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Hamlet is, quite simply, the best known of Shakespeare's plays and the most famous play in Western literature. It is not hard to see why it enjoys such an exalted status. The play, which dates from the middle of Shakespeare's career (around 1600-1), manages to combine a complicated plot, profound insights into the human condition, and non-stop action into one seamless whole. An extraordinary amount of criticism has been written about Hamlet; in fact, the journal Hamlet Studies is devoted solely to discussion of the play. The amount of criticism generated is matched by its variety; some critics focus on the characters or concentrate on the gender issues that the play addresses, while others examine the play’s highly condensed language and imagery. Critics are also interested in how Shakespeare transformed his sources in creating Hamlet, as well as the play’s various themes and its influence on culture.

Historically, critical attention has been concentrated on the character of Hamlet. In recent years however, critics have begun to focus on other characters as well, especially Ophelia. Gunnar Sjögren (see Further Reading), for example, looks at Ophelia from numerous different critical perspectives in order to “do justice” to her. For Sjögren, the crucial point about Ophelia's characterization is its ambiguity, and he looks to contemporary Elizabethan attitudes and important plays by Shakespeare's rivals in an attempt to judge how her character was meant to be viewed. He examines the relatively lax morals of the Elizabethan court and the characterization of Bel-imperia in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1586), and concludes that Ophelia is seduced by Hamlet. According to Sjögren, Ophelia is cast aside when she gets in the way of Hamlet’s primary goal of revenge, and her madness arises from Hamlet’s rejection of her. Sjögren concludes by observing that modern performances of Hamlet have done justice to Ophelia, for in them “Ophelia comes into her own and emerges as a very interesting part indeed.” Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia has also been of interest to critics. R.A. Foakes (1973) analyzes the effect of Hamlet's cruelty on Ophelia, and Eric P. Levy (1999) examines the encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia in Ophelia's room. Jennifer Low (1999) discusses the symbolic importance of the location of the initial fight between Laertes and Hamlet, which takes place at Ophelia's grave.

It is, however, in feminist criticism and the discussion of gender roles that Ophelia has played a central part. Elaine Showalter (1985) considers how to read Ophelia’s story. In an attempt to gain new perspectives on her character, she traces the “cultural history” of Ophelia’s representation, both on and off the stage, and examines the connection between female sexuality and insanity. Showalter also examines the feminist revision of Ophelia’s character, and contends that “there is no ‘true’ Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak,” and that Ophelia’s representation depends entirely on cultural attitudes towards both women and madness. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (1996) review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet, commenting that many critics have echoed Hamlet's own misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the play. Thompson and Taylor ultimately contend that the play has “relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores.”

The discussion of gender issues has always been a politically and culturally charged one. By contrast, the analysis of the language and imagery in Hamlet has been relatively tranquil although wide ranging. Richard A. Lanham (1976) traces the uses of rhetoric in the play. He concludes that Shakespeare's two principal preoccupations as a playwright were with style and motive. According to Lanham, the crucial insight Hamlet presents is that any sense of morality needs to take into account human beings' inherent theatricality—our self-conscious realization that we are always acting and are forever on stage. Imtiaz Habib (1994) emphasizes how the language of the play will always be misread due in part to Hamlet's ambiguity and in part to the very nature of language. R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (1999) examines the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet.

Despite the recent trend toward concentrating on gender issues and language, two older critical strategies remain well represented in contemporary criticism: source studies and thematic analyses. Cherrell Guilfoyle (1990) deepens the hunt for Shakespeare's sources by tracing Ophelia's character to the legend of Mary Magdalen as developed in medieval drama, and suggests that Shakespeare parallels Mary Magdalen in the character of Ophelia in order to stress the twin ideas of hope and atonement in a play. Frank Nicholas Clary (see Further Reading) returns, as have so many critics and scholars, to one of Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet—Belleforest's adaptation of the Saxo Grammaticus story—and concludes that Belleforest's work was more influential than has been previously acknowledged. Manuel Aguirre (1996) examines the literary origins of the cup from which Gertrude drinks a fatal toast to Hamlet in the play's final scene, and argues that by Shakespeare's time women's mythic role within society was being undermined. From Aguirre's perspective, Shakespeare's attention to the theme of sovereignty dramatizes the clash between older and newer ideologies. Millicent Bell (1998) also studies Hamlet's concern with a particular theme: in this case, revenge. Bell shows that one of Shakespeare's intentions in Hamlet was to satirize the revenge-play genre by means of both the overstylized play-within-the-play and the conclusion of the play itself. The critic contends that the play-within-the-play, The Murder of Gonzago, is “stale bombast,” and Hamlet's concern with revenge is nowhere to be seen when he is dying, noting that, rather than crying out for revenge, Hamlet asks only to be remembered.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8799

SOURCE: Introduction to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare, edited by Philip Edwards, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 40-61.

[In the following excerpt, Edwards analyzes Hamlet in a linear fashion, emphasizing the complexity of the play and examining the choices open to the protagonist.]


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.


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).2 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 rightness. 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. … 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.


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”.’3 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.


‘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.4

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.


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, ‘O 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 ‘a-cursing 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.


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?’


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.… ‘O 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.5 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.6 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.


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, instill 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, ‘O Hamlet, speak no more’, and ‘What shall I do?’


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 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.7 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.


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.8

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.9 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.10

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’.11 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’.12 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. 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.

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

  3. ‘Des Willens Widerwille gegen die Zeit und ihr “Es war”.’

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

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

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

  7. See the excellent comment by Dover Wilson, What Happens inHamlet’, 1935; 3rd edn, 1951, p. 268.

  8. The absence of the Ghost at the end, in contrast with The Spanish Tragedy, is noted by H. Levin, The Question ofHamlet’, 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).

  9. 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. K. Muir, J.L. Halio and D.J. Palmer, 1983.

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

  11. Edwards, ‘Tragic balance in Hamlet’, p. 51.

  12. Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 174.

R.A. Foakes (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6775

SOURCE: “The Art of Cruelty: Hamlet and Vindice,” in Aspects of Hamlet: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey, edited by Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 28-38.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1973, Foakes compares Hamlet to Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, contending that “it is the strength of Hamlet, not his weakness … that he cannot kill, that he fails to carry out his revenge.”]

Hamlet admits to cruelty only when he is about to encounter his mother in the Closet scene, and then he seeks to qualify the term

O heart, lose not thy nature, let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom,
Let me be cruel not unnatural.

(iii, ii, 396-8)

The cruelty he seeks to permit himself is to be kept under a restraint, not let loose with the tyrannical savagery of which Nero served as a type. So again, at the end of the interview, Hamlet cries, ‘I must be cruel only to be kind’, claiming that his cruelty serves its opposite, kindness. What Hamlet seems anxious to do here is to prevent himself from inflicting cruelty for its own sake; and the fact that he alone articulates this idea in the play suggests both the measure of success he has in controlling himself, and also his awareness, so to speak, of possibilities for cruelty within himself.

If Hamlet is not at this point recalling the Ghost's speeches to him in act i, his concern about his mother, and the re-appearance of the Ghost in the Closet scene, make the link for spectator and reader. Then the Ghost had ended his account of the murder by exhorting Hamlet to revenge, but warning him too:

                    Howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught … 

(i, v, 84-6)

It might be said that Hamlet's mind is already tainted, as the first soliloquy, ‘O that this too too sullied flesh would melt’, has already shown him brooding on suicide and disgusted by the speed of his mother's remarriage with a man he despises; but the Ghost himself may be seen as tainting Hamlet's mind in another way. For the Ghost, like Hamlet in his soliloquy, dwells imaginatively on what has happened in such a way as to emphasise by elaboration what is most gross and nasty. In this the Ghost and Hamlet are alike: what the Ghost speaks may be seen as articulating what is already there in Hamlet. So, like Hamlet, the Ghost dwells on remarriage in language that is itself revolting,

So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage

(i, v, 54-6)

There is a kind of self-indulgence in this, a relish of nastiness which does not relate to the Claudius and Gertrude we have seen in action. The Ghost continues with his account of the murder:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distillment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset,
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazarlike, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.

(i, v, 61-73)

The Ghost seems fascinated by the details of what happened, and dwells especially on the effects of the poison, producing that ‘tetter’ or eruption which covers his skin with a ‘loathsome crust’; it is this above all that the speech renders with the force of particularity, and which informs that great cry.1

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

(i, v, 80)

In other words, the Ghost does not just tell us what happened, but recreates imaginatively how it happened, the horrible atrocity of a murder which could, presumably, have been relatively quick and simple, a stab with a dagger, or smothering with a pillow. A passage from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov may be helpful at this point, for this is a novel much concerned with the nature of cruelty; at one point in it Ivan tries to explain to Alyosha why he cannot love his neighbours, and this passes into an extraordinary account of human cruelty, in which he tells Alyosha a story:

‘By the way, not so long ago a Bulgarian in Moscow told me’, Ivan went on, as though not bothering to listen to his brother, ‘of the terrible atrocities committed all over Bulgaria by the Turks and Circassians who were afraid of a general uprising of the Slav population. They burn, kill, violate women and children, nail their prisoners' ears to fences and leave them like that till next morning when they hang them, and so on - it's impossible to imagine it all. And, indeed people sometimes speak of man's ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts: a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel. A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that's all he knows. It would never occur to him to nail men's ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it. These Turks, incidentally, seemed to derive a voluptuous pleasure from torturing children, cutting a child out of its mother's womb with a dagger and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on a bayonet before the eyes of their mothers. It was doing it before the eyes of their mothers that made it so enjoyable. But one incident I found particularly interesting. Imagine a baby in the arms of a trembling mother, surrounded by Turks who had just entered her house. They are having great fun: they fondle the baby, they laugh to make it laugh and they are successful: the baby laughs. At that moment the Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby's face. The boy laughs happily, stretches out his little hands to grab the pistol, when suddenly the artist pulls the trigger in the baby's face and blows his brains out … Artistic, isn't it? Incidentally, I'm told the Turks are very fond of sweets.’2

Ivan observes that man is distinguished from beasts by his artistry: we speak casually of ‘bestial’ cruelty, but no animal is as cruel as men can be, who do it for enjoyment and to display their skill as artists, while others, looking on as spectators, take pleasure in watching, and in this case, enjoy the anguish the murder of the baby causes to its mother.

Something of this artistry in cruelty seems to be shown in the murder of old King Hamlet, as the Ghost describes it; the poison chosen by his brother was one that visibly corrupts and makes horrible the body of the dying man. Even the Ghost, who speaks of it as if he had been an onlooker at his own murder, is fascinated by the details of the process of dying, horrible as they are. He says he was sleeping at the time, and so not conscious, but he narrates what happened as if Claudius, in the manner of Dostoevsky's artists in cruelty, had staged it so that old Hamlet would at once suffer and be a spectator at his own death.

The Ghost calls on Hamlet to revenge,

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,

(i, v, 25)

and to pursue it by any means so long as he leaves his mother to Heaven. Although the Ghost does not explicitly command him to kill Claudius, this is what, in effect, ‘revenge’ means, since it is the only way Hamlet can obtain satisfaction and repay the injuries received by his father. So Hamlet is required to contrive another killing, a deed ironically condemned in the very next words of the Ghost,

Murder most foul, as in the best it is.

(i, v, 27)

In her study of revenge,3 Eleanor Prosser ‘found no evidence to indicate that Elizabethans believed the law required blood revenge. The Law was absolute: murder, as such, was never justified.’ The play shows Hamlet to be an artist, an actor-dramatist, ingenious contriver, and player of many parts; the Ghost, even as he condemns murder, demands that he put that artistry into the service of a cruelty Hamlet sees, at any rate in the Closet scene, as potentially there in himself.

This may seem a strange perspective when it is set against that view of Hamlet, which many hold, as a character imbued with a moral idealism or governed by a sense of moral scruple. It has been said, for example, very recently by Ivor Morris, in a careful account of Hamlet, that

Goodness and simple humanity are Hamlet's ideal. More truly than the heroic, it is the moral that confers nobility on man … Human excellence for Hamlet does not imply a self-aggrandizement, but rather the forsaking of an instinctive self-will, and the disciplining of the aspiring consciousness according to values which, though humble and familiar, are yet of a power to transcend. The chief passion of Hamlet's soul, therefore, is the precise antithesis of the heroic.4

Well, yes—but isn't this much too simple and clear-cut? For Hamlet sees his father in an heroic image, and finds a model for himself in Horatio, more an antique Roman than a Dane. It is true that Hamlet disparages himself in saying that Claudius ‘is no more like my father than I to Hercules’; yet much of his idealism is bound up with the warrior-figures of the Ghost at the beginning and Fortinbras at the end, so that it is important to notice how these figures are presented in the play.

Some think of the military imagery in the play as being there to ‘emphasise that Claudius and Hamlet are engaged in a duel to the death’,5 or that it exists to call attention ‘to the issues of public life, to the state of the nation’.6 It may serve these purposes, but when the Ghost appears in armour from head to foot, and accompanied by indications of past triumphs, as when he smote the sledded Polacks on the ice, other connotations are at work too; for war here does not, of course, have its unpleasant modern associations, but rather a ring of chivalric heroism in the thought of personal encounters, personal courage and skill. Old Hamlet appears in a ‘fair and warlike form’, as ‘valiant Hamlet’, who, challenged to combat,

Did slay this Fortinbras, who by a sealed compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit (with his life) all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror.

(i, i, 86-9)

The word ‘heraldry’, referring vaguely to heraldic practice, suggests an almost medieval ceremony, an ancient practice, no longer meaningful in the new Denmark of Claudius, the modern politician, negotiating through ambassadors. Later on Hamlet sees another image of chivalric heroism in that ‘delicate and tender prince’, young Fortinbras, passing through on his way, like old Hamlet, to fight the Poles, merely for honour, and driven by a ‘divine ambition’. It is enough to make him give Fortinbras his dying vote for the succession to the Danish throne.

Hamlet in this combines a nostalgia for a past that seems better than the present with the idea of a great soldier as simple, good and truthful. An audience sees also that Fortinbras is wasting his country's youth on a trivial and useless campaign; and if the Ghost really represents Old Hamlet, then he was also vindictive and morally perverse, condemning all murder, yet urging Hamlet to commit one. Hamlet's image is a partial one; Fortinbras and his father take on in his mind's eye grander proportions and finer qualities than are evidenced in the play, and Claudius appears worse to him than he does in the action:

So excellent a King, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr,

(i, ii, 140-1)

the sun-god compared with one who is half-beast. The heroic ideal Hamlet thinks he sees in his father merges into those classical figures that spring to his lips for a comparison, Hyperion, Mars, Mercury, Caesar, Hercules, Aeneas, and others, and all help to suggest imagined models for Hamlet himself, and to exemplify to him that possibility of the godlike in man embodied in ‘What a piece of work is a man!’ Hamlet tends to disclaim comparison between himself and his heroes, yet there is much of the heroic in him too,7 complicated by other qualities, as he is more fully of the Renaissance, a man of all talents and so much less the mere warrior-hero. Trained at a university, he retains the habit of sifting evidence, even the habit of taking lecture-notes (‘My tables, meet it is I set it down’). He writes more than other Shakespearian protagonists; King Lear could have been illiterate, but Hamlet is clearly an intellectual, au fait with classical literature, able to turn off a few lines for Ophelia, however much he is ‘ill at these numbers’, and to pen a speech for the players, a dozen or so lines of verse. Hamlet the writer reflects Hamlet the thinker and scholar, but he is also an accomplished swordsman, who throughout conveys a sense of absolute fearlessness, so that at the end it seems entirely appropriate when he is accorded martial honours, as four captains bear his body, ‘like a soldier’ to the stage.

Hamlet is a very complex character, and it won't do to say that ‘goodness and simple humanity are Hamlet's ideal’. Insofar as he locates his ideal in his father and Fortinbras, it seems to be partly a longing for a simpler world, in which problems could be honourably settled in combat; and it is based on an uncritical association of these figures with a chivalric heroism. Hamlet's idealism is confused, and this confusion prevents him from seeing at once the contradiction in the Ghost's exhortations to him to do the very thing for which the Ghost condemns Claudius. Hamlet shows at times a moral delicacy and scrupulousness that mark him off from the world of Claudius, and this is brought out by the comparison with Laertes sweeping unhesitatingly to his revenge; but he is confused in his moral stances too, and fails to discipline his consciousness, or to remain, as Ivor Morris claims, ‘morally consistent’.8 He does not directly question the Ghost's command, although he avoids pursuing it, and has recourse to play-acting, to an antic disposition, and to the play within the play. Some see this as a substitute for real action, for killing Claudius, and put emphasis on Hamlet's delay, but it is as much a device to penetrate the mask of Claudius in order to discover his true nature and to expose his guilt. Beyond this it is also, more importantly, a means to accommodate himself to what he feels he has to do; the Ghost has emphasised in detail the horror of the murder of his father, and in order to accomplish his revenge, he needs to act like Claudius, and face a similar horror.

In the course of the play he makes a series of moral adjustments, notably after he stabs Polonius through the arras, and so marks himself with a blood-guilt. He assigns the responsibility for this to ‘heaven’, as if he has been appointed a divine agent:

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

(iii, iv, 172-5)

The terms ‘scourge’ and ‘minister’, it seems, ‘are so contradictory that they are irreconcilable’, for ‘God elects as his scourge only a sinner who already deserves damnation’, while a ‘minister’ would be a true agent and servant of God.9 Hamlet could not be both at the same time, and the moral confusion present here is brought out further in his recognition in the same speech that, ‘This bad begins, and worse remains behind.’ This confusion is marked too in the way he seems to convince himself after his return from the sea-voyage in act v that it would be ‘perfect conscience’ to kill Claudius:

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother,
Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is't not perfect 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?

(v, ii, 63-70)

Though Claudius has done these things, including the attempt to have Hamlet done to death by sending him to England bearing a commission for his own execution, Hamlet is not thereby given moral freedom to kill Claudius, to practise murder most foul, ‘as in the best it is’.

In fact his claims that heaven has appointed him as its agent, and that he would be damned for not killing Claudius, do not issue in any determined action. Hamlet might be interpreted here as cheering himself up; whatever he says, he still does nothing, and rather at the end resigns himself to providence. However much he may justify murder to himself, there is no sign that he can bring himself in action to face the horror of doing it. After the encounter with the Ghost in act i, Hamlet cries out that the commandment to revenge shall alone live in his mind, but what he does is to adopt that ‘antic disposition’, which allows him to play any part, notably those of fool and madman. The Ghost's commandment brings out the artist in Hamlet, his concern with play-action, which is stimulated too by the entry of the players, and Shakespeare focuses our attention on these through much of acts ii and iii. When Hamlet first meets the players, he asks for a speech, recalling the opening of it himself: ‘'twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter’. It is appropriate for him to have remembered this speech from a play that was ‘caviare to the general’, a play for the educated, based on Virgil's Aeneid, and so associated with that heroic world with which Hamlet likes to link himself, and which emerges especially in references to and images drawn from classical history, literature and myth. As has been skilfully shown by Nigel Alexander,10 the player's speech also provides subtle analogies for Hamlet, as it acts out the successful vengeance of Pyrrhus upon Priam, and the destruction of a kingdom brought about by lust.

But the speech has another kind of significance which I want to emphasise; it describes Pyrrhus raging through the streets of Troy to revenge the death of his father, until eventually he finds and hacks to pieces the aged and defenceless Priam:

                                                                                ‘Head to foot
Now is he total gules, horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Bak'd and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord's murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.'

(ii, ii, 460-8)

The language of this is inflated, but not too much so for its content and occasion, and the overall impression it makes is powerful. Of its kind, it is a good speech, vigorously presenting an image of Pyrrhus as literally covered in blood that is dried and baked on to him, so that he is ‘impasted’ or encrusted with it, through the heat generated by his anger (‘roasted in wrath’), and slaughters fathers, mothers and sons at random. In other words, Pyrrhus images an ultimate in cruelty, beyond all control, and exemplifies the kind of pleasure in atrocity which Dostoevsky observes, as he goes on to make ‘malicious sport’ in mincing Priam before the eyes of Hecuba. If it is a reminder to Hamlet of what he feels he must do, it recalls also the Ghost's account of his murder, when the poison Claudius administered caused his skin to become covered with a ‘vile and loathsome crust’. Like the Ghost's speech, this one dwells on the particularities of the event, recreating imaginatively the horror of it, and like that, it wins for a moment Hamlet's wholehearted involvement. In each case, however, the horror of the deed is made bearable to Hamlet through its presentation in art, in a kind of play within the play, where it is aesthetically distanced.11 The point I would make about these scenes, is that they show how Hamlet can involve himself imaginatively in play-acting or dramatising the act of cruelty, but cannot do it. Briefly now he whips himself into a heat of passion:

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?

(ii, ii, 554-60)

In fact, it is the fiction or art that makes it possible for Hamlet to face this image of cruel murder, and it provokes him not into acting like Pyrrhus, but into arranging a performance of another play, the murder of Gonzago.

It is not ‘monstrous’ to ‘force the soul’ to display the imagined passion; it would be monstrous rather to put that passion to work in earnest. Again Hamlet's moral confusion emerges, as he forces his own soul into a rage and unpacks his heart with words in this soliloquy. For Hamlet's moral idealism emerges not in what he tries to will himself to do, which is to abandon scruple and drive to his revenge (consciously, so to speak, this is what he thinks he is doing, as is evidenced in his confusions or rejections of morality); it is revealed rather in the energy with which he can respond to or recreate the horror imaginatively. In this the aesthetic passes into the moral; he confronts the image of what, on one level, he would like to make himself, at such a pitch of imaginative intensity, that it disables him from practising cruelty himself. His full imaginative involvement brings home to him and us the horror of what Claudius did, and of the carnage wrought by the ‘hellish Pyrrhus’; so, even when he has a perfect opportunity, finding Claudius at prayer, Hamlet cannot do it, and neglects the chance to kill him. The reasons he gives have some plausibility, but behind them we sense his radical inability to become ‘monstrous’ or ‘hellish’ in deed, and carry out a willed murder.

When he does kill, it is in a fit of excitement, and an unpremeditated act, stabbing blindly through the arras, not a planned murder. The death of Polonius fastens a guilt on him, and makes it easier for him to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths by forging a new commission to the King of England. Even this, though ingenious, is not a direct deed of cruelty, and on his return to Denmark, it is in a condition of resignation: ‘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.’ He appears to be talking about his own death—but he is talking also about the death of Claudius—for he abandons plotting, the thought of acting as revenger, of being a Pyrrhus; and the death of Claudius happens in a muddle at the end, and only after Hamlet has his own death-wound. Horatio speaks with reason here

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook,
Fallen on the inventors' heads.

(v, ii, 380-3)

It is all clumsy, casual and, on the part of Hamlet, unplanned and unprepared—he never does become a revenger, unless he might be thought one in that moment when, having given Claudius his death-wound with a venomed sword, he then forces him to drink the poisoned wine. Its effect, however, is to despatch Claudius at once, not to protract his death, or make it more horrible, and Laertes guides our response:

                                                                                He is justly served;
It is a poison tempered by himself.

(v, ii, 325-6)

Hamlet shows a kind of cruelty twice in the play, once when he turns on Ophelia, recognising that she is a decoy, and later when he speaks savagely to his mother. He lashes verbally the two women he loves, and his behaviour here is not, as is sometimes argued, merely a reflection of his revulsion against sex, or of his hatred of the corruption he sees around him; it relates also, and more deeply, to his imaginative engagement with, and recoil from, the horror within himself. The cruelty expressed in words is also a substitute for action, an outlet for what he knows is in him, and might perhaps be seen too as vicariously satisfying the conscious urge to drive himself to a deed of cruelty, to revenge. His attack on Ophelia springs from an inquisition into himself, beginning in the soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’, in which, amongst other things, a dejected Hamlet attempts to reckon with the need for action, the task of taking arms against Claudius, in the recognition that ‘the pale cast of thought’ is inimical to action; the self-inspection deepens into the hyperbole of his words to Ophelia:

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.

(iii, i, 125)

He has a sense of a potential in himself for unimagined, or unimaginable offences, but those we are aware of in him exist mostly in his mind or imagination. So when he confronts his mother in the Closet scene, it is to recreate in imagination, and with a nastiness belonging to his conception, to him more than to the deed itself, the activity of sexual relations between Claudius and his mother:

                                                                                Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love
Over the nasty sty … 

(iii, iv, 91-4)

The obscenity is inside Hamlet, and bursts out in a savagery of words; if these help to bring Ophelia to suicide, and afflict Gertrude so that she cries

These words like daggers enter in mine ears,

(iii, iv, 95)

nevertheless, these attacks are essentially different from the deed this line recalls, Claudius pouring poison into the ears of Old Hamlet. Ophelia cannot comprehend what Hamlet says, and both she and, initially at any rate, Gertrude, are inclined to think his outbursts are expressions of madness. I think rather that Hamlet gives rein to his tongue as an alternative to the action he cannot face; and his ability to give bitterness vent in words to them, and yet refrain from a willed or planned killing, is exactly what we might expect.

The presentation of Hamlet in this way is worth comparing to that of Vindice in The Revenger's Tragedy, who is also something of an artist, and likes to see himself as dramaturge, even as writer of his own play. Even in the opening speech over the skull, he already uses it as a stage-property in his own dramatisation of the court, and when he is not playing the disguised roles of Piato and a malcontent, adopted to deceive Lussurioso, he is to be found stage-managing playlets of his own, most notably in the famous scene in which the skull is again introduced, now dressed in ‘tires’, fitted with a head-dress as if alive. As he brings it on, Vindice uses it consciously again as a property, saying to Hippolito;

Now to my tragic business, look you, brother,
I have not fashioned this only for show,
And useless property; no it shall bear a part
E'en in its own revenge … 

(iii, v, 103-6)

The skull itself is a reminder of Hamlet in the graveyard, but though Hamlet plays many parts, and fancies himself as an actor with the visiting company in Elsinore, there is a radical difference, namely that Hamlet is wholly involved in the decision whether to revenge, in those questions to do or not to do (‘Now might I do it part …’), and to be or not to be, that reverberate in the play; but Vindice has made his decision already before his opening speech; his attention is engaged by the question, ‘How can I effect my revenge in the cleverest way?’ not, ‘How can I do it at all?’ Because his attention is on the means rather than the end, he becomes pleased with his own cleverness, designing the little play within the play in which he murders the Duke.

While Hamlet is concerned with the nature of revenge and the horror of the act of cruelty, we see in Vindice a growing detachment from the nature of what he is doing, a detachment which is made to take effect fully as part of the play's serious action. At the beginning, his moral indignation at the corruptions of the court invites our sympathy and assent. In the opening scene, his independence from the court is imaged in the visual separation of Vindice from the procession he watches and describes, but by act iii, when he contrives the murder of the Duke, he has taken his place among the courtiers, and joins those he so despised at first, crying

'Tis state in music for a Duke to bleed.
The dukedom wants a head, tho' yet unknown.
As fast as they peep up, let's cut 'em down.

(iii, v, 224-6)

Vindice's anger at the beginning is justified insofar as he is in a position similar to that of Hamlet, unable to obtain justice for a murder in a court which seems corrupt; but when Vindice uses the skull to poison the Duke in act iii, Hippolito applauds him not for a moral achievement, but more appropriately for his cleverness:

I do applaud thy constant vengeance,
The quaintness of thy malice.

(iii, v, 108-9)

It is an ingenuity (‘quaintness’), an artistry, put into the service of ‘malice’, of cruelty, as Vindice enjoys poisoning the Duke in a kiss even while he watches his own wife and bastard son making love.

It is their self-satisfaction in their skill which leads Vindice and Hippolito to boast at the end of their ‘wit’ in murdering the Duke, and so brings on their arrest and execution. By act v, their enjoyment in plotting has reached the point where they congratulate each other on watching an innocent nobleman carried off to execution suspected of a murder they have carried out:

Brother, how happy is our vengeance!
Vindice.                                                                                 Why,
it hits
Past th' apprehension of indifferent wits.

(v, ii, 133-4)

In relation to this delight in cruelty, it is important to notice how much of the play is funny; its general cleverness emerges in a kind of grisly humour, as in the joking of the Duchess's youngest son as he expects release from the scaffold, a release which never comes, or in the hiring of Vindice by Lussurioso to kill his alter ego, Piato; or in the double masque of revengers at the end. In spite of the burning moral indignation of some of Vindice's speeches, the world of the play offers an image of human existence which excludes the possibility of the heroic and moral idealism present in Hamlet; it is a world in which money, power, and sex dominate, and for Vindice, intelligence and artistry replace morality. The humour is necessary to make such a vision of human cruelty through ingenuity bearable. At the same time, the play shows in Vindice an ‘artist’, the stage-manager and writer of his own playlets, becoming so absorbed in his skill that he treats life merely as an exercise for his art, and so loses all moral sense. When he confronts his mother in act iv, it is not to threaten her with words like daggers (compare Hamlet's, ‘I will speak daggers to her, but use none’), but to hold a real dagger to her breast, so that when she echoes Gertrude's ‘Thou wilt not murder me’, it is with a difference: Gratiana asks, ‘What, will you murder me?’ and there seems every reason to suppose Vindice and Hippolito may do so.

To return then to Hamlet: there is one moment in the play when Hamlet, like Vindice, yields to a sense of pleasure in the skill of plotting:

                                                            'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar, and't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

(iii, iv, 206-10)

This occurs after the death of Polonius, and when he learns he must go to England; but in fact, Hamlet practises craft in this way only once. All his artistry in the first part of the play is aimed at understanding himself and making apparent the guilt of Claudius; he stabs Polonius in a fit of passion, and not knowing what or who is behind the arras; and at the end he declines to plot against Claudius, putting his trust in providence. Only once, in the boat to England, is he prompted to try his craft, when he alters the message Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying to avoid his own death. There is no instance at all of Hamlet initiating a plot to kill anyone.

Although he is as much of an artist as Vindice, Hamlet does not confuse art and life; indeed, he has his theory of the art of playing, and his famous formulation is worth noting: ‘whose end both at the first, and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’ (iii, ii, 20). The ‘end’ or aim of art is to reflect what is there, and presumably by reflecting, to reveal to him what the spectator may not otherwise see; but its success in doing this depends on the apprehension of the spectator, as Vindice knew, on his sensitivity and understanding, and Hamlet's theory says nothing of his. It does not work too well for Claudius; the play within the play shows twice, first in dumb-show and then in action, something closely resembling the murder of old Hamlet, and Claudius is not much troubled by this mirror held up to nature; what does seem to stir him is Hamlet's identification of the murderer as ‘one Lucianus, nephew to the King’, and a few lines later, Claudius walks out, calling for lights, and ‘marvellous distempered’. What he saw acted before him was not the murder of Old Hamlet so much as an image of a secret fear, the killing of himself by his nephew, Young Hamlet.

The theory works better for Hamlet himself: the play within the play seems to him to mirror Claudius's deed, and to cause him to reveal his guilt; in addition, it provides yet one more artistic expression of the nature of that murder, which is also reflected in the Ghost's speech, and in the First Player's speech on the ‘hellish Pyrrhus’. Hamlet's playing dwells on the image of a murder which reflects the cruelty of the deed and the horror of revenge; and so reveals to us what is not apparent to Hamlet himself, his moral revulsion from the task he feels the Ghost has imposed on him. This fascinated loathing of the horror in its imagined recreation finds one more outlet in the Graveyard scene, when he broods on the skull of Yorick, and after drawing out the commonplaces appropriate to that memento mori, passes on to Alexander, another classical hero:

Hamlet. 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 … Prithee Horatio, tell me one
Horatio. What's that, my lord?
Hamlet. Dost thou think Alexander
looked o'this fashion i'th' earth?
Horatio. E'en so.
Hamlet. And smelt so? pah!
Horatio. E'en so, my lord.
Hamlet. To what base uses we may
return, Horatio!
Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of
Alexander till'a find it stopping a bung-hole?
Horatio. 'Twere to consider
too curiously, to consider so.

(v, i, 187-200)

Why may not imagination trace the dust of Alexander in this way? Horatio's answer carries weight—because it is to speculate too nicely, to go too far, to become, he might have added, self-indulgent; but there are more things in heaven and earth than Horatio sees, and his response is a limited one; Hamlet's effort to trace in imagination the full consequences of physical decay in death parallels his ability to face imaginatively the full horror of revenge; the element of indulgence in both is less significant than the power they have to work as vehicles of Hamlet's deepest moral awareness; he is right to reply here to Horatio's ‘'Twere to consider too curiously’ with the phrase ‘No, faith, not a jot!’

The greatness of Hamlet may be measured against the more limited, if splendid, achievement of The Revenger's Tragedy, in which Vindice so falls in love with his art as to commit himself entirely to it. Unable then to see its moral implications for himself, he uses it, most notably in his device with the skull, as a means to effect his revenge; so, becoming like Dostoevsky's Turks, he enjoys the display of cruelty as he makes the dying Duke watch the incestuous adultery of his own wife. By contrast, it is the strength of Hamlet, not his weakness, or only superficially his weakness, that he cannot kill, that he fails to carry out his revenge. The role of Hamlet may be seen as ironically expanding from his opening lines, when he enters acting like a mourner in his customary suits of solemn black, and saying,

                                                                                These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show

(i, ii, 83-5)

In the action Hamlet does, in fact, reveal what is most deep within him, not, so to speak, consciously, not even in the soliloquies, but in projecting imaginatively, into art, into shows, into plays within the play, or the rhetoric of his encounters with Ophelia and Gertrude, a sense of the potential for cruelty and viciousness in himself. Shakespeare makes this art the vehicle of the moral restraint Hamlet exercises upon what is within. The combination of his full imaginative grasp of the horror of a cruelty he recognises as potentially in himself, with a moral revulsion from it of which he is unconscious, or at best obscurely aware, perhaps helps to explain why Hamlet remains both an enigma and Shakespeare's best-loved hero.


  1. This line functions too in relation to the idea immediately preceding it, of dying, ‘With all my imperfections on my head’, and that following in the reference to ‘luxury and damned incest’, but it seems to me to carry most weight as a rhetorical climax to the account of the murder as a whole.

  2. The quotation is from the translation by David Magarshack (Harmondsworth, 1958), i, 278-9.

  3. Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, 1967), p. 18.

  4. Shakespeare's God. The Role of Religion in the Tragedies (London, 1972), p. 371.

  5. Nigel Alexander, Poison, Play and Duel (London, 1971), p. 25. This stimulating book in some measure provoked the present essay.

  6. Maurice Charney, Style in Hamlet (Princeton, 1969), p. 30.

  7. See G.K. Hunter's analysis of ‘The Heroic in Hamlet’, in Hamlet, edited J.R. Brown and Bernard Harris (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 5, London, 1963), especially pp. 103-4.

  8. Shakespeare's God, p. 383.

  9. The quotations are from Eleanor Prosser's analysis of this passage in Hamlet and Revenge, pp. 199-201.

  10. Poison, Play and Duel, p. 97.

  11. In Shakespeare the Craftsman (London, 1969), p. 129, M.C. Bradbrook has argued that the First Player here was made up to look like Burbage playing Hamlet, so that during the Pyrrhus speech Hamlet was watching, as it were, a reflection of himself.

Eric P. Levy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7326

SOURCE: “‘Nor th' exterior nor the inward man’: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 711-27.

[In the following essay, Levy charts Hamlet's probing of the nature of human identity and argues that the play conceptualizes an alternative to the usual inward/outward polarity.]

Hamlet begins with an urgent questioning of identity: ‘Who's there?’ A similar query is soon directed at the Ghost: ‘What art thou that usurp'st this time of night’ (1.1.49). The interrogation is complicated by the very nature of the problem. For identity in this context is not simple but polar. That is, it comprises a totality whose two aspects are public and private or what Claudius terms ‘th'exterior’ and ‘the inward man’ (2.2.4).1 Therefore, if the question of identity is to be answered at the most fundamental level, the proper relation of the inward and outward dimensions of identity must first be determined. As we shall find, Hamlet profoundly critiques prevailing assumptions regarding this relation, and dramatizes an alternate conceptualization of human identity: ‘what is a man’ (4.4.33).

According to the conventional schema, inward and outward are construed as reciprocal modes of the same totality. In Hegel's succinct enunciation of this traditional schema, inward pertains to ‘essence’ or ‘identity with self’; outward pertains to ‘appearance’ or ‘what is manifested.’ In ideal configuration, ‘[t]he appearance shows nothing that is not the essence, and in the essence there is nothing but what is manifested’ (179). A medieval example of such agreement occurs in Abbot Suger's (d. 1151) celebrated description of the clergy assembled for the consecration of the Parisian basilica of St Denis: ‘their outward apparel and attire indicated the inward intention of their mind and body’ (113).2 This schema of selfhood presupposes the primacy of inwardness, whereby inwardness is construed as the original or exemplar of which the exterior is at best a faithful copy and at worst a deliberate dissimulation. As such, inwardness has more reality than outwardness.

Implicit in this schema is the assumption that inwardness has privileged and unerring access to its own content. That is, just as outward, as a public manifestation, is by definition perceptible by others, so inward, as a private experience, is by definition uniquely perceptible by the subject to which it pertains. Gilbert Ryle elaborates: ‘Only I can take direct cognizance of the status and processes of my own mind’ (11). In other words, private confirmation of inward content is deemed analogous to public confirmation of outward content. The essential differences between them concern location and access. Public objects are situated in the world or the body, and can be perceived by any appropriately placed observer; private objects are situated ‘in the mind’ (Hamlet 3.1.57), and can be perceived only by that mind. Indeed, Hamlet invokes this assumption when distinguishing between outward display and inward feeling: ‘But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe’ (1.2.85-86). Here, the private object (in this case, his own grief) is assigned a certainty of existence equivalent to that enjoyed by public objects. In fact, Katherine Eisaman Maus even claims that, in this example, the private object enjoys superior certainty: ‘For Hamlet the internal experience of his own grief “passes show” in two senses. It is beyond scrutiny, concealed where other people cannot perceive it. And it surpasses the visible—its validity is unimpeachable’ (4; original emphasis).3


But Maus's claim regarding the primacy of inwardness is undermined in the world of the play, where the private object (that of which inwardness is aware) is notoriously problematic and in need of outward verification. Relevant examples include Polonius forgetting his own train of thought (‘what was I about / to say?’ [2.1.50-51]), and Ophelia uncertain of her own awareness, both before her madness (‘I do not know, my lord, what I should think’ [1.3.104]) and during it: ‘Indeed would make one think there might be thought, / Though nothing sure …’ (4.5.12-13). With respect to inwardness, Hamlet questions his own courage (‘Am I a coward?’ 2.2.566), and doubts whether commitment to his own purpose is really there, in the womb of interiority, when no outward action—not even verbal—to fulfil it is performed: ‘Like a John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause’ (2.2.563). Without external corroboration, there is no distinction between false and valid claims concerning inwardness. In these circumstances, the content of inwardness becomes radically problematic. An extreme example of this predicament concerns Hamlet's inventory of ‘that within which passes show’: ‘I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in’ (3.1.124-127). Here inwardness excludes all outwardness—even the acts of awareness (such as thought and imagination) by which interiority is expressed. Yet, in this situation, statements about inwardness are no more than empty attributions, with no possibility of either verification or refutation.4

The problem of inward verification can be clarified by reference to the critique of inwardness developed by Wittgenstein and the Oxford philosophers of ordinary language. The primary conclusion of this school is that, without outward criteria, we can never know what another person is experiencing, because we can never know what we ourselves are experiencing. To pursue the implications of this extraordinary conclusion, we must first clarify the concept of knowledge on which it is based.

Explication can begin with Socrates, for whom knowledge implies infallibility (Plato, Theaetetus 152c). Otherwise, it would not be knowledge but error. Hence, perception of external objects cannot yield genuine knowledge, since the perceiver is always subject to fluctuation: ‘Are you not sure that it [that which is perceived] does not even appear the same to yourself, because you never remain in the same condition?’ (Theaetetus 154a). Though without acknowledging the similarity, Wittgenstein applies a variation of this argument to the notion of the private object (that which exists only in experience of the inward man). There can be no knowledge of the private object (e.g., pain), because in this context, there is no criterion by which truth and falsehood, accuracy and error, can be distinguished. The point here is not that there are no inward feelings, but that statements regarding them are incorrigible; that is, they cannot be verified by any objectively valid principle of verification, and hence are subject to no evaluation of correctness (Malcolm, ‘Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations,’ 101).

If the subject alone has access to his own feelings, by what criterion can the accuracy of his own perceptions or reports concerning them be verified? That is, how can the content of inwardness be validated? In Wittgenstein's epigram, ‘An “inner process” stands in need of outward criteria’ (i.e. standards of measurement and identification which are independent of their referents) (Philosophical Investigations, 580). Indeed, Hamlet himself refers to the need for outward criteria in order to prove that his perception of the Ghost in Gertrude's closet was not merely an inward process or private object: ‘Bring me to the test / And I the matter will reword, which madness would gambol from’ (3.4.144-46). Wittgenstein epitomizes the problem of inwardness in an example: ‘Always get rid of the idea of the private object in this way: assume that it constantly changes, but that you do not notice the change because your memory constantly deceives you’ (Philosophical Investigations, 207e). To reformulate this problem in the language of the play, what if, unknown to the subject, the same private object (‘that within which passes show’) changes its appearance (or magnitude, intensity, etc.) according to the mood or condition of the subject perceiving it—just as the same cloud ‘seems’ (1.2.76) spontaneously to change shape (‘camel,’ ‘weasel,’ and ‘whale’ [3.2.368, 370, 372]), according to Hamlet's shifting perceptions of it?

The consequences of this problem are profound. To begin with, the assumption that knowledge of others is derived from analogy with oneself must be abandoned. For if, in oneself, it is impossible to verify objectively whether a given sensation or feeling is the same as that felt at some period in the past, then a fortiori it is impossible to determine whether what someone else feels is the same as that which one feels oneself. In the realm of privacy, there is no criterion for correct use of the term ‘same’—whether in reference to oneself or another. Thus, to borrow Norman Malcolm's phrasing, ‘the illusion of the priority of [one's] own case’ is exploded, together with ‘the mistaken assumption that one learns from one's own case what thinking, feeling, sensation are’ (‘Knowledge of Other Minds,’ 380, 378; original emphasis). Hence, first-person experience is no longer valid as the paradigm in terms of which third-person experience is explained.

But without this paradigm, how is knowledge of other minds possible, or, to put the question less formally, how can the privacy of one individual be interpreted and made intelligible to another? For as Justus Hartnack indicates, ‘[t]he belief that states of mind or mental events are experienced by others is an inference based on analogy from one's own inner experience’ (111). A pertinent version of this inference occurs in Plato's Gorgias: ‘if mankind did not share one common emotion which was the same though varying in its different manifestations, but some of us experienced peculiar feelings unshared by the rest, it would not be easy for one of us to reveal his feelings to another’ (481c).

According to this critique of inwardness, the only adequate criterion of verification regarding the private object is outward behaviour. The ‘I’ is not in a better position than others to confirm statements about his or her innermost processes, because verification requires an invariable criterion, not one that is itself an inward process whose variation might not be noticed by the subject applying it. To adopt Ryle's formulation, the subject does not enjoy ‘Privileged Access to the so-called springs of his own actions’ (91). Hence, as Terence Penelhum indicates, properly to attribute traits to character is ‘to refer not to private episodes, but to dispositions which manifest themselves in predominantly public performances’ (227). It is to posit, not properties independent of expression, but what Place terms ‘capacities, tendencies … to behave in a certain way … if certain circumstances were to arise’ (211).


As we have seen, the primacy of inwardness is problematized by the need for outward confirmation of its content. But outward verification of inwardness is itself notoriously problematized in the world of the play, where the exterior man functions as an actor or ‘player’ (2.2.545) whose role and character are contrived by the inward man in order to manipulate the response of the ‘audience’ (5.2.340): ‘'Tis too much prov'd, that with devotion's visage / And pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself’ (3.1.47-49); ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’ (1.5.108); ‘A face without a heart’ (4.7.108). Hence, outwardness is now associated with the concealment or shamming of inwardness, while inwardness is associated with the manipulation of outwardness. Indeed, much of the action in Hamlet concerns the elaborate strategies by which one party attempts to hide, behind a false exterior, its own attempt to probe behind the presumedly false exterior of another. For example, Polonius and Claudius hide behind an arras in order to detect the inward cause of Hamlet's madness, which, in turn, is but an outward simulation designed to enable Hamlet to probe the inward secret of Claudius.5

This situation epitomizes the notorious discord between inward and outward during the Renaissance. According to Maus, the period ‘produces a distinctive way of thinking about human subjectivity that emphasizes the disparity between what a person is and what he or she seems to be to other people’ (210). According to Stephen Greenblatt, ‘in the sixteenth century there appears to be an increased self-consciousness about the fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process’ (2). The locus classicus of Renaissance preoccupation with self-presentation is, of course, Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier (completed in 1516), where the ideal of the gentleman is the sprezzatura or nonchalance that enables him ‘to conceal all art and make whatever is done and said appear to be without effort and without almost any thought about it’ (43). The obverse of this emphasis on self-presentation is suspicion concerning authenticity. For outward is now associated with the concealment of inward.

