The Problem with Hamlet – is Hamlet



 Hamlet (2)


‘Hamlet without the Prince’ is a well worn expression for something without significance.  In no play of Shakespeare does so much of the effect depend on a single character.  It is, of course, quite legitimate to discuss Hamlet’s character, to point to his human qualities, his intellectual bent, his habit of repetition, to probe his ’antic disposition’, and so on.  But there is another way of looking at Hamlet and, indeed, at all the tragic heroes.  This is to concentrate not so much on what kind of man Hamlet is, but on what he does, what kind of experience he undergoes, what kind of role he must act out.

This kind of investigation has the merit of revealing an interesting pattern.  A most significant feature of Hamlet’s experience is to pass from one extreme position at the beginning to another at the end, in John Holloway’s phrase, ’from centrality to isolation’ (p. 26).  This, indeed, is a common trend in all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, whether we speak of Lear on the heath, Macbeth isolated in Dunsinane or Othello on the island of Cyprus.  Likewise, here in Elsinore, all the emphasis at the beginning is on Hamlet’s central importance.  The interest and concern of all the other characters are directed towards him.  At the end of the first scene the participants think of him as the only one to deal with the problem they have encountered.  ‘Let us impact what we have seen to-night’, suggests Horatio, ‘unto the young Hamlet, for upon my life /The spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him’ (1,i, 169).  In the following scene, Claudius and Gertrude accord Hamlet the central place in their deliberations and in their regard, and see him as the man on whom the future of Denmark will depend:  ‘You are the most immediate to our throne / And with no less nobility of love / Than that which dearest father bears his son / Do I impact towards you…’(1, ii, 109).

 Hamlet’s central position continues to be underlined with the progress of the play.  In Act 1, Scene iii, we see that he is the object of Ophelia’s love, and that Laertes is deeply concerned with the relationship.  In the next scene, Hamlet is the only one to whom the Ghost will speak.  Much of the interest in Act 11 is focused on the attempts of Claudius and Polonius to probe Hamlet’s problems.  Hamlet’s privileged centrality at this early point in the play is partly what Ophelia is thinking of when she looks back sadly from a later vantage-point: ‘The expectancy and rose of the fair state / The glass of fashion and the mould of form / The observed of all observers’  (111,i, 152).

There is, then, considerable concern for Hamlet on the part of all those who surround him, but there is an air of unreality about much of it.  The King’s motives are soon suspect: Laertes is not disinterested; Ophelia abandons Hamlet at her father’s instigation.  Hamlet still wants to think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his friends, but their friendship, once genuine, is now a mere pretence.  He is soon to learn that he can no more trust his former schoolfellows than he can ‘adders fanged’.  He is gradually isolated from the comforts of genuine human sympathy; most of those who associate with him (Horatio being the exception), do so for purposes ultimately inimical to his welfare; even Ophelia allows herself to be used by his enemies.   There is a real sense in which Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and even his mother have, as John Holloway puts it, ‘all gone over to the other side’.  This kind of hostility is, of course, a covert one.  It comes into the open in the graveyard scene when Laertes seizes Hamlet by the throat with the cry, ‘The devil take thy soul’ (V, i, 255).  In the end Hamlet distances himself even from the loyal Horatio, rejecting his advice not to engage in the duel.  The last scene of the play finds Hamlet in the curious position of being isolated and central at the one time; as he fights in single combat, he is surrounded by people who are ranged on the side of his enemy.

Hamlet’s progressive isolation is intensified by his having to take on a well defined role, that of revenger.  The demands of the role make him a man apart.  The circumstances of the crime he has to avenge, and the various kinds of involvement of the leaders of his society, including his mother, with the criminal he must kill, make it impossible for him to confide in those who should be his natural companions.  A man who is given the task of avenging on his own a capital crime, and who must purge evil from a whole society, must inevitably stand outside his social group, and pursue a lonely career until his task has been accomplished.  He formally dedicates himself to the role of avenger in Act 1, Scene v: ‘And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain… ‘ (1, v, 102).  He knows what his dedication must involve in human terms:  ‘O cursed spite / The ever I was born to set it right’ (I, v, 188).  He knows that his role as an avenger has set him apart from the others, and imposed intolerable burdens on him:

 For this same lord

                        I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so

                        To punish me with this, and this with me

                        That I must be their scourge and minister…


Problems of character and role are at the heart of Hamlet.  One of the favourite themes of critics is Hamlet’s refusal to take decisive action in fulfilment of the ghost’s command.  But this is not his only refusal.  It might be argued that one of the oddest aspects of the play is Hamlet’s refusal to take a serious part in its proceedings.  David Pirie has argued that, ‘the play has to stagger through its five acts without the Prince becoming responsibly involved’ (Critical Quarterly, 1972, p.314).  This line of argument is worth pursuing.  Hamlet himself makes the point that the ‘real’ world of Elsinore, that rank place of corruption, is an unprofitable subject for serious consideration.  His interest in this world, his willingness to participate fully in its concerns, is undermined by his bitter experiences, particularly those involving his mother.  And yet, this melancholy and disillusioned sceptic is cast by various people in a number of roles which he is expected to act out with enthusiasm:

  1. The Ghost has cast him in the role of hero in a revenge play, in which he must kill Claudius and avoid tainting his mind against Gertrude.
  2. Claudius sees him as the central figure in a drama of political intrigue, plotting against the throne, consumed by ambition.
  3. Polonius sees him as the suffering victim a tragedy of frustrated love with Ophelia as the heroine.
  4. The Fortinbras affair tempts Hamlet to accept the role of military hero in a drama of territorial conquest in which he would re-enact his father’s exploits against Norway.

It might be argued that Hamlet rejects all these roles as unworthy of his serious consideration.  This rejection is presented by him directly to the audience in terms of a comparison with the theatre in which they find themselves.  Hamlet discovers all too evident similarities between the dishonest trappings of Elsinore and the stage of the Globe theatre on  which the play is being performed.  There are very many theatrical metaphors and explicit references to the stage and acting in Hamlet.  Consider the following celebrated speech:

‘Indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestic roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing more but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (11, ii, 301). 

This speech cannot take on its full significance for a modern reader or a modern audience unless the physical aspects of the Elizabethan theatre are borne in mind.  The ceiling of the Elizabethan inner stage was decorated with painted stars and moon; the auditorium was roofless, hence the references to ‘this canopy’ and ‘this firmament’.  The Elizabethan stage was shaped like a promontory running out into the audience.  Hamlet here expresses his disillusioned withdrawal from his world in terms of the first-hand experiences of the audience.  The concerns of the corrupt world of Elsinore, he is telling his listeners, are no more real to him, no more worthy of his serious attention, than the artificial trappings of the theatre are to them. Indeed, there is a sense in which he finds play-acting preferable to the activities of real life, as his comment on the players and their play makes clear: ‘He that plays the king shall be welcome, his majesty shall have tribute on me, the adventurous knight shall use his foil and target, the lover shall not sigh gratis, and the lady shall say her mind freely’ (II, ii, 317).

Each detail here is an implicit comment on the characters of the real Elsinore play.  What Hamlet is saying is that the only kings who deserve a welcome are player-king’s; usurpers like Claudius, are unworthy of respect.  ‘Foil’ and ‘target’ are a light fencing-sword and light shield, harmless enough weapons compared to the lethal ones of real warriors.  In the kind of play Hamlet would like, lovers like him would find their sighs rewarded rather than have to undergo the humiliation he encounters from those who control Ophelia; and in such a play, the Ophelias will be permitted to express their love without constraint.  Fortinbras, the nearest approach to a real knight that Hamlet knows, is a reckless adventurer whose activities will result in mass slaughter.  His own letters to Ophelia (his ‘groans’) will be read by enemies; their private conversations will be arranged and listened to by eavesdroppers.  Every relationship but one in Elsinore in which Hamlet is involved  strikes a false position. He has to reject  what David Pirie has called the ‘false scripts’ offered to him by the other characters and lure as many of them as he can into a play of his own devising, a play in which, for a change, he can direct matters and replace false seeming by a true representation of events. His adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago into the Mousetrap is much closer to the truth than are the dishonest cat and mouse activities of Claudius and Polonius.

This view of Hamlet’s attitudes to the world of Elsinore, his refusal to accept its standards and to take it seriously, may help to account for his reaction when he finds Claudius at prayer.  Here he has his one undoubted opportunity to carry out his father’s command, but he does not avail of it.  His excuse is a dogmatic statement about sin and the after-life, to the effect that Claudius will go to heaven if he is killed while in the state of grace.  This is less than fully convincing in view of his already declared scepticism on such matters.  A more plausible explanation of his attitude here might be that if he did slay Claudius he would be admitting that action was valid, and thus deny his deep-seated belief that life and action are both meaningless.  What, then of the killing of Polonius and of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern affair?  One might argue, as David Pirie does, that Hamlet is,

‘sometimes tricked into action by the energy with which other characters pursue their plot.  So in blind anger when he thinks that Claudius has been placed by his mother to eavesdrop on their private talk, he stabs through the arras only to find the wholly inappropriate object of a dead Polonius’.

What Hamlet learns from this episode is what he must have sensed all along, that actions don’t always speak louder than words!

Works Cited

Holloway, John, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies, Routledge Library Edition, 2005. Print

Pirie, David, “Hamlet without the Prince”, Critical Quarterly 14, (Winter 1972) in Shakespeare’s Wide and Universal Stage, eds. C.B. Cox and D.J. Palmer. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984). Print



Hamlet’s Delay

Hamlet (2)


The problem of Hamlet’s delay in killing Claudius is usually considered in relation to his character and circumstances.  We are dealing here with a play and a character which provoke the most contradictory responses from critics.  There are, for example, those who argue that Hamlet never does get around to taking any practical, deliberate measures to carry out the Ghost’s command, that his delay never ends, that when he does finally slay Claudius he does so almost inadvertently, at the end of a fencing-match not arranged by him but by Claudius – that the act of vengeance, in other words, has to be forced upon him or it would never be performed.  This is one extreme position.

