The King and Queen in Hamlet

 

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Glenn Close as Gertrude and Alan Bates as Claudius in Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990).

CLAUDIUS

The presentation of Claudius is interesting.  He is by no means the classic villain of melodrama.  The more reprehensible aspects of his character are filtered to us entirely through the speeches of the two characters he has grievously wronged: Hamlet, father and son.  But there is another Claudius, rather different from the one seen by Hamlet and the Ghost.  Shakespeare allows us glimpses of this other Claudius from time to time, and thereby humanises and balances the portrait.   Claudius is one of the many illustrations of the fact that Shakespeare, even when confronted with the necessity to present ‘evil’ characters, gives us men, not monsters.

The attractive side of Claudius belongs, of course, mainly to the surface.  He behaves at the beginning, as more than one critic has noticed, like the typical kindly uncle, anxious to put his nephew at ease and to make him feel at home in the court, holding out to him the prospect of royal succession, and generally cajoling and flattering him: ‘And now my cousin Hamlet, and my son…..Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet…think of us as a father…remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye…..Tis a loving and a fair reply…’  This courtesy, relatively unforced at this juncture, extends to Laertes and the Ambassadors, although in the case of Laertes, the desire to please is carried to the point of fulsomeness: ‘And now Laertes, what’s the news with you… You told us of some suit, what is’t Laertes?…What wouldst thou beg, Laertes…What wouldst thou have, Laertes?…Take thy fair hour, Laertes’.  He is courteous and considerate to the Ambassadors: ‘Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour / Go to your rest; at night we’ll feast together / Most welcome home’ (11, ii, 83).

Hamlet’s view of Claudius as a King, as distinct from his hatred for him as a man, is not the one that emerges from the play.  His nephew sees him as a ‘vice of king’s and ‘a king of shreds and patches’.  We are, however, allowed to see enough of Claudius in his capacity as a monarch to realise that he is an efficient, capable and practical ruler, with considerable diplomatic ability, which he turns to good account in the Norwegian business.  His speech of commission to the Ambassadors shows clear judgement, incisiveness, and control of matter in hand:

Giving to you no further personal power

               To business with the king, more than the scope

                Of these delated articles allow

                Farewell, and let you haste commend your duty. I,ii.36.

He achieves and easy and peaceful settlement of the problem.  In the light of his efficient management of public affairs suggested here, it is perhaps somewhat surprising to learn that Claudius may not be is full control of his country’s affairs following the death of Polonius: ‘the people muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers’ (IV,v,66, and then, more dramatically, the news from the Gentleman that Laertes has raised an armed rebellion, and that the common cry is ‘Laertes shall be king’.  It is, however, at this point of most acute crisis that Claudius shows his political skills at their most impressive; confronted by the armed Laertes, he displays a rare presence of mind, considerable coolness in the face of real danger, and even an exalted sense of the dignity and inviolability of his royal office:

Let him go, Gertrude: do not fear our person

There’s such divinity doth hedge a king

That treason can but peep to what it would

Acts little of his will…IV,v,108.

He ensures his self-preservation by plotting treachery with the incensed Laertes against Hamlet. He quickly converts a dangerous enemy into a useful instrument of his purposes.  Hamlet may be able to win his verbal battles with Claudius, but the latter is far the shrewder plotter.  He skilfully plays the delicate game of accommodating his undoubted love for Gertrude to his irreconcilable conflict with her son.  When he decides to have Hamlet killed, he chooses a place far from home and away from Gertrude.  A further point deserves emphasis.  If we can accept the reading of the Play Scene which sees Claudius as being able to witness the dumb-show without reacting openly, then we can only agree with Peter Hall that he is ‘a superb operator who hardly ever loses his nerve.  He is a better actor in the play scene than the players themselves are’.

Claudius has his strengths, then, as a politician, as a monarch, and as a diplomat.  He has a strong nerve and a cool head.  He can handle people, even those potentially dangerous to himself, with much assurance.  He has an attractive presence, and is endowed with the art of pleasing, despite Hamlet’s talk of him as ‘a mildew’d ear’.  When Hamlet, in his calmer moments, can forget his hatred of Claudius the man, he accurately describes Claudius and himself as ‘mighty opposites’ (V, ii, 62), an unconscious tribute to his adversary’s stature.  There are, however, other aspects of Shakespeare’s presentation which call to mind a celebrated comment from All’s Well that Ends Well: ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn / Good and ill together’.  The evil aspects of Claudius are more than adequately exposed by Hamlet and the Ghost, and no weight of emphasis on his more endearing qualities or his statecraft can obscure the fact that he has committed one of the most reprehensible crimes known to man, the crime, as he himself recognises, with ‘the primal eldest curse upon it’.  His hypocrisy on his very first appearance appears nauseating in retrospect.  But Shakespeare, master, as Hazlitt pointed out, of the mixed motives of human character, does allow for the possibility that even the treacherous murderer of a brother can be a devoted husband.  There can be no doubt that his feelings for Gertrude are deep and genuine.  There is no reason to question the sincerity of his statement to Laertes that,

for myself

                        My virtue or my plague, be it either which –

                        She is so conjunctive to my life and soul

                        That, as the star moves not but in his sphere

                        I could not but by her …. IV, vii, 12.

This utterence earns some sympathy for the speaker, but it is in the Prayer Scene that the audience finds it most difficult not to respond imaginatively to his plight.  Few tragic villains have ever been given a more beautiful or moving prayer than this:

what if this cursed hand

                        Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood

                        Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens

                        To wash it white as snow? …… III, iii, 43.

