hamlet, both Hamlet and Shakespeare understand as wholly separate objects of idolatry and hatred the single figure of a father who engenders the divided response of enduring loyalty and deadly opposition.

But if Hamlet's situation in the play reflects Shakespeare's predicament in constructing it, the play, in following out the destructive consequences of Hamlet's filial distress, also dramatizes the heroic and potentially paralyzing dimensions of a recurring cultural crisis that has its roots in Shakespeare's age and reaches into our own. Hamlet situates its hero, and its audience, at the node of despair and revolutionary protest, both of which draw perennially on heroic expectations whose roots are in infancy but whose definition is itself a heritage of culture:

See what a grace was seated on this brow: Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars, to threaten and command, A station like the herald Mercury New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill, A combination and a form indeed, Where every god did seem to set his seal To give the world assurance of a man. This was your husband. Look you now what follows: Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, Blasting his wholesome brother.


To vindicate the one, the other must be destroyed. Because in the almost four hundred years since Hamlet was written, Western men have repeatedly found themselves in predicaments akin to its hero's, the play's open-ended structure has taken up into itself unresolved energies of commitment and protest in successive generations. As Hazlitt put it, "It is we who are Hamlet. The play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history."19 This is a great destiny for a work of art, though there is a further kind of power in fully achieved tragedy.

In considering the radically disruptive, potentially revolutionary energies in Hamlet, it is crucial to recognize, however, that neither the hero nor the play envisages any alternative society. Marx pointed out how revolutionary groups have ennobled their goals by dressing themselves in the borrowed robes of earlier epochs, the English Puritans as Old Testament prophets, the French revolutionaries as Roman Republicans.20 In Shakespeare's own time the revolutionary appeal of the Reformation to the primitive church was being urged by the radical religious minority—for example, in the Marprelate tracts.21 The revolutionary impulse to think of innovation as the restoration of a pristine integrity clearly reflects psychological roots similar to those which animate Hamlet's expressions of disgust, protest, and the need for vindication. But there is no suggestion whatever in Hamlet of any alternative to established social forms, despite the Prince's drastic expression of their corruption and their limitations: "Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretch'd heroes the beggars' shadows" (II.ii.263-64).

The hero's criticism of society is shaped by the tradition of Christian disillusion, de contemptu mundi, rather than Protestant protest:

HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

CLAUDIUS: What dost thou mean by this?

HAMLET: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.


The Christian discipline of contemplation, as in, say, a representation of the Dance of Death, used such recognitions to turn the heart away from the world to allegiance to Christ.22 One response to Hamlet's predicament would be to turn from the world to religious objects—the response that Eliot dramatized in The Family Reunion, or "Follow the Furies," as that play was first titled.

But Hamlet does not move from loss to the promise of resurrection in Christ, as the Burial of the Dead invites mourners to do. Part of the tremendous originality of Hamlet is to present what might have been a religious problem without a religious solution: in other words, a potentially revolutionary situation. For Hamlet, however, there is neither the hope of resolution of later centuries focused on revolutionary change, nor the traditional Christian hope of resolution through participation in Christ's sacrifice. Hamlet is a hero because he maintains the core of his commitment, even though he confronts the revolutionary potential of the Oedipal predicament without any way to know what it is, without benefit of clergy, so to speak. Instead, the Ghost provides a father in some ways godlike, in which the hero invests something like worship, while the hero, in going about his father's business, invites our participation in his involuntary and imperfect sacrifice.

Hamlet is not, I think, a fully achieved tragedy, but rather a heroic-prophetic play with a "tragical" ending—in its vastly more complex and meaningful way, a play like Tamburlaine. It differs from Tamburlaine in presenting, not heroic outrage by direct assault upon tradition, but a crisis in the transmission of heritage that leads to heroic outrage. In its concern with inheritance, and in its focus on desperation—on the need for revenge as the core of a need for expression and vindication, on passive vulnerability struggling to become active, on language of magical expectation contorted into distraction, wit, or madness—Hamlet is remarkably like the one early play outside Marlowe's work that is both seminal and in its own right great, Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. Both plays call for an identification with the hero's alienation that excludes critical perspective. As with Hieronimo's dedication to avenging his son's death, Hamlet's tie to the Ghost of his father is so total, with no one there except him to evaluate it, that the play cannot dramatize an understanding of Hamlet's destructiveness from a tragic perspective larger than his own. My own feeling is that Hamlet is not fully under control, just because, as Eliot said, too much of the author is in the Prince—though its very open-endedness is what, pace Eliot, makes the play's distinctive greatness. But to bring under full artistic control what Shakespeare was dealing with, there was unfinished business, notably the business of seeing through the ideal father.


14 In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud writes: "The child's super-ego is in fact constructed on the model not of its parents but of its parents' super-ego; the contents which fill it are the same and it becomes the vehicle of tradition and of all the time-resisting judgements of value which have propagated themselves in this manner from generation to generation" (Standard Edition, vol. 22, p. 67).

15 For Battenhouse, "Hamlet's inability to discriminate this fact [that the Ghost is a "damned spirit"] is at the core of his tragedy, . . . a tragedy inseparable from his own decayed faith" (Roy Battenhouse, "The Ghost in Hamlet: A Catholic 'Linchpin'?" Studies in Philology 48 [1951]: 192). See also chap. 4 of his Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), pp. 204-66. On the basis of extensive readings in both Protestant and Catholic writings on ghosts, Prosser finds a "definitive test": "No matter how convincing a spirit might be in every other respect, if it urged any action or made any statement that violated the teachings of the Church, it was an agent of the Devil" (Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967], p. 111).

16 David Willbern, from whose work in progress this phrase is borrowed, observes that the need to do this is deeply grounded in the psychology of revenge and is a consistent feature of the revenge-play form, with its plays-(and audiences)-within-plays.

17 T. S. Eliot, "Hamlet and His Problems," Selected Essays, new ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950), p. 123.

18 Ibid. In considering Hamlet in relation to Shakespeare's power of development, it is well to recall Ella Freeman Sharpe's telling distinction: "The poet is not Hamlet. Hamlet is what he might have been if he had not written the play of Hamlet" (Collected Papers on Psycho-Analysis, ed. Marjorie Brierly [London: Hogarth Press, 1950], p. 205).

19 William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays (1817), ed. Ernest Rhys (London: Everyman's Library, n.d.), p. 79.

20 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), pp. 15-17. Marx distinguished such self-sanctioning by identification with a heroic past from his own call for a proletarian revolution: "The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future" (p. 18). In "The Resurrected Romans" (The Tradition of the New [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965]), Harold Rosenberg turns Marx's observation back against the revolutionary optimism it was designed to serve: "The true image of the historical drama would be less The Communist Manifesto, with its symmetrical human movements, than Hamlet, in which those on stage are exposed at all times to the never-quieted dead" (p. 168). That Hamlet is no longer regarded as Shakespeare's preeminent masterpiece, as it was in the age of romantic and revolutionary enthusiasm, may be partly because we are more aware of the problematic character of revolutionary hopes.

21 Some of the common players, in the period when Shakespeare was starting in the theater, ventured to enter the Marprelate controversy on the establishment side, and after initial encouragement, were told firmly to leave religious matters alone. The Anglican establishment, under Archbishop Whitgift, was savagely repressing the radicals, resisting any further development of the reformation tendency. See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), vol. 1, pp. 261, 295.

22 Theodore Spencer explored Christian attitudes toward death in relation to the drama in Death and Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936).

Janet Adelman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Man and Wife Is One Flesh: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body," in Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest, Routledge, 1992, pp. 11-37.

[In the following essay, Adelman explores the way in which Gertrude disrupts the familial and sexual relationships in Hamlet, and argues that her presence disables the son's relationship with the father.]

In Hamlet, the figure of the mother returns to Shakespeare's dramatic world, and her presence causes the collapse of the fragile compact that had allowed Shakespeare to explore familial and sexual relationships in the histories and romantic comedies without devastating conflict; this collapse is the point of origin of the great tragic period. The son's acting out of the role of the father, his need to make his own identity in relationship to his conception of his father—the stuff of 1 and 2 Henry IV and Julius Caesar—becomes deeply problematic in the presence of the wife/mother: for her presence makes the father's sexual role a disabling crux in the son's relationship with his father. At the same time, the relations between the sexes that had been imagined in the comedies without any serious confrontation with the power of female sexuality suddenly are located in the context of the mother's power to contaminate, with the result that they can never again be imagined in purely holiday terms. Here again, Hamlet stands as a kind of watershed, subjecting to maternal presence the relationships previously exempted from that presence.1

From the perspective of Hamlet, the father-son relationships of the earlier plays begin to look like oedipal dramas from which the chief object of contention has been removed. Both the Henry IV plays and Julius Caesar manage their sophisticated psychological explorations in effect by denying that women have anything to do with these explorations, ultimately by denying the complications that the mother poses for the father-son relationship. Before Hamlet, this relationship tends to be enacted in the political rather than the domestic sphere, and in the absence of women. Insofar as the triangulated conflict characteristic of oedipal material makes its way into these plays, the triangle is composed of a son and two fathers, not of a son and his parents; the son's identity is defined by his position between the fathers, not between father and mother. The Henry IV plays and Julius Caesar both strikingly represent the defining act of the son's manhood as the process of choosing between two fathers; in both, the son attempts to become fully himself by identifying with the true father rather than the false, an identification signaled by the son's willingness to carry out the true father's wish that the false father be disowned or killed. But the choice becomes increasingly problematic in these plays. In 1 and 2 Henry IV, it is a relatively easy matter for Hal to kill off that "father ruffian" Falstaff (1 Henry IV, 2.4.254) by exiling him, thus becoming "father" to his brothers (2 Henry IV, 5.2.57) and the embodiment of his father's spirit (2 Henry IV, 5.2.125); in this cross-generational alliance, he becomes himself in effect by choosing to become his father. Although we may feel that he has diminished himself in his choice, the plays do not finally encourage us to wish other choices on him or to dwell at length on the selfhood he has lost. The choice and its outcome are far more complex in Julius Caesar, where becoming oneself by becoming one's ancestral father necessitates killing off—literally, not symbolically—a much more ambiguously powerful father than Falstaff. Brutus is pushed toward conspiracy partly by his desire to live up to the image of his great ancestor and namesake, Junius Brutus, the slayer of tyrants (see, for example, 1.2.158; 1.3.82, 146; 2.1.53, 322). But immediately after Brutus has killed the man whom he himself sees as "the foremost man of all this world" (4.3.22), his enabling ancestral father drops out of the play; reference to him entirely disappears. In place of this father, the figure of Caesar increasingly comes to loom like a paternal ghost over the play, obliterating the memory of the heroic father on whom Brutus had hoped to found his selfhood. This interchange of fathers neatly poses one aspect of Brutus's tragic dilemma: Brutus kills one father apparently to satisfy the wishes of another, only to discover that he has slain the wrong father, that the dead father is not only more powerful but more powerfully his; only in killing Caesar—only as Caesar says "Et tu, Brutus?"—does he come to realize his position as Caesar's son and hence to suffer the disabling guilt that is the consequence of parricide.2

The triangulated choice between two fathers that is characteristic of these plays is at the center of Hamlet; here, as in the earlier plays, assuming masculine identity means taking on the qualities of the father's name—becoming a Henry, a Brutus, or a Hamlet—by killing off a false father. Moreover, the whole weight of the play now manifestly creates one father true and the other false. Nonetheless, the choice is immeasurably more difficult for Hamlet than for his predecessors; for despite their manifest differences, the fathers in Hamlet keep threatening to collapse into one another, annihilating in their collapse the son's easy assumption of his father's identity. The initiating cause of this collapse is Hamlet's mother: her failure to serve her son as the repository of his father's ideal image by mourning him appropriately is the symptom of her deeper failure to distinguish properly between his father and his father's brother.3 Even at the start of the play, before the ghost's crucial revelation, Gertrude's failure to differentiate has put an intolerable strain on Hamlet by making him the only repository of his father's image, the only agent of differentiation in a court that seems all too willing to accept the new king in place of the old. Her failure of memory—registered in her undiscriminating sexuality—in effect defines Hamlet's task in relation to his father as a task of memory: as she forgets, he inherits the burden of differentiating, of idealizing and making static the past; hence the ghost's insistence on remembering (1.5.33, 91) and the degree to which Hamlet registers his failure to avenge his father as a failure of memory (4.4.40). Hamlet had promised the ghost to remember him in effect by becoming him, letting his father's commandment live all alone within his brain; but the intensity of Hamlet's need to idealize in the face of his mother's failure makes his father inaccessible to him as a model, hence disrupts the identification from which he could accomplish his vengeance. As his memory of his father pushes increasingly in the direction of idealization, Hamlet becomes more acutely aware of his own distance from that idealization and hence of his likeness to Claudius,4 who is defined chiefly by his difference from his father. Difference from the heroic ideal represented in Old Hamlet becomes the defining term common to Claudius and Hamlet: the very act of distinguishing Claudius from his father—"no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" (1.2.152-53)—forces Hamlet into imaginative identification with Claudius. The intensity of Hamlet's need to differentiate between true father and false thus confounds itself, disabling his identification with his father and hence his secure identity as son.

If Gertrude's presence in Hamlet undoes the strategy by which father-son relations are protected in the Lancastrian tetralogy and in Julius Caesar, it simultaneously undoes the strategy that protects sexual relations in the romantic comedies: in Hamlet, both kinds of relationship are in effect contaminated by their relocation in the presence of the mother. Maternal absence is as striking in these comedies as in the tetralogy. And if, in the histories, this absence functions to enable the son's assumption of his father's identity, here it functions to protect comic possibility itself by sustaining the illusion that the endlessly appealing girls of the comedies will never become fully sexual women and hence will never lose their androgynous charm: having no mothers, they need not become mothers. Despite the degree to which marriage is the ostentatious goal of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, these plays rarely look forward to the sexual consummation that seals marriage; even A Midsummer Night's Dream does so only in the context of a series of magical protections against danger. The comedies tend rather to deflect attention away from female sexuality through a variety of devices: through a comic closure that defers consummation, through the heroine's sometimes unresolved transvestitism or allusion to the male actor who will remain when the play is over and costumes are removed, even through the insistent cuckoldry jokes—jokes that serve both to deflect the imagined sexual act away from the male wooer and to defer it into the indefinite future, where, as Lavatch will say in a different mood, "the knaves come to do that for me which I am aweary of (All's Well, 1.3.41). The absence of fully imagined female sexuality is, I think, what enables the holiday tone of these plays; that sexuality is for Shakespeare the stuff of tragedy, not comedy.

The female sexuality largely absent from the comedies invades Hamlet in the person of Gertrude, and, once there, it utterly contaminates sexual relationship, disabling holiday. In her presence, Hamlet sees his task as the disruption of marriage itself: "I say we will have no mo marriage" (3.1.149), he says to Ophelia as she becomes contaminated in his eyes, subject to the same "frailty" that names his mother.5 As he comes to identify himself with his cuckolded father—his "imaginations are as foul / As Vulcan's stithy" (3.2.83-84)—he can think of Ophelia only as a cuckold-maker, like his mother: "if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them" (3.1.139-41). Moreover, Ophelia fuses with Gertrude not only as potential cuckold-maker but also as potential mother:

Get thee to a nunnery. Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. (3.1.121-24)

The implicit logic is: why would you be a breeder of sinners like me? In the gap between "breeder of sinners" and "I," Gertrude and Ophelia momentarily collapse into one figure. It is no wonder that there can be no more marriage: Ophelia becomes dangerous to Hamlet insofar as she becomes identified in his mind with the contaminating maternal body, the mother who has borne him.

Hamlet thus redefines the son's position between two fathers by relocating it in relation to an indiscriminately sexual maternal body that threatens to annihilate the distinction between the fathers and hence problematizes the son's paternal identification; at the same time, the play conflates the beloved with this betraying mother, undoing the strategies that had enabled marriage in the comedies. The intrusion of the adulterous mother thus disables the solutions of history and comedy as Shakespeare has imagined them; in that sense, her presence initiates tragedy. But how can we understand the mother whose presence has the capacity to undermine the accommodations to which Shakespeare had come? Why should the first mother powerfully present in Shakespeare since the period of his earliest works be portrayed as adulterous? Why should her adulterous presence coincide with the start of Shakespeare's great tragic period?

Given her centrality in the play, it is striking how little we know about Gertrude; even the extent of her involvement in the murder of her first husband is left unclear. We may want to hear her shock at Hamlet's accusation of murder—"Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother" (3.4.28-29)—as evidence of her innocence;6 but the text permits us to hear it alternatively as shock either at being found out or at Hamlet's rudeness. The ghost accuses her at least indirectly of adultery7 and incest—Claudius is "that incestuous, that adulterate beast" (1.5.42)—but he neither accuses her of nor exonerates her from the murder. For the ghost, as for Hamlet, her chief crime is her uncontrolled sexuality; that is the object of their moral revulsion, a revulsion as intense as anything directed toward the murderer Claudius. But the Gertrude we see is not quite the Gertrude they see. And when we see her in herself, apart from their characterizations of her, we tend to see a woman more muddled than actively wicked; even her famous sensuality is less apparent than her conflicted solicitude both for her new husband and for her son.8 She is capable from the beginning of a certain guilty insight into Hamlet's suffering ("I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage" [2.2.56-57]). Insofar as she follows Hamlet's instructions in reporting his madness to Claudius (3.4.189-90; 4.1.7), she seems to enact every son's scenario for the good mother, choosing his interests over her husband's. But she may of course believe that he is mad and think that she is reporting accurately to her husband; certainly her courageous defense of her husband in their next appearance together—where she bodily restrains Laertes, as 4.5.122 specifies—suggests that she has not wholly adopted Hamlet's view of Claudius. Here, as elsewhere, the text leaves crucial aspects of her action and motivation open.9 Even her death is not quite her own to define. Is it a suicide designed to keep Hamlet from danger by dying in his place?10 She knows that Claudius has prepared the cup for Hamlet, and she shows unusual determination in disobeying Claudius's command not to drink it ("Gertrude, do not drink. / I will, my lord" [5.2.294-95]). In her last moment, her thoughts seem to be all for Hamlet; she cannot spare Claudius even the attention it would take to blame him ("O my dear Hamlet! / The drink, the drink! I am poison'd" [5.2.315-16].) Muddled, fallible, fully human, she seems ultimately to make the choice that Hamlet would have her make. But even here she does not speak clearly; her character remains relatively closed to us.

The lack of clarity in our impressions of Gertrude contributes, I think, to the sense that the play lacks, in Eliot's famous phrase, an "objective correlative."11 For the character of Gertrude as we see it becomes for Hamlet—and for Hamlet—the ground for fantasies quite incongruent with it; although she is much less purely innocent than Richard Ill's mother, like that mother she becomes the carrier of a nightmare that is disjunct from her characterization as a specific figure. This disjunction is, I think, the key to her role in the play and hence to her psychic power: her frailty unleashes for Hamlet, and for Shakespeare, fantasies of maternal malevolence, of maternal spoiling, that are compelling exactly as they are out of proportion to the character we know, exactly as they seem therefore to reiterate infantile fears and desires rather than an adult apprehension of the mother as a separate person.

These fantasies begin to emerge as soon as Hamlet is left alone on stage:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew, Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't, ah fie, 'tis an unweeded garden That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. That it should come to this! But two months dead . . .


This soliloquy establishes the initial premises of the play, the psychic conditions that are present even before Hamlet has met with the ghost and has been assigned the insupportable task of vengeance. And what Hamlet tells us in his first words to us is that he feels his own flesh as sullied and wishes to free himself from its contamination by death, that the world has become as stale and unusable to him as his own body, and that he figures all this deadness and staleness and contamination in the image of an unweeded garden gone to seed—figures it, that is, in the familiar language of the fall. And he further tells us that this fall has been caused not by his father's death, as both Claudius and Gertrude seem to assume in their conventional consolations, but by his mother's remarriage,12 the "this" he cannot specify for fourteen lines, the "this" that looms over the soliloquy, not quite nameable and yet radically present, making his own flesh—"this . . . flesh"—dirty, disrupting his sense of the ongoing possibility of life even as it disrupts his syntax.

Hamlet's soliloquy is in effect his attempt to locate a point of origin for the staleness of the world and his own pull toward death, and he discovers this point of origin in his mother's body. He tells us that the world has been transformed into an unweeded garden, possessed by things rank and gross, because his mother has remarried. And if the enclosed garden—the garden unpossessed—traditionally figures the Virgin Mother, this garden, full of seed, figures his mother's newly contaminated body: its rank weeds localize what Hamlet will later call the "rank corruption" of her sexuality (3.4.150-51), the "weeds" that will grow "ranker" if that sexuality is not curbed (3.4.153-54).13 In this highly compacted and psychologized version of the fall, death is the sexualized mother's legacy to her son: maternal sexuality turns the enclosed garden into the fallen world and brings death into that world by making flesh loathsome.14 If Hamlet's father's death is the first sign of mortality, his mother's remarriage records the desire for death in his own sullied flesh. For in the world seen under the aegis of the unweeded garden, the very corporality of flesh marks its contamination: Hamlet persistently associates Claudius's fleshiness with his bloated sexuality—transforming the generalized "fatness of these pursy times" (3.4.155) into the image of the "bloat king" tempting his mother to bed (3.4.184)—as though in its grossness flesh was always rank, its solidness always sullied.15

The opening lines of the soliloquy point, I think, toward a radical confrontation with the sexualized maternal body as the initial premise of tragedy, the fall that brings death into the world: Hamlet in effect rewrites Richard Ill's sense that he has been spoiled in his mother's womb as the condition of mortality itself. The structure of Hamlet—and, I will argue, of the plays that follow from Hamlet—is marked by the struggle to escape from this condition, to free the masculine identity of both father and son from its origin in the contaminated maternal body. Hamlet's father's death is devastating to Hamlet—and to Shakespeare—partly, I think, because it returns Hamlet to this body, simultaneously unmaking the basis for the son's differentiation from the mother and the heroic foundation for masculine identity that Shakespeare had achieved in the histories.16 As in a dream, the plot-conjunction of father's funeral and mother's remarriage expresses this return: it tells us that the idealized father's absence releases the threat of maternal sexuality, in effect subjecting the son to her annihilating power. But the dream-logic of this plot-conjunction is also reversible; if the father's death leads to the mother's sexualized body, the mother's sexualized body, I will argue, leads to the father's death. For the conjunction of funeral and marriage simultaneously expresses two sentences for the son: both "My idealized father's absence leaves me subject to my mother's overwhelming power," and "The discovery of my mother's sexuality kills my idealized father for me, making him unavailable as the basis for my identity." This fantasy-conjunction thus defines the double task of Hamlet and of Shakespeare in the plays to come: if Hamlet attempts both to remake his mother as an enclosed garden in 3.4 and to separate the father he idealizes from the rank place of corruption, Shakespearean tragedy and romance will persistently work toward the desexualization of the maternal body and the recreation of a bodiless father, untouched by her contamination.

A small psychological allegory at the beginning of the play—the exchange between Horatio and Marcellus about the ghost's disappearance—suggests what is at stake in this double task. The first danger in Hamlet is the father's "extravagant and erring spirit" (1.1.159) wandering in the night, the father who is—Horatio tells us—"like a guilty thing" (1.1.153).17 As though in a kind of ghostly aubade, this father vanishes at the sound of the cock, who "with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat / Awake[s] the god of day" (1.1.156-57). At the approach of the sun-god, the guilty father is banished; and Marcellus's christianizing expansion of this conjunction explicates his banishment:

It faded on the crowing of the cock. Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, This bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow'd and so gracious is that time.


Through an incipient pun, Marcellus transforms the god of day into the Son who makes the night wholesome because he is born from the mother's de-sexualized body; and the dangers he protects against are increasingly identified not only with the father's guilty spirit but with the dark female powers of the night. The sequence here—from guilty thing, to sun-god, to the Son whose birth banishes the witch—follows the logic of a purifying fantasy: the female body of the night can be cleansed only as the guilty father gives way to the sun-god, allowing for the emergence of the purified Son.18

The exchange between Horatio and Marcellus predicts both Hamlet's confrontation with the night-dangers of the female body and the fantasy-solution to that confrontation: it establishes the Son born of a bodiless father and a purified mother as the only antidote to her power. And it specifically predicts Hamlet's need to remake his father as Hyperion, his attempt to find a safe basis for his own identity as son in the father he would remake pure. As though in response to this initial encounter with the impure father, the initial strategy of both Hamlet (in the soliloquy) and Hamlet is to split the father in two,19 deflecting his guilt onto Claudius and reconstituting him in the form of the bodiless sun-god:

That it should come to this! But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two— So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr. (1.2.137-40)

The identification of Old Hamlet with Hyperion makes him benignly and divinely distant, separate from ordinary genital sexuality and yet immensely potent, his sexual power analogous to God's power to impregnate the Virgin Mother (often imaged as Spirit descending on the sun's rays) and to such Renaissance mythologizings of this theme as the operation of the sun on Chrysogonee's moist body (The Faerie Queene, 3.6.7). Ordinary genital sexuality then becomes the province of Claudius the satyr: below the human, immersed in the body, he becomes everything Hyperion/Old Hamlet is not, and the agent of all ill.

This work of splitting is already implicit in Hamlet's initial image of his mother's body as fallen garden, for that image itself makes a physiologically impossible claim: if Claudius's rank and gross possession now transforms the garden that is the mother's body, then it must not before have been possessed. Insofar as the soliloquy expresses Hamlet's sense of his mother's body as an enclosed garden newly breached, it implies the presence of a formerly unbreached garden; the alternatives that govern Hamlet's imagination of his mother's body are the familiar ones of virgin and whore, closed or open, wholly pure or wholly corrupt. And the insistence that the garden has just been transformed functions to exonerate his father, separating him from his mother's sexualized body: it is the satyr Claudius, not the sun-god father, who has violated the maternal space. Literalized in the plot, the splitting of the father thus evokes the ordinary psychological crisis in which the son discovers the sexuality of his parents, but with the blame handily shifted from father onto another man as unlike father as possible—and yet as like, hence his mother; in effect, the plot itself serves as a cover-up, legitimizing disgust at paternal sexuality without implicating the idealized father. But thus arbitrarily separated, these fathers are always prone to collapse back into one another. The failure to differentiate between Old Hamlet and Claudius is not only Gertrude's: the play frequently insists on their likeness even while positing their absolute difference;20 for the sexual guilt of the father—his implication in the mother's body—is its premise, its unacknowledged danger. Even Hamlet's attempt to imagine a protective father in the soliloquy returns him to this danger:

So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth, Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on; and yet within a month— Let me not think on't . . .


This image of parental love is so satisfying to Hamlet in part because it seems to enfold his mother safely within his father's protective embrace: by protecting her against the winds of heaven, he simultaneously protects against her, limiting and controlling her dangerous appetite. But as soon as that appetite has been invoked, it destabilizes the image of paternal control, returning Hamlet to the fact of his father's loss: for Gertrude's appetite is always inherently frightening, always potentially out of control; as the image of the unweeded garden itself implied, it has always required a weeder to manage its over-luxuriant growth.21 The existence of Gertrude's appetite itself threatens the image of the father's godlike control; and in his absence, Gertrude's appetite rages, revealing what had been its potential for voraciousness all along. Having sated herself in a celestial bed, she now preys on garbage (1.5.55-57); and her indifferent voraciousness threatens to undo the gap between then and now, virgin and whore, Hyperion and satyr, on which Hamlet's defensive system depends. Despite the ghost's insistence on the difference, sating oneself in bed and preying on garbage sound suspiciously like the same activity: the imagery of devouring common to both tends to flatten out the distinction. "Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed / And batten on this moor?" Hamlet asks his mother (3.4.66-67), insisting again on a difference that seems largely without substance, inadvertently collapsing the distance between the idealized and the debased versions of Gertrude's appetite and hence between the brothers she feeds on. But in fact the strenuousness of the opposition between them has indicated their resemblance all along: what they have in common is an appetite for Gertrude's appetite; and her appetite can't tell the difference between them.

The ghost's revelation of Gertrude's adultery is horrifying not only because it reveals that she has not been faithful to him—her rapid remarriage has already done that—but also because it threatens to undo the structure of difference that Hamlet has had to maintain in order to keep his father and Claudius apart. For if Gertrude's appetite for the two men is the same, then Old Hamlet is as fully implicated in her sexuality as Claudius. Hence in part Hamlet's shock when he meets the father he has idealized so heavily: when Old Hamlet appears to his son, not in his mind's idealizing eye (1.2.185) but in the dubious form of the ghost, he reveals not only Claudius's but also his own "foul crimes done in [his] days of nature" (1.5.12). The fathers Hamlet tries so strenuously to keep separated keep threatening to collapse into one another; even when he wants to kill one to avenge the other, he cannot quite tell them apart. In 3.3, on his way to his mother's closet, he comes across Claudius praying, a ready-made opportunity for revenge. But knowing that his father has committed foul crimes, and seeing Claudius praying, Hamlet becomes so unsure that there is an essential difference between them that he worries that God might send the wrong man to heaven. Even as he describes Claudius's murder of his father to himself, he conflates it imagistically with his father's crimes: "'A took my father grossly, full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May" (3.3.80-81). Claudius's and Old Hamlet's crimes become equally broad-blown, as the two sinful fathers merge linguistically: the imagery of the rank garden, of over-luxuriant and swollen growth, has passed from Claudius to Old Hamlet, the "blossoms" of whose sin (1.5.76) are now broad-blown and flush. The highly charged word grossly registers this failure of differentiation: it hovers indeterminately between the two men, attaching itself first to Claudius (Claudius killed Old Hamlet grossly) and then to Old Hamlet (who died in a gross and unsanctified state); and in its indeterminacy, it associates both Claudius and Old Hamlet with the gross possession of Gertrude's unweeded garden.22 Ultimately Hyperion and the satyr refuse to stay separated, so that Hamlet—and Hamlet—have to do and redo the distinction over and over again. Whatever Hamlet's original intentions in approaching his mother in 3.4, his most immediate need after the crisis of differentiation in 3.3 is to force her to acknowledge the difference between the two fathers ("Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended. / Mother, you have my father much offended" [3.4.8-9]). But even as he attempts to force this acknowledgment, he repeats the crisis of differentiation in yet another form. He presents her (and us) with two pictures initially indistinguishable and linguistically collapsed into one another: "Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers" (3.4.53-54). As he begins the work of distinguishing between them all over again, the sense of counterfeit presentment becomes descriptive not only of the portraits as works of art but of his own portraiture, his own need both to present and to counterfeit these potentially similar false coins. Once again his father becomes a god, with "Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, / An eye like Mars" (3.4.56-57); and Claudius becomes a "mildew'd ear / Blasting his wholesome brother" (3.4.64-65). But his words undermine the distinction he would reinstate: the most significantly contaminated ear in the play belongs to Old Hamlet.

Finally, the myth of his father as Hyperion cannot be sustained; and its collapse returns both father and son to the contaminated maternal body. No longer divinely inseminating, the sun-god becomes deeply implicated in matter in Hamlet's brutal parody of incarnation:

Ham. If the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?

Pol I have, my lord.

Ham. Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive—friend, look to't.


Here is male spirit wholly enmeshed in female matter, kissing it, animating it with a vengeance; and—unlike the Son's—this conception is no blessing. If Marcellus's fantasy condenses father and son in a protective dyad, father and son here collapse into one another in their contamination: "Let her not walk i' th' sun," Hamlet warns Polonius; and his bitter pun locates the father-god's contamination in his own flesh. For this conception relocates the son in the dead matter of the unweeded garden: the horrific image of conception as the stirring of maggots in a corpse makes the son himself no more than one of the maggots, simultaneously born from and feeding on death in the maternal body.24

In the myth of origins bitterly acknowledged here, the son is wedded to death by his conception, spoiled by his origin in the rank flesh of the maternal body; and there is no idealized father to rescue him from this body. This fantasy of spoiling at the site of origin is, I think, the under-text of the play; it emerges first in muted form as Hamlet waits for the appearance of his ghostly father and meditates on the dram of evil that ruins the noble substance of man. When Hamlet hears the drunken revel of Claudius's court, he first fixes blame on Claudius for the sense of contamination he feels: "They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase / Soil our addition" (1.4.19-20). But as he continues, his bodily language rewrites the source of contamination, increasingly relocating it in the female body. "Indeed it takes / From our achievements, though perform'd at height, / The pith and marrow of our attribute" (1.4.20-22): through the imagery, the soiling of the male body—its pith and marrow emptied out at the height of performance—is grotesquely equated with intercourse and its aftermath.25 And this shadowy image of the male body spoiled by the female in intercourse predicts the rest of the speech, where the role of spoiler is taken not by Claudius and his habits but by an unnamed and unspecified female body that corrupts man against his will:

So, oft it chances in particular men That for some vicious mole of nature in them, As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty (Since nature cannot choose his origin), . . . these men, Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, Being Nature's livery or Fortune's star, His virtues else, be they as pure as grace, As infinite as man may undergo, Shall in the general censure take corruption From that particular fault.

(1.4.23-36, passim)

As Hamlet imagines man struggling against his one defect—the mark of his bondage to a feminized Nature or Fortune—the origin he cannot choose increasingly becomes not only the site but the agent of corruption. Even as Hamlet unorthodoxly proclaims man not guilty in his birth, that is, he articulates his own version of original sin: here, as in Richard Ill's fantasy of himself deformed by Nature in his mother's womb (3 Henry VI, 3.2.153-64), man is spoiled in his birth by birth defects not of his own making, and he takes corruption from that particular fault.

Fall/fault/foutre: the complex bilingual pun registers the fantasy that moves under the surface of Hamlet's meditation. For fault allusively collapses the female genitals with the act of intercourse that engendered the baby there, and then collapses both with the fall and original sin:26 through its punning formulations, original sin becomes literally the sin of origin.27 "Virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it" (3.1.117-18): formed and deformed in his mother's womb, man takes his corruption from that particular fault. Hamlet is indeed "to the manner born" (1.4.15), as he says at the start of his meditation: "It were better my mother had not borne me," he tells Ophelia (3.1.123-24); but he is "subject to his birth" (1.3.18).28

This subjection of male to female is, I think, the buried fantasy of Hamlet, the submerged story that it partly conceals and partly reveals; in its shift of contaminating agency from Claudius to the female body as the site of origin, Hamlet's meditation seems to me to be diagnostic of this fantasy. The poisoning of Old Hamlet is ostentatiously modeled on Cain's killing of Abel; Claudius cannot allude to his offense without recalling "the primal eldest curse upon't" (3.3.37). But this version of Cain and Abel turns out in part to be a cover for the even more primal story implicit in the unweeded garden, the prior explanation for the entrance of death into the world: the murder here turns not on the winning of a father's favor but on the body of a woman; and Old Hamlet is poisoned in his orchard-garden (1.5.35; 3.2.255) by the "serpent" who wears his crown (1.5.39).29 On the surface of the text, that is, the story of Adam and Eve has been displaced, the horrific female body at its center occluded: Eve is conspicuously absent from the Cain-and-Abel version of the fall. But if the plot rewrites the fall as a story of fratricidal rivalry, locating literal agency for the murder in Claudius, a whole network of images and associations replaces his literal agency with Gertrude's, replicating Eve in her by making her both the agent and the locus of death. Beneath the story of fratricidal rivalry is the story of the woman who conduces to death, of the father fallen not through his brother's treachery but through his subjection to this woman; and despite Gertrude's conspicuous absence from the scene in the garden, in this psychologized version of the fall, the vulnerability of the father—and hence of the son—to her poison turns out to be the whole story.30

In an astonishing transfer of agency from male to female, malevolent power and blame for the murder tend to pass from Claudius to Gertrude in the deep fantasy of the play.31 We can see the beginnings of this shift of blame even in the Ghost's initial account of the murder, in which the emotional weight shifts rapidly from his excoriation of Claudius to his much more powerful condemnation of Gertrude's sexuality. And in "The Murder of Gonzago," Hamlet's version of his father's tale, the murderer's role is clearly given less emphasis than the Queen's: Lucianus gets a scant six lines, while her protestations of undying love motivate all the preceding dialogue of the playlet. Moreover, while the actual murderer remains a pasteboard villain, the Queen's protestations locate psychic blame for the murder squarely in her. "None wed the second but who kill'd the first," she tells us (3.2.175). In her formulation, remarriage itself is a form of murder: "A second time I kill my husband dead, / When second husband kisses me in bed" (3.2.179-80). We know that Hamlet has added some dozen or sixteen lines to the play (2.2.535), and though we cannot specify them, these protestations seem written suspiciously from the point of view of the child, whose mother's remarriage often seems like her murder of the image of his father. When Hamlet confronts his mother in her closet immediately after his playlet, he confirms that he at least has shifted agency from Claudius to her: his own killing of Polonius is, he says, "A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good Mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother" (3.4.28-29). Given the parallel with his killing of Polonius, "as kill a king" first seems to describe Claudius's act; but when the line ends with "brother" rather than "queen" or "wife," the killing attaches itself irrevocably to Gertrude, playing out in miniature the shift of agency from him to her. For Claudius's crime is nearly absent here: in Hamlet's accusation, Claudius becomes the passive victim of Gertrude's sexual will; she becomes the active murderer.

And the play itself is complicit with Hamlet's shift of agency: though the degree of her literal guilt is never specified, in the deep fantasy of the play her sexuality itself becomes akin to murder. The second of the Player Queen's protestations—"A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed"—implicitly collapses the two husbands into one and thus makes the equation neatly: when her husband kisses her, she kills him. But this is in fact what one strain in the imagery has been telling us all along. As Lucianus carries the poison onstage in "The Murder of Gonzago," he addresses it in terms that associate it unmistakably with the weeds of that first unweeded garden:

Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected, With Hecate's ban thrice blasted, thrice infected, Thy natural magic and dire property On wholesome life usurps immediately.


Even as we see him poison the Player-King, the language insists that the poison is not his but hers, its usurpation on wholesome life derivative not from Claudius's political ambitions but from the rank weeds (3.4.153-54) of Gertrude's body. Its "mixture rank" merely condenses and localizes the rank mixture that is sexuality itself:32 hence the subterranean logic by which the effects of Claudius's poison on Old Hamlet's body replicate the effects of venereal disease, covering his smooth body with the lazarlike tetter, the "vile and loathsome crust" (1.5.71-72) that was one of the diagnostic signs of syphilis.33

In Lucianus's words, the poison that kills Old Hamlet becomes less the distillation of a usurping fratricidal rivalry than the distillation of the horrific female body, the night-witch against whom Marcellus had invoked the protection of the Saviour born from a virgin birth; cursed by Hecate, it is in effect the distillation of midnight itself, the "witching time" when "hell itself breathes out / Contagion to this world" (3.2.379-81). The play here invokes the presence of an unbounded nightmare night-body, breathing out the contagion of her poison; and it gives shape to this horrific night-body through a curious and punning repetition. Horatio tells Hamlet that the ghost first appeared "in the dead waste and middle of the night" (1.2.198); and Hamlet repeats his phrase when he questions Rosencranz and Guildenstern about their relations with the lady Fortune:

Ham. Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

Guild. Faith, her privates we.

Ham. In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true! She is a strumpet.


"Waste" and "waist" coalesce in the dangerous middle of this strumpet;34 and the idealized father turns out to be horribly vulnerable to the poison of her rank midnight weeds. For however mild-mannered Gertrude may be as a literal character, in fantasy she takes on the aspect of this night-body, herself becoming the embodiment of hell and death: the fires in which Hamlet's father is confined, the fires that burn and purge the foul crimes done in his days of nature (1.5.11-13), merely reproduce the fire of the "rebellious hell" that burns in her bones (3.4.82-88).35 In anticipation of Lear's anatomy—"there's hell, there's darkness, / There is the sulphurous pit" (King Lear, 4.6.129-30)—punishment and crime coalesce: death is not only the consequence of sexuality but also its very condition.

This anatomy is in its own way perfectly orthodox; it condenses the story of the fall by making female sexuality itself the locus of death:

Surely her house tendeth to death, & her paths unto the dead. All thei that go unto her, returne not againe, nether take they holde of the waies of life.

For she hathe caused manie to fall downe wounded, and the strong men are all slayne by her. Her house is the waie unto the grave, which goeth downe to the chambers of death.

(The Geneva Bible, Proverbs, 2:18-19, 7:26-27)

Every encounter with the "strange woman" of Proverbs—and all women are sexually strangers—is thus a virtual reliving of the fall into mortality. But female sexuality in Hamlet is always maternal sexuality: Gertrude's is the only fully sexualized female body in the play, and we experience her sexuality largely through the imagination of her son. In Hamlet, that is, Shakespeare re-understands the orthodox associations of woman with death by fusing the sexual with the maternal body, reimagining the legacy of death consequent upon the fall as the legacy specifically of the sexualized maternal body. And except in the saving case of the Virgin Mother, the maternal body is always already sexual, corrupted by definition. The mother's body brings death into the world because her body itself is death: in the traditional alignment of spirit and matter, the mother gives us the stuff—the female matter—of our bodies and thus our mortality.36 Birth itself thus immerses the body in death: hence the power of Hamlet's grotesque version of conception as the stirring of maggots in dead matter. Through this fusion of the sexual with the maternal body and the association of both with death, Shakespeare in effect defamiliarizes the trope of the "womb of earth" (1.1.140): death and sexuality are interchangeable in this psychologized version of the fall because both lead back to this maternal body. Hence also Shakespeare's punning equation of death and the maternal body in his reformulation of the Biblical source of danger: in the deep fantasy of the play, the deadly woman of Proverbs—"thei that go unto her, returne not againe"—is one with Hamlet's "undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns" (3.1.79-80).37

Both death and sexuality return the traveler to the undiscovered country, familiar and yet utterly foreign, of the maternal body itself; and in Hamlet, this body is always threatening to swallow up her children, to absorb them back within her bourn, undoing their own boundaries. Death itself is a hell-mouth, swallowing Old Hamlet up between its "ponderous and marble jaws" (1.4.50), bringing him and Polonius "not where he eats, but where a is eaten" (4.3.19), where all are subject to "my Lady Worm" (5.1.87); and Gertrude is death's mouth, indiscriminately devouring her husbands "as if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on" (1.2.144-45). In this grotesquely oral world, everything is ultimately meat for a single table. Hence I think the slight frisson of horror beneath Hamlet's wit as he describes "the funeral bak'd meats" that "Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (1.2.180-81): we are never sure just what it is that is being consumed in the ceremonies of death and sexual union imagined here. And this momentary confusion is diagnostic of the play's fusion of eating and death and sex: in Hamlet, the turn toward the woman's body is always felt as the return to the devouring maternal womb, with all the potential not only for incestuous nightmare but for total annihilation implied by that return. Hence, I think, the logic of the play's alternative name for poison: "union" (5.2.269, 331).38 For "union" is just another version of Hecate's "mixture rank," the poison that kills Old Hamlet: each is the poisonous epitome of sexual mixture itself and hence of boundary danger, the terrifying adulteration of male by female that does away with the boundaries between them.

Ham. Farewell, dear mother.

Claud. Thy loving father, Hamlet.

Ham. My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother.


In this fantasy, it does not matter whether Hamlet is thinking of his father or of his incestuous stand-in; all sexuality—licit or illicit—is imagined as an adulterating mixture. And in this rank mixture, the female will always succeed in transforming the male, remaking him in her image, "for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness" (3.1.111-14). The imagined concourse of male honesty and female beauty ends in the contamination of the male by the female, his translation into a version of her. No wonder Marcellus associates the danger of invasion with the sweaty activity that makes "the night joint-labourer with the day" (1.1.81), obliterating the distinction between the realm of the witch-mother and that of the sungod father; no wonder Hamlet is so intent upon keeping his father's commandment—or perhaps his father himself—all alone within his brain, "unmix'd with baser matter" (1.5.104).39

For Hamlet is ultimately subject to the same adulterating mixture; the sexual anxiety registered through the play's two names for poison, like the incestuous marriage at its center, both covers and expresses a more primitive anxiety about the stability and security of individuating boundaries that finds its focus in Hamlet himself. Promiscuous mixture and boundary contamination everywhere infect this play, from its initial worry about invasion to its final heap of poisoned bodies: in a psychic world where boundaries cannot hold, where the self is invaded, its pales and forts broken down, its pith and marrow extracted, where mother-aunts and uncle-fathers (2.2.372) become indistinguishably one flesh, where even camels become weasels become whales (3.2.367-73), identity itself seems on the point of dissolving or being swallowed up. And the overwhelming use of images of oral contamination and oral annihilation to register these threats to the self suggests their origin in the earliest stages of emergent selfhood, when the nascent self is most fully subject to the mother's fantasied power to annihilate or contaminate. Hence, I think, the centrality of Gertrude: for the play localizes its pervasive boundary panic in Hamlet's relationship with his mother, whose contaminated body initially serves him as the metaphor for the fallen world that has sullied him. And the selfhood that Hamlet constructs in response to this threat becomes the crux of the play: withdrawing himself from the sullying maternal body of the world, Hamlet retreats into what he imagines as an inviolable core of selfhood that cannot be known or played upon (1.2.85; 3.2.355-63), constructing an absolute barrier between inner and outer as though there were no possibility of uncontaminating communication between them; unable to risk crossing this boundary in any creative way, through any significant action in the world, he fantasizes crossing it through magical thinking—imagining the revenge that could come "with wings as swift / As meditation" (1.5.29-30) or through the power of his horrid speech (2.2.557)—or he mimes crossing it from within the extraordinary distance of his withdrawal, taking up a variety of roles not to engage the world but to keep it at bay.40 Hence in part his intense admiration for Horatio, who plays no roles and seems impervious to outer influence, who is "not a pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please" (3.2.70-71);41 here as elsewhere, Hamlet figures the threat to (masculine) inner integrity as the sexualized female, aligning it with the strumpet Fortune in whose secret parts corrupt men live (2.2.232-36), as though all such threats were derivative from his unreliable mother's body. But there is no exemption from this body for Hamlet, no pure and unmixed identity for him; like honesty transformed into a bawd, he must eventually see the signs of her rank mixture in himself:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must like a whore unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing like a very drab, A scullion!


He himself is subject to his birth: he would imagine himself the unmixed son of an unmixed father, but the whore-mother in him betrays him, returning him to his own mixed origin, his contamination by the sexual female within.42

The first mother to reappear in Shakespeare's plays is adulterous, I think, because maternal origin is in itself felt as equivalent to adulterating betrayal of the male, both father and son; Hamlet initiates the period of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies because it in effect rewrites the story of Cain and Abel as the story of Adam and Eve, relocating masculine identity in the presence of the adulterating female. This rewriting accounts, I think, for Gertrude's odd position in the play, especially for its failure to specify the degree to which she is complicit in the murder. Less powerful as an independent character than as the site for fantasies larger than she is, she is preeminently mother as other, the intimate unknown figure around whom these fantasies swirl. She is kept ambiguously innocent as a character, but in the deep fantasy that structures the play's imagery, she plays out the role of the missing Eve: her body is the garden in which her husband dies, her sexuality the poisonous weeds that kill him, and poison the world—and the self—for her son. This is the psychological fantasy registered by the simultaneity of funeral and marriage: the reappearance of the mother in Hamlet is tantamount to the death of the idealized father because her presence signals his absence, and hence the absence of the son's defense against her rank mixture, her capacity to annihilate or contaminate; as in Marcellus's purifying fantasy, what the idealized father ultimately protects against is the dangerous female powers of the night. The boy-child masters his fear of these powers partly through identification with his father, the paternal presence who has initially helped him to achieve separation from his mother; but if his father fails him—if the father himself seems subject to her—then that protective identification fails. This is exactly the psychological situation at the beginning of Hamlet, where Hamlet's father has become unavailable to him, not only through the fact of his death but through the complex vulnerability that his death demonstrates. This father cannot protect his son; and his disappearance in effect throws Hamlet into the domain of the engulfing mother, awakening all the fears incident to the primary mother-child bond. Here as in Shakespeare's later plays, the loss of the father turns out in fact to mean the psychic domination of the mother: in the end, it is the specter of his mother, not his uncle-father, who paralyzes his will. The Queen, the Queen's to blame.

This shift of agency and of danger from male to female seems to me characteristic of the fantasy-structure of Hamlet and of Shakespeare's imagination in the plays that follow. The ghost's initial injunction sets as the prime business of the play the killing of Claudius; he specifically asks Hamlet to leave his mother alone, beset only by the thorns of conscience (1.5.85-87). But if Gertrude rather than Claudius is to blame, then Hamlet's fundamental task shifts; simple revenge is no longer the issue. Despite his ostensible agenda of revenge, the main psychological task that Hamlet seems to set himself is not to avenge his father's death but to remake his mother:43 to remake her in the image of the Virgin Mother who could guarantee his father's purity, and his own, repairing the boundaries of his selfhood. Throughout the play, the covert drama of reformation vies for priority with the overt drama of revenge, in fact displacing it both from what we see of Hamlet's consciousness and from center stage of the play: when Hamlet accuses himself of lack of purpose (3.4.107-10), of failing to remember his father's business of revenge (4.4.40), he may in part be right.

Even as an avenger, Hamlet seems motivated more by his mother than by his father: when he describes Claudius to Horatio as "he that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother" (5.2.64), the second phrase clearly carries more intimate emotional weight than the first. And he manages to achieve his revenge only when he can avenge his mother's death, not his father's: just where we might expect some version of "rest, perturbed spirit" to link his killing of Claudius with his father's initial injunction, we get "Is thy union here? / Follow my mother" (5.2.331-32).

This shift—from avenging the father to saving the mother—accounts in part for certain peculiarities about this play as a revenge play: why, for example, the murderer is given so little attention in the device ostensibly designed to catch his conscience, why the confrontation of Hamlet with Gertrude in the closet scene seems much more central, much more vivid, than any confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius. Once we look at "The Murder of Gonzago" for what it is, rather than for what Hamlet tells us it is, it becomes clear that the playlet is in fact designed to catch the conscience of the queen: its challenge is always to her loving posture, its accusation "A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed." The confrontation with Gertrude (3.4) follows so naturally from this attempt to catch her conscience that Hamlet's unexpected meeting with Claudius (3.3) feels to us like an interruption of a more fundamental purpose. Indeed, Shakespeare stages 3.3 very much as an interruption: Hamlet comes upon Claudius praying as he is on his way to his mother's closet, worrying about the extent to which he can repudiate the Nero in himself; and we come upon Claudius unexpectedly in the same way. That is: the moment that should be the apex of the revenge plot—the potential confrontation alone of the avenger and his prey—becomes for the audience and for the avenger himself a lapse, an interlude that must be gotten over before the real business can be attended to.44 It is no wonder that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius here: to do so would be to make of the interlude a permanent interruption of his more fundamental purpose. Not even Hamlet could reasonably expect to manage his mother's moral reclamation immediately after he has killed her husband.

Nor would that avenging death regain the mother whom Hamlet needs: once his mother has been revealed as the fallen and possessed garden, she can be purified only by being separated from her sexuality. This separation is in fact Hamlet's effort throughout 3.4. In that confrontation, Hamlet first insists that Gertrude acknowledge the difference between Claudius and Old Hamlet, the difference her adultery and remarriage had undermined. But after the initial display of portraits, Hamlet attempts to induce in her revulsion not at her choice of the wrong man but at her sexuality itself, the rebellious hell that mutines in her matron's bones (3.4.82-83), the "rank corruption, mining all within" (3.4.150). Here, as in the play within the play, Hamlet recreates obsessively, voyeuristically, the acts that have corrupted the royal bed, even when he has to subject his logic and syntax to considerable strain to do so:

Queen What shall I do?Ham. Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the bloat King tempt you again to bed, Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers, Make you to ravel all this matter out That I essentially am not in madness, But mad in craft.