By contrast, we have the line of argument that it is meaningless to see a delay in a fiction such as Hamlet merely because something that requires doing is not done at once; naturally it will be done at the end – it is a play after all!  Those who take this point of view argue that we are entitled to stress delay in Hamlet only if the play underlines procrastination.  But, they suggest, apart from the soliloquies, the idea that Hamlet delays can be traced to only two passages.  In the first, we see him turn down a genuine opportunity to kill Claudius when the latter is at prayer (‘Now might I do it pat, now he is praying / And now I’ll do it, and so he goes to heaven… III, iii, 73).  The second passage is the one where the Ghost endorses Hamlet’s own suggestion that he has come his ‘tardy son to chide’ by telling him that he has come to whet his ‘almost blunted purpose’ (III, iv, 111).

The soliloquies, however, make up for any lack of emphasis on delay in the action of the play.  In these, there is a continuous reiteration of self-disgust on Hamlet’s part at his tardiness as an avenger:

                                     ….for it cannot be

                        But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall

                        To make oppression bitter, or ere this

                        I should have fattened all the region kites

                        With this slave’s offal….(II, ii, 571)


How all occasions do inform against me

                         And spur my dull revenge (IV, iv, 32)


How stand I then,

                         To have a father killed, a mother stained,

                        Excitements of my reason and my blood,

                        And let all sleep….(IV, iv, 56)

It is Hamlet himself, then, who forces on our attention the question that has since engaged every critic who has dealt at any length with the play: why does he take so long to carry out the unambiguous commands of his father’s ghost to kill Claudius?  The following are some of the arguments most commonly put forward:

  • Hamlet is squeamish about blood, and finds violence repulsive. This approach to the problem of the delay has a long history.  Goethe, the great German writer, suggested that Hamlet, having ‘a lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which he cannot bear and must not cast away’.  The trouble with this interpretation is that it is too much at odds with some striking features of Hamlet’s behaviour: such violent and daring activities as his pursuit of the Ghost along the battlements, his slaying of Polonius, his remorseless despatching of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and also his many violent utterances in soliloquy and dialogue
  • He is prevented until the very end from killing Claudius by external obstacles. This line of argument seems nullified by the ease with which Laertes invades the palace and raises a successful rebellion.
  • Hamlet cannot rouse himself to effective action because his will to act is paralysed by melancholy, apathy, grief or disillusionment, or by a combination of all these. There is much evidence in the play to support such a view, particularly in the soliloquies – ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world’ (I, ii, 134); ‘It goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…’ (II, ii, 296).
  • Hamlet has grave doubts about the righteousness of personal revenge. John Lawlor argues that this is the tragic conflict in the play; ‘the hero avers from the deed that is required of him, seeking endlessly the cause of his aversion, calling it by any name but its own, and failing to know it for what it is’.  It is true that Hamlet curses the fate that casts him in the revenger’s role: ‘The time is out of joint; o cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right’.  It may also be argued that he cannot bring himself to take premeditated vengeance on Claudius.  He gets his opportunity when the latter is at prayer and at his mercy and offers what may seem like an unconvincing excuse for not proceeding with his task.  It is only on the spur of the moment, when he has little or no chance to contemplate the moral implications of vengeance, that he takes decisive action (the killing of Polonius and of the king are acts suddenly forced upon him).  Against this, however, it may be felt that if Hamlet has such strong ethical reservations about vengeance, such reservations might also extend to an act like the sending to certain death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it is quite clear that he has no qualms about this (‘they are not near my conscience’, V, ii, 58).
  • Before he can proceed to kill Claudius, Hamlet must first find evidence that will make the justice of slaying his uncle apparent to the world, and at the same time satisfy himself that the Ghost has been telling the truth.  The right question to ask, then, is not, why should Hamlet delay his killing, but why should he kill Claudius?  There is much in the play to support this kind of emphasis.  Examination of the text, for example, reveals that Hamlet has no cause to murder Claudius beyond a request to that effect by the Ghost.  After the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet is convinced that he now has an explanation for an otherwise inexplicable series of events: he has not succeeded to the throne, Claudius having ‘popp’d in between the election and my hopes’ (V, ii, 65) as he later puts it; his mother has consolidated his uncle’s claim to the throne by marrying him within a month.  But the trouble is that the ghost’s revelations lack any kind of proof.  In this context, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy before the Play Scene is vitally important:


The spirit that I have seen

                        May be a devil; and the devil hath power

                        To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps

                        Out of my weakness and my melancholy

                        As he is very potent with such spirits

                        Abuses me to damn me; I’ll have grounds

                        More relative than this.  The play’s the thing

                        Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

(II, ii, 591)

Some commentators dismiss this as simply excuse-making, another opportunity to defer action.  but from Hamlet’s point of view, it is surely reasonable to wait until some kind of proof is forthcoming.  Without proof that Claudius is guilty, where would he stand if, having killed his uncle, he found he had killed an innocent man, or, more plausibly, found it impossible to convince anybody else of the justice of his act.  He is thus in a dilemma, often ignored by critics, a dilemma which may account for the attitude expressed in ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ (II, ii, 541) and ‘To be or not to be’ (III, i, 56).  When he says just before the Play Scene that he will have ‘grounds more relative than this’, before he proceeds against Claudius, he means that he will be able to relate publicly more convincing reasons for killing his uncle than the ones he has at present.

His troubles in this regard do not, however, end with the Play Scene.  The test that Hamlet makes Claudius undergo (The Murder of Gonzago) is not a solution to his problem.  All this does in reinforce his conviction that Claudius is guilty, but nobody else, apart from Horatio, will be likely to accept any open accusation he may make against his uncle, or to acquiesce easily in the latter’s death at his hands.  There is no prima facie evidence of guilt, and no real chance of finding any.  Certain knowledge of Claudius’ guilt is withheld from the audience until he confesses all in the Prayer Scene (‘O my offence is rank… III, iii, 36).  But Hamlet never gets the kind of proof he requires, and dies without it.

Hamlet senses that vengeance on Claudius will not serve any useful purpose. It will neither restore his dead father nor wipe away what he sees as his mother’s sin.  A variation of this theory is that Hamlet’s mind throughout the play is occupied much more with his mother’s guilt than with his obligation to his dead father, that his desire to awaken her sense of guilt is stronger than his desire to kill Claudius.  Anybody inclined to dismiss this theory out of hand should examine the number of hamlet’s references to Gertrude’s infidelity and bear in mind what he emphasises in the Closet Scene, where her guilt rather than the crime of Claudius commands the greater part of his attention.

  • Another explanation belongs to the realm of depth-psychology (naturally!), and was first proposed by Sigmund Freud (who else?!). According to Freud, Hamlet has an ‘Oedipus Complex’.  Briefly, this means that Hamlet, as a child, bitterly resented having to share his mother’s affections even with his admired father.  His deepest instincts, therefore, rebel against killing his uncle, whose crime has coincided with his own subconscious wishes.  When he denounces Claudius, he is, in effect, denouncing himself.  According to Freud, the true nature of his problem remains hidden from him, so that he cannot fully understand the reasons for his vacillation.  This theory would certainly account for the extreme puzzlement Hamlet expresses in relation to his lack of action.
  • There are those who argue that Hamlet’s philosophical cast of mind inhibits practical action. In favour of this idea is Hamlet’s own testimony – a valuable kind of support.  He sees himself as ‘a dull and muddy-mettled rascal / Like John-a-dreams’ (II, ii, 541).  He finds that ‘the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (III, i, 84).  He talks of his habit of ‘thinking too precisely on the event’ (IV, iv, 41).  He admires the active Fortinbras, whose decisiveness he contrasts with his own inaction.  But this evidence is all from his soliloquies.  He can be as decisive as anyone else at times, as Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Claudius learn to their cost.
  • There is still one other line of approach to be considered which, if accepted, puts the problem of delay into a different perspective from any of those views considered above. This involves considering the kind of play Hamlet is, and considering also what happens in plays of a similar kind.  The major point to make here is that Hamlet is a revenge tragedy, and it is a valuable exercise to examine it in the light of other plays of the same kind.  The essence of any revenge tragedy is that the hero has not created the situation in which he finds himself and which brings about the tragedy.  The initial situation is created by the villain (Claudius here), but it is the villain who also unwittingly creates the situation which brings about his own undoing and the revenger’s triumph.  It is important to note that in revenge tragedies the downfall of the villain is not the result of a successful scheme carried out by the revenger.  Claudius arranges an elaborate performance in order to destroy Hamlet, but is himself destroyed and destroys Gertrude.  The revenger’s role, then, is a waiting one.  Delay is not something we should reproach Hamlet with, or try to account for in terms of this or that kind of ‘flaw’ in his character, but something we should see as part of a pattern which is made clear at the end.


The safest answer then to the question of Hamlet’s delay is that there is no single answer!  There are, as Alfred Harbage has argued, ‘many answers, or combinations of answers, with each member and each combination susceptible to innumerable degrees of emphasis.  The possible range of variation of response is therefore unlimited.  It is useless to debate the extent to which all this was a matter of conscious calculation with Shakespeare’ (Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It).  Many plausible explanations for Hamlet’s actions and lack of action are suggested or implied in the text, but there is no final commitment to any of them.  Single explanations of the delay are based on carefully chosen parts of the available evidence.

Hamlet's Delay

Hamlet’s ‘Antic Disposition’ – That is the Question!


Hamlet (2)


If we are to take his own statement of the case at face value, Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is a disguise for real feelings and intentions, a mere act, something to be assumed and cast off at will, or so he tells Horatio and Marcellus:

    How strange or odd some’er I bear myself

            As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

            To put an antic disposition on….(I, v, 170)

Every audience is bound to be taken aback by this, in the light of all that Hamlet has stood for up to now.  He has made a point of asserting his truth, his anxiety to be what he looks like, to embody the perfect equation of appearance and reality: ‘Seems, madam! Nay it is; I know not seems’ (I, ii, 76).  Now, only a few scenes later, he is preparing to employ the same ‘ambiguous giving out’ as he has so lucidly deplored in his mother and uncle.

There are various ways of looking at his assumption of the ‘antic disposition’.  One may regard it as a useful weapon in the coming struggle with Claudius and his associates; this, apparently, is why Hamlet assumes it in the first place.  It may also be explained as a legacy from the sources used by Shakespeare: in these sources (e.g. Thomas Kyd) the central figure feigned madness in order to allay the suspicions of his enemies while he plotted and executed his revenge.  Again, we may regard the assumption of a mask as evidence that Hamlet has begun to succumb to the general contamination which the fateful crime of Claudius has spread like a poison through the realm (‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’).  This interpretation is in tune with the idea, found in all the tragedies, that overwhelming evil, engulfing most of the participants, issues from the initial breach in nature (in this case a brother’s murder).