What is most striking about the remainder of the soliloquy is that it reveals a conscience-stricken, rather fearful man, ‘a limed soul, struggling to be free’, facing the terrible truth that there is ‘no shuffling’ where heaven is concerned, that no forgiveness is possible where the fruits of crime are still enjoyed.  The effect of this revelation of the hidden Claudius as a man with a tormented conscience reinforces that of the other direct glimpse of his inner self, his aside following the remark of Polonius on the hypocrisy of human beings:

O, ‘tis too true!

How sharp lash that speech doth give my conscience.

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

Than is my deed to my most painted word.

O heavy burden! …..  III, i, 50.

There is, then, no single formula for Claudius, no ready phrase which can do justice to Shakespeare’s portrait.  He has been called ‘a slimy beast’ by one critic, and several nastier names by Hamlet: incestuous, adulterous, a smiling damned villain, and so on.  He is all of these, but he is more.  He is a complex and totally convincing representation of humanity.  Voltaire thought that Shakespeare offended against the laws of artistic propriety when he represented Claudius as a drunkard, feeling that this trait somehow made him less than completely royal.  In answer to Voltaire, Samuel Johnson argued that ‘Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident’, and that he added drunkenness to the other qualities of Claudius, ‘knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power over kings’.

queen-gertrude-2

GERTRUDE

Shakespeare’s presentation of Gertrude has never attracted favourable comment.  Rebecca West shows unbridled contempt for her when she  declared that,

‘The Queen is one of the most poorly endowed human beings Shakespeare ever drew.  Very often he created fools, but there is a richness in their folly, whereas Gertrude is simply a stately defective.  The whole play depends on her not noticing and not understanding’.

A.C. Bradley was somewhat kinder:

‘The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman.  But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow.  She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy’.

(Poor old A. C. hasn’t much of a clue about P. C.!!!).

Her great anxiety seems to be to avoid trouble at any cost, any disturbance of the smooth currents of her existence.  Her early request to Hamlet to cast off his mourning clothes and to look on Claudius as a friend is typical enough of her general attitude.  Essentially, therefore, Gertrude is a woman who means no harm but whose poor judgement contributes greatly to the terrible events that occur.  There are only two female characters in the play, and neither one – Gertrude or Ophelia – is assertive.  However, like her son, the decisions Gertrude does make eventually lead to her death and the downfall of others as well.  Indeed, as I have said elsewhere, at the end of the play there are so many dead victims in the Danish Court that the next King of Denmark is from Norway!

We first realise in Act I, Scene ii, that poor judgement is her major character flaw.  As the mother of a grieving son, Gertrude should have been more sensitive to Hamlet’s feelings.  Instead, less than two months after King Hamlet’s death, Gertrude marries Claudius, her dead husband’s own brother.  Gertrude should have realised how humiliated Hamlet would feel as a result, because at that time it was considered incestuous for a widow to marry her husband’s brother.  There is also jealousy on the part of a son, who feels his mother should be giving him more attention during the mourning period.  She is not in touch with her son’s feelings to see why he is angry.  Hamlet expresses this outrage during his first soliloquy:

    O, most wicked speed, to post

            With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.

Gertrude is shown to be a loving mother but a parent who cannot read into her sons’ behaviour.  When answering Hamlet, she says that it is common for all men to die, but this is not just any man who has died, she should realise; it’s Hamlet’s own father!  Also when Gertrude asks Hamlet:

If it be, why seems it so particular with thee

She means to calm him down, but the word ‘seems’ only makes Hamlet more suspicious.  She fails to realise that in his sensitive mood, the word ‘seems’ will give Hamlet the impression that she is hiding something.  Indeed, there are times when we wonder if she has been implicated in the plot to kill her former husband, but in Act II, Scene ii, there is some evidence that Gertrude really hasn’t any knowledge of the plot.  Hamlet suspects her of being an accomplice with Claudius in his father’s murder.  It’s too bad, therefore, that Hamlet doesn’t hear Gertrude’s private conversation with Claudius in which she gives her theory about Hamlet’s anger:

I doubt it is no other but the main,

His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage.

Gertrude’s conscience may finally be bothering her, but only about her quick marriage, not about anything worse.  If Hamlet hadn’t scolded her, the thought might never have occurred to her that the marriage took place too soon.  Her comments show that Gertrude probably was not an accomplice.  Up until now, we might have believed that Hamlet had grounds for his suspicions but here Claudius and Gertrude are talking privately and Gertrude makes no reference to any plot.  She is also very sincere in wishing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be able to shed some light on her son’s disaffection.  This is in sharp contrast to Claudius’ devious scheming.  Therefore, her worst fault seems to be insensitivity towards her son and she shows no awareness of how her former husband died and therefore no insight into what Hamlet suspects.  The irony here is that Gertrude’s motivation in watching Hamlet’s behaviour is motivated by a genuine concern for his well-being, while Claudius’ concern is for his own well-being.

Another example of Gertrude’s lack of awareness is her inability to see that her second marriage may be seen as adultery by those around her.  Her attitude seems to be that if she and Claudius had simply waited longer before marrying to give Hamlet more time to grieve Hamlet might have reacted better.  She doesn’t face up the fact, as hamlet sees it, that perhaps the marriage shouldn’t have happened at all.  Love seems to be the answer to all problems for Gertrude.

She shows this simple-minded thinking again in Act III, Scene i.  She tells Ophelia about her hope that Hamlet’s madness came from his love for Ophelia.  If Gertrude keeps believing this, she won’t have to face up to the possibility that it is her marriage which is causing the problems.  Gertrude’s romantic outlook again keeps her from seeing the truth.