Yet the reliability of outward expression as a criterion of inward verification is problematized, not only by deliberate manipulation undertaken for personal advantage, but also by mandatory conventions governing outward presentation. Indeed, the opening dialogue foregrounds such conventions: ‘Who's there?’ / ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself’ (1.1.1-2). Here, knowledge of identity follows not from direct expression of private feeling (as when Francisco, after dismissal, refers to feeling ‘sick at heart’) but from outward behaviour modelled according to performative convention (1.1.9). That is, the guard confirms his identity not by outward expression of his inward state, but by a password whose utterance presupposes a shared ‘custom’ of usage: ‘Long live the King!’ (1.4.15; 1.1.3).


But the watchmen are not the only figures expected to adhere to performative convention. According to the dominant morality in the world of the play, when certain external circumstances are present, an appropriate state of inwardness must be prominently indicated by the appropriate outward behaviour. If a character does not display the expected emotion in response to these external circumstances, he risks disgracing his ‘honour’ (5.2.242, 244).6 For, as the most coveted of possessions, honour is primarily a measure of ‘performance’ (4.7.150) or ‘showing’ (5.2.108), and hence can be gained only through appropriate public ‘behaviour’ (2.1.4)—to adopt a term introduced by Polonius, who uses it in the contrary sense: to indicate the actions which Laertes would not want his father to see, lest his own ‘dishonour’ (2.1.21, 27) result. But in obeying the imperative regarding appropriate emotional display, each consigns ‘the inward man’ to an inconsolable isolation by ensuring that ‘th'exterior’ man—the self presented to others—is seen, by those constituting the audience, to act according to their moral specifications, evincing only those thoughts and feelings deemed suitable to the situation.7

An unexpectedly apt account of the theatrical imperative appears in T.S. Eliot's celebrated—but by now antiquated—essay ‘Hamlet’ (1919). There Eliot develops the notion of the ‘objective correlative,’ wherein the inward emotion expressed by a character must be correlated with external elements evoking it: ‘in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events … shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked’ (145). Hamlet unwittingly cites the objective correlative when comparing the Player's emotional performance with his own shameful reticence: ‘What would he do / Had he the motive and the cue for passion / That I have? He would drown the stage with tears, / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech …’ (2.2.554-60).

Of course, Hamlet is unaware here of the deeper implications of his own query. But in spontaneously proposing this hypothetical case, where a professional actor exploits his skill to express emotions that for him are compellingly real, Hamlet unknowingly critiques the theatrical imperative, as brief analysis shows. His assumption that sincerity enhances the public expression of feeling presupposes another: that one is already adept at feigning what he does not feel. The primary requirement is to be an actor, ‘[t]h'observ'd of all observers’ (3.1.156)—someone, that is, skilled at simulating the emotions deemed appropriate to the ‘situation’ or ‘chain of events.’ In a world where the suddenly sincere Player is the ‘paragon’ (2.2.307) of the behaviour appropriate to the situation in which Hamlet now finds himself, sincerity has no place. For it can no longer be distinguished from its contrary, false show or deception. Whether the individual actually feels the passion he displays is irrelevant because unverifiable.8 Similarly, were the Player abruptly to intensify his acting during a performance, the audience could not tell whether the change were due to a spasm of sincerity or simply a surge of professional talent.

In a world where the suddenly sincere Player is the ideal—‘the card and calendar of gentry’—to be oneself is to be a public likeness or ‘semblable’ (5.2.119-20, 118) of oneself, whether the emotions expressed by speech and action are sincere or not. For to be oneself is to be construed and evaluated in terms of expectations and criteria regarding exterior self-presentation—just as we found earlier with respect to the sentries standing ‘watch’ on the ‘platform’ (1.2.197, 214). But as a result of the requirement regarding outward ‘showing’ (5.2.108), the inward man is denied the power of expression, just like the dead: ‘That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once’ (5.1.74).

The predicament of identity uncovered thus far in the world of the play can now be recapitulated. On the one hand, inwardness requires outward expression for verification. Without external ‘showing’ (5.2.108), the existence of an inward trait (‘that within which passes show’ [1.2.85]) is no more certain than is the existence of the Ghost without corroboration by multiple witnesses. On the other hand, outward expression—the necessary criterion by which inwardness is verified—is an unreliable index of identity, for it is subservient to both inward manipulation and prevailing convention.


In the course of the play, the plight of inwardness, isolated from authentic and intelligible outward expression, is powerfully symbolized by the Ghost, for whom death involves an intensity of private suffering that if disclosed to the living would occasion not comprehension but horror: ‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul …’ (1.5.15-16). For Hamlet, in his ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, death putatively involves a sleep wherein the mind is forever tormented by appalling ‘dreams’ (3.1.66) from which it never awakens—and of which, by implication, it can never speak. Moreover, with his four last words, ‘the rest is silence’ (5.2.363), Hamlet again associates death with the incommunicable privacy of that centre of interiority which he elsewhere terms ‘my heart's core, … my heart of heart,’ and ‘my dear soul’ (3.2.73, 63).

The linkage between the inward man and death is strengthened by a correlative association between Hamlet's inwardness and the motif of the Ghost. Hamlet's sudden visit to Ophelia's closet—his initial appearance after the dialogue with the Ghost—is the first of these occasions. To Ophelia, who receives him unexpected, Hamlet appears ‘As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors …’ (2.1.83-84)—a condition like that of the Ghost who, loosed from Purgatory, speaks of similar things: ‘O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!’ (1.5.80). Later, on the second occasion when Hamlet is associated with the Ghost, Polonius and Claudius exploit Hamlet's habit of walking ‘in the lobby’ (2.2.161), and direct Ophelia to stand in his path while they eavesdrop behind an arras. The decision of these two characters to send out a third who will converse with an enigmatic figure regularly appearing in a part of the castle duplicates the plan of Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus to invite Hamlet to speak to the Ghost. Moreover, in both conversations the enigmatic figure concludes with redundant valediction: the Ghost by repeating ‘Fare thee well’ (1.5.88) and ‘adieu’ (1.5.91); Hamlet by repeating ‘Farewell’ (3.1.134, 139, 142).9

The third linking of Hamlet with the motif of the Ghost occurs at the moment of death. Hamlet's invocation of the astonished ‘audience’ (5.2.340) of courtiers who have witnessed the carnage at the end of the play (‘You that look pale and tremble at this chance’ [5.2.339]) repeats almost verbatim that spoken by Bernardo to Horatio after sighting the Ghost (‘You tremble and look pale’ [1.1.56]). Similarly, the Ghost's aposiopesis (‘I could a tale unfold whose lightest word’ [1.5.16]) is echoed in Hamlet's version: ‘O, I could tell you …’ (5.2.342).

This motif of the secondary ghost (that is, the ghost implied by the duplication, in one character, of attributes or utterances associated with the primary Ghost) constitutes the supreme symbol of the plight of the inward man in the world of the play. Analysis of the first example of the motif, that is, Hamlet's visit to Ophelia's closet—will position us to probe the problematics of personal identity more deeply.

What is the painful vision that absorbs Hamlet as he stares at Ophelia while thrice nodding his head and sighing in dismay?10 The most striking element here is that, throughout their silent meeting, Hamlet seems completely unaware of Ophelia's ability to see his behaviour, but acts instead as if he were somehow still alone. He is dishevelled, but seems wholly unconcerned with his appearance. He gazes at her with prolonged and anguished attention, oblivious to her response. In fact, instead of regarding Ophelia as a separate person, Hamlet seems ultimately to see in her something which concerns only himself—almost as if he were contemplating his own reflection. And in a way, he is. To look at Ophelia is to confirm his own inescapable isolation. Perhaps this is the deepest meaning of Ophelia's comparison of Hamlet to a ghost released from hell to speak of horrors. Private pain propelled Hamlet into Ophelia's closet, but that pain only intensifies the longer he stays. Yet when he leaves, there is only one place he can go: back to his hell of silence. Hamlet's agony in Ophelia's closet is the recognition that he can never speak. More precisely, he can speak but only to hide what he can never say. As if he were already dead, Hamlet becomes the ghost of himself—a manifestation of his own absence, the living embodiment of his own dying words: ‘The rest is silence.’

This encounter with Ophelia reveals Hamlet in the grip of the play's central paradox: to be is not to be. In a society founded on deception and the fear of disgrace, to live as a person is to live as a ghost. In public, each is encouraged to present himself as a sheer appearance which renders invisible the reality within; in private, each risks suffering pain that must remain dumb. More profoundly, each risks the pain of having to remain dumb: ‘Give thy thoughts no tongue’ (1.3.59); ‘But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue’ (1.2.158). Thus, through the need to maintain ‘th'exterior’ by words and actions, the secrets of ‘the inward man’ are as removed from communication with the living as are the dead.11 But, as was suggested near the outset of our study, without outward expression the content of inwardness becomes problematic—even to the subject experiencing it—and is as much in need of verification as the testimony of the real Ghost.


No character is more implicated in this predicament than Hamlet. But neither is any character more motivated to transcend it. To understand his efforts in this regard, it is useful first to review his predicament. However acutely he perceives falseness (‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand’ [2.2.178-9]) and however adroitly, through the ruse of madness, he exploits it, Hamlet cannot readily separate his own sense of identity from the exteriority he reviles. For his very concept of himself is grounded in concern for the exterior man and the reputation pertaining to it: ‘O God, Horatio, what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me’ (5.2.349-50). Conversely, the more Hamlet withdraws from exteriority into inwardness, the more his view of the world is influenced by the first-person paradigm, such that everything he sees is interpreted by analogy with his own experience. This is evident in Hamlet's initial two soliloquies, where he defines both himself (‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ [2.2.544]) and the future (‘It is not, nor it cannot come to good’ [1.2.158]) in terms of his own immediate situation.

Many critics conclude that Hamlet achieves no more than an unpredictable oscillation between the poles of ‘psychic opposition’ (States, 127) or identity, however defined. As a result, his character is frequently labelled as incoherent.12 But the ‘yeasty collection’ (5.2.188) of contraries constituting Hamlet's character undergoes leavening whose consequence is a genuine—though incomplete—integration of opposites. Or, to deploy a more active metaphor, in a labour equivalent to those of ‘Hercules’ (1.2.153; 5.1.286). Hamlet realigns what is ‘out of joint’ (1.5.196), and so achieves heroic individuation.

The process of rectification can be completed only through overcoming the first-person paradigm, for through it there is no genuine knowledge of identity, only a self-preoccupation that construes everything external by analogy to itself. In the play, of course, the first-person paradigm is often taken for granted, as when Polonius interprets Hamlet's presumed love-sickness in terms of his own experience (‘And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this’ [2.2.189-90]), Ophelia's auditors interpret, in terms of their own thinking, her mad utterances (‘And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts’ [4.5.10]), and Hamlet interprets Laertes' predicament in terms of his own (‘For by the image of my cause I see / the portraiture of his’ [5.2.77-78]).

In conjunction with this emphasis on the first-person paradigm, Hamlet also dramatizes the confusion created by its absence. For the advent of the Ghost obviously constitutes an instance when the first-person paradigm is temporarily suspended. By his tendency ‘[s]o horridly to shake our disposition / With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’ (1.4.55-56; my emphasis), the Ghost literally localizes an inward experience which exceeds the relevance of the first-person paradigm and the attempt to interpret experience in terms of one's own case. Ironically, that very paradigm is invoked when Horatio compares the resemblance of the Ghost to the late King with Marcellus's resemblance to himself: ‘As thou art to thyself’ (1.1.63).

But a transcending in the first-person paradigm is achieved in Hamlet's third soliloquy, where ‘grief’ (1.2.82) over his father's death eventually deepens into awareness of the implications of mortality for ‘us all’ (3.1.83). Death is life-terminating but also life-enlarging, because awareness of it focuses thought on the ultimate purpose of this life which will end: ‘What should we do?’ (1.4.57). Though in the ‘To be’ soliloquy that ultimate purpose is not yet evident and the only goal of life is to endure until the end, at least the sufficiency of self-reference has been questioned. The ‘sea of troubles’ is far more vast than any ‘single and peculiar life’ can contain (3.1.59; 3.3.11), and the ‘sleep of death’ is far too enigmatic for any living individual to fathom.

After the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, movement ‘beyond the reaches’ (1.4.56) of the first-person paradigm is more pronounced, with the result that inward and exterior are redefined. When he unexpectedly corners his quarry at prayer, instead of killing him on the spot and finally satisfying his own immediate and painfully frustrated purpose, Hamlet defers revenge to a more opportune occasion: ‘No. / Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent; / When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage … or about some act / That has no relish of salvation in't’ (3.3.87-92). Were Hamlet still confined within the preoccupations of his own case, he would not defer action at this moment of intensely aroused desire whose immediate analogue is the yearning, in the ‘To be’ soliloquy, for the ‘consummation’ (3.1.63) of death. Both in that soliloquy and in the scene with the praying Claudius, Hamlet's rejection of ‘action’ (3.1.87) stems from speculation about posthumous experience inexplicable in terms of the first-person paradigm.

Analysis of Claudius's synchronous meditation will clarify the implications of this rejection.13 Here the King contrasts the accuracy of divine judgment, where ‘the action lies / In his true manner,’ with the fallibility of human judgment, prone to be fooled by ‘shuffling’ (3.3.61-62, 41). In one case, the moral value of the inward man behind the action of the exterior one is revealed; in the other, dissembled. But, ‘[i]n the corrupted currents of this world’ (3.3.57), a more insidious shuffling occurs than intentional deception—one that concerns the inadvertent confusing of two antithetical concepts of the inward man. According to the first, here represented by ‘Christian’ (5.1.1) eschatology, the inward man is in principle corrigible, and can therefore be evaluated in terms of ‘better, and worse’ (3.2.245), if an infallible criterion of judgment is applied. But according to the second, the inward man is incorrigible, for no criterion of verification pertains. In this context, the inward man enjoys the same unverifiability as the ‘shapes’ (1.2.82) of ‘camel,’ ‘weasel,’ and ‘whale’ indwelling in the cloud which Hamlet indicates to Polonius (3.2.368, 370, 372). Those shapes are what they are said to be, and have no status apart from the awareness formulating them. Hence, to interpolate Malcolm's account of the incorrigible private object, statements about them are neither ‘in error [nor] not in error’ (‘Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations,’ 103; original emphasis).

Whereas at first the problematics of personal identity in the play concerned the relation between the exterior and the inward man, they now concern the corrigibility of the inward man, regardless of his exterior manifestations. Is the inward man, like a sensation or thought, logically and existentially indistinguishable from first-person awareness of it or is the inward man intact and separate in its own right? The question can be deepened: is the inward man accountable or, like Hamlet in his madness, exempt from the very notion of responsibility?

These questions undergo profound examination during the scene in Gertrude's closet. Here Hamlet suggests two means by which to verify that his sighting of the Ghost pertains to a real presence, and not a mere hallucination: comparing his pulse-rate with Gertrude's and rewording the entire incident coherently. But this problem of verification becomes the analogue of another: verifying the moral condition of Gertrude's inward man (or woman): ‘You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (3.4.18-19; my emphasis). Unlike a first-person sensation or thought whose very existence is inseparable from awareness of it, the inward man or ‘inmost part’ is here construed to exist behind the arras of Gertrude's unawareness, just as Polonius is soon discovered behind the real arras. But by what criterion can the presence of this ‘inmost part’ be verified and not dismissed, like the Ghost, as ‘the very coinage of [Hamlet's] brain’ (3.4.139)?

Explicitly, that criterion is Gertrude's own behaviour, as described to her by Hamlet: ‘Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ (3.4.92-93). She sees her ‘inmost part’ in the verbal picture or mirror of her behaviour which Hamlet has constructed: ‘Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct’ (3.4.89-91). But once Gertrude thus witnesses her ‘inmost part,’ it is no longer a private object, but a public or objective one, just as on the ‘platform’ (1.2.214) at the beginning of the play the ‘apparition’ is no longer construed as a mere ‘fantasy’ (1.1.31, 26) after Horatio, as supplementary witness, confirms its reality.


But, according to Hamlet, behaviour does more than confirm the inmost part. It can also modify or transform it. After the influx of pity encouraged by the Ghost (‘O step between her and her fighting soul’ [3.4.113]), Hamlet stops castigating Gertrude, and instead exhorts her to ‘reform’ (3.2.38): ‘Assume a virtue if you have it not’ (3.4.162). Here, the assuming of virtue signifies, not false appearance, but a sincere imitation of virtue in order to overcome ‘habits evil’ (3.4.164).14 If Gertrude acts virtuously for the sake of becoming virtuous (and not for the sake of seeming so), she will eventually succeed: ‘For use can almost change the stamp of nature, / And either lodge the devil or throw him out’ (3.4.170-71; my emphasis).15 This kind of cathartic action, undertaken for moral cleansing or ‘the purging of the soul’ (3.3.85), is the moral contrary of the ‘actions that a man might play,’ prescribed by the theatrical imperative; for its end or purpose is not to simulate outwardly a given moral state but inwardly to achieve it.

Rectification of the relation between inward and exterior is consummated through Hamlet's eventual faith in end-shaping divinity—in a way clarified by analysis of the ‘ends’ shaped: ‘There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will’ (5.2.10-11). On the one hand, the ‘ends’ shaped refer to the outcome of individual striving. Indeed, the Player King employs the term ‘ends’ with this meaning: ‘Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own’ (3.2.208). On the other hand, the ‘ends’ shaped refer to the purposes of the agent intending action, not to their result.

The profundity of Hamlet's insight now emerges. In shaping ends, divinity is not simply equivalent to the influence of fate whose intervention renders consummation of individual purpose impossible or irrelevant: ‘Our wills and fates do so contrary run’ (3.2.206). Instead, by causing a particular purpose to fructify in a particular result, divinity shapes the meaning of that purpose.16 For the result achieved qualifies the purpose conceived. For example, when groping ‘[r]ashly’ (5.2.6) in the dark to extract the diplomatic ‘packet’ (5.2.15) purveyed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet does not yet know the full implication of his purpose which is revealed to him only by its result. Here the inward man is clarified—one might accurately say constituted—by the actions of the exterior one. But conversely, this clarification by means of the exterior man depends on the initiative (what Hamlet terms ‘rashness’ [5.2.7]) of the inward one.

But Hamlet's anagnorisis implies more than this. Identifying through a purpose beyond himself enables him to achieve authentic self-assurance: ‘This is I, / Hamlet the Dane’ (5.1.250-51). His sense of identity is no longer bounded in the nutshell of the first-person paradigm. To be himself is no longer to interpret everything else by analogy with his own case, as when, in his former melancholy, he viewed the world as a ‘sterile promontory’ overlooking ‘a sea of troubles’ (2.2.299; 3.1.59). A corresponding change has also occurred with respect to his conception of the exterior man. In the course of the play, he advances from regarding the suddenly sincere player as the ‘paragon’ (2.2.307) to be emulated in the presentation of oneself to attacking Laertes for emulating, in ‘the bravery of his grief’ (5.2.78), precisely that ideal.

Yet, though Hamlet deepens his expression of both the inward and exterior man, he cannot unambiguously reconcile their reciprocal estrangement in the world of the play. The pathos of his death illumines the dilemma of his life: ‘Now cracks a noble heart’ (5.2.364). Unlike Gertrude, who, when confronted with her own moral identity, can simply ‘throw away the worser part of it / And live purer with other half’ (3.4.159-60), Hamlet must strain to reconcile incompatible halves, without the option of discarding one. Yet no matter how heroically he struggles, his task must end in failure. For the relation between inward and exterior is not under his exclusive control.

Consider the ‘transformation’ (2.2.5) which Hamlet's own exterior man or ‘name’ (5.2.349) begins to undergo as soon as Hamlet himself dies. In outlining the explanation which he intends to provide of the events leading to Hamlet's death, Horatio inadvertently sounds like an impresario drumming up interest in his repertoire: ‘So shall you hear / Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forc'd cause … All this can I / Truly deliver’ (5.2.385-91).17 His diverse inventory recalls that enunciated by Polonius on introducing the Players: ‘The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral … scene individable, or poem unlimited’ (2.2.392-96). This emphasis on exaggerated theatrical display culminates in the last words of the play, when Fortinbras orders the exposition of Hamlet's corpse on a ‘stage’ (5.2.401; my emphasis) or bier. Yet, the more Hamlet is eulogized in these ‘terms of honour’ (5.2.242), the less his rejection of theatrical exaggeration is understood.

Without exterior expression, the inward man undergoes an analogous ‘transformation’ (2.2.5). As long as inwardness passes show and remains bounded in the nutshell of interiority, there is no criterion by which to distinguish accurate predications concerning it from those that are merely ‘bad dreams’ (2.2.256). Ironically, with his last four words, ‘the rest is silence’ (5.2.363), Hamlet not only refers to interiority but seems almost to withdraw into it, as if preparing to begin the posthumous experience which has already been associated many times with precisely that pole of personal identity. But this possibility—and, of course, it is no more than a possibility—also suggests that, since now Hamlet really is dead, his interior experience entails judgment by the infallible criterion ‘above’ (3.3.60). For in the play divinity is the ultimate transcendence of the first-person paradigm.

We reach the double bind in the problematics of personal identity in Hamlet. Without exterior expression, the content of inwardness cannot be confirmed, except by divinity for whom there is no ‘shuffling’ (3.3.61). But with exterior expression, inwardness is equally problematized. Conventions and expectations regarding exterior manifestation distort or misconstrue the inwardness made manifest. Moreover, as we have also seen, application of the first-person paradigm leads the witnesses of outward expression to ‘botch’ it up ‘fit to their own thoughts’ (4.5.10). Hamlet cannot overcome this problem. For his task is a tragic hero's, not a ‘Saviour's’ (1.1.164). He can only, through his dramatic agon, transpose the problem to larger contexts where its conflicting terms of reference—inward and exterior—can in principle be resolved. He accomplishes this first in Gertrude's closet, where, through the notion of cathartic action, outward expression becomes the means of effecting inward reform. He further reconciles the conflicting poles of identity by his recognition of the end-shaping divinity through whose influence, as we have seen, the inward purposes of individual agents are not only expressed but widened and transformed by outward action.


  1. Cf States: ‘There are two dimensions in which a character behaves and exists before us: as body, as acter, do-er and speaker of things, as entity in physical space; and as “spirit,” as judgment, sensibility, thought, and imagination’ (187).

  2. For background, see chapter 3, ‘Suger of St.-Denis,’ in Von Simpson, 61-90.

  3. For a recent elaboration of Maus's thesis, see Finkelstein.

  4. Solipsism, of course, assumes the verifiability of the private object in the absence of outwardness. A succinct formulation of this position is provided by Windelband: ‘Each individual mind has certain, intuitive knowledge only of itself and of its states, nor does it know anything of other minds except through ideas which refer primarily to bodies and by an argument from analogy are interpreted to indicate minds’ (2: 471).

  5. Several critics take Hamlet's madness far more literally. See, for example, Lidz, 222, and Codden. Regarding the influence of gender on madness, see Findlay.

  6. As C.L. Barber has copiously demonstrated, the word ‘honour’ was not used univocally but acquired a wide range of meanings during the seventeenth century.

  7. Cf Hobbes, Leviathan Parts I and II, 87: ‘Desire of praise disposes to laudable actions, such as please them whose judgment they value.’

  8. For an existential discussion of related notions, see the chapter ‘Sincerity and the Actor’ in Ilie, 78-90. For a sociological analysis, see the chapter ‘Performances’ in Goffman, 17-76.

  9. For an earlier account of Hamlet's spectral side, see Robert F. Wilson, Jr.

  10. A traditional answer is that Hamlet is confirming sadly to himself that Ophelia is too weak to help him. See Chambers, 188. Similarly, J. Dover Wilson argues that Hamlet, though wounded by Ophelia's rejection of him, urgently seeks ‘some comfort or help in her company’ (111-12). Kirschbaum suggests that Hamlet ‘may not see Ophelia the individual as much as Ophelia the symbol of everything in life that pains him’ (386). For emphasis on Ophelia's moral ambiguity, see Patrick, 139-44; and McGee, 138-53.

  11. Goddard argues that Ophelia's report concerns her own hallucination of Hamlet.

  12. For representative criticism on these grounds, see Bartels; Barker, 37; Eagleton, 73, and Belsey, 41-42.

  13. For a discussion of Claudius's abortive repentance in the context of Church of England theology, see Frye, 239-42.

  14. The belief that virtue is acquired through good moral habit derives ultimately from Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 2.11032a14-26, as Jenkins in his edition of Hamlet (520) and others have noted.

  15. However, according to Adelman, Hamlet's purpose here is to ‘divorce’ (33) Gertrude from her sexuality, in order to protect ‘the boundaries of his selfhood’ (31) from inundation by it.

  16. Cf Cornford: ‘the most important element of personality—individual purpose’ (21). Contrast Herold: ‘The self one performs in order better to know oneself turns out not to be one's self at all’ (131).

  17. On Horatio's role in confirming Hamlet's intrinsic honesty, see Halverston.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays: ‘Hamlet’ to ‘The Tempest.’ New York: Routledge 1992

Barber, C.L. The Idea of Honour in the English Drama: 1591-1700. Goteborg: Elanders 1957

Barker, Francis. The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection. London: Methuen 1984

Bartels, Emily C. ‘Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self.’ Theatre Journal 46 (1994), 171-85

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen 1985

Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Trans Charles S. Singleton. Garden City: Doubleday 1959

Chambers, E.K. Shakespeare: A Survey. New York: Hill and Wang 1985

Coddon, Karin S. ‘“Such Strange Desygns”: Madness, Subjectivity and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture.’ Renaissance Drama 20 (1989), 51-75

Cornford, F.M. From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. New York: Harper and Row 1957

Eagleton, Terry. William Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell 1986

Eliot, T.S. ‘Hamlet.’ Selected Essays. 3rd ed. London: Faber 1951

Findlay, Alison. ‘Hamlet: A Document in Madness.’ New Essays onHamlet.’ Ed Mark Thornton and John Manning. New York: AMS Press 1994, 189-205

Finkelstein, Richard. ‘Differentiating Hamlet: Ophelia and the Problem of Subjectivity.’ Renaissance and Reformation 21:2 (1997), 15-22

Frye, Roland Mushat. The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1984

Goddard, Harold. ‘In Ophelia's Closet’ Yale Review 35 (1946), 462-74

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City: Doubleday 1959

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980

Halverson, John. ‘The Importance of Horatio.’ Hamlet Studies 16:1-2 (1994), 57-70

Hartnack, Justus. Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy. Trans Maurice Cranston. Garden City: Doubleday 1965

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Doctrine of Essence. Trans William Wallace. Hegel Selections. Ed Jacob Loewenberg. New York: Scribner's 1957

Herold, Niels. ‘Pedagogy, Hamlet, and the Manufacture of Wonder.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 46:2 (1995), 125-34

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan Parts I and II. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1958

Ilie, Paul. Unamuno: An Existential View of Self and Society. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1967

Kirschbaum, Leo. ‘Hamlet and Ophelia.’ Philological Quarterly 35 (1956), 375-85

Lidz, Theodore. Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth inHamlet.’ New York: Basic Books 1975

Malcolm, Norman. ‘Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations. Ed George Pitcher. Garden City: Doubleday 1966

———. ‘Knowledge of Other Minds.’ Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations

Maus, Katherine Eisaman. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago University of Chicago Press 1995

McGee, Arthur. The Elizabethan Hamlet. New Haven: Yale University Press 1987

Patrick, J. Max. ‘The Problem of Ophelia.’ Studies in Shakespeare. Ed Arthur D. Matthews and Clark M. Emery. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press 1953, 139-44

Penelhum, Terence. ‘The Logic of Pleasure.’ Essays in Philosophical Psychology. Ed Donald F. Gustafson. Garden City: Doubleday 1964

Place, U.T. ‘The Concept of Heed.’ Essays in Philosophical Psychology

Plato. Theaetetus. Trans F.M. Cornford. Plato: The Collected Dialogues. Ed Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Bollingen Series 71. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1961

———. Gorgias. Trans W.D. Woodland. Plato: The Collected Dialogues

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble 1949

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed Harold Jenkins. London and New York: Methuen 1982

States, Bert O. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press 1992

Suger, Abbot. Libellus Alter De Consecratione Ecclesiae Sancti Dionysii [Booklet on the Consecration of the Church of St. Denis]. Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures. Ed and trans Erwin Panofsky. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1979

Von Simpson, Otto. The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order. 3rd ed. Bollingen Series 48. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1988

Wilson, J. Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1956

Wilson, Robert F., Jr. ‘Hamlet's Ghostly Presence.’ Hamlet Studies 11:1-2 (1989), 80-86

Windelband, Wilhelm. A History of Philosophy. Rev ed. 2 vols. Trans James H. Tufts 1901; New York: Harper and Row 1958

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 3rd ed. Trans G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan 1958

Jennifer Low (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4518

SOURCE: “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet,” in The Centennial Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, Fall, 1999, pp. 501-12.

[In the following essay, Low examines the duel at the end of the play and contends that it is a rite of manhood that focuses Hamlet's attention on how masculinity should be shown and enables him to unite his private and public selves.]

As many critics have remarked, Hamlet is framed by the deeds of Fortinbras.1 In 1.1 Marcellus and Horatio discuss Denmark's preparations for the possibility of a Norwegian invasion; in 5.2 Fortinbras enters, flushed with his victory over the Poles, just in time to receive Hamlet's endorsement of his claim to the Danish throne. Not only does Fortinbras serve as a possible monitory double for Hamlet—a son whose father is killed and who knows how to respond—Fortinbras and his martial exploits also remind us of the public sphere that is excluded from this play. Despite the play's examination of the relation between theatricality, deceit, and public personae, much criticism has focused on psychological issues or addressed the play largely as a private and domestic tragedy.2 But although the focus of the play is young Hamlet's dilemma, the drama's time-frame matches that of Claudius's rule over Denmark, and during that time Hamlet as a potential threat is merely one of Claudius's concerns.

Hamlet is concerned with being, not seeming, with translating genuine feeling into activity that manifests that feeling. His mourning clothes in 1.1 publicly bespeak his determination not to play a public role—to stay out of the sun. His black attire urges the community not to attempt to include him. Hamlet wishes to grieve privately, believing that the private sphere is appropriate to a good son. But he soon learns that mourning is not enough: he must also take revenge. Such an act must necessarily have a public component, as he is a prince and the son of a king. To kill Claudius is to become involved in the political arena. Action, then, is equivalent to taking a part, both in the sense of being partisan and in the sense of acting publicly, under the eyes of others. The notion of taking a part makes Hamlet uneasy, however, particularly because such a part would involve behavior that could be divorced from true feeling. But in the course of the fencing exhibition, Hamlet discovers a means of performance acceptable to him. While fencing is a courtly pastime and a way of entertaining others, it also contains the potential for decisive action; when it is not an actual duel, fencing is always (at least theoretically) practice for such an encounter. Moreover, the duellist's determination to back his challenge with his body offers Hamlet one solution to the problem of representing himself honestly. When the exhibition breaks out of its mimetic frame, Hamlet finds the opportunity apt for his revenge: this very public method of killing involves a ritual element that grants the deaths a stylized, sacrificial quality and appropriately solemnizes this drama of the royal family.3

Hamlet's decision to act is slowed by the need to understand all the roles that have been assigned to him. Chief among these are man and son.4 Hamlet learns from the ghost that his role as avenger depends upon his identity as son:

Hamlet: Speak, I am bound to hear.
Ghost: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
Hamlet: What?
Ghost: I am thy father's spirit.


The ghost's assertion of their relationship assumes that the moral imperative of revenge is concomitant upon their blood connection. Contrast this view to Beatrice's allusion to revenge in Much Ado: “It is a man's office, but not yours” (4.1.267). She implies that her newly declared lover is too distant in relation to her traduced cousin to serve as Hero's champion. In Hamlet's case, however, the task is his. Yet the role of avenger is incompatible with the models of manhood described throughout. The “What a piece of work is man” speech (2.2.303-08) emphasizes rationality, the infinite potential inherent in man's reason.6 This valorization of mental faculties seems incompatible with the ghost's call to action and revenge. Insofar as the speech describes an ideal of mankind, it urges both restraint and a reverence for the godhead in man.

Later, Hamlet offers Gertrude a blazon in praise of her husband. Apparently similar to the earlier speech, it actually offers an alternative model of masculinity:

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.


Again the speech emphasizes man's godlike stature; it further describes King Hamlet's physical presence as manhood embodied. Young Hamlet's words create the notion of masculinity through specific signs which, taken together, offer a pictorial, almost emblematic representation of virility. Significantly, in this blazon the eye is not primarily an organ of apprehension; instead, it enacts unspoken imperatives, shaping the responses of those on whom the king glances.

In contrast, Gertrude uses eyesight as a figure for psychological perception. Her son refers to her senses to describe as an error of synesthesia her failure to recognize his father's superiority: “Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight, / Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all, / … Could not so mope” (3.4.78-81). Gertrude responds by turning inward, away from her physical senses to her inner vision: “Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul” (89). She conceives the recognition of her error as a visual apprehension of wrong. Her words suggest that the function of her eyes is to monitor her own spiritual well being; Hamlet Senior, on the other hand, must use his eyes in a gesture of command. The old king's ability to urge the behavior of others characterizes masculine dominance as a theatrical staging (and, incidentally, recalls early modern concerns about the power of the stageplayer).7 His mien compels, not by demonstrating force but by implying his capacity to shift to action. Action thus proves inseparable from theatricality; young Hamlet eventually learns the lesson as he finds his opportunity to act in the context of a performance.

To combine private and public is, for Hamlet, both to unite “that within” with forms and shapes, as he says (1.2.82), and to join the role of son with that of prince. While the role of prince by itself could be that of the classic protagonist of revenge tragedy, Hamlet's desire to follow his father's model of masculinity makes him perceive such an enactment as shrill and theatrical. When Hamlet blazons his father, the reference to his stance “like the herald Mercury / New lighted on a [heaven-] kissing hill (3.4.59) recalls Quintilian's assertion that action in oratory is “a discourse, and sometimes … a certain eloquence of the body” (2:340). When speech and action are in harmony, their combination creates a sense of authenticity, of truth in argument. A public role for Hamlet must both derive from inward feeling and offer an acceptable presentation of himself as his father's heir.

Manhood figures largely in Hamlet's recollection of the dead king. When Horatio greets Hamlet in act 1, he comforts the grieving prince with the remembrance, “I saw him once, 'a was a goodly king” (1.2.186). Hamlet replies, “'A was a man, take him for all in all, / I shall not look upon his like again” (187-88). Unlike Fortinbras, whose eulogy upon Hamlet's corpse is, “he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov'd most royal” (5.2.397-98), Hamlet does not see his subject's primary virtue in his royalty but in his masculinity. Though Hamlet's comment refers in part to the inevitable masculinity of all men, including kings, it also bespeaks with simplicity the nobility inherent in his conception of what it means to be a man. As Howard Felperin says in discussing the morality play as one of this tragedy's antecedents, Hamlet manifests “a troubled awareness … of the simultaneous resemblance and discrepancy between the play and its older models that is increasingly forced upon us as the action proceeds” (60). The player's enactment of revenge reproaches him because, unlike his father's appearance, it is an empty show. Hamlet wants to rant, yet feels he must not: he chides himself for womanly words, for his need “like a whore [to] unpack my heart with words, / And [to] fall a-cursing like a very drab” (2.2.585-86). He wants to act but cannot do so until he has discovered his own form of masculine decorum, his way of uniting private and public identities.


That the fencing match is significant should be evident from the fact that it was a departure from the original story of Hamlet. Shakespeare's depiction of Hamlet (who is, in the original version by Saxo Grammaticus, resolute and unhesitating8) is capped by the fencing scene. But there is a distinction between duelling and fencing, and my use of the term “duellist” differs somewhat from that of other critics who have applied the term to Hamlet. S.P. Zitner argues that Hamlet seeks to attain “a state of mind that proceeds from ethical contemplation, social awareness, a quenching of passion, and … the disinterestedness that abandons the private will to the will of God,” assuming that Hamlet follows the precepts of the Renaissance fencing-master Vincentio Saviolo, whose writings proscribed vengeful duels (Zitner 8; Saviolo 381). But Hamlet is not a duellist in this sense. Far from attempting to kill in a moral frame of mind, he does not even definitively plan to kill his stepfather by means of the sword. He does not reject the treacherous stab in the back because it is an ignoble act but because it punishes Claudio ineffectively, permitting him (Hamlet assumes) to rise to Heaven purged of his sins. What Hamlet seeks throughout the play is a way to perform the part of a man according to his father's model.

Such a mode is that of the duellist. It corresponds to Hamlet's needs in several ways. First, the verbal challenge that precedes a proper duel pledges to prove through action what is uttered in speech; thus, it establishes a connection between word and meaning that destroys the seeming/being dichotomy. Second, the duel harks back to medieval trial ordeals, invoking both historical tradition and the attempt by civil law to involve a heavenly tribunal. The custom of the duel also bears strong overtones of courtliness and chivalry that enable young Hamlet to act publicly in a princely manner. Finally, within that courtly context, the duel embodies the notion of manhood, both through the correspondence of word and deed and through the implicit legitimization of vigilantism (and, by extension, individualism) as a means of achieving justice. Thus we should not be surprised at Hamlet's avowal of his “continual practice” of fencing since Laertes's departure for France. Later, when sport turns into violence, Hamlet's enterprise in turning Claudius's own tools against him demonstrates his ease in the role of swordsman and suggests the psychological rightness of this pastime for him.

To understand fully the significance of the contest for Hamlet, we must be aware of the history of the duel in England. In the 1580s and 1590s, Italian weaponry and customs reshaped the English combat.9 The lightness of the Italian rapier made it popular; ease and popularity altered the nature of its use. Having passed through two distinct state-sponsored forms, the single combat evolved into an extra-legal proceeding.

The alternative term for the duel—trial by combat—derived from the duel's position in late medieval English law as a supplement to criminal trial and judgment. The practice was generally understood as a test in which God's hand would intervene on the right side.10 Social historian Robert Bartlett clarifies its purpose: “The components, in the fifth century as in the thirteenth, are clear: the absence of other means of proof, divine judgment, single combat, a means of proof” (115). The duel was a part of due process, used to distinguish between two disputants when evidence could not determine the case.11 The ritual was a legal trial proceeding that combined investigation, judgment, and, if a combatant was killed outright, summary execution. The presence of onlookers included the community in the ritual and reinforced the performative aspect of the custom.12

As English civil law developed, the judicial duel fell into disuse and another form of state-sanctioned single combat became popular: the joust.13 What we may call the extra-judicial duel almost certainly derived, if not from the joust itself, then from the traditions of chivalry that initially structured that type of one-to-one combat (Billacois 5-6).

By the time of the Tudors, the increasing centralization of power in the monarch diminished the importance of the nobility.14 The extra-judicial duel, or the duel of honor, helped to reaffirm the status of the aristocrat. Engaging in duels was a way for a nobleman to assert his independence from the Crown's authority, maintaining a right that had existed from the time when the nobility were essentially answerable to themselves alone (Billacois 29-30). Duels of honor fought over trivial remarks and casual insults demonstrated Italianate sprezzatura and enhanced one's reputation in an era when the aristocrat's role was increasingly unclear.15

In the late sixteenth century, the English Masters of Defence developed the fencing match as commercial entertainment for another level of society. An organization that legitimated the professional status of fencing teachers, the Masters of Defence generated publicity for their art by requiring students to engage in public matches in order to rise in the ranks of the organization. Yet because the legitimacy of the organization itself depended on the whim of the monarch (James I gave them his royal warrant, Elizabeth did not), the art of fencing remained a somewhat shady enterprise. Even before the sixteenth century, fencers tended to congregate in the suburbs of London where, later, theaters would be built. Early fencing exhibitions were staged outdoors and in taverns, but when Burbage and other entrepreneurs began to finance the playhouses, these stages were used for fencing exhibitions as they were for dramas and the other forms of secular spectacle popular at that time.16

When the duel is placed in the context of a theatrical production, that context interrogates the very structure of drama's mimetic framework. Because all combat is itself a performance, the performative aspect of theatre is redundant in the enactment of the duel. Staged, the duel's apparent authenticity does not depend on how successfully the actors represent a state of mind. While a staged combat is choreographed and its outcome is predetermined, it still has a reality lacking in more mimetic acts. The difference derives partly from the fact that words are extrinsic to the duel. As Cynthia Marshall says of the wrestling match in As You Like It,

[T]he firmest distinction between the “game” or “spectacle” of the wrestling match and the “drama” of the surrounding action will also be the most obvious one: wrestling is an affair of bodies and not words. Le Beau's announcement of Charles's defeat—“He cannot speak” (1.2.208)—illustrates perfectly the established priority of deed over word, the capacity of pure spectacle or of violence … to destroy language. The ludic interval, because it presents violent physical action of a sort that is anterior to language, would seem to possess greater “reality” than the surrounding text of As You Like It.


Marshall's analysis reminds us that the duel was only one instance of the plentiful spectacular violence enacted during this period. Yet the wrestling match and the duel share that element of performativity, of ludic entertainment, that separates such spectacle from its surrounding context.

From inception to conclusion, such a physical contest, staged, functions as a small drama on its own. Self-contained, a small play-within-a-play, it presents two figures whose fight resolves their conflict. The fight itself is bounded, delimited by on-stage presentation. In a way, the conventions of dramatic structure force the duel (when it is part of a drama) to revert to its earlier form as trial by combat. If the challenge to the duel is a speech-act, the staged duel is a tacit judgment of the combatants.


When Osric, the superfine courtier, asks Hamlet to take part in the contest in compliance with the King and Queen's wish, his account of the proposed fencing match stresses the formal nature of the exhibition. He emphasizes the courtliness of Laertes, hinting that the nature of any entertainment in which he takes part will be equally elegant:

Osric: Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes, believe me, an absolute [gentleman], full of most excellent differences, of very soft society, and great showing; indeed, to speak sellingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry; for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.


Osric's euphonious description of the proposed combat and his account of Claudius's and Laertes's wager both call attention to the courtly character of this ludic competition. Osric puts forth the combat as a sport of gentility, a combat in spirit and in class closer to the tilt than to the duelling exhibitions of early modern England. Hamlet and Laertes both use unusual linguistic formality when they meet for the fencing competition. Their language suggests that the fencing will be well-governed, controlled, regulated by the ceremonies of courtesy. But the ceremony, of course, has been designed by Claudius, the devious, false monarch.

Although the challenge to this combat characterizes it as an entertainment, not a duel, one participant (Laertes) and one watcher (Claudius) are aware that the combat will be lethal. Their knowledge (in which we participate) restructures the nature of the match. Yet the fencing appears sportive and friendly at first. Hamlet actually asks Laertes to judge one of his hits. In the crucial bout, in which each wounds the other with the envenomed rapier, they appear at first to be in earnest; Claudius calls out, “Part them, they are incens'd” (5.2.302). But when Hamlet refutes this, he and Laertes face one another again. It is only when Gertrude cries out at the poison and Laertes admits his treachery that disorder breaks out. The match which had seemed a lawful entertainment reveals itself as a ploy of the monarch, created by the king's design and yet unlawful, as perfidious as Claudius himself.

At this point, the device that Claudius has created for Hamlet's death grows beyond his control. As Laertes falls, he confesses his wrongdoing toward Hamlet, thereby recanting the unspoken accusation of Hamlet as his father's murderer. Moreover, his final words—“the King, the King's to blame” (5.2.320)—offer a new accusation that may be proven in blood. Hamlet attacks his uncle with the envenomed sword and, as he forces Claudius to drink the poisoned wine, makes his own accusation: “[T]hou incestious, murd'rous, damned Dane,” he charges as he acts (5.2.325-26). The violence set in motion by the king becomes the swordsman's prerogative.

