A young Prince is haunted by the spirit of his murdered father. The son has hardly slept or eaten since he heard the news. Stunned with grief he will not be counseled by his lover, family, friends or ministers of the military or the court. He prowls the castle nightly, a somnambulant lost in the coma of his will’s paralysis. At last the smoldering embers of revenge burst into flame and he wakes to restore justice and order to his world. His decision is swift and unequivocal: War on Denmark!
This, of course, is Prince Fortinbras whose quest for vengeance will ultimately model Hamlet’s own enlightenment. Another young peer of the realm, Laertes, the second figure in this triptych of vengeful children, slumbers too. His father’s death and his revenge are not now, yet they will come. Our Prince, Hamlet, still sleeps cocooned by youth, swaddled in University, wrapped with innocence and tucked up in expectation and potential. This pre-curtain Hamlet is the boy of Ophelia’s praise,
O, what a noble mind . . .
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers
. . . that noble and most sovereign reason,
. . . That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth (“Hamlet”.Act III.scenei.line(s)153-162.p.66).
This Hamlet will be seen to an audience only in shreds and patches; for the inky cloaked lad they meet in Act 1, scene ii is a pre-shattered hulk of this former self. His beloved father dead, his adored mother married in indecent haste – never mind the clever political assuagement
– his assurance of the possibility for enduring human love lost and his hopes of succession thwarted by the detested Uncle who has “Popp'd in between the election and (his) hopes,” (V.ii.65). Hamlet is a used and useless human being.
Enervated, emasculated, depressed, grief-struck, suicidal. These diagnoses are all too true and too few. He has reached a bottom not unfamiliar to the human condition and exceedingly familiar to every age and era. To Hamlet the world is worthless and he, being part of that world himself, must see any action, even the restoration of justice to a kingdom, worthless as well. A. C. Bradley, in his, “Shakespearean Tragedy,” diagnosis Hamlet’s state of mind:
It (melancholy) accounts for the main fact, Hamlet’s inaction. For the immediate cause of that is simply that his habitual feeling is one of disgust at life and everything in it, himself included – a disgust which varies in intensity, rising at times into a longing for death, sinking often into weary apathy, but is never dispelled for more than brief intervals. Such a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to any kind of decided action; the body is inert, the mind indifferent or worse, its response is, ‘It does not matter’, ‘it is not worthwhile’, ‘it is no good.
Considering himself a rank and gross thing in the unweeded garden of his once loved world, Hamlet would appear to be the worst possible choice for a revenge tragedy hero. Hamlet is most certainly not the kind of next-of-kin avenger that G.B. Harrison predicates in his “Hamlet” where he summarizes the normal Revenge Tragedy:
The story of the Revenge Play begins with the crime, usually murder, but with varying motives. The duty of vengeance is laid on the next of kin, who is faced with the problem of identifying the murderer, a matter of some difficulty. He encounters many impediments to vengeance. Finally, in the last Act, comes the triumphant conclusion when the original murderer is appropriately dispatched, and, since playgoers liked their tragedies to be richly coloured, the venger and all others nearly concerned perish together in one red ruin.
But Shakespeare’s Hamlet has, indeed, “that within which passes show” (I.ii.85). How this reluctant hero is drawn into participating in his destiny, how he becomes a man obsessed with action and how Fortinbras becomes the exemplar for a man’s proper stance in the face of
life’s chaos will form one thrust of our inquiry. The other will attempt to delineate how an audience not only learns with Hamlet through sharing his most intimate thoughts and words in privileged intimacy but also how the very plotting of the play induces a vicarious experience of his transformation that becomes an empathic reality for the audience.
Knowing nothing of the play we might not notice the inky cloaked figure at the edge of Act 1’s Scene ii amidst the radiance of Claudius’ celebratory court. Neither might we imagine him to be the leading player by his disinterested demeanor. He no doubt takes more notice of the love play between the newlywed King and Queen than he does of the news of Fortinbras. His testy defiance of the King’s wishes is quickly muted by his deference to the Queen. It is only when he is left alone and speaks his ravishing and heart breaking words to the audience that they realize they are in the presence of the man to whom their own hearts will become subservient.