Because of Hamlet’s powerful belief in his mother’s guilt, he takes his anger out on Ophelia, who Hamlet may think is just another insincere woman like his mother.  Hamlet is determined to prick his mother’s conscience as well as Claudius’ in the Play Scene.  But Gertrude reacts casually and she does not show guilt about her relationship with Claudius but instead, she has a very practical approach to the Player Queen:

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

She is realistic enough to say that in real life, a widow would easily want to remarry, and that this is why the Player Queen is not a believable character.  However, this is another example of how Gertrude can’t or refuses to see how other people are affected by her behaviour.  Even after Hamlet’s questioning, Gertrude is not aware enough of her actions to make a connection between the play and her own life.  Her reaction to the play also shows that she is unaware of Claudius’ guilt.  Even though she is described as being upset after Claudius leaves excitedly, she is anxious more about how Claudius feels than about anyone’s guilt.

Finally, in Act III, Scene iv, Hamlet forces Gertrude to see what he is accusing her of: murder, incest, adultery.  He does reach her conscience, because she says:

Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,

  And there I see such black and grained spots

  As will not leave their tinct.

 In this scene, Hamlet confronts his mother and it seems as if Gertrude is being asked to choose between her son or her husband.  Up to this point she has tried to please both, which is impossible.  However, it seems to me that Hamlet has some success here in warning Gertrude about the evil of her new husband.  She is shocked when he kills Polonius in such a cold blooded manner and he replies that it is indeed ‘a bloody deed’:

Almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king and marry with his brother.

 Her shocked response of:

As kill a king!

 Removes all suspicion of guilt from Gertrude and she begins to comprehend the terrible situation she has gotten herself into.  She ends the scene by telling her son:

Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,

And breath of life, I have no life to breathe,

What thou hast said to me.

 We see the results of this important confrontation immediately in Act IV, Scene i, when she tries to protect Hamlet from Claudius.  When describing to Claudius Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, she covers up Hamlet’s callous attitude by saying that he cried afterwards.  She knows that Hamlet did not show sorrow.

Gertrude is not a very good judge of character and she does not have the insight to distinguish between sincerity and deception.  She is finding it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that she has married a corrupt man.  He is adamant that he is sending Hamlet away for her safety, while in reality he is only concerned for his own life.  If her judgement were better, she would object to the idea out of fear for Hamlet’s life.  Her chief aim in life seems to keep everyone happy, even though her actions caused many of the problems in the first place.

Her reaction at Ophelia’s funeral shows again that Gertrude is a romantic thinker rather than a realist.  She is very superficial, not showing any great grief but more regret that Hamlet and Ophelia did not get married.  Gertrude still wants to believe that their love would have made everything better.  It is yet another case of Gertrude not facing up to reality and escaping into romantic fantasy.  It is only at the very end, when Gertrude realises that the cup contains poison, that she faces the truth. The irony in this scene is that Gertrude actually offers the wine to her son to help and encourage him!  But she finally has to admit to herself that Claudius is guilty of murdering her former husband and of trying to murder her son also.  When she warns Hamlet not to drink the wine, she is, at last, showing compassion for her son and her wish to protect him from danger.

In other words, the play’s last scene neatly summarises Gertrude’s two sides.  As a mother, she means well and does have concern for her son but her bad decisions and failure to judge people correctly are a major cause of the tragedy.  Shakespeare does her no favours: he depicts her as a weak and shallow woman.  Her only redeeming feature is her love for her son.  She dies a pathetic death, another victim of Claudius’s treachery, knowing that he has murdered Hamlet as well as herself.

 

Works Cited

Bradley, A. C., Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.  2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1905. p.167

Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays 1917 – 1932.Essay entitled Hamlet and his Problems (1919). London: Faber and Faber, 1932

Peter Hall’s Hamlet in Royal Shakespeare: Four Major Productions at Statford-on-Avon by Stanley Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976

West, Rebecca, The Court and the Castle, Yale University Press, 1957.

Voltaire quoted by Theodore Besterman in his Introduction to Voltaire on Shakespeare (Genève: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1967).

Samuel Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare, paras 1 – 40, (1765), in Famous Prefaces, The Harvard Classics 1909 – 14.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moral Question in Hamlet

Hamlet (2)

Hamlet the play and Hamlet the character have always attracted the attention of critics with a strongly moral bent.  This is inevitable.  The play deals with crime and punishment, with complex questions of right and wrong, moral decisions, and questions of conscience.  Critics and readers must respond accordingly.  Confining our attention to Hamlet himself, it must be said that a good deal of what he does, says and thinks throughout the play is open to discussion on moral grounds, and one’s verdict on his character must depend to a large extent on one’s judgement of his moral stature.  The following are some of the main points at issue:

  • Does Hamlet take the Ghost’s command to revenge as a moral duty, and if he does, is he right to do so? If he does, does the play as a whole insist that we approve of his attitude?  As one might expect, there has been a wide range of answers to these questions.  Some critics accept without hesitation that the revenge-ethic is the one that governs the play, that Hamlet accepts it, that he has a duty to do as the Ghost asks, that he is an agent of justice as well as a revenger.  Against this, we have the view that a ghost which calls for revenge must be a morally ambivalent spirit, that Hamlet, in accepting the command, is yielding to temptation and that the Ghost is an evil spirit.
  • On the whole, one must take it that Shakespeare, for the purposes of this play, accepts the revenge ethic – even if it is contrary to Christian teaching.  The argument for this seems unanswerable.  Hamlet himself is in no doubt about the question, whatever doubts he may entertain about his uncle’s guilt or the Ghost’s ‘honesty’.  The overall tone of the play persuades us to admire Hamlet and to identify with his concerns, and, by implication, with his acceptance as a duty of the task of vengeance.  To argue otherwise would be to see a massive irony in the ending, and in Horatio’s parting tribute (‘Flights of angels, sing thee to thy rest’) – something few readers or spectators would find acceptable.
  • Shakespeare places Hamlet in some morally dubious situations, causes him to perform some morally questionable acts, and express morally questionable sentiments. The most obvious example is the Prayer Scene.  Here he spares Claudius at prayer because he thinks that if he kills him his victim will go to heaven, and this would not be an ideal form of revenge, since Claudius killed Old Hamlet when the latter was spiritually unprepared for death.  so, Hamlet declares, he must wait for an opportunity to take the kind of revenge he assumes his father would have wanted, to catch Claudius in the midst of sin:

about some act

                                    That has no relish of salvation in it

                                    Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven

                                    And that his soul may be as damned and black

                                    As hell, whereto it goes …..  III, iii, 90.

