The Last Mystery

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

William Kerrigan, University of Massachusetts

As I finished this book, I was visited by a friend of pragmatic temperament. "Yes, I suppose so," he said on hearing of my admiration for the scene between Hamlet and the gravedigger. "But I don't have the slightest idea what it means." What defeats my pragmatic friend, I think, is that the graveyard scene offers nothing but meaning. With respect to the battle between Hamlet and Claudius, it accomplishes nothing. Hamlet does not form a plan. He does not happen on useful information. Shakespeare, grandly at his leisure, finds time to bring Hamlet and Horatio, eventually the entire Danish court and the mortal remains of Ophelia, to the local graveyard—only the second scene in the play (the first is 4.2, its local unspecified) set outside Elsinore Castle. Two months or so before the play begins, Hamlet returned from Wittenberg to attend his father's funeral, which might have been held on this very ground.1 "Foul deeds will rise,/ Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes" (1.3.257-58). Hamlet is thinking of his father rising from the earth of his grave; when he first sees the ghost, he refers to it as a "dead corse" (I.4.52). Shakespeare reassembles his characters on the graveyard from which the foul deeds rose. It is where they are destined to go, and will go again when their dead bodies are heaped on a stage at the end of the play. The graveyard comes before the beginning, before the end, after the end. This scene does not advance the plot but stretches it out from dust to dust.

When I remarked in [an earlier chapter] that 3.4 was the greatest scene in Hamlet, I may have been rash. Planted in the design of the graveyard scene are specific messages for the prince, delivered one after another like tolling bells that summon to his remembrance things past, from his birth to his current embroilments. Like the closet scene, the graveyard scene stamps seals of fated specificity on Hamlet's life. But here the horizons are the largest imaginable. The scene casts the life of the hero, all the lives of all the characters, tragedy itself, in the broadest and most reductive perspective. It completes the ideal-making self-education of the prince, countering the wish that opens his first soliloquy with hard fact: instead of melting, thawing, and resolving into a dew, his flesh, all flesh, will leak into the waters, dusts, and dirts of mother earth. Here as elsewhere, the Shakespearean drama of splitting requires concepts that level and plot devices that reunite, such as the bed-tricks of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. The graveyard scene in Hamlet, into which all its characters and motives and themes are funneled, envelops the play in a powerful spirit of counter-splitting. "For this whole world," as Donne observes, "is but an universall church-yard, but our common grave" (Sermons 10:234).

The peculiar structure of the revenge plot, in which a determining crime has taken place before the opening of the play, makes Hamlet itself seem like the conclusion of a tragedy already under way. In another structuring of the plot, closer to what we find in The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet might be a character who appears in Act 4 of The Hystorie of Claudius to set the catastrophe in motion. He might appear even later in The Tragicall Hystorie of King Hamblet and Queene Gertrude. (Running parallel to Hamlet is a chronicle history, Fortinbras of Norway, in which the prince does not have a line.) Another way to describe this sense of a tragedy caught up in previous tragedies is "being under a curse." Claudius observes that his rank offense "hath the primal eldest curse upon't—/ A brother's murder" (3.3.36-37). Cain is the first murderer, Abel the first corpse. Trying to wean Hamlet of excessive grief, Claudius takes him back to that very body:

To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried
From the first corse till he that died today,
"This must be so."

In the graveyard scene Shakespeare locates his tragedy in the same inclusive framework of "This must be so" that Claudius places grief. Significantly, it is not Abel who puts in an imaginative appearance, but Cain. There is a message for revengers in Hamlet's graveyard.

It is obvious from the first that the gravedigger will make an excellent conversational partner for Hamlet. No one else in the play has been up to it, and the prince has won victory after victory on the battlefields of wit. The fellow may suffer here and there from the dyslexia Shakespeare habitually imposes on the lower orders, but he likes riddles, speaks ironically, and respects a good foil: "I like thy wit well in good faith" (5.1.45). His conversation moves from the questionable ruling on Ophelia's death to privilege itself:

Gravediger. And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even-Christen. Come, my spade. There is no ancient gentlemen but gardeners, ditchers, and gravemakers—they hold up Adam's profession. [He digs.]

Other. Was he a gentleman?

Gravedigger. A was the first that ever bore arms.

Other. Why, he had none.

Gravedigger. What, art a heathen? How does thou understand the Scripture? The Scripture says Adam digged. Could he dig without arms? I'll put another question to thee. If thou answerest me not to the purpose, confess thyself—


Like death, the sexton unmakes distinctions. The notion of "even-Christen" ought to abolish the exemptions given to "great folk." Adam bore arms, the sexton bears arms, and uses them as he speaks to dig Ophelia's grave. If Hamlet were around to hear him, he would receive a veiled message about the end of the play, where he will take arms against a sea of troubles in a sword fight. The piece of professional aggrandizement that makes Adam's tilling of the ground into the digging of graves serves as a grinning medieval introduction to Hamlet's forthcoming reflections. For the biblical digging has to do with agriculture, the food we fallen gentlemen labor in order to eat, whereas graves are made for corpses, the food we fallen gentlemen become. The transposition from farmer to grave-maker is of course appropriate inasmuch as Adam, the former gardener, made all our graves. The stage is set in large theological terms for Hamlet to encounter one last time the "rank unweeded garden" of his fallen world.