Once Hamlet has begun to make use of his ‘antic disposition’, we find a pronounced disintegration in his character. It is possible to speak after this of three Hamlets, or at least of three selves in the one Hamlet, one quite normal, the other two abnormal.  The ‘normal’ Hamlet is found in conversation with Horatio, with the gravediggers or with the players, and in the soliloquies.  Hamlet’s two ‘abnormal’ personalities are fairly easily distinguishable.  The first one is, in keeping with his declaration to Horatio and Marcellus, put on and taken off as the occasion requires.  Polonius is the most obvious victim.  Most of his conversations with Polonius are attempts to make the old man as ridiculous as possible; he uses apparently nonsensical statements to fool and embarrass Polonius and to comment on his dubious behaviour.  When he calls him a fishmonger (11, ii, 174) he is using a slang term for a pander (pimp), and thus describing the reprehensible use being made of Ophelia.  We find the same kind of thing later when Hamlet pretends not to recognise Polonius, but pointedly refers to a daughter, that of ‘old Jephtah’ (11, ii, 406), the name he calls Polonius. This clowning reference embodies one of the grimmer ironies of the play.  Jephtah was a Hebrew judge who rashly sacrificed his only daughter.  Polonius will, in his own words, ‘loose his daughter’ to Hamlet, and she, too, will be sacrificed, the victim of the machinations of guilty men.  Hamlet also makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear the weight of his ’antic disposition’ after the Play Scene, to the extent that Guildenstern has to call him to order:  ‘Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame, and start not so wildly from my affair’ (111, iii, 297).

The other ‘abnormal’ Hamlet is a much more disturbed, disturbing and menacing figure.  The explosive irrational side of his nature is exposed and provoked by contrast with those with whom he is involved emotionally.  Here there is no question of an antic disposition easily assumed and as easily discarded.  The passion is genuine, the behaviour unselfconscious and beyond control.  When he is engaged with Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia or Laertes, for example, or reflects on their dealings with him, he is frequently moved to passionate, raging outbursts of feeling, as in the scene with Ophelia (the ‘Nunnery Scene’- 111, i), and in the fight with Laertes over Ophelia’s grave, which draws the comment, ‘O, he is mad, Laertes’ (V, i, 269) from the King.  It is Gertrude who most powerfully affects his emotional stability from the start of the play. What he sees as her criminal marriage to Claudius is the obsession that destroys his balance and which is liable to turn him into a slave of passion, whatever the prompting of his rational self may suggest; another is his rage against Gertrude in the Closet  Scene (111, iv.).  This is not, as he points out to her, the result of madness (‘My pulse as yours doth temperately beat time’), but of righteous anger at what he sees as her degenerate behaviour with Claudius, and her infidelity to the memory of his father.

It must be said that there are times when Hamlet himself realises how readily he can slide into an unpremeditated and unpredictable rage.  On his way to his mother’s closet he asks himself for self-control (‘O heart, lose not thy nature’).  His comment to Horatio explaining his behaviour towards Laertes tells a good deal about his mercurial temperament: ‘But sure the bravery of his grief did put me / Into a towering passion’ (V, ii, 79).   One of his acts (the killing of Polonius) during a spell of abnormal passion is destined to have fatal consequences for him.  It leaves him open to the same treatment at Laertes’ hands as he is in honour required to mete out to Claudius.  He recognises the logic of this position when he says of Laertes that, ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’ (V, ii 77).

If Hamlet’s basic purpose in assuming his ‘antic disposition’ is to divert suspicion while he plots his uncle’s downfall, it must be said that it is not particularly successful stratagem.  Indeed, his pranks and clowning make Claudius extremely suspicious.  Even before such things become obvious, the King asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet in order, as he puts it, to, ‘glean whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus’ (11, ii, 17).  Until the climax, much of the King’s attention is focused on attempts to fathom the meaning of the ‘antic disposition’.  Polonius proposed Ophelia as a reason, but after the ‘Nunnery Scene’, Claudius is satisfied that Hamlet’s condition does not originate with her.  Indeed, he wonders whether what he has witnessed has been a display of madness at all: ‘Love  / His affections do not that way tend / Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little / Was not like madness’ (111, i, 165).  Another odd feature of Hamlet’s assumption of his ‘antic disposition’ is that having decided to use it as a stratagem, he does not seem particularly concerned whether Claudius sees through it or not.  He knows well that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to spy on him, and that they will accurately report his remarks and responses to Claudius, yet he assures them he is ‘but mad north-north-west’ (11, ii 375), meaning that he is quite sane except on one point. He also assures Gertrude, whom he can scarcely trust to keep his disclosure from Claudius, that ‘I essentially am not in madness / But mad in craft’ (111, iv, 187).

Madness is frequently ascribed to Hamlet in the course of the play, from the offer of Polonius to reveal the cause of his ‘lunacy’ to Claudius, to the latter’s various expressions of determination to deal with it: ‘Madness in great ones must not unwatched go’ (III, i, 189); ‘Not stands it safe with us / To let his madness range’ (III, iii, 1).  We find the dangers of madness stressed by Horatio in his warnings to Hamlet against the Ghost, ‘Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason / And draw you into madness’ (I, iv, 73) and by Hamlet himself, rather implausibly, when he excuses himself to Laertes by declaring that ‘His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy’ (V, ii, 231).  A man who can discuss his own ‘madness’ as objectively as Hamlet can here is not a lunatic, nor is the man who can tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his ‘wit’s diseased’ (III, ii, 310).

Harry Levin proposes a useful formula when he suggests that Hamlet is  ‘thoughtsick rather than brainsick – neurotic rather than psychotic, to state the matter in more clinical terms’ (The Question of Hamlet, p. 113).  Levin’s distinction is useful.  In the neurotic, his emotional or intellectual disorders do not deprive him of contact with reality; the psychotic, on the other hand, is divorced from objective reality.  The psychotic lives in a world of fantasy; the neurotic still lives in the real world.  Most neurotics suffer from some deep-rooted obsession.  Levin takes Hamlet’s confession that he is ‘mad north-north-west’ to mean that his ‘madness’ is liable to come upon him only in response to a particular issue.  He can speak as normally as the next man on almost any theme but one; he is so obsessed with his mother’s remarriage and his hatred of her new husband that he cannot think or speak rationally on these subjects.  This explains much of his odd behaviour towards Ophelia. Gertrude’s conduct has given him an extreme sense of female frailty: when he denounces this in the Nunnery Scene he has before him not his real and appropriate target, Gertrude, but an innocent victim, Ophelia, to whose ears his torrent of abuse sounds quite mad.  There is irony in the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship here.  The soliloquy he has spoken a few moments before (‘To be or not to be’) shows his rational powers at their highest.  Ophelia’s comment on his behaviour (‘O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown – 111, i, 50) will soon prove appropriate to her own condition, not to his, since it is she who will lose her reason after her father’s death at Hamlet’s hands.

An interesting and plausible explanation of the ‘antic disposition’ is that it is a safety-valve for Hamlet’s melancholy, hysteria and seething, pent-up emotions.  One editor has pointed out that just before he assumes his feigned madness he is ’in a state of extreme emotional instability, and with an intellect tottering on its seat’.  The great critic A. C. Bradley suggested that the ‘antic disposition’ is the means Hamlet employs ‘to give some utterance to the load that presses on his heart and brain’.  His mother’s sudden remarriage has plunged him into a profound melancholy, which causes him to see life and the world as absurd and disgusting, possessed only by things ‘rank and gross in nature’ (1, ii, 136).  Then come the startling revelations of the Ghost and the command to revenge.  He must in some way communicate his sense of shocked horror and disillusionment.  Feigning madness gives him a freedom and scope in this direction which would otherwise be denied to him.

No account of Hamlet’s behaviour can be compete without some reference to a central Elizabethan and Jacobean term: melancholy.  Shakespeare was familiar with some of the contemporary literature on this subject, and there is evidence that he made use of this in Hamlet.  Claudius makes explicit reference to the condition:  ‘There’s something in his soul/O’er which his melancholy sits on brood’ (111, i, 167).  One of the obvious symptoms of the melancholy man was his mercurial temperament, ‘some times furious and sometimes merry’.  Hamlet certainly embodies these extremes; his astonishing and sudden changes of mood are a marked feature of his character.  Gertrude accurately defines this feature: ‘And thus awhile the fit will work on him/Anon as patient as the female dove’ (V, i, 283).  She speaks from first-hand experience of her son’s unstable nature, which finds its most extended outlet in his tremendous performance in the ‘Closet Scene’.  Contemporary audiences would not have been surprised at such behaviour; they would have known from many sources, learned and popular, that ‘melancholy is the nurse of frenzy’.

Hamlet (3)

Essay Preparation: The Case For and Against

You might use the following points for an essay on ‘Hamlet’s madness’ or ‘antic-disposition’.  Back up your arguments with suitable quotation from the text.

 Yes, he was mad:

  • Hamlet appears to act mad when he hears of his father’s murder. At the time he speaks ‘wild and whirling words’.  Later on in Act V, Horatio had warned him about losing ‘his sovereignty of reason’.
  • Hamlet’s behaviour throughout towards Ophelia is very erratic. He professes to be the only one who truly loves her in Act V, Scene I, during the fight with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, but in the Nunnery scene he had told her that he never loved her, when she returns his letters and gifts (signs of when he did).
  • His mood changes abruptly throughout the play e.g. Act I Scene ii and Act II Scene ii.
  • He plays hide and seek with the corpse of a courtier he murdered.
  • He jumps aboard a pirate ship without anyone to back him up.
  • He jumps into Ophelia’s grave, and fights with Laertes.
  • He has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, even though they were not part of his revenge-against-his-father’s-murder plan.
  • He alone sees his father’s ghost in his mother’s chamber. Every other time the ghost appeared someone else has seen it.  During this scene he finally shows his madness, because his mother does not see the ghost (Act III scene iv – line 105).
  • He has violent outbursts towards his mother.
  • Hamlet tells Laertes that he killed Polonius in a ‘fit of madness’. (Act V Scene ii – lines 236 – 250).
  • He kills Polonius and immediately turns to addressing his mother’s sex life.