Just as the early soliloquies of hunch-backed Richard and hunch-souled Iago co-opt our empathic connection to their point of view and plans of action, so Hamlet confides in us, establishing a potent bonding, even more intimate if he speaks in direct address. We will enjoy privileged communication with him in the five great solo pieces of acts I through 4. Also we have scenes such as the first interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the Gravedigger’s scene with Horatio where his thoughts are pure spontaneous inventions. “Oh, what a piece of work is man” (II.ii.304-305). takes place in the former and “Alas, poor Yorik” (V.i.183). is spoken in the latter. Both these moments and so many more – the advice to the players and his reflections on the dram of eel - are almost soliloquies that bind us further to him. Moreover in his encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius and Ophelia we have been given prior knowledge of Hamlet’s plans. Consequently we cannot help but view the machinations he practices on his opponents in full fledged camaraderie with his hopes and dreams. James Shapiro makes just this point in his “A Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare, 1599.”
Horatio can be excused for how much he has missed; unlike us, he has not been privy to Hamlet’s soliloquies, the part of the play – rather than the carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts one finds in any number of contemporary revenge plays – that has kept it on the boards without interruption for more than four hundred years.
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good,” (I.ii.158) concludes our Prince’s confession of his broken heart. Surprisingly he is sprung from his contempt for “all the uses of this world,” (I.ii.134) by the good nature that surfaces in the presence of Horatio. He becomes animated at the revelation of the Ghost’s appearance, clever enough to engage the suspect witnesses with the first mouse trap of the play. “His beard was grizzled, no?” (I.ii.245) Hamlet inquires, knowing the tendency of courtiers to be yes men. At Horatio’s true report of Hamlet’s father’s real appearance, Hamlet charges into action. “I will watch tonight.” (I.ii.247) he proclaims, promising, “If it assume my noble father’s person, / I’ll speak to it though hell itself should gape.” (I.ii.247-248). There is no hesitation in taking on a specific task, however dangerous it might be. What appears to daunt Hamlet’s conception of proper action is a much larger issue. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right.” (I.v.197-198). It must be noted that this couplet is part of another mini-soliloquy and another inducement to our growing fellowship with Hamlet.
When Hamlet’s interview with his father’s spirit promises to reveals the horrible truth behind the shadow play of Claudius’ reign, the assassination of old Hamlet, his son shows the opposite of indecision. “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge.” (I.v.30-33).
As Hamlet’s only companions we are privileged to share the crucial revelations of this scene. Also we are aware of the specific charge the Ghost assigns to his son as well as the two crucial warnings.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: (I.v.83-86).
How Hamlet will pursue the act but betray both injunctions will be crucial in our experience of the play actually mimicking the experience of Hamlet himself. This melding of plot, character and audience engagement will take place on Denmark’s lonely beach where Hamlet must confront the significance of a war declared by Fortinbras, Hamlet’s peer as Prince and avenger.
For now we see a Hamlet full of plans, “I shall think meet, , , to put on an antic disposition.” (I.v.180-1811). We also witness, not for the first time, his dispassionate use of another human to gain his ends. He has kept his promise to the Ghost. “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records.” (I.v.100). In a masterful, endgame chess move he flaunts his distraught behavior to the weakest link in the Court’s armor, his still and always loved - but usable - Ophelia. He knows she will report to her father and that he, anxious for his family’s marriage into royalty, will paint Hamlet as an ineffective, doting, addled, love-sick and – most importantly – harmless child. A.C. Bradley in his “Shakespearean Tragedy” espouses the same conclusion:
Polonius now, after Ophelia has told him of the interview, comes to announce his discovery, not of Hamlet’s madness, but of its cause (II.ii.1-10). That, it would seem, was the effect Hamlet aimed at in his interview.
Hamlet has changed his undergraduate philosophy major for the graduate school of real-politik. Here there are no grades, only mortal finals. Ophelia, a pawn to her King, her Father and her lover will not survive these high, rigorous and fatal stakes.
Having set his game at play, Hamlet is learning the true depths of Denmark’s rottenness. He outwits the hypocritical Polonius and easily extracts a confession of their duplicity from the mendacious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Throughout these tour de force displays of Hamlet’s invention and wit we, along with our Prince, have forgotten the heavy weight that yokes us both. The Players hastily improvised taste of their quality will take Hamlet by surprise in reminding him of his still to be accomplished revenge as well as providing him with the perfect tool to assure him of Claudius’ guilt. The character is Pyrrus and “declining on the milky head of reverend Priam,” (II.ii.478-479). is his vengeful sword when the play’s narrator tells us that
For, lo! His sword,
Seemed i’ th’ air to stick.