Arriving on the scene, Hamlet is first taken with the rough irreverence of the sexton. "Has this fellow no feeling of his business a sings in grave-making?" But his is not a dainty job. The language throughout this scene has a sharp concussive physicality: "Cudgel thy brains no more," "How the knave jowls it to th' ground," "chapless, knocked about the mazzard with a sexton's spade," "knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel." A nineteenth-century edition is eloquent on the second of these examples: "If proof were wanted of the exquisite propriety and force of effect with which Shakespeare uses words, and words of even homely fashion, there could hardly be a more pointed instance than the verb 'jowls' here. What strength it gives to the impression of the head and cheek-bone smiting against the earth! and how it makes the imagination feel the bruise in sympathy!"2 The speaker of these knockabout homely terms is Hamlet himself. He welcomes the impudent digging into his style.

A long parade of Adam's progeny must have come to this burial ground. To bury one is to displace another.3 Out of the crowded earth a first skill is thrown up. Again Hamlet observes indignity, the low indifferent to the high:

That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the knave jowls it to th' ground, as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that did the first murder. This might be the pate of a fine politician which this ass now o'er-offices, one that would circumvent God, might it not? (74-79)

The rough treatment might be justified if it were the skull of Cain, Claudius's great original. Hamlet will imagine many identities for the skulls in this graveyard, but Cain is the first message he gets: fratricides come to this, their transgressions covered like all transgressions in the general sentence of mortality. The killing of a brother is not the primal eldest curse. What is history but God's curse on human sin? Savoring the way he intends to transform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's plot against him into a plot against them, Hamlet remarks, "O, 'tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet" (3.4.211-12). Those who would circumvent God come always to this most sweet end, buried by God's plot in a plot of earth.

With the shift to the "fine politician," Hamlet's initial sense of social indignity yields to pleasure. Being rough with the high and mighty: there's a good game to be found in this, a "fine revolution and we had the trick to see't." One can imagine the skull to be that of a fawning courtier or a pompous lord, anyone deserving a comeuppance in the end. The roughness of the sexton passes into the rough justice of death. Though Hamlet is almost dazed throughout his graveyard lessons, like a child learning for the first time the facts of death, his initial distaste remains: "Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with 'em? Mine ache to think on't" (5.1.90-91). The simultaneous presence of entrancement and revulsion should remind us of his earlier bouts of sex-disgust. As we will see, the substitution of death for sex is one of the underlying tasks of this scene.

"I will speak to this fellow" (115). The man's close provincial wits make a job out of extracting simple information. Hamlet is forced to occupy the role that the Danish court has occupied with respect to him: "How absolute the knave is. We must speak by the card or equivocation will undo us" (133-34). This is like one of Polonius's asides when trying to pump an antic Hamlet. The question "How long hast thou been gravemaker?" throws up another message: "Of all the days i' th' year I came to't that day that our last King Hamlet o'ercame Fortinbras" (139-40). Then another message, this one with Hamlet's name on it: "It was that very day that young Hamlet was born—he that is mad and sent into England" (142-44). A career that began on the day of his father's famous triumph, also the day of his own birth, brings Hamlet into the presence of fate. This man may actually dig his grave; symbolically he has been digging it from the day Hamlet was born. Hamlet asks his death-dealing double about Hamlet,4 "How came he mad?" (151). This is the mystery that everyone at court (and perhaps Hamlet himself) has been trying to solve. Like death, the sexton's answer is rough and reductive:

Gravedigger. Very strangely, they say.
Hamlet. How "strangely"?
Gravedigger. Faith, e'en with losing his wits.
Hamlet. Upon what ground?
Gravedigger. Why, here in Denmark.

Everything that has preoccupied Hamlet—the adultery, murder, and incest, the injuctions of the ghost, the suicidal dilemma—is collected in the question "Upon what ground?" The play, the poetry, the great speeches, the thoughts: everything that makes Hamlet Hamlet and Hamlet Hamlet is collected in that question. What ground? "Why, here in Denmark," the sexton answers, that absolute knave. This is, I trust, the comic relief. Normally one thinks of comic relief as a boon to an overtaxed audience, but here the reduction of maddened wits to graveyard ground fore-tells an improvement in the spirits of the tragic hero.

As with the skull whose "fine pate" is "full of fine dirt," Hamlet's thought is turned into ground—Danish ground, the ground upon which he stands, the ground in which all his sufferings and all other sufferings will be buried. He seems to leap at this literalism, for his next question begins a long and strikingly concrete investigation into what happens to corpses in the ground. "How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere he rot?" Forced into repeated reflections on heaven and hell, the afterlife of the soul, he now meditates on the earthy afterlife of the body. Hamlet's nightmind includes a groundmind or gravemind that is kinetic rather than inert. We do not rest in peace.

The first sign that Hamlet might be interested in the fate of dead bodies appears in the context of conception:

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

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


"What a prodigy it is," Montaigne exclaims, "that the drop of seed from which we are produced bears in itself the impressions not only of the bodily form but of the thoughts and inclinations of our fathers! Where does that drop of fluid lodge this infinite number of forms? And how do they convey these resemblances with so heedless and irregular a course that the great-grandson will correspond to his the great-grandfather, the nephew to the uncle?"5 What was this drop of infintite forms to Claudius's sex-disgusted nephewson but sunlight (sonlight) infesting carrion with maggots? Yet Hamlet has outgrown those portraits of sullied marital blessings. When he lugs the guts of Polonius out of his mother's door, he pulls putre-faction out of conception. Dissolution, no longer a metaphor, is a thing in itself that behaves like a witty system of metaphors, creating unexpected fusions. In answer to the question of where Polonius is, Hamlet replies that he is "At supper, … Not where he eats, but where a is eaten" (4.3.17-20), and launches into reflections about how a king, become a worm, become a fish, might wind up in the guts of a beggar. Once obsessed with the facts of life, he is now fixated on the facts of death.

