When we first encounter Macbeth he is portrayed as the mighty general, the king’s enforcer-in-chief, while the play ends with his inevitable, lonely, solitary death following his doomed, albeit brave, defense of the indefensible. So, it can be said, that the major pattern of the play is Macbeth’s progressive movement from centrality to isolation. This pattern encompasses the whole play and expresses an essential process in every tragedy: the hero must confront his destiny alone. Macbeth’s role is that of a man who begins as the central and most admired figure of his society and ends by being totally isolated from it in his lonely fortress in Dunsinane. His ultimate fate suggests that of a sacrificial victim. Having caused havoc in society and broken the bonds of nature, he must be isolated and destroyed so that natural and social order can be restored again – for the time being at least!
The opening of the play focuses attention on Macbeth as the heroic object of everyone’s admiration, well earned since he is the saviour of his country. The captain’s account of his exploits in Act I, ii and the King’s lavish praise in Act I, iv serve to establish his heroic stature and his unique status in society before his fall. But the images used in these scenes to convey Macbeth’s prowess as a warrior have another, more disturbing, effect. There is a frightening savagery in some of the more memorable ones: the sword ‘which smoked with bloody execution’; the bloody hero who ‘carved out his passage’ and ‘unseamed’ his enemy as if anxious to ‘bathe in reeking wounds/ Or memorise another Golgotha’ (I, ii 18-22). These reiterated images suggest Macbeth’s natural capacity – perhaps even his relish – for destruction. Our first picture of him as provided by the bleeding sergeant is a faithful anticipation of our last one. The early image of the warrior carving up his enemy with a smoking sword is mirrored in the last one of the ‘dead butcher’ (V, vii, 98) whose severed head is carried on to the stage by Macduff. Echoes and anticipations of this kind are found everywhere in Macbeth.
Before Duncan’s murder we find the two Macbeths taking the first decisive step which will isolate them from the process of normal living and break the bonds which bind them to human nature and society. With deliberate formality, Lady Macbeth dedicates herself to the power of evil: ‘Come you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts….’ (I, v, 38). Later, Macbeth makes a similar prayer: ‘Thou sure and firm-set earth,/ Hear not my steps…’ (II, i, 56). His separation from God is implied in his ‘Wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”?’ (II, ii, 30).
Duncan’s murder hastens the process of Macbeth’s isolation. Malcolm and Donalbain flee him (II, iii, 119); Banquo suspects him (III, i, 3). Even before Banquo’s murder and the social debacle of the Banquet Scene, we have a glimpse of Macbeth estranged from his natural companions: ‘How now, my Lord! Why do you keep alone,/ Of sorriest fancies your companions making’ (III, ii, 8-9).
The Banquet Scene (III, iv) marks a decisive stage in his alienation from his subjects. His gradual estrangement even from Lady Macbeth has already been suggested in his failure to let her share in his plan to murder Banquo. After her supreme efforts in the Banquet Scene she dwindles from being his ‘dearest partner of greatness’ (I, v, 10) to a passive listless, weary listener. The last time we see him alone with her, at the end of Act III, iv, the collapse of their relationship is pathetically apparent; this is further underlined in his response to the news of her death. The final movement of Act III, iv has compelling visual images of Macbeth’s separation from his subjects, who leave his feast in hasty disorder. This is not the only abandonment: in the final scene we learn that Fleance has escaped (20), that Macduff ‘denies his person at our great bidding’ (128) and that Macbeth can depend so little on the loyalty of his followers that he must ‘keep a servant fee’d’ in all their houses (131).
The final movement of the play opens with news of growing opposition to Macbeth’s rule, and of intrigue and conspiracy against him. Macduff has fled (IV, I, 140). In Act V, Macbeth’s isolation is made explicit in reiterated images of abandonment and loneliness. He articulates it in some of the greatest poetry of the play: ‘that which should accompany old age,/ As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have’ (V, iii, 24). The Doctor would desert him if he could (V, iii, 61-2). We are twice reminded that many of his soldiers have gone over to the enemy, first by himself (‘Were they not forced with those that should be ours,/ We might have met them dareful, beard to beard’ V, v, 5) and later by Malcolm (‘We have met with foes/ That strike beside us’ V, vii, 28).
There is an altogether appropriate image of his final isolation in his defiant ‘They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,/But bear-like I must fight the course’ (V, vii, 1). In a 1962 Stratford production Eric Porter played Macbeth and, as J.R. Brown reports, ‘his death was that of a tired, angry, disarmed fighter: to make this clear he was killed on stage after he had been encircled by the entire army and had lost all his weapons’ (Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance, 1966, p. 185). The transformation from leader to quarry is here complete.
