Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet




Hamlet (2)

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 ‘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.


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 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 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 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!



Hamlet’s Delay

Hamlet (2)


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

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

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

                                     ….for it cannot be

                        But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall

                        To make oppression bitter, or ere this

                        I should have fattened all the region kites

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


How all occasions do inform against me

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


How stand I then,

                         To have a father killed, a mother stained,

                        Excitements of my reason and my blood,

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

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

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


The spirit that I have seen

                        May be a devil; and the devil hath power

                        To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps

                        Out of my weakness and my melancholy

                        As he is very potent with such spirits

                        Abuses me to damn me; I’ll have grounds

                        More relative than this.  The play’s the thing

                        Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

(II, ii, 591)

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

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

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

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


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

Hamlet's Delay

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


Hamlet (2)


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

    How strange or odd some’er I bear myself

            As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet (3)

Essay Preparation: The Case For and Against

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

 Yes, he was mad:

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

No, he was sane:

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


Hamlet: An Introduction

Hamlet (2)

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

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

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

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

‘that each by observation

 Might satisfy his mind’.

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

‘Though each was partly in the right

They all were in the wrong’.

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

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

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

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

                         Popp’d in between the election and my hopes;

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

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

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

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

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

                        Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters;

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

                        And in this upshot, purposes mistook

                        Fall’n on the inventors’ heads.

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

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

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

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

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

            Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

   He behaves cruelly towards his mother:

           These words like daggers enter in mine ears.

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

            To live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,

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

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

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

               To be honest, as this world goes,

is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.

Hamlet is an intelligent scholar:

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

               than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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