The first overt violence occurs earlier—in the almost comical struggle between Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia's grave. That brawl occurs in a disjunctive setting that shows how unpromising combat is when it takes place without ceremony or due process. That combat is replayed in the fencing match set up by Claudius as a blind for murder.17 The display of competitive sport now carries its participants beyond the bounds set by the game. Throughout, Shakespeare exploits the dynamics of violence as he has already done in As You Like It. As Marshall says of the ludic match in that play, one character (here, Laertes) sees violence as the sign of sincerity, authentic feeling, while another character (Claudius) sees “the formal violence of [a contest] as open to manipulation” (268). But with the denouement Hamlet recognizes both possibilities: for him the violence is public display, a chance to write his story, as well as the embodiment of feeling. Claudius's manipulations enable him to die as an avenger and a true prince.

For the court onlookers in Hamlet, a performance that began as a game has exploded its boundaries, breaking out of ceremony and playfulness to become brutal, sly, and real.18 What the onlookers realize only at the bloody conclusion is that this apparent sport concealed more than one character's intention not to “act,” but in fact, in deed, to do something decisive to alter his circumstances.

For us as audience, the fencing exhibition restructures the relationships within the larger play. As Jean Howard points out, the fencing places Hamlet “visually at the center, rather than the periphery of the action. Sword in hand, he is himself a public actor” (118). At that juncture, Hamlet's internal state (which has been the play's focus) and the public world of Denmark come together. Once Hamlet begins the match, he becomes an actor rather than an observer. Even though the combat is not a performance of his choosing, it offers him the opportunity to act, to do—in earnest as well as in the ludic context of the competition.


  1. See, for example, Bevington 1071.

  2. It is convenient to cite Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus (1949) as the beginning of the body of psychoanalytic criticism of Hamlet. C.S. Lewis, however, names Schlegel (1815), Hazlitt (1815), Hallam (1837-39), Coleridge (1856), Sievers (1866), Raleigh (1907), and Clutton-Brock (1922) as critics who analyze Hamlet's psychology (cited in Lewis 140-41). Maus (1995) has recently addressed the issues of theatricality and deceit in her excellent discussion of “seeming” in Hamlet (1-5).

  3. James V. Holleran discusses this scene in “Maimed Funeral Rites in Hamlet.” Holleran gives an interesting reading of the fencing exhibition as a distorted version of Holy Communion (87-93).

  4. Masculinity in Hamlet is far from being a stable construct, and the assumptions about its constitution vary from one character to another. As Judith Butler says, summarizing phenomenologist theories of gender,

    gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.


    Butler's discussion of gender forms a large part of the theoretical underpinning of my analysis of duelling and masculinity in Hamlet.

  5. All quotations of Shakespeare's works are from William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans.

  6. My discussion of rationality and revenge has been inflected by Gordon Braden's analysis of Stoicism in English Renaissance drama in Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition.

  7. For early modern texts that reveal anxiety about the powers of the stage-player, see J. Northbrooke, Stephen Gosson, Anthony Munday, and Philip Stubbes, among others.

  8. See Saxo Grammaticus.

  9. For information about the change in swordfighting brought about by the introduction of the rapier to late sixteenth-century England, see Aylward 26-75, Brian Parker 58, and Sieveking 2:389-407, among others.

  10. For two conflicting views on this point, see Lea 166 and Bartlett 68.

  11. But according to Bartlett, “The idea of ‘letting them fight it out’ is at least as strong as the sentiment ‘may the best man win’ (even given that ‘best’ means ‘with the best case’)” (114).

  12. As Foucault says of the watchers at executions, “they must be the witnesses, the guarantors, of the punishment, and … they must to a certain extent take part in it. The right to be witnesses was one they possessed and claimed” (58).

  13. Arguing that the judicial duel was not a thing of the past in early modern England, Francois Billacois asserts that it continued into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (19). For an excellent discussion of jousting and chivalry, see Maurice Keen 83-7.

  14. Lawrence Stone's groundbreaking study The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 was among the first to discuss this phenomenon in detail.

  15. On the subject of trivial remarks as the pretext for single combats, see Parks 166-72. For the aristocrat's anxiety about his social role and the complex codes of behavior that resulted from this anxiety, see Whigham.

  16. See Wickham 2.1.168 and 2.2.42 for a discussion of the various kinds of entertainment offered in Elizabethan and Jacobean London.

  17. For discussion of Claudius's use of the performative fencing display as concealment for the assassination of Prince Hamlet, see Holleran 67 and Alexander 23 and 174-75.

  18. I should acknowledge the debt that this point owes to Johan Huizinga.

Literature Cited

Alexander, Nigel. Poison, Play, and Duel. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1971.

Aylward, J.D. The English Master of Arms. London: Routledge, 1956.

Bartlett, Robert. Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

Bevington, David. “Introduction to Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Ed. David Bevington. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. 1069-73.

Billacois, Francois. The Duel: Its Rise and Fall in Early Modern France. Ed. and trans. Trista Selous. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition. New Haven: Yale UP, 1985.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.” Performing Feminisms. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Hopkins UP, 1990. 270-82.

Felperin, Howard. Shakespearean Representation: Mimesis and Modernity in Elizabethan Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Gosson, Stephen. The Schoole of Abuse. London, 1579. STC 12097.

Grammaticus, Saxo. Saxo Grammaticus and the Life of Hamlet. Lincoln: Nebraska UP, 1983.

Holleran, James V. “Maimed Funeral Rites in Hamlet.” ELR 19 (1989): 65-93.

Howard, Jean E. Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1984.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1944, rpt. 1955.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. Rev. ed. New York, 1949.

Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Lea, Henry Charles. The Duel and the Oath. 1866. Rpt. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania UP, 1974.

Lewis, C.S. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Proceedings of the British Academy 28 (1942): 139-54.

Marshall, Cynthia. “Wrestling as Play and Game in As You Like It.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 33 (1993): 265-87.

Maus, Katharine Eisaman. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995.

Munday, Anthony. A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters. London, 1580. STC 21677.

Northbrooke, J. A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes or Enterluds … are reproved. London, 1577. STC 18670. Rpt. New York: Garland, 1974.

Parker, Brian. “A Fair Quarrel (1617), the Duelling Code, and Jacobean Law.” Rough Justice: Essays on Crime in Literature. Ed. M.L. Friedland. Toronto: Toronto UP, 1991. 52-75.

Parks, Ward. Verbal Duelling in Heroic Narrative. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.

Quintilian, Marcus Fabius. De Institutione Oratoria. 2 vols. Trans. W. Guthrie. London: Dutton, 1805.

Saviolo, Vincentio. Vincentio Saviolo His Practise. London: Wolff, 1595. Rpt. in Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals. Ed. James L. Jackson. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1972. 185-488.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Sieveking, A. Forbes. “Fencing and Duelling.” Shakespeare's England. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966. 2:389-407.

Stone, Lawrence. The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965.

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. London, 1583. STC 23376.

Whigham, Frank. Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory. Berkeley: California UP, 1984.

Wickham, Glynne. Early English Stages 1300 to 1600. 3 vols. New York: Columbia UP, 1959.

Zitner, S.P. “Hamlet, Duellist.” University of Toronto Quarterly 39 (1969): 1-18.

Elaine Showalter (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6728

SOURCE: “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 77-94.

[In the following essay, Showalter probes a number of crucial questions surrounding the character of Ophelia which involve her status in the play and bring to the forefront the relation between madness, representation, women's sexuality, and femaleness.]

“As a sort of a come-on, I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word.” These are the words which begin the psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet presented in Paris in 1959 by Jacques Lacan. But despite his promising come-on, Lacan was not as good as his word. He goes on for some 41 pages to speak about Hamlet, and when he does mention Ophelia, she is merely what Lacan calls “the object Ophelia”—that is, the object of Hamlet's male desire. The etymology of Ophelia, Lacan asserts, is “O-phallus,” and her role in the drama can only be to function as the exteriorized figuration of what Lacan predictably and, in view of his own early work with psychotic women, disappointingly suggests is the phallus as transcendental signifier.1 To play such a part obviously makes Ophelia “essential,” as Lacan admits; but only because, in his words, “she is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.”

The bait-and-switch game that Lacan plays with Ophelia is a cynical but not unusual instance of her deployment in psychiatric and critical texts. For most critics of Shakespeare, Ophelia has been an insignificant minor character in the play, touching in her weakness and madness but chiefly interesting, of course, in what she tells us about Hamlet. And while female readers of Shakespeare have often attempted to champion Ophelia, even feminist critics have done so with a certain embarrassment. As Annette Kolodny ruefully admits: “it is after all, an imposition of high order to ask the viewer to attend to Ophelia's sufferings in a scene where, before, he's always so comfortably kept his eye fixed on Hamlet.”2

Yet when feminist criticism allows Ophelia to upstage Hamlet, it also brings to the foreground the issues in an ongoing theoretical debate about the cultural links between femininity, female sexuality, insanity, and representation. Though she is neglected in criticism, Ophelia is probably the most frequently illustrated and cited of Shakespeare's heroines. Her visibility as a subject in literature, popular culture, and painting, from Redon who paints her drowning, to Bob Dylan, who places her on Desolation Row, to Cannon Mills, which has named a flowery sheet pattern after her, is in inverse relation to her invisibility in Shakespearean critical texts. Why has she been such a potent and obsessive figure in our cultural mythology? Insofar as Hamlet names Ophelia as “woman” and “frailty,” substituting an ideological view of femininity for a personal one, is she indeed representative of Woman, and does her madness stand for the oppression of women in society as well as in tragedy? Furthermore, since Laertes calles Ophelia a “document in madness,” does she represent the textual archetype of woman as madness or madness as woman? And finally, how should feminist criticism represent Ophelia in its own discourse? What is our responsibility towards her as character and as woman?

Feminist critics have offered a variety of responses to these questions. Some have maintained that we should represent Ophelia as a lawyer represents a client, that we should become her Horatia, in this harsh world reporting her and her cause aright to the unsatisfied. Carol Neely, for example, describes advocacy—speaking for Ophelia—as our proper role: “As a feminist critic,” she writes, “I must ‘tell’ Ophelia's story.”3 But what can we mean by Ophelia's story? The story of her life? The story of her betrayal at the hands of her father, brother, lover, court, society? The story of her rejection and marginalization by male critics of Shakespeare? Shakespeare gives us very little information from which to imagine a past for Ophelia. She appears in only five of the play's twenty scenes; the pre-play course of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguous flashbacks. Her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives. Thus another feminist critic, Lee Edwards, concludes that it is impossible to reconstruct Ophelia's biography from the text: “We can imagine Hamlet's story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet.”4

If we turn from American to French feminist theory, Ophelia might confirm the impossibility of representing the feminine in patriarchal discourse as other than madness, incoherence, fluidity, or silence. In French theoretical criticism, the feminine or “Woman” is that which escapes representation in patriarchal language and symbolism; it remains on the side of negativity, absence, and lack. In comparison to Hamlet, Ophelia is certainly a creature of lack. “I think nothing, my lord,” she tells him in the Mousetrap scene, and he cruelly twists her words:

Hamlet: That's a fair
thought to lie between maids' legs.
Ophelia: What is, my lord?
Hamlet: Nothing.


In Elizabethan slang, “nothing” was a term for the female genitalia, as in Much Ado About Nothing. To Hamlet, then, “nothing” is what lies between maids' legs, for, in the male visual system of representation and desire, women's sexual organs, in the words of the French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, “represent the horror of having nothing to see.”5 When Ophelia is mad, Gertrude says that “Her speech is nothing,” mere “unshaped use.” Ophelia's speech thus represents the horror of having nothing to say in the public terms defined by the court. Deprived of thought, sexuality, language, Ophelia's story becomes the Story of O—the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference, the cipher of female sexuality to be deciphered by feminist interpretation.6

A third approach would be to read Ophelia's story as the female subtext of the tragedy, the repressed story of Hamlet. In this reading, Ophelia represents the strong emotions that the Elizabethans as well as the Freudians thought womanish and unmanly. When Laertes weeps for his dead sister he says of his tears that “When these are gone, / The woman will be out”—that is to say, that the feminine and shameful part of his nature will be purged. According to David Leverenz, in an important essay called “The Woman in Hamlet,” Hamlet's disgust at the feminine passivity in himself is translated into violent revulsion against women, and into his brutal behavior towards Ophelia. Ophelia's suicide, Leverenz argues, then becomes “a microcosm of the male world's banishment of the female, because ‘woman’ represents everything denied by reasonable men.”7

It is perhaps because Hamlet's emotional vulnerability can so readily be conceptualized as feminine that this is the only heroic male role in Shakespeare which has been regularly acted by women, in a tradition from Sarah Bernhardt to, most recently, Diane Venora, in a production directed by Joseph Papp. Leopold Bloom speculates on this tradition in Ulysses, musing on the Hamlet of the actress Mrs Bandman Palmer: “Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman? Why Ophelia committed suicide?”8

While all of these approaches have much to recommend them, each also presents critical problems. To liberate Ophelia from the text, or to make her its tragic center, is to re-appropriate her for our own ends; to dissolve her into a female symbolism of absence is to endorse our own marginality; to make her Hamlet's anima is to reduce her to a metaphor of male experience. I would like to propose instead that Ophelia does have a story of her own that feminist criticism can tell; it is neither her life story, nor her love story, nor Lacan's story, but rather the history of her representation. This essay tries to bring together some of the categories of French feminist thought about the “feminine” with the empirical energies of American historical and critical research: to yoke French theory and Yankee knowhow.

Tracing the iconography of Ophelia in English and French painting, photography, psychiatry, and literature, as well as in theatrical production, I will be showing first of all the representational bonds between female insanity and female sexuality. Secondly, I want to demonstrate the two-way transaction between psychiatric theory and cultural representation. As one medical historian has observed, we could provide a manual of female insanity by chronicling the illustrations of Ophelia; this is so because the illustrations of Ophelia have played a major role in the theoretical construction of female insanity.9 Finally, I want to suggest that the feminist revision of Ophelia comes as much from the actress's freedom as from the critic's interpretation.10 When Shakespeare's heroines began to be played by women instead of boys, the presence of the female body and female voice, quite apart from details of interpretation, created new meanings and subversive tensions in these roles, and perhaps most importantly with Ophelia. Looking at Ophelia's history on and off the stage, I will point out the contest between male and female representations of Ophelia, cycles of critical repression and feminist reclamation of which contemporary feminist criticism is only the most recent phase. By beginning with these data from cultural history, instead of moving from the grid of literary theory, I hope to conclude with a fuller sense of the responsibilities of feminist criticism, as well as a new perspective on Ophelia.


“Of all the characters in Hamlet,” Bridget Lyons has pointed out, “Ophelia is most persistently presented in terms of symbolic meanings.”11 Her behavior, her appearance, her gestures, her costume, her props, are freighted with emblematic significance, and for many generations of Shakespearean critics her part in the play has seemed to be primarily iconographic. Ophelia's symbolic meanings, moreover, are specifically feminine. Whereas for Hamlet madness is metaphysical, linked with culture, for Ophelia it is a product of the female body and female nature, perhaps that nature's purest form. On the Elizabethan stage, the conventions of female insanity were sharply defined. Ophelia dresses in white, decks herself with “fantastical garlands” of wild flowers, and enters, according to the stage directions of the “Bad” Quarto, “distracted” playing on a lute with her “hair down singing.” Her speeches are marked by extravagant metaphors, lyrical free associations, and “explosive sexual imagery.”12 She sings wistful and bawdy ballads, and ends her life by drowning.

All of these conventions carry specific messages about femininity and sexuality. Ophelia's virginal and vacant white is contrasted with Hamlet's scholar's garb, his “suits of solemn black.” Her flowers suggest the discordant double images of female sexuality as both innocent blossoming and whorish contamination; she is the “green girl” of pastoral, the virginal “Rose of May” and the sexually explicit madwoman who, in giving away her wild flowers and herbs, is symbolically deflowering herself. The “weedy trophies” and phallic “long purples” which she wears to her death intimate an improper and discordant sexuality that Gertrude's lovely elegy cannot quite obscure.13 In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the stage direction that a woman enters with dishevelled hair indicates that she might either be mad or the victim of a rape; the disordered hair, her offense against decorum, suggests sensuality in each case.14 The mad Ophelia's bawdy songs and verbal license, while they give her access to “an entirely different range of experience” from what she is allowed as the dutiful daughter, seem to be her one sanctioned form of self-assertion as a woman, quickly followed, as if in retribution, by her death.15

Drowning too was associated with the feminine, with female fluidity as opposed to masculine aridity. In his discussion of the “Ophelia complex,” the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard traces the symbolic connections between women, water, and death. Drowning, he suggests, becomes the truly feminine death in the dramas of literature and life, one which is a beautiful immersion and submersion in the female element. Water is the profound and organic symbol of the liquid woman whose eyes are so easily drowned in tears, as her body is the repository of blood, amniotic fluid, and milk. A man contemplating this feminine suicide understands it by reaching for what is feminine in himself, like Laertes, by a temporary surrender to his own fluidity—that is, his tears; and he becomes a man again in becoming once more dry—when his tears are stopped.16

Clinically speaking, Ophelia's behavior and appearance are characteristic of the malady the Elizabethans would have diagnosed as female love-melancholy, or erotomania. From about 1580, melancholy had become a fashionable disease among young men, especially in London, and Hamlet himself is a prototype of the melancholy hero. Yet the epidemic of melancholy associated with intellectual and imaginative genius “curiously bypassed women.” Women's melancholy was seen instead as biological, and emotional in origins.17

On the stage, Ophelia's madness was presented as the predictable outcome of erotomania. From 1660, when women first appeared on the public stage, to the beginnings of the eighteenth century, the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love. The greatest triumph was reserved for Susan Mountfort, a former actress at Lincoln's Inn Fields who had gone mad after her lover's betrayal. One night in 1720 she escaped from her keeper, rushed to the theater, and just as the Ophelia of the evening was to enter for her mad scene, “sprang forward in her place … with wild eyes and wavering motion.”18 As a contemporary reported, “she was in truth Ophelia herself, to the amazement of the performers as well as of the audience—nature having made this last effort, her vital powers failed her and she died soon after.”19 These theatrical legends reinforced the belief of the age that female madness was a part of female nature, less to be imitated by an actress than demonstrated by a deranged woman in a performance of her emotions.

The subversive or violent possibilities of the mad scene were nearly eliminated, however, on the eighteenth-century stage. Late Augustan stereotypes of female love-melancholy were sentimentalized versions which minimized the force of female sexuality, and made female insanity a pretty stimulant to male sensibility. Actresses such as Mrs Lessingham in 1772, and Mary Bolton in 1811, played Ophelia in this decorous style, relying on the familiar images of the white dress, loose hair, and wild flowers to convey a polite feminine distraction, highly suitable for pictorial reproduction, and appropriate for Samuel Johnson's description of Ophelia as young, beautiful, harmless, and pious. Even Mrs Siddons in 1785 played the mad scene with stately and classical dignity. … For much of the period, in fact, Augustan objections to the levity and indecency of Ophelia's language and behavior led to censorship of the part. Her lines were frequently cut, and the role was often assigned to a singer instead of an actress, making the mode of representation musical rather than visual or verbal.

But whereas the Augustan response to madness was a denial, the romantic response was an embrace.20 The figure of the madwoman permeates romantic literature, from the gothic novelists to Wordsworth and Scott in such texts as “The Thorn” and The Heart of Midlothian, where she stands for sexual victimization, bereavement, and thrilling emotional extremity. Romantic artists such as Thomas Barker and George Shepheard painted pathetically abandoned Crazy Kates and Crazy Anns, while Henry Fuseli's “Mad Kate” is almost demonically possessed, an orphan of the romantic storm.

In the Shakespearean theater, Ophelia's romantic revival began in France rather than England. When Charles Kemble made his Paris debut as Hamlet with an English troupe in 1827, his Ophelia was a young Irish ingénue named Harriet Smithson. Smithson used “her extensive command of mime to depict in precise gesture the state of Ophelia's confused mind.”21 In the mad scene, she entered in a long black veil, suggesting the standard imagery of female sexual mystery in the gothic novel, with scattered bedlamish wisps of straw in her hair. … Spreading the veil on the ground as she sang, she spread flowers upon it in the shape of a cross, as if to make her father's grave, and mimed a burial, a piece of stage business which remained in vogue for the rest of the century.

The French audiences were stunned. Dumas recalled that “it was the first time I saw in the theatre real passions, giving life to men and women of flesh and blood.”22 The 23-year-old Hector Berlioz, who was in the audience on the first night, fell madly in love, and eventually married Harriet Smithson despite his family's frantic opposition. Her image as the mad Ophelia was represented in popular lithographs and exhibited in bookshop and printshop windows. Her costume was imitated by the fashionable, and a coiffure “à la folle,” consisting of a “black veil with wisps of straw tastefully interwoven” in the hair, was widely copied by the Parisian beau monde, always on the lookout for something new.23

Although Smithson never acted Ophelia on the English stage, her intensely visual performance quickly influenced English productions as well; and indeed the romantic Ophelia—a young girl passionately and visibly driven to picturesque madness—became the dominant international acting style for the next 150 years, from Helena Modjeska in Poland in 1871, to the 18-year-old Jean Simmons in the Laurence Olivier film of 1948.

Whereas the romantic Hamlet, in Coleridge's famous dictum, thinks too much, has an “overbalance of the contemplative faculty” and an overactive intellect, the romantic Ophelia is a girl who feels too much, who drowns in feeling. The romantic critics seem to have felt that the less said about Ophelia the better; the point was to look at her. Hazlitt, for one, is speechless before her, calling her “a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon.”24 While the Augustans represent Ophelia as music, the romantics transform her into an objet d'art, as if to take literally Claudius's lament, “poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are pictures.”

Smithson's performance is best recaptured in a series of pictures done by Delacroix from 1830 to 1850, which show a strong romantic interest in the relation of female sexuality and insanity.25 The most innovative and influential of Delacroix's lithographs is La Mort d'Ophélie of 1843, the first of three studies. Its sensual languor, with Ophelia half-suspended in the stream as her dress slips from her body, anticipated the fascination with the erotic trance of the hysteric as it would be studied by Jean-Martin Charcot and his students, including Janet and Freud. Delacroix's interest in the drowning Ophelia is also reproduced to the point of obsession in later nineteenth-century painting. The English Pre-Raphaelites painted her again and again, choosing the drowning which is only described in the play, and where no actress's image had preceded them or interfered with their imaginative supremacy.

In the Royal Academy show of 1852, Arthur Hughes's entry shows a tiny waif-like creature—a sort of Tinker Bell Ophelia—in a filmy white gown, perched on a tree trunk by the stream. The overall effect is softened, sexless, and hazy, although the straw in her hair resembles a crown of thorns. Hughes's juxtaposition of childlike femininity and Christian martyrdom was overpowered, however, by John Everett Millais's great painting of Ophelia in the same show. … While Millais's Ophelia is sensuous siren as well as victim, the artist rather than the subject dominates the scene. The division of space between Ophelia and the natural details Millais had so painstakingly pursued reduces her to one more visual object; and the painting has such a hard surface, strangely flattened perspective, and brilliant light that it seems cruelly indifferent to the woman's death.


These Pre-Raphaelite images were part of a new and intricate traffic between images of women and madness in late nineteenth-century literature, psychiatry, drama, and art. First of all, superintendents of Victorian lunatic asylums were also enthusiasts of Shakespeare, who turned to his dramas for models of mental aberration that could be applied to their clinical practice. The case study of Ophelia was one that seemed particularly useful as an account of hysteria or mental breakdown in adolescence, a period of sexual instability which the Victorians regarded as risky for women's mental health. As Dr John Charles Bucknill, president of the Medico-Psychological Association, remarked in 1859, “Ophelia is the very type of a class of cases by no means uncommon. Every mental physician of moderately extensive experience must have seen many Ophelias. It is a copy from nature, after the fashion of the Pre-Raphaelite school.”26 Dr John Conolly, the celebrated superintendent of the Hanwell Asylum, and founder of the committee to make Stratford a national trust, concurred. In his Study of Hamlet in 1863 he noted that even casual visitors to mental institutions could recognize an Ophelia in the wards: “the same young years, the same faded beauty, the same fantastic dress and interrupted song.”27 Medical textbooks illustrated their discussions of female patients with sketches of Ophelia-like maidens.

But Conolly also pointed out that the graceful Ophelias who dominated the Victorian stage were quite unlike the women who had become the majority of the inmate population in Victorian public asylums. “It seems to be supposed,” he protested, “that it is an easy task to play the part of a crazy girl, and that it is chiefly composed of singing and prettiness. The habitual courtesy, the partial rudeness of mental disorder, are things to be witnessed. … An actress, ambitious of something beyond cold imitation, might find the contemplation of such cases a not unprofitable study.”28

Yet when Ellen Terry took up Conolly's challenge, and went to an asylum to observe real madwomen, she found them “too theatrical” to teach her anything.29 This was because the iconography of the romantic Ophelia had begun to infiltrate reality, to define a style for mad young women seeking to express and communicate their distress. And where the women themselves did not willingly throw themselves into Ophelia-like postures, asylum superintendents, armed with the new technology of photography, imposed the costume, gesture, props, and expression of Ophelia upon them. In England, the camera was introduced to asylum work in the 1850s by Dr Hugh Welch Diamond, who photographed his female patients at the Surrey Asylum and at Bethlem. Diamond was heavily influenced by literary and visual models in his posing of the female subjects. His pictures of madwomen, posed in prayer, or decked with Ophelia-like garlands, were copied for Victorian consumption as touched-up lithographs in professional journals. …30

Reality, psychiatry, and representational convention were even more confused in the photographic records of hysteria produced in the 1870s by Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was the first clinician to install a fully-equipped photographic atelier in his Paris hospital, La Salpêtrière, to record the performances of his hysterical stars. Charcot's clinic became, as he said, a “living theatre” of female pathology; his women patients were coached in their performances for the camera, and, under hypnosis, were sometimes instructed to play heroines from Shakespeare. Among them, a 15-year-old girl named Augustine was featured in the published volumes called Iconographies in every posture of la grande hystérie. With her white hospital gown and flowing locks, Augustine frequently resembles the reproductions of Ophelia as icon and actress which had been in wide circulation. …31

But if the Victorian madwoman looks mutely out from men's pictures, and acts a part men had staged and directed, she is very differently represented in the feminist revision of Ophelia initiated by newly powerful and respectable Victorian actresses, and by women critics of Shakespeare. In their efforts to defend Ophelia, they invent a story for her drawn from their own experiences, grievances, and desires.


Probably the most famous of the Victorian feminist revisions of the Ophelia story was Mary Cowden Clarke's The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, published in 1852. Unlike other Victorian moralizing and didactic studies of the female characters of Shakespeare's plays, Clarke's was specifically addressed to the wrongs of women, and especially to the sexual double standard. In a chapter on Ophelia called “The rose of Elsinore,” Clarke tells how the child Ophelia was left behind in the care of a peasant couple when Polonius was called to the court at Paris, and raised in a cottage with a foster-sister and brother, Jutha and Ulf. Jutha is seduced and betrayed by a deceitful knight, and Ophelia discovers the bodies of Jutha and her still-born child, lying “white, rigid, and still” in the deserted parlor of the cottage in the middle of the night. Ulf, a “hairy loutish boy,” likes to torture flies, to eat songbirds, and to rip the petals off roses, and he is also very eager to give little Ophelia what he calls a bear-hug. Both repelled and masochistically attracted by Ulf, Ophelia is repeatedly concerned by him as she grows up; once she escapes the hug by hitting him with a branch of wild roses; another time, he sneaks into her bedroom “in his brutish pertinacity to obtain the hug he had promised himself,” but just as he bends over her trembling body, Ophelia is saved by the reappearance of her real mother.

A few years later, back at the court, she discovers the hanged body of another friend, who has killed herself after being “victimized and deserted by the same evil seducer.” Not surprisingly, Ophelia breaks down with brain fever—a staple mental illness of Victorian fiction—and has prophetic hallucinations of a brook beneath willow trees where something bad will happen to her. The warnings of Polonius and Laertes have little to add to this history of female sexual trauma.32

On the Victorian stage, it was Ellen Terry, daring and unconventional in her own life, who led the way in acting Ophelia in feminist terms as a consistent psychological study in sexual intimidation, a girl terrified of her father, of her lover, and of life itself. Terry's debut as Ophelia in Henry Irving's production in 1878 was a landmark. According to one reviewer, her Ophelia was “the terrible spectacle of a normal girl becoming hopelessly imbecile as the result of overwhelming mental agony. Hers was an insanity without wrath or rage, without exaltation or paroxysms.”33 Her “poetic and intellectual performance” also inspired other actresses to rebel against the conventions of invisibility and negation associated with the part.

Terry was the first to challenge the tradition of Ophelia's dressing in emblematic white. For the French poets, such as Rimbaud, Hugo, Musset, Mallarmé and Laforgue, whiteness was part of Ophelia's essential feminine symbolism; they call her “blanche Ophélia” and compare her to a lily, a cloud, or snow. Yet whiteness also made her a transparency, an absence that took on the colors of Hamlet's moods, and that, for the symbolists like Mallarmé, made her a blank page to be written over or on by the male imagination. Although Irving was able to prevent Terry from wearing black in the mad scene, exclaiming “My God, Madam, there must be only one black figure in this play, and that's Hamlet!” (Irving, of course, was playing Hamlet), nonetheless actresses such as Gertrude Eliot, Helen Maude, Nora de Silva, and in Russia Vera Komisarjevskaya, gradually won the right to intensify Ophelia's presence by clothing her in Hamlet's black.34

By the turn of the century, there was both a male and a female discourse on Ophelia. A.C. Bradley spoke for the Victorian male tradition when he noted in Shakespearean Tragedy (1906) that “a large number of readers feel a kind of personal irritation against Ophelia; they seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine.”35 The feminist counterview was represented by actresses in such works as Helena Faucit's study of Shakespeare's female characters, and The True Ophelia, written by an anonymous actress in 1914, which protested against the “insipid little creature” of criticism, and advocated a strong and intelligent woman destroyed by the heartlessness of men.36 In women's paintings of the fin de siècle as well, Ophelia is depicted as an inspiring, even sanctified emblem of righteousness.37

While the widely read and influential essays of Mary Cowden Clarke are now mocked as the epitome of naive criticism, these Victorian studies of the girlhood of Shakespeare's heroines are of course alive and well as psychoanalytic criticism, which has imagined its own prehistories of oedipal conflict and neurotic fixation; and I say this not to mock psychoanalytic criticism, but to suggest that Clarke's musings on Ophelia are a pre-Freudian speculation on the traumatic sources of a female sexual identity. The Freudian interpretation of Hamlet concentrated on the hero, but also had much to do with the re-sexualization of Ophelia. As early as 1900, Freud had traced Hamlet's irresolution to an Oedipus complex, and Ernest Jones, his leading British disciple, developed this view, influencing the performances of John Gielgud and Alec Guinness in the 1930s. In his final version of the study, Hamlet and Oedipus, published in 1949, Jones argued that “Ophelia should be unmistakably sensual, as she seldom is on stage. She may be ‘innocent’ and docile, but she is very aware of her body.”38

In the theater and in criticism, this Freudian edict has produced such extreme readings as that Shakespeare intends us to see Ophelia as a loose woman, and that she has been sleeping with Hamlet. Rebecca West has argued that Ophelia was not “a correct and timid virgin of exquisite sensibilities,” a view she attributes to the popularity of the Millais painting; but rather “a disreputable young woman.”39 In his delightful autobiography, Laurence Olivier, who made a special pilgrimage to Ernest Jones when he was preparing his Hamlet in the 1930s, recalls that one of his predecessors as actor-manager had said in response to the earnest question, “Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?”—“In my company, always.”40

The most extreme Freudian interpretation reads Hamlet as two parallel male and female psychodramas, the counterpointed stories of the incestuous attachments of Hamlet and Ophelia. As Theodor Lidz presents this view, while Hamlet is neurotically attached to his mother, Ophelia has an unresolved oedipal attachment to her father. She has fantasies of a lover who will abduct her from or even kill her father, and when this actually happens, her reason is destroyed by guilt as well as by lingering incestuous feelings. According to Lidz, Ophelia breaks down because she fails in the female developmental task of shifting her sexual attachment from her father “to a man who can bring her fulfillment as a woman.”41 We see the effects of this Freudian Ophelia on stage productions since the 1950s, where directors have hinted at an incestuous link between Ophelia and her father, or more recently, because this staging conflicts with the usual ironic treatment of Polonius, between Ophelia and Laertes. Trevor Nunn's production with Helen Mirren in 1970, for example, made Ophelia and Laertes flirtatious doubles, almost twins in their matching fur-trimmed doublets, playing duets on the lute with Polonius looking on, like Peter, Paul, and Mary. In other productions of the same period, Marianne Faithfull was a haggard Ophelia equally attracted to Hamlet and Laertes, and, in one of the few performances directed by a woman, Yvonne Nicholson sat on Laertes' lap in the advice scene, and played the part with “rough sexual bravado.”42

Since the 1960s, the Freudian representation of Ophelia has been supplemented by an antipsychiatry that represents Ophelia's madness in more contemporary terms. In contrast to the psychoanalytic representation of Ophelia's sexual unconscious that connected her essential femininity to Freud's essays on female sexuality and hysteria, her madness is now seen in medical and biochemical terms, as schizophrenia. This is so in part because the schizophrenic woman has become the cultural icon of dualistic femininity in the mid-twentieth century as the erotomaniac was in the seventeenth and the hysteric in the nineteenth. It might also be traced to the work of R.D. Laing on female schizophrenia in the 1960s. Laing argued that schizophrenia was an intelligible response to the experience of invalidation within the family network, especially to the conflicting emotional messages and mystifying double binds experienced by daughters. Ophelia, he noted in The Divided Self, is an empty space. “In her madness there is no one there. … There is no integral selfhood expressed through her actions or utterances. Incomprehensible statements are said by nothing. She has already died. There is now only a vacuum where there was once a person.”43

Despite his sympathy for Ophelia, Laing's readings silence her, equate her with “nothing,” more completely than any since the Augustans; and they have been translated into performances which only make Ophelia a graphic study of mental pathology. The sickest Ophelias on the contemporary stage have been those in the productions of the pathologist-director Jonathan Miller. In 1974 at the Greenwich Theatre his Ophelia sucked her thumb; by 1981, at the Warehouse in London, she was played by an actress much taller and heavier than the Hamlet (perhaps punningly cast as the young actor Anton Lesser). She began the play with a set of nervous tics and tuggings of hair which by the mad scene had become a full set of schizophrenic routines—head banging, twitching, wincing, grimacing, and drooling.44

But since the 1970s too we have had a feminist discourse which has offered a new perspective on Ophelia's madness as protest and rebellion. For many feminist theorists, the madwoman is a heroine, a powerful figure who rebels against the family and the social order; and the hysteric who refuses to speak the language of the patriarchal order, who speaks otherwise, is a sister.45 In terms of effect on the theater, the most radical application of these ideas was probably realized in Melissa Murray's agitprop play Ophelia, written in 1979 for the English women's theater group “Hormone Imbalance.” In this blank verse retelling of the Hamlet story, Ophelia becomes a lesbian and runs off with a woman servant to join a guerrilla commune.46

While I've always regretted that I missed this production, I can't proclaim that this defiant ideological gesture, however effective politically or theatrically, is all that feminist criticism desires, or all to which it should aspire. When feminist criticism chooses to deal with representation, rather than with women's writing, it must aim for a maximum interdisciplinary contextualism, in which the complexity of attitudes towards the feminine can be analyzed in their fullest cultural and historical frame. The alternation of strong and weak Ophelias on the stage, virginal and seductive Ophelias in art, inadequate or oppressed Ophelias in criticism, tells us how these representations have overflowed the text, and how they have reflected the ideological character of their times, erupting as debates between dominant and feminist views in periods of gender crisis and redefinition. The representation of Ophelia changes independently of theories of the meaning of the play or the Prince, for it depends on attitudes towards women and madness. The decorous and pious Ophelia of the Augustan age and the postmodern schizophrenic heroine who might have stepped from the pages of Laing can be derived from the same figure; they are both contradictory and complementary images of female sexuality in which madness seems to act as the “switching-point, the concept which allows the co-existence of both sides of the representation.”47 There is no “true” Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of all her parts.

But in exposing the ideology of representation, feminist critics have also the responsibility to acknowledge and to examine the boundaries of our own ideological positions as products of our gender and our time. A degree of humility in an age of critical hubris can be our greatest strength, for it is by occupying this position of historical self-consciousness in both feminism and criticism that we maintain our credibility in representing Ophelia, and that, unlike Lacan, when we promise to speak about her, we make good our word.


  1. Jacques Lacan, “Desire and the interpretation of desire in Hamlet,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore, 1982), 11, 20, 23. Lacan is also wrong about the etymology of Ophelia, which probably derives from the Greek for “help” or “succour.” Charlotte M. Yonge suggested a derivation from “ophis,” “serpent.” See her History of Christian Names (1884, republished Chicago, 1966), 346-7. I am indebted to Walter Jackson Bate for this reference.

  2. Annette Kolodny, “Dancing through the minefield: some observations on the theory, practice, and politics of feminist literary criticism” (Feminist Studies, 6 (1980)), 7.

  3. Carol Neely, “Feminist modes of Shakespearean criticism” (Women's Studies, 9 (1981)), 11.

  4. Lee Edwards, “The labors of Psyche” (Critical Inquiry, 6 (1979)), 36.

  5. Luce Irigaray: see New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York, 1982), 101. The quotation above, from III. ii, is taken from the Arden Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (London and New York, 1982), 295. All quotations from Hamlet are from this text.

  6. On images of negation and feminine enclosure, see David Wilbern, “Shakespeare's ‘nothing’,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore, 1981).

  7. David Leverenz, “The woman in Hamlet: an interpersonal view” (Signs, 4 (1978)), 303.

  8. James Joyce, Ulysses (New York, 1961), 76.

  9. Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane (New York, 1981), 126.

  10. See Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom: Toward a Theory of Drama (New York, 1975), for a stimulating discussion of the interpretative interaction between actor and audience.

  11. Bridget Lyons, “The iconography of Ophelia” (English Literary History, 44 (1977), 61.

  12. See Maurice and Hanna Charney, “The language of Shakespeare's madwomen” (Signs, 3 (1977)), 451, 457; and Carroll Camden, “On Ophelia's madness” (Shakespeare Quarterly (1964)), 254.

  13. See Margery Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London, 1981), 155-7; and Lyons, op. cit., 65, 70-2.

  14. On dishevelled hair as a signifier of madness or rape, see Charney and Charney, op. cit., 452-3, 457; and Allan Dessen, Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (Cambridge, 1984), 36-8. Thanks to Allan Dessen for letting me see advance proofs of his book.

  15. Charney and Charney, op. cit., 456.

  16. Gaston Bachelard, L'Eau et les rêves (Paris, 1942), 109-25. See also Brigitte Peucker, “Dröste-Hulshof's Ophelia and the recovery of voice” (The Journal of English and Germanic Philology (1983)), 374-91.

  17. Vieda Skultans, English Madness: Ideas on Insanity 1580-1890 (London, 1977), 79-81. On historical cases of love-melancholy, see Michael MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam (Cambridge, 1982).

  18. C.E.L. Wingate, Shakespeare's Heroines on the Stage (New York, 1895), 283-4, 288-9.

  19. Charles Hiatt, Ellen Terry (London, 1898), 11.

  20. Max Byrd, Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century (Columbia, 1974), xiv.

  21. Peter Raby, Fair Ophelia: Harriet Smithson Berlioz (Cambridge, 1982), 63.

  22. Ibid., 68.

  23. Ibid., 72, 75.

  24. Quoted in Camden, op. cit., 247.

  25. Raby, op. cit., 182.

  26. J. C. Bucknill, The Psychology of Shakespeare (London, 1859, reprinted New York, 1970), 110. For more extensive discussions of Victorian psychiatry and Ophelia figures, see Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture (New York, forthcoming 1985).

  27. John Conolly, Study of Hamlet (London, 1863), 177.

  28. Ibid., 177-8, 180.

  29. Ellen Terry, The Story of My Life (London, 1908), 154.

  30. Diamond's photographs are reproduced in Sander L. Gilman, The Face of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography (New York, 1976).

  31. See Georges Didi-Huberman, L'Invention de l'hystérie (Paris, 1982), and Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fix (London, 1983), 36.

  32. Mary Cowden Clarke, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (London, 1852). See also George C. Gross, “Mary Cowden Clarke, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, and the sex education of Victorian women” (Victorian Studies, 16 (1972)), 37-58, and Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 210-15.

  33. Hiatt, op. cit., 114. See also Wingate, op. cit., 304-5.

  34. Terry, op. cit., 155-6.

  35. Andrew C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1906), 160.

  36. Helena Faucit Martin, On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters (Edinburgh and London, 1891), 4, 18; and The True Ophelia (New York, 1914), 15.

  37. Among these paintings are the Ophelias of Henrietta Rae and Mrs F. Littler. Sarah Bernhardt sculpted a bas relief of Ophelia for the Women's Pavilion at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

  38. Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (New York, 1949), 139.

  39. Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle (New Haven, 1958), 18.

  40. Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (Harmondsworth, 1982), 102, 152.

  41. Theodor Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet (New York, 1975), 88, 113.

  42. Richard David, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge, 1978), 75. This was the production directed by Buzz Goodbody, a brilliant young feminist radical who killed herself that year. See Colin Chambers, Other Spaces: New Theatre and the RSC (London, 1980), especially 63-7.

  43. R.D. Laing, The Divided Self (Harmondsworth, 1965), 195n.

  44. David, op. cit., 82-3; thanks to Marianne DeKoven, Rutgers University, for the description of the 1981 Warehouse production.

  45. See, for example, Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, La Jeune Née (Paris, 1975).

  46. For an account of this production, see Micheline Wandor, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics (London, 1981), 47.

  47. I am indebted for this formulation to a critique of my earlier draft of this paper by Carl Friedman, at the Wesleyan Center for the Humanities, April 1984.

Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3413

SOURCE: “Hamlet and Gender,” in William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Northcote House, 1996, pp. 42-50.

[In the following essay, Thompson and Taylor review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet.]

‘A female Hamlet is one thing but a pregnant prince is quite another’ says Dora Chance in Angela Carter's novel Wise Children (1991). Dora and her identical twin sister Nora are stars of vaudeville and illegitimate daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the great Shakespearean actor. The novel contains many references to Hamlet, including the moment when the hero's most celebrated soliloquy becomes the inspiration for a song and dance routine with the two sisters dressed as bellhops in a hotel corridor, debating whether a package should be delivered to ‘2b or not 2b’ (p. 90). The pregnant prince (in this case Dora's and Nora's grandmother Estella Hazard, pregnant with their natural father Melchior and his twin brother Peregrine, who passes for their father) belongs to the level of subversive fantasy and the cheerful appropriation of Shakespeare's texts by twentieth-century low culture, but in fact the notion of Hamlet as female has a lengthy history in the critical and theatrical reception of the play.

Hamlet himself, … sees his inaction in general and his verbosity in particular as effeminate in his soliloquy after his first encounter with the Players:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murthered,
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.

(II. ii. 582-6)

As Patricia Parker points out in Literary Fat Ladies,

In the traditional opposition of genders in which ‘Women are words, men deeds’, Hamlet's comparison of his verbal and deedless delay to the impotent anger of a ‘drab’ [prostitute] sets up a link between his entire period of inactivity and delay and womanish wordiness, in contrast to such one-dimensional emblems of masculinity as Laertes and the aptly named Fort-in-bras [strong-in-arms].