So as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter
Did nothing. (II.ii.476-482).
Shakespeare’s stage direction is the silence he provides by shortening that last line to one and one half iambic feet. In that deadly pause, Hamlet rises to the remembrance of his own delay. Certainly we, knowing more than anyone else on the stage of Hamlet’s mind, are similarly struck. Moved by an illusion, a fantasy, as we have just been, Hamlet will conspire with us in his next soliloquy how he plans to make use of the just experienced power of the theatre to solidify his own revenge.
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
. . . I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
. . .if he but blench,
I know my course. (II.ii.589-599).
It is a remarkable habit of Hamlet’s to take advantage of each and every situation so as to extract as much life out of it as he can. He has done so in his antic disposition with Polonius and his two corrupted school mates. He has done so with the Players. We must, as his companion, wish for new encounters as they seem so easily to evoke Hamlet’s grace and wit. Perhaps for Hamlet himself the antic disposition is a comfort zone and an easy place to remain.
Now, poised before the deed that will define his life, he relapses into his initial despondence and the consumptive ennui of Act 1. Hamlet’s questioning of continuing life, “to be or not to be” (III.i.57). is less about the attraction of suicide than it is about taking“arms against a sea of troubles.” (III.i.63). If the meaning of life has withered in a ruined and fruitless garden , what meaning is there in dying to preserve it; for surely Hamlet will die if he undertakes to assassinate a well protected monarch. He is searching for a way to animate his own “native hue of resolution” (III.i.85). so that he may accomplish the “enterprises of great pith and moment” (III.i.87). that have been assigned him. He is on the verge of a vast discovery. He is probing for the formula to guide a human’s proper response to a moral challenge that may cost one’s life. As to his conclusions, the rest will be silence. Hamlet’s solitude and soliloquy are interrupted by Ophelia as Macbeths’ contest with ambition ends before ending when Lady Macbeth enters:
MACBETH:. . . I have no spur to
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on the other. (enter Lady Macbeth) (“Macbeth”ActI.scenevii.line(s)25-28).
It is well known how Shakespeare’s contention that the art of acting - and by extension the act of theater - “hold(s) as ‘twere a mirror up to life.” (III.ii.21-22). His employment of plays within plays, the exquisite deception practiced by his villains and his use of theatrical imagery in the mouths of his characters are legion and famous. Witness, again, Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” (V.v.23-24).
In the Ophelia interview the levels of acting, deception and plays within plays within plays is taken to a level that tests our grasp of reality and illusion. Ophelia is playing a role scripted by her father. Hamlet is unwittingly performing for the hidden King and Prime Minister. Hamlet himself, improvising off of Ophelia’s memorized lines, lets slip his assumed antic disposition. A shade of actual madness overwhelms him. His fury at the deception being practiced on both him and Ophelia explodes in an uncontrolled rant that will reveal his knowledge of the assassination to Claudius and appear to seal Hamlet’s doom.
HAMLET: I say, we will have no more marriages:
those that are married already, all but one, shall
live; the rest shall keep as they are. (III.I.149-151).
CLAUDIUS: Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
. . . he shall with speed to England.(III.i.165-169).
Claudius is the audience who profits from this little drama of arranged reality; but it will be his turn next to be caught out by his response to an actual play.
When Hamlet’s suspicions are proven true beyond the shadow of his doubts he is immediately given the opportunity to fulfill the Ghost’s command to cleanse the throne of Denmark. Just as quickly Hamlet’s continued struggle with the proper causes for undertaking consequential actions lead him to disobey his father’s spirit’s first injunction, “taint not thy mind.” (I.v.90).
Hamlet has no business deciding on the fate of Claudius’s soul. His revenge should be taken as swiftly as possible to renew the State. It is Hamlet’s desire to balance Claudius’s afterlife’s punishment with his father’s that persuades him to abandon the only apparently praying Claudius. Immediately, in the heat of this confused and terrible night, Hamlet will reject his father’s second warning to, “contrive against thy mother aught.” (I.v.386-87).
So deviant from efficient vengeance are Hamlet’s random slaughter of Polonius and violent attacks upon his mother that the Ghost is forced to appear again to restore Hamlet’s perspective. “Do not forget. This visitation / is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” (III.iv.115-116).
