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Considered to be the world's most popular tragedy, Hamlet combines the emotional power of a family in crisis with the political intrigue surrounding the corruption of the Danish court. Hamlet finds himself at the center of this drama following the death of his father, the King of Denmark, whom Hamlet believes has been murdered by the king's own brother, Claudius. To make matters worse, Claudius has married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and has become the new king. The character of Hamlet continues to be a source of major critical commentary and debate. Critics are particularly interested in Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death, and his supposed madness. Other areas of critical concern include the role of the theater and of theatricality within the play, issues of sexuality and gender roles, and the play's treatment of the conflicts between reason and emotion, and between man as a victim of fate versus man as the controller of his destiny. Modern film and stage directors of Hamlet grapple with how to dramatically represent these issues as well.

Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death has perplexed many readers and critics. Paul Gottschalk (1973) examines the prayer scene, in which Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying, and discusses both Hamlet's delay and his overall character. Hamlet states that he does not kill the king during prayer because his revenge would be spoiled; he believes that Claudius, killed at prayer, would not be damned to Hell. Gottschalk contends that this scene reveals Hamlet's villainy, and finds it to be a true low point in his spiritual journey. However, by the end of the play, Gottschalk maintains, Hamlet ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration. Taking another approach to the analysis of Hamlet's delay, John Hunt (1988) examines the play's use of corporeal imagery in order to show that Hamlet is unable to adequately react to the demands made upon him by the Ghost until he accepts his own physicality and overcomes his contempt for the body. Hunt suggests that the physical body is used not only as a symbol of Hamlet's disgust for physicality, but it additionally serves as a representation of the spirit, Christ, the Church, and the body politic. Psychoanalytical interpretation of Hamlet's character is a popular area of critical study as well. Bennett Simon (2001) reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, the play, and several other characters. In his discussion, Simon analyzes Hamlet in light of trauma theory, which suggests that the shattering of basic assumptions—including the assumption that close individuals may be trusted and that the stability of family and the natural world may be counted on—results in the development of a sense of unreality in the affected individual. In Simon's survey, he examines the question of whether Hamlet is acting or is truly mad.

The play's treatment of theatricality and the role of the theater is another area of critical study. Charles R. Forker (1963) analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets. Brent M. Cohen (1977) argues that Shakespeare's use of the theater, particularly the unique design of the Elizabethan theater, allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways. Cohen shows that the absence of physical barriers between the stage and the audience in the Elizabethan theater gave the audience a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play. Critics Michael Taylor (1971) and Eric Levy (2001) have studied the play's conflicts between fate and destiny, and between reason and emotion, respectively. Taylor contends that the central conflict in Hamlet is between “man as victim of fate and as controller of his own destiny.” Taylor characterizes the first four acts of the play as being pervaded by the notion that man is the master of his own destiny, and argues that this idea is reflected in the way language is used by characters to control and disguise meaning. In the fifth act, Hamlet's attitude changes, Taylor contends, in that Hamlet has come to believe that man is in fact limited in his ability to affect his destiny. Levy is concerned with the play's treatment of the control of emotion through reason, and demonstrates that Hamlet is concerned not just with controlling emotion through rational thought, but with the use of rational thought to provoke emotion. Levy's analysis is informed by his study of the Christian-humanist doctrine on reason and emotion as outlined in the Aristotelian-Thomist system. Exploring the issues of sexuality and gender roles, James W. Stone (1995) investigates the way in which androgyny is represented as a collapse of sexual difference through the portrayal of Hamlet as feminized and impotent and the depiction of Gertrude as masculinized and castrating. Such a collapse in sexual difference, Stone maintains, generates a related collapse in moral meaning and a disintegration of moral boundaries in the play.

Hamlet's continued popularity has made it a favorite of both film and stage productions. John P. McCombe (1997) and Samuel Crowl (1998) both examine Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and find that it focuses heavily on the mother-son bond between Hamlet and Gertrude. McCombe charges that Zeffirelli is overly concerned with this relationship and its dysfunctional nature, to the point that the play's political issues are ignored. Crowl takes a more favorable view of Zeffirelli's somewhat narrow focus. He praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude. Hamlet remains popular on the stage as well. Marguerite Tassi (2001) reviews a stage production of the play directed by Peter Brook, noting that Brook's adaptation is often viewed as controversial. Tassi explains that Brook eliminated from the play all that he deemed “inessential,” resulting in a simple and stark production designed to direct the audience's awareness to the play's exploration of the philosophical problems of being. While Tassi praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, she contends that the production suffered from problems related to Brooks's textual alterations. Bernice W. Kliman (2001) assesses Brooks's production as well, comparing it with John Caird's version of the play for the Royal National Theater, starring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6553

SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. Introduction to Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul, pp. 3-21. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001.

[In the following essay, Blits offers an overview of Hamlet, examines the play's characters, language, structure, and content, and argues that play provides a critique of the Renaissance.]

Hamlet takes place in the early sixteenth century—a time of intellectual rebirth and religious reformation in Denmark. As we see throughout the play, Hamlet's Denmark is marked by the ongoing rediscovery of classical or neoclassical antiquity on the one hand and the rising reformation of the Christian doctrine of salvation on the other. While the Middle Ages still cast a long shadow, the medieval world of constancy, chivalry, tradition, honor, and martial virtue has largely given way to a new age of mobility and change—of tradesmen, industry, wealth, diplomacy, and commerce (1.1.73-98).1 The manly virtue of old Hamlet now seems to be merely a memory:

A was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.


Virtually all the characters in Hamlet still believe in purgatory, angels, saints, and ghosts, and take very seriously the rites of the Catholic church. Denmark is still a Catholic country.2 Yet, Shakespeare not only has Hamlet conspicuously pun on the Diet of Worms (4.3.19-21), the imperial council that banned Martin Luther for refusing to repudiate his new doctrine. Shakespeare also mentions four times (within just fifty-five lines) near the start of the play that Hamlet and Horatio have been studying at Wittenberg (1.2.113, 119, 164, 168). Wittenberg, one of only two universities that Shakespeare ever refers to by name,3 was famous in the early sixteenth century for its teaching of both humanism (Marlowe's Dr. Faustus taught there) and Luther's new doctrine of salvation (Luther lectured there for some thirty years and posted his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg in 1517).4 Scholasticism, now largely replaced by humanism and the new Protestant theology, has been mostly reduced to a gravedigger's cant:

For here lies the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act, and an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly.


In more than the most obvious way, the Middle Ages, at once absent and present, take the form of a ghost in Hamlet.

Where the medieval world was rooted in a fixed hierarchical order based largely on birth and kinship, Danes now live, travel, and study abroad; follow foreign tastes and fashions (e.g., 1.3.70-74; 1.4.10; 2.2.426; 5.2.144-60); and know and care what other nations think of them (e.g., 1.1.88; 1.4.17-22). Even while nearly all the scenes occur within the royal castle in Elsinore and none occur more than a few miles away, throughout Hamlet we hear of international travel: Hamlet and Horatio have been studying in Germany (1.2.112-22, 164-68); Laertes twice returns from Paris (1.2.50-63; 4.5.96ff.; also 1.3.1-88), where other “Danskers” also live (2.1.7); Reynaldo goes there to spy on him (2.1.1-73); a foreign company of touring actors comes to Elsinore (2.2.314ff.); a Norman horseman travels to Denmark to show his skill (4.7.80-102); Hamlet is sent to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and returns with the help of pirates (3.1.171-77; 3.3.4; 3.4.202-7; 4.3.40-60; 4.6.8-26; 4.7.42-45; 5.1.143-50; 5.2.1ff.); Danish ambassadors travel to Norway and back (1.2.33-40; 2.2.40-51, 58-80); English ambassadors arrive in Denmark (5.2.359, 373-77, 381-82); and a Norwegian army crosses Denmark to fight against a Polish outpost and returns (2.2.72-80; 4.4.1-30; 5.2.367-408). We also hear a polyglot of names—Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, and other foreign names, and only a few Scandinavian or Norse. Indeed, while the king is named after a Roman emperor, one of his castle's sentries bears the name (in Spanish or Portuguese) of the only country the king is ever said to have served against (4.7.82), and his chief advisor is named (in Latin) for another foreign foe (1.1.65-67). The distinction between Dane and non-Dane has become greatly attenuated. Even as Horatio fears for the well-being of “our state,” he confounds the general region and the Danish kingdom (“our climatures and [our] countrymen” [1.1.72, 128]). And although a Dane by birth, he not only needs to be told a Danish custom known far and wide (1.4.7-22; cf. 1.2.175), but considers himself “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.346). Education, he seems to think, can supersede birth.

But if Shakespeare's Danes seem to feel quite at home in foreign times and places, their new cosmopolitan worldly outwardness is matched by a new moral inwardness. Some commentators say that Hamlet's tragedy lies in the conflict between pagan and Christian virtue—the one emphasizing pride, anger, ambition, and action; the other, humility, forgiveness, lowliness, and patience. According to this view, while Hamlet tries to combine these two moralities, Shakespeare shows how they are in a fundamental tension with each other and that their attempted combination, by making conflicting demands upon Hamlet, ultimately paralyzes him.5 In fact, however, the pagan virtue rediscovered by the Renaissance and pursued by Hamlet is not the political virtue of Greece or republican Rome, let alone the heroic virtue of Hercules or Achilles,6 but the Stoic virtue of imperial Rome. It is the virtue of Seneca, not of Scipio, of Epictetus, not of Camillus. Rather than encouraging action, it emphasizes the radical inwardness of the soul. Stoicism places happiness in virtue and virtue in what a man himself can control. While no one can control the vicissitudes of fortune, a man can control his disposition toward their effects. So long as nothing external breaks into his will or affects his judgment, no misfortune can touch his soul and disturb his happiness. As Hamlet says in high praise of Horatio:

                                                                                                                                  [T]hou hast been
As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks.


Protected behind the secure barrier of his inner life, a Stoic depends entirely on his inward state for his virtue and happiness.7 Similarly, notwithstanding its fundamental difference from Stoicism in other key respects (including teachings regarding the hereafter, the necessity of grace, and the morality of pride),8 Luther's new doctrine of salvation emphasizes virtue's radical inwardness while denigrating action. In opposition to the scholastics, who granted the necessity of God's grace but also held that man can contribute something to salvation by his own efforts, Luther argues that whatever good man does is wholly the work of grace. Since no action can contribute at all to salvation, man can be saved by faith alone. “[F]aith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves.”9 True religion thus becomes wholly inward. “The inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all,” for “faith can rule only in the inner man.”10 Only the inwardness of faith, not any “external thing,”11 can justify man before God. Thus, far from pulling Hamlet in opposite directions, both Christian and pagan virtue pull him away from action, the one by placing virtue in the inner world of faith, the other by placing it in the inner world of the mind.

In his famous encomium on man, Hamlet describes the world as a splendidly ordered cosmos with man, “the beauty of the world” (2.2.307), at its center. In both man and the cosmos, there is a fundamental harmony between the visible exterior and the invisible interior. In both, outward beauty reflects inner goodness, motion follows order, and change takes place within the permanence of a rational, ordered whole. No gulf separates the best in man from the natural world (2.2.295-309).12 Hamlet mentions this view, however, only to say that he no longer holds it. Instead of reason governing the world, he now sees only fortune and inconstancy—only chance and change. In his view, everything is mutable, nothing in the world abides. Rather than reason guiding and sustaining men's actions, purpose follows memory, memory follows passion, and passion follows fortune (2.2.235-36; 3.2.336-63). Men are forgotten as soon as they die, if not sooner; and “reason panders will” (1.2.137-57; 3.1.103-48; 3.2.123-33, 147-49; 3.4.40-103). And just as neither their loves, their memories, nor their vows are constant, so, too, men's appearances and actions are not to be trusted.

Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.”
.....                                                                                          These indeed seem
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show.

(1.2.76, 83-85)

Only “that within” “can denote [a man] truly” (1.2.83).

In place of action, Hamlet chooses acting. If outward action disappears into inward virtue, it also both disappears into and reappears out of stage-acting. Hamlet turns stage-acting into action (“The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King” [2.2.600-1]) and action into stage-acting (“You that look pale and tremble at this chance, / That are but mutes or audience to this act” [5.2.339-40]). The two senses of “act”—to do and to simulate—are exchanged. Paradoxically, as Hamlet's moral life becomes radically internalized, it also becomes thoroughly externalized. As Hamlet turns away from what merely seems, he turns to what is entirely seeming. The middle realm—the realm of action—vanishes into the opposite extremes. While he rejects the actions that a man might play, Hamlet plays the actions that a moral life might contain. His moral life becomes a self-dramatization. This inversion goes to the heart of the play.

Hamlet retreats both into his soul and onto the stage to escape “the drossy age” (5.2.186). The golden age, for him, is the chivalrous age of his manly father. In contrast to that time, there are now few opportunities for noble action in Denmark. Instead of duels of single combat (1.1.83-98; 5.1.139-40), we find battles of competing theatrical tastes (2.2.328-58), gentlemanly contests of horsemanship (4.7.70-101), fencing matches in which the winner need only beat the odds (5.2.105-80), and endless battles of wit and words.13 Notwithstanding Horatio's apparently firsthand description of old Hamlet's armor and face in battle (1.1.63-66), Ophelia's calling Hamlet a “soldier” (3.1.153), and Claudius's saying that he “serv'd against” the French (4.7.82), it is not clear that any living Danish noble has ever actually fought in battle for Denmark. Despite the threat of war at the start of the play (1.1.73-110; 1.2.17-39), Laertes seeks to return to Paris and Hamlet to Wittenberg, neither giving a moment's thought to the kingdom's military needs. Nor does Claudius seem to notice or to care. As he is protected by foreign mercenaries (“Switzers” [4.5.97]), so, too, he depends on “foreign marts for implements of war” (1.1.77). In contrast to old Hamlet (1.1.87; 1.2.25; also 1.2.187; 3.4.53-63), no living Dane is ever called valiant, courageous, manly, or brave (cf. 2.2.578; also 1.3.65). “Bravery” now means mere bravado (5.2.79). Accordingly, while many young nobles or aspiring nobles simply affect the outward form of fashion (5.2.184-91), wealth by itself, without virtue or distinguished birth, may now earn a man a place at the king's table (5.2.86-89).

Most important—and evidently the cause of all the rest—there is neither a feudal system nor a public realm in Denmark. Unlike in a feudal system, although the nobles elect the king, they are entirely dependent on him for their positions. Only members of the royal family have noble titles. Polonius is not a duke or a baron, but an “assistant for a state.” As his position is an official function, not a hereditary power, his title is conferred by the king (the “state”) and held only during the king's pleasure (2.2.164-67). Moreover, the king's power, in general, appears absolute. Men depend on his will and act on his command. Laertes may not return to France without his leave (1.2.50-63), and the king and queen may command their subjects' service:

                                                                                                              Both your Majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.


And, unlike in a republic, there is no political discussion or debate in Denmark. Although Hamlet contains a great deal of oratory, the only example of political oratory is Claudius's opening speech. In it, the new King simply announces his decisions rather than trying to persuade the court of anything (1.2.1-39). The only other time he publicly justifies his action, the nobles, again, listen in silence (4.3.1-11; cf. 4.1.38-40). Of the three sorts of young Danish noblemen we see, one group (Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Osric) seeks to advance by favor of the king; another (Laertes) is interested only in purely private goods (pleasure, personal freedom, and his own family); and the third (Hamlet and Horatio) seeks refuge by retreating from the world. It surely is no accident that Hamlet begins just before and ends just after the reign of a man with the name of the Roman emperor Claudius. In precluding noble action, the drossy age of Denmark closely mirrors the drossy age of Rome.

The Renaissance, as Shakespeare shows, is a rediscovery or imitation of neoclassical Rome, which is itself an imitation of classical Greece. Having conquered Greece militarily, Rome was itself conquered culturally. “Greece, the captive, made her savage victor captive, and brought the arts into rustic Latium” (Horace, Letters, 2.1.156-57). The Renaissance is thus an imitation of an imitation—a modern imitation of a Roman imitation of Greece. Pedantic Polonius, who often echoes Greek and Latin authors and whose own name means “Poland” in Latin, gives his children Greek names. The sequence of his family's names mimics the historical sequence, read backwards. More specifically, the Renaissance's rediscovery of antiquity is a rediscovery or imitation of the ancients' rhetoric and poetry, but not of their political or military deeds. The only republican Roman Hamlet ever mentions is Roscius, an actor (2.2.386; cf. 3.2.239, 385; 5.1.206).15 And the only nonmythical Greek is Alexander the Great, the destroyer of the classical polis, whom he mentions in conjunction with Julius Caesar (5.1.191-210), the destroyer of the Roman republic and the only Roman Horatio ever names (“the mightiest Julius” [1.1.117]). Appropriately enough, Horatio's name, in Latin, means “orator.” Machiavelli, writing at the same time as the dramatic setting of Hamlet, criticizes Renaissance humanists for rather admiring than imitating ancient deeds. They imitate works of ancient art, but not deeds of ancient virtue (Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I pref.). Machiavelli's criticism holds true of the humanists in Hamlet. Instead of imitating ancient deeds by doing others like them, they imitate ancient deeds by portraying them on the stage. Characteristically at a remove from action, they enact rather than act; they simulate rather than emulate.16 “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me” (3.2.102-3). In Hamlet, the word “deed” never refers to a noble action. With just one exception, it always refers to a “foul,” “ugly,” “rash,” “bloody,” “bad,” “vile,” or “wicked” misdeed, namely, murder or incest.17 On the other hand, theatrical tropes—terms like “stage,” “audience,” “act,” “actor,” “mutes,” “cue,” “applaud,” “play,” “player,” “plot,” “part,” “argument,” “prologue,” “scene,” “show,” “shape,” “rant,” “perform, “put on”—suffuse the play,18 and are especially frequent on Hamlet's lips.19 Hamlet, Shakespeare's most theatrical character, is at various times a playwright, actor, chorus, director, manager, audience, critic, patron, and would-be partner in a theater company.20 The only man he in fact ever emulates is the First Player (2.2.531-36, 584-601).

Hamlet dies asking that his story be told. Referring specifically to the emotional effect of ancient tragedy (“You that look pale and tremble at this chance”)21 and obscuring the distinction between actors and spectators on the one hand and actors and what they imitate on the other (“That are but mutes or audience to this act”), he says that, but for death, he would tell his own story:

Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead,
Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.


After Hamlet dies, Horatio, postponing his own death in order “[t]o tell [Hamlet's] story” (5.2.354), asks that Hamlet's body be placed “[h]igh on a stage” (5.2.383) and, after summarizing what he will tell, vows, “All this can I / Truly deliver” (5.2.390-91). Horatio will be Hamlet's midwife (cf. 2.2.208-11). Hamlet's only offspring will be his “story.” Petrarch says that ancient authors and modern humanists are like fathers and sons; while differing in every detail, they share something that painters call an air.22 Using a phrase sometimes said to epitomize the early Renaissance humanists' principle of production, Petrarch writes, “[I]ncited by texts, [the humanists] gave birth for themselves.”23 The humanists in Hamlet seem to take Petrarch's pregnant phrase literally. In the end, they beget only words and generate them out of ancient texts. Speech supersedes birth completely. Significantly enough, in a play in which families are so important, Horatio's family is never mentioned. A man who thinks that education can supplant birth, Horatio, who never exchanges a word with Hamlet about Ophelia, speaks but two lines either to or about a woman (4.1.14-15).24 Only the “earth,” he seems to think, contains a “womb” (1.1.140).

Laertes is Horatio's opposite number. Named after the famous father of Odysseus, Laertes is the chief spokesman in Hamlet for the duties and privileges of birth. Notwithstanding his father's role in Claudius's election as king, he speaks as though Denmark were a hereditary, not an elective, monarchy (1.3.16-28). To Laertes, the family means everything. Vowing not to let anything in either this world or the next—not “allegiance, … [c]onscience, … grace … [or] damnation”—keep him from being “reveng'd / Most thoroughly for [his] father” (4.5.131-33, 135-36), Laertes pledges to do whatever is necessary—even “To cut [the killer's] throat i'th' church” (4.7.125)—“to show [him]self indeed [his] father's son” (4.7.124). To have but a single calm drop of blood, he thinks, would dishonor his birth and bloodline:

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


Where Horatio thinks reason and choice can replace birth, Laertes thinks that “choice [must be] circumscrib'd” by “birth” (1.3.22, 18). If “the womb of earth” (1.1.140) could be Horatio's motto, “subject to his birth” (1.3.18) could be Laertes'.

Since the time of Descartes, philosophers have often separated mind and body, thinking and life. Life—the power to move and to grow—is said to be “entirely different in kind from the mind” and “nothing but a certain arrangement of the parts of the body” (Descartes, Letter to Regius, May, 1641). According to the premodern tradition extending from Socrates to the scholastics, however, the soul is responsible both for thinking and for life. It is the cause of thinking and hence of human cognition in all of its forms. And it is the cause of life and hence of animal motion of every kind. The cause of motion is the essence of awareness.25 “Sense sure you have, / Else you could not have motion,” Hamlet tells his mother (3.4.71-72). And Gertrude herself alludes to the soul's double aspect when she assures Hamlet, in turn:

                                                            [I]f words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.


Speech is not only inseparable from, but indeed made up of, life. A young maid's mind (“wits”) can be as “mortal” as an old man's “life” (4.5.159-60).

Because it is the single source of thinking and of life, the soul makes man a rational animal. By giving him life, it makes him similar to all other animals (4.3.16-31; 4.4.33-39), and by giving him reason, it distinguishes him from them (1.2.150; 2.2.303-7; 4.5.84-86). The soul is thus responsible for man's great latitude. It allows man to be “either a beast or a god” (Aristotle, Politics, 1253a29). By using his “godlike reason” (4.4.38), man can rise above his nature (“in apprehension how like a god” [2.2.306]), but in failing to use his reason, he can sink to the level of a beast (“Divided from … her fair judgment, / Without the which we are … mere beasts” [4.5.85-86]). Hence, two men—even two brothers—may be to each other as “Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.140; also 3.4.54-67).

But even while it gives man his essentially equivocal nature, the soul's double aspect also makes him a natural unity or a whole. Because thinking and life have a single cause, man's composite nature as a rational animal has a single source. Man is a whole because his nature, though composite, is one. The single source of his doubleness makes him one. Further, man's wholeness is seen in his action. By providing a common source for thinking and motion, the soul's double aspect permits man's reason to guide his motion (1.2.150-51; 3.4.71-76). In his last soliloquy, Hamlet asks himself what it means to be a man:

                                                                                          What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?

And he answers:

                                                                                          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 unus'd.


To be a man means not only to be alive, but to have “such large discourse” as to be able to look backward and forward both in time and in thought, and to use that capability to act.

Notwithstanding his own answer, however, Hamlet is unable to keep the soul's two functions together. He thinks without acting (“[T]he native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought” [3.1.84-85]) and acts without thinking (“O what a rash and bloody deed is this!” [3.4.27]). But even while he thus sets motion and thinking apart, Hamlet tends to collapse the former into the latter. As it turns action into theater and theater into action, Hamlet's self-dramatization of his moral life, more fundamentally, converts life into thought, soul into mind. The soul's double aspects become one. The power to think and hence to imitate subsumes the power to move and hence to act. Seeking refuge from the flux of fortune, Hamlet rejects action in the name of what lies within and truly is, on the one hand, and in the name of what is shown on the stage and simulates the world, on the other. Both refuges lie in the mind. For Hamlet, both man's inner life and the theater have a claim to truth. But, as we will see, the one has no resemblance to the external world, while the resemblance of the other distorts the world that it imitates. Not unlike Swift's Laputans, Hamlet has one of his eyes turned inward and the other directly up upon the stage. He misses the moral life that lies between.

Hamlet himself seems to trace his moral disgust at the world to his mother's hasty, incestuous remarriage (1.2.129-59). Life naturally involves doubling—the doubling of father and mother (“Father and mother is man and wife, and man and wife is one flesh” [4.3.54-55]) and the doubling of parent and child (“[T]hat day that our last King Hamlet o'ercame Fortinbras … was that very day that young Hamlet was born” [5.1.139-43]). But Gertrude's remarriage destroys the natural doubleness. Claudius, having killed his brother, has married his “sometime sister” (1.2.8), his brother's widow, making his nephew also his son (“my cousin, Hamlet, and my son” [1.2.64]) and hence Claudius himself Hamlet's “uncle-father” and Gertrude his “aunt-mother” (2.2.372). A marriage within prohibited degrees, the incestuous “union” (5.2.331), based, moreover, on fratricide, destroys natural distinctions within the family by improperly doubling them.

Hamlet does the same with stage imitation. Like life and the soul itself, thinking involves doubleness. As Hamlet and Horatio both suggest when, using a rich classical metaphor, they speak of “the mind's eye” (1.1.115; 1.2.185),27 human beings naturally see double. We see what is before us, and we see what it means. With our eyes we see what is present; with our minds we can understand what it means. The human ability to separate the significance of a sight from the sight itself allows us to see or imagine what is absent, and thus to generalize, to speak in metaphors and images, to play on words, to express pithy aphorisms, and, indeed, to have poetry or theater at all: “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” (3.2.22). Hamlet, however, collapses the distinction between “the mirror” and “nature,” the imitation and what it imitates. As his mother and uncle destroy natural distinctions within the family by doubling them, he destroys both action and imitation by doubling them. Turning stage-acting into action and, then, action into stage-acting, he makes action an imitation of an imitation, and imitation itself indistinguishable from the thing that it imitates. In short, he turns his own moral life—and life itself—into a play within a play. It is no small irony that Hamlet's self-dramatization of life mirrors his mother's incest.

Shakespeare, we will see, understands the Renaissance, in general, and its characteristic intellectualism, in particular, as undermining the natural doubleness of the soul. Within the full range of the soul's activities, things that should remain double either collapse into one or redouble into more than two, or, quite typically, do both at once. The tension implicit in doubleness itself—at once one and two, a whole containing two parts—is broken.

What is his weapon?
Rapier and dagger.
That's two of his weapons. But well.


Thus, throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare emphasizes doubleness—particularly unstable, imperfect, or defective doubleness. We see it in the characters, speech, and structure of the play, as well as in its content. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Cornelius and Voltemand, seem to be redundant pairs: there are two where one would seem to do. There are also two Hamlets, two Fortinbrases, and even two Claudii—a middleman (never seen) named Claudio (4.7.39) as well as the king—and, of course, two brothers, one of whom murders the other, and both of whom marry the same woman. Conversely, virtually all the characters are internally divided or doubled. Hamlet has “cause, and will, and strength, and means,” and yet does not act (4.4.45); Claudius is “like a man to double business bound” (3.3.41); “Poor Ophelia [is] / Divided from herself” (4.5.84-85); Gertrude's heart is “cleft … in twain” (3.4.158); only “a piece” of Horatio is present (1.1.22); and Laertes acts “almost against [his] conscience” (5.2.300).28 There are also characters who double as both actors and audience or as both actors and what they imitate (“You are as good as a chorus, my lord” [3.2.240]; “You that look pale and tremble at this chance, / That are but mutes or audience to this act” [5.2.339-40]). Further, nearly everyone feigns, impersonates, or dissembles—or is suspected of doing so. Some feign madness, friendship, kindness, knowledge, ignorance, virtue, or breeding;29 some impersonate others in drama, song, or recitation, and perhaps even in “form” or “person”;30 and some dissemble or disguise their intentions and actions.31 And there are corpses and a ghost—bodies without souls and a soul without a body. Not surprisingly, Hamlet opens with the question “Who's there?” (1.1.1), which, despite its obvious urgency, is never properly answered.

Shakespeare, likewise, emphasizes doubling in the characters' speech. We frequently hear oxymorons, antitheses, doubles, privatives, puns, echoes, conjunctions, disjunctions, contradictions, comparisons, and hendiadyses. Hendiadyses (literally, “one through two”), which abound in Hamlet,32 are especially fitting. Containing grammatical units which are parallel in structure but not in meaning, they are false conjunctions, deceptive paris. They unite what they appear to pair.

As for structure, Hamlet begins at midnight (1.1.7), with a change of guard. “[T]wice before, and jump at this dead hour,” (1.1.68) the ghost has appeared and will do so twice again in the opening scene. Old Hamlet has been dead “two months” (1.2.138; 3.2.128), or “two hours” (3.2.125), or “twice two months” (3.2.126). It has been “[t]wo months” since Lamord came to Denmark (4.7.80), and Hamlet is at sea “two days” when the pirates attack (4.6.14). Laertes has a double departure (“a second leave” [1.3.54]) for Paris, as well as two returns (1.2.51-53; 4.5.88). Hamlet twice decides to have the players perform The Murder of Gonzago (2.2.530-37, 584-601); Polonius, “seeing unseen” (3.1.33), twice spies on Hamlet (3.1.32-37; 3.4.4-5); Ophelia makes two mad appearances (4.5.21-73, 154-97); Claudius twice uses poison to murder, first old Hamlet, then young Hamlet (1.5.59-75; 4.7.155-61); and Hamlet twice asks Horatio to tell his story (5.2.343-45, 351-54). Moreover, as Polonius is killed in place of Claudius (3.4.31-32), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed as substitutes for Hamlet (5.2.12-53).

In addition, much of Hamlet displays self-mirroring. The play ends with a fatal duel that answers the single combat we hear of at the start of the play, with Hamlet undoing what his father had done and young Fortinbras recovering what his father had lost (1.1.83-107; 5.2.355ff.). More generally, later scenes are often mirror images of correspondingly placed earlier ones. In the third scene from the beginning, for example, we first see Ophelia. In the third scene from the end, we learn of her death. The fifth from the beginning starts with Polonius seeking information about his son and ends with Polonius describing Hamlet as having been driven mad for Ophelia's love. The fifth scene from the end starts with mad Ophelia singing of love and ends with Laertes furiously seeking information about his father's death.33 Further, almost all the scenes contain a ring structure, with later parts, similarly, answering correspondingly placed earlier ones.34 And just as the scenes thus tend to be symmetrically arranged both externally and internally, so, throughout the play, deeds are returned upon those who do them. “[P]urposes mistook / Fall … on th'inventors' heads” (5.2.389-90). Laertes and Claudius are killed by Hamlet with the sword and poison with which they had meant to kill him (“I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery” [5.2.313]). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed by order of the commission that they were carrying to lead Hamlet to his death. Polonius, who pledges his life for the accuracy of his report (“Take this from this if this be otherwise” [2.2.156]), is killed while trying to prove the mistaken report true. And Gertrude, defying Claudius for the first time, drinks to Hamlet's health, only to be killed by the poison her husband had meant for her son. Moreover, Hamlet, who relishes the prospect of having “the enginer / Hoist with his own petard” (3.4.208-9), not only kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with what was meant to produce his death. He characteristically seizes upon someone else's words and turns them back upon the speaker, rebuking or taunting the speaker with the speaker's own words.35 There is also, of course, a play within the play—a play that on the one hand is foreshadowed by a dumb-show and on the other is itself both “something like the murder of [Hamlet's] father” (2.2.591) and “the image of a murder done in Vienna” (3.2.233). And there are subplots analogous to the main plot. Fortinbras and Laertes (and Pyrrhus) lose fathers, like Hamlet. Ophelia goes mad, while Hamlet pretends to.

Finally, Hamlet itself is a duplication or an imitation. The play is based on Saxo Grammaticus's twelfth-century legend of Amleth, Prince of Jutland, which, in turn, is based on Livy's story of Junius Brutus. Polonius, who seldom gets things right, speaks more wisely than he knows when, asked by Hamlet about his having acted at the university, he boasts, “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i'th' Capitol. Brutus killed me” (3.2.102-3). While Hamlet's name derives from (and is an anagram of) Amleth's, the name “Amleth” is the Danish equivalent of the Latin “Brutus” (meaning “imbecile” or “fool”).36 And Hamlet will, of course, kill Polonius. What Brutus acted in Rome and Polonius enacted in school, Hamlet—Brutus's latter-day namesake—will act in Denmark. In this, as in so much else in Hamlet, life will imitate theater imitating life.

Hamlet presents Shakespeare's critique of the Renaissance—and of the modern age that it begins. The Renaissance, we see in the play, is characterized chiefly by intellectualism and the absence of noble deeds. As we see most especially with Hamlet himself, theory and practice, art and life, become exchanged or confused. Hamlet not only consciously turns stage-acting into action and action into stage-acting. He also finally comes to believe that things happen in life as they do in a play. A play is not only an imitation of life, but a direct duplication of life. As art imitates life, so, too, life imitates art. Theater and life mirror each other. But Shakespeare shows in Hamlet that art can imitate life only by distorting it. In a play, but not in life, whatever happens is fated by the end or the plot; actions have a unity that they lack in life. And to believe that life imitates art is to fail to recognize art's distortion of what it imitates. It is to fail to appreciate, in particular, the role of chance—the role of unreason—in life. Hamlet's trust in fate proves, literally, fatal. Setting aside a premonition and surrendering himself to fate, Hamlet walks passively into Claudius's deadly trap (5.2.208-20). In a deeper and far more general sense as well, however, Shakespeare shows, Hamlet's intellectualism is deadly. It is deadly in principle as well as in practice. Substituting speech for action, it reduces soul to mind—life to theater. Life itself becomes self-imitation; and imitation replaces generation. At once a sign and a further cause of the disappearance of noble actions, Hamlet's—or the Renaissance's—intellectualism sets the two functions of the soul apart, leaving man a divided and diminished animal.


  1. All references to Hamlet are to the Arden edition, ed. Harold Jenkins (1982; reprint, London: Routledge, 1995). I have occasionally revised quotations, based on the New Variorum Edition, Horace Howard Furness Jr., ed., 2 vols. (1877; reprint, New York: Dover, 1963).

  2. E.g., 1.1.133-35; 1.3.255; 1.4.39-44; 1.5.2-104, 142-44, 173-75; 2.2.314-16; 3.2.121-22, 130, 138-39; 3.3.69; 3.4.164; 5.1.1-22, 41-49, 213-35; 5.2.47, 365. Historically, Denmark became a Protestant kingdom in 1537, following the conclusion of the Count's War. See T. K. Derry, A History of Scandinavia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), 86ff.

  3. The other is Oxford, which he mentions just once (2 Henry IV, 3.2.9).

  4. See, e.g., Samuel Lewkenor, A Discourse of Forraine Cities Wherein … Universities (London: 1600; reprint, Amsterdam: De Capo, 1969), 15-16.

  5. See, e.g., Paul Cantor, Hamlet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 56.

  6. Cf. Cantor, 4-5.

  7. See, e.g., Cicero, De Finibus, 3.16ff., Tusculan Disputations, 5.42-43, Stoic Paradoxes, 16-19; Seneca, Letters, 9.2-22, 85.37, 92.3-7, On Providence, 5.7-6.9, On the Happy Life; Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1, Manual, 8, Frag., 8; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.7; Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 7.89ff.

  8. See, e.g., Augustine, City of God, 9.4, 19.4.

  9. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Harold J. Grimm, ed., Luther's Works, 55 vols. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957), 31:348.

  10. Luther, Freedom, 31:347.

  11. Luther, Freedom, 31:344.

  12. Cf. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (orig. pub. 1528), book 4 (London: David Nutt, 1900), 349-50.

  13. E.g., 1.2.65-86; 2.2.173-217, 225-65; 3.2.92-148, 227-47; 3.4.8-11; 4.2.4-29; 4.3.16-37, 50-55; 5.1.115-33.

  14. See, also, 3.3.7-23.

  15. As if to underscore the point, Hamlet puns on Brutus's name, without mentioning it, and does so in the context of Polonius's having acted on the stage while a student (3.2.104-5).

  16. On the natural ambiguity of “imitation” (mimêsis), see Aristotle, Poetics, 1448b4-19.

  17. 1.2.257; 3.1.53; 3.4.27, 28, 45; 4.1.12, 16, 30; 4.3.40; 5.1.241. The exception refers to Hamlet's marrying Ophelia (1.3.27). Similarly, while the emphasizing adverb “indeed” puns on the noun “deed” three times, the first and last times it has pejorative connotations (1.2.83-86, where it suggests that actions merely seem; and 4.7.124-26, where it refers to murder). The only time the pun is free from such connotations occurs in the context of the ghost and refers to swearing by a sword instead of “in faith” (1.5.151-69).

  18. Anne Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), 160; Charles R. Forker, “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet,Shakespeare Quarterly 3 (1965), 215-29; Maurice Charney, Style inHamlet” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 141-50.

  19. Particularly the word “play.” Hamlet mentions the word and its cognates 42 times (of the 58 occurrences in Hamlet). Apart from auxiliary verbs, the only verbs or nouns that he mentions more often are “come” (53 times), “made” (58 times), and “do” (118 times). “Act” (etc.) is said by, to, or in reference to Hamlet 11 of the 18 times it is mentioned; “put on,” 7 of the 11 times; “show” (etc.) 22 of the 31 times; “prologue” 2 of the 4 times; “actor(s)” and “audience” all 5 times, each; “scene” all 4 times; “stage” all 3; “enact” both times; and “cue,” “rant,” and “hypocrites,” the Greek word for stage-actors, the only times.

  20. E.g., 2.2.318-58, 417-61, 517-22, 530-36; 3.1.16-23; 3.2.1-45, 134-42, 232-40, 246-48, 255-58, 269-74.

  21. Aristotle, Poetics, 1449b27-28; see also 1.1.47.

  22. Petrarch, Epistolares Familiares, 33.19.

  23. Quoted by Eva T. H. Brann, Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 74.

  24. In addition, what could be called Horatio's only action leads, by his neglect, to the death of the woman he was ordered to protect (4.5.74; 4.6.21-22).

  25. Richard Kennington, “The ‘Teaching of Nature’ in Descartes' Soul Doctrine,” The Review of Metaphysics 26 (1972): 86. See, e.g., Plato, Republic, 353d3-10; Aristotle, On the Soul, 403b25-27, 432a15-18; Diogenes Laertius, 7.156-57; Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 3.136-37; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1,q.75,a.1.

  26. For the identification of breath and life, on the one hand, see, also, 5.2.258; cf. 5.2.171; for the identification of breath and speech, on the other, see, also, 1.3.130; 2.1.31, 45; 3.1.98; 4.7. 65; 5.2.123, 353; cf. 3.2.348-50.

  27. See, e.g., Plato, Republic, 533b2; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1144a30; Manilius, Astronomica, 4.195; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 1.19; De Oratore, 3.163; Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.62-64; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 8.3.62.

  28. Also Polonius (2.1.115), the Grave-digger (5.2.73), Lamord (4.7.86), the Player Queen (3.2.162-67), the Player King (3.2.159; cf. 3.2.182-210), and the child actors (2.2.343-49).

  29. E.g., 1.2.87-117; 1.5.46, 176-88; 2.1.3-66; 2.2.85-151, 222ff., 3.2.336-63; 5.2.184-91.

  30. E.g., 1.1.49-50; 1.2.244; 2.2.318-24, 420-25, 446-514, 545-54; 3.2.22-35, 102-3, s.d. 133, 150-223, 232-34, 246-58; 4.5.23-73; 4.6.12-28; 4.7.42-46.

  31. E.g., 1.5.35-40, 106, 108; 2.1.62-66; 2.2.10-18, 278-80, 584-601; 3.1.8-10, 29-31, 43-54, 144-47; 3.2.60-62, 388-90; 4.7.106-8, 127-61.

  32. “[Shakespeare] uses it most in Hamlet, sixty-six times, more than twice as often as in any other play.” George T. Wright, “Hendiadys and Hamlet,PMLA 96 (1981): 173. R. A. Foakes counts 247 pairings of adjectives, nouns, and verbs (e.g., “steep and thorny,” “slings and arrows,” “dead and gone”). R. A. Foakes, “Hamlet and the Court of Elsinore,” Shakespeare Survey 9 (1956), 43n5. The word “and” appears more than nine hundred times in the play's four thousand lines, including more than once in forty-one lines and thrice in three lines. There are also approximately seven dozen different privatives in the play. As for the play's famous puns and wordplay, M. M. Mahood notes, “Hamlet … has more quibbles than any other of Shakespeare's tragedies.” M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), 112.

  33. Keith Brown, “‘Form and Cause Conjoin'd’: Hamlet and Shakespeare's Workshop,” Shakespeare Survey 26 (1973): 11-12.

  34. There are only three exceptions. Act 2, scene 1, contains two clearly separated parts, each concerning Polonius and one of his children. Act 3, scene 3, has three closely connected parts, of roughly equal length, all dealing with regicide and God's justice. And act 4, scene 7, a defective double, has four parts, the first three of which directly parallel those of act 1, scene 3, the symmetrically placed, first scene dealing with Polonius's family, but a final part, reporting Ophelia's death, which has no parallel in the parallel scene.

  35. E.g., 1.2.65-86; 2.2.173-216, 225-65, 385-91, 407-16, 3.1.109-19; 3.2.92-97, 102-5, 293-321, 353-63; 3.4.8-15, 27-29, 158-60; 4.2.21-39; 4.3.16-39; 5.1.115-23. Also, see 1.5.141-43, 173; 3.2.115-33, 139-49, 227-46.

  36. Saxo Grammaticus, The Nine Books of Danish History, 2 vols., trans. Oliver Elton, book 3 (London: Norroena Society, 1905), 1:219; Livy, History of Rome, 1.56.7-9; also Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 4.67.4-68.2. It might be worth noting that the name “Hamnet,” which Shakespeare gave his son (after one of his godfathers), is etymologically unrelated to the name “Hamlet”; see E. G. Withycombe, The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), 145.

Paul Gottschalk (essay date spring 1973)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8495

SOURCE: Gottschalk, Paul. “Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 155-70.

[In the following essay, Gottschalk examines Hamlet's character, contending that although he reveals his villainy and spiritual confusion in the prayer scene, he ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration at the play's end.]

One of the most perplexing moments in the perplexing play of Hamlet comes in the Prayer Scene when Hamlet, convinced of the King's guilt and ready “to drink hot blood,” happens upon Claudius at prayer, unsheathes his sword, is about to kill him—and then does not, giving as reason his unwillingness to send Claudius' soul to heaven and thus mar his own revenge:

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent,
When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't—
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays.
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

(III. iv. 88-96)1

In a famous gloss, Dr. Johnson raised the dilemma for critics to come: “This speech, in which Hamlet, represented as a virtuous character, is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man that he would punish, is too horrible to be read or to be uttered.”2 In response to this dilemma, the critical trend from Coleridge onward has been to insist that, however horrible Hamlet's words, they do not reflect the true man; he does not really mean to contrive damnation for the man he would punish.3 Meanwhile, historically oriented critics have suggested that Hamlet's words, to one familiar with the ethics and conventions of Elizabethan revenge tragedy, are not too horrible to be read or to be uttered at all. Our injured sensibilities are merely anachronistic; Shakespeare's contemporaries felt no qualms at Hamlet's speech—at least, not in the theater.4

Most recently, Professor Eleanor Prosser has argued convincingly that neither view is acceptable. If the speech were mere rationalization for inaction, Hamlet would have invoked some more morally acceptable motive for delay, such as unwillingness to stab in the back a man at prayer.5 We may add that to dismiss Hamlet's speech a priori as somehow unrepresentative of his true character, as critics have traditionally done, is arbitrary. It is hard to see how a long and powerful speech, virtually a soliloquy and thus sincere by dramatic convention, can be anything but the product of the speaker's character. Otherwise, we are asked to disregard the literal import of twenty-four lines of impressive poetry which, it thus appears, Shakespeare threw in either to mislead us or, at most, to build up suspense. Either way seems rather cheap. The historical solution to Dr. Johnson's dilemma, Prosser has shown, is equally misleading. Not only, of course, was the vengeance that Hamlet proposes irreconcilable to Christian teaching, but those characters, in fiction or on the stage, who proposed to damn the souls of their victims were villains—among them, some of the worst in Elizabethan literature—Nashe's Cutwolfe, Tourneur's Vendice, Webster's Lodovico.6 Historical evidence, then, bears out what Johnson felt and subsequent critics have continually sought to excuse: that Hamlet utters words too horrible to be read or to be uttered.

Prosser's solution is to controvert Johnson's earliest premise: Hamlet, in fact, is not represented at this point as a virtuous character. The Ghost's commands are diabolic, and in heeding them Hamlet abandons the teaching of Christianity to follow a course to blood-revenge and villainy. No purgatorial spirit would enjoin revenge. Prosser argues, and no purely virtuous person would seek it; Hamlet has yielded to his human nature and forgotten his spiritual—but at a time in history when human nature was making increasing demands on traditional notions of piety: “Hamlet is trapped between two worlds. The moral code from which he cannot escape is basically medieval, but his instincts are with the Renaissance. … Can God have created man a thinking creature and yet have ordered him not to use the very faculty that raises him above the animals?”7

Prosser's study leaves several questions unanswered. First, why are our sympathies with Hamlet far more than they are with his villainous colleagues in other revenge plays? Second, why do we accept his final submission to the providence of God—a submission that would be ludicrously improbable in the case of Hoffman, say, or Vendice?8 And most important, how much difference does it make whether or not the Ghost is a devil? To identify the Ghost is not to identify Hamlet. Spirit of health or goblin damned, its behests are not so diabolic, I hope to show, as Hamlet's response to them. Just what manner of man, then, would follow a Ghost as if it were the devil—follow it, at that, in order to combat evil? For Hamlet's problem is not to be defined simply in terms of the precise doctrines between which he is torn—Christian patience versus the code of revenge, filial duty versus pneumatological caution—but also in terms of the dramatic presentation of a character thus torn. It is the sound of the rending fabric that arrests us, not the composition of the cloth. To answer these questions, I propose once more to examine the Prayer Scene as the low point in Hamlet's spiritual pilgrimage. More specifically, I propose to examine it as a prime example, among many in the play, of the perplexity with which Hamlet responds to events and arrives at decisions, and to show that Hamlet's puzzling speech reveals doubt and spiritual confusion that far transcend the ethical dilemma at hand.

The Romantic notion that Hamlet's words in the Prayer Scene do not reflect his true character lends itself, of course, to sentimentality, but it also suggests a possible answer to the question of why we remain sympathetic to Hamlet even at his worst: that in every action of Hamlet's we distinguish between what momentarily he is being and what potentially he is. This distinction Ernest Jones ignores in dismissing Hamlet's expressed motives for delay:

One moment he pretends he is too cowardly to perform the deed, at another he questions the truthfulness of the ghost, at another—when the opportunity presents itself in its naked form—he thinks the time is unsuited, it would be better to wait till the King was at some evil act and then to kill him, and so on. …

When a man gives at different times a different reason for his conduct it is safe to infer that, whether consciously or not, he is concealing the true reason.9

But men do not choose their pretenses at random (and, indeed, no psychoanalyst will ever dismiss the pretenses of his own patients as insignificant). What a man chooses to say about himself is a large part of what he is, and Hamlet chooses for a while to sound like a villain.

The question, then, is not what is “really” on Hamlet's mind during the Prayer Scene but, rather, what is the effect of his words on our understanding of his character. Whether the threat to the kneeling Claudius is mere fantasy or concrete plan we cannot be certain, but in any case it represents for the moment Hamlet's view of himself. To assume otherwise is to assume, with critics from Richardson to Bradley to Jones, an underlying germ of personality, simple and constant, that gives greater relevance to some of Hamlet's utterances than to others. But what happens if we do not assume that the Prince has so univocal a character? “The world of Hamlet,” C. S. Lewis observed in a famous passage, “is a world where one has lost one's way. The Prince also has no doubt lost his. …”10 What if he has also lost himself?

In fact, the play revolves around the Prince's trying on of identities. Shakespeare's other heroes sometimes may but slenderly know themselves, but they almost always seem sure of what their selves are. Each in his own way, Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Antony, and Coriolanus, sets himself up as the measure of all things. They may change, but we are aware of the change before they are; it is a change which they may scarcely examine and do not question at all but which simply happens to them. Lear goes mad; later, he wakes up sane, saner than at the beginning of the play. Throughout, he retains some sort of clear identity, and his voice, whether banishing Cordelia, holding a maddened mock trial of his false daughters, or joyfully accepting imprisonment and love, is never unsure of itself, however much Lear questions his past actions and present circumstances. Shakespeare's heroes are generally preoccupied with their deeds, and their moments of crisis occur when they discover that they have done the wrong deed, acted on a misapprehension or misjudgment. It is thus that the order of their own moral universes crumbles so that they must build a new one. They rarely ask, “Who am I?” but rather, “What have I done?” and, “What shall I do now?” If they do ask, “Who am I?” it is only to discover immediately that they are not who they thought they were. Their circumstances have led them to the question, and in asking the question, they reach their personal crises. “To be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved”: Othello's boast might be a motto for almost every tragic hero in Shakespeare. How quickly are even Macbeth's doubts about regicide resolved into terrifying action. To be in doubt is to be resolved; none of Shakespeare's heroes accepts doubt about himself as a modus vivendi: none except Hamlet.11

Hamlet perpetually asks, “Who am I?” and receives no answer:

                                                                                                                                  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 th' nose? gives me the lie i' th' throat
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this, ha?


This is not simply pretense, as Jones suggests, but a working at a problem:

'Swounds, I should take it! for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal.


Hamlet accepts cowardice merely as a hypothesis confirmed in some degree by fact: “it cannot be but I am pigeon-livered.” There is no assurance here, not even the assurance of self-delusion: cowards know they are cowards, they do not have to reason out the fact. If for the moment Hamlet accepts being a coward, he does so provisionally, doubtfully. And over and over again, a speech of Hamlet's, a line, a turn of phrase will reflect back upon himself, upon his dubiety in the face of his universe and of his own personality. He is prompted to his revenge by heaven and hell; he did love Ophelia once, and yet he loved her not; he is at once indifferent honest and yet proud, revengeful, ambitious. No one else in Shakespeare seeks so much for identity in opposites, sees himself so much as the subject of contradiction.

                                                                                                              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.


Is it bestial oblivion that makes him delay, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event? Critics have often taken the latter as an explanation of Hamlet's inaction. But Hamlet is raising these questions to try them on and, finally, to reject them: he does not know.

Even his inner thoughts are in part beyond his control. Again and again, some event, some object before him will intrude on his awareness and force him to accommodate it to his own mental life, to draw lessons for himself from what chance strews in his way: the sound of trumpets and cannon at the King's carousal, the sight of a player moved to tears by his own speech or of the Norwegian army moving across the stage, a skull thrown up from a freshly opened grave, or a king kneeling in prayer. Yet often the conclusion is reached only to be sidetracked or overthrown altogether by some new encounter with fact. Moralization on the Danes' drunkenness breaks off as the Ghost appears, revealing to Hamlet a Denmark where drunkenness is the least of sins. The meditation of “To be or not to be” yields to the frenzy of the encounter with Ophelia. In the graveyard, the ironical memento mori theme and variations give way to shock and grief when the actual body of Ophelia is brought on stage. For Hamlet, far more deeply than for the Player King, our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

Francis Fergusson has pointed out that Hamlet is the “chief reflector” of the many-faceted action of the play: from his viewpoint more than from any other do we perceive the shifting and elusive universe of Elsinore.12 In his eyes, for instance, Polonius becomes a fishmonger, a moralist's senex, and an actor playing Julius Caesar ripe for slaughter. But more than that, Hamlet is many reflectors, not only because of the elusiveness and inconsistency of the world as he sees it, but also because the shifting gaze he turns on others he also turns inward upon himself, shaping and reshaping in his mind's eye both his situation and his own character. Now he sees himself as the villain in a third-rate revenge play (“Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge” [III.ii.264-65]); now as a recorder that unskillful hands are seeking to play upon; now as chief player in a children's game (“Hide fox, and all after” [IV.ii.31]).

Meanwhile, he has a task to perform. But to get done, an assigned task must reflect the doer. Ceaselessly, Hamlet tries to align himself with his situation, to find an identity in it—for, at the beginning of the play, he has none—he is neither student-prince nor king; as his first words in the play suggest, he is no longer even his father's son. At first, he can find himself only in the past, at Wittenberg or in memories of his father, whom he seeks with veiled lids in the dust (I.ii.70-71) or sees in his mind's eye (I.ii.185). But somehow he must make his unhappy truce with the intractable facts at hand, and he tries to do so at the end of the first soliloquy: “It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!” (I.ii.158-59). The action proper of the play has not yet begun, and this is the last time that Hamlet will be able utterly to hold back. Soon he will meet his father, not in his mind's eye, but face to face. The facts of his situation will take on a new aspect as he learns of the murder, and thereafter he will evoke more threatening models: Pyrrhus, Fortinbras (“Examples gross as earth exhort me” [IV.iv.46]), and Laertes (“For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” [V.ii.77-78]). While subplots commonly reflect the main plot in Elizabethan drama, it is not so common for the protagonist to be as aware of this reflection as Hamlet is, constantly seeking in the examples of others how to be true at once to his cause and to himself.

We are used to the notion of a Hamlet looking before and after, pondering what he has done and must do; but more than that, not only does thought modify action for Hamlet, but action thought. All occasions do inform against him in the sense of appearing to him, accusing him, and forcing him to reformulate his own stance in the drama. In the face of unremitting doubt, cursing his very existence for yielding him up to the task of setting the time right, Hamlet must now seek, at every turn, to align his own existence with the existence of Denmark, to find a role that will both express himself and lead to the fulfillment of his task.

The Prayer Scene shows such an attempt. Since in Hamlet we are interested not merely in the outcome of a scene in overt action but also in the shape it will assume in Hamlet's imagination, the Prayer Scene really has two endings: Hamlet's failure to kill the King, and Hamlet's leaving the stage self-cast in the role of revenge villain. Character does not simply motivate this scene, nor does this scene simply reveal character: it shapes it—shapes it tentatively, as we shall see, not finally, for underlying the Hamlet who, for the worst of reasons, refuses to kill the King is the Hamlet to whom this choice and all choices are merely provisional.

What, then, does the assumption of this role reveal about Hamlet at this moment? One indication of Hamlet's attitude toward himself, as Professor Fredson Bowers has shown,13 is what he utters minutes after the Prayer Scene, when he stands over the dead body of Polonius:

                                                                                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.


“Scourge and minister”: the phrase is another example of Hamlet's vision of inner self-contradiction, for the terms are mutually exclusive. Both refer to agents of God's vengeance, but the minister is righteous and in overthrowing evil directly establishes good in its place, while the scourge is evil: although he may destroy the sinful, he is already irretrievably caught up in sin himself and damned in the very act of vengeance. His vengeance takes the form of a common crime, in which he makes his own opportunities, while heaven will provide the minister with an opportunity to act in fulfillment of public justice.14 The protagonist as scourge held the stage in the revenge tragedies of the early seventeenth century. Tourneur's Vendice, Webster's Bosola, and a host of others marshaled their own way to knavery even as they cleansed the stage of even greater villains than themselves. And the Hamlet of the Prayer Scene is their spiritual forebear, as the Hamlet who has just killed Polonius recognizes.

Indeed, Bowers finds that Hamlet's self-reproaches and the delay itself stem from his uncertainty about whether he is to act as a minister or a scourge (pp. 745-46). This is certainly a far-reaching interpretation to be derived largely from a few lines that occur rather late in the play. Although Bowers argues that the Elizabethan audience would have found Hamlet's dilemma implicit in the situation into which the Ghost thrust him,15 it is risky to assume that the complexity of Hamlet can be resolved by positing the simplicity of the age in which it was written. Yet the fact remains that toward the end of the third act, Hamlet alludes to the doctrines of minister and scourge, and that these terms imply a deep ambivalence on Hamlet's part toward his task. And, whether or not this ambivalence is implicit in the task itself all along, it lies in Hamlet's own soul.

Now, it is practically a truism of modern Hamlet interpretation that the Prince's dejection (and, to many critics, his inaction) stems from an overwhelming, unassimilable vision of evil. And the doubt and contradiction we have already noticed in his words show that he sometimes feels himself allied with the evil that it is his duty to destroy. This double alliance is schematized in the distinction between scourge and minister and in the phrase, “To punish me with this, and this with me,” but signs abound far earlier in the play as well. Hamlet obliquely associates himself with Claudius when he laments that his mother “married with my uncle; / My father's brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.151-53). His flesh, according to many editors, is as sullied as that of those whom he condemns, and later on in the play, confronted with a frail woman whom he will shortly attack in some of his bitterest language, he casts himself, too, into the role of sinner:

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. … What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us.


Although Hamlet is making himself into an Everyman here, the effect is not to exculpate himself personally but to link him to the damned universe of Denmark: “We are arrant knaves all.”