The pattern of Macbeth’s isolation, therefore, involves him in more than a progressive physical and mental detachment from other human beings. He is an exile from the world of daylight, familiar with witches and with apparitions unseen by anybody else, making discoveries about his predicament which he can never share with others who have never dared, as he has, to plunge into darkness.
Our likely response to the central figure might be summed up in the formula: ‘Macbeth is a villain, an agent of evil, but….’ He commits monstrous deeds and yet we cannot see him as a monster. On the one hand we are made to feel that his death is justified, and that his enemies triumph in a righteous cause; on the other we are forced to acknowledge that he never entirely loses our sympathy. One general explanation for this sympathy is that we can understand such a character as Macbeth and pity him because he is doing on a large scale and with more appalling consequences for himself what we can at least imagine ourselves doing in a similar kind of situation. It is interesting to study the methods used by Shakespeare in dealing with the major technical and artistic problems posed by the materials he has to handle in Macbeth. Given that tragedy demands our sympathetic interest in the fortunes of the hero, how was Shakespeare to command our sympathy to the end of a play whose hero degenerates from a brave, noble warrior, highly sensitive to the prompting of conscience, into a disloyal, self-seeking killer his enemies see him as?
In the early scenes he is generously endowed with the attributes of a tragic hero. He is a man who matters in his society, having authority, passions and abilities far greater than those around him, easily earning respect and admiration. His good qualities are repeatedly underlined in the opening scenes. What is emphasised most of all throughout Act 1 is how difficult it is to get him to come to terms with the evil he is contemplating. Lady Macbeth deplores his essential goodness (‘What thou wouldst highly/ That wouldst thou holily’ I, v, 18). He hesitates, he agonises, he decides against the murder (‘Chance may crown me ….’ I, iii, 143). He is conscious of the moral, as well as the political, consequences of killing Duncan (I, vii, 12). This vacillation earns our sympathy. Again he refuses to commit the crime (‘We will proceed no further in this business…’ I, vii, 31). It requires all Lady Macbeth’s ingenuity, her eloquence, her jibes at his manliness (‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ I, vii, 49) to make him proceed, and when he does, he is racked by guilt and terror (II, ii, 57-64).
If we approach Macbeth’s initial crime in terms of guilt and moral responsibility, we shall find that the play confuses and blurs the issues to some extent. Macbeth is made to seem the victim of ignorance and blindness. He has had experience of many bloody executions in his career as a soldier; he cannot foresee the fatal effect on his character of murdering his way to the throne. But two other factors tend even more strongly to confuse the moral issue. The influence of the witches and their prophecies, however wilfully he misinterprets them, must inevitably appear to the spectator to mitigate his moral responsibility. Almost any man, as Wayne Booth, the critic, has pointed out, ‘could be thrown off his moral balance by such supernatural confirmations’ (Shakespeare’s Tragic Villain). The other morally confusing element is Lady Macbeth, one of whose functions in the scenes leading to the murder of Duncan is to distract her husband from weighting the moral issues involved by presenting the crime to him as a straightforward test of cowardice or courage.
It is worth noting how Shakespeare mitigates some of the worst horrors which Macbeth’s career as a murderer must inevitably involve. What he does at all the critical moments is to dampen as much as possible the unfavourable effects on our attitude to Macbeth of the various atrocities for which he is responsible. For example, the murder of Duncan is not directly shown, nor is it narrated by any speaker sympathetic to the dead man. No effort is made by Shakespeare to evoke sympathy for Duncan at Macbeth’s expense. Instead of hearing the dying cries of the old man, we hear Macbeth’s heartfelt lament at what he has done: the crime is made significant for its effect on the conscience of the criminal, whose responses after the event inevitably evoke some pity for him.
What we see enacted before our eyes is obviously far more telling in its effect than anything we are merely told. We know that Duncan is a good man: we are told of his generosity, while Macbeth pays tribute to his kingly virtues. But Shakespeare’s Duncan is not a character who can engage our deepest feelings. The presentation is such that we focus our attention on Macbeth’s tortured comments on the crime, not on the sufferings of its victim. We cannot feel the same kind of emotion for Duncan as we can for the man who can heartily envy him in his death that ‘after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well’ (III, ii, 23). Of course, the quality of the stage-presentation of Duncan can make a difference here. A comment of Kenneth Tynan’s on the 1962 Stratford production makes this point clear: ‘With Duncan’, he reported, ‘the production makes a bloomer long sanctified by tradition. Since the play is a study of regicide we ought to feel that the sin Macbeth commits is something vast and mortal, not petty and sneaking. Ageing though he is, Duncan must have about him an air of magnificence, a quality capable of inspiring awe; only thus can we appreciate the magnitude of the crime. It should be as if Lear were assassinated. At Stratford we get the usual saintly old dotard. How this custom grew up I can only explain in terms of money and prestige: no actor capable of playing Duncan properly would dream of playing so small a part’ (Tynan Right and Left, 1967, p. 116).
