Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


In addition to being his most popular tragedy, Hamlet (c. 1600) is Shakespeare's most frequently analyzed play. In fact, critics have noted that Hamlet has inspired more critical writing than any other work of Western literature. The play recounts the murder of a Danish king, apparently at the hands of his brother, and the subsequent emotional turmoil that his son, Prince Hamlet, undergoes as he struggles with the idea of vengeance. Critical opinion about the central characters in the play—for example, Polonius, and even Hamlet—has evolved over the centuries, while scholars have continued to examine the play's poetic and rhetorical devices, and its treatment of the themes of politics, power, and friendship. Commentators are also interested in the connection between the plot of Hamlet and contemporary changes in Renaissance England as it prepared to enter the early modern era under the rule of an aging queen.

Although character studies of Hamlet have been popular since the play's inception, critics have shown renewed interest in the personalities of several characters in the play, reinterpreting many of them. Catharine R. Stimpson (2002), for example, rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider whose downfall comes as the result of “overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.” Polonius, she concludes, could easily be imagined living today, although instead of being killed he would be investigated for political or personal indiscretions and “forced to resign.” Prince Hamlet's characterization comes under new scrutiny by John Hardy (see Further Reading), who contends that what makes Hamlet such a memorable character is his “unpretentiousness” as well as his sincere attempt to seek the truth. Hardy asserts that it is not moral weakness or melancholy that distinguishes the Prince, but his moral strength and “an uncompromising honesty”—both of which lead him to think carefully before acting. Ronald Knowles (1999) asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and notes that Hamlet's “unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.”

Hamlet remains Shakespeare's most popular play on stage and screen. Many recent productions have distinguished themselves by updating the setting of the play, thereby, some critics suggest, making Hamlet more accessible to modern audiences. In his review of Campbell Scott's 2001 filmed version, Ken Eisner (2001) observes that the relocation of the action to a mansion on the brink of World War I enhances the play's theme of aristocracy—and by extension the monarchy—in irreversible decline. Patrick Carnegy (2001) discusses the effect on the audience of a barefooted, t-shirted Hamlet and Laertes in Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production, especially when contrasted with “the world of suits” represented by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their master, Claudius. Carnegy warns that while Pimlott succeeded in providing theatergoers with an intimate connection to the play, he risked portraying Prince Hamlet as immature. Elvis Mitchell (2000) examines Michael Almereyda's 2000 cinematic release of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as the Prince and notes that “Hamlet is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.” The critic finds that the transfer of action to twentieth-century Wall Street works well, but argues that Hawke's Hamlet wastes too much time in adolescent “moping.” Reviewing the same film, Peter Rainer (see Further Reading) contends that Almereyda's focus on Hamlet's similarities to the world of corporate New York occurs at the expense of the play's other themes.

Two themes of particular concern to critics who study Hamlet are those of politics and power, especially as they relate to the political tensions of Shakespeare's Elizabethan England. Zdravko Planinc (1998) limits his discussion to a definition of power and the ideal ruler, using Plato's Republic as a model. Planinc asserts that the play focuses on three types of leaders, two of whom are faulty. The late King Hamlet, he claims, indulged in acts of plunder after success in battle. The current King Claudius is, among other things, a regicide. Only Prince Hamlet, he contends, has the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king. Larry S. Champion (1993) remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in the play, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne. Like Champion, Donald K. Hedrick (1984) examines the theme of politics and Elizabethan society in his exploration of the play. Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful. Studying the theme of friendship in Hamlet, Keith Doubt notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.

Donald K. Hedrick (essay date spring 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Hedrick, Donald K. “‘It Is No Novelty for a Prince to Be a Prince’: An Enantiomorphous Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 1 (spring 1984): 62-76.

[In the following essay, Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful.]

I shall begin by quarreling with a formulation by R. A. Foakes that has an unassuming and unprovocative appearance, namely that Hamlet is “basically an heroic tragedy … in spite of the elements of satire.”1 What I take exception to is not the view of the play as heroic rather than “dark,” but the phrase “despite the satire,” which implies that satiric and heroic characterization, satiric and heroic temperaments, are essentially incompatible. I wish here to offer historical, literary, and theoretical evidence to the contrary, providing an examination of the special connection between the satiric and the heroic. The satiric and heroic temperaments, and by extension their corresponding literary modes, as I hope to show, are connected in a special way. They are compatible or structurally interdependent but not reducible to a common element. The connection between them to be found in Hamlet derives ultimately, I believe, from a historical dialectic of power and powerlessness within the Renaissance imagination. And I am persuaded, further, that a recognition of this connection and this dialectic has implications for the general issue of character consistency in Shakespeare.2


There are probably many reasons why the satiric-heroic link in Hamlet has been insufficiently explored. I do not intend to examine them exhaustively here, though such an examination might be an instructive means of showing that the more solid a critical opinion is, the more solid an obstacle it tends to become for later researchers traveling along the same lines of inquiry. Such an examination might also reveal some of the distortions that arise when analyses of literary works are limited to merely literary categories, such as satire and tragedy. For the present, however, I am content to offer only a brief chronicle of relevant critical moments, hoping that these will suffice as introduction to an interpretive problem in character consistency.

The story spans a century of criticism from 1880 on, with stops at 1906, 1943, and 1959. It begins with Swinburne's essays on Shakespeare, where we find the assertion that Hamlet is “almost more of a satirist than a philosopher.”3 Then, at the turn of the century, in a study of the dramatic tradition of the Elizabethan satiric persona by the arch-conventionalist E. E. Stoll, we find the thesis implicit in the title of an influential article: “Shakespeare, Marston and the Malcontent Type.”4 Next, in 1943, we find O. J. Campbell drawing parallels between Hamlet and the conventions of comical satire, noting (1) Hamlet's tendency to turn to the “familiar weapons of the mocking satirist,” (2) Hamlet's sex nausea, corresponding to that of Marston's scourge, and (3) Hamlet's satiric discourse, attacking old age, women, lust, flatterers, the age, would-be gentlemen, and even human life itself.5 By Campbell's time, while not considered to be a part of the satiric tradition proper, Hamlet is nevertheless considered to be indebted to that tradition.

Then, finally, in his full treatment of the genre of satire, in 1959, we find Alvin Kernan stressing parallels between the blood-revenger's sword and poison and the satirist-surgeon's probe and medicine.6 Kernan finds other parallels to the satiric tradition in Hamlet's role as “scourge and minister,” in Hamlet's reading of the “satirical rogue” (Juvenal), in the compared portraits of Old Hamlet and Claudius, and in Hamlet's mocking exchanges in the graveyard. But Kernan cuts his analysis short because Hamlet seems to him to be a figure of atypically heroic stature, too sensitive and complex for satire proper. He is, in a word, tragic. As such, this satirist is not the deformed type that Kernan's approach, implicit in his title The Cankered Muse, happens to emphasize.

The unintended consequence of this line of argument, it seems to me, is to short-circuit a useful inquiry into Hamlet as a figure in whom satiric and heroic elements reside in complementary relation. The description of the Prince that I wish to propose is one that is not radically new, but one that has thus far remained submerged in some mistaken assumptions underlying earlier critical studies. I believe that we have given undue attention to the “deformed” side of the satirist, owing to the widespread assumption that the satiric role is inappropriate for a hero. And I believe that that assumption, in turn, has led to the mistaken view that if the heroic is present in a play like Hamlet, it is present “in spite of the satire.”

That the satiric and the heroic need not be considered mutually exclusive can be argued from evidence in three areas: (1) satiric tradition, (2) didactic and dramatic traditions involving princely exemplars whose satiric attitudes are either accepted or endorsed, and (3) the ubiquitous Elizabethan material about Alexander the Great and Diogenes the Cynic.

For analysis of the pertinence of these areas to Hamlet, I must also introduce two principles or “audience strategies” not confined to literary categories: (1) a principle of the courtly aesthetics of disguise, with particular bearing on the dialectic of power and powerlessness,7 a principle which I term “translucency”; and (2) that same principle adapted to the field of characterization, and manifest in figures that I term “enantiomorphous.” Alexander and Diogenes, the paired figures who provide the paradigm for the characterization of Hamlet, are enantiomorphous figures: that is, they are left and right-handed versions of one another, having the same shape, even though they are not superposable. Such pairs can be thought of as characters whose makeup, though not their behavior, is the same.8


Power, as Robert Elliott has instructed us,9 is the object to which Elizabethan verse-satire dedicates itself. What this means is that satire seeks power both over the reader and over the objects of rebuke. As the embodiment of such power, the satiric persona is often portrayed as a heroic pugilist, a soldier wielding satiric words as his sword, whip, or dagger. The ideal image of the satirist is, as Maynard Mack notes, “the Stoic vir bonus, the good plain man.”10 In order to rebuke the vices in others, the conveyer of invective must himself be unspotted. Puttenham has this principle in mind when he traces the origins of satire to virtuous poets—poets who are very different from the deformed satirist that we see, for instance, in Marston's Scourge of Villainie.

A common theme among Renaissance satirists is the virtue of magnanimity, a term that should be construed as right power and self-confidence, necessarily conjoined to a restraint of that power. A typical instance of satire's appropriation of magnanimity is illustrated by Jonson's assurance that he could make his readers hang themselves if he chose to.11 Such a posture with respect to power, one should notice, is fully compatible with aristocratic disdain. But this kind of self-assurance has the potential of coming across as self-righteousness in dramatic representation, so Shakespeare punctuates the satiric comments of Hamlet with a pattern of self-deprecatory comments. Hamlet's self-satire makes him seem less tyrannical than unrelieved invective would make him appear, and in doing so it legitimizes his function as heroic satirist. When Hamlet brutally turns on himself, saying “but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me” (III.i.122-24),12 we are reminded that he is not deluded into thinking himself faultless, and that his disdain need not be self-serving.

Now, just as noble temperament was considered fitting in a satirist, so satiric or ironic temperament was considered fitting in a prince—an idea expressed in a number of Renaissance works promoting self-development. In Castiglione, for instance, the satiric vein is presented as an attribute of the classical rulers and philosophers who are upheld as exemplars of virtue, men of “noble courage.” As Castiglione puts it, “the kinde of jeasting that is somewhat grounded upon scoffing seemeth verie meete for great men.”13 Similarly, in The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus recommends the cynical temperament as exemplified by Diogenes, whom Erasmus admires as a “philosophic spirit … proud, unbroken, unconquered.” That encomium is significantly situated after Erasmus' exemplum of Diogenes' noble impudence to Alexander—the incident in which the prickly philosopher, having been offered anything he wants from Alexander, replies by asking Alexander to move out of his sunlight.14

As Hamlet impudently retorts to Claudius about how the Prince is “too much in the sun,” Shakespeare may be offering us a glancing allusion to this famous retort, this response of the powerless to the powerful. Nor should we overlook the figure of Faulconbridge in King John. Faulconbridge, generally taken to be the satirist figure of that play, is the character most inherently noble and, by implication, most capable of ruling. Significantly, the Queen speaks of discovering in him “the very spirit of Plantagenet!” (I.i.167), and not in any lofty or superior bearing he exhibits, but rather in his carefree joking about his own illegitimacy. And finally, in another piece of contemporaneous evidence, the protagonist of Marston's Antonio's Revenge is told that, if he is forced into disguise, he ought at least to play the role of a malcontent or a satirist. Either of those roles would be more noble or “elate” than that of a fool:

Fie, 'tis unsuiting to your elate spirit.
Rather put on some trans-shap'd cavalier,
Some habit of a spitting critic, whose mouth
Voids nothing but gentle and unvulgar
Rheum of censure. …(15)

Through his own style of madness (however feigned or real we take it to be), Hamlet makes apparent the “elate” quality of his own mind, even when that “noble mind” is “o'erthrown.” His unquenchable scoffing appears as an impresa of, not a contradiction to, his heroic spirit.

The third kind of literary evidence for the interlacing of the satiric and the heroic, and for the conjunction of the two in a single character in Shakespeare's play, is the abundance of Elizabethan literary lore about Diogenes, a Cynic who is usually paired with Alexander. Diogenes appears regularly in Elizabethan-Jacobean verse-satires, where occasionally, as in Marston's “Cynicke Satyre,” he is himself a satiric persona. John Lievsay has collected for us a number of the relevant popular Diogenes legends, many of which are echoed in the moments of satiric improvisation that resonate throughout Hamlet.16

As everyone knows, Diogenes carried a lantern about Athens in broad daylight, telling all observers that he was in search of an honest man. Honesty is Hamlet's highest value as well, and he often seems engaged in an equivalent search, either for exemplars of honesty or for the meaning of honesty. We recall his test of Ophelia's “honesty” (III.i); his ironic line to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he will speak to them “like an honest man” (II.ii.265), which occurs in the very scene where he directly confronts them about their reasons for coming to Elsinore; and the Polonius-like sententia he directs to Polonius: “Ay, sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand” (II.ii.178).

Diogenes, dramatizing both his independence from society and his self-sufficiency, lived outside of Athens in a tub or barrel; and so he was represented pictorially in the Renaissance. Hamlet, to dramatize his lack of ambition, tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he could live in a nutshell and “count myself a king of infinite space” (II.ii.252). But Diogenes has an ambition peculiar to himself, an ambition that signifies his status as repressed ruler. Shakespeare and his audience may have recalled the incident when Diogenes is captured and sold into slavery. To a prospective buyer, who asks him what he is good at, Diogenes responds curtly, “I govern men.” At a moment of utter powerlessness, Diogenes asserts a claim to absolute power. His comment, and others like it, embodies the structural interdependence of master and slave, the powerful and the powerless.17

The enantiomorphous relation between satirist and prince is especially pronounced in works that pair Diogenes with Alexander. The reversibility of their roles is implied in Alexander's famous dictum, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes”—a provocative statement deconstructing their differences. In some versions of Diogenes' life, the two men are even said to have died on the same day. John Lyly portrays them both in Campaspe (1584), where they help him explore the theme of true kingliness, a theme usually present in Renaissance representations of the powerful.18 In many of the literary treatments of Diogenes, the philosopher is depicted as a ruler out of work. As such, he functions as a check to kings, just as Hamlet acts as check to Claudius, who is the very reason that the Prince is only a prince. In a Jacobean life of Diogenes written by William Stafford, the philosopher is even said to exceed Alexander in Alexander's characteristic virtue—magnanimity.19 This Aristotelian virtue would seem to be least available to powerless figures such as Diogenes. But as it happens, the marginalized philosopher signals the potential for such powerlessness to assume a privileged position over power.

As a ruler out of work, Diogenes thus provides a functional model for Hamlet, who encompasses within himself the Diogenes/Alexander paradigm.20 In Hamlet, of course, Shakespeare had the advantage of a plot in which the ruler was literally out of work: Claudius having popped in between the election and Hamlet's hopes, the Prince is permitted the luxury of becoming Diogenian by circumstances, a role he relishes immensely.

We find the resonance, if not the actual influence, of the Diogenes/Alexander or satiric/heroic paradigm throughout the play. First we see that Hamlet's scorn of flattery is everywhere matched by his “free speech”—“free” here in the double sense of openly satiric as well as noble. (Hamlet's sustained and intelligent insolence to illegitimate authority is equaled only by his deep admiration of the rare honesty of a Horatio.) When Hamlet makes comparisons to Hercules, he is citing the hero who was considered by Cynic philosophers to be the highest embodiment of virtue. And, then finally, in the graveyard scene, when Hamlet seems most Hamlet-like, he leaps across time to scoff once more at Alexander and Alexander's conclusion in dust: “Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'th' earth?” For a moment Hamlet is transformed into the historical Diogenes. Even his diction takes on a lower-class intonation. Language can itself become a translucent disguise when Hamlet's high, heroic style is obscured by common style.


The conflation of complementary but non-identical roles in Hamlet (here satirist-scourge and prince-minister) is in keeping with a more general aesthetic principle in Elizabethan drama and spectacle, a principle that may have evolved from conventions of disguise in the tradition of the masque. This tradition culminates in plays such as Hamlet and The Malcontent. (I argue elsewhere that The Malcontent portrays a comparably disguised ruler who is less psychologically refined than Hamlet.21) Although the principle of decorum governing masques and other entertainments required dramatic roles that members of royalty could play without ceasing to be royal,22 there was a different decorum, a counter-decorum, allowing even rulers to “ungrace” themselves on occasion by donning less than noble disguises—as long as those disguises only partly concealed their nobility.

This composite audience strategy for “ungracing” I term translucency. For a typical instance of translucency, we may note the stylized shepherd's costume worn by Henry VIII in a court entertainment during his reign. In its materials—“fine cloth of gold and fine crimson satin paned,”23 with beards made out of gold wire, silver, or black silk for all the gentlemen—we have a socially symbolic gesture in which the elegance of the materials deliberately contradicts the social station depicted, thus offsetting a potential breach of decorum. Or, we might consider Jonson's Masque of Blackness, for which Queen Anne and her entourage chose to paint themselves in blackface, but with refined costumes and jewelry that were explicitly intended to contrast with dark skin color.

Men of lower social rank could “ungrace” themselves more fully in royal spectacle, without the requirement of translucency. This was the case when hundreds of French merchants, seamen, and adventurers dressed themselves as Brazilian Indians to inhabit a mock-village built for the royal entry of Henri II into Rouen in 1550. (Although not translucent, the pageant was nevertheless a composite spectacle,24 since fifty real Indians were imported to make the village seem more convincing.)

A translucent disguise must combine discrepancy with identity, as does the combination of roles depicted in the prince-satirist. In a passage that calls for fuller historical explication by students of Continental masquing, Castiglione analyzes the convention of discrepant role-playing in masques, noting that “It is no noveltie at all to any man for a prince to be a prince.”25 Castiglione goes on to analyze the aesthetics of power-effacement, the technique permitting a gentleman to debase himself physically or socially. As in the English examples, the licensed debasement described by Castiglione requires a disguise that is only partial—that is, a costume that is translucent. As such, the costume will act on spectators in two ways, simultaneously signifying both authority and authority's absence. Thus, to take Castiglione's example, a young man may disguise himself in an old man's attire, but only in such a manner that his garments are not “a hindrance to him to show his nimbleness of person.” The power of agility, abstracted from its usual context, is thus emphasized. The point of the practice is twofold. First, the admiration of the spectators is to be increased: “… when they behold afterwarde a far greater matter to come of it than they looked for under that attire, it delyteth them.” And second, a prince by this means can display his innate worth: he can prove that his stature is not simply the result of his having a title. In Castiglione's terms, “… in this point the prince stripping himselfe of the person of a prince … let him challenge a greater superioritie, namely, to passe other men, not in authoritie, but in vertue, and declare that the prowesse is not encreased by his being a prince.” The final result, in other words, is a legitimation of “authoritie,” through an authorized debasement that upholds it.

Two examples from Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller provide important variants on this practice.26 In one of them, a St. Paul's Day pageant at Rome, the parade includes cripples and deformed people who are, apparently without grotesque intent, dressed up in extravagantly fine costumes—a translucency that inverts the convention by showing baseness through magnificence instead of magnificence through baseness. The other is a suggestion made by the narrator that a wealthy nobleman should dress in humble and plain clothes for a public appearance, but should at the same time be accompanied by a retainer who dresses richly. Once again we find a composite spectacle that provides the requisite discrepancy for an audience strategy of translucency, whose purpose here is to reveal both wealth and true nobility. Through a complicated system of different levels of representation, the device operates through a tripartite structure of signs: (1) the nobleman's magnificence in reality (i.e.; his authority in wealth and honor); (2) the effacement of those signs on his person for this occasion; and (3) those signs displaced here to the man who accompanies him. In this representational system, the well-dressed retainer is, in brief, the nobleman's true clothing. Innate worth is thereby culturally reproduced.

Such instances of the rhetoric of spectating lead us into the sphere of Renaissance politics, where we find the same careful appropriation and reconstruction of the images of power. That these strategies of legitimation were deeply ingrained in the political unconscious of Elizabethan England is evident from a retrospective analysis of Elizabeth's reign by Francis Bacon, who astutely observes what I have termed “discrepancy” in the situation of a woman in power over a manly state. Here is another structurally composite spectacle, maintained not for the duration of a single pageant but throughout an entire reign—a spectacle in which a peaceful woman is surrounded by pugnacious subjects who are said to have a “genius for war”:

… I think it very material to reflect over what sort of people she bore the sway, for had her government been over the Palmyrenians, or any other soft and unmanly nation of Asia, it had been a less wonder, since a female in the throne would be suitable enough to an effeminate people, but to have all things move and be directed by a woman's nod in England, a nation so fierce and warlike; this, I say, justly raises our highest admiration.27

Here the political effect is shown to be the result of a spectating effect, as indicated by the terms Bacon uses: “wonder” and “admiration.”

The aesthetics of courtly, political spectating are validated in Hamlet by Shakespeare's dramatization of circumstances that offer Alexander a chance to be Diogenes. The aesthetics of disguise become the principle of characterization. As Hamlet alternates scene by scene and line by line between the enantiomorphous roles of hero and satirist, he demonstrates his potential for legitimate rule. The audience is thus prepared to credit Fortinbras' conclusion, at the end of the play, that Hamlet “was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal” (V.ii.386-87). But this display of princely legitimacy legitimizes in turn the actor who plays Hamlet. For the alternation of roles within a single part corresponds exactly to an Elizabethan actor's alternation of roles when he must double parts. Thus, our gratitude to Shakespeare for Hamlet is a gratitude to the peculiar Elizabethan theatrical pressure for spectacular, tour de force doubling of parts by the worthiest actors, who thereby prove their worth.


My intention in considering Hamlet in these terms is not so much to press the case for his heroism, an often defended though arguable position, nor to catalogue every possibly satiric element in his characterization, though such elements deserve further study.28 Rather, I wish to explore old territory from the new perspective provided by a theoretical framework (1) that takes into account the rhetoric of Renaissance spectating, and (2) that employs a structural approach to character inconsistency. The rhetorical and structural analysis of character that I here employ suggests a corresponding link between satiric and heroic literature. And it therefore seems appropriate that the form of heroic action for Hamlet turns out to be a dramatic enactment of the structure of satire.

Translated into drama, verse-satire becomes a plot of exposure or dishumouring. To achieve such exposure, Hamlet is motivated more to deflate than to blood-let.29 Though by no means afraid of blood, action, or violence, he is nevertheless, to vary Swinburne's insight, more of a satirist than a revenger. When he reacts to the Ghost's revelation by crying out “O my prophetic soul!” we see the appropriate response of a satirist whose occupational hunches have just been confirmed. When he engages himself in devising the mousetrap, his sensibility is pointedly that of a satirist, for whom revenge is attractive only insofar as it is also exposure. His plan is heavily informed by satiric tradition: it relies on a traditional notion of the power of satire's “mirror” (i.e., the imitation of personal vices) to make the conscience of the victim reveal his crimes. Hamlet's is also a satirist's sensibility when he recalls hearing 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 proclaimed their malefactions” (II.ii.575-78). And his strategy in devising the playlet depends upon the traditional satiric ideal of personal “application”—a theory that both legitimizes and makes dangerous any use of invective (“we that have free souls, it touches us not”—[III.ii.233]).

But the plan is radically idealistic. After all, no one in Shakespeare's audience is proclaiming his malefactions upon seeing Hamlet. And Hamlet's excitement at having cholered Claudius tends to obscure the failure of his strictly satirical intention: Claudius does not, in fact, confess. Nor does he have to be played as violent in his reaction; the signals he gives may well be either ambiguous or readable only to Hamlet. Hamlet's sense of his satiric function nonetheless explains his complete satisfaction afterwards: as an agent of dishumouring he has fulfilled his aims completely and needs no immediate strategy for further revenge. Thus, when he responds to Guildenstern, “For me to put him to his purgation would perhaps plunge him into more choler” (III.ii.293-94), we should see that his mind is limited solely to a consideration of satiric effect. As satirist, his point has been to transform (here, medically transform) his victim, and in that he has succeeded.


If we accept the view that Hamlet up to this point is motivated more to expose than to kill, I believe that we are relieved of some of the pressure to account for his “indecision.” Of course, Hamlet's preoccupation with satiric activity, with commentary and deflation, can be seen as a preoccupation that keeps him from the completion of his ultimate task, a preoccupation that cripples other activity. But to argue that Hamlet is too satiric to act would be to approach the generally discarded nineteenth-century argument that he is too philosophical or ethereal to act. I want to resist reviving in any version the old argument, since that argument itself rests heavily on the assumption I wish to challenge here—that the satiric and the heroic are at odds. The old argument depends on an overly narrow notion of heroism as something that consists only of the performance of great actions. The heroism of Hamlet, surely, is a heroism of the spirit, evident throughout the play in his loyalty, energy, integrity, passion for truth, and contempt for all nontheatrical forms of dishonesty. With its contrastingly easy revenger Laertes (not to mention the possibility that it embodies Christian reservations about revenge), Hamlet resists such a narrow notion of heroism. Instead, it depicts a heroism available even to the powerless—indeed perhaps most available to the powerless.

Of course, Hamlet's satiric temperament might be seen as contributing in the long run toward revenge proper, in that it enables him to distinguish friend from foe—testing, identifying, and marking his enemies. But what the satiric elements do for the play as a whole is to contribute to the revenge tradition by redefining or making problematic revenge itself. If, as I contend, Shakespeare is consciously exploring the satiric-heroic paradigm in Hamlet, then Hamlet's satiric action, in demonstrating and producing guilt, is itself appropriately heroic. If an enantiomorphous conjunction is at work in the play, then my argument refines G. B. Harrison's well-known assertion that the famous “delay” of the play does not in fact exist. Harrison argued that there is no real delay in Hamlet, since Hamlet must first test the Ghost's veracity and since afterwards he lacks adequate opportunity to carry out the assassination.30 I would argue that Hamlet does not delay revenging because he is never not revenging.

In my view, Hamlet is engaged in revenge even before he knows it, in the early speeches of the play when he does not know Claudius' actual criminality. When Hamlet describes the signs of mourning as “actions that a man might play” (I.ii.84), he is in the occupational position of most satirists with respect to their audiences. The private crimes of the satirist's listeners, like Claudius' crimes here, are lashed unawares. The satirist produces free-floating critiques that can strike anyone on whom they stick or “apply”; and the audience does not require any particularizing intention for the satirist's efforts to be effective. The action of Hamlet thus becomes a sustained satiric siege on the conscience of Claudius, leading up to his anguish and despair in the Prayer Scene, where, as in satire, guilt and desire for reform are the goals of the dramatist (in this case Hamlet). By enlarging the idea of “revenge” to include satiric-heroic characterization, Shakespeare effects an ingenious innovation in the genre: he grafts the guilt-preoccupation of satire onto the passion-preoccupation of revenge tragedy. Hamlet's satire is thus a kind of revenge, just as his revenge will be a kind of satire.


Hamlet's relations with other characters are thoroughly informed by satiric-heroic action and style. Again and again he exposes people for what they are. In doing so he delights in the formal pattern, so often repeated in this play, of the trickster tricked.31 His baiting of Polonius culminates in a “deflation” through death, for which Hamlet improvises a satiric epitaph on Polonius' transformation from busybody to mere body: “this counsellor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave” (III.iv.214-16). Despite its irony about the victim's “reformation,” we nonetheless observe in this epitaph the genuine reformist intent of Renaissance satire. Hamlet shows the same intent in a moment apart from the revenge plot, when he calls for the players to “reform altogether” their acting style (III.ii.36). He prescribes their dramatic reforms in the same detailed way that he will later prescribe to his mother her sexual reforms.

In the Closet Scene, moreover, the satiric function overrides the heroic. Hamlet forgets or deliberately violates the Ghost's injunction to leave his mother to heaven and to those “thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (I.v.87-88), a phrase employing verse-satire's motif of thorns or nettles as metaphors for the satiric pen. But to leave someone entirely to his own conscience is to negate the entire enterprise of satire. Hamlet must effect reform, and against his mother he must use the imagery typical of satire. He uses language as physical magic, to “speak daggers to her, but use none” (III.ii.381). When the daggers are spoken, the sexual nausea of Hamlet's language calls to mind that of the harshest verse-satire. Combining the purposes of exposure and self-reform, Hamlet chooses for a key metaphor the traditional mirror of satire: “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you” (III.iv.20-21). Gertrude validates this metaphor when she pleads for him to stop: “Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (III.iv.90-92). This is the mirror of Gascoigne's satiric Stele Glas, whose title signifies the counterpart of the crystal glass that flatters. The play's satiric and heroic elements become explicitly conjoined when these “mirrors” are transformed into literal portraits in the same scene. At this point, when Hamlet holds up the miniature paintings, his uncle's portrait is read satirically, his father's heroically.

The satiric and heroic also unite at other key moments. In the violent scene at Ophelia's graveside, Hamlet modulates from the one into the other as his heroic challenge to Laertes evolves into a boasting contest about how much more Hamlet loved Ophelia than did her brother. As he immerses himself in competitive sorrow, Hamlet's boasts partake both of heroic expressiveness and of a comic parody of such beef-witted warriors' boasts: “Woo't fast? woo't tear thyself? / Woo't drink up esill? eat a crocodile? / I'll do't” (V.i.261-64). Here again we sense a shift to the linguistic intonations of the lower class, a shift that serves as another translucent disguise. Such rapid shifts from heroic to satiric modes—so rapid as to explain the dazzled faculties of those who would try to grasp Hamlet's dominant role—account for the linguistic, stylistic, and tonal mixtures within the play.32 The effect is paradoxical here, for Hamlet mocks heroic boasts even as he utters them himself: “Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (V.i.256 ff.) His self-parody retraces the steps of his own passionate earnestness, as if he were holding himself back from excessive emotion even in the process of feeling it.


But if we see in this language the doubleness of satirist and prince, the tonal shift also becomes typical of dialogue throughout the play. Hamlet shifts between mockery and magnanimity in his dealings with Polonius, whom he derides until he tells the players, “Follow that lord, and look you mock him not” (II.ii.529). The players themselves are cordially welcomed and praised, but later they receive Hamlet's biting professional critique. All mankind (satire's ultimate object) undergoes a shift from “angel” to “dust” when Hamlet meditates on that “piece of work,” man (II.ii.300 ff.) And Hamlet castigates mankind again when he responds to Polonius, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?” (II.ii.516). When he follows this question with the directive “Use them after your own honor and dignity,” he has shifted from a satiric view of man's potential to a heroic one, in a modulation that once again is almost too quick to grasp.

The most spectacular of Hamlet's satiric-heroic modulations occurs in the graveyard scene, where the complementary roles of Alexander and Diogenes are opalescent. We see Hamlet the Prince mocking or meditating upon jesters (Yorick), while Hamlet the satirist mocks or meditates upon princes (Alexander the Great and Caesar, who are reduced to dust and to stopping a bunghole in a barrel). He speaks as prince to the Diogenian gravedigger, but as satirist to the Alexandrian Horatio. The scene thus formally reproduces Hamlet's soliloquies elsewhere in the play, suggesting that they are not merely soliloquies but internal conversations between prince and satirist.

Even the Prayer Scene is charged with the satiric and heroic in a compatible mixture. If we take Hamlet at his word when he gives his reasons for not killing Claudius, then he is once again in the occupational position of the satirist; that is, he restrains his power in order the better to expose vice. In doing so he conflates heroic magnanimity with satiric magnanimity—the latter as the conventional satiric disdain uttered by satiric personae who boast about what they could do to their objects of attack, even to the extent of killing them with satiric pens. The rationale Hamlet adopts here is exactly suited to the ways of satire: by waiting for a more opportune moment, Hamlet will expose and deflate the King during what Hamlet feels is the King's most characteristic behavior, some act that will indelibly taint him, some act that has “no relish of salvation in it.” Like a satirist, Hamlet will thus mold Claudius into a story (or, rather, the Renaissance genre of a character, or typical instance of vice), just as Hamlet tends to mold stories out of everyone he encounters. His plan, as he says, is to “trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, / And that his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (III.iii.93-95). Through his choice of words, Hamlet shows that he envisions for Claudius a final satiric dishumouring, a pratfall of damnation.

Ultimately, heroic revenge and satiric exposure are both successful in Hamlet. Conjunction of the two modes of action is delayed until the complementary patterns fully conjoin—that is, when the princely and the satiric acts are most spectacular. Earlier in the play, by contrast, we have only seen opportunities for exposure without revenge, or for revenge without exposure. The spectacle of heroic revenge in the final scene is neatly balanced, moreover, by the non-heroic exposure of the foppish courtier Osric in the preceding scene, where we have a final reminder of the play's debt to satire. In Osric, Shakespeare introduces a satiric character who makes this ignoble world worth the leave-taking, one whom the “drossy age dotes on” and whom Hamlet will mirror in gestural parody and parodic speech. Osric is a translucent, landowner version of the landdigger Clown from the graveyard scene. This comparison—especially pronounced if the opposite roles happen to have been doubled by the same actor in Shakespeare's company—extends to their functions in action and in language. In action they are, respectively, an agent of the grave and an agent of the deathtrap into which Hamlet jumps. In language they are both at the margins of discourse: the one in competitive equivocation, the other in fawning equivocation. In social terms, they represent a legitimacy of the powerless, and an illegitimate power.

The juxtaposition of the last two scenes of Hamlet constitutes a final modulation of satiric to heroic, dependent on the complementary paradigm I have argued here. In a tragic repetition of the comic exposure of Osric, Hamlet will become the efficient agent of the revelation of other characters' natures—Laertes', Gertrude's, Claudius', and Horatio's. These revelations confer on the final scene a dazzling succession of moral episodes, Osric omitted. In effect, Hamlet writes their “characters” for the audience's memory. Conscious of this function, he will devote his final energies to what on the one hand is a conventionally heroic action—keeping his loyal friend Horatio alive. But that same action serves a complementary satiric function in insuring that the villainy Hamlet has brought to light (for the sake of the confused bystanders and for history) is universally published. But of course punishment is, as always, insufficient. As satirist and hero, Hamlet both publishes and perishes, with Horatio as his book and comrade.


Alexandrian magnanimity, as we have seen, is the particular virtue that links satirist and prince, the enantiomorphous roles which in Hamlet are conflated in the strategically interlaced dramatic functions of a single character. In keeping with Castiglione's notion of the decorum of disguise, Shakespeare creates a delightful discrepancy through the spectacle of a prince not being exactly a prince. Moreover, he creates a credibly heroic, legitimized prince through the particular choice of a masking temperament, having discovered that the good prince must be a repressed satirist, the good satirist a repressed prince. The play is therefore “basically heroic,” as I concurred at the beginning, but it becomes so not despite its satire but through its satire. Satire is intrinsic to its design.

At stake theoretically in this reading of an “enantiomorphous Hamlet,” as I suggested earlier, is our interpretive apparatus for describing characterization. I would hope that in examining Shakespearean characters we can now begin to go beyond customary models of “influence” or “character type,” although the present methodology, drawing as it does on traditional materials in literary and theatrical history, does not invalidate those models. What I have tried to demonstrate is how a character in Shakespeare may be studied as an entity whose opposing or inconsistent elements are in a special, functional relationship to one another, in a struggle for power and legitimacy. The linguistic counterpart to this approach to characterization is Bakhtin's idea of dialogism, or competitive elements that inhabit a single discourse in productive violation of unity.33 Through the present approach we can see Hamlet's character more as a mixture than as a type. Or, to carry the logic further, we can see him more as a complex system than as a mixture. Hamlet is, to adapt a traditional aesthetic notion, his own “foil,” whether as prince or as satirist. (“Foil,” however, is a concept less precise than what is needed, since it fails to denote shared features within opposed types.) As we trace the complex knot of Hamlet's inconsistencies through this interpretive strategy, we might do well to keep in mind two statements of Montaigne's: that Montaigne may contradict himself, but he never contradicts the truth; and that human beings may be fundamentally double-souled, thus accounting for their characteristic inconstancy.34 Through his invention of the “system” we know as Hamlet, Shakespeare has produced a rhetorical/aesthetic strategy that makes capital out of inconsistency. As an audience strategy that engages and involves us in this inconsistency, Shakespeare's invention reproduces in us the furor poeticus usually attributed to artistic creation rather than to spectating and interpreting. The play's durability, then, is in part a function of that strategy, whereby artistic power, or a feeling of artistic power, is transferred to an otherwise powerless audience. But surely the case of Hamlet is not unique. Notwithstanding today's prevalent practice of hunting for “unity” within characters, I am persuaded that we only attend to Shakepearean characters, even minor ones, to the extent that they are inconsistent.35

To interpret the Hamlet “system” thus structurally is, I believe, to unfold other areas for future inquiry with respect to theme, action, and relations between characters. The present study necessarily stops short of exploring these ramifications. With respect to the theme of power, for instance, the two competing but complementary natures within a single protagonist translate into a dual, political representation of (1) the princely exercise of power, and (2) the satiric exorcism of power. In this play, the powerless power of the prince is upheld or legitimized by the powerful powerlessness of the satirist, in a political rhetoric of partially effaced power. Audience strategies for spectating, such as translucent disguise and enantiomorphous characterization, support the resulting spectacle of legitimacy. An understanding of such strategies and of they way in which they become politically charged could contribute to a developing “poetics of culture” for the study of Renaissance history.36

Of course, a claim to have plucked out any of Hamlet's character may be taken as interpretive hubris. Anticipating the charge, I can only note in conclusion a typical institutional pattern of experience for the changing interpretations of some work: accounting for a mystery at one level of description only manages to transfer the mystery to other levels of description. What makes an Alexander want to be a Diogenes, for instance, is a mystery still. What makes humans, through contradictory images, aspire to an expanding freedom37 of imagination and spirit and style is another.


  1. R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1971), p. 83.

  2. To leap into the broadest and deepest of pits—the critical issue of Hamlet's character—may seem a presumptuous enterprise at this point in the history of criticism. But I am hopeful that in this, as in life, indiscretion may sometimes serve well and analysis may proceed without becoming limed in every debate about the play. The contradictions of Hamlet's character are a critical commonplace, and the current trend seems to be to acknowledge plural sides to Hamlet, as in Larry Champion's Shakespeare's Tragic Perspective (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 117 et passim. I find two other sources that point in the direction of my interpretation. Erich Auerbach notes Shakespeare's increasing practice in tragedy of mixing styles within the tragic personage himself, in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1953), pp. 315-16. And Inga-Stina Ewbank describes the incongruity within the first court scene of the play by remarking that it seems as if a Jonsonian Masque and a satire were being simultaneously performed. See her “Hamlet and the Power of Words,” Shakespeare Survey, 30 (1977), 94. Such a remark is fruitful in accounting for the particular pluralism within Hamlet. Richard Lanham also sees the play as fundamentally divided between the serious and the playful, but he fails to find a connection between them; See The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976). The present essay seeks to grasp the connection.

    For the same connection as a characteristic accomplishment of the Renaissance, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin is especially valuable. In Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968), p. 6, he cites a traditional instance of the compatibility or interdependence of satiric and heroic modes in early Roman military triumphs, where victorious generals were simultaneously praised and satirized in the songs of those who followed them in the procession. His “dialogic principle,” moreover, corresponds to what concerns me here—the collision of styles within Hamlet's language and character. See Bakhtin's “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination (Austin and London: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981).

  3. A. C. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880), p. 161.

  4. Modern Philology, 3 (1906), 281-303.

  5. Oscar James Campbell, Shakespeare's Satire (London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1943), pp. 150 ff.

  6. Alvin Kernan, The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959).

  7. For my understanding of their dialectical relationship I am indebted to an extremely important work by Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982).

  8. I blush at the lack of euphony of this chemical term, and am sensitive to the proliferation of technical vocabulary in some current literary theory, including work I respect and to which I am indebted. The term is nevertheless an apt metaphor for the special principle of characterization I describe, since it refers to compounds with identical elements in a mirror shape but with different properties. Like characters, they may look and behave differently from one another, but yet have an affinity in their natures. The term “mirror” is insufficiently precise. My ideas about doubling were undoubtedly nurtured at an early stage by Norman Rabkin's “complementarity”—his analogy, from physics, describing Shakespeare's habit of allowing unresolved contradictions. See Rabkin's Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York and London: Macmillan, 1967). But my use of “complementary” in this essay is less philosophical; it is not intended to imply competing values. It implies rather that the mixture is not one of just any two character types. The prince and satirist are both conventionally and logically a pair, compatible or interdependent.

    Both of the metaphors I use to characterize representational conventions or audience strategies—translucency and enantiomorphism—are intended to be provisional terms until others arrive. Yet they can be used for now to challenge a prevailing analogy drawn from the field of perception and advocated by Rabkin: the “duck/rabbit” drawing of a double figure whose two shapes cannot be simultaneously identified. That analogy is usually extended to characterization and to entire plays, as in Rabkin's “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (Summer 1977), 279-96. But there are different ways that things can happen, and there are other conventions, as I hope to show in the case of translucency, for which simultaneity is not only possible but the entire point.