The graveyard scene begins with the posing of riddles. Who builds strongest? The gravemaker, since his houses last to doomsday (despite evictions!). The riddle points to death, certainly an abiding source of riddles. Is there life after death? What sort of life? The ghost of King Hamlet, leaving our riddles intact, is forbidden "to tell the secrets of my prison-house" (1.5.14). Contemplating the riddles of conception and birth, whose unfolding Freud thought inseparable from the achievement of a mature psyche, has brought Hamlet no enlightenment whatsoever, just rage, misogyny, and disillusionment;6 but this scene effects his return to "something after death" (3.1.78), the riddles at the other end of life. As he did not in his meditations on conception and birth, Hamlet will find room for wisdom in his encounter with death—a truth he can live with, even embrace.

As he works, the gravedigger sings three stanzas of Lord Vaux's "The aged lover renounceth love," a poem in which the speaker bids farewell to the "lusty life" of youth and prepares himself for the grave:7

A pickaxe and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding-sheet;
Oh a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.

Gascoigne notes that the poem "was thought by some to be made upon his death-bed" (Furness, 1:380). The singing gravedigger makes the "pit of clay" requested by the man in the song. More than he yet knows, Hamlet is that man. For the last message embedded in this fateful scene reveals the identity of the woman this grave will hold:

Hamlet. What, the fair Ophelia!
Gertrude. Sweets to the sweet. Farewell.
I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet
And not have strew'd thy grave.

It is the grave of Hamlet's irresolute youth, the marriage never to be. Like the speaker of Vaux's poem, Hamlet moves from first things to last things without the mature flowerings first things normally promise.

As once he stared at female faces, so now he stares at skulls. What does he learn? The book and volume of a brain, once the seat of memory in the back, reason in the middle, commonsense and imagination in the front, becomes in the end a wad of ground or a hollow stench—truly a dirty mind. This is not the "easeful death" Keats was sometimes half in love with; Hamlet is falling in love with death as insult. One element of the scene's lesson is simple and nonsectarian, as old as the hills. Death, playing no favorites, delivers the supreme rebuke to human pride. "You know, what busie path so ere you tread / To greatnesse, you must sleep among the dead."8 No matter how great one is, how powerful, how ambitious, he will lie down in darkness and have his light in ashes. High and low, man and woman, prince and pauper, jester and king: death undoes all the terms that divide and separate human beings by reducing difference to indistinction.9

There is a second part to the lesson. It has to do with literal dissolution, death's attack on the integrity of the body. Donne writes of "death after death," imitating his subject in expansive renamings: "But for us that dye now and sleepe in the state of the dead, we must al passe this posthume death, this death, after death, nay this death after buriall, this dissolution after dissolution, this death of corruption and putrifaction, of vermiculation and incineration, of dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave" (Sermons 10:238). The moral specific to this death after death begins to take root in the vividness of Hamlet's descriptions of the gravedigger. It is closer to consciousness in his identification of the skulls with vain and pompous men now given to "Lady Worm" (87). It almost surfaces in his address to Yorick's skull.

We have come at last to Yorick, the best-known skull in the graveyard, who for some reason has occasioned more sentimentality in the history of Hamlet criticism than any other figure in the play. He was a fine fellow, and full of infinite jest. But the critics dwell intolerably on his fineness. "Repulsed by death, Hamlet remembers Yorick as someone once wonderfully alive, his tongue the instrument of jests, his throat the instrument of song, his wit the stimulus of other men's laughter. Life is valuable in itself. It is better to be, or to have been, if like Yorick one can be fully human, not earth-contaminated like the politician, the courtier, and the lawyer."10 To which I say, pah! Is he so fine as to revise "To be or not to be" and banish from the end of the play Hamlet's low estimate of the world? In psychoanalytic criticism Yorick is the good father, unearthed at last to provide an alternative to the legendary father and the contemptible stepfather:

Here I want to add a third aspect of the father that is most subtly introduced. I believe that Yorick is a thinly disguised father image. He is the tenderly loving, affectionate father, with "those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft," who "hath borne me on his back a thousand times." He is the only person in the entire play of whom Hamlet speaks with unreserved tenderness. He died when Hamlet was seven—which suggests when the repression of that relationship occurred. It had indeed been a fateful relationship: Hamlet had thereafter become a great jester, too. The identification with Yorick seems to have been quite strong. Hamlet's feminine passive relationship to his father is of course the most dangerous of all, and he remembers it only in connection with a substitute figure and within the context of death.11

The author is a psychoanalyst, not a literary critic, and I do not begrudge him his crude biographical imagining any more than I would Bradley's. That Hamlet remembers Yorick as a performer, a successful jester who kept the table roaring, suggests some form of identification. No doubt this "whoreson mad fellow" (170) contributed some stylistic flourishes to Hamlet's antic disposition. Shakespeare was interested in fools at this point in his career—Touch-stone in As You Like It (such a fascination to Jaques), Feste in Twelfth Night, Parolles at the end of All's Well. None of these are jesters to a king; a resurrected Yorick will one day be given a plum role in King Lear. His services are not required in Hamlet because the prince in his variety is himself a fool, using the fool's techniques of riddle, literalism, and apparent lunacy to draw the court into booby-trapped mazes of infinite antic jest. But just now in Hamlet the main business is neither a salute to foolery nor a last minute revelation of a good alternative father.