Not only does Hamlet continually seek in experience the true image of his cause, but twice he tries to force Claudius and Gertrude to respond to images he himself draws of Denmark. Yet these attempts, too, are marred by his own sense of guilt. The occasions of these attempts are the Play Scene, where Hamlet and the actors hold the mirror up to nature, and the Closet Scene, where, showing Gertrude pictures of his father and of Claudius, he sets up a glass before her where she may see the inmost part of herself (III.iv.19-20). The image of the mirror links the two scenes, which, to Hamlet, have the same purpose: to catch the conscience of the royal pair. And both images even imply a certain pedagogical confidence that Hamlet never shows when dealing with himself. Indeed, the speech to the players as well as his recollection

That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions


hearken back to traditional defenses of the theater as didactic.

But what about the conscience of the Prince? Just before the mousetrap is to be staged, Hamlet explains to Horatio his plan to entrap the King:

                                                                                If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy.


The speech strikes a strange note. If Claudius were innocent, then the idea that he is guilty would indeed be foul; but Hamlet does not blame the “damned ghost” for this idea: it is his own imagination that would be as foul as Vulcan's stithy, his own “prophetic soul.” Whether or not Claudius is guilty, Hamlet has created this guilt in his own mind, and it bothers him. In the Play Scene, Hamlet is trying to establish not only the honesty of the Ghost, but his own as well. It is for that reason, I think, that when the play is over he is first of all elated at his theatrical success—and why not?—“Why, let the strucken deer go weep, / The hart ungalled play” (III.ii.282-83) Hamlet hurls by way of epilogue after the retreating Claudius. The words echo his blandly ironic reply to the King's worried inquiries about the play: “Your Majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not. Let the gall'd jade winch; our withers are unwrung” (III.ii.251-53). The piece of doggerel is Hamlet's triumphant declaration that he is not like Claudius—this is what the play has shown him.

Some of Hamlet's improvisational interpolations during the play, however, show something else. “This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King,” he says, as the player-murderer comes on stage. He himself is nephew to the King, he has cast himself in an equally guilty role, and he nails down the association by a thoroughly inappropriate allusion to an old play: “Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge”—though Lucianus is not a revenger.16 The play holds the mirror of nature up to the King so that he may feel and proclaim his guilt; Hamlet's commentary holds the mirror up to Hamlet: he is threatening Claudius, and he is threatening him in the mode of the revenge-villain. The threat cuts two ways.

Indeed, the soliloquy “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” (II.ii.576 ff.), with its juxtaposition of bitter attacks on Claudius and himself, makes it seem inevitable that Hamlet cannot reveal Claudius's guilt without accusing himself as well. The sequence of Hamlet's thought is significant. Having compared himself with the actor who weeps for Hecuba, Hamlet then turns to an imaginary opponent who challenges him with insults to a duel (“Who calls me villain? … gives me the lie i' th' throat / As deep as to the lungs?”). But instead of accepting the challenge, Hamlet accepts the insults (“'Swounds, I should take it!”) and continues them himself, in his own person. Then the challenge lashes out again—but this time at Claudius (“Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!”). And again the challenge suddenly lapses into self-reproach (“O, vengeance! / Why, what an ass am I!”). Professor Harold Jenkins, observing that the cry, “O, vengeance!” occurs in the First Folio but not in the Second Quarto, argues for its inauthenticity, suggesting the inappropriateness of Hamlet's “call for vengeance while he is still absorbed in self-reproaches. …”17 But it is precisely in this apparent inappropriateness that we see once more the movement of Hamlet's mind from action to reaction, as rage turns upon itself, as his thoughts leap from self-disgust to vindictive fury and back again. Then comes the plan for the mouse-trap. The Player forced Hamlet to admit his guilt; now Hamlet will try the same thing on his uncle, and the guilt-aggression cycle of the soliloquy thus expands outward into the play.18

That Hamlet's vengeance is not of the purely creative sort that characterizes God's minister appears again in the Closet Scene, when he details to his mother her sins until she can stand it no longer and begs him to stop:

                                                                      O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.


And Hamlet should indeed be content to stop here if his purpose in “speaking daggers” is the laudable one he announced earlier: “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” (ll. 19-20). Nosce te ipsum—here, Hamlet echoes one of the worthiest commonplaces of Renaissance didacticism: “Therefore,” Erasmus wrote,

“seynge that thou hast taken upon thee, war aganyst thy selfe, and the chiefe hope and comfort of victory, is yf thou knowe thy selfe to the uttermost: I will paynt a certayne ymage of thy selfe, as it were in a table, and set it before thyne eyne: that thou mayst perfitly knowe, what thou art inwarde, and within thy skynne.”19

Gertrude's words repeat Hamlet's very own; his didactic mission is accomplished, and he might well obey the Ghost's original command to leave his mother to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her. But instead he goes on:

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

(II. 91-94)

Three times in all Gertrude begs him to stop, and each time he continues remorselessly, attacking her and attacking Claudius, until the entrance of the Ghost forces him to break off. Here, if anywhere, T. S. Eliot's claim is justified that Hamlet's emotions are in excess of the facts as they appear. Unless Hamlet is just being sadistic, he is himself fascinated by the image of the very sins he is attacking, so fascinated that he cannot turn his own eyes from them.

When Hamlet refers to himself as a scourge as well as a minister, he is simply making explicit what has been implicit all along in his attitude toward himself: that he, too, is caught up in the rottenness of Denmark, that although he is the slayer of Winter, as Gilbert Murray observes in his anthropological study, he nevertheless “has the notes of the Winter about him.20 The psychoanalytical interpretations of Freud and Ernest Jones, too, are based upon the assumption that Hamlet secretly harbors the same incestuous desires that Claudius has acted upon. But what the psychoanalysts adduce a priori is already implicit in the text: Hamlet sees himself as a sinner among sinners.

In the context of Hamlet's sense of his own guilt, the Prayer Scene becomes clear. Hamlet speaks lines belonging conventionally to the Italianate villain (or the scourge) because that is what he has become in his own eyes. The sense of moral superiority evident at his first appearance—“Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” (I. ii. 76)—has long since died away, and now he is prompted to his revenge by hell alone. In assuming the role of villain and planning Claudius' eternal damnation, Hamlet is tacitly condemning himself as well. And this is what he has been doing all along. Only now, the play-within-the-play over and some sort of action inevitable, this reciprocal condemnation comes out most strongly, and Hamlet utters the words that have perplexed his admirers ever since.

Critics who find in these words the mere orthodoxy of revenge tragedy also see in them no more than a dutiful response to the Ghost's original command. E. E. Stoll in particular points out that Hamlet is echoing the Ghost's own lamentation on the manner of his death:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'd. …


He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May. …


And, Stoll continues, the prevailing principle of revenge tragedy, classical or Elizabethan, is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.21

But the Ghost's idea of revenge, seen in itself, transcends the old and bloody lex talionis:

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.


The Ghost is concerned with the spiritual health of his nation, his son, and his queen; he shows no private thirst to see Claudius suffer what Claudius has made him suffer. He is concerned with restoration, not with retaliation. To understand how Shakespeare altered tradition, one need only turn to Marston's Senecan tragedy Antonio's Revenge—a play that may have influenced Hamlet—in which the ghost of the murdered Andrugio, like the elder Hamlet, lays the burden of vengeance on his son's shoulders:

Thou vigor of my youth, juice of my love,
Seize in revenge, grasp the stern-bended front
Of frowning vengeance with impeised clutch.
Alarum Nemesis, rouse up thy blood,
Invent some stratagem of vengeance
Which, but to think on, may like lightning glide
With horror through thy breast. Remember this:
Scelera non ulciseris, nisi vincis.(22)

“A wrong not exceeded is not revenged”: if that is the mode in which Shakespeare chose to write Hamlet, then turning from Marston—and from Seneca and Kyd—we must find the Ghost in Hamlet pretty poor stuff indeed. Otherwise, I think, we must assume that the moderation of the elder Hamlet, hypocritical or sincere, clearly sets off the ferocity of the speech in the Prayer Scene—a ferocity that far exceeds the demands of the Ghost and is Hamlet's alone23—and that Hamlet delays revenge not because he is less bloodthirsty than the Ghost, as many critics would have it, but, paradoxically, because he is more so.

“'Tis a knavish piece of work,” Hamlet remarks to Claudius during the Play Scene, “but what o' that? Your Majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not” (III.ii.250-53). Of course, the King's soul is not free, but neither is Hamlet's. If it were, he would renounce his task in the name of Christian patience, like Tourneur's Charlemont, or he would kill Claudius the quickest way and have done with it, just as Shaw's Rufio in Caesar and Cleopatra kills the dangerous servant Ftatateeta open-heartedly and without malice, lest she kill Caesar first. That would involve an entirely different play, of course: a Macbeth rewritten with Malcolm the protagonist, or Richard III with Richmond.24 Instead, Shakespeare shows us Hamlet at the very witching time of night, when hell itself breathes out contagion to this world and he could drink hot blood. Under the pressure of his unfinished task and his sense of personal corruption, he commits himself to villainy. That is his answer to what the Play Scene has told him.

Yet even this commitment is qualified by the means with which Hamlet reaches it. Prepared to speak daggers to his mother but use none, Hamlet is not prepared for what he actually next encounters: Claudius on his knees, praying (III.iii.73 ff.). The new fact immediately evokes new possibilities (“Now might I do it pat”), new decisions (“And now I'll do't”), and then new and unforeseen results (“and so he goes to heaven”). That would be scanned. The carefully balanced antithetical construction that follows brings out once more the conflict of specific fact (the praying Claudius) with paradigm of action (the manner of the elder Hamlet's death):

He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
.....                                                                                and am I then reveng'd,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?

(II. 80-81, 84-86)

This part of the speech is not so much bloodthirsty as questioning. There is even a characteristic bit of Hamlet's intellectual thoroughness that contrasts strangely and significantly with the brutality to follow:

And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him. …

(II. 82-84)

All the worse, one might argue, to damn Claudius on the basis of a mere hypothesis about the Divine Account Books. True enough, but Hamlet is going on the best information he has—that is precisely the point: this middle part of the speech shows Hamlet the “sole son” (l. 77) trying to determine his proper role in confrontation with Claudius' apparent and unexpected repentance. The rest of the speech, Hamlet's conclusion, is couched in the conventional terms of the blood revenger—the role he has been narrowly skirting throughout the Play Scene and which he makes a conscious effort to avoid in the soliloquy “Now is the very witching time of night” (III.iii.406 ff.).

It is a bad role, and Hamlet reaches it through morally questionable postulates, but in seeing him reach it, as opposed to seeing him identified with it from the start, we recognize that he might have chosen otherwise. Tourneur's Vendice gradually becomes as evil as his enemies, but it is clear even in his opening soliloquy that he has already made a decision to avenge that will inevitably entail his total corruption. Because his decision is never dramatized, it is seen as complete and irrevocable. For this reason, we never wholly sympathize with him: there is almost nothing to sympathize with. But Hamlet's decisions are always dramatized, and thus Shakespeare can continually imply the possibility, however remote, of their opposite. The Romantic notion, however sentimental and exaggerated, that Hamlet's speech in the Prayer Scene does not reflect the true Hamlet does show insight into Shakespeare's method of portrayal. However, instead of saying with the Romantics that the speech does not reflect Hamlet at all, we should say that it does not encompass him entirely.

I have dwelt so long and so one-sidedly on Hamlet's villainy because I think that it is central to the play and that critics who seek in one way or another to explain it away do violence to the text. The fact remains that Hamlet is the hero of the play, and if he moves as far toward sin as I have suggested, then we must expect Shakespeare to take strong steps to redeem him at the last. And since Hamlet is portrayed as a decision-maker, his redemption is plausible and acceptable. Hamlet's spiritual regeneration, especially as revealed in the famous utterances on providence, has often been discussed. It is not only in these speeches, however, that we see Hamlet's new alignment with heaven, or else we might reasonably complain with Bradley that they express no more than fatalism, or with L. C. Knights that they present a truth glimpsed in defeat.25 Instead, the entire end of the play is constructed to bear out what the providence speeches indicate about Hamlet's new-found identity.

This construction becomes especially clear when we read the catastrophe in the light of the Prayer Scene and see how Hamlet's conduct differs so greatly from what it was when he found the frightened and tormented Claudius making his vain plea to heaven. To begin with, in the Prayer Scene Hamlet is on the offensive. He has caught the conscience of the King: he has delivered a blow that has sent Claudius literally to his knees. He is in control of the situation: the King kneels in guilt-stricken but hopeless prayer while, unknown to him, Hamlet stands behind with drawn sword. Claudius is the passive one, and a passive man does not appear villainous on the stage. In the final scene the situation is reversed. Claudius has regained his composure, the plotting is now all his, and where Hamlet had attacked with The Murther of Gonzago, Claudius now thrusts with the poisoned sword of Laertes.

But this shift in initiative corresponds to a shift in Hamlet's character itself. Earlier, planning the fencing match with Laertes, Claudius predicts the success of their ruse:

                                                                                He, being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils. …


This seems very far from describing the man who immediately sensed the dishonesty of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and later hoisted them with their own petard; who contrived the mousetrap and, shortly thereafter, the damnation of the King. Claudius is describing the Hamlet who was once the expectancy and rose of the fair state, the Hamlet who knows not seems, but certainly not the Hamlet of the middle three acts. And yet the King's prediction comes perfectly true. “These foils have all a length?” the Prince asks carelessly, choosing one at random. And when the Queen faints, poisoned from the cup intended for him, his momentary bewilderment is equally inexplicable if he is the same Hamlet of the Prayer Scene: “O villainy! Ho! let the door be lock'd. / Treachery! Seek it out” (V.ii.322-23). Just as curious is his earlier expression of regret at his treatment of Laertes at Ophelia's grave: “For by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (V.ii.77-78). But if so, he might well suspect that Laertes' intentions in the fencing match are as bad as his own were in the Prayer Scene. How he can so blandly trust Laertes is hard to explain (it deeply bothered Bradley) unless we assume that at last he has returned to judging people by his own innocence, that once more he knows not seems—or, at last, does not care to seek it out. I am stating blatantly what Shakespeare only hinted at, but the hints are there, and they subtly shape the final scene.

Elizabethan revenge tragedy commonly ends with a ceremony of some sort by means of which the revenger entraps his victim. In The Spanish Tragedy Hieronimo's play of Soliman and Perseda, which ostensibly celebrates peace and marriage, instead disguises death for the unwary villains. Shakespeare followed the pattern in Titus Andronicus, where Titus' formal offers of hospitality disarm his enemies and lead to their slaughter. Finally the masque of revengers became a cliché of the Jacobean stage. An apparent yielding to the order of the corrupt court (and, with the masque, a celebration of that very order) conceals the forces that bring about revolution. An analogous scene occurs in Hamlet, in which the Prince, seemingly distracted for the moment from his discontent, casually drops a bombshell in Claudius' lap. It is the Play Scene, and it occurs not at the end but in the exact middle of the drama. At the end there is another ceremony, with the opposing sides again apparently reconciled in full view of the assembled court, and yet which disguises a death-plot. But in Hamlet the conventional situation is reversed: the revenger enters the final scene with no set plan, and it is the antagonist who has worked out the ceremony of death; the roles of duper and duped are reversed. Of this Stoll approves; setting traps baited with flattery and deceit is no work for a hero.26 But there is more to the reversal than that. For Hieronimo and Titus are crazed with hate, and many later revengers are frankly villains: after the Prayer Scene, that is not the road we would want Hamlet to travel. Thus, in reversing the conventional arrangement of the catastrophe, Shakespeare again indicates a change in Hamlet himself—the role in which Claudius casts him is the role he himself has at last chosen.

And so not merely in his faith in providence, but also in the ceremony of the fencing match that he accepts at the King's hands and in the guilelessness of his conduct, we see that Hamlet has at last settled into the role of the minister whose ends a divinity will shape, who has sensed about his heart the impending tragedy—but this time without scanning it. He was indeed “punished with sore distraction,” as he tells Laertes a few moments before their deaths, but now it is over. The complaint of Bradley that such insouciance implies a dereliction of duty holds true only if we assume that human acts are things unto themselves and that Hamlet is the measure of all things in the play. But when we realize how nearly Hamlet was prompted to his revenge by hell alone, we may be relieved that now he submits his will to heaven.

In The Spanish Tragedy Kyd leaves it unclear whether his protagonist is hero or villain. At one point Hieronimo renounces the biblical injunction that vengeance is the Lord's and embarks on a mission of Italianate revenge; yet at the end of the play his ghost is assigned to Elysium. Probably Kyd was more interested in exciting stage effects than in ethics and was not much concerned with the incompatibility of Senecan tragedy and Christian doctrine. In Hamlet Shakespeare deals with a similar situation, in which the hero courts villainy and yet is saved at the end (and which, likely enough, Shakespeare got from Kyd's Ur-Hamlet). But what was confusion in his predecessor Shakespeare turns into genuine dramatic tension; what was inconsistency in Kyd becomes the uncertainty, the ambivalence that disrupts Hamlet's very being, the tension that reaches its peak in the Prayer Scene and is not resolved until the final catastrophe. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus announces at the end of the fourth scene. “Heaven will direct it,” Horatio responds, almost automatically. But what comes easily to Horatio comes hard to Hamlet; awareness of it costs him his life, but struggling in the other direction he nearly lost his soul—not in the afterlife by espousing the wrong doctrine, but on the stage and before our eyes.


  1. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (Boston, 1939). Line references correspond to the Globe text.

  2. The Plays of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson (London, 1765), VII, 236.

  3. “I will venture to affirm, that these are not his real sentiments,” said William Richardson as early as 1785. “There is nothing in the whole character of Hamlet that justifies such savage enormity” (Essays on Shakespeare's Dramatic Characters [London, 1785], p. 159). Coleridge himself saw in the speech merely “the marks of reluctance and procrastination” (Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Thomas Middleton Raysor, 2d. ed. [London, 1960], I, 29-30), while Hazlitt found there “a refinement of malice, which is in truth only an excuse for his own want of resolution …” (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays [London, 1930], p. 82). And A. C. Bradley, though adding that the hatred Hamlet expresses is real enough, nevertheless stated “That this again is an unconscious excuse for delay is now pretty generally agreed”; Hamlet knows “in his heart” that he is delaying (Shakespearean Tragedy, 2d ed. [London, 1906], pp. 134-35).

  4. “To put it in a word,” A. J. A. Waldock says, “the theology of the speech impresses us as incredibly primitive. That it is primitive is readily granted. But it can make no difference: Hamlet is by no means the only Elizabethan character who is made to utter sentiments of this kind. Their primitiveness is merely to be accepted” (Hamlet, A Study in Critical Method [Cambridge, Eng., 1931], p. 42). See also Elmer Edgar Stoll, Hamlet: An Historical and Comparative Study, Research Publication of the University of Minnesota, Vol. VIII, No. 5 (Minneapolis, 1919), pp. 51-54; Edward Wagenknecht, “The Perfect Revenge—Hamlet's Delay; A Reconsideration,” CE, X (1949), 188-95; and Bertram Joseph, Conscience and the King (London, 1953), pp. 118-19, 122-23.

  5. Eleanor Alice Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, 1967), p. 187.

  6. Prosser, pp. 261-75. In an earlier study, Donald Joseph McGinn also detected disapproval among Shakespeare's contemporaries of Hamlet's vindictiveness (Shakespeare's Influence on the Drama of His Age, Studied in “Hamlet” [New Brunswick, 1938], chaps. 2-3.)

  7. Prosser, p. 164. Since the present article was written, Prof. Harold Skulsky has also discussed this dilemma, in “Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet,PMLA, LXXXV (1970), 78-87. Some of the observations in the present essay parallel his, though the basic approach is substantially different.

  8. See Prosser, p. 216:

    In defiance of every probability established thus far in the play, he has apparently checked his own descent into Hell. It is not a barbaric young revenger, consumed by rage and confirmed in murderous thoughts, who appears in the graveyard, but a mature man of poise and serenity. This sudden reversal of direction in a tragedy is curious: it is as if Macbeth were to repent in the fifth act.

    This sudden reversal, as thus described, is more than curious: it is the height of improbability. Macbeth could never be allowed to repent; what makes Hamlet different?

  9. Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (London and New York, 1949; quoted from the Anchor Books ed.; Garden City, 1954), pp. 60-61.

  10. C. S. Lewis, Hamlet, the Prince or the Poem? British Academy Annual Shakespeare Lecture (1942); quoted from Studies in Shakespeare; British Academy Lectures, ed. Peter Alexander (London, 1964), p. 212.

  11. “Etymologically, the word [doubt] stems from dubitare, which means precisely to hesitate in the face of two possibilities,” Harry Levin observes. “The structure of Hamlet seems, at every level, to have been determined by this duality” (The Question of “Hamlet” [New York, 1959], p. 48). This doubt extends even to the question of Hamlet's identity.

  12. Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater (Princeton, 1949; quoted from the Anchor Books ed.; Garden City, 1953), pp. 121, 125.

  13. Fredson Bowers, “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge,” PMLA, LXX (1955), 740-49.

  14. See Bowers, pp. 743-44, and Prosser, pp. 199-201. Prosser argues that Hamlet is by now a scourge exclusively, and indeed he would seem so even in comparison with Othello, who kills Desdemona out of a sense of justice (“It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul”) and, in addition, is scrupulously careful not to endanger her immortal soul.

  15. See Bowers, pp. 744-45. Prosser makes much the same argument, couched in the parallel terms of Christian patience versus the Renaissance doctrine of action. For further discussion of Bowers, see my The Meanings of Hamlet (Albuquerque, 1972), p. 56 and n. 9.

  16. John Dover Wilson considered the “croaking raven” speech a parodic comment on the Player, who, perhaps, is out-Heroding Herod (What Happens in Hamlet [Cambridge, Eng., 1935], pp. 161-62), but the audience—stage and actual—would probably have picked up the incongruity of the word “revenge” sooner than the allusion to the bombastic old True Tragedy of Richard the Third—to a speech, incidentally, of a villain who expects revenge to be performed on him.

  17. Harold Jenkins, “Playhouse Interpolations in the Folio Text of Hamlet,” Studies in Bibliography, XIII (1960), 37.

  18. Again, the movement of the soliloquy derives from its very context: the events leading immediately to it begin when Hamlet associates himself with Pyrrhus and actually quotes lines of bloody revenge, but as the speech continues, taken over now by the Player, it brings about the reproach of the opening lines of the soliloquy.

  19. Erasmus, Enchiridion militis Christiani (London, 1576) sigs. Giiv-Giiir.

  20. Gilbert Murray, Hamlet and Orestes, British Academy Annual Shakespeare Lecture (New York, 1914), p. 24.

  21. Stoll, pp. 51-52.

  22. John Marston, Antonio's Revenge, ed. G. K. Hunter, Regents Renaissance Drama Series (Lincoln, 1965), III. i. 44-51. The tag line is from Seneca's Thyestes.

  23. The Ghost's strongest reproach to Claudius is to call him “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” (I. v. 41); compare this with Hamlet's frenzied anger: “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!” (I. v. 106), or “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” (II. ii. 607-8). And in the Closet Scene the Ghost's entrance cuts short another violent tirade against Claudius. Whether the Ghost's moderation is genuine or, as Prosser thinks, hypocritical, the reflection on Hamlet remains the same.

  24. To the extent that the avenger is acting not only in public but for the public is his revenge justified; the political revenge in a good cause often seems to transcend the strict antinomy of Christianity and vengeance; cf. the challenge of Henry V to the powers of France (Henry V, I. ii. 289-93). See also Hardin Craig, “A Cutpurse of the Empire,” A Tribute to George Coffin Taylor, ed. Arnold Williams (Chapel Hill, 1952), p. 14, and the Bond of Association of 1584, in which Burghley and thousands of others swore to avenge any attempted assassination of the Queen. At the end of the play, I think this political necessity joins with honor and self-defense to seal Claudius' doom:

    Does it not, think'st 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 coz'nage—is't not perfect conscience
    To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damn'd
    To let this canker of our nature come
    In further evil?

    (V. ii. 63-70)

    “This canker of our nature”: Hamlet has assumed the royal plural: he speaks for the collective. And, tacitly, Horatio approves (see Bowers, p. 748).

  25. Bradley, p. 145; L. C. Knights, An Approach to Hamlet (Stanford, 1961), p. 89.

  26. Stoll, pp. 41-42.

John Hunt (essay date spring 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9697

SOURCE: Hunt, John. “A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 1 (spring 1988): 27-44.

[In the following essay, Hunt analyzes Hamlet's corporeal imagery as a means of exploring Hamlet's persistent state of indecision, asserting that before Hamlet can respond to the demands of the Ghost, he must first come to accept his own physicality and overcome his contempt for the body.]

If Hamlet actually writes down moral lessons on his tablets as he studies his revenge, many of them surely have to do with how life is lived, and lost, in bodies. Far more even than in Macbeth or Coriolanus, the human body in Hamlet forms human experience, being the medium through which men suffer and act. But the body also deforms human beings and threatens ultimately to reduce them to nothing. The nonbeing lurking at the material center of being announces itself everywhere in the play's corporeal imagery, and occupies Hamlet's mind as he tries to find his way from the regal death that initiates the action to the regal death that concludes it. This essay examines the problem in two parts, using an analysis of the imagery as an approach to the great mystery of the play, Hamlet's quandary about how to act. It suggests that Hamlet cannot adequately respond to the Ghost's commands until he learns to accept physicality, with all its dissolute inconstancy, as the image of mentality. Not until he finds his way out of a despairing contempt for the body can he achieve the wish of his first soliloquy and quietly cease to be.


At the end of Hamlet, all the remaining members of the two great families of Denmark lie crumpled about the stage. Meta-theatrically doubling this tableau, Horatio asks Fortinbras to “give order that these bodies / High on a stage be placed to the view” (V.ii.379-80)—an order that is carried out as the play ends.1 Polonius's “guts” have already been hauled off the stage less ceremoniously; Ophelia's body has been brought on with truncated ceremony and lowered into the pit beneath the stage, from which skulls have come flying up to make room for it; and all the carnage has been set in motion by the pale, glaring “dead corse” of King Hamlet. The eyes of the mind, if they are open, behold in the play's language a spectacle of ruined bodies fully as grim as what their physical counterparts behold on stage. Before hearing of and seeing the body's demise in the churchyard, we imagine an unorthodox autopsy when one gravedigger tells the other the results of the inquiry into Ophelia's suicide: “The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it Christian burial” (V.i.4-5). Grotesque visions arise when he responds to the suggestion of his companion that the original spade-wielder, Adam, was a gentleman, “the first that ever bore arms.” “Why, he had none,” the clown objects, only to be refuted in a manner that makes his statement monstrous. “What, art a heathen? How doest thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says Adam digged. Could he dig without arms?” (V.i.30 ff.). Amputee gardeners, corpses used as sofas (perhaps two of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to), and many kindred figures drive the play's physical violence deep into the minds of the audience.

The body thus represented is no mere vehicle or Platonic instrument for the soul; it incarnates spirit, as Christ, His Church, and the Host incarnate God. Shakespeare's metaphorical figures go to eery lengths to show man deeply rooted in a material substrate. Thus Hamlet takes the saying of Genesis and Matthew that man and wife become one flesh as authority for his mocking valediction to Claudius:

Farewell, dear Mother.
Thy loving father, Hamlet.
My mother—father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so, my mother.


Claudius himself imparts a corporeal facticity to the old figure of horseman as Centaur, telling Laertes of a Norman rider who “grew unto his seat” and seemed to have been “incorpsed and deminatured / With the brave beast” (IV.vii.85-88). And Laertes warns his sister not to love the prince because his ambitious mind grows along with his young body and, as lord of the kingdom, he will be “circumscribed / Unto the voice and yielding of that body / Whereof he is the head” (I.iii.22-24).

The body politic is more than a metaphor for social organization in this play; it describes a tightly integrated world where reality stems palpably from the centers of political and religious authority. Francis Barker, describing the public, spectacular quality of Hamlet and other Jacobean tragedies, has argued that the abundant corporeal images used in texts of this period were not the “dead metaphors” that they are now, but “indices of a social order in which the body has a central and irreducible place.” “With a clarity now hard to recapture,” he says, “the social plenum is the body of the king, and membership of this anatomy is the deep structural form of all being in the secular realm.”2 The extravagant idea, examined by Ernst Kantorowicz three decades ago, that the king in fact has two bodies—his own plus a superbody equivalent to the corporate life of his nation—always threatened to revert to a mystical abstraction, and eventually disappeared from political theory. Discussing its role in Richard II, Kantorowicz observed that if the conceit “still has a very real and human meaning today, this is largely due to Shakespeare. It is he who has eternalized that metaphor.”3 There is nothing in Richard II to match the really astonishing concreteness that the metaphor acquires in one passage of Hamlet, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accede to Claudius's plan to “dispatch” Hamlet to England:

                                        We will ourselves provide.
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your Majesty.


Calling up pictures of a bloated insect queen covered by her sucking attendants, or a convocation of politic worms feasting on a corpse, or a communion more literally cannibalistic than most, this violently arresting image locates the king at the dark center of a world dense with material significance. His universal Body, symbolizing religious authority over a commonality, does not hover in some library of legal abstractions, but pulsates with grisly vitality.

The imagery that Shakespeare invents to establish man's corporeality startles most when isolated parts of the body function as metonymic or synechdocal equivalents for actions and states of being. Every audience remembers “The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art”; Hecuba's “lank and all o'er-teemed loins”; Fortinbras sharking up men “For food and diet to some enterprise / That hath a stomach in't”; Osric complying with his dug before he sucks it; Hamlet beating his brains; and countless similar figures. This usage pervades so much of the play that one can hardly read or hear twenty consecutive lines without encountering it. To maintain the motif's impact in the midst of such copious use, Shakespeare occasionally resorts to violently pressured and improbable images. “Let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,” says Hamlet to Horatio in an indictment of the flatterer so suggestively lewd that even the compleat courtier might blush to hear it, “And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee / Where thrift may follow fawning” (III.ii.60-62). Shortly afterwards he asks Horatio to watch Claudius carefully, “For I mine eyes will rivet to his face” (l. 85). After this anatomical outrage has been performed upon him, Claudius decides that with Hamlet in Denmark he is not safe from the “Hazard so near's as doth hourly grow / Out of his brows” (III.iii.6-7). In such images, strangely transformed parts of the body—the flatterer's glazed tongue and pregnant knees, Hamlet's bolted eyeballs and malignantly hypertrophic forehead—figure forth morbid states of mind typified in the pursuit of some compelling action. One thinks of certain punishments in the lower reaches of Dante's Inferno: Mohammad's riven trunk fulfilling his schismatic mischief, Ugolino gnawing his enemy's malevolent skull. Indeed, the Ghost hints that, were it not for the intolerable effects that such a tale would have on the living, he could tell of such a treatment of the body's parts in his purgatory: “But this eternal blazon must not be / To ears of flesh and blood” (I.v.21-22).

It has, I believe, never been observed that these images of body parts in Hamlet add up to a virtual anatomical catalogue (or, to use the Ghost's grim little joke about dismemberment, “blazon”) of the human form. “Considered curiously,” as curiously as Hamlet considers the dust of Alexander, the play looks like a dissecting room, stocked with all of man's limbs, organs, tissues, and fluids. Certain parts are mentioned incessantly: eyes, ears, heads, hearts, hands, faces, tongues, brains. These major melodies in the carnal concerto are accompanied by numerous lesser themes. We hear (in varying degrees of frequency) of mouths, noses, lips, cheeks, jaws, teeth, eyelids, foreheads (“brows”), the crown of the head (“pate”), the skin, hair in general, beards, necks, limbs in general, arms, legs, knees, feet, heels, toes, fingers, the thumb, the palm, the wrist, the shoulder, the back, the loins, the waist, the breast in general (“bosom”), the mammary organ (Osric's “dug”), genitals in general (“privates”), male genitals (“cock” and the “long purple” flowers whose common name has been euphemized to “dead men's fingers”), female genitals (“country matters”), and the anus (“bunghole”).4 Of internal organs, there is mention not only of the heart and brain, but also the throat, lungs, stomach, spleen, liver, guts, bones, marrow, nerves, sinews, spinal cord (“pith”), and arteries. Of the fluid products of the body, we hear of blood and tears incessantly, and also of sweat, milk, fat, and gall. The play also refers to various corrupting growths in the body—moles, cankers, warts, ulcers, abcesses, sores, scabs, and “contagious blastments.” Finally, it alludes to such bodily functions as speech, hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell, eating, drinking, chewing, digestion, vomiting, evacuation, sleep, dreaming, hallucination, yawning, weeping, laughing, breathing, copulation, pregnancy, suckling, pulse, disease, fever, death, and decomposition.

More than simply painting a bloody backdrop for his tragedy of revenge, in the manner of Webster, Shakespeare seems to be methodically deconstructing the body. His universal cataloguing of particulars does to the human body what Hamlet tells Osric it would be hard to do to Laertes: “divide him inventorially” (V.ii.114). Like Montaigne, who sought to examine the unknown totality of human experience through its genesis in many particular, irreducible phenomena experienced by the organism, Shakespeare seeks to reduce life to its corporeal elements. His characters in this play think of every psychological quality, every rational deliberation or spiritual choice, in terms of the physical equipment that locates them in a world of action. Claudius's unsuccessful attempt to pray is a good example, demonstrating as it does the limitation of human possibility implied by this procedure. He thinks throughout his soliloquy in corporeal images: the smell of his offense, the blood on his hand, the face of a reprobate and a penitent, “stubborn knees” that will not bow down, a “bosom black as death” hiding a “heart with strings of steel,” and so forth (III.iii.36 ff.). Claudius's “limed soul” reflects conditions of corporeal limitation that Montaigne suggests, at the end of “Raymond Sebond,” man can overcome only through the extension of divine grace:

For to make the handful bigger than the hand, the armful bigger than the arm, and to hope to straddle more than the reach of our legs, is impossible and unnatural. Nor can man raise himself above himself and humanity; for he can see only with his own eyes, and seize only with his own grasp.

He will rise, if God by exception lends him a hand.5

None of the angels whom Claudius begs to “Make assay” offers him an incorporeal hand; caught within the paralytic compound of his heart, hands, brain, face, voice, he looks in vain for a way out of the dwelling that he has made a prison. Nor do any of the other characters in Hamlet find “exceptional” release from their natural condition. In their variously less desperate ways, all struggle against the web of matter that life has woven round them and in which they implicate themselves further every time they act.

Montaigne's challenge, after skeptically weighing the particulars of human experience, was to put them back together in a living totality. Shakespeare's intention appears to be very different. Far from even attempting to present the life of the body as an organically functioning entity, he portrays it more in the manner of Donne's Devotions, as a collection of pieces whose morbidity intimates their ultimate violent dissolution. The play's countless parts and functions, linked with various extreme and unhealthy states of mind, engender a disturbing sense of ontological dislocation. Things fall apart in Hamlet—or are torn apart. Shakespeare does not use the currently popular metaphor of anatomy here (as he does, for instance, for Jaques's lacerating intelligence in As You Like It), but throughout the play we are made to think of the fragmented state of a body that has been cut open, probed, dissected. When, in the first line of the play, Barnardo inappropriately demands the identity of Francisco, the sentinel he is replacing, Francisco responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” In the claustrophobic heart of Elsinore, the politicians try to make Hamlet stand still so that they can unfold him and find what lies within. Seeing Hamlet's disturbed behavior, Claudius resolves to discover (surgically, as it were) “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus, / That opened lies within our remedy” (II.ii.17-18). Polonius, supposing that he has found the answer, points (according to the commonest editorial reading) to his head and shoulders and says:

Take this from this, if this be otherwise.
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the center.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Fortune's privates, who make love to their employment, who would play on Hamlet's stops as on a pipe, reaching for the heart of his mystery, are themselves ground up in their obscene probings, doomed “by their own insinuation” (V.ii.59). The king keeps them, as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz, “like an ape, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed, to be last swallowed” (IV.ii.19-20). Finally they become inert matter in Hamlet's own perversion of Claudius's plans.

Other insinuations of partition or dismemberment come in reference to “parts” or “pieces,” as in the fragmented lines that open the play. When two more figures enter, Barnardo asks, “What, is Horatio there?” and Horatio answers—perhaps in numbness at the frigid weather, perhaps in disdain for the spooky proceedings, but certainly strangely—“A piece of him” (I.i.19). Laertes, “the continent of what part a gentleman would see” (V.ii.112-13), suffers often from such usages, several of them in the scene in which Claudius reduces him to a tool of his murderous intentions (IV.vii.57 ff.). Laertes agrees to obey Claudius on the condition that “you will not o'errule me to a peace,” and Claudius replies “To thine own peace.” Laertes is content, but wishes it could be arranged “That I might be the organ” of Hamlet's punishment; and Claudius agrees that, of Laertes's courtly “sum of parts,” he will use one “part,” his fencing, to entice Hamlet to his doom. The ideas of incision and partition are combined in the closet scene, where Hamlet's promise not to let Gertrude go until he has made her see her “inmost part” makes her fear that she is literally to be carved up (III.iv.20 ff.). After her hasty exclamation has caused that fate to befall the vigilant Polonius instead, and after Hamlet has thrust his merely verbal daggers in her ears, the queen laments that her heart has been “cleft in twain” and is told, “O, throw away the worser part of it, / And live the purer with the other half” (III.iv.157-59). Hamlet teems with such figures of a body that has been dislocated, broken into its parts. “The time is out of joint” in Denmark, and the young prince has been called upon to plant his foot in the socket and violently “set it right”—an action that involves him in causing still more violation and dislocation.

All this imagery pertaining to the unmaking of the body bears some resemblance to the imagery of the Henry IV plays, which Neil Rhodes discusses in the course of his study of the Elizabethan tradition of isolating and distorting parts of the body for comic and admonitory effects.6 Food metaphors in particular attach themselves to the person of Falstaff, alternately evoking joyous physicality and miserable corporeal degeneration. A similar emphasis on what Rhodes calls “the mere materiality … of existence” inheres in the somewhat different corporeal metaphors of Hamlet, which derive ultimately from the Ghost who hovers behind the scenes and impels the action. Despite his relatively brief time on stage, the Ghost fills the linguistic fabric of his play with images of broken bodies, much as the fat knight generates images of sensory gratification and discomfort. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and he symbolizes it. Since Wolfgang Clemen's book on Shakespeare's imagery, it has become a commonplace in Hamlet criticism that the motif of ulcerous infection and corruption that runs throughout the play centers on the speech in which Hamlet is told how poison was poured into his father's ears, coursed through his blood, and ate away his body from within, covering it with sores.7 It could be added to Clemen's important observation that the figure of the dead king also organizes corporeal imagery implying dislocation and dissolution. The physical undoing of King Hamlet accounts ultimately—in terms of both the structures of imagery and those of plot—for the physical, psychological, moral, and political undoing suffered by the play's living characters.

As the king was “cut off” (I.v.76) from all that he loved, so Ophelia finds herself, in Claudius's words, “Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts” (IV.v.86-87). Deprived of the coherent form of reason, but still obscurely intelligible, “Her speech is nothing, / Yet the unshaped use of it doth move / The hearers to collection; they yawn at it, / And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (IV.v.7-10). Claudius correctly says of this psychic mutilation, “O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs / All from her father's death” (IV.v.76-77)—just as he discerned earlier that some ruinous “matter” in Hamlet's heart was distorting his appearance and behavior (III.i.165 ff.). Claudius can see that the same psychic recapitulation of King Hamlet's poisoned disfiguration is taking place in Laertes, who “wants not buzzers to infect his ear / With pestilent speeches of his father's death, / Wherein necessity, of matter beggard, / Will nothing stick our person to arraign / In ear and ear” (IV.v.91-95). Noting all these changes, and the political trouble that they are bringing—Hamlet has just been sent to England, “For like the hectic in my blood he rages,” and Laertes is about to burst in upon the inner sanctum of the palace “in a riotous head”—Claudius too succumbs to a feeling of violent psychological disruption. The swelling disaster in his kingdom, he tells Gertrude, “Like to a murd'ring piece, in many places / Gives me superfluous death” (ll. 96-97).

In the closet scene, Hamlet analyzes in terms of corporeal disfigurement the moral depravity that reaches out from Claudius to all those who come under his sway. Gertrude's vice appears in her having abandoned the physical arrangement of parts that was King Hamlet—“a combination and a form” that proclaimed manliness—for a demonstrably inferior form (III.iv.56 ff.). “Have you eyes?” Hamlet asks, suggesting that only some physical mutilation could account for such blindness. To choose Claudius indicates not merely sensual weakness, but sensory derangement:

                                                                                                                        Sense sure you have,
Else could you not have motion, but sure that sense
Is apoplexed …
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

(ll. 72-74, 79-82)

Hamlet continues his indictment of Claudius with a comparison to the dismembered body of the dead king. The new ruler of Denmark's government and Gertrude's affections is, he tells the queen, a sum of parts that do not make up a whole, a living body that has already been reduced to fragments: he is “a king of shreds and patches,” “not twentieth part the tithe / Of your precedent lord” (ll. 103, 98-99).

The physical imitation of King Hamlet's undoing that culminates in the play's final scene with four deaths by poisoning—five if Horatio could have his way—begins with the death of Polonius, whose corpse is made an emblem of physical decay. After Hamlet has rendered the old courtier “most grave” and lugged his guts offstage, Claudius asks where Hamlet has gone and Gertrude replies, with echoes of dismemberment: “To draw apart the body he hath killed” (IV.i.24). Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to “bring the body / Into the chapel” (ll. 36-37), but their persistent inquiries are parried by Hamlet, who makes the absent corpse a kind of absent prop for dramatizing the mystery of undoing revealed by his father's ghost:

What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?
Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin.


My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and go with us to the King.
The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing—
A thing, my lord?
Of nothing. Bring me to him.

(IV.ii.5-6, 26-31)

The death of kings is the beginning and the end of Hamlet's study in this play. Polonius offers him an imaginative link between the live king who attaches so much importance to bodies and the dead king who knows how little they amount to. Brought before Claudius and asked once more “where the dead body is bestowed,” Hamlet waxes philosophical about kings, beggars, and the worms that consume them both. Considering that even a king, whose mystically double Body represents the corporate being of all his subjects, “may go a progress through the guts of a beggar,” he recites the lesson of the play's corporeal images. The body personal and politic is a provisional structure, both a form that sustains human being and a shadow through which nonbeing beckons. As a composition of parts that will inevitably fall apart and decompose, human life is paradoxically “a thing … of nothing,” an existence constructed around the void.


In his famous subtilization of the Romantic idea that Hamlet is unnecessarily and morbidly reflective, T. S. Eliot argued that Shakespeare himself failed in Hamlet to establish any clear correspondence between thought and action, idea and image. The play is “full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art,” Eliot suggested; and since nothing in the fictional occasion is sufficient to account for the protagonist's great apprehension and disgust, his thoughts and feelings cannot be expressed by “a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions.”8 The morbid corporeality of the imagined sensory impressions described in the first section of this essay may provide an answer to Eliot's charge, in that they constitute something like an “objective correlative” for Hamlet's obsessive withdrawal from the world of action. The attitude toward corporeal existence inherent in the play's imagery figures prominently in the protagonist's thinking as well; it contributes to his inability to “act” by challenging what he regards as the integrity of his being.

Insofar as Hamlet suffers from a psychological Problem distinct from the formidable moral and practical difficulties presented by his situation, it consists in questioning his own being; and this in turn has much to do with his inability to identify himself with that which decays, “passing through nature to eternity” (I.ii.73). A small eternity of dramatic time must pass before Hamlet can think of himself as a creature of flesh without experiencing paroxysms of anguish and disgust. His observation that a king may pass through the guts of a beggar is intended as a thinly veiled threat against Claudius's life, but it attacks also his sense of himself as a dignified, purposeful, heroic being. Fearing that physical actions may never adequately embody virtuous intentions, he makes the doubt self-fulfilling by shielding his high sense of himself within an overwhelming contempt for the body—a contempt that sabotages meaningful action.

Mark Rose has observed how Hamlet is “bound” to certain courses of action by his birth, by his uncle's calculating refusal to let him leave the corrupt “prison” of Denmark, and by his loyalty to the Ghost (“I am bound to hear”; “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear”); he rebels against these constrictions, Rose argues, by becoming “obsessed with the idea of freedom, with the dignity that resides in being master of oneself.”9 But Hamlet is bound as well to his body, and obsessed with his contempt for it. Even before he is called upon to “set right” the unnatural murder and the incestuous marriage, he laments his connection to the royal couple's physicality. His mother's lascivious “appetite” prompts him to wish for a way out of the hateful body that can lead people to forget so quickly the spiritual goods that have sustained them for a lifetime:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.


Claudius's rowdy behavior with the boys becomes the occasion for another meditation on corporeal subversion of virtue. Denmark's “heavy-headed revel,” he tells Horatio, has taken “from our achievements … / The pith and marrow of our attribute” (I.iv.17-22)—hollowing out the bones, enervating the spine of a national reputation built up from the achievements of noble Danes. If an irruption of physical impulse can so damage the reputation of an entire nation, it is not surprising that some “vicious mole of nature” or “the o'ergrowth of some complexion” can undermine the reputation of individual men, to such a degree that their virtues “Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault” (ll. 23-36).

The Ghost calls Hamlet deep into this world of disruption. Its invitation to decapitate the body politic seems a horrific charge (“O cursed spite”), and by the end of the play it will manifestly be so: Ophelia will have been emotionally brutalized and lost to lunatic distraction; the king and queen will have been pierced with hateful insight, their attempts to reconstitute a harmonious political entity shattered; the populace will have been raised to the brink of revolt; Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself will have fallen as more or less innocent victims before Claudius finally does; and Denmark itself will be put in the hands of the reckless young marauder whose hostile approach the sentries anticipated at the beginning of the play. In setting right two injustices, Hamlet will cause physical, psychological, moral, and political dislocations on a universal scale.

Nothing about the apparition gives Hamlet any confidence that the purposeful determination needed to persevere through the play's violence is grounded in substantial, lasting virtue transcending Oresteian futility. On the contrary, the Ghost is simultaneously insubstantial and a horrifying memento of all that rots, seeming to embody the very forces of corporeal ruin that Hamlet fears may be inimical to virtue. It recalls in appearance and dignity the majestic king who won honor destroying the Poles and conquering ambitious Norway. But the Ghost is a weak and ephemeral substitute for the king, referred to by Horatio and the guards as his “image,” “this thing,” “illusion,” “this portentous figure,” a “horrible form,” “a figure like your father,” something “like the King.” Hamlet's astonished prostration before it in the closet scene contrasts with the queen's equally great astonishment that her son is gazing wildly into “vacancy” and holding discourse with “th'incorporal air” (III.iv.118-19). The Ghost seems very much “a thing of nothing” when Hamlet's appeals for Gertrude to confirm its existence elicit only fears that her son is a victim of schizophrenic hallucination:

To whom do you speak this?
                                                  Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Nor did you nothing hear?
                                                  No, nothing but ourselves.
Why, look you there, look how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look where he goes, even now, out at the portal!
                                                                                                                                            Exit Ghost.
This is the very coinage of your brain.
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.


Hamlet answers his mother's charge of “ecstasy” convincingly. We cannot believe that the Ghost is a figment of his imagination: Horatio has raised precisely this issue in the first scene of the play, and has been quickly convinced that the apparition is “something more than fantasy” (I.i.54). But Shakespeare's stagecraft makes us feel poignantly how little Hamlet is able to rely on the Ghost as his justification for a murderous course of action. Cast on the defensive, forced to justify the right of a lunatic to catechize a sinner, Hamlet is in no way aided by the encore appearance that the Ghost makes to whet his “almost blunted purpose.”

In addition to being “incorporal,” insubstantial, the Ghost dwells on the terrifying processes by which corporeal creatures are reduced to fragments of themselves. Its first words seem calculated to plunge Hamlet deep into thoughts of undoing. “My hour is almost come, / When I to sulf'rous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself,” it begins, evoking visions of human flesh “rendered” to its elements like animal fat (I.v.2-4). The Ghost may be Hamlet's “father's spirit,” but it is a spirit bound by “foul crimes,” doomed to wear away by fasting and fire the impurities that it acquired in nature (ll. 9-13). The punishments of its “prison house” are not less intense than what flesh is heir to; in fact, they are so much more intense that hearing of them

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.

(ll. 16-22)

The Ghost spares Hamlet the sympathetic undoing that would befall him if he heard this tale of the Almighty's purging fires, but it treats him to the next worst thing, an account of the effects of Claudius's poison. When he is told the manner of his father's death—cut off instantly from life, wife, and crown, with venom coursing through his body, his blood congealing and skin crusting, and unrepented sins weighing upon his head—Hamlet hardly requires the Ghost's accompanying injunction: “O, horrible! Most horrible! / If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not” (ll. 80-81). Reeling as beneath a physical blow, he feels that his own body may no longer cohere, no longer support his consciousness: “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But bear me stiffly up” (ll. 93-95).

Earlier, the sight of the Ghost has left Marcellus and Barnardo “distilled / Almost to jelly with the act of fear” (I.ii.204-5). The tale of how his father's body sank from admirable beauty to horrifying monstrosity in an instant, and how in the same instant invisible sins overwhelmed his father's soul, plunges Hamlet into a horror as much ontological as physical, into a world where man the effectual ethical agent seems distilled to utter inconsequence. Is ambition a shadow, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suggest in a feeble attempt to broach the topic of Hamlet's political intentions? “Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars' shadows” (II.ii.267-69). Just as a king's body might be imagined going a passage through the guts of a beggar, his ambitious, “outstretched” spirit may be nothing more lasting than a ghostly shadow. In this world, thoughts may be no more capable of transcending ruin than are bodies. The earth now seems “sterile” to Hamlet, the firmament a morbid exhalation of infectious “vapors,” and godlike man a handful of dust waiting to return to its disorganized state (II.ii). The best things in himself—his fidelity to his father, and the love of Ophelia—are seen now as compromised by the old corrupt “stock” of mankind that virtue can “inoculate” but never supplant (III.i). Linking himself with men such as Claudius—and Ophelia with women such as Gertrude—by the corruptible material in which they are commonly rooted, Hamlet sees virtuous purpose and rational significance threatened everywhere by corporeal corruption.

This perception of bodily experience as corrupt and corrupting drives Hamlet into disdainful, alienated contempt: contempt for his own flesh, contempt for those parts of his experience that seem tainted by corporeality, contempt for people who threaten to harm or to compromise him by insinuating themselves into his thoughts. When Horatio warns him of the possible dangers of following the Ghost, he welcomes the destruction of his body: “Why, what should be the fear? / I do not set my life at a pin's fee, / And for my soul, what can it do to that, / Being a thing immortal as itself?” (I.iv.64-67). Horatio's reasonable reminder that the soul is no more immutable or invulnerable than the body, but may itself be wrecked in madness as it hovers over the abyss, drives Hamlet into what seems to Horatio a “desperate” violence: “Unhand me, gentlemen. / By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!” (ll. 84-85). This violent withdrawal from his body and from his companions is augmented shortly by withdrawal from his own worldly self. Hamlet imagines that, in order to honor the Ghost's parting command, he must obliterate from memory all the experience and learning stored in his brain, uprooting past impressions until only those of the avenging spirit live there, “Unmix'd with baser matter” (I.v.104). Forsaking for the moment the prudential considerations that his years of “observation” would suggest to him, and also his trust in his companions, he contents himself with “wild and whirling words,” like a falcon towering high above the earth.

Hamlet's transcendent contempt is dramatized most powerfully in his treatment of Ophelia, the one creature who ties him inextricably, physically, to the corrupt world of Elsinore. His alienation from her begins soon after the encounter with the Ghost. At the end of II.i, she tells Polonius how Hamlet has withdrawn himself in ghostly silence from her society. The antic performance that Polonius takes for “the very ecstasy of love” is indeed ecstatic, though hardly amatory. Hamlet, in Ophelia's description, resembles the literary figure of the distracted and dishevelled lover, but he more strongly evokes the corporeal ruin suggested by the figure of the Ghost. He has entered her room, Ophelia says, in a manner ominous enough to strike terror into her heart, very pale (as the Ghost was said to be), “And with a look so piteous in purport, / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors” (II.i.82-84). Silently scrutinizing the amazed object of his visitation, as the Ghost silently stood before his interlocutors before finally yielding up speech to Hamlet, and three times imitating its action of lifting its head up and down (described by Horatio at I.ii.216), he at last raises “a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being” (II.i.94-96)—then drifts out of the room without the use of his eyes, they being constantly fixed on Ophelia, as the Ghost's were said to be on Horatio. In thus affecting the shattering of bulk and ending of being that tore his father from the queen, Hamlet declares his intention to tear himself from his erotic attachment to Ophelia.

A violent attempt to free himself from corporeality, resulting paradoxically in a deep immersion in it, characterizes all of Hamlet's dealings with Ophelia. When he turns his assumed madness upon the unfortunate girl with full force in Act III, he reviles her as a pretty snare for the spirit—one of those creatures who substitute new faces for the ones God gave them, who jig and amble and lisp, who excuse their moral depravity by pleading their rational incapacity—and urges her to take herself out of sexual circulation. The next scene finds him attacking her body with ribald jokes about country matters, lying between maids' legs, and games of show and tell. In thus bitterly doing violence to the creature who most has access to his inner self, Hamlet does not find freedom from the danger of love, but only reduces himself and her to ruin. The deformation of his former self that Ophelia thinks she sees in his harangue—“That unmatched form and feature of blown youth / Blasted with ecstasy” (III.i.160-61)—prefigures her own madness in the next Act. It foretells also Hamlet's distracted expressions of anguish at her death:

'Swounds, show me what thou't do.
Woo't weep? Woo't fight? Woo't fast? Woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?
I'll do't.


Hamlet finds excessive and violent degradations of his own body the only adequate testimony to the falseness of his earlier contempt. All of his efforts to remove himself from the compromising infection of corporeality only drive him more deeply into the understanding of his dependence on the frail body.

Hamlet's violent, and ultimately futile, ambition to transcend bodily weakness can be seen not only in his dealings with Ophelia, but also in all of his attempts to respond adequately to the death of his father. In his first speech of the play, while manifestly acting the part of a mourner, he disdains dramatic action as being limited by the opacity of the flesh. No physical “show,” he insists, can adequately convey the immensity of his grief. His black clothes and the expressive corporeal actions that accompany them fall short of the indescribable state of suffering that resides within him. Hamlet's separation of “actions that a man might play” and the invisible anguish of his alienated soul is an admission of futility, suggesting that no physical acts—whether dramatic or heroic—can serve the purposes of the spirit. And his words ring false when compared to the authentic alienation of Ophelia, whose mad meanderings and distracted gestures, while opaque to reason, nevertheless move their audience to anguished commiseration as coherent utterance never could—prompting Laertes to exclaim, “This nothing's more than matter” (IV.v.174).

The Ghost's demand for vengeance requires some stronger resort to physicality, and when Hamlet asks the Player for “a passionate speech” he seems briefly to have found a model for “suiting” corporeal action to mental state. He admires the Player's capacity to so translate a fictional intention into dramatic action that all of his corporeal “function” can be seen lending “forms to his conceit” (II.ii.561-62). But it soon appears that Hamlet is not chiefly interested in the harmonious suiting of body to soul. Rather, he has asked for the speech in order to excite himself to a still more violent contempt for the body. He imagines that, given the magnitude of his wrong, he should “drown the stage with tears,” “cleave the general ear with horrid speech,” “and amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (ll. 567-71). He fixes obsessively on corporeal excitation as a standard for dramatic and ethical action, contemplating imaginary injuries to his own body in order to work himself up into violence:

                                                                                                                        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!
Why, what an ass am I!

(ll. 577-89)

Hamlet's bitter self-hatred in these lines stems from his conviction that, in order to act the part of the revenger, he must plunge deep into the bodily passion that he so despises, and perhaps become a bloody villain himself. He quickly abandons the part, determining instead to have other actors enact a play that will determine the king's guilt or innocence.

His instructions to the players correct his bitter contempt for the body, assigning corporeality its due place in dramatic imitation. Renouncing his ecstatic exaggeration of physical violence, Hamlet says, “O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings” (III.ii.8-11). Use the body in your acting, he tells the players, but “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” (ll. 17-18). He no longer disdains the capacity of bodily actions to execute ethical intentions. The purpose of acting, he says, is to mirror the lineaments of human experience on stage—“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” (ll. 21-24). Like a mirror that faithfully receives the physical forms of things, dramatic art takes the bodily impress of men and women and re-presents their moral nature in its living outlines. Hamlet achieves in these prescriptions for art a conception of its ethically effective function, and he manages to implement the conception when he uses other artists' works to probe the psyches of Claudius and Gertrude. The starkly mimetic tableau of courtly bodies played before Claudius literally shows the king the form of his actions, and achieves its intended effect of driving him from cover. The portraits of Gertrude's two husbands engage her conscience with similarly stunning effect, confronting her inescapably with the lineaments of her desires.