It is true that Banquo’s murder is shown on the stage, and that he is a more clearly realised character than Duncan is. His death is noble and his last gesture unselfish. But again, the adverse effects of all this on our sympathy for Macbeth are minimised by Shakespeare. The murder is committed by hirelings, and Macbeth responds to it much as he did to Duncan’s murder: we see him suffer at great length in the Banquet Scene. We are made to feel that he is paying his share in guilt and self-torture for what he has done, that as he realises, ‘we still have judgement here’ (I, vii, 8).
His acts become progressively more revolting to our moral sense. It is obviously more difficult for Shakespeare to retain pity for him after the killing of Macduff’s family than it was in the other cases; the presentation of the victims here is sympathetic and detailed. But Macbeth is nowhere near the scene of the deed, and Lady Macduff’s death is closely followed by the mental collapse of Lady Macbeth. Again as Macbeth anticipated, ‘Bloody instructions being taught, return/ To plague the inventor’ (I, vii, 9). The essential point, then, about Shakespeare’s presentation of Macbeth’s worst acts is that the perpetrator’s sufferings are made to appear almost proportionate to his crimes, and much more vivid than anything his victims undergo.
One further element in Shakespeare’s presentation must be mentioned. We see a large and significant part of the action of the play as it is filtered through Macbeth’s consciousness. We are taken into his mind, we share his point of view. The play is his tragedy, not that of Duncan or Banquo or Lady Macduff. Shakespeare gives him the best poetry of the play, and in a poetic drama this is a fact of the highest importance. In the light of such speeches as ‘My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf…’ (V, iii, 22). Or ‘She should have died hereafter…’ (V, v, 17), one cannot help feeling at times that the worthy enemies gathering to destroy him are uninteresting and insignificant. Still, Shakespeare has taken some precautions to ensure that these enemies do not appear totally pallid, that they are not altogether overshadowed by his grand eloquence and heroic stance. Malcolm’s stature has been enhanced by means of the English Scene (IV, iii). He enters impressively to the beating of drums. He is given the last word in the play: an impressive enough speech, which does something to counteract the effect of Macbeth’s last great speeches.
Through the play also, Shakespeare uses choric scenes to provide those hostile to Macbeth with the opportunity to comment on his misdeeds. Such scenes provide the audience with a perspective, apart from Macbeth’s own, through which to view the action. In Act III, vi, for example, Lennox comments ironically on Macbeth’s behaviour, while the anonymous Lord contrasts the tyranny of his reign with the freedom enjoyed in England under the ‘holy king’ Edward. It must be admitted, therefore, that Shakespeare performs a very delicate balancing act in his presentation of Macbeth.
A summary of what happens in Macbeth could make the play look like an exciting crime story, but it is what happens within the hero, the development of his understanding of himself and his plight, and his sharing of this with the audience, that lifts it to a higher plane.
When the unexpected results of his actions emerge, the tragic hero questions what has happened to him, and through this questioning learns the vital truth about himself. This brings him around to facing his destiny and completing it by his death. It is through this recognition that he reaches his tragic vision. His error was committed in blindness; recognition involves the intrusion of the light, the acknowledgement of the blindness. Recognition is not simply his knowledge of what has happened to him (in Macbeth’s case that he has been duped by the witches; he recognises his folly in having trusted them), but the new awareness of the unalterably fixed pattern of the miserable life he has created for himself through his deeds, accompanied by a deep sense of loss at the thought of what he has sacrificed and forsaken. These elements are present in Macbeth’s infinitely poignant soliloquy in Act V:
I have liv’d long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead,
Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
V, iii, 22
Macbeth arrives at the recognition of having irrecoverably lost, through his own blind deed, the things on which his happiness on earth depended. He discovers that he cannot arrest the process he has set in motion, and gains an insight into the workings of evil. He realises that evil isolates: his deeds have cut him off from all he treasures. He is alone in a hell of despair, and is aware of the futility of all he has planned. It is the fate of the tragic hero to be finally isolated from the ways of ordinary men, but it is in his isolation that he grows in stature and self-awareness, and consequently in the estimation of the audience, that he faces up to his destiny and confronts it. For Macbeth, this means dying valiantly in battle (V, iii, 32; V, v, 52) rather than taking his own life (V, vii, 30) or running away (V, vii, 1), or being taken prisoner (V, vii, 56). Those who like to moralise the tragic ending will find in his fate a striking illustration of the saying that ‘all they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword’ (Matthew, Ch. 26: verse 22); it is a fate ironically anticipated by him very early in the play: ‘This even-handed justice/ Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips’ (I, vii, 10).