There has to be an easier way of asking your mother not to reveal that your madness is an act. "Not this, by no means, that I bid you do": Hamlet cannot stop imagining, even commanding, the sexual act that he wants to undo. Moreover, the bloated body of this particular king is not particular to him: it is the sexualized male body, its act any sexual act. The royal bed of Denmark is always already corrupted, already a couch for luxury, as Hamlet's own presence testifies. "Go not to my uncle's bed" (3.4.161), Hamlet tells his mother; but his disgust at the incestuous liaison rationalizes a prior disgust at all sexual concourse, as his attempt to end the specifically incestuous union rationalizes an attempt to remake his mother pure by divorcing her from her sexuality.

Act 3 scene 4 records Hamlet's attempt to achieve this divorce, to recover the fantasied presence of the asexual mother of childhood, the mother who can restore the sense of sanctity to the world her sexuality has spoiled: his first and last word in the scene is "mother" (3.4.7; 3.4.219). And in his own mind at least, Hamlet does seem to achieve this recovery. He begins the scene by wishing that Gertrude were not his mother ("would it were not so, you are my mother" [3.4.15]); but toward the end, he is able to imagine her as the mother from whom he would beg—and receive—blessing:

Once more, good night, And when you are desirous to be blest, I'll blessing beg of you.


This mother can bless Hamlet only insofar as she herself asks to be blessed by him, signaling her conversion from husband to son and inverting the relation of parent and child; Hamlet is very much in charge even as he imagines asking for maternal blessing. Nonetheless, coming near the end of Hamlet's long scene of rage and disgust, these lines seem to me extraordinarily moving in their evocation of desire for the maternal presence that can restore the sense of the world and the self as blessed.45 And the blessedness they image is specifically in the relation of world and self: as mother and son mirror each other, each blessing each, Shakespeare images the reopening of the zone of trust that had been foreclosed by the annihilating mother. For the first time, Hamlet imagines something coming to him from outside himself that will neither invade nor contaminate him: the recovery of benign maternal presence for a moment repairs the damage of the fall in him, making safe the boundary-permeability that had been a source of terror. Toward the end of the scene, all those night-terrors are gone: Hamlet's repeated variations on the conventional phrase "good night" mark his progression from rage at his mother's sexuality to repossession of the good mother he had lost. He begins with "Good night. But go not to my uncle's bed. . . . Refraintonight" (3.4.161, 167), attempting to separate her from her horrific night-body; but by the end—through his own version of Marcellus's purifying fantasy—he has succeeded in imagining both her and the night wholesome. If he begins by wishing Gertrude were not his mother, he ends with the poignant repeated leave-taking of a child who does not want to let go of the mother who now keeps him safe: "Once more, good night . . . So again, good night. . . . Mother, good night indeed. . . .Good night, mother" (3.4.172, 179, 215, 219).

In the end, we do not know whether or not Gertrude herself has been morally reclaimed; it is the mark of the play's investment in Hamlet's fantasies that, even here, we are not allowed to see her as a separate person. To the extent that she looks into the heart that Hamlet has "cleft in twain" (3.4.158) and finds the "black and grained spots" (3.4.90) that he sees there, she seems to accept his version of her soiled inner body; in any case, her response allows him to think of his initial Nero-like aggression—speaking daggers though using none (3.2.387)—as moral reclamation. But as usual in this play, she remains relatively opaque, more a screen for Hamlet's fantasies about her than a fully developed character in her own right: whatever individuality she might have had is sacrificed to her status as mother. Nonetheless, though we might wonder just what his evidence is, Hamlet at least believes that she has returned to him as the mother he can call "good lady" (3.4.182). And after 3.4, her remaining actions are ambiguous enough to nourish his fantasy: though there are no obvious signs of separation from Claudius in her exchanges with him, in her last moments she seems to become a wonderfully homey presence for her son, newly available to him as the loving and protective mother of childhood, worrying about his condition, wiping his face as he fights, even perhaps intentionally drinking the poison intended for him.

In the end, whatever her motivation, he seems securely possessed of her as an internal good mother; and this possession gives him a new calm about his place in the world and especially about death, that domain of maternal dread. Trusting her, he can begin to trust in himself and in his own capacity for action; and he can begin to rebuild the masculine identity spoiled by her contamination. For his secure internal possession of her idealized image permits the return of his father to him, and in the form that he had always wanted: turning his mother away from Claudius, Hamlet wins her not only for himself but also for his father—for his father conceived as Hyperion, the bodiless godlike figure he had invoked at the beginning of the play. If her sexuality had spoiled this father, her purification brings him back; after 3.4, the guilty father and his ghost disappear, replaced by the distant heavenly father into whom he has been transformed, the one now acting through the sign of the other: "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant. / I had my father's signet in my purse" (5.2.48-49). Unexpectedly finding this sign of the father on his own person, Hamlet in effect registers his repossession of the idealized father within; and, like a good son, Hamlet can finally merge himself with this father, making His will his own. But though we may feel that Hamlet has achieved a new calm and self-possession, the price is high: for the parents lost to him at the beginning of the play can be restored only insofar as they are entirely separated from their sexual bodies. This is a pyrrhic solution to the problems of embodiedness and familial identity; it does not bode well for Shakespeare's representation of sexual union, or of the children born of that union.

In creating for Hamlet a plot in which his mother's sexuality is literally the sign of her betrayal and of her husband's death, Shakespeare recapitulates the material of infantile fantasy, playing it out with a compelling plot logic that allows its expression in a perfectly rationalized, hence justified, way. Given Hamlet's world, anyone would feel as Hamlet does—but Shakespeare has given him this world.46 And the world Shakespeare gives him sets the stage for the plays that follow:47 from Hamlet on, all sexual relationships will be tinged by the threat of the mother, all masculine identity problematically formed in relationship to her. For despite Hamlet's tenuous recovery of his father's signet ring through the workings of Providence, the stabilizing father lost at the beginning of Hamlet—the father who can control female appetite, who can secure pure masculine identity for his son—cannot be brought back from the dead; the ambiguities that attend the bodiless father-Duke of Measure for Measure merely serve to make paternal absence visible, underscoring at once the need for his control over the sexuality that boils and bubbles like a witch's cauldron in Vienna and the desperate fictitiousness of that control. The plays that follow Hamlet enact and re-enact paternal absence in shadowy and fragmentary form—in the sick king of All's Well, in Lear's abdication, in the murder of Duncan, the fatherlessness of Coriolanus, the weakness of Cymbeline; and they thrust the son into the domain of maternal dread inhabited by all the avatars of strumpet fortune—the wicked wives, lovers, daughters, mothers and stepmothers, the witches and engulfing storms—that have the power to shake his manhood (King Lear, 1.4.306).

The central elements of the fantasy of maternal power in Hamlet will recur in a variety of forms, with first one and then another becoming most prominent; they will sometimes be the psychic property of a single character from whom Shakespeare distances himself, and sometimes find embodiment in the play as a whole in ways that suggest Shakespeare's complicity in them. Despite Shakespeare's sometimes astonishing moments of sympathetic engagement with his female characters, his ability to see the world from their point of view, his women will tend to be like Gertrude, more significant as screens for male fantasy than as independent characters making their own claim to dramatic reality; as they become fused with the mother of infantile need, even their fantasized gestures of independence will be read as the signs of adulterous betrayal. And the women will pay heavily for the fantasies—both of destruction and of cure—invested in them. For their sexual bodies will always be dangerous, the sign of the fall and original sin, the "disease that's in my flesh" (King Lear, 2.4.224), "the imposition . . . / Hereditary ours" (The Winter's Tale, 1.2.74-75): as they enter into sexuality, the virgins—Cressida, Desdemona, Imogen—will be transformed into whores, their whoredom acted out in the imaginations of their nearest and dearest; and the primary antidote to their power will be the excision of their sexual bodies, the terrible revirginations that Othello performs on Desdemona, and Shakespeare on Cordelia. For the emergence of the annihilating mother in Hamlet will call forth a series of strategies for confining or converting her power. Hamlet's desire for the return of the virgin mother who can bless him, undoing the effects of the fall, will be played out in Cordelia's return to Lear, Thaisa's return to Pericles, Hermione's return to Leontes, each of whom must first suffer for her participation in sexuality. And in the absence of these purified figures, parthenogenetic fantasies of exemption from the "woman's part" (Cymbeline, 2.4.174) will seem to offer protection against maternal malevolence. Enunciating his desire to "stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (Coriolanus, 5.3.35-37), Coriolanus speaks for all those who would not be born of woman (Macbeth, 4.1.80), undoing the subjection to birth that Hamlet discovered in himself. But the problematic maternal body can never quite be occluded or transformed: made into a monster or a saint, killed off or banished from the stage, it remains at the center of masculine subjectivity, marking its unstable origin. For the contaminated flesh of the maternal body is also home: the home Shakespeare's protagonists long to return to, the home they can never quite escape. . . .


1 My sense of the shape of Shakespeare's career and of the defensive construction of both the comedies and the histories is deeply indebted to Richard P. Wheeler; see Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), esp. pp. 46-50, 155-64.

2 Shakespeare generalizes this guilt by suppressing the rumor that Brutus was Caesar's illegitimate son; 2 Henry VI testifies to his knowledge of it ("Brutus' bastard hand / Stabbed Julius Caesar," 4.1.137-38). Hamlet has often been understood as a reworking of the father-son conflict in the histories and Julius Caesar; see, for example, Norman Holland (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare [New York: Octagon Books, 1979], pp. 286-87) and C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler (The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986], esp. pp. 11-12, 236-38). For the relationship between Hamlet and Julius Caesar, see also Ernest Jones (Hamlet and Oedipus [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954], pp. 137-40); for that between Hamlet and the Henriad, see also Peter Erickson (Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama [Berkeley: University of California, 1985], pp. 63-67), Wheeler (Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, pp. 161, 190-91), and Linda Bamber (Comic Women, Tragic Men [Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1982], pp. 154-58). Though these accounts all acknowledge the eroticizing presence of women in Hamlet, they do not all emphasize the significance of that presence; in this emphasis, my account is closest to Wheeler and to Bamber, for whom tragedy turns on the encounter with woman as Other.

3 See René Girard ("Hamlet's Dull Revenge," in Literary Theory/Renaissance Texts, ed. Patricia Parker and David Quint [Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], pp. 280-302) and especially Joel Fineman ("Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles," in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn [Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], pp. 86-91) for the threat of collapse into No Difference. In Girard's reading, Old Hamlet and Claudius are the enemy twins between whom there is never any difference; Hamlet consequently has to try to make a difference where none exists and then to fire up his dull revenge mimetically when that difference cannot be sustained. Girard locates the no-difference in his myth of sacralizing violence; like most psychoanalytically oriented critics, I locate it in the common origin of both Old Hamlet and Claudius in the ambivalently regarded father of childhood. Though based in Girard, Fineman's account seems to me both richer and more far-reaching than his, in part because he engages with the "drama of individuation" through which Shakespeare represents the failed myth of differentiation and hence with misogyny as an expression of the fear of No Difference; in his account, as in mine, Gertrude's sexuality becomes the mark of No Difference.

4 This is the likeness registered stunningly, for example, in Hamlet's "How stand I then, / That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd" (4.4.56-57), where have can indicate either possession or action. This likeness is the staple of most oedipal readings of the play, in which—in Ernest Jones's formulation—Claudius "incorporates the deepest and most buried part of [Hamlet's] own personality" (Hamlet and Oedipus, p. 100); see Holland's useful discussion of this and other oedipal readings (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, pp. 163-206). These readings have been extended and challenged by Avi Erlich (Hamlet's Absent Father [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977]), who sees the basic motive of the play not in Hamlet's covert identification with Claudius but in his desperate need for a strong father who can protect him from his own incestuous impulses and from the castrating mother they would lead to: "Much more than he wants to have killed his father, Hamlet wants his father back" (p. 260). Although most oedipal accounts begin by acknowledging that Hamlet is initially more obsessed with his mother's remarriage than with his father's death, they usually go on to focus on the father-son relationship, discussing the mother merely as the condition that occasions the son's struggle with—or need for—his father (but see Irving I. Edgar, Shakespeare, Medicine and Psychiatry [London: Vision, 1971], pp. 288-311, for an exception). Without entirely discounting oedipal motives in the play, I want to restore what seems to me the mother's clear primacy in her son's imagination; I consequently emphasize preoedipal motives, in which fantasies of merger with and annihilation by the mother are prior to genital desire for her, and in which the strong father is needed more as an aid to differentiation and the establishment of masculine identity than as a superego protecting against incestuous desire. The extraordinary oral valence of both sex and killing in Hamlet—the extent to which both are registered in the language of eating and boundary diffusion—seems to me evidence of the extent to which even the more purely oedipal issues are strongly colored by preoedipal anxiety. My emphasis on Gertrude has to some extent been anticipated by those who stress matricidal impulses in the play, implicitly or explicitly making Orestes—rather than Oedipus—the model for Hamlet; see, for example, Gilbert Murray (Hamlet and Orestes, [London: Oxford University Press, 1914]), Frederic Wertham ("The Matricidal Impulse: Critique of Freud's Interpretation of Hamlet," Journal of Criminal Psychopathology 2 [1941]: 455-64), J. M. Moloney and L. Rockelein ("A New Interpretation of Hamlet," International Journal of Psychoanalysis 30 [1949]: 92-107), Harry Levin (The Question of Hamlet [New York: Oxford University Press, 1959], p. 65), Theodore Lidz (Hamlet's Enemy, [London: Vision, 1975]), and Maurice Charney ("The 'Now Could I Drink Hot Blood' Soliloquy and the Middle of Hamlet," Mosaic 10 [1977]: 77-86). Jones (pp. 106-7), Edgar (pp. 294-98) and Erlich (p. 152) see matricidal rage primarily as a derivative of oedipal desire; in the accounts of Moloney and Rockelein (pp. 99, 106) and of Lidz (pp. 183, 231), it is also derived—at least incipiently—from the relationship to the overwhelming preoedipal mother. For more explicitly preoedipal readings of Hamlet, see, for example, accounts of the play's oedipal issues as covers for preoedipal masochism (Edmund Bergler, "The Seven Paradoxes in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet,'" American Imago 16 [1959]: 379-405) or narcissism (Kaja Silverman, "Hamlet and the Common Theme of Fathers," Enclitic 3 [1979]: 106-21), or of Hamlet's sarcasm as oral aggression (M. D. Faber, "Hamlet, Sarcasm, and Psychoanalysis," Psychoanalytic Review 58 [1968]: 79-90); see especially Wheeler's account of Hamlet's attempt to build a self both by incorporating the image of an ideal father and by recovering the trust shattered by disillusionment with his mother (Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies, pp. 161, 190-200). Although I share many details of interpretation with Avi Erlich, whose work I learned from and reacted against in my earliest days at Berkeley, my account of the play is most deeply indebted to Wheeler's.

5 Ophelia's contamination by association has been a commonplace of Hamlet criticism for a long time; among the legions, see, for example, A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy [New York: Meridian Books, 1955], p. 101) John Dover Wilson (What Happens in Hamlet [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951], p. 133), and Harley Granville-Barker (Prefaces to Shakespeare [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946], p. 79).

6 Most apparently do: see, for example, Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 136), Wilson (What Happens in Hamlet?, pp. 251-53), Bertram Joseph (Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet [London: Chatto and Windus, 1953], p. 94), Carolyn Heilbrun ("The Character of Hamlet's Mother," Shakespeare Quarterly 8 [1957]: 204), Rosamond Putzel ("Queen Gertrude's Crime," Renaissance Papers, 1961, ed. George Walton Williams [Southern Renaissance Conference, 1962], p. 44), Rebecca Smith ("A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude," in The Woman 's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980], p. 202) and Roland Mushat Frye (The Renaissance "Hamlet": Issues and Responses in 1600 [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984], p. 151), all of whom think that her response demonstrates her innocence. Others note that her involvement—particularly in comparison with the sources—is left ambiguous (see, e.g., William Empson, "Hamlet When New," The Sewanee Review 61 [1953]: 37, and Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy, pp. 78, 81); and at least one critic is sure that she knows of the murder (Richard Flatter, Hamlet's Father [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1949], pp. 30-31, 59-80, and 153-60).

7 Ever since Joseph (Conscience and the King, pp. 17-8) pointed out that "adulterate" in Shakespeare's time could apply to sexual sin generally, not just to what we moderns narrowly call adultery, critics have cautioned against assuming that Gertrude and Claudius were adulterous in our sense (see, e.g., Putzel, "Queen Gertrude's Crime," p. 39; Smith, "A Heart Cleft in Twain," pp. 209-10, n. 11; and Frye, The Renaissance "Hamlet", p. 323). But the definitions Joseph cites all seem to add a more inclusive definition to a word more commonly-—or, as the homily Against Whoredom and Uncleanness puts it, "properly"—understood in the narrower sense (Joseph, p. 17); and the ghost's emphasis on the marriage vow (1.5.49) suggests that Gertrude's crime was specifically against marriage. As usual with Gertrude, the matter is far from settled.

8 See Smith's fine discussion of the discrepancy between the monstrously sensual Gertrude portrayed by Hamlet, the ghost, and many critics, and the "careful mother and wife" Gertrude appears to be in her brief appearances on stage ("A Heart Cleft in Twain," pp. 194-201); R. A. Foakes notes specifically that Hamlet's attack in 3.4 "proceeds more from his imagination than from anything the audience has seen or heard" ("Character and Speech in 'Hamlet,'" in Shakespeare Institute Studies: Hamlet, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris [New York: Schocken Books, 1963], p. 158). For G. Wilson Knight, this discrepancy illustrates the degree to which our judgment is independent of Hamlet's ("The Embassy of Death," in The Wheel of Fire [New York: Meridian Books, 1957], pp. 32, 43-44). But in Linda Bamber's reading of misogyny as a consequence of the tragic hero's decentering confrontation with the Other, Gertrude is simply "a vessel for Hamlet's feelings," not an independent character in whom we have an investment; since we "adopt his feelings as long as he displays them," we think of her as vaguely redeemed once he has given up his sexual disgust (Comic Women, Tragic Men, pp. 72-83). While I largely concur in Bamber's assessment, I note that the generations of critics who have struggled to define Gertrude suggest that the play promotes some investment in her; her ambiguous status as Other seems to me the mark of Shakespeare's ambiguous investment in the fantasies localized in Hamlet.

9 Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 137), Joseph (Conscience and the King, pp. 96-97), and Putzel ("Queen Gertrude's Crime," p. 43) think that Gertrude repents and gives her allegiance to Hamlet; Eleanor Prosser (Hamlet and Revenge [Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967], p. 196), Baldwin Maxwell ("Hamlet's Mother," Shakespeare Quarterly 15 [1964]: 242), and Smith ("A Heart Cleft in Twain," p. 205) think that she is unchanged.

10 Gertrude drinks the cup knowingly in Olivier's Hamlet.

11 T. S. Eliot, "Hamlet," Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), p. 124. In Eliot's view, the discrepancy between Gertrude and the disgust she arouses in Hamlet is the mark of "some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art" (p. 123) and hence of artistic failure; but, in concluding that Gertrude needs to be insignificant to arouse in Hamlet "the feeling which she is incapable of representing" (p. 125), he inadvertently suggests the aesthetic power of fantasy disengaged from its adequate representation in a single character. For a brilliant analysis of the way in which the feminine stands for the failure of all kinds of representational stability in Eliot's aesthetic, in various psychoanalytic attempts to master the play, and in Hamlet itself as the representative of Western tradition, see Jacqueline Rose, "Hamlet—the Mona Lisa of Literature," Critical Quarterly 28 (1986): 35-49.

12 Critics of all sorts agree that Gertrude's remarriage disturbs Hamlet more profoundly than his father's death: in addition to the "Orestes" and preoedipal critics cited in note 4, see, for example, Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 101), Eliot ("Hamlet," p. 123), Wilson (What Happens in Hamlet?, pp. 42-43), Jones (Hamlet and Oedipus, p. 68), Granville-Barker (Prefaces to Shakespeare, pp. 94-95), Flatter (Hamlet's Father, pp. 62-63), and Smith ("A Heart Cleft in Twain," p. 197). For the opposing point of view, see, e.g., Arthur Kirsch's account of Hamlet's impeded work of mourning, in which Hamlet's father's death has explanatory primacy ("Hamlet's Grief," English Literary History 48 [1981]: 17-36). Though Kirsch refers to Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia," he does not foreground the ambivalence toward the lost and introjected object that is the crux of that essay; this ambivalence toward the father is at the center of Barber and Wheeler's account of the play (The Whole Journey, p. 254).

13Rank is evocative of sexual disgust in Hamlet and elsewhere in Shakespeare: Claudius's offense is "rank" (3.3.36); he and Gertrude live "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew'd in corruption" (3.4.92-93). For other uses of rank, see, for example, Desdemona's "will most rank" (Othello, 3.3.236) or Posthumus's description of the woman's part ("lust, and rank thoughts, hers, hers," Cymbeline, 2.4.176). Burgundy describes a France "corrupting in it own fertility," in which "the even mead . . . / Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank, / Conceives by idleness" (Henry V, 5.2.40, 48-51); in its depiction of a monstrous female fecundity that is out of control, his "rank" is very close to Hamlet's unweeded garden. In his fine early discussion of the stench of corrupting flesh pervasive in Hamlet, Richard D. Altick notes the association of rank specifically with the smell of sexuality ("Hamlet and the Odor of Mortality," Shakespeare Quarterly 5 [1954]: 173-4).

14 Hamlet's sexual disgust and allied hatred of the flesh have been widely recognized; see, for example, Knight (The Wheel of Fire, p. 23), Prosser (Hamlet and Revenge, p. 175), and especially L. C. Knights ("Prince Hamlet," Scrutiny 9 [1940-41]: 151; An Approach to "Hamlet" [London: Chatto and Windus, 1960], esp. pp. 50-60). Most trace his recoil from the flesh to his shock at his mother's sensuality: "Is he not . . . her very flesh and blood?" Granville-Barker asks (Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 235; see also, e.g., Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet?, p. 42; Knights, An Approach to "Hamlet", p. 60; and Karl P. Wentersdorf, "Animal Symbolism in Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Imagery of Sex Nausea," Comparative Drama 17 [1983-84]: 375); in some ways my reading of Hamlet is an attempt to unfold the implications of Granville-Barker's question. For Jones, as for most oedipal critics, this recoil comes more indirectly from his mother: it is Hamlet's defensive response to the incestuous desire her remarriage fosters in him (Hamlet and Oedipus, pp. 88-89, 95). But John Hunt sees the source of Hamlet's contempt for the body not in his mother but in the ghost, the "memento of all that rots" ("A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet," Shakespeare Quarterly 39 [1988]: 32-35).

15 After giving the reasons for preferring Quarto 1 and 2's "sallied" (= sullied) to Folio's "solid," Jenkins concedes that Shakespeare may have intended a pun (see Arden Hamlet, pp. 436-37).

16 In Bamber's formulation, "What we see in Hamlet is not the Oedipal drama itself but the unraveling of the resolution to the Oedipus complex" (Comic Women, Tragic Men, p. 156); Rose understands femininity as the scapegoated sign of this unraveling ("Hamlet—the Mona Lisa of Literature," esp. pp. 40-41, 46-47). Traditional Freudian theory locates the father's protective function at the point of this resolution (see, for example, Erlich's account of Hamlet's fantasy-search for the father who can protect him from his own incestuous impulses [Hamlet's Absent Father, esp. pp. 23-37, 185-94]). But in object-relations theory, the father's protective role comes much earlier, when he helps the son in the process of differentiation from the potentially overwhelming mother of infancy (see, e.g., Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978], pp. 71, 79-82; the father's role in the process of individuation was first pointed out to me by Dr. Malcolm Pines at a meeting of the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1977). Both sorts of paternal protection seem to me to be lost at the beginning of Hamlet; but the distinctly oral valence of the unraveling of the oedipal resolution here (see note 4, above) suggests the primacy of the earlier crisis in the play's structuring fantasy.

17 The sense that Old Hamlet is somehow guilty has been most vigorously registered through the suspicion that the ghost is up to no good, that he is—as Protestant theology would insist and as Hamlet himself suspects when it is convenient for him to do so—a diabolic agent conducing to damnation. (The classic account of this view is Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge; in my view, it has been largely refuted by those who insist on the ghost's mixed nature [e.g., Charles A. Hallet and Elaine S. Hallet, The Revenger's Madness: A Study of Revenge Tragedy Motifs (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980), pp. 184-89] and on the extent to which his nature is deliberately left ambiguous [e.g., Robert H. West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery (Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1968), pp. 56-68] and Frye, The Renaissance "Hamlet", pp. 14-29).

18 See Erlich's similar reading of this passage as expressing the wish for a nonsexual birth that can defend against female danger (Hamlet's Absent Father, pp. 201-4). Though they do not specifically allude to this passage, Barber's and Wheeler's comments on the transformation of religious need into tragic theater are, I think, especially pertinent to the filial identity imaged through it: "The play is a version of the family romance of which Jesus's conviction that he is the son of God, that 'My father and I are one,' is the ultimate extreme" (The Whole Journey, p. 29).

19 The place of this dream-technique in the creation of Old Hamlet and Claudius was identified by Jones (Hamlet and Oedipus, p. 138) and Maud Bodkin (Archetypal Patterns in Poetry [London: Oxford University Press, 1934], pp. 13-14) and has since been widely accepted by psychoanalytic critics; see especially Barber and Wheeler's account of its devastating effects on the son who thus loses the capacity to move toward independent selfhood by coming to terms with his father's imperfections (The Whole Journey, pp. 249, 254-55). The over-idealized father must be destructive to Hamlet's own selfhood (see Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development, pp. 143, 193-94); in discussing Hamlet's need to escape "from the shade of the dead hero," Levin strikingly anticipates more recent formulations of the problem (The Question of Hamlet, pp. 57-58).

20 Critics often note that Old Hamlet's crimes seem to be of the same kind as Claudius's (see, for example, Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957], pp. 27-28; P. J. Aldus, Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in "Hamlet" [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977], pp. 47-48; David Leverenz, "The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View," in Representing Shakespeare, p. 117; and Margaret W. Ferguson, "Hamlet: Letters and Spirits," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman [New York: Methuen, 1985], pp. 296-97); the recent mini-tradition of doubling the roles of Claudius and the ghost seems to respond to this likeness (see Ralph Berry, "Hamlet's Doubles," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 209-10). But critics like West or Girard (see note 3, above) who begin by noting the likeness seem to me to obscure its force: the shock of noticing the likeness works on us, I think, only if we have first accepted the difference between them; the play thus replicates in its audience the disillusionment Hamlet continually tries to defer.

21 Elizabeth Abel first called my attention to the implicit presence of a controlling male gardener in Hamlet's image; since she has been a great help to me at virtually every stage of this book, it is a particular pleasure to record this specific debt to her. The father's place in controlling the mother's sexuality for the (oedipal) son is familiar in psychoanalysis; see, e.g., Lidz (Hamlet's Enemy, pp. 54, 83). Rose forcefully poses the broader social question this formulation partly occludes: "What happens . . . to the sexuality of the woman, when the husband dies, who is there to hold its potentially dangerous excess within the bounds of a fully social constraint?" ("Hamlet—the Mona Lisa of Literature," pp. 38-39).

22 When "grossly" is glossed, editors generally apply it to Old Hamlet's spiritual state; see, e.g., Jenkins (Arden edition), Willard Farnham (in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage [Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1969]), and G. R. Hibbard (The Oxford Shakespeare: Hamlet [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987]). But "grossly" modifies Claudius's action before it modifies Old Hamlet's state; in virtually all Shakespeare's other uses of it, it describes an action both bodily and palpable (see, e.g., All's Well, 1.3.173; Measure, 5.1.470; Othello, 3.3.401).

23 Given my reading of this passage, Warburton's famous emendation of good to god is nearly irresistible; but I have nonetheless resisted it, staying with the Arden's good on the grounds that the word does not, strictly speaking, require emendation.

24 According to John E. Hankins, Hamlet is quite orthodox here; see his account of the Aristotelian and post-Aristotelian theories that made generation of all kinds dependent on putrifying matter ("Hamlet's 'God Kissing Carrion': A Theory of the Generation of Life," PMLA 64 [1949]: 507-16).

25 "Marrow" is unusual in Shakespeare; three of its four other occurrences are in a sexual context (see All's Well, where Parolles cautions Bertram against "spending his manly marrow" in the arms of his kickywicky [2.3.276-77]; see also "Venus and Adonis," 1. 142, and 3 Henry VI, 3.2.125).

26 See John H. Astington, "'Fault' in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985): 330-4, for fault as a slang term for the female genitals; he does not note its use in this passage. But fault could apparently carry the more general suggestion of sexual intercourse as well: as the language lesson in Henry V makes clear, French foutre was available to corrupt good English words (3.4.47-49), and Shakespeare routinely takes advantage of this potentiality in his use of fault. Among many instances, see especially Sonnet 138 ("Therefore I lie with her and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be"), Othello ("oft my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not," 3.3.151-52), Measure ("some condemned for a fault alone," 2.1.40), and The Winter's Tale ("Th' offenses we have made you do, we'll answer, / If you first sinn'd with us, and that with us / You did continue fault," 1.2.83-85). Stephen Booth hears false in the faults of Sonnet 138 and cites an apparent faults/fall echo (Othello, 4.3.86-87); see his note on the complex issue of pronunciation (Shakespeare's Sonnets [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977], p. 481). Whether or not the "1" was audible in faults, the word could clearly serve as a nexus for the sense of sexual corruption.

27 Critics often portray Hamlet's world as infected by original sin (see, e.g., West, The Court and the Castle,p. 28; Levin, The Question of Hamlet, p. 58; Robert B. Bennett, "Hamlet and the Burden of Knowledge," Shakespeare Studies 15 [1982]: 77-97; Donald V. Stump, "Hamlet, Cain and Abel, and the Pattern of Divine Providence," Renaissance Papers 1985 [The Southern Renaissance Conference], pp. 29-30). Hankins associates original sin generally with the flesh of Hamlet's "good kissing carrion" ("Hamlet's 'God Kissing Carrion,'" pp. 515-16), Walter N. King specifically with Hamlet's own sullied flesh (Hamlet's Search for Meaning [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982], p. 44); but Hamlet's anatomy of original sin is more precise than they suggest. And it is also accepted orthodoxy: see Marina Warner (Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary [New York: Random House, 1983], pp. 54, 57) for the Augustinian view that original sin was transmitted in the womb through the act of conception. Hence the logic that led eventually to the doctrine of Immaculate Conception for the Virgin (Warner, pp. 236-54) and also to her exemption from death (Warner, pp. 97-98; see also Julia Kristeva, "Stabat Mater," in The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986], p. 102).

28 Without noting the pun on fault or the allusion to original sin, Erlich comes to a similar conclusion about this passage; see his use of it to explicate the "to be or not to be" soliloquy as a meditation on whether or not to be born (Hamlet's Absent Father, esp. pp. 182-85). Erlich understands the play's emphasis on birth primarily in relation to the oedipally castrating mother (e.g., p. 187); I am nonetheless indebted to his explication of the various forms of bear in the soliloquy and elsewhere (see esp. p. 183). The soliloquy similarly asks "how he or anyone lets himself be born as the one he is" in Stanley Cavell's meditation on Hamlet's refusal to accept his birth, which means his refusal "to take [his] existence upon [him]" ("Hamlet's Burden of Proof," Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], p. 187). In Cavell's complex account, acceptance of one's birth is acceptance of one's own separateness, hence acceptance of the sexually independent mother and the sexually dependent father shadowed in the fantasy of the primal scene; I locate the problematics of birth in more specifically preoedipal and gendered terms, as a register of fears of male contamination by the female at the point of origin of subjectivity as well as in the primal scene.

29 The allusion to the fall in garden and serpent is commonly recognized (see, e.g., Arthur M. Eastman, "Hamlet in the Light of the Shakespearean Canon," in Perspectives on Hamlet, ed. William G. Holzberger and Peter B. Waldeck [Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975], p. 53; Kirsch, "Hamlet's Grief," p. 25; and Stump, "Hamlet, Cain and Abel," p. 29); the anomalous position of Eve in this version of the fall is not.

30 Few critics share Flatter's conviction that Gertrude was literally complicit in Old Hamlet's murder (see note 6), but some note the sense of murderous culpability nonetheless associated with her; they attribute it to her (naturalistically conceived) failure to love her husband enough (Lora Heller and Abraham Heller, "Hamlet's Parents: The Dynamic Formulation of A Tragedy," American Imago 17 [1960]: 417-20), to the specifically male fantasies that equate female betrayal with death (Madelon [Sprengnether] Gohlke, "'I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," in Representing Shakespeare, p. 173; A. Andre Glaz, "Hamlet, Or the Tragedy of Shakespeare," American Imago 18 [1961]: 139) or to fantasies of the primal scene in which the mother damages the father (Erlich, Hamlet's Absent Father, pp. 62-63, 115; Cavell, Disowning Knowledge, pp. 183-85). Others note the more generalized nexus of sexuality and death without addressing the specific issue of Gertrude's culpability (e.g., Levin, The Question of Hamlet, pp. 59, 64; Moloney and Rockelein, "A New Interpretation of Hamlet" p. 94; Aldus, Mousetrap, pp. 108-13). In thinking of the story of fratricidal rivalry in effect as a cover for the more primary story of male subjection to the female, I am implicitly quarreling with the assumptions of Girard and others, for whom woman takes on meaning only insofar as she functions as a sign of differentiation between men; Girardian No-Difference seems to me at its most dangerous—at least to the Shakespearean (male) subject—when it threatens to obliterate the difference between male and female on which manhood is founded.

31 The shift of blame from male to female that is the subtext of Hamlet is modeled in little by the Player's speech on the death of Priam, where the strumpet Fortune stands in for Pyrrhus at the crucial moment of the murder (2.2.488-89); see Erlich, Hamlet's Absent Father, p. 118, and Chapter 3, p. 43, above.

32 See Kay Stockholder (Dream Works: Lovers and Families in Shakespeare's Plays [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987], pp. 52-53) for a similar formulation. OED 1 (e) gives "sexual intercourse" as one of the meanings for mixture. Holland cites several psychoanalytic critics who see the poisoning "as a childishly confused account of the sexual act" (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 194); see also Erlich (Hamlet's Absent Father, p. 93), and especially Cavell, who reads the dumb-show poisoning as Hamlet's dream-version of a primal scene fantasy (Disowning Knowledge, p. 185).

33 Skin eruptions of the sort the ghost describes were one of the symptoms of syphilis (see James Cleugh, Secret Enemy: The Story of a Disease [London: Thames and Hudson, 1954], pp. 46-50); Thersites wishes "tetter" on the "masculine whore" Patroclus (Troilus and Cressida, 5.1.16, 22). Both the ghost's "crust" and his odd "bark'd about" are anticipated in early descriptions of the disease: Francisco Lopez de Villalobos notes the "very ugly eruption of crusts upon the face and body," Josef Grunbeck the wrinkled black scabs, "harder than bark" (cited in English translation in Cleugh, pp. 48, 49). The description of the poison as a "leperous distilment" that courses through his body like "quicksilver" (1.5.64, 66) might also further the association of the poison with syphilis, since quicksilver was a routine treatment for syphilis (Cleugh, pp. 59, 61) and leprosy itself was associated with venereal disease (see Cleugh, pp. 53-55, and Charles Clayton Dennie, A History of Syphilis [Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1962], pp. 13, 32; for Shakespearean uses of this association, see Timon's punning "Make the hoar leprosy ador'd" [Timon, 4.3.36] and Antony's wishing leprosy on "you ribbaudred nag of Egypt," Antony, 3.10.10).

34 See Erlich's similar speculations on this pun (Hamlet's Absent Father, pp. 62-63).

35 The descriptions of hell and of Gertrude's body coalesce in the burning characteristic of venereal disease; see Timon ("Be strong in whore, allure him, burn him up" [4.3.143]) and especially Thersites ("Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery! . . . A burning devil take them!" [Troilus, 5.2.193-95]). For the female genitals as burning hell, see Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets, pp. 499-500.

36 An incipient pun on matter and mater seems to run just below the surface of Hamlet, emerging only when Hamlet wittily asks his mother, "Now, mother, what's the matter?" (3.4.7) and perhaps in the "baser matter" of 1.5.104 (Fred Crews long ago electrified a Berkeley colloquium by speculating on this latter possibility after a talk by Avi Erlich). For extended commentary on the pun, see Erlich (Hamlet's Absent Father, p. 215) and Ferguson ("Hamlet: Letters and Spirits," p. 295); for the anatomical association of matter and mater, see Chapter 1, p. 6. Shakespeare toys with this association even in casual use: see, for example, Twelfth Night, where Sebastian's proclamation that he is a spirit indeed, "but . . . in that dimension grossly clad / Which from the womb I did participate" (5.1.229-30) anticipates Hamlet's genesis of gross flesh. Given this association, even the gravedigger's reference to a corpse as "your whoreson dead body" (5.1.166) may not be wholly casual.

37 Hamlet's famous pun to Ophelia—"Do you think I meant country matters?" (3.2.115)—clarifies the use of "country" here. Erlich first called my attention to this pun in the soliloquy (see Hamlet's Absent Father,p. 188; and see the same page, and Booth, Shakespeare's Sonnets, p. 526, for the possibility that the conscience that makes cowards of us all (3.1.83) similarly puns on the female genitals.

38 The pun associating the poison with marriage and sexual union has been noted at least since Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 126); Faber sees in Hamlet's forcing Claudius to drink his "union" specifically the playing out of Hamlet's oral aggression ("Hamlet, Sarcasm and Psychoanalysis," p. 89).

39 See note 36 for the pun on mater/matter.

40 In this paragraph, as elsewhere, I am drawing on ideas expressed by D. W. Winnicott in a series of essays on the interface between inner and outer in earliest infantile development, especially on the ways in which a developing core of selfhood can meet with a reliable world in a transitional zone that makes creative interaction between inner and outer possible, and on the ways in which this zone can be destroyed (see especially "Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena," Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis [London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1975], pp. 229-42; "Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self," The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment [London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1972], pp. 140-52; and "Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites," The Maturational Processes, pp. 179-92; and see Chapter 8, notes 83, 84, and 90, for further discussion of Winnicott). See also Wheeler on Hamlet's "excruciating efforts to establish a self while hiding it from others" for a similarly Winnicottian account (Shakespeare's Development, p. 198). Many have noted the troubled relationship between inner and outer in Hamlet: for particularly interesting accounts, see, e.g, Marvin Spevack on Hamlet's "self-conceived inner realm" ("Hamlet and Imagery: The Mind's Eye," Die Neueren Sprachem n.s.25 [1966]: 203-12), David Pirie on Hamlet's retreat into soliloquy ("Hamlet without the Prince," Critical Quarterly 14 (1972): 293-314), and Holland on Hamlet's "tendency to turn inner life into outward" (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 204); Brent Cohen notes the extent to which even the distinction between inner and outer is problematized as Hamlet's claims to interiority become merely another role ("'What is it you would see?': Hamlet and the Conscience of the Theatre," ELH 40 [1977]: 240-42). The vexed relationship between inner and outer in Hamlet makes for some odd readings of the play, in which anything distantly resembling plot or character is dissolved. For extreme instances, see Glaz, for whom the whole play acts out a conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet confirming Hamlet's—or maybe Shakespeare's—illegitimacy ("Hamlet, Or the Tragedy of Shakespeare," pp. 129-58), and Aldus, who sees in all the male characters a single mythic man encountering sex and death in a single woman (The Mousetrap, e.g., pp. 115, 146, and 159); for a less extreme instance, see Stockholder, for whom plays are always the dreams of their protagonists, in this case the oedipally tinged dream of Hamlet's conflicted move toward maturity (Dream Works, pp. 12-16, 40-64). The entire collapse of what he dismisses as the literal perspective on the play is especially frustrating in Aldus's account, since it prevents his sometimes fascinating intuitions from becoming fully coherent.

41 See Erickson's account of Horatio's defensive function for Hamlet (Patriarchal Structures, pp. 66-80); in his account, the imperviousness of Horatio helps Hamlet to ward off the psychic demands of his overwhelming father (pp. 68-69) and allows Hamlet safely to replicate the affectionate bond he cannot have with his mother or Ophelia (pp. 74-78).

42 Critics who use the model of Freud's "Mourning and Melancholia" (see note 12, above) generally assume that the lost object is Hamlet's father; but Ham let's discovery of the whore inside himself suggests that the lost, introjected, and then berated object is his mother (see, e.g., Paul A. Jorgensen, "Hamlet's Therapy," The Huntington Library Quarterly 27 [1964]: 254-55, and Stephen A. Reid, "Hamlet's Melancholia," American Imago 31 [1974]: 389-92). Psychoanalytic critics sometimes note Hamlet's difficulty in reconciling what they see as the masculine and feminine elements within him; see, for example, Murray M. Schwartz ("Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis," in Representing Shakespeare, p. 27) and especially Winnicott, in his not wholly successful attempt to gender the development of the objective subject ("Creativity and its Origins," in Playing and Reality [London: Tavistock Publications, 1971], esp. pp. 79-84; see also Rose's critique of Winnicott, "Hamlet—the Mona Lisa of Literature," p. 45). Holland points toward the same difficulty in Shakespeare (Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, p. 142). The fullest account of Hamlet's relation to his own "femaleness" is David Leverenz's "The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View" (in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 110-28). Despite its suggestive use of double-bind theory and its wonderful account of Ophelia as an empty repository for other people's voices, this essay seems to me to some extent vitiated by its attempt to locate the female as a positive source of value within Shakespeare's text; it is much more successful in demonstrating Hamlet's revulsion against the female than in suggesting Shakespeare's critique of his revulsion. In Macbeth and Coriolanus, Shakespeare will foreground the consequences of constructing masculinity as the not-female; here he seems to me largely to replicate Hamlet's sense of the female as the source of weakness and contamination. For the basis of this construction of the masculine self in the theories of object-relations psychoanalysis, see Chapter 1, p. 7; for Hamlet specifically, see Madelon Gohlke, "'I wooed thee with my sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms," in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 172-73.

43 In an attempt to preserve Hamlet's nobility, several critics have attributed his behavior in 3.4 to his high-minded and altogether selfless reformist impulses toward his mother (see, for example, Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 115; Joseph, Conscience and the King, pp. 95-97; Frye, The Renaissance "Hamlet", pp. 152, 162); but Knights notes that he "seems intent not so much on exposing lust as on indulging an uncontrollable spite against the flesh" ("Prince Hamlet," p. 151). I would add that he shows very few signs of interest in his mother as a real person who might be won to repentance; in my view, she remains almost entirely a fantasy-object for him in this scene.

44 As Charney notes, "Hamlet characteristically displaces the expected plot interest from the king . . . to his mother" in the middle of the play; the "crucial prayer scene occurs, as it were, in passing" ("The 'Now Could I Drink Hot Blood' Soliloquy," pp. 82-83).

45 Although Barber does not specifically discuss this moment in Hamlet, my sense of the importance of the sacred as a psychic category in Shakespeare is greatly indebted to him. His work—which I first saw in 1976—locates the tragic need to find the sacred in familial relationships in the context of the Protestant dismantling of the Holy Family, especially of the Holy Mother "whose worship could help meet the profound need for relationship to an ideal feminine figure, unsullied either by her own sexuality or by the sexual insecurities of men and unlimited in maternal solace and generosity" (Barber and Wheeler, The Whole Journey, p. 32; see also "On Christianity and the Family: Tragedy of the Sacred," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "King Lear", ed. Janet Adelman [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978], pp. 117-19, and "The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness," in Representing Shakespeare, pp. 188-202, for earlier formulations of these ideas). Although Barber and Wheeler's full discussion of Hamlet in The Whole Journey foregrounds the father-son relationship, they characterize relationship to the mother as the "anguished center of Hamlet's experience" in discussing the needs the Holy Mother is no longer available to fulfill (p. 31). Wheeler's earlier account of Hamlet in Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies powerfully foregrounds this anguished center: in it, he draws on the work of Erik Erikson (especially pp. 82-83, 161) and Winnicott (especially pp. 195-99) to explicate Hamlet's "need to repurify and rediscover himself in the trustworthy, internalized maternal presence that Gertrude has contaminated" (p. 196); in his view, Hamlet can begin to imagine that blessed presence only after his matricidal impulse is "released and deflected onto Polonius" (p. 197).

46 See Meredith Skura's account of the ways in which Hamlet's world embodies (and hence justifies) what he feels (The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981], p. 47). Though she seems to me too quick to dismiss the locus of fantasy in the character of Hamlet—"Hamlet recreates the fantasy, not the fantasizer" (p. 48)—and though she stresses oedipal to the exclusion of preoedipal fantasy, her account of the presence and status of fantasy in Hamlet and in other literary works seems to me extraordinarily rich and compelling (see the whole of Chapter 3, "Literature as Fantasy," pp. 58-124; and see especially pp. 47-50, 97-98, for Hamlet).

47 See Eastman, 'Hamlet in the Light of the Shakespearean Canon," for a striking explication of Hamlet via its exfoliations in Othello and King Lear; this essay anticipates my own formulations at several points (see esp. pp. 55-56, on Lear's vagina/hell-mouth, and p. 65, on the "deep desire for spiritual rapprochement" in the blessing of parent and child).

Joanna Montgomery Byles (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "'Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Revenge in Hamlet'," in The Hamlet Collection: NewEssays on Hamlet, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning, AMS Press, 1994, pp. 117-34.

[In the following essay, Byles examines the psychological origins of revenge in Hamlet, arguing that for Hamlet, the demands of his ego and superego conflict, leaving him ashamed of his father's command to revenge as well as ashamed of his inability to fulfill his father's command.]

Hamlet tells us, he has 'that within which passes show' (I. ii. 85). We become intensely aware of Hamlet's inner life through his soliloquies, which externalize and dramatize his inner conflicts so powerfully. How to denote these inner tensions, and his all-pervasive feelings of powerlessness and rage, and to express them truly is Hamlet's problem throughout the play.

In this essay I should like to focus on some of the psychological origins of revenge in Hamlet. I acknowledge that what I have to say leaves out many other problems, but from the perspective of psychoanalysis we might pose the following questions: what is the psychological object of mimesis in revenge tragedies, particularly in Hamlet? Why are many of Hamlet's actions motivated by impulse rather than reason? What is being represented? What role do destructive and self-destructive impulses play in Hamlet's destiny? What part does the socialized and / or individual superego play in creating the revenge tragedy in Hamlet? Is tragic revenge different from tragi-comic revenge? Is there some basic dynamic pattern of psychic action that Shakespearean tragedy dramatizes as revenge? How can Freud and other theorists help us to understand this dynamic pattern?

The concept of the superego, both individual and cultural, is important to our understanding of the dynamics of aggressive destruction in Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge. The Freudian superego is usually thought of as heir to the Oedipus complex, the internalization of parental values and the source of punitive, approving and idealizing attitudes towards the self.1 In drama, the tragic hero's superego is, of course, separate from the cultural superego. Superego aggression may be directed against the self or the external world; the operative feeling in this unconscious aggression is externalized and dramatized as revengeful hatred. Revenge is an important means of dramatizing this dynamic and its cultural significance within family relationships in the drama.

On one level, Hamlet is a play about conflict between the generations; within the play, parents and children are often enemies. All the younger generation are manipulated by the older generation for selfish ends. Clearly, Hamlet invites reflection on the proper relation between generations and the significance of inter-generational conflict.2 After the death of his father, Hamlet cannot leave his family until he is forced into exile; he cannot separate from them, not just geographically but emotionally. Laertes is the only one to escape from Elsinore of his own free will. Ophelia is in much the same position as Hamlet until she takes her own life. Hamlet thinks constantly of suicide or murderous revenge; at times, he is totally absorbed by these deathly desires. Further, in this play two sons are slain, a daughter commits suicide, a mother and two fathers are murdered, and one, old Norway, is killed. The Pyrrhus speech with its arrested sword of vengeance first 'Repugnant to command' (II. ii. 467) and then 'Aroused' (II. ii. 484) falling on old Priam, whose sons had ambushed and murdered Pyrrhus' father, Achilles, extends this appalling pattern, metaphorically, to a fourth murdered father. The allusion looks back to the long ritual of revenge in literature. And, of course, it foreshadows Hamlet's own actions. Hamlet has already recalled the dire effect of this ancient revenge story on families in his earlier prompting of the chief Player: Pyrrhus is described as

horridly trick 'dWith blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons

(II. ii. 453-4)

In Hamlet, Shakespeare subverts the essential logic of the revenge form by representing revenge as an inward tragic event, reinforced by destructive family relationships whose psychic energies violate and destroy the protagonist's psychic wholeness, fragmenting and ultimately dissolving the personality. In Hamlet himself, hate and destructiveness are consuming passions; the deep movement of superego aggression that motivates revenge carries him towards death.

I necessarily assume that tragic action directly links the protagonist's suffering and death to the vengeful destructiveness of his superego and that of the community he exists in, especially his family. Tragic revenge dramatizes qualitative differences between various forms of superego aggressiveness. Ultimately, it is the tragic revenge hero's fate to satisfy the conflicting demands of the socialized and his own superego; when these demands coalesce, we have a definitive tragic image: the destruction and self-sacrifice of the tragic hero.3

In Hamlet, Osric is the agent of this coalescence. The wager represents the poisonous revenge of both Laertes and Claudius; it is Hamlet's death warrant, but Hamlet has surrendered himself to its treachery and, more importantly, to his own death. The devoted Horatio guesses Hamlet's terrifying and deep resignation:

If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither and say you are not fit.

(V. ii. 213-14)

But Hamlet is ready to 'Let be' (V. ii. 220). At the end of the tragedy, there is a deathly co-operation between the protagonist and his environment in which destructive aggression is resolved and guilt atoned.

The theatre supplies the external frame onto which the internal struggle of the ego and superego is most commonly projected. The tragic hero involved in revenge acts out the inner conflict of the ego's struggle against the cruel demands of both his own and the socialized superego. The play represents the author's working out of this unconscious conflict which is transformed, with all its identifications into the play. The question of the socialized superego, or the communal or cultural superego, allows us to shift from the inner dynamics of the hero to those who surround him, the external figures in the social world of the play, who not only influence his inner life, but his entire tragic history, especially his family history. For example, at the beginning of the play Hamlet is mourning his lost father, and, in another sense his lost mother; what he needs to do is to refashion his emotional attachments to them. However, the circumstances of the play, the 'rottenness' in the State of Denmark and the crucial command to revenge, prevent Hamlet from identifying himself as the new heir; the demand to revenge intensifies his introjection of his father whose ideal he cannot live up to, and whose demands he cannot carry out. Instead of feeling the support and love of his father, he feels the fear, separation and anxiety of frustration and hostility. Added to all this is the general menacing atmosphere of the court, covered, of course, by a courtly show of good manners, in which nearly everyone seems to spy on him; the play is full of licit and illicit listening, secrecy and anxiety. The command to murderous revenge denies Hamlet the possibility of developing the healing processes of mourning whereby the lost loved one is internalized. Moreover, Hamlet's dead father's revelations cause Hamlet cruelly to reject Ophelia, who might have saved him from himself, and would, in fact, have prevented the separation of Eros and aggression in Hamlet's psychodynamic story.

Ophelia, too, is a victim of parental authority. She allows her father to deny what for her is her most crucial reality: her love for Hamlet and its history.4 Although she is in love with Hamlet and has encouraged his intimacies, Ophelia allows her father to deny this emotional reality:

OPHELIA: My lord, he hath importun'd me with love In honourable fashion. POLONIUS: Ay, fashion you may call it. Go to, go to. OPHELIA: And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven. POLONIUS: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know, When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul Lends the tongue vows.

. . . . .

This is for all. I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth Have you so slander any moment leisure As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to't, I charge you. Come your ways. OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.

