Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet

 

 

 

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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.

 THE AVENGERS

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.

 SUMMARY

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.

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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!

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Polonius and his family in Hamlet

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POLONIUS

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)

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LAERTES

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’).

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OPHELIA

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!

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Sample Answer:

 ‘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’.

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The King and Queen in Hamlet

 

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

CLAUDIUS

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

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

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

Giving to you no further personal power

               To business with the king, more than the scope

                Of these delated articles allow

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

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

Let him go, Gertrude: do not fear our person

There’s such divinity doth hedge a king

That treason can but peep to what it would

Acts little of his will…IV,v,108.

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

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

for myself

                        My virtue or my plague, be it either which –

                        She is so conjunctive to my life and soul

                        That, as the star moves not but in his sphere

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

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

what if this cursed hand

                        Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood

                        Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens

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

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

O, ‘tis too true!

How sharp lash that speech doth give my conscience.

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

Than is my deed to my most painted word.

O heavy burden! …..  III, i, 50.

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

queen-gertrude-2

GERTRUDE

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

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

A.C. Bradley was somewhat kinder:

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

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

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

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

    O, most wicked speed, to post

            With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.

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

If it be, why seems it so particular with thee

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

I doubt it is no other but the main,

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

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

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

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

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

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

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

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

Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,

  And there I see such black and grained spots

  As will not leave their tinct.

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

Almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king and marry with his brother.

 Her shocked response of:

As kill a king!

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

Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,

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

What thou hast said to me.

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moral Question in Hamlet

Hamlet (2)

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

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

about some act

                                    That has no relish of salvation in it

                                    Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven

                                    And that his soul may be as damned and black

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

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

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

For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer

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

 and

their defeat

                                    Does by their own insinuation grow:

                                    ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

                                    Between the pass and fell incensed points

                                    Of mighty opposites…. V, ii, 59.

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

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

Rashly,

                              And praised be rashness for it let us know,

                              Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

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

                              There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

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

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

  is’t not perfect conscience

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

                              To let this canker of our nature come

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

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

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

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

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

What even in that was heaven ordinant

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

 

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Hamlet: The World of the Play

 

 

 Hamlet (2)

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

************

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

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

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

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

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

This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace

        That inward breaks, and shows no cause without

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

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

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

                        Will but skin and film the ulcerous place

                        Whiles rank corruption, mining all within

                        Infects unseen…..III, iv, 147.

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

To keep it from divulging, let it feed

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

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

Diseases desperate grown

                        By desperate appliance are relieved

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

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

For like the hectic in my blood he rages

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

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

 But to the quick o’ the ulcer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,

                        The imperial jointress to this warlike state

                        Have we, as ‘twere with a defeated joy

                        With an auspicious and a drooping eye

With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage

In equal scale weighing delight and dole,

Taken to wife……… I, ii, 8.

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

Death and Deceit in Hamlet

 

 

 Hamlet (2)

 

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

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

Carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

                        Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                            Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

                            Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

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

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

DECEIT AND SUBTERFUGE – APPEARANCE VERSUS REALITY

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

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art

                 Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

                 Than is my deed to my most painted word

111,i, 51

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

 

 

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’.

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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.

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Hamlet: An Introduction

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 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.

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