(1987, p. 23)

Much later, just before the fatal duel with Laertes, Hamlet dismisses his sense of ‘how ill all's here about my heart’ as ‘such a kind of gaingiving [misgiving], as would perhaps trouble a woman’ (V. ii. 212-16). He sees his own behaviour and his capacity for feeling as more appropriate to a woman than to a man, but is behaving and feeling like a woman the same as being a woman? Fears about Hamlet's apparent lack of essential masculinity have often been expressed by critics who focus on his weakness, his vacillation, his melancholy—all seen as feminine traits. Goethe was apparently the first to say that Hamlet was ‘part woman’, and an extensive critical tradition draws on what now looks like fairly crude gender stereotyping to perpetuate this point. It came to a climax in 1881 with the publication of Edward P. Vining's book The Mystery of Hamlet, which developed the theory that in revising his play Shakespeare dallied with the idea that Hamlet was in fact born female and was educated from infancy to impersonate a male. This book inspired the fine silent film version directed in Germany by Sven Gade and Heinz Schall in 1920 in which Asta Nielsen played the hero precisely as a princess passed off as a prince by her mother, anxious to secure the succession when it is feared just as she is giving birth that Old Hamlet has been killed by Old Fortinbras. …

Those who have written about this film, both when it was released and more recently, have insisted on its distance from Shakespeare, though it is in fact closer to the text than they allow, and provides some fascinating reflections on gender issues in the play. But on the stage too a large number of women have acted Hamlet (as a man, that is), from Sarah Siddons in 1776 and Elizabeth Edmead in 1792 to at least Frances de la Tour in 1979 and Diane Venora in 1983. And these were not necessarily seen as freakish or one-off performances: Siddons played Hamlet in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, and Dublin between 1776 and 1802, while Millicent Bandmann-Palmer performed the part over a thousand times from 1887 to 1902; she is referred to in James Joyce's Ulysses when John Eglinton tells Stephen Daedalus that ‘an actress played Hamlet for the fourhundredandeighth time last night in Dublin’. There was serious acclaim for actresses such as Charlotte Cushman (from 1848), Alice Marriott (from 1861) and Sarah Bernhardt (from 1899) in the role during the nineteenth century (see Jill Edmonds, ‘Princess Hamlet’, in Gardner and Rutherford, eds., The New Woman and Her Sisters, 1992).

Many of these women were in the position of actor-managers and could choose to play Hamlet simply because it was the best part available, but they also exploited what was seen as a feminine ability to convey the interiority of the character and to do justice to Hamlet's romantic sensitivity. The dominant view of Hamlet as a poetic dreamer, played even by male actors as an aesthetic, even pre-Raphaelite figure, no doubt helped to make these interpretations acceptable. Eugène Delacroix apparently used a female model for his lithographs of Hamlet in 1834-45. … (see Foakes, ‘HamletversusLear’, 1993, p. 23). By 1979 however Frances de la Tour's performance was admired for quite different qualities. As one reviewer put it: ‘She is tough, abrasive, virile and impassioned. Indeed it's a good performance compact with every female virtue except femininity’ (Michael Billington, The Guardian, 20 October 1979). Asked about the phenomenon of women playing Hamlet fifteen years later, de la Tour herself explained

I think it is because it is universal youth, expressing all the emotions of youth and of life, and there isn't another part to match it … There would be no need and no desire for a woman to play Lear. It's not the same as Hamlet.

(The Observer Review Extra, 9 October 1994, and BBC2 programme Playing the Dane, broadcast 30 October 1994)

But Hamlet's own misogyny remains an issue. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ he says (I. ii. 146) when he is left alone on stage at the end of the second scene of the play to reflect on the speed with which his widowed mother has married his uncle. Later he exclaims ‘O most pernicious woman!’ (I. v. 105) on hearing the Ghost's tale of Gertrude's ‘falling off’ from the ‘celestial bed’ of her first marriage to the ‘garbage’ and ‘damned incest’ of her second (I. v. 56-7, 83). Similarly, he feels betrayed by Ophelia who in obedience to her father rejects his attentions and returns his letters and gifts. Reserving his idealization for men (his dead father and Horatio), he attacks both women vehemently, Ophelia in the ‘nunnery’ scene (III. i) and Gertrude in the ‘closet’ scene (III. iv), on both occasions evoking a somewhat baffled response in so far as the women do not seem to be absolutely clear what they are being accused of. Some editors and directors have felt it necessary to bring Hamlet onstage early in III. i so that he overhears Polonius and the King plotting to spy on him and his anger against Ophelia becomes motivated by her complicity in this. Ophelia herself clearly cannot understand his attitude but can only attribute it to madness (III. i. 151-62).

Gertrude, three scenes later, admits and regrets what she has already described as her ‘o'erhasty marriage’ (II. ii. 57), but seems sincerely shocked—‘As kill a king!’ (III. iv. 30)—by her son's suggestion that she was actually implicated in the murder of her first husband. Curiously, they neither of them pursue this more serious charge which is also implied by the Player Queen's line ‘None wed the second but who killed the first’ (III. ii. 180), while the Ghost's repeated admonitions to Hamlet to ‘Leave her to heaven’ (I. v. 86) and to ‘step between her and her fighting soul’ (III. iv. 113) would seem if anything to attest to Gertrude's relative innocence. The focus is instead on Hamlet's disgust at his mother's sexual activity ‘In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed’ (III. iv. 92) and his insistence that she begin to practise celibacy: ‘Let not the bloat king tempt you again to bed’ (III. iv. 182).

Hamlet's priggish attitude here—‘You cannot call it love, for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble, / And waits upon the judgment’ (III. iv. 68-70) has been endorsed by critics and editors who worry about Gertrude's age, and indeed Hamlet's since, as they see it, if he is really thirty as the Gravedigger says (V. i. 142-62), she must be too old to excite the King's interest. It seems typical of her opacity as a character, or perhaps of the play's refusal to present her other than through Hamlet's eyes, that we do not know what impact this conversation has on her. While she seems to accept Hamlet's harsh judgement in this scene, and to be prepared to obey his commands and keep his secrets, her relationship with the King through the remainder of the play seems unchanged—or at least there is no clear indication in the text that they have become estranged, though some productions do play it in this way. Nor is it clear why in the last scene she becomes what Janet Adelman calls

a wonderfully homey presence for her son, newly available to him as the loving and protective mother of his childhood, worrying about his condition, wiping his face as he fights, even perhaps intentionally drinking the poison intended for him.

(Suffocating Mothers, 1992, p. 34)

The fact that this last suggestion has been made quite often, again without any clear warrant from the text, seems an indication of how baffled critics are by Gertrude. It is also an option in the stage tradition, though it is quite a challenge for the performer to convey this intention to the audience by meaningful looks at a point when attention is more likely to be focused on Hamlet. Nineteenth-century Gertrudes sometimes said ‘I have [drunk]’ rather than ‘I will’, apparently to soften the act of deliberate disobedience to the King, and even then might be sent offstage to die. The entire role was severely and quite consistently cut from 1755 to 1900 (and frequently after that) in such a way as to eliminate any possibility of Gertrude being affected by the closet scene encounter with Hamlet (see O'Brien, ‘Revision by Excision’, in Shakespeare Survey 45, 1992). The 1920 film goes to the other extreme from the self-sacrificing mother in having Gertrude deliberately prepare the poison for her daughter Hamlet who has by this time already been responsible for the death of the King.

The extent and nature of the guilt projected on to Gertrude and by association on to Ophelia and indeed all women has much exercised the play's psychoanalytic critics. Freud saw Hamlet as a hysteric and many Freudians have offered interpretations which tease out parricidal or matricidal motives. Ernest Jones provided the classic Oedipal reading of the play in 1949, arguing that Hamlet is unable to kill the King because he represents the fulfilment of Hamlet's own repressed erotic desire for his mother. In her essay on ‘Sexuality in the Reading of Shakespeare’ (in Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares) Jacqueline Rose traces how influential male readers of the play—T.S. Eliot as well as Ernest Jones and the Freudians—have echoed Hamlet's misogyny and blamed Gertrude for what they saw as the aesthetic and moral failings of the play overall. Picking up on Eliot's analogy for Hamlet as ‘the Mona Lisa of literature’, she argues that in his reading

the question of the woman and the question of meaning go together. The problem with Hamlet is not just that the emotion it triggers is unmanageable and cannot be contained by the woman who is its cause, but that this excess of affect produces a problem of interpretation: how to read, or control by reading, a play whose inscrutability (like that of the Mona Lisa) has baffled—and seduced—so many critics.

(pp. 97-8)

Femininity itself becomes the problem within the play, and within attempts to interpret it, but paradoxically femininity is also seen as the source of creativity and the very principle of the aesthetic process in other psychoanalytic readings in which the focus shifts from character to author: Shakespeare, unlike his hero, can be claimed to have effected a productive reconciliation with the feminine in his own nature.

Modern male editors of the play are not necessarily more enlightened when it comes to talking about the women. Harold Jenkins remarks condescendingly of Ophelia that, rejected by Hamlet, she has ‘little left to do … but to bewail her virginity … Her tragedy of course is that Hamlet has left her treasure with her’ (Arden 2, pp. 151-2). G.R. Hibbard quotes this approvingly, adding that, as a virgin, she dies ‘unfulfilled’. Moreover, he says, ‘It is Ophelia's tragic fate to pay the price in pain and suffering for Gertrude's sins’ (this despite the fact that he is very confident she was not privy to the murder), and goes on, ‘Woman's sexuality has evidently become an obsession with [Hamlet]; and to this extent at least he is genuinely mad’ (Oxford edition, p. 51). Surely such a definition of madness would include a sizeable proportion of the men in any given audience of the play?

The fate of Ophelia, specifically the scene of her drowning (‘There is a willow grows askaunt the brook’) is paradoxically one of the most vivid, iconic moments in the play. … Paradoxically, because it is not of course staged but rather described by Gertrude in elaborate detail (IV. vii. 166-83), shocking perhaps to the naturalistically trained ‘modern reader [who] cannot suppress his astonishment that Gertrude should have watched Ophelia die without lifting a finger to help her’ (Edwards, New Cambridge edition, 1985, p. 212). It has become familiar through decorative, dreamy paintings such as the one by John Everett Millais in the Tate Gallery in London, and it does tend to be represented in film and video versions of the play; Eleuterio Rodolfi was clearly inspired by Millais for the depiction of the death of Ophelia in his 1917 film (which has Pre-Raphaelite decor throughout), as was Olivier in 1948. Unfortunately, suicide by drowning has also become a typically feminine death, both in real life, from Mary Wollstonecraft's failed attempt in 1795 to Virginia Woolf's successful one in 1941, and in fiction, from the Jailer's Daughter (another failed attempt) in Fletcher's and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1614 to Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and beyond.

In his identification of the ‘Ophelia complex’ Gaston Bachelard discussed the symbolic connections between women, water, and death, seeing drowning as an appropriate merging into the female element for women who are always associated with liquids: blood, milk, tears, and amniotic fluid. Moreover, as Elaine Showalter has demonstrated, the particular circumstances of Ophelia's madness have made her ‘a potent and obsessive figure in our cultural mythology’: she represents a powerful archetype in which female insanity and female sexuality are inextricably intertwined. Men may go mad for a number of reasons, including mental and spiritual stress, but women's madness is relentlessly associated with their bodies and their erotic desires. As Showalter notes, melancholy was a fashionable disease (or attitude) among young men in London from about 1580, but it was associated with intellectual and imaginative genius in them, whereas ‘women's melancholy was seen instead as biological and emotional in its origins’ (‘Representing Ophelia’ in Parker and Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, 1985, p. 81). The very word ‘hysteria’ implies a female, physiological condition, originating as it does from Greek ‘hystera’ meaning womb. King Lear, fighting off his own impending madness, equates ‘Hysterica passio’ with the medical condition involving feelings of suffocation and giddiness known as ‘the mother’ (II. iv. 56-7). (See also Juliana Schiesari, The Gendering of Melancholia, 1992.)

On stage and in critical reception, Showalter argues that ‘the representation of Ophelia changes independently of theories of the meaning of the play or the Prince, for it depends on attitudes towards women and madness’ (pp. 91-2). She traces how stereotypes of female insanity affected the staging of the mad scene (IV. v), from sentimentalized Augustan versions through intense Romanticism to Pre-Raphaelite wistfulness. Post-Freudian Ophelias have signalled an incestuous interest in Polonius or Laertes, while the most recent performers have indicated schizophrenia, either as a serious mental illness or (in a feminist appropriation of the work of R.D. Laing) as an intelligible response to the experience of invalidation or the double bind within the family network.

When the well-known American feminist Carolyn Heilbrun reprinted her essay on ‘Hamlet's Mother’ in 1990 and used it as the lead piece in her book Hamlet's Mother and Other Women, she noted that when she first published it in 1957 she was ‘a feminist critic waiting for a cause to join’. Her basic line in the essay was that critics and readers of the play have been too ready to accept Hamlet's view of Gertrude without questioning whether the overall view taken by the play (or its author) might be different. Many have joined the cause since 1975, the publication date of Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, the first full-length feminist study of Shakespeare, and the date selected by Philip C. Kolin as the starting point for his annotated bibliography of Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism which lists forty-four items relating to Hamlet published between 1975 and his cut-off point in 1988. (More have of course appeared since.) This total is lower than those for The Merchant of Venice (forty-eight), As You Like It (fifty), The Winter's Tale (fifty-eight) and Othello (sixty-nine), and only just ahead of The Taming of the Shrew (forty-three), testifying to the prominence given to comedy in this period of feminist criticism, and the dominance of Othello amongst the tragedies. (King Lear gets thirty-eight items, Antony and Cleopatra thirty-four, and Macbeth thirty-three.)

Most of the items on Hamlet in these first thirteen years of feminist criticism are studies of the female characters—of Gertrude as a rare and problematic example of a Shakespearian mother, and of Ophelia as a victim, weak and silenced. This last adjective is perhaps surprising, given the extent to which her discovery of a voice in her madness causes the other characters considerable stress and embarrassment, but the obscenity and sexual innuendo in Ophelia's songs has still not been properly addressed by feminist critics although they are surely not as worried by it as nineteenth-century readers who felt the need to invent rustic wet-nurses for Ophelia's childhood (like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet) to account for her knowledge of such things.

Some more general essays discuss the larger issues of femininity and masculinity in the play, covering such areas as the supposed effeminacy of Hamlet himself and the desire for male bonding, especially in Hamlet's relationship with Horatio. Many of the authors (especially those from North America) could be described as psychoanalytic critics as well as feminist critics and they are concerned to investigate the overlapping territories of language, fantasy, and sexuality. This emphasis has continued in post-1988 writing, though, … recent feminist critics have also been concerned with questions of history and staging.

Given that the majority of students of literature today are female as well as an increasing number of their teachers, it is probably the case that feminist critics have been responsible for the reordering of the canon, whereby a play like Hamlet with its relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores becomes less interesting as a text to teach and/or write about. We are perhaps more critical of crude gender stereotypes, and while this can make for more interesting performances by actors who can allow Hamlet to be sensitive as well as virile without making the two mutually exclusive, students today (male as well as female) find it more difficult to empathize with a hero who seems so casual in his cruelty to the women in his life.

On a more positive note, the present critical climate may offer more scope for investigation of the phenomenon whereby Hamlet has been seen as effeminate in the past partly because he was seen as an intellectual: for a man to be intellectual was to be womanish, while at the same time it certainly did not follow that actual women were seen as intellectual, or that intellectual women were seen as anything other than unnatural. It should be possible for modern feminist critics to reassess at least this aspect of gender stereotyping in a more positive way as they both analyse and contribute to the extraordinarily rich afterlife of the play.

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5120

SOURCE: “Superposed Plays: Hamlet,” in Shakespeare's Middle Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by David Young, Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 18-28.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1976, Lanham traces the use of rhetoric in Hamlet and investigates the relation between elaborate and theatrical rhetoric in the play.]

Shakespeare uses a variation on the sonnets strategy in Hamlet. He writes two plays in one. Laertes plays the revenge-tragedy hero straight. He does, true enough, veer toward self-parody, as when he complains that crying for Ophelia has interfered with his rants: “I have a speech o' fire, that fain would blaze / But that this folly drowns it” (4.7.189-90). But he knows his generic duty and does it. No sooner has his “good old man” (Polonius's role in the straight, “serious” play) been polished off than he comes screaming with a rabble army. He delivers predictably and suitably stupid lines like “O thou vile king, / Give me my father” (4.5.115-16). And the Queen can scarcely manage a “Calmly, good Laertes” before he begins again: “That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, / Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot / Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brows / Of my true mother” (4.5.117-20). And just before the King begins to calm him, to the villainous contentation of both: “How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with. / To hell allegiance, vows to the blackest devil, / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!” (4.5.130-32). He plays a straight, hard-charging revenge-hero.

Against him, Ophelia reenacts a delightfully tear-jerking madwoman stage prop. The King mouths kingly platitudes well enough (“There's such divinity doth hedge a king …” [4.5.123]), comes up with a suitably stagey, two-phase fail-safe plot, and urges the hero on (“Revenge should have no bounds”). And the whole comes suitably laced with moralizing guff. So the King plays a Polonius-of-the-leading-questions: “Laertes, was your father dear to you?” Laertes, with unusual common sense, returns, “Why ask you this?” And then the King is off for a dozen Polonian lines on love's alteration by time: “Not that I think you did not love your father, / But that I know love is begun by time …” 4.7.109-10. Only then can he get back to, as he phrases it, “the quick o' th' ulcer.” And the Queen plays out a careful scene on the brookside where Ophelia drowned. And wrestling in Ophelia's grave, Hamlet, annoyed at being upstaged by Laertes, protests, “I'll rant as well as thou.” And, as superb finale, Laertes, at the fencing match, stands there prating about honor with the poisoned rapier in his hand. The poisoner-poisoned motif releases the Christian forgiveness that forgives us, too, for enjoying all that blood. Hamlet offers, then, a story frankly calculated to make the audience as well as the compositor run out of exclamation points.

Hamlet obligingly confesses himself Laertes' foil. “In mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i'th'darkest night, / Stick fiery off indeed” (5.2.244-46). It is the other way about, of course. Laertes foils for Hamlet. Shakespeare is up to his old chiasmatic business, writing a play about the kind of play he is writing. The main play overlaps as well as glossing the play criticized—again, a strategy of superposition. Polonius plays a muddling old proverb-monger, and a connoisseur of language, in the Hamlet play, as well as good old man in the Laertes play. Ophelia, though sentimental from the start, is both more naive and more duplicitous in the Hamlet play; and so with the King and Queen, too, both are more complex figures. Shakespeare endeavors especially to wire the two plots in parallel: two avenging sons and two dead fathers; brother's murder and “this brother's wager”; both Hamlet and Laertes in love with Ophelia; both dishonest before the duel (Hamlet pretending more madness than he displays when he kills Polonius), and so on.

Now there is no doubt about how to read the Laertes play: straight revenge tragedy, to be taken—as I've tried to imply in my summary—without solemnity. We are to enjoy the rants as rants. When we get tears instead of a rant, as with the Laertes instance cited earlier, an apology for our disappointment does not come amiss. We are not to be caught up in Laertes' vigorous feeling any more than in Ophelia's bawdy punning. We savor it. We don't believe the fake King when he maunders on about Divine Right, the divinity that doth hedge a king. We don't “believe” anybody. It is not that kind of play. For explanation, neither the ketchup nor the verbal violence need go further than enjoyment. The more outrageous the stage effects, the more ghastly the brutality, the more grotesque the physical mutilation, the better such a play becomes. Shakespeare had done this kind of thing already and knew what he was about. Such a vehicle packed them in. Just so, when part-sales were falling, would Dickens kill a baby.

The real doubt comes when we ask, “What poetic do we bring to the Hamlet play?” As several of its students have pointed out, it is a wordy play. Eloquence haunts it. Horatio starts the wordiness by supplying a footnote from ancient Rome in the first scene, by improving the occasion with informative reflection. Everybody laughs at Polonius for his moralizing glosses but Hamlet is just as bad. Worse. Gertrude asks him, in the second scene, why he grieves to excess and he gives us a disquisition on seeming and reality in grief. The King follows with his bravura piece on grief. Everybody moralizes the pageant. The Hamlet play abounds with triggers for straight revenge-tragedy response. The whole “mystery” of Hamlet's hesitant revenge boils down to wondering why he doesn't go ahead and play his traditional part, complete with the elegant rants we know he can deliver.

The rhetorical attitude is triggered not only by obvious stylistic excess, as we have seen, or by de trop moralizing, but by talking about language, by surface reference to surface. This surface reference occurs at every level of the Hamlet play in Hamlet, as well as, of course, throughout the Laertes play. Polonius plays a main part here. His tedious prolixity ensures that we notice everyone else's tedious prolixity. And his relish of language, his speech for its own sake, makes us suspect the same appetite in others and in ourselves. The Queen's rejoinder to the marvelous “brevity is the soul of wit” speech in 2.2 could be addressed to almost anybody in the play, including the gravedigger: “More matter, with less art.”

Everyone is manipulating everyone else with speechifying and then admitting he has done so. Every grand rhetorical occasion seems no sooner blown than blasted. Polonius offers the famous Gielgud encore about being true to oneself and then sends off Reynaldo to spy and tell fetching lies. The King plays king to angry Laertes then confesses to Gertrude that he has been doing just this. Ophelia is staked out to play innocent maiden so Hamlet can be drawn out and observed. Hic et ubique. Is she a stage contrivance or a character? What kind of audience are we to be? Everyone is an actor, Hamlet and his madness most of all. The play is full of minor invitations to attend the surface, the theme of speaking. Even the ghost has to remind himself to be brief—before continuing for thirty-odd lines (1.5). Theatrical gestures are not simply used all the time but described, as in Hamlet's inky cloak and windy suspiration for grief, or the costuming and gesture of the distracted lover, as the innocent Ophelia describes Hamlet's visit:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyvèd to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.
.....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. Long stayed he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turned
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out o'doors he went without their helps
And to the last bended their light on me.

(2.1.77-84, 87-100)

This might have come from an actor's manual. Do we take it as such, respond as professional actors?

The Hamlet play turns in on itself most obviously when the players visit. Dramatic self-consciousness retrogresses a step further as the tragedians of the city talk about themselves doing what they are just now doing in a play depicting them doing just what. … The debate is about rightful succession, of course, like both the Laertes and the Hamlet plays. “What, are they children? Who maintains 'em? How are they escoted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow themselves to common players (as it is most like, if their means are no better), their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession?” (2.2.338-44). Who are the children in the “real” plays? Hamlet had invoked a typical cast a few lines earlier (314 ff.) such as Hamlet itself uses and stressed that “he that plays the king shall be welcome.” Hamlet will use the play, that is, as a weapon, the propaganda side of rhetorical poetic, to complement the Polonius-pleasure side. But before that, there is a rehearsal, for effect, to see whether the players are good enough to play the play within the play. Here, even more clearly than in the Laertes play, we confront the connoisseur's attitude toward language. Polonius supplies a chorus that for once fits: “Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion” (2.2.454-55). This to Hamlet, a good actor, as Polonius was in his youth. They proceed in this vein, nibbling the words; “That's good. ‘Mobled queen’ is good.”

The main question pressing is not, How does the feedback work? What relation is there, for example, between rugged Pyrrhus and Hamlet, or Laertes? Or what relation with the King, who also topples a kingdom? And why is Hamlet so keen to reach Hecuba? The main question is, How does all this connoisseurship affect the “serious” part of Hamlet? Hamlet is one of the great tragedies. It has generated more comment than any other written document in English literature, one would guess, reverent, serious comment on it as a serious play. Yet finally can we take any of its rhetoric seriously? If so, how much and when? The play is full of the usual release mechanisms for the rhetorical poetic. And, at the end, the Laertes play is there as stylistic control, to mock us if we have made the naive response. But what is the sophisticated response?

Hamlet focuses the issue, and the play, the plays, when he finally gets to Hecuba. He who has been so eager for a passionate speech is yet surprised when it comes and when it seizes the player:

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? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?


Hamlet makes the point that dances before us in every scene. Dramatic, rhetorical motive is stronger than “real,” serious motive. Situation prompts feeling in this play, rather than the other way round. Feelings are not real until played. Drama, ceremony, is always needed to authenticate experience. On the battlements Hamlet—with ghostly reinforcement—makes his friends not simply swear but make a big scene of it. Laertes keeps asking for more ceremonies for Ophelia's burial and is upset by his father's hugger-mugger interment. Hamlet plays and then breaks off (“Something too much of this”) a stoic friendship scene with Horatio in 3.2. The stronger, the more genuine the feeling, the greater the need to display it.

The answer, then, to “What would he do … ?” is, presumably, “Kill the King!”? Not at all. “He would drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech” (2.2.546-47). He would rant even better. And this Hamlet himself, by way of illustration, goes on to do:

Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing. No, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. 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 i'th'throat
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
Ha, 'swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ha' fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!


Hamlet is here having a fine time dining off his own fury, relishing his sublime passion. He gets a bit confused, to be sure: saying nothing is not his problem. If somebody did call him villain or pluck his beard it would be better, for his grievance would then find some dramatic equivalent, would become real enough to act upon. But he enjoys himself thoroughly. He also sees himself clearly, or at least clearly enough to voice our opinion of his behavior: “Why, what an ass am I! 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” (2.2.568-71).

Hamlet is one of the most appealing characters the mind of man has ever created but he really is a bit of an ass, and not only here but all through the play. He remains incorrigibly dramatic. Do we like him because he speaks to our love of dramatic imposture? Because his solution, once he has seen his own posturing as such, is not immediate action but more playing? “I'll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle” (2.2.580-82). Playing is where we will find reality, find the truth. The play works, of course, tells Hamlet again what he already knows, has had a spirit come specially from purgatory to tell him. But that is not the point. Or rather, that is the point insofar as this is a serious play. The rhetorical purpose is to sustain reality until yet another dramatic contrivance—ship, grave scene, duel—can sustain it yet further.

We saw in the sonnets how a passage can invoke opaque attitudes by logical incongruity. Something of the sort happens in the scene after this speech, the “To be or not to be” centerpiece. Plays flourish within plays here, too, of course. The King and Polonius dangle Ophelia as bait and watch. Hamlet sees this. He may even be, as W.A. Bebbington suggested,1 reading the “To be or not to be” speech from a book, using it, literally, as a stage prop to bemuse the spyers-on, convince them of his now-become-suicidal madness. No one in his right mind will fault the poetry. But it is irrelevant to anything that precedes. It fools Ophelia—no difficult matter—but it should not fool us. The question is whether Hamlet will act directly or through drama? Not at all. Instead, is he going to end it in the river? I put it thus familiarly to penetrate the serious numinosity surrounding this passage. Hamlet anatomizes grievance for all time. But does he suffer these grievances? He has a complaint indeed against the King and one against Ophelia. Why not do something about them instead of meditating on suicide? If the book is a stage prop, or the speech a trap for the hidden listeners, of course, the question of relevancy doesn't arise. The speech works beautifully. But we do not usually consider it a rhetorical trick. It is the most serious speech in the canon. But is it? It tells us nothing about Hamlet except what we already know—he is a good actor. Its relevance, in fact, may lurk just here. The real question by this point in the play is exactly this one: Is Hamlet or not? Or does he just act? What kind of self does he possess?

The whole play, we know, seeks authenticity, reality behind the arras, things as they are. Hamlet, we are to assume, embodies the only true self, the central self amidst a cast of wicked phonies. The play, seen this way, provided a natural delight for both the Victorians and the existentialists; their sentimentalism about the central self ran the same way. Yet the question really is whether Hamlet is to be, to act rather than reenact. Much has been written on the Melancholy-Man-in-the-Renaissance and how his problems apply to Hamlet. Much more has been written on Hamlet's paralysis. Yet, how irrelevant all this commentary is to the real problem, not what Hamlet's motive is but what kind of motive. Why can't he act? Angels and ministers of grace, he does nothing else. Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, Claudius, all go to it. But Hamlet never breaks through to “reality.” His motives and his behavior remain dramatic from first to last. So, in spite of all those bodies at the end, commentators wonder if Hamlet amounts to a tragedy and, if so, what kind. Hamlet lacks the serious, central self tragedy requires. We are compelled to stand back, hold off our identification, and hence to locate the play within rhetorical coordinates, a tragicomedy about the two kinds of self and the two kinds of motive.

We see this theme in that Q2 scene (4.4) where Fortinbras and his army parade, with seeming irrelevance—at least to many directors, who cut it—across the stage. They parade so that Hamlet can reflect upon them. The theme is motive. The scene begins as a straightforward lesson in the vanity of human wishes. They go, the Captain tells Hamlet, “to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4.18-19). Hamlet seems to get the point, “the question of this straw,” the absurd artificiality of human motive, and especially of aristocratic war, war for pleasure, for the pure glory of it. But then out jumps another non sequitur soliloquy:

How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say, “This thing's to do,”
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do't.


What has reason to do with revenge? His question—why, with all his compelling reasons, doesn't he go on—is again well taken. Shakespeare has carefully given him the realest reasons a revenge hero ever had—father murdered, mother whored, kingdom usurped, his innocent maiden corrupted in her imagination. The answer to Hamlet's question marches about on the stage before him. As usual, he does not fully understand the problem. It is the Player King's tears all over again. Fortinbras's motivation is sublimely artificial, entirely dramatic. Honor. It has no profit in it but the name. Hamlet cannot act because he cannot find a way to dramatize his revenge. Chances he has, but, as when he surprises Claudius praying, they are not dramatic. Claudius is alone. To fall upon him and kill him would not be revenge, as he says, not because Claudius will die shriven but because he will not see it coming, because nobody is watching.

So, when Hamlet continues his soliloquy, he draws a moral precisely opposite to the expected one. Again, logical discontinuity triggers stylistic attitude:

                                                            Examples gross as earth exhort me.
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!


He sees but does not see. In some way, Fortinbras represents where he wants to go, what he wants to be, how he wants to behave. But he doesn't see how, nor altogether do we. If ever an allegorical puppet was dragged across a stage it is Fortinbras. Yet he haunts the play. His divine ambition begins the action of the play; he gets that offstage introduction Shakespeare is so fond of; he marches to Norway to make a point about motive; and he marches back at the end, inherits Denmark. Yet he stays cardboard. It is not real motive he represents but martial honor much rather.

Shakespeare sought to give Hamlet a pronounced military coloration from first to last. The play begins on guard; the ghost wears armor; Denmark is a most warlike state. Military honor is the accepted motive in a Denmark Fortinbras rightly inherits. Honor will cure what is rotten in Denmark, restore its proper values. Hamlet cannot set the times right because he cannot find in martial honor a full and sufficient motive for human life. Hamlet, says Fortinbras, would have done well had he been king, but we may be permitted to doubt it. He thinks too much. Yet honor and the soldier's life provide the model motive for Hamlet. All his working life, Shakespeare was fascinated and perplexed by how deeply the military motive satisfied man. It constituted a sublime secular commitment which, like the religious commitment, gave all away to get all back. Hamlet's selfconsciousness keeps him from it, yes, but even more his search for real purpose. Chivalric war—all war, perhaps—is manufactured purpose. Hamlet can talk about clutching it to his bosom but he cannot do it, for there is nothing inevitable about it.

Military honor is finally a role, much like Laertes' role as revenge hero. Both roles are satisfying, both integrate and direct the personality. But once you realize that you are playing the role for just these reasons, using it as a self-serving device, its attraction fades. As its inevitability diminishes, so does its reality. War and revenge both prove finally so rewarding because they provide, by all the killing, the irrefutable reality needed to bolster the role, restore its inevitability. Thus Shakespeare chose them, a revenge plot superposed on a Fortinbras-honor plot, for his play about motive. They provided a model for the kind of motive men find most satisfying; they combine maximum dramatic satisfaction with the irrefutable reality only bloody death can supply. In the Elizabethan absurdity as in our own, men kill others and themselves because that is the only real thing left to do. It is a rare paradox and Shakespeare builds his play upon it.

But even death is not dependable. We can learn to make sport of it, enjoy it. So the gravedigger puns on his craft. So, too, I suppose, Fortinbras laconically remarks at the end of the play: “Such a sight as this / Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.” Death's reality can vanish too. All our purposes end up, like the skull Hamlet meditates on, a stage prop. It is not accidental that the language which closes the play is theatrical. Hamlet even in death does not escape the dramatic self. When the bodies are “high on a stage … placèd to the view” Horatio will “speak to th' yet unknowing world,” will authenticate the proceeding with a rhetorical occasion. Hamlet's body, Fortinbras commands, is to be borne “like a soldier to the stage, / For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal.”

Nor is it accidental that Hamlet kills Polonius. The act is his real attempt at revenge, Polonius his real enemy. Polonius embodies the dramatic self-consciousness which stands between Hamlet and the roles—Avenger and King—he was born to play. But Polonius pervades the whole of Hamlet's world and lurks within Hamlet himself. Only death can free Hamlet. Perhaps this is why he faces it with nonchalance. Much has been said about Hamlet's stoicism, but how unstoical the play really is! Honest feeling demands a dramatic equivalent to make it real just as artifice does. Stoicism demands a preexistent reality, a central self beyond drama, which the play denies. Stoicism is death and indeed, in Hamlet, the second follows hard upon the avowal of the first. We have no choice but to play.

And so Hamlet chooses his foil and plays. I have been arguing that the play invokes rhetorical coordinates as well as serious ones. It makes sense, if this is so, that it should end with a sublime game and the triumph of chance. Hamlet never solves his problem, nor does chance solve it for him, nor does the play solve it for us. No satisfactory model for motive, no movement from game to sublime, is suggested. Hamlet can finally kill the King because the King thoughtfully supplies a dramatic occasion appropriate to the deed. And Hamlet can kill Laertes because dramatic motive has destroyed naive purpose. And vice versa. But Hamlet cannot get rid of his dramatic self, his dramatic motives. The duel allegorizes the quarrel between kinds of motive which the play has just dramatized. And the duel, like the play, is a zero-sum game. Interest for both adds up to zero. The play leaves us, finally, where it leaves Hamlet. We have savored the violence and the gorgeous poetry and been made aware that we do. We have been made to reflect on play as well as purpose. We have not been shown how to move from one to the other. Nor that it cannot be done. We are left, like those in the play, dependent on death and chance to show us how to put our two motives, our two selves, together.

Shakespeare as a mature playwright is not supposed to be an opaque stylist. The great unity of his mature tragedies is a style we look through, not at. The gamesman with words fades out with the nondramatic poems and early infatuations like Love's Labor's Lost. Hamlet shows, by itself, how wrong this view of Shakespeare's development is. The play depends upon an alternation of opaque and transparent styles for its meaning. The alternation almost is the meaning. Hamlet is a play about motive, about style, and thus perhaps, of the mature plays, an exception? I don't think so. Where Shakespeare is most sublime he is also most rhetorical and both poetics are likely to be present in force. To illustrate such a thesis would constitute an agreeable task. The lines it would follow are clear enough. They would yield explanation of the double plot more basic than the comic/serious one. They would render the comic/tragic division altogether less important than it now seems.

In play after play the same stylistic strategy illustrates the same juxtaposition of motive, of play and purpose. Richard cannot learn the difference. Hal must. Lear can play the king but he has never been a king. Antony and Cleopatra juxtaposes not only public and private life but two poetics and two selves. The double plot becomes, over and over, a serious plot-poetic and a play plot-poetic. The fatal innocence of Shakespeare's characters turns out, over and over, to be innocence about the real nature of their motivation. All through the Henriad political rhetoric can be seen as rhetoric. Egypt is meant to be seen as more wordy and more metaphorical than Rome. Romeo and Juliet depends on our seeing the Petrarchan rhetoric as such, else we will mistake the kind of play it is, a play where death authenticates game. Lear on the heath, that centerpiece of Shakespearean sublimity, alters his outlines considerably within rhetorical coordinates. Shakespearean tragedy may come to seem, as in Hamlet, a juxtaposition of the two motives with a hole in the middle, with no way to connect them. The comedies collapse them. And the problem plays and romances try to make a path between the two, see them in dynamic interchange. The two things that obsessed Shakespeare were style and motive, and his career can be charted coherently from beginning to end in terms of their interrelation. In this he typifies the stylistic strategy of the Renaissance as a whole. The real question of motive lay beyond good and evil. It was the principal task of the self-conscious rhetorical style to point this moral. Human flesh is sullied with self-consciousness, with theatricality, and these will be the ground for whatever authentic morality any of us can muster.


  1. “Soliloquy?,” Times Literary Supplement, 20 March 1969, p. 289.

Imtiaz Habib (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7520

SOURCE: “‘Never Doubt I Love’: Misreading Hamlet,” in College Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, June, 1994, pp. 19-32.

[In the following essay, Habib offers a close reading of Hamlet's love poem to Ophelia and argues that Hamlet deliberately intends his poetry to be misread. The critic further contends that misreading of all kinds is central to the action and meaning of Hamlet.]

Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon
my groans, but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet.(1)

Hamlet's love poem to Ophelia, which Polonius reads out to Claudius and Gertrude in 2.2.116-24 of Hamlet, is an awkward, doubtful business. The love relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is, admittedly, a minor strand in this complex tragedy. But readers trained in resolving the balanced antinomies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English love poetry often reach for a generalized meaning in Hamlet's poem too quickly to notice the conflicts of its particular oppositions. The conventional response to the poem would be to regard it as a hyperbolic assertion of Hamlet's love for Ophelia in the tradition of Elizabethan and Jacobean syllogistic love poetry (as in Donne's “Go and Catch a Falling Star”). “Doubt the most believable things,” Hamlet's poem seems to say, “but never doubt that I love you.” To construct this sense from a close reading of the poem, however, involves one in considerable difficulties.

The problem centers on the variable relationship between the sense of “doubt” and the statements that are made to be the subject of that doubt in each of the poem's first three lines, and on the consequent uncertainty of the sense of “doubt” and of Hamlet's “love” in the poem's last line. There is an inversion of the meaning of “doubt” either in the second line or in the third or in both, depending on our taste in paradox. If “doubt” in the last line means what it seems to mean in lines 2 and 3, i. e., suspect, fearfully surmise, tentatively believe (O.E.D. 1: 616-17),2 then the line amounts to a disavowal of love. Is Hamlet asking to be believed as a lover or disbelieved? Is the poem an avowal of love or a denial of it? No wonder that many modern European poets and writers in over a hundred attempts have had a hard time translating Hamlet's poem, as Alexander and Barbara Gerschenkron have shown.3

Among the critics who have noticed Hamlet's problematic poem and responded to it, Robert Bozanich in 1980 made the interesting suggestion that Hamlet's poem, with its semantic inversions, could be seen as a psychic mirror or “Rorschach blot” that is intended to mockingly reflect the assumptions of the poem's readers rather than those of its author. Thus, Claudius sees in Hamlet's lines ambition, Gertrude shame, Polonius frustrated sexuality, and Ophelia Hamlet's impending madness, which in turn reflects her own future madness (90-93). The Gentleman's comment in 4.5.7-13 that hearers interpret Ophelia's mad words to suit “their own thoughts” could apply to Hamlet's poem as well.

What is interesting about Bozanich's idea of seeing Hamlet's poem as a psychic mirror is that it seems to explain not just responses to the poem within the play but also those outside it, among its critical readers. Those comfortable in their assumptions about the poem's Petrarchan pedigree and about Hamlet's strained courtship of Ophelia have insulated themselves from the lurking discomfiture of Hamlet's lines by simply glossing over them (Meader 149-50; Doran 37-38; King 52; Blanke 22).4 Others, wanting to contain the poem and its disturbances, have attempted to domesticate the problem by minimizing the ambiguity of the lines and giving such ambiguity an incidental miscellaneous value: the poem is unquestionably an avowal of love although there is enough room for ambiguity in the lines (Jenkins 462-63; Hibbard 209). Still others have tried to defuse the problem by either apologizing for Hamlet (Levin 54), or for us (Skulsky 485).

Extending what Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out about the play's opening lines—“Who's there?”—we can say that Hamlet's cryptic poem seems to challenge all those who read it to declare themselves, i. e, to be read themselves (3-19; qtd. in Patterson 49).5 In its interrogative designs and subversive disturbances, the poem seems to lend itself naturally to phenomenological and deconstructive analyses, neither inappropriate perhaps for a play as concerned as Hamlet is with the reflexions of textuality and the dysfunctions of meaning. To grapple with the significance of Hamlet's cryptic love poem is to go beyond an exploration of any local Shakespearean improprieties and be caught in a network of subversive relations between Hamlet and the world. Hamlet's four-line poem is the text for a pervasive system of misreading that dominates the play, or, as Stephen Booth put it in an important discussion of the poem, it is “a model for the experience of the play as a whole” (173).6

The text, in Wolfgang Iser's terms, is “a structured prefigurement … that has to be received, and the way in which it is received depends as much on the reader as on the text” (107). Furthermore, “the work interrogates and transforms the implicit beliefs we bring to it, disconfirms our routine habits of perception,” and rather than merely reinforcing our given perceptions, it “violates or transgresses these normative ways of seeing.” Thus, “The whole point of reading … is that it brings us into a deeper self-consciousness, catalyzes a more critical view of our own identities.”7 Transferred to the realm of interpersonal behavior, these functions of reading acquire strategic implications. To the extent that we can read others we can control others and vice-versa. We would, obviously, like to read others without ourselves being read. As Carol Cook has put it in the related context of her reading of gender differences in Much Ado About Nothing, “To read others is an act of aggression; to be read is to be emasculated. Masculine privilege is contingent on the legibility of women.” Reading as a subversive strategy of manipulation shades off into misreading: we would like to read others and want them to misread us. We would like to transmit false readings and receive none, and thus misreading shades off into misleading: we would like to mislead others but not ourselves be misled. In Cook's terms, “Beatrice alternately challenges others' misreadings of her humorist's masks and encourages them to take her as she appears” (186-91). Hamlet's poem is difficult to read because Hamlet, like Beatrice, does not wish to be understood satisfactorily, wishes to be misread.

Love, of course, is the primary location of the secret self and its primary point of vulnerability, and therefore of critical importance in the struggle for self-possession that defines human experience. It is going to be the first subject of concealment, for Hamlet as well as for Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius (as evidenced for the latter, for instance, in the densely equivocal announcement of his marriage to Gertrude in the third scene of the play). Patricia Fumerton has suggested that in Elizabethan cultural taste the little, privately circulated love poem with its curious mix of artifice and sentiment—like both the aristocratic Elizabethan country house with its stately rooms that also connect to private ones, and the miniature portrait that is at once displayed and hidden—is a representation of an impulse of self-revelation that is also implicitly an instinct of self-concealment, an invitation to a reading of the self that only yields a misreading of it (104-11). Paralleling Hamlet's love poem is Queen Elizabeth's own love poem, “On Monsieur's Departure”:

I grieve and dare not show my discontent
I love and yet am forced to seem to hate
I do and dare not say I ever meant,
I seem stark mute but inwardly do prate.
I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned,
Since from myself another self I turned. … 


Hamlet's self-rescinding love poem is, then, at once a literary analog to a cultural attitude and a semantic code for the dramatized community in which it appears. It is a key to the historical world of Elizabeth as well as to the dramatic world of Elsinore. It is also an index to the (mis)representations of Hamlet's self in speech and behavior in the play.

The text of misreading that Hamlet's poem contains, it is worth noting, is of a particularly impenetrable quality. The poem's meaning is lost in the aporia between an assertion and its implicit opposite, which threatens to cancel it. The declaration that he loves Ophelia is infected by the possibility that he does not love her, the affirmation of the one merely passing into a validation of the other and an impersonation of it, and vice-versa. The deconstructive reflexivity of the unstable signifier “doubt” that creates this aporia is a perfect barrier against the intrusion of legibility into the poem. In a world of hidden intentionality the poem is a declaration of love that reverses and thereby conceals itself—a sign that announces itself by its disappearance. The self-canceling design of Hamlet's poem is replicated by the evasive movement of the last line of the letter that encloses it—“But that I love thee best, O most best, believe it”—a compulsive rhetorical gesture that directs attention away from the fact of his love to an assumption of it, and in doing so obscuring the fact and implicitly erasing it (Bozanich 91). The self-negation of Hamlet's statement happens on the verbal and cognitive level, on the level of speech and understanding. Hamlet is unmaking the word and with it, as we shall see later, the world.8 Irrespective of their precise circumstance (whether they were written before or after Polonius's injunction to Ophelia to rebuff Hamlet), the poem and the letter neither seek nor find any readership with Ophelia or with anyone else because, like the other human gestures in the play, love has become one more cipher in a text that refuses to, because it cannot, be deciphered. In being unable to exist except through and in its own annulment, Hamlet's declaration of love affirms subversion as the chief ideology of Elsinore and misreading as its principal text, and announces his mastery over both.

Predictably, the esoteric method of Hamlet's poem is not unlike the dubious style of the other letters that he writes in the play. On the way to England he re-writes Claudius's order for his execution in such a way that the meaning of the order is clear but not its manner: the justification he offers for the order is deliberately obscure and sarcastic (“As peace should still her wheaten garland wear / And stand a comma 'tween their amities, / And many such like as's of great charge” [5.2.41-43]). As Jonathan Goldberg has put it, “Hamlet's skilled hand insures the force of the document, but it does not reveal the writer” (323). Likewise, in the strange letter he sends Claudius announcing his return to England, it is unclear whether his message is contrition or defiance: the letter's reference to seeking “pardon” (4.7.46) is mocked by its stilted, artificial language of royalty. In both of these writings, as in his poem to Ophelia, content is distorted by the variability of intention. Hamlet's own remark to Horatio that, even though he used royal handwriting to re-write the execution order, he normally holds it “A baseness to write fair” (5.2.34), aptly describes his penchant not just for illegibility in handwriting but also for incommunicability in substance. The puzzling love poem, in other words, sets the pattern for Hamlet's enigmatic compositions elsewhere in the action.