No matter how this passage is interpreted, the effect is shocking.  Johnson declared it ‘too horrible to be read or uttered’.  Patrick Cruttwell has an interesting comment:  ‘The irony is that Hamlet is here behaving as he does because he is a Christian, convinced, as most believers then were, of the vital importance of dying well.  The pagan revenger could have taken his revenge then and there – the only vengeance available to a pagan, the bringing to an end of bodily life’ (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, p. 121).  When Cruttwell says that ‘Hamlet is behaving as he does because he is a Christian’, he means Hamlet believes in the Christian doctrine appropriate to the subject.  The attitude expressed by Hamlet is not the Christian one.  The course he rejects is, presumably, the only one open to a ‘Christian’ avenger: ‘To take him in the purging of his soul / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage’ (III, iii, 85).

  • Hamlet’s dealings with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have provoked some impassioned moral responses. L.C. Knights writes about ‘the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’.  The two are bearing a packet containing sealed orders for Hamlet’s execution in England (‘No leisure bated….my head should be struck off’).  He alters the commission.  The English king is to put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ‘to sudden death / No shriving time allowed’.  In defence of Hamlet’s proceedings here, it might be argued that it is a question of his survival or theirs.  But there is another consideration.  There is a sense in which Hamlet is at war, and Shakespeare conveys this sense by the use of military imagery in relation to the practices of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer

Hoist with his own petard …. III, iv, 206.

 and

their defeat

                                    Does by their own insinuation grow:

                                    ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

                                    Between the pass and fell incensed points

                                    Of mighty opposites…. V, ii, 59.

  • The killing of Polonius in mistake for Claudius is another episode that has attracted much unfavourable moral comment. His dismissal of the dead man as ‘thou wretched, rash, intruding fool’ may be reasonably accurate by way of general description of his role, but is scarcely appropriate in the circumstances of the moment.  A later comment serves to redeem some of Hamlet’s reputation: ‘For this same Lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this and this with me / That I must be their scourge and minister’.  Here Hamlet is thinking of the retribution (his death) that must inevitably follow for him as a result of what he has done.  But he soon dissipates whatever moral sympathy he has gained when he flippantly dismisses the corpse of Polonius: ‘Not where he eats but where he is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him….if indeed, you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby’ (IV, iv, 34).  It is not enough in the way of a defence of Hamlet’s conduct in this affair to suggest that he has killed Polonius in a blaze of mindless fury; his subsequent comments surely undermine such a defence.
  • One of the most interesting topics arising from Hamlet’s behaviour and attitudes through the play may be presented in the form of a question: Is the Hamlet we encounter in Act V a different character, morally and spiritually, from the one we have known in the earlier acts? Most of those who have dealt with this question have given affirmative answers, and many have argued that the Hamlet who returns from the sea-voyage shows a new spiritual awareness, a faith in the benevolent workings of Providence that was not evident before.  This faith in Providence is usually seen as the principal mark of his regeneration.  One critic, Roy Walker, finds the sea voyage ‘symbolical of a spiritual journey’, rather like Yeats’ in Sailing to Byzantium.  Another, G. W. Knight, suggests that ‘Hamlet’s sea adventures may be allowed (though the text itself gives no explicit warrant for it) to serve vaguely some symbolic purpose: certainly he comes back a subtly changed man’.

There is some strong evidence in favour of the general proposition that the sea-voyage does mark a significant change (a sea-change?!) in Hamlet’s attitudes.  He has, he believes, escaped the death that awaited him in England partly through his own ingenuity, but also through a series of near-miraculous accidents.  He has the sense that Heaven has preserved him, and that without Providential intervention his own plans would have availed him little.  One of the crucial textual supports for the notion of a ‘regenerated’ hamlet is his affirmation to Horatio:

Rashly,

                              And praised be rashness for it let us know,

                              Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

                              When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us

                              There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

                              Rough-hew them how we will….. V, ii, 6.

There is also a new attitude to the revenger’s role after his return from the voyage, which is expressed in his question to Horatio about Claudius:

  is’t not perfect conscience

                               To quit him with this arm?  And is’t not to be damned

                              To let this canker of our nature come

                            In further evil? …….V, ii, 67.

Here he seems to be thinking of his task not as an act of private vengeance, but of public duty, to be undertaken for the benefit of society.

The most celebrated passage bearing on Hamlet’s ‘regeneration’ is the one in which he replies to Horatio’s suggestion that it might be best to postpone the duel:

‘Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now , yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be’  (V, ii, 216).

This is generally taken to signify Hamlet’s newly-found faith in a higher power, a faith which gives him strength to face the forthcoming trial.  There is a note of passive acceptance in the passage, as if Hamlet felt himself an instrument in the hands of providence.  This submission takes the place of the earlier ‘bloody thoughts’ associated with revenge.  The evil represented by Claudius, which has intensifies since the beginning of the action, will, Hamlet senses, be dealt with by Providence, but with himself as the instrument.  He has already indicated to Horatio his sense that Providence is working in his favour.  Asked how he could alter the documents giving warrant for his death, he tells Horatio:

What even in that was heaven ordinant

                               I had my father’s signet in my purse…..V, ii, 49.