There are various degrees of recognition in tragedy. In some (like Othello), recognition is minimal: Othello knows what he has done and what he has lost, but learns little or nothing about himself. In Macbeth, at the end, the hero’s recognition is considerable, but still far from complete. He remains puzzled and baffled to the last, failing to grasp the how and why of his fate.
In his case it is interesting to notice that partial recognition comes early in the play, that disillusion sets in long before his fortunes fail: in fact it sets in when he is at the height of his worldly success. Even before he has murdered Banquo, he can face the unthinkable prospect of having damned his soul (‘mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man’ III, i. 67). Earlier still, his sense of what he has done to himself as well as to Duncan is expressed in the richly suggestive, ‘To know my deed twere best not to know myself’ (II, ii, 72). But if he does sense early on what is happening to him as a result of what he has done, he does not really know what kind of future is in store for him until the point at which he realises that it is as easy for him to go forward in crime as to go back. The recognition that he cannot control the processes he has set in motion, or alter the course he has set for himself is a tragic one: ‘I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er’ (III, iv, 136).
But the exact moment when Macbeth realises he is doomed is when Macduff relates that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ta’en (V, vii, 44). He has expressed an earlier, partial, recognition of his fate at the news that Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane (‘I pull in resolution, and begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend’ (V, v, 42).
It is the quality of his response to his destiny and the manner in which he confronts it that determines his essential worth as a tragic hero and that gives him his ultimate tragic status. The physical death of the tragic hero is a final symbol of his recognition: of the death of his former blind and ignorant self. Our tragic hero has paid a chilling and costly price for self-awareness.
Those who have commented on the structure of Hamlet have all made the point that it is a play of contrasting situations, rather like a system of mirrors, in which the same problem is in turn reflected from different points of view. We are meant to examine the differing approaches of individual characters and Shakespeare assumes we can distinguish which one acts honourably and which one is immoral! In this play three sons have lost their fathers; Hamlet and Ophelia are afflicted with differing kinds of madness, feigned and real. The idea of vengeance is seen from several angles; Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras have similar missions which they fulfil in differing ways. Claudius and Polonius conduct parallel investigations into the cause of Hamlet’s behaviour; there are several variations on the son-father theme. Characters move towards their objects by various kinds of indirection (and ‘by indirection find direction out’). So, therefore, Polonius uses Reynaldo to find the truth about Laertes; Claudius acts through such intermediaries as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Polonius uses Ophelia to sound out Hamlet.
It can easily be forgotten that Hamlet is not the only avenger in this revenge tragedy. Laertes, Fortinbras and Pyrrhus all have wrongs to avenge: Laertes the deaths of his father and sister; Fortinbras the death of his father at the hand’s of Hamlet’s father and the loss of Norwegian territory to Denmark, and Pyrrhus the death of his father at the hands of Priam. The common theme, as Claudius says in another context, is ‘death of fathers’. Shakespeare presents all three avengers in sharp contrast to Hamlet, and their predicaments echo his. The Dido play reminds him of his own situation. Hecuba weeping profoundly for her slain husband Priam must inevitably invite comparison and contrast with Gertrude, who, ‘all tears’, followed King Hamlet’s body, but dried her tears all too soon and married Claudius.
PYRRHUS THE AVENGER
Pyrrhus, the ‘hellish’ avenger who slays Priam, is presented as an evil man, ‘dread and black’, steeped ‘in the blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons’. He is ‘a painted tyrant’, who enjoys ‘mincing with his sword’ the limbs of Priam. Pyrrhus kills an old man, the ‘reverend Priam’, in a dubious act of vengeance. The contrast between him and Hamlet is plain. Hamlet finds it difficult to kill the man who has secretly murdered his father and destroyed his mother’s honour. There is even a circumstantial parallel between Pyrrhus as avenger and Hamlet as would-be-avenger. Pyrrhus suspends his sword momentarily over his victim, and ‘like a neutral to his will and matter’, does nothing, but soon, ‘aroused vengeance sets him new awork’. Hamlet stands behind the kneeling Claudius in the Prayer Scene, but unlike Pyrrhus, leaves his sword unused. Morally, Hamlet emerges with credit from this contrast with Pyrrhus.