  9. Robert C. Elliott, The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1960).

  10. Maynard Mack, “The Muse of Satire,” in Satire: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Ronald Paulson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971), p. 194. For Stoic doctrine relevant to satire, see Anthony Caputi, John Marston, Satirist (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1961).

  11. Ben Jonson, Poetaster, in The Complete Works of Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), “Apologeticall Dialogue,” ll. 160-62.

  12. Citations refer to the Pelican text of The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969).

  13. Baldessare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561 (London: J. M. Dent, 1928; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1956), Bk. II, p. 160.

  14. Desiderius Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, ed. and trans. by Lester K. Born (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1936), dedicatory epistle to Prince Charles, p. 134.

  15. John Marston, Antonio's Revenge, ed. G. K. Hunter (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1965), IV.i.2-6.

  16. “Some Renaissance Views of Diogenes the Cynic,” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway, Giles E. Dawson, and Edwin E. Willoughby (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), pp. 447-55. George Cary discusses important Medieval aspects of the ongoing Diogenes legends in The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1956), pp. 83-91, 146-49, 253-56. For insight into the contradictory views of Alexander as a problem of historiography versus poetry, see David Quint, “‘Alexander the Pig’: Shakespeare on History and Poetry,” boundary 2, 10 (Spring 1982), 49-67. The slight phonemic difference in Fluellen's mispronunciation of “big” is convincingly shown to be a shift from praise to blame, at the same time signaling a contradiction between history's commitment to objectivity and its reliance on language and style for that objectivity.

  17. See chap. 11, “The Ultimate Slave,” in Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. His historical analysis of the “limiting case” of slavery in which an individual slave can wield extraordinary political power in a state reads like a gloss on this anecdote and on the political significance of Diogenes.

  18. G. K. Hunter, John Lyly, The Humanist as Courtier (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), p. 161.

  19. Anthony Stafford, Staffords Heavenly Dogge (London, 1615), p. 10.

  20. The dual, structural relationship is reproduced in the structure of Erasmus' book of deeds and sayings, Apophthegmata. The third and fourth chapters (widely used in Tudor grammar schools in the Udall translation) treat Diogenes and Alexander respectively. See David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories: Henry VI and Its Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 50 ff.

  21. Donald K. Hedrick, “The Masquing Principle in Marston's The Malcontent,English Literary Renaissance, 8 (Winter 1978), 24-42. Repeating some of the present argument, the essay offers additional analysis of masque aesthetic. Malevole, like Hamlet a figure of satiric-heroic duality, is called a “repressed satirist,” a phrase extended to Hamlet in an early version of the present essay, delivered at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Toronto in 1978. This idea has been addressed independently by Gerald L. Bruns, who also finds in Hamlet a “repressed satirist whose deepest wish erupts into a true purgation” in the killings of Polonius and Claudius. See Bruns's essay, “Allegory and Satire: A Rhetorical Meditation,” New Literary History, 11 (Autumn 1979), 129.

  22. Stephen Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 22, 33-34.

  23. Percy Simpson, “The Masque,” in Shakespeare's England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917), II, 314.

  24. Cited by Steven Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Representations, 1 (Summer 1983), 45.

  25. Castiglione, pp. 99-100.

  26. Thomas Nashe, “The Unfortunate Traveller,” in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), II, 317-18; 268-69.

  27. Francis Bacon, In Felicem Memoriam Elizabethae Angliae Reginae, in Elizabeth I, ed. Lacey Baldwin Smith, Problems in Civilization Series (St. Louis: Forum Press, 1980), p. 72.

  28. A convincing argument that Shakespeare is trying to create a hero resistant to the cynicism of an audience is proposed by G. K. Hunter in “The Heroism of Hamlet,” in Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, 5, ed. J. Russell Brown and Bernard Harris (London: Arnold, 1963), pp. 90-109.

  29. Kernan, Cankered Muse, pp. 219-20. That Hamlet is more interested in catching Claudius' conscience than in revenge is argued also by Eileen Jorge Allman in Player-King and Adversary: Two Faces of Play in Shakespeare (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1980), p. 232.

  30. G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare's Tragedies (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 88-109.

  31. See Warren V. Shepherd, “Hoisting the Enginer with his Own Petar,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 7 (Spring 1956), 281-85.

  32. It would seem that further support for a double Hamlet is offered by George T. Wright's recent examination of Shakespeare's frequent use of hendiadys in the play: “Hendiadys and Hamlet,PMLA, 96 (March 1981), 168-93. This trope substituting two nouns for a noun and its adjective he takes to be “a stylistic emblem of the major meanings of Hamlet” (p. 181)—that is, signifying the false unions and duplicities that taint its world. But I do not believe that Wright's essay, despite its illuminating sensitivity to language and its instructive correction of OED error, lends support to my argument. First, thematizing rhetorical features is a game at which one cannot lose: any figure involving parallelism, balance, or antithesis could be associated with “duplicity” in the play. If hendiadys is an example of some inappropriate doubling, it is not necessarily an expression of inappropriate doubling. And, second, it is probably not even an example of inappropriate doubling, nor would it need to be experienced that way, its infrequency notwithstanding. Puttenham, for instance, includes it among other figures recommended for sound and some sense. See George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (London, 1589), Book III, chap. 16.

  33. “Within the arena of almost every utterance an intense interaction and struggle between one's own and another's word is being waged, a process in which they oppose or dialogically interanimate each other. The utterance so conceived is a considerably more complex and dynamic organization than it appears when construed simply as a thing that articulates the intention of the person uttering it, which is to see the utterance as a direct, single-voiced vehicle for expression.” Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” p. 354.

  34. “Of the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” (II.i), in Selected Essays of Montaigne in the Translation of John Florio (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. 27.

  35. Although my interpretation of the way that Hamlet's character relies on a “paradigm” is like Northrop Frye's interpretation of the way any literary character relies on some “stock type” as the skeleton for other features, I wish to invert his assumptions about consistency. Frye claims that “all lifelike characters, whether in drama or fiction, owe their consistency to the appropriateness of the stock type which belongs to their dramatic function.” See Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957; rpt., New York: Atheneum, 1968), p. 172. I would revise this in order to claim that all lifelike characters, whether in drama or in fiction or in life, owe their inconsistency to the inappropriateness of a stock type which belongs to their dramatic function.

  36. For the initiation of this historiographic project, see Stephen Greenblatt, “Introduction,” Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 5. This and Greenblatt's subsequent work are demonstrations of the political force of cultural image-making. That a major Polish production of Hamlet was planned by activists just prior to the government's imposition of martial law testifies to the play's perennial intervention into real questions of statecraft, of legitimation crises, and of the power that images of madness and marginality can appropriate against tyranny.

  37. That a heroic Alexander requires a satiric Diogenes is a translation of the central thesis of the historical, cross-cultural study by Patterson, who maintains that the concept of freedom requires and is derived from the practice of slavery. In his analysis of social parasitism and powerlessness Patterson is perplexed by “the problem of freedom,” and concludes:

    Beyond the socio-historical findings is the unsettling discovery that an ideal cherished in the West beyond all others emerged as a necessary consequence of the degradation of slavery and the effort to negate it. The first men and women to struggle for freedom, the first to think of themselves as free in the only meaningful sense of the term, were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedmen.

    (Slavery and Social Death, pp. 341-42)

I wish to express my gratitude for a fellowship and residence at the Cornell University Society for the Humanities, which enabled me to complete research for this essay.

Elvis Mitchell (essay date 12 May 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Mitchell, Elvis. “A Simpler Melancholy.” New York Times, late edition (12 May 2000): B1, E1.

[In the following review of Michael Almereyda's 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet, Mitchell commends the modern setting of the film, as well as the performances of most of the actors, but suggests that actor Ethan Hawke's portrayal of Prince Hamlet lacked depth and maturity.]

“It is curious; one never thinks of attaching Hamlet to any special locale,” the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in today's Manhattan. The city's contradictions of beauty and squalor give the movie a sense of place—it makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you'll ever see in a film—and New York becomes a complex character in this vital and sharply intelligent film.

Mr. Almereyda contours the material to his own needs, even though he was inspired by the 1987 “Hamlet Goes Business,” a deadpan update by the renegade Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. This Hamlet is also set in the corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation.

But where Mr. Kaurismaki presented his take as a slapstick tragedy that bordered on sadism, Mr. Almereyda layers his cool-to-the-touch version with a luxuriant paranoia compounded by the constant deployment of video cameras and listening devices.

Often shaded in lush, soothing hues of blue, Hamlet exudes an intoxicating masochism in which half the cast is battling despondency and the other half has the glint of imminent insanity. As insightfully played by Diane Venora, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is in danger of breaking down into a fine, distraught powder from the outset. In this version, the melancholy of Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) over the death of his father is almost a state of grace; it gives him a sense of purpose that the other characters lack.

Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare, starting with an understanding of the emotional pull of the material that corresponds with its new period and setting. Hamlet's soliloquies are now interior monologues except for the “To be or not to be” speech, which he delivers in a Blockbuster video store, using the blue in the company logo and the word “Action” emblazoned on the shelves to fit in with the mood and color of the rest of the picture.

The director's rigorous trimming has a boldness and vivacity that makes this version exhilarating while leaving Shakespeare's language and intent intact. The use of colors—its palette is red, green and the aforementioned blue—is a visual manifestation of the streamlining. This movie will send shivers of happiness through audiences because it's one of the few American productions of Hamlet constructed around the rhythms of the actors, giving each scene a different pulse.

Mr. Almereyda plays to his performers' strengths, and it's awe inspiring. The truly revelatory performance comes from the ravaged dignity that Bill Murray lends Polonius, a weary, middle-aged man whose every utterance sounds like a homily he should believe in and perhaps did many years ago. Mr. Murray takes the bemused hollowness he first discovered in sketch comedy and gives it a worn, saddened undercurrent; it's what those bullying cynics he plays in comedies would be like in real life after about 20 years. The speech Polonius gives to his son, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), has a truth that Death of a Salesman can only aspire to and certifies Mr. Murray—who's been giving fully shaped performances in bad or little-seen movies for years—as one of the finest actors currently working. “Madam, I use no art at all,” he says at one point, and it's true; he uses apparent artlessness to achieve art.

It's not just Mr. Murray and Ms. Venora who are worth watching. Mr. MacLachlan's Claudius has a hail-fellow-well-met shallowness, a blandness tinged with creeping ambition. Mr. Schreiber is all lovely Old World elegance; he uses his resonant, trained voice to find the injured quality of lines like “You wound me, sir,” and offers a classical turn in the midst of the modernity. Steve Zahn plays Rosencrantz as slacker-weasel with a blurry twang that is just what's called for here. And Karl Geary is a steadfast, affecting Horatio.

Conceptually, Hamlet has all the goods and then some. Oddly enough, the title character is a little lacking in complication. Mr. Hawke's laudable commitment to the project was obviously responsible for getting it made, and his feline transparency would appear to be right for a Hamlet wrestling with the urge to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death.

But this Hamlet, wearing knit caps that make him look like a lost member of the Spin Doctors, is mired in an arrested adolescence that infantilizes him. For this conception to be fully realized, Hamlet's interior monologues shouldn't so fully mirror what's going on with him outwardly; a contrast would have provided some tension. Mr. Hawke's moping slows things down too much, and a clip from a James Dean movie playing behind him emphasizes the self-pitying aspect.

Julia Stiles plays Ophelia, and this may be the first time in her brief film career that this wildly talented young actress has seemed immature. Hamlet exploits her youth effectively: Polonius laces up her sneakers as he addresses her. But Ms. Stiles seems too much a child and often can't get her footing as the production sprints past her. Her natural onscreen empathy does allow for several moments that get under the skin: Ophelia plunges into an azure pool, imagining her death; she's often photographed at some of the most beautiful fountains and water spouts in New York. And when distraught, she dissolves into sobs, flinging Polaroids as if they were flower petals; it's heart-rending. The scenes she has with Mr. Hawke with a conventional and definable give-and-take also serve her well.

Little of Mr. Almereyda's previous films (Another Girl, Another Planet, Nadja), which are often dizzy with promise, suggested that he had the technique and imagination he brings to bear here. It's incredibly satisfying to see a director grow in the ways that he has. The Romeo and Juliet director Baz Luhrmann fired his camera out of the barrel of a gun, and the overdirected velocity was a moviemaker's equivalent of a collection of nervous tics; Mr. Almereyda's audacity comes in problem solving, one of the true functions of a director.

Whereas Mr. Luhrmann's dazzle is all from the outside, Mr. Almereyda goes to the heart of things and has given Shakespeare a distinctively American perspective. Hamlet is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.

To develop the distrust and miscommunication—a contemporary spin on the Shakespearean theme of people being out of touch with their natural environments—bits of dialogue are filtered through other sources, like overheard phone conversations. Mr. Almereyda's use of technology is fascinating and well thought out; Hamlet's dead father (Sam Shepard), for example, is first glimpsed on video screens. Hamlet's “get thee to a nunnery” speech to Ophelia becomes an unrelenting tantrum; it follows her home and continues to attack her when she turns on her answering machine.

You'll also catch snatches of material out of the corner of your eye, like Jeffrey Wright's cameo as the Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower,” a piece of pop music that was made for Shakespeare: “There must be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief.”

So much of the play is pleasurably recast—like a snapshot of Fortinbras on a television screen as the Player King, now a news anchor, wraps things up—that Mr. Almereyda has created a hunger for more. In so many ways, Hamlet is a palpable hit, or it should be.

Patrick Carnegy (essay date 12 May 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Hamlet.Spectator 286, no. 9014 (12 May 2001): 48.

[Carnegy reviews Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production of Hamlet, concluding that overall it was a memorable and powerful production.]

On Hamlet's 400th birthday, Steven Pimlott's new production turns its harsh floodlights on a world of grey-suited courtiers and youthful dissidents. The setting, developed from the white box of Pimlott's Richard II, is a high-tech space for surveillance, theatrical experiment and maybe even self-discovery. Its designer, Alison Chitty, is also responsible for a radical makeover of the theatre, bringing the stage forward and stretching it across the full width of the now carpetless auditorium. Acoustics and sightlines are greatly improved. The actors, nearer to us than ever before in a theatre originally designed to set them apart behind a frame, want us in on the action. Sam West's Hamlet, giving his notes to the Players seated on the floor around him, brings the houselights up and turns the troupe round to face us, showing just what he means by holding the mirror up to nature.

The reflection in this particular mirror is of a purgatory ruled by a modern presidential Claudius surrounded by identity-tagged staff who like to applaud him, and of ill-at-ease youngsters looking for a way out. Seldom, outside school and college, can the play have been put across with a more youthful, studenty feeling to it. Hamlet and Laertes are in T-shirts, anoraks and the occasional leather jacket, Ophelia is an Irish waif in an overlarge jumper and denim skirt. She and Hamlet share a fondness for going barefoot but you can't imagine that there's ever been anything between them. Laertes, off on his travels with a rucksack, can barely conceal his impatient contempt as Polonius, rather oddly clutching his coffee-mug, proffers the famous advice. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are self-evidently informers from the world of suits. Hamlet didn't need to share a joint with them to know that they'd been “sent for.”

In all this we're really only ever going to be interested in Hamlet himself, and Sam West has a great deal going for him. He speaks the lines with meticulous and intelligent attention to their meaning, though he sometimes chops them up and subverts the poetry, as in “It is not / nor it cannot / come to good.” Each phrase, each image is probed for its sense. You can see he's trying to handle things as coolly as Horatio (who can hardly be said to handle them at all), and yet emotion and anger will keep erupting.

Their cauldron is of course the truth about the poisoning learnt from his father's Ghost. Father and son cling desperately to each other and Hamlet is left nauseated by the burden of revenge laid upon him. His relationship with Gertrude is of comparatively small account and certainly not sexual. Marty Cruickshank plays her as a woman keeping up appearances, but it is she who first sets about Hamlet in their big scene rather than the other way about. At its end you are taken aback when they take their leave of each other by politely shaking hands over Polonius's corpse. Claudius interrogates his nephew under the fierce glare of spotlights; there is yet another weirdly uncomfortable parting, with the King dismissing Hamlet to England by lifting him off the ground in a bear-hug and forcing a kiss on his lips.

Thus far you feel that Hamlet's agonising and his battles with himself are those of an impulsive immaturity rather than those of a man paralysed by the over-abundant contrarities of his thought. West seems most at home in the final act, where action is no longer quite so “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.” He shares not only repartee with the gravedigger but also his beer and sandwiches and, at last, the buoyancy and liberation of wit. “Alas, poor Yorick” acquires a less than sentimental significance as Hamlet and Horatio pass his skull between them like a rugby-football. In a production in which death tends to come by bullet, you are gratified that it is rounded off with an immensely exciting duel of rapiers that exploits the immense new width of the stage. Fortinbras quietly assumes control and the suits are soon applauding their new leader.

The many memorable images of Pimlott's powerful production (of a very full text) include dramatic lighting transformations, as when at the end of Act II Hamlet resolves his indecision—“the play's the thing”—and he's caught in the crossbeam of two spots as the lighting changes from the general to the theatrical. In the play scene itself the king and queen's reactions are screened as blow-ups from Horatio's home-video; the mad Ophelia threads her way through a party in which everyone seems to be drinking themselves into a lonely oblivion. There are striking characterisations, with Alan David doubling a briskly self-important Polonius with an agreeably genial Welsh gravedigger, Christopher Good improbably doubling the Ghost with Osric, and Larry Lamb outstanding as a charismatically cool and all-too-plausible Claudius. But overall this remains a distinctly chill Hamlet. Its mirror seems to be catching too many disparate reflections.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “Hamlet and Counter-Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1046-69.

[In the following essay, Knowles asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and that, therefore, the play is an important Renaissance document.]

In the study of the development of Western culture the question of subjectivity is a much debated issue which is often directed to the Renaissance in general, and to Hamlet in particular. Beginning with section 1, “Alexander died,”1 this essay reapproaches the question in the play. Sections 2 and 3 expand on the backgrounds of the later Middle Ages, Humanism, and skepticism, while section 4 focuses on rhetoric, particularly on the commonplaces of consolation, in relation to the proscribed status of passion in the individual and society.2 The fifth section considers role-playing and reappraises the nature of Hamlet's experience: his unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.3 To evade alienation Hamlet embraces the scripted roles within and without him;4 and to understand this experience the critic of early modern culture needs, like Hamlet, to look “before and after” (4.4.37).


In contemplating Yorick's skull, by a process of rhetorical association Hamlet's mind moves to Alexander, the type of imperial greatness, “Dost thou think Alexander look'd o' this fashion i' th' earth?” (5.1.191-92). And then, following Horatio's confirmation, Hamlet invites his imagination to trace “the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bung-hole” (5.1.197-98). Horatio immediately anticipates some form of sophisticated word-play—“'Twere to consider too curiously” (5.1.199)—but fails to pre-empt it: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?” (5.1.201-05). It has been shown that within the Christian literary tradition of timor mortis, memento mori, deriving from St. Bernard, Alexander was often linked with Julius Caesar, as here (“Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,” 5.1.206). For example both are found in a poem by Skelton and in a poem attributed to Southwell.5 But as Harold Jenkins has noted, in meditations on Death the leveller deriving from antiquity, Alexander appears in Lucian's Dialogue of the Dead, and in the Stoic context of Marcus Aurelius where the dust of Alexander is likened to that of his groom.6 In another Stoic context, Thomas Bedingfield's translation of Cardan's Comforte (1576), a book many have argued is the one Hamlet carries on to the stage before the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Alexander and Caesar are listed with several others as types of human vainglory.7 However, of greater importance here is the form of Hamlet's thought.

In terms of logic and rhetoric, Hamlet works through a sorites colored by tapinosis (or humiliatio). The sorites, perhaps more familiarly known as the chain-syllogism, is close to the rhetorical figure of climax or gradatio. Tapinosis is the use of a word to debase the noble. The sorites was a series of enthymemes, or abridged syllogisms, taking the last word of a sentence or clause to begin the next,8 the logical counterpart to the rhetorical anadiplosis. For mostly witty sophistic purposes a false proposition, or propositions, seemingly led to an inevitably outrageous conclusion. Here, the fourth proposition, “the dust is earth” is manifestly fallacious in its deliberate equivocation between the biblical “dust” (“thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou returne,” Genesis 3.9.) and geological “earth” (as sand, clay, soil, humus, etc). Again, identifying the “dust” of a corpse with “earth” generally is the fallacy of accident whereby what is an adjunct or accident of something is attributed to that entirely, and vice-versa. The remains of a corpse may be said to eventually mingle with the earth, but it hardly constitutes earth as a whole.

Hamlet's cast of mind here gives expression to an individually felt pessimism, but the personal experience that gave rise to this is to some extent depersonalized by the external public modality of logic and rhetoric working through a commonplace. The argument presented by Hamlet is part of the pessimism that culminates at this point of the play, a pessimism influenced by the philosophical skepticism of what Hiram Haydn called the sixteenth-century “counter-Renaissance,” which severely challenged the optimism of Renaissance humanism. At one point Hamlet specifically parallels the two, echoing a cultural context that needs re-examining in the light of modern scholarship. Hamlet's pessimism in part derives from his discovery of subjectivity. Renaissance ontology is closely linked to the philosophy of rhetoric whereby something like grief is understood in a specific, conventionalized way, which Hamlet reacts against but ultimately has to capitulate to, to evade the pain of his alienation. Hamlet's tragedy becomes the site of a cultural struggle between the Western tradition of Stoic rationalism and an affective individualism. As Hamlet traces the dust of Alexander, so we may trace these elements in the play, beginning indeed with that “dust.”


For Hamlet man is the “quintessence of dust” (2.2.308), and the slain body of Polonius is “compounded … with dust whereto 'tis kin” (4.2.5). According to the queen, Hamlet had sought “with … vailed lids” his “noble father in the dust” (1.2.70-71). This last image is important since it suggests the reversal of a commonplace of Renaissance humanism, that of homo erectus. As will be shown, Renaissance celebrations of man took up the Patristic echo of this biblical theme of man's uniqueness in creation, for he was the only one of God's creatures to be created erect in order to worship the heavens, the source of his origin and end. Thomas Wilson in his The Rule of Reason (1551) included this as an example of the predicable proprium or property of man, “To go upright is proper to a man, and only to a man, and to none other living creature” (sig. Cr). Hamlet's eyes and mind are fixed on earth, death, and bodily corruption. Earlier, Hamlet's sardonically chosen diction had anticipated this: “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” (3.1.128-29). “Crawling,” that is, like one of the brute creation on all fours. This conscious rejection of Renaissance humanism had been systematically worked through earlier before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: the passage needs to be quoted in full:

… this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


The complementary parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm is turned into the antithesis of optimism and pessimism, humanism and skepticism. The fact of the speech itself is the first evidence that man is something more than a mere “quintessence of dust,” yet Hamlet is removed from the irony since the speech is a kind of mock-philosophical exercise worked up by the intellectual student from Wittenberg, seemingly to entertain Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are, in fact, amused. Yet the similarity of this language to that on other occasions implies that Hamlet means every word. Hamlet knows that the philosophical impersonation will amuse his auditors while at the same time this guise actually reveals what he thinks to the audience of the play.9

Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) is probably the most famous of what became a minor genre of Renaissance humanism, yet it is not really typical. Pico's syncretic gathering from Hebrew, Christian, and Neoplatonic writings garnished by the prisci theologi, as they are referred to—the “early theologians” Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster and Moses—makes a heady mystical brew, even for his Renaissance man as “maker and moulder of thyself.”10 If we turn from Pico's esoteric Cabbalism to something like Giannozzo Manetti's On the Dignity of Man (1452) and its context, this will provide the background for the understanding of Hamlet's argument, the materials for which Shakespeare probably got not so much from Montaigne, but from Montaigne's source in his library, Pierre Boaistuau whose work was available to Shakespeare in reprints of John Alday's translation.11

The tradition concerning the debate on the dignity and misery of man is a long and ramified one. Focusing primarily on man's dignity, Charles Trinkaus originally published Adversity's Noblemen in 1940, which, in retrospect, was a prolegomenon to a monumental two-volume study of 1970 entitled In Our Image and Likeness. This work is primarily an intensive scholarly introduction to, and study of, the question of man's dignity in fourteenth-century Italian humanism. I am greatly indebted to this scholar but the interpretation of Hamlet here is the present writer's own.

Dualism underpins Western culture, and the dignity and misery of man is an aspect of this. Either can be stressed at the expense of the other, or one disproportionately, or both equally depending on the speaker and the given cultural moment (or in spite of it—see George Gascoigne below). Genesis l.26, “Let vs make man in our image according to our likenes” provided a major impetus for commentators among the early Church Fathers, in the Middle Ages, and in Renaissance humanists. St. Augustine is known for his harsh view on the depravity of man enslaved by sin, but he nevertheless believed in the soul's trinity of memory, intellect, and will as reflecting the divine Trinity. Furthermore, Augustine cited the significance of man's erect stature, his rule over animals, and his contemplation of the divine as grounds for a more spiritually positive view of man. Complementing this, another church father, Lactantius, stressed Cicero's Stoic-Platonic view of the rational design, divine purpose, and providential order of the world, again pointing out man's erect stature and the immortality of the soul. The Alexandrian Jew Philo provided a Neoplatonic link with Christianity, bringing together Greek providential rationality and Genesis 1:26, stressing the earth's plenitude at the service of man. A notoriously major figure of the Middle Ages, however, is Pope Innocent III, the author of On Contempt for the World, or The Misery of the Human Condition (1195). In the midst of the flowering of Tudor humanism George Gascoigne translated this work as The Droome of Doomes day (1576), though he did not know the author, in repentance for “penning and endightying sundrie toyes and trifles,” namely the poetry for which he was known.12 From vileness of conception through the catalogue of the seven deadly sins to bodily corruption and the pains of the damned, Innocent rehearses man's life and afterlife of misery and suffering. Yet he had also promised another treatise on The Dignity of Human Nature. Presumably this would have seen man from the point of view of salvation rather than that of original sin and damnation. Innocent's treatise was copied and translated all over Europe, particularly in England,13 and eventually gave rise to the humanist debate which was prefigured most pre-eminently by Petrarch.

Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae (1354-1357) was composed as a reply to Pope Innocent. Here are found the central arguments for the dignity of man: the soul as the image of God; the incarnation; erectness of stature and the beauty of the body; the immortality of the soul; the beauty and use of the external world; man's mind, memory, intellect, eloquence, invention, and artistry; man's rule over creatures; resurrection; heavenly destination; exaltation and salvation. Here we find a complementary stress on the divine and the human, the heavenly and the earthly. This is crucial; man is celebrated not just in theological terms (which was St. Augustine's emphasis) but also in terms of earthly existence. Earth and heaven complement each other:

For what does obscenity of origin detract from human dignity? Do not tall and leafy trees, grown from filthy roots, cover the green earth with welcome shade? Are the fields of grain not made fruitful by the vilest dung? The vilest origin of the best things is not something disgusting. You are the grain fields of God to be winnowed in the plains of judgement, and to be placed in the granary of the greatest head of a household. Earthly was man's origin, although partly noble and celestial. But whatever was his origin and however difficult his progress, his final seat is heaven.14

Such a balanced position was rarely followed with such evenhandedness. Where the seemingly complementary themes of dignity and misery are handled, as in the quattrocento treatises of Bartolomeo Facio and Antonio da Bargo, man's dignity is spiritual rather than earthly, to which the body and its misery belong. Though Aurelio Brandolini, in his On the Condition of Human Life and on Bearing Bodily Sickness, expounds fully the misery of life and the joys of existence, he tips the scales towards the latter in a most remarkable statement: “Even if we know that we will be subjected to perpetual miseries and eternal punishments, nevertheless, would we not think that this so great dignity of being born and living excels all miseries and punishments?”15

Brandolini was influenced by Giannozzo Manetti who wrote explicitly against Innocent III's depiction of misery, providing one of the great statements of Italian humanism, against which Hamlet's words may be measured.

With what form, what beauty, what fittingness ought we to think man was endowed, for whose sake alone, we may not doubt, this most beautiful and most ornate world was made? No wonder therefore if the ancient and modern inventors of the most ingenious arts, since they thought that the divine nature excelled and surpassed all things both inanimate and animate also, and believed that no figure was more beautiful than the human form, seem to have agreed that the gods should be shaped and painted in the image of man.16

Yet within the same milieu of Italian humanism Manetti's optimistic views were opposed two years later by another Florentine statesman, Poggio Bracciolini, in his Two Books on the Misery of the Human Condition (1455). Whereas Manetti recognized sin in man but saw it as deriving from pride in the very dignity he acclaimed, Poggio more orthodoxly reaffirmed original sin, the source of all misery. Though life contained some material blessings, only grace could lift man above fundamental misery. Plainly it can be seen that Hamlet's speech derives from someone who has read both sides of the debate, abstracted quintessential elements from each, and starkly juxtaposed one against the other in an alternating litany of pessimism.


There is no doubt that Shakespeare, in his tragic period, was strongly influenced by the writings of Montaigne, though the precise nature of the debt will probably always remain impossible to determine. The passage from Montaigne's Apology of Raymond Sebond often cited as a parallel to Hamlet's macro-microcosm speech reads as follows, in Florio's translation:

Who have perswaded [man] that this admirable moving of heavens vaults, that the eternal light of these lampes so fiercely rowling over his head, that the horror-moving and continuall motion of this infinite vaste ocean were established, and continue so many ages for his commoditie and service? Is it possible to imagine anything so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himselfe, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himselfe Master and Emperour of this Universe?


In tracing the pessimistic dust of Alexander we shall need to look further into Montaigne, but at this stage it quickly needs to be repeated that for the arguments concerning man's dignity and misery the same source would have been available to Shakespeare that was available to Montaigne, namely Pierre Boaistuau. Boaistuau's Bref discours de l'excellence et dignité de l'homme (1558) was part of Montaigne's library.17 The work reappears as a complementary continuation of Boaistuau's Le Theâtre du monde, où il est faict un ample discours des misères humaines … (1561). Appearing in the mid-sixteenth century, Boaistuau's Bref discours looks back to the tradition Trinkaus has made available to us, for it quotes the prisci theologi, the Church Fathers, and notably Giannozzo Manetti [“Janotius”] and Bartolomeo Fazio. Authorities agree that Boaistuau's work was very well known.18 Though there is no evidence of Le Theâtre du monde in Montaigne's library there are sufficient verbal echoes to show that he knew this as well as the earlier work.19 However, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, we have the translation into English by John Alday, Theatrum Mundi, The Theatre or Rule of the World, wherein may be sene the running race and course of euerye mans life, as touching miserie and felicity … whereunto is added a learned, and maruellous worke of the excellencie of mankinde which appeared in 1566[?], 1574, and 1603. This work was still popular enough by Burton's time to be quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621 and thereafter).20

Thus the argument that Shakespeare might have been specifically influenced in Hamlet's micro-macrocosm speech by a famous passage of Montaigne needs to be tempered by the recognition that possibly both were reacting to the same tradition—fifteen hundred years of debate epitomized in Boaistuau with a clear line of transmission to England by way of Alday. Elsewhere in Hamlet the direct influence of Montaigne remains an issue of debate. Yet anyone who saw Hamlet and then read Florio's translation of Montaigne in 1603 and found something like “the heart and life of a mighty and triumphant emperor is but the break-fast of a seely little worme” (Apology, 232) is likely to have been reminded of Hamlet's “Your worm is your only emperor for diet” (4.3.21), part of his preoccupation with corruption and death with links to both the micro-macrocosm and “Alexander … dust” speeches. We know that a manuscript of Florio's translation of Montaigne was in circulation before its publication in 1603. Florio's patron Southampton was also Shakespeare's, but it seems that a manuscript was in circulation outside Southampton's household, since in his own essays written before 1600 Sir William Cornwallis praises the translation of his model. “Evidence” for Shakespeare's knowledge of Montaigne falls into three classes: (1) direct quotation, (2) verbal echoes, and (3) general ideas.21 The only generally accepted example in class one is that of The Tempest (2.1.145-66) where Shakespeare quotes “Of the Caniballes” ( in Gonzalo's description of an ideal commonwealth. Attention to the case of verbal echoes suggests the influence of Montaigne in the composition of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure and King Lear. In his early study, looking particularly at these plays, George Coffin Taylor found 750 words in Florio and Shakespeare which do not appear before Hamlet. For example, Shakespeare's “consummation” which appears in the 1605 “To be, or not to be” (3.1.56) soliloquy, is the word used by Florio to translate aneantissement (“annihilation” in modern dictionaries) in the speech of Socrates in the essay “Of Physiognomy” (III.xii.540). The accumulation of such instances provides strong grounds for the likelihood of Shakespeare's familiarity with Montaigne. Yet in the third category of general ideas it has been forcefully, perhaps too forcefully, argued that both Shakespeare and Montaigne relied on a body of commonplaces central to the traditions of rhetoric as taught in the culture of the Renaissance.22

The significance of commonplaces will be a major concern of the second half of this essay. Suffice it here to note that in addition to the above-quoted echoes of Montaigne Ellrodt notes as “parallels both in thought and phrasing” the line from the essay “Of the art of conferring,” concerning fortune: “My consultation doth somewhat roughtly hew the matter” (476), which Shakespeare echoes in “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). Montaigne's “That to Philosophise is to learne how to Die” also influenced Shakespeare, although as we shall see, the thought and style of both passages derive from a common Stoic background:

Nor alive, nor dead, it doth concern you nothing.
Alive because you are: Dead, because you are no more.
Moreover, no man dies before his houre. The time you
leave behinde was no more yours, than that which was
before your birth, and concerneth you no more.


… 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, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to
leave betimes? Let be.


The evidence, if it amounts to such, that Shakespeare knew An Apologie of Raymond Sebond—not so much an essay as a short book—is of major significance since it is here that Montaigne gives voice most fully to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical Pyrrhonism. Montaigne's defence or apology for the rationalistic natural religion of the second book of Sebond's Natural Theology is in fact an ironic dismantling of reason with the tools of Pyrrhonian skepticism. Pyrrho's works had been lost but Diogenes Laertius's account in his Lives of the Philosophers and, above all, the outline of Pyrrho's philosophy (transmitted by Sextus Empiricus in the Hypotyposes) gave Montaigne and his contemporaries of a skeptical temper a dialectical armory. Henri Estienne published a Latin version of the Hypotyposes in 1562, and in 1569 Gentian Hervet published a Latin edition of all of Sextus's works. However, it should be noted that there is evidence for a now lost English translation of the Hypotyposes in 1590 and 1591, which is referred to by Thomas Nashe.23 If it was available to Nashe it could also have been available to Shakespeare.

Academic skepticism of the third century b.c. finds that no knowledge is possible, while Pyrrhonian skepticism considers this position a little too categorical, and thus, paradoxically, a form of negative knowledge: it takes the position that “there was insufficient and inadequate evidence to determine if any knowledge was possible.”24 The Pyrrhonist suspended judgement on all issues of knowledge and retired into a state of ataraxia, quietude or unperturbedness since, as Hamlet puts it “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50). This sentiment has given rise to varied comment, and attribution to various sources, but as a major consideration of Pyrrhonism (though ironically Hamlet's expression is closer to Academic skepticism), the concept reappears throughout Montaigne's essay “That the taste of Goods or Evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them.” “This common reflection was probably given currency by Montaigne's essay,” Harold Jenkins notes.25 However, given the public availability of the Hypotyposes in the 1590s in comparison with the private circulation of Florio's manuscript, this reflection is more likely to have been a topically modish reference since, as a central standpoint of Pyrrhonism, there are pages and pages devoted to the topic in Sextus. Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy, a folio volume first published in 1655-1661, contains a complete translation of the Hypotyposes which might well depend on the lost English version of the 1590s.

At the outset, in describing “The end of skepticism,” namely the aforementioned ataraxia or “indisturbance” Sextus notes that:

For he who is of Opinion there is something Good or Bad in its own nature, is continually disturbed … Whereas he who defines nothing concerning Things naturally Good or Bad, neither flyeth nor pursueth any thing eagerly, so that he remains undisturbed.


Closer to Hamlet is the sequence in the Hypotyposes (bk. 2, chap. 24, “What that is, which is called Art about Life”) concerned with the mainspring of skepticism, the ethical relativity made manifest by comparative sociology. What is considered bad in one society is perfectly acceptable in another. With Hamlet's grief and horror of incest in mind, we find the sequence moving from “Piety towards the Dead” and mourning, to incest:

For if we did not (for example) know, that the custom of the Aegyptians is to marry their Sisters, we might falsly affirm, that it is a thing acknowledged by all, that we ought not to marry our Sisters.


And immediately following this we find the observation:

Hereupon the Sceptick observing so great difference of things, Suspends as to what is Good or Bad in its own nature, or what is absolutely to be done or not to be done … For doubtless, he who proposeth to himself that something is good or ill in its own nature, and to be done, or not to be done, is troubled many ways.


Hamlet's “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is part of his self-defensive witty word-duel following the seemingly light-hearted lewd exchanges at the entry of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This encounter takes a potentially serious turn with Rosencrantz's words, “the world's grown honest” (2.2.237). The palpable falsity of the claim makes Hamlet recognize that the courtiers are probably agents of Claudius, and cause him to speak of Denmark as a “prison”; that is, “honest” persons such as himself are imprisoned, figuratively speaking, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attend him as though they were warders. Aware that he might show his hand too soon, Hamlet regains his ground by seizing on Rosencrantz's “We think not so, my lord,” and by throwing down the gauntlet of philosophical skepticism.

The irony of such Pyrrhonic echoes is that we can discern behind the modish posture the impossibility of Hamlet's ever really being able fully to adopt the skeptic's stance. He believes only too well that murder and incest are “bad” and in need of corrective action—“something to be done,” indeed. But, as we hear, such a resolution is dialectically reversed from action to words—“To be, or not to be”—shortly after. Elsewhere in the Hypotyposes, Sextus argues the Pyrrhonist case concerning deception of the senses in such matters as the precise shape of things seen from a distance, and the question of what is relatively hot or cold to different natures (477, 482). It would not be difficult to relate these to Hamlet's skeptical language games with Polonius (“Very like a whale” 3.2.373) and Osric (“It is indifferent cold, my lord” 5.2.96).


Hamlet affects the postures of philosophic skepticism as a corollary to the deep pessimism he derives from his immediate experience. The prince on Alexander's “dust” is just one of the many word games which reflect the disjunction between words and things, rhetoric and reality throughout the play.27 Consider the subsidiary rhetorical tradition of the various applied literary arts, particularly the Ars Dictaminis, the art of letter writing and its subdivision, the consolatio. The queen offers a form of consolation to the prince:

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


Gertrude's rhetorical amplication is a trite example drawn from prescriptive handbooks such as Erasmus's treatise De Conscribendis Epistolis (1521), which anticipates by example the various situations of grief and mourning.28 The king takes up his wife's consolatio; “you must know,” he tells Hamlet, “your father lost a father / That father lost, lost his” (1.2.89-90). To Claudius Hamlet's excessive grief is “a fault to nature, / To reason must absurd, whose common theme / Is death of fathers” (1.2.102-04). This is the usual pattern of Stoic reminders, albeit here put bluntly and unsympathetically, which urge people to control their grief by employing reason.

Formal rhetoric and its affiliated modes were thought to equip the individual with ample resources for public discourse. Rhetoric provided a massive compilation of human truths inherited from the past. Human experience became a moral taxonomy of precepts.29 Given an ahistorical assumption of the universality of human nature, any individual experience was a minor reflection of the collective experience embodied, for instance, in that part of rhetoric called the commonplace.30 W. S. Howell speaks of “a society that is satisfied with the traditional wisdom and knows where to find it.”31 But Hamlet's anguish is as far as one could possibly get from that “satisfaction.” “What is a man,” Hamlet asks, “If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?” (4.4.33-35). The conditional question invites an automatic rebuttal in the form of the most common commonplace of them all—man is a rational animal. Hamlet's mind and discourse divide around the two factors of reason and animality:

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus'd. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event—
A thought which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward—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 …


Hamlet thinks rhetorically; “cause,” “will,” “strength,” and “means” are topics or places or arguments for a deliberative oration on “Should I act?” Public forms of discourse encroach upon Hamlet's subjectivity, his personal experience. In act 1, scene 2, we see Hamlet isolated by his black clothes, refusing to accept the consolation of Gertrude and Claudius. He refuses to regard his subjective personal experience of grief in objectified general terms. He hears “all that lives must die,” and agrees “Ay, madam, it is common,” yet will not accept this universally held “truth” as at all meaningful for his personal experience. Conventional wisdom teaches that such anguish is an aberration. For Gertrude it is a wayward singularity, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” (1.2.75).