But artistic imitations of bodily action do not help Hamlet to accomplish his most important ethical action. He uses the artistic fusion of body and soul, form and intention, to do what art can do according to the Renaissance aesthetic: convey the intelligible order of experience to an audience and stir their moral responses. He cannot—or will not—use it to accomplish regicide. Indeed, he lets even his “antic disposition” slip before and during the play, with the effect that Claudius understands exactly why the mousetrap has been sprung and determines to remove his enemy from Denmark.

Hamlet's explicit considerations of revenge, like his studies of models of dramatic action, suffer constantly from his ambition to transcend corporeal weakness. By associating heroic action with an escape from the flesh in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he initiates a vain attempt to transcend the very conditions of action. He imagines that “taking up arms” will somehow liberate his soul from the indignities of the body. But hearing the story of how his father died has made it impossible for him to imagine the process of leaving the body (so “noble in the mind”) in any terms except those of corporeal calamity. Eternal sleep suggests eternal nightmares. Casting his mind up and out of corporeal misery only leaves him “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,” his face drained of “the native hue of resolution” by a consciousness turned pathologically inward. Corporeality drags his heaven-seeking thoughts to earth; like the praying Claudius, he finds them miserably incapable of transcending the limitations of bodily existence.

His effort to draw inspiration from the soldiership of Fortinbras, like his very similar admiration for the Player, loses coherent ethical purpose as it sinks into violent disdain for bodily well-being. The Norwegian adventure against Poland seems to him a case of pathologically morbid violence, an “imposthume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies” (IV.iv.27-29). But he forces himself to admire it, because of Fortinbras's eagerness to abandon bodily concerns for the sake of the spirit. His own small sum of bloodshed, he decides, indicates a beast's dull maintenance of corporeal functions, while Fortinbras's admirable “spirit,” his “divine ambition,” appear in his willingness to expose the great “mass” of his army to indiscriminate slaughter. Fortinbras's sacrifice of twenty thousand men for a piece of land not large enough to bury them outpaces in barbarity Laertes's willingness to cut his enemy's throat in the church, and his motives—“a fantasy and trick of fame”—are more insubstantial. Hamlet recognizes the monstrosity of the deed, and even the words that he calls up to defend it betray their ostensible purposes: “Examples gross as earth exhort me” (can such examples be exemplary?); “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument” (if he is affirming Fortinbras's action, does he not need another “not”?). In yearning to pattern his own revenge on this senseless promotion of catastrophe, Hamlet abandons all realistic consideration of good and evil in an effort to overcome his dull animal maintenance of corporeal life. Instead of deploring Fortinbras's failure to use the body for substantial purposes, he celebrates the way in which he contemptuously smashes it, and thereby entertains thoughts of moral depravity.

In the prayer scene, we see Hamlet caught once more in the division that he would make between body and spirit, and once more cultivating the pathological corruption that he so fears. Seeing Claudius engaged, as he thinks, in “the purging of his soul,” making himself “fit and seasoned for his passage”—whereas his own father died “grossly, full of bread, / With all his crimes broad blown”—Hamlet waits for a moment that will have “no relish of salvation in't,” and leaves Claudius's “physic” to give way to more “sickly days” (III.iii.80-96). An ill-intentioned consulting physician, he judges the alimentary system of the patient sufficiently free of obstruction to permit an unimpeded “passage” of the soul to paradise, and prescribes a period of waiting so that the organism may worsen and clog the hateful soul within it before it is killed. His false assumption that any human soul, much less one so corrupt as Claudius's, could free itself from the conditions of corporeality leads him to seek a barbaric revenge incompatible with Christian virtue, and prevents him from enacting the simpler revenge that lies possible before him. The dramatic irony that Claudius has not been able to transcend his body and the things that it still loves urges the insufficiency of Hamlet's attitudes.

Purposeful action cannot coexist with Hamlet's effort to distinguish the invincible soul from the ruinous body. Such an effort seeks to rescue the self from something that it depends upon for its being and doing. Consciousness in Hamlet is, like the body, an entity poised between substantial presence and ephemeral absence. The body grows and decays according to its own laws; by the same inscrutable laws, men find achievement in the midst of loss, security in the midst of fear, power in weakness, significance in accident. Hamlet defies these laws so long as he attempts to remove the spirit from ambiguity and lodge it in simplicity. Instead of cultivating the compound of kindred elements that is a spirited body, he tries to split it into a duality, and wastes his energy contemning half of himself.

When Hamlet breaks out of his dualism and more confidently treads the stage as a duellist, it is because he has finally acknowledged, without dread or anguish, that princes, like their swords, accomplish their ends in “passing.” A clown's tricks do not outlive his kicks: not only Yorick's lips have disappeared from the earth, but also his gibes, his gambols, his songs, his flashes of merriment. Nor, by the same token, can Caesar, “that earth which kept the world in awe” (V.i.215), expect to remain a substantial and functional presence, save perhaps as a patch on a windy wall. The great personages who may have owned the graveyard's bones dance again in imagination as creatures who mistook their power for something more substantial than the body, and the fragments of their bodies mock their pretension by outliving them. Gertrude may have forgotten her husband after only two months, but a tanner's flesh is still keeping out water after eight years. As Hamlet persists (despite Horatio's objection) in his courageously reductive meditations on human vanity, he approaches the brash humility of the Gravedigger, who happily shovels aside pieces of bodies as he sings a ditty of age having “shipped me into the land, / As if I had never been such” (V.i.71-74). The rustic's “absolute” use of the terms “man” and “woman” comically relieves the anxiety generated since the beginning of the play by Hamlet's effort to distinguish mankind from corporeality:

What man dost thou dig it for?
For no man, sir.
For what woman then?
For none neither.
Who is to be buried in't?
One that was a woman, sir; but, rest her soul, she's dead.
How absolute the knave is!

(ll. 130-36)

Hamlet's taking solace in the provisional “absolute” that men and women are more than their bodies, but not different from them, suggests that he accepts as well the fact that man's strength consists in acceding to corporeal accidents, rather than in trying to transcend them.

While it is clear that Hamlet adopts a new kind of understanding in Act V, and that he undergoes some beneficial change as a result, criticism has long been notoriously vague about precisely what this saving knowledge consists in. Hamlet does not learn simply to accept death; indeed, he seems always to have desired it. Nor are his words about the “divinity that shapes our ends” and the “special providence in the fall of a sparrow” sufficient foundation on which to base a religious ethic or cosmology. What seems to be on his mind more essentially than either death or God is a preoccupation with the possibilities and conditions of purposeful human action. But even here the understanding seems to be more negative than positive. Hamlet begins to embrace accidental occasions—seeing them under the aspect of Providence rather than Fortune—and to renounce his earlier need to understand and control every aspect of his revenge. Discussing the importance of chance occurrence in the final action, William Warner has recently observed how reluctant the critics of various schools have been to accept limitations on Hamlet's importance, and how they have been driven to ingenious or vague arguments in attempts to rescue his purposeful intentionality.10 What Hamlet learns, Warner suggests, is precisely the insufficiency of his own attempts to make final and coherent constructions of reality: he learns, in effect, by unlearning what he has thought earlier in the play.

One thing that Hamlet unlearns is his contempt for his physical nature, which has persistently reduced this spirited and capable exemplar of active virtue to acting not at all, or in spurts of blind rage. Hamlet's identity throughout the play has depended upon his wish to exceed the conditions of vulnerability and incompleteness that inhere in an animal body. But reality has repeatedly contradicted this assumed identity, insisting that the body must be central to his being, not something inessential that can be thought into irrelevance and violently discarded. All of Hamlet's efforts to transcend corporeality have only implicated him amorally in its ruinous violence. Finally he abandons the fruitless attempt. He sees in the graveyard not simply the bodily “nothingness” that has so distressed him before, but an inescapable connection between that nothingness and his own being. As James Calderwood has put it, “For Hamlet fully ‘To Be,’ it seems, he must experience in the graveyard, under the tutelage of the Gravemaker, what it is ‘Not To Be.’ For his own identity to crystallize, he must come to the place where all identities dissolve.”11 The Hamlet who kills the king is a man who has accepted radical limitations on his being, leaving the orchestration of his revenge to Claudius (“I am constant to my purposes; they follow the King's pleasure”), the understanding of his death to God (“Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes?”), the telling of his tale to Horatio (“Horatio, I am dead; / Thou livest; report me and my cause aright”), and the continuation of his life to Fortinbras (“He has my dying voice”). In asking forgiveness of Laertes for the imprudent violence that took Polonius's life, he detaches himself—with diplomatic mendacity, but also with evident sincerity—from the arrogant and tormented self that he has been:

If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness.


Hamlet has not in fact killed Polonius in a fit of “madness,” but the word may be taken as a tactful way of referring to an assumed self that has been all but insane. Calderwood calls it a metaphor: “As a metaphor for Hamlet's bond to his father—for that sense in which Hamlet as revenger is ‘possessed’ by the ghost of his father—Hamlet's madness is truly no part of himself, and is in fact ‘poor Hamlet's enemy.’”12

Secure in the less ambitious and less anxious self that remains when he has cast out the demon of transcendent power, Hamlet comes into his own as an actor on the national stage, easily and confidently submitting himself to the “pass” of swordplay. He accepts Claudius's invitation to let Laertes's poisonous hand pass into his own: “Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me” (V.ii.227). His body informs him with sick misgiving that Claudius is arranging his exit from this life, but it assures him at the same moment that he has the physical means to act as he purposes:

You will lose this wager, my lord.
I do not think so. Since he went into France I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart. But it is no matter.


Hamlet suggests that, in order to act, human beings must accept the fact that their achievements go hand in hand with failure, and find their integrity in the welcoming of fragmentation. Accepting that he will himself sooner or later be “no matter,” Hamlet consents to make up one frangible part in a larger body, as an actor performs one role in a play. In his final words before the cushions and courtiers and daggers and drinks appear—“Let be”—he overcomes the distinction between spiritual fixity and corporeal flux that has plagued him throughout the play. Things will be as they become, his death will come when it arrives, and he can at last leave off his effort to define himself in opposition to what Maynard Mack has called his “imaginative environment.”13

Most of Shakespeare's tragedies tell the story of an arrogant man who mistakes his grandiose constructions of reality for reality itself. From Richard II to Coriolanus, his heroes attempt forcefully to impose a deluded conception of reality on the world, and reality brings them down. Hamlet differs from these vain and power-mad men in being adolescent, uncertain, victimized, self-hating. But he shares with them the presumptuousness of believing that he can transcend the laws by which other men and women think and behave. The futility of his attempting to be something other than a body is comically asserted by the madcap ramblings of the Gravedigger; it assumes tragic grandeur in the final catastrophe, as newly ruined bodies litter the stage, awaiting the Gravedigger's services. Having finally consented to act the modest part of the duellist, a disciplined corporeal agent who confines his thoughts to the play of physical circumstances, Hamlet submits with grace and dignity to the limitations of his kind.


  1. All quotations are from the Signet text edited by Edward Hubler (1963; rpt. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1972).

  2. Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), pp. 23, 31.

  3. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 26.

  4. The OED identifies the anus as a contemporary figurative sense of “bung-hole,” citing an entry in Cotgrave's Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611) for the cul de cheval or sea anemone: “a small and ouglie fish, or excrescence of the Sea, resembling a mans bung-hole, and called the red Nettle.”

  5. Donald Frame, trans., The Complete Works of Montaigne (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 457.

  6. Neil Rhodes, Elizabethan Grotesque (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).

  7. Wolfgang H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1951).

  8. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (London: Faber and Faber, 1932), pp. 144-45.

  9. Mark Rose, “Hamlet and the Shape of Revenge,” English Literary Renaissance, 1 (1971), 132-43, esp. pp. 132-34.

  10. William Beatty Warner, Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare's Hamlet (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 268-75.

  11. James L. Calderwood, To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in Hamlet (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983), p. 103.

  12. Calderwood, p. 44.

  13. Maynard Mack, “The World of Hamlet,The Yale Review, 41 (1952), 502-23, esp. p. 502.

Bennett Simon (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5680

SOURCE: Simon, Bennett. “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation.” American Imago 58, no. 3 (2001): 707-22.

[In the following essay, Simon reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, and interprets both the play and Hamlet's character on the basis of trauma theory.]

In the 400 years of Hamlet interpretation, psychoanalysis is a relative newcomer, only a century or so old. During that century, there have been notable shifts in the mode of interpreting the play, both in the critical world at large and in the narrower psychoanalytic world. In part, changes in the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play have had to do with shifts in dominant psychoanalytic paradigms—a process even more striking in the history of interpretation of Oedipus Rex than of Hamlet.1 In part, however, changes in the dominant mode of literary critical interpretations of the play have set the stage, as it were, for new psychoanalytic approaches.2

I would like, in this essay, to review several broad trends in the history of interpretation of the play and to locate within those trends some dominant themes in psychoanalytic interpretation. In that context, I then want to offer my own late-twentieth-century psychoanalytic interpretation—both of Hamlet and Hamlet—based on trauma theory.

My fundamental thesis is that psychoanalytic interpretations, particularly those of individual characters in the play, rely on a long-standing “medical model.” This is most prominent in regard to the question of Hamlet's insanity—whether it is real, feigned, or both. The medical model goes back at least to 1778, according to the New Variorum edition, when a certain Dr. Akenside is said to have been the first physician “to assert that Hamlet's insanity is real” (Furness 1877, 195).3 Much energy has gone into diagnosing the precise nature of Hamlet's melancholy and Ophelia's madness. Like King Lear and Lady Macbeth, both characters gradually became exemplars of derangement for clinical medicine to the point where a nineteenth-century asylum doctor could write that he had admitted “many Ophelias” to his ward (Showalter 1985, 86).

Apart from illustrating the crossover between the medical and literary (or theatrical) realms, this kind of diagnostic effort is important for my purpose because it tends to locate the problem within the individual. Hamlet, in other words, is thought to be a certain way because that is the way melancholics are. This kind of medical diagnosing shortcircuits literary and social questions, such as how much Hamlet is affected by the external rottenness in Denmark and how much is due to his innate disposition. I suggest that even psychoanalytic interpretations, which in principle can address the interplay between individual temperament and social circumstances, have a propensity for fixing, even freezing, the character into a mold. The moral onus is, as it were, placed on the individual character, and not on the world of other actors and agents who surround him or her. Hamlet's alleged Oedipus complex is thus sufficient to explain Hamlet's problem. But the risk of this approach is registered both in the play itself when Hamlet attacks Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern for seeking to “pluck out the heart of my mystery” (3.2.355)4 and by critics such as Bertrand Russell (1954), who described Hamlet's nightmare as that of being psychoanalyzed. When I come to offer my own formulation about the play and its eponymous hero, I shall propose a theory that is at the crossroads of clinical diagnosis and psychodynamic analysis, while trying to assess the risks and benefits of this approach.

The ensuing highlighting of trends in literary and theatrical analysis of the play is extensively indebted to Gary Taylor's Reinventing Shakespeare (1991). I should preface my remarks by making the obvious disclaimer that they are not intended to be a definitive review. What is more, nothing dies in Hamlet criticism; the same insights found in older paradigms recur under a different guise in the newer paradigms that have apparently superseded them.

During the Restoration and through the mid-eighteenth century, Hamlet was generally interpreted as an unambivalent hero who simply needed to ascertain the facts and decide the best time and place of getting revenge. In Taylor's view, there was a cultural need for such straightforward virtue in response to the turbulent history of the overthrow and restoration of the English monarchy. I would add that audiences sensitive to the consequences of deposing kings would empathize with Hamlet's need for caution in assessing his situation and deciding how to take action. In this perspective, Hamlet feigns madness much as did his “ancestor” Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus or the bibical King David (I Samuel 21:10-14) and the classical Odysseus, solely as a tactical means of evasion or delay the better to achieve his goal.

The second view—that of Hamlet as a hesitater—emerges from early nineteenth-century readings by English critics, preeminently Hazlitt and Coleridge, who were themselves political quietists and not men of action. More or less concurrently, German critics began to “romanticize” Hamlet, emphasizing how too much thought inhibited him from action.5 This reading of the play defines the problem taken up by the third paradigm—the Freud-Jones interpretation, which is in large part an attempt to answer the question, “Why does Hamlet delay killing Claudius, when he could have done it so much sooner?”

Freud and later Jones provided several versions of Hamlet as instantiating the idea of unconscious conflict over what (by 1910) Freud would term “the Oedipus complex.” As everyone now knows, this theory holds that he is inhibited by unconscious guilt over his patricidal and incestuous wishes, which in part also explains his melancholia. These formulations enhanced the prominence of sexuality in both literary and theatrical interpretations of the play. Contemporaneous social changes gave an impetus to franker discussion of—and perhaps even preoccupation with—“sex” in the colloquial sense (Taylor 1991, 260-62). Freud, and to a greater extent Jones, tied their oedipal interpretations to Shakespeare himself, augmenting longstanding critical speculation about the ways in which Hamlet the character and Hamlet the play could be seen as autobiographical emanations.

Several prominent literary critics, who did not necessarily buy the Freud-Jones approach, gave some legitimacy to the search for covert reasons for Hamlet's delay (as well as the connections between Hamlet's psyche and Shakespeare's). John Dover Wilson concluded What Happens in Hamlet (1935) by confessing that he did not know what happens in Hamlet! T. S. Eliot wrote in “Hamlet and His Problems”: “We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he tackled it at all is an insoluble puzzle, under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot even know. … We should have to understand things about Shakespeare which Shakespeare did not understand himself” (1919, 126). And Caroline Spurgeon buttressed her study of Shakespeare's imagery by appealing to psychoanalysis: “the repeated evidence of clusters of certain associated ideas in the poet's mind … throws a curious light on what I suppose the psychoanalyst would call ‘complexes,’ … things and ideas which are linked together in Shakespeare's unconscious mind, and some of which are undoubtedly the outcome of an experience, a sight or an emotion which has profoundly affected him” (quoted in Taylor 1991, 263). Norman Holland's Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare elegantly summarized the analytic literature using this paradigm: “Curiously, the nonpsychoanalytic critics give us a lead in this direction. Despite their differing preoccupations, a single thread ran through their readings: in Hamlet, inner impulses are given outer expression. … [T]he defensive maneuver that permeates the language, character, and events of the play is projection” (1964, 203). Holland likewise reviewed the essays presenting the oedipal and preoedipal configurations, splittings, doublings, and triplings, and multiple representations of fathers, sons, and women thrown into relief by ego psychological approaches.

The fourth major paradigm shift, beginning in the 1930s and led by William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1936), was the literary and cultural focus on irony and ambiguity as well as on distorted or interrupted narration. These trends heightened the tendency to analyze the play, Hamlet, rather than the character of Hamlet. The so-called “new criticism” derided the Romantic view of characters as though they were real persons (Knights 1933). The relation of the play to Shakespeare's life became less a matter of his psychology than of his career in the theater. Literary critics stressed the “indecipherability” of the play. As David Bevington wrote, “It is appropriate that for modern critics Hamlet should be Shakespeare's greatest dramatic enigma, for misunderstanding is the unavoidable condition of Hamlet's quest for certainties” (1968, 1).

This literary paradigm facilitated various psychoanalytic interpretations that focussed on doubling, ambiguity, and the lack of a clear boundary between sanity, feigned madness, and genuine madness. Both Lacan's (1959) reading and to some extent Stanley Cavell's (1987) fit in here. The problem of “representation” became more prominent (Green 1983). These later psychoanalytic readings built on the earlier ones, but provided a fresh approach to the play and openly addressed (Eissler 1971) whether the problem was with the play or the character or both.

The fifth and last paradigm I would like to suggest is that of “Hamlet and trauma.” In part, the cultural matrix of literature and trauma arises from the twentieth-century experiences of the Holocaust, atomic destruction, as well as colonial, racial, and sexual oppression.6 Even more profoundly than formal criticism, literature depicts the damage done by trauma to its victims. Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) is justly one of the most celebrated of such explorations. Psychological and political analyses have gone hand in glove in anatomizing individual and collective “traumatic stress syndromes.” Psychoanalysis owes its current awareness of the significance of real-life trauma at least as much to movements outside the field (notably, the growing public awareness of child and domestic abuse, as well as of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Vietnam war) as it does to any internal developments.

The trauma view that I now wish to develop at greater length shares with new criticism the premise that the “uninterpretability” of Hamlet constitutes a central problem, although it treats it in a very different way. It ventures at least a partial explanation of how and why the play is replete with themes of misunderstanding and why it obscures, reverses, and lays traps that leave not only its characters but also its readers in doubt and indecision. It is not accidental, as Harold Bloom has commented, that the history of Hamlet criticism is filled with “misreadings, many highly creative in themselves” (1998, 407). The trauma perspective also addresses the psychoanalytic question of how to conceptualize the interaction between the external reality portrayed in the play and the internal reality (and perceptions) of each character.7

The title of an important book on the long-term impact of childhood trauma, Shattered Assumptions (Janoff-Bulman 1992; see also Herman 1992), captures the essence of the model I shall use as a framework for this discussion. The shattered assumptions in trauma include that one can trust those nearest and dearest, and that one can count on the stability of the ground beneath one's feet (shaken metaphorically in instances of intrafamilial betrayal, and literally in natural disasters such as earthquakes). The “container,” the potential space in which one lives, no longer holds. Interpretation of events becomes constricted or chaotic or both. Numbness (cf. Macbeth's reaction to the news of Lady Macbeth's death) oscillates with lability and incomplete control of one's emotions. One of the main effects of trauma is a difficulty in deciding whether what is going on is real; there is a defensive oscillation between “This couldn't possibly be true” and “Oh, my God, if this is true, then my whole world is shattered.” Trauma breaks apart the intricate linkage between “logical relationship” and “human relationship,” as I have argued with respect to the “nonsense” in King Lear and the ridiculing of logic in Beckett's plays. The self and the world become loathesome, and a profound mistrust of the future sets in. In the effort to master a trauma, the quest for revenge and a scapegoat are commonly seen behaviors. In Hamlet, the main scapegoats are women and Hamlet himself.

It has been well established that a sense of unreality is a pervasive response to massive trauma. A child victimized by her father's sexual abuse may report how she takes herself psychically out of the room or watches the scene from a distance. A woman who as a child survived several years in a Nazi death camp later came upon one of her drawings in an exhibition about the Holocaust. Her response was, “So it really happened, it wasn't a dream after all.”

Although multiple effects ensue in the wake of severe trauma, several discrete syndromes have been identified, most notably “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). But clinicans have come to appreciate that someone may be profoundly affected by trauma without having PTSD. With reference to Hamlet, a better term for capturing the plight of the characters is “complex traumatic stress syndrome” (Herman 1992), which signifies that the traumatic events are not entirely in the past. Even the term “traumatic event” can be an oversimplification. All the facets of an event must be taken into account to gauge a person's reaction. One consistent finding has been that the secrecy associated with a trauma is especially devastating. Even a child who is not being seduced but who knows about and is terrified of revealing what is happening to a sibling in the family may well experience difficulties in concentrating and appear lost in reverie. This state can be accompanied inwardly by severe doubts about what is real and what is not. Coerced vows of secrecy combined with confusion about fact and fantasy often lead to incomplete or fragmented narratives. It has been understood in psychoanalysis almost from the beginning that a story that cannot be told directly in narrative discourse finds expression through displacement, symbolization, and action, as Freud spelled out in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” (1914). Work with victims of severe trauma highlights how it may be impossible to put parts of the story into words at all. These memories will then be experienced nonverbally, encoded, perhaps, as bodily experiences. “Dissociation” comes closer than “repression” to describing the variety of ways that knowledge becomes confused and disavowed in traumatic states.

The question of “real” vs. “feigned” madness in Hamlet can be recast as an offshoot of the larger problem, “what is real and what is fantasy?” Hamlet's madness, however one chooses to regard it, is contiguous with the punning, doubling, delaying, and deception of the play. For virtually every character, deception of others goes hand in glove with self-deception. The scenes of madness—real for Ophelia, equivocal for Hamlet—are equivalent to dreams inserted into the text of a narrative that become switch-points for actions leading in unforeseen directions. Ophelia's madness closes off and summarizes the action more than it redirects it, but does the latter to some extent as well.

Shakespeare makes Hamlet's madness a question for all the characters in the play—including Hamlet himself—and shows how each one gives an explanation commensurate with his or her self-interest, but does not really know. Polonius believes that it is true madness and caused by love-sickness. Gertrude believes that it is true madness and due to the “o'er hasty marriage.” She later changes her mind (partially) during the “bedroom” scene when Hamlet insists that she not tell the king that he is feigning madness, but rather report that he is truly mad. Insofar as Ophelia believes that Hamlet is truly mad, she can feel less rejected in love (and perhaps less defective), but in the face of his hostility, she does not know for sure. Claudius sends Guildenstern and Rosenkrantz to find out either the cause of his madness or indeed whether it is real, but because he knows that he has killed Hamlet's father, he suspects strongly that Hamlet's madness is feigned to disguise his knowledge. But Claudius seems also to entertain the possibility that Hamlet is intermittently mad and that something dangerous is hatching beneath the brooding melancholy.

Hamlet, the character, is severely traumatized by the Ghost's recollections, leaving him, as it were, both certain and uncertain that his father was killed by his uncle as well as of his mother's collusion with him or, at least, of her betrayal of the memory of her recently deceased husband.8 Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost is replete with imagery of spatial dislocation (the dizzying height), shaking of fundamental beliefs (the Ghost rumbles from beneath the ground), and frantic attempts to regain stability and certainty (Hamlet forces Horatio and Marcellus to take an oath not to tell what they've seen or hint that Hamlet is feigning madness). He moves them from place to place and the oath includes the phrase hic et ubique, “here and everywhere.” Hamlet's melancholy, by his own lights, is wholly real—in 1.2 he has not heard about or seen the Ghost—but upon being traumatized by the Ghost's revelations, his strategy is to feign madness. There is more continuity between his genuine melancholy and the “antic disposition” than he himself can acknowledge.

One could further speculate that Hamlet's initial melancholy is a response not only to the “o'er hasty marriage” but also to the secrecy and lies perpetrated by Claudius and the feeling that he is being used. His gradual awareness that Ophelia too is being used (whether with or without her consent he cannot be sure) augments his sense of betrayal and anger, perhaps pushing him farther than he can control. In short, Hamlet's feigned madness is a symptom of the “feigning” and deceit around him, but he is intermittently more unhinged than he realizes or wishes to be. His apology to Laertes in 5.2 that his madness, not he himself, was responsible for his rash actions (killing Polonius, cruelty to Ophelia) is not merely an attempt at exculpation, but represents Hamlet's own struggle to distinguish real from feigned madness. His “antic disposition” cannot be separated from his “objective” uncertainty about whether or not Claudius actually murdered his brother, an uncertainty that is seemingly resolved after the play-within-the-play. But it is not entirely removed for the audience (or perhaps even for Hamlet) until we hear Claudius confessesing his crime in an aborted prayer for forgiveness.

The dramaturgic consequences of Ophelia's madness have been less closely examined than have those of Hamlet's. Is the audience sufficiently prepared for her breakdown to see it as plausible? The groundwork is laid in part by the way that Ophelia's feelings are consistently ignored and she is silenced. A striking example occurs at the end of her terrible scene with Hamlet, after he has cursed and denounced her, when her father says to her: “You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said, / We heard it all” (3.1.175-76). Hence her madness is focussed on her speaking in such a way that she cannot be ignored.9 When, after learning of Polonius's death and the secrecy surrounding it, she wants to see Gertrude, Gertrude at first demurs, “I will not speak with her” (4.5.1). Only in her madness does anybody begin to listen to Ophelia!

Ophelia has been used as bait by her father and Claudius (with Gertrude's tacit agreement), and she is attacked by Hamlet in part because he discovers her role in the trap set for him. Her trauma is characterized by a web of half-truths, paternal attempts to deny her perceptions, and the secrecy attending the murder and “hugger mugger” burial of Polonius. This web, combined with the fact that the man she has loved killed the father she also loved, as well as the impossibility of any kind of open grieving or raging—let alone discussion—contribute to her breakdown. As trauma theory teaches us, the secrecy and extreme difficulty of telling what has gone on are no less damaging than is the actual deed (e.g., incestuous abuse of the child).

Another way of looking at the traumas that drive Ophelia to madness is that, with the death of her father and absence of her brother, she has lost male protection (Claudius being of dubious value in that regard) and has no standing as an unmarried woman. With Hamlet's madness, cruelty, exile, and possible death, she is deprived of a husband. He has, moreover, been looking not for a wife but for someone with whom he can beget the “child” revenge. Ophelia is unsuitable in this regard, for she is too close to Polonius and Claudius-Gertrude. His attack on her in the “get thee to a Nunnery” scene (3.1) is caused in part by his anger at finding her wanting as a partner in his plot against the king to avenge his father's murder.

Trauma likewise disturbs the sense of reality, leading to processes of disavowal or disconnection, in the sexual domain. Both the ghost of Hamlet's father and Hamlet himself reproach Claudius (and Gertrude) for being “incestuous” and “adulterous.” Yet neither the play nor Hamlet the character is entirely clear whether Gertrude and Claudius slept together before the death of Hamlet's father. (A similar ambiguity hovers over whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia have slept together, as her mad songs [4.5] suggest.) Even the definition of “incestuous” is a problem since Elizabethan law considered the marriage of a woman to her deceased husband's brother to be incestuous, but no characters in the play (other than the two Hamlets) seem to notice this. Lisa Jardine (1996) argues that, notwithstanding the ecclesiastical codes posted in every parish, Elizabethans in practice often countenanced such unions, especially if the heir of the deceased brother did not lose his property as a result. This disinheritance was technically an “offence,” which explains Hamlet's bitterly ironic exclamation, “No offence in the world!” (3.2.214). Claudius announces that Hamlet remains heir to the throne, and therefore he has ostensibly not lost his property. Jardine's analysis helps us to understand why the Elizabethan audience would not necessarily have reacted with horror or outrage at the union of Claudius and Gertrude. But is it only Hamlet, obsessed with his mother's sexuality, who fixates on the theme of incest; or do the other characters need to ignore or deny it?

Who, in short, is traumatized and therefore responding with denial, confusion, and uncertainty about what is real and what is fantasy? The most obvious answer, of course, is Hamlet, followed by Ophelia, and probably Gertrude. But the entire play exudes the aura of a traumatized environment. We, in the audience, must in turn live with a discomfiting set of ambiguities, awaiting further clarification, which comes only partially by the end of the play. Granted, we learn that the Ghost told the truth about having been murdered by Claudius, his brother. But we do not know for sure whether there was any complicity, direct or indirect, on the part of Gertrude or whether the Ghost's account of the method of his murder can be believed (Cavell 1987). We likewise do not know whether the union of Gertrude and Claudius was indeed incestuous or whether Hamlet was only feigning madness. Nor can we expect that Horatio's promise at the close, “All this I can / Truly deliver” (5.2.363-64), will answer all these questions.

The theme of a story that can be told only incompletely or deceptively runs like a red thread throughout the play. Both classical psychoanalytic theory and trauma theory emphasize the indirect telling of that which cannot be remembered or safely told. Hamlet cannot say publicly that what he has heard from the Ghost has horrified him and is enough to drive him crazy. He therefore appears to Ophelia after encountering the Ghost “with a look so piteous in purport / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors” (2.1.81-83). Ophelia cannot say how distraught, how used, how furious, and how negated she has been; so she sings in her mad ditties about the death of her father and the death of her love for and from Hamlet. Hamlet's imparting to Horatio how he will resort to the play-within-a-play to coerce Claudius to reveal involuntarily what crimes he has committed, “If his occulted guilt / Do not itself unkennel in one speech” (3.2.70-72), is a way of filling in the hitherto unspeakable.

Accordingly, the ending of the play tolls with the word “tell” (and its analogues) in a last-ditch effort to represent and restore the broken narrative that constitutes the tragic action. The dying Hamlet proclaims:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes and audience to this act,
Had I but time, as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest, O I could tell you—
But let it be, Horatio, I am dead:
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.


He pleads with Horatio not to commit suicide: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story” (325-28). He prophesies that Fortinbras will become king: “He has my dying voice, / So tell him, with th'occurrents, more and less, / Which have solicited—the rest is silence” (335-37). In response, Horatio offers to “speak to th'yet unknowing world, / How these things came about. … / … All this can I / Truly deliver” (358-59, 363-64). In a tragedy, however, there cannot be complete resolution. Even if Horatio knew all there was to tell (but he doesn't, and Hamlet instructs him to speak only “more and less”), Fortinbras wants no more than an abbreviated version of the story, enough to legitimize his taking of the throne, “Let us haste to hear it” (365).

Since trauma involves broken narrative, it is appropriate to conclude by wondering what a view of Hamlet from the perspective of trauma leaves unanswered. The ultimate challenge is to account for the greatness of the play, the way it has captured “center stage” in the history not only of English language and literature but in the consciousness of the world as well. In my admittedly limited reading of the literary, theatrical, and psychoanalytic criticism, I have not found a satisfactory—let alone compelling—account of that achievement; and I do not claim that my own “trauma approach” has succeeded where others have failed.

But it may be a start to pose a somewhat narrower question: how to understand Hamlet's transformation in mood and tone so that he comes by Act 5 to possess a calm reflectiveness (Kerrigan 1994; Bloom 1998, 429-31)? The indices of Hamlet's change include the cessation of his attacks on femininity and sexuality as well as the absence of soliloquies.10 To convince the audience that such an evolution has taken place is a theatrical challenge for the actor playing Hamlet. What can a trauma perspective offer? Bearing in mind my earlier warning that “diagnoses” of character run the risk of freezing the character into a “type” and thereby not allowing for transformation, I must admit that an emphasis on trauma could be counterproductive. Unless “diagnosis” includes the possibility of psychic change, it hypostasizes, remains static.

Over the decades, there has been a development in the trauma literature itself away from diagnostic categories, such as “shell shock,” to a greater sense of the openendedness in an individual's response to trauma. Although the process of change is clearly of central concern to anyone seeking to treat trauma victims (Herman 1992), there has in general been much more attention paid to the deleterious effects of trauma than to the remarkable healing and transformations that can take place. Some who have been victims of devastating traumas attain a sort of transcendence, often marked by forgiveness (or a different attitude toward vengeance), that is at once awe-inspiring and seemingly unimaginable to the rest of us. This might be thought of as a reframing of categories. Questions of good and evil, intentionality and chance, remain important, but they do not carry the same emotional weight that they did earlier in the person's life.

A suggestion—and it is only that—that I find helpful in continuing to draw an analogy between the clinical and dramatic experiences of trauma comes from Dan Jacobson, who proposes that great literature transforms and transcends the categories by which both the audience and the characters formerly lived. “Works like Hamlet,” he writes, “subvert the distinctions we ordinarily make between conscious and unconscious intentions, between manifest and latent content, even between language and the material world” (1989, 271). I would add that, by the end of Hamlet, our sense of what constitutes activity and passivity, acceptance and revenge, forgiveness and blame, mourning and melancholia—all these have been not so much intellectually altered as emotionally moved into a different orbit. I believe that good psychoanalysis also helps an individual to transcend and transform the categories with which he or she came into treatment. It remains for me an open question how successfully psychoanalytic explanations of Hamlet can address the transformations that take place in the course of the play. At the moment, I stand in awe and gratitude.


  1. While I have not seen this trend documented for Oedipus Rex, my own experience in reading psychoanalytic essays on the play reveals how interpretations have shifted over the decades from seeing it as illustrating first the child's Oedipus complex, next counteroedipal impulses, then the dynamics of adoption, and finally Oedipus as an abused child.

  2. In addition, there has been a crossfertilization (or, some would say, a crosscontamination) between mainstream literary and psychoanalytic modes, most notably in Lawrence Olivier's 1948 film version, which was very much influenced by the Freud-Jones view of the play.

  3. Forty small-print pages of Volume 2 of the New Variorum Hamlet are taken up with a collection of opinions—including that of Isaac Ray, the nineteenth-century American psychiatrist involved in both asylum work and forensics—as to whether Hamlet's madness is real or feigned. The earliest discussion cited (1877, 235) is that of Aaron Hill around 1745. Oscar Wilde has quipped that the real problem of Hamlet is whether the critics are really mad or only feigning.

  4. All references to Hamlet are to the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Cyrus Hoy.

  5. See, however, the caution of Harold Bloom: “In our overenthusiastic embrace of the Romantic Hamlet, the hero of hesitation who dominates criticism from Goethe and Hazlitt through Emerson and Carlyle, and on to A. C. Bradley and Harold Goddard, we have been too ready to lose our apprehension of Hamlet's permanent strangeness, his continued uniqueness despite all his imitators” (1998, 412).

  6. See the issues of American Imago edited by Cathy Caruth (1991) devoted to on psychoanalytic approaches to understanding the connection between literature and trauma as well as the paper in this journal by Greenberg (1998).

  7. I have elsewhere (1988a, 1988b) developed these ideas on trauma in relation especially to modern drama, such as the works of Beckett, Ionesco, and Pirandello; but they can also be utilized with Hamlet, in some ways a quintessentially “modern” drama. To make a speculative leap, I would also see much of the impetus for “postmodern” and deconstructionist criticism as a response to the collective traumas of the twentieth century.

  8. As many critics have noted, in the Quarto Gertrude clearly asserts “I did not murther him,” but in the Folio, Gertrude's response (3.4.29ff.) to the accusation, “Kill a king and marry his brother,” is one of surprise and not definite denial.

  9. A partial exception is Gertrude's speech to Ophelia (3.1.38-42), where she expressed distress on Ophelia's behalf; but she is still primarily concerned with Hamlet's well-being. In some ways, this presages her speech to the dead Ophelia, which is again full of tenderness but casts her too much as Hamlet's bride. On Ophelia as bait, see Lacan (1959).

  10. A further sign of change can perhaps be found in the ambiguity about Hamlet's age. In Act 5, he is definitely said to be thirty years old; but for much of the play he appears, at least to modern readers, to be considerably younger. It is as if he has matured with remarkable celerity in the course of the play.


Bevington, David M. 1968. 20th Century Thought on “Hamlet”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bloom, Harold. 1998. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. 1991. Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Trauma. American Imago, 41-1 & 41-4.

Cavell, Stanley. 1987. Hamlet's Burden of Proof. In Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, pp. 179-91.

Eissler, Kurt R. 1971. Discourse on “Hamlet” and Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry. New York: International Universities Press.

Eliot, T. S. 1919. Hamlet and His Problems. In Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964, pp. 121-26.

Freud, Sigmund. 1914. Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through. S.E., 12:145-56.

Furness, Horace Howard, ed. 1877. A New Variorum Edition of Hamlet. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

Green, André. 1983. Hamlet et “Hamlet”: une interprétation psychanalytique de la représentation. Paris: Ballard.

Greenberg, Judith. 1998. The Echo of Trauma and the Trauma of Echo. American Imago, 55:319-47.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery; The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books.

Holland, Norman. 1964. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New York: McGraw Hill.

Hoy, Cyrus, ed. 1992. Hamlet. New York: Norton Critical Edition.

Jacobson, Dan. 1989. Hamlet's Other Selves. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 29:265-72.

Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie. 1992. Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: Free Press.

Jardine, Lisa. 1996. “No Offence i' th' World”: Unlawful Marriage in Hamlet. In Reading Shakespeare Historically. London: Routledge, pp. 35-47.

Kerrigan, William. 1994. Hamlet's Perfection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

Knights, L. C. 1933. How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? In Explorations: London, Chatto, 1946, pp. 1-39.

Lacan, Jacques. 1959. Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet. In Shoshana Felman, ed., Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise. Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977):11-52.

Russell, Bertrand. 1954. Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories. London: Bodley Head.

Showalter, Elaine. 1985. Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism. In Patricia Parker and Geoffrey H. Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. New York: Methuen, pp. 77-94.

Simon, Bennett. 1988a. The Imaginary Twin: The Case of Beckett and Bion. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 15:331-52.

———. 1988b. Tragic Drama and the Family: Psychoanalytic Studies from Aeschylus to Beckett. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Gary. 1991. Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, John Dover. 1935. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

John P. McCombe (review date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4964

SOURCE: McCombe, John P. “Toward an Objective Correlative: The Problem of Desire in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet.Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 125-31.

[In the following review, McCombe assesses Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as Gertrude. McCombe faults the production for its overemphasis on the dysfunctional bond between Hamlet and Gertrude, and notes that the film fails to fully explore the political elements of the play, such as the corruption of the Danish court.]

It is a disheartening comment on the current state of Shakespeare in Hollywood that many productions undermine the ambiguities which make his plays so readily available to interpretive criticism. One such example is the 1990 film version of Hamlet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Like many representations of Shakespeare on film, Zeffirelli carefully edits the play to adhere to what Hollywood believes to be the approximately two-hour attention span of the cinema patron. In the process, Hamlet becomes less a tale of political corruption in the Danish court and, instead, more closely resembles a dysfunctional family melodrama. Hamlet successfully occupies both positions at once.

Because the affairs of state have been de-emphasized, Zeffirelli's Hamlet does not have to reconcile the demands of his position as Crown Prince with his personal desire to avenge his father's murder. For centuries, critics have asked, “Why does Hamlet hesitate to take action and kill his usurping uncle?” The failure to answer that question in any definitive manner has led to volumes of critical response and countless stage and film adaptations of Hamlet. The 1990 Hamlet links Hamlet's hesitancy to his unnaturally strong bond with his mother, Gertrude. This interpretive tradition seems to have begun in the 1940s and culminated in a series of lectures about Hamlet by Jacques Lacan in 1959. Lacan's and Zeffirelli's Hamlets are far less complex than Shakespeare's play would suggest. In addition, the 1990 film essentially strips the play of many ambiguities which make it such a labyrinth of conflicting desires. Before examining Zeffirelli's representation of the mother-son bond in Hamlet, it may prove helpful to consider some other ways in which Hamlet reduces the complexity of meaning in the Shakespeare play.

The first significant omission of the play's narrative occurs at the beginning of the film, where we witness the burial of Hamlet's father. Zeffirelli eliminates any mention of the father's reign, or of the King's heroic battle with Fortinbras of Norway. At the beginning of the play, Horatio narrates the elder Hamlet's victory over Fortinbras and the subsequent seizure of Norwegian lands (I.i.79-107). As a result, Shakespeare's play opens with the threat of an impending invasion of Denmark by the son of Fortinbras. Thus, Zeffirelli's film excludes important narrative elements of the play, such as “tales of the Norwegian and Pollack wars, the presence of young Fortinbras, a going and coming of ambassadors and the threat of a popular insurrection” (Wilson 27). In Hamlet, the atmosphere at court is marked by everpresent spying. By contrast, Hamlet omits the political significance of the surveillance within the Danish court; the film fails to connect the eyes that constantly monitor Hamlet's machinations with the more general atmosphere of espionage that looms over the Danish state. Zeffirelli cuts the scene in which Polonius sends Reynaldo to monitor Laertes's actions in France, where Polonius advises, “With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out” (II.i.65-66). Such an omission never disrupts the course of the narrative but it does reduce the level of espionage to a strictly personal one, and lessens the importance of espionage at the state level. In Hamlet, the espionage exists on both personal and political levels. The Denmark of the senior Hamlet's reign was a military state, characterized by the heroic hand-to-hand combat of the father. Undoubtedly, Shakespeare intended his portrait of the current espionage state of the younger Hamlet's Denmark to comment upon a similar trend within Elizabethan society. The tragic consequences at the conclusion of Shakespeare's play reveal that the “new” Denmark pales in comparison with the heroic age of Hamlet's father.

The end of Hamlet is similarly de-politicized. Zeffirelli concludes his film with an aerial shot of the dead bodies of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes and Gertrude strewn about the floor of the castle. In the text of the play, the deaths of the central characters are accompanied by the arrival of young Fortinbras, who will assume the leadership of the Danish state. In fact, in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet's dying words reveal that his final wish is for a return to the type of military state led by his father. Hamlet believes that the accession which has been denied him by the usurping Claudius will now fall to young Fortinbras: “I cannot live to hear the news from England, / But I do prophesy th' election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice” (V.ii.355-57). Zeffirelli's omission of these lines from the film subsequently eliminates the suggestion of Hamlet's concern for the welfare of the state.

Shakespeare's Hamlet suffers disappointment on both the personal and political levels. He agonizes over his personal relationships with Gertrude, Ophelia, and his uncle, but also suffers because his family has been an embarrassment to Elsinore. The heroic era of Hamlet's father's reign has been reduced to the corrupt, espionage state of his uncle. In Shakespeare's day, “the whole social structure seemed to depend upon the dignity and integrity of the royal house” (Wilson 49). By play's end, Hamlet recognizes that the son of his father's enemy, young Fortinbras, may provide the necessary political and civic stability required for the good of the Danish people. Throughout Hamlet, Hamlet must weigh his personal motive for revenge against the benefits of inaction; it may be that Hamlet considers whether the state, as a whole, might benefit more if the Royal family, with the usurping Claudius as King, retains power and stability. In other words, Hamlet's loyalties are divided. He feels obligated to the dead King as both a political father and a paternal father, but the duties to the two fathers are often directly opposed. Unfortunately, Zeffirelli's Hamlet reveals no such conflict of desire for Hamlet because we never think of him as motivated by any sense of political obligation. Later, it will be evident that the film overemphasizes the importance of the mother/son relationship as the mitigating factor for Hamlet's hesitation to kill his uncle.

An important example of ambiguity within Shakespeare's play is Hamlet's “antic disposition.” Again, the film oversimplifies the range of Hamlet's desires and motivations. Hamlet reduces the uncertainty that a theater audience might experience as it attempts to distinguish between Hamlet's feigned madness (the “antic behavior”) and instances of genuine emotional distress. Zeffirelli's Hamlet never appears distressed. The Prince is omniscient and overhears nearly every plan to test his sanity or to observe his behavior. As a result, the film Hamlet is always a performer on stage and knowingly considers whether or not his behavior is appropriate for his particular audience. In Zeffirelli's version of the “nunnery scene,” Hamlet has observed Claudius and Polonius as they prepare to eavesdrop on himself and Ophelia. Hamlet watches the shadows of the two men and appears to address his uncle and Polonius, rather than Ophelia, who is ostensibly his sole auditor.1 Another Zeffirelli embellishment is the scene in which Polonius advises Ophelia to resist the tenders of Hamlet. Despite no supporting evidence in the Shakespearean text, the Prince secretly overhears the plan. In the film, we witness the wordless encounter of Hamlet and Ophelia in the sewing room (II.i.77-120), but must attribute Hamlet's behavior to a feigned madness; there is no suggestion that Hamlet is sincerely troubled by the change in his affection for Ophelia. Hamlet has simply overheard Polonius's instruction for Ophelia to reject him and believes that the decision to do so was not Ophelia's wish. The Prince is merely playing the role of a crazed and rejected lover, since he is aware that his response will be under scrutiny. In contrast, J. Dover Wilson suggests that one of the principal reasons for the “antic behavior” in the play is that Hamlet is unable to prevent its occurrence. In the sewing room scene, Wilson writes that,

to suppose that Shakespeare intended … to represent play-acting on Hamlet's part is absurd. In “sore distraction” of spirit Hamlet instinctively turns for support to the only being left who might give it him. She fails; and the “piteous” sigh shows that he realizes her failure, and that all is over between them. Thus, she has rejected his love, and proved unresponsive to an appeal of extreme need.


Wilson suggests that Hamlet's “antic disposition” also provides two other significant benefits; Hamlet's “madness” allows him to stall for time while he decides whether to avenge his father. Wilson also suggests that the antic behavior “gives him a freedom of speech and action he could not otherwise obtain” (93). Zeffirelli's omniscient Hamlet does demonstrate Wilson's latter two explanations for Hamlet's madness, but the notion of Hamlet's genuine emotional distress is conspicuously absent. One could argue, however, that Zeffirelli's insistence that Hamlet feigns madness in this scene is far from what Wilson would describe as an “absurd” misreading of Shakespeare's intention. Instead, Zeffirelli frequently undermines the strength of the bond between Hamlet and Ophelia and consequently strengthens the ties between Gertrude and the Prince. Thus, Zeffirelli's Hamlet is neither burdened by his duty to the state nor bound by any significant affection for Ophelia. The absence of these two possible desires reduces the complexity of Hamlet's motivations in the film. Once again, the filmmaker disregards the array of ambiguities in the play and focuses on the desire between mother and son.

Hamlet frequently invites its audience to consider multiple layers of meaning. Even within the text of the play, the characters frequently doubt the truth of what they see and hear and question the meaning of events. Hamlet's “enigmatic” letter to Ophelia provides one obvious example:

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


Hamlet reminds Ophelia that appearances can be deceptive and that, despite his outward behavior, he sincerely loves her. Another example of Hamlet's deceptive outward behavior occurs at the performance of the traveling players, which provides one of the most problematic scenes in the play.

Zeffirelli's representation of this scene again reduces the possible levels of meaning in Hamlet. This is another instance in which the filmmaker's editing choices focus our attention upon Hamlet and away from the supporting characters, who play important roles as audience members during the performance of “The Mousetrap.” This detracts from the complexity and depth which the play's text invites as the viewer considers how a host of different characters respond to the lines spoken during the “play within the play.” For example, Zeffirelli omits the following lines which have a special resonance for Ophelia, as well as for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

For 'tis a question left us yet to prove, Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love. The great man down, you mark his favorite flies; The poor advanced makes friends of enemies; And hitherto doth love on fortune tend, For who not needs shall never lack a friend; And who in want a hollow friend doth try, Directly seasons him his enemy.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been esteemed friends of Hamlet's since childhood but they, like Ophelia, have forgotten their allegiance to the Prince and have allowed themselves to be used by Claudius as bait to uncover the source of Hamlet's discontent. Here, Shakespeare uses “The Mousetrap” to meditate on the nature of loyalty and friendship, but Zeffirelli seems intent on diminishing the roles of the supporting players and has omitted these important lines.

During “The Mousetrap,” there is one very brief shot which reminds Zeffirelli's audience that the most important relationship in Hamlet is the one between Gertrude and Hamlet. When Hamlet suggests to his Mother that Polonius's daughter is “metal more attractive,” and that he chooses to sit next to Ophelia, Gertrude flashes him an expression of bitter jealousy; Gertrude, not Ophelia, is the wounded lover. Within the play, Shakespeare suggests that Hamlet sincerely loves his mother but Zeffirelli constantly reinforces an unmistakably physical bond between the two. This extends their relationship into the realm of an Oedipal struggle, beyond the strength of the relationship as suggested by Shakespeare.

To attempt some sort of explanation of the mother/son bond in Hamlet, one can compare Zeffirelli's reading to one of Hamlet's most memorable critical interpretations. In his essay, “Hamlet and his Problems,” T.S. Eliot explains why Hamlet was one of Shakespeare's most unsuccessful tragedies:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which 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.


Here, Eliot suggests that Hamlet's emotions are in excess of the facts as they appear. Eliot believed that a successful tragedy, such as Macbeth, provides us with two specific examples of an objective correlative:

the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skillful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife's death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet.


If, today, readers are unsure of just what Eliot is trying to articulate in his essay, the important point is that Eliot raises questions about Hamlet's motivation and the source of his desire, questions which continue to bewilder anyone who produces the play. Whether or not Hamlet's actions are excessive is not the concern of this paper (and J. Dover Wilson certainly addresses this issue). What is clear, however, is that Zeffirelli appears to agree with Eliot's line of reasoning and believes it necessary to amplify the strength of the mother/son relationship to Oedipal proportions. Such a narrative revision tips the balance of Hamlet's desires; the obligation to avenge his father's death is no longer beset by an array of opposing desires. Shakespeare's Hamlet yearns for stability within the state, while weighing the conflicting desire of his rightful inheritance. At the same time, the Prince must protect his mother from the horrible realities of his father's murder. As evidence of a massively reduced complexity, the Hamlet of Zeffirelli's film simply seeks to satisfy his mother's desires.

Zeffirelli clearly displays, perhaps unconsciously, a debt to the Hamlet lectures of Jacques Lacan. Lacan uses Hamlet as an illustration of his psychoanalytic theories, which is, at once, both a fascinating demonstration of his somewhat esoteric theories and a reductive interpretation of the play. “Hamlet's drama,” writes Lacan, “is the drama of a man who has lost the way of his desire” (12). According to Lacanian psychoanalytic theories, Hamlet's desire for his mother has been banished from the conscious to the unconscious, the result of the passage of the subject from the realm of Lacan's “imaginary” to his “symbolic” stage. The defining moment of this passage is Freud's Oedipal struggle, an event in which the father forever separates the child from the mother's body by establishing the social taboo on incest. Hamlet's unconscious desire is for his mother, Gertrude, the definition of the Lacanian “Other.” Any example of the hero's conscious desires constitutes what Lacan designates as the “object little a,” which is a mere substitute object for the desire of the “Other.” For Lacan, the “object little a” is the position occupied by Ophelia. In fact, Lacan writes that after the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia in the sewing room (recounted by Ophelia in Act II, Scene 1), “Ophelia is … completely null and dissolved as a love object” (22). By subscribing to Lacan's theory of desire in Hamlet, the complex web of ambiguities is obviously becoming increasingly simplified.

In attempting to explicate a Lacanian interpretation of Hamlet's desire Slavoj Zizek writes,

And what prevents Hamlet from acting, from accomplishing the imposed revenge, is precisely the confrontation with the “Che Vuoi?” of the desire of the Other: the key scene of the whole drama is the long dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, in which he is seized by doubt as to his mother's desire—What does she really want? What if she really enjoys her filthy, promiscuous relationship with his uncle? Hamlet is therefore hindered not by indecision as to his own desire; it is not that “he doesn't know what he really wants”—he knows that very clearly: he wants to revenge his father—what hinders him is doubt concerning the “desire of the other,” the confrontation of a certain “Che Vuoi?” which announces the abyss of some terrible, filthy enjoyment.


Zeffirelli certainly shares Zizek's conception of a sexually omnivorous Gertrude. Although Zizek is ostensibly writing about Shakespeare's play, it appears as if he and Zeffirelli possess an almost identical conception of the function of desire in Hamlet. Zeffirelli's film visually and narratively re-emphasizes the mother/son desire at every opportunity. In such an adaptation of Hamlet (Zeffirelli practically begs for a psychoanalytic reading of his film), Hamlet's actions are never in excess of the facts as they appear in this lurid, family melodrama; T.S. Eliot might even find the film version to be a successful restoration of Shakespeare's tragedy, since the objective correlative has been adequately established.

Zeffirelli's adaptation was not the first Hamlet to be criticized within a psychoanalytic discourse.2 In fact, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard consider that, “On first glance Zeffirelli's version looks like a weak repetition of Olivier's classically Freudian rendition (1948), with the overdrawn self-consciousness of Britain's knight of culture replaced by the fast draw of the American action movie (Mel Gibson) and the easy sleaze of the erotic thriller (Glenn Close)” (83). However, the forty years which separate the two films provide the opportunity to shift from a Freudian perspective in an analysis of the Olivier film to a Lacanian perspective in Zeffirelli's film:

Olivier's Hamlet tenderly returns the affections of his mother in a forties-Freudian reading that emphasizes Gertrude as the object of Hamlet's incestuous desire. Zeffirelli's production, on the other hand, places the mother as the Other of demand: at once overanxious and oversexed, Gertrude's hungry kisses and caresses are resisted with barely concealed disgust by her son. … As Lacan writes of Hamlet, “It's not his desire for his mother (pour sa mere), but rather his mother's desire (de sa mere) that's in question,” a distinction that measures out the difference between the “classical” Freudian reading and its postclassical repetition.

(Lupton and Reinhard 83)

Certainly, the representation of Gertrude as a “desiring machine” in Hamlet would provide a more than adequate “objective correlative” for critics like Eliot. Considering that Gertrude's open displays of affection for Claudius, as well as for Hamlet, are rendered through constant displays of touching and caressing, Zeffirelli reinforces the notion of Hamlet's disgust with his mother's open sexuality. The visual evidence of such sexuality is overwhelming in Zeffirelli's film and includes these representative examples: 1) Claudius and Gertrude embrace before requesting that Hamlet not return to Wittenberg; 2) before Gertrude's appeal, “And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,” Gertrude touches Hamlet's face and the Prince turns away; 3) Gertrude and Claudius hold hands at the banquet where “The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse”; 4) following the Ghost's departure, and during the speech beginning, “Frailty thy name is woman,” Hamlet observes Claudius and Gertrude embracing before the fireplace. These instances occur early and often in the film, emphasizing Gertrude's sexuality and, more significantly, a physical bond between mother and son which has existed for quite some time.