(I. iii. 110-36)

Polonius is clearly not at all interested in what Ophelia feels or how she perceives her relationship with Hamlet. Moreover, he forces her to be untrue to herself: to deny her love for Hamlet. He forces her into an invidious position and uses her to entrap Hamlet, so that he can prove himself right about Hamlet's 'madness', which then allows Claudius to take advantage of Hamlet's 'madness'.5 But it is the poor, motherless Ophelia, who actually goes mad. All the fathers in the play, including the Ghost, without the slightest compunction gratify their own needs by manipulating their children.

Why, many critics have asked, does Hamlet accept the role of revenger?6 Ethically and morally, it may be considered right or wrong; but, from a psychoanalytic perspective, it is the only thing he can do, mobilized as he is by the traumatic effects of his family predicament. He must identify with his dead father's outrage, and rescue his mother from her incestuous marriage, if he is to recover an integrated self and the integrity he needs to become his father's rightful heir:

Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe. Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain Unmix'd with baser matter.

(I. v. 95-104)

But all this unconsciously involves the murderous and self-murderous superego, dramatized as delay. The inward traumatic pressures of the past cannot so easily be wiped out.

In one sense, we might consider the characters in Hamlet as agents of the Ghost's hate. Or the Ghost may be a dramatic means of externalizing Hamlet's desire to kill Claudius, since the command to kill Claudius seems to come from outside himself. Daniel E. Schneider writes that a play is like a dream turned inside out—and an interpretation at the same time, the success and coherence depending upon the talents of the dramatist to organize and interpret fantasies so that they resonate with the fantasies of the audience. The dream's conflicting pain / pleasure principle made paramount and explicit is the emotional force of the drama; and the interpretation subsidiary and implicit is in its action, in plot, the exposition and motivating force of the drama's story, the dynamic of the author's conflict as it is externalized and interpreted into the fully realized social world of the drama.7 I find this idea interesting and useful because it unites three essentials: the dramatist's psychic conflicts, the drama itself in all its identifications and the psyche or psyches of the audience. It takes account of the complexity of the tragedy as a work of art and the variety of reactions it stimulates in its audience, from the release of passion under the protection of aesthetic illusion, to the highly complex process of recreation under the dramatist's guidance, of a series of processes of psychic discharge that take place in the audience, including pity and fear. The audience must be drawn into the drama and its resistances overcome; Shakespeare forces the audience to identify and act out in their minds his interpretation of inner conflict and disturbing fantasies that provide the unconscious dynamic as the action moves through conflict, crisis, climax and resolution. In Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge, the action is nearly always fatal, and we, too, must experience this pressure, recognizing with terror the cruel power of superego aggression, of the dynamic that powers hateful revenge, in ourselves as well as in our representatives on stage, in life as well as in the drama. One reason why revenge tragedies were popular in Shakespeare's culture and are still popular in our own, is that revenge is profoundly disturbing; for an audience the projection of revenge is extremely therapeutic.8

A definitive image of tragi-comedy is of forgiveness, reconciliation and regeneration. The endings of tragic revenges are quite otherwise, and perhaps relate to an earlier or more primitive form of psychic conflict (such as scapegoating) than to the life-asserting endings of many tragi-comedies, the underlying dynamic of which is shame, not guilt. Guilt, and the hateful destructiveness and rage which accompany it, are at the centre of Hamlet's experience. The superego is a highly important factor in illustrating the fate of the protagonist in revenge tragedy; he is one for whom the conscious and / or unconscious sense of guilt, with the corresponding need for punishment, satisfied through suffering and eventually through an honourable death, plays a decisive part in his will and willingness to die. In revenge tragedy, as opposed to tragi-comedy involving revenge, the protagonist's superego is a cruelly persecuting agency which his ego has good reason to dread, and much of the tragic hero's motivation, once he has renounced Eros (defusion), derives from the struggle either to avoid or to submit to its claims. When the hostile elements in the external world of the play are directed against Hamlet, he not only internalizes them, but they combine with his own self-destructive tendencies to produce a deep need for inner punishment: death. But this is the final dynamic of Hamlet's psychic journey; the dramatic action covers much ground before that ultimate act.

Tragic Alternatives: Eros and Superego Aggression

To some extent, it is the denial of Eros and the destructiveness of family attachments which largely contribute to the fate of Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. All these tragic figures make the initial mistake of rejecting a crucial and sustaining love relationship. These tragic heroes fail in love, are usually unsuccessful in their ambition, which often includes a powerful and fatal desire for revenge, and suffer from a highly developed superego, whose effect is to produce a pronounced sense of guilt. As I have already suggested, when this inner dynamic of guilt combines with the hostile tendencies of the cultural superego within the social world of the drama, we have a definitive generic marker of tragedy: the self-sacrifice of the tragic figure.

There are two Freudian concepts which might help us to understand these psychodynamics of tragic action and how Shakespeare dramatizes them in the revenge motif of Hamlet in particular:

  1. Defusion of the dual instincts of Eros and Death, and
  2. Superego aggression, which is one aspect of the death instinct.9

Freud employs the idea of Eros, from Plato's Symposium, in his final instinct theory (1930), to connote the whole of the life instincts, as opposed to the death instinct. According to Freud, the dual instincts are usually mingled with one another or fused. 'Normally,' Freud says, 'the two kinds of instincts seldom appear in isolation from each other, but are alloyed with each other in varying and different proportions, and so become unrecognizable to our judgment'.10 It is important to understand that Eros neutralizes aggression, and that the ego must find objects for Eros and aggression. Usually, aggression is modified in its impact

  1. by displacement to other object;
  2. by restriction of its aim;
  3. by the sublimation of the aggressive energy; and
  4. through the influence of fusion.

Ultimately, none of these modifications applies to Hamlet.

The tragic process (which includes the total environment of the play, with all its hostilities and hatreds, its failures in loving, and its tremendous emphasis on guilt and the corresponding need for punishment and suffering), instead of strengthening the ego in its task of regulating Eros and aggression so that they do not clash with reality and defuse (separate), is one in which the ego is destroyed by the undermining of its total organization. Fusion represents an integrated ego, one which is functioning well, and, with the aid of Eros, able to modify aggression in the four normal ways just mentioned. The failure of Eros results in complete defusion (separation) of the dual instincts and the dominance of the aggressive death instinct, whose agency is the harsh, self-abusive superego. It is then the task of the ego to defend itself by keeping the aggression directed outward in the interests of self-preservation. According to Freud, 'It would seem that aggression when it is impeded entails serious injury, and that we have to destroy other things and other people in order not to destroy ourselves, in order to protect ourselves from the tendency to self-destruction.'11 As long as the protagonist can displace his inner aggression onto others, usually through hating and revenging, he survives. After separation of the dual instincts (defusion), the erotic component no longer has the power to bind the whole of the destructiveness that was combined with it, and this releases much of the cruelty and violence that is so characteristic of superego aggression and of Shakespeare's tragedies involving revenge, as we see in Hamlet.

Sources, Formation and Function of Superego

The superego is the psychic agency that produces the sense of the ideal, of the way things ought to be, not the way they are, and so it is not always oriented towards reality. Freud thought the source of the superego was the internalization of the castrating Oedipal father. He also thought the superego was one aspect of the death instinct (thanatos) in its aggressive need for punishment. Freud theorized that the cruel superego was also the revengeful aggressor that produces not only the need to idealize, but also the need for aggressive self-abuse when the ideal fails: for suicide or murder.12 Although the formation of the superego is grounded in hostile Oedipal wishes and in the renunciation of loving, it is subsequently refined, according to Freud, by the contributions of social and cultural requirements (education, religion, morality).13

In her chapter on superego formation, Edith Jacobson states that the core of the superego is 'the law against patricide and matricide and the incest taboo'; she then goes on to say that superego fear continues and replaces castration fear, but that some people may 'unconsciously equate the superego with the threatening paternal—or their own—phallus'. She also points out that 'there is a tremendous step between the simple moral logic of castration fear, fear of punishment and hope of reward, to the abstract moral level of a superego which has expanded from the taboo of incest and murder to a set of impersonal, ethical principles and regulations for human behaviour.'14 Melanie Klein traces the beginning of the superego back to early (infant) oral fantasies of self-destruction, which is a direct manifestation of the death instinct.15 In his reinterpretation of the death instinct, Jean Laplanche sees the death drive 'not as an element in conflict but as conflict itself substantialized, an internal principle of strife and disunion.'16 In his chapter on the death instinct, Paul Ricoeur sees the superego as an essential instinct problem for the philosophy of art.17

The death instinct is a useful concept in many ways: it represents a decomposition of the ego under attack by the superego; it tends to weaken object relations, and it tends to narcissistic withdrawal. In other words, the person in whom the aggressive tendencies of the death instinct are dominant over the life instincts has a weakened ego, and in an effort to regain the strength of self-esteem and self-confidence, he / she tries narcissistically to withdraw from persons and conflicts altogether. This is particularly true if the person's love relations have failed. If one thinks of Eros as a life-preserving force (the ego needs Eros to carry out its intricate life-preserving functions), and if one thinks of the idealistic superego as the self-aggressor, promoting life-denying tendencies, then the beloved may become a means whereby the ego is defeated. More often than not, Shakespeare dramatizes sexuality as a destructive force, and this is especially true of Hamlet.

One striking collusion between the dynamics of character and the universe of Shakespearean tragedy is that the protagonist chooses the wrong lover, or his perception of the loved one is disastrously flawed, or his family relationships are intimately destructive. The ability to relate to the other/s is an immense difficulty, if not to say impossibility for Hamlet. This may be because, as Richard P. Wheeler and others have suggested, men are less able to merge their identity with the other/s, than women are (i.e., men have more definite boundaries to the self than women), or because tragedy dramatizes the inability to steer a relationship through loving betrayal to survival.18 D. W. Winnicott describes these phases in psychoanalytic object-relations terms as using, destroying and surviving.19 Winnicott's idea applies more to tragicomedy than to tragedy. A definitive image of tragi-comedy is forgiveness, reconciliation and regeneration; that of tragedy is self-sacrifice and death.

Perhaps narcissism is relevant here.20 The aim of the narcissist is to be loved, and the narcissistic lover is usually dangerously dependent on his beloved. One who loves in this way has 'expropriated' part of his narcissism, which can only be replaced by his being loved. There is a constant need to replenish the amount of self-love the narcissistic lover gives the other. If, instead of being loved, the narcissistic person is betrayed, it is as if he had betrayed himself; he feels a painful lowering of self-esteem and is full of self-pity. He does not, however, hate himself as the idealist does in similar circumstances. On the contrary, betrayal usually leads to a compensatory increase in narcissism; instead of being fixated on the loved one, the narcissist regresses to a previous point in his life when he loved only himself. In other words, a narcissistic lover who is betrayed is often sustained by his narcissism, whereas an idealistic lover feels utterly worthless and hates himself sometimes to the point of suicide. The idealist lover is driven by superego demands either to murder his beloved and / or himself.

It is only fair to say that there has been enormous resistance to Freud's idea of a death instinct since he first formulated it. Perhaps this resistance has something to do with our unwillingness to accept the violence of self-destructive and revengeful tendencies within ourselves. It seems it is easier to bear punishment inflicted from the outside than to face internal self-destructive tendencies. Possibly the origin of the superego also represents a similar attempt at externalization. Ehrenzweig suggests that instead of being rent by internal tensions, it is as if the ego projects its self-destructive aggression onto a split-off part, the superego, and prefers to submit to its attacks which now come to it from outside.21 Superego aggression also projects itself into the outside world and onto the figures of punishing parents, punitive laws, repressive political regimes, conquest and invasions.

The superego's function is to induce guilt and to repress; openness (not closure) requires a weakening of the superego power of repression. Yet a lifting of repression, or recognition of repressed material, may produce extreme anxiety, even panic. For example, on one level of interpretation, the Ghost represents the unrepressed hostility Hamlet feels for his father. The hostility Hamlet feels for his father is externalized as revengeful hatred not only for Claudius, his 'uncle-father', but also for Gertrude, his 'aunt-mother', and for Ophelia. These internal processes are externalized and dramatized in the soliloquies, where the thought is frequently revengeful, sadistic and self-destructive. Hamlet's soliloquies are also expressions of superego conflict: to die or to live; to honour or to revenge; duty to oneself or to one's father. On one level, Hamlet is ashamed of his father's command to revenge, and, at the same time, ashamed of his inability to fulfil the command.

Eleanor Prosser suggests the Ghost is an idea Hamlet has long been waiting for.22 It is possible that the Ghost is not only a projection of Hamlet's hostile feelings towards his father, but also serves as a projection of his murderous feelings about his mother's husband:

O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!

. . . . .

So, uncle, there you are.

(I. v. 106-10)

If the command to murder Claudius is another instance of repressed wishes surfacing into conscious intention, then it is obviously less threatening that the revengeful need seems to come from outside, from the superego demands of authority, of the outraged father, husband and king. The Oedipal theory clearly works here. Hamlet has been thinking, on some pre-conscious level, about his uncle-father; and that is why at first he thrills to the command to revenge and murder: Ό my prophetic soul! My uncle!' (I. v. 41).

By creating the Ghost, Shakespeare creates a father-son-mother confrontation at the heart of the play. The play dramatizes a crisis in Hamlet's identification with his idealized, murdered, heroic father, who returns from the dead to demand Hamlet revenge his death, and in so doing, rescue his mother from her second, and incestuous marriage. At first Hamlet responds with alacrity to his ghostly father's demands; then with paralyzing reluctance: Ό cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right' (I. v. 196-7). Everything hinges on Hamlet's struggle to identify with his father's superego demands that he revenge; that is, after all, justice within the revenge genre, and it coincides with one aspect of the cultural superego—it is the right thing to do—but Shakespeare sets up the problem of revenge in such a disruptive way that the action on moral, ethical and psychic levels is blocked. The conflict of revenge engages the action on many levels, delaying revenge through ambiguities in psychological motivation, language and action.

The creation of the Ghost is itself a piece of theatrical aggression for it stops Hamlet's initial fierce self-restraint; allows him to express his deeply conflicted feelings about Claudius, and his desire to kill him. The Ghost's revelation of murder, incest and adultery—'Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast' (I. v. 42)—is a validation of Hamlet's suspicions and justification of his loathing of Claudius the man who, with 'traitorous gifts'(I. v. 43), seduced his mother, that'seeming-virtuous queen'(I. v. 46).'Seeming', as we learn earlier from Hamlet, can cover all kinds of deception and crime. The revelation is also conclusive and irreversible affirmation of his intense feelings about his mother: O'most pernicious woman!'(I. v. 105). The Ghost and Hamlet share the same obsession: Gertrude. Together they comprise an ancient and often cursed triangle. The acting of The Mousetrap, as arranged by Hamlet, is, in fact, a fantasized murder in which Hamlet revenges by doubling as'one Lucianus, nephew to the King'(III. ii. 239). As actor-manager, Hamlet externalizes or projects his inner conflict about revenge onto the directing and acting of the entire scene of his father's murder, which, by pure chance (or dramatic device!) parallels The Murder of Gonzago:

I'll have these players Play something like the murder of my father Before mine uncle

(II. ii. 590-2)

The play reaches its climax with Hamlet ferociously urging Lucianus on:'Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge'(III. ii. 247-8). As director, actor, chorus and audience, Hamlet is ecstatic at the end of this performance, because it is as if he had avenged his father. The successful displacement of inner aggression affords Hamlet immense relief. Moreover, he has made public the entire story, from known beginning to wished-for conclusion.

The Ghost is the means of dramatizing Hamlet's deep-seated inner fears and anxiety, his hatred of Claudius and his unconscious desire to kill the man who has'whor'd'(V. ii. 64) his mother, murdered his father and has

Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes.

(V. ii. 65)

The Ghost's foul imaginings about Gertrude's lustful sexuality anticipate Hamlet's own image of'incestuous sheets'(I. ii. 157). There is very little evidence in Gertrude's dialogue that she is as lustful as her first husband and Hamlet would have us suppose. Just as Iago voices Othello's disturbing, destructive, jealous fantasies, so the Ghost does Hamlet's. It may be objected that the Ghost tells Hamlet to leave his mother'to heaven'(I. v. 86). In the closet scene, he pleads with Hamlet to'step between her and her fighting soul'(III. iv. 113). But it is too late. And Hamlet's father knows it. He has timed his intervention perfectly; for, in his passionate and deeply conflicted interview with his mother, Hamlet has already used enough verbal daggers to cleave her'heart in twain'(III. iv. 158). It is needless to labour the Oedipal basis of the closet scene. It is a famous piece of psychoanalytic criticism frequently incorporated into contemporary productions.23 It is clear that Hamlet is torn between love and loathing for his mother, and that the destructive impulses of his own superego are displaced temporarily in trying to be her conscience.24 This affords him some relief from the intense anxiety and painful tension of inner aggressiveness, just as his cruel treatment of Ophelia did, and for similar reasons. But what chance does Hamlet have of keeping the crucial love of Ophelia, which might have sustained him? None. Hamlet is irretrievably trapped in a parental relationship involving murder, adultery and incest. What chance is there of detaching himself from this overwhelming guilt? None. He has been made responsible for wiping it out; moreover, he has promised to do so. And Hamlet is a responsible person; his superego sees to that, even if he curses his masculinity in being'born to set it right'(I. v. 197). Yet Hamlet cannot become his father's avenger because that would involve him and his mother still further in family guilt. His repudiation of her makes clear the powerful family knot of emotional attachments that ruin their relationship:

You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife, And, would it were not so, you are my mother.

(III. iv. 14-16)

The superego, then, is a revengeful force which seeks to punish. Hamlet tries to become his father's superego, but because he cannot act on it, his own superego takes revenge on him—tortures him, kills him eventually. He cannot consciously question the morality of avenging his father's murder, because that would be to challenge his father; moreover, part of him is torn by the moral discrepancy involved in committing murder as a solution to the problem of murder. In a conscious effort to gain control over the destructiveness of the superego, the tragic hero tries to project his sense of guilt, through his ambition or revenge, onto others. Hamlet channels his vengeful aggression in a variety of ways: through his constant cruelty to others, his verbal hostility and his'antic disposition'(I. v. 180).

Barber and Wheeler write of Hamlet's need to use his hostility to'protect his integrity against acquiescence in the corrupt world, on the one side, or acquiescence in self-loathing, on the other'.25 These critics also see Hamlet's'need for revenge as the core of a need for expression and vindication'.26 Certainly Hamlet's aggression finds frequent relief in his violent expressiveness, especially when he turns love into hateful violence in the nunnery and closet scenes. The command to revenge is itself a directive to transform love into violent and vengeful hatred. It is a superego command from the idealized father to his son to hate and destroy the bestial father-figure of Claudius, that heap of'garbage'(I. v. 57), that'nasty sty'(III. iv. 94). Initially, the command to revenge displaces some of Hamlet's superego aggression outward in his attempts to'catch the conscience of the King'(II. ii. 601) and to be his mother's conscience, but the failure to achieve revenge, to murder Claudius, and so be at one with his father, fills him with deep dismay and self-contempt, as his soliloquies reveal. Furthermore, his attempts to act out his inner conflicts, his desire to rescue his mother and kill Claudius, have resulted in the regrettable, accidental killing of Polonius and the devastating suicide of Ophelia. Moreover, his mother still shares his uncle's bed, continues to sleep between those'incestuous sheets'(I. ii. 157). He suffers acute mental agony for these blunders.

No wonder Hamlet seems resigned to his own death upon his return from England; all his displacements have failed; the immense energy attached to his sense of guilt turns inward, there is nowhere else for it to go. Hamlet becomes a victim of his own desire for punishment—his need to end his life. He takes revenge upon himself; he accepts the wager from the absurd Osric: ''Tis a chuff, but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt'(V. ii. 88). This is the same anguished, grief-stricken Hamlet who, standing in Ophelia's open grave, has willed'Millions of acres'to be thrown on him so that he may be buried quick with her (V. i. 276). His ego yields to his superego and takes on the suffering the self-abusive superego produces. In these circumstances, the ego collapses under the weight of so much revengeful self-hatred; the pain and anxiety produced by the murderous superego become unendurable. Hamlet submits his person to a duel arranged by one he knows to be his mortal enemy.

Freud's view of instinctual fusion between erotic and aggressive instincts suggests an admixture of erotic quantities even in destructive processes, and this may explain any masochism there might be in the tragic hero's self-sacrifice, as well as the sadism in superego aggression. In Shakespearean tragic drama, the protagonist's sense of guilt (superego aggression) and need for punishment are so pronounced that the ego is not strong enough to be independent of the superego, or to control it. In normal living, this unconscious aggressive energy is displaced or sublimated. In this kind of tragedy, the ego seems unable to defend itself from the severity of the revengeful demands of the superego by such normal activities as repression, denial or rationalization. The function of the plot is to make sure the protagonist's displacements eventually fail. The ultimate aim of the tragic hero is to act out the compulsive nature of his guilt, both the guilt he feels for his own personal wrong-doing, and the generalized guilt which the social demands represented by the drama have required him to internalize. He is compelled to submit to the deathly demands of his own superego and those of the community.

In dying, Hamlet's psyche is cleansed of the burden of failed love, familial outrage and grief. As I suggested at the beginning of this essay, in Hamlet, Shakespeare represents revenge as an inward tragic event which is externalized, dramatized, and then reinforced by destructive family relationships whose psychic energies violate and eventually destroy the psychic wholeness of the tragic person. The conflict between ego and superego constitutes the dynamic action of Hamlet on many levels, creating revenge and its delay through acute inner anxieties and mental anguish, as well as ambiguities in action, language and thought. But, in the end, although the superego wins, because Hamlet must die, it is with Hamlet's / Shakespeare's total acceptance, as long as revenge is revealed for what it is: a dynamically hostile, hateful, destructive force, and, in Hamlet, an unbeatable enemy, as well as an Oedipal foe.

Through his conscious articulation and dramatization of the unconscious dynamics which drive stories of poisonous revenge, Shakespeare invites our reflection, invites us to hold the mirror up to our own deepest conflicts and desires. The resolution of Hamlet leaves us not only moved, but challenged and enlightened. Hamlet's fatal story is a lesson we must not ignore, but keep in our hearts, too:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain To tell my story.

(V. ii. 351-4)

The mimetic power of violent revenge in Hamlet depends on the reality of those psychic conflicts Shakespeare dramatizes as revenge.


1 See J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis,'The Oedipus complex plays a fundamental part in the structuring of the personality and in the orientation of human desire'(The Language of Psycho-Analysis [London: Hogarth Press, 1980], p. 283).

2 Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 132-40.

3 Montgomery Byles,'A Basic Pattern of Psychological Conflict in Shakespearean Tragic Drama', University of Hartford Studies in Literature, 11 (1979), 58-71.

4 J. Montgomery Byles,'The Problem of Subjectivity in the Language of Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia', Imago, 46 (1989), 37-59.

5 David Leverenz suggests that there is little sense in Ophelia's madness:'Not allowed to love and unable to be false, Ophelia breaks. She goes mad rather than gets mad'('The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View'in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn, eds, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays [Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], p. 119). I would argue that there is much subject sense in her language when mad. See also Harry Morris,'Ophelia's "Bonny Sweet Robin"', Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 73 (1958), 601-3.

6 Over the past twenty years or so, many feminist critics have identified the'man-honour-fight'content of revenge as'morally bankrupt'. See Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982); Marilyn French, Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981); Coppélla Kahn, Man's Estate; Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene and Carol Thomas Neely, eds, The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1980); Marianne L. Novy, Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

7The Psycho-Analyst and the Artist (New York: Mentor Books, 1950), p. 164.

8 Susan Jacoby asks how audience sympathy for the revenger is gained, lost or compromized, and also what dramatic and rhetorical techniques operate to affect sympathy, mostly in modern literature and film in Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge (New York: Harper and Row, 1983). See also Linda Anderson's helpful introduction to the history of revenge in A Kind of Wild Justice: Revenge in Shakespeare's Comedies (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1987). See also Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), especially pp. 268-99.

9 Sigmund Freud,'Instincts and their Vicissitudes'in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, tr. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, 24 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), XIV;'Beyond the Pleasure Principle'in Complete Works, XVIII;'The Ego and the Id'in Complete Works, XIX; and'Civilization and its Discontents'in Complete Works, XXI.

10 Freud,'The Ego and the Id'in Complete Works, XIX, 41-2; see also'Civilization and its Discontents'in Complete Works, XXI, 119.

11 Freud, Complete Works, XXI, 107.

12 Freud, Complete Works, XXI, 64-149.

13 Laplanche and Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, p. 437.

14The Self and the Object World (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), p. 127.

15 Juliet Mitchell, ed., The Selected Melanie Klein (New York: Macmillan, 1986), pp. 80-3.

16Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 122.

17Freud and Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), pp. 281-309.

18 '"Since first we were dissevered": Trust and Autonomy in Shakespearean Tragedy and Romance'in Schwartz and Kahn, eds, Representing Shakespeare, pp. 150-69.

19Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971).

20 Freud,'On Narcissism'in Complete Works, XIV, 73-105. See also Otto Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1975), and J. M. Byles, 'The Winter's Tale,, Othello, and Troilus and Cressida: Narcissism and Sexual Betrayal', Imago, 36 (1979), 80-93.

21 Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 192.

22Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), p. 134.

22 Although Freud related Hamlet to Oedipus in 1897, and subsequently published the idea in The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, Ernest Jones developed it fully in Hamlet: The Psychoanalytic Solution'(1910). See M. D. Faber, ed., The Design Within (New York: Norton, 1970). See also in the same anthology, pp. 113-20, F. Wertham's'Critique of Freud's Interpretation of Hamlet'. For a comprehensive survey of the ramifications of the Freud-Jones view, see Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Octagon Books, 1976).

23 Janet Adelman concentrates on the maternal point of the triangle between Hamlet, his father and his mother:'As in a dream, the plot-conjunction of father's funeral and mother's remarriage expresses this return: it tells us that the idealized father's absence releases the threat of maternal sexuality, in effect subjecting the son to her annihilating power'(Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's

24Plays:'Hamlet'to'The Tempest' [New York and London: Routledge, 1992], p. 18).

25 C. L. Barber and Richard P. Wheeler, The WholeJourney: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 262.

26 Barber and Wheeler, The Whole Journey, p. 263.

Gender Issues

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Peter Erickson (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Maternal Images and Male Bonds in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear," in Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 66-80.

[In the following excerpt, Erickson studies the importance of male bonds in Hamlet, maintaining that because both Gertrude and Ophelia fail to meet Hamlet's needs to be nurtured Hamlet transfers these emotions to Horatio.]

The tensions in the relationship between father and son in the Henriad are pushed in Hamlet to the point of full-fledged, paralyzing crisis. The patriarchal imperative equates love with obedience; love not being granted unconditionally, the son proves his loyalty by performing his duty as the father sees it. In Hamlet's case, this test takes the most drastic form imaginable:

GHOST. If thou didst ever thy dear father love— HAM. O God! GHOST. Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.


Hamlet's reaction to the ghost's demand is to transform his mind into a tabula rasa fit to record the father's total claim on the son: "And thy commandement all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix'd with baser matter" (102-4). At first sight the ghost appears to be a perfect solution to Hamlet's alienation because its intervention restores a direct link to the patriarchal heritage on which Hamlet might base a heroic identity. But the ghost is ultimately part of Hamlet's problem.2 While the ghost bolsters Hamlet's identity by confirming the validity of his "prophetic soul" (40), it simultaneously takes away identity by usurping Hamlet's self. One reason for Hamlet's later defensiveness toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who so consistently demonstrate their inability to "play upon" Hamlet, is his prior experience with a ghost who has rendered him "easier to be play'd on than a pipe" (3.2.370) and who has even perhaps "plucked out the heart of my mystery" (365-66).

The ghost's takeover of Hamlet's identity denies options. The distinction between "To be, or not to be" (3.1.55) is hard to maintain when the self-fashioning the ghost requires entails self-cancellation—the loss of independence. Hamlet must respond to his father's love, but at the same time he must be acutely sensitive to the coercive, all-encompassing nature of the self his father has fashioned for him. Hence a conflict emerges in Hamlet between obedience and resistance to the ghost's demands.3 Under the pressure of the ghost's "Remember me" (1.5.91) Hamlet makes an overwhelming commitment to obedience. Yet in the outburst that ends the scene—"O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right" (188-89)—Hamlet sounds the note of regret that includes a potential for resistance. It is in connection with this inner conflict that Horatio's value to Hamlet can be understood.

When Hamlet abruptly reaches out to Horatio, he is establishing a point of contact outside the distressed father-son relationship. He alleviates his isolation by choosing a man who is "not a pipe for Fortune's finger / To sound what stop she please" (3.2.70-71), that is, a man who offers the security of a constancy that contrasts with Hamlet's own experience of being played upon by the ghost. Hamlet immediately presses the alliance with Horatio into the service of the ghost, sharing his triumph when Horatio and Hamlet remain on stage after Claudius's hasty exit from the play within a play: "O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?" (286-87). Nevertheless, Hamlet's friendship with Horatio is not entirely contained within the framework of Hamlet's allegiance to his father. As the friendship is developed, it becomes a relationship unto itself, separate from Hamlet's overriding concern with the ghost.

Horatio serves as a refuge for Hamlet not only because he provides momentary relief from anguish but also because he occasions a sense of trust through which Hamlet might recover a portion of the identity negated by his submission to the ghost. One reading of Hamlet flatly pronounces Hamlet's failure to maintain any independence. In this view, Hamlet finally capitulates to the ghost's demands.4 It is true that Hamlet does not achieve complete "success" in separating himself from his father: his use of the signet (5.2.49) indicates a continuing identification with his father's purposes. But it is also true that while Hamlet does in the end carry out the ghost's "dread command" (3.4.108) by murdering Claudius, his identity does not thereby reduce simply to the embodiment of his father's dictates. The conflict between the role his father imposes on him and the separate self toward which he gropes does not collapse in favor of the former. Hamlet is ultimately true to himself in the sense that he holds on to his dilemma. The conflict itself enables him tragically to establish an individual identity, a process that helps to account for his serenity at the end. Hamlet's struggle redeems the deeper resonance in Polonius's precept "to thine own self be true" (1.3.78), one of the saws Hamlet tried to "wipe away" (1.5.99) under the impact of the ghost's revelation. In making the "truth" of Hamlet's "self dramatically convincing, Horatio is essential.

Horatio's prominence toward the end of the play coincides with the cessation of Hamlet's soliloquies. Hamlet's last soliloquy occurs in act 4, scene 4; Horatio is at Hamlet's side throughout act 5. By addressing his final statements to Horatio, Hamlet is freed from his verbal isolation, especially from his earlier self-torturing relation to language as one who "Must like a whore unpack my heart with words" (2.2.585). Having in Horatio a personal audience he can count on to receive his words and ultimately to carry on his linguistic future after his own "silence" (5.2.358) allows Hamlet to feel that language is no longer automatically inadequate to "that within" (1.2.85). The Hamlet-Horatio relationship provides one of the main lines of development from act 4, scene 6, where Hamlet reestablishes contact with Horatio by letter, through to the final scene, when Hamlet asks his faithful comrade "To tell my story" (5.2.349). The letter serves as a point of transition between Hamlet's soliloquies and the direct contact with Horatio that begins in the graveyard. In closing the letter by presenting himself as "He that thou knowest thine" (4.6.30), Hamlet reiterates his earlier "election" (3.2.64) of Horatio and sets the tone for the intimate address that his devotion will make possible in the final act.

Despite Hamlet's absolute dedication to the ghost's final order to "remember me" (1.5.91), the ghost does not have the last word. Horatio's presence acts as an alternative that allows Hamlet to expand his attention beyond a narrow focus on the ghost. In the context of the final scene, other competing considerations enter in that dilute, if not displace, the monolithic emphasis on revenge. Hamlet remembers his father only intermittently at the end of the play, and he remembers other things with greater emotional force. In particular, he is concerned with attending to his own memorial. By directing Horatio to "report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied" (5.2.339-40), he acts to commemorate himself, thus creating a wedge between his father's story and his own. The two Hamlets are not synonymous. Our final image of Hamlet as "sweet prince" (359) contrasts with the initial picture of the father as the archaic epic hero who "smote the sledded Polacks on the ice" (1.1.63); we value the difference partly because it costs Hamlet so dearly.

Horatio's collaboration is indispensable in effecting this difference between father and son, as the structure of the last scene emphasizes. The long exchange, beginning with the appeal "Horatio, I am dead" (5.2.338), comprises Hamlet's prominently positioned, final action. Speaking directly to his dead friend, Horatio acknowledges Hamlet's special identity as "sweet prince," thereby healing his "wounded name" (344) and granting the "felicity" (347) for which he had hoped: "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (359-60). Some commentators conclude from Horatio's subsequent public rhetoric—"And let me speak to th'yet unknowing world / How these things came about. So you shall hear" (379-80)—that he will be an untrustworthy witness to Hamlet's inner story. But it is worth noting that Hamlet too uses the melodramatic voice when addressing a larger public: "You that look pale, and tremble at this chance, / That are but mutes or audience to this act" (334-35). It is the private exchange between Hamlet and Horatio that counts. Despite the reserve implied by Horatio's demurral that Hamlet "considers too curiously" (5.1.206), Horatio's capacity for intimacy is sufficient to make dramatically plausible and compelling his bond with Hamlet. He is there when Hamlet needs him: "If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity a while" (5.2.346-47). Hamlet's plea to his friend recapitulates the ghost's heart-rending summons: "If thou didst ever thy dear father love" (1.5.23). But there is a difference. The play's final scene contrasts two versions of the transmission of heritage. Hamlet inherits from the ghost the obligation to revenge, which is consummated in the final scene. At the same time, Hamlet bequeaths his story to Horatio, thus preserving an alternate legacy of nonviolent fraternal cherishing. To bring out the limitations of the affection expressed in the Hamlet-Horatio bond, let us turn to Hamlet's relations with women.

Horatio has a double function in the play since he provides Hamlet with an alternative not only to the hectoring ghost but also to the crucial women in his life, Gertrude and Ophelia. Gertrude's exposed position in the play contrasts with the marginal maternal presence in Henry V. Isabel, the queen of France, renders herself invisible in the final scene by accommodating the wishes of the conquering hero, whose needs she places above those of her husband and her daughter. She facilitates Henry V's peace: "Happily a woman's voice may do some good,/When articles too nicely urg'd may be stood upon" (5.2.93-94). She yields Katherine to his wooing: "She hath good leave" (98). She ratifies their marriage in the most flattering rhetoric: "God, the best maker of all marriages, / Combine your hearts in one!" (359-60). Gertrude has far greater visibility in Hamlet partly because she is deprived of this conventional maternal role when she sponsors marital love: "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet's wildness" (3.1.37-39).

Faced with the fact of Ophelia's death, Gertrude poignantly recognizes the denial of her "wish": "I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife. / I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid, / And not have strew'd thy grave" (5.1.244-46). But long before these "maimed rites" (219) for Ophelia, Gertrude is aware that her son's affections are not directed toward the younger woman and that she herself is a major cause of his "wildness": "I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" (2.2.56-57). If Isabel performs a disappearing act in Henry V by blending with the hero's desires, Gertrude stands out because her remarriage calls attention to her own separate desires, desires that Hamlet finds painful to contemplate but nevertheless feels compelled to track down in lurid detail in his mother's closet. The "something" "rotten in the state of Denmark" (1.4.90) leads directly, through the ghost's metaphor, to the degraded sexuality in which Gertrude is trapped: "So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage" (1.5.55-57). On this point, father and son agree: in his opening soliloquy Hamlet has already lamented his mother's sexual "frailty" (1.2.146).

Lacking a mother within the play, Laertes is forced to invent one to give full expression to the family integrity he defends:

That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot Even here between the chaste un smirched brow Of my true mother.


By contrast, Hamlet renounces calmness because his "true mother" has made herself a "harlot" through remarriage and made him a "bastard" by dispossessing him of the maternal inheritance to which he feels entitled.5 His mourning is for loss of her as well as of his father. Hamlet makes a desperate effort to reverse the effects of Gertrude's marriage to Claudius and to recover her original "chaste unsmirched brow": "go not to my uncle's bed" (3.4.159). But the ideal image with which Hamlet harangues his mother is never restored in her. In the end, despite her generous gesture to him—"Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows. / The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet" (5.2.288-89)—he dismisses her with an unfeeling "Wretched queen, adieu!" (333), while putting himself in Horatio's care.

His actual mother having failed him, Hamlet finds an image of his "true mother" in the speech he selects for the player's recitation.6 The second half of this "passionate speech" (2.2.432) is as important as the first, as Hamlet's prompting indicates: "Say on, come to Hecuba" (501). Hecuba's maternal identity is established by the reference to "'her lank and all o'er-teemed loins'" (508). Despite the exhaustion of child bearing, her capacity for grief is inexhaustible. Her "'bisson rheum'" (506) contrasts sharply with Gertrude's false tears: "Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, / She married" (1.2.154-56). So great is Hecuba's sorrow that it is envisaged as inducing a sympathetic response in the cosmos, the gods themselves holding up the mirror to her maternal nature:

"The instant burst of clamor that she made, Unless things mortal move them not at all, Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven, And passion in the gods."


The imagery connects tears and milk, suggesting that the literal nurturance of the mother's breast is the epitome and source of compassionate feeling.7

Her lust having disqualified Gertrude in Hamlet's eyes, she is unavailable to satisfy this nurturant image. By offering a comforting, solicitous presence for Hamlet, Horatio partially fills this need. In addition, Hamlet himself takes on the Hecuba image in his subsequent soliloquy:

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he the motive and cue for passion That I have? He would drown the stage with tears.


Like Lucrece, Hamlet finds in Hecuba a face "where all distress and dolor dwell'd" (Lucrece, 1446)—an image adequate to his own extreme experience. Like Lucrece, he "shapes his sorrow to the beldame's woes" (Lucrece, 1458). Together Hamlet and Horatio incorporate into their bond the compassion for which Hecuba is the model. But this compassionate use of the male bond is not fully satisfactory, for Hamlet's companionship with Horatio is less an alternative than a substitute for the original bond with his mother. As an attempt to do without the more highly charged maternal bond, the male bond, though moving, has a more limited emotional range.

We are thus reminded that Hamlet's investment in Horatio results from his failure to resolve his relations with Gertrude or Ophelia, both of whom arouse (and potentially could have fulfilled) a more intense need. Similarly, Othello turns to Iago only after the deeper bond with Desdemona fails, and Lear turns to male support only when he cannot have Cordelia. But even in disillusionment both men maintain their primary focus on the woman. Iago's difficulty in keeping Othello on the course of revenge—"But yet the pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!" (4.1.195-96)—suggests Othello's continuing attachment to the Desdemona he thinks he has lost. For Lear, everything hinges on Cordelia: "This feather stirs, she lives! If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt" (5.3.266-68). In Hamlet's case, however, the severance of ties to women is permanent; virtually all affection is transferred to Horatio.

The Hamlet-Horatio bond bespeaks a self-sufficiency that dissociates itself too readily from connections with women, as when Hamlet jokes about Osric's manners while feeding at the breast—"A did comply, sir, with his dug before'a suck'd it" (5.2.187-88)—or when he discounts his hesitation about the match with Laertes as "such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman" (215-16). The undercurrent of contempt for women and for dependence on them in these casual remarks had earlier been expressed with full force in the misogynist rage by which Hamlet ends his vulnerability to Ophelia.

Of course Hamlet has no monopoly on abuse of Ophelia, as Polonius's treatment of his daughter as an object to be exploited for his own needs shows. Polonius expects Laertes's "fair hour" (1.2.62) to include "drabbing" (2.1.26), indulgently blessing his son's right to "such wanton, wild, and usual slips / As are companions noted and most known / To youth and liberty" (22-24). However, both father and son regard it as their duty to insist that Ophelia avoid the "savageness in unreclaimed blood, / Of general assault" (34-35). Polonius reduces her to confusion about Hamlet's "many tenders / Of his affection" (1.3.99-100)—"I do not know, my lord, what I should think" (104)—and extracts her obedience to his peremptory command to end her "free and bounteous" "audience" (93) with Hamlet—"I shall obey, my lord" (136). Polonius completes this manipulation of Ophelia by directing her to stage an audience designed to catch Hamlet's love: "I'll loose my daughter to him" (2.2.162). Yet though male control of a woman's destiny is a general problem in the society represented in this play, Hamlet manifests this problem with a personal vehemence indicative of his special situation.

For Hamlet, no independent view of Ophelia is possible because he can see her only as an extension of his agonized relation to his mother.8 His alienation from Gertrude is already generalized in the outcry of his first soliloquy: "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (1.2.146). His attraction to Ophelia becomes automatically a casualty of this generalization. We hear of Hamlet's earlier poetic worship of her "'excellent white bosom'" (2.2.113) only in retrospect: "'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia'" (110).

The moment when Polonius expects to trap Hamlet's "hot love" (2.2.132) is the moment when Hamlet renounces it, breaking the bond with Ophelia by his reiterated "Farewell" (3.1.132, 137, 140). His separation from Ophelia begins in self-accusation and ends in a misogynist outburst. His first sight of "The fair Ophelia" makes him conscious of "all my sins" (88-89). The failure of love is Hamlet's: "You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot so innoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov'd you not" (116-18). But Hamlet then turns his attention to the procreation that should be sanctified by marriage and proclaims an indiscriminate revulsion that embraces his mother, himself, and Ophelia, to whom he remonstrates: "Get thee to a nunn'ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me" (120-23). Even as he tries to sever the bond with his mother, he asserts it, while transferring to Ophelia the image of the contaminating mother. Hamlet's need for purity drives him to shift quickly from male deception to female deception, his final diatribe emphatically placing responsibility on women: "You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance" (144-46).

In a play in which the image of a good woman is not convincingly restored to the male imagination, it proves easier to find a good man. Hamlet's adoration of Ophelia is transferred to Horatio, whom Hamlet suddenly sees as his new soul's idol: "Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice / And could of men distinguish her election,/ Sh'hath seal'd thee for herself (3.2.63-65). In Hamlet's eyes, women are inherently two-faced: "God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another" (3.1.143-44). In a world where love between men and women has become irrevocably duplicitous, sexuality can be avoided by turning to male ties to fashion a dependable bond. The stoic imperviousness of Horatio's relation to fortune—as "'strumpet Fortune'" (2.2.493) the epitome of inconstant woman—has a purity that recommends him. By contrast, Hamlet condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for living "in the secret parts of Fortune" as "her privates" (2.2.235, 234).

The passionate transfer of trust to Horatio in act 3, scene 2, is underscored by Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, which immediately follows. Though he is still cruel, his sexual antagonism during the play within a play has become a settled routine. The decrease in the emotional intensity of his misogynist rhetoric suggests that his detachment from Ophelia has been completed. Once formulated, Hamlet's severely disillusioned attitude toward women remains essentially constant. His fleeting recollection of his love after Ophelia's death confirms that his ideal image of woman is effectively beyond recovery. The brief assertion that "I lov'd Ophelia" (5.1.269) is relatively weak in a scene that gives the central emphasis to Hamlet's fraternal rivalry with Laertes. Hamlet does attain a sense of equanimity in the final act, but this positive spirit is carried primarily by his interactions with Horatio and Laertes. The release from the claustrophobic "nutshell" of Hamlet's misogynist "bad dreams" (2.2.254-56) is never dramatized, and the disturbed attitude toward female sexuality is neither squarely faced nor transformed and resolved.

This relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is reinforced by the parallel relationship between Hamlet and Laertes. "By the image of my cause," Hamlet sees "the portraiture of his" (5.2.77-78), though he might equally well have noted the analogy between his situation and Ophelia's. But it is Laertes rather than his sister who is the primary focus of Hamlet's "tow'ring passion" (80). Ophelia occasions the men's involvement with each other: "I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?" (5.1.269-71). The dramatic force of this scene lies in the use of "quantity" and "sum" rather than of "love," as Hamlet turns Laertes's display into a competitive challenge that he can win. Hamlet's scene with Laertes ends without reconciliation: his "I lov'd you ever" (290) goes unanswered. Yet their violent embrace in the grave is converted into brotherly alliance when the two absolve each other (without reference to Ophelia): "Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father's death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me!" (5.2.329-31). Hamlet forgives Laertes, entrusts his story to Horatio, and even generously extends his "dying voice" (356) to Fortinbras. The redemptive spirit of the conclusion is thus created by Hamlet's enclosing himself in male fellowship, an envelopment to which we may critically respond: "Something too much of this."

Considering how much is destroyed and how much is left unresolved, it is remarkable the way the final scene insists on an afterlife for its hero. This positive dimension is not found in the ending of any other major tragedy until Antony and Cleopatra, where we do in part believe Cleopatra's "immortal longings" because they are counterbalanced by Octavius's reality, albeit "paltry." Yet Hamlet's "felicity" (5.2.347) cannot withstand the strict criterion of accountability evoked earlier by Claudius:

but'tis not so above: There is no shuffling, there the action lies In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd,

Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults, To give in evidence.


The final scene protects Hamlet by suspending critical evaluation of his felicity and the fraternal commitment that supports it. We must feel the authentic emotional power of the Hamlet-Horatio bond yet also note the way it deflects Hamlet from his problematic relations with women and allows him to escape all responsibility for his part in those disastrous relations. Hamlet's use of the feminine soul in his declaration to Horatio (3.2.63-65) makes explicit the incorporation of the feminine into the male bond. As in the androgyny of As You Like It, there is a crucial distinction between a man's appreciation of the feminine and his devaluation of actual women. The force of this distinction suggests how the insularity of the Hamlet-Horatio bond can be both affecting and misogynist, the latter because of the unacknowledged way the formation of their bond depends on an abusive dismissal of Ophelia. . . .


1The emphatic quality of Hamlet's declaration is reinforced by the iteration: "In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart" (3.2.73). Harold Jenkins notes in the Arden edition of Hamlet (London: Methuen, 1982): "Both phrses mean the same, on the supposed etymology of'core,'from L.'cor': in the very centre of my heart" (p. 292).

2David Leverenz gives a useful analysis of the ghost's rhetoric in his essay "The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View," in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélla Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 110-28. In addition, it should be noted that the ghost's manipulative, guilt-inducing appeals to Hamlet's love in act 1, scene 5 have their parallel in Henry IV's style of taunting overstatement in his private audiences with Hal (1H4, 3.2; 2H4, 4.5.)

3In Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), Richard P. Wheeler nicely observes that Hamlet's impulse to resist the ghost is not in first instance a question of moral correctness but rather a matter of instinctive psychological self-defense:

Hamlet struggles against his own declared intention at a level deeper than his will and in a way not entirely explained by fear of repressed motives. He involuntarily seeks to preserve the potential integrity of self violated by his own attempt to take in and identify totallly with the image of his father embodied in the ghost's command. This psychological resistance is analogous to the expulsion reaction in the biochemistry of an organism, set into action by the intrusion of alien tissues. Hamlet tries to perform a kind of self-transplant uopon his own person, and the core of his individual self will not accept the foreighn intruder.

(p. 194)

4This position is exemplified by Harold C. Goddard's chapter on the play in vol. 1 of The Meaning of Shakespeare, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). Goddard argues that Hamlet's invocation of "a divinity that shapes our ends" (5.2.10) strikes an absolutely false note that merely sugars over his murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Yet, despite Hamlet's use of divinity blithely to excuse his "conscience" (5.2.58), this image of divinity does not merely signal Hamlet's surrender to the ghost. The "divinity that shapes our ends" and the "special providence" (219-20) are different from the ghost because they signify his positive use of the contemptus mundi tradition in the graveyard. Much as we may regret the necessity of Hamlet's availing himself of it "betimes" (224), this cultural resource is an expression not simply of despair and resignation, but rather of a vital insight about mortality that gives Hamlet a larger perspective on "monarchs and outstretch'd heroes" (2.2.263-64) such as Alexander (5.1.197-212), "Imperious Caesar" (213-16), and even perhaps his majestical father. Nor does Hamlet passively submit to the shaping force of the divinity, as Goddard claims. Hamlet actively shapes his end, an end that includes a new power to shape language and to construct male bonds that enable forgiveness.

5As Hamlet dramatizes, men's sharply divided view of women as either chaste or sullied may be traced to a maternal base: behind the extremes of good and bad women lie the ideal and terrible mothers. Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) portray the male's divided view of women as activated by asymmetrical parenting, in which the mother is exclusively responsible for child rearing, thus the son's dependency on the mother for total satisfaction and trust and concommitantly his anxiety about the total betrayal and separation. This initial relationship becomes the model by which subsequent women are experienced in the extreme terms of good mother or terrible mother, or an oscillation between the two. However, Adriennne Rich criticized the Dinnerstein-Chodorow analysis in "Motherhood: The Contemporary Emergency and the Quantum Leap" (1978), in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), pp. 259-73 and—more sharply—in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Signs 5 (1980): 531-60. Rich argues that male involvement in child rearing would be inadequate to eliminate misogyny as a social force. In Rich's view, Dinnerstein and Chodorow underestimate the problem and vastly overestimate the efficacy of their solution.

6According to T. S. Eliot's logic in "Hamlet and His Problems" (1919), in Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1932), 121-26, Gertrude is too small an object to account for the magnitude of the emotion Hamlet expends in relation to her; therefore, his emotion must refer to something else that we can never discover. But, in encouraging the search for a more "objective correlative" to replace Gertrude, Eliot diverts us from one of the direct causes of Hamlet's alienation. The play makes clear that the human family—"'With blood of fathers, mothers daughters, sons'" (2.2.458)—is Hamlet's "cue for passion" (561), and in particular, as the image of Hecuba attests, his mother is one focus of his emotional distress. A useful antidote to Eliot's essay is Rebecca Smith's "A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), pp. 194-210. Smith suggests that the way to approach the "excess" that troubled Eliot is to show how the disparity between Hamlet's view of his mother and Gertrude's own selfimage contributes to our understanding of Hamlet's needs rather than to Shakespeare's "artistic failure." The predominance of the male hero creates a situation in which the male is the perceiver and the women is the perceived: images of women cannot therefore be read as objective types but to a significant degree must be treated as products of the male psyche.

7This imagery is developed in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth literalizes her metaphor "the milk of human kindness" (1.5.17) by attempting to turn the "milk" in "my woman's breasts" to "gall" in order to be unkind (47-48). This self-imposed malevolent version of maternity does not "unsex" (41) her but continues her mother-centered identity.

8Harold Jenkins, the Arden editor of Hamlet, rightly argues that Hamlet's reaction to Ophelia is not explained by her refusal of his letters (pp. 149-50) or by Hamlet's discovery of Polonius behind the arras in the nunnery scene (note to 3.1.130-31 on p. 283, and a longer note on pp. 496-97). Hamlet's rejection of Ophelia proceeds from more deep-seated motives than such specific causation would indicate.

Valerie Traub (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Jewels, Statues, and Corpses: Containment of Female Erotic Power in Shakespeare's Plays," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XX, 1988, pp. 217-22.

[In the following excerpt, Traub discusses the erotic nature of male anxiety regarding women in Hamlet, asserting that this anxiety is only relieved through the death of the woman, as in the case of Ophelia, or through the woman's discarding of her sexuality in favor of chastity, as Hamlet instructs Gertrude to do.]

In Hamlet, Gertrude's adultery and incest—the uncontrollability, in short, of her sexuality—are, in Hamlet's mind, projected outward to encompass the potential of such contamination in all liaisons between men and women. Gertrude's adultery turns all women into prostitutes and all men into potential cuckolds.12 Hamlet's entire world is contracted into "an unweeded garden / That's grown to seed, things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely."13 In this vile yet seductive garden, sexually threatening women poison vulnerable and unwitting men. Thus, women, through their erotic power, adjudicate life and death—a connection nicely summed up by the "Mousetrap" player who reads the speech inserted by Hamlet in the play performed to "catch the conscience of the King": "A second time I kill my husband dead, / When second husband kisses me in bed" (II.ii.605; III.ii.184-85).