After the frantic outburst at Ophelia’s grave, we no longer find him trying to work up his feelings against Claudius, or planning schemes of revenge.  There is as calm assurance in his acceptance of the King’s invitation to fence with Laertes: ‘I am constant to my purposes; they follow the King’s pleasure; if his fitness speaks, mine is ready now – or whensoever, provided I be so able as now’ (V, ii, 197).  It is, perhaps, idle to speculate about the reasons behind this new attitude.  Even in the Closet Scene, he has shown a certain momentary tenderness towards his mother (‘And when you are desirous to be blest / I’ll blessing beg of you’).  It may be that after he has relieved his mind of his horror at Gertrude’s act, a healing process is set in motion which causes the striking changes in attitude we see as the end approaches.

What seems beyond doubt is that in the last Act, Hamlet’s attitude to his mission conforms much more closely to the Christian moral code than it did at the beginning, and that he moves to the completion of his task as a ‘justicer’ rather than a revenger.  The impression is intensified by the fact that, with the passage of time, his uncle’s greater commitment to evil practices make his eventual execution look as much like the fulfilment of a public duty as an act of private vengeance.  Peter Ure has a useful comment:

‘If Hamlet does not commit himself but is committed, however freely he submits, it can be said that he is less the revenger, that he is able to achieve the act of revenge without ever really becoming a revenger, that the larger perspective frees his inward self from the role: because all does not now depend on him, and because the end can be accomplished without his being in the mood for it, the identification of the self with the revenger, the coalescence of the two, is no longer enjoined upon him’ (Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, 5, 1963, p. 28).

If all these considerations are valid, we shall not find Hamlet’s departure from the world as a Christian hero incongruous.

Works Cited

Crutwell, Patrick, in  Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, 1963, p. 121

Ure, Peter, in Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies, No. 5, 1963, p. 28.

Knight, G.W., The Wheel of Fire, London: Routledge, 2001.

Knights, L.C., in Shakespeare Survey, Volume 20: Shakespearian and Other Tragedy. ed. Kenneth Muir. Cambridge University Press, 1967.

 

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Hamlet: The World of the Play

 

 

 Hamlet (2)

Hamlet, directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier, was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1948.   Olivier’s Hamlet is the Shakespeare film that has received the most prestigious accolades, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in that year.  The film’s opening, with Olivier’s voice-over of his own interpretation of the play, was, however, criticised as reductive and somewhat simplistic: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” (Brode, 120).

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Like all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet deals not just with the problems of individuals, but with the situation of man in the world.  It is a revenge tragedy, in which one death is demanded in place of another.  But it is much more.  Like Lear, Macbeth and Othello, Hamlet explores the nature and working of evil forces in human beings and in the body politic.  Like those plays, it enacts the dire consequences which follow when the bonds of nature are broken and evil forces and disorder are allowed free play.  The image that best conveys what happens in Hamlet, and indeed in the other great tragedies, is found in Macbeth.  To the overwrought hero of that play, his chief victim’s wounds seem, ‘like a breach in Nature / For ruin’s wasteful entrance’.  Macbeth’s image conveys a potent sense of universal desolation.  Nature itself (man’s social and moral order) has been wounded or breached by the murder of a lawful king; through the gap, the forces of ruin and disorder enter as an army might pour through a breach in a city wall.

Even a brief summary of the main elements in the Hamlet plot makes it clear that the Macbeth image expresses the central concerns of the earlier play.  The lawful king, Old Hamlet, has been murdered by his brother; regicide and fratricide, unnatural crimes, have opened a huge gap in the social and moral order of Denmark, and the way is left open for ruin and disorder to engulf the main protagonists in the tragic sequel.  One of the central images of the play is that of poison.  It is introduced with the literal poisoning of the Old Hamlet by Claudius; after this, a metaphorical poisoning seeps through the play.  At the outset, Marcellus senses that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’, and Hamlet finds his world possessed only by ‘things rank and gross in nature’ (1,ii, 138).  He is not far off the mark: Denmark under Claudius becomes a place of intrigue, treachery, spying, mistrust, with someone hidden behind every curtain, or listening at every door. Marriage, love, friendship and loyalty are corroded by fear, suspicion and cynicism.  Polonius is prepared to have his son spied on and to twist the innocent relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia to his own sinister purposes: ‘I’ll loose my daughter to him’ (11, ii, 162).  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, once Hamlet’s good friends, become spies for Claudius.   Eight people die.  All the members of the two families in the play, those of Old Hamlet and Polonius, are wiped out – so many die that the next King of Denmark is from Norway!.

The manner of the most significant deaths is worth underlining.  Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet are all poisoned, like King Hamlet, and Hamlet forces the poisoned cup on Claudius, already dying from the poisoned rapier.  Of the tragic victims, H.D.F. Kitto remarks that, ‘the conception which unites these eight persons in one coherent catastrophe may be said to be this: evil, once started on its course, will so work as to attach and overthrow impartially the good and the bad’ (Form and Meaning in Drama). As for the ‘bad’ characters, Claudius is their extreme representative; he moves from crime to crime until he is destroyed by his own schemes.  But even the innocent Ophelia is not exempt from the relentless progress of evil; she too must pay the price of the initial crime.  Claudius corrupts those around him.  Gertrude is the pathetic victim of her association with him.  What Hamlet thinks of her ‘sin’ condemns her to endure all her appalling consequences.  She will die without forgiveness or reconciliation; while she lives she will see her ‘deranged’ and beloved son kill Polonius in her presence, and endure his scathing condemnation of her conduct; she will see her husband at war with her son, all her hopes ruined, Ophelia driven insane and to suicide.  Laertes, by no means a figure of evil, also falls victim to the machinations of Claudius, and becomes a treacherous murderer.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hardly constitutional villains, are likewise contaminated and likewise destroyed, as is Polonius.  Even Horatio is ready to commit suicide.