The origin of this ideology of subversion and its text of misreading cannot be wholly situated, by Hamlet or by us, in a specific causal event—the murder of a King by his brother. For, even as the Ghost's radical tale of treachery rewrites, revises, and blocks other readings of Elsinore, it is itself a misreading. Its opaque ghostly authority, its manipulative implication of Hamlet in filial duty and an agenda of revenge, and the impenetrability of its ambiguities about Gertrude (who wavers in the Ghost's account between being a reluctant lover, an adulteress, and a murderess [1.5.42-57]) are all dubieties that undermine the validity of its text. The very strength of the Ghost's reading of Elsinore makes it a misreading since excessive magnification will always blur the total picture. As Harold Bloom has put it, a strong “[r]eading is always a misreading” (3). Hamlet's difficulties with the Ghost's account are implicit here in the lament with which he ends the scene, “The time is out of joint—O cursed spite! / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.88-89), and later in his momentary revaluation of the Ghost's words in his decision to put on the play-within-the play (2.2.594-605).

That is, all readings are tainted with the suspicion of misreading, become misreadings. True readings remain inaccessible, uncertain and unknown. One of Roland Barthes' comments is pertinent here:

To read, in fact, is a labor of language. To read is to find meanings and to find meanings is to name them; but these named meanings are swept towards other names; names call to each other, reassemble, and their grouping calls for further naming; I name, I unname, I rename; so the text passes; it is a nomination in the course of becoming, a tireless approximation, a metonymic labor.


To this we may perhaps add the observation that causality is the last human illusion. To be able to ascribe reasons to phenomena is to be able to know them, and if knowledge is power a belief in the causality of phenomena is implicitly a desire for one's ability to control phenomena. These are goals as human as they are philosophically elusive. In the endless chain of cause and effect we may discern local connections and even learn to contribute to them, but to uncover the first cause—the original reason why the world is the way it is—that is surely beyond human fathoming. This is to say that in the short range the world is decipherable but in the long range, in terms of origins, it is unknowable. Thus, the misreadings of Elsinore are both intentional and inexplicable: as Hamlet cannot read the world so he will not let the world read him.

To Hamlet, the death of his father, by natural or unnatural causes, is the inexplicable cue for the extinction of a rational civilization. It is the occasion for the rise of a King whose namelessness in the play (Claudius is the only Shakespearean King never addressed either by his official title [Calderwood xv] or by his name [Goldberg 326]), matches the equivocal blankness of his speech (as for instance, in 1.3). That death is the setting for the rise of a world in which a celestially angelic Gertrude, a “Niobe” in her “tears,” can be with the “satyr,” Claudius, as readily as she was with the “Hyperion” that was her husband (1.2.140-49). This is a world in which, from behind the pomp and glitter of a coronation ceremony, the riddle of incest decouples things from their names, thoughts from their expression, and ideas from their representation.9 But this event—the death of his father—cannot be given any status save that of a desultory event. It cannot be afforded any attribute of causality because causality has the legibility of logic that is denied by the world that Hamlet confronts. The subversion and misreadings of Elsinore are, in other words, causeless, a random phenomenon in the dynamics of chaos. For reasons unknown, Elsinore and the world have become unreadable to Hamlet, and with that Hamlet has become unreadable to others and to himself. In this sense, the text of misreading that Hamlet affirms in his poem is his horrible practical joke, his real gruesome revenge upon the world for the incomprehensibility of its text. This, we note, is a revenge that Hamlet's audience would relish, for, as Stephen Orgel has recently pointed out, “the Renaissance often found in incomprehensibility a positive virtue” (436). Indeed, in his poem Hamlet exemplifies Montaigne's words from “On the Inconsistency of Our Actions”: “I have nothing to say about myself absolutely, simply and solidly, without confusion and without mixture, or in one word” (242).

That misreading is the principal Elsinorean activity, and a phenomenon that precedes the Ghost's disturbing revelations, is in fact evident from the play's very beginning. The characters of Elsinore are all trying to impose their reading of events and phenomena on others while blocking those of others (Payne 100-11). Hartman has suggested (in the reference given above), that the whole plot of the opening scene with its play of murky happenings and confused identities enacts the phenomenology of readings that challenge the reader. The principal element in that phenomenology is the riddling apparition that resists the semantic probings of the skeptic philosopher, Horatio. The nocturnal visitor affords neither him, nor Barnardo, Francisco, or Marcellus, any more sense than the vague discomfort that “it bodes some strange eruption” to the state (1.1.69), or, as Marcellus articulates it later, that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.89). The blocked reading merely renews the desire to read, with the hope that the “dumbness” of illegibility may give way to the legibility of “speech” with a changed reader—“young Hamlet” (1.1.170-71).10 But the request for a reading privileges a legibility in that reader himself that cannot pass unchallenged by him. The aim of Hamlet's canny cross-examination of Horatio and the guards is to flush out any hidden agendas they may have in inviting him to read the specter as his father:

Ham: Arm'd say you?
Hor: Arm'd, my lord.
Ham: From top to toe?
Hor: My lord, from head to foot.
Ham: Then saw you not his face? … 
Ham: His beard was grisl'd, no?
Hor: It was, as I have seen it in his life, a sable silver'd.


Of course, Hamlet's attempt to read Horatio and the guards' failure to read the spectral phenomenon have both been preceded by Claudius's and Gertrude's attempt to read him earlier in the same scene. There, Claudius's Kingly reading tries to situate him as “a cousin” and “son” and thereby demands, by executive and filial privilege, to know the source of “the clouds” of melancholic despair that plague him. Hamlet counters this with a defensive misreading of himself as someone who is neither “kin” nor “kind,” and who is not at all under the weather but in fact “too much in the sun,” the punning between “son” and “sun” obscuring both the content and the intent of his reply. The attempted precision of Claudius's reading of Hamlet is neatly dissipated by the brazen ambiguity of Hamlet's misreading of himself, with the particular diagnosis of behavior of the one being silently replaced by that of the other. In this tense verbal thrust and parry, readability, i. e., knowability, is established as the besieged site of a fierce Elsinorean tactical struggle for dominance.

Unsurprisingly, as is the state so is the family. The most developed family depicted in the play, Polonius's, merely replicates within itself the pattern of interaction within the court. The cute scenario in the third scene of the play, of a cocky elder brother and an officious father fussing over the danger of a young commoner girl's liaison with royalty, is also an attempt to govern a young girl's mind. Laertes' prognosis of “the chariest maid['s] … prodigal[ity] … If she unmask her beauty to the moon”—otherwise “the shot and danger of desire” (1.3.35-38)—is a notion of Ophelia's sexuality that he is implicitly seeking to validate. Likewise, Polonius's inquisitorial suggestion, a few lines later, of a busy affair between her and Hamlet is a reading of her behavior that Polonius intends to confirm: “What is between you? Give me up the truth” (1.3.98). The teasing maidenly reticence with which Ophelia instinctively sidesteps such testing preserves her sovereignty over her own decipherability and with that, her options of personal freedom. The same struggle to regulate behavior permeates the relationship between father and son, as for instance when Polonius facetiously advises Laertes about the necessity of behaving duplicitously with the world while remaining true (“above all”) to himself (1.3.58-80). Later, he instructs Reynaldo to spy on his son by using “indirections [to] find directions out” (2.1.38-63). Both speeches exemplify a technique of understanding others while withholding understanding from them—a technique, in short, of reading others while remaining unread or misread oneself. It is in this context of the pervasive misreadings of Elsinore that Hamlet's quizzical love poem is inscribed.

Given the dense inexplicability of Elsinore, Hamlet's feelings for Ophelia can only be the occasion for his riddling equivocation and paradoxical behavior, with her and with others. His visit to her in her closet, which Ophelia describes in 2.1.73-97 is an act that is simultaneously an affirmation and a denial. He goes to her but does not speak to her. He goes to her in an instinctive gesture of communication but ends up in a silent scrutiny of her face. He stares at her, reads her, without letting her read him, or, making sure that she misreads him and encouraging her misreading of him (as transmitted through Polonius) as mad. The uncertainty of what he reads in her is matched and cloaked by the uncertainty of what Ophelia and Polonius, and we with them, can read in him. Each reading—that he is mad, that he is love-sick, that he is testing her through an “antic disposition”—is instantly challenged by the others and thus ends up as no more than a misreading of him.

Again, he flaunts this same riddling behavior before her in the “nunnery” scene in Act 3. He did and did not love Ophelia, he says (3.1.114-18)—playing again on the compulsive verb “believe,” but this time in a direction opposite that of the letter. If she “believed” he loved her, he asserts bluntly that he loved her not—imposing his belief on hers and blocking it. The instability of the signifier “nunn'ry” with which he ends his tirade (3.1.129)—poised as it is between its formal sober connotation as a retreat of sanctity and its bawdy popular Elizabethan denotation as a brothel (O.E.D. 1: 264; Jenkins 282)—masks perfectly the sense of his feelings for her, now or in the past. His insistence later, in the grim verbal and physical scuffle with Laertes in Ophelia's grave, that he “lov'd Ophelia” (5.1.269), declares his rights over the politics of intentionality. If Laertes' love for his sister allows him to rant against Hamlet for causing her death, then Hamlet's love for Ophelia allows him to vent his fury at Laertes for blackening his name. Hamlet will not let his feelings for Ophelia become Elsinore's vehicle of legibility into him, a foreground of its mastery over him. What he will give up, to Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and to us, is only the misreading of incoherence. The more anyone tries to read Hamlet the more he will be misread.

The desire to be misread is the desire to be mysterious, and to be mysterious to the world is to confuse it. Hamlet traps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they come to him in 2.2 as robotic extensions of Claudius's probing of his mind, to demonstrate his ability to deflect Elsinore's attempt to plumb him back upon itself. Somewhat Iago-like, Hamlet offers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not a paucity of motives for his melancholic behavior but a plethora of them—thwarted ambition, love sickness, depression. In this bag of motives the dilemma of choice transforms visibility into inscrutability and sense to confusion, as Guildenstern later reports to Claudius:

Nor do we find him forward to be sounded
But with a crafty madness keeps aloof
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.


To preserve the sovereignty of the self, it must not be allowed to have a text because a text invites reading. The “angelic action” and “God[-like] apprehension,” and the “quintessen[tial]” dust of man, in Hamlet's speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the nature of man (2.2.303-10), are free signifiers in Hamlet's unmaking of the text of the self of man. Hamlet's unmaking of the text of the self has affinities with what Michael F. McCanles has described as Shakespeare's deconstructive character analysis,

the notion of … textuality put forth by Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva: a text without a centered self or substantive origins, a fluid melting of multiple texts thrown up momentarily, coalescing, then disappearing, to be replaced by still other texts.


The unmade text of the self is what Hamlet describes, both to Guildenstern at the end of the play scene when he forces him to play the recorder, and immediately after to Polonius when he forces him to decipher the shape of a cloud that looks like a weasel and like a whale. The chaotic self of man in Hamlet's unmaking of it, cannot be “play[ed]” and “sound[ed],” and the “heart” of its “mystery” cannot be “pluck[ed] out” (3.2.364-71). And the text of the self of man must be unmade if the world is to be unmade. If sense—the logical connected arrangement of units of meaning, i. e., a readable text, or what Terence Hawkes in a related context has described as “the unity, progression, coherence” that are “part of the [world's] ruthless and rigorous process of domestication [and control]” (324)—if this is what holds the world together, then confusion is what will unmake it. If the world has already become an unreadable text, then, Hamlet's text of misreading will accelerate that unreadability. Behind the text of misreading that Hamlet affirms lies a grim malevolence towards a malevolent world.

In trying to destroy the text of the self and of the world, Hamlet's text of misreading is also intended to disallow the very idea of a text itself. The textlessness of his soliloquies matches the textlessness of the play he puts on to rewrite both the play he has inherited from the Ghost and the play he himself is set in. His soliloquies seem to show transparently the processes of thought and decision-making but actually give us only their opaque results. For instance, in the “Rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy (2.2.550-605) and in the “To be or not to be” one (3.1.55-88), the tortuous self-analyses that Hamlet conducts have little connection to the conclusions he quickly reaches for—deciding to put on a play in the former and choosing inaction in the latter.11 This is identical to the way that the signifiers of an anti-text have ineffectual links with the signifieds they couple with, the result in both cases being a refusal to communicate with a reader.

So too, “The Murder of Gonzago” rewrites the text of the Hamlet play and the Ghost's in a manner that pretends to speak with the audience, but in fact, in its deliberate conflation of the roles of brother and nephew, killer and revenger, in the figure of Lucianus, and in its incompleteness (it stops midway and we do not know how much of it, if any, was left to be performed), declines to do so. If Claudius's angry exit is provoked by his uncertainty and suspicion of the staged play's intentions, this fuels our uncertainty about precisely what Claudius finds suspicious (the spectacle of regicide, the murder of a brother, the manner of the killing, or the murderer's quick wooing of the victim's widow), and about what he understands of the staged play (does he see the dumb show, and, if he does, why does he ask what its “argument” is?). Both uncertainties, Claudius's and ours, combine to make the entire episode resist the cohering control of textuality. In denying textuality Hamlet is not so much destroying a textuality that the world still has as he is participating in, and deliberately contributing to, its rampant anti-textuality.

In making the staged play episode resist a textuality, its author is himself resisting the textual authority of the larger play of which he is a part. Just as the staged play refuses to make full sense Hamlet himself refuses to make full sense, his exuberance at the performance's end being but a deceptive signifier of his authorial conclusions about the success of his staged text. (If Claudius has seen the dumb show and failed to respond to it, then the Ghost's words cannot be taken “for a thousand pound” [3.2.286]).12 Hamlet's deliberate collapsing of selfhood and textuality begins the disintegration of Elsinore and the Hamlet play, both of which become sites of defiance of form and meaning.

To be unable to read is to die, misreading is dying. The disappearance of a text of self and of textuality itself can only be a prelude to the world's slide into the random incoherence of death. With no textuality to hold them, lives crumple, characters fall and are expunged. Polonius's “sudden, rash, intruding” death at the hands of Hamlet, the first of the play's many deaths, is without explanation or apology because it belongs to no script. Unsupported by any role in family or state because of his inability to read and domesticate either his wayward daughter, her dangerous lover, or the “transformed” Prince, Polonius falls—a miscellaneous end to a life suddenly become miscellaneous. Cast adrift by the illegibility of her lover and the dubiety of her father, Ophelia's slide into madness perfectly replicates her textual redundancy. Her disjointed songs in 4.5, with their conflation of the texts of sexual betrayal and elegiac lament for the loss of a loved one in death, are as contextless as her own death, in Gertrude's evocative description (4.7.166-83), by a drowning closely observed but not prevented.

As royal order breaks in Elsinore, first signalled by Claudius's disruptive exit from the dramatic performance, the King's assassins are themselves assassinated. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die quietly off-stage as the game of cheap espionage in which Claudius had cast them is terminated, literally in Hamlet's re-writing of his assassination orders on board ship to England. Baffled by the wild behavior and hallucinatory antics of her son in her bed chamber and caught by his “wild, whirling words,” some of which strike home in the direction of her wedded Queenly bliss, Gertrude's notions of maternality, wifedom, and Queenliness are at once confused. She floats in a tide of seeping self-sickness, dreading to face the mad Ophelia and seeing her death in the accents in which perhaps she would like to see her own (in the passage cited above). Her intervention on Hamlet's side in his graveyard scuffle with Laertes prefigures her fatal, albeit unwitting, intervention in Claudius's design of the poisoned wine cup intended for her son and she dies a blundering death marginally lamented by husband and son. Displaced by Ophelia's death from the scenario of strutting protective brotherhood, and impelled by his father's murder into a desperate revenge plot, Laertes falls in the play's last scene, caught in the cross-pull of Hamlet's sincere sportsmanship and Claudius's manipulative stratagem of hidden retribution, unable to read fully or relate to either.

As Elsinore's texts disintegrate and characters collapse, its center, and its chief reader and author, Claudius, begins to deconstruct, losing his authority over both language and action. Within the arranged self of majesty in Claudius the memory of criminal instinct stubbornly intrudes, stirred by Polonius's chance remark about the perfidy of necessary deceptions when they are rehearsing Ophelia's entrapment of Hamlet before the “nunnery” scene:

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.


Reinforced by the experience of Hamlet's subversive play, such insistent memories erode self-authority in Claudius, dividing thought from action, speech from intent, and driving them up against each other, so that as he prays his “words fly up” but his “thoughts remain below” (3.3.97-98). The loss of self-authority releases hardened and hidden desires in Claudius—for the “crown,” the “ambition,” the “Queen”—that he cannot forsake (3.3.55), and for the violence by which he acquired them. Claudius's Kingship begins to die in the “pestilent” public speeches of an uncontrollable Laertes demanding redress for a father's murder that “Like … a murd'ring piece” gives Claudius “superfluous death” (4.5.91-96), and this death signals the release of the cold-blooded killer in him. In fact, by this time the practiced killer in Claudius has already emerged, in his compulsion for the purging of the “hectic in [his] blood” by the killing of Hamlet (4.3.65-68).

The loss of authority in the Kingly self can only reflect the loss of authority in the state, the textual subversion of the one merely compounding that of the other. As the secret assassination of Hamlet goes awry and the assassins are themselves assassinated, so the killing of Hamlet in the duel fails to hold true and instead also kills the killers. The physical death of Claudius in the play's last scene recalls the textual death of King Claudius earlier in the scene of Laertes' riotous entry into the castle and replicates in its savagery the ferocity of the killer Claudius's own compulsive violence.

Claudius's death is both textual and textless. It is textual in that it completes the object of the revenge text—the retributive killing of the killer. It is textless in the sense that the manner in which it is accomplished destroys that textuality. Hamlet kills Claudius in a frenzy of spontaneous action that has little to do with premeditated vengeance, particularly of the sort stipulated by the Ghost's text. If it is vengeful at all, that vengeance is an immediate response to the local plan of Claudius to poison him, and has little to do with his father's murder. Claudius falls in a welter of confused violence that the court can only misread as “Treason!” (5.2.323). Somewhat as Hamlet's declaration of love in his riddling poem had announced itself by its own disappearance, the revenge text of Hamlet completes itself by its own erasure. The litter of bodies that fills the play's last scene is not just conventional. It is uniquely a function of this play's compulsion to consume itself.

For Hamlet the greatest problem in his dramatized life is the desirability and danger of communication in an indecipherable world. To have a text of living is to be read and destroyed. Yet not having a text is to die. One can live, then, only by subverting life. By extension one can speak only by not speaking. Through one's silences one can understand by not understanding. One can live—triumph over death—by having a text that cannot be read. One can meet the indecipherability of the world by destroying the world as one is destroyed by it. This compound apocalyptic ethic can only be grounded in a celebration of silence as the sole good in a meaningless “unknowing” universe where “readiness” is but “all” (5.2.222). Horatio doesn't fail Hamlet's dying request “to tell [his] story.” As Hamlet himself erases meaning from his instructions to Horatio about what his text should contain—by his dying gesture of deferral, “the rest is silence” (5.2.358)—so, Horatio's bare account of “unnatural acts,” “accidental judgments” and “purposes mistook / Fall'n on the inventors' head” (5.2.380-86), is the prologue to an unfulfilled text—one that the play's physical end elides from our view.13

Thus Hamlet's play, like his poem, is built on a system of misreading that subverts meaning in the very process of its communication, that conceals as it reveals, and that exists only in its self-cancellation. As the poem subverts its own Petrarchan tradition by asserting love through the process of denying it, the play hides its literary lineage by accomplishing revenge through the process of destroying its textual framework (Waller 27; Hawkes 330). Just as Hamlet's struggle in his poem to find an original voice against the burden of a literary tradition leads him to his discovery of silence as a form of speech, Shakespeare's struggle to achieve a unique play amidst the pressure of a burgeoning copycat literary culture produces a text that de-textualizes itself to preserve its own integrity.14 Just as the origins of Hamlet's love letter are mysterious and hidden (exactly when was it written, is it authentic or a forgery? [Goddard 40; Ferguson 308 n. 21]), so the dramatic origins and models of Shakespeare's play are uncertain and unknown (who wrote the Ur-Hamlet and when?). As the subject of Hamlet's letter and poem—his love for Ophelia—is lost in its own doubts, the subject of Hamlet's play—the tragedy of his life—is buried in its own deletions, trapped in our endless misreadings of it. If Hamlet is a deconstructive play (Patterson 47; Calderwood xv), the enigmatic love letter to Ophelia, tucked away in one small corner of the play, contains much of the energies of such a modality and helps in executing it.


  1. All citations from Shakespeare use the Riverside edition unless otherwise noted.

  2. Examples of this usage from the O.E.D. include: “I havying doute of harmes of my body … dyd assemble these persones,” 1411, Rolls of Parliament, III, 650/2, and “The pinne or web is likewise to be doubted to happen in that year,” 1574, Hyll, Conject. Weather, ii. Also see Shakespeare's own use of this word earlier in the same scene, in Gertrude's words in line 56, as Stephen Booth has pointed out (174). For instances of this use of the word elsewhere in Shakespeare see King Lear 5.1.6 and Timon of Athens 1.2.155. Jonson in Volpone 3.7 has Bonario say of Mosca: “I do doubt / this fellow.”

  3. The article is cited by the editors of Harold C. Goddard's posthumously published book Alphabet of the Imagination (57 n. 9).

  4. Also see John J. Murray's “mathematical” resolution of the problem. For examples of nineteenth-century dismissals of Hamlet's letter see Furness 2: 209.

  5. That the poem “reads” its readers is also the substance of Goddard's trenchant comment (43). Goddard also argues that the poem is a partial forgery by Polonius (48-52; qtd. in Taylor 51 n. 9).

  6. Booth's analysis, which is dependent on the concept of complementarity popularized by Norman Rabkin in his book Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, has affinities with the phenomenological and deconstructive argument I am using. My essay explores some of the implications of Booth's discussion. In a general sense, I have also profited from the critical methods and ideas of James Calderwood in To Be and Not To Be.

  7. Paraphrased by Eagleton in his summary of Iser's theories (79).

  8. On the use of negation in Hamlet see Calderwood's incisive discussion: “If poetic negation is positive then Not this exists on an equal footing with This. The absent is present, the denied affirmed, the forbidden consummated in the verbal act of negation itself” (61). On the breakdown of language generally in Shakespeare's tragedies, see also Danson, and Hawkes (Shakespeare's Talking Animals).

  9. On the connection between incest and riddles see Levi-Strauss (34-39; qtd. in McAlinden 59 and Calderwood 205 n. 14).

  10. On the greater importance of speech than of sight for producing meaning in phenomena, particularly here in the scenes of the Ghost's appearance before the guards and before Hamlet, see Don Parry Norford's essay. Norford says “Only when [the Ghost] speaks to Hamlet does the meaning of its appearance become known” (567).

  11. That the conclusions of the soliloquies seem to arise from the context of the soliloquies but actually do not, may be less readily evident in the latter of these two soliloquies than in the first. That inaction is going to be Hamlet's choice in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is indicated from the very beginning by the way it is associated with, and thereby valorized by, “being,” despite conventional expectations that “being” will mean living well and acting heroically, i. e., being active. Partly perhaps to hide this inversion in values, Hamlet, after setting out “being” and “non-being” in the first four lines as items in a particular series, switches their order and proceeds to discuss the latter item—non-being—first. He returns to “being” only afterwards, as a preferable alternative (3.1.59-68). In other words, what appears to be a debate really isn't one—Hamlet has already made up his mind about inaction before the speech begins and in the soliloquy he is only looking for ways to justify that decision. This is like his having suddenly decided, in the earlier soliloquy, to put on a play and then merely looking for reasons to do so (2.2.598-605). Harold Jenkins provides a good discussion of the hidden inversions in Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy in his edition of the play (484-91).

  12. For an effective discussion of the dubieties of what the play-within-the-play “proves” about Claudius, see Brent Cohen (235-37). Stanley Cavell has offered a sophisticated Freudian rejection of what Hamlet's play actually proves about Claudius's guilt (179-91).

  13. Calderwood, of course, says that this is a moment of termination as well as a beginning. Horatio's story is the text for the play's next performance before another audience (182-84).

  14. I am referring, of course, to the busy, competitive production of sonnets, history plays, and romances, as well as revenge plays, in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In Stanley Cavell's words, in Hamlet Shakespeare “is writing the revenge play to end revenge plays” (181).

Works Cited

Atkins, G. Douglas, and David M. Bergeron, eds. Shakespeare and Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Blanke, N. F. Shakespeare's Language: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

Bloom, Harold, A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Booth, Stephen. “On the Value of Hamlet.” Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama. Selected Papers of the English Institute. Ed. Norman Rabkin. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. 136-76.

Bozanich, Robert. “The Eye of the Beholder: Hamlet to Ophelia 2.2.109-24.” Shakespeare Quarterly 31 (1980): 90-93.

Calderwood, James L. To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet. New York: Columbia UP, 1983.

Cavell, Stanley. “Hamlet's Burden of Proof.” Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Cohen, Brent. “‘What Is It You Would See?’: Hamlet and the Conscience of the Theater.” ELH 44 (1977): 222-47.

Cook, Carol. “The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing.PMLA 101 (1986): 186-202.

Danson, Laurence. Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Doran, Madeleine. Shakespeare's Dramatic Language. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1976.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 1983. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

Elizabeth I, Queen. “On Monsieur's Departure.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. Gen. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 1986. 998.

Ferguson, Margaret. “Hamlet: Letters and Spirits.” Parker and Hartman 292-309.

Fumerton, Patricia. “Secret Arts: Elizabethan Miniatures and Sonnets.” Representing the English Renaissance. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Furness, H.H., ed. Hamlet: A New Variorum Edition. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877.

Gerschenkron, Erica, and Alexander Gerschenkron. “The Illogical Hamlet: A Note on Translatability.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8 (1966): 301-36.

Goddard, Harold C. Alphabet of the Imagination: Literary Essays of Harold C. Goddard. Ed. Eleanor G. Worthen and Margaret Goddard Holt. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1974.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Hamlet's Hand.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 307-27.

Hartman, Geoffrey. The Fate of Reading. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975.

Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare's Talking Animals: Language and Drama in Society. Tottowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973.

———. “Telmah.” Parker and Hartman 310-31.

Hibbard, G.R., ed. Hamlet. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1978.

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Patterson, Annabel. “The Very Age and Body of the Time His Form and Pressure.” Atkins and Bergeron 47-67.

Payne, Michael. “What's Wrong with Hamlet?” Perspectives on Hamlet. Collected Papers of the Bucknell-Susquehanna Colloquium on Hamlet. April 27-28, 1973. Ed. William G. Holzberger and Peter B. Waldeck. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1975. 100-11.

Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Common Understanding. New York: Free, 1967.

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David Farley-Hills (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5746

SOURCE: “Hamlet's Account of the Pirates,” in Review of English Studies, Vol. 50, No. 199, August, 1999, pp. 320-31.

[In the following essay, Farley-Hills defends George Miles's linguistic argument (from 1870) that Hamlet planned his meeting with the pirates before he left for England. His defense involves some comparison of the Q2 and F versions of the play.]

The view that Hamlet had been planning, before he leaves Denmark, to be rescued by pirates on the journey to England has received short shrift from most Shakespeare commentators and editors since it was first given lengthy and forceful promulgation by the American scholar and author George Miles in his monograph of 1870, A Review of Hamlet. Miles made his suggestion provisional on the possibility of a pun on the word ‘craft’ at Q2 III. iv. 199: ‘If the word crafts had its present maritime significance in Shakespeare's time, the pun alone is conclusive of a pre-arranged capture.’1

W.W. Lawrence regarded the whole of Miles's argument as ‘an absurd idea’,2 and most of those few critics who have noticed Miles at all have substantially concurred. Later attempts to support Miles's view, such as Martin Stevens's article in Shakespeare Quarterly,3 have fared no better. The main objection, however, has often been that the use of ‘craft’ to mean ‘ship’ was unknown in Shakespeare's day or too rare to be a meaningful reference. The German scholar Robert Petsch, for instance, in his article refuting Miles's argument, argues that even if the word could have meant ‘ship’ in Elizabethan English, the usage would have been too rare and technical for a general audience to understand.4 Modern editors have been more forthright: G.R. Hibbard's note on Q2 III. iv. 190, for instance, comments (with rather strange logic): ‘The earliest instance of craft, signifying “boat”, cited by the OED belongs to 1671-2, so there is little likelihood that Hamlet is quibbling.’5 In providing evidence that Hibbard and those many commentators and annotators who share a similar view are mistaken in this assumption, I think it worth again raising the ghost of Hamlet's planned meeting with the pirates.

In the ‘closet’ scene of the Q2 version of Hamlet Shakespeare gives Hamlet nine lines in his last speech that do not occur in either Q1 or the Folio version. The last of these lines may or may not contain a pun on the word ‘crafts’:

                                                                                O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

(III. iv. 198-9)6

‘Crafts’ here certainly means (as most annotators agree) something like ‘cunning plots’ (Harold Jenkins). G.R. Hibbard rather ingeniously suggests in explanation of the last line: ‘when two exponents of the same skill or cunning device—in this case mining and counter-mining—meet one another head-on’. A problem with this, however, is that Hamlet promises to dig ‘one yard below their mines’. Jenkins too thinks that it is unlikely that the word also means ‘ships’ here: ‘A pun on crafts, ships, is (at this date) unlikely’,7 and elsewhere, in notes to III. iv. 207-11 and IV. vi. 19, finds ‘no justification’ for inferring that the pirates were in league with Hamlet in a plot to get him back to Denmark. At first sight the OED seems to give support to this scepticism; but as well as giving the date of the first known use of ‘craft’ meaning ‘ship’ as 1671 the compilers also add to the entry the note: ‘These uses were probably colloquial with watermen, fishers and seamen some time before they appeared in print, so that the history is not evidenced.’ Some support is given to the suggestion that this usage of the word is to be found earlier by the entry in Coles's English Dictionary (1676), where one definition of ‘craft’ is ‘small vessels as ketches etc.’, which may imply it was a well-established usage by this date. But the OED compliers need not have resorted to conjecture. Kurath and Kuhn give two relevant entries in their Medieval English Dictionary where ‘Craft 9a’ is partly defined as ‘something built or made … a building, ornament, painting, ship etc.’, and for their example of the meaning ‘ship’ they quote Beryn c.1460:

Wel was hym þat coude bynd or ondo
Any rope with-in shippe, þat longit to þe crafft.

Under ‘ship-craft (c)’ (meaning ‘ship’), they give as an example Scrope 1450: ‘The King sent … to get þingis that myght abide with thayme that their ship-crafte brake not in the see.’ An example can be cited from the late fourteenth century in Richard the Redeless, iv. 74-7, where we read:

Than lay the lordis a-lee, with laste and with charge,
And bare aboute the barge, and blamed the maister,
That knewe not the kynde cours, that to the crafte longid,
And warned him wisely, of the wedir-side.(8)

We can even go further back than this, for the Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary enters under ‘Cræft IV’ ‘a craft, any kind of ship’. In view of these examples it can be regarded as certain that the usage was current in Shakespeare's day; indeed Shakespeare himself may be using it elsewhere in a pun in Troilus and Cressida (IV. v. 103-4) where Troilus runs riot with piscatorial metaphors:

Whilst others fish with craft for great opinion,
I with great truth catch mere simplicity.(9)

Jenkins's objection clearly has no force against the weight of this evidence. Trusting to etymological evidence, then, to refute Miles's argument turns out to be relying on ‘false fire’.

A more fundamental objection, however, becomes clear in Jenkins's comment on Hamlet's earlier lines (III. iv. 207-11), ‘Let it work … at the moon’: ‘Hamlet's confidence in the outcome will prepare the audience for it, but affords no justification for supposing that he has any precise plan for bringing it about (which he ultimately does by sudden inspiration, V. ii. 6-53), still less that he “has planned in advance for the intervention of the pirates” (SQ, xxvi, 279)’. Jenkins rejects the possibility of a pun on ‘crafts’ because he refuses to contemplate the reading of these lines it would imply.

The possibility of a pun on ‘crafts’ does not, of course, prove that Shakespeare intended one, but it does open up the possibility of a different understanding of Hamlet's reaction to being sent to England. The phrase ‘two crafts directly meet’ suggests accommodation to a pun because literally it would be against Hamlet's interest for the plots or stratagems to meet directly, and his aim is obviously to keep his plans secret. It would be very much in character for Hamlet to express through a pun what he does not wish to reveal openly (as he shows in the first words he speaks in the play). It is true that the reference to ‘crafts’ in the ‘closet’ scene would be puzzling to an audience, because it is the first we hear of Hamlet's intention of initiating the counterplot (though the meaning ‘ships’ is the first, not the second, meaning that springs to mind to a modern audience, and this might well have been the case with a popular audience in Shakespeare's time if the OED is right that the meaning, far from being ‘technical’, was a popular one). In any case Hamlet constantly likes to keep friend, foe, and even audience guessing at his precise intentions. Shakespeare is constantly engaged in mystification in Hamlet (as befits a play which questions the adequacy of ‘your philosophy’), especially in the later versions, as, for instance, when he substitutes in Q2 and F a far more ambiguous response of the Queen to Hamlet's revelation that he knows of his father's murder, compared to her unambiguous response in Q1: ‘I never knew of this most horride murder’. The difference between Q2 and F in their account of the meeting with the pirates might well be explained by a later decision in F to make the nature of the encounter more ambiguous. We can also accept Jenkins's explanation that the purpose of the Q2 passage in III. iv. 207-12 is to ‘prepare the audience’ for what is to come.

Miles points out that Hamlet is surprisingly acquiescent when Claudius tells him he must board the boat for England (IV. iii. 44). He simply repeats Claudius's command ‘For England’ (F turns it into a question) and then says ‘Good’, followed by the somewhat mysterious remark: ‘I see a cherub that sees them’ (referring to Claudius's ‘purposes’). Jenkins finds in this ‘a hint that Hamlet perceives more than the King supposes’, but it is the cherub that sees Claudius's intention; Hamlet merely sees the cherub. He only finds out Claudius's true intentions when he opens the letter addressed to the King of England on board ship. Hamlet may be intimating that he sees a glimmer of providential help in the journey to England and that it might provide him with an opportunity if properly understood and prepared for, or it might simply be, as Petsch suggests, that Hamlet is here appealing to the conscience of the King to remember that God sees all.10

Miles interprets the nine additional lines of Q2 (III. iv. 204-12) as Hamlet's first revelation of an attempt to take advantage of such an opportunity:

Ther's letters sealed, and my two Schoolfellowes,
Whom I will trust as I will Adders fang'd,
They beare the mandat, they must sweep my way
And marshall me to knavery: let it work,
For tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar, an't shall goe hard
But I will delve one yard belowe their mines,
And blowe them at the Moone: o tis most sweete
When in one line two crafts directly meete.(11)

Jenkins's note on ‘knavery’ here is interesting, because it indicates a refusal to contemplate Hamlet's taking the initiative (the a priori assumption is the Romantic one found in Goethe and Coleridge that he is too inward-looking and too kind to act ruthlessly): ‘knavery’ therefore is interpreted as ‘to be suffered, of course, not committed by the speaker, cf. V. ii. 19’ (the reference to ‘royal knavery’ in V. ii. 19 is not relevant to the point). For similar reasons ‘marshall me to knavery’ is glossed by Hibbard as ‘ceremoniously conduct me into a trap’.12 It is clear from the next lines, however, that Hamlet is talking about taking a lead from his erstwhile schoolfellows; he will ‘blowe them at the Moone’ by ‘undermining’ them at their own game. In any case he has no idea at this point that they are leading him into a trap; he has simply lost all trust in them. ‘Marshall’ means ‘lead me to knavery’, as it does for Macbeth when he addresses the phantom dagger: ‘Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going’ (Macbeth, II. i. 42). Hamlet's position is clear: he has lost trust in the friendship of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and suspects they are being used in some way by the principal plotter (‘enginer’) Claudius, although he does not know exactly how until he opens the letter to the King of England on board ship. He will therefore take counter-measures and destroy their plans by the kind of underhand means (‘knavery’) they are using against him. Given this reading, it is not unreasonable to interpret the reference to ‘two crafts’ as a pun by which Hamlet is suggesting covertly (as is his wont) that the preparations for this counterplot are already under way in arranging a meeting of the two craft at sea. It is perhaps indiscreet of Hamlet even to hint obscurely at such intentions, but one of the most intriguing features of Hamlet's complex character is the all too human mixture of discretion and indiscretion in his conduct. At this stage it seems unlikely that his plan involves having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, in spite of the violence of the metaphors; but a plan to engineer a quick and unexpected return to Denmark might well enable him to ‘hoist’ Claudius ‘with his own petar’. Whether Hamlet has had time to arrange such a meeting is immaterial, so long as we feel there has been sufficient stage time. Claudius first mentions the intention of sending Hamlet to England in open conversation with Polonius, and in the presence of Ophelia, before the play scene (III. i. 171). Much happens between this and Hamlet's first mention of the journey, which Gertrude says she has ‘forgot’ (III. iv. 203)—a subtle intimation that she had the information some time before.

At this point it might be well to quote Miles's commentary on these lines:

One would think it required a miraculous allowance of critical obtuseness to ignore a counterplot so strikingly pre-arranged. Yet, opening Coleridge, you find ‘Hamlet's capture by the pirates: how judiciously in keeping with the character of the over-meditative Hamlet, ever at last determined by accident or by a fit of passion!’ And opening Ulrici … God save the mark! ‘Accident frustrates his plans. Captured by pirates he is set on shore in Denmark against his will’ etc. And opening Wilhelm Meister you find Hamlet's ‘capture by pirates, and the death of the two courtiers by the letter which they carried’, regarded as ‘injuring exceedingly the unity of the piece, particularly as the hero has no plan’. After such obvious, amazing misconception, one may be pardoned for believing he sees

                                                                                Two points in Hamlet's soul
Unseized by the Germans yet.(13)
To make assurance doubly sure, comes the letter to Horatio, ‘In
the grapple, I boarded them; on the instant they got clear of our ship: so
I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy;
but they knew what they did’. Can circumstantial proof go further? Could
any twelve men of sense on such a record, acquit Hamlet of being an accessory
before, as well as after, the fact?(14)

The letter from Hamlet to Horatio (IV. vi. 17-20) is interpreted very differently by Jenkins (who quotes Miles at this point):

There is no justification for inferring (as Miles A Review of Hamlet, 1870, pp. 70-1 and recently in SQ, xxvi, 276-84) that they were therefore in league with Hamlet and the whole pirate encounter a plot to get him back to Denmark. In that case Hamlet could hardly have spoken of their ‘mercy’. The implication is that they showed mercy in calculated exchange for services to be rendered.15

Jenkins's interpretation of the letter is not implausible if taken alone from what has preceded it and what is to come. Hamlet certainly seems to be giving the impression here to Horatio that the meeting with the pirates was fortuitous:

Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded them. On the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy. But they knew what they did: I am to do a turn for them … I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter … Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course for England; of them I have much to tell thee.

(IV. vi. 14-28)

Miles has not helped his case by omitting the words at the end of his quotation: ‘I am to do a turn for them’, because it looks as if Hamlet is suggesting he did some sort of deal with the pirates on the spot, though it does not necessarily mean this. On the other hand, Hamlet's remark, ‘But they knew what they did’, sounds suspiciously like an acknowledgement that the whole episode was under control in a way not usually associated with fights at sea, and his description of their behaviour as like ‘thieves of mercy’ is not incompatible with Miles's view that the meeting had been prearranged, especially if he is not being totally frank with Horatio. ‘Thieves of mercy’ would be a good phrase to describe pirates who have agreed to his rescue plan, whether or not they have received good payment. Robert Petsch argues against Miles's view that Hamlet is sparing with the information he imparts to Horatio, arguing that Hamlet always treats Horatio ‘with boundless trust’,16 but the text of the play hardly bears out the contention. Hamlet has all along been economical in what he tells his friend: he refuses to explain what the Ghost has said to him, for instance (I. v. 123 f.), and he does not reveal that earlier plot to catch the conscience of the King until just before the players enter (III. ii. 75-87), although he has been hard at work for some time arranging it. Even in this letter he is too cautious to reveal how he has behaved towards his old school-fellows, and the information that they ‘hold their course for England’, while perfectly true, is full of the irony of disingenuousness. Miles's comment would appear to be justified: ‘Horatio's ignorance of the capture is no argument against its being premediated. It would have been very unlike Hamlet, either to compromise his friend, who remained at Court in service of the King, or to extend his secret needlessly.’17

The implausibility of the story as Hamlet tells it also gives Hamlet's letter the impression of disingenuousness. It is difficult to believe that by chance Hamlet is the only person who boarded the pirate ship and that by chance the pirates immediately sailed away with Hamlet still on board without their attempting any further assault. Pirate ships would presumably usually attack in order to seize more than the first man who came on board, even if they immediately (by chance) happened to recognize who he was and his potential for ransom. Shakespeare need not have given all these circumstantial details or made them so prominent unless he wanted to draw special attention to Hamlet's conduct on the occasion. Indeed Q1 makes no mention of pirates and is none the worse in its plotting for that. Many earlier commentators have found Hamlet's account of the encounter with the pirates implausible, including those who for one reason or another come to accept that the meeting was accidental. Lawrence, for instance, remarks that it ‘strains probability’,18 while the nineteenth-century commentator D.J. Snider remarks: ‘The whole proceeding is so suspicious that were such an event to occur in real life, everybody would think at once of collusion.’19 Petsch argues in general that the events of the story, as Hamlet tells it, are thoroughly in character, and in particular that the impulsiveness of Hamlet's nature would make his rash attempt to fight single-handed thoroughly typical.20 Our impression of Hamlet's character, however, must derive from the particularities of the text, not govern the text's interpretation, and it is these particularities that are in question here.

Jenkins follows earlier commentators in arguing that Hamlet's final account of the meeting with the pirates in Act V, scene ii is the key to understanding what happened. The dialogue at V. ii. 6-53, in which Hamlet gives Horatio an account of the forging of Claudius's letter to the King of England and the ultimate fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, clearly indicates, says Jenkins, that Hamlet's behaviour on board ship was the result of ‘sudden inspiration’, and so the author of the Shakespeare Quarterly article (Martin Stevens) is wrong. The same view had been taken some hundred years earlier by D.J. Snider, who finds Hamlet's description of what happened in this scene decisive in rejecting what he otherwise regards as the persuasive view that the meeting with the pirates was planned: ‘Yet this view, apparently so well founded, we must abandon when we read Hamlet's account of the affair (V. ii). In that he ascribes his action wholly to instinct; there was no premeditation, no planning at all.’21 Lawrence endorses this view in quoting Snider.22

Miles's interpretation of Hamlet's narrative at this point is very different: the opening of Claudius's letter to the King of England is

a sudden inspiration … It is the only second hope on which he can count; for if the chances of the sea prevent the contemplated rescue, he is infallibly lost without that earnest conjuration. The whole ‘rash’ undertaking is a supplemented plot; a reserved escape, an ‘indiscretion’ only meant to serve in case his pirate plot should fail.23

By opening the letter Hamlet providentially obtains the public proof of Claudius's guilt that he would otherwise lack, and he can thereby justify his actions before the Danish people when he finally takes his revenge.