How does Zeffirelli's Hamlet (and the film audience) interpret this excessive display of Gertrude's sexuality? One refreshingly non-psychoanalytic critical approach (although no less problematic) has been proposed by William Van Watson, which might fall under the rubric of queer theory. The failure of the Zeffirelli Hamlet, as Van Watson sees it, is that the director banishes his homosexuality to the closet in both his personal life and his films. Thus, one reading of Hamlet is that the film “offers Zeffirelli the opportunity of transferring his reactive focus from homophobia to its phallocentric corollary, misogyny. To this end, (the director) privileges Gertrude, editing her role far less than he does the parts of either Claudius or Horatio” (320). In other words, Van Watson believes that homosexual desire is thwarted in Hamlet; the suggestion of a homosexual bond between Hamlet and Horatio, or between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is resisted. There are at least two major problems with such a reading. First, although Hamlet seems less affectionate with the common men of the Danish court (particularly in his exchange with the soldiers in Act 1, Scene 2), there is a strong suggestion of a physical bond between Hamlet and Horatio. The best evidence appears in Hamlet's death scene. Van Watson writes, “Zeffirelli's closing shot shows Hamlet lying alone on the floor, Horatio seated far enough away from him so as not to touch him” (320). In reality, Hamlet does die in Horatio's arms on screen, revealing no homophobic fear of contact between the two friends and conforming to a very traditional rendering of the death scene. The second problem with the theory of misdirected homophobia is that Van Watson does not develop the supposed corollary between homophobia and misogyny. Van Watson considers Hamlet's cry, “Frailty thy name is woman,” to be the evidence of a misogynistic impulse, resulting from the transfer of homophobic energies into misogyny. It seems more likely that Hamlet's anger is, instead, related to the notion of “this too too sullied flesh,” or, in other words, to the disgust that Hamlet feels with the suggestion of his mother's hasty and incestuous marriage. Later, it should prove helpful to return to Shakespeare's concern with incest and the full implications with regard to Hamlet's behavior.

Van Watson correctly identifies the presence of the unnaturally strong mother-son bond in Hamlet, but demonstrates little evidence of a connection to repressed homosexual desire. The question remains, “Why do Eliot and others feel that Hamlet's actions are in excess of the facts as they appear?” The answer to that question lies in the fact that adaptations such as Zeffirelli's frequently disrupt the context of Hamlet by stripping the play of its political dimensions and thus reducing the possible layers of meaning. Without the threat of the Fortinbras invasion and without the atmosphere of political espionage, Hamlet can too easily be reduced to the level of family melodrama. However, even without these elements, J. Dover Wilson argues that a little knowledge of the dynamics of the Renaissance family and the definition of incest, as understood by Shakespeare, offers a plausible and sufficient explanation for Hamlet's strange behavior. In other words, doesn't the “objective correlative” simply lie in the notion of the “too too sullied flesh” of Act I, Scene 2?

Hamlet reveals the depth of his disgust for his mother's “incestuous” marriage before he encounters the ghost of his father. Denmark's was an elective monarchy, so Hamlet would not have automatically assumed the throne after the death of his father. Hamlet has been bypassed as the successor to the throne by his uncle, Claudius. Still, this is not what torments him at the beginning of the play: his mother has married “a beast that wants discourse of reason” and, more important, “O, most wicked speed, to post, / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (I.ii.150-56)! Canon law considered marriage with a deceased brother's widow to be incestuous. And Hamlet is the flesh of his mother's flesh, so his disgust is equally directed at himself. Hamlet's flesh has been “sullied” or soiled because his mother has wedded his uncle and taken to the “couch of luxury” which so plagues his thoughts. J. Dover Wilson is quick to point out that, “This incest business is so important that it is scarcely possible to make too much of it” (43). A sufficient illustration of the objective correlative may exist in the fact that Hamlet was simply an example of Castiglione's Renaissance courtier (Jones 109). Hamlet may be unable to act because he must weigh the revenge of his uncle against the salvation of his mother. Instead of an Oedipal desire for his mother, Hamlet might alternately battle against his desire for Gertrude's salvation and his distaste for her hasty marriage. Although Hamlet never explicitly states this concern, Shakespeare nevertheless invites the viewer to entertain this possibility among the many other ambiguities within the play.

After the appearance of the Ghost, Hamlet's dilemma is compounded: to kill Claudius too soon would reflect badly on Gertrude, who had married Claudius so soon after the death of the King. His mother may even have been implicated in the murder of Hamlet's father. Hamlet wishes to protect his mother's name at the same time that he is repulsed by her incestuous marriage. During the first two acts, Hamlet must convince himself that the Ghost is reliable. The two important points to be established are that Claudius was the usurper and that Gertrude was indeed unaware of the murder plot. The performance of “The Mousetrap” helps to convince Hamlet of the former and the confrontation in Gertrude's bedchamber reassures Hamlet of the latter.

Zeffirelli's film recasts Act 3, Scene 4, as a confrontation with a bizarre and inappropriate, erotic style. In the play, Hamlet addresses his mother with a tone of accusation and anger, reiterating the theme of incest:.

Have you forgot me?
No, by the rood not so! You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife, And, would it were not so, you are my mother.

(III.iv. 14-17)

The scene, as rendered by Zeffirelli, is well described by Van Watson as “the most warmly lit scene in the film,” taking place in “an intimate space whose thick walls and heavy draperies create a scene of privacy” (320). To reinforce the over-embellished bond between Zeffirelli's mother/son, the director punctuates the scene with a full-mouthed kiss between Hamlet and Gertrude and some conspicuous thrusting as the Prince lies on top of his mother. Shakespeare's play does suggest that Gertrude feels physically threatened by Hamlet in the bedchamber; Hamlet is testing his mother's knowledge of the murder of his father. Much like the antic disposition, Hamlet seems suspended between the role of accuser that he plays and the genuine repugnance that he feels for Gertrude's “sullied flesh.” The audience of Shakespeare's play should understand these complex feelings. So why does Zeffirelli imagine that his audience requires a sexually jealous and unhinged Hamlet or a devouring Gertrude to justify the behavioral excesses of either? The answer is obviously related to any interpretation of Hamlet in which the reader believes that Hamlet's actions are “in excess of the facts as they appear.”.

To summarize the wide breadth of critical approaches to Hamlet introduced in this paper is truly difficult. One can only conclude that a psychoanalytical reading, to which Zeffirelli's film absolutely lends itself, ultimately suggests some moral or psychological failing on Hamlet's part that is the invention of the play's interpreters and not supported by Shakespeare's text. Instead, Hamlet's “indecision” seems a product of the mutability of the human condition itself, which is linked to the conflicting notions of duty, desire, and love that confront Hamlet at different moments in the play. By stripping Hamlet of its political context and by reducing the array of ambiguities at the core of the narrative, Zeffirelli presents us with a Hamlet in which there are material explanations for Hamlet's behavior which should not be clear to either Hamlet or to the audience who observes his inevitable downfall. The Lacanian mechanism of mother/son desire that drives Zeffirelli's film might provide an excellent illustration of Eliot's troublesome “objective correlative,” but it also produces a Hamlet in which the explanation for the characters' motives for fear and desire comes more easily than Shakespeare probably intended.


  1. The reader should note that the lines “Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i. 121-31) do not actually appear in the film's “nunnery scene.” Instead, they are reserved for the subsequent “Mousetrap” scene. Zeffirelli considers the nunnery speech to be sincere and not consistent with Hamlet's “antic behavior” before Polonius and Claudius. Therefore, Hamlet must speak the lines at a moment of intimacy with Ophelia. This provides us with evidence that Zeffirelli considers the antic behavior as completely within Hamlet's control and that Hamlet never alternates between feigned madness and actual emotional anxiety. In other words, Zeffirelli's Hamlet is far more omniscient but far less complex and far less interesting.

  2. For an interesting Freudian psychoanalytic discussion of Hamlet's anger and repression, see Jones, especially chapter four, pages 97-103. Again, however, I would resist explaining Hamlet's problem as a strictly psychoneurotic disorder as Jones attempts to do.

Works Cited

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1964.

Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1954.

Lacan, Jacques. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Lupton, Julia Reinhard, and Kenneth Reinhard. After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993.

Van Watson, William. “Shakespeare, Zeffirelli and the Homosexual Gaze.” Literature Film Quarterly 20.4 (1992).

Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

Samuel Crowl (review date 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5994

SOURCE: Crowl, Samuel. “Zeffirelli's Hamlet: The Golden Girl and a Fistful of Dust.” Cineaste 24, no. 1 (1998): 56-61.

[In the following review, Crowl examines Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as Gertrude. Crowl praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude.]

Franco Zeffirelli, the maker of the most commercially successful of all Shakespeare films, has received paradoxically less critical attention than any of the other major directors of Shakespeare films. Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, and Branagh all have found their work at the center of scrutiny in the growing body of critical literature devoted to Shakespeare on film. But not Zeffirelli. Of the six books which appeared between 1988 and 1992, and which constituted a mini-explosion of critical interest in Shakespeare as a subject for film, only one, Peter Donaldson's Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors, contained an extended analysis of a Zeffirelli film.1 He was ignored by the others, as he was by Charles Eckert's pioneering collection of essays on Shakespearean films which appeared in 1972 just four years after the release of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.2 Only Jack Jorgens, in his groundbreaking Shakespeare on Film (1977), gave Zeffirelli his due with chapters devoted both to Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.3 Recent collections, Shakespeare and the Moving Image (1994) and Shakespeare, The Movie (1997), have tried to restore the balance somewhat by including omnibus essays on Zeffirelli's Shakespeare films, but even they are measured in their assessment of his achievement.4 The attention paid to Kenneth Branagh's work may lead, as Robert Hapgood suggests, to renewed interest in Zeffirelli's as Branagh's flamboyant realism is so obviously indebted to Zeffirelli's lush and energetic film style.5

Why has Zeffirelli's work been so generally ignored or discounted by Shakespeare on film scholars? His Taming, so obviously a vehicle for its famous stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, did not transcend their limitations and appeared just at a moment when modern feminism was suggesting a host of alternative approaches to the play beyond treating it as broad, battle-of-the-sexes, farce. Jorgens is right to see that the film's most innovative moments are its opening scenes with Lucentio and Tranio arriving in Padua just as the city breaks into festive swirl and abuse, as the university students celebrate the first day of the new term.6 Zeffirelli's frame clearly wishes to reimagine the play's farce as participating in the festive, holiday atmosphere of Shakespeare's major romantic comedies. But Cassius to the contrary, the fault is sometimes in our stars and Burton and Taylor fail to transcend the quasiautobiographical impulses which led them to this Shakespearean project.

Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, suffered from the opposite fate. Here was a film so bold and stunning, which immediately found and held its teenage audience, that critical analysis was largely superfluous. This film, at least until Donaldson's suggestive essay, didn't need interpreters—it spoke directly and powerfully to students by passing the Shakespeare establishment. Zeffirelli's film reflected the 1960s in romanticizing the passion, intensity, and beauty of the young destroyed by the quarrels and conflicts of their parents. The film became the first to reshape the teaching of Shakespeare in the American high-school English curriculum. For almost seventy-five years Julius Caesar and Macbeth topped the list of the ten most taught Shakespeare plays—a list on which Romeo and Juliet did not appear. By 1975 Romeo and Juliet had leapt to the top of that list where it has remained, sustained by countless replays of Zeffirelli's film, for the past twenty-five years. So the film's immense popularity and its association, at least in America, with the high school curriculum were perhaps two reasons for its critical neglect.

One might have expected that the huge financial success of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) would have created the commercial atmosphere conducive to the making of more Shakespeare films, but the failure of Polanski's Macbeth (1971) to recapture and extend the young audience Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet had found doomed the genre for almost two decades until the advent of the Branagh revolution. Though the planning for Zeffirelli's film of Hamlet (1990) long predated the release of Branagh's Henry V in 1989, the surprising success of Branagh's low-budget film certainly helped pave the way for Zeffirelli's return to screen Shakespeare after an absence of almost twenty-five years.

Though some commentators feel that Hamlet presented the romantic Italian with a world less congenial than Taming's Padua or Romeo's Verona (“One cannot move from his Padua and Verona to his Elsinore without a feeling of sensory deprivation,” Robert Hapgood perceptively remarks), Zeffirelli's fascination and involvement with the play reaches back to his emergence as a major director for the stage.7 In fact the first Shakespeare he directed after the remarkable success of his production of Romeo and Juliet for the Old Vic in 1960, was a prize-winning Italian version of Hamlet with Giorgio Albertazzi, which went on tour to Paris, Vienna, Moscow, and London in the summer of 1964. That stage production was sandwiched between several operas he was also directing including Joan Sutherland in I puritani and Maria Callas in Norma: “This was the spring of both my divas,” Zeffirelli comments in his autobiography reminding us that his first Hamlet sprang to life in the midst of his work with two of the greatest divas of the age—one just emerging, the other beginning her decline.8

When, years later, Zeffirelli came to film his Hamlet most attention was given to his casting of Mel Gibson, known primarily for his lead roles in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon action films, and to Gibson's eventual performance as Hamlet. Because of Gibson, most responses to Zeffirelli's film sought to place it firmly in the film culture of its star. I do not quarrel with that approach but believe that the casting of Glenn Close and Zeffirelli's passion for the opera diva exerted as strong an influence on many of his production decisions which is why, visually, Gertrude emerges at the center of the film. Zeffirelli's visual interpretation of the play makes an intriguing match with Janet Adelman's Gertrude-centered reading of the play in her Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeare's Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest,” which appeared in 1992 just after the release of Zeffirelli's film.

Adelman locates the reintroduction of the mother (in general) and Gertrude (in specific) into the Shakespearean universe as initiating the tragic phase of his career. The successful negotiations with masculine legacy and female sexuality which Shakespeare dramatized in the Lancastrian tetralogy and the comedies—plays noted for their absence of mothers—collapse in Shakespeare's tragedies where female sexuality intrudes upon and ruptures masculine identity. For Adelman, Hamlet initiates this tragic pattern and Gertrude is at its core:

Hamlet thus redefines the son's position between two fathers by relocating it in relation to an indiscriminately sexual maternal body that threatens to annihilate the distinction between the fathers and hence problematizes the son's paternal identification. At the same time, the play conflates the beloved with this betraying mother, undoing the strategies that had enabled marriage in the comedies. The intrusion of the adulterous mother thus disables the solutions of history and comedy as Shakespeare has imagined them; in that sense, her presence initiates tragedy.9

After establishing shots of castle and courtyard, Zeffirelli's Hamlet begins with a sob and a dumb show which silently and decisively answers the text's opening query: “Who's there?” The camera pokes its way down into the castle's crypt where we discover ourselves at Old Hamlet's entombment. Our first close-up is of Glenn Close's Gertrude, whose pale, sobbing face is wreathed by thick blonde braids, followed by quick cuts to Alan Bates's fleshy Claudius and Paul Scofield's silent king. Gertrude approaches the coffin and removes a pewter rose from her hair and places it on Scofield's chest and then turns and collapses into Polonius's waiting arms. This misty interlude is shattered as a fist, clutching a handful of dust, enters the frame and slowly opens to allow the dirt to sprinkle down on the corpse. The camera follows up from hand to arm to capture the hooded face of Mel Gibson's Hamlet just as Claudius speaks the first lines of the film script: “Hamlet think of us / As of a father, for let the world take note / You are the most immediate to our throne.”

As Gertrude's sobs mix with the film score's violins, Hamlet turns and exits. This tableau establishes Zeffirelli's decision to focus on Hamlet as a family romance, to place Gertrude firmly at its center, to compete extravagantly with Olivier's Oedipal version of the play, and to offer a Hamlet defined more by that fistful of dust than by thinking too precisely on the event.

Gibson's presence as Hamlet has made comparisons with his work in the Lethal Weapon and Mad Max films inevitable, and Linda Charnes is right to see that the characters he played in those films share with Hamlet personalities made mad by marriages.10 I am less convinced, however, by her desire to see Glenn Close's Gertrude as a combination of her good-bad girl roles in films like The Big Chill and Fatal Attraction. For Zeffirelli, Gibson walks out of film culture, but his context for Close is opera. Gertrude is conceived as the film's diva, she is the golden girl at the center of a drab masculine world. Zeffirelli's camera adores Close and repeatedly captures her glowing girlishness. Opera is, of course, as uncongenial a medium for Hamlet as are the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films but in the visual tension between the two, played out in Zeffirelli's direction of Gibson's and Close's performances, the film generates an excitement in translating the play into a mixture of the artistic conventions which have governed Zeffirelli's professinal life as a director and designer.

The poet, Wayne Koestenbaum, has written an extended rhapsody on the opera queen, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire,11 which explores gay fascination with opera in general and the diva in particular. While the communion between opera queen and diva is largely conducted by listening in the dark with the diva's throat and voice as the medium of ecstasy and thrill, Koestenbaum's text often and naturally links the diva with the female film star from Gloria Swanson to Julie Andrews: “Callas sang in the era of Sunset Boulevard: in legend she became Norma Desmond.”12 He also understands that not all opera queens worship from afar and in the dark:

In a photograph, Visconti wraps his arms tightly around Callas and kisses her on the cheek—it looks to be a firm, authentic kiss—and she smiles, flattered and gratified to be kissed; Zeffirelli, doughy and devoted, kisses Callas, and she smiles radiantly, knowing the limits of the kiss; Bernstein holds Callas's hands and studies her, and they seem to be playing a seesaw game, figuring out whether their bodies are equivalent; gaunt and shirtless, Pasolini directs Callas as Medea, and she is attentive, obediently holding her hands to her face. These photographs attest to a specific historic configuration: the gay man venerating the theatrical woman and the woman responding gaily, the woman imitating the gay man and the gay man imitating the woman, the gay man directing and then listening and admiring, the man and woman collaborating.

A composite of those photographs showing Visconti, Zeffirelli, Bernstein, and Pasolini all giving rapt attention to Callas might serve as an analogue to the ways in which Zeffirelli surrounds Glenn Close's Gertrude with her quartet of male admirers—Scofield's Ghost, Gibson's Hamlet, Bates's Claudius, and Holm's Polonius. The analogy breaks down, of course, because of the differences in the mystery of desire contained in the two tableaux. Close's Gertrude “smiles radiantly,” is “flattered and gratified to be kissed,” and wants to respond “gaily” to the men in her life. The problem is that they are not her director and do not know, especially Hamlet, the “limits of the kiss.”

Zeffirelli's film keeps flirting with imagining Gertrude as the diva who, in the world of opera, releases her dazzle but keeps her distance with and through her voice. Shakespeare's queen is, however, as much body as voice and her physical presence seems to demand intimacy rather than devotion.

Zeffirelli's film, like Adelman's critical analysis, shapes the play with Gertrude at its center, or at the center of Hamlet's fractured consciousness, rather than the ghost or Claudius. The film is much more about sons and mothers than fathers and uncles, which is evident not only from the opening dumb show but in Zeffirelli's casting decisions as well. Close and Gibson are of an age; Scofield's Ghost is ancient and old enough to be Gertrude's grandfather and while, by comparison, Alan Bates's Claudius appears much younger than his brother, he is still almost old enough to be Close's father. Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia (with eyebrows wonderfully sullen and defiant) is never a visual match for Gibson's Hamlet; she is out of his “star” not because of social standing but because she can't compare or compete with his dazzling mother. She's a plain, puzzled child; Close is the film's radiant golden girl and Gibson's Hamlet naturally (and unnaturally) finds it impossible to “step from this picture [Gertrude] to this [Ophelia].” The predominant visual image of Zeffirelli's Hamlet is of the pale blonde Close dressed in virgin blue, shot in golden light, surrounded by a host of swarthy, hairy males all dressed in drab colors. Even Ophelia's dress and coloring align her with the men rather than with the glamorous queen.

Everyone in the film is fascinated by her. Anthony Dawson intelligently sees that “the gesture that seems to define Franco Zeffirelli's vision of the play is the glance. The camera moves, bodies move, but more than anything in his films, eyes move.”13 And, from the opening dumb show, those glances are directed as much at Gertrude as at Hamlet. She is the center of the male gaze and female gaze as well, as Carter's Ophelia repeatedly is found by the camera giving Close her puzzled scrutiny as if to say: what has she done to my man and how can I tap into that power?

Father is as absorbed as daughter. Ian Holm's Polonius is clearly captivated by Gertrude. From his move to comfort the weeping queen in the opening scene, to his report of Hamlet's and Ophelia's romantic relationship, to his preparation of Gertrude for Hamlet's arrival in the closet scene, Holm is more solicitous of Gertrude's opinion than of Claudius's. Holm's performance is subtle and meticulous. His Polonius is more the scholar (or pedant, note his cap) than the statesman and his windy announcement of the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship is as much to Gertrude as to Claudius. Zeffirelli repeatedly places her at the center of attention. The play insists that it is Claudius who has usurped the center (“popp'd in between the election and my hopes”) which rightfully belongs to Hamlet, but here Alan Bates's Claudius seems just another male admirer of Gertrude's radiance. It is clear that his Claudius has murdered more for lust than power, but he appears shy and almost overwhelmed by his prize rather than proudly possessive.

Zeffirelli's shift of the play's family power dynamics is made most clear in his handling of the film's version of 1.2. As we have seen, he lifts a snippet of it as the first spoken dialog in the film's opening scene. He cuts from the crypt to the court with elements of Claudius's opening address heard first as a general announcement (over an establishing shot of Elsinore's castle) and then from Claudius himself enthroned alongside his queen in the castle's great hall. Hamlet is absent from Claudius's slick congratulations to the court for their reception of funeral and wedding. He has to be sought out and it is Gertrude who leads the search party. She nuzzles Claudius into accompanying her to Hamlet's room shrouded in darkness and filled with books and rudimentary scientific equipment. She swings open a giant curtain exposing her son, certain that she is a light and life bringer. She laughs amusedly at Hamlet's crack about being “too much in the sun,” having literalized his pun and missed its sting. Close's Gertrude tries to soothe her son in the same manner she handles Claudius—with nuzzles and tender touches and kisses which become increasingly complicated and ambiguous. Here when Hamlet sinks to the floor on his capitulation, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” Gertrude goes to her knees to kiss his forehead, eyes, lips and to press his defeated head into her abdomen. The sound of barking dogs and hunting horns recalls her to Claudius waiting on horseback in the courtyard below and she bolts out from her embrace of her son and down the stairs where a great blue cape is swirled over her shoulders. She dashes out into the courtyard where she nearly pulls Claudius out of his saddle with an eager kiss before mounting and riding off with her blonde tresses billowing in the wind.

This sequence allows Close to give full reign to her winsome, vigorous Gertrude. The language of her power is physical; she exudes a sensuous vitality which, strikingly, is confusing to both of the men in her life. Hamlet, obviously, is both attracted and repelled by her physical expressiveness and Claudius, whom one would imagine to be completely caught up in her dazzle, is almost always shot with a cup of wine either in hand or at lip—a sign that he's anxious about their relationship even before Hamlet begins directly (and indirectly) to work on exposing his guilt.

This scene also reveals the ways in which Zeffirelli uses the vertical and horizontal lines in his film to get at issues of enclosure and release embedded in the text. Denmark … prison; nutshell … infinite space; golden roof … congregation of vapors; paragon of animals … quintessence of dust; undiscovered country … no return; and heaven … earth all speak to Hamlet's desire for release and his sense of containment. “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven,” he rhetorically asks Ophelia staking out the boundaries and central question of the human condition. Olivier visualized this cluster of images by his Hamlet's repeated flights up the stairs from Elsinore's bowels (Claudius's territory) to the high platform above (the Ghost's). Olivier's Hamlet is always trapped on the vertical; his Elsinore is an expressionistic image for the mind's labyrinth from which there is no escape.

Zeffirelli and Gibson present us with a Hamlet who wants to believe he has more options, more avenues of awareness, and modes of attack. They too exploit the perpendicular by repeatedly positioning Gibson's Hamlet above the action unfolding below. He's on a high catwalk above the courtyard seemingly overhearing as well as overseeing Polonius chastising Ophelia for being a “green girl” in accepting Hamlet's tenders of affection. He's perched atop the shelves in Polonius's library in the fishmonger scene and pushes the library ladder away as Polonius attempts to climb up to reach him. He enters above Polonius and Claudius when they are plotting to “loose” Ophelia on him; and he hops up on the council table (wearing Polonius's skull cap) to play the fool with Claudius about Polonius's where-abouts after the closet scene. He peers down from the ramparts through a grill to observe Claudius's (and the entire Court's) reveling below as he awaits his rendezvous with the Ghost. In each of these instances Gibson's possession of the high vertical line is an expression of Hamlet's superiority to the carnal, duplicitous, and obtuse world below. Crucially his one movement down and under comes as he retreats to the crypt after the nunnery scene to deliver the “To be or not to be” soliloquy as if it were his attempt to share his anguish and impotence with the dead, particularly his father.

Besides giving Hamlet a command of the vertical, Zeffirelli and Gibson also hold out the possibility that he might appropriate the horizontal as well. Gibson's restless Hamlet prowls Elsinore's upper and lower reaches and, in a stunning jump cut (immediately after he finishes the “To be or not to be” soliloquy), from dark to light, from inside to out, the film finds him outside Elsinore sprawled out under a bold blue sky on a green hillside overlooking a fjord with his horse grazing in the rear of the frame—a portrait of the hero who has lost the name of action. The glimpses of the external world we get from Olivier are gray and cold, melancholy landscapes mirroring his film's brooding Dane. Zeffirelli's romantic Italian blood can't imagine a world where a vibrant sun isn't always shining and violent action always a possibility. Gibson's reverie is broken by the arrival on horseback of Rosencrantz (Michael Maloney) and Guildenstern (Sean Murray) and the three men gallop off to a solitary log cabin which signals the landscape of an American Western and reminds us of that fistful of dust which first introduced us to Gibson's Hamlet. Zeffirelli allows his Hamlet to move in a landscape beyond the confines of Claudius's poisoned court, but it finally offers neither solace nor escape, for its beauty seems only to echo the corruption of his mother's.

In a dazzling essay which fatally misreads Zeffirelli's Hamlet, Linda Charnes faults the film for failing to grasp the play's essential film-noir quality.14 But Zeffirelli's film style is as far removed from noir as slapstick is from screwball. Zeffirelli's sensibility is romantic and grandly operatic; his artistic blood beats in technicolor, not black and white; his sensibility is passionate and sentimental, not cool and cynical. His solution to the Oedipal conflict, complicated in his own case by his bastardy and homosexuality, is not to destroy the father but to glorify the mother.15 This is the source of his lavish visual imagination and his attraction to the diva from Callas to Sutherland to Graves. That artistic attraction to the tragic female, the center of the operatic form, spills over into his Shakespeare films. Reading his autobiography (and the films themselves) reveals his greater preoccupation with Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Hussey than with Richard Burton and Leonard Whiting. The same pattern is at work in his Hamlet where the landscape and atmosphere of the film seem more a reflection of Gertrude's zeitgeist than Hamlet's.

This is reinforced by Zeffirelli's handling of the end of Hamlet's first encounter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet's Western interlude, and its possibilities for flight and independence, is foreclosed by the arrival of the players who literally transport him back into Elsinore and his reengagement with the family drama. Now, in the film's only reversal of this perspective, it is Gertrude who peers down from a high window on her son in the courtyard below making merry with the actors. Hamlet acknowledges her presence with a glance before slipping into the shadows to formulate his plan for “The Mousetrap.”

The actors have brought him back into the world of the female, which Zeffirelli underlines by transposing key lines between Hamlet and Ophelia from the nunnery scene as a frame for the play-within. In fact, by doing so “The Mousetrap” becomes less about Hamlet's power struggle with Claudius than about the conclusion of his relationship with Ophelia and the preparation for his confrontation with Gertrude which follows.16

Zeffirelli shoots Hamlet's exchange with Ophelia about “country matters” in a tight two-shot; Hamlet's tone is more intimate than bitter or bad-boy bawdy and Bonham Carter's Ophelia registers her puzzled understanding of his double-entendres with a raised eyebrow rather than a blush. Gibson's voice becomes more bold and bitter as he spits out, “Look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within two hours.” Then, in an intriguing textual transposition, he replies to Ophelia's “Nay ‘tis twice two months, my lord,” with “So long? Then get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?,” followed by a cut to the actors juggling with torches as a prologue to evening's main event. Everyone's playing with fire here. Then the film cuts back to an anguished Hamlet almost pleading with Ophelia: “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” After the film's brief (and largely mimed) version of “The Mousetrap” has caused Bates's Claudius to rise and stagger toward the platform with his hand pressed to his right ear before uttering a guttural laugh and exiting, the film returns to Hamlet and Ophelia for “Believe none of us. We are arrant knaves all.” Long passionate kiss. “Farewell.”

At this moment in Shakespeare's text, where Hamlet is most ecstatically fixated on Claudius and the way in which he has signaled his guilt, Zeffirelli's film insists on displacing Claudius in Hamlet's imagination with Ophelia and by extension and cross-cutting, Gertrude. Certainly it is a bold idea to interweave the nunnery scene with “The Mousetrap” and there is a curiously apt logic to Zeffirelli's move to create a necessary link in Hamlet's mind between the confirmation of Claudius's guilt and his rejection of Ophelia (a replay of his visit to her room after his encounter with the Ghost) but it is also simply further evidence of the way in which Zeffirelli's film repeatedly stresses that Hamlet's key relationships are with his mother and lover rather than with his uncle and father.

This pattern is again made evident in the film's dismissal of all but two lines of Claudius's attempt at confession and prayer, so that Hamlet can more quickly speed to the central confrontation with Gertrude which follows. This is the duet to which the entire film has been building. Zeffirelli bathes Gertrude's bedroom in a golden glow which emanates as much from Close's face and hair (down and fully displayed for the first time in the film) as from the fire which blazes in her huge stone fireplace.17

Gibson and Close give us the most intense and passionate encounter between Hamlet and Gertrude in the world of Hamlet on Film. Anthony Dawson is right to quip that here “lethal weapon meets fatal attraction in what turns out to be a dangerous liaison.”18 Violence, lethal and sexual, infuses and comes to climax in the scene. Gibson's Hamlet threatens Gertrude with his sword, rams it home into Polonius through the wild animal embroidered on the arras, and later straddles his mother and thrusts away at her in a terrifying mock rape to the rhythm of the text's ugliest image: “Nay but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.”

As Hamlet hammers away at Gertrude physically and Claudius verbally Close finally pulls Gibson into a desperate, passionate kiss meant not only to silence his aggression but to express her own repressed longings. This moment is as primal as the murder of Polonius and, for Zeffirelli, signals the ultimate release of Hamlet's wild discontent and opens the possibility for reconciliation with his mother. Scofield's sad, sweet Ghost (shot framed in a Romanesque archway to resemble a weary, worried saint in an altar piece) seems oblivious to the action he has interrupted. The film's kiss is the climax here, not the text's conjuration of the ghostly authorial father. The murder of Polonius and the rape of Gertrude have made Hamlet an arrant knave and allowed him a perspective from which, finally, to understand and share his mother's flawed humanity. By finally enacting the ugly image which has both disgusted and transfixed him, Gibson's Hamlet has freed its powerful hold on his imagination. When Hamlet leaves he gives Gertrude his chain with the locket of Old Hamlet on it and she signals her acceptance of their compact by tucking the locket away when Claudius enters her room.

For Zeffirelli this scene is as much about Gertrude as it is about Hamlet. Close's Gertrude is impetuous (she gives Gibson a vicious slap for his impudence) and passionate; she's a player here and not a poor one. This scene confirms that for Zeffirelli she not only “earns a place in the story,” but commands a central one. Again Adelman is extremely helpful in outlining the psychoanalytic pattern of interaction between mother and son here which the film realizes visually. By reminding us that Hamlet's first and last words in the scene are “Mother,” Adelman follows the progress by which Hamlet appears to rid himself of his ugly fantasies about the sexualized maternal body. For Adelman “Hamlet cannot stop imagining, even commanding, the sexual act that he wants to undo.”19 Zeffirelli's film allows us to see that Gibson's Hamlet can rid his imagination of this contaminated vision only by reenacting it, allowing the expression of his own incestuous desires to finally obliterate Gertrude's, so that they can both be tarnished and thus capable of redeeming one another.

Gibson's Hamlet becomes, after the closet scene, the performance embodiment of Adelman's reading of his reconciliation with Gertrude: “Trusting her he can begin to trust in himself and in his own capacity for action; and he can begin to rebuild the masculine identity spoiled by her contamination.”20

This scene is obviously cathartic for Gibson's Hamlet who suddenly is released into the action hero mold his performance, up to this moment, has strained against. While the text indulges the offensive vigor of Hamlet's wit in his exchange with Claudius concerning Polonius's whereabouts, Gibson's Hamlet is also physically energetic in this scene as he prances on Claudius's council table wearing Polonius's skull cap in an action which matches the topsy-turvy motion of his wit, which turns the world, and its power and gender hierarchies, upside down as he traces the progress of a king through the guts of a beggar and bids Claudius farewell by calling him “dear Mother.” Gibson's Hamlet is never held captive in these exchanges and he leads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away on “Come, for England!”

Gibson's Hamlet is also several steps ahead of Shakespeare's as Zeffirelli's visualization of the shipboard exchange of ambassadorial instructions reveals that Hamlet has already prepared his revised version of the king's dispatch before he is fully aware of the contents of Claudius's. Zeffirelli returns Hamlet to Denmark on horseback as befits the action hero and the climactic duel is once again less about Hamlet and Laertes and Claudius than about Hamlet and Gertrude. She's the golden seraphic mother dressed in virgin blue with her hair now in two long braids. He's the vigorous, clownish son mocking the machismo of the duel for his mother's delight. It is as if the two of them existed once again in a pre-Claudian state of innocence. There's no suspicious anxiety on either of their faces in the repeated cross-cuts Zeffirelli makes between Hamlet's performance and Gertrude's spirited appreciation of her son's antics. Hamlet even signals one of his physical jokes with a wink, directed not at us, but at his mother. There's no physical or even eye contact between Claudius and Gertrude in this scene until she moves down from the dais to drink from the poisoned cup. Bates's and Close's reading of their exchange is wonderfully nuanced, capturing both his realization that he's the last person in this world to caution another about taking a drink, and her smiling girlishness in ignoring his warning. From this moment the pace of Zeffirelli's cross-cutting between Gertrude and the duel intensifies and she collapses at the moment Hamlet receives the fatal hit. Hamlet's eventual attack on Claudius is anticlimactic and is delivered with none of the energy and panache devoted to the strike by Olivier, or subsequently, by Branagh. Claudius has never been the center of Zeffirelli's attention, Gertrude is at the core of his understanding of the play. And the film reminds us powerfully of the fates of the men who become infatuated with her golden girl glow from husbands and advisors to sons and lovers. The diva dies in an ugly parody of orgasm, having helped her quartet of male admirers to dusty death.

Zeffirelli's casting of the principal roles, his reshaping of the text, his use of cinematic space and landscape, the rhythm of his editing all have established the family romance at the heart of his interest in the play. By doing so his film gives visual substance and significance to Gertrude's central place in that romance, a place which—as Adelman notes—is much more opaque (but no less tantalizing) in Shakespeare's text. For Adelman, Gertrude remains “more a screen for Hamlet's fantasies about her than a fully developed character in her own right: whatever individuality she might have had is sacrificed to her status as a mother.”21 Zeffirelli and Close attempt to use the fantasies of another screen to shape a modern film version of Gertrude which has remarkable resonance with Adelman's powerful feminist and psychoanalytic reading of the play. For Zeffirelli, Close's Gertrude becomes the tragic diva—the golden girl of the West.

This article is an abridged version of a chapter from Samuel Crowl's book, The Branagh Renaissance: Reimagining Shakespeare in the Age of Film, forthcoming from Ohio University Press.


  1. See Anthony Davies, Filming Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge University Press, 1988); John Collick, Shakespeare, Cinema, and Society (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1989); Peter S. Donaldson, Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Lorne M. Buchman, Still in Movement: Shakespeare on Screen (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1991); and my own Shakespeare Observed: Studies in Performance on Stage and Screen (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992).

    H. R. Coursen does include a brief treatment of Glenn Close's Gertrude in his chapter “Gertrude's Story” in his Watching Shakespeare on Television (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993), pp. 70-79.

  2. Focus on Shakespeare Films (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972).

  3. Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977).

  4. See Ace G. Pilkington's “Zeffirelli's Shakespeare” in Shakespeare and the Moving Image, eds. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 163-179; and Robert Hapgood's “Popularizing Shakespeare: The Artistry of Franco Zeffirelli,” in Shakespeare, The Movie, eds. Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 80-94.

  5. Hapgood, “Popularizing Shakespeare,” p. 92.

  6. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film, pp. 74-75.

  7. Hapgood, “Popularizing Shakespeare,” p. 89.

  8. Zeffirelli: The Autobiography of Franco Zeffirelli (New York, NY: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), p. 191.

  9. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origins in Shakespeare's plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest” (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 14-15.

  10. “Dismember Me: Shakespeare, Paranoia, and the Logic of Mass Culture,” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (Spring 1997), pp. 1-16.

  11. Wayne Kostenbaum, The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (New York, NY: Persea Books, 1992), p. 142.

  12. Ibid., p. 151.

  13. Hamlet in Performance (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 197.

  14. “Dismember Me,” pp. 7-11. Charnes wants Zeffirelli's film to be father-centered when, as I am arguing, it is relentlessly about mothers.

  15. Hapgood quotes Zeffirelli as saying about Hamlet: “The problem of the boy is quite simply—whom to love? He did not really love his father; that was a secondary character in his life. Ophelia? No, there is no love-story possible there, he is always uncertain, ambiguous—because his heart is not come out of his mother's womb! Because there is no safer place in all the world.” “Popularizing Shakespeare,” p. 90.

  16. Michael Skovmand argues “Leaving the nunnery injunction (‘Get thee to a nunnery …’) out of the nunnery scene and shifting it to the play within the play, gives it a more logical context, placing this rather definitive statement in what is effectively the last scene with Ophelia and Hamlet together, their only later ‘encounter’ being at Ophelia's funeral.” “Mel's Melodramatic Melancholy: Zeffirelli's Hamlet,” in Screen Shakespeare (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1994), p. 118.

  17. Skovmand is excellent on Zeffirelli's use of tinting and filters in the film: warm amber for Gertrude, cold gray-blue for the Ghost. “Mel's Melodramatic Melancholy,” p. 127.

  18. Hamlet in Performance, p. 205.

  19. Suffocating Mothers, p. 32.

  20. Ibid, p. 34.

  21. Ibid., p. 34.

Bernice W. Kliman (review date spring-summer 2001)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2985

SOURCE: Kliman, Bernice W. “A Richness of Hamlets.” The Shakespeare Newsletter 51, nos. 248-249 (spring-summer 2001): 39, 42, 44.

[In the following review, Kliman compares two stage productions of Hamlet, one directed by John Caird and the other by Peter Brook. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.]

In his 1996 film, Kenneth Branagh cast Simon Russell Beale, who already had a distinguished career on stage, as the Second Gravedigger. Branagh darkened the shots with Beale almost to impenetrability and positioned him with back to camera or off-frame. But you can't keep a good man down. In the recent Royal National Theatre touring production, Beale embodied Hamlet, almost miraculously, as a good man in the deepest and richest sense of that bland word “good.”

The concurrent Hamlet by Adrian Lester provides an opportunity to compare two formidable performers and directors. In the Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, Lester played a superb Rosalind with wit, intelligence and depth. His character in the Mike Nichols film Primary Colors is as serious and thoughtful as his Hamlet is manic. He has the variety, the vocal and physical range, of all great actors. His portrayal of Hamlet, like Beale's, is a gift to those who love the play. Lester creates a volatile Hamlet who, while without the thoughtful rationality of Beale's, is always fun to watch and never obnoxious.

The productions in which Beale and Lester appear explain in part their differences—though inherent personality has an effect also. John Caird, the director for the NT production, allowed his actors flexibility and opportunities to grow into their characterizations. (Jonathan Croall describes Caird's methods in Hamlet Observed: The National Theatre at Work [London: NT Publications, 2001]). Peter Brook in his Théâtres des Bouffes du Nord production constrained Lester's Hamlet with a severely chopped text and a mechanistic production: both directors put their imprint on their productions but Brook is more heavy-handed, more insistent on having things his own way (as Adrian Lester reveals in a joint interview with Beale conducted by Matt Wolf, The New York Times 8 April 2001, Sect. 2). It would be interesting to see how Beale would work himself out of a straitjacket and how Lester might flourish in a free collaboration.

Both productions might have benefited from the example of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (Virginia): in a Hamlet with Thadd McQuade, directed by Ralph Alan Cohen in 1995, the text was barely cut and yet played in about 150 minutes without an intermission. Its pacing was crisp. To achieve the same 150 minutes Brook had to, as he puts it, “prune away the inessential,” the latter defined according to his own inspiration. (I wish directors would prune texts without saying that they are bettering Shakespeare by cutting to the core; instead of leaning on the authority of Shakespeare's “essence” they should just cut.) Caird and the cast shared the work of cutting; after excising much of 1.1, all of Fortinbras, and many lines throughout, the play still runs 210 minutes or more including the intermission.

Both productions abound in long and short pauses in mid-sentence. Without them more time would be available for language. In the disclosure scene (1.2), Caird's Horatio (Simon Day), after “I saw him” stops himself from, it seems, blurting out the revelation of the ghost's visitation, then after a long beat finishes instead with “once” (375: line numbers and quotations, somewhat modernized, from The Enfolded “Hamlet,SNL extra issue, April 1996). This little touch builds his character; Horatio is careful and Marcelluls has to urge him to tell Hamlet what he has seen. Every pause can be similarly justified perhaps. But effectiveness diminishes when virtually every speech is shot through with stops, and the price in lost language is high. It is not that the fuller text is precious in itself but that it is needed for clarity. Many critics and actors have noticed that the play seems faster and clearer with a more complete text.

The two productions reaffirm what we know—that Hamlet is manifold. The actors could not have been more different: on the one hand, there is Simon Russell Beale, solid and quiet, moving quickly when occasion demanded (getting out of the way of the funeral procession, fencing adroitly) but also capable of focused and generative stillness. One of the finest actors I have seen on stage, he has great range and depth. He is an actor who can let you know what he is thinking, and his thoughts are worth attending to. For once I understood Hamlet: this Hamlet has no desire to be a king, no urge to be a hero. He wants to do the right thing. He is deeply grieved by his father's death and mother's swift remarriage but is incapable of hatred. One admires him because he has a pleasing wit and a serious intellect. One likes him because he is warm-hearted, lovable and sensitive; he is a better person than most people we know. This is not a popular take on Hamlet these days (and it is not Brook's view). Hamlet should be nasty and brutish (but not short), wicked and closer to Iago than to the Romantic Hamlet described by literary critics in the nineteenth century. Beale knows how to do Iago, having played a definitive one a few years ago, but his Hamlet is a sweet, humane person, without being a goody-goody. He can become irritated, as he does with Laertes at Ophelia's grave. One might multiply adjectives to describe Beale; he is multifaceted and every facet gleams. Many of us have wondered how stocky, forty-ish Burbage could have played Hamlet. Very well, I would say, if he was as superb as stocky, forty-ish Beale.

On the other hand, Adrian Lester, who is thirty-two and looks younger, is sinewy and flexible, constantly contorting himself into gymnastic poses. As Brook's Hamlet he may have been directed to portray an unlikable Hamlet, but he does not succeed in that. Physical moves, like hitting his head at “nay not so much, not two” earned laughs from the audience (322). Beale's gestures are smaller; he uses the space between his outstretched fingers to mime the “little month” since his father died (331). He suggests his pose of madness by pulling strands of hair to stand up rather than anything more obviously manic. The hair makes for a little throughline: there is a charming moment when near the end of the closet scene he shrugs off his mother (Sara Kestelman) as she tries to smooth his hair and then smoothes it himself; it is a teenager's gesture.

Vocal as well as physical variety gave Lester his manic energy: from grunts, to shouts, growls and snarls. Beale has a fairly frequent extra-textual “Ha!” to express delight or dismay or irony. Though Beale's vocal range is wide, the production makes him work within the bounds of rationality, loving kindness, bewilderment at the actions of his father (asking him to do what it is impossible for this Hamlet to do) and at the behavior of his beloved mother, and deep sadness about Ophelia.

Beale's Hamlet is the contemplative man who absorbs and wonders; Lester's the agitated man whose physical tics relieve his anxieties. For Beale, since contemplation is Hamlet's nature, the playing of the role and the production's explanation for Hamlet's action and inaction are one. Nervous action does not clarify Lester's Hamlet's nature but is an “outward flourish”—and thus his physicality does not explain why he behaves as he does. The absence of text exacerbates the problem of interpretation: did Lester's Hamlet want to revenge his father by murdering the king? Was he conflicted about this duty or did he think it his duty to resist the ghost? Was he ambivalent about his father, uncle, mother, Ophelia? Not enough text was there to make or even intimate the point, not enough even to flesh out the remaining lines into fertile ambiguities. There is nothing wrong with not being able to “pluck out the heart of [Hamlet's] mystery,” but Brook has cut out too much that is essential—not any particular omission but simply “time to act.” In spite of Brook's rigid stylization, I think Lester could have graced an outstanding Hamlet if more of the text had been available to him; even in this production he is a wonder moment by moment.

Their gravedigger scenes represent the differences between the actors and the productions. Both scenes please; each Hamlet connects significantly with the gravedigger. In both, the same actors play the Polonius and gravedigger roles. Brook's Bruce Myers has a dancing way about him in both his roles; Caird's Peter Blythe (originally Denis Quilley) distinguishes his dignified Polonius from his bluecollar sexton. Lester is gently irreverent with Yorick's skull, playing with it, puppet-like on a stick, as the gravedigger watches delighted. Similarly, Lester had played with the dead body of Polonius as if he were a puppet. Beale could not have done that. In his mother's closet, Hamlet believes he has killed the king; he is visibly shaken by the sight of Polonius, who falls excruciatingly slowly, and is still alive to hear Hamlet's sad words, “Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger” (2415).

In the graveyard scene, Beale thrills to see the skull of someone he knew and loved: it brings home to him the meaning of death as the ghost's visitations and his killing of Polonius have not. From Hamlet's intimate knowledge of Yorick, the gravedigger realizes who he is and with a gesture questions Horatio, who nods a response: instantly the gravedigger whips off his knit cap and holds it to his chest. Mitigating his sadness after his warm evocation of Yorick, Hamlet tops the skull with the gravedigger's cap and smiles wryly. Beale's Hamlet does not impose his melancholy on others. In Caird's version, the scene is a significant marker on the curve of the performance; in the Brook it seems a separable delight.

Caird is more inventive than Brook with the text; his readings are sometimes brilliant. This king (Peter McEnery) wants Hamlet to remain at the court not to spy on him but to become his son, to complete the takeover of his brother's life: thus, he warmly kisses Hamlet on the forehead, hands on his shoulders, just as later the ghost will also put hands on Hamlet. There are no innate villains in this Denmark. Hamlet's disrespect for his father's spirit in the “Old Mole” sequence has been variously explained away; Caird and Beale suggest it derives from anger at the ghost's (Sylvester Morand's) ranting revelations. The ghost's demand is likely to result in Hamlet's death—as Beale's Hamlet realizes even if the ghost does not.

On a smaller scale, many have tried to tease out a meaning for Polonius's “And let him ply his music” to Reynaldo. Here it is a way for Polonius to change the subject from something salacious to something harmless for Ophelia (Cathryn Bradshaw) to overhear when she bursts in. Reynaldo (Edward Gower) is deliciously silly, a worthy servant to a sometimes verbose and dense but never vicious Polonius.

The production makes more of Ophelia than most do. In the first court scene, her connectedness to Hamlet is lovely as she mourns with him, standing comfortingly behind him. Told by Polonius about Hamlet's love, Caird's king (Peter McEnery) turns to Ophelia to ask “Do you think 'tis this?” (1181), giving her presence and dignity. In the nunnery scene, this Ophelia signals with a gesture that her father, whom she says is at home (1786), is actually present unseen. Hamlet's anger is directed at her father more than to her though he faults her also for playing a part in this entrapment. After the nunnery scene, realizing that their relationship is over, she reads, then tears the letters she had tried to return to him, then tenderly places them in her reticule; she will later withdraw these fragments and deliver them as flowers. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is deep and poignant.

Beale's Hamlet would not insult Polonius crudely; when Polonius reacts to “These tedious old fools” (1262), Hamlet, feigning innocence, indicates that it is his book, not he who says that.

Though Horatio is his special friend whom Hamlet detains to listen to words usually kept as soliloquies in other productions (at the end of 1.2, 1.5 and 3.2, for example), Hamlet is sweetly genial to all. He is delighted to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is only when Guildenstern starts pressing him about ambition that he becomes bewildered and begins to understand them. His disappointment, however, does not deteriorate into bitterness.

Textual illuminations like these often radiate throughout the play. The queen has been moved by the play-within to rummage in her chests for the painting of her first husband whom she had forgotten till reminded by the player queen's declarations of fidelity. Gertrude kisses his image over and over; later Hamlet points to that picture and the picture in her locket to compare the two husbands (a fresh solution to the two-picture problem, and a relief from the ubiquitous double lockets of so many productions)—but he can be more gentle than most Hamlets because she has already recognized her faithlessness. Thus Hamlet's “Mousetrap” successfully achieves one great purpose, awakening his mother's conscience. She separates herself from the king, refusing to exit with him at the end of 4.1 and 4.7.

Later she will drop her dried wedding bouquet and her veil, which she had also rediscovered in her trunk, into Ophelia's grave, linking herself decisively with the younger woman, both of whom had loved men named Hamlet.

Through thoughtful excisions Caird cuts knotty cruxes. With Hamlet's lines to the First Player about some “dozen or sixteen lines” (1581-82) cut, Hamlet's idea about using the play comes freshly at the climax of the soliloquy that ends act two (1644-45). Moreover, when Hamlet offers his advice to the players, he is concerned about the correct interpretation of the whole play (which an audience can believe to be his) rather than a dilettante worried about his little addition. With a thrilling transposition, Caird further heightens the effect of the play-within: Shakespeare's Hamlet destroys the effect of his “Mousetrap” by leaping into the action before the play's poisoner has a chance to entrap the king. In Caird's version, the king rises, mesmerized by Lucianus, and virtually acts out the poisoning, mirroring Lucianus's gestures. Hamlet rocks with nervous energy, watching. When the king pauses, Hamlet jumps forward, prompting him to continue with gestures and words: “He poisons him i'th garden for his estate?” as if to say, “Go on, go on.” But the king instead rushes out. One can see why the court might not have caught on to the revelation of murder and at the same time how Hamlet could be convinced.

At first I could not see why Caird placed the intermission in the middle of 3.2 after eliciting from Horatio his ambiguous corroboration of the king's guilt and before the entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At the end of this first act Hamlet, sitting upstage on the king's throne with Horatio next to him in the queen's place, calls for music (2167). The musicians sit with backs to the audience where the players had performed. (Gonzago and Baptista had faced the king and queen sitting upstage but also turned to each other to present profiles to the audience—a clever staging, which put Hamlet downstage, able to observe both the performance and the king.) Ophelia, who had remained standing where she had watched the play with Hamlet, slowly walks across the stage from downstage left to downstage right and off, as Hamlet sits sobbing. The curtain falls. When the curtain rises, there has been a filmic reverse shot: the thrones are now where the musicians had been and vice versa, a visualization of a turning point, or as Samuel Crowl says, a turn “deeper into the private psyches of the play's central characters” (10). Hamlet knows that all is over now: love, life itself. The “Mousetrap,” of course, has put the king on notice that Hamlet is his enemy.

But what of the killing of the king? Discounting the moment in the prayer scene, this production gives Hamlet an opportunity when, after Polonius's death, Claudius confronts him (4.3). Hamlet holds his knife to the king's chest as the latter extends his arms wide, his palms facing outward (a frequent gesture in this production by the king and by Hamlet), calmly daring Hamlet to strike. When he does not, the king turns his right palm upward for the knife, which Hamlet relinquishes. Caird recreates this same picture in the last scene, but this time Hamlet drags the blade of the poisoned foil across the king's extended hand. This is an apt culmination for Beale's Hamlet. If indeed the foil is poisoned, then the king is dead, for the blow itself is certainly not mortal. Hamlet has achieved the ghost's command without betraying himself.

Those who missed his Hamlet can listen to Beale on the Arkangel recording (Penguin 1999); they will at least hear his excellent verse speaking—though they will miss Caird's keen direction. One may hope that Lester will get another chance to explore the role: perhaps he will star in the next filmed Hamlet, a consummation devoutly to be wished. Maybe Caird would be the person to direct a richly meaningful film version.


I saw Beale's performances on 17 April 2001 (in Boston's Wilbur Theatre) and again on 31 May (in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House) and Lester's on April 27 at BAM's Harvey Theatre. My thanks to the Wilbur and BAM staffs for their gracious assistance and to Tom Pendleton for timely rescues. Many excellent reviews have appeared for these productions considered separately (see, e.g., Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare Bulletin 19, 1 (Winter 2001): 9-10 on Beale and 32-33 on Lester and Robert S. Macdonald on Beale in The Shakespeare Newsletter 50, 3 (Fall 2000): 86, 88.

Marguerite Tassi (review date spring-summer 2001)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1474

SOURCE: Tassi, Marguerite. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Peter Brook's Adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet.The Shakespeare Newsletter 51, nos. 248-249 (spring-summer 2001): 39-40.

[In the following review, Tassi comments on Peter Brook's stage production of Hamlet. Tassi observes the production's simplicity and starkness, praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, and notes that the production at times suffered from problems due to Brook's script alterations.]

On Sunday, April 15 at the Mercer Arena in Seattle, Washington, the evening performance was The Tragedy of Hamlet, British director Peter Brook's controversial adaptation of Shakespeare's play. In the program notes, Brook asserted, “It is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him.” In this enigmatic statement we find Brook's justification for his alteration of the play's form and his search for vital, even primal, forces at work in character and language that have not been emphasized by other directors. This production was clearly not a resurrection of the Elizabethan theater, for Brook's concern was not to aim for an authentic reproduction of the early modern play (as much as that is possible), nor was it to stay faithful to the First Folio's or second quarto's forms. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Brook's third professional attempt at the play, he stripped away everything he found inessential to the theatrical vitality of Hamlet, so that our awareness was keenly focused on how Shakespeare's play explores the mythic and philosophical problems of being. Brook's directorial vision marked many aspects of this production: a multi-ethnic cast that spoke with various English accents, the faraway sounds of Eastern music, stylized movement, a pared-down playing space, and simple tunics for costumes. Such choices in casting and staging reinforced the universal dimension of the play; in essence, Brook's production tapped deeply into the universal, mythic spirit of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

It is undeniable that Brook has much to offer the “Hamlet dialogue,” both in theatrical and literary critical terms. Brook's particular genius lies in experimentation, risk-taking, and essentializing the theater experience. His adaptation reflects a rigorous cutting and re-arranging of the text, which not only compressed and somewhat reconfigured the form, but also restored a sense of discovery to the all-too-familiar script. In dispensing with almost half of the text and some of its characters (e.g., Fortinbras, Reynaldo), he provoked his audience to “find” the play again in a new, ascetic form. The overall effect was that of novelty, intensity, and speed: the action moved along without pause, and Hamlet had no time to hesitate; indeed it was made painfully clear in this production that there is never a just and right moment for Hamlet's revenge, until the very moment he takes it.

Brook sharpened our awareness of words (and what the actors were doing with them) by removing all distractions. The set, designed by Chloé Obolensky, was spare, though vivid in color scheme; a persimmon orange carpet marked the playing space, pillows and rugs were thrown in a few areas, and a Japanese musician, Toshi Tsuchitori, present throughout the drama, accompanied much of the action and speech with haunting strains of music. Visual images were created by only a few props, most notably Yorick's skull from the gravedigger scene. Brook dispensed with every material thing that was not crucial to the making of Hamlet's world. The impression one had was that Brook stripped Shakespeare's play down to its metaphysical core.