In the light of this, there seems little point in emphasising too much the personal problems of this or that character.  In Hamlet we are dealing with a great force of nature that, once unleashed, must work its deadly way through the world, destroying all in its path.  It is a force that makes all considerations of personal guilt or innocence appear insignificant.  It will not abate until the old, corrupted scheme of things has been wiped away, and a new order, here doubtfully represented by Fortinbras of Norway, is ready to take over.

The dominant image-pattern of Hamlet serves to emphasise the fact that the play is concerned in a major way with the spread of evil forces which destroy good and bad alike.  Reference has already been made to the imagery of poison; the rottenness of Denmark is seen in terms of poison.  The primary poisoner is Claudius.  The juice he pours into the ears of his brother is both a poison and a disease, a leprous distilment that corrupts the body while it kills.  From this fatal source, the evil, seen as a sickness, that will ultimately engulf all the major participants, spreads outward.  Most of the characters see their plight in terms of sickness.  The Queen talks of her ‘sick soul’; the king of the ‘hectic’ in his blood; Laertes seeks revenge as a means of easing ‘the sickness in my heart’.  Ophelia’s madness is called the ‘poison of deep grief’.  Even the Fortinbras expedition to Poland is seen in terms of a hidden disease:

This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace

        That inward breaks, and shows no cause without

        Why the man dies….    IV, iv, 147.

(Note: An imposthume is a septic swelling, like a boil.)

In her classic study of Shakespeare’s imagery, Caroline Spurgeon found that in Hamlet the idea of an ulcer or tumour, as descriptive of the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally is, on the whole, the dominating one.’  (Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells us. p. 316).  Many of the more memorable images of the play are, in fact, ones of sickness and disease, and these contribute to the overall atmosphere.  Claudius is seen by Hamlet as ‘a mildewed ear, blasting his wholesome brother’.  At the end of the Closet Scene, he begs his mother not to dismiss his father’s apparition as due to her son’s madness, but to see it as evidence of her own guilt.  To refuse to recognise the truth,

                        Will but skin and film the ulcerous place

                        Whiles rank corruption, mining all within

                        Infects unseen…..III, iv, 147.

When Hamlet comes upon Claudius at prayer, he declares that ‘This physic but prolongs thy sickly days’.  He sees the action of conscience in terms of a healthy countenance turning pale with sickness (‘the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’).  Claudius finds in images of sickness a suitable means of expressing his own concerns.  When he hears that Polonius is dead, he sees his own failure to have Hamlet locked up as comparable to the cowardice of a man with a ‘foul disease’ who,

To keep it from divulging, let it feed

                        Even on the pith of life ….   IV, i, 21.

He continues to use similar images in reference to the Hamlet problem.  When he is sending him to England, he defends his action by reference to a proverb:

Diseases desperate grown

                        By desperate appliance are relieved

                        Or not at all.  ……   IV, iii, 9.

Again, his request to the King of England to have Hamlet put to death is couched in terms of a similar image, that of a patient suffering from a high fever seeking relief;

For like the hectic in my blood he rages

                        And thou must cure me….. IV, iii, 65.

Perhaps his most characteristic, most incisive, image of sickness comes as he faces the danger of Hamlet’s return from England:

 But to the quick o’ the ulcer

                        Hamlet comes back….. IV, vii, 124.

There can be little doubt that the atmosphere and mood of Hamlet are greatly influenced by such images of rottenness, disease, corruption, mortality, deception and treachery.  But this is not the whole story.  Any reader or spectator who tries to re-create and describe his imaginative experience of the plays must inevitably be conscious of another, altogether different, set of impressions which help to counteract the admittedly powerful images of disease and corruption.  Wilson Knight has argued that,

‘except for the original murder of Hamlet’s father, the Hamlet universe is one of healthy and robust life, good nature and humour, romance, strength and welfare; against this background is the figure of Hamlet pale with the consciousness of death’ (The Wheel of Fire, p. 32).

This is to go rather far in the other direction, but Hamlet is, indeed, a play of astonishing juxtapositions.  There is grim comedy in the face of death, as in the graveyard scene; much genuine comedy in the Hamlet-Polonius and Hamlet-Osric exchanges; frank good humour in the encounter between Hamlet and the Players and genuine kindness in the Hamlet-Horatio dialogues.  The Court of Elsinore may be a prison, a place of spying and of underlying corruption, but it is also a place where nobility, chivalry, ceremonial dignity and courtesy play a part.  Much of the imagery may be depressing, but there are very many flashes of beauty in the lyrical and descriptive passages: Hamlet seeing his graceful father,

‘like the herald Mercury / New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill’; Marcellus’ noble evocation of the beliefs surrounding Christmastide – ‘Some say that ever against that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated / The bird of dawning singeth all night long’. 

Ophelia’s death is a beautifully-rendered pastoral scene.  The ritual of the court is elaborate, dignified and impressive.  Claudius is a villain, but he has a deep sense of formal propriety and of courtly ceremony.  His language is regal and urbane.   The fencing-match, despite what we know will be its inevitable outcome, can be a beautifully-staged spectacle.  Again, there is much grace and beauty in Hamlet’s evocation of the noble names from the classical past: Jove, Mars, Mercury, Priam, Caesar, Alexander, Hercules, Hyperion.  Perhaps the best single epitaph for the balance and juxtaposition of opposing moods, images and impressions in Hamlet, of its generous accommodation of divided and distinguished worlds, is found in the bland words of Claudius to his courtiers, with their admittedly spurious balancing:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,

                        The imperial jointress to this warlike state

                        Have we, as ‘twere with a defeated joy

                        With an auspicious and a drooping eye

With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage

In equal scale weighing delight and dole,

Taken to wife……… I, ii, 8.