The scene is suddenly calm and Hamlet obeys the Ghost’s command to comfort his mother and her fighting soul. They are for a moment the familiar mother and son of a lost prior world. Hamlet shares with her his knowledge of the plot against him and she promises her confederacy in silence. Hamlet has separated her physically from Claudius and attained a cure for his despair in making a kind of peace with this woman whose betrayal was the major cause of his melancholy. Now he must face the consequences of his wasted chance to have cured his kingdom.
We have thrilled with Hamlet and Horatio to observe Claudius in the play scene and witness the proof of his guilt. We have expected Hamlet to act efficiently upon this knowledge. We have indulged his almost hysterical ecstasy in baiting Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, anticipating this thunderous energy will translate into the swift dispatch of Claudius, this vice of kings. What we have experienced instead, while overwhelmingly passionate theatre, has also been our frustration at being banished from the Kingdom - and the play - with Hamlet. The very quest of the drama remains undone and apparently forever unattainable.
The dramatic rug of plot has been pulled from beneath our feet and we stand, alone with Hamlet on a beach whose sands are rifled with the thousand footprints of a war bound army’s march. It is a teachable moment. We are stunned, at a loss and ready to think. Here Hamlet will discover and share with us the solution he has been seeking. It is evidently not the courage or cleverness necessary to the bloody business he has been conscripted to perform. Rather it is a clarity of vision that will translate into action for any morally required response our lives may demand of us. Observing his peer, Prince Fortinbras,’ unequivocal behavior in response to a father’s murder, Hamlet is poised to frame his future code of conduct. Granville Barker, in his “HAMLET” agrees:
He (Hamlet) has revealed himself to us more than once. But till now he has only once measured himself against any standard but his own; when, upon the brink of the ordeal of the play-scene, he made Horatio’s calm strength the text of some wistful self-reproach. That adventure is over. He has thrown away the fruits of it; and he now stands contemplating Fortinbras of the ‘strong hand and terms compulsatory,’ seeing himself in the light as nakedly as men do upon the morrow of a failure”
Hamlet’s transcendent vision is that the size and significance of all human endeavors are not to be judged by their weight in the world but rather by the attitude applied to them by the individual.
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great arguement,’
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. (IV.iv.54-57).
As audience we have been as surprised as Hamlet that the satisfaction of his successful revenge, tacitly promised and expected by the familiar working of such plots, has gone awry. The underlying structure of “Romeo and Juliet” intimates that boy will get girl, lose her, but eventually get her in the end. This expected development is abrogated by Shakespeare’s desire to engage the audience on an experiential level. When our expectations are suddenly removed we must in our real experience of the play respond as spontaneously as the characters of the play. Like them we are vulnerable, alert and ready to learn. And so it is with us and Hamlet. Both his and our bewildered hopes are reborn out of the ashes of defeat. We, our thoughts bloody and worth everything, bid farewell to the Hamlet we have known, observe the shenanigans and sorrows of the world he has left behind and have time to contemplate how and what we and Hamlet have just learned will possibly play out.
Reports of Hamlet’s first opportunity to test his new found resolve describe two offstage adventures at sea. In the first he unhesitatingly boards the pirate ship and deals most efficiently with their arms, their demands and his own ticket home. The second adventure Hamlet himself recounts to Horatio demonstrating his untroubled dispatch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their well deserved doom. Hamlet’s bloody thoughts are evidently in good working order:
Why man they did make love to this employment.
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow,” (V.ii.57-59).
There will be no more soliloquies upon Hamlet’s return. There is no need for them. He is done observing the world and having to seek a moment alone to reconfigure it to his liking. His passions are in order and can rapidly fire when required. He jumps into Ophelia’s grave and wrestles with Laertes with a lover’s appropriate bravura. His new found serenity of soul is also now to be shared, for it is no longer up for debate:
We defy augury. There is 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. . . . Let be.” (V.ii217-222).
Harold Bloom, in his “SHAKESPEARE,” more fully defines this new found philosophy.
“Had he but time, Hamlet says, he could tell us – what? Death intervenes, but we receive the clue in his next words: “Let it be.” “Let be” has become Hamlet’s refrain, and has a quietistic force uncanny in its suggestiveness. He will not unpack his heart with words, since only his thoughts, not their ends, are his own. . . . For Hamelt there is nothing but the readiness, which translates as a willingness to let everything be . “Let be” is a setting aside, neither denial nor affirmation.” (Bloom. p.421-422).
