by Phillip Burton
Just as every actor is supposed to want to play Hamlet, it would seem that every author wants to write about him. He has received more performances in the theatre and more explication on the printed page than any other character of Shakespeare. Theatergoers collect Hamlets as philatelists do stamps, and in both cases, it would seem, the rarer and stranger the specimen the more it is cherished.

Since every actor is unique, no two performances of any role will be exactly alike, not even when an understudy strives, or is made to strive, hard to copy his principal, but it is particularly true that all Hamlets are different. More than once in the history of the play, four separate productions have been offered to the public in one city in one year. Hamlet is such an all encompassing human phenomenon that it will absorb and be illuminated by actors of quite contrary qualities. It is a particularly naked part, and no actor will succeed in it who tries to hide himself, and no actor will completely fail who is content to let Hamlet take hold of him rather than he of Hamlet.

Just as every actor’s Hamlet is himself, so is every writer’s. He sees in the character what his personality, predilections prejudices, beliefs lead him to see. And so do I. In what follows I am prompted by two considerations: to contradict Goethe’s conception of Hamlet and the many subsequent versions of it, and to provide for an actor a blueprint of the character as I see it, always remembering that a blueprint is not the building.

To begin with, a brief quotation from Carlyle’s translation of William Meister’s Apprenticeship, which gives the essence of Goethe’s conception of Hamlet: "A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him." "Without the strength of nerve which forms a hero." If that is true, Hamlet, and with him the play, lacks true tragic stature. Coleridge’s Hamlet, while more impressive as a tragic figure than Goethe’s, is from a similar mold: "He is a man living in meditation, called upon to act by every motive human and divine, but the great object of his life is defeated by continually resolving to do, yet doing nothing but resolve." These conceptions of an ineffectual saint are much better descriptions of Shakespeare’s Henry VI than his Hamlet. In arriving at the "lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature" concept, one feels that Goethe must have completely missed Hamlet’s gross obscenities, and Coleridge’s "doing nothing but resolve" seems to ignore the fact that Hamlet has an extraordinary record of slaughter; in the course of the play he willfully causes the death of five people, one on impulse, two in anger, and two by diabolical cleverness; this spineless wretch is the first to jump aboard in an attack on a pirate ship. It is, of course, true that the whole action of the play derives from Hamlet’s hesitation in killing Claudius, but I think the hesitation to be that of a strong man, not a weak one.

Before we proceed to trace Hamlet’s character as he is revealed in the play, we must consider his age. Shakespeare’s use of time is poetic and dramatic rather than chronometric. To quote what I have said elsewhere:

How old is Hamlet? There is only one clear indication, and that is in the graveyard scene, after his return from England, when we learn by implication that he is thirty years old. But he is a student in the university at the beginning of the play, and in Elizabethan days students usually left the university at the age at which they now enter; we are to think of him as a very young man. The action of the play occupies but a few months and yet in that time Hamlet has aged ten years. This, I think, is precisely what Shakespeare intends; the Hamlet who returns from England is a much more mature man than the one who left Denmark.

Just before the play begins, Hamlet had been a student at Wittenberg, separated from Elsinore and the Court by a journey of some weeks, and so any news he receives from home is already old. He hears that his father has died suddenly of a snakebite; furthermore, his uncle is now king, and, most incredible of all, has married the widowed queen.

The fact that Claudius has become king is not really surprising. Only late in the play does Hamlet complain that his uncle had "popped in between the election and my hopes." The country had been in a nervous state expecting an invasion by young Fortinbras, at the head of a lawless band of adventurers, in revenge for his father’s death at the hands of King Hamlet. A strong new king was immediately needed; the election of Claudius, particularly in the absence of Hamlet, was inevitable. What is more, it was immediately justified, because Claudius manages to dispel the threat of invasion by appealing to the King of Norway to curb his nephew, Fortinbras; the ambitious young soldier was the more ready to cancel the projected invasion because the object of his revenge, Hamlet’s father, was now dead, and in return he received free passage through Denmark to fight against Poland.