Passages like the two I have quoted are found throughout the field. Almost everyone cuddles up to Yorick. Maybe the critics sense that Hamlet is creating an ideal, and therefore sponsor his efforts with exaggerations of their own, beholding "unreserved tenderness" and a "feminine passive" demeanor. The text itself is wilder and more interesting. Hamlet is in fact discovering an ideal, but the ideal is not Yorick:

Hamlet. Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now—how abhorred in my imagination it is. My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that—Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio. What's that, my lord?

Hamlet. Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i' th' earth?

Horatio. E'en so.

Hamlet. And smelt so? Pah! [Puts down the skull.]


The imagination of Yorick alive becomes "now," in the presence of Yorick's skull, an abhorrence. That is why Hamlet stresses the affectionate character of his memory of the jester: he is alive to the contrast, his disgust as sharp as his memories are tender. At the thought that he has kissed the lips without any apprehension of the skull beneath, his "gorge rises."

Unwilling to remain a captive to revulsion, a violent Hamlet has labored to make ideals out of sex-disgust. The new death-disgust also passes into aggression. Death has taunted and humiliated Yorick, and Hamlet takes the part of death, staging a triumph of mockery. "Not one now to mock your own grinning?" The last joke is on the jester. Yorick, victim of death's zingers, has no more comic inventions. Hamlet gloats over his melancholy silence. "Quite chop-fallen?" He discovers a satisfying use for the black humor of death: "get you to my lady's chamber." As painting to the face, so the face to the skull. In grave graves hyprocrisy gets stripped away, leaving a skeletal core that smiles and smiles and still seems disgusting. Death after death, not Yorick, is the ideal being born in Hamlet's teeming brain.

Clearly struck by a thought, he wonders if Alexander, conqueror of the world, came to this end. Of course he did: death is not a splitter. But I think the submerged idea in the transition from Yorick to Alexander is that death, the death he has just verbally imitated, rough taunting death, is one hell of a revenger:

Hamlet. To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bunghole?

Horatio. 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

Hamlet. No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead 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?

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw.
But soft, but soft awhile. Here comes the King,
The Queen, the courtiers.

The tame Horatio uncharacteristically pulls back from the suggestion, perhaps because he senses the passionate aggression in Hamlet's death-tracing imagination. Again, this is not Romantic death, a pantheistic reunion with nature, the voluptuous death of Walt Whitman's endlessly rocking cradle. According to Donne, death after death "is the most inglorious and contemptible vilification, the most deadly and peremptory nullification of man, that wee can consider" (Sermons 10:239).12 No ordinary considerer, Hamlet warms to the most nullifying of all man's thoughts of man, and insists on exploring the bunghole hypothesis through every stage of the transformation.13 If a demonstration of the possibility of Alexander stopping a bung-hole were the only thing at issue, the expansion of the idea to Caesar would be superfluous. Hamlet not only takes up the case of imperious Caesar, but also shifts to verse, clearly proud of his thought.

Hamlet has been flummoxed throughout his musings on revenge in part because he holds himself to a Senecan standard. He must drink hot blood, entertain bloody thoughts only. His sword must deliver a horrible hent, sending Claudius headlong to hell. Revenge is after all an art. The genre demands an escalation of horror, the vengeance exceeding the crime: scelera non ulcisceris,/nisi uincis, you do not avenge a crime unless you surpass it.14 What Hamlet learns from tracing the corpses of the great empire-builders of the ancient world is that death always takes care of that excess. There is outrage enough in death for the case of Cain himself. He has imagined several "base uses" to which we may return; surely there are thousands more. Nature, inspired by God's curse, stops at nothing. A piece of Shakespeare might be lodged in the paper on which this book is printed, or in the stuffing of the chair on which I sit.15 Stopping a bunghole or filling a crack in the wall: these are every bit as good as what Mortimer had done to Edward II, or Richard to his brother Clarence. The lessons of the graveyard scene relieve the pressures on Hamlet. Mothers at the beginning of life do not sully the flesh as profoundly as God at the end of life. Hamlet will avenge his father but need not plan a bella vendetta or a rivalrous Senecan atrocity. The God's task were, to converts, Christianity.16 God's curse will handle the really tough stuff.

This is the great trick at the end of the play. Because Hamlet does not plan his revenge, he seems to have sacrificed some portion of his will. Conventional revengers are ambitious. They want to appall the gods, horrify the heavens. They want to be remembered for their artful horrors, achieving preeminence in the memorials of pay-back. The inner danger of the genre has always been that its heroes can become vindictive villains. As if to confirm that judgment, Kyd's Hieronomo bites out his tongue and commits suicide after achieving his revenge. Others take care to Christianize their tasks; Hamlet is not alone among patient revengers.17 The genre demands of the revenger some tradeoff between morality and self-respect. But it is the distinction of Hamlet, in the lesson that seizes the hero's mind when contemplating poor Yorick, to show that the moral path, abjuring Senecan plans and ends, can also satisfy the aggressions of the revenger. Christianity is made to seem fully compatible with Hamlet's vengeful spirit.