For the first time in our experience of the play and our shared journey with its protagonist we possess more information than Hamlet. We know the duel and his destiny are rigged. Horatio does well to voice our warnings, but he is not heeded. We must simply watch and let our feelings tell their truths. Our Prince has found himself and his deeds will speak for him. William Leary in his “Shakespeare Plain,” will speculate on the surprising emotions provoked – or not – by Hamlet’s actions.
Why is it that the shocking list of Hamlet’s offenses – manslaughter (the accidental killing of Polonius); an entrapment leading to executions (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern); a series of savage verbal assaults on a defenseless young girl (Ophelia) which may have contributed toher suicide; a self-exculpating lie (to Laertes) – never render him odious to any reader or playgoer? Indeed, when these offenses are catalogued and displayed, as here, they astonish us. Why? It is because our conception of Hamlet is based not only on what he does and says, how he says it, and what others say about him but also on what others – all, in their different ways good persons (Horatio, Fortinbras, Marcellus, Bernardo, the players, and, significantly, Ophelia herself) – are prepared to do for him. No one loved and admired by these persons can be truly bad; conversely, anyone feared, distrusted, or abused by such greasy citizens of this world as Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must be good.
Two of the three vengeance-driven sons are dead. Their victims litter a horrific scene of carnage. The ultimate futility of revenge as a viable political option is evident. Nevertheless a new order has been restored, one that Hamlet has anticipated and to which he has given his benison, “. . . I do prophecy th’ election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.” (V.ii.357-358). Jan Kott, in his “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary,” wryly describes this scene.
“. . . Who is this young Norwegian prince? We do not know. Shakespe does not tell us. What does he represent? Blind fate, absurdity in the world, or victory of justice? . . . Shakespeare has only told us his name. But the name is significant: Fotiinbras – forte braccio. Fortinbras, the man of the strong arm. A young and strong fellow. He comes and says: ‘Take away these corpses. Hamlet was a good boy, but he is dead. Now I shall be your king.’ I have just remembered that I happen to have certain rights to this crown.” Then he smiles and is very pleased with himself.”
This essay has attempted to describe Hamlet’s learning curve as he progresses from the innocence and idealism of youth to a grizzled veteran of life’s necessary compromises. It has also suggested that our particular intimacy with Hamlet’s quest is based in great part on our being made his collaborator and ardent supporter by being the auditors of his soliloquies. James Shapiro in his “A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare, 1599” describes this effect.“
Now I am alone,” Hamlet says with relief, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Players and Polonius leave him in Act 2. But he’s not. We are still there to hear him “unpack his heart with words” (2.2.586) in a way that no character in literature had done before. . . . The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet wrestle with his thoughts is something that no dramatist had yet achieved.”
At last this essay contends that because Shakespeare alters the established audience expectations of the way in which a Revenge Tragedy is supposed to unfold, he creates an unusual effect that binds us to Hamlet like no other dramatic character. We are not only told about Hamlet in his and others’ exquisite words but we are also forced to experience a real event in our own lives while watching the virtual illusion of the play. Banished, stranded on that lonely beach where our Hero’s efforts and our expectations have unexpectedly been defeated, we are as vulnerable as Hamlet to Fortinbras’ example. For us the readiness is all. We then, via Hamlet’s explication of what is rightly to be great, must accept, choose and follow.
Barker, Granville. “HAMLET” Heinemann. London. 1995. p.132-133. Print.
Bloom, Harold. “SHAKESPEARE, The Invention Of The Human.” Riverhead. Books, a Member of Penguin Putman, Inc. New York. 1998. P.421-422. Print.
Bradley, A.C. “Shakespearean Tragedy.” Penguin Books. New York. 1991. p.121-150. Print
Harrison, G.B. “Hamlet” Hamlet An Authoritative Text Intellectual Backgrounds Extracts From The Sources Essays In Criticism. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York 1963. p,239 Print.
Kott, Jan. “Shakespeare Our Contemporary.” Translated by Boleslaw Toborski. The Norton Library. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York. 1974. P.72. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Ed. David Bevington. Bantam. Scott Foresman Edition. 1988.(Act III.scenei.line(s)153-162).p.66). Print. All “Hamlet” quotations are from this editon.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” William Shakespeare The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1986. (I.vii.25-28). Print. All “MACBETH” quotes are from this edition.
Shapiro, James. “A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare, 1599.”Harper Collins. New York. 2005p. 292-299. Print.