The threat posed by Gertrude's sexuality is paranoiacally projected onto Ophelia, whom Hamlet exhorts: "Get thee to a nunn'ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? . . . I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not bourne me" (III.i.120-23). As the culmination of this speech makes clear, those "things" of which Hamlet could accuse himself are less the pride, ambition, and knavery that he mentions, as they are his suspicion that he, like his father before him, will be cuckolded: "Get thee to a nunn'ry, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them" (III.i.136-39). As the pun on nunnery and brothel makes clear, Hamlet is not concerned with Ophelia's ability to contaminate other men; trapped as he is within the boundaries of the Oedipal relation, Hamlet's paranoia extends only to himself and his beloved father.14 And women make men into monsters, the Elizabethan euphemism for cuckolds, because they deceive. Hamlet rages:

I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't, it hath made me mad. I say we will have no moe marriage.


No more marriage because all marriage is madness and whoredom—degrading to both parties, but especially to the man who never knows who else has slept between his sheets. And not only is marriage likened to whoredom, but Hamlet himself becomes a whore as he, unable to carry out the revenge thrust upon him by his father's Ghost, "Must like a whore unpack [his] heart with words / And fall a-cursing like a very drab, / A stallion" [male prostitute] (II.iii.585-87).

However potent Hamlet's fear of cuckoldry, one senses something else behind his vituperation of Ophelia: an anxiety associated with the sexual act itself. The language with which Hamlet describes sexuality is riddled throughout with metaphors of contagion and disease; his mother's hidden adultery and incest are imagined as an "ulcerous place" that "infects unseen" (III.iv.147-49). For Hamlet, who early asks, "And shall I couple hell?" (I.v.93)—the phraseology of which suggests the possibility of coupling with hell—all sex is unnatural.

Hamlet's sexual nausea finds its antecedent in his father's Ghost, who characterizes Gertrude thus: "But virtue, as it never will be moved, / Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven / So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage" (I.v.53-57).15 Here the sexually dualistic ideology that divides women into lustful whores and radiant angels collapses upon itself, revealing the fear upon which it is based: Women are imagined either as angels or whores as a psychological defense against the uncomfortable suspicion that underneath, the angel is a whore. The collapse of this defensive structure unleashes precisely the masculine aggression it was originally built to contain. Even the Ghost's ostensible protection of Gertrude from Hamlet's wrath is sexually sadistic: "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven, / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her" (I.v.85-88). Gertrude's conscience is imagined as an aggressive phallus, pricking and stinging her female breasts, in a repossession, replication, and reprojection of the action that simultaneously effeminized King Hamlet, and deprived him of his life and wife: "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown" (I.v.38-39), crown symbolizing both his kingship and his wife's genitalia.

Identified as Hamlet is with his father, it is small wonder that Ophelia merges, in Hamlet's mind, with Gertrude, and that violence toward both women becomes his only recourse. Although Hamlet's violence remains verbal rather than physical, Ophelia's death is as much an outcome of Hamlet's rage as it is an expression of her grief, madness, or self-destruction.16 Killed off before she can deceive or defile Hamlet, it is clear that only in death can Ophelia-as-whore regain the other half of her dichotomized being, chaste virgin. Contaminated in life by the taint of Gertrude's adultery, Ophelia reclaims sexual desirability only as a dead, but perpetual, virgin.

In our first view of Ophelia, Laertes warns his sister of the unlikelihood of Hamlet's fulfilling her expectations of betrothal:

Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain If with too credent ear you list his songs, Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open To his unmast'red importunity. Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, And keep you in the rear of your affection, Out of the shot and danger of desire. The chariest maid is prodigal enough If she unmask her beauty to the moon. Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes. The canker galls the infants of the spring Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd, And in the morn and liquid dew of youth Contagious blastments are most imminent.


As imagined by Laertes, Ophelia's genitalia is a "chaste treasure," a "button," that must be clasped shut against the "unmast'red importunity," the "contagious blastments," the "shot and danger" of masculine desire. Laertes's language interweaves Hamlet's equation of sexuality and disease (canker, contagion) with his own view of sexuality as masculine aggression (importunity, shot and danger, strokes, blastments). Ophelia's reply, "'Tis in my memory lock'd, / And you yourself shall keep the key of it" (I.iii.85-86), suggests not only that Laertes's advice is "lock'd" in her memory, but also that Laertes alone possesses the key to her properly immured "chaste treasure."

As if to underscore the importance of Laertes's warning, in the next scene Ophelia is interrogated by Polonius, who is similarly concerned with the status of his daughter's chastity. His accusation that "you yourself / Have of your audience been most free and bounteous" (I.iii.93-94) links Ophelia's personhood (her audience) with the sign of her femaleness (her genitalia) through the reiteration of Laertes's metaphors of closed and open space. To be "free and bounteous" with one's person is to risk opening one's "chaste treasure." When Claudius later asks Polonius to repeat the advice he gave to Ophelia regarding Hamlet's advances, Polonius replies: "That she should lock herself from his resort" (II.ii.143). The message of father and son is clear: The proper female sexuality is closed, contained, "lock'd."17 In the graveyard scene—the last scene in which her presence is required—Ophelia's dead, virginal body is fetishized by Hamlet and Laertes alike. As Ophelia's funeral procession reaches her newly dug grave, Laertes exclaims, "Lay her i'th'earth, / And from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring!" (V.i.239-40). Soon thereafter he leaps on top of her casket: "Hold off the earth a while, / Till I have caught her once more in mine arms" (V.i.249-50). Such passion, of course, incites Hamlet to claim his place as chief mourner. "Dost thou come here to whine? / To outface me with leaping in her grave?" (V.i.277-78).

Critics largely focus on the grave as a site of masculine competition, neglecting to mention that Ophelia's grave becomes the only "bed" upon which Hamlet is able to express his sexual desire.18 And yet, it is neither the right to mourn Ophelia, nor the right to enjoy her sexual body (that is, her dynamic, self-expressive sexuality), that is actually being contested; rather, Laertes and Hamlet fight over the right to appropriate Ophelia's chastity. Fetishized to the extent that it is utterly divorced from the rest of her being, Ophelia's chastity embodies, as it were, a masculine fantasy of a "female essence" wonderfully devoid of that which makes women so problematic: change, movement, inconstancy, unpredictability—in short, life. The conflict between Hamlet and Laertes is over the right (and rite) of sexual possession, and occurs only after Ophelia's transformation into a fully possessible object. The earlier punning of the gravedigger seems eerily premonitory as he responds to Hamlet's query regarding who is to be buried in the newly turned grave: "One that was a woman, but, rest her soul, she's dead" (V.i.135). No longer a woman, Ophelia is no longer likely to incite sexual anxiety; she is, however, a likely object to figure in sexual fantasies of masculine prowess. In addition to masculine competition, then, the conflict between Hamlet and Laertes suggests an underlying necrophiliac fantasy. As a sexualized yet chaste corpse, Ophelia signifies not only the connection between sexuality and death previously explored in Romeo and Juliet, but also suggests that sexuality is finally safely engaged in only with the dead. Earlier, Hamlet spoke of his own death as "a consummation / Devoutly to be wish'd" (III.i.62-63), narcissistically linking his own death with sexual intercourse, and imagining both as the perfection of his desire.19 Here, the fear shared by Hamlet and Laertes of a dynamic, expressive female sexuality culminates in the imposition of stasis on that which threatens to bring sexual (and for Hamlet, metaphysical) chaos, and in the desire, having acquired a fully immobile object, to possess her fully.

In Othello, as both Greenblatt and Snow brilliantly argue, the need to suppress the anxieties that female sexuality engenders is tragically manipulated into the murder of the woman who elicits those anxieties. As critics have noted, Othello is both emotionally vulnerable to Desdemona and ambivalent about women in general,20 and it is precisely because his anxieties are multivalent and mutually reinforcing that Othello is susceptible to Iago's seduction. Like Brabantio's premonition of Desdemona's elopement—"This accident is not unlike my dream, / Belief of it oppresses me already" (I.i.142-43)—and Hamlet's suspicion of Gertrude's crimes—"O, my prophetic soul!" (I.v.40)—Othello's belief in woman's power of deception lies just under the surface of his idolization. Othello himself exclaims in reaction to Iago's intimations, "Think my lord! By heaven, he echoes me, / As if there were some monster in his thought / Too hideous to be shown" (III.iii.94-96, emphasis mine), suggesting that Iago echoes not merely Othello's words, but his thoughts. Indeed, having betrayed her father, Desdemona is suspect to all men except the similarly manipulated Cassio. Warns Brabantio: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father and may thee" (I.iii.292-93). And Iago voices the same refrain: "She did deceive her father, marrying you" (III.iii.210).

That a woman may "seem" to be one thing and yet may "be" another comes to signify, in the masculine mind of Othello, woman's very existence. Whereas usually women are presumed to be either virgins or whores, in Othello the split within each woman between "seeming" and "being" suggests that women are simultaneously "seeming" to be virgins and "being" actual whores. In Hamlet, we have seen that the breakdown of the carefully contrived sexual dichotomy (wherein virgin and whore are mutually exclusive terms) unleashes Hamlet's aggression toward Gertrude and Ophelia. Importantly, however, Hamlet's suspicions never obtain the status of existential Truth; they never assume irrevocable judgment. Gertrude, though an adulteress, may be redeemed if she avoids the marriage bed. And Ophelia's madness and death rectify her virginity, as Laertes testifies: "Lay her i'th'earth / And from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest, / A minist'ring angel shall my sister be / When thou liest howling" (V.i.238-41).

The price of such redemption, however, is a complete capitulation to masculine terms as well as the resurrection of the faulty structure of sexual dualism. Hamlet explicitly instructs his mother to re-form her being in the shape of a virgin:

Hamlet: Confess yourself to heaven, Repent what's past, avoid what is to come, And do not spread compost on the weeds To make them ranker. . . .Queen: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.Hamlet: O throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half. Goodnight, but go not to my uncle's bed Assume a virtue if you have it not.


In order to allay masculine suspicions and anxieties—in order to not "be" a whore—Gertrude must throw away her "worser" part, her sexuality, and assume married chastity, an appropriate response to Hamlet's call for "no moe marriage." . . .


12 It also turns all sons into bastards. At least part of Hamlet's anxiety is about his own legitimacy.

13Hamlet, I.ii.135-37. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974) and will be cited hereafter parenthetically in the text.

14 For analysis of Hamlet's Oedipal conflict, see Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954). I find the most persuasive evidence of Oedipal conflict in the ambiguous syntax of the following lines spoken by Hamlet: "How stand I then, / That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd" (IV.iv.56-57). Unlike Prince Hamlet, who is concerned almost exclusively with his own condition, the soldier Othello extends his paranoia into a concern for his brothers: "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" (V.ii.6). Here, male bonding rather than masculine competition overshadows the heterosexual relation.

15 My interpretation depends on reading both "lust" and "radiant angel" as referring to Gertrude. "[R]adiant angel" is equally compelling as King Hamlet's self-characterization. I suggest that the passage should be read both ways, as a fine example of Shakespeare's overdetermined use of language.

16 Gohlke also sees Hamlet as deflecting the violence he feels toward his mother onto Ophelia, and, like me, sees Ophelia's madness and death as a direct outcome of his rage: "It is not his mother whom Hamlet kills (Claudius takes care of that) but Ophelia. Only when she is dead, moreover, is he free to say clearly that he loved her" (p. 173). Gohlke, however, does not pursue the psychological implications of Hamlet's inability to love the living Ophelia.

17 Perhaps the image of a locked female sexuality is a holdover from the medieval chastity belt.

18 The grave in Hamlet is symbolically and geographically analogous to the marriage bed in Othello. A comparison of both the grave and marriage bed to the tomb of Romeo and Juliet extends the implications of each. The tomb is characterized by the Friar as the earth's womb, to which all humankind must return (II.iii.9-12). The implication of all three plays is that women, because of their procreative capacities, are to be blamed for male mortality. Apparently, women grant less the gift of life than the curse of death: men are condemned to live only to die.

19 The OED defines "consummation" as "the completion of marriage by sexual intercourse" for as early as 1530. Other early meanings include (a) "That act of completing, accomplishing, fulfilling, finishing, or ending," (b) "Completion, conclusion, as an event or condition; end; death," (c) "The action of perfecting; the condition of full and perfect development, perfection, acme," and (d) "A condition in which desires, aims, and tendencies are fulfilled; crowning or fitting end; goal." It seems to me that all of these definitions serve to expand the resonances of Hamlet's desire. (Emphasis mine.)

20 See Gohlke, Greenblatt, and Snow. . . .

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Gazing at Hamlet, or the Danish Cabaret," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study & Production, Vol. 45, 1993, pp. 37-51.

[In the following essay, Danson reviews points in the cultural history of Hamlet when Hamlet's gender has "been defined in unusual ways." Danson discusses in particular three different portrayals of Hamlet in which his feminine nature is a central aspect of his characterization.]

'A was a man. Take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again'(1.2.186-7).1 Among all the doubts, fears, uncertainties attendant on his father's death, there's this for Hamlet to contend with too, this hinted anxiety about keeping up the old gender-roles. Where once men were men, and women—hanging upon them as if increase of appetite did grow where it did feed—women, there now rules an ambiguous queen-king: bidding Claudius farewell for England, Hamlet calls him'dear mother', because'Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother'(4.3.51-4). And Hamlet himself? In this essay I want to look at some moments in Hamlet's cultural history when the Prince's own sex or gender (the slippage between those terms is part of that history) have been defined in unusual ways. Apart from their occasional bizarrerie, they interest me because they suggest that Hamlet, that great drama of patriarchal piety and misogynistic rage, has had under certain circumstances the power to shake the most firmly-planted binary representations.

Or perhaps those representations were ripe for shaking from the start? Several recent critics, including Thomas Laqueur and Stephen Greenblatt, have drawn attention to a possibility latent, at least, within Renaissance ideas about sexual anatomy.2 Ian Maclean concisely reports the basic case:

In Aristotelian and Galenic terms, woman is less fully developed than man. Because of lack of heat in generation, her sexual organs have remained internal, she is incomplete, colder and moister in dominant humours, and unable to'concoct'perfect semen from blood. Two axioms are implied here: that the hottest created thing is the most perfect, and that a direct comparison can be made between the genitalia of man and woman in function, number and form.3

Like the egg and the chicken, a woman in this scheme is a man in potentia, as nature herself, striving toward perfection, strives to make all things male. This is heady stuff, though Maclean himself, like the classical and Renaissance writers he surveys, goes cautiously: he notes that there are few attested cases of sex change in the Renaissance, that they are considered inconclusive by the physiologists who treat them'with great circumspection', and that all involve women changing into men (38-9). Still, a little of such instability goes a long way, and Stephen Orgel's bold extrapolation from the evidence may conveniently introduce my essay about Hamlet's vicissitudes in the sex-gender system:'The frightening part of the teleology [that leads from female to male] for the Renaissance mind . . . is precisely the fantasy of its reversal, the conviction that men can turn into—or be turned into—women; or perhaps more exactly, can be turned back into women, losing the strength that enabled the male potential to be realized in the first place.'4


Jacqueline Rose has asked'How far the woman has been at the center, not only of the internal drama, but also of the critical drama—the controversy about meaning and language—which [Hamlet] has provoked?'5 In her argument, T. S. Eliot's dissatisfaction with the form of Hamlet, and Eliot's and Freud's invocation of the Mona Lisa to characterize the play, bespeak a male-centred desire for clarity and order which is threatened by the female—literally, threatened by Gertrude, but figuratively also by'woman'as that which is inimical to the male desire for clarity and order. Rose is perhaps too hard on one of the men in the case: Eliot does not, as she claims, blame Gertrude for failing to measure up as an'objective correlative'; even he knew that the problem lies in the male fantasist, not in the object of his fantasy. But Rose's point is suggestive: a woman has occasionally figured at the centre of Hamlet, and on some of those occasions the'woman'was Hamlet.6

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Hamlet's rougher, more murderous edges were smoothed away. His delay, no longer a matter of craft or madness, was softened by the pale cast of thought. In this introspective Hamlet two conflicting nineteenth-century representations of gender meet in one line: Hamlet the thinker is partly bred out of the stereotype of the Romantic hero, voyaging through strange seas of thought; but merely thinking on the event is passive, and passivity—in the commonplace binary scheme, more potent in the nineteenth century than it had been in the seventeenth—was conventionally aligned with femininity, so that the Romantic Hamlet could also be seen as a womanly Hamlet. Goethe's influential description, with its strikingly gendered metaphors, may stand for the many it spawned:'Here is an oak-tree planted in a costly vase, which should have received into its bosom only lovely flowers; the roots spread out, the jar is shivered to pieces. A beautiful, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off . . .'7 The phallic roots of the oak-tree Hamlet shatter his precious but fragile containing form. Ophelia, with her flowers, might (especially in nineteenth-century productions) fit such a container; but Goethe's male hero is in self-conflict with the virtues, conventionally gendered female, of loveliness, purity, and superior morality. This Hamlet cannot contain himself: either he will self-destruct as his masculine-defining qualities (like the physical apparatus of male sex in the Renaissance scheme) grow outwards, or he will become his own metonym, Goethe's precious container rather than the thing contained.

The feminized Romantic Hamlet appears by explicit allusion in Hazlitt's description (1817): his character'is made up of undulating lines; it has [like Perdita] the yielding flexibility of "a wave o'th'sea".'8 Hamlet's association with the feminine becomes clearer in the more extravagant flights of Victorian character-criticism. As critics fill the margins of the play-text they domesticate Hamlet—literally, they move him into the traditionally female space of the home; and in that space his masculine attire merely usurps his nature. John Weiss's (1876) fantasy is most touching in this regard, and worth quoting at length. Hamlet with Ophelia becomes David Copperfield with Dora, a man attracted to a softly nurturing, lethean world of escape from his masculine social role:

His love for Ophelia was the most mastering impulse of his life; it stretched like a broad, rich domain, down to which he came from the shadowy places of his private thoughts to fling himself in the unchecked sunshine and revel in the limpid path of feeling. How often had he gone to let her smile strip off the shadow of this thought, and expose him to untroubled nature! The moisture of her eyes refreshed his questioning; her phrases answered it beyond philosophy; a maidenly submission of her hand renewed his confidence; an unspoken sympathy of her reserve, that flowed into the slightest hints and permissions of her body, nominated him as lover and disenfranchised him as thinker; and a sunshower seemed to pelt through him to drift his vapors off.9

Weiss dwells with almost voyeuristic pleasure on those'hints and permissions of [Ophelia's] body'. In the'broad, rich domain'where Hamlet'revel[s] in the limpid bath of feeling', Hamlet's own shape virtually dissolves into that of the woman who refreshes him. The dreamy scene of escape from a world where thinking and feeling are rigidly divided between male and female gives eloquent evidence of the burden of Victorian masculinity. In Weiss's fantasy, not only Ophelia but Hamlet too becomes a Victorian'angel in the house','disenfranchised . . . as thinker'—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Goethe, Hazlitt, and Weiss are all quoted in the Variorum edition. But the full truth was not announced until after the publication of that treasure-trove of psychologized, domesticated Hamlets. Indeed it was announced in a book dedicated to its editor, Horace Howard Furness, and published, like it, by Lippincott of Philadelphia; and for all its looniness it may be seen as a fitting culmination of Furness's work. The book is called The Mystery of Hamlet, by Edward P. Vining (1881). In it Vining goes the illogical next step from gender-stereotype to sexual fact: Hamlet is not only a'womanly man'but'in very deed a woman, desperately striving to fill a place for which she was by nature unfitted . . .'(59):

if we imagine that the poet here portrayed a woman incapable of accomplishing the revenge which the perturbed spirit of her father had imposed upon her, driven to the borders of distraction by unbearable burdens, suffering from a hopeless love that she might never reveal, tortured by jealousy, sorely sensitive to all a woman's natural faults, and incensed far more at the sacrifice of personal purity made by her mother in marrying again so speedily, than even by the murder of her father; shrinking from the mortal struggle with the king, fearing bloodshed, and viewing the possibility of her own death with a shuddering horror, and hence anxious to find some escape, some easier method of fulfilling her duty; that which before seemed at variance with all ordinary modes of thinking now becomes an exhibition of the deepest human feeling. (75)

Contemplating his portrait of a woman trapped in a man's social body, Vining asks,'Shall human pity ever sound the depths of woe that engulfed this unhappy life?'(91).

A critic who seriously proposes that Hamlet is a woman will seem either mad or, with the right theory behind him, very modern. In fact Vining was just quintessentially the nineteenth-century literary amateur, with a penchant for autodidactic intellectual extravagance. After The Mystery of Hamlet, he wrote his 787-page masterpiece, An Inglorious Columbus; or, Evidence that Hwui Shan and a Party of Buddhist Monks from Afghanistan Discovered America in the 5th Century A.D. (New York, 1885); then, with more professional seemliness—he was by trade a railway man—he wrote The Necessity for a Classification of Freight in 1886, and in 1906 his religious treatise, Jacob, or Israel's New Name. (In 1890 he edited Hamlet for The Bankside Shakespeare.) Along the way, at the age of thirty-nine, he received the Master of Arts from Yale, and at the age of sixty-one, the Doctor of Laws from William Jewell College. Vining's solution to the mystery of Hamlet is worth remembering for several reasons. His fantasy of a female Hamlet, however idiosyncratic, is also a cultural product; his ideas about gender—what constitutes a real woman, what a real man—are recognizably not his alone. And those ideas can interestingly be compared both to some Renaissance ideas and to some modern ideas. Furthermore, Vining's little book has had a surprisingly vigorous afterlife. It comes up one June day in 1906 in the library in Dublin, where John Eglinton tells Stephen Dedalus'that an actress played Hamlet for the fourhundredandeighth time last night in Dublin. Vining held that the prince was a woman.'10 In Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus, Vining is preserved in a footnote, paired with the critic who proved that Hamlet was overweight.11 But as Jones's Freudian theory bore cinematic fruit in Olivier's 1948 film—to which I will return—so too Vining's theory was once magnificently justified on screen. And to that, too, I will return.

But Vining first—who disarmingly sneaks up on his radical thesis by seeming to propose only the Romantic commonplace that'the charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in their nature'(47). Vining is explicit about what constitutes the'essentially feminine'. For instance,'Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the feminine nature, and Hamlet possessed both'(47). He also possessed other, more disturbing feminine qualities. Woman, for instance,'with less strength to accomplish her desires by straightforward action', uses instead shrewdness, subtlety, indirection, and dissimulation; thus Hamlet's feigned madness and his use of the play-within-a-play'are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature'(47). Vining cites the authority of the great psychologist Dr Henry Maudsley, who also found that Hamlet'was by nature something of a dissimulator,—that faculty having been born in him . . .'Maudsley's clinical observations (quoted by Vining) provide an etiology for the development of feminine traits in men:'we not uncommonly observe the character of the mother, with her emotional impulses and subtle but scarce conscious shifts, in the individual when young, while the calm deliberation and conscious determination of the father come out more plainly as he grows older'(48).12 Thus for the Victorian psychologist, as for Renaissance Galenic theorists, femininity is a stage in the teleological development of masculinity; and Dr Maudsley's female-minded dissimulating Hamlet is a case of arrested gender development.

But Vining goes further; his amassing of supposedly essential female traits prepares the way for his—and, as he traces it, Shakespeare's—transition from a merely female-minded Hamlet to Hamlet as a woman in perfect fact. Hamlet's fear of death is a female trait. His'impulsiveness'is another; so is his'love of obtaining the advantage in a wordy warfare, which induces him to tantalize and mock at Polonius and Osric'(54); also his use of'"pretty oathes'" and'his fear of breaking into tears'(55). Like a woman, Hamlet is'small and delicate'(as we know because he contrasts himself disparagingly with Hercules), but also'at least moderately plump'. He has'a woman's daintiness and sensitiveness to weather and perfumes'(because he notices that'the air bites shrewdly'and because he is revolted by the smell of Yorick's skull). He suffers from hysteria, the female malady (77-8). Even his misogyny proves he is a woman:' . . . such is the abhorrence which he expresses of [women's] frailties and weaknesses that it irresistibly suggests the question, Is not this more like the bitterness of one woman against the failings of another, than like the half compassion, "more in sorrow than in anger", with which a man regards a feminine weakness?'Hamlet's indictment of Ophelia in the nunnery-scene is so ungentlemanly that only a woman could have done it:'Did ever a noble youth so abuse and insult a lovely gentle girl?'(57).

If Vining is clear about the fact that women dislike other women, he is equally clear about the fact that men like women:'The Creator has implanted in humanity a subtle attraction toward the opposite sex, which in a man, and particularly a man of Hamlet's age, invests all womankind with a tender charm'(55). Hamlet is different—not only doesn't he like women, he does like men:'In Hamlet . . . we find an entire inversion of what should have been expected. His admiration is expended upon men and masculine perfection alone'(55). Now,'inversion'(so innocently slipped into the preceding extract) was to become a common term for same-sex attraction during the 1890s, the period during which homosexuality came increasingly to be seen not as an aberration of conduct but as an identity. The word'homosexuality'itself, coined by a Swiss doctor in 1869, also did not enter English until the 1890s.13 In Vining's day,'the Love that dare not speak its name'actually had no legitimizing name to speak: the available words of legal condemnation, like'sodomy','buggery', and their cognates, refer to actions that express a wilful departure from the supposed norms of a man's'essential'sexual identity; the creation (or rediscovery) of an idea of male sexuality which could be expressed appropriately in the acts to which those words refer was only in progress at the time Vining was solving Hamlet's mystery.

Still, Vining's occlusion of any third possibility, beyond men-love-women and women-love-men, suggests a notable blindness. Vining's fellow American, Walt Whitman, had already provided a role-model and a defining term,'adhesiveness', for writers struggling to define a specifically gay consciousness.14 Only a few years after Vining's book, in 1889, Oscar Wilde published'The Portrait of Mr W. H.', his playful'neo-platonic'solution to the mystery of Shakespeare's sonnets. At Wilde's first trial, Mr Carson (for the defence) asked Wilde,'I believe you have written an article to show that Shakespeare's sonnets were suggestive of unnatural vice?'Wilde's reply must count among his very best paradoxes:'On the contrary I have written an article to show that they are not. I objected to such a perversion being put upon Shakespeare.'15 The idea of a love between men which is not'unnatural', not a'perversion'was, in 1895, a paradox almost (but, as Wilde's reply shows, not quite) beyond the reach of linguistic possibility.

Vining's assumption, therefore, that a man who likes other men is by definition a woman, was culturally the easier conclusion to reach than the conclusion that he was gay. But it also suggests that some versions of nineteenth-century misogyny (like Vining's) are displaced versions of homophobia—by which I mean not only hatred of gays, but fear of being gay, thus being femininized. In any event, it allows Vining to play safely with the wonderful notion that Hamlet's true love is not Ophelia but Horatio:'His eulogy of Horatio in the third act is characterized by a warmth of fondness and admiration far greater than is natural between friends of the same sex'(65). Vining notices that Hamlet's line, in the folio text, about'disprized love'is missing from the first quarto and appears in the second quarto as'despized love'. As a textual theorist, Vining is very modern: he finds that the variation reflects Shakespeare's own revision of his texts, and that it makes a critical point:

Horatio did not despise the affection of Hamlet, but he can have had but the dimmest apprehension of the depth of Hamlet's whole-hearted love and never suspected the true cause of the latter's confidence in him. Hence Hamlet could not but have felt that his love was and must ever remain'disprized'. (65)

With the sad story of Hamlet's love for Horatio at its heart, the Victorian tragedy of Hamlet, Princess of Denmark, is now complete: We learn that on the day of old Hamlet's combat with old Fortinbras, Gertrude gave birth to a daughter; that fearing old Hamlet's death, and a dynastic crisis, she gave out the false information that a royal son had been born; and that,'This step once hastily taken could not be recalled . . . There could be no retreat, no change: the part once taken must be played through to the end'(83). And that end for Vining's version of the Romantic feminized Hamlet is inevitably tragic:'Hamlet must die, for the "cursed spite" under which he was born was such that for his woes there could be no other end than death'(95).

Vining calls Hamlet a woman, but it would be more accurate to say that Vining's Hamlet is a man emasculated lated by another man's competitive scrutiny. Reading the opening pages of his sober-seeming analysis, segueing then into the more bizarre passages of his revisionary tale, we never quite give up the idea of the man-Hamlet; that idea is constantly worked on, transformed: the woman-Hamlet literally depends on it. (Hence the problem of pronouns, as when I say, he is a woman.) Discovering the female Hamlet is an operation of power: as you peer into Hamlet, can you see that this trait or that is really a feminine trait? Can you see that he's only trying to pass? Can you find him out? When you have, you can, like Vining, submit him to your pity: you can turn the nineteenth century's great symbol of intellectual power into an object of sexual pleasure, a woman. You can simultaneously unfix the restrictive binary of sexual identity while reaffirming the hierarchy which puts the male spectator on top.


In late nineteenth-century America, the feminized Hamlet was pathetic—fearful, jealous, sexually repressed. What would she look like under different cultural conditions, to other subjectivities, feminine as well as masculine? I can give one reasonably factual answer to the question. In 1920, Vining's The Mystery of Hamlet (mixed up with bits of Saxo and Belieferest) provided the scenario for a silent film, made in Germany, directed by a Dane, Svend Gade, and starring the most famous European actress of the time, Gade's Danish wife, Asta Nielsen (1883-1972).16 One approaches Vining's text with a mixture of humour and curiosity, as a kind of critical freak. Asta Nielsen's Hamlet, by contrast, abashes condescension: however inauspicious its origins in Vining's'theory', however strange the very idea of a silent Hamlet (of whatever gender), Nielsen's is a powerful performance in one of the great productions of Weimar cinema. Watching the Nielsen-Gade Hamlet in 1991, it is still possible to agree with the reviewer who wrote seventy years ago in The New York Times,'It does not need to apologize to any production that has come from a foreign or domestic studio since the invention of motion pictures. It holds a secure place in the class with the best.'17

There is a long tradition of actresses playing Hamlet, to which Nielsen, however unique her posture, belongs; it stretches from Sarah Siddons in 1775 to (at least) Diane Venora for The New York Shakespeare Festival in 1983.l8 Bernard Grebanier's Then CameEach Actor gives a reasonably thorough survey of the tradition, although its condescending tone is as revealing as its hodge-podge of information.19 Grebanier thinks that'the inexplicable obsession which has driven some women to assume men's roles'may be connected to the belief that Hamlet is'a kind of milk-sop too sensitive to act', a misconception which may have'encouraged the dears to think of him, quite incorrectly, as a sister under the skin'(253). Since his chapter about women playing Hamlet deals with'Shakespearean curiosa'it is (he says)'as fitting a place as any, without any insult intended to the ladies, to append [a description of the Dog Hamlet] given in the early nineteenth century, when well-trained dogs were much in demand upon the "boards" (263). Grebanier's academic version of good-old-boyishness, with its updated comparison of walking dogs and preaching women, is excessive enough to suggest that the phenomenon of female Hamlets—women usurping the central role in our central drama of patriarchy—causes him a degree of anxiety. To tactics such as his,'the dears'might reply that acting well is the best revenge.

The actress who played Hamlet'for the fourhundred-andeighth time last night in Dublin'(as Stephen hears in Ulysses) was Mrs Bandmann-Palmer, the longestplaying (408 was less than half her total) of several fin de siècle female Hamlets. Sarah Bernhardt's was the most famous. Bernhardt had played travesty roles in her youth; now, in middle age, she drew on the stage's transvestite tradition to provide her with starring roles in what she called her'three Hamlets': Rostand's L'Aiglon, Musset's Lorenzaccio, and the thing itself. Her justification was that'These roles portray youths of twenty or twenty-one, with the minds of men of forty.'20 When an actor has experience enough to play such parts, he no longer looks the part; but an actress of forty (or maybe fifty-five) has in every sense the appropriate stature. Bernhardt's age is relevant: although the heyday in the blood is not necessarily tame in one's fifties, there was little of the risqué in Bernhardt's potentially transgressive casting. Admirers of her five-hour production, in Paris in May 1899 and a month later in London, praised her suppression of'the feminine element':'If it were not for the high pitch of the voice and its occasional thinness, you would never imagine that this Hamlet was a woman. And even this slight reminder of the fact disappears after the first few minutes, when you get accustomed to it . . . In no other respect could I discover the slightest trace of the woman . . .'21 Others were not so impressed. Max Beerbohm, in the Saturday Review, took a leaf from Vining's book to agree that'Hamlet, in the complexity of his nature, had traces of femininity. Gentleness and a lack of executive ability are female qualities . . .' But Shakespeare's Hamlet was no woman, and Bernhardt's Hamlet was no man:'The only compliment one can conscientiously pay her is that her Hamlet was, from first to last, très grande dame.'22

With Asta Nielsen's performance it would be otherwise. Her screen persona was already indelibly inscribed with the sexually transgressive. During the War her image had served as pin-up on both sides of the line. Guillaume Apollinaire's ecstatic description, which unintentionally calls to mind Pater's description of the Mona Lisa, catches her sexually protean quality:'She is all! She is the vision of the drinker and the dream of the lonely man. She laughs like a girl completely happy, and her eye knows of things so tender and shy that one could not speak of them.'23 The spice of androgyny helped make Nielsen this perfect Weimar icon. Even before the War she had appeared in transvestite roles: a photo in her autobiography, Den Tiende Muse, shows her in masculine evening dress in the Danish film Ungdom og Galskab (Youth and Madness), from 1912-13; in 1916 there was Das Liebes ABC (The Alphabet of Love) in which'disguised as a young man, [she] takes a male friend through the night clubs and dives of a metropolis to introduce him to the facts of life'.24 When her roles were not explicitly androgynous, they still tended toward the sexually ambiguous or transgressive: Miss Julie (1921), Mary Magdalen in I.N.R.I. (1923), Lulu in Wedekind's Erdgeist (1923),25Hedda Gabler (1924). Her Hamlet, a woman but no lady, belongs in this gallery.

I suspect that Nielsen and Gade discovered Vining's book through the reference to it in Ernest Jones's Das Problem des Hamlet und der Oedipus-Komplex [1911], the original version of the book published in 1949 as Hamlet and Oedipus.26Why they decided to use it is the more interesting question. Possibly they were attracted to Hamlet as a kind of political joke: Germany's greatest post-war film star, a Dane, plays the greatest English tragic hero, a Dane. Also, Nielsen was attempting to establish herself as an actress of'art'roles—and what could be more arty than Hamlet? She could become the Bernhardt of motion pictures by doing Hamlet, but she could not do it à la Bernhardt, who was drawing on a long stage tradition of transvestite performance. Cinema conventions, by contrast, tend to enforce a continuity, and in the case of stars like Nielsen a virtual identity, between performer and role. So the actress playing Hamlet on film could not, like Bernhardt, try to erase her sex. She could, however, make the suppression of her sexuality part of the diegesis; she could make Hamlet the story of an actress playing Hamlet disguised as a man. It was the story Vining had already written, but significantly revised for a German audience of the 1920s.

Vining's female Hamlet had been a male fantasy, clearly addressed to other men; Nielsen's, by contrast, was addressed both to women and men, but with the possibility of different readings. According to Patrice Petro (to whose recent study Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany I am indebted), Nielsen was'from the start [an] indisputable [favorite] with female audiences'; her presence'ensured that a film would appeal to the female audience'.27 That appeal was implicit in the Nielsen screen persona, with its combination of independence and vulnerability, its powerful but often repressed and exploited sexuality. Her two most famous roles in contemporary social dramas were as prostitutes—Auguste in Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Streets, 1925), and Maria in Dirnentragödie (Tragedy of the Whore, 1927); both roles are marked by the pathos of a woman's sexual and economic exploitation. In Nielsen's polymorphous sexuality a viewer could read the strong image of a conceivable freedom from gender restrictions, crossed with the pathos of that freedom's bafflement by actual social conditions.

Weimar Germany's famous gender crisis—the world's most glamorous such crisis, thanks to Kander and Ebb's Cabaret—was visible in contemporary magazine articles decrying die Vermännlichung der Frau (the masculinization of women). Patrice Petro in Joyless Streets compares the iconography of these illustrated magazines to the iconography of Weimar cinema.'Nun Aber Genug!' ('Enough already!') says the headline to an article from the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung from 1925: the page shows two photographic portrait busts, a man and a woman, both with short cropped hair, tie and jacket; the drawing below shows them in matching unisex dressing gown and pyjamas. From Die Dame of 1926 there is a fashion article, Variationen über den Smoking, with a cartoon of a shocked waiter and an amused hotel pageboy looking at an identically dressed pair of swells—except that her evening suit has skirt instead of trousers.28

Petro's discussion of the German New Woman-inman's-clothing draws on Atina Grossman's study of the Sex Reform movement. Grossman characterizes the New Woman as A much abused and conflated image of flapper, young stenotypist, and working mother'; her appropriation of masculine roles and prerogatives threatened not only the conservative demand for traditional gender distinctions but the radical demands of the Sex Reform movement as well.29 The movement's aim was to'redomesticate'the New Woman as the answer to a host of perceived social problems ('the decline in the birthrate, the high incidence of abortions, the rise in the marriage age, and the increasing number of married women and mothers in the waged labor force'[157]). Central to its aims was a cure for female sexual frigidity by the promotion of mutual orgasm: through happier sexuality it would recuperate the liberated, or masculinized, woman for the patriarchal family. Asta Nielsen would have been a hard case for the sex reformers. Though she could be almost all things to all people she was not the image of a procreative, sexually satisfied hausfrau. Grossman describes the iconography that identifies'the new deviants'of the Sex Reform movement—women, that is,'unfit for marriage':'short, dark hair; dressed in a unisex shift; distinctly unmaternal—the image not only of the prostitute but of the Jewess and the lesbian'(167). It is also in its details the image of Asta Nielsen's Hamlet, a new deviant in an ancient setting.

But the description leaves out the most important Nielsen feature: the eyes, the'immense blazing eyes'30 that dominate Nielsen's pale, startlingly luminous face and have power to control the entire screen. Petro contrasts Nielsen's'intense, dramaticaly focused gaze'to'the unfocused, almost mirrorlike gaze'of screen actresses in the next generation in Germany and Hollywood:'Nielsen . . . belong[s] to a period of filmmaking when a focused and highly motivated female gaze was imbued with a pathos so intense that [her] performances became emblematic of an era, and a premonition of things to come'(160). In Hamlet, we first see those weirdly illuminated, searching eyes at work after some awkward opening sequences—battle, king's wounding, queen's delivery, false report of baby's sex, Hamlet's early childhood—that promise the spectator little beyond a superior laugh. Then the mise-en-scène becomes a classroom at the University of Wittenberg. First day of term, and all the high-spirited guys are in attendance—Laertes, Fortinbras, Horatio, Hamlet. Horatio has shoulder-length wavy blond hair—a more conventionally female style than Hamlet's short black hair with fringe brushed to one side over her forehead. They are seated side by side; Hamlet's books drop; Hamlet and Horatio both stoop, bang heads, recover—and Hamlet gazes with frank desire at the unwitting Horatio.

Of course there's nothing like it in Shakespeare, not only because Shakespeare never wrote the scene but because the gaze belongs both to male and female, both to Shakespeare's Hamlet and his Ophelia; it is encoded with the active intensity of the one character and the thwarted yearning of the other. The female Hamlet's gaze, here and elsewhere in the film, is overdetermined also in terms of audience identification. Hamlet's gaze holds and directs the audience's; we share her visual desire. Here, Hamlet solicits the audience's eroticizing scrutiny of Horatio as, elsewhere, she will of Ophelia. At the same time, however, and precisely because of the way the camera records the commanding intensity of her gaze, Hamlet him/herself is the object of the audience's erotic interest: the visually less exciting Horatio is no match for her; his blank surface intensifies her gaze, as a mirror does sunlight, and reflects its erotic charge back on her. The female Hamlet allows an unusual division of labour between the camera, which peruses Hamlet, and Hamlet in the diegesis, who is the active looker, simultaneously the object and director of the look.

The complexity of the viewing situation appears in a subsequent Wittenberg scene where Hamlet meets Laertes, his noisy, boorish upstairs neighbour in the dorm. A group of flirtatious girls has gathered beneath their windows. The feckless Laertes borrows money from Hamlet and invites Hamlet to join him downstairs with the girls. Hamlet refuses; and in close-up the camera watches Hamlet's eyes, gazing now not at the scene outside but into a distance over the audience's shoulder, a space for her impossible longing. The object of her fantasy is neither Laertes nor the girls, but by the same token the fantasy is marked, by her costume and gaze, as potentially polymorphous. Her look designates her both as desiring and desirable, whether viewed with a male or a female subjectivity. As normatively male subject, the spectator is indulged in a voyeuristic fantasy: a woman, unaware of his presence, exposes herself as sexual being to his controlling gaze. Nielsen's masquerade of masculinity—her unisex black tunic over black hose—works not to disguise her sexuality but to invite the intrusive look; it tantalizes with what it pretends to hide. Male anxiety about masculine women is defused, and indeed converted to erotic energy, because the costume is a source of vulnerability—the audience is invited to see through the costume, sometimes by a literal slipping at the cleavage—rather than of strength. As normatively female subject, the spectator has the pleasure of identifying with a frankly desiring woman, one whose trasgressive mobility is figured both in sexual and economic terms (she moves among the men as a first among equals); simultaneously, anxiety over the usurpation of male prerogatives is defused as Hamlet's male pose becomes a source of pathos, the sign of her/ his inability to join either Laertes or the girls outside—becomes, indeed, its own punishment.

Throughout, the film keeps a balance between empowering and disabling its masculinized heroine. The female Hamlet in Weimar, unlike the female Hamlet in late nineteenth-century America, is a lively, inventive, controlling presence. The script revises Vining (and Shakespeare) by removing the Ghost: this Hamlet will not be upscreened by any protoplasmic patriarch. After his offscreen death, old Hamlet is present only metonymically in the form of his own tomb, at which Hamlet grieves with long, almost erotic intensity, her arms virtually embracing the stone sarcophagus. Most visibly, the qualities of liveliness, inventiveness, and control can be read in Nielsen's lithe body and expressive face. Unlike a later film Hamlet—Olivier's, to which I will shortly turn—Nielsen seldom hides her gaze either from the other characters or from the viewing audience: the eyes are alert, searching; they invite us to join her in actively exploring those ignorant others—the rest of the cast of characters—whose less purposive looks make them all, in effect, characters within a narrative of her controlling. Mary Ann Doane says in the course of her attempt to'theorize the female spectator', that'There is always a certain excessiveness, a difficulty associated with women who appropriate the gaze, who insist upon looking'.31 Nielsen's female Hamlet, perusing Horatio with as much intensity as she does Ophelia and acting the detective role more fully than Shakespeare's Hamlet, is (in Doane's phrase)'the site of an excessive and dangerous desire'.32

The one character who knows Hamlet's secret, her mother Gertrude, is seldom allowed very close visual contact with Hamlet. The one character she would like to have know her secret, Horatio, is too dim and, later, too infatuated with Ophelia to know that there's a secret to be found out. Feigning madness, Hamlet is examined, at Polonius'direction, by a comically inept doctor. The doctor feels Hamlet's head, then puts his ear to her chest, but recognizes nothing: the scene, absurd as it is, increases the spectator's sense of privileged participation in the erotically charged secret of Hamlet's sex. Borrowing and revising a trick from Shakespearian comedy, the actress playing a young man woos another woman, Ophelia (both because Hamlet wants to hoist Polonius with his own petard and because she wants to alienate Ophelia's affections from Horatio). The scene, with Hamlet nibbling Ophelia's fingers, is played for laughs at Ophelia's expense, but the laughs do not obscure the transgressive eroticism. Making love to Ophelia, gazing at Horatio, soliciting the gaze both of men and women in her offscreen audience, Nielsen's Hamlet makes figurative androgyny into actual bisexuality, and realizes a possibility only deeply latent either in Shakespeare's play or Vining's'theory'.

Nielsen's Hamlet, then, is a fuller appropriation, even subversion, than Vining's. Up to a point, she is a figure of woman transcending woman's social role. Simultaneously, however, she is also a cautionary figure of the lonely fate presumably awaiting the masculinized woman; her bisexuality is a source of pathos and circumscription. The woman playing a man making love to a woman is allowed that scope only on the terms that she is really pining for a man. Unfulfilment with either man or woman is the cost of her bisexuality. For all its bold—its characteristically Weimar—polymorphous indulgence, the Nielsen Hamlet still works to gratify male heterosexual fantasy. Its infamous final scene shows Horatio cradling his dead friend Hamlet in his arms. Horatio strokes Hamlet, beginning at the head; his hand reaches Hamlet's chest; and in the greatest scene of anagnorisis Shakespeare never wrote, the mystery of Hamlet is solved by a man's discovery of a woman's anatomical secret.33 But in Freud's Germany as in Shakespeare's England, the discovery of sexual difference may also be man's threat, the sign of a possible loss or reversion he dreads. Horatio peruses Hamlet as in the more familiar version Hamlet did Ophelia, with'a sigh so piteous and profound / That it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being'(2.1.95-7).


Nielsen's silent, female, German-Danish Hamlet, for all its many virtues, stands out as an oddity even in the strange history of Hamlet productions. As a coda to it and a brief conclusion, I want to turn to a more central document, the film of Hamlet made in 1948 with Laurence Olivier as director and star. I can't claim that Olivier was directly influenced by Nielsen's film, but he probably knew of it. He knew about Ernest Jones's Oedipal theory; and Jones knew about Vining; and the makers of the Weimar Hamlet seem to have known about Vining via Jones. But even without that web of relations, Olivier's film is implicated, as Nielsen's is, in the question posed by Jacqueline Rose, How far has the woman been at the centre of Hamlet?

Let me begin with a scene—it is 2.1 in the printed text—which intricately involves questions of spectatorship and gender. On the Shakespearian page it begins with Polonius instructing Reynaldo to dangle a'bait of falsehood'to catch the'carp of truth'(61) and continues with Ophelia's account of Hamlet's appearance in her closet,'with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosèd out of hell / To speak of horrors'(83-5). This is our first representation of Hamlet since he declared his intention'To put an antic disposition on'(1.5.173). The whole scene comes in such a questionable shape that it may stand as the play's quintessentially indeterminate scene. Is Ophelia honest, or is she an unreliable narrator? The Hamlet she describes is a clinical picture of melancholic distraction: is it real or feigned? If real, why? Is it'the very ecstasy of love'? Or grief for a father murdered and a mother whored? If feigned, for whose benefit? Ophelia's? Or is she the bait to take a bigger fish?

But everyone knows the options. I want to ask a different kind of question: Who in this scene is the observer, who observed? We hear that Hamlet took Ophelia by the wrist, went to arm's length, and fell to such perusal of her face as if he would draw it; then he gazed at her until he found his way out of doors without the help of eyes, and to the last bent their light on Ophelia. On stage we see Ophelia being looked at by Polonius with the intensity of a jealous father and a suspicious state counsellor. In her narration Ophelia is the object of Hamlet's gaze, and in the present scene the object of Polonius': she is ringed round by the looks, not only piteous in purport, of men. As such, she may, at this complex moment of on-and off-stage viewing,'be said to connote to-belooked-at-ness', to borrow Laura Mulvey's controversial, influential, and now much-modified description of the conventional role of women in classic cinema.34 Yet many readers of the play—and I suspect many viewers in their retrospective experience of the play—will have at least as vivid an image of Hamlet as they do of Ophelia. On stage, too, Polonius'intense regard of Ophelia is motivated by his desire to see Hamlet through her narration. In this scene of specular interrogation, Hamlet, gazing on the enigma of Woman (for in Ophelia he sees superimposed the image of Gertrude too, both of them named Frailty) becomes himself the enigma for Polonius'speculation. With his clothes and wits in disarray, an ambiguous document for others to read, Hamlet plays a part similar to the one Ophelia will play in her own madness. Turning his gaze silently, mysteriously, dangerously on Ophelia, Hamlet directs everyone else's gaze at himself, becoming the elusive object of their desire for controlling knowledge. Hamlet's delay—his failure to drop the other shoe after the one he drops in 2.1—manifests itself as a passive-aggressive tease, a threatening allure. God has given him one face and he makes himself another; and now the court must regard him with the kind of anxious regard he gives to Ophelia and Gertrude.

Olivier's filmed version literally puts Hamlet in visual place of Ophelia by flattening, in effect, the distance between on-stage narration and off-stage action. The sequence opens on a close-up of Jean Simmons'Ophelia, with her voice-over recounting the scene with Hamlet that we now see mimed in visual present tense; there is no Polonius to look at Ophelia as she narrates the incident. An iris shot focuses our attention on Ophelia's eyes, and then (as the scene opens out again) Hamlet enters her room with his look so piteous in purport. For a few moments the camera looks equally at Hamlet and Ophelia in close mid-shot; but when Hamlet falls to perusal of Ophelia's face, Simmons turns her back to the offscreen spectator and her look directs ours to Hamlet.

Olivier's directorial choice to make Hamlet rather than Ophelia the object of the audience's gaze involves more than the cinematographic prejudice against a talking head. It's true that throughout the production Olivier tried to avoid static shots of long speeches. Deep focus photography and voice-overs give Hamlet mobility during soliloquies. Shooting continuously, without cuts, while the voice comes either from the speaker directly or disembodied from an unlocalized space of psychic authority, this camera can record a moving speaker even where Shakespeare's text requires only a speaking speaker. According to Olivier's cameraman Desmond Dickinson, deep focus achieved'extremely natural and realistic photography, with perfect focusing and no distortion'.35 But in cinema,'natural'and'realistic'are conventional values; they are, conventionally, achieved precisely with the montage that Olivier's cinematography avoids. In fact, for most viewers, Olivier's mise en scène, with its nearly expressionistic settings recorded in deep focus by a travelling camera, will appear the very opposite of'natural'or'realistic'.36 The effect of Olivier's restless camera, with its swooping gaze going up and down stairs and in and out of archways and rooms, is to keep the viewer insistently aware of the camera's presence. The classic Hollywood cinema tends to efface the camera through cutting and editing, and gives the spectator the pleasure of seeming to control the scene; Olivier's camera, by contrast, is a virtual actor, the uneffaced controller of our gaze. It is moreover a gendered camera, a distinctively male actor, watching (in 2.1 and elsewhere) a Hamlet/Olivier cinematically coded (again, in 2.1 and elsewhere) for a conventionally female'to-be-looked-at-ness'.

The camera's gender is the effect of its intrusiveness, its habit of penetrating into spaces, often arched or colonnaded, that it reciprocally inscribes as female. The famous visual bridge from battlement to court (1.1 to 1.2) makes the point early on, as the camera travels down the tunnel-like stairs, pauses to observe a book on a chair, tracks to one of the archways that will metonymically figure Ophelia, and finally (with the climax of William Walton's music) enters the Queen's bedroom to reveal the labial curtains of its enormous bed. No interior space can exclude this camera, not even the interior space of the body. Here it relies on metonymy to investigate the genitalia of Ophelia and Gertrude. In the case of Hamlet himself, the camera's curiosity is upwardly displaced: during the'To be or not to be'soliloquy, it bores through the back of Hamlet's head, exposing (for one brief bizarre moment) the organic brain beneath the skull. The brain is the conventionally masculine site for Hamlet's interiority; in other ways, however, and in other scenes, the camera turns its gaze on Hamlet with feminizing penetration.