The stark beauty of the drama—its sheer simplicity, we might say—was to be found in its language, most particularly in the dazzling verbal athleticism of Adrian Lester, a compellingly modern, brilliant Hamlet. Lester has a razor-sharp command of Shakespearean diction and syntax, and even more, a feel for the idiosyncratic musicality of Hamlet's speech. Lester's asexual presence and virtuosity with language gave Hamlet a startlingly fresh, intellectual presence. With the cutting of the script, Lester remained on stage for most of the evening, electrifying the audience with his humor, physical agility, and anguished speeches. He made clear his repulsion for playing, for lies, pretense and the like, taking on his “antic disposition” with an air of mischievous calculation and exasperation. He was very aware of the audience's presence in the arena—that we were his intimates, listening, admiring, and watching his every move. Indeed he seemed to cultivate an intimacy with us, stealing sly glances at us or appealing directly to us to enjoy his taunting of Polonius. When Lester delivered the soliloquy, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” he did a bit of outrageous ham acting with some of the lines, stopped in disgust, and then returned to seriousness (non-acting) as he expressed his intent to use the theater experimentally to catch Claudius's conscience. This was typical of Lester's performance: his Hamlet is a purist with a dazzling, though sometimes dangerous, wit, who feels trapped within a world of pretense and foolishness.

Lester's “To be or not to be” was delivered with great simplicity. The speech had been moved to a point after Polonius's death, which, in performance, had the effect of making Hamlet appear to be in a state of emotional and moral exhaustion. Lester's gestures as he spoke the soliloquy were those of taking his pulse, and then cutting his wrist, a most simple and moving way to express being and not being. It was an affecting stage picture, quiet, despairing, and honest. This worked in high relief with the gravedigger scene in which Lester comically, even outrageously, manipulated Yorick's skull, which he placed on a stick and worked like a jester's head. Both scenes offered moments of renewed vision in which Lester's embodiment of Hamlet was completely fresh and convincing.

Another moment of heightened and renewed vision occurred when the Player King delivered his Hecuba speech. He chanted the speech in the strange language, Orghast, invented by Ted Hughes, and ancient Greek; those on the stage looked on, wonder-struck by the performance. We, too, in the audience were spellbound, charmed as much by the chant, as by the effect it was having on the characters: the defamiliarizing of the text worked to restore a sense of awe at this moment. Here was a tribute to the theater's power.

Some notable problems, due primarily to the script alterations, did not escape attention. Laertes made a surprise appearance late in the play (theatergoers could only have assumed that he too had been cut after the first act passed with no sign of him). At this late point in the drama, since we had not witnessed him in his roles as son and brother, we had no emotional connection to him, and his grief over the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia did not carry the emotional charge that it should. The absence of Fortinbras and the larger political context of the play was a loss undeniably felt by those who know the tragedy intimately. While this cut allowed Brook to stay focused on Hamlet's personal dilemma, it robbed Denmark of political realities and consequences. Gertrude, played by Natasha Parry, appeared as a gracious lady, but seemed to be too naively oblivious to the import of everything that was taking place around her. Finally, some of the doublings were confusing—the actors who played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern took other roles, but did not differentiate between them sufficiently either through costume or acting style. The doublings of Claudius and Old Hamlet, played expertly by Jeffrey Kissoon, and Polonius and the Gravedigger, played by the brilliant and versatile Bruce Myers, however, both struck one as uncannily right. In the former, we had a show in contrasts; in the former, an underlying connection was implied between two kinds of fools.

Criticism aside, Brook's Hamlet is a production not to be forgotten, for the director's approach, with the many highly skilled, energetic actors, made the theater come as close to life as it can, offering a renewed vision of one of Shakespeare's most frequently produced dramas. The play ended with the same haunting question that plunged us into the play-world, reminding us once again of essential matters. It is our question, it is Hamlet's question, it is the actors' question to us: “Who's there?” Horatio, played as a wide-eyed, devoted friend to Hamlet by Scott Handy, asked the question both times. Not only did this question inspire a strange sense of metaphysical unease, but in the play's final moment, we also witnessed the rising of the dead: all of the actors slowly stood up to join Horatio as he peered hopefully into the darkened theater, as if looking into some vast unknowable realm. The playing space visibly lightened. Here was a moment of pure metaphysical being in the theater. This was indeed a different vision of Shakespeare's play that had the power to disturb, to defy expectations, and to remind us that Hamlet still has tremendous vitality and philosophical importance in today's theater.

Charles R. Forker (essay date summer 1963)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8731

SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 3 (summer 1963): 215-29.

[In the following essay, Forker analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets.]


A rapid glance at any concordance will reveal that Shakespeare, both for words and metaphors, drew abundantly from the language of the theater. Terms like argument, prologue, stage, pageant, scene, player, act, actor, show, audience, rant—these and their cousins which evoke dramatic connotations occur again and again throughout his plays in instances which range from very literal or technical significations to highly figurative and symbolic ones. This constant recourse to dramatic vocabulary suggests an analogy in Shakespeare's mind between life and the theater—an analogy which he himself makes explicit and which even the name of his own theater, the Globe, reinforces. Examples are not far to seek. Everyone will recall the famous references of Jaques (“All the world's a stage …”)1 and Macbeth (“Life's but … a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage …”); and there are many others. Not infrequently the figure is associated with pain or death and the relation of man to the cosmos; hence, it becomes a natural focus for the idea of tragedy. The Duke in As You Like It speaks of the world as a “universal theatre” which “Presents more woeful pageants than the scene / Wherein we play …”; Lear with the penetration of madness bewails that “we are come / To this great stage of fools”; and Richard of Bordeaux, the actor-king, glances back over his life to find it as unreal and as temporary as a play—“a little scene, / To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks”.

That Shakespeare should have conceived of man as an actor, the world as a stage, and the universe as its backdrop is not extraordinary, for, apart from the fact that he himself played the triple role of actor, playwright, and part-owner of a theater, the metaphor was a Renaissance commonplace. The motto of the Globe, “Totus mundus agit histrionem”, is only the most succinct expression of an idea extended to greater length in Montaigne, in Erasmus' Praise of Folly, in Romei's Courtier's Academie, and in the works of Shakespeare's fellow dramatists, as, for instance, the Induction to Marston's Antonio and Mellida.2

The intention of this essay is to analyze some of the elaborate ramifications of the theater symbol as it functions throughout Hamlet, to suggest that by reexamining the play with emphasis on the theme of acting, we may reach certain new perceptions about its dramatic architecture and see some of its central issues (Hamlet's delay, for instance, his disillusionment and madness, his intrigue with Claudius, his relation to his mother, his knowledge of himself) in fresh perspective. Before, however, we consider the one play of Shakespeare that embodies his most personal statements on the drama, let us make some further generalizations about the complexity of aesthetic response which theatrical imagery entails and the relation of this complexity to the idea and nature of tragedy.

S. L. Bethell3 points out that references to the theater in a public performance elicit a double or “multi-conscious” reaction from the audience. Suppose Humphrey Bogart (at the local cinema) corners his gangster with a loaded revolver and sneers that the bullets are real, not blanks “like in the movies”. The chief effect of this remark is to establish verisimilitude. We are invited to compare what is happening on the screen with cruder versions of the same thing which we have seen before, and the implication is that we know a hawk from a handsaw. But at the same time the remark distances the performance by reminding us that we are after all looking at a film and not at real life. The response is the same in Shakespeare, but its duality is more constant there, not only because the theatrical references are more frequent and the actors are people instead of pictures, but because the Elizabethans, lacking our naturalistic visual aids, had to rely much more than we are accustomed to do upon the symbolic suggestiveness of the spoken word. So, when Fabian comments in Twelfth Night, apropos of gulling Malvolio: “If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”, or when Cleopatra inveighs against her would-be captors with “… I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I' th' posture of a whore”, the audience responds to the situation on a dual plane of reality. They are aware of play-world and real world at once. The opposition between appearance and reality, between fiction and truth, is maintained; yet the appearance seems more real and the fiction more true.

In Hamlet this duality functions almost constantly, not only because there is so much reference to playing and to related aspects of the fictional world, both literally and figuratively, but because the center of the play itself is largely concerned with the arrival of the players at Elsinore and the “mouse-trap” that constitutes the climax or turning point of the plot.4 Since Hamlet as a dramatic character is manifestly interested in the aesthetics of drama and its analogy to his own emotional predicament (“What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba … ?” [II.ii.585]), the conflicts generated are teasingly complex. The theatrical references urge us to a sympathetic union with the characters, their actions and their feelings, and at the same time give them the objective reality of artifice through aesthetic distance. The world of the play becomes at once both more and less real than the actual world, and we are required to be aware of this relationship inside as well as outside the play.

The idea of theater therefore embodies one of the mysterious paradoxes of tragedy, the impingement of appearance and reality upon each other. This is the very problem that obsesses Hamlet throughout the play and that eventually destroys both guilty and innocent alike. What is real seems false and what is false seems real. Spiritual growth, Shakespeare seems to say, is an extended lesson in separating out the components of the riddle and in learning to recognize and cope with one in the “role” or “disguise” of the other. Hence the theater to Hamlet, to Shakespeare, and to the audience becomes a symbol for making unseen realities seen, for exposing the secret places of the human heart and objectifying them in a way without which they would be unbearable to look upon. We see into ourselves, as it were, through a looking-glass. Thus the mirror image is connected in Hamlet's mind with acting and, by extension, with other forms of art which penetrate hypocrisy and pretense:

… the purpose of playing … 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. 21-25)

Later in the closet scene Hamlet verbally acts out his mother's crimes before her and teaches her by means of “counterfeit presentment” the difference between Hyperion and a satyr: “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” (III.iv.19-20). In Ophelia's description of Hamlet as “The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th' observ'd of all observers” (III.i.161-162), the mirror and actor images coalesce as a symbol of truth reflected.

The very court of Denmark is like a stage upon which all the major characters except Horatio take parts, play roles, and practice to deceive. The irony is that Hamlet himself must adopt a pose in order to expose it in others. All the world's a stage. But for him pretense may entail revelation; Claudius “acts” only to conceal. Since, for Hamlet, the end of playing is to show virtue her own feature and scorn her own image, he not only sees through false appearances (“Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’” [I.ii.76]) but also feigns in order to objectify his inner feelings; he both uses and recognizes “honest artifice”. He welcomes the players enthusiastically and approves their art. One piece in their repertory, part of which he has memorized, he chiefly loves because there is “no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation”. It shows “an honest method, as wholesome as sweet” (II.ii.461-463). His antic disposition, although a smoke screen to protect him from his enemies, is also a dramatic device which allows Hamlet to express to himself and to the audience the nagging pain and disgust which the world of seeming has thrust upon him. It is by acting himself that he penetrates the “acts” of Polonius, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Gertrude, and even of the innocent Ophelia, upon whom her father has forced a role of duplicity.

The true appearances of things are revealed by phenomena from outside the world of Elsinore, by the Ghost who brings a vision of reality from the dead and by the players who bring another vision of truth from art. Thus the action of the play inhabits three kingdoms, and Claudius, a false king, is hedged on both sides by images of truth—on one side by old Hamlet, the “royal Dane”, and on the other by a player-king.5 It is one of the significant ironies of the play that the player's acting prompts Hamlet to action, that the action he chooses is a theatrical one, and that Claudius, himself perhaps the arch actor, is made to look upon his own deepest secret through the agency of drama. Thus, at one pole of the tragic magnet, the theater is the symbol of inner truth. Just as the player's speech is true for Hamlet6 and The Murder of Gonzago all too true for Claudius, so Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is truth for us. There is a sense in which the characters there are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time (“The players cannot keep counsel; they'll tell all” [III.ii.151]) and we are guilty creatures sitting at a play.

But if the stage equals truth at its highest level, it also equals falsity at its lowest. Throughout Shakespeare's other plays but especially in Hamlet “playing” is the stock metaphor for pretense and hypocrisy. The tragedy as a whole is a tissue of intrigue and counter-intrigue, a scaffold for “unnatural acts” and “purposes mistook”, all “put on by cunning and forc'd cause” (V.ii.392-395). The idea of falsity is therefore closely allied to the mention of actors, particularly bad ones, and indeed most references to them throughout Shakespeare are pejorative.7 Actors all too often out-Herod Herod, strut and fret upon the stage, or tear a passion to tatters. They are false, not because they imitate humanity, but because they imitate it so abominably. They pervert the dramatic function by concealing inner reality under a crude show of outward affectation.

When the analogy of acting (in this complex of associations) is applied to character, it of course implies moral weakness or corruption. It is this thrust of the metaphor which points to Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and Osric as players on the world's stage, bad actors (with all the ambiguity the word contains) because they conceal the truth either from themselves or from their fellows or both. Ophelia and Reynaldo are players with a difference, for they do not act as free agents like the others, but have been cast in their roles by Fortune. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern occupy an ambiguous position between these extremes. Having no reason to suspect Claudius' secret crimes or, later on, his design upon Hamlet's life, they are obliged to carry out their sovereign's orders. Nevertheless, there is an unsavory side to their behavior which makes them more than simple dupes. They are natural meddlers, and, as Hamlet says, “they did make love to this employment” (V.ii.57). Hamlet himself is symbolically the most complex type of the actor and, therefore, a special case, for Shakespeare has gathered up into his character all the self-contradictions and subtle paradoxes which the symbol can express. Hamlet is caught in a maze of antinomies. He both chooses his “role” and has it forced upon him by fate. He must live in the divided worlds of good and evil, of fact and fiction, of actuality and feigning, of spectator and performer. His part requires of him both action and passivity, and he is constantly stepping out from behind his mask to serve as chorus to his own tragedy.

The figure of the actor in Hamlet may therefore be viewed as a symbolic focus for the idea of tragic conflict—man divided against himself, forced in his brief hour upon the stage to play conflicting roles and torn between the compulsion to act (to do) and the need to pretend and hence not to do. Man as actor must reconcile reason with passion, the beast with the angel, the will with the imagination, and his dignity with his wretchedness. And as tragedy, for the audience, represents the ordering of its own inner divisions, so “acting” for Hamlet is his way of objectifying the various modes of his own self-awareness. The theater audience can preserve a comforting detachment, for its involvement is purely imaginative. The spectators know that Hamlet is only a play. But Hamlet, the character, is not so sure, for the action in which he takes part is real from one point of view and unreal from another. Claudius' relation to theatrical performance is something else again, for he is tented to the quick by it. At one point, he cannot maintain any detachment at all. The extent to which acting is real or illusory depends largely upon the position of the observer, and we, like Hamlet himself, are permitted to shift position in our imaginations and to look upon the fiction from both sides of that hypothetical curtain which divides the stage from the pit. Claudius does not have that privilege.

It will surely be apparent by this time that the various facets of the theater-life equivalence (particularly when it is dramatized upon a stage) constantly threaten to blur into one another. The blurring results, in part, from the critic's method of abstracting meanings which Shakespeare embodies organically, and it should remind us that tragedy is a mystery to be shared rather than a problem to be solved.

To sum up, the symbol of the actor is important and implies (particularly in Hamlet) a good many meanings: metaphorically, he may stand for both true and false seeming and for doer and pretender; at times he may serve as audience to his own performance and to those of the other actors on the stage or as chorus to both. He may function both as the observer and the observed, playing in more than one sphere of reference at once. Lastly, he can symbolize tragedy itself—man as ephemeral, man as Fortune's fool, man as self-aware, and man divided against self. If we keep these generalizations in mind, it should be possible to trace the dramatic structure of Shakespeare's most popular play in terms of its theatrical symbolism and to see its progress (metaphorically as well as literally) as a series of “scenes” and “acts” in which the characters “play” to each other, combining and alternating between the roles of spectator and performer.


The overriding symbol of Elsinore as a stage upon which the people do not always recognize each other in their shifting roles is immediately hinted in the nervous first lines (spoken upon a “platform”) of the opening scene:

Who's there?
Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Marcellus and Horatio enter presently, and it soon becomes apparent that they are there to watch an appearance of some kind. This is, of course, the Ghost, which Horatio successively refers to throughout the course of the scene as “fantasy”, “image”, and “illusion”. Already at the very outset, we are shown a scene within a scene. The Ghost is a kind of show, and the other characters on the stage are its audience. This relationship immediately raises the mysterious appearance-reality question in our minds, for we do not know as yet what to make of the apparition. Horatio, who serves throughout the play as a medial figure between stage world and real world, a kind of raisonneur whose reactions we watch as a guide to our own, fills in the political background for us, and the scene ends with the decision to acquaint Hamlet with the supernatural phenomenon just witnessed.

The next episode, played, we discover, in the king's audience chamber, gives us our first glimpse of the Danish court and its dominant figures. This, too, is a kind of performance, though it only emerges as such very gradually in the light of details which are added later. Claudius makes a formal speech from the throne, putting as fair a face as possible on his “o'er hasty marriage” and “our dear brother's death”. In its extensive use of doublets the speech communicates a hint of duplicity. After the ambassadors are received and Laertes has been granted his suit, our attention turns to Hamlet, the solitary and silent auditor who refuses to be drawn into Denmark's “act”, remaining on the periphery to comment bitterly on the difference between “seems” and “is”. When his mother remarks about the “nighted colour” of his mourning costume, he replies in a metaphor from the stage:

                    These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show—
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(I. ii. 83-86)

Hamlet is not deceived by the “cheer and comfort” of the king's eye nor persuaded by the queen's plea that he “look like a friend on Denmark”. In the soliloquy that follows he acts as chorus, emphasizing to the audience the discrepancy he feels between fictional reality or absent truth and actual, present hypocrisy. He compares himself to Hercules, Gertrude to Niobe, the dead king to Hyperion, and Claudius to a satyr. His speech ends with the realization that he too must play a role, and we understand that “acting” represents inner conflict: “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.159). Now Horatio “delivers” the “marvel” of the apparition to Hamlet, which the prince receives excitedly in contrast to the words he has just heard from the king and queen. He will be a willing spectator to this appearance, and he enjoins Horatio to adopt his pose: “Give it an understanding but no tongue” (I.ii.250). Thus Hamlet is already involved in a double role: he will be both “actor” and “audience” at once.

The theme of acting is now echoed in the underplot. Laertes, about to depart for France, adopts the role of worldly-wise big brother and warns Ophelia not to take the appearance of Hamlet's love for truth. Her best safety lies in fear (a euphemism for pretense), for “The chariest maid is prodigal enough / If she unmask her beauty to the moon” (I.ii.36-37). Ophelia sees through his performance, however, and counters with her own distinction between the “ungracious” role of pastor and the “puff'd and reckless libertine” beneath it (I.ii.47-49). Polonius now enters to give his son some fatherly advice in the same tone Laertes had used to his sister. The roles are reversed and actor-father now performs to auditor-son. His counsel is a lesson in cautious appearance: “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act” (I.iii.59-60). His concluding words, “This above all—to thine own self be true” (I.iii.78), ironically point up to the audience the contrast between “seems” and “is”. After Laertes' departure, Polonius repeats his son's warning to Ophelia, and since Hamlet's vows are but “springes to catch woodcocks”, he orders her to play a part unnatural to her and to refrain from conversation with the prince. Acting for Ophelia, as for Hamlet, symbolizes inner division. She, too, must hold her tongue.

In terms of the theatrical symbolism, the situation on stage at the Ghost's second appearance is the same as before, with the difference that Hamlet is now the principal spectator at a performance to which Horatio (in an earlier scene) had spoken the prologue. To the verbal part of the Ghost's revelation, he is the sole auditor. Although Hamlet is not quite certain intellectually of the Ghost's “honesty”, the emotional effect both for him and for us is that of truth disclosed: “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing / To what I shall unfold” (I.v.5-6). And now the prince learns the extent to which Claudius had been feigning in the court scene—that “the whole ear of Denmark” has been “Rankly abus'd” (I.v.36-38). The Ghost also refers to Gertrude's hypocrisy, calling her “my most seeming-virtuous queen” (I.v.46). After the apocalyptic disclosure, Hamlet's answer to his father's words, “Remember me”, is:

Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.

(I. v. 96-97)

Thus Shakespeare, in a triple pun (one meaning of which is unfortunately lost in modern performance) gathers up several aspects of reality into a single phrase and allows the audience to respond multi-consciously. The “distracted globe” (literally “mind” or “head”) represents Hamlet's inner world, his divided self, his microcosm, and by extension, it connects the real world, the macrocosm, with the theatrical world through the mention of the very theater in which the play was being performed. Hamlet's reaction to what the Ghost has told him underlines the crucial split between actor as true and false seeming. The Ghost himself plays the first role in this ambivalence and, by doing so, turns Hamlet's attention upon the false actor, the usurper who “may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (I.v.108). Hamlet is caught between the two illusions, that which reveals and that which conceals the truth. In order to reconcile the two symbolic worlds, for they are “out of joint”, he must act in the true world by “acting” in the false one. The “antic disposition”, then, is truly to be a double role. To Hamlet himself and to the real audience it will mean one thing; to the court audience at Denmark, it will signify quite another.

The opening of Act II takes us back to the underplot with Polonius sending Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris. His directions to the servant are truly a lesson in “seeming”, and the speech may be regarded as a humorously ironic counterpart to Hamlet's later lesson to the players on how a “bait of falsehood” may take a “carp of truth” (II.i.63). Ophelia enters to recount to her father (now in the role of audience) the scene of Hamlet's distracted appearance to her in the guise of a madman. This instance of Hamlet's behavior is a scene (like the queen's description of Ophelia's death) which the audience sees at one remove from actuality through the speech of an actor as narrator. But it is clear from Ophelia's words that Hamlet has already assumed his dual role, for the sincerity of true feeling shows through the guise of affected madness. The tone of the speech also indicates that Ophelia is moved, though she does not understand what lies behind the “antic disposition”. The prying Polonius is fooled by his daughter's recital, and Hamlet's performance conceals from him what it reveals to us.

In the next scene we are introduced to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attending upon the king and queen. The two carbon-copy courtiers are told of Hamlet's transformation, informed that neither the “exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was” (II.ii.6-7), and assigned the job of spying on him, even as Reynaldo had been charged with a similar task in the preceding scene. Claudius, the actor who hides behind a mask of smiling, enlists two other actors who will attempt to “play upon” Hamlet; and we know that he too is wearing a mask. A chain of “playings” is thus set in motion in which the disguises on both sides will either succeed or fail depending on how much the opposing side knows.8 The theater audience, of course, may enter into these “playings” more and more omnisciently as the plot unfolds.

After Voltimand and Cornelius report the news of Norway's alliance to Denmark and Polonius with more “art” than “matter” has mistakenly diagnosed the cause of Hamlet's madness to the royal pair, the theatrical parallel is again apparent in the decision to “find / Where truth is hid” (II.ii.158) through what amounts to another little play-within-the-play. In this production Polonius and the king will play audience “behind an arras” and Ophelia will act the ingenue in order to trap Hamlet into a confession of his true feelings.

Now Hamlet enters playing his role of madness, and the king and queen withdraw to let Polonius “board him”. “Actor” confronts “actor”, and Shakespeare, for the first time, fully exploits the tragicomic possibilities of Hamlet's dual role—Hamlet playing to himself and the audience and Hamlet playing to Polonius. Throughout this episode and the next (which substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for Polonius in the symbolic pattern) the ironic disjunction between pretense and sincerity is stressed again and again as Hamlet penetrates the disguise of his opponent:

Honest, my lord?
Ay sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick'd out of ten thousand.

(II. ii. 177-179)9

And Hamlet to the stage twins: “… there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour” (II.ii.289-290).

A little later the players are announced to the prince. If man delights not him, they do, and it is at this point that Shakespeare begins to play explicitly upon the paradoxes of the theatrical process itself. Since the players' art for Hamlet symbolizes a kind of artifice which is at least potentially “good”, being at once more true and more unreal than the “acting” of the court, the company serves as both contrast and parallel to the people who surround him. The actors have come to Elsinore by reason “of the late innovation” (the current popularity of the “little eyases”), and Hamlet can identify himself with them, because he too is suffering from a late innovation of a different sort.10 Also the reference to the war of the theaters may remind the Globe audience that they are witnessing symbolically another kind of theatrical warfare on the stage of Denmark. At any rate, Hamlet likes honest actors because feigning is their job (as it is now his own) and has for its object, ideally at least, the revelation of truth, so that, from one point of view, a bond of sympathy exists between him and them. But their profession also suggests to him the symbolic link between acting and the hypocrisy of the real world which so disgusts him, and he comments bitterly on this idea by drawing a parallel between the fickleness of the public's response to good and bad acting and the fickleness of Danish subjects to a good and bad king (II.ii.378-382). In both cases, fashionable appearance rather than true worth is the criterion of value. Polonius, of course, though he is indeed an actor in the world of hypocrisy and likes to account himself a critic of the drama, sees no such fine distinctions, as he proves a little later by his reaction to the player's speech. For him theatrical art is just make-believe.

The players enter and Hamlet asks for a taste of their quality, specifying a particular speech which he loves from “Aeneas' tale to Dido”. The significance of this speech and its content are, of course, integral to the theatrical symbolism of the play. Professor Levin has already given it such exhaustive analysis in the essay previously cited11 that I should only be repeating him to discuss the matter at length. It is necessary to point out, nonetheless, that this episode constitutes another of our plays-within-the-play, with this difference—that the artifice here is quite literal as well as figurative in effect.12 Hamlet begins to recite the speech and the players and Polonius serve as audience. After thirteen lines, Hamlet breaks off, directing the first player to continue, so that the audience-actor relationship is reversed on the stage. The fact that Hamlet himself gives part of the speech indicates how closely he identifies himself and his own situation with its content; for the lines dramatize for him, both through contrast and parallelism, the very feelings about which he is otherwise constrained to be silent—grief for his murdered father, his mother's lack of grief, his uncle's cruelty, and the pressing necessity for revenge. Not only does the speech make real to him “the very age and body of the time”, revealing, as the Ghost had done, truth beneath the appearances of things; it also forces upon him the depressing realization that the player's speech was but a “dream of passion”, a mere fiction, whereas his own motive for passion is horribly real. Art is seen, then, as having both more and less reality than life itself, and our relation to Hamlet is precisely analogous to Hamlet's relation to the player. Hence the speech provides Hamlet with a cue for action. Stepping once more out of his role as actor (by convention of the soliloquy), Hamlet clarifies the meaning of the player's speech to the audience and tells them that the play's the thing wherein a player-king will catch the conscience of a real king. But even as he moves towards action, he is encircled by more doubts:

          The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape. …

(II. ii. 626-628)

The Ghost, too, may be a kind of “actor”. We are caught up in paradox within paradox. As commentator, Hamlet stands upon a stage in London; as tragic protagonist, standing upon a stage in Denmark, he wrestles with three worlds of seeming, and looks backward to the Ghost as he looks forward to the play.

In the third act, which contains the play's crisis and recognition, the theatrical strategems, up to now so carefully rehearsed, are brought to the test of actual performance. Mask confronts mask under conditions of intensified psychological pressure; thus “acting” turns to action, and the faces behind the masks are made (partially, at least) to disclose themselves to each other. After Claudius, with ironic satisfaction, receives from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the news of Hamlet's interest in the players, the first bout of the “mighty opposites” follows immediately as Polonius and the king withdraw behind the arras to observe Hamlet's behavior towards Ophelia. Polonius gives a last stage-direction to his daughter:

                    Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness.

(III. i. 44-46)

Even as he does so, Polonius' recognition of duplicity provides Claudius with a flash of insight into his true self which prepares us for his breakdown later. Characteristically, the first proof of the king's guilt comes in the form of the aside, the usual device (along with the soliloquy) which Shakespeare employs to make it clear that the actor has temporarily dropped his persona: “O, 'tis too true! / How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” (III.i.49-50).

Already the disclosures are beginning. Hamlet's soliloquy intervenes before Polonius' prearranged “act”, and the prince (again as commentator) states in more fundamental terms than before the deeply rooted conflicts of being and not being, of appearance and reality. The “nunnery scene” itself reveals to Claudius that “love” is not the cause of Hamlet's madness; his suspicions about the nature of Hamlet's attitude towards him are strengthened, and he therefore determines to send his nephew to England, since “Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go” (III.i.196). To Ophelia, who takes the “antic disposition” for genuine lunacy, the scene is also a revelation, though a very partial one. It turns her eyes upon herself, showing her the hopelessness of her love. For the audience in the pit, it portends her eventual collapse. What is pretense for Hamlet will be all too real for her. After the “show” is over, Polonius comes out from behind the arras. But he would pry yet deeper into dangerous secrets, and now he plans what is to be his last theatrical venture—the closet scene.

Hamlet's advice to the players underscores the difference between good and bad acting and states the principle (which we are about to see operating in The Murder of Gonzago) of theater as the reflection of inner truth. All the while, Hamlet, like the player he advises, is learning to “Suit the action to the word …” (III.ii.19). Before the play scene, however, Hamlet has his brief interview with Horatio, who exists outside the world of hypocrisy and symbolizes the kind of human relationship where truth resides divorced from “acting”. Now the “mouse-trap” itself begins—the crux of theatrical symbolism in which the two great opponents face each other, each playing the dual role of actor and audience. The relationship is very complex. Claudius, himself, is actor to Hamlet and the others of the court audience, but he is also spectator to the actors of the “mouse-trap”. Hamlet is also pretending; he wears his “antic” mask to Claudius and the others, but at the same time he is carefully observing the players' performance and that of Claudius which the play-within-the-play will presumably affect. Audience watches audience. The observed are the observers and the observers are the observed. Meanwhile the theater audience is identifying itself with all these points of view at once. At the crucial moment, Claudius cracks under the strain, revealing his guilt. Ironically he calls for light, as he tries desperately to retreat into his world of moral darkness. This constitutes the major disclosure of the act, and Hamlet has triumphed in a way, for he now knows what he had only suspected before. But he has also exposed himself, for Claudius is beginning to see through Hamlet's mask too. The player-king has ironically stated the truth of the situation for both segments of the stage audience: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown … (III.ii.221-222). Hamlet's strategy is defensive—to draw the enemy into his own territory—but after he has done so, pretense alone will no longer suffice. On both sides of the conflict, there is now the necessity to do.

The remainder of the third act is devoted to a few lesser skirmishes and Claudius' soliloquy, which manifests his own tragic inner division as a self-aware actor. Hamlet again (more explicitly this time) exposes the hypocrisy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by showing them that to play upon him “is as easy as lying” (III.ii.372), and Polonius, who follows their appearance on the stage, is made the unconscious victim of his own “seeming” through the comic dialogue on camels, weasels, and whales (III.ii.394-399). Thus the appearance-reality theme is stated throughout the tragedy in almost all of the character relationships and strands of plot, extending in an emotional spectrum which includes a great variety of “serious” and comic colors. Hamlet ends the scene as chorus, stating his willingness to obey the Ghost and analyzing his function as “actor” in the approaching encounter with the queen: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none. / My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites …” (III.ii.414-415).

In Claudius' long and self-searching soliloquy (III.iii.36-72), we see that the enforced hypocrisy which is destroying Hamlet is also destroying the king. He, too, is caught between the irreconcilable claims of this world and the next. Pretense will only do for this life: “… 'tis not so above. / There is no shuffling; there the action lies / In his true nature. …” But he has chosen his role, and he must act it out to the world, however transparent it may be to heaven. Hamlet enters and faces the problem of whether or not to kill him now. As Claudius struggles vainly to reconcile earthly sin with his consciousness of heavenly judgment, Hamlet struggles to reconcile passion with reason. Deciding for the latter, he moves on to his mother's closet and another “staged” episode, which, like the play-within-the-play, will result in a disclosure of truth.

Polonius has again set up the “scene”, and he is ready (once more from behind the arras) to watch Gertrude play her assigned part. Hamlet's entrance, however, suddenly reverses the whole proceeding, and he plays an unexpectedly active performance to them. Polonius cries out in surprise. The wily actor dies ironically as audience to his own play, and the queen has her eyes turned upon her inner self, even as Claudius had been similarly tormented by the “mouse-trap”. When the Ghost appears in this scene, Gertrude does not see it, continuing to think of Hamlet's madness as real. Thus the queen, too, is involved in the illusion-reality dilemma, and this may be Shakespeare's way of dramatizing the fact that she is so used to corrupt appearances that she still cannot recognize the truth when it is present.13 Hamlet must teach her dramatically the difference between true and false illusion by means of the two portraits. The final irony is that Gertrude, when she is made to realize the truth about herself, must immediately reassume her mask. To be sure, she will now “act” for the sake of virtue. But the pretense must go on, and for Claudius she will have to wear the same costume. Gertrude, too (like both Hamlet and Claudius), must continue to live upon the world's stage.

Act IV combines play-acting with real acting. Gertrude relates the events of the closet encounter to Claudius in her new role. Claudius sends Hamlet to England, arranging for a little tragedy there with an actual victim as protagonist, but Hamlet unexpectedly changes the ending and returns to Elsinore. Fortinbras' army moves against Poland, and the innocent go to their deaths “for a fantasy and trick of fame” (IV.iv.61). The feigned madness of Hamlet produces real madness in Ophelia, and her sad performance seems to the queen “prologue to some great amiss” (IV.v.18). Laertes returns, prepared in his rage to act openly, but is wooed to the king's side by a masterfully controlled bit of “seeming” and then involved in the plan for another dramatic production (the fencing match) in which the actor is to show himself his “father's son in deed / More than in words” (IV.vii.126-127). Claudius emphasizes the necessity to play the part well:

                    If this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
'Twere better not assay'd.

(IV. vii. 151-153)

The act ends with Gertrude reciting to the stage audience an elegy on Ophelia's death in which artifice and sincerity are one.

In the last act of the play, all the paradoxes of appearance and reality merge and are mysteriously resolved in death. This final harmony is ironically foreshadowed in the graveyard where Hamlet looks upon the skull of Yorick and the court buries Ophelia. In the end, all appearances come to dust; the actors on the world's stage must have exits as well as entrances, and let them paint an inch thick, to this favor they must come. The joking of the clowns gives a tragi-comic emphasis to the contrast between the hypocrisies of life and the realities of death. By a fantastic paradox, Death, the leveler, makes a bid to social appearances and distinctions: “… the more pity that great folk should have count'nance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even-Christen” (V.i.28-30). Hamlet's relation to the grave-digger (the one who remains) is at first that of audience and later, when he engages him in conversation, that of actor, for the clown does not identify him. There is a grim irony on the other side too, since Hamlet does not know that the grave before him is to be Ophelia's. The theater audience, again, sees the relationship from both points of view at once. Then Hamlet (in his remarks to Horatio and the address to the skull) performs the choric function, generalizing on death in terms of the dead—Yorick, Caesar, and Alexander (V.i.202-239).

As the funeral procession enters, Hamlet and Horatio withdraw, playing unseen audience to the ceremony in which the others take parts. Laertes usurps the stage and vents his grief with the passionate diction and exaggerated gesture of the “deep tragedian”. Hamlet reacts to the performance as if a bad actor were tearing a passion to tatters, and the reaction in turn impells him to outdo the “actor” in a dramatization of his own grief—to express theatrically the passion that circumstance has heretofore compelled him to repress: “Nay, an thou'lt mouth, / I'll rant as well as thou” (V.i.306-307). The leaping into the grave is symbolic too, for the histrionics point forward to a final “scene” from which neither actor will emerge alive. The king's words are more prophetic than he knows: “This grave shall have a living monument. / An hour of quiet shortly shall we see …” (V.i.320-321).

The following episode discovers Hamlet narrating his sea adventure to Horatio by means of theatrical imagery:

Being thus benetted round with villanies,
Or I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play.

(V. ii. 29-31)

The metaphor summarizes Hamlet's tragic predicament and indicates his progress through the drama—the symbolic advance from thought to action which we have noted. In the soliloquy which concludes Act II, Hamlet had said, we remember: “About, my brain! Hum, I have heard / That guilty creatures, sitting at a play, / Have … Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaim'd their malfactions …” (II.ii.616-620). Preparing for the “mouse-trap”, Hamlet had been concerned with “playing” in the aesthetic sense and its symbolic relation to his own spiritual conflict. Now, he is caught in a play which he did not begin. He finds himself upon a real stage where the symbols are turning to facts and the actors are making their exits one by one. Polonius and Ophelia have already made theirs, and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “go to 't”.

Hamlet now expresses regret to Horatio for having forgotten himself to Laertes, for “… by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (V.ii.77-78). Both are faced with the problem of avenging a murdered father. As the Pyrrhus speech and the Murder of Gonzago had shown the observers their inner selves, so now Hamlet learns to adjust himself to Fortune's role by an increase in imaginative sympathy for the roles of others. This growth is conveyed by his cheerful reception of Laertes' challenge, brought to him by Osric (who ironically says of Laertes that “his semblable is his mirror”, V.ii.123), and by his recognition that “to know a man well were to know himself” (V.ii.145). This is the quietness of mind which allows him to observe that “the readiness is all” (V.ii.234).

The final episode of the play takes the form of another “show”, a sports event in which the stage audience, as well as the performers, unite ironically in the same last “act”14 which is death. It is noteworthy that the fencing match begins with an attempted reconciliation and that Hamlet, in his speech to Laertes, speaks both truth and falsehood at once. In his apology, Hamlet lies about the cause of his outburst and pleads his madness, for he must continue to “act” so long as the revenge remains unaccomplished. But he also speaks from his heart, for he bears Laertes no enmity. Sincere emotion radiates through the persona. Here, then, the actor is seen explicitly as symbol of the man divided against himself, the man who would play one role but is forced by fate to play another. Moreover Hamlet's “disclaiming from a purpos'd evil” reminds us again of the theatrical terms in which the final spectacle is to be witnessed by his reference to “this audience” (V.ii.251-252). “Audience” here refers to the court, but, by extension, of course, to the theater audience as well.

As the performers “prepare to play”, Claudius (now in the double role of actor and audience) announces a ceremonial accompaniment to the bout. He will drink to Hamlet, and the kettles, trumpets, and cannon will echo each other in a chain of cosmic reverberations. Ironically, these are to be a death knell rather than a proclamation of victory, and they therefore point ahead to the final words of the play, “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.” The fencing match proceeds, but not according to plan, for “acting” is no protection from the mysterious operations of chance. What begins as “entertainment” ends in a spectacle of death. The illusion becomes reality suddenly and in violence. Gertrude drinks the poisoned cup before Claudius can properly warn her; that he does not snatch it from her hands shows us not only his steel nerves but that he, like Hamlet, must play out his role to the end. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the unbated rapier (as prearranged by the royal stage-manager), but the foils are mistakenly exchanged, and the actor-son, like his actor-father, is justly killed by his own treachery. The masks drop off, and for the first time in the play the characters confront each other without disguise. Laertes lays bare the stratagem; Hamlet immediately carries out his revenge upon the king and exchanges forgiveness with his informant. Shakespeare tells us what our emotional reaction to this holocaust should be by the dramatic terminology in which Hamlet's dying speech is couched, for we are now at one with the stage audience:

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) O, I could tell you—
But let it be.

(V. ii. 345-349)

Even in death, Hamlet is eager to speak—to “tell all” like a player, to uncover the truth for those that remain. And so he deputizes Horatio, whom he wears in his heart of hearts, as official epilogue for the drama:

Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw they breath in pain,
To tell my story.

(V. ii. 357-360)

When Fortinbras and the ambassadors enter as audience to the tragic spectacle, Horatio fulfills Hamlet's urgent wish. As Cunningham has noticed (p.33), it is almost as if Horatio were speaking the prologue to the play we have already witnessed:

          … give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to th' yet unknowing world
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 forc'd cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.

(V. ii. 388-397)

Fortinbras answers:

          Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience.

(V. ii. 397-398)

The play ends as it had begun—in terms of the theatrical symbol: “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage …” (V.ii.407). An actor-audience beholds an actor-spectacle upon a scaffold. Through death, the conflicting worlds of “seeming” and “being” coincide; Hamlet and the Ghost are strangely united as we become one with the living actors on the stage. Distinctions are intentionally blurred in the tragic mystery of art. As we are drawn emotionally into this union, we gain a deepened awareness that we, too, are actors playing roles and that our world is a theater. We know that

          … the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

(The Tempest IV. i. 153-158)


  1. My citations throughout are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. G. L. Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  2. The theatrical trope is ancient. E. R. Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (London, 1953), pp. 138-144, traces its permutations from Plato to Hofmannsthal.

  3. Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1948), pp. 31-41.

  4. Properly speaking, the device of play-within-play adds another plane of reality, making the response a triple or (if the anagogical level is included) a quadruple one. Looked at in this way, the gradations of actuality resemble a Platonic ladder, for the play-within-play is an image of an image of an image. Real actors pretend to be actors entertaining an actor-audience, who, in turn, entertain a real audience, who are metaphorically actors on the world's stage and hence “walking shadows” of an ultimate cosmic reality, of which they are but dimly aware. In reverse, the movement can be graphed as follows: ULTIMATE REALITY—ACTUAL WORLD—PLAY WORLD—PLAY-WITHIN-PLAY-WORLD.

  5. I am indebted for some of the ideas in this essay to Mr. H. V. D. Dyson of Merton College, Oxford. See especially “The Emergence of Shakespeare's Tragedy”, Proceedings of the British Academy, XXXVI (1950), 69-93.

  6. For a full explication of the player's speech and its symbolic relation to major themes in Hamlet, see Harry Levin, Kenyon Review, XII (1950), 273-296.

  7. Ulysses describing Achilles as an actor (Troilus and Cressida I. iii. 151-158), Buckingham satirizing the “ham” (Richard III, III. v. 5-7), and Hamlet giving advice to the players (Hamlet III. ii. 2-3) are typical examples.

  8. Hamlet, of course, has the distinct advantage in this contest of acting. He knows, or rather, strongly suspects Claudius' secret, but the king is kept guessing about Hamlet until the “mousetrap” and even then, he is not sure how much his nephew knows.

  9. Even Polonius can see a ray of truth through Hamlet's disguise, though the disguise itself deceives him: “How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of” (II. ii. 211-213).

  10. It is very possible that Shakespeare reinforced the connection at this point by another actual allusion to the Globe theater, the emblem of which is traditionally thought to have been a figure of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders: “Ham. Do the boys carry it away? Ros. Ay, that they do, my lord—Hercules and his load too” (II. ii. 376-377). If so, the effect would be to enhance audience participation in the symbolism.

  11. See note 6 above.

  12. Kittredge notes in his edition that the exaggerated style of the speech itself is quite necessary to preserve the distinction between the two fictional levels of art and art-within-art.

  13. To achieve this symbolic effect in modern production, the actor who plays the Ghost should actually appear upon the stage. The audience knows by this time that he is neither a figment of Hamlet's imagination nor a “goblin damned” but a reality—and so does Hamlet himself. To represent the prince as having some kind of special X-ray vision violates the whole intention of the scene, for if the audience does not share the spectacle, they are put most awkwardly in the position of sharing the queen's moral blindness. The multi-consciousness must be able to operate freely.

  14. J. V. Cunningham in Woe or Wonder (Denver, 1951), pp. 18-19, points out that the word act often has the special significance of “chance” or “fortune” in contexts of tragic catastrophe. The theatrical connotation, however, is present too.

Since this essay was accepted for publication, two other studies have appeared that in part anticipate my own conclusions: G. C. Thayer, “Hamlet: Drama as Discovery and as Metaphor”, Studia Neophilologica, XXVIII, 118-129; and Ann Righter, Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (Cambridge, 1962). Miss Righter's valuable book treats the development of the actor-audience relationship from the beginnings of English drama and analyzes the significance of the play metaphor throughout Shakespeare's works.

Michael Taylor (essay date spring 1971)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8068

SOURCE: Taylor, Michael. “The Conflict in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1971): 147-61.

[In the following essay, Taylor contends that the main conflict within Hamlet is between man as fate's victim and man as the master of his destiny. Taylor further argues that this conflict reflects the confusion in ethical and religious thinking that pervaded Shakespeare's time.]

In our over-riding concern, as literary critics, with the drama and the poetry of the early part of the seventeenth century, we often lose sight of the fact that neither the drama nor the poetry was the staple reading diet of the average “middle-class” Elizabethan. A glance at Louis B. Wright's Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England is revealing. We see that what, in particular, concerned such an individual were tracts devoted in some way or other to self-improvement. Such a concern involved the promulgation and dispensing of a host of essays dealing with the numerous ethical problems social mobility produces. Above all, religious writings dealt not so much with theological cruxes as with problems of everyday morality. In an article devoted to religious writings, Wright notes:

… we are more interested in Shakespeare's dramatic development than in the career and influence of his contemporary, the Reverend William Perkins: but for every Elizabethan who saw or read one of Shakespeare's plays, a hundred bought and read Perkins' sermons.

He adds:

One fact that cannot be emphasized too often is that the most popular sermons were the least controversial; hence many puritan preachers—and Perkins is a good example—who stuck to exhortations to godliness and discourses on practical ethics were read by all sects. The reading public was less interested in theology than in ethics.1

It is the phrase “practical ethics” which is interesting. In a world where the possibilities for different and new kinds of social action seemed to be increasing daily, there was an awareness that traditional morality was not adequate to meet the new demands. At the same time, some problems, because of their very nature, remained unchanged (man's relationship with God, the meaning of death, etc.). Theologians, whatever their denomination, were at pains to emphasize that men may, in their pride, confuse their right to make decisions in secular matters with a right to debate questions concerning the faith. As Roland Frye points out, Luther, Calvin and Hooker were at one in emphasizing this distinction.2 A new morality, then, would have to take cognizance of traditional problems while being sufficiently flexible to be able to deal with the growing realization of the almost unlimited power of man qua man. The most delicate aspect of such a synthesis was that of definition: how does one define, and hence limit, man's power, to avoid the accusation of an enroachment upon God's province? Any new ethic had to steer clear of the possible charge of blasphemy.

In the majority of the religious writings of this time there is, above all, the demonstration of an acute concern for this problem, and a patent failure to deal with it in a lucid or definitive manner. There is a blurring of focus, a casuistry which obfuscates. The problem is most clearly stated by a writer not primarily concerned with religion, Machiavelli. He notes:

I am not unaware that many have held and hold the opinion that events are controlled by fortune and by God in such a way that the prudence of men has no influence whatsoever. Because of this, they could conclude that there is no point in sweating over things, but that one should submit to the rulings of chance. … Nonetheless, because free choice cannot be ruled out, I believe that it is probably true that fortune is the arbiter of half the things we do, leaving the other half or so to be controlled by ourselves.3

The Elizabethans were greatly interested in the power invested in such a phrase as the “prudence of men”. They thought of its enactment in terms of “policy”. For example, in “The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience”, one of Perkins' sub-sections is headed: “Whether a man may lawfully and with good conscience use Policie in the affairs of this life?”4 He goes on to assert that the use of “policy” is essential in the affairs of this world, particularly in order to defeat one's enemies or to determine truth. He even (in the best tradition of the ends justifying means) countenances the employment of “deceit”. He says that there is “a kinde of deceit called dolus bonus, that is, a good deceit, and of this kinde was the act of Josua.”5 Mosse adduces William Ames's support for the principle of dolus bonus: “acts that do Sonare in malum, have an evill sound … but by some circumstances comming to them they are sometimes made good. …”6 For both Ames and Perkins the test of the bonus in the deceit is the intention of its author. Ames notes: “a good intention with other conditions doth make very much to the constitution of a good action” (p. 209). We may say that Perkins and Ames are attempting to come to terms with the reality of their times, but we can see immediately, I think, how their position is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, not the least being the question: who determines and how is it determined that the intention is good? Perkins emphasises four caveats to his acceptance of the use of deceit:

Nothing whatever must be done against the honor of God; nothing must be done to prejudice the truth, especially the truth of the Gospel; nothing must be wrought or contrived against the justice that is due to men; and lastly, all actions of policy must be such as pertain to our calling.7

The first and second caveats (the second in particular) are, even now, open to extremes of application. Who is to decide (and how) that the policy is “against the honor of God”? Is the “truth of the Gospel” so self-evident that we know immediately when a particular policy is contravening it? In a sense, the impossibility of an easy answer to these fundamental questions at that time is indicated by the outbreak of civil war in 1642.

The early part of the seventeenth century was a period of accelerated change causing confusion in ethical and religious thought. Such confusion is mirrored in the conflict in Hamlet, which, in turn, is reflected in the criticism of the play. For the quantity of commentary on Hamlet is a symptom (if nothing else) of a particular kind of baffled concern for the play's meaning. It might be argued that the confusion created by the perversity of this vast body of contradictory theory reveals the mode of ambiguity intended by Shakespeare. There is some justification, with regard, say, to Antony and Cleopatra, for us to be, to paraphrase Keats, negatively capable, and not to reach irritably after fact and reason. But with Antony and Cleopatra, the ambiguity is not a misleading one. We are reminded continually of the contradictoriness of the response of the protagonists to their dilemma, not simply by what they say and do about it, but by the play's dialectic. If at the close we are left undecided as to the reality, say, of Antony's and Cleopatra's love, such indecision is an integral part of the direction of the total meaning of the play. Stressing the difficulty of a simple judgment of Antony and Cleopatra seems to me to be one of Shakespeare's purposes. Even with Antony and Cleopatra, however, one is unsure of the extent to which deliberate ambivalence is intended. Cleopatra's dialogue with Dolabella in the last act, for example, seems to hint at a positive resolution of the play's essential ambiguity. Her definition of the “reality” of her conception of Antony is couched in a verse whose density reveals Shakespeare writing on a level significantly different in quality from that of the generally exclamatory nature of the exchanges between the protagonists. When she says

… Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet, t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.


the verse has that familiar serious complexity of total involvement, and the theme is one which has obsessed Shakespeare from the writing of Venus and Adonis to The Winter's Tale. It is almost as though at this final point Shakespeare wishes us to erase the play's central paradox from our minds, hinting, it seems, at some kind of Platonic essence superior to the rough-and-tumble of the political conflict and the superficially treacherous nature of the love-affair.

Although this is provocative enough, it is not sufficient to shift the emphasis from the undecided to the decisive. Such a hint becomes a fragment in the kaleidoscopic structure of the play adding an essential qualification to any simplified description of Antony's nature. It is, of course, primarily intended to balance Antony's own condemnation of himself, where he sees himself in a condition of incessant and meaningless transmutation like the ‘vapour’ which is sometimes

… like a bear or lion,
A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air.


I would argue, then, that a hesitancy in judgment on our part indicating a complex moral world is one of the effects aimed at in Antony and Cleopatra. However, so various is that world that the attempt (if there is one) to give it some kind of transcendental stability is almost completely unconvincing. One could not deny that a similar moral complexity is to be found in Hamlet. If we merely followed Hamlet's self-questioning we should be made adequately aware of the difficulty of straightforward judgments. But the rest of the play stresses insistently the interrogative mood. Doubt, hesitancy, suspicion are complemented inevitably by erroneous conclusions and mistakes in action.9 Unlike Antony and Cleopatra, however, there is not simply a hint of resolution of the dilemma: the resolution is stated in emphatic terms. In other words, the resolution, because of the emphasis placed upon it, is not caught up in the dominant mood of doubt and confusion which seems to be characteristic of Hamlet, but is an attempt to break through it to some kind of transcendental sanity. Cleopatra's description of Antony, if we were to take it as Shakespeare's final word, would, I believe, invalidate his presentation in the previous four acts. Such a resolution, if it were apart from the general tenor of the play, might give rise to an ambiguity which could be unsatisfactory, inconsequential. This is, in fact, my thesis with regard to Hamlet. We can see, I think, how such a thesis may be related to the shifting Elizabethan attitude to the nature and extent of man's power to determine the pattern of his life. The essential conflict in Hamlet, I believe, is that between man as victim of fate and as controller of his own destiny.

Critics have noticed, of course, Hamlet's change of heart on his return from England in the fifth act. Jean Calhoun, for example, notes:

Far more perplexing, really, than the delay is the final transformation of Act V. It is as if, by his almost miraculous escape from the English voyage, Hamlet has worked through his earlier doubts in a single experience of successful action, yet that very miraculousness has suggested to him the fallibility of human plans. On his return, he does not exude confidence in his ability to repeat his success. Instead, he seems full of the terrible sadness of a man who sees human impotence, rather than human power, in the haphazard working out of his own life.10

Although Miss Calhoun sees the “transformation” as “perplexing” she does, in fact, explain it in terms of the reaction of a bruised psyche. If this explanation has the merit of simplicity it also suggests a too easy reliance on that kind of character criticism we associate with Bradley. More importantly, it must surely seem odd that Shakespeare should rely upon an off-stage, reported action as a satisfactory explanation for what seems to be a complete volte-face on the part of his hero. Miss Calhoun indicates that she regards Hamlet's change of heart as momentous, but can find it easy to relegate the cause of it to what, to all intents and purposes, does not exist in the body of the play at all.

Hamlet's change of heart is indeed momentous. The first four acts of the play have stressed, with qualifications which I shall deal with later, the need for the play of human intellect on certain problems. Almost all the characters, Hamlet notably included, are frenetically involved in schemes of discovery. The first four acts are a complex of plot and counter-plot: a bewildering maze of spying and counter-spying where the general method is that of a complicated, and sometimes fiendish, intrigue. The method is pertinently described by Polonius in his advice to Reynaldo:

                                                                                                                        … See you now,
Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth,
And thus do we of wisdom, and of reach,
With windlasses, and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out.


The end (“the carp of truth”) justifies the means (“the bait of falsehood”). We might argue that Perkins' dolus bonus is here given its fundamental expression in the play. Polonius' description of himself as one of those who are “of wisdom, and of reach” is, of course, finely ironic. Nevertheless, we would say, with certain reservations, that such a description applies to the protagonist. Similarly, we can apply another statement of Polonius' credo to him. How much more appropriate would the following be from Hamlet:

If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the Centre.


Much depends on what is meant by “truth”. For Polonius, as for Claudius, it consists of discovering the reason for Hamlet's behavior. For Hamlet the “truth” of the circumstances of his father's death is only a part of the search for some kind of all-containing “truth” which could explain the human predicament. The question, “To be or not to be”, with its brooding metaphysicality, is not one that could be asked by Polonius.

There seem, then, to be at least two kinds of “truth”—one local and contingent, the other essential and absolute—stated for us in Polonius' abstract formulation. The major qualitative difference between these truths may be a clue to Hamlet's abrupt change of heart in the fifth act, from an absorbed, frantic involvement in the pursuit of knowledge, to a stoic resignation in the inevitability of event. That is, Hamlet may be expressing the only possible stance to be taken when he realizes that, in pursuing the circumstances of his father's murder, he is moving towards some kind of fundamental questioning of inevitable Law, the danger of which Calvin, Luther and Hooker so constantly stress. James Feibleman has noticed an ethical duality in Hamlet which, he says, is dramatized in the self-questionings of the hero. On the one hand, there is the world of absolute, immutable values of which only Hamlet is really aware, and on the other, there is the world as it actually is with all its “imperfection and conflict” with which Hamlet has to contend. Feibleman goes on to say:

Let us suppose that he comprehends or, still better, that he feels the relationship between the two orders in terms of what-is and what-ought-to-be. The realm of being is the realm of what-ought-to-be; the realm of actuality or existence is the realm of what-is. Now, assuredly, what-is is not altogether what-ought-to-be.11

Perhaps Hamlet's change of heart is meant to convey an irrevocable limitation to man's capacity, unaided by the supernatural, to synthesize the two worlds. If this were the case, one would expect the first four acts of the play to prepare us adequately, in some way or other, for Hamlet's recognition of this incapacity expressed in his famous stoical remarks: “The readiness is all” and “There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Where, in effect, does the emphasis lie?

The first four acts are pervaded by a sense of man as agent of his own destiny.12 The stress is on the reality of man's capacity to find out truth even if it is hidden “Within the Centre”. Consequently, Elsinore is a-bustle with feverish activity, the only still center being the self-communings of Hamlet. The imagery of the play reflects the nature of this activity—its essential method. When Claudius employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet (“lawful espials”), Hamlet confronts them: “Why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?” The metaphor from hunting reminds us of Polonius' “windlasses” and “assays of bias”. Similarly, this emphasis on the policy of “indirection” is reflected in Hamlet's response to Claudius' device of sending him to England (“For the demand of our neglected tribute”) in the care of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to have him killed:

… let it work,
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
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: …


We have, of course, to be aware of the note of hysteria in Hamlet's description of his activity as “the sport”—his energy is more frenzied than sporting—but the lines do reveal a certain delight in the pitting of his intellect against the wiles of his enemies. The complications of the devices to probe the heart of Hamlet's mystery reach a climax, after the failure of using Ophelia as bait and the pathetic death of the eavesdropping Polonius, in Claudius' plan to have Hamlet murdered by Laertes while ostensibly taking part in a fencing-match.

Claudius' intrigues fail. If these were the only ones, their failure would, in itself, point up the justice of abandoning a faith in the designs of existential man. But Hamlet, using the same deviousness as his antagonists, is eminently successful. Indeed, it is possible to see the unavailing plots of Claudius et al. as a means of underlining the success that Hamlet enjoys. The parallelism between the methods employed by Hamlet and his opponents is striking, and has been commented on by W. V. Shepard:

That pattern is as follows: He lets his adversary attack first. Then, using the weapon of his adversary, he strikes swiftly home.