‘Delight and dole’: there is no better description of what we find in Hamlet.  I wonder what would Sir Laurence Olivier make of that analysis?

 

Works Cited

Brode, Douglas, (2001). Shakespeare in the Movies. Berkley Boulevard.

Sturgeon, Caroline, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. p. 316

H.D.F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of Hamlet, London: Methuen, 1956.

G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, Routledge, 2001 (first published 1930). Print. p.32

Death and Deceit in Hamlet

 

 

 Hamlet (2)

 

Critics, it seems, have never been in any doubt as to what is the main theme in Hamlet.  Wilson Knight declares that, ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’, while C. S. Lewis has no doubt that, ‘death is the subject of Hamlet’.  Fintan O’Toole in his book Shakespeare is Hard but so is Life, agrees and provides another interesting theory when he says, ‘Hamlet is a play about death.  Or rather, it is a play about the survival of the individual in the face of death’ (p.45).  He goes on to say that in Hamlet, ‘death is the picture, not the frame’.  The cynic in me always wants to point out that when ‘the hurly burly’s done’ there are so many princes and courtiers dead in Elsinore that the next King of Denmark  is from Norway!  (This is akin to the FAI’s ‘Grandfather Rule’ for eligibility for Irish soccer team selection)!

Hamlet’s own final summary of what has happened in the play lends weight to such statements; he talks of:

Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

                        Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause… V, ii, 379

It might be said that in all Shakespeare’s tragedies death is inevitably a major concern (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, Coriolanus, all die), but it is in Hamlet that it receives its most elaborate and extended treatment.  The play broods deeply on the nature and significance of man’s life.  Wilson Knight points to the almost obsessive preoccupation of the hero, Hamlet, with death: ‘Life that is bound for the disintegration of the grave, love that does not survive the loved one’s life – both in their insistence on death as the primary fact of nature, are branded on the mind of Hamlet, burned into it, searing it with agony’ (The Wheel of Fire, p. 31).  For Claudius, the fact of death is something to be presented in the form of platitudes (‘All that lives must die’).  But for Hamlet, it is an ever-present reality.  Death is at the heart of the two main plots: Hamlet’s bereavement and his consequent mental suffering are paralleled in Ophelia’s loss of her father and her subsequent madness.  Violent death, violent grief and its quick termination in The Murder of Gonzago are a reflection of the events and emotions involving the King Hamlet-Claudius-Gertrude triangle.  Five characters are killed and Ophelia buried before our eyes.  The plot is set in motion by a particularly hideous death, graphically described by its ghostly victim.  The activities of Fortinbras involve the slaughter of thousands of men.  Hamlet sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.

The treatment of death in Hamlet is more ambitious and adventurous than in the other tragedies of Shakespeare.  In these, death is the end.  Their characters, as C. S. Lewis remarks, ‘think of dying: no one thinks, in these plays of being dead.  In Hamlet, we are kept thinking about it all the time whether in terms of the soul’s destiny or the body’s.  Purgatory, Hell, Heaven, the wounded name, the rights – or wrongs – of Ophelia’s burial, and the staying power of a tanner’s corpse: and beyond this, beyond all Christian and pagan maps of the hereafter, comes a curious groping and tapping of thoughts, about what dreams may come’ (The Prince or the Poem?’).  We are told by the Ghost of terrors beyond the grave, where spirits are daily ‘confined to fast in fires’, and are made to confront the possibility of such terrors by Hamlet himself as he contemplates ‘ the dread of something after death / The undiscovered country’.  The repulsive bodily effects of death are given detailed exposition by Hamlet as he comments on the corpse of Polonius.  Hamlet is much preoccupied with morbid reflections on bodily decay after death, particularly in the graveyard scene, visualising with no little relish how a king (one like Claudius) may go in progress ‘through the guts of a beggar’.

We know from the time when Claudius and Laertes formulate their plants against Hamlet’s life that his death is imminent; the long scene of Ophelia’s funeral keeps the issue in suspense for a time, but the same scene keeps the death theme before our minds. Death in Hamlet is presented in many forms.  That of Polonius is gruesome. He is killed like a rat behind the curtain, his body is lugged about and thought of by Hamlet as being eaten by worms even before it is buried. Ophelia’s death by contrast, is a beautiful tableau; her own song is her requiem; she is garlanded with flowers in the stream and in the grave.  The graveyard scene is one of the most potent evocations of the nature of life and death in all literature.  The tone is largely humorous, but behind the jokes of the singing gravedigger is a powerful affirmation of the permanence of the grave.  ‘Who builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?’ asks the second gravedigger.  ’A grave-maker’ replies the first; ‘the houses he makes last till doomsday’. Just as he is saying this, Hamlet, the manner of whose death, we know, is already planned, comes upon the scene, and the skulls the gravedigger unearths leads him to meditate most movingly or mortality.

The graveyard scene is marked by one singular stroke of inspiration easy to miss on a casual reading or watching.  Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger raises the subject of his own birth.  When Hamlet asks him how long he has been at the trade, it transpires that ‘it was that very day that young Hamlet was born’ (V,i,145).  The terrible inevitability of death is suddenly brought into a new focus; the very day on which Hamlet came into the world, a gravedigger began his occupation.  To add a further chilling emphasis to the point, the procession that soon enters the graveyard includes the King and Laertes, who plan to end Hamlet’s life.