In contrast to Jenkins's view that Hamlet links the finding of the letter and the meeting with the pirate ship as examples of providence coming to his aid, Miles contrasts the planning of the encounter with the pirates with the unplanned opening of the letter. Hamlet's second account of the episode (V. ii) says very little about the meeting with the pirates on the grounds that he has informed Horatio of that already (V. ii. 55). Instead he concentrates almost exclusively on the discovery of Claudius's letter and the substitution of his own version of it. His comments on the intervention of providence arise entirely in the context of the narrative concerning the letter, and it is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that that is what it is referring to. Miles's view seems to me much more closely in accordance with Hamlet's words than that of either Jenkins or Snider:

And prais'd be rashness for it: let us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

(V. ii. 6-11)

Neither a chance meeting nor a planned meeting with the pirates could be regarded as an ‘indiscretion’, although Hamlet's action in boarding the ship might be. But at this point Hamlet is describing the moments before he steals the letter, not the later event. The rashness clearly refers to the sudden decision to steal the letter just before he leaves his cabin to seek out in the dark the sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (V. ii. 12-18). Hamlet only cursorily mentions the sea-fight next day nearly forty lines later (V. ii. 53-5). He must, therefore, be contrasting the unpremeditated opening of the letter with those ‘deep plots’ that he fears may have gone wrong—if he is thinking of a particular ‘deep plot’ it could only be the one Miles mentions, for he is hardly likely to be looking at the matter from Claudius's point of view. It is worth noting that Shakespeare does not use the word Pope thought appropriate here—‘fail’—but ‘pall/paule’,24 a word meaning ‘falter’, suggesting doubt over whether it (‘they’) will succeed or not. At the moment he is referring to he would not have known whether the agreement with the pirates was going to succeed. Miles's interpretation is further strengthened by the imagery of lines 10-11, for if he had arranged the meeting with the pirates he would have ‘rough-hewn’ a plan that providence then refined by inspiring the impromptu opening of the letter. ‘Rough-hew’ would seem to be a perfect expression to describe the formulation of the plan, for there seems to have been no specific plan for dealing with Claudius when Hamlet arrives back. Imagery could hardly have a greater preciseness. The main argument, then, that Jenkins produces to defend his position turns out to be flawed. The orthodoxy that Lawrence, Jenkins, and Hibbard espouse is seen to be based on the a priori assumption that Hamlet lacks the initiative to finish the task of revenge, not on a plausible reading of the text (especially the Q2 text).

It is strange, however, that the best evidence to justify Miles's viewpoint comes from the text that also includes that long soliloquy ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ (IV. iv. 32-66) that the Folio suppresses. Strange because while the plot to meet up with the pirates suggests verve and initiative, the soliloquy is the most insistent example of that other theme in the play, Hamlet's own doubt and uncertainty whether he is able to carry out the revenge entrusted to him. It is apparent, however, that throughout Hamlet Shakespeare has tried to steer a difficult course between a sufficiently heroic tragic protagonist and the profound psychological interest in the character that results from Hamlet's constant introspection, which is the play's greatest achievement. That even some of his contemporaries had doubts whether he had achieved the right balance is evident (if somewhat obscurely) from two very different contemporary reactions to the play. For instance, in the account given of Burbage's interpretation of the part in the anonymous funeral elegy of 1618 (although scanty it gives his role as Hamlet the fullest treatment), we seem to be hearing of a vigorous, heroic figure:

He's gone and with him what a world are dead,
Which he revived, to be revived so.
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him, have now for ever died.
Oft have I seen him leap into the grave,
Suiting the person, which he seemed to have,
Of a sad lover, with so true an eye
That there I would have sworn he meant to die;
Oft have I seen him play this part in jest,
So lively that Spectators and the rest
Of his sad crew, whilst he but seemed to bleed,
Amazed, thought even then he died indeed.(25)

On the other hand the parody of Hamlet by Shakespeare's fellow playwrights Marston, Chapman, and Jonson in the Blackfriars' play Eastward Ho! mocks the lady Gertrude's footman called Hamlet for his unheroic incompetence in love (‘he gives no … milke, as I have an other servant does’, III. ii. 44-5), as well as his incompetence in his other duties. The very fact that he is given the role of a servant emphasizes the playwrights' view that he is unsuitable to be a tragic hero.

This is, no doubt, slight evidence to go on, but it might give us an indication of why Q2 and F differ as they do. In Q2 the attempt to strike a balance involves the inclusion both of the lines in which Hamlet expresses his wish to blow his enemies to the moon and his determination to outplay Claudius in knavery, shortly followed by a long soliloquy accusing himself of unnecessary delay, of cowardice, and of ‘thinking too precisely on the event’ (IV. iv. 41). The two passages are not absolutely contradictory since the soliloquy ends with a resolution to affect bloody thoughts from henceforth, a sentiment which, it could be argued, inspires the earlier passage. On the other hand there is a considerable contradiction in the tone of self-confidence with which he punningly announces his plan of action and the despondency and self-recrimination of the soliloquy. This contradiction becomes more disruptive if (as I have argued) the plan that Hamlet is announcing in his pun on ‘crafts’ turns out to have been put into effect later. The objection, of course, is not that people may not realistically be self-contradictory in this way, but that the suggestion of inadequacy in the soliloquy and the retrospective futility it accords the earlier vaunting (which in the light of the soliloquy is made to look like braggadocio) undermine Hamlet's tragic status. By taking out both these passages in the Folio text Shakespeare (assuming the modification is Shakespeare's) avoids both the element of contradiction and making so large an issue of Hamlet's inadequacy, though of course the issue is raised elsewhere in the play. A further consequence is to make the plan to meet the pirates more obscure and indeed, as the history of Hamlet commentary suggests, invisible to most subsequent readers. The same process of wanting to make Hamlet's initiative less prominent may also account for the substitution in F of ‘deare plots’ for Q2's ‘deep plots’ (V. ii. 9), for while ‘deep’ might well hark back to the mining metaphor of III. iv. 196-8, its change to ‘deare’ seems to suggest the more general theme of the vanity of human wishes. Even the question mark in F in place of the full stop in Q2, after Hamlet's repetition of Claudius's order that he must embark for England: ‘For England?’ (IV. iii. 47), is a curious addition seeing that Hamlet has informed his mother earlier that the order has already been given (III. iv. 202). It would be wrong, however, to insist here on a more precise interpretation of punctuation than Elizabethan practice required.

The influence of the F reading seems to have prevailed in spite of its greater obscurity, but there may have been another influence at work in masking Shakespeare's intention here. There is some evidence that there has been a shift in stage presentation of Shakespeare over the years away from emphasis on speech performance and towards a greater emphasis on action and stage business. Bertram Joseph, in his excellent account of the importance of elocution in the Elizabethan educational system and its influence on Shakespeare's style, suggests a level of aural sophistication in Shakespeare's contemporary audiences that no modern audience could hope to match.26 The importance given to recitation not only accounts for the delight in the set speech in Elizabethan drama, but also for the propensity towards elaborate ‘undramatic’ narrative accounts of offstage events. There is some evidence too, I think, that Elizabethan stage presentation was considerably more static than our modern approach allows. We know, for instance, that it was the custom before Garrick for actors to stand around, inattentive to the speaker, until it was their turn to speak—which suggests that long speeches were treated more like operatic arias than as parts of realistic dialogue. Indeed we are informed by Francis Gentleman in his Dramatic Censor (1770) that it was common practice before Garrick to ‘sing’ Shakespeare's lines: ‘[Garrick] certainly, as a lover of nature, despised the titum-ti, monotonous sing-song then fashionable, and indeed equally admired, till within these last thirty years’.27 Some hint that these ‘operatic’ techniques applied in Shakespeare's day is provided by that same anonymous elegy to Burbage I have already quoted, for there we are told that the other actors on stage, like the audience, were ‘amazed’ by Burbage's lifelike performance, suggesting that they were less concerned with responding in character than as ordinary onlookers. The new Globe in London, with its obscuring onstage pillars, also suggests, I think, that Elizabethan audiences were willing to accept a more static presentation of the acting that perhaps allowed the speaker to come forward, as in the older style of opera production on the modern stage. The fact that now even modern opera production, with its highly artificial conventions, attempts—sometimes ludicrously—a degree of realistic movement, shows how absurdly far we have gone along the road of misunderstanding the conventional nature of all drama. However, this is not the place to discuss acting techniques, but merely to point out that such tendencies towards stage realism add to the obscurity of Shakespeare's intentions.

Hamlet's meeting with the pirates is presented entirely in narrative in the play; we see nothing of the action on stage, while the prominence of the meditative Hamlet on stage with his soul-searching soliloquies has become all the more highlighted by the contrast with the activity that surrounds him. This might be at least part of the explanation why Miles's plausible reading of the text of Hamlet has been either ignored or condemned out of hand. The same fate has attended the more recent attempt to revive the argument by Martin Stevens in the Shakespeare Quarterly. The difference in the two texts of the play may indicate that the process of undermining Hamlet's heroic status may have been begun by Shakespeare himself, or at least by the players' interpretation of the play during Shakespeare's lifetime. If this softening of the Prince occurred so early, it might also account for why, even in the early responses to the play, we find a discrepancy between those, like Burbage's elegist in 1618 and the caricature of Hamlet in Eastward Ho!


  1. As quoted in Variorum Hamlet, ed. H.H. Furness (London and Philadelphia, Pa., 1877), i. 354. Furness may be quoting from the version of Miles's commentary in the Southern Review (Apr./July 1870), which I have not seen. The version of this sentence in the Boston publication, G. Miles, A Review of Hamlet (Boston, Mass., 1870, reprinted 1907), from which I generally quote, is somewhat toned down.

  2. W.W. Lawrence, ‘Hamlet's Sea Voyage’, PMLA 59 (1944), 53 n. 23.

  3. M. Stevens, ‘Hamlet and the Pirates: A Critical Reconsideration’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 26 (1975), 276-84.

  4. R. Petsch, ‘Hamlet unter den Seeräuben’, Englische Studien, 36 (1905), 235.

  5. Hamlet, ed. G.R. Hibbard (Oxford and New York, 1994), appendix A, p. 361.

  6. Quotations are from the Arden Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, ed. H. Jenkins (London and New York, 1982), unless otherwise stated.

  7. Ibid., note to III. iv. 212.

  8. William Langland, Richard the Redeless, ed. W.W. Skeat (London, 1954), i. 628.

  9. References to Shakespeare's plays other than Hamlet are to The Complete Works, ed. S. Wells and G. Taylor (Oxford, 1988).

  10. Petsch, ‘Hamlet unter den Seeräuben’, 234: ‘hier wie sonst handelt es sich um einen heftigen appell an das gewissen des verbrechers’.

  11. I quote the text of the facsimile Hamlet (second quarto), 1605 (Menston, Ill., 1972), sig. I4v.

  12. Hamlet, ed. Hibbard, appendix A, x. 4.

  13. Robert Browning, Bishop Blougram's Apology, ll. 946-7.

  14. Miles, A Review of Hamlet (Boston, Mass., 1870, reprinted 1907), 162-4.

  15. Hamlet, ed. Jenkins, note to IV. vi. 19.

  16. Petsch, ‘Hamlet unter den Seeräuben’, 233: ‘aber, fragen wir, hat Hamlet solche geheimnistuerei gegenüber Horatio nötig, dem er doch grenzenloses vertrauen schenkt und den er als rechten confident in seine geheimsten pläne einweiht?’

  17. Miles, A Review of Hamlet, 179-80.

  18. Lawrence, ‘Hamlet's Sea Voyage’, 52.

  19. Quoted in Variorum Hamlet, ed. Furness, ii. 184.

  20. ‘Dass Hamlet sofort den kampf persönlich aufnimmt und als erster an das feindliche schiff springt, finden wir ja in seinem Naturell hoffentlich genügend begründet’: Petsch, ‘Hamlet unter den Seeräuben’, 236.

  21. Quoted in Variorum Hamlet, ed. Furness, ii. 184.

  22. Lawrence, ‘Hamlet's Sea Voyage’, 53 n. 23.

  23. Miles, A Review of Hamlet, 176, 178.

  24. There seems little doubt that this is what Shakespeare wrote even though ‘corrected’ versions of Q2 change the word to ‘fall’.

  25. Critical Responses to Hamlet, ed. D.L. Farley-Hills (New York, 1997), i. 8. This elegy might be by Middleton, I think; cf. Middleton's poem in praise of The Duchess of Malfi, ed. F.L. Lucas (London, 1966), ii. 34.

  26. B. Joseph, Acting Shakespeare (London, 1960).

  27. See Critical Responses to Hamlet, ed. Farley-Hills, i. 216.

R. Chris Hassel, Jr. (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5619

SOURCE: “Mouse and Mousetrap in Hamlet,” in Shakespeare Jahrbuch, Vol. 135, 1999, pp. 77-92.

[In the following essay, Hassel examines the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet.]

When Hamlet names “The Murder of Gonzago” for Claudius, he calls it “The Mousetrap”, adding, “Marry how? Tropically”.1 Since Hamlet has already told us that he hopes to use the play to “catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.591), we quickly hear several teasing puns and figures. Hamlet the mouser may be playfully connecting the “trap” of “trapically” with the “marry” of Claudius' marriage to “his mouse” Gertrude. He is also probably punning on “tropically” as “in the way of a trope; metaphorically, figuratively”, using the common Renaissance figure of the mousetrap as “A device for enticing a person to his destruction or defeat”.2 But though we quickly get Hamlet's “tropical” gist, his general meaning, we have not done so well with its ingenious particularity. John Doebler has made a good start by suggesting that the well-known Augustinian trope of the muscipula diaboli, the mousetrap of the devil, highlights and informs the mouse and mousetrap imagery in Hamlet. Doebler also shows that popular Renaissance beast-lore combines with this theological context to present in a mouse-like Claudius “all that was gluttonous, lascivious, corrupt, and defiling”:

“What better image for the corrupter of Denmark, the polluter of the royal wedding bed, the one who banqueted in a time proper to mourning? Claudius is consistently presented by Shakespeare as being both diabolic and erotic.”3

However, by focusing his interpretation almost exclusively on Claudius and by assuming a basically redemptive Hamlet, Doebler misses some of the most interesting possibilities of this material. What are we to make, for example, of Hamlet's perplexing portrayal as mouse and mouser, the tragic destroyer paired ambiguously with the heroic redeemer? How are we to understand Hamlet's problematic fury over what he considers Gertrude's excessive lasciviousness, and the resultant associations of his mother with the mouse and the mousetrap? Doebler has also left relatively unexplored the traditional associations of the mouse with secretive destructiveness and the play's persistent pairing of the destructive and the lascivious Claudius. Undetected mouse-predators, mouse-banes, and mouse-medicines are also lurking in the darker corners of Hamlet. Legendary mouse-quellers like St. Gertrude and Apollo may share some of these hiding places. Finally, theological and iconographic traditions may connect Hamlet with Joseph the archetypal maker of mousetraps in ways that Doebler has not suggested. Neither Shakespeare, his characters, nor his audience could be expected to have kept all of these associations suspended in one rich and contradictory mixture, but each would have known some of them. The quality of their theatrical experience, and ours, is enhanced by their recovery. Let us start our own unique and imperfect concoction with Gertrude.


Hamlet embarrasses Ophelia with his quips about “country matters”, lying in “laps” and “between maids' legs” just before the “mousetrap” play begins, and he jokes easily with his schoolmates about Fortune's “secret parts” (3.2.109, 113; 2.2.232). However, from the start of the play he is also obsessed by what he perceives as his mother's lasciviousness. He calls her sexual “frailty” worse than “a beast”, who would with “wicked speed” “post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (1.2.146, 150-51, 156-57). He insults her more publicly with the Player-Queen's outrageous promise of a fidelity that will survive her first husband's death: “Such love must needs be treason in my breast”, she says, and “A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed” (3.2.170, 176-77). In her closet after the play, Hamlet is even more voluble on the subject of what he considers Gertrude's inappropriate lust. It is at the end of this scene that Hamlet spits out Claudius's sobriquet “mouse”, the name he imagines his stepfather using when he is about to make love to Gertrude (3.4.184). “What have I done”, she asks him, “Ay me, what act”? (3.4.40, 52). His answer roars and thunders her salaciousness at her:

[It] blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows
As false as dicers' oaths.


“[S]uch a deed / […] from the body of contraction plucks / The very soul, and sweet religion makes / A rhapsody of words!” Her lust and the resultant times are to Hamlet “ulcerous”, “corrupt”, “infecting unseen”, “pursy” or corpulent, like a “compulsive ardor” to “charge” in battle. She has let reason pander to will, virtue's wax melt in the flaming fires of youth. She lies in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.”4 At Hamlet's urging Gertrude finally sees in her own soul “such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (3.4.46-49, 148-50, 154, 83-89, 91-95). Of course, this general remorse does not concede all of Hamlet's outrageous charges against her. Gertrude certainly comes off better than her son in this scene, who seems if not mad drunk with a moral outrage and an accompanying misogyny that would seem to indict his own imbalance as much as his mother's lust.5

This “mouse” Hamlet refers to could of course be merely a term of endearment in Shakespeare and the proverbs and poems of his near-contemporaries. In Love's Labour's Lost (5.2.19), for example, Rosaline calls Katherine “mouse” innocently enough. We see the potential misogyny more clearly in Romeo and Juliet. When Lady Capulet wants to call her husband “a nocturnal prowler after women” (Pelican gloss), she says “You have been a mouse-hunt in your time” (4.4.11). The joke or the insult can be gender-neutral, as in the poem “Our Sir John” a century or so before Shakespeare, where neither the woman nor the friar can resist their lust:

Ser Iohn ys taken in my mouse-trappe:
ffayne wold I haue hym bothe nyght and day.
he gropith so nyselye a-bought my lape,
I haue no pore to sa[y hym nay.](6)

But while Andreas Alciatus and Edward Topsell concede that “white mouse” or “bad mouse” can be applied as Doebler does “to a man who is lascivious or of immoderate lust”, this pejorative is more commonly applied to a woman. Topsell reflects the misogynistic early modern commonplace that among mice (and men of course) “the female is much more venerious than the male”, and Meyer Schapiro mentions from popular tradition that the mouse is often “the womb, the unchaste female, the prostitute”. Topsell illustrates this same prejudice when he credits Alciatus with the saying, “she was a mouse's hole, signifying that her virginity was lost, and that she suffered any lovers as a mouse-hole doth any mouse”. This tradition of the salacious female mouse is so strong that the story reappears in many sources of a dead pregnant female mouse cut open to reveal “all the young females within her belly […] also found pregnant”.7 English proverbs are also fond of connecting the devil's entrapment of human lust with the mousetrap. One of Whiting's proverbs reads “Women are the devil's mousetraps”, and a similar one in the Oxford Proverbs “Women are the devil's nets”.8 The mouse is also in the popular tradition an animal in which witches and the devil sometimes manifest themselves, and a form taken by the graven images of vicious, malignant, and evil gods. As Schapiro says, “the mousetrap is, at the same time, a rich condensation of symbols of the diabolical and the erotic and their repression; the trap is both a female object and the means of destroying sexual temptation”.9

Though it wears a fur coat, the misogyny woven into the lining of this tradition is as clear as the female lasciviousness it purports to describe. However unfair it is to Gertrude, she is to her son this “unchaste female”, virtually Alciatus's emblem of female lasciviousness. As Hamlet urges his mother Gertrude to amend what he considers her lack of chastity and sanctity, “Repent what's past, avoid what is to come,” (3.4.151), he often uses terms that suggest the diabolic as well as the erotic associations of the mouse. Her lust is like “Rebellious hell”, mutinying “in a matron's bones”. This “Devil” “of habits” is lust as well as custom, and Claudius seems to be, and to bear, the “devil” lust that “cozened” Gertrude “at hoodman-blind”. If she can just “[r]efrain to-night”, Hamlet says, “that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence; the next more easy”. Not to repress her sexuality, yielding to Claudius's “damned fingers”, is yielding to the devil himself. With practice she will be able to “either … the devil, or throw him out / With wondrous potency” (3.4.77-84, 162-171). I would conjecture “trip” or “trap” against the more traditional “curb” or “quell” for the missing verb here, especially since Hamlet names her “mouse” and asks her to help him trap Claudius at the end of this conversation: “Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, / Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse” (3.4.183-84). But Hamlet's fear that she will not be able to abstain from Claudius' bed even after all of his chastising words also confirms the lyric's picture of a woman with “no power to say him nay”.

The tension between Hamlet's perception and his mother's reality is emphasized by one of the most curious pieces of mouse-lore in Hamlet. St. Gertrude of Nivelle, a woman of great sanctity and absolute chastity, was well-known in England and throughout northern Europe because she stopped a plague of mice. She was for this reason invoked as often as the more material vermifuge wormwood against rats and mice, and is pictured iconographically with mice running around her or on her crozier. One wonders if Shakespeare changed her name from Geruthe in Belleforest to emphasize Hamlet's confusion?10 Hamlet's “That's Wormwood” just as the Player-Queen is about to “protest too much” her eternal fidelity to her first husband could inject more mouse-lore into his relationship with Gertrude (3.2.173; 221-22). Wormwood is of course both rotten timber and the bitter Biblical taste of contrition or mortification. It is also according to Topsell a common herbal remedy against mice: “Wormwood laid among clothes, and skins, defend them from mice; and also the water of wormwood sod, sprinkled upon clothes, hath the same operation” (p. 512). Hamlet seems to hope that once the “mouse” of Gertrude's lasciviousness is out, once his own “wormwood” has begun to have its shriving way with his mother, he will be able to persuade her to be wormwood as well as taste and use it, to repel the mouse of her own lust and Claudius in whom it resides.11

Oedipal impulses compete with self-righteous ones as Hamlet perceives his mother as the paradoxical combination of subject and object of temptation, attraction and repulsion of lust. He seems to see her at once as the snare that catches the devil Claudius (and the son Hamlet?) in lust, and snared herself in the same devil's mousetrap. She is a potentially repellent wormwood who tastes in her own mouth its corrective gall even while inspiring Hamlet's galling words. In most productions, Hamlet's repulsion and attraction are blazoned across the stage or screen in the looming bed on which they often perform some enigmatic rite. Only in some productions, most notably the Olivier Hamlet, does Gertrude cool towards Claudius after the bedroom scene, apparently as a direct result of Hamlet's shriving. The 1982 Time-Life BBC videotape is I think more characteristic, where Gertrude remains Patrick Stewart's mouse. In almost every case Hamlet's perception of his mother's demonic sexuality competes interestingly with her more modest representation on the stage. Commonly her own allegiance remains as painfully divided as Hamlet's relationship to her.


In Shakespeare's Henry V the destructiveness of the mouse is thought of as underhanded, secretive work, sometimes connected to human thievery; the “weasel Scot” “[c]omes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs, / Playing the mouse in absence of the cat” (1.2.170-72). “Mouse” can also be a verb meaning “to ransack, rummage, pillage”: “They have rifled and mowsed the cofer by a false key thei made” (1589) (OED 2 Mouse 4). Whiting cites an English proverb about destructiveness from 1546, “A mouse in time may bite a cable in two” (M738). In Troilus and Cressida Nestor is similarly called “that stale old mouse-eaten dry cheese” (5.4.9-10). Sometimes the mouse's destructiveness takes on especially sacrilegious, even diabolical overtones. Noah, according to Riegler, had to throw his glove at a mouse that was gnawing away at the hull of the Ark, and Rowland illustrates it “nibbling the sacred host”, the communion wafer.12

In describing Claudius, Hamlet characteristically connects the lascivious and the destructive, the main characteristics that Alciatus, Shakespeare and the English proverbs all associate with the mouse. In fact, their pairing becomes something of a formula for understanding his mouse-uncle. Just before Hamlet decides to use the play as “the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king”, he calls Claudius a “Bloody, bawdy villain”, and then a “treacherous, lecherous” one for killing his father and marrying his mother. His act is both “remorseless” in its destructiveness and “kindless”, unnatural, in its heedless, incestuous lechery. We hear another reference to this pair of sins in the line “Upon whose property and most dear life / A damned defeat was made” (2.2.590-91, 565-66, 555-56). In Hamlet's eyes Gertrude as well as the kingdom is the erotic property, his father's the diabolically destroyed life. Finally, in Act 5, Claudius is called “incestuous, murd'rous damned Dane” by Hamlet and “carnal, bloody, and unnatural” (5.2.314, 370) by Horatio. Earlier in the same scene Hamlet describes Claudius as “He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother” (5.2.64). Claudius is “Bloody, bawdy villain”, and “treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain”; he has “killed” and “whored”; he is “incestuous, murderous”, “carnal, bloody”. Such concise and formulaic statements of the destructive and lascivious impulses in this Claudius reinforce Hamlet's obsession with his uncle as the perfect quarry for a mousetrap.

The ghost of Hamlet's father is similarly fixated on Claudius's combination of lechery and treachery. He calls him “that incestuous, that adulterate beast”, who “won to his shameful lust / The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen”. Claudius is “lewdness”, “lust”, “garbage” in the same sequence. Denmark's bed is called “A couch for luxury and damned incest” (1.5.42, 45-46, 54-57, 83). At the same time that Hamlet is hearing what his father's ghost describes as Gertrude's “lust” and “luxury” with Claudius, he learns of his destruction of his father's body and the imperilment of his soul. “The leperous distilment […] / […] a most instant tetter barked about / Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust / All my smooth body”, and left me “Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled, / No reck'ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head” (1.5.64, 71-73, 77-79). Hamlet hears of this lechery and destructiveness, and he believes. As late as 4.4.56-57 the formula still holds: “How stand I then, / That have a father killed, a mother stained?” Treacherous, lecherous Claudius is a memory that never leaves “the book and volume of [Hamlet's] brain” or his father's (1.5.103).

Claudius shares this dual perception. To Polonius's “’Tis too much proved, that with devotion's visage / And pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself” (3.1.47-49), Claudius replies:

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.


In this self-indictment Claudius admits killing his own brother and covering it up, sugaring it o'er, with the “plast'ring art” of the harlot. But though experiencing “The Mousetrap” may remind Claudius of his sexual as well as his political guilt, the king is more concerned about his treachery than his lechery as a result of seeing the play. He mentions the queen as one of the “effects for which I did the murder”, but the “rank” offense, the crime that “smells to heaven”, the “primal eldest curse” is Cain's sin, “A brother's murder” (3.3.54, 36-38). Catching Claudius's conscience in that treachery is also the primary purpose of Hamlet's strategy. It is “murder, though it have no tongue, [which] will speak”, and “the murder of my father” (2.2.579, 581) that he will play before his uncle. Claudius feels deep remorse after “The Mousetrap”, but “Though inclination be as sharp as will” he says that he cannot give up “th'effects” of his sin, the sexual and political property he has gained by killing his brother. Thus in the midst of his apparent moment of honest contrition, honest self-appraisal, a moment of “purging” close to “heaven” in Hamlet's mistaking eyes, Claudius is still ironically self-deceived. By confusing “can” and “will” he implies that he is unable to repent, rather than unwilling. But he will not repent. Therefore his prayer, beyond Hamlet's wildest hopes, “Has no relish of salvation in't”. Though Claudius's “heels may kick at heaven”, “his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.39, 54, 85, 74, 65-66, 92-95). Even without Hamlet's help, Claudius is hell-bound.

Of the dumb-show to “The Mousetrap”, Hamlet tells Ophelia “This is miching mallecho; it means mischief” (3.2.131-32). Is Hamlet referring here not only to his own mischief but also to the mouse-thief of his father's life, crown and wife, and of his own hopes? Hanmer thought it meant “secret, covered, hidden iniquity”, from the Spanish malhecho. So did Malone (misdeed). Warburton preferred lying in wait for the poisoner, from the eponym Malhechor (who is probably a criminal rather than a poisoner). Capell suggests an ill-looking, munching animal, compared to the mean figure of the poisoner in the dumb-show, and paralleling the Iniquity figure from the moralities.13 In Henry IV, Part 1 a similar micher munches blackberries (2.4.389-390). Combining these readings could yield “munching mischief”, with Claudius as the muncher. Interestingly, Robert Herrick once called such a stealing, sneaking creature a “miching mouse”, a phrase reminiscent of Hamlet's description of the “miching mallecho” of the murderer in the dumb-show. Whatever “mallecho” refers to, nonsense, mischief, poisoning, or something yet undiscovered, “miching” can definitely refer to the secretive destroying or theft of a mouse. But Hamlet could also be referring to himself and the play as the truant means to reverse the wrongs of the sneaking pilferer Claudius. This would support the image pattern of undermining the underminer, hoisting the engineer with his own petar (3.4.207-8), a secretive destruction that may be the mole's work as well as the mouse's. The “vicious mole of nature” (1.4.24) may then be the imperfection all must carry, even Hamlet, imaged as the underground destructiveness of these rodents that were associated with mice in the symbolic contours of the Renaissance mind.14 Once again, Hamlet seems both mouse and mouser in this ingenious imagery.


One of Hamlet's first insults of Claudius is the cryptic “I am too much in the sun” (1.2.67). We usually assume he means that he is closer than he wants to be, in kin if not in kind, to this new father-king, the sun of Denmark, and this is surely one of Hamlet's meanings. But in the same scene Hamlet also calls his father “Hyperion” to Claudius's “satyr” (1.2.140). Hyperion is the father of Helios, the sun-god who is identified with Apollo by the fifth century B.C. Is Hamlet playing Apollo to his father's Hyperion? One of the names by which Apollo (Iliad 1.39) is known, “Sminthius”, means “mouse-killer”. Like the St. Gertrude we mentioned earlier, Apollo eliminated a plague of mice to earn this epithet. Hamlet shares Apollo's idealized nature, his love of philosophy, his inculcation of virtue.15 Does he also share with him this role of exterminator? He certainly hopes to rid Denmark of its rodent-king. The connections are as provocative as they are unexpected.

There are grounds more relative than this. Predators of mice like the cat and the hawk and the owl occur in Hamlet in obscure but potentially threatening places. Hamlet's “The cat will mew” (5.1.279) during Ophelia's funeral promises the reassertion of the proper order of things, good triumphing over evil, morality and hierarchy restored. In Henry V the absent cat is understood as this sort of mice-warden (1.2.170-72). But pictures of gleeful mice (or rats) dancing around caged cats embody the same reversal of natural order that now seems to reign in Denmark. In the epigram in Geffrey Whitney's emblem book, for example, these mice are called “the wicked sort”, the trapped cats “worthy men”. Even Dürer's little mouse in “The Fall of Man” is still held by the tail under Adam's foot, though he looks ready to spring loose as soon as Eve takes the serpent's proffered apple. The cat there looks languid; perhaps before the fall he knew nothing of mice, or of the need to catch them.16 Hamlet's “I know a hawk from a handsaw” is similarly elusive and threatening, possibly connecting competent predation and pruning with a carpenter's competence to tear down and rebuild. Hamlet's manipulative playfulness with Polonius about the weasel-shaped cloud (2.2.370; 3.2.364) adds another mouse-predator to the cat and the hawk. Topsell tells us that the weasel was the mouse's worst enemy, “not only more inclined to hunt after them, than the cat, but […] more terrible also unto them” (p. 508).

The cat-like, teasing method in Hamlet's madness is nowhere more clearly revealed than when he also refers to a mouse-bane just before “The Mousetrap”. begins. The king asks “How fares our cousin Hamlet?” Hamlet replies, “Excellent, i'faith, of the chameleon's dish” (3.2.89-90). Now the chameleon was thought, as Maplet and Topsell both reveal, to eat air,17 and so Hamlet is certainly referring to all of the false promises in the air of Denmark as well as Claudius's deceptive coloration. But Topsell tells us that chameleon (OED Chameleon 3) is also a potent mouse-poison: “The juice of the root of the herb Camelion, mixed with water and oil, draweth mice unto it, and killeth them by tasting thereof, if they drink not presently” (p. 512). Hamlet would indeed “fare” well if this mouse who is soon to be caught in “The Mousetrap” were drawn to eat of the chameleon's dish; unfortunately, their eating of death is almost simultaneous.

Oddly, mouse could also have had medicinal uses for Hamlet and his father. Topsell tells us, for example, that “the flesh of a mouse is hot and soft, […] and doth expel black and melancholy choler”. As Hamlet says of “my melancholy”, the devil “is very potent with such spirits” (2.2.588). But if young Hamlet could use some of this medicine, Topsell gives us three good reasons why Old Hamlet could also. First, “Mice being cut and placed into wounds which have been bitten by Serpents, […] do […] cure and perfectly heal them”. Old Hamlet calls his poisoner “The serpent that did sting thy father's life”. Second, as a result of Old Hamlet's poisoning, “a most instant tetter barked about / Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust / All my smooth body”. According to Topsell, “The dust of a mouse pounded and beaten to powder, and mixed with a certain oil, is very good and wholesome, for those which are grieved with a tettor or scab which may overrun their whole body”. Finally, mouse is also considered good for “pain in his ears” (pp. 514-16). Claudius, of course, “did pour / The lep'rous distilment” “into the porches” of Old Hamlet's ears (1.5.38, 71-73, 63-64).

Art historian James Snyder connects Joseph's mousetraps in the Merode Altarpiece to Joseph's apparent unimportance to Satan: “The marriage of Mary and Joseph was staged to make the miraculous birth of Christ less conspicuous to Satan by hiding the fact of his divine parentage. According to Saint Augustine, the marriage took place to fool the devil just as mice are fooled by the bait of the trap.18 Hamlet, playing the fool or madman with Polonius, Claudius, Ophelia and Gertrude just before the performance of his own ”Mousetrap”, hopes similarly to disarm his adversaries by exaggerating his own weakness and asserting therefore his implausibility as an avenger. The second of Hamlet's two carpenter images, “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough—hew them how we will—”, also connects Hamlet with Joseph as two carpenters humbly acquiescing in the superior craftsmanship of providence.19 Hamlet's “I must be idle” underlines this strategy of disarming humbleness. But the many negatives of Claudius's “Nor what he spake […] / Was not like madness.” suggest that he is alerted, not disarmed, by the feigning conversation with Ophelia: “I do doubt the hatch and the disclose / Will be some danger;” (5.2.10-11; 3.2.87; 3.1.163-64, 66-67). He will not be an easy prey for Hamlet's mousetrap.

Punctuated as it is with the poisoned rapier and the poisoned cup, the final scene illustrates one last time how often the play's imagery of ironic reversal is associated with iconography of mouse and mousetrap. The rapier, which can symbolize honor but also sexuality and murder, is here the rodent king's means to pervert honor in a last underhanded plot of destructive treachery. The cup, emblem of fellowship and forgiveness but also of gluttony, serves Claudius's mouse-like drunkenness until the end, and then joins the rapier in more secretive and destructive mischief.20 Even Claudius's mouse Gertrude dies by coming between the incensed points of these fearful adversaries. “Not a mouse stirring” is the tenth line of the play. In Hamlet the trap eventually silences all of them. Doebler finds clarity and closure as he finishes his exploration of the imagery of mouse and mousetrap in Hamlet. Hamlet is the redeemer; Claudius is the villain; Gertrude is discreetly omitted from the picture. But to me the transparent paradox that the trapper must himself die to purify a diseased kingdom, “set it right”, (1.5.189) is not the play's last word.

The mousetrap trope becomes instead part of a pattern of images in Hamlet that poises the clarity of poetic justice against a universe of dark unknowing. On the one hand Laertes proclaims himself caught “as a woodcock to mine own springe”, “justly killed with mine own treachery.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who would “sweep [Hamlet's] way / And marshall [him] to knavery.”, will instead serve as “sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar”. Hamlet “will delve one yard below their mines / And blow them at the moon.” Polonius “find'st to be too busy is some danger.” Finally, Claudius is “hurt” with his own “envenomed” point. But as Horatio summarizes the play we are challenged to question Laertes' naive and dying notion that Claudius is “justly served”, even if “It is a poison tempered by himself” that kills him, and forced to look again at Hamlet's reassuring if momentary sense of “a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough—hew them how we will—”. To Horatio the “judgments” seem “accidental” and the “slaughters” “casual”. What “purposes” there are, in the human universe, at least, are “mistook”. Horatio may hope of Hamlet that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”; but neither angels nor providence are asserted to govern similarly these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” on earth. Hamlet is part of Horatio's bloody summary. Mouse and mouser are all carried off in the end by “this fell sergeant, Death,” Augustine's “Bailiff”,21 and we are left deeply moved but also darkling.

One last proverbial tradition concerning the mouse would seem apposite to this troublesome denouement. In 1629 T. Adams says in a sermon: “The empiric to cure the fever, destroys the patient; so the wise man, to burn the mice, set on fire his barn.” In 1816 Wolcot (P. Pindar) echoes this commonplace in his 2nd Epistle to Mrs. Clarke (WKS. 4:446), when he says, “Who, but a Bedlamite, would fire his house / To wreak his vengeance on a pilfering mouse”.22 One answer, apparently, is Hamlet. His reluctant doctoring loses a lot of patients, breaks a lot of bones, to reset time's dislocated joint. Is he then a Bedlamite? Hamlet the obsessed son and spiritual physician may think that only contribution, the wormwood of mortification, can cool those “fires that mutine in a matron's bones”. Hamlet the moral and political exterminator may hope that his complex arsenal might at once expel the mouse-like lust in his too-lascivious mother and deter the object of her lust, the devilish, mouse-king Claudius, thus killing two mice with one application. Hamlet says he “must be cruel only to be kind.” and he and Laertes also apparently “exchange forgiveness” (3.4.179; 5.2.318, 321), but neither the prince nor his audience can know how his wholesale destructiveness will weigh against the cure in the balance. The inner mystery in this play is almost as dark as the outer. On earth at least, here if not hereafter, Hamlet is punished along with his victims in his double role. And though he promises his mother earlier to “answer well / The death I gave” (3.4.177-78), such answers are not much in evidence in Denmark's dark world of mice and mousers.

Far from “plucking out the heart of his mystery”, this learning impresses us with the unfathomable complexity of Hamlet's mind and his heart, as he plays, and is, Gertrude's loving but imperfect son and Denmark's scourge and minister. His lowest note would be the mischievous schoolboy, the sadistic spoilsport, the frustrated prince and the obsessive reformer, revelling in the public and private embarrassment and bitterness he is causing the mice Gertrude and Claudius to suffer. The “top of [his] compass” would be Hamlet's enactment of the deepest caring and the profoundest ministry to the “black and grained spots” of his mother's immortal soul. But even in that ministry there is something rank, choleric and diseased. We may play upon Hamlet even as we tease so “much music”, such “excellent voice” (3.2.353-54) out of Shakespeare's uses of mouse and mousetrap lore. We cannot thereby know Hamlet, any more than Hamlet can know himself. In Denmark's unweeded garden it is as hard to distinguish mouse from mouser as it is to know which plants are poisonous, and which medicinal.


  1. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, (ed. by) Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1984), 3.2.229; subsequently cited in text.

  2. Mousetrap 1b and Tropically 1 in J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, The Oxford English Dictionary, (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989); subsequently cited as OED. On the “trap” “trope” pun, see A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, Hamlet, (ed. by) H.H. Furness (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott, 1905), 1: 255.

  3. John Doebler, “The Play Within the Play: the Muscipula Diaboli in Hamlet”, SQ 23 (1972), 162-69; see also Meyer Schapiro's classic, “‘Muscipula Diaboli’, The Symbolism of the Merode Altarpiece”, Art Bulletin 27 (1945), 182-83, 186.

  4. “Swine” is also one of Luther's favorite metaphors for our uncontrolled desires; see Index, (ed. by) Joel W. Lunder in Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), for over thirty references. See “Hamlet's ‘Too, Too Solid Flesh’” in The Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1994), 609-22, for my argument that Luther's idea of the prudence or wisdom of the flesh might gloss Hamlet's problems with doing and knowing perfectly in a fallen world.

  5. As Cherrell Guilfoyle says, Shakespeare's Play Within Play (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Pubs., 1990), p. 9, Hamlet often suffers from the “delusion of female wantonness”. John King, Tudor Royal Iconography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 183, and Arthur McGee, The Elizabethan Hamlet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 152-53, remind us of its biblical heritage.

  6. Secular Lyrics of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, (ed. by) Russell Hope Robbins (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955), p. 20.

  7. Andreas Alciatus, Emblemata cum commentariis (Padua, 1621; first published 1531) (New York: Garland, 1976), pp. 348-49; and Edward Topsell, The History of Four-Footed Beasts (London: William Jaggard, 1607), pp. 505-6. See also Pliny, Natural History, trans. Philemon Holland (London: A. Aslip, 1601), pp. 304-5.

  8. Bartlett Jere Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Sayings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968), W530; The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (3rd. rev. ed.) F.P. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), p. 910.

  9. R. Riegler, “Maus”, in Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, (ed. by) Bächtold-Stäubli (Berlin & Leipzig: W. de Gruyter, 1934-35) 6: 31-59; Schapiro, p. 186.

  10. Riegler, 6: 39; S. Baring-Gould The Lives of the Saints, (rev. ed.) (Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914), 1:viii, says, “People forget the age and parentage of St. Gertrude, but they remember the mice running up her staff.” For another illustration see Baring-Gould 3: 306.

  11. See my article “‘Wormwood, Wormwood’,” ShJb (1993), 150-62.

  12. Riegler 6: 50; Beryl Rowland, Animals With Human Faces (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press), 1973, p. 129.

  13. See Hamlet Variorum, 1: 243-4, and OED 1 Mitching.

  14. Topsell affirms this belief by disagreement (p. 498).

  15. See Oxford Classical Dictionary, (ed. by) M. Cary and others (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), pp. 68, 375, 445.

  16. Geffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblems (Leyden: Christopher Plantyn, 1586), p. 222; Emblemata: Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts, (ed. by) Arthur Henkel und Albrecht Schöne (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1967), pp. 590-99. Erwin Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), 2: fig. 117.

  17. See Pelican gloss; see also John Maplet, A Green Forest, or a Natural History (London: Henry Denham, 1567), p. 76, and Topsell, p. 114; Topsell is, however, skeptical.

  18. James Snyder, Northern Renaissance Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), p. 121. On this metaphor in Augustine's writing and its history see J. Rivière, Le dogme de la rédemption chez saint Augustin (Paris, 1933), pp. 117 ff., 320-38, cited in Schapiro, “A Note on the Merode Altarpiece”, Art Bulletin 41 (1959), 327-28.

  19. On Joseph's humble acquiescence to God's will, see Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John (1957), 22: 76. On the association of carpentry tools with humility, see Luther, Selected Psalms II (1956), 13: 378; and Lectures on Genesis (1970), 6: 133, 157 (all ed. by) Jaroslav Pelikan, in Works (St. Louis: Concordia).

  20. “Drunk as a mouse” is a common simile from the 14th to the 16th century. Whiting gives examples from Chaucer, Lydgate, Greene, Skelton, and three others.

  21. 5.2.295-96; 3.4.205-10, 34; 5.2.310-17, 10-11, 369-74, 349, 325. So Schapiro, “Muscipula”, p. 182, translates Augustine's “quasi praepositus mortis”, when, speaking of the devil's mousetrap, he says “He has rejoiced in Christ's death, like a bailiff of death.”

  22. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, (ed. by) William George Smith, rev. Sir Paul Harvey (Oxford: Clarendon, 1948), p. 69.

Criticism: Sources

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SOURCE: “‘Ower Swete Sokor’: The Role of Ophelia in Hamlet,” in Shakespeare's Play within Play: Medieval Imagery and Scenic Form in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1990, pp. 7-19.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Guilfoyle traces Ophelia's character to the legend of Mary Magdalen as developed in medieval drama.]

The virtuous disguise of evil in woman is described most bitterly by Shakespeare in King Lear ( “Behold yond simpering dame / Whose face between her forks presages snow … / But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends'.” If she can be separated from sexual considerations, for example in royalty or in comedy, woman can appear on a level with, if not equal to, man; but where his feelings are most deeply aroused, in love and veneration, or in lust and frustration, the writer finds her angel or devil, separately or interchangeably. In the opening cantos of The Faerie Queene,1 Spenser presents the two pictures of woman which combine in a potent myth in the literature of all ages: the pure, young, innocent Una, characterized by her name, and her exact physical duplicate, who is, behind the façade, a filthy fiend. This sinister figure is later presented as Fidessa/Duessa, but in her first appearance she usurps the fair form of Una, the one truth. In one of the fragments of Euripidean tragedy, there is the saying “Woman brings to man the greatest possible succour, and the greatest possible harm.”2 The words for “greatest possible succour” are ophelian … megistan.

Ophelia's name links her to the idea of succor; “ower swete sokor” was a phrase used of Mary Magdalen in the Digby Magdalen play. In different ways, Ophelia and Magdalen embody the “angel/devil” dichotomy of woman, and the figure of Magdalen appears in the imagery of Ophelia's scenes throughout Hamlet. Conventions in Shakespeare are often hidden, because in his hands they do not appear conventional, but if the strands of the Magdalen legends are examined, it can be seen that many of them are woven into Ophelia's words and actions. These images reflect Shakespeare's preoccupation, not with the horrific figure described by Lear, but with innocence or good faith mistaken—for example, Desdemona mistaken by Othello, Hermione by Leontes, Imogen by Posthumus, Cordelia by Lear—and Ophelia by Hamlet. The young woman in the Saxo and Belleforest versions of the Hamlet story was not virtuous (and not, of course, called Ophelia); Shakespeare changes this into the figure which seems to have haunted him. The tragic mistake is explicit in The Tragedy of Hoffman, a crude revenge play which borrows much from Hamlet and may have been commissioned on the heels of Hamlet's success. Mathias describes the innocent Lucibella thus: “Shee is as harlots, faire, like guilded tombs / Goodly without; within all rottenness … Angel in show, / Divell in heart.”3

In The Faerie Queene, angel and devil are presented in simple allegorical form, as two different figures that look the same. The Red Cross Knight abandons Una, because he assumes that the girl he finds in flagrante dilectu is his virgin fallen. In Hamlet, the duality is used differently, but basically the same thing happens. Hamlet abandons Ophelia, maligning her in the most brutal terms, because he assumes her to be corrupt or, at the least, on the first step downwards. Archimago creates the false Una; Hamlet, on this occasion as on others, combines the roles of hero and villain in creating for himself his false Ophelia. He, like the Red Cross Knight, is mistaken; but his mistake is not retrieved.