Hamlet's sense of being, of alienated subjectivity brought about by grief and sexual loathing, is suspended in time from the moral imperatives of socially oriented action according to codes of honor and revenge, which is why being physically “bounded in a nutshell” for such a mind could paradoxically be ruling “infinite space” (2.2.254-55). Yet the “space” of Denmark proves to be “a prison … A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons” (2.2.243, 245-56)—one of which is language. “Words, words, words” are Hamlet's jailers, and rhetoric his prison. In the words “To be, or not to be” (3.1.56ff.), Hamlet's dilemma finds perfect expression, yet their significance is beyond his grasp. Here, with the dramatically most introspective of perhaps all soliloquies, Hamlet's personal experience yields to the rhetorical disposition of the thesis. We have the opening exordium; “To die, to sleep” adds a confirmatory argument; “To sleep, perchance to dream” offers a rebuttal; “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time” opens an extensive dilation, followed by the epilogue, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. …” The particular locution, “To be, or not to be,” forces upon us, but not Hamlet, the awareness that the question he asks, and the speech which seemingly considers it, neutralize the suffering being between words and action; like Pyrrhus, “a neutral to his will and matter” who “Did nothing” (2.2.477-78). However, the antithesis reveals Hamlet's mind or being, although this and what follows in the famous soliloquy, the likeness of sleep and death, largely derives from Cicero's Tusculan Disputations by way of those sententia or “saws” Hamlet claims to have wiped from “the table of [his] memory” (1.5.98). Cicero's first disputation at Tusculum was the locus classicus, and any educated auditor would have recognized it and the rhetorical mode of Hamlet's speech.32 As they would have recalled the situation of Hecuba as a recommended topic in rhetorical handbooks, and her speech as given by the Player as a good example of copia verborum, or copiousness of language, highly favored for any situation (grief, lamentation, etc.) needing expressive amplications.33 “To be, or not to be” recalls the formulator of philosophic relativism and subjectivism, Protagoras, who demonstrated that there are contradictory opinions, both seemingly valid, about every issue. As Charles Osborne Macdonald puts it:

Hamlet's ethos is partly the antilogistic habit of mind common to all schools of rhetoric, a habit of contrasting words with deeds, appearance with reality. It would be a work of supererogation to point out that Hamlet's concerns in these [antithetical] passages closely parallel those of Shakespeare himself as rhetorician and writer of tragedy.


The social exchange of words seemingly implies the parity of public meaning—a common language reflecting the sameness of individual experience. The use of the word “grief”, for example, inevitably assumes that the word has the same meaning for different individual experiences of bereavement. This essentialist aspect of language use lends itself to logic and its syllogistic basis, but in actual existence we cannot experience each other's experience per se. Only Hamlet feels Hamlet's grief. To maintain his being Hamlet refuses the public language of rhetoric and adopts a counter-rhetoric; yet, as we have seen, the humanist culture which enthroned the arts of language shapes his mind. Hamlet's existential defences are skepticism, pessimism, and seeming madness.

The madness of Hamlet takes on a specific form which an audience would have immediately understood in relation to commonplaces of language and civility. The relationship between words and things was a leading preoccupation of the Renaissance.34 Though some scientists doubted the value of rhetoric and rhetoric itself was open to various abuses, nevertheless the overwhelming humanist assumption was that language somehow defined both man and society; language was a hallmark of civilization. John Hayward noted in 1604, “As Philo witnesseth, societie of men is maintained by speech, as being the interpreter or rather expresser of the mind” (sig. A3v). “For if oratio next to ratio, speech next to reason, be the greatest gift bestowed upon mortality, that cannot be praiseless which doth most polish that blessing of speech” is Sir Philip Sidney's gloss on the commonplace.35 Echoing a Stoic insistence, George Puttenham avers “for man is but his minde, and as his mind is tempered and qualified, so are his speeches and language at large, and his inward conceits be the mettall of his minde, and his manner of vtterance the very warp and woofe of his conceits.”36 Hamlet calculatedly goes against these truisms but in a way that would have been immediately identifiable. A statement by John Hoskins is almost like an account of Hamlet's linguistic behavior:

Yet cannot his mind be thought in tune whose words do jar, nor his reason in frame whose sentences are preposterous; nor his fancy clear and perfect whose utterance breaks itself into fragments and uncertainties.



In refusing to resign his private grief to the public world of debased value masked by rhetoric, Hamlet refuses to communicate meaningfully, but is meaningful to himself. His understanding is so intense that he is not understood. His awareness of modes of being finds a correlative in modes of meaning. The intensity of his preoccupation with being, its origin and end, finds expression in concentrated language, particularly in the pun and the paradox. Consider the following exchange:

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.


Editors annotate these words variously, but perhaps it would be just as well to dwell first on their difficulty, which is that their immediate obliquity renders them largely meaningless. That is, language does not communicate, at least to Polonius (and us?). Yet Hamlet appears to be in control of the situation since he baffles Polonius wilfully. And yet he cannot be said to baffle Polonius completely since Polonius thinks that he is mad anyway, and Hamlet is confirming his belief with his “antic disposition” (1.5.180). Upon re-examination of the passage we can begin to unravel its meaning. The sun is the source of decay, yet in the form of life—the sun breeds (maggots) in what is already dead (a dog). In considering the process of fleshly corruption by lewd association of the physiological with the moral, Hamlet thinks of Ophelia (“have you a daughter?”) and of human conception and birth. When he recommends “Let her not walk i' th' sun,” he puns on the sun as source of procreative life; the sun and son, namely Hamlet as possible procreator; and the sun as emblem of kingship. In sum, keep her out of the court where the procreative act, sex, is corrupt, “but as your daughter may conceive, friend look to't.” In this brief exchange, as with the micro-macrocosm speech, and as with the “Alexander … dust” speech, we see Hamlet's preoccupation with the antithetical nature of existence in corruption and generation, life and death.

Hamlet's final step before the close of the play is to move to Stoicism. In the claim “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11), action is resigned to fatalistic passivity, like Hamlet's mechanistic “continual practice” (5.2.207) at duelling. The verbal image twice removes Hamlet from the reality: practising for the formalized sport which simulates actual fighting. (As the physical counterpart to the soliloquist, the idea of Hamlet solus, shadow-duelling like the shadow-boxer, is irresistible).38 This Stoicism appears in the above-quoted passage (5.2.216-20) that has given rise to much textual and interpretive debate. Rather than enter into the controversy concerning lines 218-20 (“… The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, / knows aught, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.”) the reader may consult the “long note” supplied by Harold Jenkins (565-66). Suffice it here to observe two aspects of the general character of the passage. “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” specifically echoes Matthew 10.29, a verse customarily referred to in discussions of both general and particular, or “special,” providence, usually with reference to Calvin's Institutes. This Christian allusion can be linked to the “heaven ordinant” Hamlet alleges earlier in the scene (5.2.48). Some commentators would also consider the passage beginning “There's a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10) to argue for a sense of Christian belief. That is, to turn from the negativity of pessimism and skepticism to the positives of religious affirmation. Yet there is the unquestionable Stoicism in the thought and style, particularly of lines 219-20 which one scholar finds “a commonplace in Stoics as divergent as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius,” and furthermore, “the whole passage has strikingly close parallels to a type of Stoic doctrine current in the late English Renaissance.”39 A passage in Epictetus is particularly close, “I must die: if instantly, I will die instantly: if in a short time, I will dine first; and when the hour comes, then I will die. How? As becomes one who restores what is not his own.”40 Final Stoic resignation seems more consistent with the development of pessimism in the play which culminates in Alexander's “dust” in the preceding scene, whereas any Christian resonance would seem ironic in suggesting what is denied Hamlet, rather than what he has found.

Shakespeare was manifestly drawn to the popular genre of the revenge tragedy because it gave him the opportunity to confront a condition of being and acting. In the revenger's delay he could explore an individual suffering, suffering in the sense of being acted upon, both externally and internally, socially and psychologically, to produce Hamlet's unique alienation. In the development of Western culture Shakespeare's discovery of subjectivity in Hamlet is as momentous as the Renaissance discovery of perspective in art. Shakespeare's inner psychological perspective offers a counter-humanist reversal. To the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, alienation suggested homo viator, the fallen Christian traveller alienated from God in this pilgrimage of life seeking reunion ultimately in heaven. Hamlet's subjectivity is more like the existential alienation discussed by twentieth century commentators.41

Hamlet's father's death, his mother's concupiscence and hasty marriage to her husband's murderer, produce a grief and loathing of such a profound degree that a sense of being created by emotion estranges him from the previous identity of a princely role. Hamlet anticipates this in his response to the revelations of the ghost:

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


Hamlet does not realize that this is impossible. He cannot replace a mind shaped by rhetoric with unalloyed feeling. Rhetoric provided not just knowledge, but how knowledge was assimilated and understood: it provided a cognitive structure which enforced the Western censure of emotion. Consequently, in desperation, Hamlet ponders on dissolution of mind and body: “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt” (1.2.129). But Hamlet's body actually undergoes a kind of reification when we hear, “whilst this machine is to him” (2.2.122-23), the first recorded instance of the word used in this way (OED 4.c). Hamlet is imprisoned by rhetoric, the enemy within. He is self-policed by the inescapable guardians of rationalism and sin who suppress the radical threat of passion. His only options are loss of selfhood in real madness or to reassume a role which travesties his truth. He hides his “mystery” within the conventions of love's madness. Then Hamlet, the former courtier, soldier, and scholar, seizes the opportunity to become actor-manager, and then the philosopher roles of skeptic and stoic, until he finally capitulates to the most evasive of all roles, the return of “Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.251). It is the most evasive because it completely confounds social and private, past and present, illusion and authenticity, in its conformity with the world of public values where seeming cannot be differentiated from being. Only the audience is fully aware of the existential disjunction between subjective being and public self-presentation. Burkhardtian Renaissance man undergoes that primal nausea: in Hamlet's words, “how ill all's here about my heart” (5.2.208-09).

The commonplace voiced in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true” (1.3.78), has a long history, from the inscription at the oracle of Delphi, through the Latin West as nosce te ipsum, up to the concluding advice of Polonius to Laertes, where it is vulgarized as conventional prudence. Platonic traditions interpreted this axiom as the necessity of self-knowledge as the first stage towards a knowledge of ideal forms, or an assent to spiritual selfhood. In Christian thought self-knowledge denoted the rational soul's awareness of its origin and end: its conception in sin and its parallel striving by ascent to Godhead.42 But within the Christian tradition St. Augustine made a crucial distinction. He conceived of the self as a kind of emptiness or negation that is fulfilled by recognition of the need for relationship and dependence on God. For Augustine, the soul “has consciousness of being but does not know what it is.”43 If the Christian contexts of soul, Godhead and sin are removed, this remark lays bare the existential anguish that is found in Hamlet.

Consciousness, at this stage of the development of individualism in Western culture, was always consciousness of being-sinful, or consciousness of being-in-love, or consciousness of self as being-for-others. In secular terms, selfhood and identity were authenticated by the externals of name, fame, glory, and reputation. Hamlet's consciousness of self as self, or pure being simply existing, over and above sentience, originates in a vacuum of grief and loathing enveloped by his own facticity, the continuum of past and present identity. Ophelia's account of Hamlet's distracted state is a paradigm of Hamlet's situation.

He took me by the wrist and held me hard.
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And with his other hand thus o'er his brow
He falls to such perusal of my face
As a would draw it. Long stay'd he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He rais'd a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turn'd
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes,
For out o'doors he went without their helps,
And to the last bended their light on me.


Full quotation brings out the nature of the encounter. “Th'observ'd of all observers” (3.1.156) undergoes a dialectical scrutiny as we scrutinize him scrutinizing Ophelia as she recounts the meeting. As part of his “antic disposition” (1.5.180) Hamlet as distracted lover rehearses a role (“… all unbrac'd, / No hat … Ungarter'd” 2.1.78-80) in which the imposture brings home a greater truth. Reversing the interanimation of lovers' souls here, Hamlet's act elicits an authentic response, and he experiences the facticity of his former self in Ophelia's eyes as he recedes into his own truth of suffering, and recedes from the possibility of Ophelia or her auditor's understanding. But not from ours, as we have the experience of the soliloquies—the objective correlative for Hamlet's emotion that T. S. Eliot could not find (48).

The church is concerned with the numinous, with essences, while the theatre as the main expression of Renaissance secularism, is concerned with existences. As part of anthropocentric humanism the human agent was depicted in poetry and eloquence. But the twin forces of skepticism and nominalism served to undermine the efficacy of “words, words, words.” The scholastic solidity of the Thomist resolution of the Christian and Aristotelian in the formula of the soul as the form of the body held off the destructive dualism of such things as Manicheism and Gnosticism. But as the twentieth century French catholic intellectual Jacques Maritain saw, it was ultimately the Method of Descartes which broke up

the superior conciliations in which the antinomies of the real were resolved by Scholasticism into two conflicting pieces which it affirms separately and which it cannot unite; and from there on this philosophy places side by side a thesis and antithesis equally extreme, one of which serves to mask the other.


Commenting on this passage Roy W. Battenhouse finds, “Here, I believe, is the key to the contradictions and maskings of Hamlet. Yet Descartes is not our only key, for his ‘antinomic errors’ hark back to classical antiquity and continue forward to today [in] Idealism and Existentialism” (1107-08).

This essay has sought to reexamine the question of subjectivity in Hamlet by reappraising the significance of the Renaissance revival of philosophic skepticism; the continued debate between medieval views of the misery of man's life and the Renaissance celebration of existence; the particular importance of the commonplace in the theory and practice of dialectical and rhetorical topics. At the center has been the cultural derogation of passion, in both Stoic and Christian tradition. In the anguish of grief and loathing Hamlet's subjectivity is realized in a consciousness which rejects the wisdom of tradition for the unique selfhood of the individual. This subjectivity is not an anachronism retroactively conferred by the culture of bourgeois individualism, the essentialism of liberal humanism. An ahistorical essentialist view of man derives from both Greek and Latin humanism, above all in rhetoric, and Christian belief in the universality of man's fallen condition, according to Scripture. Such apparent transcendence has, however, been located within the cultural moment of historical change and continuity. Culture is as much within as without the mind and Hamlet is forced to submit to the plot and history, albeit in a series of burlesque roles, but for a moment he has stood seemingly, “Looking before and after” (4.4.37), back to antiquity and forward to our own age (perhaps even more than Battenhouse conjectured) in which “identity crisis” has become a commonplace expression.

Famously, Montaigne could query “Que sais-je,” his motto which was struck on one side of a personal medal, yet throughout the Essais, for all the recorded vagaries of his thought, nothing is in fact so solid as the mind and identity of the retired Bordeaux magistrate who could balance Pyrrhonian skepticism with his declared fideism. The other side of his medal was a pair of scales in suspense. In contrast, Hamlet's existential anguish, suspended between word and action, can neither retreat into that “indisturbance,” ataraxia, or embrace pure faith. Instead he stands there as spectator of the plot invoking Alexander's dust, not so much “reading the book of himself” as Mallarmé claimed,44 but fulfilling the true Herculean task that subsequent history has made manifest—bearing modernism on his shoulders.


  1. Shakespeare, 5.1.201. All references to Hamlet are to Harold Jenkins's edition.

  2. Like Katharine Eisaman Maus, I am concerned with what she calls “the early modern rhetoric of inwardness” (30) which is “intimately related to transcendental religious claims” (27). But the secular emphasis I develop here shows how the phrase “rhetoric of inwardness” becomes a contradiction in terms.

  3. For Catherine Belsey, Hamlet is retroactively interpreted as “the unified and unique subject of liberal humanism” (52). My interpretation is largely based on a reconsideration of the subject as conceived by the traditions of rhetoric which culminate in Renaissance humanism.

  4. Francis Barker writes: “At the centre of Hamlet, in the interior of his mystery, there is, in short, nothing. The promised essence remains beyond the scope of the text's signification: or rather, signals the limit of the signification of this world by marking out the site of an absence it cannot fill. It gestures towards a place for subjectivity, but both are anachronistic and belong to an historical order whose outline has so far only been sketched out” (37). To determine as closely as possible the dramatic conflict between Hamlet's “mystery” and “nothingness,” this essay historicizes the signifying practices of the text.

  5. Morris, 1970.

  6. In Shakespeare, 387.

  7. Craig.

  8. Joseph, 180, 196.

  9. As Forker generalizes on Hamlet's “playing” with characters, words, and roles, “pretense may entail revelation” (5).

  10. Cassirer, et al., 225.

  11. Spencer, 29, mentions Boaistuau and the English tradition in a context which also includes Montaigne, but he seems not to be aware of the latter's ownership, the translator's identity, or the various dates of the translation.

  12. Identified by Spencer, 27.

  13. Lewis, 3-5.

  14. Trinkaus, 1970, 1:193.

  15. Ibid., 1:302.

  16. Ibid., 1:246-47.

  17. Villey, 1:84-85.

  18. Ibid.; Sozzi, 178.

  19. Villey, 1:84-85.

  20. See the entry on Alday in the Dictionary of National Biography.

  21. I am indebted to Ellrodt for this classification.

  22. For example in Harmon.

  23. Popkin, 19 and 253. Jones-Davies looks particularly at suspension of judgement and the paradox in Shakespeare generally.

  24. Popkin, xiii.

  25. Shakespeare, 461-68.

  26. This and all subsequent references to Sextus are from Stanley.

  27. Compare Gorfain's anthropological approach: “A metacommunicative account of play helps explain how playing uses impunity both to evade responsibility and to enact figurative meanings” (33).

  28. Boyce, 775-76. Erasmus quotes from Cicero's Ad Familiares on death as “that which is common to us all” (166).

  29. William Baldwin's very popular Treatise presents perhaps the baldest of such compilations.

  30. As Lechner, 68-69, points out, in practice the analytic topics deriving from the categories and predicables sometimes became confused with what Aristotle called the “special” or subject topics. In addition, Jardine, 179-86, describes the important development from syllogistic logic to a topics logic in Renaissance humanism. The significance of Rudolph Agricola's De inventione dialectica in this respect is well accounted for in Mack. For a useful general introduction see Jacobus's introductory chapter, “Backgrounds in Logic” (1-20).

  31. W. S. Howell, 23. Kristeller writes of “a kind of common wisdom that could be learned, imitated, and utilized,” but adds, “The frequency of quotations and of commonplaces repeated in the moral literature of the Renaissance gives to all but its very best products an air of triviality” (281).

  32. Cicero, The Tusculan Disputations, bk. 1 (“On the Contempt of Death”), section 41: “By dying I shall go from hence into some other place; wherefore, if all sense is utterly extinguished, and if death is like that sleep which sometimes is so undisturbed as to be even without the vision of dreams—in that case, O ye Gods! What gain it is to die” (327).

  33. T. W. Baldwin points out, for example, that the recommendation of the commentator Veltkirchius on Erasmus's Copia made “the plaint of Hecuba in Book XIII of the Metamorphoses … the stock illustration of excessive use of copy to move the affections” (2:193-94).

  34. See A. C. Howell.

  35. Sidney, 121-22.

  36. Puttenham, 161.

  37. In effect Hamlet's analogy reverses the movement described by Lechner: “While the ancient orators conceived of the topics and their seats of arguments as located in the mental areas of the mind in which thought processes developed and were expressed in the oral tradition of the spoken word, the Renaissance teacher and schoolboy tended more to locate his topics and their accumulated wisdom outside the mind on the pages of his commonplace book where thoughts were manipulated like objects” (236).

  38. In fact this image of Hamlet burlesques the Stoic askesis, mastery over oneself, by the exercises of meletē (meditation) and gymnasia (physical training). See Foucault, 34-39.

  39. Morgan, 553-54.

  40. “Of the things which are, and of those which are not, in our own power” 1.1.9 (5). Morgan, 553-54.

  41. For the medieval view see Ladner, for the modern compare Schacht. Kristeller observes that “Renaissance thought and literature are extremely individualistic in that they aim, to a degree unknown in the Middle Ages and to most of ancient and modern times, at the expression of individual, subjective opinions, feelings, and experiences” (305). But that word “individualistic” flattens out necessary distinctions: the humanist orator-writer-poet uses his ethos or personality as part of a rhetorical strategy to win over an audience or readership. Subjectivity, regarded from an existential point of view, defines itself against, or separate from, the public world, since it derives in large part from a breakdown between the discourses of self and status, role and the world.

  42. Bennett offers a valuable survey.

  43. De Trinitate 4.7, cited in Bennett, 136.

  44. “… lisant au livre de lui-même.” Mallarmé's aperçu appeared as part of a half-page response, under the editor's title “Hamlet et Fortinbras,” to a reader's query.


Baldwin, T. W. William Shakespere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke. 2 vols. Urbana, 1944.

Baldwin, William. A Treatise of Morall Philosophie. Originally 1547 but subsequently enlarged by Thomas Palfreyman. Facsimile and introduction by Robert Hood Bowers. Gainsville, 1967.

Barker, Francis. The Tremulous Private Body. Essays on Subjection. London and New York, 1984.

Battenhouse, Roy W. “Hamlet's Apostrophe on Man: Clue to the Tragedy.” PMLA 66 (1951): 1073-1113.

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

Bennett, J. W. “Nosce te ipsum: Some Medieval and Modern Interpretations.” In The Humane Medievalist, ed. Piero Boitani, 135-71. Roma, 1982.

The Bible. Geneva, 1597.

Boyce, Benjamin. “The Stoic consolatio and Shakespeare.” PMLA 64 (1949): 771-80.

Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Randell, Jr., eds. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago and London, 1963.

Cicero. Cicero's Academics. Trans. C. D. Yonge. London, 1891.

Craig, Hardin. “Hamlet's Book.” Huntington Library Bulletin 6 (1934): 17-37.

Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet (1919).” In Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. London, 1975.

Ellrodt, Robert. “Self-consciousness in Montaigne and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 37-50.

Epictetus. The Moral Discourses of Epictetus. Trans. Elizabeth Carter. London, 1911.

Erasmus, Desiderius. De Conscribendis Epistolis. In Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 25, ed. J. K. Sowards, 1-254. Toronto and London, 1985.

Florio, John. The Essayes of Michael Lord of Montaigne. London, 1893.

Forker, Charles. “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet.” In Fancy's Images, 3-17. Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self.” In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, 16-49. London, 1988.

Gorfain, Phyllis. “Toward a Theory of Play and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 13 (1991): 25-49.

Harmon, Alice. “How great was Shakespeare's debt to Montaigne?” PMLA 57 (1942): 988-1008.

Haydn, Hiram. The Counter Renaissance. New York, 1950.

Hayward, John. A Treatise of Union. London, 1604.

Hoskins, John. Directions for Speech and Style. Ed. Hoyt H. Hudson. Princeton, 1935.

Howell, A. C. “Res et Verba: Words and Things.” ELH 13 (1946): 131-42.

Howell, W. S. Logic and Rhetoric in England 1500-1700. New York, 1956.

Jacobus, Lee A. Shakespeare and the Dialectic of Certainty. New York, 1992.

Jardine, Lisa. “Humanistic Logic.” In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, ed. Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner, Ekhart Kessler, and Jill Kray, 173-98. Cambridge, 1988.

Jones-Davies, M. T. “Shakespeare in the Humanist Tradition: The Skeptical Doubts and Their Expression in Paradoxes.” In Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle and Stanley Wells, 99-109. London and Toronto, 1994.

Joseph, Sister Miriam. Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language. New York, 1947.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. “Humanism and Moral Philosophy.” In Renaissance Humanism. Foundation, Forms and Legacy, vol. 3 (Humanism and the Disciplines), ed. Albert Rabil, Jr., 271-309. Philadelphia, 1988.

Ladner, Gerhart B. “Homo Viator: Medieval Ideas on Alienation and Order.” Speculum 42 (1967): 234-59.

Lechner, Sister Joan Marie. Renaissance Concepts of the Commonplaces. Westport, 1962.

Lewis, Robert E., ed. De Miseria Condicionis Humane. Athens, 1978.

Mack, Peter. Renaissance Argument. Valla and Agricola in the Traditions of Rhetoric and Dialectic. Leiden, 1993.

Macdonald, Charles Osborne. The Rhetoric of Tragedy. Amherst, 1966.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. “Hamlet et Fortinbras.” La revue blanche 2:2 (1896), 96. Reprinted Genève, 1968.

Maritain, Jacques. The Dream of Descartes. London, 1946.

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

Morgan, Roberta. “Some Stoic lines in Hamlet and the problem of Interpretation.” Philological Quarterly 20 (1941): 548-58.

Morris, Harry. “Hamlet as a Memento Mori Poem.” PMLA 90 (1970): 1035-40.

Popkin, Richard H. The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza. Berkeley and London, 1979.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. Ed. Edward Arber. London, 1906.

Schacht, Richard. Alienation. London, 1971.

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

Sidney, Sir Philip. An Apology for Poetry. Ed. Geoffrey Shepherd. Manchester, 1973.

Sozzi, Lionello. “La ‘Dignitas Hominis’ dans la Litterature Française de la Renaissance.” In Humanism in France at the End of the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance, ed. A. H. T. Levi, 176-98. Manchester, 1970.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York and Cambridge, 1943.

Stanley, Thomas. The History of Philosophy. 3 vols. London, 1655-62. (The single folio third edition of 1701 is quoted here.)

Taylor, George Coffin. Shakespeare's Debt to Montaigne. Cambridge, MA, 1925.

Trinkaus, Charles. Adversity's Noblemen. New York, 1940.

———. In Our Image and Likeness. 2 vols. London, 1970.

Villey, Pierre. Les Sources et L'Evolution Des Essais De Montaigne. 2 vols. Paris, 1908.

Wilson, Thomas. The Rule of Reason. London, 1551.

Larry S. Champion (essay date summer/winter 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “‘A Springe to Catch Woodcocks’: Proverbs, Characterization, and Political Ideology in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 24-39.

[In the following essay, Champion remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in Hamlet, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne.]

Proverbs so fascinated sixteenth-century England that they accomplished the unlikely journey from the edge of folklore to the core of academic learning. Those who collected them or who acclimatized foreign proverbs to English soil were “hailed as benefactors who enriched the ‘copy’ of their native tongue” (Wilson, “Shakespeare” 186).1 In the first two forms of the grammar school the proverb came to be regarded as an invaluable aid in the teaching of translation, the purpose being both to “help the child to his Latins by known precepts culled from the spoken idiom” and to “inculcate in the stripling a suitable moral sentiment” (Orkin 79).2 Such materials readily available to the Elizabethan pupil included John Withal's A Dictionary in English and Latin Deuised for the capacitye of Children and young beginners, Richard Tavener's Proverbs or Adagies gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, Nicholas Udall's Flours of Terence, and Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique, which ran through six editions between 1553 and 1598. While not prescribed in the grammar schools, John Heywood's A Dialogue of Proverbs also was printed six times between 1546 and 1598.

Elizabethans, in other words, became “not merely proverb-loving but proverb-conscious” (Heseltine xiii), and these folk sayings abound in a variety of works ranging from “simple manuals for the young to some of the chief expressions of literary art” (Habenicht 17). Not surprisingly, they are ubiquitous in the drama of the period, their familiarity and simplistic nature often a source of comedy. Just as euphuism can easily become a parody of itself, the difference between persuasion and banal sententiousness is measured in relatively small degrees. And the playwright is quick to capitalize on rhetorical pretension and abuse. Captain Bobadil in Ben Jonson's Every Man In His Humor, for example, scorns Squire Downright as an insufferable boor: “He ha's not so much as a good phrase in his belly, but all old iron, and rustie proverbs! a good commoditie for some smith, to make hob-nailes of” (1.5.95-98). Perhaps the most notorious example is Nicholas, a servant in Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abingdon who is mockingly called Proverbs because of his overfondness for “old said sooth.” (1.2.228) Typical of his speech is his comment that he will not stir a foot to participate in an impending fight:

No, indeed; even as they brew so let them bake. I will not thrust my hand into the flame, an I need not; 'tis not good to have an oar in another man's boat; little said is soon amended, and in little meddling cometh great rest; 'tis good sleeping in a whole skin; so a man might come home by Weeping-Cross; no, by lady, a friend is not so soon gotten as lost; blessed are the peace-makers; they that strike with the sword, shall be bitten with the scabbard.


In a later passage (4.3.122 ff). he strings together fifty proverbs in fifty-three lines. His companions brand him a “whoreson proverb-book bound up in folio” (2.1.438-39): “speak men when they can to him, he'll answer with some rhyme-rotten sentence or old saying” (395-96).

Shakespeare also uses proverbs for comic purposes throughout his plays. In Henry V, for example, in response to the Dauphin's proverb-mongering about his great bravery and his anticipation of victory over the English at Agincourt, the Constable cautions that the French should use no “proverb so little kin to the purpose (3.7.68); and later he and Orleans privately mock the arrogant prince with a shower of proverbs such as “Give the devil his due,” “A pox of the devil” and “A fool's bolt is soon shot” (116-17, 119-20, 122). Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona employs proverbs like “Blessing of your heart, you brew good ale” (3.1.304-05) to catalogue the virtues of the milkmaid who has stolen his heart, and his counterpart Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice spouts proverbs in defense of his decision to leave Shylock's service.3 Proverbs color the insults exchanged by Dromio of Ephesus and Luce on either side of the door to Antipholus' house (The Comedy of Errors 3.1.51 ff.); Puck, while by trickery separating the quarrelsome young Athenians, recites a trite proverb to assure the spectators that eventually the lovers will be properly paired; Ford defends his fear of cuckoldry through a spate of proverbs in The Merry Wives of Windsor (3.5.141-52), and the Host of the Garter Inn describes Parson Hugh Evans as one who in his sermons provides “the proverbs and the no-verbs” (3.1.105); the Bastard uses proverbs to mock Austria's vaunted claims of bravery in King John (2.1.134 ff), and in 1 Henry IV Hal through proverbs comically assures Poins that the devil will have Falstaff's soul. (1.2.117-19)

Comedy, however, reflects only one aspect of the significance of proverbs in dramatic literature of the period. Obviously, expressions that carry the weight of traditional wisdom and sound authoritative can, if cleverly utilized, be an effective strategy for dealing with surrounding figures, what Hardin Craig has described as a “disarming rhetorical aid to the individual who seeks to influence his auditors for good or evil” (249). Because of their “interactional and semiotic features” (Norrick 5), proverbs are sufficiently ambiguous to take root in a given social situation (Whiting 298).4 In drama, more specifically, proverbs can enhance the credibility of a character by lending him an air of experience while at the same time drawing the spectator closer to him by creating a sense of shared intimacy, affability, and openness, breaking down psychological defense mechanisms that serve as barriers to trust in personal communication. In Othello, for instance, Shakespeare uses proverbs to enhance a bonding, if uncomfortable, familiarity between the spectator and Iago, who delivers 66 of the 152 proverbs found in the play, 27 of 39 in the four opening scenes in which he is laying out his scheme against Othello and 16 of 25 in the critical scene (3.3) in which he lures the Moor into his trap. And Shakespeare uses such a verbal pattern as part of the strategy for prompting a strong, vicarious relationship between viewer and protagonist in Hamlet, a play in which seventeen characters speak a total of 212 proverbs5 with Hamlet himself delivering more than half (107).

Shakespeare's use of the proverb in Hamlet, more precisely, forms the focus of this paper. The aim is not to identify heretofore unnoticed maxims in the play but to examine certain dramaturgical functions concerning those that have already been catalogued by Dent, Tilley, F. P. Wilson, and others6—specifically, how the proverb serves as a conscious rhetorical strategy both to develop and enhance characterization and also to lend emotional and intellectual credibility to an ideological leitmotif that foregrounds political issues of concern to the Elizabethan spectator. Obviously proverbs cannot in themselves carry a theme or plot line, but they can be used to reinforce and energize an issue by rendering the audience more responsive to the character and his/her ideas.

Most noticeably, Shakespeare employs proverbs as a method of establishing character individuation. Polonius, for instance, who delivers twenty-two proverbs in two of the eight scenes in which he appears, is much like Nicholas Proverb in Porter's play. In context, the proverbs he spouts have a cumulatively comic effect; trite and cliché-ridden, they accentuate an approaching senility in the sometimes doddering old man.7 His moral precepts spoken to Laertes, more specifically, are not in themselves humorous; but audiences—and, as often played, Laertes and Ophelia themselves—rarely fail to be amused as saw piles upon saw to create a virtual parody of sound moral advice: “Give thy thoughts no tongue” (59) (A wise man hath his mouth in his heart while a fool has his heart in his mouth—T219); “Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar” (61) (Familiarity breeds contempt—F741), Test the “adoption” of “those friends thou hast” (62) (Try before you trust—T595); “Grapple [your true friends] unto thy soul with hoops of steel” (62-63) (Keep well thy friends when thou hast gotten them—F752); “Do not dull thy palm with entertainment” (64) (Give not your right hand to every man—H68); “Give every man thy ear but few thy voice” (68) (Hear much but speak little—M1277); “Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment” (69) (A man should hear all parts ere he judge any—M299); “Costly thy habit [but]not gaudy” (70-71) (Apparel oft proclaims the man—A283, or Clothes make the man—C541); “Loan oft loses both itself and friend” (76) (Who loans to a friend loses double—F725). In similar terms, Polonius warns Ophelia that Hamlet's amorous advances are merely ploys to capture her virginity, “springes to catch woodcocks” (115; S788). He admonishes her not to take Hamlet's pledge of love seriously: “These blazes … you must not take for fire” (117, 120) (The bavin burns bright, but it is just a blaze—B107).

Such a use of proverbs also taints the rest of Polonius' immediate family with a degree of vacuousness. As Doris Falk has observed, Laertes and Ophelia “share a destiny compounded of truism and truth, of absurdity and justice” (36). Laertes, for example, sounds much like his father in warning his sister that Hamlet, in taking a wife, cannot “carve for himself” (1.3.20; C110). It, he adds, “fits [her] wisdom so far to believe it [and to] give his saying deed” (25, 27) (Saying and doing are two different things—S119). She must keep herself “out of the shot and danger of desire” (35) (Out of gunshot—G482) since “Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes” (38) (Envy shoots at the fairest mark—E175) and the canker too often “galls the infants of the spring” (39) (The canker soonest eats the fairest rose—C56). In stark contrast to Hamlet's markedly intellectual reaction to the death of his father, Laertes' immediate and unmeditated response to Polonius' death is “let come what comes” (4.5.136; C529). A proverb leaps to his lips again when he mourns for Ophelia, that “rose of May” (158) (As fresh as May flowers—F389). At one moment he excuses his tears for his dead sister as the custom of nature (4.7.187) (Custom makes sin no sin—C934); at another he proclaims that his grief is strong enough to “o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head / of blue Olympus” (5.1.253-54) (To heap Ossa upon Pelion—081). Even at the moment of his fatal wounding with the rapier he himself has tipped with poison, he echoes a variation of the proverb his father used earlier in observing that death is “a woodcock to mine own springe” (5.2.306) (The fowler is caught in his own net—F626, S788).

Ophelia, likewise, is never lost for a proverb. Her father's admonitions about Hamlet are “in [her] memory lock'd” (1.3.85) (To keep the key—K24.1); and she cautions Laertes, concerning his own advice, to “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me … heaven [while yourself treading] the primrose path of dalliance” (47-49) (Practice what you preach—P537a). When Hamlet appears in her closet, he is as “pale as his shirt” (2.1.78) (As pale as a clout—C446). In his distraction he, “like sweet bells jangled out of tune” (3.1.158; T598.1), is no longer the “glass of fashion, and the mould of form” (153) (Like king like people—K470). Later in her madness she implies that she is a “baker's daughter [strumpet]” (4.5.43; B54.1); and, calling both Polonius' shroud and his hair as white “as the mountain snow” (36, cf. 195; S591), she trusts that he “made a good end” (186; E133.1).

The pattern is similar, then, for each member of Polonius' family. Whether it be in their overly pious and moralistic tone, the simplistic manner in which they are frequently spoken on stage, or the fact that on numerous occasions they tend to transform a highly dramatic situation into near-ludicrous melodrama by reducing a complex personal moment into generic formula, proverbs in the mouths of Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia reflect an intellectual shallowness that both serves as a foil to Hamlet's mental agility and ultimately contributes to their destruction in the intrigue ridden Danish court.

Claudius' proverbs in his first scene on stage, in which surrounded by courtiers and councilors, he attempts to justify his marriage to the Queen within weeks of the elder Hamlet's death, also help to establish his character for the spectators. The oxymoronic iteration and the overly unctuous and justificatory tone, coupled with a virtual preemption of dialogue with surrounding figures, suggest something sinister and Machiavellian about this newly self-proclaimed king and what Madeleine Doran has branded his “politician's speech” (265). The publicly acknowledged grief is carefully controlled by use of the royal “we” and by the immediate suggestion that self-interest mandates it be brief: “We with wisest sorrow think on him” (1.2.6) (He is not wise that is not wise for himself—W532) since “with remembrance of ourselves” (7) (We should remember ourselves—R72.1) and “with an auspicious, and a dropping eye” (11) (To cry with one eye and laugh with the other—E248) we must “Throw to the earth / This unprevailing woe” (106-07) (Past cure, past care—C921).

In regard to characterization proverbs function most significantly in the delineation of Hamlet himself; whereas those spoken by other figures point to particular dominant traits and tend to establish a consistent personality, Hamlet's reveal something of the complexity of the man, like his soliloquies reflecting diverse, even polarized, aspects of his total characterization. They function, in effect, as a device for complication rather than for clarity, since with Hamlet the decision or the mind-set of one moment is forgotten or ignored in the next. One minute, for instance, he is witty and sarcastically enigmatic, muttering to Claudius that he is “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (1.2.65) (The nearer in kin the less in kindness—K38) and, in response to the King's request that he not return to Wittenberg, pointedly quipping, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (120) (Yours to command in the way of honesty—W155). Later, observing the bones tossed up by the gravedigger, he observes that those now dead were “sheeps and calves [to] seek assurance in” legal documents (5.1.116-17) (As simple as a sheep—S295.1; As wise as a calf—C16.1), and he speaks of being undone unless he can converse with the gravedigger “by the card” (138; C75.1). He is cruelly sarcastic in telling Polonius that, were he honest, he would, “as this world goes” (2.2.178) (Thus goes the world—W884.1), “be one man pick'd out of ten thousand” (179) (A man among a thousand—M271). He calls Polonius a fishmonger “not out of his swaddling-clouts” (383; S1021.1) who should “play the fool nowhere but in's own house” (3.1.132; A67). He carps to Ophelia that “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (138) (A cuckold is a beast—C876.2), that it would “cost [her] a groaning to take off [his] edge” (3.2.250-51; E57.1), and that she “mistake [s her] husbands” (252) (A man must take a wife for better or for worse—M65). The death he administers to Polonius is, for fat king or lean beggar, “variable service, two dishes, but to one table” (4.3.23-24) (Death is the great leveler—D143); and of Osric's “duty” he quips that “A does well to commend it himself, there are no tongues else for's turn” (5.2.183-84) (He must praise himself since no man else will—P545.1).

Wit, however, is but one aspect of Hamlet; elsewhere proverbs reflect his impetuosity and vengefulness. He proclaims that he will move against Claudius “with wings as swift / As meditation” (1.5.29-30) (As swift as thought—T240). Furious that his uncle murdered his father without benefit of confession, with “crimes … as flush as May” (3.3.81) (As fresh as May—M763, F389), he desires to “trip [Claudius], that his heels may kick at heaven” (93) (To kick up one's heels—H392) so that his soul “may be damn'd and black / As hell” (94-95; H397). In his mother's bedchamber he hears a “rat” behind the arras (3.4.24) (The rat destroyed itself with its own noise—R31, R30.1), and he observes concerning the dead Polonius that “to be too busy is some danger” (33; B759.1).

At other times Hamlet's proverbs reflect a moralist with a quick conscience. He would gladly, for instance, make his own “quietus” (3.1.74; Q16), but the “rub” (64; R196) is that one would rather “bear those ills [he has], / Than fly to others that he knows not of” (80-81) (Better the harm I know than that I know not—H166). He will “speak daggers” (3.2.396; D8.1) to his mother in her bedchamber and wring her heart “if custom has not brass'd it” (3.4.37) (As hard as brass—B605.1), since “monster custom” (161) (Custom makes sin no sin—C934) “can almost change the stamp of nature” (168) (Custom is a tyrant—C932). Unless she repents, virtue will “melt in her own fire” (85) (Fry in her own grease—G433), and “This bad [beginning will have] worse remain [ing] behind” (179) (An ill beginning has as ill ending—B261, W918).

At other moments he is deeply suspicious or charged with grief and despair. His “I doubt some foul play” (1.2.155), “Murder, though it have no tongue, will speak” (2.2.593) (Murder will out—M1315), and “O my prophetic soul!” (1.5.40; S666.2) harden into “break my heart for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.159) (Grief pent up will break the heart—G449), “I do not set my life at a pin's fee” (1.4.65) (My life is not worth a pin—P334), and his lament that the “time is out of joint” (1.5.188; J74) and that he has been “born to set it right” (189) (Alas that ever I was born—B140.1). This tone echoes again in later acts in his relativistic pronouncement that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50) (A man is weal or woe as he thinks himself so—M254), in “my thanks are too dear a halfpenny” (273-74) (Not worth a halfpenny—H50.1), in his “tak[ing] arms against a sea of troubles” (3.1.58; S177.1), and in his branding himself as one who is “pigeon-liver'd, and lack[ing in] gall” (2.2.577) (Doves have no gall—D574).