There are grounds for believing that Hamlet was antipathetic to his uncle prior to the marriage, for he saw in him the opposite of those qualities for which he admired his father. Hamlet sums up the difference in "Hyperion to a satyr." The contrast is clear in their attitude to drinking in the Court; King Hamlet had forbidden it while King Claudius encouraged it. Hamlet approved and, to some extent inherited, his father’s values. The fact that Gertrude could marry, and so soon, a man so opposite to her son’s father was a natural shock to Hamlet. The truth probably was that Gertrude found the sensuality of Claudius more congenial than the austerity of his brother.

The first action of Hamlet in the play is one of overt defiance. The period of royal mourning has been declared over, much sooner than the normal custom, but at a ceremonial meeting of the Court, with everybody in colorful costume and regalia, the Prince deliberately appears in solemn black. Hamlet’s first words, an aside, reveal his mordant wit; he says that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind." The word "kind," of course, is used as in the phrase "not my kind." From Hamlet’s point of view, he would have been less than kind in any case, but the marriage has made his detested uncle his stepfather too. The new King behaves to the Prince impeccably; publicly he proclaims him his heir and begs him not to return to Wittenberg. The Queen adds her entreaties and Hamlet makes it clear, in acquiescing, that it is her plea he is responding to. The King deliberately ignores this slight by describing the response as "a loving and a fair reply," and a "gentle and unforced accord." The ceremony is over and Hamlet is left alone.

No other character in Shakespeare is so much left alone on stage. His solitary selfcommunings are so characteristic that to many people they have become the total picture of the man, a misanthropic world-weary melancholic, the courageous man of action completely forgotten. Yet every soliloquy has a dramatic as well as a psychological significance.

To me, Hamlet’s first soliloquy is the expression of an internal struggle to overcome a deep sense of guilt. His suit of mourning has been a visible and public protest against the royal marriage, a protest in which he is completely alone, and in which he has hurt his mother and been gently rebuked by the generosity and consideration of his uncle. At this stage, he has small logical grounds for disapproval, for everybody else rejoices in the new king and the new marriage. All he has to object to is that the marriage has taken place too soon and that it is incestuous. To deal first with the second point: To describe the marriage as incestuous was not the product of a sick imagination, but a legal fact. It was not until 1907 that such a marriage was allowed in England. To the Elizabethans, as to Hamlet, the marriage was incestuous, and this was an important issue to them, for their own Queen Elizabeth owed her throne to the fact that Henry Viii’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon was incestuous in exactly the same way as that of Gertrude to Claudius, in that Katharine had been the widow of Henry’s brother, Arthur; it was on this ground that the marriage had been annulled.

Of course, Hamlet would have objected to his mother’s marriage if it had taken place after the official period of mourning was over and if the detested man had not been his uncle, but it will be a long time before he will openly acknowledge that. Now he makes much in a crescendo of repetition of the unseemly haste of the marriage, but nobody shares his disgust, so he must hold his tongue.

In this first soliloquy we find his tendency to unpack his heart with words in full spate. His wrath is turned not only against the frailty of women as shown in his mother’s marriage but against the corruption of the society that can approve it. His wish for death and threat of suicide are, to be, characteristically violent expressions of his disgust, guilt, and frustration, of the kind that violent men often express with angry shouts of "I wish I was dead!" The "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is a very different matter.

The lonely outburst is followed by the appearance of Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo, who have come to tell Hamlet about the Ghost. Hamlet’s joyous surprise at seeing his good friend an fellow student, Horatio, is a wonderful relief after the solitaire distress of the soliloquy. Horatio had made the journey from Wittenberg to be present at King Hamlet’s funeral. We can assume from this that he, like the young Prince, admired and share the values of the dead monarch, but he is careful not to each Hamlet’s disapproval of the o’er hasty marriage.