Reviewing the film in 1948, The New York Times characterized Olivier's Hamlet as'a solid and virile young man';37 my purpose is not to'out'this manly man, but to suggest that Olivier's performance continues the Romantic tendency toward a feminized Hamlet. Indeed there are ways in which Olivier's Hamlet, more than Nielsen's, culminates the oak tree-in-acostly-vase tradition, of which Vining's The Mystery of Hamlet is a slightly irregular offshoot. Olivier has claimed that he originally wanted only to direct, not star in, his production because he felt himself better suited to'stronger character roles'than to'the lyrical, poetical role of Hamlet'.38 To fit himself to that role, and (he says)'to avoid the possibility of Hamlet later being identified with me'(15), he dyed his hair the bright blond colour that contrasts so sharply with Nielsen's dark Hamlet, and which in Hollywood films of the 1940s is the studio starlet's colour-of-choice. And by comparison with Nielsen's Hamlet, with her unabashed gaze, Olivier's Hamlet is languidly passive, an object to be seen by the aggressive camera. He is shown to us first during the court scene of 1.2: Claudius has dispatched the business of marriage and funeral, and dealt with Laertes'request to go to Paris, when the camera finally reveals Hamlet slumped despondently in his chair. His first two enigmatic lines (A little more than kin and less than kind','Not so, my lord, I am too much I'th'sun'(65, 67) are cut, so that Claudius and Gertrude address a silent, apparently passive figure with downcast eyes. This is the Hamlet who carries'the stamp of one defect', that'vicious mole of nature'to which Olivier's voice-over in the opening sequence gives a name:'a man who could not make up his mind'. Between that diagnosis of Hamlet's dram of indecisiveness and the Freud-Jones diagnosis of unresolved Oedipal conflict there is considerable slippage: Olivier has said that he was impressed with Jones's analysis of Hamlet's problem, but in the movie it has been generalized to'such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman'(5.2.161-2). Fear of death, Vining said, is an'essentially feminine trait'; and the inability to make up one's mind (he might as well have said) is another.

But of course we no longer believe in, or at least we're suspicious of,'essential'anythings. In the 1989-90 season, The Mabou Mines company directed by Lee Breuer presented its play Lear, sans King, with all the roles gender-reversed.39 Race, ethnicity, and class were similarly submitted to experimental deconstruction: the scene was the American deep South, Lear's castle a sort of God's Little Acre shack, and the heath a ruined miniature golf course. In the cultural context of such a production it seems worthwhile to call attention to earlier experiments in cross-gendering Shakespeare, from Vining through Nielsen to Olivier. One might speculate (elsewhere) why King Lear is currently of more interest than Hamlet to critics and performers concerned with questioning traditional gender constructions. Man, Hamlet says, delights not him; and (because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern smirk at the innuendo they hear) he adds,'nor woman neither'(2.2.310): the three versions of Hamlet I've looked at suggest that his displeasure with the conventional distribution of gender roles has been widely felt, if sometimes strangely manifested, but that even in the mimic world of theatre the attempt to dismantle rigid distinctions between masculine and feminine records mainly the fear that gives life to the hope. Horatio's sweet prince, gazed at by man and woman as, delighting in neither, he gazes at both, remains a sign of that melancholy fact.40


1Hamlet quotations are from William Shakespeare:The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery (Oxford, 1986).

2 Laqueur,'Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology', Representations, 14 (1986), 1-41; Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 66-93 ('Fiction and Friction').

3The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980), p. 31.

4'Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?'South Atlantic Quarterly, 88 (1989), 7-29; p. 14.

5'Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Measure for Measure', in John Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares (London, 1985), pp. 95-118; p. 95.

6 David Leverenz,'The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View'(in Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays [Baltimore, 1980], pp. 110-28) claims that Hamlet's tragedy is that his feminine qualities are repressed by a patriarchal world that equates woman with weakness. Patricia Parker discusses'the feminization of the verbal body'and the link between Hamlet's'delay and womanish wordiness', in Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London, 1989), pp. 22-3.

7Wilhelm Meister (1795), quoted in the translation ('slightly varied') by Carlyle, in the Variorum Hamlet, vol. 2, p. 273.

8Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, in The CompleteWorks of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London, 1930), vol. 4, p. 237. Hazlitt objects to the acting of the part both by Kemble and Kean: the one'plays it like a man in armour, with a determined inveteracy of purpose, in one undeviating straight line', the other is full of'sharp angles and abrupt starts . . . too strong and pointed'; neither catches Hamlet as he is,'full of weakness and melancholy', a character of'natural grace and refined susceptibility'.

Susan J. Wolfson's essay'Feminizing Keats'(in Critical Essays on John Keats, ed. Hermione de Almeida [Boston, 1990], pp. 317-56) provides a fascinating account of the ambiguous ways in which the language of femininity was attached to another Romantic figure. Her discussion of Keats amplifies by implication some of the brief suggestions I am making here about Hamlet's image in Romantic iconography.

9Wit, Humor, and Shakespeare (Boston, 1876), p. 177, quoted in the Variorum Hamlet, vol. 2, p. 193.

10 James Joyce, Ulysses (New York, 1934, 1961), p. 198.

11 Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (1949), (New York, 1954), p. 27, n 17.

12 On Dr Maudsley, see Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York, 1985), and (on a matter related to the subject of my essay) her treatment of Ophelia in the Victorian iconography of female insanity,'Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism', in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (New York and London, 1985), pp. 77-94.

13 Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politicsin Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (London, 1977), p. 3.

14 Weeks, pp. 53-4.

15The Trials of OscarWilde, ed. H. Montgomery Hyde (London, 1948) p. 130. I expand on these matters in'Oscar Wilde, W. H., and the Unspoken Name of Love', ELH 58 (1991), 979-1000.

16 In her autobiography Den Tiende Muse (Copenhagen, 1946), vol. 2, p. 145, Nielsen says that she formed her own company,'Art Film', to produce Hamlet in 1920. The American version (a print is in the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) calls itself an'Asta Films'production, and is dated 1921. Direction and Design, Svend Gade; Scenario, Erwin Gephard; Photography, Kurt Courant and Axel Graatkjer; with Eduard von Winterstein as Claudius, Helena Makowska as Gertrude. An opening card says that the film is based on ancient legend and on'the contention of the eminent American Shakespearean scholar, Edward P. Vining (Hon. M.A. Yale)'.

17N.Y. Times, 9 November 1921. The critic in Variety (11 November 1921) was less impressed.'Miss Nielsen's abilities are exceptional, but they are not the type to enrapture the American public. Almost emaciated, she has command and distinction of movement. Her facial pantomime is of considerable range, but dead whites and blacks have to be used to overcome her physical deficiencies.'(Her what?) There is a sympathetic discussion of the film in Robert Hamilton Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film (London, 1968), pp. 272-8. Robert A. Duffy discusses Gade's cinematography but not Nielsen's performance in'Gade, Olivier, Richardson: Visual Strategy in Hamlet Adaptations', Literature/Film Quarterly 4 (1976), pp. 141-52. See also Bernice Kliman,'Hamlet': Film, Television, and Audio Performance (Rutherford, N.J., 1988).

18 Diane Venora is unique in having gone, as she matured, from playing Hamlet to playing Ophelia (again at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival, in the 1990 production starring and directed by Kevin Kline). According to Frank Rich in The New York Times (2 December 1982), Venora's Hamlet resembled Bernhardt's in that'we are simply asked to forget that a woman (and a beautiful one) happens to be playing a prince'.

19 New York, 1975.

20 Quoted by Elaine Aston, Sarah Bernhardt: A FrenchActress on the English Stage (Oxford, 1989), p. 115; I am indebted to her account.

21 Theodore Stanton,'Sara Bernhardt as Hamlet', TheCritic 35 (1899), p. 638. Thanks to Professor Deborah Barker for bringing this review to my attention.

22'Hamlet, Princess of Denmark', 17 June 1899, rpt. in Around Theatres (New York, 1954), pp. 36, 37.

23 Apollinaire is quoted without further attribution (and in slightly different translations) both by Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychoanalytic History of the German Film (Princeton, 1947), p. 26, and by Herbert G. Luft,'Asta Nielsen: The Once Celebrated "Muse of the Screen" is Living in Retirement in Copenhagen', Films in Review 7 (1956), 19-26; p. 21.

24 Luft, p. 21.

25 Nielsen here played the role more famously associated with Louise Brooks, who played it in G. W. Pabst's Lulu (1928).

26Das Problemdes Hamlet und der Oedipus-Komplex (Leipzig, 1911; rpt. New York, 1970), in which Vining's theory is described on p. 5 and in a footnote on p. 39.

27 (Princeton, 1989), p. 159. Petro cites the sociological study of cinema attendance done in 1914 by Emilie Altenloh. Altenloh is also cited by Miriam Hansen,'Early Silent Cinema: Whose Public Sphere?'New German Critique 29 (1983), pp. 147-84, who draws attention to the gender politics of Nielsen's androgynous roles. Luft also claims that Nielsen provided'an emotional release for women'(p. 21).

28 Petro, pp. 106, 112, 113.

29'The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimar Germany', in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, Sharon Thompson, eds., Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (New York, 1983), pp. 153-71; pp. 156.

30 The phrase is from Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt, trans. Roger Greaves (Berkeley, 1969, first French pub. 1952), p. 261, and is accidentally repeated verbatim by Petro, p. 167.

31'Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator', Screen, 23 (1982), 74-87; p. 83.

32 Doane, 84. On Hamlet as detective: instead of a Ghost to give away the game, this female Hamlet must herself explore the cistern in the castle dungeon where Claudius keeps the writhing snakes with which, in this version, he killed old Hamlet.

33 Professor Susan Wolfson reminds me that at this moment in Nielsen's Hamlet a German audience would recall Siegfried's discovery of Brunhilde's sex when he takes off her armour.

34Visual and Other Pleasures (London, 1989). The particular essay,'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', first appeared in Screen in 1975. There is a helpful discussion in Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake, Film Theory: An Introduction (Manchester, 1988). A revisionary account is by Paul Willemen,'Voyeurism, the Look, and Dwoskin', in Philip Rosen, ed., Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (New York, 1986), pp. 210-18.

35 In Brenda Cross, ed., The Film Hamlet: A Record of its Performance (London, 1948), p. 29.

36 Dale Silviria, Laurence Olivier and the Art of Film-making (Rutherford, New Jersey, 1985), pp. 24-5, says that Olivier's photography'violates the psychological realism of classic Hollywood film editing . . . the self-conscious quality of the traveling camera emphasizes . . . the viewer's act of observation. It emphasizes the viewer's role as witness.'

37 Quoted in Robert L. Daniels, Laurence Olivier:Theatre and Cinema (San Diego, 1980), p. 105.

38 In his contribution to Cross, p. 15.

39 Mabou Mines's Lear, adapted and directed by Lee Breuer, at The Triplex Theater (New York), 9 January-11 February 1990, with Ruth Maleczech as Lear.

40 I would like to thank Mary Ann Jensen, curator of the Theatre Collection, Princeton University Library, for her help in locating material and even translating from the Danish.

Hamlet And His Dilemma

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Arthur Kirsch (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Chapter II: Hamlet" in The Passions of Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 21-43.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1981, Kirsch argues that the source of Hamlet's anxiety is not repressed fantasy; rather, it is situated within the reality of the play's events. Kirsch also reviews Freud's distinction between melancholy and mourning, and examines Hamlet's experience with grief]

Hamlet is a revenge play, and judging by the number of performances, parodies, and editions of The Spanish Tragedy alone, the genre enjoyed an extraordinary popularity on the Elizabethan stage. Part of the reason for that popularity is the theatrical power of the revenge motif itself The quest for vengeance satisfies an audience's most primitive wishes for intrigue and violence. "The Tragic Auditory," as Charles Lamb once remarked, "wants blood,"1 and the revenge motif satisfies it in abundance. Equally important, it gives significant shape to the plot and sustained energy to the action, whatever moral calculus one may use in judging the ethos of revenge itself.2 But if vengeance composes the plot of the revenge play, grief composes its essential emotional content, its substance. In Marlowe's Jew of Malta, when Ferneze finds the body of his son killed in a duel, he cries out in his loss that he wishes his son had been murdered so that he could avenge his death.3 It is a casual line, but it suggests a deep connection between anger and sorrow in the revenge-play genre itself that both Kyd and Shakespeare draw upon profoundly. At the end of The Spanish Tragedy the ghost of Andrea says, "Ay, now my hopes have end in their effects, / When blood and sorrow finish my desires" (4.5.1-2),4 and it was unquestionably Kyd's brilliance in representing the elemental power of sorrow, as well as of blood, that enabled the revenge genre to establish so large a claim on the Elizabethan theatrical imagination. The speeches in which Hieronimo gives voice to his grief, including the famous "Oh eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears; / Oh life, no life, but lively form of death" (3.2.1-2) were parodied for decades after their first performance, so great was their impact, and the moving figure of an old man maddened with grief over the loss of his son was a major part of Shakespeare's theatrical inheritance.

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

how pale he glares. His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones, Would make them capable. (To the Ghost) Do not look upon me, Lest with this piteous action you convert My stern effects. Then what I have to do Will want true colour—tears perchance for blood.


These lines suggest synapses between grief and vengeance that can help make the whole relation between the plot and emotional content of Hamlet more intelligible, and that particularly can help answer the charge made by many distinguished critics that Hamlet's emotions seem in excess of any objective cause as well as of the plot. T.S. Eliot's remark, for example, that Hamlet's mother is not an adequate equivalent for his disgust with her, that no possible action can satisfy this disgust, and that therefore "nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him" are at least susceptible to an answer if we take seriously Hamlet's own focus upon the experience of grief and upon its profound interaction with his task of revenge.5

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

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


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

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


Though Hamlet's use of the conventional Elizabethan forms of mourning expresses his hostility to an unfeeling court, he is at the same time speaking deeply of an experience that everyone who has lost someone close to him must recognize. He is speaking of the early stages of grief, of its shock, of its inner and still hidden sense of loss, and trying to describe what is not fully describable—the literally inexpressible wound whose immediate consequence is the dislocation, if not transvaluation, of our customary perceptions and feelings and attachments to life. The loss of someone we love creates, in Jacques Lacan's phrase, "a hole in the real,"6 and it is no accident that this speech sets in motion Hamlet's preoccupation with seeming and being, including the train of images of acting that is crystallized in the play within the play. The peculiar centripetal pull of anger and sorrow that the speech depicts remains as the central undercurrent of that preoccupation, most notably in Hamlet's later soliloquy about the player's imitation of Hecuba's grief:

Is it not monstrous that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wanned, Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect, A broken voice, and his whole function suiting With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing. For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? What would he do Had he the motive and the cue for passion That I have?


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

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

'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father; But you must know your father lost a father; That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound In filial obligation for some term To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever In obstinate condolement is a course Of impious stubbornness,'tis unmanly grief, It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschooled; For what we know must be, and is as common As any the most vulgar thing to sense, Why should we in our peevish opposition Take it to heart? Fie,'tis a fault to heaven, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd, whose common theme Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried From the first corpse till he that died today, "This must be so."


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

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

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


This is an exceptionally suggestive speech and the first of many that seem to invite oedipal interpretations of the play. About these I do not propose to speak directly, except to remark that the source of Hamlet's so-called oedipal anxiety is real and present, it is not an archaic and repressed fantasy. Hamlet does perhaps protest too much, in this soliloquy and elsewhere, about his father's superiority to his uncle (and to himself), and throughout the play he is clearly preoccupied with his mother's sexual appetite; but these ambivalences and preoccupations, whatever their unconscious roots, are elicited by a situation, palpable and external to him, in which they are acted out. The oedipal configurations of Hamlet's predicament, in other words, inhabit the whole world of the play, they are not simply a function of his characterization, even though they resonate with it profoundly.7 There is every reason, in reality, for a son to be deeply troubled and discomposed by the appetite of a mother who betrays his father's memory by her incestuous marriage,8 within a month, to his brother, and murderer, and there is surely more than reason for a son to be obsessed for a time with a father who literally returns from the grave to haunt him. But in any case, I think that at least early in the play, if not also later, such oedipal echoes cannot be disentangled from Hamlet's grief, and Shakespeare's purpose in arousing them is not to call Hamlet's character to judgment, but to expand our understanding of the nature and intensity of his suffering. For all these resonant events come upon Hamlet while he has still not even begun to assimilate the loss of a living father, while he is still mourning, seemingly alone in Denmark, for the death of a king, and their major psychic impact and importance, I think, is that they protract and vastly dilate the process of his grief.

Freud called this process the work of mourning and described it in his essay "Mourning and Melancholia" in a way that seems exceptionally germane to this play. Almost all of Freud's ideas can also be found in some form in the vast Renaissance literature on melancholy,9 but Freud's discussion perhaps best suggests the coherence they had in Shakespeare's imagination.10 The major preoccupation of the essay is, in fact, the pathology of melancholy, or what we would now more commonly call depression, but in the course of his discussion Freud finds unusually suggestive analogies and distinctions between mourning and melancholy. He points out, to begin with, that except in one respect the characteristics of normal grief and of pathological depression are the same, and that the two states can easily be confused—as they are, endemically, in interpretations of Hamlet's character. The characteristics of depression, Freud observes, are deep and painful dejection, a loss of interest in the outside world, an inability to act, and self-disgust as well as self-reproach. Except for the loss of faith in oneself, Freud continues, "the same traits are met with in grief: "Profound mourning, the reaction to the loss of a loved person, contains the same feeling of pain, loss of interest in the outside world—in so far as it does not recall the dead one—loss of capacity to adopt any new object of love, which would mean a replacing of the one mourned, the same turning from every active effort that is not connected with thoughts of the dead." Freud remarks that "though grief involves grave departures from the normal attitude of life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a morbid condition. We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful."11

The process by which grief is overcome, the work of mourning, Freud describes as a struggle—the struggle between the instinctive human disposition to remain libidinally bound to the dead person and the necessity to acknowledge the clear reality of his loss. "The task," he writes, is "carried through bit by bit," at enormous expense of time and energy, "while all the time the existence of the lost object is continued in the mind." "Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object" must be "brought up" and relinquished. "Why this process" Freud adds, "of carrying out the behest of reality bit by bit, which is in the nature of a compromise, should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of mental economics. It is worth noting that this pain seems natural to us."12

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

Freud finds such anger in depression, and with his analysis of that state few would wish to quarrel. The salient points of his argument are that in depression there is "an unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss," and that there is a fall of self-esteem and a consistent cadence of self-reproach which is also not found in mourning. The key to an understanding of this condition, Freud continues, is the perception that the self-criticism of depression is really anger turned inwards, "that the self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted onto the patient's own ego." The "complaints" of depressed people, he remarks, "are really'plaints'in the legal sense of the word . . . everything derogatory that they say of themselves relates at bottom to someone else." All the actions of a depressed person, Freud concludes, "proceed from an attitude of revolt, a mental constellation which by a certain process has become transformed into melancholic contrition."13 Freud's explanation of the dynamics of this process is involved and technical, but there are two major points that emerge clearly and are highly relevant to Hamlet. The first is that there is, in a depressed person, "an identification of the ego with the abandoned object." "The shadow of the object," he says, "falls upon the ego," so that the ego can "henceforth be criticized by a special mental faculty like an object, like the forsaken object. In this way the loss of the object becomes transformed into a loss in the ego."14 The second point that Freud stresses is that because there is an ambivalent relation to the lost object to begin with, the regressive movement toward identification is also accompanied by a regressive movement toward sadism, a movement whose logical culmination is suicide, the killing in the self of the lost object with whom the depressed person has so thoroughly identified. Freud adds that in only one other situation in human life is the ego so overwhelmed by the object, and that is in the state of intense love.

With these analogies and distinctions in mind, let us now return to the opening scene at court. As has already been suggested, in his first speech to his mother, "Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not'seems,'" Hamlet speaks from the very heart of grief of the supervening reality of his loss and of its inward wound, and the accent of normal, if intense, grief remains dominant in his subsequent soliloquy as well. It is true that in that soliloquy his mind turns to thoughts of "self-slaughter," but those thoughts notwithstanding, the emphasis of the speech is not one of self-reproach. It is not himself, but the uses of the world that Hamlet finds "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," and his mother's frailty suggests a rankness and grossness in nature itself. The "plaints" against his mother that occupy the majority of his speech are conscious and both his anger and ambivalence toward her fully justified. Even on the face of it, her hasty remarriage makes a mockery of his father's memory that intensifies the real pain and loneliness of his loss; and if he also feels his own ego threatened, and if there is a deeper cadence of grief in his words, it is because he is already beginning to sense that the shadow of a crime with "the primal eldest curse upon't" (3.3.37) has fallen upon him, a crime that is not delusional and not his, and that eventually inflicts a punishment upon him that tries his spirit and destroys his life. The last lines of Hamlet's soliloquy are: "It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue." These lines show Hamlet's prescience, not his disease, and the instant he completes them Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo enter to tell him of the apparition of his dead father, the ghost that is haunting the kingdom and has been a part of our own consciousness from the very outset of the play.

Hamlet's subsequent meeting with the ghost of his father is both the structural and psychic nexus of the play. The scene is so familiar to us that the extraordinary nature of its impact on Hamlet can be overlooked, even in the theater. It begins with Hamlet expressing pity for the ghost and the ghost insisting that he attend to a more "serious" purpose:

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


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

O, horrible, O horrible, most horrible! If thou has nature in thee, bear it not. Let not the royal bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damnèd incest. But howsoever thou pursuest this act, Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once. The glow-worm shows the matin to be near, And gins to pale his uneffectual fire. Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me. Exit

(1.5.39-40, 80-91)

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

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


This is a crucial and dreadful vow for many reasons, but the most important, as Freud places us in a position to understand, is that the ghost's injunction to remember him, an injunction that Shakespeare's commitment to the whole force of the revenge genre never really permits either us or Hamlet to question, brutally intensifies Hamlet's mourning and makes him incorporate in its work what we would normally regard as the pathology of depression. For as we have seen, the essence of the work of mourning is the internal process by which the ego heals its wound, differentiates itself from the object, and slowly, bit by bit, cuts its libidinal ties with the one who has died. Yet this is precisely what the ghost forbids, and forbids, moreover, with a lack of sympathy for Hamlet's grief that is even more pronounced than the Queen's. He instead tells Hamlet that if ever he loved his father, he should remember him; he tells Hamlet of Gertrude's incestuous remarriage in a way that makes her desire, if not the libido itself, seem inseparable from murder and death; and finally he tells Hamlet to kill. Drawing upon and crystallizing the deepest energies of the revenge-play genre, the ghost thus enjoins Hamlet to identify with him in his sorrow and to give murderous purpose to his anger. He consciously compels in Hamlet, in other words, the regressive movement toward identification and sadism that together usually constitute the unconscious dynamics of depression. It is only after this scene that Hamlet feels punished with what he later calls a "sore distraction" (5.2.176) and he begins to reproach himself for his own nature and to meditate on suicide. The ghost, moreover, not only compels this process in Hamlet, like much of the world of the play, he incarnates it. The effect of his appearance and behest to Hamlet is to literalize Hamlet's subsequent movement toward the realm of death which he inhabits, and away from all of the bonds that nourish life and make it desirable, away from "all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past." As C.S. Lewis insisted long ago, the ghost leads Hamlet into a spiritual and psychic region that seems poised between the living and the dead.15 It is significant that Hamlet is subsequently described in images that suggest the ghost's countenance16 and significant too, as we shall see later, that Hamlet's own appearance and state of mind change, at the beginning of act 5, at the moment when it is possible to say that he has finally come to terms with the ghost and with his father's death and has completed the work of mourning.

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

The loss of his mother is the most intense and the hardest to discuss. One should perhaps leave her to heaven as the ghost says, but even he cannot follow that advice. Hamlet is genuinely betrayed by her, most directly by her lack of sympathy for him. She is clearly sexually drawn and loyal to her new husband, and she is said to live almost by Hamlet's looks, but she is nonetheless essentially inert, oblivious to the whole realm of experience through which her son travels. She seems not to care, and seems particularly not to care about his grief. Early in the play, when Claudius and others are in hectic search of the reason for Hamlet's melancholy, she says with bovine imperturbability, "I doubt it is no other but the main—/ His father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage" (2.2.56-57). That over-hasty and incestuous marriage, which, as Roland M. Frye has amply documented, would have been even more scandalous to Elizabethan sensibilities than it is to ours, creates a reservoir of literally grievous anger in Hamlet.17 It suggests to him the impermanence upon which the Player King later insists (3.2.185-92), and it also, less obviously, compels Hamlet to think of the violation of the union that gave him his own life and being. It is very difficult, under any circumstances, to think precisely upon our parents and their relationship without causing deep tremors in our selves, and for Hamlet the circumstances are extraordinary. In addition marriage has a sacramental meaning to him that has been largely lost in modern society. Like the ghost, Hamlet always speaks reverently of the sanctity of marriage vows, and the one occasion on which he mocks marriage is in fact an attack upon Claudius's presumption to have replaced his father. As he is leaving for England, Hamlet addresses Claudius and says, "Farewell, dear mother." Claudius says, "Thy loving father, Hamlet," and Hamlet answers, "My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother" (4.3.51-54). Behind the scriptural image in this ferocious attack upon Claudius is both Hamlet's memory of his father's true marriage with his mother, a memory that has an almost prelapsarian resonance, and a visualization of the concupiscence through which his mother has defiled that sacrament and made Claudius's guilt a part of her own being. This same adulterated image of matrimony lies behind his intense reproaches both against himself and Ophelia in the speech in which he urges Ophelia to go to a nunnery: "Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?" (3.1.123-31).

Some of Hamlet's anger against Ophelia spills over, as it does in this speech, from his rage against his mother, but Ophelia herself gives him cause. There is no reason to doubt her own word, at the beginning of the play, that Hamlet has importuned her "with love / In honorable fashion . . . And hath given countenance to his speech . . . With all the holy vows of heaven" (1.3.110-11, 113-14); and there is certainly no reason to question his own passionate declaration at the end of the play, over her grave, that he loved her deeply:

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum.


Both Hamlet's grief and his task constrain him from realizing this love, but Ophelia's own behavior clearly intensifies his frustration and anguish. By keeping the worldly and disbelieving advice of her brother and father as "watchman" to her "heart" (1.3.46), she denies the heart's affection not only in Hamlet but in herself; and both denials add immeasurably to Hamlet's sense of loneliness and loss—and anger. Her rejection of him echoes his mother's inconstancy and denies him the possibility even of imagining the experience of loving and being loved by a woman at a time when he obviously needs such love most profoundly; and her rejection of her own heart reminds him of the evil court whose shadow, he accurately senses, has fallen upon her and directly threatens him. Most of Hamlet's speeches to Ophelia condense all of these feelings. They are spoken from a sense of suppressed as well as rejected love, for the ligaments between him and Ophelia are very deep in the play. It is she who first reports on his melancholy transformation,

with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosèd out of hell To speak of horrors.


It is she who remains most acutely conscious of the nobility of mind and form that has, she says, been "blasted with ecstasy" (3.1.163); and it is she, after Hamlet has gone to England, who most painfully takes up his role and absorbs his grief to the point of real madness and suicide. It is no accident that her funeral should decisively crystallize his own preparedness for death.

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

for, to speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended. But in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?Rosencrantz To visit you, my lord, no other occasion.Hamlet Beggar that I am, I am even poor in  thanks, but I thank you; and sure, dear  friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny.  Were you not sent for? Is it your own  inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal  justly with me. Come, come. Nay, speak.Guildenstern What would we say, my lord?Hamlet Why, anything—but to th'purpose.  You were sent for, and there is a kind of  confession in your looks which your sties  have not craft enough to colour. I know the  good King and Queen have sent for you.Rosencrantz To what end, my lord?Hamlet That you must teach me. But let  me conjure you by the rights of  our fellowship, by the consonancy of our  youth, by the obligation of our ever-peserved  love, and by what more dear a  better proposer could charge you withal, be  even and direct with me whether you were  sent for or no.


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

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


"In grief," Freud remarks in "Mourning and Melancholia," "the world becomes poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself."18 During most of the action of Hamlet we cannot make this distinction. For the first four acts of the play, the world in which Hamlet must exist and act is characterized in all its parts not merely as diseased, but specifically for Hamlet as one that is being emptied of all the human relationships that nourish the ego and give it purpose and vitality. It is a world that is essentially defined—generically, psychically, spiritually—by a ghost whose very countenance, "more / In sorrow than in anger" (1.2.228-29), binds Hamlet to a course of grief that is deeper and wider than any in our literature. It is a world of mourning.

At the beginning of act 5, when Hamlet returns from England, that world seems to change, and Hamlet with it. Neither the countenance of the ghost nor his tormented and tormenting spirit seems any longer to be present in the play, and Hamlet begins to alter in state of mind as he already has in his dress. He stands in the graveyard that visually epitomizes the play's preoccupation with death, a scene that the clowns insistently associate with Adam's sin and Hamlet himself with Cain's, and he contemplates the skull of the man who carried him on his back when he was a small child. The scene resonates with the memento mori tradition that has intensified as well as enlarged his suffering from the first:

Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio—a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred my imagination is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? 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.


This speech suggests the underlying context for Hamlet's earlier attacks not only upon the vanity of his mother and Ophelia but also upon the vanity of all human existence.19 But his mood now has begun to shift. There is a characteristic inflection of pain and protest in his invocation of an intellectual tradition that was originally designed to promote resignation, and there is a suggestion too, by Horatio, that he is still considering death "too curiously" (5.1.201), but there is no longer the sense that he and his world are conflated in the convulsive activity of grief. That activity seems to be drawing to a close, and his own sense of differentiation is decisively crystallized when, at the end of the scene, in a moment reminiscent of the one in which he reacts to the imitation of Hecuba's grief, he responds to Laertes's enactment of a grief that seems a parody of his own:

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


It is an especially painful but inescapable paradox of Hamlet's tragedy that the final ending of his grief and the liberation of his self should be coextensive with the apprehension of his own death. After agreeing to the duel with Laertes that he is confident of winning, he nevertheless tells Horatio of his premonition of death, "But thou wouldst not think how all here about my heart—but it is no matter" (5.2.158-59); and when Horatio urges him to postpone the duel, he says, in the famous speech that signifies, if it does not explain, the decisive change of his spirit: "Not a whit. We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come.

The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?" (5.2.165-70). The theological import of these lines, with their luminous reference to Matthew, has long been recognized, but the particular emphasis upon death suggests a psychological coordinate. For what makes Hamlet's acceptance of Providence finally intelligible and credible to us emotionally, what confirms the truth of it to our own experience, is our sense, as well as his, that the great anguish and struggle of his grief are over, and that he has completed the work of mourning. He speaks to Horatio quietly, almost serenely, with an unexultant calm that characterizes the end of the long, inner struggle of grief. He has looked at the face of death in his father's ghost, he has endured death and loss in all the human beings he has loved, and he now accepts those losses as an inevitable part of his own condition. "The readiness is all" suggests the crystallization of his awareness of the larger dimension of time that has enveloped his tragedy from the start, including the revenge drama of Fortinbras's grievances on the outskirts of the action and that of the appalling griefs of Polonius's family deep inside it,20 but the line also most specifically states what is perhaps the last and most difficult task of mourning, his own readiness to die.

The ending of Hamlet's mourning is finally mysterious in the play, as the end of mourning usually is in actual life, but it is made at least partially explicable by the very transfusion of energy between him and the other characters that constitutes his grief to begin with. Early in the play he seems to absorb into himself the whole body of the world's sorrow and protest, as later in the play he seems to expel it. The ghost, I think, he partly exorcises and partly incorporates. He increasingly gives expression to much of its vengeful anger—most definitively, perhaps, when he uses his father's signet to hoist Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on their own petard—but at the same time he thereby eventually frees himself to internalize the "radiance" of his father's memory rather than the ghost's shadow of it.21 His mother herself cannot really be transformed, but he makes her feel the force of his grief even if she cannot understand it, and in the closet scene at least, he succeeds in transferring some of the pain in his own heart to hers. To Claudius he transfers a good deal more. By means of the play within the play, including his own interpolated lines on mutability, Hamlet at once acts out the deep anger and sorrow of his grief and transmits the fever of their energy to the guilty King in whose blood he thereafter rages "like the hectic" (4.3.68).22 But perhaps most important, not so much in effecting Hamlet's recovery as in representing its inner dynamics and persuading us of its authenticity, are the transformations that Ophelia and Laertes undergo during the period Hamlet himself is offstage on his voyage to England. Ophelia, as we have seen, drains off Hamlet's incipient madness and suicidal imaginings into her own "weeping brook" (4.7.147) of grief, and she begins to do so precisely at the moment Hamlet leaves the stage for England. She enters "mad, [her hair down, with a lute]" (4.5.20), singing songs which signify not only the consuming pain of the loss of her father but also the self-destructive sexual frustration that has afflicted Hamlet as well as her. At almost the same moment, Laertes enters the stage, and while Hamlet himself later explicitly sees in Laertes's predicament an analogue of his own, Laertes's sorrow and anger are quickly corrupted; and his poisonous allegiance with the King simultaneously dramatizes the most destructive vengeful energies of grief and seems to draw those energies away from Hamlet and into himself. This whole movement of energy between Hamlet and the other characters suggests the symbiotic relation between the protagonists and the secondary characters in the medieval morality drama as well as the unconscious processes of condensation and displacement that are represented in dreams, and its result is our profound sense at the end of the play that Hamlet's self has been reconstituted as well as recovered. That sense is especially clear in act 5 in Hamlet's own entirely conscious and generous relation to Laertes, the double who threatens his life but not his identity, who presents an "image" of his "cause" (5.2.78), but never of the untainted heroic integrity of his grief.

Hamlet's generosity to Laertes at the end of the play is especially significant, I think, because it brings to the surface the underlying inflection of charity that makes Hamlet's whole experience of grief so humane and so remote from the moral or psychological pathology for which many critics, including Freud himself, indict him. In the only mention he makes of Hamlet in "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud remarks that the melancholiac often has access to exceptionally deep insights and that his self-criticism can come "very near to self-knowledge; we can only wonder why a man must become ill before he can discover truth of this kind. For there can be no doubt that whoever holds and expresses to others such an opinion of himself—one that Hamlet harboured of himself and all men—that man is ill, whether he speaks the truth or is more or less unfair to himself."23 In a footnote Freud cites as evidence of Hamlet's misanthropy and sickness his criticism of Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?" (2.2.531-32). What Freud misses, of course, and it is to miss much, is not only that Hamlet becomes all men in his grief, but that he does so in the image of charity that the very line evokes. For the premise of Hamlet's statement, like Portia's in The Merchant of Venice, is "That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation," and that therefore

we do pray for mercy, And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.


Hamlet's line, to be sure, does not have this explicit emphasis, but in its context there is no question that the motive of his statement is to have Polonius use the players kindly and that the ultimate burden of his thought is, like Portia's, the verse, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." If the great anger and sorrow of Hamlet's grief makes his own experience of these trespasses tragically acute and painful, the same combination of feelings eventually expands his capacity to understand, if not forgive, them.

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


1 Cited in Alan S. Downer, The British Drama (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950), p. 78.

2 I assume throughout this argument that Shakespeare essentially accepts and draws nourishment from the conventions of the revenge drama and that the ghost represents Hamlet's tragic predicament more than he does a strictly moral issue. Shakespeare clearly sophisticates Kyd's conception by conflating the ghost of Andrea and the figure of Revenge and by bringing the ghost directly into the world of the play and into Hamlet's consciousness; but there is little question, either by Hamlet or by us, that Hamlet must eventually obey the ghost's injunction to take revenge. In later dramas like The Atheist's Tragedy and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, the ghosts themselves remind the heroes that revenge belongs to God, but it is hardly an accident that those plays are neither tragic nor particularly compelling. The whole issue of the ethos of revenge in Hamlet is discussed most convincingly, it seems to me, by Helen Gardner in The Business of Criticism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 35-51, and Roland M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984). For a contrary interpretation of the issue, see especially Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1940), and "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," PMLA 70 (1955): 740-49; and Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1967).

3The Jew of Malta, ed. N. W. Bawcutt, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1978), 3.2.13-14.

4The Spanish Tragedy, ed. Philip Edwards, The Revels Plays (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959).

5 T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 145.

6 Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 37-39.

7 For a similar view of this issue, see Meredith Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 41-43, 46-53.

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

9 For the most illuminating recent discussion of the literary treatment of melancholy in Renaissance England, see Bridget Geliert Lyons, Voices of Melancholy (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971). Lyons's analysis of Hamlet's melancholy (pp. 77-112) is especially rich, and I found it suggestive for my own argument, though my emphasis and method are different from hers. Campbell discusses the relevance of Elizabethan ideas of grief to Hamlet in Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, pp. 109-47, but treats the subject rather as the King does, as a moral infirmity.

10 For a sophisticated discussion of mourning and melancholy in Hamlet that appeared at about the same time as my original essay on the play and proceeds on similar lines, see Alexander Welsh, "The Task of Hamlet," Yale Review 69 (1980): 481-502. The relevance of modern psychoanalytic ideas of mourning to the play is also touched upon by Paul A. Jorgenson, "Hamlet's Therapy," Huntington Library Quarterly 27 (1964): 239-58, and is discussed in more depth, though in ways that quickly become remote from the play, by Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet" pp. 11-52.

11 Translated by Joan Rivière, in Freud: General Psychological Theory, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier, 1963), p. 165. Unless otherwise noted, all other references to Freud are to James Strachey, trans. and ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74).

12 Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," Rivière trans., p. 166.

13 Ibid., pp. 166, 169-70.

14 Ibid., p. 170.

15 C. S. Lewis, "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem," Proceedings of the British Academy 28 (1942): 138-54. G. Wilson Knight also focuses on "the devil of the knowledge of death, which possesses Hamlet" (The Wheel of Fire [London: Methuen, 1949], p. 39), but Lewis's discussion is less invidious and much more spacious, not least because it takes account of the dramatic impact of the ghost in the play.

16 See Lyons, Voices of Melancholy, p. 81.

17 Roland Frye, Renaissance Hamlet, pp. 76-110.

18 Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," Rivière trans., p. 167.

19 For a full discussion of the traditions of thought that lie behind Hamlet's contemplation of death in this scene, see Roland Frye, Renaissance Hamlet, pp. 205-53.

20 Northrop Frye, Fools of Time, pp. 38-39.

21 I borrow this formulation, which describes a reversal of the process of identification in depression, from Karl Abraham, who does not himself apply it to Hamlet. In common with many more recent psychoanalytic writers, Abraham argues that an essential part of the resolution of grief consists of the unambivalent and beneficent introjection of the loved person into the mourner's own psyche to compensate for the continuing, conscious sense of loss. See his Selected Papers (London: Hogarth Press, 1968), pp. 442, 438.

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

23 Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," Rivière trans., pp. 167-68.

Richard Hillman (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Hamlet and Death: A Recasting of the Play Within the Player," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 201-18.

[In the following essay, Hillman explores the relationship between loss of meaning in life and death, and maintains that Hamlet is plagued by a "suicidal fatalism" which conflicts with his avowed goal of revenge.]

In writing of Hamlet's spiritual isolation and agony, G. Wilson Knight used a phrase which rings resoundingly true: the "knowledge of death."1 It is a potently catalytic phrase, crystallizing the elusive and Protean melancholy through which Hamlet relates to the world around him. But it is also only a starting point. On the one hand, human experience comprehends infinite ways and degrees of knowing; on the other, death ultimately lies outside that experience: it can only be known indirectly, through imagination. We need then to focus on Hamlet's imaginative encounter with death if we wish to use Knight's insight as a tool of analysis.

Hamlet's first scene should by rights belong to Claudius. He is its mainspring; its opening action is his business; its rhythm is his royal will. Hamlet's spoiling of that rhythm, like Cordelia's silent interruption of Lear's ritual, soon shifts the dramatic focus (and the center of power—Claudius is never really in control again). But even before he speaks, Hamlet has upstaged the king by flaunting "the trappings and the suits of woe" (I.ii.86).2 He appears as the archetypal figure of death at the feast (here a virtual continuation of the marriage feast, still featuring the funeral leftovers). The disclosures that follow are superimposed on that indelible first impression. When Hamlet gets the stage to himself, the specific death he is memorializing is linked with an acute consciousness of personal and universal mortality. His own "too too sallied flesh" (129) ties him to a world dominated by corruption and decay within—in fact, produced by—natural growth: "'tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature/ Possesses it merely" (135-37).

The oppressive sense of physicality, the organic imagery, of this first soliloquy recur throughout the play as a standard feature of Hamlet's melancholy. Here they help to establish the basic premise of his melancholy: that existence itself is meaningless. Indeed, the thematic connection between the meaninglessness of life and the powerful presence of death is so strong and constant that the two themes are effectively one. The preoccupation with mortality becomes an index of existential despair in the "antic disposition," the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy (III.i.55ff), the graveyard scene, and elsewhere. The connection—not the causality—is all that concerns us here, but it may be argued that a Renaissance audience would recognize a definite psychological pattern: loss of meaning in life leads to a feeling that life is meaningless because death-dominated.3

It is a paradox, but not an enigma, that the only refuge Hamlet can envisage is also death—death, that is, conceived as absolute non-being, the melting of flesh, sleeping without dreaming. Consciousness of mortality may be a source of pain, but the real culprit is consciousness itself. Physical death is contrasted with spiritual death, death in life. Here too the first soliloquy defines terms that apply throughout the play. Only in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy does Hamlet again directly express a longing for extinction, but it is clearly reflected in his attitudes and actions. So, however, is the inability to commit suicide, actively and consciously to embrace extinction, that he initially attributes to the "canon" of the "Everlasting" (I.ii.131-32). This leads to a cornerstone of my argument. I hope to demonstrate that a suicidal fatalism constitutes a powerful psychological undertow, pulling Hamlet, as he swims towards the shore of his revenge, ineluctably out to sea.

So far we have material for a case history, but not for drama. There is no drama because there is no apparent conflict, no movement. Although the inky-cloaked figure has drawn aside an inner curtain, he remains in tableau. What initiates drama, setting in motion the previously static psychological forces, not to mention the plot, is his encounter with the ghost. The ghost has preoccupied many critics, including the psychologists. Unfortunately, questions about its nature and origin cannot be settled on the evidence of the text: finality requires an appeal to some external dogma, such as the notion that all apparitions are diabolical agents. Similarly, the standard psychoanalytic view of the ghost's significance depends on the Oedipal complex. This does not mean that speculation in either scholarly or contemporary psychological terms is illegitimate.

In fact, Shakespeare typically makes matters provocative and leaves them open-ended precisely when speculation—even of a kind he could not have anticipated—helps to illuminate substantial issues. I shall eventually be speculating too. But I shall be doing so on the basis of the ghost's demonstrable impact on Hamlet's attitudes towards life and death.

When he imposes upon Hamlet the duty of revenge, the ghost precipitates an acute conflict in Hamlet's consciousness. In effect, he imparts the message that Hamlet's existence is—or should be—far from meaningless, that indeed there is a very specific and urgent source of meaning. Once Hamlet dedicates himself to the ghost's command, an inner voice sustains that message and its corollary—that despair and longing for extinction imply a shameful evasion of a sacred obligation. The voice is strong enough to drive those sentiments underground and transform their expression. The first soliloquy is crucial, then, for in later moments of apparent self-revelation, the problem of fulfilling his task replaces general disaffection from life as the focus of Hamlet's continuing discontent. And even in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy the suicidal impulse is kept at arm's length.

While Hamlet's obligation is initially and superficially to the ghost, it takes root as an obligation to himself—it is a matter of conscience. If this sounds like a radical statement, it is only because we tend to associate conscience with a socially acceptable sense of right and wrong. Various commentators, indeed, have sought to explain Hamlet's delay by his scruples about revenge, despite the difficulty of documenting such scruples or of reconciling them with the carnage quite casually wreaked by Hamlet among the more innocent. In fact, the only moral responsibility Hamlet consistently acknowledges is to his task; the only constant source of self-blame is his failure to accomplish it. Thus there is in Hamlet a kind of conscience we may call existential, rather than social, dealing as it does with personal meaning in life, however defined. And its presence implies a uniquely human extension of the survival instinct common to all living things—a psychological need for meaning in the face of the uniquely human awareness of inevitable death. Shakespeare, then, seems to be endowing Hamlet with the "will to meaning" which Viktor E. Frankl, originator of so-called "existential" psychiatry, identifies as the basic dynamic force in man, more fundamental than the "pleasure principle" of Freud or the Adlerian "will to power."4 Frankl might almost be describing Hamlet when he relates melancholia to "a feeling of inadequacy in the face of a task" and speaks of "conscientious anxiety or guilt feelings" which result from "obligations that arise out of the responsibility of . . . being."5

One further element of Hamlet's initial attitude towards death can now be added to the picture—a key, as it turns out, to the working of his mind throughout the play. It takes the ghost to confront Hamlet with his "will to meaning," but the first soliloquy's expression of meaninglessness is painful—not a shrug—only because that force is constitutionally present. It is merely being repressed, as Hamlet, attempting to avoid inner conflict, superimposes his perception of life as death-dominated. His glib citation of the divine prohibition against suicide—an uncharacteristic expression of conventional religious scruples—masks deeper, nonetheless conscientious, feelings. The traditional reason-passion dichotomy is at work, with an existential dimension. Both modern psychological theory and Renaissance moral doctrine describe the pattern: the knowledge that we are going to die is a rational inference from experience and observation; our rebellion against death is emotional, a function of instinctual assumptions of immortality, the product of our senses, which cannot, after all, conceive of non-existence.6 Thus what seems to be an emotional outburst on Hamlet's part depends on the supression of the most fundamental emotional impulse of all—what Francis Bacon called "the strength of all other human desires."7

Approaching the ghost through its existential significance for Hamlet makes it easier to respond to Shakespeare's suggestions as to why and how the ghost possesses that significance. Not only are we putting a lesser burden on the limited evidence, but we have a clear indication of direction: the ghost's influence is exerted through Hamlet's perception of his position in life, his sense of self. The obvious starting point is the fact that Hamlet's task involves a test of a particular emotion—Hamlet's love for his dead father. The very form of the ghost's initial command establishes this, with Hamlet's ambiguous interjection highlighting the point:

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


Later the ghost broadens the issue, again in conditional terms, to include Hamlet's possession of natural feelings in general: "If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not" (81). It is the same stick later used by Claudius to goad Laertes, in whom Hamlet sees, as we do, the "portraiture" of his own "cause" (V.ii.77-78). In fact, the king strikingly echoes the ghost of his predecessor: "Laertes, was your father dear to you?" (IV.vii.107). But even without direct formulations or suggestive parallels, a link between Hamlet's commitment to revenge and his love for his father would be apparent. It comes closest to the surface, perhaps, in his self-accusations of slackness after the conversation with the Players and when he encounters the ghost again in the closet scene. Hamlet's dissatisfaction with the progress of his mission thus extends to his attitude towards his father. This has insistent and far-ranging implications. It strongly suggests—and this is, then, one aspect of the Freudian interpretation which may claim textual support—that Hamlet harbors feelings about his father at odds with those which he professes and on which his revenge depends.

This coincides with our first impression that his mourning is unnaturally ostentatious and defensive. Having got him to admit that death is "common," Gertrude, with an edge of exasperation, queries: "If it be,/Why seems it so particular with thee?" (I.ii.74-75). Ignoring her point, which is contained in "particular," Hamlet responds, instead, as if he senses an accusation in "seems": "Seems, madam? nay, it is, I know not'seems'" (76). And he proceeds, with striking self-consciousness, to enumerate his outward signs of mourning, claiming that all of these "forms, moods, shapes of grief (82) are inadequate to express what he feels, although he makes no attempt actually to describe his feelings:

. . . These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.


Claudius will remind us of this moment, too, in challenging Laertes'sincerity: ". . .are you like the painting of a sorrow,/ A face without a heart?" (IV.vii. 108-09). Naturally, Hamlet is here attacking Gertrude and Claudius, and "actions that a man might play" alludes to the hollowness of their grief when his father died, but the phrase also helps to convey an uneasiness about his own.

Hamlet's way of speaking about his father sustains and extends this impression. He idealizes the former king extravagantly, actually portraying him as superhuman both in his first soliloquy and in the closet scene. But superhuman seems to imply inhuman. There is little warmth either expressed by himself or attributed to his parent. Even his father's feeling for his mother is described in terms of godlike power: " . . . so loving to my mother/ That he might not beteem the winds of heaven/ Visit her face too roughly" (140-42). Consistently, the emphasis is on the sort of heroic qualities—"An eye like Mars, to threaten and command" (III.iv.57)—which would impose a difficult burden of emulation on an only son and heir.

Shakespeare quite openly presents a contrast in nature and values between old Hamlet and his son—a contrast pointed up by giving them the same name, as is not the case in extant earlier versions of the story. The former king is from the first established as a type of the heroic; he staked part of his kingdom on single combat with old Fortinbras; he lost his temper during a truce. We later learn that he subdued England. And, of course, his spirit demands revenge. This is a quintessentially "valiant" Hamlet, as Horatio terms him (I.i.84). It is hardly to endorse the romantic stereotype of "young" Hamlet (Horatio so distinguishes the son [170]) to observe that his melancholy, even as it distorts his personality, helps to reveal very different qualities: sensitivity, inclination to the arts, and, above all, a continuously active, super-subtle, electric intelligence. There is life in the critical cliché that he is temperamentally disposed towards thought rather than action.

Hamlet's alienation from the heroic ethic is part of his feeling of inadequacy in the face of his task. Even in his first soliloquy he links his sense of meaninglessness with inferiority to his father's heroic stature when he describes Claudius as "no more like my father/ Than I to Hercules" (I.ii. 152-53). Only in the "mole of nature" speech, however, does he dissociate himself from heroic values, and then only backhandedly, by condemning the coarse revelling custom "More honor'd in the breach than the observance" (I.iv.16). Moreover, those who actually exemplify the heroic receive his admiration and envy—and help us to appreciate his own "falling-off" (the Ghost's phrase for Gertrude's change to Claudius [I.v.47]). Young Fortinbras—worthy bearer of his father's name, death-defying redeemer of his family's honor, ultimate inheritor of the kingdom—would perhaps have been a more suitable son for old Hamlet. Laertes makes a conspicuously committed revenger of his father, no less so because of the qualms he develops about his treachery.

The change Hamlet has undergone is lamented by the distressed Ophelia. She portrays him as having been the consummate Renaissance prince, combining intellectual with martial and courtly accomplishments, highly conscious of his position, and while she is undoubtedly exaggerating, there is no reason not to accept the picture as essentially valid:

The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword, Th'expectation and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form, Th'observ'd of all observers . . .


Such a son could surely have been counted on, in the play's terms, to revenge his father. It seems, then, that with his father's death, by whatever psychological mechanism, this role collapsed, revealing a nature fundamentally at odds with it, yet unable to generate any other source of meaning. When to this is added his apparent expectation, conveyed through his references to frustrated ambition, that he would succeed his father as king, we must conclude both that Hamlet depended upon his father for his sense of self and that this sense involved a denial of his true feelings parallel to that which he practices throughout the play. This takes us a long way towards understanding why his father's death should have deprived life of its meaning for Hamlet and elicits a definite connection between the problem of meaning and repressed hostility.

Thus the proof of love that the ghost requires is for Hamlet a means of expiating the feelings of guilt produced by less-than-loving impulses. This interpretation is strikingly in accord with modern understanding of the sort of melancholia, developing out of severe grief, with which Hamlet's condition has long been identified. There has been ample clinical confirmation of Freud's theory that the ambivalence present in every close relation can give rise to guilt feelings after the loss of a loved person.8 Hamlet's symptoms are typical. They include his idealization of the deceased and preoccupation with his image (witness the closet scene, when Hamlet forces his mother to compare likenesses of the two kings). Characteristic, too, is the alteration of his behavior. Afflicted persons may engage in apparently motiveless activities detrimental to their well-being. Changes in relations with friends and relatives are common: a person at once avoids former social contacts and is afraid of alienating them. He may also direct irrational hostility at particular persons, blaming them for the death or even imagining that the death was not natural, although he probably will not take any action against those he accuses. Elements of all these reactions are combined in Hamlet's case with the melancholic's suicidal feelings, loss of interest in the outside world, and sense of worthlessness. It is a condition which, according to Freud, tends to arise out of normal mourning when low self-esteem is involved. Moreover, extreme reactions often occur when the object of inadmissible hostility was also someone on whom the mourner's way of life and place in society depended.