FORTINBRAS AS AVENGER
The contrast between Hamlet and the other avenger, Fortinbras, is not as sharp, at least on the surface. Hamlet praises Fortinbras as ‘a delicate and tender prince’, and even names him as his successor. In one of his soliloquies, he invokes the decisive action of Fortinbras as a reproach to his own inaction, and uses his activities to illustrate a general principle of which he approves, and which he himself would like to embody:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake
(IV, iv, 53)
The Hamlet-Fortinbras contrast is, however, an ambivalent one. In the earliest references to him, Fortinbras appears as a reckless adventurer at the head of a band of brigands, having ‘shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes’ (I, i, 98). His war with Poland is one of aggression, Hamlet’s comments to the captain show his disgust at the adventure; he sees the Polish was as a disease, ‘the imposthume of much wealth and peace / That inward breaks’ (IV, iv, 26). In the light of this, the praise he accords Fortinbras in the soliloquy (a ‘spirit with divine ambition puff’d’) is, to say the least, ambiguous. Fortinbras, to judge from his activities, may be puffed up with ambition and dreams of honour, but unlike Hamlet, he pays very little attention to the injustice or otherwise of his cause. What Hamlet clearly admires in Fortinbras is his absolute dedication to his role. His motives for action, and the nature of the action itself, are another matter. In these, he cannot stand comparison with Hamlet, whose developed awareness of ethical issues is a major feature of his character.
LAERTES AS AVENGER
Laertes is the most obvious foil to Hamlet, and this is made explicit by hamlet himself when he tells Horatio that ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’, and again, just before the fencing match, ‘I’ll be your foil, Laertes’ (V, ii, 247). Like hamlet, Laertes has every motive for revenge. But there the resemblance ends. When Laertes hears of this father’s death, he quickly raises a rebellion against Claudius. Moral considerations do not trouble him, as they do Hamlet; he is prepared to cast the moral law aside: ‘To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit’ (IV, v, 117). When Claudius asks him how far he would go to show himself a true son of his father, he answers ‘To cut his throat in the church’ (IV, vii, 127), which is Shakespeare’s comment on Hamlet’s failure to do the same to Claudius when he finds him at prayer. The King points to another contrast between Hamlet and Laertes when, proposing the use of an unbated foil, he feels that Hamlet, being ‘Most generous and free from all contriving / Will not peruse the foils’ (IV, vii, 136) the full force of Laertes’ moral degeneracy becomes evident in his plan to kill Hamlet by stealth, and in his revelation that he has procured poison in case he might find use for it: ‘And for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword / I bought an unction of a mountebank’ (IV, vii, 141).
The function of Laertes in the play seems clear from all of this. Shakespeare uses him to show the character of the classic avenger of primitive revenge tragedy, an avenger of the kind that Hamlet, by nature, is unable to be. The audience must be glad that Hamlet is strongly differentiated from the coarse-grained, unreflective, shallow Laertes. When critics castigate Hamlet for not proceeding more quickly against Claudius, they can scarcely wish him to duplicate the attitudes and proceedings of Laertes, whose moral depravity throws Hamlet’s scrupulousness into welcome relief.
The three avengers then, Pyrrhus, Fortinbras and Laertes, are all foils to Hamlet. All have lost their fathers, all of them have motives for revenge, though none as powerful as Hamlet has. In spite of this, all three proceed with their task undeterred by moral qualms. Hamlet is constantly troubled by doubts and hesitations. Hamlet pays generous tribute to Fortinbras and the ‘very noble youth’ Laertes, tributes which are not really deserved; and which highlight Hamlet’s own generous nature.
HORATIO AS A FOIL TO HAMLET
Horatio is also used as a foil to Hamlet. The most interesting thing about Horatio is not his character as we observe it in the play (he is a vague, shadowy, contradictory figure for much of it) but the noble tribute paid to him by Hamlet. In this tribute he is the stoical man par excellence, ‘a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards / Hast taken with equal thanks’ (III, ii, 65). The part of the tribute most relevant to Hamlet’s own situation seems to be the following lines:
and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core….. (III, ii, 66)
This, presumably, is to be read as a comment on Hamlet’s own unstable temperament and conduct, his intense frustration, melancholy, despair and liability to sudden anger and rash action. He is, what Horatio is not, ‘passion’s slave’. The contrast between Horatio, who can bear the buffets and rewards of fortune with equal thanks and self-control, and Hamlet, who is shaken to the core by circumstances and by the new career as avenger which is thrust on him, is extreme.
CLAUDIUS AS FOIL TO HAMLET
Claudius is also part of the large pattern of contrasts and oppositions involving hamlet and other characters in the play. Hamlet recognises his uncle as a formidable antagonist, finding satisfaction in the thought of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being caught in the great conflict between Claudius and himself:
Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites…. (V, ii, 60).