Two of Hamlet’s soliloquies look on death from another aspect: as a welcome escape from the weariness of the world.  This emphasis is present even before the encounter with the Ghost:

  O that this too, too, solid flesh would melt,

                            Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

                            Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

                            His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter…(1,ii.129)

This world-weariness intensifies after he has learned the full truth about his uncle.  Nobody, he reflects, would willingly endure ‘the whips and scorns of time’, would continue to ‘grunt and sweat under a weary life’ were he not restrained from suicide by the dread of an uncertain hereafter.  Thus he rejects suicide as an option because in suicide the afterlife would be unknown, unpredictable.  However, by Act V he is ready for what lies ahead, and he tells Horatio, ‘the readiness is all’ (Act V, Sc ii, 165).  He is ready for his death and as Fintan O’Toole also concludes, ‘he has rehearsed it,  (and) it will be all right on the night’ (p. 57).

DECEIT AND SUBTERFUGE – APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

This meditation connects the death-theme to another: the relation of reality to appearance.  Critics who have analysed the image-pattern in Hamlet have pointed out that Shakespeare makes crucial use of images derived from art to express ideas of concealment and exposure.  One such image used by Claudius in an aside perfectly, expresses this theme:

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art

                 Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

                 Than is my deed to my most painted word

111,i, 51

Then Ophelia enters, ‘the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia’ of Hamlet’s love letter. Her purpose here, however, is to act a part, to be false to herself, to let herself be used by Claudius and her father to trick Hamlet.  The words used by Polonius as he prepares Ophelia for the interview with hamlet belong to the pattern of images of appearance contrasted with reality: ‘Tis to much proved, that with devotion’s visage / And pious action, we do sugar o’er / The devil himself’ (III, I, 47).  Hamlet’s famous attack on her extends to a denunciation of all female efforts to conceal reality (‘I have heard of your paintings, too…’).  Art, of course, can also penetrate beneath appearance to uncover the reality, as in the Play Scene, which exposes the King’s concealed guilt.

All through the play the characters and the audience are disturbed by the problematic nature of appearance versus reality.  The very mechanism that sets the action going, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, is, in the eyes of those who encounter it, of dubious origin and significance.  It may be, to use Hamlet’s words, ‘a spirit of health or a goblin damn’d’; it may be, Horatio thinks, some fiend sent to lure Hamlet to his ruin.  And yet, this phantom heralds some painful realities for Hamlet and the court of Claudius.  Appearances in that court blatantly contradict realities.  Claudius can smile and smile and yet be a villain; Polonius can appear a tedious, garrulous old fool and still be a scheming, dangerous instigator of mischief.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can hide treacherous intent under the mask of friendship.  Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is, he assures his friends, merely an appearance, a convenience; this is not how it seems to Claudius and Polonius, who go to most elaborate lengths to probe what they feel is its hidden significance.  Claudius discovered at prayer by hamlet is, perhaps the most striking instance of the pattern of appearance versus reality in the play.  Consider the appearance.  For all Hamlet can see, the act being performed by Claudius has every mark of genuine devotion, ‘some relish of salvation’.  If he dies now at the avenger’s hand, his soul will be saved.  But then we discover the reality, though Hamlet does not.  Claudius cannot really pray at all.  If the reasons Hamlet gives for not wanting to kill the king at this moment are genuine, they are based on a pardonable misreading of appearances, which totally contradict the reality underneath.

Like almost everybody else, Hamlet gets caught up in the general pattern of concealment, deceit, disguise and pretence, much as he condemns these traits in others, particularly in his mother.  He reminds her that her mourning for his father was nothing but a show, whereas his outward show of grief corresponds to what is within (‘I know not seems….’).  Soon, however, Hamlet will be telling his friends that he will be assuming his own kind of disguise, his ‘antic disposition’, with a view to concealing his real self from the world.  Again, in relation to this, it becomes a matter for much debate how real Hamlet’s ‘madness’ is: how much is feigned, how much unfeigned.

Works Cited

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.”  In The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. London: Routledge, 2001. (17-49).

Lewis, C. S.: “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem”, in selected literary essays, ed. Walter Hooper, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univesity press, 1969), p.98

O’Toole, Fintan, Shakespeare is Hard, But so is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearian Tragedy, Granta Books, 2002. Print.

 

 

Words of Encouragement to Those who Work Alone on Ledges

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John McAuliffe, joint winner with Doireann Ní Ghriofa of the 2016 Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize says in The Clare Herald, “In  his poem ‘Struts’, Michael Hartnett describes creatures who abide alone, each on their own ‘ledge, / seldom seeing each other — / hearing an occasional shout / above or below / and sometimes and most welcome / seeing fires like silver spirals / jump along the crevices‘. The poem could be describing poets (or academics?), who work alone (on their own ledges) and, every so often, hear good news and celebrate it at events like Éigse in Newcastle West every April.”

“This award is like one of those spiral-like fires. It’s both a confirmation and a great encouragement to receive the award, especially since I’ve been reading and thinking and talking about Michael Hartnett’s poems — the lyrics, the narratives, the ballads — for as long as I’ve been writing,” John said.

This year’s Éigse takes place in Newcastle West with the Official Opening and prize presentation on Thursday 14th April with the keynote address by poet, Rita Ann Higgins, one of this year’s judges along with Gerard Smyth.

Éigse continues throughout the town, in the schools, Library, Red Door Gallery, hospital and pubs until Saturday April 16th – culminating with Colum McCann (in the company of  Colm Mac Con Iomaire who will provide musical accompaniment) reading from his work on Saturday evening at 8pm.

The breadth and diversity of the programme creates an ambience of warmth and conviviality that lends itself to lively gatherings, easy conversation and spirited debate.  In other words……..