This pattern suggests a straightforward psychological explanation of the violent hostility which Hamlet does express towards his mother. That hostility is associated with both instances of extreme idealization of his father and hence with his insecurity about his own feelings; it is also linked in the closet scene with his difficulty in performing the deed that serves as the love-test. Gertrude's essential crime, in Hamlet's eyes, is emotional betrayal of his father as the result of an ugly passion, and it would seem that he is trying to avoid facing up to the same thing, in effect deceiving his conscience. Indeed, in the closet scene, when his energy is directed towards awakening her remorse, it is almost as if he is seeking to transfer conscience itself to her. The ghost, however, intervenes, enforcing its earlier prohibition: "nor let thy soul contrive/ Against thy mother aught . . ." (I.v.85-86).

We are now ready for a natural extrapolation. There is no need to resist symbolically identifying the ghost with Hamlet's conscience. Such an identification (more the rule than the exception with Shakespearean ghosts) is consistent with—and adds depth to—the idea of the return of his father's spirit, the ghost's incarnation of the heroic, and Hamlet's ambivalent reaction. It also suits the remarkably close connection between the ghost and Hamlet's mind. This is impressed upon us by the ambiguity of the ghost's origin and the fact that it will speak only to Hamlet—in effect, has direct significance only for him. Even before he actually sees it, Hamlet intuits its message. And when it speaks, there is a striking fluidity of communication:

Ham. Alas, poor ghost! Ghost. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing To what I shall unfold. Ham. Speak, I am bound to hear. Ghost. So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear. Ham. What?


The distance between speakers is far less than between father and daughter in The Tempest when Prospero recounts his painful history—the sort of structure Shakespeare might have employed had he wished to convey the ghost's supernatural remoteness from Hamlet. In addition, the ghost's emphasis on his sufferings after death, his own superiority to Claudius, and Gertrude's infidelity to his memory coincides strikingly with Hamlet's preoccupations. Hamlet himself actually links the ghost with his imagination twice, first in suggesting that the devil may have subjected him to this apparition "Out of my weakness and my melancholy" (II.ii.601), later in declaring to Horatio that if Claudius'response to the Mousetrap does not reveal his guilt, "It is a damned ghost that we have seen,/ And my imaginations are as foul/ As Vulcan's stithy" (III.ii.82-84).9

The changing presentation of the ghost mirrors changes in Hamlet's relation with his conscience. The inner force that the ghost represents is at first compelled to take wholly independent form by Hamlet's refusal to acknowledge it. In keeping with Hamlet's incipient recognition of responsibility, which began with his first news of the apparition, the ghost sheds some of this independence by going off alone with Hamlet before it speaks. As soon as its point is made, the specter vanishes, and there is a strong suggestion, as Hamlet reduces and concretizes its message in his "tables," then attempts to keep above its voice in the "cellarage" scene, that he is assimilating the ghost, taking it inside himself.10 This implies not only acknowledgment and acceptance of conscience, however, but the potential for gaining control over it. Indeed, the ghost appears to him only once more, when he is digressing flagrantly from his purpose, as well as disobediently attacking Gertrude. Even so, on this second occasion, the ghost is incompletely objectified and feebler: it is visible only to Hamlet, clad in a nightgown instead of armor, and both less assertive and less effective. Hamlet anticipates its message ("Do you not come your tardy son to chide . . . ?" [III.iv.106 ff.]), thus heading off any real chiding, and warns, improbably, that its appearance may soften his bloodthirsty dedication to his purpose. As if exorcized, the ghost silently "steals away" (134), and never again is Hamlet's commitment challenged by it.

Hamlet needs to gain and keep control over his conscience in order to avoid acknowledging that revenge is a fundamentally unwelcome and uncongenial duty. At only one point during the initial turmoil does he give way to his reluctance and resentment: "The time is out of joint—O cursed spite,/ That ever I was born to set it right!" (I.v. 188-89). But his subsequent self-reproaches for deficient passion, though used to reinforce his resolution, echo that outburst in a way that takes us to the heart of his difficulty in carrying out his task. Revenge, as Shakespeare and a number of his contemporaries present it, is fundamentally an act of passion, though reason must be employed in the performance. And as I have argued, it is essentially to prove his possession of particular emotions—love for his father and the impulse to counteract death's negation of life—that Hamlet undertakes his mission. That dedication, however, is founded on false premises, since these emotions, as functions of his sense of what he ought to feel, are actually rational fabrications, while his true emotions remain repressed. Thus Hamlet has no access to the emotional energy he must tap if he is to fulfill the role of revenger. No matter how hard he tries to reason himself into passion, no matter how successful he denies his real feelings, Hamlet simply cannot make himself believe, on the deepest level, in what he is doing. This is surely the most natural way of understanding the instability of the revenger role and, therefore, Hamlet's delay.

Since Hamlet can keep his conscience at bay only by convincing himself that he is faithful to the ghost's command, his behavior after the initial encounter is largely conditioned by the problem, now at once more difficult and more urgent, of repressing his instinctual faculty and substituting the proper artificial emotions for it. But the other component of his original posture, the inclination to escape his inner burden through simple extinction, accepting death's verdict of meaninglessness, becomes an increasingly important influence. For the very confrontation with his responsibility that makes this inclination unacceptable to consciousness greatly enhances the attraction of the solution. And Hamlet's mission of revenge proves the perfect means, not only of concealing but of advancing his suicidal tendency, for it allows him to create dangers to which he may expose himself on the pretext of passionate commitment to his task.

Hamlet's pretence of emotionalism begins, as we have seen, with the ostentatious mourning which Claudius, playing straight into his hands, dismisses as "To reason most absurd" (I.ii.103). The "mole of nature" speech makes a claim, it seems, for a more generalized irrationality, through which Hamlet's distrust of the passions and contempt for the heroic are nonetheless discernible. With his first sight of the ghost, a reckless passionate heroism becomes the essence of the self-image he seeks to develop, while suicidal fatalism slips smoothly into place beneath the surface:

I do not set my life at a pin's fee, And for my soul, what can it do to that, Being a thing immortal as itself?


In contrast to his earlier invocation of the "canon gainst self-slaughter," religion here serves the suicidal impulse: if Hamlet were really concerned about his immortal soul, he would not be in doubt as to what could happen to it.

Hamlet's "antic disposition" similarly advances both his need to appear recklessly irrational and his self-destructiveness. To be perceived as acting contrary to reason now bolsters his sense of dedication to revenge, as do his insinuations of grievance against Claudius. At the same time, his behavior seems to have no practical purpose; certainly, its effect is merely to alert and provoke the king. Hamlet is setting in motion, however unconsciously, the forces that will destroy him. Indeed, the self-fulfilling fatalism built into the "antic disposition" can be related to the element of genuine mental disturbance often perceived in his pretended madness. For his state of mind is characterized, not by the suspension of reason's control over the irrational, but by indulgence of his constant tendency to give way to pure rationality, including the rational perception of life as meaningless and death-dominated. Thus the outstanding feature of his "madness" is his racing intellect, the free association of ideas on rational rather than emotional principles, as manifested, notably, in word-play. Instead of projecting an inner reality upon the outside world, he inflates, distorts, and virtually wallows in his perceptions of that world.

Hamlet's need to repress his real emotions contributes to this unfeigned component of his distraction. When his emotions are aroused and in danger of coming to the surface, his rational faculty must ruthlessly contain them and put the proper substitutes in their place. This helps to account for his agitation and assertiveness, with manic overtones, when he is first attempting to adapt himself to the role of revenger and when, following the success of the Mousetrap, he finds his duty all too plainly set out for him again. Similarly, his extreme treatment of Ophelia can best be explained as involving—and symbolically suggesting—the rejection of his emotional faculty. As she describes it, his behavior in her closet suggests that he is actually identifying himself with the ghost (he looked, she tells us, "As if he had been loosed out of hell/ To speak of horrors" [II.i.80-81]) and ritualistically repudiating their relation—a relation that has evidently been an outlet for true emotion. In the encounter we later witness, Ophelia seems to awaken unacceptable feelings that Hamlet must violently deny; hence he refuses to acknowledge the tokens of his former commitment: "I never gave you aught" (III.i.95). Associating Ophelia with sexuality has the effect of cheapening his emotion, making it contemptible and therefore deserving of repudiation. The probable double meaning of "nunn'ry" (120, 137, etc.)11 reflects not only the classically melancholic perception of corruption beneath apparent virtue, but also the essential equality in his mind of promiscuity and absolute chastity: either condition would remove Ophelia as the threat which, as a legitimate object of passion, she currently poses to his reason-dictated identity.

The "antic disposition" is hardly sufficient to sustain Hamlet's sense of himself as a revenger, as his self-reproaches and continuing obsession with mortality indicate. Accordingly, he engages in a series of maneuvers calculated to strengthen this sense by appearing to bring revenge closer, if only by proving his commitment to or capacity for it. In fact, these actions, which largely determine the subsequent course of the play, take him steadily farther from his goal, so that his eventual success becomes fortuitous and highly ironic. At the same time, they serve Hamlet's suicidal fatalism by further goading Claudius and advertising his own vulnerability. And, consistently, the rational element is so pronounced as to vitiate the pretence of strong emotion.

The first of these revenge-substitutes is the Mousetrap, which will supposedly advance Hamlet's cause by testing the veracity of the ghost. Yet its practical value is highly suspect. Hamlet is certain to arouse Claudius further. Public exposure of the king—the obvious possible advantage he might gain—seems to play no part in his thinking, and he makes no attempt to bring it about. (The court apparently puts Claudius'ambiguous reaction down to "choler" [III.ii.303] over what is, after all, a flagrant insult and implicit threat.) Hamlet's soliloquy after the departure of the Players presents his device as conceived in passionate fury—an inspired solution to his chief problem. In fact, the need to test the ghost never occurs to him until the opportunity is thrust into his hands, while the movement in the speech from a complaint of insufficient passion to passionate display is carefully controlled. Following as it does on the heels of Hamlet's intense interest in Pyrrhus, the archetypal ruthless revenger, the soliloquy is all the more clearly self-dramatizing, aimed at supplying a plausible emotional foundation for his surrogate revenge. Shakespeare even suggests, by having Hamlet arrange for the inserted speech before the Players leave the stage, that he has arrived at the idea well before he pretends to have to jog his reason into action with "About, my brains!" (II.ii.588 ). It seems that he is able to admit even limited guilt over his slackness because he has already developed a means of defusing it. When Claudius'crime is confirmed, however, responsibility is bound to return upon him even more oppressively. Ironically, it is precisely the "conscience of the King" (605) that will prevent Hamlet from deceiving his own.

In the meanwhile, he has not overcome his concern with death any more than he has completely persuaded himself of his dedication to revenge, to judge from the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. True, that soliloquy does possess a new detachment, which, despite the wish for extinction expressed in it, might indicate an advance over his painfully helpless consciousness of mortality. The source of this detachment, however, precludes any such interpretation. For Hamlet now initiates a psychological sleight-of-hand that proves extremely important to the succeeding action. He begins to deal with his continuing sense of death's domination of existence by reducing it to a simple fear of physical death, susceptible in a straightforward way to two forces—courage, however produced, and intellect, which is Hamlet's natural strength and the medium of the soliloquy itself. It is the same trick he will very shortly employ in his encounter with Ophelia, where threatening love becomes contemptible sex. But this re-definition is of the deepest "question" of all. The principle has been defined by Paul Tillich: "Anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage."12

As with revenge itself, therefore, Hamlet is turning to substitution and surrogate in an attempt to avoid confronting responsibility. He pretends that he is actually changing the balance of power between himself and death, when in fact he is taking death's negation of life for granted. This evasion is intertwined with another: he can think of mastery of the fear of physical death as bringing him closer to revenge, while beneath the surface it is supporting his suicidal fatalism. These maneuvers will come into their own as the play progresses. Already, however, he is able to provide himself with a further relatively acceptable excuse for his failure to take more decisive action: it is almost with relief that he counts himself among the "cowards" (III.i.82) at the conclusion of the soliloquy.

A rhetorical irony, I believe, unfolds Hamlet's self-deception.13 "To be, or not to be" (55) does indeed impress us as the question confronting Hamlet, since "being" and "not being" strongly suggest having meaning in life and not having it, respectively. But Hamlet is actually talking only about physical survival. His main point is that fear of physical death (including fear of consciousness after death and eschatological uncertainty in general) deters him from action that would lead to death, whether suicide or revenge. Indeed, he virtually equates the two—to the point of referring to both collectively as "enterprises of great pitch and moment" (85). This at once confirms that he is thinking of death in physical rather than in existential terms and signals a distortion of the risk in support of that perspective. We know, however, that action really offers Hamlet an opportunity of overcoming death through meaning, while a passive physical existence implies meaninglessness and so subjection to death. His much-discussed conclusion that "conscience does make cowards of us all" (82) may be intended to highlight the discrepancy: he appears to be using "conscience" to mean "consciousness," hence the sort of intellectual consideration in which he has been engaged, whereas "conscience" in the moral sense demands that he risk physical death in the service of spiritual life.

In his second question, then, which transposes the first into moral and universal terms as if to make his dilemma less immediately painful, Hamlet follows the natural order of thought and creates a simple parallel structure, associating "being" or "life" with the first possible course: "to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (56-57)—endurance for the sake of survival. "Not being" or "death" is identified with action, which he presents as involving a doomed and desperate heroism: to "take arms against a sea of troubles" (58) suggests a hopeless struggle, even apart from the seeming allusion to suicidal Celtic warriors.14 It is the prospect of death inherent in this alternative that sets Hamlet thinking directly of non-existence: "To die, to sleep—" (59). Yet on the existential level, chiastic order obtains: the passive choice implies "not being," the active, "being." Thus the notorious difficulty of the first lines, the overlay of reductive syntax and logic upon resistant ideas, is functional: it develops a crucial ironic distinction between our point of view and Hamlet's.

After the success of the Mousetrap, Hamlet takes refuge from his renewed sense of responsibility in verbally abusing his mother—an exercise less obviously concerned with her spiritual welfare than he pretends. That it is a diversion from the course of his duty is highlighted by his failure to seize the salient opportunity for revenge offered him on the way to her closet. The underlying reason for this failure is the same as for his larger one: he does not have access to the emotional energy which would be necessary to initiate an attack on the praying king. Having tried and failed to reason himself into action ("Now might I do it pat . . ." [III.iii.73 ff.]), he admits reason in its own guise ("That would be scann'd . . ." [75 ff.]) to supply the pretence that sending the king's soul to heaven would not constitute true revenge—a use of the concept of immortality that tends to strengthen our scepticism concerning his faith.

Hamlet can easily generate violence towards his mother, however, and it reaches out fatally to include Polonius. This murder, in Hamlet's view, manifests his blood-thirsty passion, specifically his capacity for killing Claudius. Yet Shakespeare pointedly portrays Hamlet's lethal response to the noise he hears as a further abdication of responsibility. The unusually careful continuity of scenes leading up to the incident ensures (all the more because of the generally loose conventions of stage time and place) that we do not expect Hamlet to suppose, any more than we do, that the eavesdropper might be the king. He has just passed Claudius, after all, on his way to the chamber. His automatic first response to his mother's horrified, "O me, what hast thou done?" (III.iv.25), is a spontaneous admission of ignorance: "Nay, I know not" (26). Only then does the hopeful thought creep in that he somehow might have accomplished his task: "is it the King?" (26). When the truth is discovered, wishful thinking reverses the balance between fantasy and reality to produce the confident claim that he had believed the eavesdropper to be Claudius: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!/ I took thee for thy better" (31-32). "Take thy fortune" (32), he adds, expressing a new sense of identification with, hence control over, fate. And when, towards the end of the scene, he depicts himself as the "scourge and minister" (175) of heaven, he even more boldly uses his supposed fidelity to his task to rationalize his irresponsibility. Hamlet has moved still farther from revenge, has indeed substantially hastened his own destruction, but the illusion of commitment has received powerful support.

So strong is this illusion that Hamlet is able not only to disarm the ghost, as suggested earlier, but also to evade the knowledge that his forthcoming journey to England, which he mentions almost casually at the end of the closet scene, promises to put even greater distance between himself and the possibility of achieving meaning. He has been aware, we now learn, both that his recent opportunity of killing Claudius might well be his last for an indefinite period and that failure to act would put his life in danger, for he rightly suspects a plot against him. Despite the secret attraction of extinction, conscience compels him to parry the anticipated blow—in such a way, moreover, as to reinforce further his sense of himself as a revenger, since he will be striking at Claudius'agents. The almost grotesque rationality of the projected murder—he looks forward to it as a sort of intellectual game ("'tis the sport to have the enginer/ Hoist with his own petar" [III.iv.206-07])—confirms that he is again intellectually manufacturing evidence of emotional commitment to revenge. Yet there is no indication even that he intends to return to Denmark: in fact, his return is almost wholly beyond his control—and therefore highly ironic.

In his soliloquy on the march of Fortinbras'army just before his departure, Hamlet again focuses on courage and attempts to hold cowardice responsible for his slackness. Not surprisingly, there is an undertone of contempt in his admiration of the soldiers'readiness to face death for "a fantasy and trick of fame" (IV.iv.61). This suggests both his real feelings about the heroic ethic and his deep conviction that all self-assertion is pitifully futile. As in the soliloquy proposing the Mousetrap, he can acknowledge even limited guilt only because he has established a revenge substitute. He again uses reason to work himself up to his supposedly passionate resolution: "O, from this time forth,/ My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (65-66). Indeed, his starting point is the self-revealing assumption that reason must direct him: "Sure He that made us . . . / . . . gave us not/ That capability and godlike reason/ To fust in us unus'd" (36-39). His concession that overactive reason may have caused his delay is understandably guarded—"Bestial oblivion" (40) is, absurdly, given equal weight as a possible cause. More significantly, this admission is made to serve the pretence that fear of physical death is his main obstacle: when he talks of "thinking too precisely on th'event" (41), he surely means "event" in the common sense of "outcome" or "consequences."

Hamlet's new surrogate for revenge involves a carefully managed confrontation with and triumph over death. As it happens, he gets the chance to reinforce this pattern by recklessly courageous conduct during the sea-fight. The attack of the pirates enables him to expose himself to danger fatalistically while fostering an heroic self-image in defiance of physical death. It is particularly ironic that this action, so thoroughly evasive in character, should bring him face to face with his responsibility again. And yet his unexpected return lends the voyage exploitable symbolic overtones of rebirth, especially in light of his earlier reference to death as "The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn/ No traveller returns" (III.i.78-79). He has provided, after all, surrogate victims not only for Claudius, but for himself.

Hamlet arrives back in Denmark, then, however involuntarily, with a sense of having mastered death and so, he imagines, removed the only barrier to his revenge. In his vaguely menacing declaration to Claudius, ". . . I am set naked on your kingdom" (IV.vii.43-44), he projects an image of himself as the king's great adversary. Surreptitiously, though, he is inviting conspiracy: "naked" may bring out the suggestion of rebirth, but for Claudius the effect, reinforced by the postscript, "alone" (52), must be to highlight Hamlet's vulnerability. The trap Hamlet has set for himself will shortly be sprung. Indeed, his strong sense of impending doom exposes the fatalism of his deliberate encounter with physical mortality in the graveyard scene. Hamlet evidently wishes further to demonstrate and consolidate his power over death, but the underlying reality of his surrender is powerfully communicated. For even as he applies reason to death to diminish its horror, he associates himself more closely with reason's message of meaninglessness: "Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till'a find it stopping a bunghole?" (V.i.203-04). Even for Horatio, the rationalist, this is reason taken to an extreme—"to consider too curiously" (205).

Before Hamlet's self-destructive impulse finds fulfillment, however, his conscience produces yet another more public renewal of the role of passionate revenger, although the gap between illusion and reality is almost pitifully wide. His obvious pangs of guilt on witnessing Ophelia's funeral have little to do, it seems, with his responsibility for her death—he never refers to this. Instead, they are a direct response to Laertes'passionate outburst, which arouses in him a sense of emotional deficiency. Ophelia's earlier association with his emotional faculty helps to define the threat he perceives. So does the suggestion of passionate defiance of death in Laertes'leap into the grave, when he embraces the corpse and proclaims his wish to be buried with it. Conscience compels Hamlet to declare his own passion and imitate this leap, challenging Laertes'identity—"What is he whose grief / Bears such an emphasis" (V.i.254-55)—and asserting his own in self-consciously royal terms: "This is I, / Hamlet the Dane!" (257-58). The role of revenger, his image of himself as his father's son, is at stake. His wildly rhetorical affirmations of grief and love, his defiance of Laertes to absurd proofs of feeling, are flagrant attempts to demonstrate the presence of emotion. Yet here, too, Hamlet's actions secretly advance his suicidal fatalism. He could hardly have chosen a more effective way of impressing Claudius with his increasingly dangerous unpredictability, as well as his openness to countermeasures. And he has even further antagonized Laertes.

Hamlet does his best to sustain, in the final scene, the impetus he has given the role of revenger by interrupting the funeral. In his conversation with Horatio, he triumphantly presents his highly rational machinations against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as showing "rashness" (V.ii.7)—the very quality he had spontaneously disclaimed with Laertes'hand on his throat (V.i.261). His use of his father's signet to seal the forged letter further links his actions with his task and the assertion of his identity as his father's true son. Now he self-dramatizingly enumerates his injuries at Claudius'hands (V.ii.64 ff.), finally affirming the morality of revenge as if doubt of this has caused his delay. This is a new pretence, and it would be transparent at this point, even if it were not attached to more familiar self-deceptions: the attempt to produce passion intellectually and the identification with a higher power. His reference to "a divinity that shapes our ends,/ Rough-hew them how we will" (10-11) conclusively exposes the despairing reality beneath the illusion of commitment: here, in the very shadow of death, Hamlet is objectifying and formalizing his submission to events, to meaninglessness—to death itself, as "ends" helps make us aware. He carries this attitude even further just before the fencing match, when, with intense fatalism, he justifies his imprudence and supposed impetuosity on the grounds that a time is appointed for the death of all things ("If it be now . . ." [220 ff.]). He thereby makes it unmistakable that he anticipates his own, but then defiance of physical death has become, in his mind, an expression of active dedication to revenge. It is surely heroic fortitude and noble scorn for this transitory existence that he wishes to project.

Hamlet's identification with the passionate Laertes ("For by the image of my cause I see/ The portraiture of his" [77-78]) provides an appropriate background for his acquiescence in their specious reconciliation and the fencing match itself. That he senses a plot is self-evident, although direct confirmation of how much he anticipates could hardly be expected. If Hamlet allowed definite suspicions into consciousness, conscience would prevent his participation; as it is, his query about the length of the foils (265) hints at a need to assure himself that he is on his guard, while there is no question that he defends himself against Laertes with all his considerable skill. And, paradoxically, it is conscience, I think, which compels him to continue the match beyond the first hit, refusing the king's offer of drink. For the dramatic and the psychological contexts combine to suggest that Hamlet guesses the wine is poisoned.

Surely, alert and intuitive as we have seen him to be, Hamlet could not fail to suspect the ploy in Claudius'clumsy attempt to make him drink after merely gaining a single hit. And this suspicion cannot be suppressed because it is based on concrete unignorable evidence: the king ostentatiously puts a foreign object, the supposed pearl, into the cup just before urging it on Hamlet. That Hamlet later believes this to have been poison is the point of his sarcastic taunt, "Is thy union here?" (326), and it is far less natural that he should make the connection retrospectively, after the presence of poison is confirmed. When Gertrude drinks, then, Hamlet would also know that she is taking poison, and his ejaculation, "Good madam!" (290), is more likely to be in response to this fact than to her bland encouragement. Any doubt must be dispelled, we sense, by Claudius'urgent "Gertrude, do not drink" (290), presuming that this is spoken within Hamlet's hearing (surely the natural staging). His own refusal, "I dare not drink yet, madam; by and by" (293), resonates, for us, with a secondary meaning: conscience will not permit him to taste death as she has done, but he will follow her in his own way before long.

So understood, his continued participation in the contest comprises a microcosm of the action from the point at which Hamlet is assigned his task: confronted with death in the form of the poisoned cup, he can neither give himself up to it, despite the attraction of oblivion, nor encounter and overcome it through emotion-based action, thus satisfying his conscience. Rather, he continues to expose himself to danger while attempting to sustain the image of himself as capable of such action. When he is wounded by Laertes, however, he cannot any longer ignore the treacherous character of the match, and with Gertrude's collapse response to Claudius himself also becomes necessary. Even so, instead of directly challenging the king, Hamlet diffuses and depersonalizes his accusation in what seems a final attempt, at once feeble and desperate, to avoid responsibility: "O villainy! Ho, let the door be lock'd!/ Treachery! Seek it out" (V.ii.311-12).

Unexpectedly, the answer to his demand comes from Laertes, together with the news that he is virtually a dead man. Hamlet is reacting to this when he echoes Laertes'disclosure of the fatal device: "The point envenom'd too!" (321). Only when he has felt the full impact of the revelation does he exclaim, "Then, venom, to thy work" (322), and turn to attack Claudius. The clear connection, pointed up by "then," between his ability to do so and the knowledge that he is dying implies that this knowledge has liberated his emotions at last. The mechanism is easy to grasp: not only has his suicidal fatalism been fulfilled, but he has expiated his guilt over his feelings about his father by incurring a similar fate. His sense of an obligation to revenge his father collapses, together with his false reason-produced emotions, and he is free to act according to his own emotional impulses and on his own behalf. It is the injuries to himself, not to his father, which he finally revenges upon Claudius. Thus, contrary to revenge convention, Hamlet makes no reference to his father or to the fulfillment of his task: he merely calls Claudius "incestious, murd'rous, damned Dane" (325)—more an evocation of his general iniquity than an invocation of specific past crimes.

There is another source of energy. Hamlet's impulse to assert himself in the face of death has been liberated with the emotional faculty as a whole. This is confirmed by his strong reaction in his last moments against death. Despite his formulaic "Heaven make thee free of it!" (332) in response to Laertes'wish for forgiveness, he speaks as if he believes he is facing the end of real existence: "the rest is silence" (358). His concern with the proper preservation of his memory impels him to interfere violently with Horatio's attempted suicide; he seeks to project himself into the future through his "dying voice" (356) for Fortinbras'succession. His killing of Claudius, then, again contrary to revenge convention, has not made his own death superfluous: Hamlet's true nature could hardly derive ultimate fulfillment from such an act. It is an essential part of his tragedy that his spirit is freed sufficiently to begin its quest for that nature only by the certainty of imminent death.

It is tragic, too, that Hamlet's private agony is largely lost on the survivors—even on his only friend, who can "Truly deliver" (386) little more than the bare facts. The renewal that Fortinbras effects is of the very heroic values that enslaved and repelled Hamlet. These will now circumscribe his memory:

Let four captains Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, For he was likely, had he been put on, To have prov'd most royal; and for his passage, The soldiers'music and the rite of war Speak loudly for him.


The failure to recognize that Hamlet was indeed "put on," confronted with responsibility of the most fundamental kind, implies a failure to grasp the spiritual dimension of mortality, to understand that the final carnage is a metaphor for its ultimate cause:

O proud death, What feast is toward in thine eternal cell . . .


But that understanding is ours.


1 G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed., rev. and enl. (London: Methuen, 1949), p. 20. Other critics who have seen death as a central theme or principle of unity include Theodore Spencer, Death and Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1936), pp. 180-81; Adrien Bonjour, "On Artistic Unity in Hamlet," English Studies, 21 (1939), 193-202; C. S. Lewis, "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?" Proceedings of the British Academy, 28 (1942), 139-54; L. C. Knights, "Prince Hamlet," in Explorations (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946), pp. 66-77, and An Approach to Hamlet (London: Chatto and Windus, 1960), pp. 38-41 and 51-54; Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1960), pp. 237-40; and Harry Morris, "Hamlet as a Memento Mori Poem," PMLA, 85 (1970), 1035-40. There are inevitably many points of agreement between the ideas developed in the present study and the work of these and other commentators. As far as I am aware, however, such correspondences are either quite general or quite narrow, and to document them in such a broad reinterpretation as this would be more distracting than useful.

2 The text cited throughout is The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

3 I have discussed this pattern in "Meaning and Mortality in Some Renaissance Revenge Plays," University of Toronto Quarterly, 49 (1979), 1-17.

4 Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, rev. and enl. ed. of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon, 1962), p. 99. A recent study by Walter N. King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning (Athens, GA: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1982) also finds this theory of Frankl to be relevant (pp. 127-34), although Freud and Erikson are given at least equal weight in his interpretation. While King's work employs some terms and concepts similar to my own, its application of them is very different. He sees Hamlet as engaged in an essentially religious quest, finally fulfilled through faith in divine providence. Hamlet's attitude towards death is not emphasized; the Oedipal complex is.

5 Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (New York: Knopf, 1972), p. 202.

6 These ideas are expounded, with reference to both Renaissance and modern sources, in my unpublished doctoral thesis, "Mortality and Immortality in Shakespeare's Later Tragedies and Romances," University of Toronto 1976, pp. 1-34.

7The Advancement of Learning, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding et al., III (1859; fac. rpt. Stuttgart: Friedrich Fromann Verlag G. Holzboog, 1963), 424.

8 See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. and ed. James Strachey in collab. with Anna Freud, XIII (London: Hogarth Press and the Inst. of Psycho-Analysis, 1953), 60 and 83-88, and Mourning and Melancholia, in Complete Psychological Works, XIV (1957), 250-51; Charles W. Wahl, "The Fear of Death," Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 22 (1958), rpt. in The Meaning of Death, ed. Herman Feifel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), pp. 22-25; Charles Anderson, "Aspects of Pathological Grief and Mourning," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 30 (1949), 52; Helene Deutsch, "Absence of Grief," trans. Edith Jackson, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 6 (1937), 12; and Edgar N. Jackson, "Grief and Religion," in Feifel, ed., The Meaning of Death, p. 233. The account of typical manifestations which follows incorporates elements from Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, pp. 244-46; Jackson, p. 233; and Erich Lindemann, "Symptomatology and Management of Grief," in Death and Identity, ed. Robert L. Fulton (New York: Wiley, 1965), pp. 188-98.

9 The devil's responsibility for some melancholic visions was, of course, a conventional idea, but Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (ed. Holbrook Jackson, Everyman's Lib. [London: Dent, 1932]), affirmed that most such visions were self-generated: "But most part it is in the brain that deceives them, although I may not deny but that oftentimes the devil deludes them, takes his opportunity to suggest, and represent vain objects to melancholy men, and such as are ill affected" (I, 427).

10 Despite the contrary opinion of various commentators including A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1905), p. 412, and Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1971), p. 140, to keep above the voice seems to me the most convincing reason for Hamlet's shifting ground, since he responds approvingly to it and is attempting consciously to fulfill the injunction to "Swear" (I.v.149, 155, etc.), not to avoid it. While Hamlet assumes that the others also hear the voice, I think that they would react to it more explicitly if they did: as it is, they seem to be reacting merely to Hamlet's strange behavior. This is, however, a minority view—see Harold Jenkins, ed., Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1982), I.v.l59n.

11 See the thorough review of the evidence for such a double meaning by Jenkins, p. 493.

12 Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952), p. 39. Tillich has just cited Hamlet's soliloquy to illustrate the principle that existential anxiety underlies the fear of death, although he does not consider that Hamlet may be engaged in the very psychological strategy he goes on to describe.

13 The following reading of the soliloquy takes sides on various long-standing controversies in proposing a substantially new interpretation. A comprehensive discussion of the chief issues and arguments may be found in Jenkins, pp. 484-93, although I by no means agree with all of his conclusions.

14 Jenkins, pp. 490-91.

Harold Jenkins (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'To be, or not to be': Hamlet's Dilemma," in Hamlet Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 & 2, Summer and Winter, 1991, pp. 8-24.

[In the following essay, Jenkins responds to the criticism regarding Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech, arguing that while it may not seem to be related to Hamlet's particular problems, the speech is evoked by Hamlet's dramatic role as revenger.]

Ham. To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to:'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep: To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause—there's the respect That makes calamity of so long life. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th'unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry And lose the name of action.


"To be, or not to be, that is the question" is a line which has some claim to be the best known line in Shakespeare, though perhaps not the best understood.1 It is of course the first line of a famous soliloquy of Hamlet's—a "celebrated" speech, to use Dr. Johnson's word,2 and one which seems to have been celebrated right from the beginning. It was echoed by other dramatists in Shakespeare's lifetime. Within half a century of his death we find Samuel Pepys recording in his Diary how he spent a Sunday afternoon indoors learning it off by heart—3and he also had it set to music.4 The first formal critique of the play, published anonymously in 1736, purposely omitted any comment on this speech because its beauties were already known to every English reader.5 By the time we come to the nineteenth century the habit of learning it off by heart had made it, according to Charles Lamb, "so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys" that he was beyond being able to appreciate it.6 I hope that is not the case with you in my present audience, because it is with this speech—as of course you will have gathered—that I want to start. Those who may not know it off by heart will, I imagine, be sufficiently familiar with it for me not to have to quote it now at length. But I will pick out what seem to me to be the essential stages in its argument.

To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing . . .

The alternatives here are passively to suffer or actively to oppose; either to accept whatever life and fortune may inflict on you, or else to defy their onslaught, as expressed in the metaphor of taking arms against a sea of troubles. It is a metaphor that has often been objected to. An essay in Smollett's British Magazine in the seventeen-sixties said that nothing could be "more ridiculously absurd."7 You don't take arms against the sea. But that, I presume, is the point. To fight against the sea, a vast and uncontainable force, is futile, even ridiculous, and will result in your being overwhelmed. It is clear that Hamlet perceives what the likely end will be; for he goes on

And by opposing end them. To die—

The idea has its attractions; "To die—to sleep"; and to sleep, we may suppose, is to end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to.

Such an ending of our troubles is "devoutly to be wished;" and this wish to escape from the pains of living suggests how easily escape may be managed: without the need for a contest with a sea of troubles, one may procure death for oneself.

"For who would bear the whips and scorns of time" (1. 70)—a catalogue of which is given—when he could settle things once and for all with nothing more than a bodkin, a little dagger?

When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?


But even while this thought of escaping by suicide is being expressed, another thought has already occurred to the speaker. That a peaceful sleep is the end is only one hypothesis: line 61, "by a sleep to say," to put the case that, "we end." There is another possibility: line 65, "to sleep, perchance to dream." And before we reach for the dagger, the thought of "what dreams may come" must "give us pause" (line 68). There is a conflict of impulses as the longing for release from "this mortal coil" meets with the fear of the unknown. And these conflicting impulses come together in the climax of the speech, which also indicates which of them triumphs: line 76ff,

Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death

. . . makes us rather bear those ills we have  Than fly to others that we know not of?

And now the fear of the unknown is reinforced by conscience, and conscience, which includes, I take it, the awareness of our own misdeeds, "does make cowards of us all," in our fear of eternal punishment. Our choice is therefore for life, though it is hardly a choice of what is "nobler" when we choose to live only because we fear to die.

Now the remarkable thing about this best-known of Hamlet's soliloquies is that, notwithstanding all it says about the ills we have to bear in this life, it says nothing at all about Hamlet's particular grievances. It makes no reference to his murdered father, nor to the revenge he has promised to take. In this it differs strikingly from all his other soliloquies. Even his first soliloquy, uttered before he knows anything about the murder, is a lament for the father who is dead and for the marriage by which his mother has replaced him. In what we may call the soliloquies of self-reproach the sight of a player weeping for a fiction or of Fortinbras risking thousands of lives for a straw reminds Hamlet that he has a real substantial cause, "a father killed, a mother stained," and is doing nothing. By contrast the soliloquy of "to be, or not to be" seems strangely unconnected with his personal predicament. Paradoxically this is one reason for its fame: it has been able to be learnt off and recited by generations of schoolboys simply because it is easily detachable from its context. But this detachment makes criticism uncomfortable: from Charles Gildon in 17218 to Martin Dodsworth in 19859 there have been objections to "irrelevance." We look for causes and effects, ask what does this speech arise from or lead on to. The moment when it occurs is after all one of great tension and expectancy. Only in the previous scene—as the text goes, a mere sixty lines back—Hamlet has devised a scheme for testing the King's guilt by having the murder re-enacted in a play, and we are eager to see what happens. On his side the King is engaged on a scheme devised by Polonius to test Hamlet's madness by watching his behaviour to Ophelia. And Ophelia is even now on stage, where she is waiting for Hamlet to notice her—as also indeed are we, in our desire to see these two, for the first time in the play, together. Two plots, then, have been laid, one by Hamlet, and one against him, which will bring his relations with the King and Ophelia to a head. And then plot and counter-plot are both suspended; and just when Hamlet might be supposed to be impatient to know what the result of his play-experiment will be, he occupies his mind and ours with these seemingly relaxed and irrelevant meditations. One could learn a good deal from this sequence about Shakespeare's dramatic technique.

But the critics, as I say, are uncomfortable. This soliloquy "evades the issues," Dodsworth says, it is not "adequate to the situation": and there have been numerous attempts to make it more adequate by relating it to the circumstances in which Hamlet utters it, to apply the question of "to be, or not to be" to some specific choice which the speaker is having to make. Malone held that Hamlet was debating "whether he should continue to live or put an end to his life,"10 and Malone is representative of a long ling of critics who suppose Hamlet to be actually contemplating suicide. It is a line not yet extinct: the Diaries of Peter Hall regard this speech as expressing Hamlet's "current problem"—was he to be or not?11 Others suppose that "the question" is not whether Hamlet shall kill himself, but whether he shall kill the King. Kenneth Muir says the alternatives are "whether to endure the reign of the usurping murderer . . . or to attempt to kill" him.12 There was also an article a while since which insisted that "the question" must concern Hamlet's immediate problem and is therefore whether he shall go ahead with his murder-play at all.13 And just a few years ago another article, in The Modern Language Quarterly, came up with a solution to end all solutions: Hamlet, it supposed, must have caught sight of the King and Polonius as they slipped into their hiding-place to eavesdrop on his meeting with Ophelia and so deliberately avoids all reference to his own affairs in order to put the listeners off the scent.14 It seems, however, something of a letdown, don't you think, to discover that this wonderful speech is a fake?

What all these interpretations have in common is that they assume the speech to be occasioned by some particular circumstance. Even Kittredge, who insists that Hamlet's reflections are not personal but general, finds it necessary to explain what provokes them: it is the weary wait before Hamlet's plan can be executed that induces a depression of spirits which leads to thoughts of death.15 And no less a person than Dr. Johnson supposed that Hamlet would have applied these general reflections to his own case if he hadn't happened to be interrupted by discovering Ophelia.16

But since he discovers Ophelia when it suits the dramatist that he shall, must we not rather conclude that he could have discussed his own case if it had been the dramatist's purpose that he should? Is it then that the soliloquy is inadequate in that it "evades the issues," or we who inadequately perceive what the issues are? One book on Shakespeare which dares to ignore tradition takes a fresh look at the problem.17 Justly observing that Hamlet's question arises from nothing specific in the text, it decides that "it could refer to whether or not to carry out revenge on his uncle," "whether to live or die," but "could apply to almost anything," so that "one is not sure—nor does Hamlet seem sure—what it means." But I venture to think that Shakespeare would have been somewhat surprised to learn that.

For the question itself, surely, whatever you choose to make of it, is perfectly precise. "To be, or not to be," esse aut non esse—taking the verb in its absolute and basic sense, if one were able to choose, would one choose to exist or not? or, since to put the question at all, one must already have being, would one choose one's existence to continue or to cease? The question is thus a fundamental one—has indeed been called the fundamental one—concerning human life, the desirability of having it at all. But like so much else in Hamlet, it is not a novel question; it has been since ancient times a traditional matter of debate. One finds Augustine, for example, in his treatise on Free Will (De Libero Arbitrio), arguing the proposition that a man would rather be unhappy than not be at all.18 Augustine pertinently observes that many who are unhappy yet show no wish to die; but he tries to put all hypotheses, and he can envisage a man retorting, "If I am unwilling to die, it is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all; it is because I fear that after death I may be still more unhappy." This is of course the position that Hamlet arrives at when he admits that "the dread of something after death" makes "cowards of us all" and so causes us to go on living. Hamlet, no less than Augustine, is working out a theorem, which is of general application. Throughout the soliloquy, we notice, the first person singular does not occur. The argument is concerned with "the shocks that flesh is heir to" (all flesh), with what happens to "us all." Hamlet is not deciding on a course of action for himself, and I think we need not suppose there was ever any serious danger that the hypothetical bodkin might be brought into use.

Why, though, since it seems not to be prompted by present circumstances, why is Hamlet busy with this theorem, and why does he argue it now? Perhaps this question is best answered by another. When the Players arrive and Hamlet calls on one of them for "a passionate speech," why does he choose the tale of "Priam's slaughter?" Priam, a king who had fifty sons, is the archetypal royal father, and here is a prince who has to avenge his royal father's murder asking to hear recited how Priam was killed. But that surely does not mean that Hamlet asks for the story of Priam's death because he is brooding on his father's, nor, as I have found suggested, that he looks to Pyrrhus, the killer of Priam, for some hints about revenge. The analogies arise not so much in Hamlet's mind as in Shakespeare's, an explanation of them is less likely to be found in the psychology of the unconscious than in the principles of dramatic design. (Similarly, the songs which exhibit Ophelia's madness do not describe her own plight; but they are related to her plight because they are all variations on the archetypal theme of the maid who is forsaken by her lover.) The need for the Player to recite a speech gives the dramatist the opportunity to introduce in another key a variation on the theme of the killing of a king and father with its concomitants of cruelty, vengeance, and grief. In something of the same way, when the play requires Hamlet in his solitary musing to be confronted with Ophelia and some moments have to pass before he sees her, Shakespeare takes the opportunity to make the subject of Hamlet's musing a variation on a basic theme of the play. What I want to suggest is that the question of "to be, or not to be," though it does not relate directly to Hamlet's particular problems, is nevertheless evoked by Hamlet's dramatic role, so that the hero's particular dilemma is set in context with an archetypal dilemma which enables it to be viewed in a universal perspective.

What, then, is Hamlet's dramatic role? And what is it in this role which can provoke this large question of whether life is better escaped from or endured? At its simplest the role is the familiar Elizabethan one of a revenger, and its essentials, I hardly have to tell you, are given us by an old Danish story as we have it in Saxo Grammaticus and as it was retold in Shakespeare's lifetime by the Frenchman Belieferest—the story of a prince who has to avenge his father, when the father has been murdered by his own brother for his kingdom and his queen. This story, before it came to Shakespeare, had already been the subject of an older play now lost but known to have added the Ghost "which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge."19 The obvious effect of the Ghost is to give the call to revenge an added dramatic power. This is not merely a matter of theatrical sensation, though it is that. A command that comes from beyond our mortal world has a more than mortal authority, which a man is not expected to resist; and when the Ghost ultimately speaks to Hamlet (in a scene which has always been acclaimed as one of the most powerful ever written for the English stage), the command which it delivers and Hamlet accepts has tremendous solemnity and awe. Yet it is important to observe that what the Ghost appeals to is the natural human instinct, the force which binds the son to the father in filial allegiance and love.

If thou didst ever thy dear father love . . . Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

And again,

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.

It is, then, an impulse inherent in man's nature that the supernatural voice here reinforces.

Put thus, the command, I take it, is one of which the play expects us to approve. Whatever we may think of the primitive code of requiting murder with murder, and although Elizabethan divines preached against revenge, the Hamlet story clearly belongs to an ethos in which the duty of the son to avenge the father is unquestioned. Already in Saxo, in the persons of the two brother kings, the murderer and his victim, good and bad, are diametrically opposed. The moral contrast is consciously developed by Belieferest, and the full resources of Shakespeare's art are used to heighten it. "Murder most foul, as in the best it is," is here intensified: "most foul, strange"—and in the murder of a brother by a brother—"unnatural." As described by the Ghost, the secret crime, sensational both in method and effect, with the magically potent poison curdling the blood and covering the body with a leprous crust, becomes a deed of fabulous horror. When its perpetrator is referred to as a "serpent," we respond to the satanic connotations of the word. He is further denounced as "that incestuous, that adulterous beast," whose seduction of the Queen from her virtuous husband shows how Lust will desert a "radiant angel" and instead "prey on garbage." Such imagery, celestial and bestial, is recurrent. Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, before he knew anything of the murder or the full extent of his mother's "frailty," reflected that "a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourned longer" than she did for a husband who was, compared to her present husband, "Hyperion to a satyr." This striking image sets against one another the god of the sun in human form and a creature who is part man and part beast.

The play is constantly reminding us of the dual nature of man as the Renaissance mind conceived him: in his intellect he is like a god, while he shares the appetites of the beasts. And in the figures of the two brother kings the complementary attributes of man—nobility and baseness, the animal and the god—are separately embodied and opposed. When in the Queen's chamber Hamlet shows his mother the pictures of her two husbands, the first combines the attributes of various gods:

Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself, An eye like Mars

—to give a portrait of an ideal and perfect man; while the second husband, who has stolen the kingdom, is one with whom she lives

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

Again the suggestion of bestial sensuality. Through such imagery the play presents a moral vision of a kingdom in which the godlike man is dead, overcome and supplanted by the beastlike; and it enables us to see Hamlet's task of revenge as the destruction of the satyr and the restoration of Hyperion. He himself recognizes what the familiarity of the words should not prevent us from recognizing too, that "the time is out or joint" and that it is his task "to set it right."

Hamlet, then, by the promptings of his own nature reinforced by the authority of the Ghost, seems to be called upon to take the part of outraged virtue against vice. But the Ghost, as well as lending a supernatural authority, creates dangers, mysteries, uncertainties. From the beginning its status is ambiguous. The "thing" that appears to the soldiers on the watch "like the King that's dead"—is it the ghost of Hamlet's father or an evil spirit which may "assume" his "father's person"? If the second, Hamlet knows that in having to do with it at all he risks damnation. Horatio warns him against following it lest it tempt him to destruction. What it is and whether it portends harm is a source of dreadful apprehension. Yet when Hamlet finally confronts it, its solemn proclamation, "I am thy father's spirit," and its vivid tale of his uncle's crime carry such conviction that he assures his companions,

It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.

Later of course it suits the play to let Hamlet's doubts return:

The spirit that I have seen May be a devil . . . . . . and perhaps . . . Abuses me to damn me.

But when the stratagem of re-enacting the murder in a play has succeeded in making the King betray his guilt, Hamlet says he "will take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound," and he never doubts it again. Significantly, when it reappears in his mother's chamber, he accepts it without question as his father "in his habit as he lived" and, accepting it, acknowledges himself a "tardy son" who "lets go by" the performance of the "dread command." There are of course critics who, themselves disapproving of revenge, regard the command as wicked.20 For Wilson Knight it is "devilish";21 and one whole book has been written to maintain with much erudition that the Ghost was an evil spirit which should not have been obeyed.22 One reviewer of my edition of the play was extremely scornful because I had failed to perceive that the Ghost is an infernal spirit anxious only to get Hamlet into its toils. But that is not the view that Hamlet comes to, nor, I make bold to say, is it one that the play endorses. And it would be a much lesser play, to my mind, if it did. Once the Ghost is finally established as a truthful witness and, hence, as what it claims to be, Hamlet never questions that he should fulfil the mission it has assigned to him. The burden of his self-complaint is that he has not already done so.

Yet although the Ghost's authority has thus to be obeyed if Hamlet is to be true to his nature and his lineage, the doubts about the ghost have raised questions concerning the good or evil of its purposes. At the dramatically emphatic moment when Hamlet first encountered it the crucial alternatives were three times put:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd, Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, Be thy intents wicked or charitable . . .

There are terrible uncertainties which the acceptance of the Ghost's story does not quite dispel. When the Ghost leaves Hamlet on the words "Remember me," the speech in which he vows to do so begins

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

This sinister question may stay in our minds as Hamlet's demand for his companions to swear secrecy is echoed by the Ghost's voice from below. Later he does couple hell when, in the soliloquy on the Player at the end of the second act, he reproaches himself for inaction in a revenge to which he is "prompted . . . by heaven and hell." Does the play not suggest therefore that the spirit to whose command he cannot but respond is subject to both heavenly and hellish influences? The father in whom he perceives man like a god died after all in his human imperfections and speaks to Hamlet with his sins still unpurged. The nature through which the son and father are united and by which and to which the Ghost appeals may have both good and evil in it.

There is indeed something alarming, even horrifying, in Hamlet's reaction to the success of his play in proving the Ghost true and Claudius guilty. In the moment of his triumph his taunting of the King rises to a kind of savage glee, and as soon as he is alone his mood responds to "the witching time of night,"

When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.

This passage is sometimes passed over as mere Senecan rhetoric, but I think it must be taken seriously as suggesting that Hamlet in this mood has the contagion of hell upon him. There are hints of witches and vampires when he boasts

Now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on.

And he is surely not yet free of hell's contagion when he straightway finds the King on his knees and, having drawn his sword to kill him while he is praying, decides to wait for an opportunity of killing him in his sins so that his soul may go to damnation. Dr. Johnson recoiled from such a thought as "too horrible to be read or to be uttered";23 but a more sentimental criticism was able to explain that the "sweet prince" could not possibly have meant it and was only finding excuses for his reluctance to kill a defenseless man.24

Yet it has been amply shown that in Elizabethan literature a connoisseur of revenge would seek to destroy his foe, soul as well as body. There is the notorious example related by Thomas Nashe and others of a victim who was promised his life if he would abjure God's mercy and then in the moment of doing so was killed before he had time to repent. Wilson Knight justly remarks that Hamlet's desire for the King's damnation takes revenge to its "logical and hateful"25 extreme; but if it therefore illumines and implicitly condemns the very nature of revenge, that is something which Shakespeare must surely have perceived and indeed purposed. The play in some of its central scenes shows that revenge, even when undertaken to requite the bad man who destroys the good, may have hate and vindictiveness at its core. And that Hamlet was not in fact restrained by scruples about killing a defenceless man appears from the very next scene; for he goes straight from sparing the King at prayer to kill like a rat the man behind the arras who squeaks for help. The pursuit of revenge involves a readiness to shed blood.

That the dramatist saw quite clearly the dreadful potentialities of revenge is apparent from his presentation of other revengers in the play. Fortinbras, aiming to recover what his father lost, sharks up his "lawless resolutes" and threatens war on Denmark. Laertes actually brings war into the palace. He gloats over the prospect of killing his foe, and for the satisfactions of revenge he courts his own damnation. But especially significant, I think, are those figures who occur not in the story of Hamlet himself but in those inset dramas which give a heightened reflection of it. First, Pyrrhus in the play-excerpt describing "Priam's slaughter." "The hellish Pyrrhus," as he is called, black as the night in armour as in purpose, yet red from head to foot with blood, is the very symbol of a killer and, as he seeks out Priam, the Trojan King and father, a monstrous version of Claudius. Yet Pyrrhus, whose father Achilles was slain by a Trojan prince, is also a revenger, who compares and contrasts with Hamlet. Like Hamlet he momentarily stood with poised sword and "did nothing," but then, aroused to vengeance, with gigantic blows he fell on Priam and with his sword chopped up his aged limbs. In such a figure the appalling potentialities of both killer and revenger are contained, and the two are ultimately indistinguishable.

So too with Lucianus in the play of The Murder of Gonzago. Lucianus, murdering a sleeping king by pouring poison in his ears, is the exact replica of Claudius: but when he is announced not as brother but "nephew to the King," he suddenly identifies with Hamlet. The ambivalence of his role countinues when Hamlet, impatient, urges him, first, "Begin, murderer . . . begin" and immediately goes on, "The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge." Murder and revenge appear to be equated. And finally, the murderer's single speech, an invocation to a midnight poison distilled under a witches'curse, will find an echo in that speech of Hamlet's which I have already cited vaunting his readiness for a deed which "the day would quake to look on." Such things are surely clues, though singularly little followed up in criticism, which enable one to see how the dramatist regards the revenger. The play never directly discusses, nor permits Hamlet to discuss, the ethics of revenge; but it says much to our imagination when the revenger's role keeps merging with that of the murderer himself.