Horatio is Hamlet’s Rock of Gibraltar throughout the play) He confides in him alone, he submits his suspicions to the cot formation of Horatio’s judgment and finally dies in his arms, or trusting him with the justification of his acts to posterity. The first thing we hear of Horatio is that he is a scholar, and this intellectual bent he shares with Hamlet, but temperamentally they are opposites. Hamlet praises Horatio for the qualities that he himself conspicuously lacks. Horatio is not "passion’s slave;" he has a imperturbability of mind and spirit that nothing can shake. Hair let, when he is about to test Horatio’s friendship and judgment says:

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hath ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
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—aye, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. . .

But now Horatio has brought news of the Ghost. Since this at the heart of Hamlet’s subsequent dilemma, some preliminar consideration must be given to it. Horatio’s reaction, when he was first told of the Ghost, was that which most people today would have had:

Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him.

When he does see the Ghost himself, Horatio does not assume it is the spirit of the dead king, even though it looks like him. Instead of treating the apparition as though it were indeed the king, Horatio challenges it to declare its nature, and later charges it to stay and speak, if it can. He addresses it as "illusion . . ."

Ghosts, still a matter of controversy, were particularly so in Shakespeare’s day. The growing appeal to reason made supernatural phenomena subject to much skepticism. The official denial by the new Church of England of the doctrine of Purgatory, which many had assumed to be the abode of restless spirits, complicated the issue, and made people more ready to believe that apparitions were evil in origin. Upon mature consideration, Hamlet shares Horatio’s skepticism:

The spirit that I have seen
May be the 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. .

Even before he has seen the Ghost, Hamlet assumes that it is probably an emanation of Hell:

If it assume my noble father’s person, I’ll speak to it though Hell itself should gape And bid me hold my peace. .

But Hamlet is eager for communication with the Ghost, whatever it is. He is oppressed in spirit to an extent which the marriage seems hardly enough to justify. Both he and Horatio feel that the apparition bodes ill; Horatio thinks it foretells "some strange eruption to our state," but Hamlet’s expectation is much more specific and personal: "I doubt [i.e. suspect] some foul play." Maybe his melancholy is justified beyond his knowledge.

It is this which makes him cry out later that his soul had been prophetic; it had known more than his mind.

At his first sight of the Ghost, Hamlet instinctively prays to Heaven for protection. In addressing the apparition, he immediately states his doubts about its origin, whether it be an agency of God or the Devil:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape, [i.e. seeming to invite questions]
That I will speak to thee. .

But Hamlet wants to believe it is the spirit of his dead father, for he yearns for some knowledge which will explain and justify his feelings.

When the Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow it, Horatio’s first reaction is to assume evil intent, and he and Marcellus strive to restrain Hamlet forcibly, but he throws them both off; Hamlet is no physical weakling. He even threatens to kill them. Horatio says, "He waxes desperate with imagination;" Hamlet, unlike Horatio, was always subject to impulsive and irrational action.

The first thing the Ghost tells Hamlet is that he has come from Hell where he is suffering the torments of the damned,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. .

He goes on to suggest, though he is forbidden to describe, the horrors of Hell.

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

This emphasis of the Ghost on his torments is very important and is the reason for Hamlet’s sparing Claudius when he finds him at prayer. The theology of the day believed that King Hamlet was enduring the torments of Hell because he died without having a chance to make his peace with God. Yet he was a good man, but all men are sinners. Claudius was a murderer, but he might in prayer be confessing his sin and seeking the forgiveness of God. Never would he be more ready to die, and thus Hamlet would not fulfill the obligations of revenge, for if the good king went to Hell, so much more must the wicked one. Even after the account of the murder, the Ghost again emphasizes that he had no chance to secure the last rites of the Church:

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of Queen, at once dispatched;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.

Hamlet has learned not only of the murder of his father, but also of the previous adultery of his mother. In describing this, the Ghost has used imagery which will remain with Hamlet:

. . . Lust, though to a radiant angel linked, Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.