No, he was sane:

  • Hamlet tells Horatio that he is going to feign madness, and that if Horatio notices any strange behaviour from Hamlet, it is because he is putting on ‘an antic disposition’. (Act I Scene v – lines 166 – 180).
  • Hamlet’s madness only manifests itself when he is in the presence of certain characters. When Hamlet is around Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he behaves irrationally.  When Hamlet is around Horatio, Bernardo, Francisco, The Players and the Gravediggers, he behaves rationally.
  • Claudius confesses that Hamlet’s ‘actions although strange, do not appear to stem from madness’ (Act III Scene I – lines 165-167), and there are other quotes about his ‘transformation’.
  • Polonius admits that Hamlet’s actions and words have a ‘method’ to them; there appears to be a reason behind them, ‘pregnant’, they are logical in nature (Act II, Scene ii, lines 206-207).
  • Hamlet’s madness in no way reflects Ophelia’s true madness, he doesn’t become a singer!
  • He informs the spies that he is ‘mad, north-northwest’ – a controlled insanity! He tells his mother that he is not mad, ‘but mad in craft’ (Act III, Scene iv, lines 188-199).
  • Hamlet believes in his sanity at all times. He never doubts his control over his psyche.  He speaks maturely of a ‘divinity that shapes our ends’ in Act V, shows physical composure at the fencing bout, and has enough self-possession when dying to name a successor.


Macbeth: A Tragedy


Macbeth (3)

At the outset let’s attempt to define what we mean by ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’.  No one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition of it, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements.  Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’.  Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king.  Generally, in Shakespearean tragedy, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Therefore, the best way to begin the study of any tragedy is to do what we have summarised above: describe the main elements of tragedy itself, say what happens and how it happens, and take stock of the qualities which are usually associated with the tragic hero.  Shakespeare’s tragic hero is always a man (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) of exceptional nature, a great man with more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions, and more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being often torn by an internal struggle.    We see our hero set out on a particular course of action and because of a ‘fatal flaw’ (Aristotle’s ‘hamartia‘) in his character he suffers ‘reversals of fortune’ and brings suffering on himself and others; he brings about his own death and the deaths of many others.  Macbeth succumbs to his powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  He moves along a preordained path through questioning, to awareness of his wrongdoing and finally to perception.  He undertakes a course of action which is credible and probable and the inevitable direction of the hero’s movement is from prosperity to adversity, from centrality to isolation.  This is well expressed by Chaucer’s Monk:

 Tragedy means a certain kind of story,

As old books tell, of those who fell from glory,

People that stood in great prosperity

And were cast down out of their high degree

Into calamity and so they died.

(The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill, 1951, p. 212)

An essential tragic requirement is that the hero must be ‘a great man’ – a man of some status in society.  The essential features here are moral stature and greatness of personality.  In Shakespearian tragedy, such qualities are invariably associated with eminent people (Chaucer’s men of ‘high degree’) engaged in great events.  The hero in any tragedy must be a man who can command our earnest good will, a man whose fortunes interest and concern us.  We identify with him in his suffering; he must be a man who reminds us strongly of our humanity, whom we can accept as standing for us  –  (‘There but for the grace of God go I’).  Unless this sympathy for the tragic hero is maintained to the end the dramatist has failed in his essential task.

The tragic hero inevitably meets with disaster due to his unrealised and unforeseen failures.  He consciously sets out to undertake a specific course of action, ‘I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat (Act I, Scene vii).  However, he now has no control over the consequences of his actions.  The notion of blindness is appropriate to his condition here, just as that of recovered sight is appropriate to his later recognition of what he has done and what he has become as a result.  The Golden Rule is that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’.  When he decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, Macbeth deprives himself of his freedom: his life now follows a determined and inescapable pattern after the fatal act.  In this regard it should be said that although Macbeth may appear to be – and is commonly described as – a play about ambition and its effects, it is not fundamentally that.  To stress ambition as the source of Macbeth’s tragic error is a case of false emphasis.  What happens is that he is tempted by forces hostile to his good into proving their predictions true.  In his efforts to fulfil a fated plan he is destroyed (just like Oedipus); these efforts lead him to forge a chain of crime from which he cannot break free.

The problem of Macbeth’s ‘motivation’ or lack of it is often given a central place in discussions of the play.  If he does not strongly covet the crown, he has no logical motive for killing Duncan.  Shakespeare does not present him as a man driven by an unquenchable ambition for power.  Indeed critics of the play have found his conduct wildly improbable, his murder of Duncan completely out of character.  When he is first tempted, he is racked by feelings of horror and guilt; the thought of murder makes his heart knock at his ribs and his hair stand on end; he has the conscience of a good man.  The problem, for some critics, is to believe in the transformation of the conscience-stricken figure of the early scenes into the ‘butcher’ and ‘hell-hound’ of the later ones.  His later murders are even more difficult to explain in terms of ‘logical’ motivation.  His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’, yet surely his real target should be Fleance, since Banquo himself can never, if the witches are to be trusted (and Macbeth trusts them), be a danger.  Still, it is Banquo’s murder, not Fleance’s, which occupies most of his attention.  This goes to show that tragedy, not unlike real life, does not always conform to neat, logical packaging – what is important is that Shakespeare is exploring here the progress of a man towards self-destruction.  We marvel at the fact that he has the capacity to commit acts, which seem to violate his essential good nature.

Central to our definition of tragedy is the process referred to earlier as ‘reversal of fortune’, which is what happens when the hero achieves the opposite effect to what he meant or expected.  In tragedy, as has been stated already, the hero undertakes a specific course of action which leads to suffering and awareness at the end.  In their blindness, both the Macbeth’s believe that if they usurp Duncan’s throne they will live happily ever after; what they actually achieve is almost total misery culminating in ruin.

Aristotle’s final criterion for good tragedy was that the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, that is, be left with a mixture of feelings, of pity and fear at the end of the performance.  This is true of Macbeth, the sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, while the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Shakespeare does a wonderful balancing act in Macbeth. The audience maintain their sympathy for Macbeth, the tragic hero, while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph.  This is achieved with Macduff’s final gory victory over Macbeth. Malcolm can now assume his rightful place on the throne.  Order has finally been restored – for the time being at least!


Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet (2)

 In his sometimes irreverent guide to some of Shakespeare’s tragedies[1], Fintan O’Toole sums up Hamlet, our noble tragic hero, by asserting that:

Hamlet is a slob, a shirker.  He has a job to do and won’t do it.  He keeps persuading himself that there is a good reason for not getting on with the job in hand.  He is certainly unwell and possibly evil.  The problem of Hamlet is Hamlet.  Hamlet is there to teach us a lesson: when faced with a difficult and unpalatable task, we must stiffen our upper lips, put our consciences in the deep freeze, and get on with it.  Otherwise, we will come to a bad end.

No Shakespeare play gives rise to so many difficulties of interpretation as Hamlet, and none has provoked so many conflicting responses.  O’Toole goes on to give the alternative view saying that while Hamlet is guilty of delay and indecision, this is merely a flaw in his essentially noble nature.  So, students beware!  The one certain lesson that the unwary student can, perhaps, learn is that very few confident assertions can be made about several fundamental aspects of the play, that even the most plausible interpretations tend to run into awkward objections.  Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, his delay, his treatment of Ophelia, his attitude to the revenger’s role: these vital matters have stimulated conflicting and incompatible responses and ‘explanations’ for centuries!

The situation is reminiscent of the one described in the poem by John Godfrey Saxe about the six blind men from Hindustan who went to investigate an elephant,

‘that each by observation

 Might satisfy his mind’.

They concluded in turn that the elephant most resembled a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan and a rope.  Like Hamlet’s critics, each was reporting on a part rather than the whole, which they had no means of conceiving, and each report, like the Hamlet ones, had something to recommend it.  Hamlet, we learn from its critical investigators, is about death, about melancholy, about the ethics of vengeance; the delay is due to Hamlet’s skepticism, his moral scruples, his laziness and procrastination; it is simply a relic from an older play, or he doesn’t really delay at all.  Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s noblest conceptions, or he is a flawed, sinister figure.  The poet’s final pronouncement will serve us well as we investigate further:

‘Though each was partly in the right

They all were in the wrong’.

Hamlet is a complex, multi-dimensional character as befits arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragic hero creation.  He feels loyalty towards his murdered father; shows great bravery in confronting the supernatural on the battlements and in accepting the fencing challenge; he is a moral purist; he is an idealist; he has pursued refinements through scholarly study; he destroys the sanity of his former girlfriend; he suffers the ‘melancholy of deep grief’ according to his step-father; he exercises a rapier-like wit; despises showiness and yet treats those lower in rank with courtesy and respect; values true friendship such as Horatio’s; despises flattery, hypocrisy, lust and excessive drinking; accepts a mission to purge Denmark of corruption; impulsively murders Polonius; chillingly plots the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; violates the sanctity of Ophelia’s grave; lectures his mother about her sex life; forgives his rival Laertes; brutally executes the usurper Claudius; delays action and indirectly causes a bloodbath in the Court.  Surely, this ‘noble’ hero, as Horatio describes him, is worthy of our close attention?

On the positive side of the argument, Fortinbras finally asserts that Hamlet would have proven ‘most royally’ as the next king but this sounds very like the victorious captain of a Knockaderry team commiserating with the losers on their brave but fruitless performance or is it merely a gracious compliment, such as we often hear at funerals?  When Horatio speaks his final tribute to Hamlet’s nobility though, it commands respect because of the speaker’s record.  Horatio is honest and upright throughout the play, unlike Fortinbras or Laertes.  In Hamlet’s words, Horatio is not ‘passion’s slave’.  His praise of Hamlet therefore deserves some scrutiny.

The issue of whether Hamlet is noble is, however, not always clear-cut.  He accepts an assignment and delays carrying it out, with fatal consequences.  During the course of the play he feigns madness by assuming ‘an antic disposition’ or temporarily becomes mentally ill, or both:  ‘I am but mad north-northwest’.  Insanity and nobility would seem opposites.  However, Hamlet eventually achieves clarity and defines his purpose:

He that hath killed my king, and whor’d my mother;

                         Popp’d in between the election and my hopes;

Thrown out his angle for my proper life, and with such cozenage –

Is’t not perfect conscience to quit him with this arm?

Here he outlines four transgressions by Claudius.  Isn’t he noble in character here?  He is clear minded and on the moral high ground and recognises his moral duty.