In a word, Hamlet is a man of varied, even contradictory emotions who but slenderly knows himself. In moving from proverb to proverb his convictions and dispositions appear to change drastically, as if they were a kaleidoscope of diverse faces rather than projections of the same fundamental personality. So, too, proverbial comments about Hamlet from surrounding figures compound this complexity. Polonius, for instance, is convinced the prince's “still harping on my daughter” (2.2.187-88) (To harp on one string—S396) is evidence of a problem of unrequited love “whose violent property foredoes itself” (2.1.100; N321). Gertrude's “O Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turnest my eyes into my very soul” (3.4.88-89; B546.1) in the closet scene suggests a moral absolutist. At other points her proverbs question his basic sanity; if her comment that her son is “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend / which is the mightier” (4.1.7-8; S170) is conceivably a ploy to protect him, there is no such explanation for her remark during his altercation with Laertes at Ophelia's grave: “This is mere madness, / And thus a while the fit will work on him; / Anon, as patient as the female dove” (5.1.284-86; D573). Ophelia's earlier remarks that Hamlet appeared to her “Pale as a shirt, his knees knocking at each other” (2.1.78; C446) and that his words were “Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh” (3.1.158; T598.1) have a similar unsettling effect upon the spectator, despite Hamlet's claim that he is “but mad north-northwest” and that he “know[s] a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.378-79; H226).8 Claudius' comment “these words are not mine” (3.2.97) (While the word is in your mouth it is your own; when it is spoken it is another's—W776), when he is unable to understand Hamlet's remarks just prior to the play-within-the-play, further suggests the possibility of genuine rather than “antic” madness.

There is obviously no single face for the protagonist that the pieces of the first four acts can be made to fit without distortion and oversimplification. Indeed, much of the power of the tragedy lies in the ambiguous “biases and indirection of thought” (Donawerth 33) created in part through the use of proverbs that, in a “variety of idioms” (Ewbank 90), provide flickering insights into a complex and profoundly human personality. Moreover, while proverbs reflect his continuing mystery prior to his sea change, they also signal a kind of insight following his return to the Danish court, a sense of consistency and conviction even during his participation in actions that will leave a trail of human carnage from Gertrude's bedchamber to the great hall of the castle. Hamlet's conviction that “There's a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10) (Man proposes, God disposes—M298), that “a man's life's no more than to say ‘one’” (74; 050.1), that “to know a man well were to know himself” (139) (know thyself—K175), and that all is subject to “this fell sergeant, Death” (336) (Death is the great leveler—D142.2)9 points (whatever the spectator may think of it) to a protagonist who has arrived at a kind of faith, whether through Christian conviction, the assumption that “there are no invariable criteria to appeal to outside of a given political context” (Asher 141), or the realization that he can confirm no “final and coherent constructions of reality” (Warner 274).

While Shakespeare uses proverbs as a method of enriching the characterization in the play, he also employs them to emotionalize a plot line that interrogates traditional political assumptions in his society. For one thing, he sprinkles the dialogue of the first gravedigger with proverbs to add a folksy and humorous quality to (and thus to deflect) a passage of pointed social criticism. As Michael Cohen has recently observed, “The clowns see the suborned coroner and priest as agents of an upper-class conspiracy to make sure the rich and privileged are treated with class distinctions even after death.” (80) Complaining that Ophelia is allowed a Christian burial only because she is a gentlewoman and that it is “the more pity” that “great folk” are so privileged, the gravedigger mitigates the effect upon aristocratic ears of his assertion that a commoner (gravedigger) is worth more (builds stronger) by surrounding it with proverbs: “Confess thyself” (5.1.39) (Confess and be hanged—C587) and “Your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating” (57) (A dull ass must have a sharp spur—A348.1).

More importantly, Shakespeare through a series of proverbs forces the spectators' attention to political issues that underlie the major action. Obviously, the surface issues of the tragedy deal with the moral dimensions of murder. Hamlet grapples with philosophic questions concerning the nature of man and the universe in which he lives, questions of right and wrong, of justice and law, of the meaning of death, of maternal love perverted by sin and corruption, of the nature of vengeance and an individual's right to pursue it. At the same time, however, the murder victim in the narrative was a king, the assassin has become a king, the revenger apparently anticipated election to the throne at his father's death, and the closure results in a power vacuum at the very heart of monarchic government. Moreover, there are at least four specific references to Hamlet's political ambitions spaced throughout the play—Claudius' comment that he is “the most immediate to our throne” (1.2.109); Rosencrantz's probing observation that, if Denmark is like a prison, “Why then your ambition makes it one” (2.2.251); Rosencrantz's assurance that he has “the voice of the king himself for [his] succession in Denmark” (3.2.241-42); and Hamlet's concern in act 5 that Claudius has “Popp'd in between th' election and [his] hopes” (5.2.65). Issues of tyranny, usurpation, legitimacy, succession, and court sycophancy could never be far from the thoughts of Englishmen at the turn of the seventeenth century, with Elizabeth old, an heir unnamed, legitimacy a question to which Elizabeth a few years earlier had given a political response through the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Essex's rebellion and attempted usurpation literally occurring in the probable year of the play's composition, inflation increasing at an alarming rate, and charges of favoritism at court almost routine.

To tap that interest Shakespeare develops a pattern of proverbs that foreground and emotionally reinforce political concerns marginalized by the narrative. Rosencrantz, for example, acting as Claudius' agent, attempts to pry information out of Hamlet with the maxim “You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty if you deny your griefs to a friend” (3.2.338-39) (Grief is lessened when imparted to others—G447). And Polonius' proverbs reveal this high courtier to be fundamentally devious and sycophantic. In sending Reynaldo to spy on his own son, for instance, he explains that “Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth” (2.1.60) and that he “By indirections [will] find directions out” (63) both variations on To tell a lie and find the truth—L237. The moment he discovers what he believes to be the cause of Hamlet's distraction, his only thought is to seek out the king to explain this “ecstasy of love / Whose violent property foredoes itself” (99-100) (Nothing violent can be permanent—N321) and thus ingratiate himself further with the ruler. His obsequious deference is reflected in his promise to be brief since “Brevity is the soul of wit” (2.2.90) (Greatest wit consists in fewest words—B652), his offhanded comment during his report “But let that go” (95) (Truth hath no need of rhetoric—T575), and in his assurance to Claudius that Ophelia realizes she is not of royal stock and thus has no designs upon the prince: “Lord Hamlet is a prince out of [her] star; / This must not be” (141-42) (To be out of one's element—E107).

It is through Hamlet's proverbs that the spectators are most consistently and forcefully reminded of the power struggle underlying the narrative. For one thing, his own political ambitions are implied throughout the play, whether through his aphorism about being “a little more than kin” (1.2.65; K38); or about living in the secret parts of strumpet fortune (Fortune is a strumpet—F603.1); or about his fortune's having “turn[ed] Turk” (3.2.276) (To go bad—T609); or about eating “promise-crammed” air (possibly a homonymic pun on “heir”) (3.2.93; M226); or his pointedly unfinished remark to Rosencrantz, “While the grass grows” (343) (While the grass grows, the seed starves—G423); or his comment to Horatio, “The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (5.1.292) (Every dog has his day—D464). His disguise of innocence is almost shorn away during the play-within-the-play with his observation that “the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge” (254) (The croaking raven bodes misfortune—R33). He later informs his mother that he will take delight in trapping the king's agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their own net, like the “engineer / Hoist on his own petar” (3.4.206-07) (The fowler is caught in his own net—F626, To beat one at his own weapon—W204, P243.1).10

It is on the question of legitimacy that Hamlet's proverbs essentially focus. Claudius' integrity is directly impugned in the comment that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (1.5.108; F16). And his corruptions are manifest. He fails to bridle himself as a sound ruler must; his propensity for alcohol leads him, in having canons announce his every drink, to a “custom more honor'd in the breach than the observance” (1.4.15-16) (A bad custom is like a good cake, A bad custom is better broken than kept—C931) and has contributed to a disastrous national reputation since other nations “clip us drunkards, and with swinish phrase / Soil our addition” (19-20) (As drunk as a swine—S1042). He manipulates others to his own purposes; Rosencrantz, for instance, is merely a spunge to be tolerated so long as he is useful, “first mouth'd, to be last swallow'd” (4.2.18-19; N363).11 He surrounds himself with corrupt officials; the Danish court is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed [and is filled with] things rank and gross in nature” (1.2.135-36) (Weeds come forth on the fattest field if it is untilled—W241). Indeed, the kingdom itself is corrupted by the figure at the center: “The dram of ev'1 / Doth all the noble substance of a doubt / To his own scandal” (1.4.36-38) (One ill condition mars all the good—C585).

Hamlet is convinced, however, that the tyrant cannot maintain his composure. With the play at court he will “tent him to the quick” (2.2.597; Q13). Prior to the performance he ironically assures Claudius that those with clear consciences need fear nothing: “Let the gall'd jade wince” (3.2.243-44) (Touch a galled horse on his back, and he will wince—H700). When the king rises to leave, mid-performance, Hamlet quips, “What, frighted with false fire?” (266; F40.1), and he observes, concerning the hasty departure, “let the strooken deer go weep” (271) (As the stricken deer withdraws himself to die—D189) and “some must watch while some must sleep” (273) (Thus goes the world—W884.1).

At one point Hamlet's comments seem pointedly to justify political action. He notes that the Poles and the Norwegians “Will not debate the question of this straw” (4.4.26) (Not worth a straw—S198) but will fight to the death “Even for an egg-shell” (53) (Not worth an eggshell—E95). And he proclaims that it is right for them (and by analogy him and others) to kill, to “Go to their graves like beds” (62) (To accept danger without question—B192.1) “when honor's at the stake” (55) (To have one's honor [reputation] at the stake [on the line]—S813.2).

Shakespeare, in a word, uses proverbs not only as a verbal device for character individuation and development but also to lend emotional coloration to the political dimensions of a narrative that, while centered on personal revenge, he created “in the aftermath of a failed rebellion (for whose leader he had once thought to intercede), on the threshold of a new regime (whose character was not yet imaginable), for a theater perceived at the time as powerful social practice” (Patterson 101). In such a manner he is able to generate a high degree of interest in oppositional politics by depicting diverse ideologies that compete both on stage in recreated Denmark and in the minds of the English spectators. It would be dangerously presumptuous—and irrelevant—to infer anything about Shakespeare's politics from this dramatic strategy. And it would be equally dangerous—and inaccurate—to infer any kind of unanimity in the spectators' responses. The Elizabethan audience was composed of heterogeneous classes and of individuals with strikingly different political agendas. The theater was the “site of a clash of discourses determined by class affiliation” (Weimann 36); and, once a play made its way past the barriers of censorship, it had to hold the attention of a broad public drawn both from the aristocratic and the artisan and working class. While the playwright was not free to create on stage an arrant subversion of authority (and in many instances probably had no desire to do so), what he could do was to develop strategies to explore critically the sources of authority (Dollimore 4).

Proverbs form an important part of such a rhetorical strategy through which Shakespeare creates a political internal dialectic. If he employs them in a context that consistently strengthens the appeal of those who oppose autocratic power, he does so in all likelihood for the sake of effective dramaturgy in the face of a socially and politically mixed audience, to equalize interest in the familiar and dominant monarchic absolutism and the politically marginal concept of decentralized government.12 The effectiveness of this balance is less readily apparent today not only because of the erosion of the rhetorical power of proverbs but also because of fundamental differences in political perspective.


  1. Henry Peacham in 1593 described the proverb as a locution “grounded vpon the strong foundation of experiences confirmed by all times, allowed in all places, and subscribed to by all men” (86-87); three centuries later Disraeli characterized them as containing a “parsimony of words prodigal of sense” (1: 425). More recently, they have been called “situational formulas” (Zimmer 38) bringing us “close to man and often near to wisdom” (Whiting et al. 83).

  2. Proverbs were considered “the properties, the proofes, the purities, the elegances” (Florio 49), “caueats … both profitable and delightful” (Camden 271), the means by which one knows those things “nedefull or expediente to bee dooen” (Erasmus 4), a method of displaying “the contraries of things, perferring always the best: declaring thereby both the profits of vertue, and the inconveniences of vices, that we, considering both, may embrace the good and eschew the evil” (Baldwin 21). As Thomas Wilson observed, “In praising or dispraising, we must be well stored ever with such good sentences, as are often used in this our life, the which through art being increased, help much to persuasion” (116).

  3. Tilley argues that many of the unexplained jests in the dialogue result from proverbs whose contexts are obscure (“Pun and Proverb” 495). As Hilda M. Hulme observes, the challenge in understanding proverbs is “to find a way of entering into the particular kind of proverb games which characterized the speech community in which Shakespeare lived” (40).

  4. The power of the proverb is readily demonstrated. It, for example, is the “most popular folklore item used by Madison Avenue, … awakening positive traditional feelings in the consumer” (Mieder and Mieder 309). On the use of proverbial language to emotionalize contemporary speeches and addresses, see Mieder 14-22 and Miller and Villarreal 151-55.

  5. This number is surpassed only in two of Shakespeare's most highly rhetorical works—Romeo and Juliet with 248 and Love's Labor's Lost with 223.

  6. The basis for my discussion is Dent, who—by building upon Tilley (Dictionary), Whiting and Whiting, and F. P. Wilson (Oxford)—has identified 4,451 proverbs in Shakespeare: 1609 in the comedies (an average of 123 per play), 1280 in the tragedies (128), 1183 in the histories (118), and 379 in the romances (75). Each of the proverbs cited in Hamlet is coded to Appendix A in Dent; in second citations and in those instances in which Shakespeare's wording is sufficiently similar for the meaning to be clear, only code references are indicated in the text.

  7. Polonius is a “foolish prattling knave” (Bennett 3) whose use of “quibbling and plurisignation” (Clayton 60) signals a “love of sleuthing on a trail of policy” (Mahood 119).

  8. This proverb appears to operate at the level of a triple pun, the comparison of two workmen's tools (Anderson 200), of two birds (handsaw as a variant of heronshaw—Drew 495), or of two utterly incongruous objects.

  9. Critics have suggested various sources for Shakespeare's use of this proverb—Sylvester's Du Bartas (Leishman 196-97), the pictorial and literary tradition of the Dance of Death (Pecheux 75), the tradition in the morality plays of depicting Death as a “sergeant-at-arms with his mace” (Viswanathan 85), a general currency reflected in earlier manuscripts (Pitts 488).

  10. Warren V. Shepherd notes that this is a recurring motif in the play, with Hamlet constantly hoisting others with their own petards such as words, players, sailing craft, legal documents, fencing foils and poison (282).

  11. Hamlet, who—according to John Hunt—is in such anatomical references “methodically deconstructing the body” (30), must ultimately come to terms with his contempt for the physical.

  12. Taylor may well be correct that an individual proverb by nature adheres to the “middle way,” that it “will not champion martyrdom or villainy” (141). Demonstrably, however, Shakespeare's cumulative use of proverbs provides rhetorical support for those who oppose an absolutist government. The political balance was readjusted by the social realities of monarchic government for those who viewed the initial performances.

Works Cited

Anderson, Donald K., Jr. “Hawk and Mortarboard in Hamlet.N & Q [Notes and Queries] 35 (1988): 471-83.

Asher, Lyell. “‘To Consider Too Curiously’: Hamlet's Moral Wonder.” Hamlet Studies 10 (1988): 137-43.

Baldwin, William. A Treatise of Morall Philosophie (1547). Ed. Robert H. Bowers. Gainsville: U of Florida P, 1967.

Bennett, Josephine Waters. “Characterization in Polonius' Advice to Laertes.” Shakespeare Quarterly 4 (1953): 3-9.

Camden, William. Remains Concerning Britain (1614). Ed. R. D. Dunn. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984.

Clayton, Thomas. “The Quibbling Polonii and the Pious Bonds: The Rhetoric of Hamlet I.iii.” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 59-94.

Craig, Hardin. The Enchanted Glass. Oxford: Blackwell, 1950.

Cohen, Michael. “‘To What Base Uses We May Return’: Class and Mortality in Hamlet (5.1).” Hamlet Studies 9 (1987): 78-85.

Dent, R. W. Shakespeare's Proverbial Language: An Index. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.

Disraeli, Isaac. A Second Series of Curiosities of Literature. 3 vols. London, 1823.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Radical Tragedy. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Donawerth, Jane L. “The Language of Voice, Expression, and Gesture in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 3 (1981): 32-48.

Doran, Madeleine. “The Language of Hamlet.” Huntington Library Quarterly 27 (1964): 259-78.

Drew, Philip. “Hawks and Handsaws.” Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 495.

Erasmus, Desiderius. Preface. Apophthegmes. Trans. Nicholas Udall. London, 1542.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. “Hamlet and the Power of Words.” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 85-102.

Falk, Doris V. “Proverbs and the Polonius Destiny.” Shakespeare Quarterly 18 (1967): 23-36.

Florio, John. His First Fruits. London, 1578.

Habenicht, Rudolph, ed. John Heywood's A Dialogue of Proverbs. Berkeley: U of California P, 1963.

Heseltine, Janet E. Introduction. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Comp. William G. Smith. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1935.

Hulme, Hilda M. Explorations in Shakespeare's Language. New York: Longman, 1962.

Hunt, John. “A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 27-44.

Jonson, Ben. Every Man In His Humor. Ben Jonson. Ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1925-52. 3: 303-402.

Leishman, J. B. Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Hutchinson, 1961.

Mahood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Methuen, 1957.

Mieder, Wolfgang. Das Sprichwort in unserer Zeit. Frauenfeld: Huber, 1975.

———. and Barbara Mieder. “Traditions and Innovation: Proverbs in Advertising.” Journal of Popular Culture 11 (1977): 308-19.

Miller, Edd, and Jesse J. Villarreal. “The Use of Cliches by Four Contemporary Speakers.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 31 (1945): 151-55.

Norrick, Neal R. How Proverbs Mean: Semantic Studies in English Proverbs. Amsterdam: Mouton, 1985.

Orkin, Martin. “The Poor Cat's Adage and Other Shakespearian Proverbs in Elizabethan Grammar-School Education.” English Studies in Africa 21 (1978): 78-88.

Patterson, Annabel. “‘The Very Age and Body of the Time His Form and Pressure’: Rehistoricizing Shakespeare's Theater.” New Literary History 20 (1988): 83-104.

Peacham, Henry. The Garden of Eloguence. Intro. William G. Crane. Gainsville: U of Florida P, 1954.

Pecheux, Mother M. Christopher. “Another Note on ‘This Fell Sergeant, Death.’” Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 74-75.

Pitts, Rebecca A. “This Fell Sergeant, Death.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 486-91.

Porter, Henry. The Two Angry Women of Abingdon. Nero and Other Plays. Ed. Havelock Ellis. London, 1882. 97-200.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. B. Evans. Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Shepard, Warren V. “Hoisting the Engineer With His Own Petar.” Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 281-85.

Taylor, Archer. The Proverb. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1931.

Tilley, Morris P. A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1950.

———. “Pun and Proverb as Aids to Unexplained Shakespearean Jests.” Studies in Philology 21 (1924): 492-95.

Viswanathan, S. “‘This Fell Sergeant, Death’ Once More.” Shakespeare Quarterly 29 (1978): 84-85.

Warner, William B. Chance and Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche and Shakespeare. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

Weimann, Robert. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater. ed. R. Schwartz. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Whiting, Bartlett J. “The Nature of the Proverb.” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 14 (1932): 51-62.

———. and H. W. Whiting, eds. Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500. Cambridge: Belknap P, 1968.

———. Francis W. Bradley, Richard Jente, Archer Taylor, and Morris P. Tilley. “The Study of Proverbs.” Modern Language Forum 24:2 (1939): 57-83.

Wilson, F. P. The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1970.

———. “Shakespeare and the Authority of Experience.” Proceedings of the British Academy 27 (1941): 185-86.

Wilson, Thomas. Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique. Ed. G. H. Mair. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1909.

Zimmer, Karl. Situational Formulas. Berkeley: U of California P, 1958.

Criticism: Character Studies

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine R. “Polonius, Our Pundit.” American Scholar 71, no. 4 (autumn 2002): 97-108.

[In the following essay, Stimpson rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider.]

I once worked with a man who reveled in his authority but was too shrewd to revel in it gloriously, exuberantly, or crassly. Although his power base was a local institution, he had been a part of some of the large events of his time. He had served on national commissions. He had names on his Rolodex that he could and did drop. He believed in good manners, but at more informal gatherings, he would wear a bright, loosely tied scarf and chat up younger women with a glee that pushed at the envelope of his moderation. He thought of himself as a good man, and often spoke of his contributions to high-minded causes. Just as adamantly, he thought of himself as a wise man and diplomatic counselor, and was proud of his ability to come to the heart of the matter with the precision of a cardiologist. Slipping into retirement, he was even more absorbed by the delicacies of hierarchical arrangements and prickly about his position. He fussed at length about who should or should not be included in meetings. Once, when he thought he had been wrongly excluded from the routing of a draft report, he wrote, in anger, without irony, “There's a lot of quack left in this lame duck.” Neither of us was spontaneously fond of the other. If I were to interpret his public comments about me disagreeably, I would conclude that he found me too strident, too vain about my judgments, and too strong-willed to take advantage of his advice. I dealt with him because the situation demanded that I do so. In private, I found him irritating and untrustworthy, and called him Polonius.

During this period of my life, I attended a production of Hamlet and rudely left at the interval. This was the fault not of the production but of my temperament. I was too impatiently aware of what was going to happen in terms of plot and poetry. The performance of Polonius, however, was fascinating. He was no gabby old fool. The actor was dressed in a morning coat and ascot. He looked well tailored, well shaved. One could easily imagine that he had once been an amorous, love-frenzied young man, or a university student actor playing Julius Caesar, as Polonius did. Suave, smooth, and mature in manner, he was now a supremely confident high-court official. His advice to his son about social relations, friendship, violence, money, and existential authenticity made sense. When he got into difficulty, it was not because of pending senility but because of overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.

Like those of all imagined characters of unusual force and palpability, Polonius's domains have expanded from literature to life, where he has become a label, a social category. Since my experiences of Polonius in literature and life, I have wondered who and what a Polonius in a modern state might be. He is, I have decided, a powerful figure in a large institution, preferably the executive branch of the federal government. However, he moves easily among institutions. He can work in the private sector or a think tank or a public policy school in an affluent private university. When he is not in the government, and is instead rusticating in the private sector, he likes being a pundit. In that role, he enjoys writing op-ed pieces and going on television. The pundit occupies a strategic space in contemporary public discourse. Although some female pundits exist, he is usually a man.

The origins of the word are themselves masculine. Pundit derives from the Sanskrit pandita, which means “learned, wise; a learned man, a teacher, an authority; one who announces his judgment, opinions, or conclusions in an authoritative manner; a critic.” The word entered English through Hindi, another appropriation from the era of the British rule of the Indian subcontinent.

Today, the figure of the pundit provokes ambivalent reactions: admiration but some sneers, sneers but some indifference, indifference but some envy. On the one hand, he has wisdom, expertise, and an insider's insights and material for gossip. Unlike “the spokesman,” who proudly represents a known figure or cause, the pundit has a patina of nonpartisanship. He may have been in the trenches of partisan warfare, but he has then risen above the fray and settled into a more elevated public square. He is a talking head—the colloquial term for the informed television commentator—who is at home with headlines. Think tall, jowly David Gergen, acclaimed for being a reliable voice after having served four presidents from two parties. Unlike our sanctioned court jesters in the media, the pundit radiates an air of agreeable seriousness and decorum. Jay Leno may entertain at a White House correspondents' dinner and show risqué mock news clips of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright while goosing a foreign diplomat as the two of them stand behind a podium. The pundit would attend the dinner and afterward comment on the appropriateness of Leno's comic turn. Unlike an obsequious courtier or personal assistant, the pundit maintains his dignity and gravitas. He is no foppish Osric. On the other hand, the pundit may seem like an inflated balloon in need of pricking, a condescending teacher. This officious figure has spawned a rebellious offspring, the punk pundit, with brawny and belligerent manners and a hip haircut, who in America appears most often on our late-night, edgy talk shows. As my taxonomy of punditry reveals, the modern media have now spawned so many pundits that their authoritative voices blur and blend into a large, mildly disharmonious chorus. No single pundit rules.

It may be hard to imagine Polonius as a pundit. This is not because of the messy difficulties of transposing the dramatic setting of the Danish court of Hamlet and its Privy Councillor to that of a modern government and a high official. The difficulty is that the prevailing image of Polonius today is that of the boring, garrulous, fussy old meddler. Please note how my nickname for the man whom I introduced in my first paragraph perpetuates this stereotype. Polonius is tragedy's older counterpart of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which was written at about the same time as Hamlet. It is as if Hamlet's assessment of Polonius as a “foolish prating knave” had become ours entirely. If Dr. Johnson, who gives Polonius some dignity and worldly smarts, writes that he is “dotage encroaching upon wisdom,” our stereotype makes Polonius dotage fleeing from wisdom. For impotent J. Alfred Prufrock, by fate and character incapable of being Hamlet, an attendant lord or Polonius is his Shakespearean mirror image, “an easy tool / deferential, glad to be of use / Politic, cautious, and meticulous.” When such a tediously risible Polonius dies like a rat, the audience is pleased. In 1978, Saul Bellow said meanly, “One of the nice things about Hamlet is that Polonius gets stabbed.”

If we accept the stereotype, we shove aside a truth about Polonius: he is a very difficult, puzzling, and seemingly malleable character. These features have provoked contradictory readings and performances. For some, he may be a total buffoon; for others, he is a statesman. For some, he is a sexually prurient father who may have incestuous longings for his daughter; for others, he is decent and good enough to inspire the love of both his children. In the 1950s, Shakespeare Quarterly was the site of one learned quarrel about the degree of his foolishness. To excavate this quarrel is to do a small archaeology of the theoretically reticent literary criticism that held sway before the 1960s. The spat began with Josephine W. Bennett's “Characterization in Polonius's Advice to Laertes.” Is it, she asks, a distillation of “practical wisdom” or a series of clichés, mere conventional wisdom? (The pundit, of course, traffics in conventional wisdom. If he were too unconventional, he would shock and scare away his audience.) Bennett's question is not only rhetorical. The degree of Polonius's “dignity” rests upon the answer. Like others, Bennett traces Polonius's advice to his son in act 1 to John Lyly, but both Lyly and Shakespeare, she argues, have as their source Isocrates' Ad Demonicum. “Shakespeare's audience,” she claims, “could be trusted to recognize it as a familiar and conventional set of wise saws … schoolboy wisdom in the mouth of one … now entering his second childhood.” Bennett then systematically slaps down any other claims to dignity that Polonius might have. He is not a “caricature” of Lord Burleigh. He thus lacks the standing that a significantly satiric figure might have. Although he works in the royal household, he is merely in charge of protocol and entertainment. He introduces ambassadors and arranges for theatricals. His role, Bennett writes, is like that of the “chief secretary of the White House.” He thus lacks the standing that a deeply trusted counsel would have. Finally, his children might be fond of him, but it “does (not) follow that, because his children loved him, therefore he must have been worthy of their devotion.” He thus lacks the standing that a revered patriarch would have.

Bennett's onslaught provoked Polonius's defenders. In “Isocrates' Precepts and Polonius's Character,” G. K. Hunter flatly declares Bennett wrong. Shakespeare's audience, he argues, would find Polonius's advice sage, its conventionality a sign that it could be trusted, not scorned. Moreover, the Countess of Rousillon in All's Well That Ends Well offers parallel counsel. Polonius is in good company. As the audience goes deeper into the play, it learns that Polonius's advice is inadequate, but, Hunter suggests, this is less a comment on Polonius than on the “inadequacy of all advice” when we must confront the conditions the play dramatizes: regicide, ghosts of murdered kings, fratricide, adultery, incest, murder, and revenge. Joining but modifying Hunter is O. B. Davis's “A Note on the Function of Polonius's Advice,” which makes Polonius the embodiment of the slippery, self-interested, and corner-cutting ethics of the Elsinore court. Polonius gives advice “to a young man on the make.” Elkin Calhoun Wilson's “Polonius in the Round,” a title that cutely puns on the roundness of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and E. M. Forster's sketch of complex literary characters as “round,” is a more full-throated defense, one that finds Polonius much more than a “fool and a knave.” To be sure, he is comic in his lectures and in the tenacity of his pursuit of the idea that spurned love is the motive for Hamlet's bizarre behavior. Although Wilson does not credit Henri Bergson's theory of comedy as rigid behavior in sudden conflict with contingency, his analysis of Polonius echoes it. However, Wilson concludes, Polonius also has a “minor tragic dimension.” He loves his daughter and wants to help his kings, admirable motives that come to naught.

The Shakespearean Polonius is difficult, puzzling, and seemingly malleable for a reason. It makes strategic sense for him to be so. If he were easily and consistently knowable, easily and consistently interpretable, he could not do his job. He must be a man who knows more about people than they know about him. He accomplishes what he must accomplish—management of a small but tricky political world—by wearing masks, playing games, setting traps. His hiding behind the arras is one way of spying on the action of the court. He also conceals his considerable and considered ambitions. As Marvin Rosenberg writes, “Polonius is dangerous. His objective to begin with is to sustain the establishment, and make it work for himself and his family.”

Moreover, he is a liminal character, moving away from a position of cognitive control. He has lost a beat or two. When he and Hamlet are initially talking to the traveling players, Hamlet ribs him by saying that he falls asleep at a performance unless it's a “jig or a tale of bawdry.” He has fantasies of retiring and keeping a farm and carters. In normal conditions, his slowing down might be disguised and patched over, but normal conditions have become radically unsettled. Gertrude is still queen, but Claudius is now king, and Polonius must cope with him and maintain his position as influential court insider. Prince Hamlet, whom he has known since infancy, is acting up, acting out, coming on to his daughter, and calling him, Polonius, a fishmonger.

Most recently, John Updike, no more able to resist Hamlet than any other great writer, reimagined both Shakespeare and Shakespeare's sources in his novel Gertrude and Claudius. His Polonius, called Corambis, is secretive, watchful, and sly. He is portly, his hair is greasy, his mouth is fleshy and tremulous. Dressed in ludicrous tunics and sugarloaf-shaped hats, he is more grotesque than “my” Polonius.

As a progenitor of a modern pundit, “my” Polonius embodies more polished connections between power and language even if they are beginning to show some tarnish. He has his attractive features and character strengths. His public power is that of a high, experienced court official. He understands war and relations between Denmark and Norway, Poland, France, England. In part, his role is ceremonial. Implementing it, he seems to grasp the performative aspects of maintaining the highest office in the land—its spectacles, protocols, and rituals. He likes the blare of trumpets and the rustle of banners. In part, his role is that of a policymaker, and his long survival suggests he is probably very good. He likes spying and surveillance. Furthering his political and personal ends, Polonius can lie and equivocate. He knows this about himself. If there were telephones to tap, he would do it. If there were electronic bugs and tiny hidden cameras to plant, he would do that as well. When he sends an employee, Reynaldo, to spy on Laertes, the son who is a student at the University of Paris, he instructs Reynaldo expertly and, I suggest, with relish. Like all cunning liars, he knows that falsehood must be calibrated. He warns Reynaldo not to make so many false accusations against his son that Laertes will be dishonored. In brief, the student actor has transferred his love of stagecraft to a love of statecraft that demands dishonesty and disguise. He is a fine, seasoned conniver.

However, he is not the king in a hierarchical court. He has power but not absolute power. He is at the right hand of royalty, but he is not royal. HIs voices reflect his position. On the one hand, he can be directive. As “The Mousetrap” plays on, and Hamlet interprets it, the frightened Claudius rises to go; it is Polonius who orders the play to stop. He can usher dignitaries in and out with aplomb. I might even say that he serves as a pundit for the small but significant audience of the court. He believes he can “find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre.” Serving as a cultural pundit, he discusses the theater in a passage that has been mocked but that can be read as lighthearted criticism. He is also a family pundit for his children. Much of what he says is useful or sound. His voices are often rotund but essentially straightforward. When Hamlet kills him, his speech is as clear as it can be, “O, I am slain.” However, on the other hand, Polonius can be obsequious and flattering when he speaks in the voice of those who must serve the powerful as well as wield power under their direction. Serving the powerful generally entails making them comfortable, even with bad news. Some of his speeches that might seem silly are actually soporific bromides, rhetorical tranquilizers to calm people enough to get them through difficult situations. Similarly, they might be verbal sugar coatings for the delivery of bitter information.

Take, for example, act 2, scene 2. It begins with Claudius and Gertrude hiring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help them understand and control Prince Hamlet. They are now new, albeit junior, advisers to the king. In circles of power, any newcomer is a potential rival. Gertrude believes that Hamlet's transformation, his actions and distractions, are the result of his father's death and her over-hasty marriage, but she confides this only to Claudius. Polonius then enters with two pieces of good news. One is political. The ambassadors have returned with a deal favorable to Denmark. The second is domestic. He, Polonius, has found the “very cause of Hamlet's lunacy.” The latter seems more compelling to Claudius than the former, but Polonius wants to defer giving the domestic news. It is, after all, a bit of a problem to tell your queen that her “noble son” is mad because he is gaga with love for your daughter and then to assure your king and queen that your primary loyalty and obedience is to them; that you are not trying to advance yourself by exploiting the prince's passion; that your daughter's primary loyalty and obedience is to you, her father, and not to the prince's love and lust; and that you will be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Polonius's technique is to soften up the royal couple by persuading them to hear out the successful ambassadors before hearing him out. That accomplished, he blathers on, risking the Queen's impatience, calculating that his deferrals will have the effect of making the royal couple want to cut through his rhetoric and get to the nugget of news. His climax is his description of Hamlet's swoon after Ophelia, following paternal orders, refuses to see him. Polonius cleverly combines a sequence of short descriptions of drastic actions and alternating dactylic and trochaic rhythms that ease the blows:

And he …
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, then into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we wait for.

It works. Persuaded, Claudius and Gertrude accept Polonius's scheme to entrap Hamlet, and exploit Ophelia, by having Ophelia encounter Hamlet while the King and his loyal counselor watch from behind that notorious arras. At its worst—an extreme that Polonius generally avoids—the language of deferential service becomes fawning, the “candied tongue lick(ing) absurd pomp / And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee.” And fawning becomes sycophancy, which in English has several vulgar synonyms that speak to a perverse combination of love, appetite, self-abasement, toadying, and excrement.

Polonius has a second source of power as well, that of the patriarch. Here he is absolute. A widower, he can command his two children. The mood of the patriarch can be imperative, especially to his daughter. He demands that she tell him the truth about her relationship with Hamlet. He pooh-poohs her responses and tells her that she speaks “like a green girl,” a foreshadowing of her death dressed in weeds and flowers. Structurally, of course, Hamlet plays the royal family off against the Privy Councillor's family, most dramatically Hamlet against Laertes as sons who must avenge their fathers. Although covertly, the first scene sets up the play's intricate correspondences between the two families. The extent of the thematic and dramatic relations between the two families makes plausible the possibility of interpreting Polonius's possessiveness of Ophelia as masked incestuous desires. If Gertrude and her brother-in-law are committing incest, could not Ophelia, the only other woman in the play except for a clump of ladies with their lords, be a shadowy representation of incest as well? And could she not be the victim of desire by both the father and the brother? After her death, Laertes will leap into her grave so that he can catch her “once more in mine arms.” Only she, the compliant daughter and sister, is acted upon in the possibly incestuous drama, while Gertrude, the two-fold wife and once-foaled mother, acts in her clearly incestuous drama.

Polonius's hinge position between the court, where he exercises a power dependent upon his skill and position, and the home, where he exercises a power independent of anyone, is clear in his first scene. The new royal family, the Council, Polonius and his son, and Lords Attendant enter to a flourish of trumpets. Claudius with confidence and real competence summarizes the new state of things in Denmark. Then he summons Laertes and praises the bonds between the throne of Denmark and Polonius, who seems to have accepted the new order of things without a qualm or quiver. Laertes politely begs the King's permission to return to France. Claudius then asks if Polonius approves. Polonius's answer is his first speech, which reveals a son who must beg a father for permission to leave, and a father who must beg a monarch to endorse his permission:

He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave
By laboursome petition, and at last
Upon his will I sealed my hard consent.
I do beseech you give him leave to go.

Polonius's immediate problem in the play is not the departure of his son but the romantic entanglements of his daughter with Prince Hamlet, back from Wittenberg University because of his father's death. Polonius, coping, fuses his role as court official and patriarch. Doing so, he has to juggle several unpleasant scenarios. The two scenarios that neither he nor his son can imagine are that the Prince and his daughter might actually be in love, or that the King and Queen, especially the Queen, might approve of their marriage. This inability to imagine love is a huge mistake. As a consequence, Polonius concludes that he has to protect his daughter's virginity, which is priceless. If she is not a virgin, the family has lost honor, a possibility that also worries Ophelia's brother. She is also far less marriageable. But what if Hamlet has slept with his daughter? Or is urging her to sleep with him? And what if she wants to sleep with him? Polonius must also protect his position at court. Hamlet appears to be a lunatic, although Polonius is too shrewd and too much of a faker himself not to wonder if there is method to his madness. But what if Hamlet really is crazy, and what if his love for Ophelia has driven him there? Will Claudius and Gertrude get angry at Polonius and by extension at Polonius's family? Will his position be threatened? And what if Hamlet might want to marry his daughter? Or his daughter to marry him? Doesn't he have more status than she? Would she look too ambitious? Wouldn't this be trouble for everyone?

Polonius's contribution to the destruction of Elsinore and to his self-destruction has its primary source in the anxious stupidity of his interpretations and the persistence with which he acts on them. Even when younger, he might have been as smug about his insights. Youthful as well as older politicians wreak havoc because of their certainties. Indeed, to focus on Polonius as a dodderer permits us to align his errors with age—not with the cognitive arrogance of power. Even though Polonius is a corporate partner in the death and waste of Elsinore, his last action has a tattered shred of decency. He calls Hamlet's attention to himself in his hiding place because he hears Gertrude calling for help and echoes her. And Hamlet, notoriously, thinks Polonius is Claudius and kills him: the act that really does Hamlet in, that seals Claudius's decision to destroy him in order to secure Claudius's kingship and that initiates Laertes' decision to kill him in order to revenge Polonius. The combination of having fomented bloody loss and yet inspiring genuine grief cloaks Polonius's ghost after his death and unceremonious burial. As Laertes angrily reminds Claudius, his father has had “No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones.” Since the state has tactically chosen to ignore his death, all of Polonius's memorials must be familial. One is his daughter's dirge, sung before her death. A second is his son's revenge. Like the father, the son is a negotiator, who is willing to enter into sinister schemes and who bargains with Claudius over the terms and conditions of his revenge. The third memorial is more subtle. Before her funeral, a sequence of voices marks Ophelia's drowning: that of Gertrude, then that of Laertes, and then, in a grim and comic counterpoint, those of the two clowns who are digging her grave. They imply that she will receive a Christian burial because the status-conscious coroner has found her not guilty of suicide. Her social position, which her father has worked so diligently to maintain, at last protects her.

What contemporary scenarios might one imagine for Polonius? Like pundit, scenario has become a common term in our business and political lexicons. A scenario both imagines a future and shows how to handle it. A scenario can be designed for a movie or a play, but more likely, it depicts what a corporation or nonprofit organization or striver might do. “Where do you want to be in five years?” a strategic planning consultant might ask a group. “What's your scenario?” An up-to-date Polonius is easily pictured in a small, rich, arms-ridden, authoritarian country. Here families still control political power, here political violence is endemic, and here a brilliant son might return to an uncle's ascension from his more carefree days as a student at Harvard, Oxford, or the Sorbonne. Think a cognate of Iraq or Syria. Polonius could be a government official in such countries, but he could not be a pundit, because they lack the press freedoms that encourage punditry. A Polonius is also plausible if Hamlet is transposed to a family-run corporation called Denmark. This move is the controlling conceit of the visually arresting and dazzlingly ingenious movie Hamlet, released in 2000, which starred Ethan Hawke as the Prince. The actor Bill Murray, known for contemporary comedy, is a beautifully effective Polonius: a light-voiced, schedule-conscious, well-dressed, trusted corporate counselor, first seen vigorously applauding Claudius at a stockholders' meeting. He is a loving single parent who nevertheless places corporate interests, and his own interest in these interests, over his daughter's well-being. As Ophelia cries, he skillfully—and perhaps slightly salaciously—wires her for a conversation with the increasingly problematic and eccentric young scion Hamlet.