The trick does not work for everyone.18 The history of Hamlet criticism shows the stubborn persistence of the linked ideas that revenge is evil and the ghost a demon. But the graveyard identification with death confuses the polarities of honorable vengeance and Christian morality. Death is our appointed end. To death we must finally submit. The devotional literature of the Renaissance is full of meditations on skulls or the indignities of the grave meant to detach the self from worldly ties.19 Finding an accomplice in death, Hamlet has chosen the route of relative piety for a life co-opted by this genre. Whatever he imagines to be in store for Claudius is equally in store for him: there is no splitting in death after death, and the revenger will get the same rough treatment as his victim. Still, by locating his vengeful passion in death's devastating severity Hamlet has given the curse of mortality a keen classical edge.

He wins for himself the calm of 5.2. It is not quite the mysterious indifference envisioned by Harold Bloom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "are not near my conscience," but Laertes is: "I am very sorry, good Horatio, / That to laertes I forgot myself (75-76). He apologizes at length, if somewhat vaguely, before the fencing match. He takes care to assess one final time the fit between his conscience and his task:

                 is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

Perfect conscience to do it, damnation not to do it. He is not indifferent to damnation. He seems rather to have lost his fear of it.

In this final scene Hamlet is no longer a seeker and maker of ideals, but himself an ideal—a noble spirit fashioned by himself with very little help from his world or his genre. He has resigned himself to his presence in a hackneyed if still popular genre. Finally. Problems have become strengths. Suicide and virginity combine in the readiness to be rash, leaving the ends to God. The anger has been detached from womanhood and turned solely toward Claudius. Taught that mortality will serve its interests, anger bides its time. An alliance with death has given melancholy, his old distraction, a new purpose. It won't be long now. Soon the news will arrive from England: "The interim is mine" (73).

After Osric departs, he is struck by a premonition concerning the match. But Hamlet is now beyond the timidities of prudent forethought. He need simply wait, holding the "something dangerous" (5.1.255) in him at the ready:

Horatio. You will lose, my lord.

Hamlet. I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds. Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter.

Horatio. Nay, good my lord.

Hamlet. It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman.

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

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


And the court, cushions, foils and daggers come forth, followed by the wine. The continual practice will be a help; heaven was ordinant in that. But even now, after the long journey from "A little more than kin, and less than kind" to "I shall win at the odds," there is still a reason not to act, a crossroads to ponder.

To go or not to go, that is the question. Is the illness in his heart something to trouble over or something to defy? The moment can certainly be second-guessed, since his intuition correctly warns of danger. A thorough meditation might even consider that fact. "What if I ignore the premonition, go to the match, then later am sorry? In vain the will seeks alteration in the finished records of memory. O condition of the mind … " Finding one last use for the remnants of his misogyny, Hamlet dismisses as womanish the premonition and its demand to be unpacked in words by thinking over the problem of going or not going. He must rededicate himself to rashness. Horatio bathes him in a mother's concern. "If your mind dislike anything, obey it." He will tell the court Hamlet is not fit. "Not a whit," Hamlet replies, the crack of the rhyme slapping the idea's face.

"We defy augury." This evokes the egotistical sublime of Seneca, but has its true magnificence in being smaller and less desperate. Is the "we" royal? Does it denote the team of Hamlet and Horatio (and maybe Gertrude)? "We" might even include God: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Birds figured prominently in Roman augury, and Hamlet's reference to the gospel sparrow seems designed to call attention to the pointlessness of augury in a Christian dispensation, where fate has become providence.20 The biblical context speaks to the folly of fearing those who may take your life: "and feare ye not them which kil the bodie, but are not able to kil the soule: but rather feare him, which is able to destroy soule and bodie in hel. Are not two sparrowes sold for a farthing, and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father? Yea, and all the heeres of your heade are nombred. Feare ye not therefore, ye are of more value than manie sparrows" (Matt. 10.28-31 Geneva). Only God should be feared, and that fear tempered by our knowledge of his love.

Augury tried to see ahead. Providence, God's business, means seeing ahead. Calvin, splitting providence, believed that his overseeing is not merely "general," the result of regularities set in motion at the creation of the world, but also "special," "whence it follows that providence is lodged in the act."21 Special providence impresses itself on the situation, the moment, the particular sparrow. Every hair on one's head is numbered: we could not be told in plainer terms that God is an individualist. The prince of individualism is not as plotless as he may appear. At the end of the closet scene he declared himself an artful counter-plotter, able to turn the ploys of Claudius to his own ends. He will do just that in the forthcoming fencing match. But through the concept of "special providence," a rare instance of Shakespeare's appeal to a specific and sectarian theological idea, Hamlet aligns his countering will with the supreme author of history's plot—which is to say, the plot of death, the counterplot to human crime. Into the hands of the divine craftmaster our plans are delivered, there to be shaped and fitted. The belief in special or singular providence, maintained Calvin (a careful student of Seneca), rids the mind of disquiet: "Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge" (209). Shedding baggage, Hamlet leaves to God the task of looking out for himself.

He then utters three perfectly fateful sentences. Whatever "it" means, "it" must happen either now or in the future. The statements are a trap for necessity, capturing fate. It is impossible that "it" be not now and be not to come. The very model for something that is sure to be either now or to come, that has to be one or the other, is death. But most readers and audiences take "it" to mean the occasion to kill Claudius as well. Claudius's chance at him, his chance at Claudius: these are the same thing now. The mighty opposites are trapped in the same grave-yard sentences. We have in the double "it" (my death, his death) one last assertion of the doubling of the two characters. Moreover, Christianity comes into alliance with the revenge motive. Working in accord with rash action, providence in Act 5 absorbs death (it will come) and revenge (it will come). Hamlet assumes that he has earned the special providence, uniquely his own, of not dying without the opportunity for vengeance. His individuality, the main subject of his students from the Romantics on, has resolved the split in the genre between morality and satisfaction.