This happens not once, nor twice, but time and time again. We have noted above how Hamlet employed this device in his use of the words ‘son’, ‘common’, and ‘seems’. As he uses words, so he uses players; as he uses players, so he uses sailing craft; as he uses sailing craft, so he uses documents; as he uses fencing foils, so he uses poison.13

But the similarity between the instruments to hand is outweighed by that of the general method—of “indirection”. The oblique approach is common to both camps. The machinations of “policie” are seen to be essential to the “affaires of this life”. Hamlet's two most important devices are his feigned madness and his use of the play “The Murder of Gonzago”, which he calls “The Mouse-trap”. Despite the storm of controversy over Hamlet's state of mind, we are never really allowed to forget the purpose his madness serves to camouflage. Even Polonius sees some “method” there, while Guildenstern describes it as a “crafty madness”. Claudius, himself, is profoundly troubled:

Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger


Hamlet is occupied by his intrigue until his return from England.14 Even in the fifth act his account to Horatio of his outwitting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has a residual element of “the sport”. He describes the contents of the letter he forges from Claudius to the King of England:

An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them as the palm should flourish,
As Peace should still her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such-like as-es of great charge,
That, on the view and know of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving time allow'd.


The contrast between the polite flourishes of diplomacy with which the letter begins and the mercilessness of the final demand is contemptuous. Hamlet can still take a delight in this kind of manipulation.

The first four acts reveal, then, the major characters' concern (with the exception of Ophelia and Horatio) for an intrigue designed to increase their control over their own destiny. Only Hamlet, because he is in possession of information which places him in a superior position, has any real degree of success. We are, I think, made aware that even in the grubby world of the court of Elsinore it is possible, provided that the right method is used, for human ingenuity to tease out at least some of the truth of a situation however deceptive and misleading its appearance may be. Up to this point in Hamlet, Shakespeare's “preoccupation with man's subjection to illusion”15 seems to be stressing the potential in man as a rational creature to make a significant contribution to the direction of his fate, in a way which would have been understood by a writer like Perkins. The oblique, indirect method of discovery, with its important implications, is reflected in the play's language. In no other of Shakespeare's plays, it seems to me, is language used so self-consciously to disguise and reveal meaning at one and the same time. As one might expect, it is Hamlet, himself, who manipulates language in this manner most consistently. His situation forces him to make language a tool in his various schemes for probing, under cover of apparent irrelevance, the stances of his enemies. They are both mystified and made uncomfortable by his use of pun, oxymoron, nonsense, paradox. Hence, Hamlet's “wild and whirling words”, in particular, reflect both the problem (in their disguising meaning) and the pervasive method of solving the problem (by covert “indirection”). The obscurity of the language is portentous. One or two examples should make this clear. Consider, for example, his opening remark: “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (I.ii.65), or his baiting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I am but mad north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.396-8), or his pert reply to their enquiry after Polonius: “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body” (IV.ii.29-30). The obscurity of these apophthegms conceals for a time their ominous sense, although even in the theatre we are aware, to adapt a phrase of Knights's, of ‘a particular vibration in the saying’.

One might argue, however, that this particular mode of employing language is thrust upon Hamlet. The madness he feigns is indicated by the madness of his speech. We know that he is really sane; so we should not be surprised by the sense we find in the nonsense. But this use of language is not confined to the hero. It crops up time and again in situations which are sometimes comic, as with Polonius or the Gravediggers, and sometimes tragic, as with the madness of Ophelia. For example, Polonius makes nonsense of his definition of “wit” in the process of defining it, but at the same time, in his digression, touches on some of Hamlet's and the play's central concerns:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time;
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.


Hamlet has, indeed, wasted “night, day, and time” wondering “What majesty should be, what duty is”. Polonius' amusing elaboration delays the conveyance of his information, and confuses and exasperates his hearers; in the process of the elaboration, however, Shakespeare has reminded us of matters even more germane than the point Polonius is trying to make. If the absurdities of Polonius are an example of the comic use of the language of indirection, Ophelia's language in her madness is an example of the tragic. We note that in her mad scene (Act IV, Scene v), her apparently inconsequential speeches are, in fact, emphasizing the themes of deception in love, the rankness of sexuality, the problem of identity, and the problem of knowing: all of which have been important elements in the meaning of the play as a whole. We would agree with Laertes, though perhaps with different considerations in mind, when he says of Ophelia's talk: “This nothing's more than matter” (IV.v.174). The Gentleman best sums up the effect of Ophelia's madness:

… Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They aim at it
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there would be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.


The language of the play, then, as well as the activities of the major characters, stresses the method of solution open to human agency. That is, the verse itself, in its play with meaning, is “acting out”, on a metaphorical level, the major characters' involvement with the twists and turns of their intrigues. Intrigue and language fuse to underline the thesis that, in the “affaires of this life”, it is necessary to employ the “indirection” of “policy”. If it were not for the protagonist, these first four acts would be almost purely in the spirit of Marlowe with his absorption with willed purpose. The shift to a dependence on God's providence which characterizes the fifth act would seem utterly out of place. There are, however, indications in these four acts of something beyond the boundaries of mere rationalism. Indeed, it is a consideration of these which informs the tension of Hamlet's debates with himself. He sees himself, unlike the other characters, as an actor in a great universal drama as well as the chief figure in the specific drama of Revenge. Everything he does or does not do has the Universal as its framework of reference. He is, above all, aware of the limitations of human action when it has only the human intellect as its source of power. He is consistently dubious as to the correctness of what he is doing. He longs for death, but cannot kill himself, as he sees his death within the traditional context of the Christian conception of sin and punishment which causes him to wish that “the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.131-132). Despite his involvement with his intrigues for establishing the truth and despite his success with them, he sees himself as the victim of a malicious Fortune, particularly in its calling him to perform the onerous duty of revenge:

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


This attitude is reiterated after his murder of Polonius:

                                                                                          … 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.


This is not the place for an extended analysis of Hamlet's character, but we should bear in mind that his presentation is many-sided. There is much to condemn as well as to admire in what Shakespeare reveals of his hero. We might argue that one of his characteristic stances is that of self-doubt. He contrasts himself unfavorably with Horatio, the actor in the murder of Priam by Pyrrhus, and Fortinbras; but in all of these, even the one involving Horatio, there is some degree of self-deception involved. Much of his self-condemnation concerns his inability to take action, but we are made to see that this inability is Hamlet's strength, that, in the face of the naivete or Machiavellianism of an action taken by a Laertes or a Fortinbras, his determination to know the truth before he does anything makes him the ethical center of the play. It is possible, then, that Hamlet's despair is a result of that personal melancholy which Shakespeare is at pains to emphasize, that he is one of those “particular men” who “for some vicious mole of nature in them” are in a state of perpetual self-disgust. If this is so, then his resignation to the benevolent drift of events which is what he holds as his final attitude could, perhaps, be explained as merely another indication of his basic weakness.

But (as we are often reminded) Hamlet is more than Hamlet. We are, by now, aware of the general implications of Shakespeare's plays, of his concern with certain themes. It seems unlikely that Hamlet was intended purely as a psychological study of an individual, whatever his degree of fascination. It seems even more unlikely that Shakespeare intended Hamlet's “regeneration” as solely the concern of the protagonist, and not intimately linked with the meaning of the play as a whole. We cannot, I think, explain Hamlet's conversion in the way that we might explain the aberrational conduct of an Antony or a Cleopatra, where, anyway, such conduct is, as I have pointed out, part of the larger meaning of the play. I feel sure that we are meant to see Hamlet's adjustment as the only workable compromise. Are there, then, other indications in these first four acts of the inevitability of Hamlet's compromise? Do we get a sense, despite the placing of the emphasis that I have outlined above, of the rightness, say, of the following?

                                                                                … 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.


There is, I think, some general opposition (which we might call conservative) in the first four acts to the idea of man pitting himself against forces beyond his control. Hamlet's continued distraction at his father's death is criticized by Claudius and, although it is ironic that Claudius is the speaker, one can imagine an Elizabethan audience responding to his commonsense stand:

For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart?


Such a position is backed by Gertrude:

Thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.


To them, there is something almost blasphemous in Hamlet's continuing to question the workings of destiny. His “opposition” is “peevish” because he is apparently questioning the nature of things as they have been divinely ordained by God for the benefit of man. In his search for truth, Hamlet seems to be going “against the honor of God”. The Elizabethans would, presumably, react in a similar fashion to Polonius' solipsism:

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


Frye comments:

In Christian terms, the fault with such integrity as Polonius recommends is that it places man's reliance entirely upon himself, without reference to God. …

(P. 189)

There is, also, some support for Hamlet's heavy-hearted awareness of himself as a victim of a malicious fortune. A prevalent attitude towards the caprices of fortune in the play is condemnatory. She is twice referred to as a “strumpet”, at II.ii.228-247 (the conversation between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and at II.ii.515 (the First Player's speech recounting the death of Priam). The Player King, following the sentiments of Hamlet's soliloquies, succinctly states the problem:

This world is not for aye, nor 'tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change,
For 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.


Such a concern with the power of fortune is humorously debated by the Gravediggers, when they are considering, apropos of Ophelia, the distinctions between suicide and death by misadventure. The First Clown says:

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good. Here stands the man; good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,—mark you that? But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself; argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.


The feeling that events are beyond the control of man is, I suppose, also suggested by the presence of the Ghost itself, although the dramatic convention of the Ghost and Hamlet's unwillingness to accept it on face-value alone, help to dissipate its power as controller of Hamlet's destiny. There are, too, other indications of something taking place beyond the ken of man's intellect. The first scene of the play, for example, with its emphasis on portent and mysterious sickness suggests, in a manner similar to the opening scene of Macbeth, that an evil exists of a force incomprehensible to mere mortals. Nevertheless, none of this is sufficient to dispel the impression of vitality that we get in man's capacity to overcome “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

Perhaps the most important qualification of this impression, is the continual presence, in some shape or form, of death. Wilson Knight's essays on Hamlet in The Wheel of Fire are devoted to its “theme of death”, and Adrien Bonjour believes that death is the unifying “factor” in a “various” play.16 The orgy of deaths that closes the play seems to bear witness to the fruitlessness of man's endeavor to control fate. But there is paradox here too. It could be argued that Hamlet's submission to the inevitability of events is as much the cause of the final catastrophe as are the bungling plots of Laertes and Claudius. Hamlet repudiates the ominous “augury” he feels about the outcome of the fencingmatch:

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


Such indifference to his suspicions would have made him the easy victim of the “indirections” of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the third act. (It is interesting, incidentally, to note the way in which the structure of the speech seems to work against the assertion of serenity it is apparently making. The logical play of “If it be now,” etc., is more in keeping with a mind still analytically probing, than with one at peace with itself. We should contrast, perhaps, the plainness of Lear's acquiescence: “I am a very foolish, fond old man”, King Lear IV.vii.60-67).

Nevertheless, in these first four acts death and the concept of death are an essential part of the reality of Hamlet's world. One can see how such an emphasis could lead to the stoic attitude. We might be made to accept the proposition that an intrigue devoted to the discovery of truth would have to stop at the bourne from which no traveller returns. The truth could simply be that, beyond a certain point, there can only be mystery. Human ingenuity is irrelevant and pernicious in the world of the spirit. In effect, the concept of death is presented as essentially mysterious, and the locus classicus for this is Hamlet's soliloquy “To be or not to be”. It could be argued also that the actual visitation of death in these first four acts (i.e. the pathetic madness and death of Ophelia, and the death of Polonius) is a direct result of an involvement on Hamlet's part in his attempt to control matters. Here again, however, we are aware that both of these deaths are a result of Hamlet departing from his normal ethical scrupulousness and care in action. In the case of Ophelia, Hamlet's rejection of her is based on the fallacy of arguing from the particular to the general. Gertrude's “rankness” becomes, for Hamlet, the rankness of all women and as Ophelia is a woman she too must be condemned. In the case of Polonius, we see Hamlet taking action in the manner of Laertes. His surrender to impetuosity is in vivid contrast to that delicacy of judgment which prevents him from killing Claudius when the latter is apparently at prayer and in a state of grace. These two tragic deaths, then, seem to underline the necessity of an elaborate, careful analysis of circumstances and situation. Far from destroying the value of Hamlet's ethical hesitancy, they serve to show that he is not hesitant, not scrupulous, enough. In the last analysis, they are very much part of the emphasis of these first four acts which I have discussed above.

My argument, then, is that the first four acts of Hamlet, in their emphasis upon “policie”, upon Hamlet's adroit use of the “prudence of men”, upon the bitter vitality in his taking up arms against his troubles, have only hinted at the possibility of his final stoicism. There is thus an abrupt, and to my mind disturbing, anagnorisis in Act V when Hamlet recognizes that the designs of “policie” are of no avail. Essentially, the problem is an aesthetic one, for we have not been made to feel the justification of Hamlet's final belief that there is an irrevocable limitation to a man's capacity to influence his destiny. Asserting that this in fact is the case is much less satisfying than convincing us through the play's dialectic that it must be the case. The consequent ambiguity, then, unlike that of Antony and Cleopatra, is not one that the play's structure persuades us is (unambiguously) inevitable.

As we have seen, this is not to say that Shakespeare was unaware of the problem. The opening scene of the fifth act, for example, serves to link that omnipresent concern with the finality of death demonstrated in the first four acts with Hamlet's acquiescence to the shaping divinity in the Play's final scene. The greater part of V.i, from the Gravediggers' emphasis on the “strength” of their “building” to Laertes' despair over Ophelia, underscores Hamlet's own awareness of the absoluteness of death, whose inevitability makes life's “quiddities” and “quillets” seem merely trivial. Fool, politician (i.e. schemer), lawyer, courtier, the matchless leader of men, the proud and beautiful woman all succumb to “Lady Worm” whose sovereignty is climactically rendered as Ophelia's cortege moves across the stage. If this, then, is the favor to which we all must come, Hamlet's impatience with Laertes' graveside protestations (for words are shadows of events which are themselves only shadows when compared with death's reality) is readily understandable.17

It seems likely, however, that no single explanation of Hamlet's change of heart will suffice. What may be of importance to notice is that this central dilemma in Hamlet is a version of the classic dilemma of the Revenge dramatist.18 Revenge drama, from The Spanish Tragedy to Middleton's and Rowley's The Changeling or Ford's The Broken Heart, reveals at best an equivocal attitude on the part of the playwright to revenge and revenger, for, although the revenger in his pursuit of revenge occupies an heroic position on the English stage at this time, he never enjoys unqualified approval however noble his cause. This reluctance to accept him accounts for a shift of emphasis from the presentation of the revenger as equivocal hero to that of him as unequivocal villain: a movement away from the Kydian formula for revenge to that first indicated in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta where Barabas stands as the prototype of the criminal avenger. Bowers notes:

This question outlines in sharp relief the fundamental problem facing every writer of revenge tragedy whose protagonist is a hero. The audience is sympathetic to his revenger so long as he does not become an Italienate intriguer, and so long as he does not revenge.

At the conclusion the audience admits its sentimental satisfaction with the act of personal justice but its ethical sense demands the penalty for the infraction of divine command.

(P. 95)

Beaumont's and Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy (c. 1611) brings into prominence a solution adopted by later writers like Ford and Massinger, where the doctrine “vengeance appertaineth unto God only”19 is followed, and revenge left to Heaven. Such a shift in treatment is intimated, not only in Hamlet itself, but in the difference between the two main sources for Shakespeare's play, the narratives of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest. Again, Bowers notes:

The difference in spirit between the two narratives, however, is distinct. Saxo, telling his primitive tale, is never in doubt about the justness of the revenge, or, indeed, of any other revenge in his history. Belleforest, not at all influenced by the pagan Scandinavian tradition, is divided between his Renaissance French appreciation of a bella vendetta and the Christian doctrine that all revenge must be left to God.

(P. 87)

Shakespeare, then, may, in Hamlet, be reflecting a conventional ethical duality common to significant revenge plays. For the full tragic effect, Hamlet must die in innocence, uncharacteristic of him though this state may be. If he does not do so, his death, like Ophelia's, may be marred by an unsympathetic reservation of judgment on the part of his audience—hardly an appropriate response for a tragedy. Whether or not Ophelia committed suicide is of no great importance. What is important is Shakespeare's concern for the effect of the suspicious circumstances of her death. The Clown asks: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that wilfully seeks her own salvation?” (V.i.1-2). We ourselves witness her Christian burial, but one without the full solemnity and rich ceremony that a Christian of her rank would normally enjoy. Such a “churlish” attitude by the church is not dissimilar to the Elizabethan audience's ambivalent response to the position of the avenger in Revenge Drama: grudging, wary acceptance. Such an audience would, one imagines, believe that Hamlet dies into “felicity” and that flights of angels will sing him to his rest but only if he, like some of his fellow avengers, abjures his personal vendetta. Only then, it seems, can Fortinbras be justified in treating Hamlet as the noble warrior:

                                                  Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov'd most royally; and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.


“Sweets to the sweet” for Ophelia and “Soldiers' music and the rites of war” for Hamlet: we would agree that they deserve no less. But in Hamlet's case, the dignified simplicity of his final exit is in ironic contrast with our previous experience of his living, and in our awareness of this irony in the play's dying moments is contained that bewilderment with Hamlet which this paper has attempted to explore. Fortinbras remains however—and perhaps this is the greatest irony of all.


  1. “The Significance of Religious Writings in the English Renaissance”, Journal of the History of Ideas [JHI], I (1940), 59-68; p. 59 and 66.

  2. Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), pp. 157-164.

  3. “XXV. How far human affairs are governed by fortune, and how far fortune can be opposed”, The Prince, translated by George Bull (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1961).

  4. The Works of M. William Perkins (London, 1631), II, 116. Quoted in George L. Mosse's article “The Assimilation of Machiavelli in English Thought: The Casuistry of William Perkins and William Ames”, Huntington Library Quarterly, XVII (1953-54), 315-326.

  5. Ibid., “A Commentary or Exposition upon … Galatians”, Works, II, 183.

  6. Ibid., “The Marrow of Sacred Divinity” (London, [1638?]), p. 210.

  7. Ibid., p. 317. Cf. Martin Luther's “Means are not to be neglected, but we are to employ those means which it is possible for us to use”. Exp. Gen. xxxii: 6-8, in What Luther Says: An Anthology, 3 vols., ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, 1959), II, 2437, and also cf. John Eliot, Discourses of Warre and Single Combat, by B. de Loque (1591), p. 52: “That vengence appertaineth unto God only. … Therefore it followeth, that whosoeuer do the reuenge himselfe, committeth sacrilege. … That seeing the wrong that our neighbour doth, happeneth not without the prudence of god, it is not lawful for vs to resist and withstand it by oblique and sinister meanes, and such as displease God.”

  8. All quotations from Shakespeare are from the New Cambridge Edition edited by W. A. Neilson and C. J. Hill.

  9. For a good analysis of the play along these lines, see Harry Levin's The Question of “Hamlet” (Compass Books Edition, New York, 1961).

  10. Hamlet and the Circumference of Action”, Renaissance News, XV (1962), 281-298; pp. 296-297. Cf. S. F. Johnson's “The Regeneration of Hamlet” in Shakespeare Quarterly [SQ], III (1952), 187-207, where he defends Hamlet's belief in providence in the following terms:

    Briefly, Hamlet felt, before he left Denmark, that all occasions informed against him (IV.iv.32, ommitted from Folio); while at sea, on the contrary, all occasions informed in his favour.

    (P. 199)

    Johnson feels that any uneasiness as to the regeneration is an unnecessary creation of the critics:

    The desperation ascribed to Hamlet is the existentialist despair of critics who must at all costs believe in their own free will. Hamlet is their scape-goat.

    (P. 194)

  11. ‘The Theory of Hamlet’, JHI, VII (April, 1946), 131-150; p. 148.

  12. For this terminology, cf. John Lawlor's chapter on Hamlet, “Agent or Patient”, in his book The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (London, 1960).

  13. “Hoisting the Enginer with his own Petar”, SQ, VII (1956), 281-285; p. 282.

  14. If this analysis is acceptable, then there is no delay in Hamlet, unless we wish to describe Hamlet's grave concern for the truth as constituting such. It seems to me, however, that any necessary condition for an action cannot constitute a delayal of that action. Indeed, there has been much unenlightened discussion of this problem, and it is with a sense of relief that one turns to Philip Edwards' sensible description of the problem of delay in The Spanish Tragedy which, mutatis mutandis, can be as well applied to Hamlet:

    That Hieronimo's conscience should accuse him for being tardy (III.xiii.135) is a measure only of the stress he is under and the difficulties he faces, and of the depth of his obligation; that Bel-imperia and Isabella should speak of delay (III.iv and IV.ii.30) is a measure only of their understandable impatience and does not mean that Hieronimo could have acted more quickly. It is the sense of delay which is real, and not delay itself. Hieronimo does everything possible as quickly as possible. “Introduction”, The Revels Plays

    (London, 1959), p. lvi.

  15. This phrase is taken from L. C. Knights's book An Approach to ‘Hamlet’ (Stanford, 1961), p. 12.

  16. “On Artistic Unity in Hamlet”, English Studies, XXI (1939), 193-202.

  17. It is interesting that the verbal dexterity espoused by Hamlet in the first four acts is abjured by him in this final act. At first, Hamlet is jocular, as with the Gravedigger: “How absolute the knave is: We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us” (V.i.148-9). His comment on Osric (despite his own satirical indulgence in Osric's language) is more pointed:

    Thus had he … only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and so but blow them to their trials, the bubbles are out


  18. I am indebted for what follows to F. T. Bowers' Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy 1587-1642 (Princeton, 1940), passim.

  19. See Note 7.

Brent M. Cohen (essay date summer 1977)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Brent M. “‘What Is It You Would See?’: Hamlet and the Conscience of the Theatre.” ELH 44, no. 2 (summer 1977): 222-47.

[In the following essay, Cohen demonstrates that the physical conditions and structure of the Elizabethan theater allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways, for example, by giving audience members a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play.]

My title, which quotes Horatio's question to Fortinbras near the end of Hamlet (5.2.364),1 might stand for the kind of question the play frequently asks its audience. Critics, like Dover Wilson in What Happens in Hamlet,2 who attempt to resolve the uncertainties of what we do see, treat the audience as if, like Fortinbras, it somehow has been absent from the play it has just witnessed. That we continue to question what happens in Hamlet suggests, however, that it is less a question we should expect the play to answer than one it asks of us. Why after seeing Hamlet don't we trust ourselves to know what we have seen? Fortinbras' final comparison of Hamlet to a soldier (5.2.397) betrays the stake subsequent spectators have had in this question: usually with less apparent strain than Fortinbras who has just conquered Poland, we too would see ourselves in Hamlet. This expression of intuitive sympathy is at the heart of the criticism of the English Romantics who found in Hamlet their most convincing argument for empathy as the primary mode of literary response. To a large extent, the dramatic structure of the play corroborates the Romantic view: we become involved in Hamlet through Hamlet. In the soliloquies Hamlet puts himself in our confidence, seeks our approbation, and in turn we see him and others through his eyes. When he puts on the mask of “antic disposition” (1.5.172), we share his moral superiority, as we do when he denounces masks in favor of that “within which passeth show” (1.2.85) or when he sees through the masks of a world in which “one may smile, and smile and be a villain” (1.5.108). Even critics who emphasize the play rather than its prince usually assume that our response to the action does not differ significantly from Hamlet's. But there are exceptions, the Nunnery scene notably, where unable to distinguish self from mask, we find our sympathy for Hamlet in conflict with his actual behavior. In this essay, I propose to examine the effect of such double-binds on an audience in the theatre. My argument will be that the conditions of the Elizabethan theatre allowed Shakespeare to place demands on his audience that are foreign to a theatre based on Romantic assumptions; that in Hamlet Shakespeare does not use his theatre simply to encourage audience identification or to disclose the mysteries of subjectivity, but to explore the implications of producing plays for our entertainment.


I wish to begin with the sequence of scenes that follows Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius at prayer, and to treat it as a paradigm of our changing involvement with Hamlet. In the Prayer scene, Hamlet worries not simply that Claudius' soul will go to heaven, but how such a revenge would be “scann'd” (3.3.75), how others would interpret his action. His casuistical address justifying his inaction to us and confiding his misgivings sets up our expectation in the next scene, after he stabs Polonius, that again he will justify himself to us or show some misgivings. For the first time in the play, however, Hamlet does not directly address the audience at some point during his appearance. In fact, his promise to “answer well” (3.4.177) for Polonius' death is followed by perhaps the strangest action in the play—the hide-and-seek game. Hamlet's concealment of Polonius' body and his riddling taunts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then of Claudius, are as baffling to us as to Claudius and the court. Hamlet does not stop to answer our qualms as he exits lugging Polonius' guts from Gertrude's bedroom, nor does he leave us with the clear sense we have had after every previous exit of what his next move will be. As Hamlet re-enacts the pattern of murder and concealment that had given him cause for revenge, he reaches both a moral and a strategic impasse. Claudius now takes over as master of stratagems, as Hamlet disappears first into the role of “antic disposition” and then from the stage for the next forty-five minutes. With our sudden loss of intimacy with Hamlet, we find ourselves on the peripheries of the action in which we have been so excitedly involved, and perhaps frustrated by the sense of futility and repetition that seems to take over the main action of the play.

As in the Nunnery scene, Hamlet's failure to acknowledge our discomfort succeeds in concealing his intentions but still invites our conjecture. Although Romantic critics were reticent about Polonius' murder, they believed that such “harsh and unpleasant” moments, in Charles Lamb's words, “are what we forgive afterwards and explain by the whole of his character.”3 We might explain Hamlet's concealment of Polonius' body as “madness,” as Hamlet later will, or as an avoidance of conscience. In either case, we explain Hamlet's action by explaining how we might have acted in such a situation. “It is we [the readers] who are Hamlet,”4 William Hazlitt wrote, articulating both the cardinal principle of psychological interpretation and the kind of response Hamlet would elicit from us. Perhaps since we have shared Hamlet's concerns throughout, after Polonius' murder we will attempt to re-involve ourselves in the action from Hamlet's point of view. But Hamlet's failure to show any of the misgivings he has shown previously in the play forces us to imagine the conflict we presume his “antic disposition” to conceal; we must substitute our conscience for his.

Romantic critics correctly realized that our interest in Hamlet depends on its hero's capacity to claim our interest in him, but Hamlet's prolonged and jarring denials of such natural human responses as grief, remorse, or responsibility for Polonius' death force us, at least momentarily, to look at him from the outside. Shakespeare, however, does not allow Hamlet's inaccessibility to exclude our interest and participation in the action, but utilizes our awareness of theatrical convention at once to deepen our sense of alienation and to complicate our sense of theatrical engagement. After Hamlet leaves the court for England, Claudius directly addresses the audience: “Do it England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (4.3.65-67). Although in appropriating Hamlet's habit of enlisting the audience in his cause Claudius only confirms our loyalty to Hamlet, he does succeed in re-involving us in the action, placing considerable stress on our immediate response. Claudius' address exacerbates our sense of dislocation in the scenes that follow Polonius' murder (where is Polonius? where is Hamlet?): are we in Denmark, where we see events as Hamlet sees them, or are we in England, in the distance of ironical awareness, and the loyal subjects of his proposed executioner? Unlike the more customarily off-handed, unproblematic ribbings of the audience that we find later, for example, in the Gravedigger's quip about English madness, here Shakespeare reminds his audience of its place in a London theatre at precisely the moment that our continued involvement in Hamlet is most precarious. Claudius' daring address creates a highly charged pause in which the audience must reconsider just how complicated and contradictory its involvement in the play might be.

Frequently in Hamlet, as in other plays, Shakespeare acknowledges the presence of his audience in the theatre. The kinds of involvement in the drama such disruptive tactics could create sharply distinguishes the theatrical conventions of illusion in the Elizabethan theatre from those of the Romantic theatre. Until William Poel revived the Elizabethan platform stage at the end of the century, 19th-century productions of Shakespeare were performed on a stage that was separated from its audience by a proscenium arch, and their goal, as Hazlitt wrote in his review of Edmund Kean's premier performance of Hamlet, was to mirror “what might have taken place at the court of Denmark 500 years ago” (V, 185). Attempts to enhance the illusion with increasingly elaborate scenery and costuming, however, only increased the audience's awareness of the theatre—at least the awareness of such an avid theatre-going, closet critic as Lamb who rejected the principle introduced by the early Romantic actor John Phillip Kemble of correlating visual effects with subjective states of mind.5 When Lamb denounces the stage because its machinery “positively destroys the illusion” (I, 110) or because it “makes all things natural” (I, 111), he does not object to the principle of naturalism, only its imperfect implementation. Shakespeare was not concerned, according to Lamb, with the externals of place and gesture, but with the interiors of feeling, “grounded deep in nature, so deep that the depth of them lies out of the reach of most of us” (I, 102), and forever out of the reach of the stage.

Coleridge believed that this “depth” could be realized on Shakespeare's stage. Unencumbered by the spectacles of the Georgian stage, the bare, placeless Elizabethan stage permitted Shakespeare's poetry to exalt the imagination. Freed from the necessity to copy nature, Shakespeare could “appeal to that which we most wish to be when we are most worthy of being”6—whether that be Henry V or Richard III. Dramatic illusions create a world of wish-fulfillment, in which, as in a “dream … the judgment is neither beguiled nor conscious of the fraud. … Whatever disturbs this repose of judgment by its harshness, abruptness, and improbability offends against dramatic propriety” (II, 258). Like Lamb (I, 98), Coleridge compares dramatic illusion to dreaming in order to describe the audience's suspension of judgment and its submission to the illusion. But he goes beyond Lamb when he complains that scene changes on the Georgian stage arouse us “from that delightful dream of our inner nature which in truth was more than a dream” (II, 79). The reveries produced by illusions, like dreams, Coleridge seems to say, originate somehow from our “inner nature” or what he calls, in his well-known definition of imagination, “the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”7 According to Coleridgean epistemology, Hazlitt can say we are Hamlet because the self must predicate itself as an object, live in the object, in order to have knowledge of itself. In order to “make the object one with us, we must become one with the object—ergo, an object. Ergo, the object must be itself a subject” (BL, 183). By dissolving the boundaries of waking life that separate us from our “inner nature,” dramatic illusions fulfill Coleridge's philosophical dream of restoring the unity of subject and object, of inside and outside. In terms of the theatre, each member of the audience becomes like an actor who identifies with and embodies an heroic role.

Romantic writers wanted an heroic theatre that would ennoble its audience, but with the ambivalent exception of Hazlitt, they found the collectivity of the audience and the bodies of actors to inhibit that process of identification. They not only wanted to protect their favorite plays from the dross of performance, but to eliminate the audience altogether as a concept or as an epistemological category. Writing about Shakespeare with greatest conviction in the study, misinformed by a nostalgic sense of the Elizabethan stage, Romantic critics formed notions of dramatic illusion that ironically better fitted the design of the Georgian theatre. In the Georgian theatre, the actors behind the proscenium do not recognize the presence of the audience across the orchestra pit. The stage, the “lofty but striking platform of the imagination” (XVIII, 272) as Hazlitt dubbed it, rises out of the depths of the self; it recreates a world in which we are not present and to which we are not responsible. The empty orchestra pit marks an ontological boundary between the audience and the stage, between consciousness and dreaming, that we must transgress in order to enter the world of the illusion, the quasi-sacred space in which we lose our known selves to find our nobler, truer selves. The world on stage from which we are excluded encourages our absorption into it; the absolute boundary between stage and audience exists to invite us to cross it, leaving our critical faculties behind. The absence of such absolute boundaries in the Elizabethan theatre, however, includes us in the action without permitting our total absorption or abandonment of self-consciousness. The stage—also elevated in order that an actor be seen—extends horizontally into a profane auditorium rather than rising vertically from an unfathomable depth. The projecting platform gives the actor immediate and, in broad daylight, continuous access to his audience, some of whom filled the “pit,” and a few of whom sometimes even sat on stage. The maintenance of an intimate, intersubjective distance was crucial to a Renaissance audience, who, in Ovid's then proverbial phrase, went to the theatre to see and to be seen. Rather than forgetting its place in the theatre, the audience was frequently recognized and acknowledged by actors. Burbage's Hamlet did not “think aloud,” as Hazlitt thought proper (V, 187), but declaimed like an orator, with a cultivated sense of how to sound his audience from the lowest note to the top of its compass. Emotions, of course, are involved, but as Stephen Orgel has written, “as in a debate, in the audience's judgment lies half the action.”8 Our involvement, then, does not lead us to the edge of repose and dream, but, as Claudius' address suggests, to a conflicted sense of our role in the action. Instead of losing ourselves in the exstasis of sympathetic identification, we remain possessed of our consciousness, or, in the synonymous Renaissance phrase used by Hamlet, caught by our “conscience.”

It is remarkable that except for “The Murder of Gonzago” Romantic critics do not discuss the abundant references in Hamlet to the conditions of its theatre. In a revision of the Romantic view, Leslie Fiedler has argued that Shakespeare makes the audience conscious of the realities of the stage as a defense of illusion.9 Qualifying Coleridge's point that by the contrast of its artifice “The Murder of Gonzago” enhances the illusion of reality in Hamlet, Fiedler argues that our disruptive realization that Hamlet too is only a play enables the illusion to be reconstituted at a “universal” level. “Is not the very piece we are seeing, the inner play suggests, precisely that play Hamlet has arranged before us—and are we not then a stage audience, beheld as well as beholding, at a play within some greater play, actors all in a universal drama, which inevitably defines all our plays as ‘plays within a play’?” (p. 88). Fiedler's argument finds additional sanction in the Renaissance commonplace of theatrum mundi, in which a less refined theological context is explicit. No doubt Jacques' aphorism “All the world's a stage” is always available to Shakespeare in Hamlet, but curiously neither it nor its theological context is ever activated. Except for the abrupt reappearance of the Ghost in the Closet scene, Hamlet does not avail itself of the suggestion that some hovering divinity watches us watch the play, as Thomas Kyd does in The Spanish Tragedy, where the Ghost and Revenge sit on stage from beginning to end. The experience of watching yourself be watched that creates self-consciousness is not expressed in the dramatic structure of Hamlet, but by the moment to moment interaction of audience and actor. Instead of attempting by theological or Romantic indirection to defend the theatre, Shakespeare goes out of his way to demystify the processes of theatrical hypnosis. The Players, who are real actors, not the lovable caricatures of A Midsummer Night's Dream, appear out of character; styles of acting are discussed, the whims of audiences and demands of performance are acknowledged, and other “plays” are presented. Fiedler's antitheatricalism, like that of the Romantic critics, seems to stem from his embarrassment inside the theatre coupled with a desire to defend the drama as a carrier of truth. But Hamlet is theatrical precisely insofar as it refuses to make its theatre serve a myth of “universal drama” or reduce the world (à la Jacques) to a stage. Instead Hamlet honors the integrity of the theatre, its truths and mysteries, as something alien, not ours, but which is still the object of our voracious appetites. Maddeningly, however, our appetites for theatre are turned against us. The frequent insistence that the play we watch is a fiction, like Hamlet's play for Claudius, forces us to reckon with our desire for dramatic fictions and our susceptibility to self-deception. If in the theatre we comfortably assume that we know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, Hamlet makes it uncomfortably difficult for us to know or acknowledge what we have just seen on stage. The simultaneity of seeing and knowing that we take for granted everyday is made problematic in the theatre. Are the Player's tears real or acted? Why do they move Hamlet? What does Hamlet see in Claudius' face? What do we see Hamlet see? Is Hamlet or Claudius hoist on his own petard in the finale?

Before addressing these questions, I want to look more briefly at a few other moments of significant audience disjunction. In Fiedler's terms, the most defensive throwaway of the illusion occurs in the Cellarage scene (1.5) after Hamlet has vowed his revenge in a soliloquy of high tragic seriousness. Hamlet's jokes to the Ghost in the “cellarage” remind the audience of the physical event it has just witnessed: the closing trapdoor through which the actor passed when the Ghost vanished. Rather than suggesting that the world's a stage, however, the business of Horatio, Marcellus, and Hamlet shifting ground as the Ghost, hurrying beneath among the trestles or posts, stridently bids them “swear,” heightens the burlesque. But the burlesque of what? The jokes about the Ghost appeal to the audience's familiarity not only with the stage but also with the revenge plays to which they allude. The interlacing Latin phrase (hic et ubique), characteristic of Elizabethan University drama, has suggested to some editors that the earlier Hamlet is being remembered. Of course the earlier Hamlet has not survived, but ridicule of it has, such as Lodge's 1596 jeer about the Ghost “which cried so miserably at the Theator, like an oister wife, Hamlet, revenge.” It is probably safe to say that by 1601 revenge plays were considered hackneyed. Hamlet distracts us from our lack of conviction about such plays, and perhaps about his “poor part” (1.5.131), by stealing our laughter; at the same time he causes us to measure and qualify our involvement in this performance.

And yet, theatrically, Hamlet's gesture of self-awareness is oddly exhilarating. Like Claudius' “Do it England,” Hamlet's address to the Ghost in the cellarage grants us the somewhat giddy pleasure of being in two places at once. Often the play makes no pretense of place and uses our awareness of the stage and its traditional forms of deception to define our involvement in the fiction. Consider, for instance, the scene in which Polonius sends Reynaldo to Paris to make sure that Laertes is misbehaving only as a good son should. Polonius shows Reynaldo how to act in such a way that he will discover only what Polonius wants him to discover, no more, no less. “And there put on him / What forgeries you please, marry none so rank / As may dishonor him—take heed of that. … You must not put another scandal on him / That he is open to incontinency” (2.1.19-20; 29-30). Shakespeare is not concerned to show Laertes drinking or drabbing in Paris or to show a yokel from Elsinore ineptly putting forgeries on him. Instead we witness a burlesque of an oldtimer from University productions instructing an innocent in an outmoded, tendentious style of acting. Only later do we learn of Polonius' previous history as an actor, or does he demonstrate the literalization of gesture characteristic of this style in his ludicrously emphatic assurance to Claudius, “Take this from this” (2.2.156) if Hamlet is not mad for love of Ophelia.10 An audience would be likely to see through the acting style in which Polonius schools Reynaldo, just as Hamlet realizes at the end of the preceding scene that any conspicuously emphatic gesture (“with arms encumbered thus, nor with this headshake, or by pronouncing some doubtful phrase” [1.5.175]) would give away the pretense of his “antic disposition.” Later we again associate Hamlet with Polonius when Hamlet knowingly instructs actors in a superior style of acting that will enable them to elicit from the audience the response he wants to get. If we feel comfortably contemptuous of Polonius' self-deceiving plan to “take this carp of truth” with a “bait of falsehood,” then, as I will suggest, less comfortable suspicions might attend our agreement with Hamlet that he has “caught the conscience of the King.”

The crucial test for the efficacy of acting occurs in Hamlet's account of how he regained the native hue of his resolution (5.2). Shakespeare does not show us Hamlet acting decisively on the ship to England, but instead relies on a theatrical demonstration. The stage is placeless, without suggestion of locale until Hamlet is ready for the duel in the “hall” (5.2.174). No longer in the inky cloak of mourning or in the disarray of antic disposition, Hamlet is perhaps still scarfed in the “sea-gown” (5.2.13), the outward sign of his change. His interruptions of syntactical units, his digressive elaborations, and his demands on Horatio's attention and ours (in a manner similar to that of Prospero's retrospective tale to Miranda in The Tempest) make his account sound like self-justification. Hamlet is now performing; at one point he invokes a theatrical metaphor (“Or I could make a prologue to my brains / They had begun to play”) to describe the pace of the action. His re-enactment of the chaotic events aboard ship makes them now feel coherent, even providential. Unlike the “rash” (3.4.28, 32) murder of Polonius, Hamlet can justify the “rashness” (5.2.7) of sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. He removes them from his “conscience” (5.2.58) and rhetorically works himself up to avenge his father upon Claudius (5.2.68). And yet, his performance betrays a disturbing contradiction. Mysteriously something has happened on the way to England; Hamlet has learned to let things take their course, to “let be.” No longer will he exercise his control over events; he will stop acting. But in order to show us what has happened, Hamlet must act. His assertions of change, coming so perilously close to the over-explicitness of a Polonius, raise the possibility that Hamlet now acts in the hope that something will happen, something will change. We may be convinced by his performance or we may resist, as the play has taught us, being played upon by an actor. In either case, what has happened to Hamlet has not happened to us; we become aware of our distance from Hamlet and of our difference.

My point is not that Hamlet attempts to trick us at a crucial point in the plot, but that Shakespeare carefully makes us aware of the ambiguities that attend our allegiance to Hamlet. Almost every action in Hamlet is accompanied by an acknowledgement of the artifices of the stage or of the performing presence of the actor from whom action originates. By making us aware of the theatre within the theatre, the play creates a distance between the audience and its hero that does not abrogate our sympathy, but makes it ours to give, our responsibility once given.


Hamlet makes us self-conscious as an audience and often makes us uneasy about the ease with which we acquiesce in Hamlet's view of himself. Our tendency, like Hamlet, to see only what we want to see, is evident in the way the principal action of the play unfolds. As an act of restitution, revenge is a form of mourning; it must be appropriate not to what the world is, but to what it has become. Throughout the first act the heroic comparisons and religiously suggestive language make the audience feel in the death of old Hamlet the loss of a world in which one's words and actions held conviction. In the theatre of the Players, Hamlet finds the conviction he lacks and the possibility of reclaiming a world of action lost to him outside the theatre. The theatre becomes the definitional structure of action in Hamlet, but frequently it threatens to undermine the action of the drama, and even the possibility of action. The Players arouse Hamlet's impulses for the heroic and forbidden, for actions which it turns out, however, can be acted out only in the theatre. An actor conveys his intimacy with the human feelings of the audience, promises in his performance to quell our intimations of unreality, but reserves for himself and the stage sole rights to their expression. The theatre thus turns against Hamlet: on the one hand, it suggests that actions can only be acted (with pretense, for an audience) and on the other, that acting can never be more than gesture, cannot attain the “name of action” (3.1.88).

The long-standing difficulties of relating the Player's recitation of Aeneas' tale to Dido, written in an overly theatrical style of acting and verse, to the action of Hamlet suggests something of this antagonism between acting and action. In the best essay on the connection of the Player's speech with Hamlet, Harry Levin argues that Hamlet is to be identified with Aeneas, old Hamlet with Priam, Fortinbras with Pyrrhus, and Gertrude with Hecuba.11 The analogy is apt up to a point: the sight of Priam's slaughter arouses Hamlet, like Aeneas, from inaction, but their subsequent actions couldn't be more different. In the Aeneid the sight of the slain Priam calls up the image of Aeneas' father (cari genitoris imago, [2.560]) and recalls him to his familial and historic duties. When a few lines later Aeneas sees Helen, he learns that he must forgo the revenge of Priam and Troy. He never absolutely overcomes his impulses to vindicate and reside in the past, but even in the militarism of the later books where we might expect such impulses to be aired, they are not invested with the compelling inwardness we find in his violent fantasy of killing Helen. In Aeneas' tale to Dido, the Homeric language and ethos of revenge and martial heroism are employed with more immediacy than anywhere else in the Aeneid; but like its hero, after paying tribute to its poetic past, the poem is able to get past it. In Hamlet, however, the Player's speech recalls Hamlet to his revenge and compels him to dwell in the past. Recounting the past, obeying the Ghost's injunction to “remember,” leaves Hamlet regressively attached to the past, condemned tragically to repeat it.

The difficulties of the Player's speech increase when we consider the problem of its performance—the toll re-enacting the past takes on an actor and the ways an actor makes his presence felt in his performance. As Levin has shown, the speech carefully establishes our literary and temporal distance from its subject: we are witness to a re-enactment of a witness' account of the murder. At the same time, however, as we hear a voice from that lost world, the past seems about to emerge again into our presence. The speech begins (2.2.460) narratively in the past tense (“did the night resemble”) and subordinates Pyrrhus' presence (“Hyrcanian,” “rugged,” “sable,” “black”) to an explanation of his arrival (“When he lay couched in the ominous horse”). Then suddenly Pyrrhus emerges in the present tense with an emphatic repetition of “now.” The locution “Head to foot” describes someone in full dress for combat, as it did in Horatio's description of the Ghost to Hamlet (1.2.200), where it assures him and us that he has not succumbed to “fantasy” (1.1.23). Pyrrhus' presence, like the Ghost's, seems as undeniable as an actor's body (“head to foot”) on stage. As he recites the description of Pyrrhus, Hamlet might call attention to his own body in a gesture of immediacy while the inverted syntax emphasizes the urgently unfolding action (“old grandsire Priam seeks”). The opening description is an example of what in Renaissance rhetoric would have been called enargeia, or to use the term which also had currency as an ideal of acting, “liveliness”: we feel we are in the presence of Pyrrhus and an urgent action rather than in the presence of Aeneas removed in Carthage.

Throughout, however, the liveliness and conviction of the Player's speech depend more on the physical presence of the actor than on his bombastic rhetoric. In the soliloquy afterwards, Hamlet comments not on the magnitude of Hecuba's grief, but on the tears, paled complexion, and distracted aspect of the Player. Hamlet realizes that what has happened happened to an actor, not just to the character “Hecuba.” Hamlet's complaint “What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?” is a quite apt allusion to the art of the actor who not only brings feeling to his role (“he to Hecuba”) but whose own feelings are strengthened and developed by his role (“Hecuba to him”). To the extent that an actor internalizes his role, his performance may have resonances for him that cannot be expressed explicitly, that, in Hamlet's words, “pass show.” Since Hamlet does not mention Pyrrhus in his soliloquy, however, critics have generally ignored the disturbing implications that playing Pyrrhus might have for Hamlet and not for the Player. Borrowing Coleridge's terms, Levin goes so far as to argue that the speech is not concerned with Pyrrhus' “epic” action, but with Hecuba's “lyric” lament (p. 144), despite the fact that the former is substantially longer and theatrically and psychologically more complex. Moreover, although the narrative frame virtually disappears, as I have suggested, from the opening description, Levin identifies Hamlet with Aeneas, and Pyrrhus as a vividly depicted, but “unfeeling” (p. 150) fiend. Pyrrhus may be both unfeeling and a fiend, but the rhapsode, who in the opening description is Hamlet, does feel.

What is Hamlet to Pyrrhus or Pyrrhus to Hamlet? The Player's speech invites this connection and its denial in a number of ways. As avenging sons, they are opposites. Aeneas' description from “Head to foot” of “hellish Pyrrhus” echoes Ophelia's portrait from “head” to “ankle” (2.1.79) of Hamlet, so “piteous in purport, / As if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors.” Pyrrhus' relentless pursuit of his revenge appears to rebuke Hamlet's inactivity and disarray—a rebuke that the Ghost (who according to one tradition doubled as the First Player) would be justified in making, as he subsequently does in the Closet scene. Later in the play it becomes evident that Pyrrhus has become a model revenger for Hamlet. Before “The Murder of Gonzago,” there is an undercurrent of veiled references to Pyrrhus (e.g., 3.2.86, 185-87), and afterwards when Hamlet looks upon himself as a revenger who could “drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (3.2.398-400), he sounds as if he would out-Pyrrhus Pyrrhus, who is “tricked / With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, / Baked and impasted with the parching streets, / That lend a tyrannous and damned light to their lord's murder” (2.2.469). And in the Prayer scene, where Hamlet comes close to becoming a caricature of a revenger, his posture—pausing over Claudius with an extended sword—visually reminds the audience of Pyrrhus' long pause standing over the half-slain Priam. If Pyrrhus suggests a model of the avenging son to Hamlet, Pyrrhus' murder of old Priam also makes him the object of Hamlet's revenge. Such logic leads to suicide.

The description of Priam's murder casts Hamlet in exactly such a dark, contradictory role. At the moment Pyrrhus seeks Priam, Hamlet relinquishes the stage to the Player. The Player continues in the present tense until Pyrrhus is about to murder Priam, when suddenly the speech recoils and stops. Where Virgil, Marlowe, and the First Quarto end their accounts of Priam's murder, the Second Quarto and Folios delay. Marlowe's “So, leaning on his sword he stood stone still,” which commentators have associated with the Player's “So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,” comes as a moment of repose after, not before, the murder. Moreover, Shakespeare eliminates Virgil's description of Hecuba's intervention and the direct exchanges between Priam and Pyrrhus. With highly simplified dramaturgy, the Player presents only what is directly pertinent to a single, culminating action. In the silence of Pyrrhus and Priam, Shakespeare creates a visual tableau of the murder extended over eighteen lines of verse that places a premium on the interaction of actor and audience. “For lo, his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' th' air to stick. / So, like a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood.” As the natural flow of action is arrested, we become intensely aware both of the actor's presence, his body, his gestures, and of his conflict with his role. For the first time the Player uses overtly psychological diction: “Pyrrhus stood, / And like a neutral to his will and matter / Did nothing.” The Player's rhetoric and appearance as a visual emblem of Hamlet's delay cause us to divide our attention between Hamlet and the Player. We watch an actor inhibited by the spectacle of his action, as Hamlet later is in the Prayer scene, and we watch Hamlet, in effect, watch himself about to perform the murder he must revenge. The momentary superimposition of Hamlet and Pyrrhus creates an uncomfortable distortion of the action which we are then made to feel is literally unspeakable. “But as we often see against some storm, / A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still / The bold winds speechless, and the orb below / As hush as death. …” The glimpse we have of Hamlet's dilemma, in short, remains unexpressed and calls for interpretation.

Instead of complicating Hamlet's sense of revenge, however, the Player's performance revives his pursuit of it. When in the soliloquy Hamlet complains that he can “say nothing” (2.2.580), he refocuses the meaning of the Player's action (who momentarily “did nothing”) without acknowledging that any darkening distortion had occurred. Hamlet's failure to register such distortions is a recurring pattern in a play that frequently loses focus and changes direction. When Hamlet next enters (in 3.1), for example, an audience expects him to be in pursuit of his revenge; instead, surprisingly and inexplicably, he delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. We quickly realize that his subsequent attack on Ophelia is not merely “antic disposition”; Hamlet seems truly mad for love of Ophelia, overturning our confidence throughout Act 2 that Polonius was a fool to think so. After losing control with Ophelia, Hamlet returns calmed in the next scene to advise the Players that an actor should deliver his lines calmly, should not “o'erstep the modesty of nature” (3.2.20). Hamlet acknowledges nothing of his recent outburst, and the play proceeds, as it does with great tension after the death of Polonius, as if nothing had happened, as if no action could or does have consequences. Again, in “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet fails to register the fact that the Players' text involves a significant distortion. When just before the climactic murder Hamlet introduces Lucianus as “nephew to the King” (3.2.250), the discomfort we felt in the Player's speech is recalled and confirmed. Again our attention is drawn to Hamlet, the King's nephew, as it was when Pyrrhus paused before murdering Priam, and our willingness to ignore the evidence and agree with Hamlet's interpretation of the play is put to the test.

It appears to Hamlet that the King's conscience is caught when he abruptly rises and calls for light. Since “nephew to the King” more immediately identifies Hamlet than Claudius, however, other interpretations of his departure are quite feasible. The court audience, for example, interprets the play as a threat to Claudius' life, an interpretation it continues to hold after the final duel (5.2.324), and one which Claudius encourages in his conference with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the next scene (3.3). Although the play must seem to Claudius a paranoid nightmare in which murder turns out somehow to have a tongue, his interruption of the play before he is clearly implicated as the “murderer” who “gets the love of Gonzago's wife” (3.2.270) preserves the ambiguity that Lucianus is to be identified with Hamlet. Hamlet himself confirms the precision of Claudius' timing when he asks Horatio about Claudius' appearance “upon the talk of poisoning” (3.2.296). If we can entertain the possibility that Claudius remained in control, then his outburst is perhaps not the helpless confession of guilt Hamlet assumes it to be, but a shrewdly improvised management of his audience's response. Although Hamlet wants and later confidently believes this play to convict Claudius of old Hamlet's murder, his introduction of Lucianus creates a troubling distortion. The change of perspective from a play about the murder of an innocent old King to one about a nephew's revenge seems to be a gesture of Hamlet's power to terrorize Claudius, and, coming as it does just before old Gonzago's murder, is perhaps a deeply irrational fantasy of his power to save old Hamlet by killing Claudius. For obscure reasons, which I will come to shortly, Hamlet wants to make Hamlet and “The Murder of Gonzago” into the same play. Their superimposition, however, distorts more than it clarifies, and again casts Hamlet in a contradictory role, leaving us without any single adequate account of what we have seen.

Audiences, however, have so tended to share Hamlet's conviction that he has caught Claudius' conscience that until the start of the 20th century the Prayer scene, in which Claudius unambiguously confesses his guilt, was customarily cut from productions.12 This was doubtless designed primarily to spare the audience the distress of seeing Hamlet in a bad light, but it also assumes that Claudius' guilt is proved by “The Murder of Gonzago.” My point here is not that Claudius may be innocent, but that we should recognize that our agreement with Hamlet is not a response to a proven fact. After “The Murder of Gonzago,” however, Hamlet virtually paralyses our ability or inclination to acknowledge what we have seen and heard. In celebration of his success, Hamlet bursts into the doggerel of a clown. Horatio seems about to be the voice of reason to Hamlet's triumphal glee, but every apparent hesitation he voices (“half a share”; “you might have rhymed”) only fuels Hamlet's wit. When finally Hamlet remembers his plan to check his interpretation with Horatio, Horatio assents (“I did not him well” [3.2.296]) without saying what he saw—and Hamlet, of course, does not stop to ask. Hamlet is so sure that he has discovered Claudius' guilt that it would be futile to attempt to show him that he cannot be so certain in presuming to know the meaning of another's behavior. Still, the self-deception of such presumption is exactly his point when in an elaborately extended conceit he berates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for trying to “pluck the heart out of my mystery.” “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me” (3.2.379-80). Again we might wish to remind Hamlet that he has tented Claudius to the quick, but no gesture of self-awareness is forthcoming on his part. When Hamlet mimics Polonius' willingness to confirm his every whim, Shakespeare again goes out of his way to suggest the inconclusiveness of Hamlet's consultation with Horatio. The “cloud,” which assumes the shape its beholder gives it (a camel, weasel, whale, [3.2.385 ff]), recalls the ambiguity we found in “The Murder of Gonzago.” Hamlet does not acknowledge the self-fulfilling procedure of confirmation that he mimics in Polonius as his own, but expects his audience to share his masterful contempt for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Polonius. Characteristically, Hamlet behaves as if the distorting introduction of Lucianus had not occurred; but by repeatedly showing us Hamlet's clownish and boastful exaggerations, the play refuses to refocus completely. Like the clowns whose banter he would banish from the theatre, Hamlet appears to play more to his audience than to the “necessary question of the play” (3.2.45).

In general Hamlet denies our potentially different perspectives by having us adopt his; he resists our analysis of him by exhaustively and sometimes satirically analyzing himself. Hamlet does not have to relinquish the fictions of self, as Lear must, but displays them confidently in a great “variety” (to use Dr. Johnson's word) of forms. We always enjoy the intelligence of Hamlet's performance, his ability to stay one step ahead of us, to seem to know us better than we know ourselves. Hamlet invites us to admire him for his anxieties by making them entertaining. “To be or not to be” does not become our question; we appreciate his quickness of mind as he moves through moment to moment puzzles of logic and traps of metaphor, and we are pleased without really having to worry about what he says. Hamlet does not cause us the pain that Lear does, but tempts us to regard our intellectual pleasure with a seriousness that borders on self-deception. So much inwardness exhibited and acted on stage, however, may lead us to feel that intelligence and style are not enough, that Hamlet tells us certain things to avoid telling us others. Only the First Gravedigger knows the limits of intelligence, and his appearance, although late and short-lived, confirms our feeling that Hamlet's delight in the nuances of his various metaphors and logics can be mimicked in the way that Hamlet mimics almost everyone else in the play. In other Shakespearean tragedies, the hero's perspective is often questioned by what Maynard Mack calls an “opposing voice”13—tragic sensibility is established from a skeptical, ironical distance. Hamlet, however, has no Enobarbus or Kent or Fool who articulates an independent perspective and who ultimately remains loyal to his master. Horatio is loyal, but essentially the silent stoic. Lear and Cleopatra are heroic partly because of their distance; they do not spend themselves on us. Our intimacy with Hamlet does not pluck out his mystery, but we may begin to feel that he wants too much to be seen if not heroically, then at least as tragically unheroical. In Hamlet, the role of “opposing voice” is ours.