Initially, when the Ghost orders his son Hamlet to avenge him, ‘nobility’ is a question of obedience and loyalty.  However, Hamlet needs to find his own proof in order to be able to kill Claudius with a clear conscience – as a true avenger would.  To kill, even an evil man, is a ‘cursed spite’.  Hamlet struggles to find a clear path whereby his conscience will allow him to kill Claudius.  He experiences confusion and suffers psychologically.  He wants to justify becoming the avenger.  Hamlet’s inner struggle makes his character seem noble.  Hamlet may be considered noble in wanting to seek evidence of Claudius’ guilt.

Hamlet eventually achieves ‘perfect conscience’ but this clarity of purpose arrives too late to avert:

                        Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters;

                        Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;

                        And in this upshot, purposes mistook

                        Fall’n on the inventors’ heads.

Horatio’s summary of the plot in these words shows the catastrophe that marked the end of the play.  The phrase ‘Cunning and forc’d cause’ points to the evil of those around Hamlet.  Are we meant to assume then that Hamlet is the opposite of these evil and selfish characters?  But if, on the other hand, he had held to the Ghost’s initial word and killed the ‘villain’ Claudius and saved all that carnage, would he still be ‘noble’?

What is meant by this term, ‘noble’ anyway?  We have come to consider decency and integrity as essential elements of a ‘noble’ character.  What do we find in the course of the play?  The Ghost, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet and Humankind in general are all depicted as ‘noble’ by some character or another throughout the play.  The variety of characters, to which the word ‘noble’ is applied, gives rise to confusion about its true significance.  Claudius claims there is ‘nobility’ in the affection he bears Hamlet.  This is a piece of hollow rhetoric, used to persuade the court and Gertrude of Claudius’ commitment to family values.  Therefore, if ‘noble’ is a mutual trait of Hamlet and Claudius it is hardly flattering to Hamlet in the context it is used in this scene (Act I, Scene ii).

We have come to see Polonius as a deceitful, self-serving courtier who is morally redundant and a hypocrite.  After all he is a ‘wretch’d, rash, intruding fool’ who would violate the privacy of his own son, daughter and even that of the Queen for political ends.  And yet, Claudius and Laertes refer to Polonius as a ‘noble father’ in Act IV.  The word ‘noble’ here again seems empty and hypocritical.

Hamlet refers to Laertes as ‘a very noble youth’.  But at that very moment the ‘noble’ Laertes is about to murder him with the dreaded ‘unction’ that he purchased from a ‘mountebank’.  Laertes, then, is the third character in the play to discredit the concept of nobility.

What then of Hamlet?  Does he deserve Horatio’s eulogy at the end of the play?  Well, he doesn’t act nobly all the time.  Ophelia is distraught at his behaviour and he inflicts severe damage on her frail psyche in the Nunnery Scene:

            Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

   He behaves cruelly towards his mother:

           These words like daggers enter in mine ears.

He impulsively slays Polonius in headstrong over-reaction and then bizarrely hides the corpse – to the Court’s dismay.  Later he callously arranges for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, taking it upon himself to dispense summary justice.  For all his hatred of pretense, he plays many deceptive roles, not least his famed ‘antic disposition’.  He also uses deception to trap the king into revealing his guilt in The Mousetrap.  Thus he fights great evil with lesser evil.  He also abuses Polonius, ‘These tedious old fools!’   He has a morbid sense of humour throughout the play, delighting in such ghoulish pranks such as hiding Polonius’ corpse and depicting a beggar digesting the king.  He hurts Ophelia by talking suggestively about ‘country matters’ and he also interferes in his mother’s private life with such crude images as:

            To live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,

            Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty!

In Act V he explodes in furious rivalry against Laertes and leaps into Ophelia’s grave.  His surrender to endless brooding, ‘thinking too precisely on the event’, multiplies the carnage at the end of the play.  Knowing ‘the time is out of joint’ he could have set ‘it right’ by killing Claudius earlier in the Prayer Scene.  Then many lives would have been spared.  All of these actions, inactions and utterances of Hamlet surely argue the case against his having ‘a noble heart’.

There is, like Fintan O’Toole’s alternative perspective earlier, a counter argument.  Horatio’s praise of Hamlet’s nobility is also well founded.  Hamlet lacks pomp and arrogance: ‘I am very glad to see you’ he announces to Marcellus.  We know that his political clout is due to his great popularity.  Though he is a Prince he greets Horatio as ‘my good friend’.  He feels intense loyalty to his father and to Horatio.  Perhaps his desire to check the veracity of the ghost’s story is far more responsible than believing the ghost who could after all have been the devil in disguise.  He despises false shows of grief: ‘Seems madam? Nay it is.  I know not ‘seems’.  He is sincere and experiences profound and genuine grief and his revulsion of falsehood is put to good and humorous use against such people as Polonius and Osric.  He sees the corruption around him and refuses to compromise his own position: ‘Tis an unweeded garden’.  His complaint about human dishonesty evokes a cynical echo in our modern hearts:

               To be honest, as this world goes,

is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.

Hamlet is an intelligent scholar:

               There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio,

               than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

It can be said, therefore, that he has a refined and poetic understanding:

What a piece of work is 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!

In this speech he shows profound empathy for his fellow humans.  He mainly shows intolerance towards deceiving schemers and those who seek self-advancement.

In short, he is a radical thinker who despises the inequality of his day.  Above all he is a man of conscience: ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.’  He seeks to know himself better than any man and he examines every facet of himself.  He despises his own flaw, inaction: ‘I must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words’.  We would agree with Horatio’s final verdict if we believe the praise of Ophelia when she calls Hamlet: ‘The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword, the expectancy and rose of the fair state.’

Overall then, Hamlet is a mixture of admirable traits and thoughts and less than admirable impulses such as his maltreatment of women and old men.  He struggles for certainty and suffers greatly because certainty is so elusive.  He is fatally flawed by a tendency to procrastinate.  Eventually he achieves spiritual insight:  ’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends’.  He matures as the play develops, learning wisdom from his suffering journey towards self-realisation.  But self-knowledge comes too late to avert tragedy.  If he is noble, he also has to overcome some imperfections.  He is only human after all!

But clearly his sense of morality is enormous.  For much of the play even he couldn’t decide what was ‘nobler in the mind’ to endure or take action.  But we must remember that he was ‘loved of the distracted multitude’ and ‘the observ’d of all observers’.   Does Hamlet possess nobility within his heart?  The answer is yes, but we must qualify this statement with the rider that he is not always a paragon of nobility.  Ultimately it defies us to ‘pluck out the heart of’ his ‘mystery’, to re-use his memorable comment to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  But we are ultimately bound to accept Horatio’s tribute to his noble heart as a fitting epitaph for so complicated a tragic hero.

Differences over such matters, great and small, continue to make Hamlet the most challenging of plays, and the most controversial tragedy of them all.


[1] O’ Toole, Fintan, Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life – A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy, 2002, Granta Books London – New York




















Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith

FullSizeRender - John Kelly's forge
Kelly’s Forge in the 1940’s. L to R: J. O’Kelly, D. Nash, C. McAuliffe, S. O’Kelly. C. Fitzgerald (Information credit Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town published by Newcastle West Historical Society, 2017)

Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith


By Michael Hartnett

Black clothes do not make mourners:

                                      the cries come out of the heart.

And local men at street corners,

                                      who have stood

                                      and watched grained wood

in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,

                                      white plumes of feathers, blue plumes

of smoke, to the dead man’s part

                                      of  town, to the rain-dumbed tombs,

go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

In Maiden Street

what man will

forget his iron anvil,

in early Monday morning, sweet

as money falling on the footpath flags?

Commentary:  This poem was written as a tribute to John Kelly, one of the ‘old stock’[1], one of the characters of Maiden Street and the Coole.  The Coole was an area in Newcastle West, which Michael Hartnett referred to as ‘The Claddagh of the town’.  It encompassed an area running parallel to Lower Maiden Street, a lane behind what we now know as The Silver Dollar Bar.

Eigse Michael Hartnett - Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly former teacher and local historian and also the last blacksmith in Maiden Street and son of John Kelly the subject of Michae Hartnett’s Epitaph.

In bygone days, Sean Kelly, John Kelly’s son tells us that there were three forges in Maiden Street – Big Sean Kelly’s forge was located in The Coole on the site of the present St. Vincent de Paul Charity Shop and his son, John Kelly, the subject of this epitaph, had a forge which was located in what Sean Kelly calls, ‘middle Maiden Street’. The third forge was O’Dwyer’s Forge and this was owned and worked by Bill O’Dwyer, father of the late Ned O’Dwyer. These forges were a focal point for the street and for the town, they were places where town and country met, where stories and news and gossip were exchanged, and where tall stories grew legs.  During a fascinating walkabout during Éigse Michael Hartnett this year (2017),  Sean Kelly and John Cussen gave a very interesting history of Maiden Street.  Sean told his listeners that another source of industry in the street during the 19th century and early 20th century were the four natural sandpits which were located along the street – the street being fortuitously located at the end of an ice-age moraine.  Forges were, however, an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils.  Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’.  In a way, not only is Hartnett lamenting the death of a man here but also, like Heaney in many of his poems, he is lamenting the loss of an ancient craft which, with the progress of time, has become redundant.

In the Annual Observer, the journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, published in July 1979, Lizzie Sullivan, a long time resident of the Coole, referred to John Kelly’s father and his importance to the area:

“I can’t forget our blacksmith, Big Shaun Kelly.  He had his forge in a part of the Coole.  He was a fine type of a man, big and brave and he had a voice to go with it.  Many a day the youths of the Coole spent in his forge.  They used to love when they were asked to blow the bellows and Shaun would be singing or telling them stories as they made the sparks fly from the anvil.  He used to have them shivering telling them all about Sprid na Bearna and the dead people he met going home on a Winter’s night.  They believed every word he used to tell them”.

This epitaph, however, is composed to honour Big Shaun Kelly’s son, John, and like all epitaphs, this poem is short and sweet.  In the opening stanza, death and funerals are generalised.  Hartnett doesn’t seem to be talking about any particular death but remembers numerous funerals down the years and he refers to the funeral customs observed in the town.  Quiet men standing at ‘street corners’ looked on the ‘grained wood’ of the coffin as it passed, either in ‘horse-hearse’ or ‘motor-hearse’, on its way to the old graveyard in Churchtown.  There amid ‘the rain-dumbed tombs’ it was customary to speak well of the dead:

          go, talk his life, chapter and verse,

and of the dead say nothing but good.