The contrast between Hamlet’s agonised indecision and the efficient, swift plotting of Claudius scarcely needs underlining. Hamlet is, as the king recognises, ‘most generous, and free from all contriving’ (IV, vii, 135). Claudius himself is an expert contriver. But in Hamlet, the hidden forces shaping the course of things do not ultimately favour the shrewd contrivers. Instead these contrivers (Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes) are themselves victims of their own contrivances, their ‘purposes mistook, fallen on the inventors’ heads’ (V, ii, 388). And Hamlet, who contrives nothing against Claudius except the Play Within The Play, has the opportunity for vengeance unwittingly provided for him by Claudius, whose deep plots overreach themselves!
There must be a strong temptation for actors to play Polonius as a foolish old man, the comic victim of Hamlet’s sharp wit, even as a buffoon. Samuel Johnson’s account of the character is worth repeating for its emphasis on some important features:
‘Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident in his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural. Such a man is positive and confident, because be knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application… while he depends upon his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. The, idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius’.
There is no doubt that the aspects of the character to which Johnson draws attention can be illustrated from the play. Hamlet sees him as Johnson does, as one of ‘those tedious old fools’, and ‘that great baby……not yet out of his swaddling clothes’. There are, too, the longwindedness, the impressive openings that meander into fatuity, and sometimes jolt into embarrassing frankness, as in the business of communicating his diagnosis of Hamlet’s madness’ (11,ii,92-165). He wins easy laughs, sees himself as something of a sage, if an absentminded one. He himself reminds us of another of his powers, that of detection: ‘I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / within the centre’ (11,ii,158). He gets three character testimonials in the course of the play. One is solicited, and is from Claudius, who describes him as ‘a man faithful and honourable’. Two are unsolicited. Claudius declares that the throne of Denmark is at his command, and Gertrude calls him ‘the unseen good old man’ after his death. This epitaph contrasts oddly with Hamlets reference to the ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’, who was in life ‘a foolish prating knave’.
Johnson’s account is accurate enough as far as it goes, but neither his nor many of the other popular interpretations of the character do justice to the darker and more sinister sides of his personality. What is attractive about Polonius belongs to the outward man, who can claim a certain indulgence for his foibles. But beneath the mask lurks a treacherous plotter, with a gravely retarded moral sense. He trusts his children so little that he sets spies on them, and he dies as a spy in the Queen’s bedroom. He cannot see his fellow-human beings as other than puppets, and has no respect for privacy. He forces Ophelia against her better interests to act in his nasty drama involving Hamlet, and manipulates her like a doll: ‘Ophelia, walk you here…read on the book’. He pries into other people’s lives without apology or embarrassment. He can sacrifice his daughter’s feelings and her reputation to his own limited, self-centred concerns, and his choice of words to describe his procedures underlines their, and his, nastiness: ‘At such a time. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ (11,ii, 165). He cynically misunderstands Hamlet’s attention to Ophelia, and debases the office of Chancellor by converting it to a spying agency. His insensitive intrusion into the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship shows his blindness to the intense feeling that many underline such relationships, as well as his lack of respect for the privacy that should surround them. He will have Gertrude provoke Hamlet to a violent outburst: ‘Let his Queen-mother all alone entreat him / To show his grief; let her be round with him’. He even takes a perverse delight in anticipating what he feels will be almost an entertaining spectacle for him, but his final instructions to Gertrude, in which he urges her to be ‘round’ with Hamlet, shows no understanding of the kind of response such behaviour on her part will arouse. It is ironical that he should meet his death in a production staged by himself, and with himself as director. We remember his earlier lines:
I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i ‘the Capitol.
Brutus kill’d me…(111,ii,101)
Laertes functions as a foil to Hamlet. He is a conventional revenge hero, and consequently represents a standard of measurement for Hamlet. Like his father, he is given to conventional moralising, giving Ophelia some serious and misleading advice on her relationship with Hamlet, just as Polonius will do. Her quiet response anticipates the course his life will take. He is one of those who can show others the right way, but who will not follow it himself, who ‘recks not his own rede’. On his return to Denmark after his father’s death, his decisive action contrasts with Hamlet’s indecision. He has enough courage to face Claudius alone, but his words are those of a melodramatic villain rather than of a wronged son and brother:
To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation…(IV,v,117))
Worse is to follow. Laertes forgets all the edifying moral principles he so freely shared with Ophelia when he expresses a willingness to cut Hamlet’s throat ‘in the church’. Even more damaging is the fact that he has come to Denmark with the means of practising treachery on an enemy (‘I bought an unction of a mountebank). He is able to add a poisoned weapon to Claudius’ plan to use an unbated foil. Hamlet can be emotionally unstable, but is not morally unstable; Laertes is emotionally stable enough, but morally quite unstable. His interview with Claudius brings one’s mind back to the advice tendered to him by Polonius:
This above all – to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man…1,iii,77).