Now this, I take it, is what ultimately happens in the case of the hero of the play; and it happens of course when Hamlet kills Polonius. When the Ghost appears in the Queen's chamber and Hamlet confesses that he has neglected the command to revenge, there is something very ironic in the presence of Polonius's corpse lying on the stage as a sign of what Hamlet has done. In the old Danish story, when Hamlet kills the spy in his mother's chamber, he throws the body in the sewer, where pigs soon make an end of it. But this is not the end of it in Shakespeare, where the nuisance of the corpse persists, spreading its stench of corruption; and where the dead man has a son, so that the "rash and bloody deed" has its inevitable consequence in the son's determination on revenge. Hence the role of the hero significantly shifts. The man who is summoned to avenge his father becomes the killer of another man's father, and the compulsion on Laertes to avenge his father, though without a ghost to enforce it, may be seen to repeat Hamlet's case. As Hamlet will say in the final scene,

by the image of my cause I see The portraiture of his.

But in the cause of Laertes, Hamlet is in the position that in Hamlet's own cause is occupied by Claudius: Hamlet must avenge King Hamlet, who has been killed by Claudius; Laertes must avenge Polonius, who has been killed by Hamlet. The tragedy reveals that in actions of revenge the same man may play both parts. In seeking to right a wrong he may commit one and have to suffer a penalty such as he himself inflicts. Looking down on the corpse of Polonius, Hamlet says

heaven hath pleas'd it so, To punish me with this and this with me.

Polonius, the King's spy and surrogate, suffers at the hands of Hamlet, who is himself punished by the guilt which he has accordingly to bear. It is this dual role of Hamlet's that ultimately gives the play its shape. And it is clear that Shakespeare so designed it from the start. For, although Laertes has nothing to do until after his father has been killed when the play is over halfway through, he is from the first made prominent. In the first act, which has its climax when Hamlet receives the command from his father's ghost, Laertes is shown with his father, who, having given him leave to depart, speeds him on his way with a blessing and a famous speech of fatherly advice, and even then sends after him to spy out what he is up to. T.S. Eliot oddly thought these scenes otiose, "unexplained scenes . . . for which there is little excuse";26 but they begin the story of the antagonist, who in a revenge play will have to work the hero's death. When Hamlet kills the father, the son must be expected to take action. As revenger Laertes exhibits, along with the nature and duty of a son, all the less admirable features, and finally shows himself a fit partner for the murderer Claudius when he kills treacherously by poison. But through Laertes'revenge Hamlet has already received his death-wound when he at length achieves his own revenge by giving Claudius his.

The story of Hamlet's revenge, then, as Shakespeare's play presents it, is of a dual revenge which is both righteous and guilty. The hero, in his respect for his father, is true to the approved instincts of nature. In admiration of the godlike man he upholds the cause of virtue. But his own virtue is stained by the presence of baser passions and their consequence; so that the revenger becomes contaminated with the guilt which he would punish. The hero to whom is assigned a role in which good is thus mingled with evil might well be reluctant to perform it; and indeed, although Hamlet never acknowledges reluctance, nor, once the Ghost's identity is established, questions what he ought to do, something very like reluctance seems to be dramatized for us in his continual and inexplicable failure to act. In a revenge play, where revenge is the hero's function and raison D'etre, the hero who lets go by the acting of the dread command may come to symbolize all those whom life confronts with a destiny they would escape from if they could. The situation in which Hamlet is shown to hesitate seems to invite the question "To be." But the question is nevertheless not "To be, or not to be a revenger"; Hamlet never questions that he is required to be that. When the question is asked, in the very centre of the play, it is applied to the universal man in whom the particular revenger is subsumed. "To be," for a man who has man's nature in him, includes the conflicting passions which the play recognizes in revenge. Indeed, is it not the concept of revenge, as compounded of good and evil, which attracts into the play all those ideas about the nature of man as partaking of both god and beast? And so doing, it gives us a hero who is summoned to remember his heritage, to live out his human destiny, and whose wish is to decline.

For whatever may be said or not said about Hamlet's role as a revenger, his dissatisfaction with the role of man in this world is notoriously stamped upon the play. The famous eulogy, "What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties . . . how like an angel . . . how like a god," ends with the "quintessence of dust" and with Hamlet's explicit declaration, "Man delights not me." And his dissatisfaction with man is exemplified in many scattered observations. He finds no honesty in the world; the fickle public who scorned his uncle in his father's time now give good money for his picture; the Queen shows the falseness of marriage vows; it is the nature of beautiful women to be unchaste. The world is like a garden in which all that flourishes are the weeds, the things in nature which are "rank and gross." "Conception is a blessing," but the example of procreation that Hamlet gives is that of the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog. In such a world he has lost all his mirth; he has bad dreams; Denmark is a prison. At the heart of his dissatisfaction of course is the knowledge that what disgusts him in life is present in himself. It is the sense of his own defilement which opens his first soliloquy with a wish—if you will permit this reading—that his "sullied flesh" would melt. As he says in his scene with Ophelia, he feels himself to belong to a diseased stock, which, despite anything you graft on to it, will still retain its original taint. His first words to Ophelia request her to pray for his sins, and he presently adds that he could accuse himself of such things that it were better his mother had not borne him. "What," he asks, "should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" In fact, what justification can there be for his existence? Perhaps we ought not to be surprised, at least ought not to find it irrelevant, if all Hamlet's questions about what he and fellows like him are doing in the world focus in the centre of the play upon the all-embracing question "To be, or not to be."

The answer which the famous soliloquy gives might be described as a grudging affirmative: one decides in favour of life from a fear that death might be worse. That (as exemplified by Augustine) seems to be the traditional answer. But the answer that springs from Hamlet when he speaks of his own individual plight and gives vent to his personal feelings is most often negative, the answer which Augustine thought improbable and even reprehensible. His first soliloquy opens with a wish that he could melt away or that the everlasting God had not forbidden self-slaughter. He wishes he could choose "not to be." Polonius has only to ask if he will "walk out of the air" to get the answer "Into my grave?" And Hamlet confides in Ophelia that it might have been better if he had never been born.

This negative answer of Hamlet's is nowhere more apparent than in his dealings with Ophelia. It seems to me very strange that this unhappy love-story has often been thought obscure; its significance is hardly in doubt. Ophelia is the woman Hamlet has loved and hoped to marry; but in their famous encounter in the middle of the play (in fact directly after the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy), he denies his love, denounces marriage, and bids her go to a nunnery. The reason why he rejects her is made clear; for when Ophelia confesses that she has believed in his love and betrays that she has returned it, he exclaims "Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" Love and marriage lead to the propagation of one's kind; and the man who wishes he had not been born or that he could escape from the world by dying recoils from passing his life on. The rejection of Ophelia poignantly dramatizes Hamlet's rejection of life and its opportunities for love, marriage and procreation. It is the choice of "not to be."

Yet this negative answer is not the plays's final answer. In the last act we find Hamlet in the churchyard with the grave-digger, who took up his trade he tells us, on the day of Hamlet's birth. This will remind us that from the day a man enters the world his grave is being dug; and as Hamlet looks at the hideously grinning skulls he recognizes that this is what all men come to. So he sees death as natural; it belongs to the pattern of existence. Accordingly it is neither feared nor welcomed; and when Hamlet has a presentiment of his own death he can say "If it be now,'tis not to come . . . if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." And the hero's readiness to accept his mortal destiny coincides, we notice, with this readiness to do the deed of revenge which he has so long delayed. Thinking of the King he says "Is't not perfect conscience / To quit him with this arm?" And although time is short, he says "The interim is mine." There are other indications that he now accepts what he formerly rejected. When he announces himself as "Hamlet the Dane," he claims the monarch's title: Denmark, which he once called a prison, is now his kingdom. At Ophelia's funeral he asserts the love he formerly denied. Finally he does vengeance on thé King, though at the cost of his own life. For the avenger of Claudius's crime suffers for a like crime of his own when Laertes takes vengeance on him, while at the same time Laertes with the poison on his sword is repeating Claudius's crime, for which he also dies when the sword is turned against him. Yet these two revengers, both noble and both guilty, in killing one another also forgive and absolve one another.

Hamlet always seems to me a very moral play. It recognizes original sin, the presence of evil in man's nature; and it accepts that guilt must be atoned for, as in the catastrophe it is. But for all that, it does not commend a negative virtue, or, to use Milton's word,27 a fugitive virtue, which consists in avoiding rather than confronting life's challenge. It offers us a hero who, in a world where good and evil inseparably mingle, is tempted to shun the human lot but comes at length to embrace it, choosing finally "to be."


1 The text of a lecture originally given to the Association Belgo-Britannique in Liège on 23 February 1983 and subsequently, in the revised form here printed, on the occasion of an International Shakespeare Seminar in Delhi, 5 December 1989.

2 Shakespeare, Plays, 1765, viii.207; quoted in the Furness Variorum Hamlet, i.204.

3Diary, 13 November 1664.

4 See Shakespeare Quarterly VI (1955), 161-70.

5 [George Stubbes], Some Reflections on the Tragedyof Hamlet, 1736, p. 38.

6 "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, considered with reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation" (Lamb, Works, ed. Lucas, 1912, i. 115.)

7 "On Metaphors." Goldsmith, Works, ed. Gibbs, 1884, i.370. Though formerly included in editions of Goldsmith, this essay is no longer attributed to him and is probably by Smollett. See PMLA, xxxix (1924), 325-42.

8The Laws of Poetry, 1721, p. 206: "That famous soliloquy, which has been so much cried up in Hamlet. . . as it was produced by nothing before, so has it no manner of influence on what follows after, and is therefore a perfectly detached piece, and has nothing to do in the play."

9Hamlet Closely Observed, 1985, p.110: "His speech . . . must be felt by us as not altogether adequate to the situation actually obtaining for him; it is tainted by irrelevance." Cf. also pp. 111-12.

10 Shakespeare, Plays and Poems, 1790, ix.286; quoted in the Furness Variorum Hamlet, i. 205.

11Diaries, 1983, p. 188.

12Shakespeare: Hamlet, 1963, p. 34.

13 A. Newell, "The Dramatic Context and Meaning of Hamlet's'To be, or not to be'Soliloquy," PMLA, LXXX (1965), 38-50.

14 J.E. Hirsh, "The'To be, or not to be'Scene and the Conventions of Shakespeare's Drama" MLQ, XLII (1981), 115-36.

15Hamlet, ed. G.L. Kittredge, 1939, p. 208.

16 Shakespeare, Plays, 1765, viii. 207; quoted in the Furness Variorum Hamlet, i.205.

17 CM . Manlove, The Gap in Shakespeare, 1981, p. 43.

18De Libero Arbitrio, III. vi. 19.

19 Thomas Lodge, Wit's Misery, 1596, p. 56.

20 E.g. L.C. Knights, An Approach to'Hamlet', 1960, pp. 44-48.

21The Wheel of Fire, revised ed. 1949, pp. 30, 39.

22 Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, 1967; 2nd (revised) ed., 1971.

23Shakespeare, Plays, 1765, viii; 236; quoted in the Furness Variorum Hamlet, i.283.

24 For some instances of this aberrant but once fashionable interpretation see Hamlet, Arden ed. 1982, pp. 513-14.

25The Wheel of Fire, revised edn. 1949, p. 318 n.

26Selected Essays, 1932, p. 143.

27Areopagitica, 7th paragraph (Milton, Complete Prose, Yale, ii. 515).

Secondary Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Carolyn G. Heilbrun (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "The Character of Hamlet's Mother," in Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 9-17.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Heilbrun argues that the traditional critical opinionof Gertrude as shallow and feminine ("in the pejorative sense") is wrong. Heilbrun instead asserts that Gertrude is "strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and, apart from this passion [Gertrude's lust] sensible."]

The character of Hamlet's mother has not received the specific critical attention it deserves. Moreover, the traditional account of her personality as rendered by the critics will not stand up under close scrutiny of Shakespeare's play.

None of the critics of course has failed to see Gertrude as vital to the action of the play; not only is she the mother of the hero, the widow of the Ghost, and the wife of the current King of Denmark, but the fact of her hasty and, to the Elizabethans, incestuous marriage, the whole question of her "falling off," occupies a position of barely secondary importance in the mind of her son, and of the Ghost. Indeed, Freud and Jones see her, the object of Hamlet's Oedipus complex, as central to the motivation of the play.1 But the critics, with no exception that I have been able to find, have accepted Hamlet's word "fraility" as applying to her whole personality, and have seen in her not one weakness, or passion in the Elizabethan sense, but a character of which weakness and lack of depth and vigorous intelligence are the entire explanation. Of her can it truly be said that carrying the "stamp of one defect," she did "in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault" (I.iv.35-36).

The critics are agreed that Gertrude was not a party to the late King's murder and indeed knew nothing of it, a point which on the clear evidence of the play, is indisputable. They have also discussed whether or not Gertrude, guilty of more than an "o'er-hasty marriage," had committed adultery with Claudius before her husband's death. I will return to this point later on. Beyond discussing these two points, those critics who have dealt specifically with the Queen have traditionally seen her as well-meaning but shallow and feminine, in the pejorative sense of the word: incapable of any sustained rational process, superficial and flighty. It is this tradition which a closer reading of the play will show to be erroneous.

Professor Bradley describes the traditional Gertrude thus:

The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman, not at all the woman to think little of murder. But she had a soft animal nature and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun, and to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep in the sun. . . . It was pleasant to sit upon her throne and see smiling faces around her, and foolish and unkind in Hamlet to persist in grieving for his father instead of marrying Ophelia and making everything comfortable. . . . The belief at the bottom of her heart was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be happy in it in a good-humored sensual fashion.2

Later on, Bradley says of her that when affliction comes to her "the good in her nature struggles to the surface through the heavy mass of sloth."

Granville-Barker is not quite so extreme. Shakespeare, he says,

gives us in Gertrude the woman who does not mature, who clings to her youth and all that belongs to it, whose charm will not change but at last fade and wither; a pretty creature, as we see her, desperately refusing to grow old. . . . She is drawn for us with unemphatic strokes, and she has but a passive part in the play's action. She moves throughout in Claudius'shadow; he holds her as he won her, by the witchcraft of his wit.3

Elsewhere Granville-Barker says "Gertrude who will certainly never see forty-five again, might better be'old.'[That is, portrayed by an older, mature actress.] But that would make her relations with Claudius—and their likelihood is vital to the play—quite incredible" (p. 226). Granville-Barker is saying here that a woman about forty-five years of age cannot feel any sexual passion nor arouse it. This is one of the mistakes which lie at the heart of the misunderstanding about Gertrude.

Professor Dover Wilson sees Gertrude as more forceful than either of these two critics will admit, but even he finds the Ghost's unwillingness to shock her with knowledge of his murder to be one of the basic motivations of the play, and he says of her "Gertrude is always hoping for the best."4

Now whether Claudius won Gertrude before or after her husband's death, it was certainly not, as Granville-Barker implies, with "the witchcraft of his wit" alone. Granville-Barker would have us believe that Claudius won her simply by the force of his persuasive tongue. "It is plain," he writes, that the Queen "does little except echo his [Claudius'] wishes; sometimes—as in the welcome to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—she repeats his very words" (p. 227), though Wilson must admit later that Gertrude does not tell Claudius everything. Without dwelling here on the psychology of the Ghost, or the greater burden borne by the Elizabethan words "witchcraft" and "wit," we can plainly see, for the Ghost tells us, how Claudius won the Queen: the Ghost considers his brother to be garbage, and "lust," the Ghost says, "will sate itself in a celestial bed and prey on garbage" (I.v.54-55). "Lust"—in a woman of forty-five or more—is the key word here. Bradley, Granville-Barker, and to a lesser extent Professor Dover Wilson, misunderstand Gertrude largely because they are unable to see lust, the desire for sexual relations, as the passion, in the Elizabethan sense of the word, the flaw, the weakness which drives Gertrude to an incestuous marriage, appalls her son, and keeps him from the throne. Unable to explain her marriage to Claudius as the act of any but a weak-minded vacillating woman, they fail to see Gertrude for the strongminded, intelligent, succinct, and, apart from this passion, sensible woman that she is.

To understand Gertrude properly, it is only necessary to examine the lines Shakespeare has chosen for her to say. She is, except for her description of Ophelia's death, concise and pithy in speech, with a talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes. If she is not profound, she is certainly never silly. We first hear her asking Hamlet to stop wearing black, to stop walking about with his eyes downcast, and to realize that death is an inevitable part of life. She is, in short, asking him not to give way to the passion of grief, a passion of whose force and dangers the Elizabethans are aware, as Miss Campbell has shown.5 Claudius echoes her with a well-reasoned argument against grief which was, in its philosophy if not in its language, a piece of commonplace Elizabethan lore. After Claudius'speech, Gertrude asks Hamlet to remain in Denmark, where he is rightly loved. Her speeches have been short, however warm and loving, and conciseness of statement is not the mark of a dull and shallow woman.

We next hear her, as Queen and gracious hostess, welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the court, hoping, with the King, that they may cheer Hamlet and discover what is depressing him. Claudius then tells Gertrude, when they are alone, that Polonius believes he knows what is upsetting Hamlet. The Queen answers:

I doubt it is no other than the main, His father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage.


This statement is concise, remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous. It is not the statement of a dull, slothful woman who can only echo her husband's words. Next, Polonius enters with his most unbrief apotheosis to brevity. The Queen interrupts him with five words: "More matter with less art" (II.ii.95). It would be difficult to find a phrase more applicable to Polonius. When this gentleman, in no way deterred from his loquacity, after purveying the startling news that he has a daughter, begins to read a letter, the Queen asks pointedly "Came this from Hamlet to her?" (II.ii.114).

We see Gertrude next in Act III, asking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with her usual directness, if Hamlet received them well, and if they were able to tempt him to any pastime. But before leaving the room, she stops for a word of kindness to Ophelia. It is a humane gesture, for she is unwilling to leave Ophelia, the unhappy tool of the King and Polonius, without some kindly and intelligent appreciation of her help:

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


It is difficult to see in this speech, as Bradley apparently does, the gushing shallow wish of a sentimental woman that class distinctions shall not stand in the way of true love.

At the play, the Queen asks Hamlet to sit near her. She is clearly trying to make him feel he has a place in the court of Denmark. She does not speak again until Hamlet asks her how she likes the play. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (III.ii.240) is her immortal comment on the player queen. The scene gives her four more words: when Claudius leaps to his feet, she asks "How fares my Lord?" (III.ii.278).

I will for the moment pass over the scene in the Queen's closet, to follow her quickly through the remainder of the play. After the closet scene, the Queen comes to speak to Claudius. She tells him, as Hamlet has asked her to, that he, Hamlet, is mad, and has killed Polonius. She adds, however, that he now weeps for what he has done. She does not wish Claudius to know what she now knows, how wild and fearsome Hamlet has become. Later, she does not wish to see Ophelia, but hearing how distracted she is, consents. When Laertes bursts in ready to attack Claudius, she immediately steps between Claudius and Laertes to protect the King, and tells Laertes it is not Claudius who has killed his father. Laertes will of course soon learn this, but it is Gertrude who manages to tell him before he can do any meaningless damage. She leaves Laertes and the King together, and then returns to tell Laertes that his sister is drowned. She gives her news directly, realizing that suspense will increase the pain of it, but this is the one time in the play when her usual pointed conciseness would be the mark neither of intelligence nor kindness, and so, gently, and at some length, she tells Laertes of his sister's death, giving him time to recover from the shock of grief, and to absorb the meaning of her words. At Ophelia's funeral the Queen scatters flowers over the grave:

Sweets to the sweet; farewell! I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife.

I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid, And not t'have strew'd thy grave.


She is the only one present decently mourning the death of someone young, and not heated in the fire of some personal passion.

At the match between Hamlet and Laertes, the Queen believes that Hamlet is out of training, but glad to see him at some sport, she gives him her handkerchief to wipe his brow, and drinks to his success. The drink is poisoned and she dies. But before she dies she does not waste time on vituperation; she warns Hamlet that the drink is poisoned to prevent his drinking it. They are her last words. Those critics who have thought her stupid admire her death; they call it uncharacteristic.

In Act III, when Hamlet goes to his mother in her closet his nerves are pitched at the very height of tension; he is on the edge of hysteria. The possibility of murdering his mother has in fact entered his mind, and he has just met and refused an opportunity to kill Claudius. His mother, meanwhile, waiting for him, has told Polonius not to fear for her, but she knows when she sees Hamlet that he may be violently mad. Hamlet quips with her, insults her, tells her he wishes she were not his mother, and when she, still retaining dignity, attempts to end the interview, Hamlet seizes her and she cries for help. The important thing to note is that the Queen's cry "Thou wilt not murder me" (III.iv.21) is not foolish. She has seen from Hamlet's demeanor that he is capable of murder, as indeed in the next instant he proves himself to be.

We next learn from the Queen's startled "As kill a king" (III.iv.30) that she has no knowledge of the murder, though of course this is only confirmation here of what we already know. Then the Queen asks Hamlet why he is so hysterical:

What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me?


Hamlet tells her: it is her lust, the need of sexual passion, which has driven her from the arms and memory of her husband to the incomparably cruder charms of his brother. He cries out that she has not even the excuse of youth for her lust:

O Shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell, If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones, To flaming youth let virtue be as wax And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame When the compulsive ardor gives the charge, Since frost itself as actively doth burn, And reason panders will.


This is not only a lust, but a lust which throws out of joint all the structure of human morality and relationships. And the Queen admits it. If there is one quality that has characterized, and will characterize, every speech of Gertrude's in the play, it is the ability to see reality clearly, and to express it. This talent is not lost when turned upon herself:

O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct.


She knows that lust has driven her, that this is her sin, and she admits it. Not that she wishes to linger in the contemplation of her sin. No more, she cries, no more. And then the Ghost appears to Hamlet. The Queen thinks him mad again—as well she might—but she promises Hamlet that she will not betray him—and she does not.

Where, in all that we have seen of Gertrude, is there the picture of "a soft animal nature, very dull and very shallow"? She may indeed be "animal" in the sense of "lustful." But it does not follow that because she wishes to continue a life of sexual experience, her brain is soft or her wit unperceptive.

Some critics, having accepted Gertrude as a weak and vacillating woman, see no reason to suppose that she did not fall victim to Claudius'charms before the death of her husband and commit adultery with him. These critics, Professor Bradley among them (p. 166), claim that the elder Hamlet clearly tells his son that Gertrude has committed adultery with Claudius in the speech beginning "Ay that incestuous, that adulterate beast" (I.v.4Iff). Professor Dover Wilson presents the argument:

Is the Ghost speaking here of the o'er-hasty marriage of Claudius and Gertrude? Assuredly not. His "certain term" is drawing rapidly to an end, and he is already beginning to "scent the morning air." Hamlet knew of the marriage, and his whole soul was filled with nausea at the thought of the speedy hasting to "incestuous sheets." Why then should the Ghost waste precious moments in telling Hamlet what he was fully cognisant of before? . . . Moreover, though the word "incestuous" was applicable to the marriage, the rest of the passage is entirely inapplicable to it. Expressions like "witchcraft", "traitorous gifts", "seduce", "shameful lust", and "seeming virtuous" may be noted in passing. But the rest of the quotation leaves no doubt upon the matter.

(p. 293)

Professor Dover Wilson and other critics have accepted the Ghost's word "adulterate" in its modern meaning. The Elizabethan word "adultery," however, was not restricted to its modern meaning, but was used to define any sexual relationship which could be called unchaste, including of course an incestuous one.6 Certainly the elder Hamlet considered the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude to be unchaste and unseemly, and while his use of the word "adulterate" indicates his very strong feelings about the marriage, it would not to an Elizabethan audience necessarily mean that he believed Gertrude to have been false to him before his death. It is important to notice, too, that the Ghost does not apply the term "adulterate" to Gertrude, and he may well have considered the term a just description of Claudius'entire sexual life.

But even if the Ghost used the word "adulterate" in full awareness of its modern restricted meaning, it is not necessary to assume on the basis of this single speech (and it is the only shadow of evidence we have for such a conclusion) that Gertrude was unfaithful to him while he lived. It is quite probable that the elder Hamlet still considered himself married to Gertrude, and he is moreover revolted that her lust for him ("why she would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on") should have so easily transferred itself to another. This is why he uses the expressions "seduce," "shameful lust," and others. Professor Dover Wilson has himself said "Hamlet knew of the marriage, and his whole soul was filled with nausea at the thought of the speedy hasting to incestuous sheets"; the soul of the elder Hamlet was undoubtedly filled with nausea too, and this could well explain his using such strong language, as well as his taking the time to mention the matter at all. It is not necessary to consider Gertrude an adulteress to account for the speech of the Ghost.

Gertrude's lust was, of course, more important to the plot than we may at first perceive. Charlton Lewis, among others, has shown how Shakespeare kept many of the facts of the plots from which he borrowed without maintaining the structures which explained them. In the original Belieferest story, Gertrude (substituting Shakespeare's more familiar names) was daughter of the king; to become king, it was necessary to marry her. The elder Hamlet, in marrying Gertrude, ousted Claudius from the throne.7 Shakespeare retained the shell of this in his play. When she no longer has a husband, the form of election would be followed to declare the next king, in this case undoubtedly her son Hamlet. By marrying Gertrude, Claudius "popp'd in between th'election and my hopes" (V.ii.65), that is, kept young Hamlet from the throne. Gertrude's flaw of lust made Claudius'ambition possible, for without taking advantage of the Queen's desire still to be married, he could not have been king.

But Gertrude, if she is lustful, is also intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech. In all the play, the person whose language hers most closely resembles is Horation. "Sweets to the sweet," she has said at Ophelia's grave. "Good night sweet prince," Horatio says at the end. They are neither of them dull, or shallow, or slothful, though one of them is passion's slave.


1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, with a psychoanalytical study by Ernest Jones, M.D. (London: Vision Press, 1947), pp. 7-42.

2 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Macmillan, 1949), p. 167.

3 Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 1:227.

4 J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), p. 125.

5 Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1952), pp. 112-113.

6 See Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King (London: Chatto and Windus, 1953), pp. 16-19.

7 Charlton M. Lewis, The Genesis of Hamlet (New York: Henry Holt, 1907), p. 36.

Andrew Gurr (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "The Claudian Globe," in Hamlet and the Distracted Globe, Sussex University Press, 1978, pp. 26-41.

[In the following essay, Gurr examines Claudius's role in the play, stating that Claudius initiates every action in the play, except for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. In terms of Hamlet's political plot, Gurr argues that it is Claudius's story, "the narrative of his struggle to maintain order and security in the state. . . . "]

Based on an ostensible realism as the play is, the first subject to study, the framework of the action, is the Claudian world, the official, public world where appearances belie reality, and from which consequently Hamlet feels alienated. We begin with the court at Elsinore.

Shakespeare was always careful with his anachronisms. In the political background to his Elsinore story he carefully specifies the historical details and makes it clear that he is doing so. Any anachronisms in his presentation are at risk more from our misreading than his casualness. On the question of succession to the Danish throne for instance, where too many editors have assumed that hereditary succession by primogeniture, the automatic inheritance through the eldest son, was the norm, Shakespeare is careful to describe it as elective. A much older form in Europe than primogeniture, formalised by Charlemagne, election of kings by a council of elders was the standard procedure across medieval Europe, and certainly the normal practice in the ninth or tenth-century Denmark of the historical Amleth. Automatic succession by the eldest son did not replace election in England until 1272, in France in 1270, and later still in the less powerfully nationalistic territories such as Denmark.

One of the advantages of election was that it gave scope for the crowning of any eligible member of the royal dynasty if for any reason the heir apparent was unfit. A brother could rule if the eldest son was still a child, or a younger son if the eldest was an idiot. Normally, the eldest son could expect to be elected, but not automatically. He was truly the "apparent" heir to the throne. The system had its problems, since an elected brother might well promote the claims of his own child ahead of the dead king's infant son, and the in-fighting where an infant or imbecile heir did exist was usually fatal to someone. Five and more centuries of such struggles led in the end to a general preference for the automatic succession of the eldest son, whoever and whatever he might be, and consequently the elevation of primogeniture to the status of a law of nature, a law assumed to be ordained by God for the regulation of all mankind.

Looking back from an age which had found its kings through primogeniture with some degree of success for three hundred years, sixteenth-century writers were conscious of the hazards of the older system. Shakespeare dealt with the hazards of primogeniture in nine history plays. Election offered opportunities for even more mayhem of the kind exemplified in the Amleth story. It had the advantage for this play of clearing out of the way any direct concern for title, the problem handled so extensively in the history plays. Hamlet's problem is personal, not dynastic. His mayhem does not come from a struggle for power. Shakespeare used anachronisms in Denmark, but not over the Danish constitution.

The details of Denmark's elective system are touched in obliquely but fully. We are first given a hint in the parallel case of Norway, which also settled on its kings by election. At I.i.80-104 Horatio tells the story of the wager between the now-dead King Hamlet of Denmark and his opposite, old Fortinbras of Norway, and how young Fortinbras wants to regain the lands lost when his father was killed by old Hamlet. Not for another hundred lines, till I.ii.28-30, do we learn (and then in passing) that the new king of Norway is not young Fortinbras but the dead king's brother, "uncle of young Fortinbras". The parallel between Denmark and Norway is thus made clear. We know the Danish situation by now since Claudius began his speech from the throne with a reference to "Hamlet our dear brother's death".

Several niceties of the election system are touched on in the same scene. Claudius emphasises at the beginning of his opening speech that both his accession to the throne and his marriage were approved by the council. "Nor have we herein barred / Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone / With this affair along." Again, when he addresses the dead king's son as "our cousin Hamlet and my son", he is taking care to claim a closer kinship than young Fortinbras has to his uncle the king of Norway. By marrying the queen Claudius has avoided the problem of choice between the dead king's heir and any children of his own. He confirms this implication of his marriage a few lines later when he explicitly announces that young Hamlet is his choice as the next king.

You are the most immediate to our throne . . .  Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.

This is the "pledge" to which he announces he will drink that night. He has made as decisive an announcement as Hamlet's own at the end of the play when he declares that Fortinbras "has my dying voice" in the election of a new king (V.ii.338). That the king's pledge has been registered is confirmed when Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet that "you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark" (III.ii.318-9). With the king's own vote in his pocket Hamlet's election is as nearly guaranteed as any question of power can be. The same pledge leads Laertes and Polonius in the next scene to warn Ophelia that Hamlet is a prince out of her star.

Claudius's pledge has far-reaching consequences. Laertes says Ophelia has to reject Hamlet's love because it can only be lust. Marriage is out of the question because Hamlet's consort will be chosen by the advice and consent of his council—"circumscribed / Unto the voice and yielding of that body / Whereof he is the head." In his choice of human flesh, says the gentle brother, Hamlet being royal may not "Carve for himself." How exalted and guarded Hamlet must be as heir apparent is constantly implied, when the queen calls him "our hope" (II.ii.24) or when Claudius sensibly comments "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go" (III.i.187). And yet the question of the succession is open enough for Claudius to offer it to Laertes and for the mob to riot on his behalf.

The rabble call him lord; And, as the world were now but to begin, Antiquity forgot, custom not known,

The rati fiers and props of every word, They cry,'Choose we; Laertes shall be king!'


Custom demands that the council elect him, not the mob. But no custom, even the custom of carousing to his pledge, will hold Claudius to his vote for Hamlet if expediency makes it convenient to offer it to Laertes instead.

Election runs continually in Hamlet's mind. He calls Horatio his soul's "elected" friend (III.ii.60), and his thwarted ambition is one of the three charges he puts up against Claudius, the only one he feels free to declare publicly. In the closet scene to Gertrude he calls Claudius a cutpurse who has stolen the crown. To Ophelia he describes himself—a public and not undissembling statement—as "very proud, revengeful, ambitious" (III.i.125). Rosencrantz in his clumsy attempt to pick up Hamlet's thinking had already used the last word (II.ii.249). Hamlet even does him the convenience of returning it to him (III.ii.317) in reply to a direct question over the cause of his "distemper". Saying he lacks advancement is what he knows his audience expects him to say. But election is in his mind, and there is an element of truth in the admission. In V.ii.65, when he rehearses the list of Claudius's crimes to Horatio, he makes the point explicitly and unambiguously. Claudius has not only "killed my king and whored my mother" and plotted against Hamlet's own life, but has "Popp'd in between th'election and my hopes".

Hamlet's hopes were not only hopes of power for himself. Even before he learns of the murder Claudius committed to gain the throne he is bitter about the new king. In the first soliloquy after he has seen Claudius at his smooth work Hamlet's comparison of dead king to living king carries with it the assumption that Claudius degrades the throne, that there is an honour in the post, an ideal of conduct to which Hamlet himself aspires and which is out of Claudius's reach.

My father's brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules!

(I.ii. 152-3)

Hamlet is disgusted with the Claudian world well before he knows it to be a criminal one. Between the Hamlet world and the Claudian world there is an unbridgeable gulf; they are alternative societies.

The Claudian world is a practical one, and within its own terms markedly more successful than the Hamlet world in maintaining law and order, peace and prosperity in the land. Claudius fights with superb skill and resolution for the security of his "state", a word which encompasses his prosperity, his throne, and his kingdom. Like his travesty Polonius Claudius uses the cunning of age against the rashness of youth. All the threats, a balanced group of challenges, come from the younger generation. Young Fortinbras threatens invasion from abroad; young Laertes threatens rebellion from within; and beyond both of these public dangers is young Hamlet, a secret cause of insecurity both to the king's title and his life. A king who poisons people through their ears manages to defeat two of the threats, the external and the internal, with mere words; he even turns them to his own advantage. Throughout the play Claudius acts with speed and sureness to avert every risk, in a masterly display of political skill. His only failures are in his first plot against Hamlet's life once the threat comes into the open, and in the excess of cunning which this failure draws him on to, what you might call his overkill, in the final scene. At the very end, too, his loyal courtiers do not come when he calls on them for help against Hamlet. He is more alone then than Hamlet himself.

The details of Claudius's manoeuvres are sketched in lightly but fully, and the skeleton of the plot can be seen in them. Claudius initiates every action in the play except the murder of Polonius and Ophelia's suicide. We can trace the whole sequence of events through Claudius.

The first detail is the guarded battlements and preparations for war. Sentries, two of whom we meet at the opening of the play, are on constant watch; armourers and ship-builders are working overtime (their "sore task/ Does not divide the Sunday from the week"). The defences are alert because young Fortinbras is planning to invade Denmark, unknown to his old uncle the king of Norway, to regain lands his father lost to Hamlet's father. A thoroughly serious threat against which Claudius is making serious defensive preparations.

In the scene of the king in council which immediately follows, however, we find him doing more than passively wait for the invasion. The first item on the agenda after the formal words about his predecessor and his marriage is an announcement that the threat of invasion is to be met by sending ambassadors to warn the Norwegian king of his nephew's plan, in the hope that old Norway will honour the agreement over Denmark's annexation of the land and so prevent Fortinbras from trying to regain it. Claudius is in total command of the situation. He trusts himself to assess the danger accurately and to judge the best action to take. He keeps a firm grip on events—the ambassadors are to deliver his written message to the Norwegian king and no more. Eventually of course (in II.ii) we shall hear that his judgement was right and that the stratagem has succeeded. The invasion is stopped without bloodshed and at minimal cost to Denmark.

The next two items on the council's agenda at this first meeting (I.ii) are seemingly trivial domestic matters. They do however have a bearing on state security too, and Claudius well knows it. The first item is Laertes'request for permission to return to the high life of Paris after his dutiful attendance at the funeral and wedding festivities, which Claudius readily grants him. The Claudian world approves of courtly training in Paris as it does of deep drinking at Elsinore. The second item is Claudius's refusal of permission for Hamlet to return to his studies at Wittenberg. Diplomatically he gives the reason that Hamlet is important to the state as the nominated successor to Claudius. This piece of candy he injects with the tart suggestion that as heir apparent Hamlet really ought to learn to behave better and dress more normally. When Hamlet's response is insultingly to ignore Claudius and reply only to his mother Claudius chooses to gloss it over ("'tis a loving and a fair reply"). He has got his way in the important matter, that of keeping Hamlet where he can be watched. And he has put Hamlet in the wrong simply by displaying his own tact and discretion in contrast with Hamlet's surly offensiveness. Hamlet's attitude is anything but the "gentle and unforced accord" which Claudius chooses to call it, as everyone at court can witness, to Hamlet's shame. Only Hamlet sees the iron hand behind the smooth reproof. Denmark's a prison, he tells Rosencrantz later.

Claudius's final words to his council are image-builders too. He is hearty, carousing, carefree. "No jocund health that Denmark drinks today, / But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell, / And the king's rouse the heaven shall bruit again." Not for him the lean and hungry look. He is richly dressed (a peacock Hamlet calls him), and a hearty drinker who can dissemble enough to poison other people with it when need be.

Not that Hamlet, out of step as ever, is above accusing Claudius of thrift ("The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" I.ii. 179-80). That is a mark of Claudius's inversion of values, like the drinking, which Hamlet also condemns at I.ii. 174 and I.iv.8-22. Claudius's choice of drink as a concealment for his mental sharpness, his disguise for the solitude that the possession of power entails, leads Hamlet into his "mole of nature" speech, about men who suffer condemnation in general for one vice in particular. Since that is not at all Claudius's situation, Hamlet's criticism says more about his antipathy to Claudius, his rejection of the king's way of making himself seem human, than it does of Claudius's standing in the community at large. In outward appearances Claudius wins hands down. His behaviour is impeccable, his policy sound and economical, his handling of an ungracious and hostile stepson discreet and effective.

Claudius next appears in Act 2, after Hamlet has learned the ghost's story and has resorted to his "antic" (clowning) disposition as his own form of image building. Claudius, ever cautious and alert to possible dangers, won't take what he calls this "transformation" at face value and has fetched two of Hamlet's "school fellows", fellow-students from Wittenberg, to spy on him and find what lies behind his strange behaviour. He is sceptical of Polonius's conjecture that Hamlet is merely love-sick, but agrees to test it as an additional line of investigation. The ambassadors have returned from Norway with Fortinbras's invasion successfully scotched, so Claudius is free to turn his full attention to what is clearly developing as the next threat to state security.

Hamlet of course has no trouble baffling both his fellow students and Polonius, so that early in Act 3, when Claudius gets their reports on what they have found he can see that they will never get anywhere. Consequently after he has himself spied on Hamlet's antic behaviour to Ophelia his conclusions are properly cautious, and his decision prompt.

Love! His affections do not that way tend; Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, Was not like madness. There's something in his soul o'er which his melancholy sits on brood; And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose Will be some danger; which for to prevent, I have in quick determination Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England, For the demand of our neglected tribute.


Such a mission is proper for a prince. Moreover a sea voyage, he tells Polonius, might help to clear that distracted head. But the Mousetrap, Hamlet's essay at spying, is waiting for Claudius, and when it snaps shut Claudius sees that the egg Hamlet is sitting broodily on (164-5) does indeed contain something dangerous. Before it can hatch therefore Hamlet must be sent away. Claudius is ahead of Hamlet here too. Even before Hamlet has finished his turn at spying Claudius has shifted from suspicion to action, in a prompt and sensible reversal of his earlier decision to keep Hamlet at court where he could be watched. In Ill.iii Claudius, quickly back in control after the "distemper" which Hamlet's Mousetrap play put him in, orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort him overseas on the grounds that his lunacy and his closeness to the royal family puts the throne in danger.

The terms of our estate may not endure Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow Out of his lunacies.


A thoroughly reasonable precaution. Unfortunately Claudius's helpers are less prompt than he is. Polonius is still intent on spying, and worse still Gertrude has roused herself to take an initiative. Stirred to action for the first time on seeing the way her son used the Mousetrap to provoke her new husband, she decides to speak to him, to tell him off as if he were an illbehaved child. When he replies with very unchildlike violence, and holds her in her seat to listen to his sharp words, she remembers the violence of lunatics and shrieks for help, with results fatal to her would-be helper behind the curtain, who is also too frightened to do anything but stay where he is and cry for help. On hearing of this catastrophe Claudius, fresh from his attempt to repent his brother's murder, decides that his stepson must be destroyed to prevent more trouble.

Polonius's death is a potential disaster which Claudius can easily turn to his own advantage. He can hold Hamlet prisoner (in the Kozintsev film Hamlet was put in a strait-jacket) till he is safely on board ship for England, and even has a potential excuse for making sure that Hamlet never returns alive. To Gertrude he can explain shipping him off as getting him out of the way till the uproar over the "vile deed" has blown over. He has to do something because he will in any case be blamed for failing to keep mad Hamlet where he could do no harm, and by sending him away he might be able to escape the slanders which would be bound to grow if he did nothing to check his errant son and heir.

In IV.vii, moreover, Claudius admits a further difficulty, that besides the problem of upsetting his doting mother Hamlet's popularity with the people makes it difficult to "put the strong law on him". So to Hamlet and the immediate court he announces that the reason for sending Hamlet overseas is for Hamlet's own safety. His soliloquy announcing the secret reason, that Hamlet is to be killed while away, follows immediately. We can take it, presumably, that Claudius has inserted this further twist of policy into the original plan as a result of Hamlet's murder of Polonius, though it might equally well be a result of the Mousetrap's revelation that Hamlet knows about his father's murder. I think we should take it that after the Mousetrap at first Claudius is genuinely penitent, and that only the omninously short work Hamlet makes of Polonius, a surrogate for the king, pushes him into the decision to kill him. Expediency forces him into more and more devious turns as the pressure of Hamlet's threat to his security mounts.

Turning Polonius's murder to his advantage in this way is adroit enough, but there are other troublesome consequences of the deed, in Polonius's orphaned children, which call for even more speedy footwork. The furtive burial of the corpse was necessary to keep the queen believing in her husband's desire to protect Hamlet, but it causes problems with both children. Ophelia's madness is obviously Hamlet's fault, another item in his crime sheet, but the burial does make it seem that Claudius is protecting Hamlet. It is therefore some sort of pretext for Laertes to raise his rebellion on. "We have done but greenly, / In hugger-mugger to inter him" (IV.v.79-80), admits Claudius. He already knows of Laertes'return and the rumour-mongering which is stirring up a general suspicion against him as king: "necessity, of matter beggared, / Will nothing stick our person to arraign / In ear and ear" (IV.v.88-90). There is evidently popular support for Hamlet's invidious comparison of Hyperion-Hamlet to his satyr-brother. Claudius does not command the universal respect his brother had.

But Claudius is a man for all occasions. Just as he stopped the invasion by Fortinbras with a word in old Norway's ear, so now he stops Laertes'insurrection with words, and turns one enemy against another by diverting Laertes'passion against Hamlet. Claudius is at his best in the scenes with Laertes because we know for the first time exactly what he has to cope with and see him doing it. He is cool, steady, ripe with the native hue of resolution, a perfect actor of a part he knows to perfection. Supremely disingenuous, reminding Gertrude in passing that her son is "most violent author / Of his own just remove", he uses her when Laertes bursts in as a foil to his own brave stand. He draws Laertes from violence into an exchange of words, and once on his own ground sets to work to adjust him from a blind to a precisely aimed hatred.

That I am guiltless of your father's death . . . It shall as level to your judgement'pear As day does to the eye.


He knows perfectly what the outward appearance of events will show.

Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will, And they shall hear and judge'twixt you and me,

a judgement he gives a price to by putting his crown and life on it. His plan is clear: "Where th'offence is let the great axe fall". Laertes will learn that Claudius is already in the process of executing justice on Hamlet.

That of course can't happen in Gertrude's hearing, and only in IV.vii, once the judgement has been passed in Claudius's favour and Gertrude is absent, can Claudius describe the details of the execution. He explains that he hasn't punished Hamlet openly because the queen is so devoted to him and because of his general popularity, "the great love the general gender bear him". But Laertes may be satisfied.

You must not think  That we are made of stuff so flat and dull

That we can let our beard be shook with danger And think it pastime.

The Mousetrap play, danger in pastime, evidently still rankles. And then just as Claudius is on the point of telling Laertes his plot to kill Hamlet comes the news of the prince's return. On hearing that calamity Claudius changes direction without a tremor. He wisely omits to tell Laertes that he's already tried to kill Hamlet once and has failed, and within a few seconds is offering Laertes the chance to do it himself with a new scheme which he ironically claims is "ripe in my device". Once again it has to be devious, to appease both Hamlet's partisans and his enemies.

. . . for his death no wind of blame shall breathe; But even his mother shall uncharge the practice, And call it accident.

So, resourceful as ever, Claudius manoeuvres Laertes into position with that implausible account of Hamlet's jealousy over Laertes'reputation as a swordsman. Italianate poisons are added to the French notion of a duel (Claudius evidently has less faith in Laertes'swordsmanship than he lets Laertes know), and the plan for Laertes'revenge is ready.

The two contrasting scenes about death, Ophelia's suicide and the gravedigging scene, hold us off until the plan is ready to be set in motion. When Hamlet and Laertes fortuitously meet at the graveside and fight, Claudius tells both Laertes and Gertrude to have "patience", for opposite reasons. Still playing the game both ways, Claudius says confidently to Gertrude when they learn of Ophelia's suicide that he'd only just managed to cool Laertes down, and that the news would set him on his path of revenge again.

That note, the ambiguous voice of the seemingly wellmeaning diplomat, sounds again at the outset of the duel when Claudius, having laid his fatherly bet on Hamlet, makes the contestants shake hands and declare a truce to animosity. Even in the scuffle when the poisoned foil cuts both of them he pretends peacemaking—"Part them. They are incensed." To the very end he keeps up his act. When Gertrude collapses poisoned by the drug meant for Hamlet he desperately declares "She swoons to see them bleed." But finally, when Laertes gasps out the truth and Hamlet swoops to his revenge, he is alone. His plea for help—"O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt"—goes unheeded. Words at last will not serve. They have substituted for general popularity only for so long as Claudius has remained conspicuously in control. Now, as his most complicated plot begins to go astray and strew more bodies on the stage, an action at last begins which only Claudius himself, face to face with Hamlet at last, can play. The final action belongs to the two most solitary figures alone.

This is the story of what happens in the play at its political, Claudian level. Claudius is an efficient king, supremely competent at handling challenges to his state, external and internal alike. He is just in the routine performance of his rule, commanding the loyalty of the old king's chief counsellor and the allegiance of the court. There is no illegality in his being elected ahead of young Hamlet to the crown of Denmark; he cannot be challenged as an usurper. Marrying the former king's widow was useful to secure his position, but it is also obviously a love match of sorts on both sides, whether or not we take the ghost's allegation of adultery to mean a liaison preceding the murder. The only intractable problem in the way of a peaceful and prosperous rule is young Hamlet. And how childishly he behaves. Sulky, and solitary, he refuses to cast off his mourning clothes when the new king decrees that the proper period is over. He seems to enjoy the public contrast of his own gloomy black with the celebratory colours and deep-drinking of the court. He won't even concede the semblance of good manners towards the king, in spite of a promise that the king will give his support to Hamlet's succession. Openly hostile and ambitious in the eyes of the court, he becomes when afflicted by seeming insanity openly threatening. He insults the tender Ophelia as readily as he insults the king his stepfather. He assaults his mother and murders the chief counsellor of the state. He treats the corpse of his victim shamefully and shows little sign of penitence for his deed. He fights with the murdered man's son in the grave of the daughter, a tender girl driven to suicide by Hamlet's acts against her and her father. He insults even the seemingly well meaning Osric. He is utterly at odds with the court and his position in it. He is the only discordant note in the well orchestrated Claudian world.1

That, very roughly, is the sequence of political actions in the story of Hamlet. It is Claudius's story, the narrative of his struggle to maintain order and security in the state for which, as king, he has total responsibility. Kings kept order and administered justice, and in return their subjects owed obedience. Hamlet's disobedience ended in the total destruction of the royal family and dynasty, and the family of Denmark's chief counsellor. On almost every count it is a story of political disaster caused by Hamlet alone.

Political collapse is what happens in the play on the Claudian level. Above it though is Hamlet's level, the region where all the major structural parallels and contrasts combine to focus attention not on Claudius as the centre of political events but on Hamlet. In the pattern of political challenges to state security Hamlet is in the centre, Laertes and Fortinbras on either flank, Claudius the target for all three, for reasons which emphasise the solitary eminence of Hamlet's perspective against the merely expedient calculations of all the others.

The parallels of Fortinbras and Laertes to Hamlet are precise, each one taking up a different aspect of Hamlet's situation. Young Fortinbras is in the same position in Norway as Hamlet is in Denmark, the king his father and namesake dead, his father's brother on the throne. Laertes is in the same position as Hamlet, too, in having a father killed, his murderer unpunished and a target for the son's revenge. The two unthinking men of action, "outstretched heroes", flank the doubt-ridden student prince who shares their problems but not their psychology.

A more complex set of parallels and contrasts putting Hamlet above Claudius can be found in the two triangular patterns already mentioned. The first, old King Hamlet, his murderer Claudius and his queen, is explicitly made by young Hamlet to match its successor, King Claudius, murdering Hamlet and the queen, by means of two groupings of literary figures, King Priam—revenging Pyrrhus—Hecuba, and Player King—Lucianus—Player Queen. This matching of roles is a complex exercise. It links Hamlet and Claudius as regicides, and so makes a love triangle (husband, wife, lover) into a political issue. It puts Hamlet into Claudius's shoes as criminal murderer, regicide, and in some sense a rival for Gertrude's affections. Where the obvious value of the Laertes—Fortinbras—Hamlet parallels lies in the emphasis they give to Hamlet's inert suffering of his shame and his ultimate triumph, the two triangular patterns put his task of revengeful murder into deeper focus. Brother Claudius has murdered King Hamlet and married the queen out of political ambition and earthly love. Nephew Hamlet must murder King Claudius and yet not destroy the queen with grief. His dilemma is the moral one in the act of revenge, the difficulty of punishing an evil act without committing an exactly parallel act.

Hamlet's first literary analogy to this problem is the old account of Priam's murder by fell revenging Pyrrhus, who hesitates before his sword falls as he hears the walls of Troy collapse around him but still sets Hecuba to her grief and the narrator to his tears. In this first analogy to his situation Hamlet is more concerned to incite himself with revenging Pyrrhus's example than to dwell on the grief of Hecuba. She of course laments the death of old Priam as Gertrude so conspicuously did not for old Hamlet: a noble Trojan precedent for ignoble Denmark. But will Gertrude weep this time, when revenging Hamlet drops his sword on the old head of Claudius?

In his soliloquy following the speech about Troy Hamlet checks himself for such a self-indulgent use of literary precedents, and sets about preparing a better analogy for his situation. The analogy he sets up, his Mousetrap, the murder of Gonzago, follows the ghost's account of King Hamlet's murder by Claudius in all its details, including the thirty years'marriage, except one. Hamlet gleefully points out to the increasingly worried Claudius as the Mousetrap unfolds, that the Player King's murderer is "one Lucianus, nephew to the King". Just as brother Claudius had been positioned in the triangle as rival and murderer of King Hamlet, so now nephew Hamlet will position himself in the new triangle as murderer of King Claudius. Even to the extent of winning the queen's love from the king.

Hamlet's problem over this last point is neatly illuminated in a third analogy when, on the point of visiting Gertrude after the Mousetrap, Hamlet tells himself he will not have the heart of a Nero. This, the reason Shakespeare changed the name Fengon from his sources into Claudius, is an allusion to Tacitus's view that the Emperor Claudius in marrying Nero's mother Agrippina was committing incest. He was her uncle. And of course Nero murdered not Claudius but Agrippina.