The second stanza presents us with the real epitaph.  It is short, personalised and very well crafted.  Everyone in Maiden Street will remember the ring of the anvil on a ‘Monday morning’ and Hartnett uses a lovely simile to remember his friend: Heaney uses the image of an ‘unpredictable fantail of sparks’ coming from the anvil in his poem, ‘The Forge’, and here those sparks from John Kelly’s anvil are compared to money falling on the ‘footpath flags’.  His exquisite use of assonance and alliteration in these short lines emphasises his poetic craft.  The poem is also noted for its use of compound words such as ‘horse-hearse’, ‘motor-hearse’,  and ‘rain-dumbed tombs’, which hopefully, in time, will be used as an excellent example of alliterative assonantal onomatopoeia!

In ‘Maiden Street Ballad’, Hartnett similarly remembers with fondness the work of John Kelly:


I awoke one fine morning down in Maiden Street

to John Kelly’s forge-music ringing so sweet,

saw the sparks flying out like thick golden sleet

from the force of his hammer and anvil:

and the red horse-shoes spat in their bucket of steam

and the big horses bucked and their white eyes did gleam

nineteen forty-nine I remember the year –

the first time I got my new sandals.


There is a strong ‘local’ element to Hartnett’s writing – he tells us in Maiden Street Ballad that,

A poet’s not a poet until the day he

                             can write a few songs for his people.

This loyalty to his native place and space and the people who live there is admirable and is acknowledged with gratitude by those same locals to this day.  Seamus Heaney, in his introduction to John McDonagh and Stephen Newman’s collection of essays on Hartnett, entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett, says that,

Solidarity with the local community and a shoulder to shoulder, eye to eye relationship with local people distinguish Hartnett and make him the authentic heir to the poets of the Maigue.

These local people, John Kelly and his father before him included, had a great influence on the young Hartnett as Heaney also points out in that same introduction:

The young Hartnett rang the bell, and images from the world of the smithy would turn up in some of his most haunting work, as when a rib of grey in a woman’s hair is compared to a fine steel, ‘filing on a forge floor’ (‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’).

But I’ll leave the last word to Lizzie Sullivan remembering Big Shaun Kelly and his contribution to life in Maiden Street and The Coole :

“When the circus was coming to town, Shaun the Smith would be talking for days before it came… It was lovely to see all the fine horses and ponies.  There would be thirty or forty going up to Kelly’s Forge.  Then, when the circus was gone away he would be still talking about it for days.  He would let Sprid na Bearna rest, and all the other ghosts he used to see.  He made many a one happy, especially the young lads listening to him….. God be with the Coole and all the fine people that are gone!

FullSizeRender (12) Big Shaun Kelly
Town Crier Bill Poster and General Carrier John Lenihan pictured at the left of the door of big Sean Kelly’s house in Maiden Street. Sean Kelly is seen smoking his pipe. Information gleaned from Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town  published by Newcastle West Historical Society (2017).

[1] Hartnett assures us in a footnote to ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ that to qualify as ‘old stock’ a family had to be established in the town for at least three generations.  He goes on to say that the phrase can also be very useful if you meet someone in the street and you can’t remember their name!

Works Cited

McDonagh, John and Newman, Stephen eds. Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2006

Newcastle West Historical Society publishers of ‘Newcastle West in Close Up – Snapshots of an Irish Provincial Town’ (2017).

Amongst Women by John McGahern

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 John McGahern

 About John McGahern (1934 – 2006)

One of Ireland’s most widely read authors John McGahern was born on November 12th, 1934.  The family lived in Leitrim until his mother’s death in 1945, when they moved to their father’s home at the police barracks in Cootehall, County Roscommon.  In his early twenties McGahern worked as a teacher and wrote an unpublished novel, The End and the Beginning of Love.  His first published novel, The Barracks (1963), won the AE Memorial Award and earned him an Arts Council Macauley Fellowship.  His next novel, The Dark (1965), was widely praised and drew comparisons to James Joyce, but it also offended the Archbishop of Dublin and the state censor, who banned the book and he was also sacked from his teaching position.

He refused, however, to capitalise on this notoriety, instead continuing to publish quietly.  Three novels followed – The Leavetaking (1974), The Pornographer (1979), and Amongst Women (1990; winner of the Irish Times Award and short-listed for the Booker Prize).  McGahern’s four volumes of short stories were published in The Collected Stories in 1992.

His final novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (published in the United States as By the Lake) is an elegiac portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. McGahern himself lived on a lakeshore and drew on his own experiences whilst writing the book. Lyrically written, it explores the meaning in prosaic lives. He claimed that “the ordinary fascinates me” and “the ordinary is the most precious thing in life”.  The main characters have – just like McGahern and his second wife, Madeline Green – returned from London to live on a farm. Most of the violence of the father-figure has disappeared now, and life in the country seems much more relaxed and prosperous than in The Dark or Amongst Women.

During his writing career, he served as a visiting professor at Colgate University and the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and he was writer-in-residence at Trinity College, Dublin in 1989.  He died from cancer in the Mater Hospital in Dublin on 30 March 2006, aged 71. He is buried in St Patrick’s Church Aughawillan alongside his mother.

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Historical and Literary Background

This novel is set in Ireland in the years following the Irish War of Independence.  We hear references to reviving Monaghan Day, which is obviously a tradition of the time.  The story is set in the country and outlines the position of the family of the time.  It may be worth mentioning that Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger was written about rural life in Ireland about this time also.  Are there any similarities between Moran and the character of Paddy Maguire?

During these years, post War of Independence and pre World War II, McGahern tells us family bonds were strong.  The Moran family is united, in spite of their father’s erratic temperament.  Luke is the only exception to this happy picture of family solidarity.

Women married securely in this society.  Secure jobs such as the civil service were recommended.  Study at the university was not financially possible for Sheila.  The profession of doctor is also not acceptable within this family because the doctors had emerged as the bigwigs in the country that Moran had fought for during the war.

We also see the faithful practice of the rosary.  This is a prayer that is said by the family every night.  Moran makes use of this to assert his dominance over the family while refusing to face his own shortcomings.

One of Moran’s big fears is being poor.  For this reason he is miserly with money and even though he eventually gets two pensions he still exerts a tight control over the finances.  He also takes pride in the land he owns.  He uses the land as a refuge, many times escaping from the house to work furiously at hay-making or reaping whenever he loses control of himself.

At the end, on his death, Moran is given the typical Republican burial with the tricolour draped over his coffin. (Check the front cover of the novel!)

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Dr. John McGahern by Zaan Claassens


The story is based on the Moran family who live in Mohill, Co. Leitrim.  The house is called Great Meadow.  The story is told in flashback and is framed at beginning and end with Moran in a depressed state and wishing for death.  Moran is an old Republican who was a guerrilla leader in the War of Independence.  His wife is dead and he is left to bring up their five children; three girls and two boys.  Luke is the oldest and he has gone to work in London because he will not tolerate his father’s violent behaviour.  Moran can never forget the authority he wielded during the war and tries to behave in the same way within his household.  He continually uses the rosary to regain control and power over his family.  Moran marries a girl called Rose Brady when he is beginning to get old.  Initially Rose is very idealistic about the marriage, but she soon discovers the true nature of Moran and his capacity for violence and dark moods.

Rose is a very selfless person who clearly loves Moran in spite of his strong character and difficult temperament.  She encourages the girls to become independent and achieve the best they can in life.  Maggie settles in London and eventually marries, as does Sheila.  Mona gets a good job in the civil service and remains single.  Michael, the youngest, leaves and marries.  Luke’s refusal to return to Great Meadow, the family home, frustrates and angers Moran greatly.  All the rest of the family visit him regularly in spite of the fact that he has been domineering and violent.  They are all happy together and have learned to accept Moran’s peculiar temperament.  Moran dies at the conclusion.  Everyone except Luke turns up at his funeral and acclaim him as a truly great and heroic man

McGahern (2)


This is a novel of social realism, which is written in the third person omniscient narrative voice.  It can, therefore, be classed as a social document that is set in Ireland in the period following the War of Independence.  There are no official chapters; the narrative is broken into sections separated by a short space.  Much of the story is told through dialogue, which gives a vivid insight into the various characters.   The first section is written towards the conclusion of the story when Moran becomes sick.  The rest of the story gives an extended account in flashback about the life of the Moran family in Great Meadow.

There is a great similarity between Amongst Women and William Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear.  By insisting that each of his daughters proclaim her love for him to win her share of his kingdom, Lear sets in motion a plot that reveals the complex dynamic at work among an elderly patriarch and his three daughters.  Like King Lear, Amongst Women investigates the love between a father and his children, the struggle to maintain strength in advancing age, and the difficulty of negotiating between independence and an identity tied to family roots.

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There are a number of themes and issues raised in the novel.  The main themes dealt with here are:

  • Power/Control/Patriarchy
  • The Family
  • The Role of Women


Moran has been a guerrilla fighter in the War of Independence.  He never got used to the failure of that war, and so he tries all his life to master his family and dominate them.  It is only when he feels he is in control and the centre of things that he can manage to deal with issues in life.  Much of his power is achieved through violence and physical abuse.  He also uses the rosary as a weapon to establish his control in the house.  When he marries Rose Brady things change slowly but subtly.  He verbally abuses her several times but her firm reaction chastens him and shows him the need for self-control.  When there are difficulties with young Michael who begins to drink and womanise, Moran threatens to use physical violence to control him, as he had once done with Luke.  Michael runs away to England and gets a job.  Moran is left on his own with Rose and simply becomes more introverted and depressed.  As an old man he loses the ability to exert control through his mood swings and violence.  He changes and writes a letter of apology to his oldest son Luke who has left him a long time ago.


 Amongst Women can be seen as a critique of patriarchy.  McGahern connects nationalism, Catholicism and patriarchy in an unholy trinity.  In the novel McGahern is turning away from the Big House novel, that had played such a big part in earlier Irish fiction, to what might be termed the small house novel, portraying rural Catholic family life.  In the novel death frames the novel, but the intervening narrative is an extended flashback to family life in Great Meadow with Moran bestriding his little kingdom as a crusty, would-be Colossus.  The relationship between him and his wife and children is the principal focus of this plotless novel.  The focus is on scenes in which some or all of the family are assembled and the narrative moves in and out of the consciousness of various members of the group.   In this novel, for the first time in his writing, the subject of patriarchy assumes a central theme.