Neither of these scenarios takes place in a modern democracy. The question of what a Polonius might be like in a political tragedy set in a modern democracy provokes the deeper question of whether a political tragedy in a modern democracy is possible. The classical conventions of political tragedy—that alliance of the dramas of big rulers, ruling families and the state—function awkwardly for a modern democracy. Hamlet uses these conventions with Shakespearean depth. (In one way, Othello breaks them. The tragic hero is both a servant of the state, albeit a heroic general, and, as Moor of Venice, a partial outsider. In another way, however, Othello maintains them. Desdemona is no partner outsider but the daughter of a ruling family.) In contemporary America, only the myth of the Kennedys—their heroic men shot down by lesser figures—keeps the canons of political tragedy woefully alive. The Kennedys continue to fuse the fates of a compelling individual, a family, and the state. Otherwise, our political imaginations must feed on different substances.

Now fathers and sons of political families have to work hard to establish dynasties. They must go through elections, although they have the competitive advantages of fame and strong fund-raising prowess when they campaign. They must take account of the ambitions of daughters. When even the most charismatic politician achieves office, he finds power assigned throughout institutions that check and balance each other. Classical tragedy has focus and concentration. Modern democratic political tragedy has networks and sprawl. Actors mesh, connect, disconnect, and reconnect with one another. They also breathe within webs of bureaucratic institutions. Interacting with one another, interacting with their agencies, they are too mobile and yet aligned with others to be assigned individual responsibility for tragic effects on others or on the environment. Moreover, overt physical violence and shooting wars are no longer respectable political choices within national boundaries. Modern democratic politicians have found the moral equivalents of war through investigative hearings, spin doctors, negative ads, debates, and such media events as “Crossfire.” The material equivalents of the poisoned chalice and rapier have been relegated to assassins, domestic terrorists, and rogue cops.

My Polonius must operate within such a scenario. However, the loss of a clear narrative line and of a centripetal figure do not create a vacuum that he will fill. He lacks the poetry and intensity of a grand tragic figure. He would have had an excellent education, including graduate and/or professional training. He has read Shakespeare. He might have taken a joint law and business degree. He is very intelligent, and his is not entirely an instrumental intelligence. When he was young, he had a wild streak. He might have drunk too much, or smoked pot, or done both. Whatever he did, it did not mar his résumé. He or his family might have fixed a DWI ticket or two. He is now older. He has bought a country home for his retirement in a university town—perhaps in Charlottesville, or Raleigh-Durham, or Seattle. He is, however, loath to retire. He would miss the game. Moreover, his children are only in their twenties, and he still has financial obligations to them. He likes to think of himself as a modern father, and he cares deeply for his children, and gets upset if he does not know what they are doing, especially his daughter. He tells his friends that he would like her to go to his own law school but that he is still an old-fashioned man when it comes to the young man in his girl's life. He is a widower. Before her death, of ovarian cancer, his wife did respected volunteer work in Washington, D.C. He now dates, and watches some pornographic films, but he has not married again.

Playing the game, he could belong to the moderate wing of either major political party. The actual party affiliation is irrelevant. He belongs to the permanent government, and has functioning networks. When he is in government, he is an appointed official. He has no desire to run for office. He might be a deputy assistant secretary of state, or a top staffer at the National Security Council, or a deputy director of the CIA. He lacks the gall and brass to go for the top jobs. He is proud of the way he handles his superiors—good-humored, courteous, ostensibly loyal, full of well-timed jocularity. His jobs require him to receive classified materials. He hints at the power he has because he knows secrets. He likes it when journalists use him as “a protected source,” and he is very good at leaks.

When he is not in office, he has his pick of joining a law firm, or a major corporate communications firm, or a highly prestigious think tank, particularly one that is concerned with security issues. He serves on official commissions and committees, and one or two corporate boards, and has a museum membership and theater subscription. In memory of his wife, he is on an advisory committee of a cancer research group. What he truly enjoys is being a pundit. Modernity and its communications technologies have granted him an audience a Renaissance Polonius never had. His promise to his audience is that his jobs may have forced him to do painful or deceptive things for the sake of national security, but that he will now be as truthful as the vows made during his career in national security permit him to be. Whenever there is a crisis in foreign or defense affairs, he is on TV, silver hair combed back, in a dark suit, analyzing, pontificating a little. Younger experts roll their eyes when they see him, but they might be envious of him. He declines invitations to appear on the raucous shows on Fox TV or some cable channels. He prefers the more sanitized experts of CNN or PBS or, when he is lucky, the Sunday morning talk shows. He lets it be known that he has been through crises before and knows how to manage them. He is the consummate insider. His language is utterly conventional. Members of the avant-garde are prophets, not pundits. His résumé, and his command of hearable public rhetoric, give him credibility. He often tells his son how important it is to be credible.

How does Polonius, our pundit, die? Things ought to be hunky-dory. His party is in power. He is now in the White House, at the National Security Council. The president and his family are old friends, although the president's re-election was controversial, because he was the first to be divorced while in office. Polonius's son, having gotten his law degree and then worked for an international consulting company, is taking an extended vacation. Against his father's better judgment, he is sailing around the world. The president's second wife, an athletic woman, has told Polonius not to be an old fussbudget and let the boy go. He is, however, worried about his daughter, a fragile girl, who may be dating the president's son from his first marriage, known for being odd and wild and hard to control and more radical than his father. Polonius, however, gets caught in a bad power struggle about a major issue, and despite his affable maneuverings, he has made enemies over the years. There are leaks about both sexual harassment and possible improprieties having to do with foreign contracts; there are threats of a Congressional investigation. He is forced to resign. He misses his staff and his secretary. Although he talks to publishers about a book contract, his value as a pundit is diminished. Now we might imagine several alternative scenarios. If he knows too much, and if his enemies are unusually vengeful and vicious, he might die “accidentally”—a helicopter crash when he is visiting a foreign dignitary who still keeps in touch with him, or a mysterious stabbing on a towpath by the Potomac while he is jogging. More benignly, he might die, angry and disappointed, of a heart attack. His daughter mourns him, but she also dies soon afterward of a drug overdose. The son returns home, and must mourn both sister and father. He is convinced that one of his father's enemies hooked his sister on drugs and that all of his father's enemies conspired against him. Although he wants to resume his career and be successful, he works on a biography of his father. His girlfriend helps him. A small vanity press ultimately publishes it. It is called, without a hint of irony, To His Own Self He Was True.

Keith Doubt (essay date summer/winter 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Doubt, Keith. “Hamlet and Friendship.” Hamlet Studies 17, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1995): 54-62.

[In the following essay, Doubt examines three types of friendship in Hamlet: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.]

“At this a back cloud of grief enveloped Laertes / And taking a dark double-handful of dust he poured it / Upon his grey head, while one groan followed another. As he watched his dear father, the heart of Odysseus was moved / And at once his nostrils tingled with keen compassion. / Quickly he went and took the old king in his arms / And kissed him.”

(The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Ennis Rees, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960).

There are two examples of friendship in Hamlet: one, very positive, the other, very negative. Hamlet's friend Horatio, on the one hand, is about as perfect a friend as anyone could ask for. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the other hand, are exceedingly imperfect in their friendship with Hamlet.

In Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Artistotle says that there are three kinds of friendship, each corresponding to a particular human affection. Some friendships are based on their reciprocal usefulness, some on their reciprocal pleasure, and some on their reciprocal commitment to justice. Friendships like the third, which are based on a mutual affection for virtue are the best, Aristotle says.1

After seeing King Hamlet's ghost, Horatio says, “Let us impart what we have seen tonight unto young Hamlet … as needful in our loves, fitting our duty” (1.1).2 Horatio's good will and loyalty toward Hamlet, his wishing for the advantage of Hamlet, is no doubt useful to Hamlet. But Horatio's friendship also gives pleasure to Hamlet. Horatio's empathy for Hamlet's bitter feelings over his mother's hasty marriage comforts Hamlet, “Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon” (1.2). More importantly, however, with respect to friendship, Hamlet admires Horatio as a paradigm of virtue. “Thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal” (3.2.53-54) and, later, “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” (3.2.72-75).

There is a second friendship in the play and that is Hamlet's relation to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While the failure of this relation is powerfully dramatized, it is important not to forget that at the start Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embody one kind of friendship with Hamlet. Together the three share an affection for what is pleasurerable as can be witnessed in their lively exchange of sexual puns. Hamlet is being neither ironic nor superficial when he greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “My excellent good friends! … Good lads, how to ye both?” (2.2.241-243). The point can be supported from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's side as well. After listening to Hamlet's derision later in the play, Rosencrantz remembers, “My lord, you once did love me” (3.2.342).

Having said this, we need to consider the clear-cut failure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's friendship with Hamlet. Unlike Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not good in themselves; they are hollow men. They are not committed to disclosing to Hamlet what, as a friend, Hamlet asks them to disclose. They confess to Hamlet that they were sent for by the king and queen not because it is their will to confess this truth but because of Hamlet's pressing questioning, “My lord, we were sent for” (2.2.308). Their betrayal of friendship is in order to gain the court's favor.

Rosencrantz queries Hamlet, “Take you me for a sponge, my lord?” (4.2.15), and Hamlet answers, “Ay, sir, that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities. … When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again” (4.2.20-21). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's ‘instrumental’ relation provokes Hamlet's rage, a rage that we perhaps all have felt but never so well articulated as when Hamlet upbraids them for trying to “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery” (3.2.371-79).

This paper discusses these two types of friendship and their effect on Hamlet. I shall argue that the function of each friendship is to mediate Hamlet's troubled relations to his parents. Horatio, for instance, mediates Hamlet's troubled relation to his father. Horatio makes Hamlet aware of the existence of the ghost of his father, which is the first step in healing Hamlet's grief. Concretely, Horatio helps Hamlet see his father's ghost. Metaphysically, Horatio helps Hamlet remember his father's character. “He was a man, take him for all in all. / I shall not look upon his like again” (1.2.197-198). “And fixed his eyes upon you?” (1.2.252), Hamlet asks Horatio. “Most constantly” (1.2.253). “I would I had been there,” replies Hamlet (1.2.254). Hamlet puts himself in the place of Horatio as a way to imagine his father's loving gaze upon himself. The paradox, of course, is that no one can experience a ghost concretely (only speculatively), and no one can see the metaphysical non-concretely (without sense perception).

Much as the function of Horatio's friendship is to mediate Hamlet's troubled relation to his father, the function of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's friendship is to mediate Hamlet's relation to his mother. The reasons that Gertrude sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were to try to restore her relation to her son, to remind her son of her good will toward him, and to let her son know that she has always wanted only what is good for him. While to see Gertrude through Hamlet's eyes is to see Gertrude in a despicable light, within the play itself Gertrude at no point forsakes her maternal love toward Hamlet.

Why did Gertrude marry Claudius? Was it only because of passionate love? It is doubtful. Gertrude herself suggests a more likely reason when she says, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, / and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (1.2.72-73). Gertrude's marriage with her husband's brother was as much an expression of friendship toward Denmark as it was an expression of love toward Claudius. As Claudius declares publicly, she is “The imperial jointress to this warlike state” (1.2.9). At this critical time, Denmark, Gertrude perceives, needs befriending, not criticism, and she encourages young Hamlet to emulate the spirit of her example—not for her sake but for the sake of Hamlet's lost father and for Denmark's welfare. (This reading differs sharply from the well known study Hamlet and Oedipus by Ernest Jones, which formulates Gertrude's marriage as a passionate one which Hamlet, in view of the Oedipal complex, both abhors and envies.)

At the end of the play, Hamlet's personal tragedy is reinforced by Hamlet's political tragedy—after the sudden death of Hamlet, Denmark is suddenly lost to young Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. “I have some rights of memory in this kingdom, / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” (5.2.420-421). Young Fortinbras has acquired without a fight from Denmark what King Hamlet so gallantly won from Fortinbras's slain father. One cannot imagine a more bitter scenario from the perspective of old King Hamlet.

In mediating Hamlet's relation to his mother, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, fail in their mission. The reason, however, is not the absence of the Queen's good will toward Hamlet, but the absence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's good will. There is a difference in the King and Queen's respective use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Claudius uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to fathom Hamlet's esoteric thoughts for his own selfish purpose; the Queen to influence Hamlet in a positive way.

It is interesting in this light to consider the advice that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offer Hamlet, advice for his troubles that could easily have been from the Queen. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suggest that the problem behind Hamlet's complaints (“Denmark's a prison” 2.2.260) is that he himself is too ambitious, perhaps more desirous of the crown than he cares to admit. With the voice of practical reason, Guildenstern advises Hamlet, “… the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream” (2.2.273-275). Rosencrantz adds, “I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's diagnosis is that Hamlet's ambition for the crown keeps him from enjoying life. Hamlet needs merely to lower his political aspirations and, after doing so, he will enjoy life as they do. “As the indifferent children of the earth” (2.2.244), says Rosencrantz; Guildenstern adds, “Happy in that we are not overhappy” (2.2.245).

These two friendships, Horatio's on the one hand, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's on the other, affect Hamlet's troubled relations to his parents at more than just the conscious level; they affect his relation at an unconscious level as well. For Hamlet, as we have seen, Horatio mediates between him and his father. Horatio's memory of Hamlet's father solidifies the friendship between the two. Horatio, in fact, is perhaps more an image of Hamlet's father than Hamlet himself. Horatio, “more an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.363), and considerably older than Hamlet,3 is less reflective than young Hamlet and neither so passionate nor so grandiose.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mediate Hamlet's relation to his mother at an unconscious level as well. In retrieving Hamlet for the Queen, Rosencrantz tells Hamlet, “She desires to speak with you in her closet ere you go to bed” (3.2.339-340); Hamlet satirically replies, “We shall obey, were she ten times our mother.” This mediation to some degree is Oedipal, but it is not limited by that notion.

Hamlet's near rejection of his mother is what kills her psychologically in the closet scene (act 3, scene 4). Just as with a sword Hamlet wants to determine the fate of Claudius's soul, with moral judgment Hamlet seeks to destroy the psyche of his mother. “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” (3.4.99-102). Hamlet over-reaches his responsibility not only in his duty to his father but also in admonishing his mother. The Ghost reappears to Hamlet and says, “Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.125-126).

There are several ironies in this scene, but the deepest is that Hamlet is now more like his mother than his father, and, at an unconscious level, this needles Hamlet. The gruesome character of the closet scene is that Hamlet's harsh admonishment of his mother is really an expression of self-hatred. Hamlet is seeking to excise something that is a part of himself; earlier in not killing Claudius when the opportunity arose, Hamlet betrayed his father as much as his mother ever did, and Hamlet knows this unconsciously. Hamlet projects onto his mother his own failure to serve his father dutifully. The mother and son share a common guilt, and Hamlet denies his by punishing his mother.

What do these examples show us about friendship, about Hamlet, and about Hamlet's tragedy? Here is the concept that the play allows us to grasp. Our parents serve as the “ideal types” that we use both to choose and to mediate our friendships, and I use the term “ideal types” much as Max Weber, the founder of interpretative sociological theory, uses the term. These ideal types that we gleam from our parents do not actually exist in concrete reality. Neither are they adequate descriptions of who our parents truly are. Nor are they representations of some metaphysical truth. They are simply those conceptual constructions of what friendship with our parents would be like if we were to have a friendship with our parents. Weber writes:

Meaning may be of two kinds. The term may refer to the actual existing meaning in the given concrete case of a particular actor … ; or secondly to the theoretically conceived pure type of subjective meaning attributed to the hypothetical actor or actors in a given type of action. In no case does it refer to an objectively ‘correct’ meaning or one which is ‘true’ in some metaphysical sense.4

These ideal types, of which Weber speaks, serve us as conceptual constructions with respect to what intimacy and trust are, and we need these ideal types to understand the meaningfulness or lack of meaningfulness, the substance or lack of substance, that exists in our interpersonal relations.

For instance, were Hamlet not so estranged from his mother, he would likely be more open to the playful camaraderie of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He would be less judgmental about their cavalier attitudes. Hamlet's friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was cemented at the university in their shared affection for what is pleasurable when Hamlet's relation to his mother was unproblematic.

In turn, were Hamlet not so grief stricken by the loss of his father, his feelings for Horatio might be less intense. His need for Horatio to compensate for his lost father-figure would be less intense. Indeed, Horatio's impulse to follow Hamlet to his death, to sacrifice himself in suicide, show that Horatio loves Hamlet much like a parent. “Here's yet some liquor left” (5.2.364), says Horatio, and Hamlet begs, “Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story” (5.2.370-372).

These ideal types that stem from our hypothetical images of our parents as friends, we can use either positively or negatively, consciously or, as is more often the case, unconsciously. These ideal types may represent a direct correspondence to the friendships that we form, or they may provide a contrasting or complementary difference. If our parents were humourless and formal, we may seek out witty and carefree friends. If our parents were playful and undisciplined, we may trust only people who are serious and moderate. Friendship is an identity-constructing relationship. It offers us an opportunity to rewrite our upbringing with our parents and either revise or enhance our attitude toward that upbringing.

Aristotle says that our parents are our friends, but, at the same time, he says that a sense of equality is essential to the formation of friendship. The relation of a child to a parent, no matter how much love and trust there is, is still essentially an unequal relation. Our parents will always precede us. Friendship, though, is based on a choice, a choice that affirms a certain sense of equity or proportional equality with respect to our affection for use, pleasure, virtue, or all three. “I am glad to see you well. / Horatio—or I do forget myself.” “The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.” “Sir, my good friend—I'll change that name with you” (1.2.167-171). While there may be a socially structured inequality, a class stratification, betwen Horatio and Hamlet, at an interpersonal level this inequality is nonexistent.5

After the resounding success of the Gonzago play in exposing Claudius's guilt, Hamlet gets carried away and says to Horatio in an excited speech:

For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
                                                                                          This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself, and now reigns here
                                                                                          A very-very-pajock.


Jove is a reference to Hamlet's father, and pajock to his repulsive uncle, but notice that Hamlet refers to Horatio as his Damon, an allusion to that perfect friendship in Greek mythology. If Hamlet knows Horatio to be his Damon, then he also knows that he is Horatio's Phintias (not Pythias). In plotting to overthrow the tyrant Claudius (Dionysius in the original story), Hamlet believes that he can rely upon Horatio to save him from the consequences of his subversion.

Horatio replies to Hamlet's excited speech, “You might have rhymed” (3.2..297). From the perspective of the audience watching the play, this line is an instance of comic relief; from the perspective of the interaction between Horatio and Hamlet, it is an instance of good feedback. Hamlet is out of harmony, and his friend Horatio draws his attention to this fact.

Shortly after the Gonzago play Hamlet sees Claudius praying in the Chapel: an opportunity to kill his uncle and satisfy his father's demand for retribution. Hamlet, however, chooses not to kill his uncle, but not because he is afraid of killing. It is important to address the reason that Hamlet himself gives for his decision to defer this action. Hamlet imagines that to kill Claudius when he is praying could mean that his uncle's soul, despite his ignoble deeds, will go to heaven. Claudius now is seeking penitence. Hamlet decides to wait so that he may kill Claudius at a better time, when Claudius is actually doing something ignoble. Hamlet wants not only to destroy the body, but also to determine the fate of Claudius's soul, “That his soul may be as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (3.3.97-98), a thought that horrified Dr. Johnson.6

Heroes are not good candidates for friendship, which is the hero's tragedy. Heroes resist the influence of their friends. Horatio would have disapproved, and we recall that the Ghost had cautioned Hamlet, “Taint not thy mind” (1.5.103). Aristotle writes:

This raises the question whether or not we wish our friends the greatest of all goods, namely to be gods. For (if that wish were fulfilled), they would no longer be our friends, and, since friends are something good, we would have lost this good. Accordingly, if our assertion is correct that a man wishes his friend's good for his friend's sake, the friend would have to remain the man he was. Consequently, one will wish the greatest good for his friend as a human being.7

Friends wish for a friend not as a god, but as a human being. With friends we choose humanity over divinity, and this choice saves us.

Hamlet is grandiose when he takes it upon himself to be the one to determine the fate of his enemy's soul. When Claudius concludes his guilt-ridden speech with the observation, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” Claudius's words echo not so much on Claudius's own speech, which is both thoughtful and poignant, but on Hamlet's distant and observing speech, which rationalizes the calculated decision not to kill Claudius at this moment.

We began with the observation that there are two friendships that structure Hamlet, but there are actually three. The third materializes only as Laertes and Hamlet die together. The undisclosed murder of Laertes' innocent father, Polonius, and the inadequate Christian burial of Laertes' good sister, Ophelia, transform Laertes into someone who shares much with Hamlet. “I tell thee, churlish priest, / A minist'ring angel shall my sister be / When thou liest howling” (5.1.235-7). Laertes, more than anyone, has the experiences which allow him to empathize with Hamlet's rage and indignation. While less perfect than Horatio, Laertes is yet a better candidate for friendship.

Hamlet utters a monstrously offensive line to Laertes, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not (with all their quantity of love) / Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.270-273). Hamlet's remark is loveless. Since when does love quantify itself so as to compete with other measures of love?

If the highest achievement of friendship is the understanding of another through the act of forgiveness, then Laertes and Hamlet, an enemy in the eyes of Laertes, die on the threshold of friendship. “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet / Mine and my father's death come not upon thee / Nor thine on me!” (5.2.350-353). This exchange between two noble but fallible human beings makes the ending of this great tragedy joyful. Hegel, a great admirer of Shakespeare, writes:

Breaking the hard heart and raising it to the level of universality is the same process which was expressed in the case of the consciousness that openly made its confession. The wounds of the spirit heal and leave no scars behind.8


  1. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Martin Ostwald. The Library of Liberal Arts 75 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962).

  2. Hamlet references are to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (New York: Avenel Books, MCMLXXV).

  3. See Harold Jenkins, ed. Hamlet (London: Methuen, Arden, 1982), p. 552

  4. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Ed. Talcott Parsons (New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1964), p. 89.

  5. See, e.g., John Halverson, “The Importance of Horatio,” HSt [Hamlet Studies], 16 (1994), 60-61.

  6. Dr. Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W.K. Wimsatt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 140.

  7. Aristotle (n. 1 above), p. 228.

  8. Hegel, G. W. F. “Evil and the forgiveness of it” in The Phenomenology of Mind (New York: Humanities Press, 1977), p. 676.

Charles Isherwood (essay date 4 June 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “A Pacifist Prince in Brits' Latest Hamlet.Variety 383, no. 3 (4 June 2001): 24.

[In the following review, Isherwood compares John Caird's Royal National Theater production of Hamlet to Peter Brooks's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, remarking that while Brooks's shortened version of the play lacked emotion, Caird's lacked credibility. Isherwood notes that although Simon Russell Beale's performance in Caird's production was conscientious, the actor was too overweight and somber to make a convincing Hamlet.]

The strongest argument in favor of Peter Brook's Hamlet, seen recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, may well be John Caird's Hamlet, now stopping at the same venue for a brief run at the end of a national tour.

Brook's version pared the text down to a smart, streamlined and thoroughly dry 2 1/2 hours. Caird's Hamlet, for London's Royal National Theater, is an hour longer but rarely more emotionally engaging. Life is short, even if Hamlet isn't, and I'd rather be unmoved for 2 1/2 hours than 3 1/2 hours, thank you very much.

Caird's production seems to be taking place in some dusty, disused chamber of a massive cathedral. Paul Pyant's crepuscular lighting, the most distinguished element of the design, streams in from the wings as from high Gothic windows. Choir practice is clearly mandatory here, and takes place at all hours: The sound of Latin chants drones on monotonously throughout the evening, adding to the somber, churchy atmosphere. At one point the hanging candelabras descend and swing like censers.

Designer Tim Harley also supplied the dark-hued costumes; in this atmosphere, one might easily mistake Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet, a bit on the zaftig side and clad in floor-length black, for a benevolent friar. He's first seen kneeling in thoughtful, consciously still repose, and in fact the most striking—and touching—aspect of Beale's Hamlet is his naturally and nobly pacific nature. He has an acid-laced tongue, to be sure, and Beale's impish line delivery sometimes borders colorfully on tart bitchiness, but this Hamlet's nature seems profoundly antithetical to bloody action.

Caird points up the character's reluctance to take revenge for his father's murder by supplying more than one occasion on which Hamlet sheathes a sword poised to dispatch Claudius. Like Adrian Lester's Hamlet in the Brook production, Beale's Hamlet is a meticulously wrought performance. His Prince of Denmark is a thoughtful man who rarely raises his voice above a mild wail. As Hamlet reasons himself out of revenge, and takes us with him, the play becomes an eloquent argument against capital punishment.

But can a Hamlet of such unquestioning gentleness and prosaic human dimensions sustain the philosophical and dramatic weight of this extraordinary play? Possibly, in a production that surrounded Beale's Hamlet with similarly sensitive actors. But with Brook's Hamlet fresh in the mind, many theatergoers attending this production may find themselves consciously ticking off the extraneous patches in the text. And sadly, the rote playing of much of the rest of the cast (can it be fatigue after a long tour?) makes half the characters seem extraneous, too.

Caird's interpretation, like Brook's, is said to focus on the family tragedy of the play, pointing up the humanity of all the characters, but there aren't many dimensions to Peter McEnery's dry Claudius or Sara Kestelman's Gertrude, whose solicitousness for her son's anguish seems rather perfunctory in the early scenes. A spiritual connection to Hamlet is lacking in Cathryn Bradshaw's Ophelia, too. Peter Blythe's priggish Polonius is fairly colorless, but his gravedigger has more flavor.

For all the discrepancies in terms of textual fidelity (though both dispense with Fortinbras), Caird's and Brook's productions are, in the end, similarly lacking in affective breadth. Brook's played like a vaguely Eastern ritual, to which one paid the requisite reverent attention without actually caring one whit whether the principal players lived or died. Caird's staging also has a ritualistic flavor, albeit a Western European one; watching it is like attending several Catholic masses in a row.

Zdravko Planinc (essay date summer/winter 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Planinc, Zdravko. “‘It begins with Pyrrhus’ (2.2.451): The Political Philosophy of Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 20, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1998): 35-49.

[In the following essay, Planinc contends that Hamlet is evidence that Shakespeare's abilities as a political philosopher are on par with those of Plato. Planinc asserts that both King Hamlet and King Claudius come up short as Platonic ideals, but that Shakespeare endowed Prince Hamlet with the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king.]

Shakespeare is as good a political philosopher as Plato. And if he had had a Socrates to write about, he would have been better. As it is, his portrayal of Hamlet, a contemplative prince struggling to attain intellectual and spiritual maturity, as well as his rightful crown, is as close as anything we have in literature to Plato's account of the difficult education of philosophers and the likelihood that they will become kings. And, in one important sense, Shakespeare's project is broader: he attempts to describe a contemplative king who transcends the distinction between pagan and Christian—someone of whom it could be said, taking him for all in all, “‘A was a man” (1.2.187; 3.2.31-32).1

Shakespeare, like Plato, has no doctrine or theory to advance; his judgment of practical and political matters exists only in the particular. Consequently, like Plato, he does not write treatises; he writes in such a way that his judgment is always presented in action. The plays, like the Platonic dialogues, demand interpretation: we are only able to see Shakespeare's, or Plato's, mind at work if we exercise our own capacities for interpretive judgement. Not in just any manner either: a play like Hamlet is not a complicated ink-blot. Like the Republic, it is written to guide a reader's judgment toward a proper understanding of its meaning. Of course, it is also written to amuse a reader; but ultimately, it is meaningful, and its meaning is illuminated from within.

The political philosophy of Hamlet is distinctly Platonic in content as well as form. Like Plato, Shakespeare examines several related questions: What is the nature of politics? What is the nature of a human being? And what is the relation between them? The study of politics is conventionally divided into internal and external affairs: the order of the polity, or the regime, on the one hand; and war, on the other. Philosophic anthropology is similarly divisible into internal and external affairs: it studies the order of the soul, broadly understood; and the place of the human soul in a greater or transcendent order. Now, there are any number of improper relations between polities and souls. In the Republic they are contrasted with the proper relation; and the nature of the proper relation is discussed by way of a parallel between the just regime and the just soul—more specifically, by the possibility or the rule of the best.

These topics are all examined in Hamlet: not abstractly, but concretely; and not peripherally, but as questions central to the meaning of the play—something of the heart of its mystery. They will be discussed in turn. First, political science proper. Danish “external affairs” consists primarily of the possibility of war with Norway. And Danish “internal affairs,” the nature of the regime and the legitimacy of Claudius' rule. Next, the philosophic anthropology of the play: it consists almost entirely of the study of Hamlet's character. The proper order of the soul is something Hamlet himself must learn; and the soul's place in a transcendent order is a question he experiences immediately when confronting “this thing” (1.1.25)—perhaps a ghost, perhaps an angelic messenger, perhaps a devil (2.2.600)—this thing that “shakes [his] disposition / With thoughts beyond the reaches of [his soul]” (1.4.55-56). The Platonic parallel between polities and souls is also evident in the play. The disorder of the regime and the disorder of Hamlet's soul are matched; they can only be brought into order together. And the “external” threats to Denmark and to Hamlet are similarly matched. The Norwegian military threat and “this thing” are associated from the beginning of the play. To understand the nature of their relation, however, one must know the story of the Trojan horse.

From the First Player's recounting of the story in Act 2, we learn that there are Trojan horses of the soul just as there are Trojan horses in politics. Hamlet must learn this as a single lesson as well if he is to have any possibility of becoming fit to rule and winning his rightful crown.



“… the Norweyan lord surveying vantage …”

(Macbeth 1.2)

The character of Danish external affairs depends, in large part, on the character and military career of the previous king, Hamlet the Elder. He was a successful warrior, and in the Baltics as well. He had won a part of Norway by killing Fortinbras the Elder in single combat. His honor was at stake, so he was quite willing to wager a piece of Denmark for the contest; no other reason than honor-seeking is given for this bit of chivalry. In less chivalrous manner, Hamlet the Elder had also defeated the Poles; and we learn from Claudius that, late in his reign, he had also forced the English to pay tribute, perhaps with Claudius' military assistance (4.3.63-66). So he was something of a raider; in other words, a pirate to those he plundered. The English have a good deal of experience in such matters: as soon as Hamlet died, they stopped paying the tribute. And Fortinbras the Younger, also sensing weakness during the Danish succession, began to make plans to regain what Norway had lost to Denmark—and perhaps a bit more, perhaps as much as he could get. After all—his father killed, his country dishonored, a succession crisis and “right of memory” in Denmark that might be claimed (5.2.391), weak enemies throughout the region—why not?

Shakespeare obviously wants his audience to consider things, in the first instance, from the Danish point of view. But beneath all the easy claims to justice in such matters made in the play, there is a strong sense that all those who “puff” up their spirits with “divine ambition,” all those who “make mouths” and “find quarrel in a straw / When honor's at the stake” (4.4.50-57), are the same. Nevertheless, one must defend one's country if it is threatened. And Prince Hamlet, especially so; even if his country's worst enemy resembles his father, and might also be the kind of son his father would have preferred.

In the midst of hasty military preparations to meet the Norwegian threat, both Claudius and Hamlet put forward bids for the crown. The Danish council and Queen Gertrude both prefer Claudius, most likely because of his recent military successes against the English; though the natural successor, Hamlet is untried in war. Once king, Claudius' first act of state attempts to set things right. He dispatches two ambassadors, Cornelius and Voltimand, with a firmly worded letter to the elderly ruler of Norway. The details are familiar: when Fortinbras the Elder was killed, his son was too young to assume the throne, so his brother did—perhaps as Regent, perhaps not; now “old Norway,” as he is called, is bedridden, and ambitious Fortinbras is still not king, even though he is in his 30s. Fortinbras claims to be organizing an expedition against Poland in order to obtain funding—no reason need be given, since Poland is Catholic—but its real object is Denmark. Claudius' letter is intended to expose Fortinbras' true purpose to old Norway.

What appallingly bad, not to say rotten, judgment. What does Claudius think a letter will do? Can “impotent” old Norway, who has overstayed his welcome on the throne and is soon to die anyway—can he wag his finger at Fortinbras, mouth a few banalities about justice, and dispel Fortinbras' ambitions and the desire for revenge that animates Norwegians? And would he? If he actually knew nothing of Fortinbras' intentions, would not Claudius' letter more likely cause him to desire one last go of it? And what does Claudius imagine slacking off military preparations will accomplish? True, Danes may get the impression that the threat has been handled effectively, but there has been no reply to the letter.

The ambassadors are gone for two months, a surprisingly long time given how close Norway is. When they return, they state simply that old Norway's finger-wagging was completely successful. What is more, Fortinbras was so penitent that he vowed “never more / To give th' assay of arms against [Denmark]” (2.2.70-71). And old Norway was so overjoyed by this sudden law-abidingness that he gave Fortinbras a goodly sum of money to fight the Poles anyway; that is, to undertake the military expedition that had had no real purpose in the first place.

Claudius and Polonius, his chief councilor, think the “business … well ended.” They even agree to the Norwegian request that Fortinbras' troops be given safe passage through Denmark on their way to Poland. Again, what appalling judgment. If the quick changes of heart and the seemingly pointless Polish campaign were not grounds enough for suspicion, any prudent military leader would have to pause and consider the risks of allowing foreign troops onto Danish soil. Not only would the Norwegians be free to survey the countryside, but Denmark would also be left exposed to attack by the battle-tested troops on their way home, perhaps even to attack on two frontiers. All these reasonable doubts are brought into focus by a single additional fact: the Norwegians do not wait for a reply to their request. Fortinbras' army leaves Norway for Denmark at the same time the ambassadors return. Now, why is it that Voltimand does not mention to the court that there are Norwegian ships just offshore that will land troops tomorrow?

It should be clear that Denmark is being offered a Trojan horse. The Norwegians are attempting to rout the Danes as the Greeks routed the Trojans. But where the Greeks concealed their soldiers physically as well as with lies, the Norwegians use lies alone; and the ambassadors act the part of Sinon. Claudius is far more gullible than Priam; and Fortinbras is as patient as the “hellish” Pyrrhus, “he whose sable arms, Black as his purpose, did the night resemble / When he lay couched in the ominous horse” (2.2.452-54).

But what of Hamlet? What is his role? Something is compelling him to slaughter Claudius, but that is Fortinbras' work: were Hamlet to satisfy his longing for vengeance, Denmark would fall as quickly as Troy. Something in Hamlet is also resisting the compulsion. He refuses to be Pyrrhus; but he does not recognize immediately that circumstances cast him in the role of Laocoon, the Trojan priest who was the only one, along with Cassandra, to warn Trojans of the danger. Had he been in court when the ambassadors returned, he might have sensed the trap right away. As it happens, it requires only a brief encounter with the landed troops to sober Hamlet. He quickly comes to understand that the two “adders fanged” who take him to his death are like the two serpents that killed Laocoon, and that he must somehow succeed where Laocoon failed.

It might be mentioned in passing that no one, it seems in the past 400 years has noted the obvious parallel between the political plot that frames Hamlet and the Trojan horse story recounted in such detail in Act 2. To paraphrase Claudius: so much for the scholarship.


“Hail, King! … compass'd with thy kingdom's pearl”

(Macbeth 5.7)

Claudius does not rule the way Priam ruled, not only because he is a lesser man, but primarily because the regime in which he rules is different. Insofar as anything is suggested about the regime, it is evident that Denmark is ruled by crown-in-council, and that the council is so well established that the monarchy might best be called an elective one. The authority of the crown is thus restricted. Not only by the council—often that is nothing more than the need for the monarch to obtain nodding approval from a chief councilor. The crown's authority is also restricted by the much more annoying necessity for the monarch's decrees to observe the rule of law. In order for Claudius to act politically as king, his will must take the form of a written text, the text must bear an official seal, and the substance of the text must be legal.

Such niceties might be overlooked in certain circumstances. In war, for instance, where the will of the king as military leader is far less fettered because domestic law does not apply, and perhaps also because a certain degree of illegality is necessary for success. And when a king is very successful in plundering other lands—as successful as the elder Hamlet, say—he might be able to persuade his subjects to allow him similar liberties at home. One senses that this is what happened during the reign of King Hamlet; the strength of his crown can be measured by the weakness of Polonius. By the time Claudius assumed the throne, the institutions of rule by crown-in-council had grown somewhat tarnished from disuse. But they had not been abandoned.

The most significant feature that distinguishes the Danish regime, no matter how distorted by neglect, from any ancient kingdom can be stated simply: the Danish king has “two bodies.” Unlike an ancient king, whose authority is identical with his person, the Danish king is simultaneously, but independently a person and the head of the body politic. His actions as a man and his actions as a king are distinct. His actions as a man do not count as the monarch's will. And furthermore, if the body politic refuses to accept any of his royal actions as lawful, it may dismiss them as private acts, if it is willing to face the consequences. In other words, even though it may precipitate a civil war, in such circumstances a parliamentary institution may separate the body politic from the king's person and invest it in another person before separating, quite legally, the king's own body into two pieces. This may not be Plato or Vergil, but it is a common enough theme in the Tudor and Stuart periods.

Despite the dangers, Claudius is willing to murder his brother in a bid for the crown. Had it been detected, his regicide would have been punishable by death. As it stands, it is a fact eventually known to only two people, and impossible to prove without a rather unlikely public confession. Given that Claudius successfully becomes king, the matter becomes more complicated. Once he heads the body politic, how can he be punished? And who has the authority to do so? One's heart is with Hamlet, of course; and Claudius is a vile and petty man. Nevertheless, if one were forced to choose between Hamlet raging for “private” vengeance—not public justice—and Claudius as an established king defending the realm in difficult times, one would unfortunately have to choose Claudius. Is he not right to worry about all possible threats to his authority, especially given that any civil disruption could only benefit the Norwegians? And is he not right to suspect Hamlet's behaviour? After all, during his play's performance before the court, Hamlet noisily takes over the role of Lucianus the regicide, nephew—not brother—to the king. Madness is no excuse: Junius Brutus also feigned madness for political reasons.

Fortunately, we are not forced to side with Claudius. Hamlet is not only a man, he is the Crown Prince. He need not act against Claudius alone; there is the council to assist him. But on what grounds can he appeal to the council? The murder of the elder Hamlet cannot be proven. However, the attempted murder of the younger Hamlet can be: “There's letters sealed” (3.4.209), and what they contain can depose a king. When Claudius stamps the royal seal on a death warrant for the Crown Prince, ordering him to be executed in a foreign state under tribute, without council approval, without a public declaration of his reasons, and without a public trial, he oversteps even the most generous estimate of his prerogative. His act is illegal. The world being what it is, Claudius would be able to get away with murdering Hamlet; but the regime being what it is, he cannot get away with attempting to murder Hamlet. All Hamlet need do—beyond surviving the attempt—is produce the evidence and begin proceedings against Claudius for the deed, “so crimeful and so capital in nature” (4.7.7). And when he returns to Denmark with the sealed commission in his hands and announces himself “Hamlet the Dane”—that is, the rightful king—it is evident that he has every intention of going to “a public count” (4.7.18).

Before Hamlet can truly proclaim himself “the Dane,” however, he must become fit to rule; and that is a spiritual matter, not a legal or political one.



“I am sick at heart / When I behold—”

(Macbeth 5.3)

For most of the play, Hamlet's soul is profoundly disordered, and if he is to become fit to rule, he must somehow put it in order. It is not disordered by the usual run of vices found in all “indifferent[ly] honest … arrant knaves”: pride, ambition, vanity and the like (3.1.123-30). Rather, the disorder may rightfully be called madness. But merely naming the disorder madness goes no farther than Polonius, who says: “to define true madness,’ / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?” (2.2.93-94). A more substantive understanding is necessary. Most Shakespeare scholarship is, again, of little assistance; the Gravedigger's assessment of Englishmen's understanding of Hamlet's madness still holds true: “'Twill not be seen in him there” (5.1.154). Indeed, it is quite common to assume that Hamlet is not mad at all, that he is simply another Brutus feigning madness until the right time and circumstances present themselves. This is the Hamlet of Saxo Grammaticus, Shakespeare's source for the story; this is also the Brutus of Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece: but it is not Shakespeare's Hamlet.

It is simply never the case that Hamlet is perfectly sane while pretending to be mad. The closest he ever comes to this condition is when he foolishly pretends to pretend madness for the amusement of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—a passing moment in a magnificent scene (2.2) in which his soul goes through a vast spectrum of states, his behaviour through an equally broad range of manners, and his “inward” and “exterior” aspects are never quite in harmony, except briefly when welcoming the Players. Even Claudius knows enough, when speaking of “Hamlet's transformation,” to observe that “nor th' exterior nor the inward man / Resembles that it was” (2.2.6-7).

Hamlet's “inward” transformation is not a simple matter. There are any number of causes of disorder in the soul. The most mundane are the soul's own constant churnings; and the most intriguing of its churnings are the erotic ones. Hamlet does have his erotic difficulties, but to think that they are the causes of his transformation would, again, go no farther than Polonius, or worse, very far in the wrong direction with Freud. The disorder of Hamlet's soul is given its unique character by two far more profound things: by the nature of the forces that act on it—from without, as it were—and by the consequent difficulty he experiences in maintaining the authority of reason within his soul.