In the event, he proves totally untrue to any decent conception he may have of himself. The king has little difficulty in exploiting his weak moral sense. He employs flattery, a false show of sympathy, a clever challenge to pride, ‘what would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father’s son / More than in words’. Laertes is blackmailed into a treacherous partnership with Claudius, which he lacks the moral strength to break. His shallowness is underlined when, before the fencing-match, he repents too late and only when his own life is ebbing away. He does, however, make sure that Claudius is trapped (‘The king, the king’s to blame’).
Character-studies of Ophelia are liable to sound rather tame, and can easily lapse into sentimentality. There is a pathetic beauty about her death, and a charming innocence about her activities during life. She is, as her father says, ‘a green girl’, childlike, inexperienced, frightened by Hamlet’s odd behaviour, totally obedient to her father. She is, of course, one of the classic examples of the innocent sufferer in tragedy, the pathetic victim of a process set in motion by forces beyond her control and over whose course she has no influence. She pays the penalty for the crimes of others. In many tragedies there is an appalling disproportion between the offences committed by the participants and the sufferings they endure. In Ophelia’s case one might go even further, since she is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence. In the case of Polonius and Laertes there is at least the satisfaction of being able to rationalise their deaths as the outcome of crime or rashness. Laertes sees some justice in his fate, and Hamlet finds an absurd appropriateness in that of Polonius. But no such ‘meaning’ can be extracted from what happens to Ophelia.
For a long time critics could find little enough meaning in Hamlet’s treatment of her in the ‘nunnery scene’ (111,I,90-150). There is, of course, the obvious general point that Gertrude’s sin has had a profound effect on Hamlet’s attitude to all women (‘Frailty thy name is woman’) and that his disgust at his mother taints his mind against even the innocent Ophelia. Elements of this are present in the scene (‘I say we will have no more marriage; those that are married already, all but one shall live…’). In one of the most influential observations on the play, Dover Wilson, the renowned Shakespearean scholar, argued that at 11,ii,160, Hamlet overhears the King and Polonius as they plan the encounter between Ophelia and himself, and that his anger against Ophelia is largely inspired by his view of her in the role of fellow-conspirator with Claudius and Polonius against him. This suggestion would also help to make some sense of Hamlet’s odd and insulting exchanges with Polonius in 11,ii 174 beginning ‘Excellent well, you are a fishmonger’ (a slang term for our word pimp) which otherwise seems inexplicable, at least in this contest. If Shakespeare did not really arrange matters as Dover Wilson thinks he did, then perhaps he ought to have!
However, as we have discussed in class, an alternative theory is that yes he is aware that she is being used by ‘the lawful espials’ in the court and he wants to save her further hurt and so pushes her away for her own safety. However, like many other of his plans, this one does not work either!
‘Ophelia is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence’ Discuss.
Ophelia is isolated in a man’s world. She is used in many conspiracies against Hamlet. She is not cherished for herself, except when she is grieved over:
I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum.
Laertes and Polonius forbid her to develop a relationship with Hamlet because of their resentment towards him. Laertes suggests to his sister that her marriage to Hamlet would endanger the Danish state:
For on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state.
What is a sensitive young woman to make of this? Yet Gertrude declares at Ophelia’s funeral:
I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.
Laertes gets it wrong. But what effect does this interference have on the emotional state of a young woman who ‘sucked the honey of his music vows’? After all it turns out that Hamlet has treated her sweetly and showered gifts on her with ‘words of so sweet breath compos’d, as made the things more rich.’
Laertes imputes motives of lust to Hamlet even though he is just back from his studies at the famous reformation university of Wittenberg and has shown a profound sincerity of grief for his father:
A toy in blood; a violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent.
Her brother teaches her to distrust Hamlet’s advances and fear love:
Your chaste treasure open to his unmaster’d importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it.
Polonius forcefully dismisses her as ‘a green girl’. Hamlet is portrayed as a seductive opportunist, using his charm as ‘springs to catch woodcocks!’ She obediently denies herself her one means of happiness.
In the Nunnery Scene she is exploited in a game of espionage against Hamlet. The Queen is looking for an explanation of Hamlet’s ‘wildness’:
I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness.
She is, therefore, a pawn in a fatal game of intrigue, believing as the Queen does that in the accidental meeting, ‘her virtues’ may bring back Hamlet’s ‘wonted ways’ or sanity. But in truth this is only a pretext to ‘sugar o’er the devil’ and assist Hamlet’s two enemies. Suspecting the worst, Hamlet abuses Ophelia terribly in order to intimidate the King:
Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?
Hamlet ironically echoes Claudius’ guilty remark about the ‘harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art’ – as if he had overheard their plans to uncover his mask of madness:
I have heard of your paintings too.