But the Ghost lays all the blame upon "that adulterate beast," Claudius, who had seduced Gertrude with his "wicked wit and gifts," and he commands Hamlet:

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to Heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. . .

Hamlet is so overwhelmed by the revelations of the Ghost that, again "desperate with imagination," he can scarcely refrain from collapsing physically. And then a wild ecstasy dominates him. He had been right all along, and all the others had been wrong. "Oh, wonderful!" Then suddenly he becomes cautious. He cannot tell what he has heard, not even to Horatio. He has just sworn, on the evidence of an apparition, that he will commit the ultimate crime of killing a king. It will be sure proof to Horatio that the Ghost came from the Devil. What was more, if Hamlet persisted in believing the Ghost, it would be Horatio’s bounden duty to reveal the story to the King; loyalty to the throne was a paramount duty to all good Elizabethans. No king was more aware of his divine authority than Claudius:

There’s such divinity doth hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would, Acts little of his will.

And so Hamlet must hide his purposes even from Horatio. He resorts to "wild and whirling words," still exalted by his new justification. In this spirit he says:

Touching this vision here, It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you. When calmness returns, doubts about the ghost will return too. Now Hamlet hears the Ghost again, insisting that he make his companions swear to tell nothing of what they have seen. But only Hamlet can hear the Ghost; and so, when he talks to an unseen presence, the others assume that he has become unbalanced. (Gertrude has exactly the same reaction in the Closet scene, when she can neither see nor hear the Ghost.) Sensing their reaction to his strangeness, Hamlet immediately turns it to good account. He has a solitary, difficult, and dreadful task to perform; he will need a cover perhaps to allow him greater freedom:

I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on.

Having got them to swear to secrecy, Hamlet decides he cannot leave them with no explanation at all. They would naturally assume that the supernatural visitation had been an omen of some ill to come. Indeed, both of them at separate times had so interpreted it. Hamlet now, his ecstasy spent, confirms them in that belief:

The time is out of joint. Oh, cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.

This, to Horatio and Marcellus, is an innocent formula; Hamlet has been called upon to perform some great national duty. They still stand apart from him, but he assures them that he is his normal self and their friend again with, "Nay, come, let’s go together."

The play is nearly half over before we see Hamlet and Ophelia together, and yet the relationship and its problems have been well established by that time. We first hear of it when her brother and then her father warn her against Hamlet, who, however much he professes to love her, cannot marry her, because he is of the royal blood and she is not. (One of the great ironies of the play is that they were wrong in this matter, for at Ophelia’s burial, the Queen says:

I hoped thou should’st have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.)

Polonius and Laertes were genuinely solicitous of Ophelia’s wellbeing. I have pointed out elsewhere the evidence for believing that father and son were lasciviously inclined, and judged Hamlet’s intentions from their own in such a case. To protect her from what he thinks will be the inevitable outcome, Polonius forbids Ophelia to see or correspond with Hamlet, and, as a dutiful and trusting daughter, she obeys.

We next hear of Hamlet’s forcing himself into her room and behaving like a conventional madman. She rushes to her father in terror to describe it:

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered and downgyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of Hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me.

It helps to understand this passage if we compare it with Rosalind’s description in As You Like It of a man, mad for love:

A lean cheek.., a blue eye and sunken [i.e. eyes heavy with dark shadows] . .. an unquestionable spirit [i.e. beyond words, and wanting none; Hamlet’s only sound is a heavy sigh in the reported scene with Ophelia ] . . . a beard neglected . . . Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation.

Small wonder that Polonius’s immediate reaction is "Mad for thy love?" Ophelia says that, in obedience to her father, she has refused to see Hamlet or to accept his letters.