The various realms of being in which human beings participate are not passive. We constantly suffer their unforeseeable actions; and the locus of such experiences is the soul. If the forces that pass through a soul are great enough, the soul's order will be overturned. The resulting disorder is madness, or a mania. A mania is not necessarily a bad thing. To assess its character, one must assess both the character of the forces that cause it and the character of the order that might emerge from it. To speak more concretely, using Christian symbolic terms for the sake of convenience: sometimes the divine moves us, or angels appear to us; and sometimes the demonic moves us, or devils appear to us. Both are deeply disturbing experiences; both demand an appropriate response; and both leave us radically free to determine what an appropriate response is. Needless to say, part of the response—a rational component—is determining which is which. Reason usually has a well-defined position of authority in the soul's order, somewhat resembling rule by crown-in-council; but such experiences—by their intensity, uniqueness and apparent “externality”—completely overwhelm it, leaving it confused and breathlessly attempting to catch up. The experiences themselves are authoritative, and reason must learn to conform to their authority if it is to have any authority of its own.

The significance of these remarks for understanding Hamlet's madness is straightforward. When “this thing” appears to Hamlet, it does not present him with an epistemological problem to solve; it is an event in his soul that “horridly … shakes [his] disposition,” leaving him a “fool,” confused “With thoughts beyond the [reach] of [his] soul” (1.4.54-56). The “thing” itself, its very nature, is the immediate cause of Hamlet's madness. Before it speaks a word, Hamlet understands that it demands a response: “Why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?” (57). And when it does speak, Hamlet's experience of disorder only intensifies. It “prey[s] on garbage” in Hamlet's soul—all of his resentment, worldly ambition, pride, self-righteousness, things in his soul that are “rank and gross”—and it tests his virtue by courting him with “lewdness … in a shape of heaven” (1.5.54-58; 1.2.136). It not only tells him the shocking fact of his father's murder, along with rather surprising news about the judgement of his father's soul; it also reveals its intent in speaking these things—to bind him to revenge as firmly as he is bound to love.

Hamlet's uncertainty about the nature of “this thing”—“spirit of health or goblin damned”—is, in part, an uncertainty about the authority of his reason. There is a very reliable indicator of Hamlet's rationality at any moment in the play: his relation to Horatio. As the pun in his name suggests, Horatio is the very embodiment of rationality. But of what kind? Although he studies at Wittenberg, Luther's university, Shakespeare does not intend Horatio to represent the fideistic notion of reason. He is more “antique Roman” than Lutheran. Shakespeare quite deliberately uses the changing relation between Hamlet and Horatio in the play to illustrate the changing relation between the spiritual and the rational within Hamlet's own soul; but Shakespeare's understanding of the soul's proper order owes more to Plato than it does even to Cicero or Plutarch, to say nothing of Luther.

Compare two similar scenes, one from the beginning and one from the end of the play. In Act I, when Hamlet first confronts the “thing,” Horatio worries that it might “deprive [his] sovereignty of reason,” drawing him into madness, and insists that Hamlet “Think” and “Be ruled” (1.4.73-81). Sound advice. But when Horatio thinks such matters “wondrous strange,” Hamlet properly reminds him: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1.5.173-76). In Act 5, when Hamlet speaks of the “ill … about [his] heart,” Horatio advises him to “obey” his “mind['s] dislikes”; but Hamlet rejects such “antique Roman” rationalism as no better than “augury,” and prefers instead an openness to providence, a spiritual “readiness” that is “all” (5.2.210-22).

If reason alone were to judge, Hamlet's refusal to be ruled is as mad in the latter scene as it is in the former. It is, perhaps, in degree; but that does not make it the same madness. When Hamlet returns to Denmark, he is a different man. He is no longer troubled by his experience of the “thing”; it no longer moves him one way or another. Indeed, he lingers in the graveyard and feels no more than the normal revulsion. But the transformation that has occurred during his voyage—the “sea change” in his soul—is something more than the return of reason to its proper seat of authority. Hamlet's soul suffers from a different mania that does not disorder the soul; rather, it allows the soul to discover a new order, and a new authority for reason in that order. Reason can do more to bring about the experiences that cause such madness than any other part of the soul can; they are suffered. However, reason can recognize their authority once they occur.

In the play's most overt symbolic presentation of such an understanding, Horatio allows himself to be ruled by the authority of Hamlet's spiritual “readiness.” In a more subtle statement of the same understanding, the Hamlet who appears in Act 5 has succeeded in placing Horatio “in [his] heart's core, … in [his] heart of hearts” (3.2.72). And what is more, he has succeeded in attaining the “godlike reason” (4.4.39) of which he spoke so longingly before embarking on his voyage to England.

The soliloquy in which Hamlet longs for “godlike reason” and compares himself to the “delicate” Prince Fortinbras—whose “spirit” is so “puffed” up with “ambition” that he would reenact the fall of Troy—recalls an earlier soliloquy in which an equally bloody-minded Hamlet orders his “brain” to turn about after comparing himself to the somewhat more delicate First Player, who only recites the story of the fall of Troy. In the later soliloquy, Hamlet complains that he does not act even though he has “cause, and will, … and means” to do so (4.4.46). It is his reason that holds him back, even though it cannot yet suggest a proper cause, will and means for action. In the earlier soliloquy, Hamlet complains that even an actor can make his “conceit,” his “soul” and his “visage” conform to one another, though the motives for such harmony of mind, soul and action are not his own. It is Hamlet's proper spirit that prevents him from acting like Pyrrhus—his spirit, and his profound doubt about the motives being suggested to him. When Hamlet returns to Denmark, both the “exterior” and the “inward” man have been transformed again; and he finally knows how he will act.


“What! Can the devil speak true?”

(Macbeth 1.3)

What is “this thing,” this Trojan horse of the soul? A great deal has been written in an attempt to answer this question on doctrinal or dogmatic grounds. It cannot be done. There is an answer to the question, but it favors no particular religious denomination. Shakespeare's understanding of the mysteries of the transcendent order and its influences upon human beings is nothing so simple as a doctrine.

To begin with a simple fact: all things that might be said to make up a transcendent order are not the same simply because they are transcendent. “Ghosts” are not the same as “angels” or “devils”; in other words, the souls or spirits of dead human beings are not the same as the various manifestations of a transcendent order to the human soul. Another simple fact: there ain't no such thing as ghosts. Whatever else might be said about an afterlife aside, no one returns from the dead. Hamlet understands this in one of his most lucid moments: he says death is an “undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (3.1.80-81). This leaves angels and devils, or the profound experiences of good and evil that living human beings symbolize by such words.

Angels and devils are said to “appear.” This may suggest that they appear to the senses, in the physical realm, but they do not. Angels and devils have no corporeal bodies; in other words, the experiences these words describe occur only in the soul; there is nothing physical about them, though they may have physical consequences. Yet people find themselves compelled to speak of such experiences as “appearances.” Several reasons suggest themselves for this: first, the experiences, by their very nature, are unexpected—even though one might prepare for them, one must suffer them; second, the experiences suggest an even greater source, of which they are only manifestations; third, the substance, character or meaning of such experiences is not immediately evident; and finally, all language unavoidably concretizes experience. Hence, the need to speak of appearances, even when concerned with essences.

Angels and devils therefore do not appear to us as they are. But they do appear in a way that suits their purpose and the occasion. What then of “this thing's” appearance? If it is not the spirit of Hamlet the Elder escaped from some Purgatory, Hades or other middling province in death's dominion—as it cannot be—then either an angel or a devil appears in this way to suit its purpose. It takes Hamlet most of the play to determine which it is—and not surprisingly, given the nature of the mania it causes.

When Hamlet first confronts it, he immediately distinguishes, as did Horatio, between what it might be and how it appears:

Be thy intentions wicked or charitable …
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell …
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee Hamlet …


He allows the “shape,” though “questionable,” to influence him; or, more precisely, he discovers himself to be open to its intentions, and he is therefore willing to accept its shape as true. His initial terror gives way to a terrifying willingness to be ruled by it. And what are its intentions? In the words Hamlet later recites before the Players, it asks him to become like “hellish Pyrrhus,” to take revenge on Claudius and to revel in the consequences—the fall of Denmark. It asks him to coat himself “Head to foot / … With the blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,” and to allow the fires of a burning Elsinore to “bake” and “impaste” the blood until he becomes “o'ersized with coagulate gore” (2.2.456-63).

Half his heart would do it. The other half would not. He refuses to succumb to its influence entirely. But he also cannot simply “throw away the worser part of [his heart] / And live the purer with the other half” (3.4.164-65). The mania that “this thing” causes in him is not something a human heart can resist alone.

The head must be allied with the heart; reason must have its proper place if the soul is to be ordered. But reason too can be deceived, and often more readily than the heart. The easiest way to deceive reason is to offer it the truth. Reason alone does not know that the truth spoken for the wrong reason is a lie in the soul; that is the soul's understanding. And Hamlet's reason is deceived in just this way. His reason is a powerful ally for his heart because it rightly reminds him that. “The spirit [he] has seen / May be the devil, and the devil hath power / T'assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.599-600). But his reason also leaves his heart defenseless when it takes the bait of truth the spirit offers: the fact that Claudius killed his brother to obtain the crown. Hamlet cannot get this fact out of his mind. His doubts about the nature of the thing he has seen also cause him to doubt this fact as well, to search for “grounds more relative,” for rational proof. But when he gets “proof,” when Claudius rises during the play, Hamlet's satisfied reason deserts his heart. “O good Horatio,” he says, “I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound” (3.2.284-85). More than at any other time, Hamlet accepts the thing as “an honest ghost” (1.5.144) and opens his heart to its influence: “Now could I drink hot blood” (3.2.389).

This is no honest ghost. Like the Trojan horse, it appears to be a sacred thing, but its appearance conceals a “hellish” intent. This ghostly or spiritual Trojan horse seems to be an angelic messenger taking the form of old Hamlet, but it is actually a demon intent on corrupting Hamlet's soul—with the truth if need be—and then unleashing him in Denmark as Pyrrhus was unleashed in Troy.

Hamlet faces a difficult problem: how can head and heart combine to resist such a demonic influence? Separately they come to nothing: rational rigor is as ineffectual as a fanatical attempt to expunge all evil from the soul. Even together, they require assistance; but of what sort? Prayer suggests itself. However, the only prayer Shakespeare gives us in the play is Claudius' soliloquy, “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (3.3.36ff)—a wonderful example of utter hypocrisy. Claudius' prayer can be described in the choice words of that other hypocrite, Polonius:

We are oft to blame in this—
'Tis too much proved—that with devotion's visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.


To which Claudius hypocritically answers, “'Tis too true.”

Hamlet does not pray. But he is a contemplative by nature. And what is contemplation if not prayer without the outward visage and pious action? Contemplation properly done, that is; since it too may be hypocritical. In a meditative or contemplative exercise, the head and heart together attempt to create a proper order in the soul by orienting it toward a transcendent good or God. If all goes well, there is sometimes a response. In Christian terms, sometimes an angel appears. Hamlet does contemplate in the play, sometimes poorly and sometimes well. An angel does appear to him; and its appearance is the spiritual event that finally allows him to attain “godlike reason.”

Hamlet's contemplative or meditative exercises are presented in his soliloquies. Now, not all soliloquies are contemplative exercises: a soliloquy simply portrays the inward man—not always a pleasant sight. But several of Hamlet's show him practicing the “art of dying.” When Hamlet first appears in the play, before his encounter with the spirit, he is presented as attempting to rise above all that is “rank and gross,” all that is worldly, all that partakes of “this too too sullied flesh.” He attempts to move toward God, but he fails because he cannot put it all beneath him; he cannot stop remembering; more specifically, he cannot stop participating in all that is rank and gross in his own soul. In the end, all he can manage is a barely endurable silence (1.2.129-59). After he encounters the spirit, his troubles are far worse. And yet he somehow succeeds in rising above everything in the soliloquy beginning, “To be, or not to be …” (3.1.57ff), rising, indeed, to the very point of recognizing the true nature of the thing that claims to be a “traveler” returning from the “undiscovered country.” Again, he fails to sustain the spiritual ascent, this time because of the trap for which Ophelia consented to serve as bait. It is only when things are at their worst that Hamlet's contemplative longings succeed in reaching their end. His success is not shown on-stage; the audience learns of it later, with Horatio.

It is only when Hamlet immediately confronts death while aboard the ship for England that all things of the flesh, things worldly and demonic, finally “resolve [themselves] into a dew” (1.2.130). The consequence of such a resolution is the spiritual “readiness” that is “all” and the “godlike reason” that is illuminated by such readiness. The consequence is not a pure heart, free of its “worser half.” Things remain “ill … about [Hamlet's] heart”—partly because being “sick at heart” is inescapable for mortals, and partly because the “divinity that shapes our ends,” when it appeared in the midst of the “fighting” in Hamlet's heart that would not allow him to rest, acted “rashly” and roughly (1.1.9; 5.2.4-11, 210-11).


When Hamlet returns to Denmark, he has undergone as has been often remarked, a “sea change.” The ambitions of Alexander the Great are as nothing to him. In the spirit of Yorick the jester who played with him when his father did not, the only properly ambitious man in his father's court—Hamlet even composes a rhyme about “Imperious Caesar,” who,

… dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that the earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!


And yet Hamlet is not simply a contemplative soul, turned away from the things that are Caesar's. He recognizes that, while he “draw[s] breath,” he must act in “this harsh world” (5.2.350). He recognizes that he must act justly; not from pride or self-righteousness, and certainly not from the demonic passions that had troubled him. What is more, he must act justly as the Crown Prince. His duty to Denmark requires him to act as Laocoon acted, warning Trojans of the lies that conceal the dangers within the horse at their gates. But he must succeed where Laocoon failed. If success requires the death of two “adders fanged,” so be it: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern need not trouble his conscience (3.4.210; 5.2.58). And if it requires the deposition of Claudius, let that come as well. The right “cause, and will, … and means” present themselves for it (4.4.46): a council no longer hindered by Polonius and made sober by proof of Claudius' incompetent military judgment can readily be persuaded to divest him of the “body politic” once it is presented with sufficient legal grounds—namely, the sealed commission. The order for Hamlet's execution is illegal. The order for Claudius' execution need not be. In Claudius' own words: “where th' offense is, let the great ax fall” (4.5.221). And if this settles all worldly debts between them, so much the better.

The Hamlet who returns to Denmark and announces himself “the Dane” is not only a true contemplative, but also a true king. His spiritual “readiness” is not resignation, but rather a spiritual dispensation that combines the vita contemplativa and the vita activa perfectly: Plato's philosopher-king; but also something else. In the words of the gospel of Matthew (10:16 ff.[Geneva edition]) that Shakespeare is also concerned to understand, Hamlet's dispensation makes him as “wise” as a “serpent,” and as “innocent” as a “dove.” It makes him fit to rule others. However, the world remains “harsh” even when one attains the “readiness” to meet its harshness. Hamlet is wary of men, of their councils and kings, but in Act 5 he goes to encounter them anyway, “tak[ing] no thought how or what [he] shall speak.” For he knows that “it shall be given [him] in that hour what [he] shall say.” He fears neither those “which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” nor “him, which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” And his “readiness” will finally allow “the spirit of [the] father” to speak in him.2


  1. All references will be from Hamlet, ed. David Bevington et al. (NY: Bantam, 1988).

  2. Earlier drafts of this address were given to the Canadian Political Science Association, the Political Science Department of McMaster University and the Toronto chapter of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought. My sincere thanks to all participants.

Ken Eisner (essay date 23 July 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Eisner, Ken. “Hamlet.Variety 383, no. 9 (23 July 2001): 20.

[In the following review, Eisner describes Campbell Scott's 2001 film adaptation of Hamlet as “the most accessible … yet” and notes that Scott's pre-World War I setting suits Shakespeare's theme of decay.]

In one of the most accessible versions of Hamlet yet committed to film, Campbell Scott's self-helmed Great Dane is more than ever a man for our time. Falling somewhere between Kenneth Branagh's fastidious grandeur and Ethan Hawke's slouchingly colloquial take on the troubled prince, the veteran thesp—who returns to the role after several legit runs—injects considerable humor and lots of edgy anger into his screen version, which runs a reasonable three hours. Fulsome text is most notably trimmed where oedipal angle is concerned, emphasizing instead the intensely erotic connection between Blair Brown's youngish Gertrude and her new husband, the power-hungry Claudius, played by Jamey Sheridan at his steeliest.

As the eighth filmed take on the play in only a decade, Scott's Hamlet faces an uphill battle in finding new fans. Existing ones, however, will be fascinated by the variations he wrings out of these familiar themes, and the pic should enjoy a brief theatrical run before getting another slot with Hallmark, which last December aired its handsome production only on the small Odyssey cable network. It will probably get longest life as a video-and-disc study guide for college students, for whom it could prove almost as definitive—and far more easily digestible—than Branagh's textually complete version.

This Hamlet, set in the late 1800s in a crumbling seaside mansion in an unnamed place (it was shot on Long Island), gets off to a somewhat slow start with the king's ghost making a less-than-fearsome entry. The prince's own first appearance, in a black headband that makes him look like Zorro's moody assistant, is also iffy, but the pic steadily picks up steam from there. Once the play-within-the-play begins, affording Scott, co-helmer Eric Simonson (who directed one of Scott's two stage Hamlets) and production designer Christopher Shriver a chance to show off, things never slow down. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy is particularly meaty, with Hamlet's rush to self-abnegation made literal by a failed attempt to slit his wrists.

Setting and thesps in black vests and corseted dresses bring appropriately fin-de-siecle feeling to the work, evoking the final phase of European aristocracy before WWI, with the highborn squabbling uselessly over empires already in free fall. In this context, Hamlet's lack of enthusiasm to play the royalty game becomes quite comprehensible.

What works less well is on Polonius' side of the aisle. Scott goes beyond the usual color-blind casting by making the old man's whole family black. It's an interesting conceit, both emphasizing and overriding clan differences, especially with Roscoe Lee Browne as the puffed-up, self-absorbed adviser to the new king. But his offspring aren't so effective: Lisa Gay Hamilton is too much a figure of mature rectitude to play the swooning Ophelia; as her brother, Laertes, Roger Guenveur Smith is simply too remote to be a sharply defined counterpart to the sometimes hesitant anti-hero. Smith whispers his lines when the strength of the production is chiefly how clearly and naturally everyone else delivers theirs (except for Sam Robards, who likewise flattens his lines as Fortinbras).

Michael Imperioli and Marcus Giamatti are good as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here seen as eye-rolling factotums that Hamlet basically wills himself to trust (momentarily), and John Benjamin Hickey makes a memorable Horatio.

Also striking is Gary DeMichele's piano-and-trumpet-centered score, which offers a kind of medieval jazz commentary on the action. Dan Gillham's lensing, which occasionally rests on the buildings' cornices and gargoyle-like adornments, is straightforward, with just enough interpretive movement to heighten the drama.

Reta A. Terry (essay date winter 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1070-86.

[In the following essay, Terry outlines the ways in which Shakespeare used the characters of Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet to reflect England's notion of honor as it shifted from the chivalric code of the medieval period to one based on the individual's relationship to the state.]

Contemporary Shakespearean scholars have demonstrated a renewed interest in both Renaissance concepts of honor and the historical context that surrounds these concepts.1 In practical terms, this means that critics attempting to understand a literary text by placing it within the context of its creation must cross the constructed boundaries that exist between literary texts and historical documents, whether they be sermons, tracts, government papers, private letters, published or unpublished works, all of which are themselves texts. The study of honor in Shakespeare's drama, then, must include an examination of the way that honor was referred to in a multiplicity of texts. This is not to say that an historical context can be entirely recreated and thus provide a definitive meaning or interpretation that is ascribable to Shakespeare's plays. The recognition that history cannot be completely knowable is, in part, what separates New Historicism from former historical approaches to literature. However, an examination of the way honor was written about in other texts of the period allows for some general conclusions regarding the evolution of the honor code and Shakespeare's role in representing and defining that code. Moreover, analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and in particular its characters' use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into evolving Renaissance codes of honor.2 The heretofore unexplored relationship between honor and promise in Hamlet deserves attention for it is through the use of promise that Shakespeare's characters define rival and evolving conceptions of what it meant to be an honorable man.

Honor, like other intangible and abstract terms such as love or faith, is difficult both to define and to discern. In fact, the OED contains over ten main definitions of honor that are applicable to the Elizabethan period. Yet, integral to the early modern honor code was, and is, the word, and Shakespeare's use of the word of honor—of promise—can be examined in order to discern the shifting concept of honor itself. Specifically, according to Mervyn James, “the importance of ‘promise’ was that this gave the essence of honor, will and intention (340);” Shakespeare's characters' concepts of honor can be perceived in the ways in which they use, and respond to, promise. Thus, a close examination of Shakespeare's use of promise in Hamlet yields some valuable conclusions regarding the honor codes that both shape Shakespeare's works and are shaped by them.

The Renaissance was a period of transition in the evolution of the code of honor. One of the most complex changes in the code of honor was a move from an external code to an internalized concept of what it is to be an honorable man. Men were no longer considered honorable simply by right of birth, nor were they able to claim to be men of honor by producing a long list of heroic deeds. Rather, honor was becoming, by the seventeenth century, a matter of conscience; honorable men needed to seek, in every situation, to behave in such a way as to please both their state and their God. That is not to say that there did not exist a residual chivalric sense of honor which emphasized the importance of blood and lineage as well as martial prowess. Rather, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this medieval concept of honor both co-existed and overlapped with a more modern code of honor which simultaneously emphasized both godliness and political allegiance to the collective state.3 This new code, in turn, created tensions of its own precisely because of its demand that men act both in accordance to the dictates of their conscience and their duty to the state. Put simply, Renaissance men had to cope with both an old, medieval code of honor and the tensions of a new one, tensions that were created, to a large degree, by the contemporary insistence on the importance of the individual conscience.4

In 1599, the anonymous writer of a pamphlet entitled Fancies Ague-fittes, or Beauties Nettle-bed finds it necessary to aver that “Honour is nothing els but populare reputation, it is no parte of the conscience” (16). This enters a Renaissance discourse of the conscience, and it enters against the proliferation of courtesy literature that urged men to examine their consciences before taking any act, or to act in consultation with God's “counsell.”5 For example, William Perkins writes in 1612 that “whatsoever is not done of a setled perswasion in judgement and conscience out of Gods word, howsoever men judge of it, is sinne” (1:537). In particular, by 1597 John Norden was urging in his address to the reader that

all militaire men ought to haue continuall councell and consultation with the God of armies [the Christian God], disclayming their owne wisdomes, iudgements and valeur, and to followe what is commanded in, or agreeth with his word.


For Norden, as for many writers of this period, all men, even military men, should examine their conscience to ensure that their actions, even in battle, coincide with the Word of God.6 That is not to say that medieval soldiers and chivalric knights were unconcerned with virtue. But, according to Maurice Keen, “it is as an essentially secular figure that the chivalrous knight steps onto the stage of history.”7 By 1630, as Richard Braithwaite noted, the exhortations concerning honor and conscience had transformed the notion, for some, of honorable behavior:

we have in these declining dayes, among so many proud Symeons, many humble Josephs, whose chiefest honour they make it to abase themselves on earth, to adde to their complement of glory in heaven, so much slighting the applause of men, as their only aime is to have a sincere and blamelesse conscience in them.


That the Elizabethan concept of honor came to encompass the internal conscience is well-documented.8 This emphasis on the conscience, within both drama and society, forced men to balance obedience to the State with adherence to Christian virtues of patience and forgiveness that could be found within God's word. In other words, there exists in this period a conflict of conscience between obedience to God and to the state which often required violent military action, and adherence to an honor code that demanded Christian patience, long-suffering, and non-violent resolutions to conflict.9 It is this attempt both to please the state and God and to remain honorable that leads to Hamlet's crisis of conscience and, ultimately, to his tragic death. Nevertheless, even with the internalization of honor the concept of promise did not diminish. One's word remained inherent in the code of honor precisely because honor as a political and moral consideration required, even more than before, a public statement of intent. It is the essence of honor, manifest in promise, that Shakespeare questions when he creates the characters in Hamlet.

Although Shakespeare's later tragedies, especially Othello, demonstrate a clear demarcation between several types of promise (oaths and swearing for example) in Hamlet these two terms can be taken to mean what Frances Shirley defines as “the calling to witness something, divine or otherwise, to seal vows of allegiance and promises of love or to attest the truth of a statement” (xi). An oath in Hamlet, then, is simply an invocation of a higher power to bear witness to the truth of a statement.

In Shakespearean tragedy, oaths function structurally to develop characterization and move the action toward its climax. Although Hamlet can, of course, withdraw from his oath of vengeance without a threat to his honor should he discover that the ghost is, in fact, not truthful, when he swears that the ghost's commandment to seek revenge “all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain / Unmixed with baser matter! Yes, by heaven” (1.5.102-4), the prince is, in effect, stripped of his power to stop the events. He is a man of honor, a noble man, and now that the vow is spoken he has no choice but to carry it through. Thomas points out that “Protestant teaching seems to have been remarkably firm” (702) when it came to denying the existence of the ghosts of dead men, but after the play within the play Hamlet is committed. The evidence of Claudius's guilt that Hamlet perceives in the king's reaction, which causes Hamlet to publicly exclaim, “O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound” (3.2.260-61), removes the possibility that Hamlet can be dishonored by his belief in ghosts. In fact, The Mousetrap scene in Hamlet is an example of the knightly and chivalric honorable tradition whereby a man's honor can be either lost or won by surviving an ordeal designed to determine his guilt. As Thomas explains, the “ordeal is not usually invoked until the suspect has already been identified. It is merely an additional test of his guilt, not the initial means of discovering the criminal” (260). Hamlet cleverly devises an ordeal for Claudius, the already-discovered criminal, in order to prove Claudius's guilt without having to depend on the ghost's word. In so doing, Hamlet unwittingly brings together both the chivalric code of honor and the more modern moralized one; Shakespeare exempts Hamlet from being dependent upon the word of a ghost, which in Protestant theology would define him as dishonorable, by using the chivalric concept of the ordeal. Ironically, then, Hamlet uses the chivalric code to make himself honorable in the more modern concept of honor. Moreover, Hamlet's use of aspects of both an older idea of honor and a new one demonstrates the way in which these codes overlap in an evolving honor code.

In investing Hamlet with a concern to meet the demands of this evolving honor code, Shakespeare foreshadows the events of the drama while simultaneously divesting his main character of power. Shakespeare's careful delineation of Hamlet as Horatio's “honoured lord” (1.2.221), as a man who inspires “Our duty to your honour” (1.2.253), and as a lover who has approached Ophelia “with love / In honourable fashion” (1.3.16) makes clear that if Hamlet swears revenge against his father's murderer, then as a man of honor in the chivalric tradition, he must carry out that revenge no matter the cost. But, as Anita Pacheco notes, “Shakespeare's treatment of honor develops not out of a unified perspective, but out of the cultural diversity generated by rival ethical legacies” (93). Hamlet's tragedy is, in part, that he is forced to attempt to balance these “rival ethical legacies” as he struggles to remain honorable.

It is significant that Hamlet swears revenge in soliloquy; his oath is not public, nor does it ever become so. According to William Slights, oaths express a “desire to transform a private emotion into a public bond” (151). Moreover, James points out that honor is a public commitment through the “freely given word,” and that the significance of a given honorable situation arises “out of the nature of honor as a public code, the public status distinguishing it from a private morality.”10

By keeping private his oath to gain revenge upon Claudius, by refusing to enter the public arena of oath and honor, Hamlet's honor is seemingly not dependent upon his ability to slay his father's murderer precisely because honor is a public code. But, his swearing of revenge in a soliloquy—a dramatic element that uniquely combines both the public and the private—does not necessarily imply that his honor is not at stake, because the Renaissance concept of honor was evolving into a more internal code; Hamlet's honor has become as much a matter of his own conscience as of public recognition. Hamlet's soliloquy underscores the tension that exists between public and private honor. His oath, known to the audience but not to the other characters, exemplifies Shakespeare's entrance into the discourse of honor precisely because it allows the audience to discern Hamlet's crisis of conscience while simultaneously publicly committing the prince to revenge; since the audience hears the promise they may expect Hamlet, a nobleman, to keep his word.

In fact, a close examination of the concepts of promise and honor in Hamlet reveals that the major characters in this play represent different stages in the evolution of a changing code of honor. Moreover, this representation would not have been missed by a typical Shakespearean audience for “to a conscientious Christian living in late sixteenth-century England, the formal oath was an especially powerful form of utterance.”11 In fact, there exists in this period a plethora of texts that emphasized the difference between careful and casual swearing in an attempt to elucidate the dishonor involved in the casual use of promise. As early as 1579 Edmond Bicknoll was indignantly asking his parishioners if there “was ever any age so outragious in Othes? So blasphemous in railing? So rooted in perjury?” (3). In 1583 Philip Stubbes advises that the “blessed word of God, is to be handled reverently, gravely, and sagely with veneration to the glorious majestie of God” (1). Gervase Babington, also in 1583, points out that “In the Newe Testement we are forbidden to sweare at all, not because all swearing is a sinne, but because forswearing is an horrible sinne” (131). Babington was not entirely against swearing. Rather, he wanted to caution his readers about the casual use of swearing, for

the thing wee sweare by, wee make it the greatest of all other, wee make it the witnesse and discerner of our trueth wee meane, and the reuenger of falsehoode and our fault if we doe not as wee sweare, all which to bee giuen to the Lorde by swearing onley by Him, is a glory to him, and contraiwise a dishonour to him to ascribe them elsewhere, since indeede they are not incident to anie creature


William Perkins, writing in 1593, concurs with Babington when he advises that “Gods name should only be uttered upon a weightie and just occasion, so we may plainly see that glory will redound to him thereby” (6). This elucidation of casual and careful swearing, in turn, underscores the metamorphosis in the honor code since it demonstrates the change in the use of the word. Put simply, the discourse of honor prevalent in these texts clearly argues that promise, and thus honor, was changing, for man's word was no longer either trustworthy nor honorable.

In Hamlet, Horatio represents the chivalric, medieval concept of honor. Horatio is utterly loyal and obedient to the man he addresses as his “honoured lord” (1.2.221), Hamlet. All five of Horatio's oaths (all in act 1) are made in relation to Hamlet himself. More importantly, Horatio keeps his word to Hamlet throughout the play. Horatio uses two oaths following his encounter with the ghost. First, he attempts to force the ghost to articulate its nature and purpose in Denmark: “By heaven I charge thee speak” (1.1.48). After the ghost exits, Horatio, pale and frightened by his experience, insists that “Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes” (1.1.56-58). While this oath does not seem, at first, to be related to Hamlet, it is important to note that Horatio's two oaths are immediately followed by a discussion of Fortinbras's advance on Denmark and the danger the country faces as a result of his incursion.12 And, since Shakespeare painstakingly makes it clear that Horatio is not Danish, and that his only connection to Denmark is his friendship with Hamlet, it is clear that the oaths uttered by Horatio are out of a concern for Hamlet, his “fellow student” (1.2.177) and friend. Thus, after sighting the ghost a second time, Horatio determines that Hamlet must be told of the apparition immediately, and Horatio's decision leads him to the use of a third oath: “Upon my life / This spirit dumb to us, will speak to him [Hamlet]” (1.1.170-71).

Significantly, Horatio's next, and last, two oaths are uttered directly to Hamlet and at the prince's request. Following Hamlet's own encounter with the ghost, Horatio begs Hamlet to divulge what the ghost has said. Hamlet refuses, fearing Horatio will make the conversation public. Horatio quickly swears secrecy: “Not I my lord, by heaven” (1.5.118). Hamlet does not agree to tell Horatio what the spirit has said, but asks Horatio once more if he can be trusted, to which Horatio again swears, “Ay, by heaven, my lord” (1.5.123). Finally, although Horatio never takes an oath of secrecy on Hamlet's sword within the text, it is clear that the stage action calls for such an oath, for after the repeated requests of both Hamlet and the ghost itself Horatio expresses his willingness to swear when he invites Hamlet to “Propose the oath my lord” (1.5.153).

The medieval code of honor was based on loyalty and allegiance to one's lord. In fact, according to Maurice Keen, “to betray one's lord has from the earliest days of chivalry and before been held the darkest of all crimes with which the knight or warrior could be charged” (175). Not only does Horatio repeatedly refer to Hamlet as his lord, and not only does he keep his word by not divulging Hamlet's secret until Hamlet himself withdraws the request, but Horatio also expresses a willingness to die with Hamlet after the prince is wounded by Laertes' poisoned rapier. More importantly, Horatio makes absolutely clear the notion that the code of honor is changing and that he himself is representative of the old code when he attempts to drink the poisoned wine after it becomes obvious that Hamlet's wounds are fatal: “I am more antique Roman than a Dane. / Here's yet some liquor yet (5.2.320-21). Horatio emphasizes that he is an “antique” Roman; he lives by an older or “Roman” code of honor that requires the ultimate allegiance and obedience to his lord. Moreover, he recognizes that this code is changing when he makes the distinction between the “antique” Roman and the more modern Dane, but nevertheless strongly adheres to the ancient code, even ending his own attempt to commit suicide on Hamlet's behalf when Hamlet utters an oath of his own: “As th'art a man / Give me the cup. Let go, by heaven I'll ha't” (5.2.322-23).

Hamlet orders Horatio to relinquish the cup and, significantly, bases Horatio's obedience upon masculinity, for honor in this period was exclusively a male domain. Women's honor almost entirely consisted of their chastity or, if they were maidens, their virginity. This, in turn, was merely a manifestation of male honor itself as a woman's chastity brought honor to her husband or father by demonstrating his ability to command her obedience. Or, in Mark Breitenberg's words, “women are a transacted property, or their chastity is a badge of honor for their husbands, validated only when other men desire to steal it” (71). Thus, when Hamlet charges Horatio, upon his manhood, to give up the cup, he is, in effect, challenging Horatio's masculinity; if Horatio wants to be seen as masculine, he must obey his master's command.

Laertes also struggles with the changing concept of what constitutes male honor, but Laertes represents a further stage in the developing concept of honor. Laertes, unlike Horatio, swears only once in the entire text of the play; he swears revenge for Ophelia's madness when he tells her: “By heaven, thy madness shall be paid with weight / Till our scale turn the beam” (4.5.156-57). Laertes' father, like Hamlet's, has been murdered, and Laertes' instant and violent reaction bespeaks the old chivalric code of honor. According to Curtis Watson, Laertes' vow reflects “the quick sensitivity to affront which the Renaissance period had acquired from Aristotle through his numerous Renaissance disciples” (362). Likewise, Norman Council labels Laertes' reaction a “single-minded commitment to honorable revenge” (93). Yet Laertes, like Horatio, is aware that the honor code is changing. In fact, he consciously rejects the more modern, moralized codes of honor in his angry response to the news of Polonius's death:

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


Laertes is willing to ignore his conscience and to burn in hell (the consequence of murder) in order to avenge (an act of honor in the old code) his father's death.

But, unlike Horatio, Laertes does not make public promises. Rather, although he tells Claudius that he would be willing to “cut” his father's murderer's “throat i'th'church” (4.7.125), he never actually swears to revenge Polonius's murder. Thus, Laertes' immediate desire for violence, coupled with his obvious loyalty to the memory of his father and his conscious rejection of an honor code that includes moral behavior, places him close to the medieval code of honor while his refusal to make his oath of vengeance publicly and his willingness to be ruled by the head of the body politic place his idea of honor further along the continuum of change than Horatio's.

Hamlet's perception of honor is neither like his friend Horatio's nor his countryman Laertes'. Rather, Hamlet's use of promise, though certainly problematic and complex, explicitly identifies him as a transitional character in the changing code of honor. In fact, both the medieval chivalric code of honor and the more modern and political and moral code are seemingly embodied in this one character. Moreover, as a transitional character Hamlet must meet the requirements of both codes. It is this attempt to find a balance in a changing code that eventually leads, in part, to Hamlet's tragic death.

According to Shirley, in tragedy, and particularly in both Hamlet and Othello, “oaths are among the most telling signs of changes in attitude in very fully developed characters” (100). A careful examination of Hamlet's use of oaths reveals the change in his attitude towards what is honorable as he struggles to find a code he can use in his tragic situation.

Hamlet begins by swearing to avenge his father's murder. Since his oath is private, it places Hamlet's honor closer to Laertes' in the changing code. Hamlet, however, soon converts to a public form of oath when Horatio becomes confused by Hamlet's words regarding his meeting with the ghost:

These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
I'm sorry they offend you, heartily.
Yes, faith, heartily.
                                                                                There's no offense my lord.
Yes by Saint Patrick but there is Horatio,
And much offense too.


Hamlet, burdened with the revenge of his father's murder, attempts to use the violent, medieval code of honor as he begins to make public oaths. He swears by Saint Patrick, and although his words are confusing to Horatio (and thus Hamlet is not yet publicly committed to action) it is clear to the reader that it is the ghost's words that Hamlet finds offensive, and that he realizes that he must avenge his father.

Hamlet does not swear another oath until act 2: in this oath Hamlet swears by his faith, a faith which must have been considerably shaken by the appearance of his mighty and virtuous father, who should have been resting in peace, but who must decline to tell his tale of purgatory whose lightest word

Would harrow up the soul, freeze the young blood,
Make the two eyes like stars start from their sphere,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.


Hamlet hears that the late king, by all accounts an honorable man in the medieval sense of the word, has been sentenced to a “prison” in which he must burn until his sins are purged away. Yet, Hamlet chooses to swear in terms of Christian images; he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that “by my fay I cannot reason” (2.2.251), and later swears by “Sblood” (2.2.336, 3.2.334), “God's bodkin” (2.2.485), “swounds” (2.2.528, 5.1.240), and “i'faith” (3.2.82). Although Hamlet's initial oath swears revenge based upon lineage and familial loyalty, a violent act, he still maintains the moral and Christian image demanded by a more modern view of honor by invoking Christ to bear witness to his oaths.

The complexity of Hamlet's dilemma, of his attempt to satisfy all the demands of a changing honor code, is informed by what Weimann terms “the humanist search for possible areas of interaction between the verbal and the political.”13 Put simply, Renaissance men could no longer claim to be honorable by asserting the chivalric emphasis on violence and lineage as the authoritative account of what it is to be honorable. This shifting basis prompted some “stimulating dramatic interrogations and revisions” (110), and Shakespeare's text illustrated that the authorization of honor was one of the things being interrogated and revised. Interrogation and revision, in turn, led to what Weimann identifies as a “new fiction” (105) in which “early modern drama and prose narrative were bound to assume a more volatile and divisive space for authorization. In assimilating some heterogeneous and divisive material, the new fiction sought to explore areas of friction and conflict among competing sites of authority” (110). In Hamlet Shakespeare introduces tension or “friction and conflict” among the various and “competing” ways in which honor is authorized. The complexity of Hamlet's situation imposes upon him the need to find an adequate system of honor with which to resolve his dilemma; Hamlet's attempt to carve out a place of honor for himself leads to a crisis of conscience.

Hamlet is the only son of a murdered king. As such he, in medieval terms, is honor-bound to avenge his father's death. But, the murderer is the new king. Hamlet is thus confronted with the taboos of Christian hierarchical order—to exact revenge he must slay a king who is, of course, God's anointed ruler. Moreover, he cannot be completely sure of his countryman's support as Claudius is an elected king. Further, Claudius is accepted by the people who have “freely gone” (1.2.15) along with Claudius's hasty marriage to the king's widow, and who give “twenty, forty, and hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little” (2.2.366-67). Perhaps more importantly, Hamlet's anguish of indecision over whether or not to kill Claudius, particularly after the evidence offered by Claudius's reaction to the “Mousetrap,”14 reflects a changing code of honor in which “the community of honor came to be that which centered on the crown, its structure that of the court and city, its service that of the state, and its mark the nobility of virtue, and the dignities which this conferred.”15 Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius throughout the play. While several factors contribute to this delay, it is significant to note that Hamlet exacts revenge for his father's murder only after Claudius's treachery has been publicly revealed by both Gertrude and Laertes. Hamlet's original oath of vengeance is fulfilled, but in such a way as to allow him to remain honorable in a new code that requires not only honor, but also acknowledgment of the political hierarchy and morality as well. Hamlet, then, stands as a transitional character who has, on the one hand, the medieval code of honor which requires him to kill a king to avenge his father's murder and, on the other hand, a new code of honor that requires both absolute obedience to the state and adherence to moral virtue. It is in meeting these codes that Hamlet is identified as both a transitional character and a tragic hero.