Remembering "To be or not to be," critics discern maturation in "Let be." Hamlet is now beyond the dilemma of wishing to escape his fate. Rather than trying to outthink God, he works with God, his fellow counterplotter. Insofar as he is still suicidal, heedlessly defying augury, the impulse to self-destruction has made a home for itself within the imperative to revenge. Jenkins will have none of this: "Many editors wrongly take this ['Let be'] to be part of Hamlet's reflections, expressing his resignation to the course of events. A misplaced ingenuity has even tried to make it answer 'To be or not to be.' But it merely recognizes an interruption which requires their dialogue to break off (407). He is surely right that the immediate sense of "Let be" is "No more time for this" rather than "Let the question of when death will come cease to distract us, since the readiness is all," though I do not see why these two senses are necessarily disjunctive. I also grant that it would take an unrealistically attentive audience to hear in "Let be" an echo of the famous soliloquy, though it counts toward the meaningfulness of "Let be" that Hamlet echoes the phrase ("O, I could tell you—/ But let it be" [5.2.342-43]) after receiving his death. Yet the evidence of the Sonnets proves that Shakespeare was capable of writing in a manner that wastes no opportunity for sense, and the smallest details of his plays, rigorously interpreted by generations of critics, keep falling into happy patterns. Hamlet says "Let be" as the court materializes—his special providence, it. There is no more time to talk out his justification for going to the fencing match. The event is at hand; he is ready; let thoughts be. Hamlet's consignment of a thoughtful moment to oblivion with "Let be" does seem in its way an answer to "To be or not to be." He is no longer stymied by the conflicts of internal argument. The pale cast of thought recovers the native hue of resolution.

We may now pause to consider the divinity that preoccupies our hero in the final act. Many have found it a barren and etiolated Christianity, hardly distinguishable from the stoic love of fate. They are surely right that it lacks the fullness and cultural ambition of the Christianity one associates with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, though as we have seen it borrows from Calvin a special notion of providence. Hamlet's narrowed faith has no concept of the soul, no set of virtues and vices, no answer to the general problems of mankind, no liturgy, no commandments, and no Christ. I would argue mat if the Hamlet of Act 5 did profess an expansive Christianity, we would find ourselves either out of revenge tragedy altogether, with a hero who turns against his appointed task and rejects his father's ghost, or stuck in a morally repellent revenge tragedy, with a hero whose continued dedication to vengeance would render his religiosity pointless. Hamlet's shaping and ordaining God is the theological construct of a specific man in a specific circumstance—a revenger in a revenge tragedy who must pursue "howsomever" (1.5.84) the death of Claudius, taint not his mind, leave his mother to heaven, and "remember" his father's ghost. His divinity can only be understood in the context of his individuality.

God cleans out and empties Hamlet's wild mind. "The time is out of joint," the prince declared after swearing Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy: "O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" (1.5.196-97). But God must shape rough ends, fitting together what is "out of joint." Hamlet need not produce a horrid vengeance to balance off his father's murder. He is not so much "born" to set it right—and here one must recall yet again the ugly thoughts that whirl about birth—as he must die to set it right. By identifying with death as pure annihilation, Hamlet escapes from his family-confined thoughts of birth and incest to claim a place in the entire history of mankind, whose microcosm is the crowded graveyard of 5.1. This is not all of death, as Horatio will remind us at the exact moment of Hamlet's passing. But death as loss and dissolution, consignment to the impersonal energies of matter, is exactly the aspect of death a revenger is capable of divinizing—a curse of utter humiliation. Such death is the core of tragedy, and in this respect Hamlet makes his very own the darkness of his genre.

To this death he adds "special providence," which I interpret to mean a death uniquely his, and one that will not preclude the killing of Claudius. When the ghost appears a second time, he in effect asks Hamlet to see his mother differently, as a suffering creature in need of wise counsel rather than a contaminating enemy to be stabbed with words. This act of moral imagination marks a shift from birth, anger, self-sickening thought, and Senecan plotting to death, calm, rash action, and special providence. After pointing in this direction, toward the future, King Hamlet recedes into the night, clearing room for God. The old command to avenge Claudius then rewrites itself in the language of divinity: what was initially Hamlet's promise to obey the ghost and kill Claudius becomes God's promise that Hamlet will indeed obey the ghost and kill Claudius. While I see the ghost's remains in the God of the final act, I am reluctant to call this God a refiguration of the father, the mother, or the still earlier "combined parent concept" that Ernest Jones detected in the play.22 My psychoanalytic instincts tell me that the human mind conserves and refashions, stringing out origins in complex ends; yet my instincts as a student of Hamlet tell me that it would be wrong, completely wrong, to pull the hero back into the confinement of his beginnings. All of the ghost's commands will be obeyed, save the last. In Act 5 the ghost is gone and unremembered. King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude, insofar as they represent the fountainheads of his mental distress, are forgotten in God. In his detailed probing of "death after death" Hamlet learns both the universal sovereignty of his aggression and the secret of peacefulness. His peacefulness is that of someone given a terrible peremptory task, so peremptory that "I do not know / Why yet I live to say this thing's to do" (4.4.43-44), who gradually realizes that his task is nothing less than the everyday business of the gravedigging God of this world. Sooner or later, it will come.