The strain of Hamlet's acting is especially evident whenever he thinks of revenge. “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But bear me stiffly up” (1.5.93-95). Ready for his revenge after “The Murder of Gonzago,” Hamlet bears himself stiffly until he remembers his visit to his mother: “Now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother” (3.2.398 ff.). When he next stumbles upon Claudius at prayer with knees as “soft as sinews of a newborn babe” (3.3.71), Hamlet's taut posture and outstretched sword signal his inability to act, as does his oddly rigid language of revenge when he leaves for England (4.4.65). On each occasion, as we watch the actor tense his body in an assertion of strength and virility, we find Hamlet impotent and immobilized by anger. Hamlet's assertions of revenge, that is, always appear at odds with themselves. The deep contradictions of revenge are evident to the audience in the dramatic presentations of old Hamlet's murder. Hamlet's ambiguous identification with Pyrrhus and then with Lucianus suggests that he must repeat in a different form the act he would revenge. Hamlet too must kill a King, an act that has patricidal associations even when the King is Claudius. More importantly, Hamlet's identification with these aggressors occurs in the first instance when the Player's rhetoric sympathetically forestalls the murder, and in the second when Hamlet would prevent it by threatening Claudius. Hamlet's thoughts of revenge occur at moments at which he might magically “undo” old Hamlet's murder. In psychoanalytic thought, fantasies of “undoing” are often indicated by compulsive patterns of repetition. “What has not happened in such a way as would have accorded with one's desire,” Freud writes, “is made through its repetition in some other way, not to have happened at all—to which are superadded all the various motives which may exist for lingering upon these repetitions.”14 However heroically conceived, the act of revenge becomes for Hamlet more a gesture than an action, a gesture which cannot attain the completion of action and which, as the murder of Polonius suggests, condemns the revenger to futile repetition of the past.

No one in the play ever conceives of revenge as repetitive action, but we experience patterns of repetition in the play's structure, language, and performance. In the first act, the Ghost appears and reappears in silence, and then speaks to tell Hamlet the story of his murder. In the third act, the Ghost's tale is performed first without and then with words; and in the last act, after Hamlet rests in silence, Horatio promises to retell the story we have just witnessed. Some actions need to be performed twice to attain the name of action. Fortinbras enters Denmark first as its enemy, then as its King: Polonius dies first as Caesar and then as himself; Hamlet re-enacts for us the events aboard the ship to England. The impulse to go back and dwell over actions is felt in the difficulties of leave-taking. Anxious to finish his tale, the Ghost (1.5.60) continues for thirty lines, bids Hamlet “adieu” three times, and then lingers to repeat his command to “swear”; Hamlet ends the scene by twice saying “let us together” to Marcellus and Horatio. Similarly Polonius scolds Laertes for staying too long (1.3.55) and then commands his son with a list of precepts. Hamlet bids Ophelia “farewell” three times in the Nunnery scene and then exits only with the refrain. “To a nunnery, go”; he bids Gertrude “goodnight” five times in the Closet scene; and tells Horatio he is dead at least three times before his last exit from the play. Hamlet habitually repeats his own words for emphasis, and in general actors, apparently wanting to make the most out of their lines, tended to repeat words and phrases not “set down” (3.2.41) in the text, as the significant increase of such repetitions in the First Folio, usually thought to be based on a promptbook, indicates.15 Our impression throughout the play is that characters remain attached to what they must relinquish; that all action necessitates repetition to gain focus and definition.

Repetitive action is an important feature of the public theatre. The hectic pace of the Elizabethan repertory system, in which an actor might have to perform forty different roles in a season, must have made it difficult for actors to trust their performances to have innerness and conviction, and would have encouraged them to rely heavily on external gesture to convey intense feeling. After the Player's re-enactment of the conventional stage roles of revenger and wailing woman, Hamlet demonstrates, with the virtuosity of the professional role-player that he is, his facility in repertory as a “John-a-dreams,” a coward challenged as a villain, and a revenger. Hamlet's use of well-worn theatrical pranks to exhibit his suffering and compel us with his self-rebuke makes his performance exhilarating. As he works himself up into the role of a revenger, however, Hamlet despairs of theatrical routine. “Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / O vengeance! / Why, what an ass am I!” (2.2.591 ff.). The heavily alliterative list of adjectives and the short climactic “O vengeance” punctuating the outburst require the actor to commit the original sin of the Stanislavski method: theatrical acting. The consciousness of acting blocks Hamlet's concentration within his role; ranting like a conventional stage revenger, his performance loses focus. Exasperated that by acting his passion, it has not gained conviction, Hamlet arranges a play in which he will not have to act and to which he can be a spectator vicariously reliving and recounting his motives for revenge.

Hamlet's performance suggests the uncertainty that undermines his successive attempts to demonstrate his original assertion that he has that “within which passeth show.” Here the assertion takes the form of a question: “What would he [the Player] do / Had he the motive and cue for passion / That I have?” (2.2.570 ff.). In the course of the soliloquy, however, Hamlet discovers that his own unfathomable singularity is, or appears to be, only a role, which as an actor he cannot fully settle into. Perhaps Hamlet is as unaware of what's within him as we are, but Hamlet himself never relinquishes the self-critical voice of the soliloquies with its privileged assumption that it does not come from the same place as the Hamlet it rebukes and accuses. But where, then, does it come from? Perhaps Hamlet discovers in the agonies of self-disavowal that in asserting his interiority to us, he is playing yet another role, which in the infinite regress of his self-reflection he in turn will have to disavow. Whether there is a self behind his various roles or a desperate intimation of emptiness, Hamlet finds that self-reflection is itself an act of theatre. Taking the self as an object of reflection becomes for Hamlet the problematic act of role-taking. Unable to establish his identity alone (his condition throughout), Hamlet must seek confirmation of the self in his audience. The most self-reflective of heroes, and the most protective of his special integrity, Hamlet finally must see himself as we see him.

Hamlet's self-interruption (“Why, what an ass am I!”) reminds us how crucially the Elizabethan convention by which the actor remains aware of his audience could affect performance. Direct address to the audience does not destroy the illusion; rather it is in Hamlet's character to enlist our support and seek our admiration, to make us feel what he feels. He may wish to “make mad the guilty and appal the free” (2.2.574), but he must measure in his performance our conviction and affirmation. When Hamlet at last does complete his revenge, he suits his words to his action. “Here thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane” (5.2.326). The rhetorical economy—copious and rhythmic without the excesses of “Bloody, bawdy villain …”—makes his action feel convincing and satisfying. We seem to have reached the promised end. In Michael Goldman's words, our appetite for “significant action” is satisfied, and we find in these last few minutes a “spacious ending, a great clarifying release.”16 But what exactly does the ending clarify and how valuable is our release? When Hamlet makes Claudius drink the poison, he appears to be more the avenger of his mother's death than of his father's. In fact, Hamlet poisons Claudius twice: once with the sword that killed him, and then again with the potion that killed Gertrude. We are left to wonder how Hamlet would have actively negotiated his father's revenge, and more importantly we are faced with the last in a series of attempts in the play to claim an event filled with ambiguities as an unambiguous success. The concern for justifying Hamlet's actions shown in the last two hundred lines of the play indicates how uncertain and unsatisfied we, in fact, may be.

We should begin with Hamlet's own justification of his actions to Laertes. It is hard not to wish, like Dr. Johnson, that Hamlet had made some other defense. Instead of acknowledging his role in Polonius' death and Ophelia's madness, Hamlet denies that “Hamlet” (5.2.277 ff.) wronged him. “Was it Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.” As evasive in court rhetoric as he was earlier in antic disposition (in 4.3), Hamlet attempts to turn even his apology into a personal triumph—here the triumph over his “madness,” which he has schooled us to see as merely acted. Hamlet's failure to acknowledge either our logical hesitations—does “madness” commit murder?—or the possibility of personal defeat—doesn't the “madness” belong to “Hamlet”?—reconfirms the pattern we noted in Act 3, in which Hamlet ignores any ambiguities that would detract from his position or pretends they have not occurred. The person “Hamlet” becomes a fiction whose identity Hamlet can establish only by reiterating his name and whose reality he expects us to affirm. “Sir, in this audience / Let my disclaiming … / Free me” (5.2.241). The necessity of gaining our support increases as Hamlet's death approaches. After killing Claudius, Hamlet does not end with a sense of heroic completion, but with one final wish for an “audience” (5.2.336) to whom in one last histrionic gesture (“O, I could tell you—”) he might justify his performance in the play. The action of revenge neither frees Hamlet from the necessity to act nor does it exhaust his desire to act. Unlike Saxo's Amleth, however, Hamlet does not have time to make a lengthy public defense, but he makes clear his thirst for self-justification by twice asking Horatio to tell his “story.”

Hamlet ends with yet another coup de théâtre with Hamlet dying in his ideal role as a frustrated actor and a misunderstood Prince. Even in his death, Hamlet the actor and Hamlet the Prince fail to merge in an affirmation of his heroic identity. Hamlet ends with a frustrated desire to reclaim his audience, like Richard II who wants his “lamentable tale” (5.1.140) to make its hearers weep. But by granting Hamlet's wish to have his story told, Shakespeare exposes the bad conscience in the desire to find pardon in telling stories that we find in a less elaborate form at the end of Romeo and Juliet, where the survivors leave the stage to tell the “story” of the tragic lovers. An audience's experience after Hamlet's death is of repeatedly frustrated attempts to confer value on the tragic spectacle it witnesses. After Horatio bids a gentle farewell to his Prince, Fortinbras, another successfully vindicated son, enters with the English ambassadors. Horatio asks Fortinbras what he “would see,” and then shows him, with a felt but quite conventional tag describing the effect of tragic drama on its audience, a spectacle of “woe and wonder” (5.2.364). All seems finished, and we have no further questions until the English ambassador steps forward to report the news that Hamlet knew he would not “live to hear” (5.2.355)—that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Not only is Hamlet denied the satisfaction of learning of the completion of his revenge—the one successfully plotted action in the last two acts—but it can no longer justify him in the way he would have wanted. Letting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in Horatio's phrase, “go to't” (5.2.56) has a satisfying ring and was possibly just, but in the context now of his highminded praise, hardly noble and worthy of “wonder.” The ambassador's “Where should we have our thanks?” reopens the question of the responsibility for action that undermined Hamlet's apology to Laertes. Although Horatio denies that Claudius sent the order, he also ignores what Hamlet had spent the first part of the last scene convincing us was so—that “Hamlet” had decisively ordered their deaths. Somewhat like Horatio, we are left to reflect on how events invested with such powerful conviction outlive and diminish their actors.

At the end of Hamlet everything remains to be accounted for, to be done or told again. “So shall you hear,” Horatio begins, sounding like a “truly” concise prologue to a dramatic production of the events we have witnessed. Fortinbras now calls the “noblest to the audience”—the third hint in the last two hundred lines of our importance—and, honoring Horatio's suggestion that the bodies “high on a stage be placed to view” (5.2.380), he orders the soldier's music sounded, for Hamlet was “likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal” (5.2.398-400). Fortinbras' rearrangement of the bloody carnage of bodies strewn on stage into an orderly funeral procession accommodates our desire to admire Hamlet, but the evident strain of the soldierly comparison (“like a soldier … had he been”) and the repeated reference to the “stage” call us back to the play we have just seen “put on.” We feel in Fortinbras' summation even more overtly the tension embedded in Horatio's earlier question between what we “would see” and what we do see. Horatio and Fortinbras tempt an audience not certain how to think about its hero with endings that either say too little or say too much. Despite the formal suggestions of completion and closure, Hamlet does not provide its audience with cathartic release (“woe and wonder”) or with the satisfactions of playing out once and for all the forces that set it into motion. Hamlet activates our instincts for revenge, but does not permit us to value their gratification. Just as Hamlet disowns the actions that are his, we may be tempted to disown the hero that is ours. Our identification with Hamlet throughout the play sanctions the frustrated wish we share with him to re-experience the world as heroically vindicated or as tragically victimized, while the endings of Hamlet make explicit the fictions on which such an identification must be based. Instead of purging us of our pretenses, Hamlet demonstrates how eager we may be to believe our stories about ourselves.

Perhaps even a Brecht would have found it difficult to maintain in the theatre the ideal of self-consciousness and judgment that Shakespeare apparently expected of the “audience” of Hamlet. The long history of audience identification with Hamlet, moreover, has obscured the importance of Shakespeare's attempts to involve the audience in fictions through self-consciousness rather than at its expense. Particularly at this point in his career, Shakespeare tested the limits of his dramaturgy to create a distance, both aesthetic and ethical, from which the audience could be made conscious as an audience of its affirmations. The prologues to Henry V and the central addresses to the crowd (often called the “audience”) in Julius Caesar explore the willingness of audiences to give themselves over to self-validating fictions.17 In Hamlet the explicit discussion of theatrical fashions might well make the audience reconsider its own theatrical appetites. Hamlet, for instance, praises the “play” from which the Player's speech is excerpted because as heroic drama it did not pander to its audience; and as a result, it closed when it opened. As an instance of 16th century culture's most popular dramatic form, however, Hamlet was an almost certain success even before it opened—if Shakespeare could infuse his revision of the earlier Hamlet with new conviction. In William Empson's words, Shakespeare needed to satisfy an audience that “demanded a Revenge play, and then would laugh when it was provided.”18 One way of dealing with the problem would be to have Hamlet in the soliloquies talk the audience into taking the play seriously, to let much depend, as it had in Henry V and Julius Caesar, on the ability of a single actor to dazzle and manipulate our responses to the action. Because we know the plot and ethos of Hamlet all too well beforehand, the actor's self-reflexiveness, as well as the play's, gives the fiction the immediacy of a theatrical event.

The event is the re-enactment of an old play revised for the occasion. Once the play is underway, Horatio reminds the regular clientele of another play it had recently seen when he refers to the time “ere the mighty Julius fell” (1.1.115). In the third act, Polonius tells us that he played Caesar and again dies ominously in the middle of the play. And finally in the graveyard, when in an abrupt shift to ceremonial verse, Hamlet announces that Caesar is dead, Hamlet completes its oblique gesture to the re-enactment of Caesar's murder prophesied by Cassius and Brutus (3.1.144 ff.). These allusions contribute to the pervasive pattern of repetition in Hamlet that might well produce in the audience something like the unsettling security of déjà vu. The staging of the past in Hamlet and the restaging of the earlier Hamlet suggest that the past of the audience has become its pastime, its entertainment. But Shakespeare does not simply pander to his audience, confirm our habits of response, or sell us a self-validating account of our vindication and victimization in a treacherous world. By frequently acknowledging the conditions that produce dramatic entertainments, Shakespeare holds us responsible for our theatrical appetites. In Hamlet we see what we came to the theatre to see; our wishes, however, are not only fulfilled but they are also criticized. As we enjoy the pleasures of re-experiencing our deepest desires vicariously, Shakespeare unmasks the fictions of our subjectivity and enables us to see ourselves, for the shock of a moment, from the outside; we see ourselves both as the subject of the play's outcome and as the object of its most searching questions.


  1. My text is the Signet Hamlet, ed. Edward Hubler (New York, 1963). References to other Shakespeare plays are also to the Signet editions. I owe a general debt to the writings of Stanley Cavell; to Paul Alpers, Jonas Barish, and Arnold Stein for timely suggestions; to Janet Adelman, Stephen Booth, and Susan Harris for their copious criticisms; and to Stephen Orgel for whom and with whom this essay was conceived and completed.

  2. (London, 1935).

  3. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. V. Lucas (London, 1903), I, 103.

  4. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London, 1930), IV, 232.

  5. For an informative account of Romantic attitudes toward Shakespeare and the theatre, see Joseph Donohue, Dramatic Character in the English Romantic Age (Princeton, 1970).

  6. Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor, 2nd ed. (New York, 1960), II, 232.

  7. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (London, 1907), I, 202. Also see Earl Wasserman, “Shakespeare and the English Romantic Movement,” in The Persistence of Shakespeare Idolatry, ed. H. Schueller (Detroit, 1964), pp. 77-105.

  8. The Illusion of Power (Berkeley, 1975), p. 20.

  9. “The Defense of Illusion and the Creation of Myth,” in English Institute Essays, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York, 1949), pp. 74-95.

  10. We can only speculate about whether Polonius' manner would have been immediately identified as a University style of acting. See Alan Downer, “Prologomenon to a Study of Elizabethan Acting,” Maske und Kothurn, 10 (1964), 625-36.

  11. The Question of Hamlet (New York, 1959), p. 147.

  12. Critics have often taken Claudius' aside at 3.1.50-54 as a confession of his guilt for the murder of old Hamlet, but the metaphor of the “harlot's cheek” is more suggestive of the sexual crime of incest than of fratricide. Like Gertrude's aside at 4.5.17-20, which has not convinced most critics of her part in or knowledge of the murder, Claudius' confession in 3.1 remains perplexingly opaque and open to questions.

  13. “The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies,” in the Signet Othello, ed. Alvin Kernan (New York, 1963), p. 213.

  14. Sigmund Freud, The Problem of Anxiety, trans. H. A. Bunker (New York, 1936), p. 54. On the relation of revenge and “undoing,” see Otto Fenichel's The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York, 1945), pp. 511 ff. The pattern I noted in Act 3 of Hamlet's failure to see his self-identity as integral to and connected with his actions resembles the defense mechanism of “isolation.” Both defense mechanisms serve Hamlet's tendency to pretend something has not happened.

    A psychoanalytic account of Hamlet's energy for acting might be pursued, as Susan Harris has suggested to me, through the analogous relation of mothers and sons and audiences and actors. Hamlet knows his mother primarily as a wife, her “husband's brother's wife” (3.4.16), a woman he cannot possess sexually, and his violently aggressive erotic impulses toward her are usually displaced into his energy for acting and exhibition. “Like a whore, [I] unpack my heart with words” (2.2.597) describes his relation to his audience primarily, but also his behavior toward Gertrude in the Closet scene. “Like a whore” expresses both his shame before his audience and an uncannily precise identification with his mother. Rebuke of actors has traditionally taken an anti-feminist form (see Jonas Barish, “Exhibitionism and the Antitheatrical Prejudice,” ELH, 36 (1969), but Hamlet's identification runs deeper. An actor displaying his body to the gaze of his audience shares the fate of women in our culture whose entire bodies are eroticized in the name of “feminine beauty” (see Otto Fenichel, “On Acting,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 15, No. 2 [1946], 145). Hamlet's making himself into his own erotic object suggests in psychoanalytic terms oral-narcissistic confusions: mothers and audiences present a similar dilemma to sons and actors, who face the problem of establishing separate identities and at the same time of desiring to deny or incorporate the other. We can contrast Hamlet's theatricality with Macbeth's: unlike Hamlet, Macbeth knows his wife as a mother (their relationship is closer to that of Coriolanus and Volumnia), which suggests a quite different set of erotic displacements, and accordingly his brooding, genuinely introspective soliloquies lack Hamlet's exhibitionism. An adequate psychoanalytic treatment of acting is yet to be written.

  15. Harold Jenkins in “Playhouse Interpolations in the Folio Hamlet,Studies in Bibliography, 13 (1960), 31-49 points out numerous instances of verbal repetition in the Folios not found in either Quarto. Jenkins argues that since the “additions in F [made by actors] distort or weaken the effect of Q,” they should be “eliminated from future editions” (43). Although Jenkins' argument is convincing on narrow textual grounds, I think he underestimates the elusiveness and precariousness of the play's tragic “effect” and the value of the responses actors actually have to a text in deciding that effect.

  16. Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, 1972), p. 88. Although my conclusions are frequently opposed to Professor Goldman's, I have learned much from his acute discussion of “stop-actions” in the play. Equally important is Robert Hapgood's “Hamlet Nearly Absurd,” Tulane Drama Review 9 (1965), 132-45, in which he argues that we are released from the structure of repetition in the play (about which I agree in details) by the “significant action” of the finale.

  17. Consider the apologies for the stage in Henry V. We must take them seriously, if only because they are insisted upon repeatedly, but Shakespeare's theatre was no less equipped to put on Henry V than any other play. Except in the prologues, the play is strikingly unconcerned with representing grand military actions. The rhetoric of apology, then, is misleading. By announcing their interest in true representation, the prologues implicitly seek our affirmation that Henry, in historical truth, was the “mirror of Christian Kings.” The fact that the Henry the audience sees does not always measure up to the ideal Henry of the choruses is unsettling, but the play always recalls the audience to its duty to celebrate its national hero. As Henry commands the troops (“On, on, you noblest English!” [3.1.17]), the choruses command the audience's allegiance (“Follow, follow, grapple your minds” [3rd prologue, l. 17]) by making its presence necessary to unfolding the action of the play. Even if we hesitate, we know, like Katherine, that we must say yes, that we want to say yes. The reservations we harbor about rhetorical speech and an actor's manipulation of his audience are tellingly evident in Julius Caesar. Space does not permit me to elaborate the dramaturgy of self-consciousness in Julius Caesar, but I refer the reader to Kenneth Burke's remarks on audience involvement in “Antony in Behalf of the Play,” in The Philosophy of Literary Form, 2nd ed. (Baton Rouge, 1967), pp. 329-44. For a discussion of changes in Shakespeare's theatrical art around 1600, see Granville-Barker, “From Henry V to Hamlet,” in Aspects of Shakespeare, Being British Academy Lectures, ed. J. W. Mackail (Oxford, 1933); reprinted in More Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1974), pp. 135-67.

  18. Hamlet When New,” The Sewanee Review, 41 (1953); reprinted in Discussions of Hamlet, ed. J. C. Levenson (Boston, 1960), p. 89.

James W. Stone (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12694

SOURCE: Stone, James W. “Androgynous ‘Union’ and the Women in Hamlet.Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 71-99.

[In the following essay, Stone studies Shakespeare's representation of androgyny in Hamlet, and finds that the collapse of sexual difference in the play leads to a parallel disintegration of moral boundaries.]

Some wish to see in Hamlet a womanish, hesitating, flighty mind. To me he seems a manly, resolute, but thoughtful being.

I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.

—Sarah Bernhardt

Hamlet has proven to be an interpretive mystery for critics interested in gender, a play whose proverbial excess of meaning has led some critics to gender the excess and the mystery of the text itself as feminine. Since the problem of this problem play is femininity as such, Ernest Jones was prompted to call Hamlet the Sphinx of modern literature, and Jacqueline Rose, following T. S. Eliot, calls it the Mona Lisa.1 In what follows I will explore the various ways androgyny, the collapse of sexual difference, is represented, whether in figuring Hamlet as a feminized, impotent man, or Gertrude as a masculinized, castrating woman. The penetration or invagination of one sex by the other leads, I argue, to the collapse of moral difference and of meaning, an undoing of boundaries described in terms of “incest,” “jointure,” “union,” and making opposites “common.” I aim to show how even the foundational distinctions between soul and body, and love and death, implode, since they depend upon a gendered hierarchy whose implicitly exclusionist assumptions the play disjoints.

Many gender critics of the 1970s, including some Shakespeareans, advanced the term “androgyny” to designate the harmonious reconciliation of sexual difference and friction.2 Theirs is an essentially comic notion deriving from the discordia concors or coincidentia oppositorum of Renaissance Neoplatonism as repopularized in Jungian psychology. This view of androgyny is imbued with the pious and nostalgic aim of recapturing the paradisiacal union of male and female components before the fall into separate and divisive sexes. Tragedy, according to this account, results from the impossibility of maintaining androgynous balance between man and woman. I believe instead that in Hamlet Shakespeare represents the way that androgynous union engenders dissolution and death, both of which the play typecasts as feminine. The thesis that Hamlet's tragedy lies in his having to expel the woman in himself in order to take manly action and to re-establish sexual difference is belied by the catastrophic “union”—a word whose importance I will explore below—that concludes the tragic action.3 The union that erases the ambiguously gendered divisions between mind and body, deeds and words, duty and affect, gives rise to a catastrophic crisis of nondifference. This tragic endpoint reiterates precisely the quandary which diseases Denmark at the opening of the play, when the absence of difference signifies that nothing is taboo, including incest, adultery and murder.

The woman in Hamlet is as much a threat to him as the invaginating “mother”—“hysterica passio” (2.4.57)—is to Lear, the inextricable “woman's part” (2.5.20) is to Posthumus, and the (s)mothering Volumnia is to Coriolanus. Hamlet's inaction, which he and others characterize as feminine, stems from the fact that he is “as patient as the female dove” (5.1.273) and prone to “such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman” (5.2.205).4 A defining axiom of the misogyny that pervades Hamlet is that the baser matter that contaminates male spirit is woman, in whose folds man is sexually implicated. Man's figuring of himself as spirit is ultimately literalized (fatally—“the letter killeth”) as matter because man is born of woman. Shakespeare may intend a pun upon the Latin mater to suggest a resonant conflation of “mother” and “matter.” Hamlet makes a pointed juxtaposition of these two words when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern relate that Gertrude wants to meet him in her closet: “But sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command—or rather, as you say, my mother. Therefore no more, but to the matter. My mother, you say—” (3.2.314-16). In the closet scene itself, Hamlet's opening remark is “Now, mother, what's the matter?” (3.4.7). The punning association of matter with mater, body with woman, points to the woman's part—her “country matters” (3.2.115)—that constitutes every man (as divided-invaginated).5

The maternal inheritance or matter from which Hamlet struggles to disburden himself is oddly associated with his loquaciousness. In his third soliloquy he curses his propensity for words and feelings rather than deeds, for which Claudius has accused him of being “unmanly” (1.2.94):

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, A stallion!6


The play associates the dilatory circumlocution of “words, words, words” (2.2.192) with the unchaste female who makes of man the necessarily debased image of herself—“whore,” “drab,” “stallion.”7 Hamlet contrasts his purity of devotion to his ghostly father's memory with the contaminating adulteration that results from material embodiment: “And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix'd with baser matter” (1.5.102-04). But just what distinction obtains between the father's spoken commandment and the feminizing words that Hamlet so outspokenly inveighs against for coming between himself and his filial duty? The mediation point between male and female speech is the body that both sexes share, that “mixture”8 of brain, book and matter that no verbal legerdemain can slight, no rationalization gloss over.

Hamlet's moment of resolute clarity unwittingly betrays his most persistent blind spot. For all his verbal facility, the speaking subject fails to note one of the basic tenets of his education in rhetoric and philosophy: the res or substance of an idea is its matter, whereas the word that gropes to express it concretely is the verbum. By the logic of this standard rhetorical distinction, the matter or substance of Hamlet's thoughts is feminine, while the words of the paternal commandment are masculine. Precisely when Hamlet insists upon his unmixed indebtedness and loyalty to paternal spirit (verbum) he betrays the maternal origin without which his and his father's words would be groundless because immaterial. If one hierarchy posits male spirit as that which inseminates, informs or animates female matter, a subversive and opposite conception insists on the ideational matter that gives birth to words, words that express at best imperfectly their material / maternal origin.9

Hamlet feels that his inheritance from suckling Gertrude's maternal matter is moral because corporal contamination: “I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me” (3.1.122-24)10 The original malaise of origin is exacerbated in the next developmental stage of incorporating the drab-whore-stallion's language—another kind of matter—whose sole profit, Hamlet suspects, is the ability to articulate his malaise, curse it and thereby suffer it the worse. Hamlet's apostrophe to Gertrude—“Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146)—applies as well to (the woman in) himself. He is a subject divided by the loss (of purity, of self-presence, of the father)11 that subjectivity presupposes, since the speaking subject attempts to recoup via language a loss that language itself has occasioned. Although words render Hamlet too effeminate to perform male deeds, the law of the father that enjoins the son to take dutiful action in the father's name expresses itself by means of the same linguistic mechanism that makes its fulfillment, in the third soliloquy quoted above, seem impossible. Words are indifferently the vehicle of both paternal law—Hamlet's pledge of filial allegiance to “thy commandment” (1.5.102) and the “ghost's word” (3.2.280); “Now to my word” (1.5.110), he says as he screws up his courage—and of its breach and adulteration. The recognition of this nondifference between male and female speech, between performative and expressive utterance, is what undoes Hamlet's best intentions to act (1.5.29-31), leaving him prisoner to his ineffectual self-reproaches, which are the melancholic introjection of his misogynistic reaction to the women in whose folds he senses himself helplessly implicated.12

Since woman is the Other who symbolizes self-loss for the man, it is no surprise that Hamlet's soliloquies are touched with a misogynistic animus and a melancholic infatuation with suicide as release from feminine and feminizing loss. The violence that Hamlet is called upon to effect in the father's name is what spells the sacrifice of those feminine qualities of loquacious inaction that some critics have regarded as Hamlet's most ingratiating characteristic. It is these same feminine qualities, however, that excite in Hamlet the urge to violence in the first place, a violence that aims to expel the feminine from within him. This violence is turned suicidally inwards; “manly” action gives way to melancholic enervation. Hamlet's initial resolve to remain faithful to his father's memory dissolves into suicidal self-disgust:

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


Dissolution of the sullied because “solid” (Folio) flesh motivates the suicidal urge, whose promise is the body's liquefaction. Ophelia, whom many critics have regarded as Hamlet's estranged feminine self,13 will seek the same watery solace, the dissolution of resolution, in her suicide. In Hamlet's case suicide is figured in terms of orgasmic melting and post-coital flaccidity, the relieving of a tension.14 The impulse for such release through sexual climax is paradoxically Hamlet's sense of disgust at being indissolubly imbedded in his sexual body. Insofar as his body is sullied by sexuality, it is regarded as feminine. The law of the father forbids trying to escape the feminine by means of masturbatory self-slaughter: seeking to kill desire by extinguishing the demands localized in the phallus. But man's imperative goal of self-identity is fractured under what it type-genders paranoiacally as the subversive influence of feminine difference and dissolution. Male “resolve” to do the father's bidding suddenly means quite the opposite, “resolve” as suicidal dissolve, which frees one from paternal obligation. This contradictory use of the same word instances what Freud calls the antithetical meaning of primal words.15 What Freud sees as a difference of meaning that divides the putatively self-identical can be subsumed as well under the rubric of difference of gender. Antithetical gender confusion is implicit in the liquid imagery of the passage, which may be interpreted as male sexual discharge or the symbol of dearly besought female dissolution of the father's law.

In this first soliloquy Hamlet curses the lust that hastens Gertrude to an incestuous remarriage, a lust that patently belies her masking self-representation as “Niobe, all tears” (1.2.149).16 Here unfolds a curious paradox: To forgo the whoring maternal flesh Hamlet contemplates resolving himself into a watery dew, but this water gets refigured as the salt water of woman's tears, which represent the hypocritical disguise of a body more compact with lust than mourning. If being embodied taints Hamlet with the legacy of woman, his proposed escape from the maternal body by dissolving it is no less implicated in the language of female lust and hypocritical masquerade. The extinction that death promises as end point is but the return to an inescapable origin—what Hamlet will designate in his most famous soliloquy as the “undiscover'd country” (3.1.79)—a meternal presence that dissolves duty and the father's law, such as the everlasting father's “canon 'gainst self-slaughter.” Suicide is an escape from the maternal yet also the temptation of the maternal as that which licenses a return to (intrauterine?) deliquescence.17

Laertes serves as Hamlet's mimetic double with respect to the imagery of water. He is the rival who swears to take action immediately upon hearing of Ophelia's death by drowning, rather than avoid the responsibility for vengeance by dwelling upon thoughts of watery dissolution or the expense of melancholy tears:.

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. (Weeps.) When these are gone, The woman will be out.


Laertes expels womanly tears as the only means of preserving his manly vigor intact. The same dewy tears that Laertes seeks to purge are the responsibility-dissolving liquefaction, the sweet consummation of death, that Hamlet dreams of merging with by melting into. But in the closet scene Hamlet adopts a more “masculine” position, asking his father not to look upon him with pity lest he “convert / My stern effects. Then what I have to do / Will want true colour—tears perchance for blood” (3.4.128-30). Hamlet's forswearing of tears for the rhetoric of blood vengeance will make him indistinguishable from Laertes by the time that they square off together in the graveyard scene.18

Whether tears in Hamlet's first soliloquy represent Niobe's sincere expression of grief or Gertrude's masquerade of seeming, they serve variously to define the bifurcated feminine. In his initial appearance in the play, Hamlet in black dress takes pains to distance himself from ornamental or seeming mourning, dismissing tears as so many feigned motions of actors:

Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath, No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of 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.


His scorn for seeming notwithstanding, soon enough Hamlet will act if not feign the madman's part. In this passage and what follows I am concerned with the feminine associations of neither feigning nor madness, but rather with the inconsistent disavowal of tears and of playing.

In his third soliloquy the fickle prince admires the Player, the man who plays the woman's part, for his convincing simulation of tears. By the time that the players arrive in Elsinore, Hamlet has come to believe that public show is the sole means to plumb private conscience and that the only sincere expression of inner grief is paradoxically its impersonation on a public stage, completely reversing his earlier contempt for the actor's “fruitful river in the eye.” Initially Hamlet envies the woman's role portrayed by the Player because it differs so markedly from the female roles that he characterizes himself as having played up to this point, the roles of antic fool and madman. Hecuba's “bisson rheum” (2.2.502) in response to the slaying of her husband “would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven / And passion in the gods” (2.2.513-14). This conflation of weeping and lactary nurturing, as if the slain husband is his wife's child (Niobe, all tears), serves to foil Gertrude's tearful posturing, but ultimately Hamlet comes to recognize Hecuba's reality as that of an impersonated representation, a “fiction” evacuated of real motive, as yet another masquerading “nothing”:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that the player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion, Could force his soul so to his own conceit That from her working all his visage wann'd, Tears in his eyes, distraction in 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 her, That he should weep for her? 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, Make mad the guilty and appal the free, Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed The very faculties of eyes and ears.


If Hecuba were not a representational fiction, one would conclude from this passage that emotion secures action: Feminine tears are not opposed to masculine revenge but are instead the motivating guarantee of its success. However, it is precisely the feminine side of his nature that Hamlet scapegoats for his “pigeon-liver'd” (2.2.573) cowardliness, castigating himself in this same soliloquy, as we have seen, for being a wordy drab-whore-stallion. The very words by which Hamlet bolsters his courage to act are the vehicle for dilation19 since they defer action by substituting for it. The various distinctions that Hamlet mediates between sincere and feigned tears, acting and playacting, deeds and words20 can all be subsumed under the general rubric of male and female. But such easy dichotomies do not hold, for the play insists on the antithetical collapse of primal antinomies.

Hamlet charts clear-cut distinction between himself and the Player's fictional Hecuba, the good woman, but he is able to locate scant difference between himself and the real bad woman whose flesh and word are indistinct from his. Difference obtains between men until they are linked sexually by the bond of a common woman. Hamlet remarks the difference between his father and Claudius—“So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.139-40); and he interjects the difference between his cowardly self and the archetypal hero into the triangle formed by his rival father figures—“My father's brother—but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (1.2.152-53). Because the bad woman makes of Hyperion (Hamlet's father) a satyr (Claudius), of Hercules a Hamlet, then by the chiastic terms of the analogy she makes of Hamlet a lascivious satyr like Claudius. Of a self-possessed man she makes the effeminate coward that is Hamlet's consistent self-identification when taking stock of himself in the first four soliloquies.

Hamlet blames the bad woman with whom he is inextricably intertwined for his vacillation between virile resolve and conscientious scrupling. That man and woman are interconnected—that man is dependent, not author of himself—gives rise to his misogyny. The origin of his disgust for woman is man's origin and telos in woman, in what he metaphorizes as her “undiscover'd country.” The darkness of this region of sex and death is what Hamlet points to as the cause of his effeminizing cowardice:

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


Conscience is masculine “resolution” to do one's duty. In antithetical fashion it also acts to resolve (dissolve) obligation, in the feminizing sense advanced in my reading of the liquid images above. The decline of “pitch” may suggest fears of post-coital flaccidity and the loss of manliness. But the resolution assured by conscience is “native,” a gift from the mother. How can conscience impel one forward to take manly action, on the one hand, yet transform one into an irresolute coward, on the other? As the swelling of thought and of conscientiousness that forecloses action, religious conscience prohibits murder and leaves vengeance to God alone. A very different conscience is expressed by the Ghost, the unwelcome paternal superego that exacts the killing of Claudius even as it forbids Hamlet to kill himself. Conscience makes contradictory demands because it fails to reconcile the masculine and feminine elements that it comprises. It epitomizes the gendered ambivalence (androgyny) between male and female, spirit and body, action and cowardice: binarisms that don't align themselves in any consistent parallelism, but rather criss-cross androgynously.21

Hamlet's melancholy and madness are, like conscience, represented in terms of the feminine that both fractures and empowers him.22 Although Hamlet castigates himself for being “unpregnant of my cause” (2.2.563) due to cowardice, Claudius sees in his nephew's psyche a woman whose plotting he likens to an oedipally menacing parturition:

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


Here for a change feminine melancholy is thought to give rise to consequential activity. Like Richard II's self-reflexive “My brain I'll prove the female to my soul, / My soul the father, and these two beget / A generation of still-breeding thoughts” (5.5.6-8), Hamlet's broodings are his parthenogenic progeny (brood); they disclose the only (living) kin he is willing to acknowledge. Gertrude characterizes Hamlet's madness as his brooding and breeding internal female:

This is mere madness, And thus awhile the fit will work on him. Anon, as patient as the female dove When her golden couplets are disclos'd, His silence will sit drooping.


The oscillation from the fit of “mere” (French “mother”) madness to patient silence, both characterized as feminine extremes, traces Hamlet's manic depression in terms of feminine fickleness.23 Hamlet is capable of both destructive violence and peaceable generativity, the feminine double bind that constitutes him.24

Once the feminine is abstracted from the physical body and becomes a disembodied metaphor, it ceases to be threatening. Following literary and philosophical convention, Hamlet refers to the soul that informs his body as the feminine anima. This feminine in himself bonds homosocially with the same element in Horatio, Hamlet's soulmate: “Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, / And could of men distinguish her election, / Sh'ath seal'd thee for herself” (3.2.63-65). Horatio displaces Ophelia as Hamlet's bosom bondman because he is safely desexualized. He is feminine insofar as he represents the allegorized rational soul, but he has excised the (feminizing) madness and passion of sexual desire, whose deleterious world-historical influence is personified in the play as the fickle whore Fortune. Hamlet admires in Horatio that he has been.

As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing, A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those Whose blood and judgement are so well commeddled That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee.


We have seen that Hamlet contrasts “the motive and the cue for passion” that should inspire him to act with the Player's imaginarily motivated passions. Since the prince is “patient” like a female dove and “patient” and “passion” are etymologically equivalent in designating passive suffering, then what Hamlet envies in Horatio is his freedom from female melancholy, the manic depressive roller coaster sometimes figured as Fortune's wheel.25

Female Fortune is also identified with the type of wheeling and extravagant opportunism that Hamlet so despises in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: male varlets whose “privates” are collusively cross-coupled with the “secret parts of Fortune” (2.2.234-35) to form an illicit because hermaphroditic union. Like the whore Fortune they try to manipulate Hamlet's pipe: “You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass” (3.2.355-58). At this point Hamlet regards himself no longer as a male whore, a minion-slave of the strumpet Fortune, whose threat, which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern personify, has become manifestly external and therefore easier for Hamlet to confound. In act 4 Hamlet will take fatal Fortune into his own hands by disposing of his old schoolfellow conspirators and thus disburdening himself of the feminizing menace that they personify. And by the ultimate scene of the play he will be able to bolster his sense of masculine courage by heaping abuse upon the foppish courtier Osric, who represents the no longer threatening feminine that the mature Hamlet can easily dismiss.

One consequence of Hamlet's inability to isolate and then excise the woman from himself is that the distinctions he tries to draw between other people are as confused as he is self-divided sexually. In the closet scene with his mother, Hamlet protests too much in overdrawing the contrast between the “counterfeit presentment” (3.4.54) of the elder Hamlet and of Claudius. Beneath the son's defensively schematic opposition between ideal and nightmare father figures, Hyperion and satyr, lurks the doubt that they are not so different after all, since Gertrude has held both in common. Although Hamlet asserts that “sense to ecstasy were ne'er so thrall'd / But it reserv'd some quantity of choice / To serve in such a difference” (74-76), he criticizes in his mother the appropriation of sense by ecstasy and the resulting loss of difference. With the woman on top sense loses its hierarchic superiority over sensuousness, its subversive contrary, and reason becomes merely the instrument for satisfying desire: “And reason panders will” (88). That Hamlet's father represents reason and his stepfather will is only an ideal presentment shown to be “counterfeit” since reason and will are not opposed but in collusion, rendered common in Gertrude's faulted vice.26 It is as if the elder Hamlet (reason) acts as pander-advocate for his own cuckolding, the willful coupling of Claudius and Gertrude. What belies the schematically contrasting portraits that Hamlet uses to badger his mother is his description of Claudius as “a king of shreds and patches—” (103), followed immediately by the stage direction “Enter Ghost.” The referent of Hamlet's interrupted word portrait is indifferently Claudius and the elder Hamlet, since invoking the one seems to call up the other. Gertrude says that Hamlet's vision of the Ghost is an hallucination induced by “ecstasy” (140), the very faculty whose improper dominance Hamlet said caused Gertrude's failure to recognize the difference between Claudius and the elder Hamlet. The ultimate failure of proper difference is that the rational faculty of differentiation in both Hamlet and Gertrude has ceded place to mother and son's common bond of ecstasy.27

In a way similar to his counterfeit portrayal of the collapsed rival father figures, it is impossible for Hamlet to separate Gertrude and Ophelia despite their ostensible differences. Whereas he tries but fails to keep the father figures separate, Hamlet doesn't seem to want to distinguish between the women in his life. What he calls Ophelia's “painting” (3.1.144) dovetails with his criticism of Gertrude's masquerade of mourning. The sexual contamination that Hamlet insists upon attributing to his mother is transferred to Ophelia, who is the target of her friend's obscene wit just before their joint spectatorship of The Murder of Gonzago. The remark that Ophelia should sequester herself in a “nunnery” (3.1.121) is famously subversive: Is a nunnery where a young woman goes to preserve her chastity, or a brothel in which she squanders it; a place of sexual renunciation, or one of carnal indulgence? Does this once fundamental distinction still make any difference? Gertrude's position as whore (in her son's eyes) crosses over indifferently onto Ophelia's chaste body, making of apparently antithetical contraries an indistinguishable conjunctive union.

It is against this union of what should be opposites—ideal and debased fathers, chaste and unchaste women, spirit and body—that Hamlet inveighs when he attacks the conjunction of sexual opposites: “I say we will have no mo marriage” (3.1.149). Precisely this copular mixing of the sexes has informed Hamlet since birth, and we have seen that it is this contamination of origins that engenders mature thoughts of suicide. Hamlet can no more escape the fallen transformation of chastity (the “honesty” of mind) into heterosexual coupling (the telos of bodily “beauty”) than he can avoid his own originary embodiment: “The power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness” (3.1.111-14). Beauty belies honesty because honesty itself is not honest; honesty panders beauty. Hamlet thematizes the way that corporal beauty gives the lie to honesty when he plays upon the possibility of lying in the sexual sense with the nunnery-destined because dishonest Ophelia: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap? … That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.” The provocative allusions to “country matters” and to Ophelia's reductive, genital “nothing” (3.2.110-20) imply that Hamlet's lying in her beautified lap is the cause of dishonest moral lapse in herself and others. Revulsion is Hamlet's response to the genital materiality of woman, which makes of her chastity a nothing, of her honesty a lie.

Hamlet's misogynistic banter early in 3.2 is a prelude to the staging of The Murder of Gonzago, a play within the play that thematizes the origin of man's disgust for woman, whose effects have already evidenced themselves preposterously in Hamlet's prescriptive fore-play with Ophelia. In recounting the scene of his death, the Ghost tells Hamlet that “the serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown” (1.5.39-40), the crown symbolizing both his kingship and his wife's genitalia.28 The liquid poured in the ear is a deathly bane that undoes the vital liquid that King Hamlet once disseminated in a homologous orifice. The contrary valences of the liquid image—semen = life versus semen = poison—instance Shakespeare's antithetical pharmakon. King Hamlet is represented as emasculated. Coppélia Kahn notes the sexual confusion that the Ghost engenders in Hamlet in asking the son to identify with the feminized father: “The elder Hamlet is in the feminine position of being penetrated by the man who has already penetrated his wife.”29 The play within the play that Hamlet stages is an attempt to recall, replay and thereby undo the scene of the elder Hamlet's death.30 If Hamlet sees a mimetic representation of his father penetrated and the reaction to it of the guilty spectators, he reasons that this will provide him sufficient motive for taking manly revenge, which entails the reassertion of the law of the father that the murder (and Gertrude's adultery) breached.

Manly revenge may be all the easier if Hamlet can demonstrate that his adversary, who wears the sexually ambiguous crown, is only a castrated, petticoat king, a replicated reflection of the turn that he effected upon his brother king. Perhaps Hamlet identifies the feminine in his own conscience with something similar in his stepfather, which will make the latter vulnerable to being caught by the play within the play: “The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.600-01). The Mousetrap conflates Claudius's captured conscience with Gertrude's, whose pet name, “Mouse,” is echoed in the closet scene. After the play within the play Hamlet uses the same “king”/“thing” rhyme and another double entendre with vaginal referent to express his confidence that Claudius has been hollowed into an empty shell: “The King is a thing … / Of nothing” (4.2.27-29).31 If both Claudius and King Hamlet are reduced to a feminized nothing, the distinction between them must have collapsed in Hamlet's mind.

Stanley Cavell advances the provocative thesis that Claudius is both father and mother in Hamlet's dumb-show, because it substitutes Claudius as a veil for Hamlet's mother, the murderer behind the murderer. (“None wed the second but who kill'd the first” (3.2.175).32 The dumb-show is a re-visioning of the unseen original murder, which it reenacts with the mother-father (Claudius covering for, and acting at the behest of, Gertrude) taking the masculine position by pouring poison into the man's ear, reversing the scenario in the primal scene (of intercourse), where the woman is the passive receptacle of what the man pours.33 My quarrel with Cavell is his assumption that Gertrude was passive in the primal scene, whereas in the murder scene she turns around suddenly and assumes the aggressor's stance. We may suspect that Hamlet has entertained the deep fantasy of a “masculine” Gertrude all along: In the primal scene that continues to haunt his unconscious, Hamlet is traumatized by the vision of his father castrated (feminized) in the act of intercourse.34 Gertrude is imagined as the masculine aggressor in the two original scenes of sex and murder, of Death (Hamlet's “consummation / Devoutly to be wish'd” (3.1.63-64)) as the punning conflation (climactic-extinctive) of these two senses, which are but different manifestations of the same horror in the male imagination. In appropriating the masculine powers of her husband, Gertrude renders him impotent, the ghostly hollow of his former self, and so she must proceed adulterously to some other man to satisfy her swelling urge for sexual jointure. Hamlet describes the fierceness of Gertrude's desire for his father in terms that ominously suggest a voraciousness that, like a parasite's, devours its object to the bone and so must prey elsewhere: “She would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on” (1.2.143-45). Gertrude's devouring orality knows no bounds, for every taboo which poses a resistance only serves the more to excite her transgressive desire.

The confusion of man and woman explicitly reaches the collapsing point of nondifference when Hamlet takes his leave of Claudius in order to begin his journey for England. He propounds a syllogism which intertwines the sexes incestuously and androgynously:

Farewell, dear mother.
Thy loving father, Hamlet.
My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother.


Hamlet's ostensibly innocent allusion to the biblical idealization of sexual union in marriage points instead of a nonideal, incestuous materialization. The prince is revolted by the interchangeability of parts (partners) in the sexual act, whose locus Sonnet 137 suggestively designates as the genital “common place” (1.10),35 the place where man and woman (as well as the elder Hamlet and Claudius, the ideal and degraded father images) become indistinguishable in the chiastic coupling of mother-father. Ernest Jones explains the mother-father confusion in terms of the psychoanalytic “combined parent concept” (113), in which the child imagines its parents as one flesh in coitus. Hamlet's chop-logic employs the rhetorical commonplace of chiasmus to signify and to predicate the reduction of sexual difference to the common genital site where the sexes are indifferently one (androgynous).

It is the misogynistic representation of woman as duplicitous masquerader that marks the focal point of Hamlet as a tragedy; the play passes beyond the ideal specularity of comedy to a specifically linguistic duplicity and subjectifying self-division, the principle of difference which patriarchal, misogynistic discourse takes woman to be.36 Gertrude's crossing of sexual boundaries and collapsing of difference informs the androgyny that so conspicuously marks Hamlet's character. Whereas female unfaithfulness suggests a complication that comic transvestism turns into a joke, insofar as the transvestic disguise miraculously defuses the charge of cuckoldry, the perception of woman's adultery in the tragedies incites a catastrophe of nondifference. Gertrude's incestuous duplicity sloughs off external disguises that are merely specular and therefore comic in favor of a masculinely aggressive jointure, effected via duplicitous language, of things that are normally and normatively contrary. Her violation of the incest taboo, which insists on keeping one's husband and brother-in-law distinct, leads to a collapse of difference in general. It is on account of Gertrude, the “imperial jointress” (1.2.9), i.e., the one who undoes difference by effecting jointure, that “the time is out of joint” (1.5.196). She is responsible for making “the night joint-labourer with the day” (1.1.81) and for the undoing of propriety (proper difference) that results when “the funeral baked meats … coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (1.2.180-81).

Woman is the principle of difference that paradoxically collapses difference, reducing Claudius, Hamlet, and Hamlet's father to the commonly denominated nexus of Gertrude's shared body. The word “common” occurs several times to designate the universal reductionism of death: “Thou know'st 'tis common: all that lives must die” (1.2.72); “(Reason's) common theme / Is death of fathers” (1.2.103-4). Death is the common lot of everyone born of woman's “common place,” the uncanny home (unheimlich heim) that makes of woman man's genesis (womb) and his destined end (tomb). In the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet's fears of death situate their imaginary locus in “the undiscover'd country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (3.1.79-80). The latent pun on the genital sense of “country” equates death with woman's hell, her not so Elysian Fields.37 The nether country is where man and woman are at one in the three developmental stages of birth, copulation, and death.38

The sexes are made common in the primal scene of copulation and of death. Often in Shakespeare's plays “death” puns upon the chiastic indistinction (or so the man imagines) of the sexes in orgasm. Death as the climactic collapse of male potency also points to castration anxiety. Although these senses of “dying” are not foregrounded in Hamlet at the level of local wordplay, they are a motivating thematic concern overall. Love is literalized (materialized) as death in the figure of Lamord, the Norman knight who rides “incorps'd” (4.7.86) upon the back of his horse, whose punning name collapses death (la mort) and love (l'amour, or the Latin amor). The erotic instincts aim towards the same release of tension that death grants, and life and death are tellingly juxtaposed (“incorps'd”) in Laertes's exclamatory pseudo-recognition, “Upon my life, Lamord” (4.7.91). Lamord is like Hamlet a death messenger who adorns himself in the gallant's fashionable jewels: “the brooch indeed / And gem of all the nation” (4.7.92-93). In mimetically similar terms Ophelia describes Hamlet as formerly “Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form” (3.1.154-55), though of course he subsequently drapes himself in deathly black, as if to say that love and mourning describe the singular and identical trajectory of every embodied consciousness. The love gem as poisoned death trafficer comes to a head in the “union” jewel of the final scene of the play.39

Life and death are conjoined in a cyclical and interanimating feeding process:

For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?
I have, my lord.
Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive—friend, look to't.


Conception is corruption, and conversely; life generates spontaneously from death, only to provide more grist for death's maw. Hamlet himself is the maggot son bred from the conjunction of living sun (Hamlet as father) and dead matter (mater): “I am too much in the sun” (1.2.67), he laments, as if to suggest that his exalted origins have overripened and putrefied. The necrophilic self-identification as cadaver-bred maggot suggests at once a sperm breeding and a parasite feeding. Love reduced to deathly parasitism is an analogue for the way that the liquid poured in King Hamlet's ear and the union wine consumed in the final scene are both conjunctive-inseminating and poisonous, with the latter sense parodic of and parasitic upon the former, taking precedence. The chaliced union wine is a parasitic parody of the Communion wine of the Last Supper, the drinking and eating of a dead body in order to gain life thereby.

Whether sex is poisonous or generative is also at the heart of the characterization of Ophelia, who is regarded with extreme ambivalence as an exemplar of unchaste beauty in life and chaste idealization in death.40 In terms of the analogy by which she is fixed in the passage quoted above from act 2, scene 2, Ophelia is like rotting flesh which breeds, only to have her brood turn around and devour its life source incestuously. Flesh as food for maggots—“We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots” (4.3.21-23)—contrasts with Laertes' remark at Ophelia's funeral about the regenerative powers of her virgin body to conceive immaculately: “Lay her i'th' earth, / And from her fair and unpolluted flesh / May violets spring” (5.1.231-33).41 Maggots or violets; dishonest or virginal woman; conception as curse or as blessing? To these confused binarisms Gertrude adds the “Lamord” question: epithalamion or funeral?

(scattering flowers) Sweets to the sweet. Farewell. I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife: I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid, And not have strew'd thy grave.


Dead flowers substitute for marital defloration and “dying.” Gertrude the jointress again does what Hamlet reproached her for in act 1 when he complained that “the funeral bak'd meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (1.2.180-81). Elegy is but a cover for matrimonial lust in Hamlet's deflating satire.42

The collapse of love and death reaches its hyperbolic climax when Hamlet and Laertes, the rival lovers, leap into (penetrate) the open grave for one last necrophilic embrace (with Ophelia, with/against each other). Hamlet can achieve his devoutly wished love consummation only with a corpse, and in the next scene he will consummate his death wish by becoming incorpsed in himself. Hamlet points to the paradox of Laertes's being “buried quick” (5.1.274) with Ophelia, an act of hyperbolic excess that he vows to imitate mimetically:

And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw Millions of acres on us, till our ground, Singeing his pate against the burning zone, Make Ossa like a wart. Nay, and thou'lt mouth, I'll rant as well as thou.


Hamlet and Laertes become indistinguishable in their rhetorical overreaching, as well as in their ostentatious sacrifice of the quick for the dead. Earlier in this scene, before he knows that the grave is destined for Ophelia, Hamlet feels confident that he can distinguish between the living and the dead in much the same way as he can differentiate between truth and lying. He says that the Gravedigger “lies” in the grave in both senses of the word. “Thou dost lie in't, to be in't, and say 'tis thine. 'Tis for the dead, not for the quick: therefore thou liest” (122-24). When Hamlet jumps into the grave, he literalizes his earlier wordplay (3.2) about how much he would like to lie with Ophelia's nothing, her death (nothing)-breeding genitals (nothing).

The state of the union (political, matrimonial) that words like “Lamord” symbolize is epitomized not only in the incestuous union of Gertrude and Claudius—their love is the elder Hamlet's death—but also in the pearled “union” (5.2.269) that joins and unjoins the lovers. “Union” is both union (marriage jewel) and disunion (poison), a liebestod that reengages the paradoxically inseminating poison of the primal scene/murder scene. “Union” is one of Freud's uncanny “un” words whose primal sense is antithetical, both itself and not itself.43 This doubling dissolution is gendered (by men) as feminine, as that which introduces difference into male notions of self-identity predicated on self-sameness. As the union pearl is dissolved in the cup of wine, so too the royal place in the hierarchy which the union symbolizes—“the term is normally reserved for pearls of finest quality, such as might be in a royal crown” is the Arden editor's footnote (410)—is dissolved in death, reminding us of Hamlet's malcontent satire on the power of death to undo social as well as sexual distinction by making common the king and the commoner:44 “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (4.3.30-31)45 thanks to the anal reductionism of “impolitic worms,” for which “your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table” (4.3.23-24).46 Since Hamlet has referred to himself as a beggar (2.2.272), in death he and Claudius will be indistinguishably incorpsed. The androgynous “Lady Worm” (5.1.87) is the phallic penetrator and oral, feminine devourer that reduces the courtier, lawyer, and jester, the mother and her son, to the same level as the commoner in the grave. As high is reduced to low on the axis of social status, so sexual distinctions are likewise undone in death, as in birth and intercourse. Their collapse is what sets off the chain of deaths in the play, which in turn viciously reestablishes the cycle of sexual nondifference (a corpse of whichever sex is still a just a corpse).