While it is true that Claudius does not utter a single oath throughout the play, “the cynical manipulation of oaths by a character … is a gauge of his deficient humanity.”16 Claudius stands as the epitome of the way in which a system of honor that is entirely politicized can be perverted. His Machiavellian view of monarchy is apparent in the way he manipulates those around him into promises that suit only his purpose. Hence, he plays on the honor of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when he requests that they spy on Hamlet for him. Rosencrantz responds to this request with words that express his understanding of the politics of honor:

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


This courtier understands that within the new code being honorable means acting in complete obedience to the state. Guildenstern, likewise, pledges his loyalty to the sovereigns:

But we both obey,
and here give up ourselves in full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet
To be commanded.


Although Gertrude assures the courtiers that they will be rewarded for their obedience (2.2.24- 25), and notwithstanding the use of language that has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern offer their loyalty to the persons of the king and queen, Shakespeare makes it clear that these men are not mere court dandies attempting to curry favor with the monarchy:

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Which dreams are indeed ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely a shadow of a dream.
A dream itself is but a shadow.
Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's shadow.


Ambition is clearly not Guildenstern's and Rosencrantz's motivation. While it is true that these two courtiers may simply be spouting court rhetoric in this passage, it is significant to note that Hamlet himself speaks for their honesty when he remarks that they have “a kind of confession in their looks which your modesties have not craft enough to colour” (2.2.281-82). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not good liars; they lack the “craft” to cover their deception. Rather, Claudius is able to manipulate both their loyalty to the state and their loyalty to their childhood friend to gain their cooperation in his attempt to spy on Hamlet.

Similarly, Claudius manipulates Polonius's sense of honor in an attempt to garner aid in dealing with Hamlet. Polonius's speeches are replete with oaths; he prefaces many of his comments with an invocation to God or heaven. Claudius, a skilled politician, uses Polonius's need to appear honorable to the public to enlist his services. Thus, when Polonius reveals the love letter Hamlet wrote to Ophelia, Polonius questions the king: “What do you think of me?” (2.2.127). Claudius, knowing that Polonius is attempting to appear honorable, replies: “As a man faithful and honourable” (2.2.128); Polonius gains honor through the questionable means of betraying both Hamlet and Ophelia but, in his mind, doing what is best for the state by helping to determine the cause of the prince's “madness.”

Finally, Claudius overtly appeals to Laertes' sense of chivalric honor as the king manipulates Laertes into killing Hamlet. Laertes reacts with hotheaded violence upon discovering that Hamlet is responsible for Polonius's death. Claudius, however, uses Laertes' chivalric sense of honor in much the same way as he used Polonius's more modern concept. Claudius, attempting to use Laertes to rid the kingdom of Hamlet, appeals to the chivalric honor code that rests upon loyalty to kin: “Laertes, was your father dear to you? / Or are you like the painting of sorrow, / A face without a heart?” (4.7.106-8). Although Claudius seems to have no honor system of his own, he is aware of the various forms that honor takes in a changing world and skillfully uses them to accomplish his purposes.

Shakespeare creates characters in Hamlet that represent various stages in the evolution of a changing system of honor. Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet all indicate, by their use of promise, different concepts of honor that range from an antique system of kinship and violence to a more modern idea of Christian morality, virtue, and allegiance to the state. Claudius, who makes no promises, illustrates the way in which systems of honor can be used, and perverted, in the political arena. Moreover, Shakespeare delineates these characters, their concepts of honor, and their functions in moving the dramatic action toward its climax by a careful use of each character's “freely given word.” In doing so, Shakespeare also takes a conventional stance in a period of change. Horatio, the character most representative of an old system of honor, is portrayed as worthy, honest, and likable. On the other end of the scale stands Claudius, a man who is seemingly without honor but who is capable of manipulating the honor code in the most heinous ways. Between these two extremes lies Hamlet himself. Hamlet represents a middle point in the changing honor system, and it is his attempt to gain an antique honor in a new system that contributes not only to his own tragic death, but to the deaths of several others as well. One must not forget that if Hamlet had taken revenge immediately, as required by the medieval code of honor, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and perhaps even Hamlet himself would have survived the events of the drama. Instead, Hamlet is caught in a changing system of honor, and it is his effort to incorporate these changes which leads, in part, to the deaths of many characters. Hamlet's difficulty in meeting the requirements of two disparate honor codes further leads to the delay that allows Claudius to become a politicized manipulator of promise, leaving one to wonder whom Laertes is addressing when he angrily exclaims “Vows to the blackest devil” (4.5.129).


  1. One of the best examples of this renewed interest can be found in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, which contains several articles on Renaissance honor and includes Cynthia Herrup's excellent examination of the legal aspects of honor, manifest in Renaissance slander cases.

  2. Of the three most recent studies of Hamlet—Kerrigan's Hamlet's Perfection, States's Hamlet and the Concept of Character, and Foakes's Hamlet Versus Lear: Cultural Politics in Shakespeare's Art—only Foakes discusses the Renaissance concepts of honor apparent in this play, and none considers the importance of the use of promise in this tragedy. Foakes's discussion, however, is couched in terms of Hamlet's association of his father and a heroic ideal of martial honor. Foakes argues that Hamlet distances himself from this ideal through the use of pre-Christian classical images to describe his father, thus both separating himself from this heroic ideal and aligning himself more closely with a Christian stoic concept of patient suffering. Foakes concludes that the play demonstrates the horrible nature of both revenge and military rule; he therefore overlooks the more positive aspects of the residual medieval honor code that can be found in the play.

  3. States, in his important study Hamlet and the Concept of Character, persuasively argues that at the center of Hamlet lies a complex relationship between the world of value and the characters of the play. He links these values to both political and moral concerns in the Renaissance, but he describes this world as a set of binary opposites—sanguine vs. melancholy, reason vs. madness, etc.—which does not address the interplaying and overlapping context of Renaissance values, including honor codes.

  4. Cust, 91, identifies these three aspects of honor in a slightly different way. He postulates that there were two opposed concepts of honor, that is, blood and lineage vs. godliness and wisdom, and that loyalty to the monarch, service to the commonwealth, and obedience to the law overlapped both of these opposed ideas of what constitutes an honorable man.

  5. The Short Title Catalogue contains many examples of this courtesy literature indicating that how-to books were both common and popular in this period, Barnaby Rich's Roome for a Gentleman, Richard Braithwaite's The English Gentleman, William Perkins's How to Live, and an anonymous tract entitled Instruction of a Gentleman, for example.

  6. For more on the Renaissance concept of conscience, and particularly on the way in which women's consciences were perceived by contemporaries, see Lowell Gallagher, Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance.

  7. Keen, 43. Keen later points out that the rituals and ceremonies of knighthood were not officiated by the clergy, nor did they take place within the church. Moreover, Keen illustrates that the virtues that the medieval knight was attempting to gain were primarily still violent; the medieval honor code encompassed the knightly promise to protect the weak with the might of the sword.

  8. For the importance of the conscience in Renaissance religious and political matters, see Camille Wells Slights, who points out that casuistry was a phenomenon in this period which arose in response to a crisis of both conscience and authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to Slights, the prevalence of this branch of theology was an attempt to aid contemporaries in reconciling religious faith with the demands of particular human situations that may create a crisis of the individual conscience. As early as 1957 Barber pointed out that there existed the “beginnings of a tendency for honor to mean an inner conscience rather than external reward” (103) in the drama of this period. Weimann concurs when he argues that “in late Elizabethan Puritan circles Puritan divines began to promulgate the elevation of human conscience over law” (88). Thomas relates this Elizabethan emphasis on the individual conscience to the use of promise when he writes that “the Protestant emphasis upon the individual conscience inevitably shifted the ultimate sanction for truthfulness from the external fear of divine punishment to the godly man's internal sense of responsibility. A man should keep his word simply because he had given it” (76-77).

  9. While Kerrigan does not specifically discuss honor, he does argue that Hamlet learns, particularly in the graveyard scene, that revenge (an important component of the honor code) need not be bloody and violent because the decay and deterioration of the body after death is itself more horrible than any human vengeance. Kerrigan concludes that in this play Christianity and revenge become compatible. The Renaissance was, however, marked by intense debate about what it was to be noble and honorable as well as the ferocious controversy regarding one's right to duel and / or commit violent revenge.

  10. James, 339. James further notes that “consistency in standing by a position once taken was basic to the honor code. But since the latter [code] was a public one, that of a society of honorable men, there was a need to define the position to which honor was committed as a public gesture. This took the form of promise and oath, the giving of one's word, the ‘word of honour.’ Once this had been done the man of honour could withdraw only at the expense of the diminishment involved in dishonour” (339).

  11. William Slights, 147.

  12. Bristol argues that Fortinbras's actions—his preparations to make war against Denmark—are representative of a gift culture in which the gift of Old Fortinbras's life must be repaid. This code, which Bristol calls the “law of reciprocity,” requires that gifts be repaid, that grievances be redressed, and that social continuity be maintained. According to Bristol, the law of reciprocity cannot be reproduced in Hamlet since there is no one, at the end of the play, to reciprocate or retaliate on Hamlet's behalf. Hamlet is the last of his line. Although Bristol's argument does not focus on honor specifically, implicit in his study is the medieval or feudal idea of comitatus that we see in Beowulf. But, extrapolating from Bristol, this medieval code gives way to a more modern one when the complexity of reciprocity is ironed out at the end of the play. Hamlet has avenged his father; Fortinbras and Laertes have done the same, and these three childless men have broken the cycle, for all the violent deaths—beginning with Old Fortinbras and ending with Hamlet—have been repaid.

  13. According to Weimann, the basis of authority came into question when “the traditional repertoire of signs and symbols offered by popular lore or the romance of chivalry … could no longer be counted on as fixed, valid, or satisfying” (110).

  14. In his introduction to Hamlet in The Norton Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt offers various other reasons for Claudius's reaction to The Mousetrap. I would argue, however, that Hamlet himself does not consider these alternatives, and that the prince believes that Claudius's panic is concrete proof of his guilt.

  15. James, 381.

  16. William Slights, 148.


Anon. Fancies Ague-fittes or Beauties Nettle bed. London, 1599. STC 0684.

———. The Instruction of a Gentleman. London, 1568. STC 4105.

Babington, Gervase. A very fruitfall exposition of the Commaundments by way of question and answer. London, 1611. STC 18743.

Barber, Charles. Honour in the English Drama 1591-1700. Gothenburg, 1957.

Becon, Thomas. An inuectyve agenst Swearing. London, 1543. STC 1732.

Bicknoll, Edmond. A Swoord Agaynst Swearying. London, 1579. STC 3050.

Braithwaite, Richard. The English Gentleman. London, 1630. STC 3563.

Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge, 1996.

Bristol, Michael D. Big-Time Shakespeare. London, 1996.

Council, Norman. When Honour's at the Stake. London, 1973.

Cust, Richard. “Honour and Politics in Early Stuart England: The Case of Beaumont vs. Hastings.” Past and Present 149 (1994): 57-94.

Foakes, R. A. Hamlet Versus Lear. Cambridge, 1993.

Gallagher, Lowell. Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance. Stanford, 1991.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Introduction to Hamlet.” In The Norton Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al., 1659-1666. New York, 1997.

Herrup, Cynthia. “‘To Pluck Bright Honour From the Pale-Faced Moon’: Gender and Honour in the Castle-haven Story.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 6th Series. 137-59.

James, Mervyn. Society, Politics and Culture. Cambridge, 1988.

Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven, 1984.

Kerrigan, William. Hamlet's Perfection. Baltimore, 1994.

Miles, Gary. “How Roman are Shakespeare's Romans?” Shakespeare Quarterly 40.3 (1989): 257-83.

Norden, John. The Mirror of honour. London, 1597. STC 18614.

Pacheco, Anita. “Shakespeare and the Contradictions of Honour.” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of York, 1990.

Perkins, William. A Direction for the Government of the Tongue according to Gods word. London, 1593. STC 676.

———. A Discourse of Conscience. The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ … Mr. William Perkins. 3 vols. London, 1612-1613.

Rich, Barnaby. Roome for a Gentleman. London, 1609. STC 20985.

Salmon, J. H. M. “Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England.” In The Mental World of the Jacobean Court. Ed. Linda Levy Peck, 169-88. Cambridge, 1991.

Shakespeare, William. The Oxford Shakespeare. Eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Oxford: 1994.

———. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In The Oxford Shakespeare, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, 653-90. Oxford, 1994.

———. The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. In The Oxford Shakespeare, 819-54.

Shirley, Frances. Swearing and Perjury in Shakespeare's Plays. London, 1979.

Slights, Camille Wells. The Casuistical Tradition, in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert and Milton. Princeton, 1981.

Slights, William W. E. “‘Swear by thy Gracious Self’: Self-Referential Oaths in Shakespeare.” English Studies in Canada 13.2 (1987): 147-60.

States, Bert O. Hamlet and the Concept of Character. Baltimore, 1992.

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. London, 1583. STC 357.

Thomas, Sir Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. London, 1991.

Watson, Curtis Brown. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honour. Princeton, 1960.

Weimann, Robert. Authority and Representation in Early Modern Discourse. Ed. David Hillman. Baltimore, 1996.

Anita Gates (essay date 27 July 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Gates, Anita. “Aye, in a Harlem Courtyard, the Witching Time of Night.” New York Times, late edition (27 July 2001) B18, E20.

[In the following review, Gates praises the Classical Theater of Harlem's production of Hamlet for its use of an outdoor, multi-leveled setting and its vivid costumes, but notes that the actors had a “less than flawless command of Shakespeare's language.”]

The Classical Theater of Harlem's Courtyard Theater on 141st Street is a very pleasant place to be on a summer night. And the two-year-old company, founded by Alfred Preisser and Christopher McElroen, makes excellent use of the space in its current production of Hamlet.

The ramparts scenes, including the first appearance of King Hamlet's Ghost (Adam Wade, who is commanding and ominous even when he isn't speaking a word), are played on the roof of the Harlem School of the Arts' two-story brick building, which surrounds the courtyard. The rest of the action takes place on a raised terrace on the main level, with a three-story-plus backdrop of lush green vines. And when Polonius (Dan Snow) is stabbed, he's concealed behind a bush, not an arras. Kimberly Glennon's costumes are colorful, inventive and character-enhancing, with a lively blend of influences from Denmark to Dahomey.

If the members of the company have a less than flawless command of Shakespeare's language, they're in good company. Most contemporary performers have difficulty pressing the word-by-word meanings home, but the poetry and the overall message of Hamlet come through.

In the title role, J. Kyle Manzay captures the attitude of the depressed and sullen young prince, home from school to mourn his father, furious with his mother, Gertrude, for having immediately married her dead husband's brother, Claudius. Gertrude and Claudius (Lanette Ware, whose beauty makes it easy to understand why a man would kill to have her, and Rome Neal, the artistic theater director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe) can't keep their hands off each other.

Quonta Shanell Beasley plays Ophelia, the lovely young object of Hamlet's affections, as frantically insane (in much the same way Helena Bonham Carter played the role in the 1990 film version) after Hamlet rejects her. And in this production, Hamlet gets as rough with Ophelia physically as he does verbally. The production is accompanied by live drummers, who add nicely to the dramatic tension, even if they make it difficult at times to hear the actors, who are already competing with sirens, car horns and the occasional airplane overhead.

Tzachi Zamir (essay date September 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Zamir, Tzachi. “Doing Nothing.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35, no. 3 (September 2002): 167-82.

[In the following essay, Zamir contends that Prince Hamlet's failure to avenge his father's death is the result of his fear of revealing his own individuality.]

Some still-influential theories of meaning in philosophy have regarded the literary treatment of a philosophical concept to be informatively redundant (Ayer; Curtler; Stevenson). Such conceptions have important counterparts in Formalist aesthetics (e.g., Richards; Brooks) and are continuous with a long historical tradition both in the history of philosophy (Nussbaum, Love's 10-23) and in the history of rhetoric (Perelman).

The case against the knowledge-yielding capacities of literature comes in both a strong and a weak version. According to the strong version, informative discourse is exhausted by what may be termed “theoretical language”: “literal” (at least ideally) truth claims and argumentation. Philosophy is a “cognitive discipline,” that is, it is an activity that seeks to gain information concerning its subject matter, and so literary texts are irrelevant as far as philosophical concerns go. The weaker version assumes that the term informative should cover a broader range. Non-theoretical discourse, such as figurative language, may well be informative, and, therefore, media like literature, which employ such means, can address philosophical issues. Nevertheless, whatever is relevant to philosophy in these texts can be paraphrased in theoretical language with no loss of meaning, at least not meaning that is of any significance to philosophy.

Arguing against the stronger version is relatively easy. Accepting the emotive/cognitive distinction, one can begin by arguing that literary texts are in part cognitive since literary works do include literal truth claims and that non-literal uses of language may well be seen as informative (e.g., Lakoff and Turner). One could go on to unsettle the emotive/cognitive distinction itself (Nussbaum, Love's 40-43; “Emotions”). Finally, one could invoke arguments that have been used to unsettle the literal/figurative opposition underlying the stronger thesis (De Man; Derrida 207-72; Rorty ch. 2). Confronting the weaker thesis is, however, a different matter. None of the arguments that may be used against the stronger version is applicable since no commitment is being made to the emotive/cognitive or literal/figurative distinctions. The holder of the weak view is merely committed to adequate translatability into theoretical language of whatever is regarded as the knowledge accessed by the literary elements. One may attempt to attack the literary/theoretic distinction, or the very distinction between philosophy and literature, distinctions to which the defender of the weaker view is certainly committed. However, such a deconstruction is too costly for those who find a philosophical relevance for literature since an all-embracing textuality undermines the entire attempt to work out a theoretical framework for the investigation of the links between philosophy and literature.

Rejecting the weak position involves arguing for the irreducibility of certain modes of presentation to theoretical language (Iser 76-77; Nussbaum, Love's 7). The first way to do this is by arguing for the existence of faculties of knowing that cannot be accessed by theoretical language and are, yet, modes of understanding. I have elsewhere argued that such connections between implicit epistemology and non-systematic presentation are operative in the writings of Plato and Nietzsche (Zamir, “Seeing”; “Face”). The second way is to invoke a distinction between conceptual information and the experience of such information. It would thus be possible to identify the irreducible kind of knowing that literature provides, with the unique experience of conceptual information that it enables. Experiences always retain a non-paraphrasable component of information that can be gained only by actually going through them. Moreover, since such experiences are themselves unique kinds of understanding, such patterns of experience become themselves a proper object of philosophical inquiry.

While several investigations into the philosophy-literature relations have ultimately located literature's irreducible gains in terms of cognitive experiences (Duska; Kalin; Kuhns; Nussbaum, Love's; Palmer), such results have to be further analyzed into particularized contexts in which a specific claim having a well-defined logical status is related to an experiential pattern. I have elsewhere attempted this task regarding first truths and contingent claims in two of Shakespeare's tragedies (Zamir, “Upon”; “Mature”). My reading of Hamlet here attempts this in relation to undisclosable aspects of the “self.”

Hamlet plays many games with ears, hearing, and audibility. Norman Holland claims that the word ear occurs twenty-five times in Hamlet, which is more than in any other of Shakespeare's works. Mary Anderson counts at least 184 references to eyes, ears, seeing, and hearing in the first two acts. Ears differ from eyes—the other faculty heavily alluded to in the play—in their constitution as a bodily entrance. Unlike other sense organs, the ear promises almost limitless exploration of interiority (recall Freud's remark that the ear is an organ that the infant cannot close). Such a metaphorical identification of the ear as a gate into the body is made explicit not only in the allusion to Horatio's “fortified” ears but also in the story of the ghost. The poison poured through “the porches” of the ear that like quicksilver “courses through the natural gates and alleys of the body” (1.5.66-67) equates the corporeal with something like a town, the entrance to which is through the ear. Shakespeare's employment of audal imagery in this way is continuous with some Renaissance anatomical and physiological conceptions of hearing as a process that involves penetration of the body. Such preoccupation is exemplified in anatomical and musicological treatises that repeatedly invoke architectural imagery that invites exploration through specific allusions to penetration.

Before turning to the significance of this imagery, we need to note the associative clusters involving penetration and possession that the invocation of acoustic imagery would set in motion in Shakespeare's contempo raries. Mondino dei Lucci wrote of “the cavity” or “the twisted cavity” in which is “implanted the auditory spirit” that is to be found in “every ear” (qtd. in Crombie 385, emph. mine). Volcher Coiter's description of the process of hearing describes “the passage” of sound as “carried through the twisting and turning windings of the ears” (qtd. in Crombie 386, emph. mine). The allusion to winding paths appears earlier in Avicenna in his Canon Medicinae (Liber 4, Fen 3, Cap 1 “De Anatomia Aoris”), and another early writer, Albertus Magnus, conceived (in his Opera Omnia, xxxv, “Summa de Creaturis”) of the “cavity” as a “resonating chamber” (qtd. in Burnett et al. 60, emph. mine). Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia refers to sound as carried “through the windowes of the stony bone […] into the winding burroughs, and so into the labyrinth” (qtd. in Gouk 100). Thomas Willis's De anima brutorum is even more explicitly eucological in his imagery (see Crombie 392-93). He adds to the fenestre ovalis an entire discourse embellished with architectural imagery. He talks of doors, caverns, passages, arched meanders, chambers, and dens. He even refers explicitly to architects who could copy the design.

Apart from audal infiltration, suggested by an anatomical discourse that invites exploration of internal cavities, chambers, and paths, whatever enters the ears is for the most part conceived as a powerful (if not violent) entity that is capable of transforming the hearer. This theme is connected in Renaissance anatomy and musicology (as well as in some of its earlier influences) to the recurrence of the persistent, counter-ocularcentric theme of the superiority of hearing to sight (Febvre 432- 37; Tomlinson 134-44). J. C. Scaliger claimed that “we learn things through the hearing more easily than through the sight, because the voice affects us more by inflection and insinuating itself into the sense” (qtd. in Gouk 100). Helkiah Crooke claimed that things that are heard make a deeper impression on the mind (qtd. in Gouk 100). Much earlier, Boethius remarked in his Fundamentals of Music (181) that, “indeed, no path to the mind is as open for instruction as the sense of hearing. Thus, when rhythms and modes reach an intellect through the ears, they doubtless affect and reshape that mind according to their particular character” (181, emph. mine). This remark echoes Aristotle, who, while claiming that sight is the superior sense for the primary needs of life, added that “hearing takes precedence” for “the developing intelligence and its indirect consequences” (De Sensu 1.437a). Invoking an old conceptualization, Francis Bacon alluded to the “similar nature” and “affinity” that “tunes and aires” have to our “affections” in order to explain why it is “that the sense of hearing striketh the spirits more immediately than the other senses.” More than any other sense, hearing has a “present and immediate access” to the spirits. Harmony “entering easily,” has the power to “alter the spirits in themselves” (exp. 114, emph. mine). Marsilio Ficino's language is even more extreme. This influential authority (see: Walker; Tomlinson 137-44) refers to the audal effect through words and music as “penetrating the depths of the soul” more strongly than all other senses. Such sound “seizes, and claims as its own, man in his entirety” (Walker 137, emph. mine).

I now turn to the way through which audal imagery underlies the play's presentation of personal disclosure, insulation, penetration, and genuine communication, with its presentation of an unmotivated suspension between resolution and action.

Commentary concerning the question of Hamlet's delay—that is, documented patterns of reader-response—covers a rich range of actual responses to inaction. Some explanations aim to circumvent the psychological question by appealing to dramatic considerations, claiming, for example, that through highlighting inaction, Shakespeare attempts to resist “the structural syntax of revenge tragedy” (Calderwood 28). Note, however, that, when the psychological question is directly confronted as a problem, something is already said about the reader's own projections. More specifically, the very attempt to explain or supply excuses for the delay is itself already an endorsing of a tacit identification of subjectivity with agency. The same projection is also revealed in interpreters not feeling a need to explain other aspects of the play, for example, Laertes's non-delayed resolution and action. In the two soliloquies of self-reproach, it seems obvious that Hamlet himself does not know why he hesitates. He even says as much (4.4.43). If we respect this answer, and the fact that the play does not give us a better one, we can regard this epistemic limitation not as a puzzle to be “solved” but rather as the designated position to which the rhetoric of this play moves its audience. So, instead of trying to solve the problem of Hamlet's delay, let us attempt to perceive what is being achieved by making delay a problem.

The significance of focussing attention on delay enables highlighting a certain tension between what one may, for lack of better word, problematically call a “self” (Ferry; Greenblatt 131-45) and performance. Hamlet shifts easily from one to the other in cases of role-playing when it is precisely performance that sets up the gap between what one is perceived to be and what one is. The magical pull of conscious role-playing relates to the ability to keep an aspect of the self encapsulated and unperceived. Action through acting offers safety and enables impenetrability. For Hamlet, it permits a response to the seductiveness of remaining uncontacted. However, it is when the role must turn into a large-scale, determining action that Hamlet is disoriented. All the other situations in which he acts are such that the action is either immediately reactive, or situations in which he is perceived and could therefore be judged. In such situations, inaction would be no less determining of what he is considered by others as being. The delayed vengeance is different. Only he knows of it. No one expects him to take revenge. (Horatio, who later in the play learns the truth, is close enough to him to be non-judgemental.) Hamlet allows procrastination to take place only in the private sphere.

The relations between performance and self are first set by the ghost's demand of Hamlet, in which action (revenge) is so naturally supposed to spring from filial love. We also perceive these relations in the Pyrrhus and Priam story that haunts Hamlet. The language of that tale involves most of the deeper structural components contained in the model of an “overtaken” self that the play will later problematize: “control” and wishing for its “loss,” being “overseized,” allowing oneself to be “used” by another (or by a father), and waiting to be “possessed” by passion.

It is not surprising that the simplistic model of self and agency employed by both the ghost and the actor reciting the Trojan tale (which Hamlet commends for so easily responding to the “cue” for passion) cannot really work for Hamlet. Hamlet's preoccupation with the tension between appearance and reality undermines the possibility of his believing that performance can be non-problematically indicative of self. After all, Hamlet believes in an internal unactable truth, in having “that within which passes show” (1.2.85) and in this he probably goes beyond other sixteenth-century conceptualizations of the seeming/being gap that centre only on the possibilities of dissembling and not on the more radical ones of non-disclosure (Ferry 212-14). The metaphor of inwardness demarcates an essence that Hamlet divorces from the sphere of action. This he sets in opposition to Claudius's conception of grief as being reducible to performance (1.2.87-101). Such awareness of an inwardness that cannot be acted out also opposes the action-centred subjectivity that Hamlet continually encounters in Fortinbras and Laertes, the other two sons with whom he repeatedly compares himself.

We should not, however, merely conclude that Hamlet's internal logic rejects equating the totality of what he is with an agent, but that he is also strongly drawn to this possibility. Perhaps it is the promise of certainty, the illusion of knowing through performance what one really is, what one truly feels, that charms Hamlet into recurring blindness. Hamlet is a man fluctuating between competing self-descriptions in an all-embracing vagueness. When no other way can stabilize a self-description when it is placed in doubt, performance becomes the route that promises verification. And yet, Hamlet's painful awareness of the gap between what is seen and what is, prevents him from maintaining this illusion for long (cf. Cavell).

To avoid actions that exhaustively determine what one becomes is to resist equating the self with an agent. Acting or, more specifically, a move from resolution to action is how such identification is established. Such identification is what Hamlet encounters in those around him, and it is what he wishes for himself. However, inexplicable, mysterious non-action permits the gap between the disclosable and the encapsulated to come into (or more accurately remain in) existence. The refusal to be disclosed stems from a vague awareness of the existence of “that within which passes show,” of a part in one's being, a “mystery” that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seek to “pluck out” (3.2.356). Hamlet's dying wish to “report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied” (5.2.344-45) exposes his own sense of his separateness from others, which is not merely his own subjective perspective, as all other characters interpret him falsely. No one knows the cause of his melancholy, if it is melancholy, and all the reasons they give for it—unsatisfied love for Ophelia (Polonius), his mother's hasty marriage (Gertrude), unfulfilled ambition (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and perhaps suspected by Claudius)—are partial at best.

However, while replacing wrong or incomplete descriptions of Hamlet with a correct one that Horatio is meant to posthumously produce can repair this estrangement, Hamlet's encapsulation seems to go much deeper. For Hamlet (and for Hamlet), disclosure is avoided not only by engaging in pretense or by deferring action but also more radically by altogether dismissing language. Recall that Hamlet's dying words are a request that his story be only “more and less” (5.2.362) related to Fortinbras. As for the rest—“the rest is silence” (5.2.363). What is not included in the necessarily vague description of events that Hamlet's “more and less” prescribes must remain outside dis-course. Such disbelief in linguistic disclosure is evident in Hamlet throughout, since it is precisely revealing himself through language, through words and more words, which he not only shuns but violently despises (2.2.578-82). Turning from Hamlet to Hamlet, we may observe not only the silence involved in the emplotted mystery but also that the very last moment in the play—the gunshot—is meaningful sound, which is supposed to “Speak loudly” (5.2.405) for Hamlet, according to Fortinbras, “but is yet a speaking,” which is crude sound and not elaborate language. By ending through non-discursive sound, the play, like Hamlet's last words, closes by moving outside linguistic expression.

Apart from pointing to Hamlet's hostility to the attempt to “pluck out” the heart of his mystery, the play articulates some of the subtleties of awareness of the limitations of contact that are involved in such a self-conceptualization. Hamlet's need to remain undisclosed is paradoxically—though perhaps typically of such drives—linked with an opposite desire to be internalized and perceived. It is in this light that we can read Hamlet's second line in the play. To the ironical sun/son ambivalence usually read into Hamlet's self-allusion of being “too much in the sun” (1.2.67), we may add that not only does being in the light of the sun symbolize knowing the truth but also that Hamlet's first words metaphorically position him in the most perceptible of locations. He wants to be seen. We may now see how the focus on corporeal penetration through the audal invoked by Shakespeare's use of acoustic imagery meets the self/performance encapsulation/disclosure dualities. Of all the characters in the play, Hamlet is the only one who uses the questioning idiom of “Do you hear?” during conversation (see: 2.2.519; 2.2.531; 3.2.62; 5.1.283). The preoccupation with success at achieving specifically audal contact implies both a fear of seclusion and a desire to be internalized through sound. However, what could have seemed to be an anticipation of Hegel's phenomenology of sound—sound as exposing one's “inner life”—cannot be the end of things for Hamlet. His disrespect for language and the distrust of linguistic expression turns acoustics into no more than an approximation. Contact remains a fantasy, and the heart of his mystery must remain silenced. But, although an aspect of Hamlet's self cannot be contacted, he still tries to reach and affect another's. This is conveyed by another aspect of audal imagery: the preoccupation with violence done to ears.

Hamlet considers ill-spoken words concerning Horatio to be “violence” done to his ear and asks Horatio not to use such words (1.2.170-71). He is jealous of the player who could “cleave the general ear” with horrid speech (2.2.557), and it offends him to hear a player “split the ear” of the groundlings who are capable of nothing (3.2.10-11). Criticizing Laertes's exaggerated bemoaning of Ophelia, Hamlet echoes the arresting of motion by sound in the Pyrrhus and Priam story, and asks “whose phrase of sorrow / Conjures the wand'ring stars and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers?” (5.1.248-50). It is violence to his mother's ears that he sets out to perform by “speaking daggers to her ears,” an achievement that is confirmed by Gertrude almost word for word (3.4.95).

There are connections between these metaphorical appeals to acoustical injury, and the violent ways in which the various Renaissance tracts surveyed earlier portray the transformation of the mental through sound (“inflecting,” “reshaping,” “striking,” “altering,” “insinuating,” “seizing,” “claiming as its own”). Beside these links, Hamlet's obsession with the theme of verbal violence done to the ear (cleaving, splitting, stabbing, wounding) opposes perverse and non-perverse modes of penetration. From the moment that the psychic effects of language are metaphorically and synecdochically referred to through constructions that literally designate physical disruption done to the organs of sound, the seemingly safe, naturally allowed entrance of language through the ear gains sinister overtones. The tropical violence done to ears signifies disrupting change that centres not only on the personality in general but also on the specific aspects of it that permit receptivity. Speaking daggers in Gertrude's ear, metaphorical destruction of acoustical entrance, parallels Hamlet's request of his mother, in the same speech, to avoid the corporeal receptivity involved in sexual relations (3.4.167-69).

The wish to alter the other through the audal, along with the anxiety of separation revealed in the fear of not being heard, exposes ears as that through which a manifestation-transcending aspect of self paradoxically hopes to “appear.” However, for Hamlet, mere entrance is not enough. Hamlet seeks not only to penetrate Gertrude, the only character in the play that he does reach through audal infiltration, but also to metaphorically violate with acoustical daggers that through which he enters. To the many psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet's relations to his mother from Jones to Adelman, we may add that this is an inversion of the desire to enter a virgin: a wish to be the last.

Hamlet's talk with his mother—the most passionate moments in the play—is where all the themes I treat here join. The self-knowledge that Hamlet intends Gertrude to reach is assimilated with self-penetration, and this is done specifically through the senses. Let us set aside some of the connections between inwardness, penetration, and the female body that may be perceived in the scene (Maus 193). The conceptualization of the self in conflict as that in which one part seeks access to the other is the outcome of setting up a mirror to Gertrude, by exposing her to the outpouring of audal daggers that ultimately yield self-knowledge (cf. Hillman). Unlike Claudius, for whom reflective art—The Mousetrap—was sufficient for the purposes of active self-judgement, Gertrude's language consistently casts self-knowledge as the outcome of her being brought to that state by Hamlet. He is the one who turns her eyes inward. He is the one who “cleaves her heart in twain.” However, Hamlet turns Gertrude's process of self-knowledge into a co-operative rather than a passive enterprise. She is brought to a state of participation in what ends in the breaking of her heart.

The breaking of the heart via audal daggers is consistent with Aristotle's influential theory of perception. Sound, according to Aristotle's On the Parts of Animals, literally enters through the ear, is conveyed by the blood, and is heard in the heart, the organ responsible for all conscious sense perception (656a; 656b; 666). Several Renaissance authorities followed this conception. T. Wright acknowledges it as a possible account of hearing, though he did not accept it: “The third manner […] is this, that the very sound it seelfe […] which passeth thorow the eared and by them unto the heart, and there beateth and tickleth it in such sort, as it is moved with semblable passion.” Scaliger located sense perception in the heart since the spirits around the heart are supposed to take in the trembling motion of music and are stirred up. Helkiah Crooke followed up this account (Gouk 100-02).

The heart is posited as the target for audal penetration at the beginning of the scene (hoping that it would not be “proof and bulwark against sense” [3.4.38]). The use of language that challenges again and again the adequacy of Gertrude's senses (3.4.72-81), while at the same time itself piercing through the alleys and cavities of a sense, brings together the themes of acoustics and penetration with that of touch. Contact is anticipated by the grabbing of her arm (or by whatever action it is by which he forcefully prevents her from leaving). It is also anticipated by his references to her moving from detached naming (“You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife / And would it were not so, you are my mother” [3.4.14-15]) to the ironical (“good mother,” “lady” [27, 301) to the intimately passionate (“Mother” [146]) employed but twelve lines before the breaking of her heart.

The climactic cleaving of the heart—that is, contact—is the precise point where Hamlet moves to a demand for specific performance from Gertrude and to explicitly re-address her with the relations between performing and self. He asks Gertrude to refrain from sexual liaison with Claudius: “For use,” he tells her, “almost can change the stamp of nature” (3.4.170). That is to say, acting in the proposed way could come close (only close) to changing what she is.

The fact that the problematic relations between performance and self are brought up in the context in which the figurative play with the senses is at its most intense point in the play joins two concerns of this work into one. It is after the breaking up of the senses into their parts in Hamlet's speech that Gertrude is seen to be not only metaphorically blind but also literally blind to the re-appearance of the ghost. Ironically, it is she, who thinks that “all that is I see” (3.4.133), who continually mistakes appearances for reality, that turns out to be the one person who does not see what Hamlet, as well as the audience and previous characters, have all seen. This blindness is even more noteworthy since she is repeatedly alluded to in the play through references to her sight. Claudius, who incidentally is compared in this scene to “a mildew'd ear,” always refers to Gertrude through notions of sight and never through those of sound (3.1.32, 5.1.291, 5.1.293, 5.2.314). The significance of this should not be overlooked, since Claudius is meticulous in his distribution of words about the senses. To Laertes, he always uses metaphors of sound and never sight (4.5.94, 4.5.202, 4.7.3, 4.7.33, 4.7.40).

It is after the discovery of Gertrude's blindness that Hamlet demands specific performance from her. No longer occupied with his own insulation, he still senses a part of her that resists his moralizing (3.4.146-157). And so he would mold her into bearable (for him) action rather than cope with that which passes show in her. It is thus that both of them resist maintaining the fleeting moment of contact. To Hamlet's distinction between “use” and “nature” (performance/self), Gertrude's response is “What shall I do?” (3.4.183). Rather than look upon the black spots in her soul, her own “that within,” she wants and can understand action (“What wilt thou do?” [20], “O me, what hast thou done?” [24], “What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?” (38-39], “What act / That roars so loud and thunders in the index?” [51-52]). But it is her final words in the scene, her exaggerated metaphorical reference to being killed by Hamlet's words (“if words be made of breath, and breath of life, I have no life to breathe what thou hast said to me” [199-201]), that imply a change. What begins by this numb queen's complaining of Hamlet's accusation as being audal overexposure—of the “noise” he makes (39) or by asking what act it is that he blames her with that “roars so loud in the index” (52)—ends with metaphorical non-being, with a retreat from the desire to maintain a self-conceptualization after what Hamlet has said. She realizes that, now, nothing can be done. And placing her in a position in which she can be rather than do—moan, rather than transform grief into action that makes up a life that supposedly must go on—is Hamlet's small victory.

The more abstract concerns that underlie the play are that self-exposure and communication require an assent to partiality. We become an object of reference through being reduced to our manifestation as performing agents. Trying to remain undisclosed, doing nothing, is the attempt to resist this reduction. Hamlet is a play about such an attempt. The reasons underlying the resistance escape the person involved and, the play suggests, must escape him because of what he takes to be the essential defects of language. Words reduce the self to a collection of descriptions that supposedly capture and stabilize what one is, thereby enabling reference, signification, and evaluation.

In terms of the philosophy-literature links, if Shakespeare was in fact a “philosopher” interested in communicating through systematic presentation some of the broader aspects that might support an alleged resistance to being disclosed, there is a point at which he would have necessarily failed. The descriptive language of systematic presentation—conceptual truth-claims and argumentation—can refer to passing-show aspects only through referring to them negatively (think of the via negativa tradition in theological contexts). But it is when one tries to say what a non-disclosed aspect of self is, as opposed to asserting what it is not, that one is reduced either to silence or to the language of approximations (both options, as we have seen, are employed in this play). It is at this point that we can easily fall into the usual philosophical violence of eliminating what we are unable to reduce to our modes of description.

One could ask about the truth of such a model, whether there really are undisclosable parts of self. But with reference to the links between philosophy and literature, I think what is important is not so much this (whether there really are undisclosable parts of self), but rather what is involved in attempting to communicate a belief in such a model. We should recognize that as far as such communicating goes, there is a point at which a certain model of self may only be sensed. “Sensing” is, of course, a slippery notion. Attempting to say what is sensed through a systematic discourse seems to necessitate dropping the claim for its alleged ineffability in relation to that discourse. There are, however, avenues through which one may become strongly aware of alternatives without being directly told what they are. The literary work's ability to construct a cognitive experience is such a route. By compelling readers to project their predisposed conceptions of subjectivity and agency, literary works enable us to read not only “the work” narrowly conceived but also the conceptual structures and the emotional dispositions that determine our own thinking. The distance achieved by such repositioning allows for freedom in “sensing” alternative schemes, ones that can never be fully brought to the surface and must remain opaque.

I have been arguing that what Hamlet reflects—and a play's purpose, Hamlet says, is always to reflect (3.2.20-25)—to those who recognize in it a problem of delay is an embodiment of a part of the self that has nothing to do with agency. This is how delay is not explained away but, rather, explained as such. By creating an experience that complicates the move from resolution to action, the play sets in motion a fascinating parallelism between the fictional occurrences that it depicts and real response. Hamlet explicitly commits himself to the idea of not merely a secretive but of an ineffable, passing-show aspect of subjectivity in the first lines he utters. And the existence of such an aspect is the possibility that the audience is invited to contemplate through their own experience of the play.

While several writers on the relations between literature and philosophy have invoked the idea of reader experience, Hamlet enables replacing this too-general construction with a specific pattern. In Hamlet, such a pattern involves a particular projection that is being manipulated in a subtle way. More specifically, since a repeated response to this play is the attempt to remotivate Hamlet's procrastination instead of seeing unjustified inaction as the aspect to be explained, we can isolate a play/audience relationship that frustrates certain explanatory dispositions. The existence of an inexpressible drive that blunts Hamlet's purpose, the fact that nothing in Hamlet or in Hamlet sufficiently explains it, means that this play cannot be penetrated through identifying the self with an agent. Positioning the audience or the reader in such an aporetic stance lets them experience the breakdown of a self-conception. This led Thomas Hanmer and T. S. Eliot to find an aesthetic fault in the play. More fruitfully, one could see here the reduction to impotence of a basic conceptualization that, like Gertrude, we readily (if not automatically) employ.