If ever a scene illustrated that a divinity shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we may, it is the end of Hamlet. Claudius was right in supposing that a blasé Hamlet would not bother to peruse the foils (4.7.132-35). The three traps laid for the hero—unbuttoned sword, envenomed sword, the cup of poisoned wine—are nonetheless turned around against their makers, though not until Hamlet's death is already in him. First the tip of the blade and its poison: "The point envenom'd too! Then, venom, to thy work." But one must be sure at a time like this. And it is not vengeance enough to puncture Claudius at sword's length. Hamlet wants to get into his face. Cup in hand, he moves to the kill:23

Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

The drunken king whose loud carouses Hamlet excoriated on the way to meet the ghost, the poisoner who smiles and smiles and can still be a villain: death at the smile, death in a drink, death in the metaphor of revelry, death through the jawbones, is fitted to both his crime and his concealment of it. Bradley heard the venom and wit in "union." Hamlet kills the marriage in ironically affirming the marriage.24 If "union" means "marriage" as well as "pearl," it must also allude to the sexual union marriage celebrates.25 "Follow my mother": go to my mother's bed, uncle. As we follow this poisonous jest's lines of filiation back through the play, leading us to the sources of Hamlet's anguish, we realize that this is exactly what he would say, and must say. He has held in readiness for this climactic occasion his old ambivalent hatred for the sexual bond between Gertrude and Claudius. His special providence is to have won from grief, doubt, and disillusionment this moment of consummate contempt.

He holds on to the cup. Horatio tries to seize it from him, but Hamlet wrests it from his grasp: "As th'art a man, / Give me the cup. Let go, by Heaven I'll ha't." Only Gertrude and Claudius are to drink from the cup. It is their union. Horatio must "Let go": again the imperative of action descended from "Get thee to a nunnery" and "To a nunnery, go." The impulse throughout has been to save someone. He could not rescue Ophelia from the wounds he inflicted on her life. He could not rescue Gertrude from the fate of Claudius. His apology was too little and too late to help Laertes. But he does save Horatio, supplying the only reason that could possibly dissuade his friend from following him. Horatio must do him the favor of ministering to his "wounded name." If no one knows aught of aught they leave, what is it to leave betimes? Such indifference is ultimately too severe. He cannot leave a vilified name, for this revenger has fought with outstanding courage to make ideals and become an ideal. When the story is told, full of unnatural acts and purposes mistook, he will not be remembered for his revenge, though it is memorable enough and fulfills the genre's expectations. But he has not competed in horrors.

The sergeant of the gravemind, home to everything but the soul, arrests thought. "Good night, sweet prince": Hamlet splits in half, a body no longer alive, a soul we can no longer know; base remains for the long benighted "feast" (5.2.370) of death, sweet untainted spirit (so we hope) for the everlasting day of eternal rest. The kingdom is passed on. Arrangements are made. Like Gertrude at the grave of Ophelia, Fortinbras remembers the promise that is not to be: "For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov'd most royal." Guns discharge their sound and fury, signifying "the soldier's music and the rite of war"—signifying nothing with respect to Hamlet, whose honor was of a different order. We have been privy to his inner counsels and deepest plots, the intimate revelations of his seven soul-baring soliloquies. We know one thing he never knows—the hindsight that Claudius might have been killed and damned as he knelt in the chapel. In cases where we have been allowed to see ahead (that Polonius is concealed behind the arras, that the trip to England is a death plot, that the grave being dug is for Ophelia, that the fencing match is a death plot), Hamlet has eventually caught up with us, purging dramatic irony from our spectatorship. The audience's sense of the meaning of the play has been the meaning he gave it. But now we are alone, and to avert the collapse of meaning our minds reach toward him. Hamlet at last becomes what he fought to escape: thoughts. As the guns reverberate we probably remember in a confused way his words and deeds, our long fascination with the role now ended. It is not a minor task of Hamlet criticism to give shape to those inchoate recollections.

I cannot say good night to him without remembering the moment at which the command of vengeance was first a mental fact:

             Hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee?
Ay, poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!

Had Hamlet been able to limit himself to one untrammeled thought, "Thou shalt avenge," we would pair him with Titus Andronicus, who writes vows of vengeance in his study and rises to greet Tamora in the guise of Revenge (Tit 5.2). But Hamlet's first vision of his perfection is not to be his last. Already the baser matter of mater intrudes in "most pernicious woman," trailing with her the forms and pressures of youth.26 Vengeance must share this mind with clamoring disillusionment: such is the tragic hand dealt to the forger of modern consciousness. Maturity of the ordinary sort is out of the question—no degree from Wittenberg, no marriage, no reign, no memorable military exploit. He can excel only in the way he leaves his mother to heaven, takes vengeance on Claudius, and arrives at his own death with an unsullied mind. It is evident from the beginning that if Hamlet is to succeed as a revenger, he must succeed as a thinker of contaminated thoughts, finding strategies of cooperation for a divided consciousness. Baser matter, as it turns out, whether in thoughts or in bodies, mixes with everything. His horror of mixture, of splits collapsed, must come to terms with—must seek its peace in—the great grim mixture of death. He does exactly that, and from a spoiled heritage generates his extraordinary composure of soul in the final act.

How different his last idea of revenge is from his first! What a false ideal this seems from the perspective of the end! The first paternal visit is disastrous; the second shows the way to the poise of Act 5. Virtually everything in Hamlet, down to the finest details of writing and plotting, is divided and yet paired. Granted, the impression of transformation in the last act rests on two speeches only, the praise of rashness and the defiance of augury. Yet these speeches have behind them the theological sweep and psychological authority of the graveyard scene: there we touch the base matter at the ground of his providential felicity.