She is devastated for both of them: ‘Oh help him you sweet heavens’ and she refers to ‘sweet bells jangled’. Her despair for herself follows swiftly:
‘Ands I, of ladies most deject and wretched’.
When Hamlet leaves, she seems to break down in her speech, ending with:
‘Oh woe is me / to have seen what I have seen, see what I see’.
Ophelia’s world is beginning to collapse. So far in her life, she has been under the continual direction of three men: her father, her brother and her lover. Her brother has gone to Paris. Her lover is insane and abuses her. When her father dies at the hands of the man she loves, there is no one to direct her. In Act I, Scene iii, Polonius told her to ‘think yourself a baby’, and tells her to stop believing what Hamlet has said and believe what he says instead. She succumbed to this and is now, therefore, totally isolated. Ophelia has never had to make her own mind up and has been dissuaded from doing so. It might be fair to say that she does not have a mind of her own. What happens when that infant mind is left to fend with the loss of everyone who is important to her?
This impression of Ophelia is strengthened, I think, in the Play Scene. Hamlet embarrasses and confuses her publicly. She is almost completely incapable of responding. She has never been spoken to like this before and does not have the personality to cope:
That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
It is important to consider what Ophelia’s songs can tell us about her state of mind and what Ophelia’s madness adds to our understanding of madness in the play. At the beginning of Act IV, Scene v, the unnamed gentleman tells us that Ophelia is mad. At this point the Queen, full of her own troubles refuses to see Ophelia. Her isolation is complete. The gentleman says she speaks much of her father and that much of her speech is meaningless, but its chaotic state makes those who hear it try to make sense of it. They are amazed by her speech and make the words fit their own interpretation. (Very little has changed over the intervening four hundred years!). This statement seems to be crucial to understanding how madness is presented in this play. When Hamlet and Ophelia are thought to be insane, their observers try to interpret the reasons for their insanity. The reasons they come up with always reflect the preoccupations of the observers.
In the case of Hamlet, Claudius thinks he has a deep hidden secret since he himself has a hidden secret:
There’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that Hamlet’s ambition is the cause of his madness since they themselves are ambitious. Similarly with Ophelia, Laertes thinks she is trying to tell him to take revenge for her father because this is a course he has already decided on:
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight.
Therefore, it can be said that in Hamlet, madness is a mirror.
A close analysis of the songs Ophelia sings can also be enlightening. She sings three songs to the Queen in Act IV, Scene v, and two more later in the scene after Laertes arrives. Her first song is about an absent lover, the second is probably a lament for her father, while the third song, ‘Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day’, is a story of how a young girl is duped into sleeping with a man who promises to marry her and doesn’t. The first two don’t create much of a problem: after all, she has an absent lover and a dead dad! The third song, more bawdy, is a little trickier. Hamlet has not been unfaithful to Ophelia; in fact the opposite is true. He has, however, been very unpleasant towards her and this has obviously disturbed her. She may be mourning the loss of her virginity, for she may have made love to Hamlet but the bottom line is that we don’t know enough to make a definite judgement.
It is plausible, going on the evidence of these five songs, to assume that Ophelia’s madness was caused by the death of her father, the loss of Hamlet and her confusion at his sarcastic remarks to her. She probably feels a deep sense of loss for his love and companionship. It is clear that by the end of Act IV that Ophelia had attained two dark finalities that Hamlet had either faked or at least meditated on: madness and suicide. One bizarre aspect of this story is that the Queen seems to be aware of Ophelia’s mental state yet she does nothing to save her.
Ophelia dies near the ‘weeping willow’, which suggests that she died of grief. The brook is also described as a ‘weeping brook’. Another thing to note are the other plants that are mentioned. She has been associated with flowers throughout the play. She’s an ‘infant of the spring’ in Act I, Scene ii and in Act IV, Scene v, Laertes describes her as a ‘rose of May’, where she also hands out flowers to the Court. At her funeral, Laertes imagines violets springing from her grave and the Queen strews her grave with flowers, which may signify her innocence, beauty, youth and fragility.
In Act IV though the flowers are weeds: crow-flowers, nettles, long-purples and daisies. Perhaps these are a symbol of Ophelia’s decline, madness, or her disillusionment with the Danish Court. Indeed, it has been suggested that it was in fact this Court that killed her. She was, in effect, ‘a guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her’.
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,
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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?
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
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
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.
Knight, G. Wilson. “TheEmbassy 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.
‘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:
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.
Claudius sees him as the central figure in a drama of political intrigue, plotting against the throne, consumed by ambition.
Polonius sees him as the suffering victim a tragedy of frustrated love with Ophelia as the heroine.
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!
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
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