‘Only women could live with Daddy,’ Moran’s alienated son, Luke, comments, and the novel, to some extent, endorses this viewpoint.  Moran is first encountered ‘amongst women’, an ailing old man fussed over by his wife and three daughters.  The theme of the relationship between power and gender is announced in the opening sentence.  Moran’s physical weakness has transformed relations between him and his womenfolk to one of fear on his part and dominance on theirs.  However, even at his most physically incapacitated, Moran has still not lost his hold over his daughters: he ‘was so implanted in their lives, that they had never left Great Meadow’ (p.1).

The narrative pulse of Amongst Women is one of homecoming and leave-taking: welcomes and farewells at the train station; cars turning in the open gate of Great Meadow under the poisonous yew; children leaving home to embark on their adult lives, all but one drawn back with increasing frequency as the years pass; happy family reunions and the sad final reunion at Moran’s funeral.  Initially the rhythm is homecoming, and the verb ‘come’ is repeated seven times on the first page.  The reader is being drawn into this world where Moran is at the centre.  By the end of the second paragraph we have been introduced to its setting and principal characters: the ‘once powerful’ Moran, his second wife, Rose, his three daughters, Maggie, Mona, and Sheila, his younger son, Michael, and the eldest, Luke, distinguished from the rest by his refusal to come back to Great Meadow.

Patriarchy in Amongst Women can be seen to derive to a great extent from patriotism.  Moran is the hero of the War of Independence, who has failed to make a successful career in the Irish army in peacetime, directs his frustrated drive for power into a diminished form of home rule.  His status as a former guerrilla fighter is repeatedly emphasised at the outset by the device of juxtaposing two episodes which celebrate his youthful exploits as leader of a flying column, thereby ensuring that all his subsequent conduct is ‘placed’ in the light of this wartime experience.  Monaghan Day, a fair day in late February when he received an annual visit from McQuaid, his former lieutenant, and the two reminisced over their youthful heroics, is Moran’s equivalent of Remembrance Day.  The novel opens with his daughters’ revival of Monaghan Day when Moran is old and ill.  On this occasion he deglamourises his role as freedom fighter and refers to his flying column as ‘a bunch of killers’ (p.5).  That he has never lost his own killer instinct is demonstrated next morning when he rises from his sickbed to shoot a jackdaw.  His targets may have diminished, but he is still prepared to resort to violence to assert his limited power.  The incident rather pathetically demonstrates his present impotence, yet he himself uses it to illustrate his connection between intimacy and mastery:

The closest I ever got to any man was when I had him in the sights of my rifle and I never missed. (p.7)

Moran is at pains to tell his wife and daughters that his flying column did not shoot women or children, treating both categories as minors or inferiors.

Beginning on P. 8 we are given another flashback to the last Monaghan Day.  In this episode Moran’s bullying of his teenage daughters is contrasted with his inability to gain power over McQuaid.  He terrorises his daughters, so that in his presence they ‘sink into a beseeching drabness, cower as close to being invisible’ (p.8) as possible, but it is obvious now that his power does not extend outside his own family.  McQuaid, who has long outstripped Moran in terms of worldly achievement, is happy to indulge in war memories for an evening, but he is unwilling to perpetuate his former role of junior officer.  His visit brings something of the secular, commercial outlook of modern Ireland into the pious, traditional world of Great Meadow.  Here again the rhythms of arrival and departure are evident as the annual ritual of Monaghan Day is brought to an end with McQuaid’s abrupt exit.  Henceforth, the cars that turn ‘into the open gate under the yew tree’ will convey returning Morans.  From here on Great Meadow becomes a house hospitable only to its own family.

As has been said already, Amongst Women offers a penetrating critique of patriarchy.  McGahern goes even further and shows that patriarchy as a refuge of the socially ill-adjusted and emotionally immature man and asks probing questions about the cult of family.  Moran has transformed his inadequacies into a show of strength by making his home his castle.  Denied a role as founding father in the Irish state he sets up his own dominion.  Actually, Great Meadow, bought with his redundancy pay from the army, should be a monument to Moran’s failure to live up to his youthful promise.  Though it is not an ancestral home it becomes, under his regime, a family seat, more cut off from the life of the surrounding village than any Big House.  Because of an inability to relate to his fellow-villagers, Moran turns his family into a closed community and the absence of any outside contacts further strengthens his own paternal supremacy.  He successfully indoctrinates his children with the idea that such reclusiveness denotes exclusiveness, that to be ‘proud’ and ‘separate’ is a mark of distinction, to be friendly and extroverted a sign of commonness.  House and family are connected in exhortations to his daughters: ‘Be careful never to do anything to let yourselves or the house down.’ (p. 82).  He thus forges an association between family and farmstead, roots his children in a ‘perpetual place’.  As the founder of a new dynasty Moran acts as if he were self-propagated and never refers to his own parents.  His cult of family does not include any filial loyalties which might conflict with the prior claim of being a Moran of Great Meadow, so he actively discourages his wife’s visits to her family home.

Moran’s family is an extension, a ‘larger version’ of himself.  When he promotes the values of home and family he is obliquely bolstering his own self-importance.  The ‘good of the family’ provides him with a virtuous, unselfish motivation for suiting himself.  When he is about to remarry, for instance, he tells his daughter Maggie that he is doing so in the best interests of the family, though it has just been revealed to the reader that his only motive is his own future welfare.  He also repeatedly stresses that all his children are equal, further emphasising his own unique superiority.  The ex-officer promotes esprit de corps, though his theatre of operations is a hayfield and not a battlefield: ‘Together we can do anything.’  Such affirmation of solidarity and de-emphasising of individual differences serve to bind the family into ‘something very close to a single presence.’

In view of the novel’s critique of patriarchy it is interesting to note the effect this has on his daughters at the end of the novel.  Turning the page at the end of the novel, we are given a glimpse of what ‘becoming Daddy’ means.  A reversal of gender roles takes place as brother and husbands, seen from a patriarchal perspective, are transformed into wives.  It is obvious that Moran’s honorary male daughters have inherited his contempt for the feminine, which they associate with levity and amusement:

‘Will you look at the men.  They’re more like a crowd of women,’ Sheila said, remarking on the slow frivolity of their pace.  ‘The way Michael, the skit, is getting Sean and Mark to laugh you’d think they were coming from a dance’ (p. 184)

Their exclusiveness as Morans of Great Meadow is such that it does not even embrace their own husbands and children.

It is also worthwhile to consider here the links between Catholicism and patriarchy.  These links are forged in the novel by its most repetitive narrative ritual and the family prayer from which it derives its title.  Moran’s devotion to the rosary is explained on familial and patriarchal grounds.  ‘The family that prays together stays together,’ he observes, quoting the Rosary-crusader priest, Father Peyton.  As in many Irish homes, (in the past?)  the rosary in the Moran household is a public prayer that reinforces a hierarchical social structure: it is presided over by the head of the family and the five decades are allocated from eldest to youngest in descending order of importance.  Though the rosary repeatedly pronounces Mary as ‘Blessed … amongst women’,  because she was chosen to be the mother of Christ, in the Moran household, the character, blessed amongst women, is Moran himself.  He even manages to die ‘amongst women’, since his son Michael is temporarily absent!  The Rosary is peculiarly identified with Moran and it is a very clever device used by McGahern to emphasise the narrative repetitiveness, which is a feature of this novel.  Over and over again the newspapers are spread on the floor, Moran spills his beads from his little black purse, and all kneel in prayer.  The stability conferred by ritual and repeated phraseology underscores the disruptions and changes that the passage of time brings to Great Meadow.

Yet we should not be over negative in our assessment of Moran and his little kingdom.  He does exhibit some inherent attractive qualities.  Indeed his portrait is the most imaginatively generous picture of a father in McGahern’s many novels and short stories.  He radiates enormous energy and this surely can be seen as a redeeming feature.  He also shows great anguish for the son who is lost to him and he also shows a certain bafflement and frustration in the face of oncoming death.  In particular he is associated with the annual haymaking, an activity shared by the whole family.  From distant London or Dublin, Great Meadow in summer appears a therapeutic, pastoral world: ‘The remembered light on the empty hayfields would grow magical, the green shade of the beeches would give out a delicious coolness as they tasted again the sardines between slices of bread: when they were away the house would become the summer light and shade above their whole lives’ (p.85).  Such memories turn Moran’s children into true Romantics, sustained ‘amid the din of town and cities’ by images of their fatherland.

Therefore, McGahern manages to balance the attractive and the repellent aspects of patriarchy in this novel.  The glorious revolution that brought about the Irish State is so remote by the time of Moran’s death that the fellow revolutionary who tends to the faded tricolour on the coffin seems as old as Fionn or Oisín.  Nevertheless, the legacy of the War of Independence, seen by some as a triumphalist, masculine ethic of dominance, has been passed on to the next generation.

Irish people everywhere seem to have an often inexplicable affection for their country, whether they be urban, suburban, rural or living in Boston.  This love for ‘the ould sod’ is turned on its head here in this novel in McGahern’s examination of home, farm and fatherland.  Idyllic though Great Meadow often appears, access to it involves passing under ‘the poisonous yew.’

The Family

In Amongst Women we see the powerful bond of the family and how it can withstand so many difficulties.  Even though Moran is stubborn and mercurial in temperament, the family remain strongly bound together.  Together they feel invincible in the face of the outside world, and when they gather together at Great Meadow, each member feels bound by this strong family unit.

 The novel pulls us into a tight family circle with its first sentence – ‘As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters’ (p.1).  A ‘once powerful man’ (p.1), Michael Moran was an officer in the Irish War of Independence in the 1920’s.  He was intelligent, fierce and deadly, but like many soldiers after a war, he felt displaced, unwilling to continue in the military during peacetime and unable to make a good living in any other way.  ‘The war was the best part of our lives,’ Moran asserts.  ‘Things were never so simple and clear again’ (p.6).  While the army provided the security of structure, rules, and clear lines of power, Moran’s life after the war has consisted of raising two sons and three daughters on a farm and scraping out a living with hard manual labour.  A widower, Moran confuses his identity with the communal identity of his family in a gesture that divides and conquers.  Moran’s daughters are ‘a completed world’ separate from ‘the tides of Dublin and London’ (p.2).  As such, he can control them, as when he discourages one from accepting a university scholarship.  No longer powerful, Moran is repeatedly described as withdrawing into himself ‘and that larger self of family’ (p.12) in order to channel his aggressions into a shrunken realm he attempts to control.  He can be tender with his children, but he also berates and beats them.  His adjustment from guerrilla fighter to father is never complete, and the question of how to maintain authority over children while allowing them room to grow is central to the novel.