We remember Hamlet for the effects of vengeance on his mind (Acts 1-4) and at last for his mind's effects on vengeance (Act 5). No Shakespearean character comes a longer way. Because he rewrote the book on revenge within the volume of his brain, he has been distracting our globes for two centuries.


1 Kerri Thomsen has suggested to me that Hamlet's allusion to his father's "sepulchre" having opened "ponderous and marble jaws" (1.4.48, 50) implies burial in a crypt, perhaps in Elsinore's chapel. But calling the ghost a "mole" working in the "earth" (1.5.170) suggests burial in the graveyard.

2 Furness, Hamlet, 1:383. The edition is that of Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke.

3 Shakespeare's epitaph, quite possibly authentic, comes to mind here. Peter Levi calls it a "conversation with gravediggers" in The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (New York: Holt, 1988), p. 343.

4 On the double as "uncanny harbinger of death," see Freud, Standard Edition, 17:235.

5 Montaigne, "Of the resemblance of children to fathers," in Complete Essays, p. 578.

6 Freud, Standard Edition, 4:261, 7:195, 9:135. See also

7 The full text of the poem is given in Furness Hamlet, 1:381.

8Habington's Castara, ed. Charles A. Elton (Bristol: J. M. Gutch, n.d.), p. 151. The scene may have a classical source in Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead 5-6 in Lucian, vol. 7, trans. M. D. MacLeod (London: Heinemann, 1961). Much like Hamlet, Menippus joins with death in verbally taunting the skulls of Homer's heroes. Alexander later (25) appears as a character.

9 There are of course many great Renaissance poems inspired by this ancient theme. See especially George Herbert's "Church Monuments" in The Works of George Herbert, ed. F. E. Hutchinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941), p. 64.

10 Walter N. King, Hamlet's Search for Meaning (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1982), pp. 140-41.

11 K. R. Eissler, Discourse on Hamlet and Hamlet: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry (New York: International Universities Press, 1971), pp. 84-85.

12 Cf. Measure for Measure 3.1.19-21: "Thou art not thy-self / For thou exists on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust."

13 I discuss the new restlessness in Renaissance representations of death in "On the Deaths of Individualism" in Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 88-103.

14 Seneca's Thyestes, 195-96; the line is quoted by the ghost of a murdered father to instruct his son in John Marston's Antonio's Revenge 3.1.51, ed. G. K. Hunter (Lincoln: Regents Renaissance Drama Series, 1965). I use the translation of Gordon Braden in The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal, ed. Richard Jenkyns (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), p. 258. My thoughts here are very close to those of Paul Gottschalk, "Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge," Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 155-70, who also quotes this line from Seneca.

15 Look for him under your boot soles. It almost goes without saying that Hamlet's reflections bear no hint of Whitman's pantheistic atomism, where dissolution into the grass licenses expansive democratic egotism. There may be just a touch of early modern ecological harmony; a bunghole needs stopping, after all, and something must do the job. But the dominant note is greatness rebuked, egotism's comeuppance. These are "base uses."

16 Rom. 12.19: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

17 Braden, Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition, p. 203. I am indebted throughout the second half of this chapter to Braden's richly suggestive discussion of the genre and Hamlet's place in it.

18 Paul Cantor, for example, thinks "the tragic conflict between the classical and Christian elements in Hamlet" is ultimately incapable of resolution (Hamlet, p. 63). Yet what we call Christianity is itself in some measure an accommodation with classical culture. Earlier, Cantor notes in the play a "new emphasis on the mysterious depths of human interiority that goes hand in hand with the Christian concern for the salvation of souls" (p.45). It seems to me that Hamlet does achieve, in the new interiority of Act 5, a vision of his situation in the world that is both Christian and vengeful.

19 A great deal of information about skulls and the memento mori tradition can be found in R. M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984) pp. 206-43. Hall contrasts the classical with the Christian meaning of the skull in Huntley, Bishop Joseph Hall [(Cambridge, England, 1977)], p. 182.

20 Fredson Bowers argues that Shakespeare has Christianized the classical "moment of final suspense" in Hamlet as Minister and Scourge and Other Studies in Shakespeare and Milton (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1989), pp. 114-22.

21Institutes 1.16.3 in Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:202. Jenkins directs us to Institutes 1.16.1 and 1.17.6 where Matt. 10.29 is cited in connection with special providence. Although Calvin distinguishes providence from stoic fate, it is interesting that his first book was a commentary on Seneca.

22 Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus, p. 99.

23 Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet, p. 268, aptly quotes Macbeth 1.7.10-11: "This even handed justice / Commends th' ingredience of our poisoned chalice / To our own lips."

24 [C.L.] Barber and [Richard P.] Wheeler, The Whole Journey [(University of California Press, 1986)], p. 264, note that revenge commonly involves a representation of the crime (an eye for an eye), and cite work in progress by David Willbern.

25 "Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh" (4.4.54-55).

26 On "matter" and mater in Hamlet see Margaret Ferguson in [Patricia] Parker and [Geoffrey] Hartman, [eds] Shakespeare and the Question of Theory [(New York: Methuen, 1985),] pp. 294-96.

Source: "The Last Mystery," in Hamlet's Perfection, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 122-51, 169-71.

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

The First Quarto of Hamlet: Reforming Widow Gertred