The presentation of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia at first seems contradictory. In Act I.iii Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia that Hamlet's wooing may not be honorable, and she is instructed to avoid his importunities. It should be noted that his wooing is of recent date: “He hath my Lord of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me.” But in Act III.i, she appears as the neglected mistress and reproaches Hamlet for his coldness. This may be an inconsistency, but it may alternatively reflect a major change in Hamlet. Between the picture of the ardent young lover given by Ophelia to her father, and Hamlet's bitter comments to her father (II.ii.181ff) and to herself (III.i.103ff), there is the key encounter of Hamlet and Ophelia in her closet.

Images from the various Magdalen stories appear in all Ophelia's scenes except the “fatal mistake” scene in the closet, recounted in Act II.i. It is therefore entirely appropriate that this scene should be offstage, as an unseen key to the tragic role of Ophelia. For she is not the prostitute, the early Magdalen taunted by Hamlet in the nunnery scene; she is pure, as her name suggests and as her brother repeatedly describes her, “Whose worth … / Stood challenger on mount of all the age / For her perfections.” She is the figure not of the repentant sinner, but of the purity which can atone for the sins of others. She is to intercede, in her “orisons,” in the nunnery, as a ministering angel. Her prayers are all for others—“O help him, you sweet heavens!” “O heavenly powers, restore him!” “God dild you!” “God be at your table!” “God ha' mercy on his soul! And of all Christian souls I pray God,” “God bye you.” Her final utterance (reported) is “snatches of old lauds.”4 She opposes truth to Hamlet's feigning and feinting; he pretends to be mad, she is really mad; he meditates on death, she dies. Critics have noted that Ophelia never mentions her love for Hamlet. Her function goes far beyond that of a girl caught up in an unhappy love affair.

The Magdalen imagery serves to illumine on the one hand the succor which the pure Ophelia can offer through atonement; and on the other, the delusion of female wantonness from which Hamlet suffers and which is part of his tragedy.

“O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!” introduces the description of Hamlet face to face with female depravity—depravity that exists only in his imagination, as the scene itself exists only in the imagination of the audience. Hamlet has seen something of the rottenness within in his mother's summary grief and incestuous marriage; he subsequently hears from the ghost the story of the murder, the stain of which, together with the stain of adultery, is added to the defaced image of his mother. Distracted, he runs to Ophelia, to gaze on the pure young face which between her forks presages snow. What he sees is presumably what Fradubio saw when he came upon Duessa bathing herself in origen and thyme, and saw her “in her proper hew.” Hamlet leaves Ophelia with his head over his shoulder in the gesture of the damned, that of the runner in Dante's seventh Circle of Hell, and of Trevisan fleeing Despair.5

Hamlet makes no reference to Ophelia in the play until after this encounter. We hear of Hamlet as an ardent young lover and as the author of the exaggerated and very youthful jingle beginning “Doubt thou the stars are fire.” But once he has rejected womankind, including Ophelia, he never (until the funeral scene) speaks or refers to her except with the imagery of sexual corruption. He calls Polonius a fishmonger (or brothel keeper) and after what seems to be a passing reference to the sun breeding maggots in a dead dog, he says of the “fishmonger's” daughter: “Let her not walk i' the sun; conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive—friend look to't.” Traditionally, the serpent's egg was hatched by the sun; Brutus, resolving on the death of Caesar, decides to “think him as a serpent's egg / Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous” (Julius Caesar II.i.32-33). Ophelia's “kind” is now, in Hamlet's thoughts, the progeny of the serpent; and possibly, if we go back to the maggots, the swarming brood of Error, “soon conceiv'd,” which will devour its mother.6 With Ophelia in the nunnery scene, Hamlet is still haunted by this image: “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”

From the time of his fatal mistake, Hamlet is without the support, the ophelia, that he needs. His mother is sunk in adultery, incest, and complicity in murder;7 he is forced to reject her, and with her he rejects all women, and Ophelia suffers the same fate as Una.

By Act IV, Ophelia's rejection is total, her brother gone, her father dead, her lover brutally estranged from her having killed her father and treated her as a prostitute. In her rejected state, she rejects reason. In this she is like Lear, and like Lear, she will die, the will to live being annihilated. In her mad scene she can only “play” the tragedy in which she is caught up, like Cassandra helplessly enacting what she can truly see but cannot intervene to prevent.

The mad scene is, at first glance, a jumble of songs, dialogue, and lament. However, characters who go mad in renaissance drama frequently speak more truth, and deeper truth than when sane, and this can be said of Ophelia (who is sadly confused when her wits are about her) as of Lear. It is the order of what she says that is disturbed. “Oh when degree is shak'd … the enterprise is sick”;8 conversely, in the Elizabethan world picture, when the mind is sick, the divine order by which man can live in harmony is shaken and in chaos. What happens to Ophelia is what she has described as having happened to Hamlet—the sweet bells are jangled, out of tune and harsh, as bells will be if rung out of order. The images of her mad scene show derangement in its literal sense, but they are nonetheless images of the truth—the truth in chaos because of the havoc in her mind. Laertes, who provides a commentary on her madness, sums this up when he says, “This nothing's more than matter.” It is “nothing” because evil derangement has taken over the order of a rational mind; but the disordered fragments are of something good and precious, which has been under attack ever since Hamlet's irruption “as if he had been loosed out of hell.”

The Magdalen legends bear strongly on the detail of Ophelia's mad scene, and it is therefore appropriate now to consider the outline of the legends. In these, the images of virtue and depravity in woman, as symbolic of the problem of good and evil, provide the emotive power. Little of this power can be gleaned from the New Testament. The legends grew firstly by the identification of various women mentioned in the Gospels as the one Magdalen—including the woman taken in adultery, the “Mary” who was the sister of Lazarus, and the woman of Samaria—and secondly by a process of polarization of her states of sin and repentance. She is made not merely a sinner, but a prostitute, not just a repentant disciple, but a saint. From a practitioner of the oldest profession, she rises to be no less than the “beata dilectrix” of Christ.9 In medieval literature she and Christ address each other as “love,” “true love,” and “lover.”10 She is the most important figure at the tomb of Christ (in the Coventry Resurrection play costumes were provided for Magdalen and for “two side Maries”),11 and was the first witness of the Resurrection. Her tears were symbolic of the purifying waters of baptism. Her hold on dramatists, ballad writers, and artists can be well understood.

One other aspect of her legend bears on the parallel imagery of Ophelia, and that is the threefold interpretation of her relationship with God. God for Magdalen is father, lover, and brother—all as manifestations of the same divine love. In the ballad “The Maid and the Palmer” an old man—the figure of the Father—appears to the woman at the well, identified in medieval tradition as Magdalen. She hopes he is “the good old man / That all the world beleeves vpon.” In a Scandinavian version of the ballad, it is Jesus who appears in the pilgrim's robe.12 Magdalen's Christ/brother is Lazarus, whose raising from the dead prefigured the Resurrection, and Ophelia's brother at one stage briefly enacts this. In the deeply symbolic graveyard scene in Hamlet, with a setting redolent of the Last Judgment plays in the mystery cycles, Laertes leaps into his sister's open grave and then emerges from it.

The young woman in the known sources of the Hamlet story has neither father nor brother; the provision of both in Shakespeare's play opens the way for the multiple imagery of the threefold relationship in Ophelia's mad scene.

Three religious plays—the Digby Mary Magdalene, Wager's morality play The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, and the Benediktbeuern Passion play—are convenient texts from which to trace parallels with Shakespeare's heroine.13 Shakespeare may not have known the plays, but the legends were common knowledge, and the plays contain many of them. In the main, the following parallels are traced through the Digby play, which has been dated late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The play begins with an affectionate family scene between Magdalen, her sister Martha, her father Cyrus, and her brother Lazarus. The family is about to be scattered, as Cyrus divides his estates between his children. It can be seen that although the topic of conversation is different from Hamlet I.iii, there is some similarity in the characters present and in the occasion. After leaving her home, Magdalen is led to an inn by Luxuria, and is seduced by Curiosity, who gets the better of her, so to speak. Curiosity's conversation with her, in a tone of mock gallantry mixed with indecency, is reminiscent of the cruel banter with which Hamlet assails Ophelia in the play scene. In Wager's play there is a similar conversation between Magdalen and Infidelitie, the Vice. It is interesting to see Hamlet so nearly assuming the role of vice, or villain, in this instance.

The seduction in Hamlet is described in Ophelia's “valentine” song. In the Digby play, Magdalen becomes a prostitute and is seen in her “erbyr” waiting for her “valentynys”—“A, God be wyth my valentynys, / My byrd swetyng, my lovys so dere!” (ll. 564-65). In the Wager play she decks herself in elaborate costumes and jewels, and is persuaded to buy cosmetics to paint her face. In the Benediktbeuern play, she visits a shop with her fellow prostitutes to buy cosmetics. Hamlet in the nunnery scene adopts the tone of a contemporary preacher rebuking the painted ladies of the town: “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another; you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and you nickname God's creatures …” (III.i.145-48). The “sweet ladies” to whom Ophelia later bids goodnight, the coach for which she calls, are part of this life in gaudio.14

In the mad scene Ophelia is acting out, among other facets of the tragedy, the role of harlot which Hamlet has foisted on her. To the king she suddenly says, “They say the owl was a baker's daughter.” This is perhaps the only direct reference to a legend almost certainly linked with Magdalen. According to a country legend cited by Douce, Jesus asked for bread at a baker's shop; the girl in the shop cheated him, and he punished her by changing her into an owl.15 This is typical of many New Testament apocryphal stories, in which the character of Jesus is made stern and retributive to sinners. The outline of the story is similar to that of the ballad “The Maid and the Palmer.” There an old man asked for water at a well. The girl at the well refused him, and he punished her by changing her first to a stepping stone and then to a bell-clapper, and lastly by sending her to hell for seven years. The ballad tells one of the stories of Magdalen and Jesus which grew up after identification of Magdalen with the woman of Samaria. The owl and the baker's daughter may have derived from stories of St. Mary of Egypt, who was always depicted with loaves of bread, and was often confused with Magdalen.16

The Digby Magdalen described herself when a prostitute as “drynchyn” (drowned) “in synne” (l. 754). In her death Ophelia re-enacts this drowning in sin; the “long purples,” which some critics have found so incongruous in the Queen's speech describing the drowning, can be seen as the key to this re-enactment.17

The waters that meet over Magdalen's head are those of baptism, and she emerges repentant. In token of her changed condition, she sheds her jewels and dresses in black.18 Later she will assume the appearance of the Donatello Magdalen, her hair dishevelled, her face drawn, her clothing in rags. Early in the nunnery scene, Ophelia returns to Hamlet the “rich gifts,” “remembrances of yours,” which he had given her.19 There is no reference to her appearance in the mad scene, except for the Q.1 stage direction (“Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute, and her haire downe singing”), but traditionally she assumes the disorder of the penitent's hair and dress, which is equally indicative of mental derangement. It is worth noting, because other similar instances will emerge, that the “nighted colour” of mourning which Hamlet wears is also the outward show of repentance; Hamlet is, in a sense, wearing Magdalen's color when he confronts Ophelia.

The central scene of the Magdalen story is the Resurrection. She first visits the sepulchre with the two “side” Maries, bearing herbs and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They find the tomb empty and are told by an angel that Christ is risen. Left alone, Magdalen is the first person to see the risen Christ. This scene, described in the gospels with some variations, is also the subject of the first recognizably dramatic ceremony in the liturgy—“Quem quaeritis in sepulchro,” “whom seek ye in the sepulchre?” to which the angel adds, “He is risen, he is not here” (“non est hic, surrexit”).20 This scene is linked in Magdalen legend with a passage from The Song of Solomon, for Magdalen, the beata dilectrix of Christ and sister of Lazarus the Christ-figure, was identified with the sister/spouse of the Old Testament: “I will … seke him that my soule loueth; I soght him, but I founde him not. / The watchemen that went about the citie founde me; to whome I said, Haue you sene him whome my soule loueth?”21

It takes little imagination to see that from this line one could continue directly with the first line of Ophelia's song—“How should I your true love know?”—which like Raleigh's “As you came from the Holy Land,” seems to start from an old ballad about a pilgrimage to Walsingham, but finishes in the poet's own idiom.22 Since Magdalen traditionally calls Jesus her love, the song which (with interruptions) runs through the mad scene can be seen as the negative Quem quaeritis of an evil, disordered world. Parts of the song, including the opening lines, are missing; it is jumbled and broken up, and spoken by various persons who are not identified. But the answer to the seeker's question is clear: the true love, or Father, or brother, is dead, not risen; “he will not come again.” The lines beginning “And will a not come again?” are full of negative-resounding doom—not, not, no, no, never—and give the counsel of despair, “Go to thy death-bed.”

The true love is to be recognized “by his cockle hat and staff / And his sandal shoon”—the pilgrim's dress worn by the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, and by the man at the well in “The Maid and the Palmer.” The pilgrim is buried, “At his heels a stone”—an indication that he is not in a grave, where the stone would be at the head, but in a sepulchre sealed by a stone. The “O, ho!” which follows this line is the mourner's cry of grief, as Magdalen wept over her brother Lazarus and at the sepulchre of Christ. The white shroud of the martyr is “Larded all with sweet flowers,” the equivalent of the herbs and spices that Magdalen brought to the tomb. The faulty rhythm of “Which bewept to the grave did not go” points the intrusive not; this body was not destined for the grave. The “true love showers” are the tears of the mourner (cf. Richard II, V.i.20: “And wash him fresh again with true-love tears”); Magdalen's tears are among the most famous ever shed. But Shakespeare is always alive to a double meaning, and “showers” are also pangs, the bitter pains felt by the “true love.” In the Digby play Lazarus exclaims, “A! A, now brystyt myn hartt! þis is a sharp showyr!” (l. 822), and the word was in use in this meaning as late as 1637. The first part of the song ends, and Ophelia, after greeting the king, says, “they say the owl was a baker's daughter.”

The lament over the dead love begins again with “They bore him barefaced on the bier.” The “hey non nonny” line which follows is not in Q.2 and looks like an interpolation.23 The many tears again recall the copious water which flowed from Magdalen's eyes. The figure in the last verse is that of the father—indeed, of the Ancient of Days: “His beard was as white as snow, / All flaxen was his poll” (cf. Daniel 7.9: “the Ancient of daies did sit, whose garment was white as snowe, and the heere of his head like the pure woll”). The earthly father dead, and the earthly brother who has gone away, are mourned by Ophelia in her visionary state as Magdalen mourned Jesus, who was at once the heavenly Father and her “true love,” and also Lazarus, her brother who was a type of Christ. Thus it is not, in this strangely haunting scene, a particular death and absence which is lamented; it is the death of Ophelia's whole world, and she symbolizes this also with the flowers which she scatters among the assembled company. They are funeral flowers, handed to those who will shortly die—the King, the Queen, Laertes, and herself.

The legends of Magdalen's later life describe her as a preacher, converting the heathen, and as a hermit in the wilderness, where she is fed by angels until her death and ascent to heaven. In a long poem published at Lyon in 1668,24 Magdalen is described as preaching to her former fellow-prostitutes and exhorting them to enter nunneries. With no earlier reference, this cannot be directly related to Hamlet's repeated exhortations to Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery,” but it is at least likely that the Magdalen of legend would do this, as the patron saint of reformed prostitutes and as a preacher.25 If so, Hamlet in the nunnery scene is opposing the repentant Magdalen to the figure of her former self which he sees in Ophelia. He not only wears Magdalen's “nighted colour” but also speaks her words.

In the death of Ophelia, borne down the weeping brook, the main image is of another suffering innocent, the Fair Maid of Astolat, who floated down the Thames. This story from Malory may also have influenced the funeral scene, for it is the King (Arthur) who commands arrangements for the funeral, and the ceremony is attended by the Fair Maid's “true love” (Lancelot) and brother (Lavaine).26 These images may testify to the “embryology” (to use T.S. Eliot's word27) of the episodes of the drowning and of the funeral rather than to their meaning; but it may be worth noting that Claudius's “arrangements” for Ophelia's funeral are the reverse of what they seem. According to the Clowns, Ophelia killed herself, and only by “great command” was she allowed Christian burial; even so, only “maimed rites” were permitted. Yet it is clear from the Queen's description that Ophelia did not deliberately throw herself into the water; it appears that although the Queen knew well enough what happened, different information was given to the “crowner,” which deprived her of the benefit of the full funeral service. It is Claudius who has “maimed” the rites, not for the first time, as Polonius her father was interred “hugger-mugger”; and his action aligns Ophelia's funeral with the hasty burial of Christ, leading in turn to Magdalen's visit to the tomb with herbs and spices.

The stage properties which accompany Ophelia are, significantly, specified in the text. The traditional symbol of Magdalen's contempt of the world, the skull, is thrown from Ophelia's grave early in the funeral scene, and lies nearby as her body is prepared for burial. Earlier, in the nunnery scene, she carried a book, the symbol of Magdalen the contemplative. The flowers in the mad scene may be taken to stand for the funeral herbs and spices which Magdalen carries in her traditional ointment jar. The rue, which she probably hands to the King since it must be worn “with a difference” (that is, with a sign that he is not in the main line of succession),28 is also the “herb of grace,” a phrase as relevant in this context as the “long purples” are to the drowning.

In tracing religious imagery in Hamlet, it is instructive to compare it with Der Bestrafte Brudermord, a corrupt German version of Shakespeare's play in which all religious reference is omitted. Thus in Ophelia's part, there is no scene with her father and brother; no account of her confrontation by Hamlet in her closet; no book or skull; no drowning (she commits suicide by throwing herself from the top of a hill); her mad scenes are utterly secular nonsense, and there is no graveyard scene.29 The Magdalen imagery changes all this. As has been noted above, the drowning is parallel to the “drowning in sin” of the early Magdalen, and the water to which Ophelia is as “native and indued” is reminiscent both of the tears shed over the feet of Christ and of the redemptive waters of baptism; water is as much part of Ophelia's story as it is of Magdalen's. Laertes, Ophelia's commentator in this as in the mad scene, evokes the saint-like figure that she is to be, the fair and unpolluted flesh in earth, the “minist'ring angel” in heaven. The idea of ophelia, succor, is implicit in “minist'ring.”30

Like Cassandra, like Iphigenia, Ophelia suffers for the sins of the house. Johnson's famous comment can therefore be seen in an unusual light: “the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.” The devout Johnson would undoubtedly have been shocked at the suggestion that the untimely death of Christ robs us of any gratification arising from the defeat of Satan; but without the idea of atonement, the power of Ophelia's tragedy cannot be fully grasped. In her mad scene she mourns the loss and absence which has doomed the court of Denmark, polluted by lust and murder. “Where,” she asks, “is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” Where, indeed? Her words echo the transferred epithet of Horatio's lines in the first scene of the play, “What art thou, that usurp'st this time of night, / Together with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march?” Ophelia's death is the signal for the retributive action which at last is taken when her beloved brother unwittingly provides the poisoned weapon for Hamlet's hand.

As Ophelia is not the double character of the legendary Magdalen, but only the purer half, the other half being painted in by false accusation, why should Shakespeare choose the image of Magdalen to illumine the role of Ophelia? The popular appeal of Magdalen is that she epitomizes hope. She sins, she repents; she is forgiven, and by grace she is made pure. She is therefore the hope of every sinner. For Hamlet, “all is not well,” “how ill all's here about my heart”; but Ophelia says “I hope all will be well.” The Magdalen raised from prostitution to sainthood provides a resolution of the Una/Fidessa riddle. The sin in Magdalen could be atoned for, sinner and penitent made one and purified. Ophelia acts this atonement through the scenes of Magdalen's life. Hamlet speaks of the ghost as a hellish resurrection, out of the “ponderous and marble jaws” of his father's sepulchre, “making night hideous”; Ophelia evokes the heavenly resurrection in the search for her “true love.”

The idea of atonement (adunamentum) brings us back to Spenser's Una, who like Ophelia is the face of true purity. With his “Una,” Hamlet might have reached the Castle of Holiness; he rejects the woman who could have been his “swete sokor”—the phrase used of Magdalen by her grateful disciples in the Digby play (l. 1963). Laertes gives the key lines on his sister: “O Rose of May, / Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia.” The rose of May is probably the white rose, the symbol of both the Virgin and Magdalen, whose tears were supposed to have washed it white. The “dear maid” is a virgin, pure in spite of all Hamlet's suspicions; the “kind sister” is in contrast to the incestuous and therefore unnatural (unkind) sister-in-law of Claudius; and “sweet Ophelia” is a version of “swete sokor.”

To go back to woman's nature as described by Euripides, Ophelia could have given to Hamlet the means of salvation, ophelian megistan;31 but he is fatally convinced that she brings him only the greatest harm. Nothing could be more decisive than his rejection; he first abuses her, and then forgets her. Her living image is only fleetingly recalled in the funeral scene, and the last reference to her in the play is Hamlet's half-mocking challenge which brings his rejection of her to its conclusion: “Be buried quick with her, and so will I.”32


  1. Book I.vii.1; note also Book IV.i.17 (the theme runs through much of The Faerie Queene). Citations are to The Works of Edmund Spenser: Variorum Edition.

  2. August Nauck, ed., Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1964), p. 384 (Stob. Flor. LXIX.7). This Stobaic fragment is taken from a lost play by Euripides on Alcmaeon. Editions of the fragments of ancient Greek collected by Stobaeus were published, in Greek and in Latin, at various times through the sixteenth century, and it is possible that Shakespeare had some knowledge of them, as F.P. Wilson suggested (in Shakespeare's Reading, quoted by Emrys Jones, The Origins of Shakespeare [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977], p. 91). For discussion of the possible link between Hamlet and the story of Alcmaeon, see my chap. IV, in Shakespeare’s Play within Play: Medieval Imagery and Scenic Form in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Western Michigan University, Medieval Institute Publications, 1990. J. P. Collier lists a play on Alcmaeon (now lost) given in the court revels before Elizabeth (The History of English Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakespeare [London, 1831], III, 24). See also ibid., I, 207. Either at second hand from this play or directly from Stobaeus, Shakespeare might have come across the word which named his heroine.

  3. Henry Chettle, The Tragedy of Hoffman, or A Revenge for a Father, Malone Soc. Reprints (Oxford, 1950), II.823ff.

  4. Q2. The emphasis is changed in F1—“snatches of old tunes.”

  5. Faerie Queene I.ii.40, I.ix.21.

  6. Julius Caesar V.iii.69; cf. Faerie Queene I.i.25.

  7. In his own eyes, at least; vide “As kill a king and marry with his brother” (III.iv.29).

  8. Troilus and Cressida I.iii.101-03.

  9. Louis Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, III, Pt. 2 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), 848.

  10. See the Digby Mary Magdalen play, in The Late Medieval Religious Plays of Bodleian MSS Digby 133 and e Museo 160, ed. Donald Baker, John L. Murphy, and Louis B. Hall, Jr., EETS, 283 (1982): l. 1068 (“I his lover”), l. 1588 (“mary my lover”); and the version of Noli me tangere in the York Winedrawers' play: “negh me not, my loue, latte be” (l. 82). For the York plays, see the edition of Richard Beadle (London: Edward Arnold, 1982).

  11. Thomas Sharp, A Dissertation on the Mysteries or Dramatic Pageants Anciently Performed at Coventry (Coventry, 1825), p. 47; Coventry, ed. R.W. Ingram, Records of Early English Drama (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1981), pp. 240-41.

  12. Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882; rpt. New York, 1957), I, 228.

  13. Late Medieval Religious Plays, ed. Baker et al., pp. 24-95; Lewis Wager, The Life and Repentaunce of Marie Magdalene, ed. F.I. Carpenter (Chicago, 1902); Ludus de Passione, in Karl Young, The Drama of the Medieval Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), I, 518-33.

  14. See E.K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1903), II, 90.

  15. Horace Howard Furness, ed., Hamlet, New Variorum Edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877), I, 332.

  16. See Edith C. Batho, “The Life of Christ in the Ballads,” Essays and Studies, 9 (1924), 81; Réau, Iconographie, III, Pt. 2, 847.

  17. The connotation of “long purples” is most explicit in Q2 (IV.vii.170), for which most editors substitute the F1 version: “But our cull-cold maydes doe dead mens fingers call them.”

  18. See Robert Potter, The English Morality Play (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 48; Chambers, Mediaeval Stage, II, 75-76.

  19. Cf. Dover Wilson's stage direction: “she takes jewels from her bosom and places them on the table before him” (p. 61).

  20. Chambers, Mediaeval Stage, II, 9-10.

  21. The Song of Solomon 4.9, 3.2-4; cf. the sub-title Soror mea sponsa of Raymond Léopold Bruckberger's Marie Madeleine (Paris: La Jeune Parque, 1952).

  22. Cf. Sir Walter Ralegh, The Poems, ed. Agnes M.C. Latham (London: Constable, 1929), pp. 100, 184.

  23. “Hey nonny nonny” and, later, “down-a-down,” both common phrases in ballad refrains, may indicate the disorder and parody of her song. Cf. Wager's opening lines, spoken by Infidelitie: “With heigh down down and downe a downe a, / Saluator mundi Domine, Kyrieleyson, / Ite, Missa est, With pipe vp Alleluya.”

  24. Pierre de S. Louys, La Madeleine au désert de la Sainte Baume en Provence, Book IV; cited by Françoise Bardon, “Le thème de la Madeleine Pénitent au XVIIème siècle en France,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 31 (1968), 293.

  25. The Order for reformed prostitutes (Pénitent de Sainte Marie-Madeleine), known as Dames blanches or Weissfrauen because they were dressed in white, was first set up in the early thirteenth century; see Victor Saxer, Le Culte de Marie Madeleine en Occident (Auxerre: Société des fouilles archéologiques et des monuments historiques d'Yonne, 1959), pp. 222-23.

  26. Caxton's Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), I, 531.

  27. In “The Music of Poetry,” in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1975), p. 111.

  28. Cf. Much Ado about Nothing I.i.69: “If he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse.” Of course, the real “difference” between Ophelia and the King is between the pure and impure.

  29. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), VII, 146-56.

  30. Cf. John Ruskin, Munera Pulveris, quoted in Furness, ed., Hamlet, II, 241; see also Matthew 27.55-56.

  31. Cf. Richard Helgerson, “What Hamlet Remembers,” Shakespeare Studies, 10 (1977), 91: “his [Hamlet's] misogynism keeps him from discovering the grace that might redeem both him and the natural world.”

  32. Cf. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (1930; rpt. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958), I, 244: “he, at heart, is as dead as she. This is, indeed, the last pang he is to suffer.”

Quotations from Hamlet … are from the New Shakespeare Edition, ed. John Dover Wilson, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1936). Quotations from the Bible are taken from The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1969).

Manuel Aguirre (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5117

SOURCE: “Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 47, No. 186, May, 1996, pp. 163-74.

[In the following essay, Aguirre examines the symbol of the cup from which Gertrude drinks in the play's final scene, and attempts to “delve further into the mythological status of Gertrude and, beyond this, to explore the role, and the fate, of myth in Hamlet.”]

In a short preliminary paper1 I sought to establish the presence in Hamlet of the traditional symbol of the Cup of Sovereignty. Briefly the argument was this: when Hamlet speaks of the ‘dram of evil’ that obscures a man's virtues (I. iv. 36-8), he is constructing a metaphor for the cup Claudius drinks out of to celebrate his marriage, and giving this vessel connotations which, on the moral plane, resemble those found in the several poisons used in the play: moral corruption is as inherent in that cup as physical infection is in Lucianus', Laertes', or Claudius' poisons. The significance placed on this cup seems out of all proportion to its apparent function in the play, until we stop looking for a realistic explanation and recall that the cup was a symbol for the transmission of Sovereignty in Celtic tales: when the queen handed a vessel or otherwise offered drink to the hero she was granting him her sexual favours and/or sovereignty over her territory. No reader of Hamlet can fail to notice the analogy with Claudius' cup in I. iv which symbolizes both his sexual union with Gertrude and his accession to the Danish throne. The argument, then, claims a traditional, non-realistic reading for this aspect of the play. The present article seeks to delve further into the mythological status of Gertrude and, beyond this, to explore the role, and the fate, of myth in Hamlet. To forestall misunderstandings it will be expedient to state here that this article does not make any pronouncements on woman, her social status, her ‘archetypal’ nature, or her numinous qualities. The point is worth some emphasis, if only because the border between fact and fiction is often made to look so elusive nowadays. That ‘Goddess’ which has caught many a receptive imagination since the 1980s is none of my concern here; my goal is to explore Renaissance changes in the application of a traditional literary metaphor. Nothing is said about ‘woman’, much is claimed about a literary device.


Though more research has been done into the Celtic—especially Irish—manifestations of the theme of Sovereignty,2 this theme is equally widespread in Greek and Germanic myth; according to the twelfth century scholar Snorri Sturluson, the function of the Valkyries was to serve the sacred mead in Val-hall;3 Brynhild's acceptance of Sigurd was signalled by the rune-cup she handed him after he woke her up on her flame-encircled mountain;4 in canto x of The Odyssey Circe offered Odysseus' men a bowl containing food and wine mixed with a drug that enslaved their minds and bodies to her will. In all three cases the vessel is a token of acceptance or rejection, of love or death. A variation on this symbol appears in the tale of Hamlet's precursor, the hero Amleth whose exploits Saxo Grammaticus relates in his Historia.5 He was sent to England with two devious friends bearing orders for his execution; once in England, all three were invited by the king to a feast at which Amleth abstained from eating and drinking; when asked why he had refrained from it all ‘as if it were poison’, he replied that the bread, meat, and drink were tainted with human blood, human flesh, and iron rust. As a result of these revelations (which turned out to be true, thus proclaiming his more-than-human wisdom), Amleth obtained the hand of the king's daughter and the execution of his treacherous friends. Symbolically, the feast was a test which his companions (like Odysseus' men before Circe's drink) failed, but which Amleth (like Odysseus) passed. Loss of life or loss of humanity is the penalty; the lady's favour, and Sovereignty, the reward.

The cup is not the only symbol relevant to an understanding of Hamlet; there is also the symbolism of water, which traditional myth again significantly relates to the figure of an Otherworld woman. The Irish Cuchulainn crosses the sea in search of the sorceress Scathach, who will either kill him or teach him the craft of arms; eventually she gives him her own daughter.6 The Welsh Macsen journeys from Rome to Anglesey to meet the lady of his dream, Elen of the Hosts; she will eventually help him to reconquer Rome.7 The Irish Conle, Bran, and Mael Duin all put to sea to reach the Island of Women, where love and immortality await them.8 Like the Celtic fairy women, Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, and Penelope all live on islands towards which Odysseus must sail. On reaching the Rubicon, Caesar sees a vision of Rome personified as a mighty woman who mourns the coming civil war and begs him not to cross the river.9 When Thomas Rymer was led to Elfland by a fairy queen,

He wade thro red blude to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.(10)

Having sailed to England, Saxo's Amleth will marry the English king's daughter; when Shakespeare's Hamlet is sent to England he undergoes a change (similar to that mysterious ‘seachange’ which is the essence of The Tempest) and returns a new man to Denmark—to witness (and here lies a fundamental difference) the burial of his lady and, shortly after, the death of the Queen. Time and again, in Celtic, Germanic, and classical myth, the hero's encounter with Woman, whether Queen, Goddess, Fairy, or Sorceress, is made dependent on his crossing a sea or river11 - a voyage at the end of which she awaits in majesty to bestow or withhold Sovereignty, or else to subjugate or destroy him.

Woman is also the Spinner, the Great Weaver, the Embroiderer. As the Greek Moirai and the Roman Parcae, she spins, measures, and cuts the threads of human destinies; as the Queen of the Island of Women, she retains Mael Duin with a magic ball of yarn which cleaves to his palm; as Ariadne, she gives Theseus the thread that will allow him to extricate himself from the Labyrinth; as Clytemnestra, she casts a net over her husband Agamemnon so that he will be helpless before the sword of her lover Aegistus; as Bertilak's wife, she gives Gawain a magic girdle to protect himself from the Green Knight's blow; as the giantess Grid she lends Thor a girdle of might to fight Geirrod the giant.12 As Queen Gerutha in Saxo's tale, she spends a year knitting a vast hanging to cover the walls of her palace; at the end of the year, as a banquet is held in honour of dead Amleth, the hero returns from England to everyone's confusion. He puts on a wild disposition, takes up the office of drink-bearer and plies everyone with drink; but when they are all drunk asleep he cuts down his mother's hanging to immobilize the sleepers on the floor, and burns the hall down on them. As both Gerutha and Gertrude, she hides a spying courtier behind an arras (under a quilt in Saxo's and Belleforest's versions), which will result in his death at the hands of her son; ‘I took thee for thy better’, says Hamlet; and ‘It had been so with us, had we been there’, confirms Claudius.

And indeed, Polonius is a surrogate-king, a stand-in for his better, King Claudius, and dies a king's death—Agamemnon's. Time and again myths metaphorize fate as the operations of a Woman who spins, knits, weaves, or embroiders men's destinies; for whom yarns, webs, nets, and hangings are instruments to entangle, protect, or extricate the seeker.13 Hamlet displays the same metaphors in a conspicuous manner.

So cup, sea-voyage, and yarn or web or cloth are all symbols central to the tale of the meeting between the hero and Sovereignty. Their presence is amply evident in Saxo's story; I think I have shown that all three are present in Shakespeare's, if under certain important modifications. Let me now formulate the idea as it applies to Shakespeare's text: the cup is Gertrude's, not Claudius'; the Danish crown was not his to take, it was hers to give; she it was who yielded Sovereignty to him; and Claudius' own explanation of the event is hollow: he could not have wedded Gertrude to save the unsettled orphan country because that decision was not for him to make.


Several questions arise directly from the foregoing: (a) what is Gertrude's status? (b) why did Gertrude give Sovereignty to Claudius? And (c) that most vexed question: has the Queen committed adultery?

To answer the first: Claudius refers to Gertrude in 1. ii. 9 as ‘Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state’; Jenkins has pointed out that

From the reference to the Queen as ‘jointress’ Dover Wilson infers that Gertrude had a life-interest in the crown, and it may be that Shakespeare had in mind how in earlier versions of the story Hamlet's father acquired the throne by marriage; but the rights he accords Gertrude as dowager he is content not to define. What is clear is that Claudius became king before taking her ‘to wife’ but consolidated his position by a prudent marriage.14

Actually it is not that simple. First, as to earlier versions of the story: Saxo tells us that King Rorik of Denmark had appointed Amleth's father, Horwendil, ruler of Jutland jointly with his brother Feng. Horwendil ‘held the monarchy for three years, and then, to win the height of glory, devoted himself to roving’.15 We may presume that, meanwhile, Feng stayed on as king, though Saxo does not tell us. Then Horwendil slew King Koll, married Rorik's daughter Gerutha, and was slain by Feng, who then wedded his brother's widow. Belleforest adds that Fengon killed his brother ‘craignant d'estre depossede de sa part du gouvernement, ou plustost desirant destre seul en la principaute’;16 clearly, his Fengon had remained king all along while Horwendil lived as a rover, and feared eviction once Horwendil returned.17 Both brothers, therefore, were rulers before they married Gerutha. Jenkins's statement that Hamlet's father obtained the throne through marriage in earlier versions does not agree with the story as told by Saxo and Belleforest.

And yet: it is not easy to dispel the impression that their wedding does have something to do with their status as rulers. It is a matter of immediacy: sexual union or sexual harassment of women are mentioned immediately before or after the death of a ruler, or in explicit juxtaposition to kingship. Both Saxo and Belleforest make the point that Feng/Fengon's first concern after killing his brother was to marry his widow; Belleforest furthermore states that Fengon wedded ‘celle qu'il entretenoit execrablement, durant la vie du bon Horvvendille’:18 he had already had sexual relations with her before her husband's death. Saxo then tells us that when Wiglek succeeded Rorik his first move was to harass Amleth's mother, why, we are not told; further we learn that as soon as Amleth had been slain by Wiglek his widow Hermutrude, again for no reason one can discern, ‘yielded herself up unasked to be the conqueror's spoil and bride’.19 All of this goes beyond mere coincidence: while there is nowhere an indication to the effect that marriage is a precondition for kingship, time after time we encounter an inevitable link between sexual union and sovereignty.20 The terse grammar of myth employs a paratactic structure giving us little more than concomitancy; any connectives between the three events (death, enthronement, sexual union) we have to make up, but significance is of the essence.

If we read Gertrude's marriage as a sequel to Claudius' coronation, we assign a very poor role to her: she becomes a helpless victim of circumstances; she loses a husband, then a new king is elected with little regard for her possible interest in the state as ‘jointress’, then she is seduced by the new king, who finally weds her for political reasons. It is doubtlessly part of the playwright's intention to present her in this light …, yet there is more to Gertrude in the text. Something of the paratactic grammar of myth has rubbed off on Shakespeare. Laertes tells Claudius that he is there ‘to show my duty in your coronation’; Horatio tells Hamlet he came ‘to see your father's funeral’; Hamlet replies sarcastically it must have been ‘to see my mother's wedding’. All three statements are found in the same scene (I. ii). We are not told which of the three events came first, which last, though we infer from Claudius' speech in I. ii. 1 ff. that the wedding has just taken place. On this same critical day Hamlet mourns his father's death ‘But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two’; seven lines later: ‘within a month’; his pain makes his reckoning of time unreliable, but if it is Gertrude's wedding that, as Claudius seems to imply, has taken place on this day, when did the coronation take place? If some time before the wedding, why is Laertes still in Elsinore, seeing that he only came for the coronation? If Horatio came to see the funeral, and ‘has been a month and more in Denmark, Hamlet would have been likely to know of his presence’;21 yet the latter greets him as if they had not seen each other all this time—in fact, as if the funeral had only taken place yesterday (which is what a grief-stricken Hamlet feels, anyway). Judging from each of the three statements by Laertes, Horatio, and Hamlet, we feel they all bear the same immediacy to the present. My argument is that reading the three events in temporal succession yields serious inconsistencies, and that this is not simply the result of carelessness on Shakespeare's part but arises from a conflict between a modern perspective and a traditional theme. The modern view seeks linearity, temporal order, causality; the traditional theme involves concomitancy, simultaneity, significance. This is most clearly brought home by Old Hamlet in I. v. 74ff.: ‘Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand,| Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatch'd’. At once, indeed: for the queen is the life is the crown. Again, consider the following exchange (I. v. 39ff.):

Ghost. The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
Hamlet. O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Ghost. Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.

The main statement in this five-line outburst is ‘Ay, that beast won the will of my queen’. Now this statement has nothing to do with the ostensive meaning of the Ghost's previous lines: he was trying to reveal his murderer to Hamlet, suddenly he raves off extempore about how this murderer has seduced Gertrude. ‘Ay’ is meant to confirm Hamlet's exclamation ‘My uncle!’, and thus to identify the killer; since this ‘Ay’ is followed by a comma, it introduces what should by rights contribute to the identification; a string of epithets would do; but when they emerge they become the subject of a new sentence, one which does not confirm anything said before but moves on to a different track, yielding a logically incongruous sequence which could be summarized as follows:

Ghost. My murderer is the present king
Hamlet. My uncle!
Ghost. Yes, he seduced my wife.
Incongruous, indeed: unless the Queen's will does have a relevance
to life and crown.


For us it would be a simple matter to read here that the Queen is guilty, or at least hopelessly weak; that she has conspired or connived in the King's murder; that, being of a fickle will, she has let herself be seduced, and proven frail and inconstant, if not treacherous. For the more traditional, mythical mind, on the other hand, the Queen simply exercises a prerogative, and it is her deliberate choice that results in a king's death and another man's enthronement: the Queen is indeed the life is the crown. Now, Shakespeare's text stands half-way between these two readings; it contains a persistent if subdued association of the Queen with ‘life and crown’ as well as several important ingredients of the traditional theme of Sovereignty, but for Hamlet they are no longer intelligible, even though he, like Claudius, dimly recognizes their import. And so he is outraged by his mother's deed, a deed which he, like ourselves, must interpret in a ‘realistic’ way and therefore without the framework of myth to justify it.

Nor is this such a far-fetched notion. Our contemporary, ‘post-modernist’ literature is currently dealing with its exact opposite: for it exploits our absolute faith in realism and startles or thrills us with the sight of a character caught out of his reality: we feel puzzled or amused when an author intrudes into the story to tell his creation what's what, when the immutable frame of reality-in-the-novel breaks down and characters become suddenly conscious of their fictional status.22 But what happens when a creature of myth comes, quite possibly in spite of himself, to believe in a reality divested of symbolic qualities? What should we say of a character who gets trapped into a pitilessly real space and becomes unable to explain his world because he no longer has the wider reference framework of myth to validate it? Elsewhere I have used the expression ‘the closure of the world’ to identify the process whereby an increasing realism shuts the Renaissance culture against the world of the non-rational, the world of Numens, archetypes, and myths, with the resulting loss of meaning for the inhabitants of the human world.23 Hamlet, one such victim of this closure, vainly tries to understand by means of reason what is in effect a mythical deed; he rejects much that goes on in Elsinore; but most he rages at his mother's choice. With ‘a scholar's tongue’ he runs through all the human faculties, senses, and emotions which might have been responsible for Gertrude's inexplicable act; he concludes that the operations of memory, love, judgement, sense, and shame must have been suspended at the time; even reason must have been perverted, for ‘reason panders will’. This, an incomprehensible will which he can only see as perverse, is all that remains after such an analysis.

And the will is the key to the problem. In the context, the word will may signify sexual desire, or passion generally, but it cannot be reduced to either; the word is contrasted with ‘conscience’, ‘thought’ (III. i), ‘reflection’, ‘reason’ (III. iv): a contrast central not only to Hamlet but also to a proper understanding of the Renaissance. Medieval Christianity had always emphasized the will, whether in a literature of action or in its religious concern with free will. On the other hand, ever since the Renaissance our culture has stressed consciousness, while placing a lavish emphasis upon the evils of the will. The myths of Faustus and Don Juan, of Macbeth and Satan, Don Quixote's rashness and Hamlet's indecision, all point to a new understanding of the will as an evil or ineffective faculty whose operations are to be mistrusted. The rise of Elizabethan drama and the birth of the picaresque novel signal a new type of writing which stresses the ubiquitousness of deception, the importance of mistrust, the need to reflect before acting. The modernity breeds a literature of reflection in which the world is no longer the known arena where the central question was whether to follow one or the other of two well-understood courses of action; but a bewildering realm where the question is rather whether to act at all, given our uncertainty about the motives, means, and outcome of action.24

As the Queen carries out her one mythical deed, on which the whole play depends, the new hero ponders its import, agonizes over his own response, and endlessly reflects about motives and consequences; in his eyes her will becomes an evil faculty unchecked by reflection. Her choice of consort should be understood in symbolic terms—but a ‘realist’ son finds it meaningless and outrageous; it should be seen as a manifestation of the theme of Sovereignty—but without the dignity of myth, it becomes a mere case of adultery.


Do not weep, kind cuckold, take comfort, man, thy betters have been beccos: Agamemnon Emperor of all the merry Greeks, that tickled all the true Troyans, was a cornuto; Prince Arthur, that cut off twelve kings' beards, was a cornuto; Hercules, whose back bore up heaven, and got forty wenches with child in one night … yet was a cornuto.

