In his sometimes irreverent guide to some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, 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.
 O’ Toole, Fintan, Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life – A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy, 2002, Granta Books London – New York