The two sets of triangular relationships and their historical analogies are patterns making it clear that Hamlet son must emulate his uncle's sin in avenging his father's death. It has the neatness of an eye-for-an-eye justice. It is the pattern Hamlet father expects his son to follow as unquestioningly as Fortinbras and Laertes follow their revenges. And as before what stands in the way of direct accomplishment, of a precise parallelism, is Hamlet's mind, his better consciousness of the implications of the larger pattern of things.

A trio of young men all aim their revenges against Claudius and the security of his state. Young Fortinbras is after Claudius to avenge his father's loss and the territory which went with it. Young Laertes is ready to overturn the throne for its murky involvement in the cover-up of his father's murder. Claudius turns both aside from their vengeance, Fortinbras into a futile "fantasy and trick of fame" as Hamlet calls it, the classic method of taking out one's frustration on a secondary target, and Laertes is diverted into serving the king. Laertes for his pains is sickened by what he has to do so much that he loses his desire for revenge altogether and asks his victim to "exchange forgiveness with me". Fortinbras for his acquiescence gains a kingdom.

Between these two casual slaughterers stands Hamlet, more powerfully impelled to murder (by three offences to Laertes'one), pushed by the ghost where Fortinbras and Laertes struggle only for their notional honour. All the structural analogues, the triangles and the parallelisms, draw our attention firmly to Hamlet's mental problem and indicate some of the complexities of his situation. Unlike his peers he pauses. Like rugged Pyrrhus he hears Troy falling. He hesitates over obstacles where Laertes and Fortinbras see only a clear road. He diverts his passion onto secondary targets as he sorts out the tangle of morality and psychology in which he is caught. The whole interim of Hamlet's delay between the order to take revenge and its execution is the central matter of the play.


1 G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London 1930), pp. 32-41 and 318-20.

Martha C. Ronk (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Representations of Ophelia," in Criticism, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 21-43.

[In the following essay, Ronk examines the way in which Ophelia is represented first as a projection of other characters, and then the way she is represented by Gertrude, when the queen describes Ophelia's drowning.]

Ophelia has perhaps been drawn or painted more frequently than any of Shakespeare's heroines; yet her history of representation not only postdates the play's production, but also is embedded in the play itself. Ophelia seems to move towards the abstract or emblematic throughout as she is represented as dutiful daughter, beloved beauty, mad woman, drowned innocent. Early in the play she is represented as the projection of others—her father and brother and Hamlet who set aside her statements about herself and revise her into obedience. Polonius further instructs her in representing herself as what she is not, telling her to stifle her desires for and her faith in Hamlet and to present herself to him as indifferent and pious maid as he simultaneously represents her as the devil: "with devotion's visage/ And pious action we do sugar o'er/ The devil himself (III.i.47-49). Hamlet draws attention to Ophelia as a false picture by referring to the use of cosmetics as painting: "I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another" (III.i.144 ff.) Hamlet most frequently juxtaposes miniatures of his father and Claudius, but he also gazes on Ophelia as if he meant to draw a picture of her. Ophelia gives a picture of his picturing her:

He took me by the wrist and held me hard. Then goes he to the length of all his arm, And with his other hand thus o'er his brow He falls to such perusal of my face As a would draw it.


Once she is mad, Claudius speaks of "poor Ophelia/ Divided from herself and her fair judgment,/ Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts" (IV.v.83-5, my emphasis). Once Ophelia has lost those who created her (Polonius is dead and Laertes is absent), she is undone.2 Her representation as the conventional mad woman derives directly from patriarchal law, and her mad songs foreground the twisted manner in which she speaks her concerns with sexuality and death. In spite of its conventionality, however, her representation as madwoman does accomplish something other than pathos. For one, at the moment in which she is presented as most divided, she is also most aware of the exploitation of maids, and of the ways in which romantic myths of St. Valentine's day become crude losses. Moreover, without any physical contact, she has moved beyond maidenhood—not not virginal, but something else. She demonstrates her knowledge of the equivocal nature of things by puns—Hamlet's device as well—("by Cock"), and by singing her grotesqueries prettily. As Laertes says: "Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,/ She turns to favor and to prettiness" (IV.v. 186-87).

The most arresting and arrested picture of Ophelia occurs after she has disappeared from the play in Gertrude's description of her drowning in IV.vii. 166-83, and it is this representation which I take as the focus of my paper. This is a peculiar speech for at least two reasons. One, for what it is not. It is not a lamentation or disjointed outpouring of emotion as might be expected; rather it is a set piece, an arras, a speaking picture. It seems contrived and overblown. Gertrude's stylized speech is notably attentive, not to the human tragedy at its center, but to the decorative aspects of Ophelia's drowning—the embroidered flowers, the slanting willow, the billowing skirts. At the very least one might find it curious that the queen should give so aesthetically pleasing and detailed a description of the event:

Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element. But long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death.


Secondly, the speech is peculiar, if not outrightly bizarre, because Gertrude appears to have been present as eyewitness. For if she had been present to watch Ophelia's sinking to "muddy death," the speech puts Gertrude again in the situation of being complicitous with someone's dying. Moreover, since it is so highly astute a representation of Ophelia—of her madness, sexual obsessions, confused motivations—one wonders how Gertrude knows so much and just how much Gertrude's Ophelia is a mirror of herself and a premonition of her own death. Since it is so visual a representation, one wonders what is it a visual representation of; what is it (to refer to the language of Othello) ocular proof of? How does the picture function in terms of representing "Ophelia" and what does the representation itself say about representing the unseeable? The question of who saw what and what such seeing means is, of course, central to the entire play.

In this paper I focus on Shakespeare's use of ekphrasis to signal a representation of the inexpressible, the speaking picture, the refiguration of what cannot be figured. That is, I focus on ekphrasis as a particular means of suggesting aspects of character not otherwise accessible. In Jakobson's terms the relationship between word and image is both metonymic and metaphoric—metonymic in that the two complete each other sequentially and as parts of a whole, metaphoric in that each translates into the other's medium. Each moves towards the other impossibly. By moving from one sign system to another the poet creates a gap to signal a gap and it is in this arena that I locate my discussion of Ophelia—not to argue that Shakespeare has miraculously been able to represent the unrepresentable, but that the technical shift from verbal to visual by means of a specific rhetorical device, ekphrasis, signals both the enormous gap between words and images (and between images and the world) and the suggestion that the missing sign system might indeed offer up some version of "presence." Moreover, since the picture of Ophelia is given by means of language, the speech conveys ocular absence in an especially potent manner—no paint, no body.

Such shifts into the ekphrastic occur in Shakespeare's plays in numerous places: Viola's Patience speech, Cleopatra on the barge, Desdemona's willow song, to name a few. In the case of Viola, the Patience speech functions in a variety of complex ways, but especially to assert—while simultaneously denying—her other gender by evoking the picture of her sister.3 The case of Ophelia is complicated since she does not present her own picture, but rather has it presented "for her" by Gertrude. Yet like the famous "speaking pictures" discussed at length by Renaissance rhetoricians, Ophelia's picture does assert something about an issue central to the play—acting and its relationship to volition. By setting the speech on Ophelia's drowning in the context of the visual—both in terms of rhetoric (ekphrasis and enargeia) and culture (popular sixteenth century emblem books, theatrical staging)—I will try to suggest what her representation represents. I choose this manner of examining Ophelia in order to use the methodology of the period, but I also think that the shifts into ekphrasis in Shakespeare's plays stand at significant junctures and demonstrate the successes and failures of representation. Further, I will follow the lead of Angus Fletcher's work on allegory in drawing together two critical methods which have traditionally been at odds with one another: the discussion of Elizabethan imagery and psychoanalytic interpretations of the plays.4

I don't wish to argue that there is a transhistorical self or transcendent essence of Ophelia, but that Shakespeare frequently devises an approach to such by means of technical devices. That is, he uses visual allegory, for example, to extend and expand representation of character. Rather than making a character less elastic, I would argue, such artificial devices work to deny one aspect of character in service of something else. Rather than flattening character, such devices fill in what we know more traditionally by means of plot and dialogue. If the subject is missing—and clearly a picture of someone absent and in the process of dying in her absence is about as far from subject as one can get—what appears in its place and to what ends?

The representation of Ophelia has been almost entirely iconic; her wild hair depicts madness or the victim of rape; her blank white dress stands in contrast to Hamlet's inky and scholarly black; the emblematic flowers which she gives away and which surround her at death signal her participation in deflowering; her snatches of song suggest fragmentation of character. For Hamlet she is emblem of mother, bride, and finally grave. In her fine article, "Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism," Elaine Showalter shows how historical depictions of Ophelia alter with changes in attitudes towards women and madness. I wish to argue, however, that her picture-like existence in the play raises epistemological questions as well. As Bridget Lyons suggests in her essay on the iconography of Ophelia as flower-giver, although Ophelia exhibits certain traditional props and gestures of the goddess Flora, she nonetheless remains difficult to read.5 Within the play itself her icongraphy is contradictory as she appears both as the goddess of nature and a debased version of the same. Significantly, Ophelia herself draws attention to the difficulties of signs and their meanings when she comments that the flowers she hands about can carry a variety of meanings:

There's rue for you; and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace a Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference.

(IV.V.178 ff.)

That is, in her language and in her person Ophelia most vividly raises questions of the ways by which we know things and of the confusion that may result from using different approaches or different sorts of language. Most pointedly, Ophelia provokes questions of character, questions also posed by the ghost which comes "in the same figure like the King that's dead."6 Both "figures" raise the questions: what is a theatrical representation of character; what is the relationship between a figurative and a dramatic character; what is the relationship of what one sees to what is; can a "piece" of a character ("a piece of him")—whether that piece is a bit of dialogue, a bit of ghostly shadow, a bit of mad talk—represent a full blown "character," and what does that mean? Interestingly, both Ophelia and the ghost are uncannily half-dead, seen and not seen (mad, ghostly) and are potent in their absence. The ghost who is there and not there sets Hamlet on his quest for revenge and Ophelia, more powerful in death than in life, propels Hamlet to declare his love, his "identity" ("This is I, Hamlet the Dane") and his willingness, finally, to fight. Both raise the question of what meaning is to be assigned to a figure (or figures of speech or emblematic figures) and what relationship exists between a so-called figure and any other sort of reality. The ghost appears "as Hamlet Sr." and from the outset of the play questions what it means to appear "as" something else, especially in a play in which one figure is constantly being substituted for another, one representation of father for another, one woman for another.7 Here Ophelia appears as an emblem of Ophelia, but not in order to be dismissed, but rather to mean differently from the ways she has meant before. Angus Fletcher points to these fundamental questions concerning what is usually called the lack of reality of allegorical characters in his book on Allegory: "allegorical agents are real enough, however ideal their referents may be, however'unlike ourselves'they may appear. They have what might be called an'adequate representational power.'Too many philosophic questions are raised: What constitutes reality? Is it accuracy of representation? Then what constitutes accuracy? Or representation?" (32).

In her final moments of the play Ophelia is caught in an allegorical picture, one that most readers and viewers cannot forget. If Hamlet threatens to become all language and eventually all story, Ophelia as his counterpart becomes all picture, displayed in her final moments by means of description, not so much even of her person but of the objects around her, as if they could speak her story:

There is a willow grows aslant the brook, That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them. There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook.


The willow—here given (like Ophelia) not directly but by means of a representative reflection—is itself an emblem described by Thomas Fuller in his The History of the Worthies of England: "A sad Tree, whereof such who have lost their love make their mourning garlands" (144). The rest of the items in the description are emblematic as well. The nettles are associated with pain, poison or betrayal; the daisies with forsaken love. The crow-flowers perhaps symbolize dejection; the phallic purples signal the causal association between sexuality and death; the flowers are transformed to trophies.8

The scene is rendered even more allegorical by personification: the branch on which Ophelia climbs is "envious" and the brook into which she falls is "weeping." "Weeping" comes at the end of a chain of sounds that seems to build inevitably to this conclusion—"weeds," "weedy," "weeping." The court may be corrupt and the queen may be dry-eyed, but the pathetic fallacy is in place. Gertrude says that Ophelia is in harmony with nature (indued unto that element) and the sounds draw all the items of the scene, both human and inhuman, closer together so that weeping becomes a generalized event with many participants: Ophelia, brook, Gertrude, audience. Although the human figures are not described as actually weeping, the unrealized state of mourning for each is pictured in the weeping brook. As in other allegorical moments, emotion, often unconscious emotion, is spread out over the landscape. We know the centrality of mourning then through this scene. Since, as Lacan argues, there has been too little mourning heretofore, finally there is enough (39).

I would argue that in allegorical writing such as this, the unconscious is, to borrow Louis Aragon's phrase, "out there." Ophelia may be missing in the sense that we know little of her except as others describe her, but like the hoar leaves, she is reflected/captured piecemeal in the embroidery of the scene. The willow tells us of Ophelia's unrequited love and the fantastic garlands (circular garlands on a phallic bough) tell of her obsession with sexuality and death. Allegory heightens the pervasiveness of sorrow and makes the connection between world and character inescapable. In discussing Virgil's use of a night scene to describe Dido's sorrow, the Renaissance critic Peacham reiterates this argument, including the effect of pictorial description on the reader. As Rosemond Tuve observes: "[It] offers a way of magnifying the depth and importance of Dido's sorrow. Our participation in that passion, made thus more active, operates to give us'a more familiar insight into'all sorrow, for, as Sidney says, it is'so in [its] own naturall seate layd to the viewe, that wee seeme not to heare of [it], but cleerely to see through [it]'" (165-66).9 The mechanical operation set up by pictorial allegory leads to an assumption of depth and importance. That is, the technique of "seeing through" leads to an assumption of "seeing through and into and beyond." If there has been an enormous identification with Ophelia over the years since the first production of Hamlet, it may have to do not only with how much of her story is missing from the play (and therefore how many gaps there are for the imagination to fill), but also with a visual operation established by scenes such as this.

Though this particular scene is rich in allegorical detail, it is not an isolated example of Shakespeare's use of emblems in the play. The play's display of emblems is full, if not indeed extreme: Yorick's skull, the graveyard, the figure of the ghost, the mousetrap—all visual images in the service of abstraction. Moreover, the play belongs to an historical period in which the emblematic was a received mode of perceiving the world. Rosemary Freeman draws attention to an habitual cast of mind for Renaissance poets, a readiness to see a relation between simple, concrete, visible things and moral ideas (155); Steven Mullaney describes London, particularly the liminal space of the Liberties as highly emblematic: "Reading the city . . . was something every citizen was expected to do" (14). Masques were emblematic; Spenser's "Shepheardes Calender" was emblematic; designs for tapestry or for the queen's gowns were taken from emblem books; certain Shakespearean characters are seen as emblems—Falstaff as Vice or Actaeon. Critics have often thought that emblem books provide the closest model to these ekphrastic moments in Shakespeare's plays. First published in England in 1586, such books also present pictures in combination with text—set apart, interpreted, allegorized—each part necessary, each part not enough. Renaissance writers repeatedly express enthusiasm for emblem books and for vivid pictures. Sidney, for example, argues that a philosopher is not so accomplished as a poet since he can only create "a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth." Sidney also draws attention to the power of ut pictura poesis and enargeia (similar to ekphrasis) not so much to narrate as to exhibit. Like the figures in emblem books, many of which are classical women, Ophelia seems in her death to be held up as a statue or visual exhibit designed to be contemplated and interpreted.10

Although discussion of the pervasiveness of the pictorial in Renaissance literature is beyond the scope of my paper, I want to allude at least to the importance of the visual in the theater. The theater, of course, is always a focal point of the interplay between the visual and the verbal and Hamlet almost relentlessly replaces one with the other, most obviously in the mousetrap scenes, but also throughout. The play persistently replaces itself in the way it refigures its own progress, drawing self-conscious attention to the incompleteness of each figuring. Thus my understanding of the two representations of the murder is that one (the dumbshow) simply does not work: Claudius doesn't respond, not for some commonsensical reason as that he is engaged in conversation, but because the effect of representation (as Hamlet notes in his conversations with the players) is mysterious and uncertain in its effects. Likewise, the picture of Ophelia drowning localizes the point of connection between the verbal and the visual and draws attention to the inconclusiveness of both. Too much and too little are given. What does it mean? What are the allegorical implications? And what is there in this "passive" portrait and useless drowning which seems rather to suggest potency?

The nature of the speech is, as I have said, a set speech, a formal and artificial picture in part because of its numerous emblematic qualities. Moreover, to move from the speech itself to the speaker, it appears set because it is narrated in so flat and decorative a manner that one might assume a painting (traditionally commissioned to keep one's image alive after death) rather than a tragic event were being described. Gertrude describes the event as if it were a scene to be contemplated in careful detail rather than a scene to be reacted to; she doesn't lose control or break from her cool chronology of events. One might say that the speech no more belongs to Gertrude than to anyone; it is outside of character as if it stood at a remove and had its own integrity and purpose. It must occur when it does because it introduces the graveyard scene, but it could, one might argue, be projected from any voice or any character. Does it matter, then, that it is Gertrude who utters these words?

I think that it matters for several reasons. First, Gertrude is the other woman in the play subject to the decisions, the sexuality, the plotting of men; here she substitutes for Ophelia. By speaking of Ophelia, Gertrude speaks—as she rarely does in the play and here only by reflection—of herself. Like Ophelia who dutifully obeys father and brother, Gertrude is submissive to Claudius, behaving as a sort of projection. In their first encounter with Hamlet, Claudius asks "how the clouds still hang on you," and Gertrude echoes "good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off." Both women are reflected in the eyes of the men around them: Hamlet would draw Ophelia and would, as he says in the closet scene, set up a glass for Gertrude to see her "inmost part." Both women are attacked by Hamlet for their whorishness and both are torn by conflicting loyalties, slipping from one allegiance to another, and losing the ability to represent themselves. Ophelia's gathering of "long purples," for example, seems an enactment not so much of her own fantasies, but of Hamlet's. The dank image of "dead men's fingers" to describe these same flowers may reveal her ambivalence towards sexuality, but it seems equally evocative of Hamlet's injunction to Gertrude concerning Claudius'fingers. Equivocally, he tells her not to do what he bids her do, and specifically pictures the king "paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers" (III.iv.187). In Shakespeare, visual descriptions seem not so much particular as pervasive, not so much belonging to a single character's unconscious as to an unconscious underlying the play as a whole. Yet for all of Hamlet's crazed objectifying of both Ophelia and Gertrude, it is Gertrude who gives the last description of Ophelia as an art object. This seems appropriate, not only because of their comparable positions, but also because Gertrude's dispassionate description forces an audience to attend to what is happening to them both. Just as she disappears from the play, Ophelia becomes emblem or icon in a process eerily similar to that of others of Shakespeare's women characters.11 As Ophelia becomes icon, Gertrude as witness forces the self-conscious witnessing of her/their fetishization.

Gertrude's description is thus striking because of her decided aesthetic objectification of Ophelia. For Gertrude, Ophelia is a site of fascination and obsessive staring; there is no intimacy between them, as there is, for example, between Rosalind and Celia; and nothing, moreover, that draws Gertrude towards maternal intimacy or concern. Although later she does say that she had hoped to deck her marriage bed with flowers, a comment that indicates some connection to the girl who might have married her son, here she simply describes Ophelia as if she were invitingly framed to be stared at. It seems to me, then, that one of the reasons this moment is so unsettling is that vis à vis Ophelia, Gertrude stands in what is so frequently in these plays a male position, or at least one that renders her a distant and voyeuristic observer.

Yet, unbeknownst to her, Gertrude's delivery of this speech also binds her inextricably with Ophelia—calling attention to how they have each been made. Moreover, it binds her to Ophelia by so fully capturing the way in which both Ophelia and Gertrude decide by not deciding, intend by not intending. Gertrude seems not to know of Hamlet Sr.'s murder, yet she does suffer guilt for some reason as she indicates by an aside just before Ophelia enters singing her mad songs:

To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is, Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss. So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.


Her comment about the player queen—"The lady doth protest too much"—seems also to give some indication if not of guilt, then of her subtle knowledge of how to represent oneself in a complex, shady world.

What then does this knowledge indicate that she knows about the man she marries and about his murdering of Hamlet Sr.? Ophelia also seems "to act" in some shadowy realm of knowing and not knowing. She seems to crawl out the limb merely to hang her garland of flowers for some nonchalant, aesthetic reason, yet she is already mad, already obsessed with the death of her father. Is she out of control or not, and what does control mean at this juncture in the play? Is she, like Hamlet, acting a part or acting, and what is the difference between them, a question the play and the players reiterate time and again. This is the sort of serious quibble which the clowns turn comic in the graveyard: if Ophelia went to the water she drowned herself purposely; but if the water came to her, then she drowned herself in her own defense.12

I am leading here to the question of whether or not Gertrude is complicitous in the murder of Hamlet Sr., not that I think that the play offers a direct answer, but rather that the play so insistently raises the question of what it means not to know what is going on. Ophelia, as many have argued, does not deserve the maimed rites which she receives because she did not intend to commit suicide; rather she crawled out on a weak limb to hang her trophy of flowers and the branch broke.13 Yet, although she is cleared of suicide, she still receives maimed rites. Although the moment at which Gertrude chooses to marry Claudius is missing from the play, the scene in which Ophelia agrees to stand as bait for Hamlet is not. I have often puzzled over this scene wondering if it were a moment of change in which she gives up even the few worried questions she poses for her father early in the play, questions which signal her fullness as character, to become a pure iconic image of devotion. In this moment does the representation of Ophelia shift so that she is no longer allied with life but with a kind of stasis, life-indeath? In describing Ophelia's inadvertent death does Gertrude in some way describe the inadvertency at the center of her own actions; in her description of another does she acknowledge her complicitous choices even as Ophelia seems to choose suicide? By this speech does Gertrude portend her own death in which "the drink" also pulls her down. Does she, like Hamlet, sense what is to come or does she speak more wisely than she knows when she says to Laertes just before her description of Ophelia's drowning, "One woe doth tread upon another's heel,/ So fast they follow" (IV.vii. 162-63)?

In the play as a whole happenstance looms large and when accident occurs it seems to signal the operation at least of fate if not, as Hamlet suggests, of providence. Gertrude accidentally drinks from the wrong cup; Ophelia dies by the accidental breaking of a branch; and Hamlet's ship encounters the pirates by chance. Behind these events there seems to be some hidden meaning which the picture of the breaking branch contains. In visual terms such a picture appears analogous to Hamlet's: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come." That is, the picture of the breaking branch contains the past, present and future, as Gertrude pictures Ophelia making a garland, crawling out on the branch, and falling to her death; and it focuses on volition and on fate—on being ready or even eager to die and on leaving it, simultaneously, to fate. It seems as if Ophelia must hang up the garland—must, even to the point of drowning. Her compulsion to hang out this garland, this circular O of flowers on the limb seems to engage with Hamlet's copulatory imagery throughout the play and also to be an enactment of a ritual of mourning. As she says in her mad song about her father: "Larded with sweet flowers / Which bewept to the grave did not go" (IV.v.38-9). Thus Ophelia out on a limb is emblematic of an intertwining of choice and fate that tragically can only be represented in numerous ways, never untangled. It is an emblem of the equivocation—acting and not acting—which stands at the center of the play, and of the equivocal nature of representation.

In more psychological terms, it is emblematic of Ophelia's absolute control of her actions and simultaneously of her total submission to an obsessive idea which possesses her. Ophelia is driven compulsively to hang out the garland or to hand out flowers in a proper and ordered fashion. Ophelia's allegorical behavior becomes analogous, as Fletcher argues, to compulsive behavior: "The commonest experience of the compulsive neurotic is that he is suddenly disturbed by impulses that have no apparent rational meaning, and thence are seen as arbitrary and external'commands'" (287). And yet, Ophelia's action is powerful for all its seeming strangeness (or, as Fletcher puts it, "foreignness"), in part I think because that which is missing from view is enacted in the visual emblem as she, like Hamlet in his final scene, enacts both sexes in one: she is both bough and garland as he is both sword and wound. Also, it is a moment in which art dominates and asserts its power: the random flowers of the mad scene have been braided into a garland which outlines the O of Ophelia's name. Copulation has become entirely symbolic.

The description of Ophelia's drowning adds momentously to her representation just as she is permanently removed from the play. Just as the play seems to stall just before the rush of events leading to Hamlet's death, so here it stops as Gertrude leisurely relates the drowning. Indeed, the ekphrastic moment is a moment of stop time, as Murray Krieger has so well described, a moment when stillness reigns; this is particularly obvious here since it comes at the end of the scene in which Laertes and Claudius are plotting Hamlet's death and in which Laertes expresses all eagerness for action. Ekphrasis and enargeia run counter to narrative time and seem to move into space as an escape from time and its effects as in the famous example of the Grecian Urn. Ekphrasis allows for a kind of spacing out, a shift into another mode. In Hamlet Ophelia is clearly affronted by the rapid passage of time—by the early loss of young love, by the unexpected murder of her father, by the loss of her own sanity, and finally by death. Moreover, Ophelia is effaced not only by the rapid pace of time, but also by the language of nothingness, the nothing, as Hamlet remarks, between maids'legs (III.ii.115-19). In this instance the nothingness becomes so overwhelmingly sexual as to blot out any other aspects of character. The play's counter-movement to this rapid effacement of Ophelia is the presentation of her as abstract allegorical figure, most particularly in the moment of her drowning in which she paradoxically becomes one with the earth (dragged "to muddy death"). She is now the obvious representation of "Ophelia," or to put it another way, that she was a representation all along is made clear. The picture disrupts any notion of "self by turning "self into pure figuration. Uncannily, Ophelia seems to participate in this movement, answering Hamlet's version of her nothingness with her own, and replacing her earlier frenzied madness with another sort: still, calm, deliberate. Her movement out on the limb is as Murray Krieger describes it in his essay on ekphrasis, "a forever-now" motion (118). It has often seemed to me appropriate in a comic way that the foolish Polonius is killed behind an arras. As a character he is marked by mechanical behavior, two-dimensional as a tapestry. Ophelia also is defined in the play by mechanical operations foisted on her largely by her father, and her death scene is also tapestry-like. Yet, I would argue that the effect on the reader of this move from drama to the still ekphrastic moment is to elicit contemplation—in particular concerning the successes and failures of representation, the losses and triumphs of becoming picture or story. Both Renaissance and contemporary literary critics are sensitive to the peculiar effect of allegorical representation. Peacham says that the figure of allegory "engraves" the image of things "under deep shadowes to the contemplation of the mind." Angus Fletcher suggests that emblems and allegory present codes to be deciphered which elicit, therefore, an interpretive response from the audience: "the silences in allegory mean as much as the filled-in spaces, because by bridging the silent gaps between oddly unrelated images we reach the sunken understructure of thought" (107).14 Thus one's experience of this madness, if it is that, is quite different from one's experience of Ophelia's earlier mad scene. Quieted by emblem, one's experience is of something beyond.

This movement into eternal icon thus renders Ophelia paradoxically outside of or beyond the very mutability which death usually entails. Such a technical maneuver places her in a new arena as amplified figure: an artificial representation larger than life. Michel Beau-jour argues persuasively that ekphrasis is disruptive of the forward movement of narrative time and that it operates towards the ideal:

Such rhetorical ornaments as enargia, ekphrasis, the whole complex array of evidentia, lie athwart the thread of narrative time, and jeopardize its integrity. Like the imagines agentes of Memoria, descriptive figures derive their energy from idealization, excess, hyperbole, cosmic order. Reaching for optimum effectiveness, descriptive ornaments rise toward an Empyrean inhabited by quasi-Platonic ideas and, as such, they become strangers to mutability, and to the red dust of cause and effect. (42)

As Gertrude slowly details the drowning, Ophelia moves out of narrative and into some "cosmic order," as fantastical as the fantastic garlands she weaves. She becomes part of a pastoral world removed from the corruption of the court; even the liberal shepherds' "grosser name" for the long purples seems merely frank compared to the sexual license and incest at court. She belongs to the artificial realm of pastoral poems:

Therewith fantastic garlands did she make Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name.


Another way in which the picture of Ophelia specifically argues for Ophelia as an inhabitant now of another realm is in the peculiar imagery used to describe her clothes: "her clothes spread wide,/ And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up." The image "mermaid-like" for Ophelia's skirts is so far-fetched as to force one to ask why such an image occurs. Like mermaids her clothes bear her up, bear her away. Indeed she seems metamorphosed into a water creature of sorts: "like a creature native and indued/ Unto that element," she seems therefore oblivious of drowning. She is, like the mermaids, a momentary inhabitant of two realms, air and water. Some part of her, alien and otherworldly, has split off in the form of skirts, to buoy her up. Paradoxically, at the moment of her death in the play, she is on her way to becoming legendary, the stuff that does not change.

By association, I would argue, Ophelia herself comes to be represented by mermaids.15 Like the mermaid, Ophelia is split in nature by those who describe her in the play; in Gertrude's speech that split is displayed in the vivid picture of creatures half-women and half-fish buoying Ophelia in the water. As emblems mermaids were readily available to the culture and had been part of the pageants given to entertain Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth in 1591 and at Elvetham in 1595, creating a sort of Ovidian myth for the Elizabethan age.16 In Midsummer Night's Dream Oberon tells about such a mythical realm in which mermaids calm the seas and sing heavenly music:

I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back, Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath, That the rude sea grew civil at her song, And certain stars shot madly from their spheres, To hear the sea maid's music.

(II.i. 150-56)

In Hamlet Shakespeare's imagery of mermaids mythologizes Ophelia, pulling her into an iconic realm of the idealized and transcendent.

The figure of Ophelia behaves allegorically then in pointing insistently beyond itself as a key to something hidden, mysterious, unexpressable, a realm—to use Walter Benjamin's terms—"of hidden knowledge." In allegory, he argues, "all of the things which are used to signify derive, from the very fact of their pointing to something else, a power which makes them appear no longer commensurable with profane things, which raises them onto a higher plane, and which can, indeed sanctify them" (175). The shift into ekphrasis may not be able fully to render that realm, but it is a potent technical device which can suggest the larger and inexpressible shift. That is, ekphrasis becomes a poetic device to render a presence which cannot be rendered or to represent that which cannot be represented. If the word is the sign for symbolic and arbitrary mediation, the image becomes a sign for the unmediated. As W. J. T. Mitchell suggests in Iconology:

We imagine the gulf between words and images to be as wide as the one between words and things, between (in the largest sense) culture and nature. The image is the sign that pretends not to be a sign, masquerading as (or, for the believer, actually achieving) natural immediacy and presence. The word is its "other," the artificial, arbitrary production of human will that disrupts natural presence by introducing unnatural elements into the world—time, consciousness, history, and the alienating intervention of symbolic mediation.


What interests me at this point is what to make of the emblem which is "Ophelia." Although it seems true that Shakespeare's women cannot survive their transformations into art objects, it seems also true that some potency remains in this portrait of Ophelia in part because of some specific aspects of this particular scene such as the witty enactment of copulation which it is tempting to see as some form of transcendent sexuality, insistently beyond the forms offered by the culture of the play. Even the reference to the mermaids seems to draw attention to two sexes in one; if the scene is a scene of symbolic copulation, it is one in which gentle, diffuse, and spread out (like the skirts) seem the operative terms. I also would postulate at least tentatively that when we approach the women of Shakespeare's plays as art objects or as objects of the gaze, we come at them in part, and particularly in the second example, from a modern perspective. Although I do not deny the frequent obliteration of women in the plays, it would be more useful to imagine what sort of potency resides with an icon from the perspective of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation which repressed icons, particularly icons of the central female figure of the Catholic Church. From this vantage, the emblem of Ophelia appears more subversive and potent; as the figure who represents the return of the repressed, she is eerily insistent and tropic.

Moreover, Ophelia seems to participate in her own emblematization. She moves beyond the play at this point to stand in a realm apart like the mimes or the silent ghost. In this tragedy, Hamlet's and Ophelia's refusal to participate in the world as it presents itself results in death. Yet Ophelia's death also has a sort of insistent calm about it, constructed by the technical devices of narration and ekphrasis. I do not mean to overly romanticize silence, but I do mean to draw attention to the potency of refusal.

Further, the emblem, again like the ghost, has a potency associated with the arousing of fear. As many critics have pointed out, this play is very much one of questions concerning where one comes from and where one goes and the fear attendant on such questions. Significantly, then, Ophelia may be said to arouse fear first as an image of the other, that is, woman (for Hamlet, an image of the debased sexuality of his mother), and here imaged as half-woman, half-fish; and secondly as emblem of where one comes from and where one is going (to muddy death). More importantly, perhaps, the ekphrastic portrait of Ophelia arouses fear as the form of emblem itself. This is a version of Freud's "uncanny" in which one feels an eerie fear when one "doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate."18 W. T. J. Mitchell explains the fear of ekphrastic moments in a manner in keeping with Freud as stemming from a sense of the visual image as a sort of idol or fetish: "the fear stems from the recognition that these signs, and the'others'who believe in them, may be in the process of taking power, appropriating voice" (151). Such fear could arise from a dead person speaking as the ghost speaks to Hamlet or as Ophelia "speaks" from beyond the grave.

She makes herself known ekphrastically by putting forth emblematic flowers—at least so Laertes imagines:

Lay her I'th'earth, And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring.


The grotesque nature of this image becomes even more evident when it is set next to Shakespeare's source in Persius: "e tumulo fortunataque favilla/ nascentur violae?"19 The violets in Shakespeare's play grow not out of the ground, but out of Ophelia's very flesh, and are emblems here of the realm beyond the human: fair and unpolluted.

As a sort of decomposing emblem which passes in and out of the iconic, Ophelia forces a recognition of all that such alternation back and forth signifies, including the realms beyond the senses, realms located in absence and death; and, more importantly, of the uncanny and affecting nature of that which will not hold still even in its stillest (most iconic) form. As Ophelia shifts in and out of the iconic, her shifts represent the mysterious absences and gaps which are contained in the "not this" of "that" or the "not that" of "this." She remains unseen. Indeed how could Gertrude have seen her, many critics of the play have asked, the sort of naive question like "how many children had Lady Macbeth?" that leads us to central perceptions concerning male potency (a central issue in Macbeth) or concerning unrepresentativity, to my mind, the central issue in Hamlet. That is, the Gertrude who has been represented in the play could not have witnessed and then narrated Ophelia's drowning; that she appears "other" at this point further underscores the instability of representation. That Gertrude describes Ophelia as "incapable of her own distress" signals not only Ophelia's removal from self (by madness perhaps), but also her incapability, as in sonnet 113: "Incapable of more, replete with you./ My most true mind thus maketh mine m'eyen untrue." As Stephen Booth has it in his notes to the sonnets, "the capsulation of everything in the poem has logically distinguished in the course of reporting a fanciful collapse in distinctions of function." Vision undoes vision.20 In discussing Shakespeare, many critics have described his use of doubles and substitutes and replays; here is another sort of doubling: the use of ekphrasis to represent and underscore the O which is missing. One is blocked from seeing, thwarted in one's efforts to pierce the narrative to see the picture which itself blocks "Ophelia." Neil Hertz associates "blockage" with the sublime, describing the activity of a mind attempting to match the extent of an object: "but when its capacity matches the extent of the object, the sense of containing the object, but also (with a hint of the theological paradox) of being filled by it, possessed by it, blocks the mind's further movment and'composes it into a solemn sedateness,' 'strikes it with deep silent wonder.'"21 Ophelia's ekphrastic presence in the play, particularly given the historical moment, suggests the impossibility of more than seeing what the viewer "could not have seen" (as Hamlet can never see his own conception and his own death) to an audience intent on viewing what is not there—the sheer impossible effort of which may also help to create a sense of the transcendent or of the frustration which lapses into it.


1 William Shakespeare, Hamlet. ed. Harold Jenkins, Arden ed. (New York: Routledge, 1982).

2 Irigaray: "How could she be anything but suggestible and hysterical when her sexual instincts have been castrated, her sexual feelings, representatives, and representations forbidden" (Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian Gill, [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985], 59-60).

3 Martha Ronk, "Viola's [lack of] Patience," Centennial Review 37 (1993): 384-99.

4 Angus Fletcher, Allegory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964), chapter 6.

5 Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, (New York: Methuen, 1985), 77-94. Bridget Lyons, "The Iconography of Ophelia," ELH 44 (1977): 60-74. Maurice Charney and Hanna Charney, "The language of Madwomen in Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists," Signs 3 (1977): 451-60. Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Literature and Psychoanalysis, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1977).

6 The definitions for figure in the OED are too numerous to include in full here. I give some of the ones relevant to my argument: "5a. An embodied (human) form; a person considered with regard to visible form or appearance. 9a. The image, likeness, or representation of something material or immaterial. 1531 Elyot Gov. I. xxvi, There is nat a more playne figure of idlenesse, than playinge at dise. 10. esp. An artificial representation of the human form. b. In painting, drawing, etc. H.a. Represented character; part enacted; hence, position, capacity. 1610 Shakes. Temp. III.ii i 83 Brauely the figure of this Harpie, hast thou Perform'd. 12. An emblem, type."

7 I am grateful to my colleague Michael Near of Occidental College for these perceptions.

8 Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England (London: F.G.W.L. and W.G., 1662). See also the Longer Notes in Jenkins, 544-47. Alciatus pictures a willow in plate 201 in a way that associates the willow not with unrequited love, but with sexuality, if not assault: "A willow tree near a stream. . . . At the left a nude supine woman with a burning torch at her side. Behind the woman a kneeling bearded man reaching between the legs of a second nude woman who leans back on her knees" (Emblemata [Padua, 1621]).

9Elizabethean and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), 112.

10 Rosemary Freeman, ed., A Collection of Emblems, Ancient and Moderne by George Wither, (reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press 1975); Steven Mullaney, The Place of the Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

In contemporary literary criticism the word ekphrasis (defined in the OED as "a plain declaration or interpretation of a thing," 1715) has been used to refer to these verbal images and to connect them to one of the earliest and the most famous examples of such rhetorical practice, the shield of Achilles. W. T. J. Mitchell, Iconography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) and an unpublished essay "On Poems On Pictures: Ekphrasis and the Other." Murray Krieger, "The Ekphrastic Principle and the Still Movement of Poetry; or Laokoon Revisited," in The Play and the Place of Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967). John Hollander, "The Gazer's Spirit," in The Romantics and Us, ed. Gene W. Roff, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990). Michel Beaujour, "Some Paradoxes of Description," Yale French Studies 61 (1981): 27-59.

Concerning terminology, Jean Hagstrum provides important information about current use of the term: "I use the noun ecphrasis and the adjective ecphrastic in a more limited sense to refer to that special quality of giving voice and language to the otherwise mute art object. My usage is etymologically sound since the Greek noun and adjective come from ekphrazein which means "to speak out," "to tell in full" (The Sister Arts [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958], 18 note 34). Yet in Renaissance books of rhetoric the word which most frequently occurs for vivid pictures in language is enargeia (also translated as illustratio and evidentia and closely related to ut pictura poesis) to show enthusiasm for vivid pictures in language. In praising Homer's use of pictures, Erasmus refers to evidentia: "We use this whenever, for the sake of amplifying, adorning, or pleasing, we do not state a thing simply, but set it forth to be viewed as though portrayed in color on a tablet, so that it may seem that we have painted, not narrated, and that the reader has seen, not read" (On Copia of Words and Ideas, trans. Donald B. King and H. David Rix [Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1982], 47). Cf. Sister Miriam Joseph, Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Time (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962).

"The'Enargia, or cleereness of representation, requird in absolute Poems is not the perspicuous delivery of a lowe invention; but high, and harty invention exprest in most significant, and unaffected phrase; it serves not a skillful Painters turne, to draw the figure of a face onely to make knowne who it represents; but hee must lymn, give luster, shaddow, and heightening; which though ignorants will esteeme spic'd, and too curious, yet such as have the judiciall perspective, will see it hath, motion, spirit, and life,'George Chapman, prefatory letter, Ovid's Banquet of Sense, 1595)," quoted in Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947); cf. Sidney, "The Defense of Poesy (1595)," The Renaissance in England, ed. Hyder Rollins and Herschel Baker (Boston: D. C. Heath and Co., 1954), 610.

I examined numerous primary sources, some in reprint, many at the Huntington Library. Henry Green, Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers (London: Trubner & Co., 1870); Whitney's "Choice of Emblemes," ed. Henry Green (London: Lovell Reeve & Co., 1866); A Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne by George Wither, intro. Rosemary Freeman (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1975); Peacham's Compleat Gentleman, intro. G. S. Gordon (London: Clarendon Press, 1906); Henry Peacham, Minerva Britanna 1612, English Emblem books No. 5, ed. John Horden (Scolar Press, 1973); Caesar Ripa, Iconologia: or, Moral Emblems, (London: Benj. Motte, 1709); Alciatus, Emblemata (Padua, 1621); Francis Quarles, Emblems, divine and moral (London: Alkexr Hogg, 1778); Cesare Ripa, Baroque and Rococo pictorial imagery. The 1758-60 Hertel edition of "Iconologia" (New York: Dover Publications, 1971); Speaking Pictures: a gallery of pictorial poetry from the sixteenth century to the present (New York: Harmony Books, 1975); Richard Sherry, A Treatise of schemes and tropes (1550): and his translation of the education of children by Desiderius Erasmus (Gainsville: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1964).

Several more recent publications suggest the pervasiveness of the pictorial in Renaissance literature and culture. Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (New York: Octagon Books, 1966); John Steadman, "Falstaff as Acteon: A Dramatic Emblem," SQ 14 (1963): 230-44; David Bergeron, Pageantry in the Shakespeare Theater (Athens: Georgia University Press, 1985); Rensselaer W. Lee, Ut pictura poesis (New York: Norton, 1967); Hagstrum, The Sister Arts; Mario Praz, Mnemosyne: the parallel between literature and the visual arts (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970) and Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery (London: The Warburg Institute, 1939); Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 1954); Richard Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); Peter M. Daly, Literature in the Light of the Emblem (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979); Marjorie Donker and George M. Muldrow, Dictionary of Literary-Rhetorical Conventions of the English Renaissance (West-port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982), 239; David Rosand, "Ekphrasis and the Generation of Images," Arion 1 (Winter, 1990): 61-105. William S. Heckscher, "Shakespeare in His Relationship to the Visual Arts: A study in Paradox," Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, ed. S. Schoenbaum, The Report of the MLA Seminar, XIII-XIV (1970-71): 5-71; John Doebler, Shakespeare's Speaking Pictures (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974).

11 The discussion of women as art objects is widespread. See, for example: Jacqueline Rose, "Sexuality in the reading of Shakespeare: Hamlet and Measure for Measure," in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis, (New York: Routledge, 1985); Stanley Cavell, "Othello and the Stake of the Other," in Disowning Knowledge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1977); Seduction and Theory, readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric, ed. Dianne Hunter, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16 (1975): 6-18; E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film (New York: Methuen, 1983).

12 T. W. Baldwin, Shakespeare's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1944), 121:

The'point'was whether Ophelia's cause was'Voluntaria, quae Consilio.'The test is'Nam iacere telurn, voluntatis est.'Did Ophelia wittingly commit the act of drowning? If she went to the water she did. But'ferire quem nolueris, fortunae.'If the water came to her, she did not; then she drowned herself in her own defence,'se offendendo'in fact, as the first Clown rather aptly twists the proper phrase—in spite of the fact that Shakspere knew no Latin! The First Clown is thoroughly correct in his fundamental procedure, however ludicrously he may have expressed it. Shakespeare should have procured this knowledge . . . from Topica in Stratford Grammar School.

13 Roland Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 299: "Over the centuries prior to 1600, both church practice and doctrine consistently held that a person so patently mad as Ophelia should receive the full rites of Christian burial. Her death, however apparently suicide, was not'by her fault'in the sense of rational and responsible choice, but was brought on by her madness, either directly or by the loss of a sense of consequences. Contemporary attitudes in 1600, buttressed by over a thousand years of church history, attest to the Tightness of Laertes'claims for his sister." Cf. Michael MacDonald, "Ophelia's Maimed Rites," Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 309-17.

14 "Peacham says justly that this figure [allegoria] serves to engrave the lively images of things,'and to present them under deep shadowes to the contemplation of the mind, wherein wit and iudgement take pleasure, and the remembrance receiveth a longlasting impression'(p. 27 [1593])" (Tuve, 108).

15Harvard Concordance: ERR 3.02.45; MND 2.01.150; 3H6 3.02.186; ANT 2.02.209; LUC 1411; ERR 3.02.164; VEN 429; VEN 777; ANT 2. .02.207. In Shakespeare's plays the image of mermaids is usually a reference to sirens—to those who are seductive, and one might think this reference an appropriate association with Hamlet's representation of Ophelia. Roland Frye refers to an emblem from 1567, intriguing for its similarity to aspects of the plot of Hamlet; it points to Mary's public involvement with the assassination of her husband: "A mermaid (traditional symbol for prostitution and adultery) was shown crowned, and labeled with'M R'for Maria Regina. Below, a hare represented Bothwell's heraldic crest; it was labeled with the initials I.H. for his name, James Hepburn, and surrounded by a corona of daggers to signify assassination. As the days passed, it became increasingly clear that the suspected adultery would soon be transformed into marriage" (104). The final emblem printed in Green's Shakespeare and the Emblem Writers is one I have not been able to locate myself: a mermaid is pictured circled by a snake biting its tail: "Colophon. 'Ex literarum studiis immortalitatem acquiri,'Alciat, ed. 1534, 45." Given my argument concerning Ophelia, what interests me especially is the association of the mermaid with immortality and eternity. Cf. also Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975).

16 See the introduction to the Arden edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream (ed. Harold F. Brooks [London: Methuen, 1979]): "the very fact that what Oberon describes is comparable up to a point with each of the two entertainments confirms the conclusion that it has for antecedent not one occasion, but the kind of courtly diversion they both exemplify. It was a kind in which the pageantry frequently drew (as with Arion) from Ovid's mythology, or still better, created new myth in the Ovidian style" (lxviii). Cf. Ashley Montagu's quotation from Peacham's Minerva Britanna 1612: "The friendly Dolphin, while within the maine, / At libertie delightes, to sport and play,/ Himselfe is fresh, and doth no whit retaine/ The brinish saltnes of the boundless Sea/ Wherein he lives" (The Dolphin in History [Los Angeles: UCLA Clark Memorial Library, 1963], title page). Antony and Cleopatra: "his delights/ Were dolphin-like, they show'd his back above/ The element they lived in: in his livery / Walk'd crowns and crownets" (V.ii.88-91).

17 In his essay on Quarles's emblem books, Ernest B. Gilman emphasizes the mystery behind both the picture and the language: "On the other side of the ut pictura poesis equation, language might be conceived as intrinsically pictorial, distinguished at its best by the enargeia and colors of the liveliest painter. In the Augustinian tradition the verbum of scripture, although accommodated to the halting human intellect, shadows the nontemporal, luminous res of divine truth. The goal of interpretation—formed in part by the neo-Platonists'sense of our intuitive, unmediated perception of the intelligible as a mode of visionary experience—was to see through language to the realities themselves, from the temporal realities to the eternal realities, from talk to silence, and from discourse to vision. Indeed the technical language of Biblical exegesis (typos, schema, figura, paradigma) is insistently visual ("Word and Image in Quarles'Emblemes," in The Language of Images. ed. W. J. T. Mitchell [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974], 62-63). Perhaps indeed one of the reasons Renaissance writers were so endlessly interested in rhetorical figures is that the desire to hint at this Platonic realm was both culturally strong and also in question. Perhaps emblem books had such enormous popularity as replacements for Catholic icons—pictures of virtues, replacing statues of the Virgin, or as in Hamlet, the picture of Ophelia replacing all that is missing not only for the hero but also, as he himself suggests, in the culture itself.

18 Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson, (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 132. Kenneth Reinhard and Julia Lupton, "Shapes of Grief: Freud, Hamlet, and Mourning," Genders 4 (1989): 50-67.

19 Baldwin, 543.

20 Stephen Booth, ed., Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 375.

21 Neil Hertz, "The notion of Blockage in literature of the sublime," in The End of the Line (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1985), 48.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Aguirre, Manuel. "Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty." Review of English Studies 47, No. 186 (May 1996): 163-74.

Examines the "mythological status of Gertrude" and the themes symbolized by her presence and actions in the play.

Bennett, Robert B. "Hamlet and the Burden of Knowledge." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XV (1982): 77-97.

Argues that problems and emotions Hamlet experiences, specifically his "anguish and inaction," are not due to some deficiency in Hamlet himself, but rather stem from some "flaw in nature or philosophy."

Charney, Maurice. "Analogy and Infinite Regress." In Hamlet's Fictions, pp. 61-76. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Discusses Hamlet's delay in obtaining revenge as a function of a pattern of infinite regression in which the process of revenge is prolonged in order to heighten excitement, "since the ending is by its nature anticlimactic."

Desai, R. W. "In Search of Horatio's Identity (via Yeats)." In Omnium Gatherum: Essays for Richard Kliman, edited by Susan Dick, Declan Kiberd, Dougald McMillan, and Joseph Ronsley, pp. 191-203. Gerrads Cross, Buckinghamshire, England: Colin Smythe, 1989.

Uses Yeats's writings on Hamlet to study the character of Horatio as well as Horatio's relationship with Hamlet.

Faber, M. D. "Hamlet and the Inner World of Objects." In The Undiscover'd Country: New Essays on Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, edited by B. J. Sokol, pp. 57-90. London: Free Association Books, 1993.

Examines the oedipal issues in Hamlet and concludes that Freudian preoccupation with incestuous attachment prevents one from apprehending the primary concern of Hamlet.

Fischer, Sandra K. "Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet." Renaissance and Reformation XIV, New Series, No. 1 (1990): 1-10.

Surveys the feminist criticism of Hamlet, and Ophelia in particular, and argues that Ophelia's tragedy "develops its own, specifically female, mode of discourse."

Foakes, R. A. "Hamlet and Hamletism." In Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare's Art, pp. 12-44. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Explores the appeal and representation of Hamlet throughout history.

Gorfain, Phyllis. "Toward a Theory of Play and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet." Hamlet Studies 13, Nos. 1 and 2 (Summer and Winter 1991): 25-49.

Argues that the carnivalesque—which includes puns, role-playing, proverbs, songs, and riddles, among other elements—as it appears in Hamlet "is more than an ingredient, digression, or relief," but an "attitude."

Holstein, Michael E. "Actions that a man might play": Dirty Tricks at Elsinore and the Politics of Play." Philological Quarterly 55, No. 3 (Summer 1976): 323-39.

Studies Hamlet's tendency toward play, noting that Hamlet's playing is not "spontaneous, purposeless fun" but informed by psychological stress, Hamlet's sense of filial duty, as well as by politics.

Jenkins, Harold. Introduction to Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins, pp. 122-59. London: Methuen, 1982.

Examines the problems posed by the play, and offers a critical review of Hamlet's principal characters and themes.

Leverenz, David. "The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4, No. 2 (Winter 1978): 291-308.

Argues that Hamlet is "part woman," and his tragedy is that filial duty is forced to triumph "over sensitivity to his own heart."

Showalter, Elaine. "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism." In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 77-94. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Studies the discrepancy between the fact that Ophelia is neglected in criticism but remains an "obsessive figure in our cultural mythology." Showalter reviews the responses of feminist critics to this disparity and urges that such critics explore the boundaries of their own ideologies in order to "maintain . . . credibility in representing Ophelia."

Stone, James W. "Androgynous'Union'and the Woman in Hamlet." Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews XXIII (1995): 71-99.

Assesses the manner in which androgyny ("The collapse of sexual difference") is represented in Hamlet and interpreted by critics, noting that such interpretations range from viewing Hamlet as feminine and impotent to seeing in Gertrude a masculine "castrating woman."


Hamlet (Vol. 37)


Hamlet (Vol. 59)