Critics have frequently remarked upon Hamlet's shift in character upon his return from England, usually describing it in terms of a new resolution and stoicism. I prefer instead to see in the later Hamlet someone who is far less anxious about the collapse of boundaries, to the point that he decides that there is but one way to resolve his formerly unresolved anxiety about nondifference: destroy difference via the massive implosion that death effects. The death that Hamlet once feared so obsessively ultimately becomes the lover he embraces (graphically symbolized when he enters Ophelia's grave). When Hamlet assumes the manly role of avenger in the final scene and realizes the fantasy playacting of Lucianus, he penetrates the feminized Claudius with his poisoned phallic sword. Revenge seeks by repetition of the primal scene to undo the original crime. But the compulsion to repeat engages as well the drive towards death, fulfilling Hamlet's prophetic sense that his realization of manhood was fated to achieve but a reductive quintessence of dust, a return to residual matter (mater). Hamlet's consummating manly gesture is vitiated in that the hero collapses again into his mother: like hers, his affiliation (union) with the husband-father, whom he has addressed as “mother,” is fatally poisonous, a suicidal resolution figured as liquifying dissolve.47 The androgynous sexual mixture48 that consummately joins male and female, I have argued, is the indistinction of death. Death returns man to the undiscovered country whence he originated, the place where he and woman are joined (foutre) in a common fault or fold, cross-coupled in nondifference. It is through metaphors of “mixture,” “jointure,” and “union”—rendering the sexes “common”—that Shakespeare plays out the poisonous consequences of androgyny.


  1. Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City: Doubleday, 1949), 25-26. Jacqueline Rose, “Hamlet—the Mona Lisa of Literature,” Critical Quarterly 28 (1986): 35-49.

  2. See Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One, trans. J. M. Cohen (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1965); June Singer, Androgyny: Towards a New Theory of Sexuality (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1976); Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Knopf, 1973). Heilbrun defines androgyny as “a movement away from sexual polarization and the prison of gender toward a world in which individual roles and the modes of personal behavior can be freely chosen” (ix). This early champion of androgyny believes that Hamlet's tragedy consists in having to eschew androgyny and destroy Ophelia, his saving feminine self, in order to accomplish the manly task of vengeance. See also Heilbrun's more recent discussion in Hamlet's Mother (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

  3. David Leverenz makes the most persuasive case for the beneficent value of Hamlet's feminine side in his influential essay, “The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View,” in Representing Shakespeare, eds. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). “Hamlet is part hysteric, as Freud said, and part Puritan in his disgust at contamination and his idealization of his absent father. But he is also, as Goethe was the first to say, part woman. And Goethe was wrong, as Freud was wrong, to assume that ‘woman means weakness. To equate women with weak and tainted bodies, words, and feelings while men possess noble reason and ambitious purpose is to participate in Denmark's disease that divides mind from body, act from feeling, man from woman” (111). In Shakespeare's Division of Experience (New York: Summit Books, 1981), Marilyn French concurs with Carolyn Heilbrun that action is the province of the man, whereas Hamlet's “primary response to experience is to ‘feel it—through sensation, emotion, or reflective thought. Hamlet's response to life, then, is ‘feminine” (147). In The Mystery of Hamlet (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1881), the Victorian scholar Edward P. Vining made the first detailed argument for Hamlet as a woman, locating Hamlet's femininity in such features as his melancholy, playacting (masquerade), hysteria, faintness, mysteriousness, gentleness, wordy poetizing, (feigned) madness, lack of strength or courage to act—features “that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature” (48). Vining thought that Hamlet was in fact a woman disguised at birth as a man, like Ovid's Iphis, because Gertrude knew that her husband wanted a boy. From his mother's disguise of him as a girl, Hamlet learned “dissimulation” (82). The following toss-off is typical of Vining's tendentiousness: “Hamlet has a woman's daintiness and sensitiveness to perfumes” (77).

  4. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Hamlet are from the Arden edition of the play, ed. Harold Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1982).

  5. Margaret Ferguson discusses the conflation of mother and matter in “Hamlet: Letters and Spirits,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985). Ferguson argues that the hysteria that Freud diagnosed in Hamlet results from the hero's maternal/material legacy: “As we hear or see in the word ‘matter the Latin term for mother, we may surmise that the common Renaissance association between female nature in general and the ‘lower realm of matter is here being deployed in the service of Hamlet's complex oedipal struggle. The mother is the matter that comes between the father and the son—and it is no accident that in this closet scene Hamlet's sexual hysteria rises to its highest pitch” (295). See also Patricia Parker, “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation, Spying, and the ‘Secret Place of Woman,” Representations 44 (Fall 1993): 60-95.

  6. In lieu of the Folio's scullion, the reading printed in the Arden edition, I opt tendentiously for the Second Quarto's stallion = “male whore,” a choice of words that better fits Hamlet's sense of compromised masculinity. The animal virility suggested by stallion is undercut by the reference to prostitution which Hamlet and Hamlet associate with women.

  7. In his commentary on the function of language in Lacan, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen points to the way speech disengages the speaker from the present immediacy of intuition, absenting the object that speech intends to capture by naming it, and thereby opening up a loss within the speaker himself that makes of him a subject. “The subject speak(s) in order to say nothing: ‘Words, words, words. … Speech, instead of saying something, now speaks itself and thus speaks the truth, which is precisely that speech says nothing—nothing other than the ‘hole in the real that is the subject at the moment when he speaks” (139). Naming the object leaves in its wake “nothing but words, words, words—that is, a subject” (193). Lacan: The Absolute Master, trans. Douglas Brick (Stanford, Calif.: Standford University Press, 1991). The “nothing” that the subject speaks is gendered feminine in Hamlet's bewdy remarks to Ophelia during the play within the play. For the male, to become a subject is to fall under the sign of woman.

    At a spring 1994 symposium at Berkeley on “Rhetorics of Early Modern Masculinity,” Patricia Parker spoke about the efforts of Renaissance authors to achieve stylistic virilitas. Their goal was a sinewy (nervosus) style, which these anti-Ciceronian rhetoricians attempted to ground in the male body (nervus = “penis”). But no male could express a virile style in words whose lingua-derived copia was gendered feminine. In the epistle dedicatory to his A Worlde of Wordes (1598), John Florio commented anxiously on the emblematic proverb, “Le parole sono feminine, & i fatti sono maschii, Wordes they are women, and deeds they are men.” Like Hamlet, Florio sensed his project for a virile style hopelessly compromised by its imbrication and entrapment in woman's textual web. See Parker's essay, “On the Tongue: Cross Gendering, Effeminacy, and the Art of Words,” Style 23.3 (1989): 445-65. Here Parker demonstrates how Erasmus' Lingua treatise (1525) associates the loquacious male with the “loud and babbling harlot” of Proverbs 7, a passage relevant to Hamlet's self-characterization as a wordy whore. Parker discusses the way that Erasmus prefers manly brevitas to excessive verbal copia: “The arts of rhetoric as devices for amplifying a theme (‘amplificandi rationes) are not only contrasted with deeds but linked to a loquacity gendered as ‘foolish and womanish (‘stultam ac muliebrem loquacitatem)” (449).

  8. My contention that the male fears being compromised and contaminated by his dependency upon the mother's body is deeply indebted to Janet Adelman's Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992). Adelman argues that the feminine presence that divides Hamlet's male identity is the mother regarded as whore: “He himself is subject to his birth: he would imagine himself the unmixed son of an unmixed father, but the whore-mother in him betrays him, returning him to his own mixed (mixture = “sexual intercourse” (OED 1e)) origin, his contamination by the sexual female within” (30).

  9. I owe to Joel Altman the tenor of my remarks about the way that res and verbum reverse the gender hierarchy of spirit over matter.

  10. Erasmus' Lingua begins with a proverb that suggests that the verbose male is he who has sucked too long at the mother's breast: “Ubi uber, ibi tuber; fatti maschii, parole femine” (“Where there is a breast, there is a swelling; facts are masculine, words are feminine”) (460; quoted in Parker).

  11. The son's loss of the father results in the impossible duty to restore him, to avenge the dead by undoing the adulterous usurpation of Claudius and Gertrude.

  12. In the closing chapter of The Gendering of Melancholia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), Juliana Schiesari analyzes the male's scapegoating of woman in Hamlet, Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, and Freud's works. “The melancholic's desire for the father's gaze is concomitant to and inseparable from a profound denigration of women, who are typically accused of all the horrible things the melancholic can also accuse himself of duplicity, inconstancy, inhumanity, animality, and base materiality. Obviously, the melancholic projects on women the lack that he would deny in himself, except of course when he addresses himself in the voice of his own superego” (239). This observation leads to a reading of Burton that is relevant as well to my dissection of Hamlet: “In diagnosing, as Freud too would, the female melancholic as phallicly needy, Burton blushingly foregrounds his own sexual deprivation, his own ‘unmanliness. Much later, in discussing love melancholia, Burton does not mince words when he says outright that melancholia ‘turns a man into a woman (3: 142)” (252). Hamlet suffers from an inversion of love melancholy since the woman in him makes him too disillusioned to love any woman. In “Mourning and Melancholia” (Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1955-74), 14: 239-58), Freud instances Hamlet's melancholia, his self-reproaches and suicidal impulses, as the turning against his own ego of a repressed hostility towards a once loved object. The ambivalently cathected object is introjected, i.e., internalized as the ego's own object, as opposed to the release of the object that occurs in mourning. Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Lupton invoke Lacan's reading of Freud in arguing that whereas Oedipus Rex ends with the recognition of castration, Hamlet begins with it. Hamlet is like a little girl, they assert, in recognizing castration immediately: “Since the little girl is mourning something that was never there in the first place, we would argue that her relation to the phallus is melancholic rather than mournful. We could say that she mourns mourning—that is, that she mourns the lack of any real object that could be mourned, or, more precisely, that she mourns the lack of a lack that could be restored.” After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 56. Janet Adelman takes issue with “critics who use the model of Freud's ‘Mourning and Melancholia (who) generally assume that the lost object is Hamlet's father; but Hamlet's discovery of the whore inside himself suggests that the lost, introjected, and then berated object is his mother” (256-57). See also Ranjini Philip, “The Shattered Glass: The Story of (O)phelia,” Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 73-84.

  13. In “Creativity and its Origins,” D. W. Winnicott anticipates Carolyn Heilbrun (see n.3 above) in arguing that the male and female elements in Hamlet are in harmony until his father dies. Thereafter he rejects the female and projects it onto Ophelia, whom he then maligns for her femininity. Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1971).

  14. Avi Erlich regards the “flesh” in this speech as a representation of the “solid” penis, which Hamlet wishes poured out orgasmically “into a dew.” Hamlet's Absent Father (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 65. Erlich's analysis is at times stretched and tendentious, but his book remains probably the most detailed compendium of psychoanalytic readings of the play.

  15. See the essay by this name, S. E. II: 155-61.

  16. Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Lupton comment on the identification of Hamlet with Niobe: “Niobe, becoming her tears, is a favored Renaissance figure of narcissistic identification with loss; she thus becomes an image of the melancholic petrification to which Hamlet and Hamlet are subject. Niobe's metamorphosis materializes the watery fate imagined in the soliloquy's opening line” (115).

  17. At several points in The Interpretation of Dreams (S. E. 4 & 5), Freud discusses water as a dream element that symbolizes woman, especially with regard to male fantasies of birth and of returning to the womb.

  18. Laertes appeals to the blood/tears opposition in defending the incorruptibility of his descent and the chastity of his mother:.

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


    This confidence about origins contrasts with Hamlet's nagging fear that Gertrude may have cuckolded King Hamlet and so have branded her son a bastard and a harlot.

  19. In a series of articles Patricia Parker has argued the centrality for Shakespearean tragedy of “dilation” in the rhetorical and temporal senses, as well as in the sense of delation or accusation. I use the word to describe how Hamlet's delay in the midst of resolution leads to self-accusation; dilation engenders delation. See especially Parker's “Shakespeare and Rhetoric: ‘Dilation and ‘Delation in Othello,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985): 54-74.

  20. Again the relevant foil for Hamlet is Laertes, whose deeds in defense of his slain father contrast with Hamlet's soliloquizing. Claudius rouses Laertes to action by appealing to the bad example of Hamlet: “But to the quick of th'ulcer: / Hamlet comes back; what would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father's son / More than in words?” (4.7.122-24). The wordy son is the mother's son who can only rail ineffectually against bastardy, whereas the father's son is a man who vindicates his legitimacy in deed.

  21. Even at the zero degree of etymology, some critics have construed the word “conscience” to express an irreconcilable sexual divide, since it may allude in its first syllable to the female genitalia, while its independent root designates disembodied mind. In his edition of Shakespeare's sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), Stephen Booth glosses “conscience” in Sonnet 151 as “cunt knowledge.” “Any word with con in it appears to have invited Shakespeare and his contemporaries (see Congreve, con and noc) to play on the commonest name for the female sex organ” (526). Other critics who comment on the sexual sense of “conscience” are Erlich, Hamlet's Absent Father 188, 229-30, and Parker, “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation, Spying, and the ‘Secret Place of Woman,” 83.

  22. In her Foucault-inspired account of madness as that which opposes rational closure, Karin S. Coddon anatomizes the “feminization of madness” (392) in the play. “Suche Strange Desyngns': Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture,” in the edition of Hamlet edited by Susanne L. Wofford (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994): 380-402. For a critical history of madness, love melancholy, and hysteria in connection with Ophelia, see Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985): 77-94.

  23. Juliana Schiesari surveys the way that melancholy from Aristotle to Freud has been associated with male genius, whereas women have been relegated to the realm of unproductive mourning. (See especially the introductory chapter of The Gendering of Melancholia.) I argue, however, that Hamlet's melancholy is at times figured as feminine and productive, not exclusively as feminine and debilitating.

  24. Erlich is perhaps not at his credible best when he offers an analysis of the sexual oscillation in this passage in terms of erection and detumescence: “‘His golden couplets disclosed strikes me as a possible though disguised reference to ejaculation, with ‘couplets referring to Hamlet's testicles and ‘disclosed to an orgasmic bursting out. Similarly, ‘His silence will sit drooping seems a description of a post-coital penis” (Hamlet's Absent Father 176). Erlich calls ejaculation what I describe as parturition.

  25. Peter Erickson contrasts the feminine side of Hamlet manifested in his soliloquies with the male element foregrounded in Hamlet's relationship with Horatio. By the end of the play it is Horatio whom Hamlet asks to perpetuate his memory, as opposed to the usual means of passing on one's legacy by linking with a woman who in turn gives birth to a male heir. Since Gertrude's conduct corrupts the ideal of motherhood, Erickson argues, Hamlet turns to the chaste, passionless Horatio instead. “In a world where love between men and women has become irrevocably duplicitous, sexuality can be avoided by turning to male ties to fashion a dependable bond.” Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 77. If Hamlet and Horatio are solumates and the anima is gendered feminine, however, this would indicate that the male-male bond does not so much escape the feminine as sublimate it by abstacting it from the body.

  26. See Adelman, Suffocating Mothers (252-53) for the way that the play inscribes woman's responsibility for moral fault in her material body. “Fault” was a slang term for the female genitals, and the French foutre = “sexual intercourse” was pronounced the same way.

  27. Ophelia remarked earlier upon Hamlet's “unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth / Blasted with ecstasy” (3.1.161-62). Ex-stasis defines madness as eccentricity, the alienation of the self from its rational center.

  28. For the double valence of “crown,” see Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (New York: Routledge, 1992), 30.

  29. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1981), 135. In opposition to Kahn's view of the ear as a vaginal analogue, it is also possible to regard the murder as an act motivated by homosexual jealousy (“the primal eldest curse … A brother's murder” (3.3.37-38) with the ear as locus of anal penetration. Jonathan Goldberg critiques what he regards as Kahn's compulsory heterosexism in “Romeo and Juliet's Open Rs,” in Queering the Renaissance, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994). In the same anthology, Richard Rambuss' “Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric” cautions against the uncritical assumption, popular among heterosexist critics, that any penetrated body must be a female one, and that the site of entry is necessarily vaginal. Richard Crashaw, for example, imagines the wounds that penetrate Christ's body on the cross in homoerotic terms. In “The Death of Hamlet's Father” (Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis (London: Hograth, 1951), I, 323-28), Ernest Jones argues that the poison is semen, the ear a displaced anus, so a homosexual rape is at issue. Norman Holland sums up the debate as follows: “One need not choose between heterosexual or homosexual insemination for, in the unconscious, there is no negation. Rather, both apply; and the fact that the symbol is ambiguous suggests an ambiguity in the play's presentation, one that reaches to an early level of infantile confusions” (194). Context must determine symbolic usage, so it may be plausible to see the ear of the original murder as a homoerotic locus, while its replay in The Murder of Gonzago foregrounds the hetero sex act as murderous-castrating. The critics' lack of consensus over anal versus vaginal interpretations may reflect the ambiguously oscillating, androgynous orientation of the text itself.

  30. See Alexander Grinstein, “The Dramatic Device: A Play Within a Play,” in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. M. D. Faber (New York: Science House, 1970), 147-53. Grinstein believes that the play within the play follows the same laws as Freud's analysis of the dream within a dream: it is an attempt to undo a past event.

  31. In “Othello and Hamlet: Dilation, Spying, and the Secret Place of Woman,” Patricia Parker comments on these two references—“conscience” and “nothing”—to the woman in Claudius. Of the first she says that catching the King's conscience “elicits the con-, count, or euphemistic country matter lurking within this monarchical con-science and its closeted secrets” (83).

  32. Central to Janet Adelman's argument is Hamlet's fantasy of Gertrude as the phantom murderer of Claudius: “The playlet is in fact designed to catch the conscience of the queen” (31).

  33. This is Cavell's summary comment in Disowning Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): “One's belief in Gertrude's power is surely not lessened if in constructing the primal scene from the fantasy/dumb-show one finds a man collapsing not upon her pouring something into him but upon her having something poured into her (the reversal of passive into active)” (185).

  34. Avi Erlich is the critic who writes most extensively about the castration of King Hamlet in the primal scene. See especially chapter four of Hamlet's Absent Father. For textual evidence of castration, one may point to King Hamlet's lament that he was “cut off even in the blossoms of my sin” (1.5.76) and his injunction to Hamlet to “Remember me” (1.5.91), which suggests that the son is called upon to restore (re-member) the father's missing phallus.

  35. The “common place” is what in King Lear Edgar calls the “indistinguish'd space of woman's will” (4.6.273), where “will” refers both to volition and to the genitalia. Desdemona's fetishistic handkerchief, associated metonymically with her private parts, is said to be a “common thing” (3.3.302), and in the brothel scene Othello addresses his wife as a “public commoner” (4.2.73). Troilus's misogyny similarly points to the way that his Cressida is common to everyone because she makes her “thing” public, open to all comers.

    This is, and is not, Cressid. Within my soul there doth conduce a fight Of this strange nature that a thing inseparate Divides more wider than the sky and earth.


    Lars Eagle suggests (Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of his Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 238n.) that Ophelia regards Hamlet in much the way that Troilus sees himself divided when he regards himself reflected in Cressida. Ophelia's “O woe is me / T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see” (3.1.152) might be paraphrased as “This is and is not Hamlet.” In Hamlet's eyes, he is divided because he sees Ophelia as double (duplicitous), chaste and not chaste. In A Theater of Envy (Oxford University Press, 1991), René Girard asserts that Ophelia is “contaminated with the erotic strategy of a Cressida and the other least savory Shakespearean heroines. What Hamlet resents in Ophelia is what any human being always resents in another human being, the visible signs of his own sickness” (285). Cressida and Ophelia are both objects of a misogynistic gaze that sees double when it sees woman, because it sees woman as common and therefore duplicitous. See also the discussion of “common” in Parker's Representations article.

  36. To anyone familiar with his work, Joel Fineman's influence on my reading of duplicitous desire will be apparent. Fineman contrasts the giddy and playful androgyny of Shakespeare's transvestite heroines to the untransvested, unveiled duplicity of Gertrude: “Symmetrical desire, a structure of homosexual jealousy that is resolved in the comedies by apportioning out to each pair of rivals a matching pair of beloveds, is precisely what we have unresolved in Hamlet, where, correspondingly, we might say woman herself, as woman, because her name is frailty—is the image of androgyny.” “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare, 82. Fineman argues that woman's androgyny becomes the mirror for man's difference from himself: “The dialectic of Difference and No Difference contained by the original fratricide structure is transferred by Shakespeare to another formula of mirroring reciprocity, to themes of women and their frailty, to a kind of masculine misogyny that finds in the ambiguity of woman its own self-divided self-consciousness, its own vulnerability, its mortality” (89). In Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986), Fineman accounts for the difference between genders as originating in the feminine: “In a formula whose lusty misogyny is recognizably Shakespearean, we can say that in Shakespeare's sonnets the difference between man and woman is woman herself” (17). In a typical Neoplatonic schema, man is figured as the sun, woman as the moon, in service of an “orthodox erotics for which woman is the Other to man, the hetero to homo, precisely because her essence is to be this lunatic difference between sameness and difference” (120).

  37. King Lear makes explicit the way that sex and death coalesce in woman's vaginal hell: “But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend's. / There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption” (4.6.125-28).

  38. For woman's antithetical symbolization of both life and death, see Freud's essays, “The Theme of the Three Caskets” and “The Uncanny,” in On Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson (New York: Harper & Row, 1958).

  39. Much of my meditation on Lamord is indebted to Ferguson, “Hamlet: Letters and Spirits,” 298-304. As an especially apt instance of the “Lamord” wordplay, Ferguson quotes the epigraph to chapter 15 of Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir:.

    Amour en latin facit amor; Or donc provient d'amour la mort, Et par avant, soulcy qui mord, Deuils, plours, pieges, forfaitz, remords.

  40. Valerie Traub argues that the only certifiably chaste woman is a dead woman. In life Ophelia is suspect because she is mobile and open, whereas in death her closure and immobility secure her chastity, thus making her available for the first time as an object worthy of Hamlet's romantic love (25-33). This conception of a safely enclosed because dead Ophelia is at odds with Patricia Parker's analysis in her Repreentations article. “In contrast to the natural modesty of women reported in Pliny and repeated in Crooke, Ophelia, in the melodious lay (4.7.182-83) of her drowning, floats more openly, face up, her clothes spread wide (175) in lines the ear may hear, given other such Shakespearean instances, as the spreading wide of her close” (75). Parker glosses “spread” as “open for copulation.” Traub completely ignores the pronounced sexual innuendo of Ophelia's death song: maids who open their “chamber doors” in losing their virginity (4.5.53), and the many phallic references to young men who “do't if they come to't—/ By Cock, they are to blame” (60-61), to “sweet Robin” (4.5.184), and to the death garlands of “long purples” or “dead men's fingers” (4.7.168-71). In dying Ophelia is foul (phallic)-mouthed, thus anything but closed-mouthed. For the chaste as dead woman, see also Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). Peter Stallybrass gives a brilliant reading of open versus closed women's bodies in “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance, eds. Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986): 123-42.

  41. It is a measure of Laertes's ingenuous fatuity that he forgets his two earlier conversations in which violets are associated with the fading of love and death (1.3.5-10, 4.5.180-83). In this quotation from act 5 as well as in Shakespeare's Ovidian Poetry, the purpled violet may suggest graphically and etymologically love's wound as consequence of phallic violation (violets/violence).

  42. Rhetorically, the elegiac cast that Gertrude gives to the shadowing of love by death corresponds to the isocolonic and oxymoronic formalism of Claudius, which also yokes contraries together in order to repress their contariety:

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


    This facile reconciliation of opposites via juxtaposition, this specious balancing of equal and homologous units (isocolon), is the object of Hamlet's critique, whose preferred rhetorical mode employs paronomasia to subvert and satirize isocolon. Of course Hamlet wants his own set of tidy moral contraries, provided that they not be reconciled. For discussion of Claudius's use of isocolon, see Stephen Booth, “On the Value of Hamlet,” in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), esp. 148-149, and Ferguson, 292-93.

  43. James Calderwood discusses “union” in terms of the frequent “hyphenisation of relations that leads to the total undifferentiation” in phrases like “uncle-father” and “aunt-mother” (2.2.372), and in Hamlet's confusing address of his (step)father as his “mother.” “All such repellent, hyphenised unions flow poisonously into the cup from which Gertrude drinks in the final scene and which Hamlet forces upon the already dying Claudius with the words, ‘Drink off this poison. Is thy union here?’ (5.2.331). Hamlet's killing of Claudius is, in this context, an act of restorative destruction, an undoing of unions that came into existence not through the linking of like to like but through the disintegration of proper differences.” To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Metadrama in “Hamlet” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 63. This returns me to my earlier invocation of René Girard's notion that the only way Hamlet can establish his difference from the feminine (the hymenated hyphenization) is by means of effecting masculine violence.

  44. Steven Mullaney argues that because the playhouses were set in the marginal Liberties of London, the drama was able to arrogate to itself the license of having common men impersonate kings. Defenses of hierarchical degree, like Ulysses's famous speech in Troilus and Cressida, were evacuated by virtue of their parodic-representational frame; hence, difference was made common. The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), esp. 51-52.

  45. Francis Barker comments that this line “is extraordinary (if it is so at all) for its insistence on the democracy of mortality in contrast with the hierarchized body politic of the living world, not for the corporeal expression in which the idea emerges.” The Tremulous Private Body (London: Methuen, 1984), 23.

  46. Lalita Pandit points out that in the Saxo Grammaticus tale, when Amleth is questioned regarding the whereabouts of the eavesdropper (the unnamed Polonius figure) whom he has killed, he replies that “the man had gone to the sewer, but had fallen through its bottom and been stifled by the floods of filth, and that he had been devoured by the swine that came up all about the place.” In Shakespeare's play Hamlet responds to Claudius's inquiry about where Polonius is by saying, “At supper. … Not where he eats, but where a is eaten” (4.3.17, 19). The homology of “supper” and “sewer,” of eating and defecating, suggests a cannibalistic relationship between master and source texts as well as between living and dead bodies. “Language and the Textual Unconscious: Shakespeare, Ovid, and Saxo Grammaticus,” in Criticism and Lacan, eds. Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990): 248-67 (264). The corpse of Alexander may be food for worms but also fecal dust used to stop a “bung-hole” (= anus, OED 6) (4.1.198).

  47. In Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, Norman Holland writes: “The finale, in which Hamlet and his mother die together, projects the wish to die with the mother, to return to her womb in a sexual way” (167). A counterpoint to the union of mother and son that death effects results when Gertrude drinks the poisoned union wine: she gives the lie to the union that her imperial jointure posited, since her death uncovers the differential severing that any jointure presupposes, the separation by death (of/from one's betrayed spouse) that jointure aims to repress.

  48. In Suffocating Mothers, Janet Adelman points out that union is just another version of Hecate's “mixture rank” (3.2.251), the poison that kills Hamlet's father: “Each is the poisonous epitome of sexual mixture itself and hence of boundary danger, the terrifying adulteration of male by female that does away with the boundaries between them” (28).

My epigraphs from this ambivalently androgynous actress are gleaned respectively from M. Maurice Shudofsky, “Sarah Bernhardt on Hamlet,” College English 3 (1941): 293-95, and Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992), 38. In The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 105-6, Marvin Rosenberg offers a cento of original reviews of Bernhardt's 1899 performance, from which it appears that the ambivalent critics were roughly evenly divided on the issue of whether her Hamlet tended more (or too much) towards the masculine or the feminine. Marcel Pagnol suggested that since Hamlet “does not have the reflexes of a man,” perhaps his theatrical role better suits a woman: “Hamlet is for me, without any doubt, a philosophe d'un sexe douteux whose role could be perfectly played by a great comedienne.” (Quoted in Norman Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979), 183.).

Eric Levy (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Levy, Eric. “The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet.Renascence 53, no. 2 (winter 2001): 83-95.

[In the following essay, Levy investigates the conflict between reason and emotion in Hamlet, demonstrating the ways in which the play explores not only the importance of rational control of emotion, but also the role of reason in generating emotion. Levy also comments on the relevance of Christian-humanist doctrine to the play's treatment of the relationship between reason and emotion.]

Hamlet opens on a state of incipient alarum, with martial vigilance on the battlemented “platform” (act 1, scene 2, line 252) of Elsinore and conspicuous “post-haste and rummage in the land” (1.1.110).1 For the sentries, this apprehension is heightened by the entrances of the Ghost—a figure whom Horatio eventually associates with a threat to the “sovereignty of reason” (1.4.73). In the immediate context, loss of the “sovereignty of reason” entails “madness” (1.4.74). In turn, madness is here associated with the disastrous inability to control emotional impulse (exemplified in this instance as either terror induced by the Ghost's monstrous metamorphosis at “the summit of the cliff” 1.4.70 or “desperation” 1.4.75 provoked by looking “so many fathoms to the sea” 1.4.77). Thus, as formulated on the platform, the fundamental danger posed to reason in the world of the play is that it might lose sovereignty over emotion.

The concept of the sovereignty of reason over emotion derives from the classical definition, adopted by medieval Scholasticism, of man as the rational animal whose reason has the ethical task of rationally ordering the passions or emotional disturbances of what is formally termed the sensitive appetite (referred to by the Ghost as “nature” 1.5.12) with which man, like all other animals, is endowed: “All the passions of the soul should be regulated according to the rule of reason …” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, question 39, answer 2, ad 1).2 Hamlet concurs, when praising Horatio “whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled” (3.2.69): “Give me that man / That is not passion's slave …” (3.2.71-72). Moreover, on other occasions Hamlet also emphasizes the need to control passion. For example, he censures both Gertrude and Claudius for improper surrender to the passions of concupiscence. He faults the Queen for allowing her “judgment” (3.4.70) to succumb to “compulsive ardour” (3.4.86). Through reference to “the bloat King” (3.4.184), Hamlet censures Claudius' gluttony. Through the epithet, “bawdy villain” (2.2.576), Hamlet deplores the King's lust. Indeed, Hamlet censures himself for succumbing, in the graveyard, to the irascible passion of anger: “But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a tow'ring passion” (5.2.78-79). Ironically, in reacting to Laertes' excessive display of grief, Hamlet confronts a passion or emotion with which, through his own melancholy, he himself has been intimately associated, and whose influence on reason he recognizes, as when speculating whether the Ghost is “the devil” (2.2.595): “… and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me” (2.2.596-99).

The emphasis in Hamlet on the control or moderation of emotion by reason is so insistent that many critics have addressed it. A seminal study is undertaken by Lily Bess Campbell in Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. John S. Wilks, in a masterful examination of conscience, explores “the subsidence in Hamlet of virulent passion,” and notes “his accession to a renewed temperance” achieved through “chastened self-control” (139, 140). Very recently, a third critic, Jennifer Low, explains Hamlet's delay in terms of a conflict between “the role of the avenger” and the “restraint and … reverence for the godhead in man” urged by Hamlet's “valorization” of reason in the ‘“What a piece of work is man speech” (502). It should be noted, however, that Low's claim regarding the conflict between reason and revenge is contradicted by Aquinas: “Wherefore if one desire revenge to be taken in accordance with the order of reason, the desire of anger is praiseworthy, and is called zealous anger (Summa Theologica II-II, question 158, answer 2, response; original emphasis). In fact, as Aquinas notes, the notion of zealous revenge entails the law of retribution (lex talonis) sanctioned in the Old Testament: “Retaliation (contrapassum) denotes equal passion repaid for previous action; and the expression applies most properly to injurious passions and actions, whereby a man harms the person of his neighbour; for instance if a man strike, that he be struck back. This kind of justice is laid down in the Law Exodus 21.23,24: ‘He shall render life for life, eye for eye …’” (II-II, q. 61, a. 4, resp.).

Ironically, Low's error in pitting revenge against reason highlights the role of reason not in controlling, but in determining emotion. For the distinction between zealous or destructive anger presupposes the operation of reason in judging the object which the emotion of anger here concerns. As we shall find, though Hamlet is filled with references to the need for rational control of emotion, the play probes much deeper into the relation between reason and emotion—particularly with respect to the role of reason in provoking as opposed to controlling emotion. The result of this probing is at once a confounding and deepening of relevant Christian-humanist doctrine. Our investigation of these matters will entail both a recapitulation of that doctrine and an examination of the ways in which the play problematizes and supersedes it. But we can ease our entry into that demanding inquiry by first noting how the task of controlling emotion by reason is more obviously problematized by Hamlet and other characters in the play.

Though Hamlet is linked with the vulnerability of reason to emotion, he nevertheless displays extraordinary emotional control, despite extreme provocation. This is evident, for example, when Hamlet toys nonchalantly with Polonius about the shape of “yonder cloud” (3.2.368), during the hectic interval between exposing the clumsy attempts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to probe Hamlet's “mystery” (3.2.357) and obeying the summons of his mother to her closet. Indeed, in an aside just before Polonius' exit, Hamlet privately expresses his well mastered consternation: “They fool me to the top of my bent” (3.2.375). The susceptibility of Hamlet's reason to emotion is further problematized by his delay, which he himself construes in terms of a failure to react appropriately to “excitements of my reason and my blood” (4.4.58). In an earlier soliloquy, he diagnoses his lack of response as a deficiency in the humour responsible for generating, as Jenkins explains, “bitter and rancorous feelings”: “But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall” (2.2.573; Jenkins' note for 2.2.573-74).

We reach now a central paradox in Hamlet's character. On the one hand, he allows emotion to provoke him to unthinkingly violent action, as when stabbing blindly at the figure hidden behind the arras or grappling with Laertes. But on the other hand, Hamlet so little trusts emotion to prod him to action that he even invokes the opposite tactic of exploiting thought as a goad of emotion: “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4.4.66). Here blood and judgment are to be commeddled not, as in Horatio's case, by the rational control of emotion, but by the rational arousal of emotion. Instead of disciplining emotion, here the function of thought is to excite emotion so that irrational violence results.

Moreover, in Hamlet, the moral requirement to control emotion by reason is undermined in other contexts, with the result that the relation between thought and emotion is radically problematized. One undermining context concerns the deliberately exaggerated display of emotion demanded by the “terms of honour” (5.2.242), dominant in the world of the play. In this context, to be worthy is to indulge in the conspicuous expression of emotion, “when honour's at the stake” (4.4.56). Indeed, as he admires the Player's emotionally charged recitation, Hamlet berates himself for not similarly responding to “the motive and the cue for passion” (2.2.555), with respect to the circumstances of his father's death: “Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause” (2.2.561-62). Yet, the obligation to display emotion to which Hamlet here refers ironically requires intense rational control by which the character in question can convincingly “force his soul to his own conceit” (2.2.546), for the sake of the approval his or her performance evokes. Here the notion of rational control of emotion is reinterpreted—one might almost say parodied—to entail not the ordering or limiting of emotion, as enjoined by Christian-humanism, but the deliberately exaggerated enactment of emotion.3

Another context in which the control of emotion by reason is ironized concerns Claudius' response to Hamlet. Just as, for Aquinas, unchecked passions are called “diseases or disturbances of the soul” (I-II, q. 24, a. 2, resp.), so for Claudius fear of Hamlet is an emotional disease from which he seeks to purge himself: “Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev'd, / Or not at all” (4.3.9-11). But whereas, in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, the cure for unchecked passion is the restraining influence of reason, for Claudius the cure for unchecked passion (in this case, fear) is not restraint, but indulgence. That is, succumbing utterly to an unchecked emotion (in this case, fear) provokes Claudius to devise, with his reason, a desperate stratagem by which, through violence, to eliminate his uncontrollable feeling: “The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England; / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (4.3.68-70). Thus, through the use of reason, Claudius seeks to restore the proper commeddling of blood and judgment, but at the cost of enabling the unchecked “hectic” in his blood to compel his reason to concoct “desperate appliance.” Here thought is directed by feeling, and devises a means of escape from insistent emotional pain.

Recourse to “desperate appliance,” where thought conceives emergency measures to relieve emotional distress, recurs in the world of the play. Examples include first, the tentative suicide project in the “To be” soliloquy, designed to escape “heart-ache” (3.1.62), and second, the momentary despair which prompts Horatio to grab the poison'd cup: “Here's yet some liquor left” (5.2.347). Paradoxically, in these instances, by thinking about emotional pain, thought risks losing its rationality by succumbing entirely to the inciting influence of the emotional pain concerned. The ultimate example of this predicament is Ophelia whose thought, in madness, is no more than the confused cognition of emotional distress: “nothing sure, yet much unhappily” (4.5.13).

Our investigation of the ways in which the role of reason in controlling emotion is problematized in the world of the play can now proceed to direct consideration of relevant Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine. Our purpose here is first to acquire and then to apply a set of concepts which, like lenses, will allow important ideas to stand out clearly from the text so that they can be effectively analyzed.

In the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, each entity or existent tends toward an end or purpose: “Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end” (I-II, q. 1, a. 2, resp.). This tending toward an end is called inclination, and it follows the nature of the being concerned. In beings with no power of apprehension or perception, inclination is governed by inherent form. Aquinas elucidates: “some inclination follows every form; for example, fire, by its form, is inclined to rise, and to generate its like” (I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.). In beings with apprehensive powers, inclination presupposes both an apprehensive or knowing power and a corresponding appetitive power or faculty of desire. In animals, the apprehensive power involves sense perception (what Aquinas terms sensitive apprehension) and the corresponding appetitive or desiring power is called the sensitive appetite, “through which the animal is able to desire what it apprehends, and not only that to which it is inclined by its natural form” (I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.; I, q. 80, a. 1, resp.). In man, the apprehensive power is reason, and the corresponding appetitive power is the will or intellectual appetite. Aquinas summarizes these distinctions compactly: “in the intellectual nature there is to be found a natural inclination coming from the will; in the sensitive nature, according to the sensitive appetite; but in a nature devoid of knowledge, only according to the tendency of the nature to something” (I, q. 60, a. 1, resp.).

Hence, in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, appetite (whether sensitive or intellectual) is moved by some mode of apprehension: “The movement of the appetitive power follows an act of the apprehensive power” (I-II, q. 46, a. 2, resp.). That is, inclination or appetitive movement toward an end presupposes prior awareness (whether through sense perception or thought) of the end to be approached. This point is crucial to understanding the relation between reason and emotion. For as we shall now clarify, in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm the task of reason to control emotion is complicated by its role in provoking emotion.

We take the first step toward understanding this dual role of reason with respect to emotion by noting that emotion or passion is here defined as a movement of the sensitive appetite: “Passion is a movement of the sensitive appetite when we imagine good or evil; in other words, passion is a movement of the irrational soul, when we think of good or evil” (Aquinas quoting Damascene in Summa Theologica I-II, q. 22, a. 3, resp.). Thus construed as a movement of the sensitive appetite respectively toward or away from “whatever is suitable” (Aquinas' generic definition of good) or “whatever is repugnant” (Aquinas' generic definition of evil), emotion entails an appetitive response which, to interpolate Gilson's masterful phrasing, itself presupposes the apprehension “of an object which is of interest to the life of the body” (I-II, q. 29, a. 1, resp.; Gilson, Christian Philosophy 272).4 In the case of animals other than man, this apprehension of the appetitive object entails such faculties as sense perception and estimation (a power of rudimentary judgment). But in man, the sensitive appetite is ultimately moved by reason or the cogitative power: “the cognitive power moves the appetite by representing its object to it” (II-II, q. 158, a. 2, resp.).

In animals, the passions of the sensitive appetite are imperious: “Thus animals before some pleasant object, cannot help desiring it, since they are not masters of their inclinations, and so we say with St. John Damascene, that they do not act, but are being acted upon” (Gilson, Philosophy 286). But, in man, the rational animal, the will (or intellectual appetite), as a higher power, can choose whether to yield to the passionate impulses of the sensitive appetite. Aquinas' famous example of the sheep and the wolf will illustrate:

For in other animals movement follows at once the concupiscible and irascible appetites the two aspects of the sensitive appetite; for instance, the sheep, fearing the wolf, flies at once, because it has no superior counteracting appetite. On the contrary, man is not moved at once, according to the irascible and concupiscible appetites, but he awaits the command of the will, which is the superior appetite and which is itself moved by reason. (I, q. 81, a. 3, resp.).

But in the Aristotelian-Thomist paradigm, reason not only controls emotion but also provokes it. The role of reason in provoking emotion appears most clearly in the Aristotelian-Thomist notion of sorrow, a passion which Aquinas generically defines as “pain … which is caused by an interior apprehension” or act of mental awareness (I-II, q. 35, a. 2, resp.). Aquinas distinguished two kinds of pain—outward and inward. The first is sensory; the second (which causes sorrow) is mental: “outward pain arises from an apprehension of sense, and especially of touch, while inward pain arises from an interior apprehension, of the imagination or of the reason” (I-II, q. 35, a. 7, resp.). Since outward pain is apprehended by the senses (a faculty which all animals possess), while inward pain is perceived by the mind (the distinguishing attribute of man), inward pain is more intense than outward: “inward pain surpasses outward pain … because the apprehension of reason and imagination is of a higher order than the apprehension of the sense of touch” (I-II, q. 35, a. 7, resp.). That is, the greater intensity of inward pain, in comparison with outward pain, results from the fact that, unlike outward pain, inward pain is not a sensory, but a mental event. Construed as a feeling, inward pain is registered in the heart: “And I am sick at heart” (1.1.9). But it is equally appropriate to locate inward pain “in the mind” (3.1.57); for without thought (i.e. the operation of reason or imagination), there is no inward pain.

In Hamlet, thought or interior apprehension not only engenders inward pain (as postulated in the Aristotelian-Thomist system), but tends also as we have seen, to brood on the need to terminate that pain. Indeed, in referring to Hamlet's inward pain. Claudius foregrounds precisely such preoccupation: “This something settled matter in his heart, / Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus / From fashion of himself” (3.1. 175-77, …). Yet, in this example, unlike the “To be” soliloquy, Claudius' plot to kill Hamlet, or Horatio's snatching of the poisoned cup, the implied means of escaping inward pain entails not desperately conceived action (“desperate appliance”) but eventual understanding. through sustained mental effort (“his brains still beating”), of the pain felt. A similar emphasis on the need to understand inward pain appears in Hamlet's allusion to his melancholy: “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth …” (2.2.295-96). In contrast to the Aristotelian-Thomist dispensation where inward pain results from thought. Hamlet's inward pain provokes him to focus his thought on understanding inward pain in order to eliminate it. But ironically, insofar as inward pain, by definition, derives from thought, the only way to eliminate the pain is to recognize and consequently change the mode of thinking which causes it. That is, to understand inward pain is to understand how thought contributes to it.

There are several instances in the play which concern the recognition and suggested modification of a mode of thought causing inward pain. The first involves the advice, proffered by Claudius, that Hamlet recognize that his “unmanly grief” (1.2.94) derives from “a mind impatient. / An understanding simple and unschool'd” (1.2.97), regarding the inevitability of death. The second instance occurs in Hamlet's second soliloquy, when he eliminates inward pain derived from thought by suddenly noting and then abandoning the mode of thought engendering the pain. Here Hamlet abruptly interrupts a humiliating train of thought alleging his own cowardice in not dispatching the loathed Claudius:

This is most brave. That I … Must like a whore unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing like a very drab. A scullion! Fie upon't! Foh! About, my brains,


A third instance occurs in Gertrude's closet, when the Ghost commands Hamlet to distract Gertrude from the “amazement” (3.4.112) of seeing her son discourse to the vacant air: “Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works” (3.4.113-14). A fourth instance of the recognition and subsequent modification of thought causing inward pain concerns Hamlet's misgiving prior to duelling with Laertes. After dismissing his feeling as “a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman” (5.2.211-12), he dispels the emotion altogether by thinking of the encompassing design of “providence” (5.2.215).

The implications of the relation between inward pain and thought can be deepened by reference to the “To be” soliloquy. The great irony of that speech concerns “the pale cast of thought” (3.1.85). Hamlet castigates thought for inhibiting the implementation of an enterprise (suicide) designed to eliminate inward pain. But as the examples just cited suggest, the proper means of allaying inward pain is not recourse to “desperate appliance” (Claudius' term), conceived by thought under the influence of emotional pain, but modification of the mode of thought creating that pain. Further consideration of the “To be” soliloquy will clarify this point. For according to the “argument” (3.2.227) there presented, “to be” involves inevitable and varied modes of “heart-ache” (3.1.62) which problematize the value of life, and make death seem more appealing. In this context, to restore value to life—to make life worth living for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of avoiding the ills in death “we know not of” (3.1.81)—is to adopt a mode of thought which does not maximize inward pain.

A further problem arises with respect to preoccupation with inward pain. In the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, inward pain seeks relief through outward expression; for without such release, inward pain intensifies:

Tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow … because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it; but if it be allowed to escape, the soul's intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why when men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged

(I-II, q. 38, a. 2, resp., …).

But recourse to outward expression for the relief of inward pain can subject its audience to tremendous strain and can moreover, if sufficiently forceful, become inflammatory. A relevant example concerns the emotional upheaval provoked by the deliberately exaggerated display of emotion demanded by the theatrical imperative dominant, as earlier noted, in the world of the play: “Make mad the guilty and appal the free, / Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.558-60). Another example concerns Hamlet's false madness. Through it, he gives unrestrained vent to inward pain regarding moral corruption, regardless of the shattering effect of his words on his auditors. Indeed, Ophelia becomes the primary victim of such onslaught: “O woe is me / T'have seen what I have seen, see what I see” (3.1.162-63). This circumstance gives deeper meaning to Claudius' alarm regarding Hamlet: “Hazard so near us as doth hourly grow / Out of his brows” (3.3.6-7). On the level now under consideration, the thinking process which appears to “grow out of Hamlet's brows” does constitute a hazard. For the inward pain produced by this thought demands outward expression which, in turn, threatens its witnesses (such as the impressionable Ophelia) with emotional devastation.

Yet, Hamlet's thinking process also has positive implications. For through it, on many occasions, he moves beyond the mode of thought causing inward pain. The most remarkable expression of positive development in Hamlet's thinking concerns his frequent association with a higher power of intellection than that which mere thinking can achieve. For example, on hearing from the Ghost the secret of Claudius' crime, Hamlet responds: “O my prophetic soul” (1.5.41). Later, when Claudius hints of “purposes” of which Hamlet is ignorant, Hamlet responds: “I see a cherub that sees them” (4.3.50, 51). This situation implies the inverse of the Freudian notion of the unconscious. For here the crucial level of mental activity operates, not beneath conscious awareness, but above it. In other words, Hamlet's cognitive activity recalls what the Augustinian epistemological tradition (continued in High Scholasticism by St. Bonaventure) calls illumination, wherein a higher power of rationality informs or illumines a lower one, enabling it to know that which is beyond its proper power of intellection.

The relevant point for us here is not that the play dramatizes the Augustinian notion of illumination, but that Hamlet himself is repeatedly associated with mental awareness that exceeds his own unaided cognitive powers. Indeed, Hamlet himself associates the Ghost with the provoking of “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls” (1.4.56). The ultimate consequence of this aptitude to transcend the limitations of unaided thought concerns Hamlet's release from emotions caused by uncertainty regarding the future.

Discussion of this topic must begin with further consideration of Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine. According to Aquinas, inward pain which is caused by the apprehension of an unforeseeable evil or source of harm is called anxiety: “because they cannot be foreseen … future misfortunes are feared, and fear of this kind is called anxiety” (I-II, q. 42, a. 4, resp.). Another name for this type of inward pain is perplexity: “anxiety which weighs on the mind, so as to make escape seem impossible … is also called perplexity” (I-II, q. 35, a. 8, resp.). The first scene of Hamlet dramatizes a world charged with precisely this kind of anxiety or perplexity, with respect to “the omen coming on” (1.1.126). Here, that which is unforeseeable pertains to “future misfortunes” (to requote Aquinas' term), which are independent of the mind, and can be neither anticipated nor deflected by it. But the most celebrated expression in the play of anxiety or perplexity regarding the inability to escape future misfortunes is the “To be” soliloquy, which concerns the inward pain caused by apprehending the inevitability of “outrageous fortune” (3.1.58). In that soliloquy, anxiety or perplexity (in the Thomist sense of these terms) regarding future misfortunes in life is compounded by anxiety or perplexity regarding future misfortunes in death: “For in sleep of death what dreams may come” (3.1.66).

Yet Hamlet moves toward a way of thinking which deals differently with unforeseen circumstance. Whereas in the “To be” soliloquy the apprehension of unforeseen circumstance is the cause of anxiety, Hamlet later in the play makes awareness of unforeseen circumstance a cause of emotional delectation, as when relishing the challenge of outwitting a cunningly unpredictable adversary: “O. 'tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet” (3.4.211-12). Moreover, when Hamlet accepts the challenge to duel against Laertes, awareness of unforeseen circumstance affords Hamlet emotional peace (“Let be” 5.2.220), after a brief registration of anxiety or “gaingiving” (5.2.211), as we have seen.

The process we have just analyzed, whereby one emotional state is converted into its contrary (here, anxiety converted into peace) is crucial in the development of Hamlet. Indeed, such transformation is perhaps the most profound result of the intense thinking process that “doth hourly grow / Out of his brows” (3.3.6-7). In this context, the proper relation between reason and emotion depends not only on the rational control of emotion by reason, as in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, but also on the conversion of negative emotion (inward pain) by altering or overcoming the way of thinking causing it.

In the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, the dominant principle regarding the proper relation of emotion to reason is moderation or the disposition to choose the mean between contrary extremes or excesses: “virtue must have the quality of aiming at the intermediate” (Aristotle 14-15). Hence, according to Aristotle, “the appetitive element in the temperate man should harmonize with the rational principle …” (Aristotle 15-16). Aquinas concurs: “it pertains to the perfection of man's good that his passions be moderated by reason (I-II, q. 24, a. 3, resp.). Hamlet endorses this doctrine, as when he exhorts Gertrude to curb her lustful passion for Claudius (“Refrain tonight” 3.4.167) or when he commends Horatio's ability to commeddle “blood and judgment” (3.2.69). In fact, in referring elsewhere to Claudius' incontinence, Hamlet even seems (though this cannot be proven) to allude to a passage from the Nichomachean Ethics: “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage” (3.3.89, …). For here the words, “drunk asleep” echo those with which Aristotle designates the incontinent man who, by acting without reference to reason, is “like the man who is asleep or drunk” (14, 15).

But, as we have seen, with respect to Hamlet himself continence is ultimately associated with the role of reason not in moderating emotion (as Aristotle emphasizes), but in transforming it. This distinction is epitomized by the contrast between Horatio and Hamlet—in one, reason and emotion “are so well commeddled” (3.2.69): in the other, reason transforms emotion through altering the “pale cast of thought” which provokes it. The Aristotelian-Thomist notion that, as Dadlez puts it, “cognitions are necessary constituents of emotion” underpins this process of transformation in the play (17).

Perhaps the most spectacular instance in the play of thought provoking emotion concerns Hamlet's stratagem to “catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.601) through performance of a drama which duplicates the crime of which the Ghost has accused him. In Thomistic doctrine, conscience is construed as “nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action,” and as such can provoke powerful emotion, such as remorse (I-II, q. 19, a. 6, resp.). Claudius' reaction after watching a truncated performance of The Murder of Gonzago is a case in point: “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (3.3.36).

Unwittingly, Hamlet suggests another interpretation of conscience that goes beyond the Thomistic notion of right application of knowledge to some action: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50, …). In the immediate context, Hamlet appears here to dismiss the notion of intrinsic moral value in favor of a moral relativism wherein the distinction between good and evil derives solely from the particular perspective of the agent in question. But in the context of the Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine regarding the role of reason in provoking emotion. Hamlet's remark gains deeper implications. For insofar as thinking does determine “good or bad,” it also provokes emotion since, in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, good and evil are themselves defined in terms of the appetitive response which their apprehension or cognition provokes: “For the apprehension of the good gives rise to one kind of movement in the appetite, while the apprehension of evil gives rise to another …” (II-II. q. 158, a. 2, resp.). Here, by distinguishing between “good or bad,” “thinking” moves the appetite, and movement of the appetite is precisely that in which emotion, as defined in the Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis, consists: “Passion is a movement of the sensitive appetite when we imagine good or evil; in other words, passion is a movement of the irrational soul, when we think of good or evil” (Aquinas quoting Damascene in a passage which we quoted earlier).

Insofar as thinking moves the appetite and thus provokes emotion, it is crucial that thinking itself be properly ordered. The highest task of conscience in Hamlet concerns the moral evaluation not only of the objects of thought or apprehension, but also of the act of thinking about those objects. Indeed, Hamlet foregrounds this problem when criticizing his own thinking about revenge: “Now whether it be / Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on th'event” (4.4.39-40). Thus, the relation between reason and emotion in the play cannot here be summed up in the Thomistic dictum, quoted earlier, that “all the passions of the soul should be regulated according to the rule of reason …” (I-II, q. 39, a. 2, ad 1) There remains the responsibility of thought to recognize the emotional consequences of its own activity.


  1. Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins. All quotations from Hamlet pertain to this edition, and will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952). All quotations from The Summa Theologica pertain to this edition, and will be indicated parenthetically in the text.

  3. For further discussion of the theatrical imperative in Hamlet, see Eric P. Levy, “Nor th'exterior nor the inward man: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet” (716-19).

  4. A modern reformulation of this Christian-humanist tenet is provided by Nathaniel Lawrence and Daniel O'Connor eds., in Readings in Existential Phenomenology: “Feelings may be said to be that aspect of consciousness which most proximately draws our attention to our bodiliness …” (14)

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1952.

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Trans. W. D. Ross. New York: Random House, 1941.

Campbell, Lily Bess. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961.

Dadlez, E. M. What's Hecuba to Him?: Fictional Events and Actual Emotions. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1997.

Gilson. Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Trans. L. K. Shook. New York: Octagon, 1956.

Gilsonm, Etienne. The Philospohy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Ed. G. A. Elrington. Trans, Edward Bullough. Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1937.

Jenkins, Harold, ed. Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Lawrence, Nathaniel and Daniel O'Connor eds. Readings in Existential Phenomenology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967.

Levy, Eric P. “Nor th'exterior nor the inward man: The Problematics of Personal Identity in Hamlet.University of Toronto Quarterly 68.3 (1999): 711-27.

Low, Jennifer. “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet.Centennial Review 43.3 (1999): 501-12.

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

Wilks, John S. “The Discourse of Reason: Justice and the Erroneous Conscience in Hamlet.Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 117-44.

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512


Cohen, Michael M. “The Deceitful Hamlet.” Upstart Crow 1, no. 1 (fall 1978): 41-52.

Demonstrates that although Hamlet professes to be disgusted by duplicity and hypocrisy, he excels at deceiving others throughout the play. Cohen concludes that Hamlet's participation in deceit reveals that the play uncovers more moral problems than it resolves.

Elliott, G. R. Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet as Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965, 208 p.

Book-length study of Hamlet as a poetic drama. Elliott contends that the play's meaning is revealed through its structure and sequence, and thus adopts a scene-by-scene analysis.

Fendt, Gene. Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? An Essay on a Question in Kierkegaard. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999, 264 p.

Examines the possibility that Hamlet should be viewed as a Christian tragedy, and explores the characterization of Hamlet and his delay.

Graves, Neil. “‘Even for an Eggshell’: Hamlet and the Problem of Fortinbras.” Upstart Crow 2 (fall 1979): 51-63.

Investigates several problems related to the character of Fortinbras, including: questions pertaining to Fortinbras's name and his claim to Denmark's throne; the issue of Fortinbras's nature and role in the play, including his role as a foil and his significance in the play's resolution; and the play's stage history, including the casting and cutting of Fortinbras's character.

Lavender, Andy. Hamlet in Pieces: Shakespeare Reworked: Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, Robert Wilson. London: Nick Hern Books, 2001, 260 p.

Examines several unorthodox productions of Hamlet, including productions that are narrowly focused on various aspects of the play, rather than productions of the play as a whole.

Maquerlot, Jean-Pierre. “Hamlet: Optical Effects.” In Shakespeare and the Mannerist Tradition: A Reading of Five Problem Plays, pp. 87-117. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Study of the play as representative of the Mannerist style, in which Shakespeare employed techniques similar to those used by Mannerist painters of the sixteenth century.

Norford, Don Parry. “‘Very Like a Whale’: The Problem of Knowledge in Hamlet.ELH 46, no. 4 (winter 1979): 559-76.

Examines the eye and ear as organs of knowledge in the play, demonstrating that Shakespeare appeared to be using a phenomenological approach to the issue.

Prior, Moody E. “The Thought of Hamlet and the Modern Temper.” ELH 15, no. 4 (December 1948): 261-85.

Uses the character of Hamlet and the philosophical problems he considers as a means of exploring Shakespeare's philosophical views.

Rosenblatt, Jason P. “Aspects of the Incest Problem in Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 29, no. 3 (summer 1978): 349-64.

Examines the religious and biblical bases for Hamlet's charge of incest against his uncle and mother, and demonstrates that incest in Hamlet is not only a specific offense but is also symbolic of both religious and political corruption in general.

Simmons, James R., Jr. “‘In the Rank Sweat of an Enseamed Bed’: Sexual Aberration and the Paradigmatic Screen Hamlets.” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 111-18.

Analyzes several film versions of Hamlet that focus on Hamlet's sexual aberrations or perversions.

Thomas, Gordon K. “Speaking of Reason to the Danes.” Upstart Crow 1, no. 1 (fall 1978): 69-73.

Attempts to better understand the role of reason in Hamlet by studying the various ways Shakespeare used the word “reason” in the play.

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