What is Hamlet’s motive in this strange episode? Two things have happened since we last saw him: he has begun to play the madman, and he has suddenly found his beloved Ophelia barred from him. He must know that Ophelia is acting in obedience to her father, whose values he despises. In assuming the disguise of the mad lover, he is doing two things: telling Ophelia how much he loves her and yet protecting his new identity, for he knows that Ophelia will report the scene to her father, who will in turn report it to the King. But alas! Ophelia is not moved to compassion, but to terror. She has disappointed him a second time; the first was when her love for him was less than her respect for her father.

Polonius hurries to the King with his explanation of what Claudius describes as "Hamlet’s transformation," but the King has made his own arrangements to find out what is wrong. He has sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s boyhood friends, to sound him out. I feel that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two gentlemen spies, as Marlowe was.

It is probable that Marlowe’s death before he was thirty was connected with espionage. When he was a student at Cambridge he had long and unexplained absences, but the university authorities were pacified, or at least silenced, by the Queen’s Privy Council, which declared: "he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he had done Her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for his faithful dealings . . . . it was not Her Majesty’s pleasure that anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in the affairs he went about." Plot and counterplot were such constant elements in the life of Elizabeth and her country that espionage was an inevitable part of the body politic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were secret emissaries of their King in much the same way that Marlowe was of his Queen, but Gertrude sees them merely as friends of her son; the King’s relationship with them is very different when the Queen is not present. I believe their honest motivation is loyalty to the throne and protection of the monarch. It is Rosencrantz who gives memorable expression to the significance of the death of a king,

upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many. The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What’s near it with it. .
Never alone
Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are only villains from Hamlet’s point of view. Had his father lived, they would have remained friends, for their loyalty and service is to the throne, not to a person.

Polonius, who is far more than Hamlet’s "tedious old fool," uses spying as a natural source of knowledge; he even employs it against his own son and daughter, whom he loves. He has extracted from Ophelia the details of Hamlet’s "solicitings," and proudly reads to the King a love letter, which he treats like a captured document. The King is not convinced that Hamlet’s madness is due to love, and so Polonius sets up a trap by which he and the King will spy upon a meeting between the two lovers. But first Polonius will encounter Hamlet himself in an attempt to discover the reasons for his strange behavior.

In the scene with the wily Lord Chamberlain Hamlet delivers some shrewd thrusts under cover of his distraction. As Polonius says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t." Particularly does he make it clear by implication that he understands why Polonius has forbidden Ophelia to see him, and that he despises him for holding the values which prompted him to it. He makes conception sound loathsome, as he pretends to endorse Polonius’s decision to separate Ophelia from him. "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion —Have you a daughter? . . . Let her not walk i’ the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Polonius misses the point of this, merely seizing on the mention of "daughter" as a confirmation of his diagnosis of Hamlet’s trouble, and he leaves to effect the meeting with Ophelia which will afford the King final proof that frustrated love has driven the Prince mad.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now enter to fulfill their mission to probe Hamlet, who greets them with the open delight with which he had previously welcomed Horatio. In no time at all they are indulging in bawdy chitchat. Then the spies begin their work. Just as Polonius from his sensual predilections had assumed frustrated sex to be the answer to the Hamlet problem, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with their preoccupation with kingship and power assume the answer to lie in frustrated ambition, for Hamlet’s expectation of the throne had been at least and quite unexpectedly postponed. This immediately puts Hamlet on the alert, for this must surely be what the King suspects. (At this stage, Claudius can have no inkling of Hamlet’s knowledge of the truth, for no one could possibly know of his crime, least of all Hamlet, who had been hundreds of miles away at the time.) Hamlet senses that the presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Court is not a "free invitation" and he presses them until they are forced to confess that they were sent for. His attitude to them changes; they are yet another example of the perfidy of men. He tells them that he does not know the reason for his melancholy, and goes on to describe his sadness at the gulf between actual man and his infinite capacity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are quick to change the subject and tell Hamlet of the approach of the players. With a carefully calculated double entendre, to assure the emissaries of the King of his dutiful regard for him, he says, "He that plays the King shall be welcome. His Majesty shall have tribute of me."