Looking back to the chain of explanations for delay and their consecutive refutations, one can almost envision Shakespeare purposely planning textual time bombs to explode as soon as the need to disprove an explanation arose. Whether the explanation offered is that Hamlet is overly intellectual, lacks opportunities to kill Claudius, or does not know what he wants, the textual evidence that refute it are all there. He is not a coward. He does not lack opportunity. Even though he is an intellectual, in deep shock, and a doubter, he is not ineffectual. What does seem to unequivocally manifest itself through the terminology of the secondary literature—“the problem of delay,” “the problem of problems,” “mystery”—is that a certain mode of relating to people is brought to collapse through the rhetorical operations of this play.

In this failure, Hamlet's inability to explain himself to himself enables the fictional domain to reflect a real-life response to it. We can now unpack the literature-as-reading-us metaphor through which literature and self-knowledge are often linked, into a detailed claim. Through structuring a response in which one experiences the disappointment of non-penetration, this work positions the reader in a similar cognitive and emotive stance as the one articulated by its leading character in his opening lines. Shakespeare presents Hamlet both as an uncontacted man and as one who understands the limitations of communication. However, this is merely a philosophical position, stemming from an awareness of an unbridgeable gap between some dimensions of self and the possibilities of disclosure. The strength of this work is that the attentive reader is not only told something about the limitations of contact but also made to experience them.

Works Cited

Anderson, M. “Hamlet: The Dialectic between Eye and Ear.” Renaissance and Reformation 27.4 (1991): 299-313.

Aristotle. On the Parts of Animals. Trans. A. I. Peck. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1937.

Ayer, Aj. Language, Truth, and Logic. London: V. Gollancz, 1936.

Bacon, Francis. Sylva Sylvarum. Works. Ed. J. Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath. London: 1857.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Fundamentals of Music. Bk. 1. Trans. Calvin M. Bower. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Brooks, C. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947.

Burnett, C., M. Fend, and P. Gouk. The Second Sense: Studies in Hearing and Musical Judgment from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century. London: Warburg Institute, 1991.

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

Cavell, S. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Crombie, A. C. Science, Optics and Music in Medieval and Early Modern Thought. London: Hambledon, 1990.

Curtler, H. M. “Does Philosophy Need Literature?” Philosophy and Literature 2.1 (1978): 111-16.

De Man, P. “The Epistemology of Metaphor.” Critical Inquiry 5.1 (1978): 13-30.

Derrida, J. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Exeter, UK: Harvester, 1982.

Duska, R. “Philosophy, Literature, and the Value of the Good Life.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 15 (1980): 181-88.

Febvre, L. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais. Trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Ferry, A. The “Inward” Language: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Gouk, P. “Some English Theories of Hearing in the Seventeenth Century: Before and After Descartes.” The Second Sense: Studies in Hearing and Musical Judgment from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century. By C. Burnett, M. Fend, and P. Gouk. London: Warburg Institute, 1991. 95-114.

Greenblatt, S. Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. London: Routledge, 1990.

Hillman, D. “Visceral Knowledge.” The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe. Ed. D. Hillman and C. Mazzio. London: Routledge, 1997.81-106.

Holland, N. “The Dumb-Show Revisited.” Notes and Queries (1958): n.p.

Iser, W. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Kalin, J. “How Wide the Gulf?” Philosophy and Literature 2.1 (1978): 116-23.

Kuhns, R. Structures of Experience: Essays on the Affinity between Philosophy and Literature. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Lakoff, G., and M. Turner. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Maus, K. E. Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Nussbaum, M. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

———. “Emotions as Judgements of Value and Importance.” Relativism, Suffering and Beyond: Essays in Memory of Bimal K. Matilal. Ed. P. Bilimoria and J. N. Mohanty. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1997. 231-51.

Palmer, F. Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Perelman, C. The Realm of Rhetoric. Trans. W. Kluback. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1982.

Richards, L. A. Science and Poetry. New York: Norton, 1926.

Rorty, R. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Arden edition. Ed. Harold Jenkins. Rpt. Surrey, UK: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

Stevenson, C. L. Ethics and Language. New Haven: Yale UP, 1944.

Tomlinson, G. Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Walker, D. P. “Ficino's Spiritus and Music.” Music, Spirit and Language in the Renaissance. Ed. P. Gouk. London: Variorum Reprints, 1985. 129-50.

Zamir, T. “Seeing Truths.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 15 (spring 1998): 80-87.

———. “The Face of Truth.” Metaphilosophy 30.1/2 (1999): 79-94.

———. ‘Upon One Bank and Shoal of Time.” New Literary History 31.3 (2000): 529-51.

———. “Mature Love: A Reading of Antony and Cleopatra.” Literature and Aesthetics 11 (2001):119-48.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Andreas, James R. “The Vulgar and the Polite: Dialogue in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 9-23.

Examines how the vulgar (language of the people) and the polite (language of politics) are used against one another in Hamlet. Andreas demonstrates that the polite language used by Claudius is duplicitous, while Prince Hamlet uses the straightforward language of the people to disconcert and expose Claudius and his retinue.

Cary, Louise D. “Hamlet Recycled, or the Tragical History of the Prince's Prints.” ELH 61, no. 4 (winter 1994): 783-805.

Warns against correcting apparent inconsistencies and errors in the text of Hamlet on the basis that those so-called errors may in fact have been intentionally made by Shakespeare.

Fendt, Gene. “Is Hamlet a Christian Tragedy?” In Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? pp. 161-78. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999.

Argues that Hamlet has a Christian basis, which surfaces as soon as Prince Hamlet speaks to what appears to be the ghost of his father.

Grady, Hugh. “Conclusion: Hamlet and the Tragedy of the Subject.” In Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, pp. 243-65. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Contends that in Hamlet Shakespeare attempted to break away from the Machiavellian form of politics that he had depicted in many of his earlier plays.

Hardy, John. “Hamlet's ‘Modesty of Nature.’” Hamlet Studies 16, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1994): 42-56.

Maintains that what makes Prince Hamlet such a memorable character is his “unpretentiousness” as well as his sincere attempt to seek the truth.

Jenkins, Harold. “Hamlet and Ophelia.” In Structural Problems in Shakespeare: Lectures and Essays by Harold Jenkins, edited by Ernst Honigmann, pp. 137-55. London: Thomson Learning, 2001.

Examines the “nunnery scene” in Hamlet.

Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller, and James Hulbert. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.Yale French Studies nos. 55/56 (1977): 11-52.

Deconstructs Hamlet from a psychoanalytical standpoint.

Lamont, Rosette. “The Hamlet Myth.” Yale French Studies no. 33 (1964): 80-91.

Describes Prince Hamlet as an early modern hero whose mythical stature transcends the boundaries of the play.

Levy, Eric P. “The Mind of Man in Hamlet.Renascence 54, no. 4 (summer 2002): 219-33.

Suggests that Hamlet's identity evolves during the course of the play, and that this evolution reflects the growth of the rational mind of the human animal.

O'Meara, John. “Sexuality.” In Otherworldly Hamlet: Four Essays, pp. 45-61. Montreal: Guernica Editions, Inc., 1991.

Examines Hamlet's apparent sexual disgust with his mother's remarriage to Claudius.

Rainer, Peter. “Get Thee to Moomba.” New York 33, no. 20 (22 May 2000): 88, 90.

Reviews Michael Almereyda's 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet and asserts that Almereyda's focus on Hamlet's similarities to the world of corporate New York occurs at the expense of the play's other themes.

Rosenberg, Marvin. “Claudius.” In The Masks of Hamlet, pp. 47-69. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Analyzes the character of Claudius in a variety of stage performances and contends that Claudius should be played as a “mighty opposite” to Prince Hamlet.

Stevens, Martin. “Hamlet and the Pirates: A Critical Reconsideration.” Shakespeare Quarterly 26, no. 3 (summer 1975): 276-84.

Argues that Hamlet's rescue by the pirates was not accidental but was planned by Prince Hamlet himself.

R. A. Foakes (essay date 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “Hamlet's Neglect of Revenge.” In Hamlet: New Critical Essays, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 85-99. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Foakes argues that Hamlet is not a revenge tragedy but a play about whether or not violence is an acceptable choice in a world caught between the ancient heroic code of retaliation and the Christian commandments that reject it.]

Hamlet has commonly been regarded as a revenge tragedy, its early impact being marked by works that capitalized on its success, like John Marston's Antonio's Revenge and the anonymous Revenger's Tragedy, possibly written by Thomas Middleton. In the twentieth century, critics from A. C. Bradley, writing in 1904, to the editors of the three editions that appeared in the 1980s, all have had much to say about Hamlet's “task” or “duty” to carry out his revenge. Hamlet could be seen as having to deal with “the predicament, quite simply, of a man in mourning for his father, whose murder he is called on to avenge” (Jenkins 126). Hence a central concern for many critics has been the question of why Hamlet delays or avoids taking his revenge on Claudius. He might be seen as pathologically disabled by his speculative intellect and sensitivity in a world of action, handicapped by weakness of character (Dover Wilson), tainted by a “fatal aestheticism” (Nevo 162), or inhibited by the inescapable condition of man (Mack); in any case, and for whatever reason, he has been regarded as a failure in his “evasion of the task imposed on him” (Dodsworth 297). All such accounts of the play have taken for granted that the play's central concern is the need for Hamlet to carry out the Ghost's demand for revenge, and his inability to act has been related to the condition of “Hamletism,” a condition that seemed to define the disillusion, cynicism, or despair that marked a century in which two world wars were fought, and in which the new-media technologies of the film and television made all too familiar the horrors of Nazi gas chambers, of atomic bombs, and of the resurgence of genocide.

Yet, as John Kerrigan observes, “Hamlet never promises to revenge, only to remember” (126)1—that is, to remember the Ghost, and to memorize his “commandment” (1.5.102). On reflection, Hamlet reasonably resists the demand for revenge by a questionable Ghost that appears strangely in armor, and that may come from the hell symbolized by his voice from the “cellarage” under the stage. Hamlet later identifies revenge with the figure of Pyrrhus taking vengeance for the death of Achilles by “mincing” the limbs of Priam—this is the horrid image that appalls Hamlet (2.2.513-14). Indeed, revenge is not the dominant concern in Hamlet, as comparison with The Revenger's Tragedy shows. This play adapts to new uses one of the property skulls thrown about in the gravedigger scene in Hamlet first by displaying it as an emblem of murder and of revenge to come, and then as a means of poisoning the Duke in a kiss. From the opening moment, the action is thus determined by Vindice's cry:

Vengeance, thou murder's quit-rent, and whereby
Thou show'st thyself tenant to Tragedy,
O, keep thy day, hour, minute, I beseech,
For those thou hast determined!


The play looks ahead to vengeance being “paid” as a requital for murder, not only for the rape and murder of Gloriana by the Duke, but for the rape and Lucretia-like suicide of Antonio's wife, a “religious lady” (1.1.111), by the Duchess's youngest son. Most of the male characters in the play are caught up in a desire for revenge of some kind, since the law, as administered by the Duke, is corrupt, and the first act ends with a group swearing on their swords to revenge the death of Antonio's wife if “Judgment speak all in gold” (1.4.61). Vindice claims a high moral ground in his missionary zeal to “blast this villainous dukedom vexed with sin” (5.2.6), but his long obsession with obtaining revenge contaminates him, so that he is shown taking increasing pleasure in torture and murder. He becomes morally indistinguishable from other revengers in the masque of four revengers followed by “the other masque of intended murderers” in act 5, where all look alike and could substitute for one another. The play closes on a Christian moral pattern in which all of the guilty, including Vindice and his brother Hippolito, meet with retribution finally, so that Antonio is left in charge at the end, and can cry “Just is the law above!” But the action throughout is also self-consciously theatrical, as Vindice contrives plots and stages his own scenarios and plays within the play.

In so doing, Vindice often includes the audience in his denunciations of luxury, wealth, ambition, and lust, so that the unnamed court in the play may reflect the licentiousness and corruption perceived by spectators as present at the court of James I and in Jacobean London. The opening scene looks ahead to the completion of revenges, and the action presses forward, stressing the present tense. “Now” is the most frequently occurring adverb in the play, giving a sense of urgency as well as a sense of immediate relevance to the world of the audience (McMillin 282-3):

Now 'tis full sea abed over the world;
There's juggling of all sides. Some that were maids
E'en at sunset are now perhaps i' th' toll-book.
This woman in immodest thin apparel
Lets in her friend by water; here's a dame,
Cunning, nails leather hinges to a door
To avoid proclamation; now cuckolds are
A-coining, apace, apace, apace …


The play thus speaks home to a London audience through images such as that of the woman letting in her friend by water (the Thames?), and by various forms of direct address. The Italianate setting permits the audience to associate the depiction of intrigue, lust, and murder with a foreign country, but at the same time to enjoy the frisson of recognizing satirical relevances to their own city and court. As in Hamlet, the protagonist is something of a misogynist, for whom women may represent an ideal of virtue, as embodied in his sister, Castiza (signifying Chastity), but more commonly are seen as a source of corruption, of the wealth and sex that fascinated people then as now: “were't not for gold and women, there would be no damnation” (2.1.257).

The opening of this play, which has no ghost, is dominated by the displayed skull of a victim of murder, whereas in Hamlet, by contrast, the early scenes are dominated by the Ghost, and Yorick's skull, handled by Hamlet, is seen only in act 5, where it recalls the Ghost in serving as a reminder of the past, a remembrance of Hamlet's childhood. In The Revenger's Tragedy, most of the characters are engaged in a feverish pursuit of pleasure, sex and power,

Banquets abroad by torchlight, music, sports,
Bare-headed vassals that had ne'er the fortune
To keep their own hats on, but let horns wear 'em;
“Nine coaches waiting,—hurry, hurry, hurry!”


When Vindice broods on his world as he contemplates the skull of Gloriana again in act 3, he questions this pursuit of luxury and pleasure, seeing the court as absurdist and the people in it as mad:

Surely we are all mad people, and they
Whom we think are, are not …


He is right to include himself, and yet he speaks as the one rational character who is capable of reflecting on the conduct of others, and who is therefore able to manipulate them and control events. In Shakespeare's play the situation is reversed, as Hamlet himself feels estranged to the point of madness in a court that is going about its orderly business as usual. These differences relate to a more fundamental dissimilarity between the plays, for Hamlet is not in control, but rather is being watched and monitored in a court run with some efficiency by Claudius. Hamlet thinks of himself as subject to the whims of unstable Fortune, or assaulted by her “slings and arrows,” which tend to disable the “discourse of reason.”2 As noted earlier, his neglect of revenge has troubled many interpreters of the play, who tend to see Hamlet as “a man with a deed to do who for the most part conspicuously fails to do it” (Jenkins 139-40, Foakes 35-40). Hence the long tradition of regarding Hamlet as irresolute, paralyzed in will, unhealthy, morbid, neurotic, a dreamer who appears a very disturbing figure in the context of Western ideologies that value men of decision and action who are ready to do their duty. It should not surprise that many actresses have taken on the role, and that Hamlet has been appropriated critically as “sensitive, intellectual, and feminine” (French 158, Foakes 24-6, Thompson and Taylor 42-50).

The idea that Hamlet fails to carry out an appointed task or duty is based on his encounter with the Ghost of his father in act 1, and our understanding of this encounter relates to the presentation of the Ghost in the opening scene. There the Ghost appears as a “warlike form,” in “the very armor he had on / When he the ambitious Norway combated,” according to Horatio, who speaks as if he had witnessed the battle with his own eyes. Not until near the end of the play does it emerge that the old King fought old Fortinbras thirty years previously, on the very day Hamlet was born (5.1.147), so that Horatio, his fellow-student, and presumably about the same age as Hamlet, cannot have seen old Hamlet at that time. This inconsistency is not noticed in performance, nor often in reading, and seems designed to establish an image of old Hamlet as a warrior king. Shakespeare had recently worked on Julius Caesar, which could have influenced his use of classical names in Hamlet, such as Horatio, Marcellus, Claudius, and Laertes, and also his references to Caesar and the classical deities, but this classical contextualization goes deeper. In the Quarto, Horatio recalls in this scene the apparitions that preceded the fall of Julius Caesar in “the most high and palmy state of Rome,” thereby associating old Hamlet directly with ancient Rome, but these lines were omitted from the Folio, possibly cut in performance because they do not advance the action, or alternatively because they mislead by suggesting the Ghost is merely a portent of disasters to come. However, the passage shows how Shakespeare's mind was working to create a complex idea of the Ghost. He is represented as not only a sort of epic figure, at once associated with ancient history, with old battles fought against Norway, and with heroic values, but also as someone known to Horatio, and connected to a present moment when it seems that history may repeat itself in an invasion of Denmark by young Fortinbras.

The Ghost probably startled the first audience to see Hamlet staged by its appearance in armor—the only ghost in early modern English drama to be so costumed (Prosser 120, 255). With his “martial stalk” he seems to emerge from an ancient time when fighting was the normal way to conduct affairs, and this “portentous figure,” as he is called by Barnardo, is linked by Horatio with the portents and ghosts or “sheeted dead” that squeaked and gibbered in the streets of Rome before the assassination of Julius Caesar (1.1.113-25). Yet he is also old Hamlet to the life, so that Horatio reports to Hamlet, “I think I saw him yesternight” (1.2.189), his beard grizzled “as I have seen it in his life” (1.2.240). By this time, Hamlet has already, in his “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt” soliloquy, compared his father with Hyperion the sun-god and with Hercules (1.2.140, 153), so enhancing his association with the classical world. The Ghost who interviews Hamlet late in act 1 in effect becomes the living man again, gesturing, passionate, bearded, armed, and carrying his marshal's truncheon, an actor visibly turning into Hamlet's father when he begins to speak. He carries the authority not only of a “supernatural being, King and father” (Hibbard 185), but also of the martial heroes of the classical world. But Hamlet has responded to the appearance of the Ghost with his cry,

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.


All those forms of authority are thus put in question in relation to a Christian pattern of values, and the Ghost is “questionable” not only as inviting question, but also as doubtful, of uncertain origin.3 Furthermore, the Ghost's first words suggest he has come from Hell (“sulphurous and tormenting flames”) or Purgatory (where his “foul crimes” are to be “burnt and purged away”),4 and his intents appear to be wicked rather than charitable. When he addresses Hamlet directly, he speaks in the voice of a Senecan revenger, invoking classical values again in calling on Hamlet to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25).

Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings
As swift as meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep to my revenge.


Hamlet's immediate reaction to the Ghost's words is often taken as signifying an acceptance of a duty to revenge: “He now also has his directive, a commission that is also a mission. His reaction to the Ghost is like a religious conversion” (Edwards 39, 45). Hamlet's first response, however, is spoken in the context of the Ghost's Christian qualification of his Senecan call for revenge: in condemning murder as “most foul” at the best, he thus exhorts Hamlet to kill his murderer and at the same time denounces the idea of revenge killing (Alexander 45-46).

As the Ghost continues with his long account of Gertrude transferring her affections to Claudius, and of Claudius poisoning him, his emphasis is on the sinful nature of these events and on the horrible effects of the poison on his body. The Ghost is troubled with a moral disgust on the one hand, and a physical revulsion on the other, and the two meet in his sermonizing about Gertrude's behavior:

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


The moral and physical disgust associated with lust and garbage is seen also in the Ghost's horror both at the appearance of his body, covered by the poison with a “loathsome crust,” and at being denied the sacraments at his death. This talking Ghost becomes flesh, a living actor, in his anxiety about what happened to his body, and in his outrage at the idea that the “royal bed of Denmark” should become “[a] couch for luxury and damned incest” (1.5.83). The Ghost's moral outrage, expressed in Christian terms, echoes that expressed by Hamlet in his first soliloquy in 1.2, who, like his father, thinks of the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous (1.2.157); the Ghost adds adultery as a further charge (1.5.41). Both also have a kind of voyeuristic horror in imagining what goes on in the “incestuous sheets” of the “royal bed.”

In the Ghost's long narrative the idea of revenge becomes diluted, and almost lost, especially as he ends by telling Hamlet to leave his mother to her conscience and to heaven. His final imperative is “Remember me,” and this is what catches Hamlet's attention:

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


Hamlet indeed dwells above all on remembering the Ghost, and wiping away all other records he has kept in the notebook of his memory. But what does he mean by the “commandment” he wants to register there? The Ghost's imperatives have shifted from “Revenge” (25) through “bear it not” (81) and “Taint not thy mind” (85) to “Remember me” (91). The word “commandment” incorporates “command,” appropriate to a figure appearing as a great warrior and wielding a marshal's truncheon, and this is how Hamlet recalls this moment later in 3.4, when he expects the Ghost, appearing for the third time, to chide him for neglecting to carry out his “dread command.” In 1.5, however, “commandment” had a much more immediate sense for Shakespeare and his audience, one derived from its use in the Bible, specifically in relation to the ten commandments given by God to Moses, which were by law inscribed or hung on the walls of parish churches in England. Prominent among them is the injunction, “Thou shalt not kill,”5 so that the term in itself contains the contradictory impulses that characterize both the Ghost and Hamlet, namely a quasi-Senecan desire for revenge, and a Christian inhibition against taking life.

In his study Pagan Virtue, John Casey argues that “we inherit a confused system of values; that when we think most rigorously and realistically we are ‘pagans’ in ethics, but that our Christian inheritance only allows a fitful sincerity about this” (Casey 225-6). He observes that our society admires qualities derived from the ancient Greeks and Romans, what he calls the “irascible” virtues, “pride and shame, a sense of the noble, a certain valuing of courage and ambition,” as against compassion, meekness, pity, and love, qualities that we associate with Christ. He thinks King Lear shows that Shakespeare was confused, that the play “uncomfortably combines, without reconciling, ‘pagan’ and Christian elements” (Casey 212, 225). I think what Hamlet demonstrates is that Shakespeare was fully aware of the differences between these inherited sets of values and used them in establishing the character and dilemma of his protagonist. Hamlet sees his father in ideal terms, associating him with classical deities and heroes, Hyperion, Jupiter, Mercury, and Hercules. Old Hamlet is established for us in the opening scene by Horatio as a warrior who challenged old Fortinbras to single combat and killed him, and Hamlet's remarks about his father confirm this image of a hero from the past, possessing “An eye like Mars to threaten and command” (3.4.57). Old Hamlet represents martial honor, is associated with the irascible virtues, and is distanced into something of a mythical figure—doubly distanced in the past history of Denmark, and by association with the classical world.

Hamlet is represented as a student, whose training in the classics is reflected in his language, in his image of his father, and in other ways, as when he invites the players to rehearse a speech describing the death of Priam based on the Aeneid. For Hamlet, his father is measured against the heroes of the Trojan war. In challenging old Fortinbras, old Hamlet behaved like the heroes of the Iliad, making courage a prime virtue, and courting death in war: “[I]n heroic societies life is the standard of value. If someone kills you, my friend or brother, I owe you their death and when I have paid my debt to you their friend or brother owes them my death” (MacIntyre 117). In that simpler world of masculine values, revenge could be seen as a virtuous act, but this is not the world invoked in the Player's speech narrating the revenge taken for the death of his father Achilles by Pyrrhus, whose “roused vengeance” drives him to butcher the old king, “mincing” his limbs in full view of Queen Hecuba. The speech brings out the full horror of what Pyrrhus does, insuring that, in spite of the classical imagery, and the attribution of blame to Fortune, as though it is Priam's bad luck to suffer thus, the “hellish” (2.2.463) deed of the black and bloody murderer is condemned.

Hearing this speech prompts Hamlet to a tirade against himself, first for not having spoken out, like the player, and then for doing nothing but unpacking his heart with words. He does not threaten direct action against Claudius,6 and slides from cursing into reflection; though “prompted” to revenge, as for the moment he claims, “by heaven and hell” (2.2.584), he goes on to question whether the Ghost may be “a devil” tempting him to damnation. So he shifts from a heroic stance applauding the idea of revenge to a Christian anxiety about the nature of the Ghost, and ends by deciding to try to “catch the conscience of the king,” using the New Testament term that specifically signifies a consciousness of sin, and might suggest that Hamlet relates Claudius to those sinners who condemned the woman taken in adultery and were “convicted by their own conscience” (John, 8.9).

Hamlet's shift from Thyestean revenge to Christian conscience parallels the Ghost's turn away from his demand for revenge to his call to Hamlet to leave Gertrude to her conscience. The Ghost does not represent the simple heroic warrior Hamlet imagines, but a more complex figure who defines virtue not in terms of a heroic code but in relation to lust. In the Iliad, women are taken by the victors in battle as spoils of war, but the Christian morality that the Ghost preaches is focused on sexual relations, and he is especially outraged by thoughts of incest and adultery, as if he has in mind Christ's sermon on the mount, “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5.28). The Ghost's concern here in 1.5 in turn echoes Hamlet's thought in his first soliloquy, where he, too, is already tainted in his mind by his disgust with sullied flesh, and by his mother's marriage to Claudius. Indeed, he begins by rejecting suicide because “the Everlasting” has “fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.131-2), apparently recalling the sixth of the ten commandments, “Thou shalt not kill.” When Hamlet modulates in his “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy from cursing and shouting for vengeance into worrying that the Ghost may be a devil, he again seems trapped in the conflict between the heroic ethos exemplified for him by the image he has of his father, and the Christian values the Ghost and he also share, and which are assumed as a common frame of reference by the other characters.

Hamlet takes the performance of The Mousetrap as causing Claudius, “frighted with false fire,” to reveal his guilt when he suddenly calls for lights and leaves the stage, though it may well be, as Guildenstern reports, that Claudius is angered and frightened by something else: He has heard Hamlet identify the murderer in the play as “nephew to the king” (3.2.244),—pointing threateningly to himself as a potential murderer of his uncle. However that may be, Hamlet seems prepared to act in “the witching time of night” (3.2.358) as he goes to “speak daggers” (3.2.365) to his mother and encounters Claudius at prayer. Claudius has just admitted to the audience his offense in a reference to the first murderer, Cain:

It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t,
A brother's murder.


Inevitably, it seems, Hamlet is inhibited from carrying out a murder that would be analogous, the killing of a blood relative, now that he has the perfect opportunity. It is, of course, ironic that his chance comes when Claudius is kneeling, as if he were a silent embodiment of contrition, so that Hamlet is stymied by the thought that his uncle might go to heaven rather than to hell if he is killed while praying. Whenever Hamlet reflects upon revenge, he cannot carry it out because the very idea clashes with his awareness of biblical injunctions against taking life.

What happens when Hamlet comes into the presence of his mother in 3.4 is therefore crucial in the action of the play. He forces her to sit down, physically handling her in a way that makes her cry out, fearing he may murder her, and in response to her shout, “Help, ho!,” a voice is heard from behind an arras or curtain, “What ho! Help!” Hamlet does not identify the voice, but draws his sword and stabs it through the curtain.

It is the first time he has not paused to reflect, and his act seems spontaneous. When Gertrude asks what he has done, he replies, “Nay, I know not. Is it the King?” Hamlet has worked himself up in preparation for the “bitter business” of his verbal attack on his mother, and, concentrating with all his force on the harsh things he has to say to her, he cannot bear to be interrupted. His reaction to the discovery that he has killed Polonius is callous, since all his attention is concentrated on forcing Gertrude to share his disgust with her marriage to Claudius, and persuading her to forego

                    the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty.


She has risen to see what Hamlet has done, as he presumably draws the arras and reveals the body, and, bidding a quick farewell to Polonius as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” he turns back to her, once again making her sit down and listen to him. What has he done? It is not premeditated murder, or a crime passionel, since his passion is directed against his mother in the scene, and he does not know whom he has stabbed. It is not an accident, though there is an accidental aspect to the deed in that stabbing blindly through an arras might merely wound rather than kill. Hamlet hopes he may have killed the King, but really has no idea who is hiding. One might argue that he transfers his anger with his mother momentarily to the figure behind the arras, or that his frustration in passing up the chance to kill Claudius at prayer causes this sudden act of violence, but there is no adequate explanation for why Hamlet behaves as he does. His killing of Polonius is best thought of as a lashing out, a spontaneous act that may in some way release pent-up feelings and frustrations associated with his uncle, his mother, Ophelia, and the general state of affairs in Denmark, but it remains in the end inexplicable. It is a primal act of violence.7

Hamlet continues for about 150 lines to excoriate his mother in his anxiety to persuade her not to sleep with her present husband, Claudius, and ends by pleading,

                              Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg …


His words, with their generalizing stress on gross physicality in the overtones of “fatness” and “pursy” or flabby recall the Ghost's confidence in generalizing about his “virtue”:

                    But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.


Like his father's, Hamlet's “virtue” is focused in his horror at her sexual behavior, and, as if to pull him back from his obsession with sex, the Ghost returns, seen only by Hamlet, to whet his “blunted purpose,” and remind him of more important matters. In the first Quarto the stage direction calls for the Ghost to enter “in his night gown,” not in the armor he wore in act 1, as if the actor who played in this shortened version adapted his costume to a bedchamber, and there may have been deliberate irony in so clothing the Ghost when his words are more appropriate to a warlike figure, since they serve to remind Hamlet about revenge. Since the Queen does not see the Ghost, the audience may think it is a hallucination perceived only by Hamlet, confirming his eccentric behavior, which Gertrude regards as madness and so reports to Claudius in the next scene (4.1.7). The ironies are compounded in Hamlet's speeches, which are rational except for their obsessive concern with sex, which is morally disgusting to him in a way that the killing of Polonius is not. Polonius is dismissed and then forgotten for 120 lines, after which Hamlet rewrites what he has done by appointing himself as heaven's agent of punishment:

                                                                                                    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.


Here Hamlet abandons all of his earlier wrestlings with conscience and with the biblical injunction against killing. He casually pushes responsibility away from himself with no remorse, treating the corpse with a mocking detachment as he makes his exit, lugging “the guts into the neighbor room.” Has the body of Polonius, bloodied from the sword-thrust, been visible on stage throughout the scene? If so, it would serve as a reminder of the disparity between Hamlet's fixation on sex and his lack of concern about a man he has killed.

Hamlet has accused his mother of making “sweet religion” into a “rhapsody of words,” or meaningless medley, which is, ironically, what he now does himself by claiming to be the instrument of providence. Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet weeps for what he has done (4.1.27), but the Hamlet we see again in the following scenes seems unconcerned, as he puts on his antic disposition in mockingly talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then to the King about what he has done with the body of Polonius.

After his sudden act of violence his attitude to the idea of killing and death changes rapidly, the biblical commandments are forgotten, and he openly promises that Claudius will soon follow Polonius on his way to heaven or hell (4.3.35-37). At this point Hamlet is dispatched to England, and is offstage for about five hundred lines, while the action focuses on Ophelia and Laertes. When we see him again, in the graveyard scene, he is brooding over skulls on the leveling that death brings. He links the first skull thrown up by the Gravedigger to Cain: “How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that did the first murder” (5.1.76-77). Whereas Claudius sees himself as Cain committing a “brother's murder,” Hamlet refers only to the primal act of murder, something he repeated in killing Polonius. The scene points up his casual attitude to death since he stabbed through the arras, while also marking his acceptance of the idea of his own death and its insignificance in relation to that of Caesar or Alexander the Great. But then comes the great shock of discovering that Ophelia is dead, and he realizes that the gravediggers have been preparing for the burial of her body. This is the only death that moves him, not to a recognition that he might be to blame for her suicide, but rather to anger at the ostentatious grieving of Laertes: “the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a towering passion” (5.2.79-80).

Hamlet has no compunction about sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England (“They are not near my conscience,” 5.2.58, F only), and now accepts (also in lines found only in F) the idea of killing Claudius, “is't not perfect conscience, / To quit him with this arm?” (5.2.67-68). This passage from “To quit him …”(5.2.68-81) may have been omitted by accident or cut in performance because it makes Hamlet's intentions too explicit, but it is revealing, especially in the use of the word “conscience” in a sense that conflicts with biblical usage, as in 1 Timothy 1.5 (Geneva text): “the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned”—in biblical terms, it is not possible to kill with a good conscience.8 After he stabs Polonius, Hamlet increasingly displays a sardonic acceptance of the idea of death, and learns to distance himself from what he has done by claiming he is an agent of providence, and that his conscience is untroubled. By openly showing his hostility to Claudius, he has insured that sooner or later they will clash as “mighty opposites” (5.2.62), and he resigns himself to providence in the knowledge that death awaits him: “If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now” (5.2.220-22). What he has done has made him ready to accept his own death (“The readiness is all.”), but still not dedicated to revenge. It is only after he has his own death wound that he turns the poisoned weapon on Claudius, not in a plotted revenge, but in a spontaneous act of retaliation.

In neglecting his revenge, Hamlet is not “stifled by remembrance” (Kerrigan 186) so much as by his inheritance of conflicting classical and Christian values. The heroic code he associates with his father urges him to action, while the Christian code that is given lip-service in Claudius's Denmark condemns revenge and inhibits him from murder most foul. A ruler, however bad, may be God's “minister” in punishing the evil subjects do, according to St. Paul, as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13.4), and the people must accept this, “for conscience sake.”9 Hamlet is not the king, but he claims the prerogative of a ruler in the role of “scourge and minister” after killing Polonius. From this point on, he likes to associate his actions with Providence, whereas earlier he had seen himself as subject to Fortune, contrasting himself with Horatio, the embodiment of Senecan stoicism. As long as he contemplates the idea of revenge, Hamlet cannot sustain resolution, finding “conscience does make cowards of us all” (3.1.82), and it is his exploration of this issue that makes the “To be or not to be” soliloquy so central in the play.

Only in his last soliloquy, omitted from the Folio text, does he find in Fortinbras an inspiring warrior image resembling that of his father, marching off to fight a war merely for honor, who might prevent Hamlet from “thinking too precisely on the event” (4.4.41) if it were not that this encounter occurs as he is on his way to England; furthermore, this soliloquy is present only in Q2, not in the Folio or Q1, and was probably omitted in performance not only because it duplicates Hamlet's self-denunciation in his earlier soliloquy, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” without advancing the action, but also because the momentum of that action has already shifted toward a final showdown with Claudius consequent upon the killing of Polonius and the open hostility to the King shown by Hamlet. Another self-questioning soliloquy is unnecessary (Foakes 92-94). Fortinbras resembles old Hamlet as a warrior prince, but now he is not, as Horatio supposed in the opening scene, aiming to attack Denmark to recover lands old Hamlet fought to win, but setting off for Poland to fight for a worthless patch of ground in the name of honor.

Thus, insofar as Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, Laertes is the revenger figure, who, in Senecan fashion, is willing, unlike Hamlet, to reject “conscience” and “dare damnation” (4.5.133-34) to get his revenge for the death of his father, and cut Hamlet's throat in the church (4.7.126). He returns from France equipped with a deadly poison he can apply to a rapier (4.7.141), and proceeds to plot with Claudius a scenario that will insure the death of Hamlet. Laertes, of course, only finds out in 4.5 that his father has been killed, so the subplot of revenge is worked out swiftly, but in most respects Laertes from this point becomes a revenger like Vindice or Pyrrhus, and in his difference from Hamlet reveals something about the limitations of the revenge play. Revenge is a frequent motif in drama, but there are, in truth, few major revenge plays, since the basic plot offers limited possibilities of diversity. Revenge is always reactive, secondary, a response to some previous deed, and the most powerful tragedies develop from some primal act of violence.

Hamlet remains central in European and American culture as a work that continually challenges interpretation. Although commonly characterized as a revenge tragedy, a concern with the idea of revenge rarely figures in the way Hamlet has been characterized:

The Romantics freed Hamlet the character from the play into an independent existence as a figure embodying nobility, or at least good intentions, but disabled from action by a sense of inadequacy, or a diseased consciousness capable of seeing the world as possessed by things rank and gross in nature, and hence a failure. Hamletism gained currency as a term to describe not only individuals, but the failings of intellectuals, political parties, or nations, and so Hamlet was restored to the public arena to characterize the condition of Germany, or Europe, or the world, or the decline of aristocracy in the face of democracy. As the idea of Hamletism prospered, so it came to affect the way the play was seen, and the most widely accepted critical readings of it have for a long time presented us with a version of Shakespeare's play reinfected, so to speak, with the virus of Hamletism, and seen in its totality as a vision of failure in modern men or even in Man himself.

(Foakes 44)

Hamlet has often been extrapolated from the play as someone who reflects, hesitates, is inhibited from acting, or as one who is oppressed by a corrupt world in which action is useless. Such versions of the Prince ignore much that is in the play, but in focusing on action or inaction they are responding in some sense to a central issue in the play, which is not the matter of revenge, but rather the control or release of instinctual drives to violence. If the “How all occasions” lines are omitted, Hamlet's last major soliloquy is “To be or not to be,” a question that has immediately to do not with suicide, but with action:

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


To “take arms,” like his father, would mean to kill, which was accepted as part of a heroic code, but is rejected by Christian commandments. Hamlet is trapped in the contradictions between the two codes, which make him a great exponent of the problem of violence. There is no solution; having passed up a chance to revenge himself on Claudius and worked himself into a passionate state on his way to confront his mother, he spontaneously stabs through the arras to kill Polonius. This act is a rite of passage, and makes it easy for him to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, and to resign himself to his own. His initial act of violence changes his nature, so that he reconstructs himself as the agent of providence in punishing others. He needs to do so in order to live with what he has done. In exploring Hamlet's dilemma, the play probes deeply into the basic problem of human violence and the moral limits of action, and it is a misnomer to call it simply a revenge play.


  1. Neill, 251-61, finely analyzes the emotional and moral ambivalence of remembrance in the play in his treatment of Hamlet as a conventional revenger whose “dream of re-membering the violated past and destroying a tainted order is fulfilled only at the cost of repeating the violation and spreading the taint.”

  2. Frye, 113-21, shows how Fortune was opposed to prudence and wisdom in Shakespeare's age.

  3. The first use of the word in this latter sense recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1607, but Shakespeare surely had both meanings in mind here.

  4. The Ghost refers to purgatory and says he was denied the last rites (1.5.77), but these Catholic associations conflict with those of the Senecan revenger, and with the suggestions of hell when the Ghost is heard like a pioneer or miner beneath the stage. Hamlet is understandably confused, but his first reaction is arguably Protestant, as limited to earth, heaven, and hell: “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple hell?” (1.5.92-93). Hamlet has returned from Wittenberg, the most famous Protestant university, so that once he shakes off the overwhelming sense of his father's presence, he suspects the apparition may be a devil (2.2.595). The religious affiliations of the Ghost and of Hamlet have been much debated, as by Frye 14-24, by Jenkins 453-54, 457-59, by Prosser 118-42, and by McGee 13-54. I think Shakespeare chose to provide mixed signals about a Ghost that remains questionable still; the significant polarity in the play I believe is between Christian and classical, not between Catholic and Protestant attitudes and beliefs.

  5. The Geneva Bible has a marginal gloss here: “But love and preserve thy brother's life.”

  6. The cry “Oh Vengeance!” (after 2.2.581) found only in the Folio text is thought by many to be an actor's addition, a rhetorical flourish that runs counter to the flow of the soliloquy; it is omitted from many editions, such as the Arden and the Riverside.

  7. In his interesting study of the play Gurr also argued, 76-79, that the killing of Polonius is a turning point in the action.

  8. The Geneva text has a marginal gloss here: “Paul sheweth that the end of God's Law is love, which cannot be without a good conscience. …”

  9. In the Geneva text a marginal note adds: “For he is the minister of God to take vengeance on him that doth evil.”

Works Cited

Alexander, R. N. Poison, Play and Duel. London: Routledge, 1971.

The Bible and Holy Scriptures, Geneva version (Geneva, 1560)

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1904.

Casey, John. Pagan Virtue: An Essay in Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Dodsworth, Martin. Hamlet Closely Observed. London: Athlone Press, 1985.

Edwards, Philip, ed. Hamlet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Foakes, R. A. Hamlet versus Lear: Cultural Politics and Shakespeare's Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

French, Marilyn. Shakespeare's Division of Experience. New York: Summit Books, 1981.

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

Gurr, Andrew. Hamlet and the Distracted Globe. Edinburgh: Sussex University Press, 1978.

Hibbard, G. R., ed. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Jenkins, Harold, ed. Hamlet. New Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.

Kerrigan, John. Revenge Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. London: Duckworth; Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981.

McMillin, Scott. “Acting and Violence in The Revenger's Tragedy and its Departures from Hamlet.Studies in English Literature 24 (1984), 275-91.

Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.Yale Review, New Series 47 (1951-52): 502-23.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Nevo, Ruth. Tragic Form in Shakespeare. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd. Edition (1989)

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967.

Thompson, Ann and Neil Taylor. William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Plymouth: Northcote House in Association with the British Council, 1996.

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

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Hamlet (Vol. 71)


Hamlet and A Matter Tender and Dangerous