Nowhere is this struggle between dependence and independence more pronounced than in the character of Luke, the oldest son who runs away from Moran’s overbearing authority, never to return.  Rejecting his father, Ireland, and all of the violence and provincialism he associates with both, Luke flees to England.  He ignores all but one of Moran’s many letters, and he doesn’t return to Ireland except at the end of the novel when his sister gets married.  ‘Please don’t do anything to upset Daddy,’ one of the sisters pleads, typically trying to placate her father.  ‘Of course not I won’t exist today,’ Luke replies (p.152).  His best weapon against Moran’s control is absence.  Whereas the daughters, ‘like a shoal of fish moving within a net’ (p.79), find individuality painful compared to the protection of their familial identity, Luke gains strength in departure.  ‘I left Ireland a long time ago’ (p.155), Luke announces gravely.  As it does for Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, life in Ireland seems like imprisonment.

‘I’m afraid we might all die in Ireland if we don’t get out fast’ (p.155-156), says Moran’s younger son, Michael.  Like other Irish writers, McGahern asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality.  How does the political turmoil which has long suffused Irish history affect the smaller unit of the family?  How do other elements of Irish life contribute to familial dysfunction?  In the claustrophobic world McGahern portrays, escape proves sustaining for a character like Luke, but it is not an unequivocal good.  Luke is strong but cruel like his father.  His sisters, on the other hand, not only fail to break away from the family, but by the time of their father’s death, ‘each of them in their different ways had become Daddy’ (p.183).  Their identification with and loyalty to Moran threatens to subsume them, but it also gives them a kind of strength, as Michael seems to understand: ‘In the frail way that people assembled themselves he, like the girls, looked to Great Meadow for recognition, for a mark of his continuing existence’ (p.147).

The Role of Women

(This theme has obviously to be examined in the light of what has already been said about Patriarchy.)

With the exception of Moran and his young son Michael, this story centres on many women characters.  Rose Brady is the main character who makes life bearable for everyone in Great Meadow.  At every stage she is deeply loyal to Moran and never allows herself to criticise him or his fickle actions in front of  the others.  She loves him deeply and when he treats her badly she is quick to assert her rights.  She does this in a quiet but strong way.  She becomes a strong moral power in the house, and through this strength she manages to control Moran and get him to change his bad temperament subtly.

When Moran marries Rose it is obvious that he never intended a marriage of equals.  She is to serve as a loyal and devoted second in command and at some future date, when his children have departed, to become his sole subordinate.  Rose, a woman in her late thirties at the time of her marriage, is ideally suited to the role of compliant wife and surrogate mother.  Her previous profession has been that of valued servant: a children’s nursemaid, and the valet her former master would have chosen had his wife permitted it.  She has acquired the social skills that please employers, learned to indulge their whims.  That she is good at ironing takes on a metaphorical significance, since she has spent much of her married life ‘smoothing’ out household difficulties.  She is attracted by Moran’s aloofness and, ironically, she sees marriage as an opportunity to become mistress of her own establishment.  For all his local notoriety as a strategist in the war, Moran doesn’t seem to be able to exercise much control in the matter of his marriage.  He is continually out-manoeuvred by Rose, who mounts a shrewd, tactical campaign to get her way when he would prefer to retreat or delay.

Once married, Rose proves to be an angel of the house: a kind, caring, capable homemaker, whose warmth and good humour contrast sharply with Moran’s sudden rages and unpredictable mood swings.  Her genuine interest in each child’s welfare contrasts with Moran’s inability to value his children’s individual identity and autonomy.  However, it must be said that Rose colludes in perpetuating Moran’s patriarchal regime.  She is unfailingly loyal to him and she refuses to entertain his children’s criticism of his petulant behaviour.  In his children’s presence she always refers to Moran as ‘Daddy’, the title by which he himself insists that they address him.

Rose’s strategy is to become indispensable to the household.  The tea-ceremony on her first evening is very revealing of the future status quo.  She takes on the role of a kind of superior servant, co-opting the girls as helpers, and humouring her disgruntled husband by treating him ‘like a lord’:

Rose and the girls smiled as the tea and the plates circled around him.  They were already conspirators.  They were mastered and yet they were controlling together what they were mastered by. (p.46)

Later on this is viewed in a more negative way:

Then, like a shoal of fish moving within a net, Rose and the girls started to clear the table. (p. 79)

Here the women are seen as victims, trapped in the tense atmosphere which Moran generates.  A shift in power relations has occurred and Rose is no longer in control.  Her status is now equal with that of Moran’s children.

The power struggle between Rose and her husband centres on two episodes.  In the first he is compelled to apologise and she is rewarded with a mini-honeymoon, but she has been made aware of his ‘darkness’ and decides to concentrate her strategy on diverting his attacks – cutting him off at the pass, so to speak.  In the second episode he embarks on a prolonged campaign to crush her and she attempts to conciliate and pacify him, until she discovers that she can ‘give up no more ground and live’ (p.71).  Her tactic now is to threaten to leave him, a shrewd stroke; since she knows that Moran is already obsessed with Luke’s departure.  This power struggle between the two is several times alluded to in military terms.  It is a ‘hidden battle’ from which she, apparently, emerges victorious, her objective having been to ensure her ‘place in the house could never be attacked or threatened again’ (p73).  What she has settled for, however, is the limited right to be treated like a member of Moran’s family, to swim like a fish in his net.

Moran’s daughters adapt to life by avoiding confrontation.  Indeed, there seem to be very limited options in counteracting Moran’s dominance.  Compliance, continual confrontation, or departure are the three choices facing Moran’s household.   The strategy of the womenfolk, at least, is to ‘slip away’ or try to appear invisible.  Such evasion is a tactical manoeuvre, a recognition of their own defencelessness.  Beneath their cringing exterior, Mona and Sheila each conceals a forceful character.  Mona is ‘unnaturally acquiescent’, ‘full of hidden violence’; Sheila, even as a young child, knows better than ‘to challenge authority on poor ground’.  They bide their time until their jobs in the Civil Service set them free from Moran’s daily oppression, though Sheila comes near to confrontation before surrendering her opportunity to attend university.  They show their attitude to parental domination in their advice to Michael, to make the best of it until he has finished school and is in a position to choose a career of his own.

In view of their unhappy childhood why do Moran’s children, with the exception of Luke, turn Great Meadow into a place of pilgrimage and their father into a cult figure?  What McGahern presents in Amongst Women is the charisma of patriarchy, which consists in its exercise of sole and absolute authority, the power to approve or disapprove, endorse or withdraw support, affirm or reject, and thereby, to nurture an emotional dependency.  Though in their last years at home, the Moran children flourish under Rose’s benign dispensation, their primary relationship is with their father.  Because his second marriage does not occur until his daughters are in their teens, Rose’s advent does not alter Moran’s status as a dominant single parent, the permanent emotional focus of their lives.  They never allude to their dead mother, and the novel ignores the ‘umbilical debt’, according her no influence whatever on their upbringing.

A large part of the fascination the handsome Moran holds for Rose and for his daughters is sexual.  Rose loves him; his daughters also experience an ‘oedipal’ attachment.  He is their ‘first man’.  He looks on their husbands and male friends as rivals and is content when these prove ‘no threat’ to his primal place in their affections.  Neither Maggie nor Sheila marry dominant men, and Mona resists marriage altogether.  Sheila is the only one to violate this ‘incestuous’ relationship with her father when she leaves him in the hayfield to go indoors and makes love to Sean.

As the novel ends the reader’s sympathies are drawn towards the ailing and dying Moran, so that we share the family’s grief at his death.  His corpse is taken to the church on a ‘heartbreakingly lovely May evening’ and buried on a morning when the ‘Plains were bathed in sunshine’ and ‘the unhoused cattle were grazing greedily on the early grass’ (p.182).  The sadness of this final parting from the fertile spring world is rendered all the more poignant by the baffled love Moran experiences for his own land in old age.  He is shown walking it, ‘field by blind field’, ‘like a blind man trying to see’.  In his last month he repeatedly escapes from his sickbed to stare at the beauty of his meadow.  At the end of his life Moran eventually arrives at a deep appreciation of the ‘amazing glory he is part of’ (p.179).  Maybe this final epiphany is the blessing he always craved and was unable to receive, a blessing hinted at in the name Rose?

John McGahern, oil on canvas, by Barrie Cooke, 1997/8.


This is a realistic novel, which traces the history of an Irish rural family in the early twentieth century.  McGahern focuses on one family and one house and we follow the subtle changes that take place in the comings and goings of various members of the family.  He has created a microcosm in Great Meadow from which to view and comment on the changes which have come about after the War of Independence.  Even though there is a timeless quality to the novel and no dates are mentioned we are being asked to pass judgement on the new State that has emerged and was beginning to find its feet under the influence of the 1937 Constitution.  De Valera’s vision of this New Ireland eulogised the role of women as mothers and home-makers and he painted an idealised picture of life in the Irish countryside:

A land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age.

McGahern in Leitrim and Kavanagh in Monaghan both knew that the realities of life for poor, farm families were radically different from this version offered by de Valera.

McGahern shows  that the power of family bonds to withstand all difficulties is clearly evident throughout every aspect of this story.  At the centre of this story is Moran and his wielding of mesmeric power over his children but it obvious also that Rose Brady is truly the moral centre of the novel.  It is she who silently manages to improve things within the Moran household, and by doing this she controls a good deal of the violence latent in Moran.  It is her undoubted love and loyalty to Moran and her spirit of self-sacrifice in the household, which creates this extraordinary bond of strength which each of the members feel among themselves.

The implication at the conclusion is that Moran’s family is stronger than ever in their love and allegiance to one another.  They truly recognise that Moran played a central part in all their lives.  Their attendance at his funeral strengthens this bond between them even more.  They realise that each one of them, in different ways, has truly imbibed Moran’s beliefs and values.  They remain loyal to his person and beliefs in spite of everything.  Only Luke remains obstinate in his decision not to return home – a reminder that even he has inherited a great deal of stubbornness and pride from his father.


Sampson, Denis. 1993, Outstaring Nature’s Eye – The Fiction of John McGahern. The Lilliput Press, Dublin.

Quinn, Antoinette. 1991, A Prayer For My Daughters: Patriarchy in Amongst Women in The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Special Issue on John McGahern), Volume 17, Number 1, July, 1991


Read also ‘Close Analysis of John McGahern’s ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’ here