Death and Deceit in Hamlet

 

 

 Hamlet (2)

 

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

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

Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                            Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

                            Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

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

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

DECEIT AND SUBTERFUGE – APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

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

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art

                 Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

                 Than is my deed to my most painted word

111,i, 51

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

 

 

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Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet (2)

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

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

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

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

‘that each by observation

 Might satisfy his mind’.

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

‘Though each was partly in the right

They all were in the wrong’.

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

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

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

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

                         Popp’d in between the election and my hopes;

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

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

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

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

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

                        Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters;

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

                        And in this upshot, purposes mistook

                        Fall’n on the inventors’ heads.

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

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

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

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

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

            Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

   He behaves cruelly towards his mother:

           These words like daggers enter in mine ears.

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

            To live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,

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

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

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

               To be honest, as this world goes,

is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.

Hamlet is an intelligent scholar:

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

               than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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

What a piece of work is man!  How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!  In form and moving how express and admirable!  In action how like an angel!  In apprehension how like a god!  The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!

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

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

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

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

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

funny-Shakespeare-spoilers-Hamlet-Macbeth-King-Lear

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