(Marston, The Malcontent, IV. v. 54ff.)25

This is the ‘realist’, cynical view; unwittingly, however, it once again looks back to myths. All three heroes mentioned by Marston perished as a result of their wives' infidelity or involvement with another man. Both Agamemnon and Hercules died much like Polonius when covered with a fateful piece of clothing (net, shirt) woven by their wives. As for Arthur, we learn from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History that, ‘at the beginning of August’, he left for Rome, delegating ‘the task of defending Britain to his nephew Mordred and to his Queen, Guinevere’. A year later, ‘when summer came’, he learned ‘that his nephew Mordred, in whose care he had left Britain, had placed the crown upon his own head. What is more, this treacherous tyrant was living adulterously and out of wedlock with Queen Guinevere, who had broken the vows of her earlier marriage’.26 The resemblance to Hamlet is noteworthy; but here the presence of myth is much more obvious. The summer king leaves, a new summer comes; usurpation of kingship is simultaneous with usurpation of the king's marital rights. Geoffrey, of course, lays part of the blame on Guinevere, like his contemporary Saxo does on Queen Hermutrude: woman is inconstant. But both authors preserve glimpses of an older tradition, and other myths allow us to uncover its pattern. King Cormac dreamt that his wife Ethne slept with Eochu Gunnat, after which she went back to her husband; when asking his druid for an interpretation, he was told: ‘thy kingship will sleep with him, and he will be but one year in the kingship of Tara’.27 Blodeuwedd and her lover planned to slay her husband, the Welsh hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; but he could only be killed by a spear forged ‘in a year of Sundays’; and so Lleu was struck down exactly one year after the plan was conceived.28 The death of the year equates the death of the husband; either event signals (or is signalled by) the Queen's or Lady's attachment to another man.

The drift of my argument is that we have to do with ritual. I do not mean this in any anthropological sense, the sort of ritual at which, as Robert Graves29 tells us, the Queen rid herself of a Yearly or Half-Yearly King in a bloody sacrifice. Rather I mean mythic, ultimately literary ritual. From the point of view of literary analysis, the entire concept of Sovereignty and its transmission must be seen as a stupendous metaphor devised to convey the basic rhythm of earth and seasons. The metaphor is presented in a variety of images centred around Woman which include the Voyage, the Test, the Cup, the Yarn or Net or woven garment; abduction, hierogamy, and adultery; deliverance and bondage; betrayal, death, and renewal. It is because these are all metaphors for a sacred round—it is because they are transcendent images—that they are used by traditional cultures. The general principle, of which adultery constitutes a special case, is renewal, and in the mythic heart of medieval Europe this principle is still strong enough to assert itself from behind the growing realism of its literature.

And so when we come to the Renaissance we find the theme of Sovereignty still very much a literary issue; but instead of asserting the theme, the literature of the new age questions it, literalizes and plays down its mythic import. In the metaphor of earth and seasons, woman was nature and her behaviour was therefore predictable in a mythic, cyclic—as opposed to linear—view of time. Take this myth away, and woman's behaviour will appear incomprehensible and therefore perverse; it is then but inevitable that this perversion should attach to the metaphor itself, to all female symbols of nature. At this point, Laertes' speech on learning of Ophelia's death sums up the whole issue:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears; but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord,
I have a speech o' fire that fain would blaze
But that this folly drownes it.

(Hamlet, IV. vii. 184 ff.)

The concepts Laertes is contrasting can be summarized thus:

Man shame (honour) fire blazing speech

Woman nature tears, water drowning folly

‘The woman will be out.’ This is the unconscious goal towards which the new culture strives: the eradication of the significant presence of the feminine principle from the Western definition of the universe. She is water that has to be opposed with fire; she is folly that has to be mastered with that most rational faculty, speech; she is shameless nature that has to be restrained by a manly sense of honour; she stands for myth that must be replaced with a realistic view of things. But she is also strong: too strong for the patriarchal culture to destroy her; she may be outrageously unintelligible, but her folly can yet drown a speech of fire. The only way to defeat her age-old power is to get the imagery to shortcircuit itself, as it were: the metaphor implodes, and Woman drowns in the very water she symbolized; it implodes again, and she dies of the very drink that was her most sacred prerogative. With the deaths of Ophelia and, especially, Gertrude, the traditional concept of Sovereignty passes from woman's hands, and a decisive step is taken towards the Modernity.

To conclude, then, Hamlet does not just express the new point of view concerning woman's Sovereignty, but presents the conflict itself between the old and the new as embodied in a modern hero's confrontation with an ancient myth. Shakespeare does not limit himself to the use of traditional material to convey a present-day concern; he seems rather to have realized that this is precisely the root of the problem—that the spirit of the modernity is ill at ease with traditional modes of expression, that the new man must come to terms with the loss of the old frameworks; ultimately, that there is no place in the new ideology for the traditional metaphors, though these cannot be lightly abandoned.


  1. M. Aguirre, ‘The Dram of Evil: Medieval Symbolism in Hamlet’, Proceedings of the 2nd International SEDERI Conference (Oviedo, Spain, 1992), 23-7.

  2. See e.g. G. Goetinck, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975), and sources there given.

  3. The Edda, tr. A. Faulkes (London, 1987), 31.

  4. The Saga of the Volsungs, tr. J.L. Byock (Berkeley, 1990), ch. 21.

  5. See I. Gollancz (ed.), The Sources of Hamlet: With an Essay On the Legend (Oxford, 1926).

  6. The Tain Bo Cuailnge, tr. T. Kinsella (Oxford, 1982).

  7. ‘The Dream of Macsen Wledig’, in The Mabinogion, tr. G. and T. Jones (London, 1978).

  8. ‘Echtra Condla’, ed. and tr. H.P.A. Oskamp, Etudes Celtiques, 14 (1974), 207-28; The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal to the Land of the Living, ed. and tr. K. Meyer (London, 1895); ‘Immram Curaig Mailduin’, ed. and tr. W. Stokes, Revue Celtique, 9 (1888), 452-95; 10 (1889), 50-95.

  9. Lucan, The Civil War, tr. J.D. Duff (London, 1877), 185 ff.

  10. ‘Thomas Rymer’, in G. Grigson (ed.), The Penguin Book of Ballads (Harmondsworth, 1975).

  11. Crossing a boundary, whether fence, threshold, mountain, river, or sea, traditionally signals a journey into the Otherworld. See A. and B. Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales (London, 1978); Aguirre, ‘The Hero's Voyage in Immram Curaig Mailduin’, Etudes Celtiques, 27 (1990), 203-20.

  12. See Aguirre, ‘Weaving-Related Symbolism in Early European Literature’, in N. Thomas (ed.), Celtic and Germanic Themes in European Literature (Lampeter, 1994), 1-11.

  13. The function of these is not dissimilar from that of the labyrinth: as the Theseus story illustrates, yarn and labyrinth are merely two versions of one same symbol; like net and web, the labyrinth—whether cave or catacomb, castle or ocean, forest, darkness, or riddle—is the great symbol of the testing, wherein the seeker loses or finds the wielder of Sovereignty—and loses, or finds, himself. See Aguirre, ‘The Riddle of Sovereignty’, MLR 88 (1993), 273-82.

  14. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. H. Jenkins (London, 1990), 434.

  15. See Gollancz, Sources of Hamlet, 95.

  16. Ibid. 184.

  17. These two conform to a motif often found in Saxo, as in Snorri's Edda and other Scandinavian texts, which involves the eternal alternation between a land-king and a sea-king. It must be clear that Horwendil and Feng are alternate kings, much as Atreus and Thyestes are in Seneca's tragedy—much as, in a more obscure way, Old Hamlet and Claudius are. This quality reinforces the mythological status of Shakespeare's ‘characters’.

  18. Gollancz, Sources of Hamlet, 188.

  19. Ibid. 161.

  20. A debased German redaction of Shakespeare's play, the 18th-century Der Bestrafte Brudermord (‘Fratricide Punished’; in G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1975), vii. 128-58) explicitly adopts the traditional view: ‘Alas, my only son has entirely lost his reason! And I am much to blame for it! Had I not taken in marriage my brother-in-law, I should not have robbed my son of the crown of Denmark’ (Der Bestrafte Brudermord, IV. vi). There it is, in all its coarse simplification: the crown depends on the queen's marriage, and it is her choice of husband that has led to the present state of affairs.

  21. Hamlet, ed. Jenkins, 191.

  22. Metalepsis, the violation of narrative levels, is rife in post-modernism; for discussion see B. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (New York, 1987).

  23. See Aguirre, The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism (Manchester, 1990), esp. ch. 3.

  24. See Aguirre, ‘A Literature of Reflection’, Forum For Modern Language Studies, 29 (1993), 193-202.

  25. Jacobean Tragedies, ed. A. H. Gomme (Oxford, 1982).

  26. The History of the Kings of Britain, tr. L. Thorpe (Harmondsworth, 1982), VII. x.

  27. ‘Cormac's Dream’, retold in P. MacCana, ‘Aspects of the Theme of King and Goddess in Irish Literature’, Etudes Celtiques, 7 (1955-6), 76ff., 356 ff.; 8 (1958-9), 59 ff.

  28. ‘Math Son of Mathonwy’, in The Mabinogion.

  29. Graves, The Greek Myths (Harmondsworth, 1960).

Millicent Bell (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7784

SOURCE: “Hamlet, Revenge!,” in The Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1998, pp. 310-28.

[In the following essay, Bell contends that Hamlet does not fulfill his expected role as a revenger because Shakespeare's intent was to satirize the revenge-play genre that was popular at the end of the sixteenth century.]

When, at the end of the second act, Hamlet bawls, “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless Villain! / Oh vengeance!”, the audience laughed, I guess, the way modern audiences laugh when viewing Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein. They recognized a horror-thriller style old-fashioned enough to be funny; this was the way the Revenger hero of Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy had ranted on the stage fifteen years before. Shakespeare's modern editors disagree about the “Oh vengeance,” which appears only in the 1623 Folio version of the play. The editor of the Arden edition, who commits himself to an earlier Quarto text, where it is missing, thinks it must have been put in later by someone else, probably an actor. It jars, he feels, with the brooding self-reproach Hamlet has just expressed after hearing the player orate about the avenging of Achilles by his son Pyrrhus and about the grief of Hecuba over slaughtered Priam. The editor of the New Cambridge Hamlet thinks Shakespeare wrote it himself: “This cry, the great climax of the rant with which Hamlet emulates the Player, exhausts his futile self-recrimination, and turns, in proper disgust, from a display of verbal histrionics to more practical things.” I, too, think it was Shakespeare's, but I disagree about its tone and intent. It is really a nudge to the funny bone of the sophisticated theatergoer of 1602. It resulted from the irrepressible leaking out of the playwright's satiric impulse in the midst of high seriousness.

If so, it is a small sign of what happens elsewhere. The elocutionary set piece that has moved Hamlet is itself an imitation of the style of a creaky older play about Queen Dido of Carthage. Hamlet is not put off by its stiff rhetoric; the mercilessness of the blood-smeared Pyrrhus and Hecuba's lamentation stir him profoundly by their application to his case. But the theater buffs in the audience must have been amused. Perhaps also by “The Murder of Gonzago,” which the company of strolling players puts on according to Hamlet's instruction. This is to be another “Revenge Tragedy”—as the type is called—one, like Kyd's, with a Spanish setting, but it will represent his own father's murder and so cause his uncle to acknowledge his crime. Its parodic character is indicated by Hamlet's impatient exclamation to the actor who comes on as the murderer: “leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.”

“The Murder of Gonzago” is, I would say, a fictitious play invented by Shakespeare as an example of the kind of play he makes fun of at various points in Hamlet. Though Hamlet is supposed to have added some lines there is no evidence of the voice we know him by in the fragment we hear before a terrified Claudius rises from his seat. It is stale bombast cast into out-of-style couplets, unlike the naturalistic dialogue enclosing it. Shakespeare seems to have wanted to exaggerate its theatricality. He sets it in contrast with the reality of a modern—though medieval—Denmark. At the same time, Shakespeare is letting the audience know it is going to see the unfolding in his play, despite its realism, of just another such tale of teeth-grinding and bloody setting-to-rights as those it used to find so thrilling. The Hamlet world is a contemporary realm, and the thought behind it, as I shall be suggesting, belongs to that latest Renaissance moment which Shakespeare shares with Montaigne. Yet it deliberately frames its modernity within an archaic kind of story (ultimately finding its model in Seneca), that of its probable source, a lost Revenge Tragedy, also by Kyd. This “ur-Hamlet,” as the scholars call it, was undoubtedly the play remembered by a contemporary as including a “ghost which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet revenge.” Shakespeare's Hamlet has all the prescribed features of the once popular genre (and its surprising retro success helped bring the genre back into popularity). It has a ghost who demands revenge for a murder and a hero who promises to achieve it, pretends to be mad, indulges in philosophic soliloquies, and does not succeed in his purpose till the end of five acts. Even the play-within-a-play is a favorite of older plays of this kind. Like The Spanish Tragedy, which has all the features just mentioned, Hamlet also has a secondary revenge plot which brings about the completion of the main plot; it is Laertes' drive to avenge the death of his father, Polonius, which takes the action to its finish. The audience would recognize these reprises and wait for the turn Shakespeare would put on them. What he did was employ them all with a difference—make a teasing mystery of the delay of the execution of revenge which once had served just to extend suspense, make his hero’s detached soliloquies exceed in profundity and poetry anything the theater had ever heard, make the madness the Revenger is supposed to feign to conceal his purposes an occasion for paradoxical wit and cynical philosophy as well as a symptom of the hero’s mental anguish, introduce in Laertes the model of the effective Revenger yet use Hamlet’s relation to the Polonius family as an opportunity to contrast him with “normal,” or ordinary, persons. But, as though reminding the audience of his effort to reincarnate the old Revenger persona, Hamlet will still shout at the end, when Laertes threatens to outdo him in melodramatic grief for Ophelia, “I’ll rant as well as thou!”

Hamlet’s postmodern status as “metatheater”—theater about theater—is obvious enough. We might suspect a personal self-reflexiveness in it. Was not Shakespeare himself an actor? Shakespeare was a theater man, fascinated by the problems of his craft—and his Hamlet not only knows the history of Elizabethan drama but gives judicious advice to actors and can act creditably himself, can write a dramatic script or part of one, and he loves to see a play put on, quite aside from its possible use as a conscience-catcher. As a result, there are, from the earliest moment to the last, occasions when the curtain between the theatrical and the supposedly real is rent—beginning with Hamlet’s remark when the ghost can be heard groaning as it retreats to its purgatorial exile: “You hear this fellow in the cellarage”—“cellarage” being a term that reminds the audience that an actor is making noises down in the space beneath the stage.

“Metatheatricality,” as it may be too modish to call it, is detectable elsewhere in the literature of the Elizabethan stage, and Shakespeare’s earlier plays give an emphasis to common terms that suggest the theater, words like tragedy, play, perform, show, act, scene or part, are frequent. Hamlet is particularly rich in such language. What has not been noted is that Hamlet’s theater interest—and all the hints and references to the theatrical in the play—constitute a metaphoric motif and the tracking sign of a dominating theme. Hamlet abounds in situations in which the actors are audiences. When Hamlet observes Claudius at prayer, he is the unseen watcher who does not detect the deception in the performance; the King’s repentance is momentary only and will not gain him salvation. Hamlet himself is watched by Polonius from behind an arras both in the “nunnery” scene with Ophelia and parallel scene with his mother in her closet. With Ophelia, Hamlet is, perhaps, consciously “playing a scene” for her benefit but unaware of hidden witnesses. Most productions of the play want to make it somehow possible for Hamlet to demonstrate that he knows about Polonius’ proximity—and improvise a rustle behind the arras at which Hamlet starts before he asks Ophelia where her father is. But the theatricality of the situation lies precisely in Hamlet’s oblivion—as an actor must be oblivious of the audience in the darkened theater. Meanwhile, the “nunnery” scene itself is more than an occasion for the abuse of poor Ophelia; it is a commentary on the unreliability of appearances, for Hamlet will tell her not to trust the seeming in men, not even his own pose as a lover (“We are arrant knaves all, believe none of us”). He abuses her as though she were herself a deceiving person—or an actress (“God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another”).

In the play-within-the-play, the player king is a representation not only of the dead King Hamlet but of Claudius, an usurper who plays at being the true king (“a king of shreds and patches”), and brings to mind the way Richard II is represented continually as one who can say, “thus play I in one person many people.” “The Murder of Gonzago” is a representation of the main play’s actuality. But this actuality is itself the matter of the play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And this flow of theatricality expands outward from the edge of the stage. Those ranks of interested spectators in the Danish court who watch the performance by the visiting players are mirrored by the theater filled with the spectators of Hamlet. Each spectator in either audience is, besides, not only a viewer of the action but an actor, too. “All the world’s a stage,” as Jacques says in As You Like It. We who watch Hamlet are not only spectators but actors in parts prescribed—some larger cosmic theater enclosing us.

That Shakespeare did not take the Revenge plot altogether seriously is signified by the way he let its coherence lapse. Much has been made of Hamlet’s reasons for delay. He himself gives no reasons. What is clear is that his slowness to execute revenge against Claudius is not due to the explanation available in his sources—that it is difficult to get at a monarch surrounded by his guards; Shakespeare omits the guards present in these earlier versions of the story. Hamlet never complains of lack of opportunity. Though he pretends to be mad it is not evident what purpose this really serves; in the revenge plays it diverts suspicion while in Hamlet it actually arouses it, and it is not always clear if or when Hamlet is pretending to be crazy or when indulging in a bizarre humor or when expressing his desperate but sane anguish. The soliloquies seem even more disconnected from the action surrounding them than is true in other plays of the type. The first announces Hamlet's desire for suicide—that this “too too solid flesh would melt”—without justifying cause beyond his mother's remarriage, since he still has not learned about his father's murder. In “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” having just heard the player's Pyrrhus-Hecuba speech, Hamlet reproaches himself because he can “say nothing” to match such passion, then shifts, illogically, to accuse himself of having been like “a whore” who can only “unpack [his] heart with words” instead of acting. “To be or not to be,” following shortly upon his resolution to confirm Claudius' guilt by means of his expectable reaction to “The Murder of Gonzago,” reverts to the theme of suicide so inappropriately that some scholars feel that it must have been misplaced in the texts we have. “How all occasions do inform against me,” which follows the appearance of Fortinbras and his troops in the fourth act, renews his resolution (“from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody”) when the moment for action may well be passed, even though it is at this time that Hamlet most clearly reproaches himself (“I do not know / Why yet I live to say this thing's to do, / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't”). The fact of the matter is that he is about to board ship in forced exile to England. But precisely these “weaknesses,” these denials of the dramatic coherence the standard Revenge plot provides, open up larger questions of human identity and destiny. In his indifference to causality even when available in his models, Shakespeare reveals the nature of his struggle to evade tradition and audience expectations.

There is a discrepancy between the hero and the play, but this results from what I take to be a general skepticism to be felt in the tragic plays Shakespeare would write from Hamlet on—a skepticism threatening our confidence in the consistency of character and in the linking of character to either its origin in outer circumstance or its effect in action. The cavalier way in which Shakespeare ignores the logic that his sources often provide, inferior as they are, has not been sufficiently observed—so great is our admiration for his wonderful art. But as he does in the case of Hamlet, Shakespeare will actually reduce the motivation available in his source for Macbeth. In Macbeth he seems to want to show us the inexplicable spectacle of a good man doing an evil deed. Othello, also, ignores the suggestion of comprehensible causes for Iago's malignity which Shakespeare's source provides. And it is not only Iago who is “motiveless,” as Coleridge said, having no real reason for his fiendish malice. Othello's jealousy arises from provocation so inadequate that it is difficult to understand how anyone so reasonable could have been inflamed by it—and so, Iago's persuasive powers must be made nearly demonic. In acting out his preposterous rage Othello's character must be temporarily transformed from what it was.

Hamlet is a mystery play, and concealment and secrecy are essential to its style, but they serve, also, to reinforce the idea that appearances, like the actor's role, are deceptive. The ghost itself is forbidden, it tells Hamlet, to tell the secrets of its prison house; otherwise, it could a tale unfold of horrors to make the hearer's hair stand on end like porcupine quills! The murder is known only to the perpetrator; Claudius' guilt is “occulted.” As the ghost relates, Hamlet's father was killed, significantly, by poison in the ear, “by which the whole ear of Denmark is by a forged process of my death rankly abused.” Hamlet himself continues to keep it secret, swearing Horatio and Marcellus to silence not only about the ghost but about his plans to assume a mask himself, to put on an “antic disposition” to hide his purposes. Of course the usurping murderer is the supreme example of dissembling; and Hamlet cannot get over the way “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” The play is full of spying—another way of seeing those spectatorial moments when a hidden witness watches a performance as though shown in a theater. Polonious, who sends a spy to look into the life abroad of his own son, is ludicrous and inefficient in his secret-service surveillance of Hamlet, and dies for his spying upon the Prince. Only when he is dead is he said by Hamlet to be, at last, “most still, most secret, and most grave.” But deception and disguise do not break down, finally, to reveal the unchangeable truth—as in detective fiction; the character of Hamlet remains identified only with a succession of appearances.

As the play, in the first act, shifts from Hamlet to the Polonius family, Laertes' counsel to his sister to resist the sweet speeches of the Prince suggests that human nature, especially a prince's, is determined by social position—and has no other meaning. “He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself, for on his choice depends / The sanctity and health of this whole state.” Hamlet's love is definable only by his limited power to “give his saying deed.” Polonius' advice to his son, which seems a string of stale truisms—because so often repeated as counsel to the young—boils down to the idea that self-expression should not be attempted. “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportioned thought his act.” But if the self should not be expressed, what is the meaning of the famous conclusion, “This above all, to thine own self be true”? Is there a self to which one can be “true” without letting it be heard or seen in speech and action? To Ophelia he gives advice that echoes her brother's resort to the familiar metaphor of theatrical costume. Hamlet's vows, he tells her, wear false vesture (he uses the unusual word “investments”). They plead “unholy suits” while pretending holy intent. The idea that personal reality is something shaped or “carved,” not inherent in character, may be implied even when Hamlet facetiously ponders with Polonius over the shapes of clouds. He seems to have in mind the arbitrariness of all our interpretations which impose form and meaning on the meaningless, but it has been noted that the passage resembles one in Antony and Cleopatra when Antony says to Eros, after describing cloud shapes that resemble now this, now that,

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave

I suspect that in Hamlet the talk about clouds also implies something about the way our characters seem fixed in one form or another but are really capable of infinite change. Hamlet tells Ophelia that he has “more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.” He is all potentiality. There is no limit to the unenacted, unthought, unimagined “offences” of which he might be capable.

Hamlet's first utterance in the play is a reference to the problematic relation of essence and appearance and, at the same time, to the representation of this problem by the theatrical. He comes on stage clothed in the black of mourning, and the Queen, already speaking metaphorically, asks him for a change of mood, saying, “cast thy nighted colour off.” She asks him why death “seems so particular” to him, and he answers,

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, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show—
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

This is more complex than appears at first glance. Hamlet is not saying that he has put on a false appearance to cover a true self. He does not deny the message of his appearance, for it declares his grief. Yet the way he looks and behaves constitutes only signs, after all, “actions that a man might play” as on the stage, a collection of gestures established by tradition for a role and easily enacted by the accomplished actor. If there is an inner mystery of some sort it is one that escapes all arts of action or expression and can hardly be spoken of, for no terms of description or manifestation exist for it. Shakespeare, the creator of theatrical character, expresses his own recognition of the conventionality of all the ways in which drama represents the self, and also the conventionality and insufficiency of all self-conceptions by means of which men and women carry on.

Hamlet resists all typological confinement. Is he bold or hesitating, passionate or sluggish, loving or cold, refined or coarse? The evidence for the first term in these pairs is what attracts us to him, yet the evidence for the second set of terms is plentiful—and those many attempts to summarize his character and explain his behavior in a unitary way must founder. Some of his negative aspects are off-putting enough to threaten his position as the hero. His reluctance to kill Claudius when he was kneeling in prayer—because then he might not send him straight to hell—shocked Dr. Johnson. His contrived killing of his sleazy false friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has seemed to many to be something that should have been beneath him. He is too brutal and vulgar with his mother and Ophelia. Yet we endure these spectacles for the glimpses given of that noble nature that Ophelia remembers, his tender filial memory and his appreciation of Horatio's friendship, and his generosity to the rash Laertes, who deals him his death blow. And the elevation of his mind, his play of wit and philosophy, his keen understanding of others and of society. Horatio's loyalty is a warrant we accept, for Horatio is our representative in the play—the sensible, decent, ordinary man who gives his complete loyalty to someone worthy of it. But the contradictions remain. Shakespeare's hero may be seen as someone who wants to be undetermined, unclassifiable, though, ultimately, he can find no selfhood outside of prescribed forms, no history but in established plots. He cannot be anything other than the Revenger the play sets out to make him.

Some say too quickly that Hamlet is a humour type—a melancholic, or a victim of an excess of black bile; he himself wonders if the devil has not been able to delude him with a false ghost “out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits.” Then there is his madness to which one might refer his inconsistency; sometimes put on but perhaps not always. At the very end he apologizes to Laertes for his intemperate wrath.

                                                                                I am punished
With a sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.

But neither melancholy nor madness is really the right explanation for the overmastering philosophic doubt—and the mood that leads to Hamlet's desire for death. In Hamlet the incoherence of what men do is profoundly and continuously explored. The famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy at the beginning of the third act, spoken on the day the court play is to be presented, says not a word about this imminent test of Hamlet's suspicions and does not mention revenge. The question it opens is, most critics have supposed, again the issue of suicide. “To be” may be read as, simply, “to live,” and “not to be” as, simply, “to die.” If this is the choice that poses “the question” and if it is meant to be paralleled (A:B as C:D) in the alternatives then offered—whether it is “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”—one must assume, somewhat implausibly, that the ending of his troubles by the taking of arms against them is deliberate and certain suicide. But the choice is phrased so abstractly that one can also say that these terms are syntactically in opposition (“chiasmatically,” their order reversed to make the comparison A:B as D:C) with the ideas of passive suffering and active battle. In this way, to act is “to be.” Merely to feel is “not to be.” Hamlet may be reflecting that there is no being aside from our deeds. Still, are we only our acts? If Hamlet seems to be appealing to an “inmost part” of Gertrude when, in the closet scene, he proposes to set a glass before her in which she may view her true self, he also pleads with her to be an actress, “to assume a virtue if you have it not,” with the hope that the appearance of virtue will, somehow, create an essence.

That Hamlet is inconsistent, variable, even uncertain himself as to who he is—this corresponds to his skepticism about human conceptions in general. The play, we must remember, is contemporaneous with Montaigne's Essays. Florio's English translation was published in London only months, perhaps, after the staging of Shakespeare's play. Perhaps Shakespeare saw the Florio Montaigne even before it was published; the very phraseology of the English version as well as Montaigne's balancing of contrary arguments is echoed, some think, in the soliloquies. Hamlet brings Montaigne to mind when he says about Denmark being a prison, “There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”—a reflection expressed in Montaigne's essay, “That the taste of goods or evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them.” But Montaigne particularly denied the stability—or even reality—of personal essence, saying, “there is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. We have no communication with being, for every human nature is ever in the middle between being born and dying, giving nothing of itself but an obscure appearance and shadow.” Montaigne also wrote, in the essay, “Of the Inconstancie of our Actions,” “We are all framed of flaps and patches and of so shapeless and diverse a contexture, that every peece and every moment playeth his part. And there is as much difference found betweene us and our selves, as there is betweene our selves and other.” What being we have, then, is only what we assume in that phantasmic play in which we struggle to escape and to fulfill an idea of ourselves which owes its shape to cultural formulations.

“All the world's a stage” has so long been a platitude that one is apt to forget how revolutionary it might have sounded when first uttered, and how the idea is likely to shock us still when expressed by a modern thinker like Clifford Geertz in his well-known statement, “There is no such thing as human nature independent of culture.” In Shakespeare's time the tension felt by those who adventured out of the bounds of inherited status—new classes, new professions—was intense, and what one was, as an individual, became more problematic. The process that Stephen Greenblatt calls “Renaissance self-fashioning” was strenuous and fraught with anxiety. For Shakespeare, a “new man” who was making a name and a fortune for himself in a once-despised trade, the problem of selfhood was fundamental. But the literature of the theater, changing with such rapidity in the few years of his participation, directly dramatized the contest between prescribed form and innovation. The standardized types into which mankind might be classified were no longer fixed in society nor were they for more than a moment useful literary conventions. What Shakespeare thinks of such types is represented in his portrait of Laertes—the perfect avenger, but stupid and not really so honorable when he consents to have his rapier poisoned in order to make sure he will win the duel with Hamlet. Osric, the courtier fop, a comic type himself, is the spokesman for fading categories when he describes Laertes in typecasting terms as the “absolute gentleman … the card or calendar of gentry; for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”

Hamlet's personal speeches, even aside from the soliloquies, often express an excessive despair that has baffled the critics. He tells Rosencrantz and Gildenstern,

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 my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

It is complained that Hamlet's expression of such thoughts to such auditors, who can only respond with stupid snickers, is preposterous. Besides, he does know why he has lost all his mirth. The explanation generally offered is that he is trying to throw these spies off the scent. The Cambridge editor of the play says, “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.” But I would say that the instinctive response of reader or hearer to the power of the famous speech is sounder than this critical insistence upon its plot-logic. Hamlet has ceased to be, as he so often ceases to be, simply the character whose motives advance the plot. What he expresses is the root of his gloom, his sense of the paradox in the contradictions of human nature. Hamlet's desire for suicide, which continually erupts in the midst of the action and seems to have no sufficient explanation in the plot, derives from the discrepancy between what is felt and what is done that the play will go on to reinforce after the first soliloquy. To lose all one's mirth without apparent cause is to be someone whose altered response to life is all-inclusive and goes beyond specific occasions. In contrast with his ghostly, impalpable sense of self, the outer man and his roles are “too too solid.”

Hamlet's “lunacy,” as Polonius calls it, may have been apparent before Hamlet heard the ghost's tale. His melancholy, as the first soliloquy showed, has already aroused that loathing for sexuality which even causes him to wish that his own flesh would melt. But he can put on the madman act, as he shows in his exuberant teasing of Polonius or of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and yet baffle them by the famous “method” in his madness. Ophelia's report to her father about Hamlet's strange behavior makes it appear that he has been driven out of his mind by the repulse she has administered at her father's command. Polonius is conversant enough with conventional typology to recognize in Ophelia's description the standard symptoms of what was called “love ecstasy.” But the audience may legitimately suspect it was all “an act”—an exhibition of that pretended madness Hamlet has resolved upon. Beyond this uncertainty, however, I want to point out another which is generally overlooked. Simulated or no, Hamlet's appearance of madness is a representation of the fragility of that notion of identity in which he has ceased to believe. It is this uncertainty that is even expressed in Ophelia's authentic mad talk. “Lord, we know what we are, but we know not what we may be,” she says. Is not madness what we call “not being oneself”—an alienation from the essential consistency one prefers to believe in? But what if one has ceased to believe in it? By keeping us in continual doubt about Hamlet's madness, Shakespeare raises this suspicion of essences and of any truth beyond appearance.

Hamlet's transformation into an avenger requires him to surrender, as much as he can, his character as lover. He has sworn to the ghost that he will wipe away from the table of his memory “all trivial fond records” and let only the ghost's command remain. In this process his previous character has been constricted. The nature of man as a sexual being, and of woman as one, also, is reduced. From the outset of the play Hamlet is oppressed by the idea of sex as a perversion; his mother has caused him to look at the consummation of marriage with loathing, as an incestuous horror. In retrospect, he regards even her feeling for his father as a kind of gluttony: “she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on.” No one is chaste in the Danish court—not even Ophelia, in his view. It is unnecessary, I think, to psychologize this, as has so often been done—to see Hamlet as suffering from oedipal fixation on his mother, hatred for the usurper father now represented by Claudius. Hamlet's rejection of the “normal” sexual and familial set of attitudes is still another mark of the shrinking of identity with which he is afflicted.

Does Hamlet ever come close to accepting entirely—or rejecting without question—the Revenger model? There is one moment when, I believe, he invokes it consciously—and puts it aside. As he goes to meet his mother in the third act he revs himself up with an old-style invocation of dark powers—then dismisses their prompting,

'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; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her but use none.

“When churchyards yawn” is a reminder to himself of the ghost who returned from the realm of death to lay its demand upon him. Now it is the “witching hour,” as we still say, when he “could drink hot blood,” as murdering witches were believed to drink the blood of their victims. Now he could do the unnamable horror that “the day would quake to look on.” But he draws back. He will “speak daggers” to his mother but he will not commit the crime of Nero, the matricide. He calls upon something almost never acknowledged in this drama of borrowed, fabricated selfhood—upon the promptings of the heart, “of nature.” But it is not “nature” that keeps him from killing the King when he comes upon him in prayer—on the way to the Queen.

“Nature” as a term for an original human nature that persists despite the impositions of borrowed form appears rarely in Hamlet. The principal reference that comes to mind is that curious comment on Danish drunkenness which Hamlet makes as he listens in the first act to the “heavy-headed revel” of the royal wedding feast. Hamlet speaks here of “nature” as a source of human defect: “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.” The passage, deleted from the Folio, seems out of place as a reflection Hamlet might make as he waits for his father's ghost to appear—except, perhaps, for the fact that the ghost refers to his own “days of nature” when he committed the crimes for which he suffers now.

But “histrionics” is never discarded altogether by Hamlet. He had wondered, after hearing the player's recital, that he himself was so inferior in expression, having “the motive and the cue for passion” that he had. He found himself in competition with an actor who lacked his own great “cue”: “What's Hecuba to him?” He is in a similar competition later on, in the fourth act, with the Norwegian Prince, Fortinbras. Fortinbras, who has put aside his original desire to revenge his own father's death and recover his property, now marches to Poland with an army of twenty thousand to gain a worthless scrap of land, finding “quarrel in a straw”—while Hamlet, “a father killed, a mother stained,” still has not acted. And Hamlet is stirred and humbled by such an exhibition of pure performance without motive—which is really like the actor's. “How all occasions do inform against me / And stir my dull revenge,” he begins his last soliloquy.

Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell.

The difficulty with Fortinbras' presence in the play has not been addressed properly by the critics. Most commentators think of him in comparison or contrast with Hamlet because he is heard of at the very beginning as a son aroused to reprisal by a father's cruel death; one is tempted to see a parallel between him and Laertes and even ancient Pyrrhus as instances of unhesitating filial action. Laertes really is a misguided hothead and Pyrrhus a butcher who makes Hecuba, with her copious tears, a foil to Gertrude who has dried her own too quickly. But they fulfill their avenger roles. Fortinbras, however, disappears as an avenger promptly. Claudius averts his threat to Denmark by sending envoys to Fortinbras' uncle, the King of Norway—and by return mail, one might say, news arrives that this rash young man has promised to give up his personal project and embrace instead an assignment to lead his soldiers elsewhere. Has he any persisting role in the play? Well, someone has to be there at the end to pick up the pieces and assume the throne—Horatio would hardly do as Denmark's new king; he is not a royal person. The great Harvard Shakespearean, George Lyman Kittredge, made the matter even simpler. The dramatic character of highest rank customarily spoke the speech which brings an Elizabethan play to a close, and so “this accounts for the presence of Fortinbras in Hamlet. But for him there would be no one left of sufficient rank to fulfill this office.” But there may be a special meaning in the resemblance of Hamlet's late envy of Fortinbras and his early envy of the stage actor who performs his part with such noble fervor. In both cases it does not seem to matter that the brilliant performances of the theatrical actor and the soldier are without personal motive. Their merely spectacular action for action's sake seems superior to Hamlet's inadequate expression of what he calls “excitements of my reason and my blood.” Hamlet's envy even expresses that existential lack of confidence in essences and in the connection of character and deed which is at the heart of the play, for only acts, in this skeptical view, count, not intention. Pragmatically, Man is no more than “a beast” if “capability and godlike reason … fust in us unus'd.” Inner selfhood has no real existence compared to the show of those who “find quarrel in a straw / When honour's at the stake.” Earlier, in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, as I have noted, “to be,” may be interpretable as action, mere “in the mind to suffer” as “not to be.” But such a challenge to the importance of essential being and the necessary relation it bears to doing may have been too radical and disturbing a skepticism for Shakespeare's audience. Because Hamlet seems finally ready to acknowledge his laggardliness as an avenger, modern directors often retain the fourth act Fortinbras passages even though self-reproach seems out of place at a moment when Hamlet has been rendered powerless and is a virtual prisoner. Shakespeare might have had second thoughts about this dramatic illogic. But, besides, the skeptical paradox posed by the Fortinbras model was bound to puzzle many. This final soliloquy of Hamlet and the preceding scene which provokes it are found in the quarto, probably Shakespeare's own earlier script, but they are absent from the later Folio text of Hamlet, the longest of such cuts in a revision which may have been made with the playwright's consent. Perhaps the acting company's director or even Shakespeare himself cried “Cut!” at this point when the play was first run through.

Death, of course, is the ultimate loss of selfhood, and the jesting of the gravediggers and of Hamlet in the last act is not merely comedy but reflects that mystery. Where are those selfhoods of the politician, the courtier, the lawyer, “with his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks,” of the lady painting herself an inch thick, and of Alexander the Great and Caesar, and of Yorick? Yet it is precisely at this moment when the awfulness of the loss of identity by death is brought to mind that Hamlet is also made to recall his own childhood, when, as a little boy, he was carried on Yorick's shoulders. When he leaps into Ophelia's grave to contest with Laertes, it is not only with the declaration of the love he has denied, but with a momentary sense of recovered selfhood. “This is I, Hamlet the Dane,” he shouts in thrilling tones as though setting himself into history along with his father, who bore the same name. Yet this renewed identity is, after all, the rage of the old action-man that his father was and expected him to be. To Laertes, he says in a desire not to be exceeded, “Woo't weep, woo't fight, woo't fast, woo't tear thyself? / Woo't drink up eisel [vinegar], eat a crocodile? / I'll do it.”

Finally, Hamlet is ready to acknowledge how impossible it is to avoid role-playing. He will accept the end shaped for him in the role he has been unable to elude. Describing to Horatio how he had—accidentally—discovered and foiled the plot against him on the ship taking him to England, and sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, he says,

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—

A good many critics have found Hamlet's easy disposal of this paltry pair, “no shriving-time allowed,” as somehow too brutal for the “sweet prince” we love, and wince at the fact that when he kills Claudius at last it is not only with the “envenom'd” rapier but, gratuitously, by a forced swallow from the cup of poisoned wine as well. But Hamlet has accepted the Revenger role, and the crude ruthlessness which goes with it, by this time. The divinity that shapes our ends is commonly thought to be a reference to God's determination, to which, it is said, Hamlet at last acquiesces. But the religious note is so scantily sounded in this play that one may as properly think of the shaping force Hamlet calls “a divinity” as simply Destiny—something assigned to us as much by custom and circumstance as by Divine intention. Hamlet may be alluding to Matthew 10:19 when he tells Horatio, as he prepares for his duel with Laertes, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” But his sense of ineluctable necessity is a part of the acceptance of the role into which he has been “shaped” by determinants that are not necessarily heavenly. I think of them, in relation to my idea of Shakespeare and his times, as the determinants Geertz refers to when he speaks of “culture” as the definer of character.

The ghost (very uncertainly a divine messenger; there is strong Protestant theological argument behind Hamlet's idea that it could be an impersonating fiend) appears as an agent whose task it is to haunt Hamlet literally and figuratively with reminder of his Revenger role. In the closet scene with Gertrude it appears to “whet [Hamlet's] almost blunted purpose.” Hamlet has passionately inveighed against her “act / That roars so loud and thunders in the index”—her marriage to his uncle, “in the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty”—but has said not a word about the murder. There is a tradition that Shakespeare himself took the part of the ghost in performance. In a sense it is Shakespeare who is both haunted and haunting. It is he himself who tries to escape the expectations of his audience—yet, ultimately, cannot really do so. As the play wears on, the ghost quite disappears. At the last, when its appeal for revenge is about to be answered, Hamlet hardly speaks at all about his father except to mention that he used his signet to seal the death warrant of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and to refer to the murder of his father (whom he now calls, more impersonally, “my king”) as one item only in his charges against his uncle:

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 the canker of our nature come
To further evil?

—a speech in which, among other reasons for killing Claudius, one hears of frustrate ambition, which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had scented in Hamlet (much to one's annoyance, when one heard them say so). The word “revenge,” which one would expect to hear at the end, is never sounded. Hamlet, in a last reminder of theatricality, turns to the audience in the theater as well as to witnesses on the stage when, dying, he says,

You that look pale, and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act
Had I but time, as this fell sergeant death
Is strict in his arrest, oh I could tell you—
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.

But what account of Hamlet Horatio will give is no longer clear. “Story,” in a received sense, the story of Hamlet and his “cause”—has collapsed, and Horatio now speaks only of the “accidental” and “casual” and mistaken chances that produced the carnage on the stage. He does not speak of revenge, that chain of calculated steps leading inexorably to conclusion.

How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on th'inventors' heads.

If there is another story to tell, only the play itself tells it.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 673


Aggeler, Geoffrey. “Nobler in the Mind: The Dialectic in Hamlet.” In Nobler in the Mind: The Stoic-Skeptic Dialectic in English Renaissance Tragedy, pp. 145-61. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Distinguishes between the degrees of Stoicism in the characters of Hamlet and Claudius and follows the development of the Stoic philosophy in the play as a whole.

Belsey, Catherine. “Sibling Rivalry: Hamlet and the First Murder.” In Shakespeare and the Loss of Eden: The Construction of Family Values in Early Modern Culture, pp. 129-74. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Describes the biblical story of the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain, and then connects it to the story of familial loss, rage, and bloodshed in Hamlet.

Charney, Maurice. “Hamlet as Comedy.” In Hamlet's Fictions, pp. 131-51. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Asserts that while Hamlet is not a tragicomedy, it is a play that depends upon substantive comedic elements to make its tragic conclusion more powerful and convincing.

Clary, Frank Nicholas. “‘The Very Cunning of the Scene’: Hamlet's Divination and the King's Occulted Guilt.” Hamlet Studies, 18, Nos. 1-2 (Summer 1996): 7-28.

Studies the play-within-the play, The Murder of Gonzago, in order to point out that Francois de Belleforest's adaptation of the Saxo Grammaticus story influenced Hamlet more than previously believed.

Dickson, Lisa. “The Hermeneutics of Error: Reading and the First Witness in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 19, Nos. 1-2 (Summer 1997): 64-77.

Describes Hamlet as a play about boundaries, citing the conflict between public and private worlds as well as the conflict between the self and its sense of identity.

Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “Ophelia and Femininity in the Eighteenth Century: ‘Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.’” Women's Studies 21, No. 4 (September 1992): 397-409.

Contends that eighteenth-century censorship of the character Ophelia transformed her into a more sexualized and subversive character than Shakespeare had intended her to be.

Knights, L.C. “An Approach to Hamlet.” In Hamlet and Other Shakespearean Essays, pp. 1-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Assesses Hamlet in relationship to Shakespeare's other plays, focusing, for example, on the recurrent theme of deception.

Leverenz, David. “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 110-28. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Suggests that the tragedy in Hamletresults from the conflict between masculine power, feminine feeling, and the ultimate defeat of feeling.

Levy, Eric P. “‘Things standing thus unknown’: The Epistemology of Ignorance in Hamlet.Studies in Philology 97, No. 2 (Spring 2000): 192-209.

Observes that Hamlet is a play about the relentless search for knowledge warring with a desperate need for denial.

McGee, Arthur. “The Last Act.” In The Elizabethan Hamlet, pp. 162-76. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Reevaluates Hamlet's character as representative of madness and of the medieval morality figure, Vice, rather than of noble aims.

Russell, John. “The Failure of the Son: Hamlet's Delay.” In Hamlet and Narcissus, pp. 114-45. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Gives a psychoanalytical reading of the play, locating Hamlet's slowness to avenge his father's murder in his own ambivalent preoccupation with death.

Sheidley, William E. “Hamlets and Hierarchy.” Peace Review 11, No. 2 (1999): 243-49.

Focuses on Hamlet's sources and on several productions of the play in order to demonstrate that the fundamental plot deals with social hierarchies and the need either to reform or destroy them.

Sjögren, Gunnar. “Doing Justice to Ophelia.” In Hamlet the Dane: Ten Essays by Gunnar Sjögren, pp. 66-91. Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1983.

Examines the character of Ophelia from multiple perspectives: historical, critical, and textual.

Stanton, Kay. “Hamlet's Whores.” In New Essays on Hamlet, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning, pp. 167-88. New York: AMS Press, 1994.

Examines the dual reading of the line “Get thee to a nunnery,” and its implications for the female characters in Hamlet.

Waters, D. Douglas. “Mimesis and Catharsis as Clarification in Hamlet.” In Christian Settings in Shakespeare's Tragedies, pp. 208-46. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Asserts that Shakespeare drew heavily upon Aristotelian theory in constructing his play, and that in Prince Hamlet he created a character he genuinely admired.

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