The interpolation about the boyplayers is often dismissed as mere topical coloring and an opportunity for Shakespeare to make a hostile comment on behalf of his fellow players; although that element is undoubtedly in it, Shakespeare is primarily a playwright and uses the story for a very telling analogy. Just as the players have been dispossessed by the children and forced to travel, and just as their patrons have proved fickle in their loyalty, so Claudius has dispossessed King Hamlet, and the people have proved likewise fickle. ". . . my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mows at him while my father lived, give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little."

Hamlet’s final comment to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before Polonius enters to herald the players has been the subject of much speculation: "But my unclefather and auntmother are deceived . . . I am but mad northnorthwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." The amusing description of Claudius and Gertrude covers the bitterness that not only has his hated uncle become his father but his beloved mother has become merely his aunt. He seeks to assure them that they should not be too worried about him, for he is only a few degrees away from the true north of sanity. The last sentence is ambiguous, depending upon whether "hawk" and "handsaw" are considered as birds or tools. I prefer to regard them as birds, the handsaw being a heron. Then the sentence has a very subtle meaning, the heron being much larger than the hawk but less deadly. The south wind was the dangerous one, bringing plague and disease. ( Caliban’s curse on Prospero was: "A southwest blow on ye,/And blister you all o’er!") So it seems to me that Hamlet is saying, "In times of unseen danger, I can tell a foe from a friend, even though the foe looks the more innocent of the two." This, like many of the cryptic utterances of his "antic disposition," deliberately veiled a truth which he had great personal satisfaction in uttering; only he knew that he was describing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In their later report to the King and Queen, Guildenstern says that Hamlet

with a crafty madness, keeps aloof
When we would bring him to some confession
Of his true state.

With a similar "crafty madness" Hamlet compares Polonius with the Biblical Jephthah, but all Polonius got from it was another reference to "daughter," completely missing the implication that Jephthah had unwittingly sacrificed his daughter for a political purpose, and she had died an unwilling virgin because she was an obedient daughter.

Hamlet is a friend of the actors and a very knowledgeable critic of acting. He immediately calls upon the leading player for a sample of his wares, choosing a description of the death of old Priam by the sword of young Pyrrhus, a passage Hamlet himself knows by heart. There is one part of the extract which has particular significance for Hamlet. Pyrrhus, wounded in the collapse of the building, is temporarily halted in his vengeful slaying, but only to resume his dread work with more fury:

So as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter
Did nothing.
But, as we often see, against some storm
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful Thunder
Doth rend the region; so after Pyrrhus’ pause
Aroused vengeance sets him new awork;
And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall
On Mars’s armour, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.

That pause of Pyrrhus will torment Hamlet as soon as he is alone. He is pausing too; but why? Can it possibly be cowardice, the basest of failings? He vents his fury in words against himself, and then against Claudius. He gives way to an uncontrolled verbal paroxysm, and then pulls himself up sharply, despising himself for such weakness:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by Heaven and Hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall acursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon’t! Foh! About, my brain! .

And never again does Hamlet unpack his heart with words. When he hears Laertes doing so over Ophelia’s grave, he mocks him with imitation, saying,

...Nay, an thou’lt mouth, I’ll rant as well as thou.

Hamlet knows very well why he does not sweep to his revenge. He must first be assured that the Ghost is honest, for no one is more aware than he of the enormity of what he is called upon to do, and the coming of the players has inspired him with a plan to test Claudius’s guilt. Before he indulged in his passionate soliloquy, he had already arranged with the players to play The Murder of Gonzago before the King, with "a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert such lines, of course, being to make certain that Claudius could not miss the parallel with his own crime.

The famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy has, I think, been largely misinterpreted in its dramatic significance. Hamlet is really not contemplating suicide in it at all. It is concerned with "enterprises of great pitch and moment" which assuredly means the revenge killing of the King, and not Hamlet’s suicide. Again, he is considering the reasons for his delay, but now he does not accuse himself of cowardice. He says that just as one rightly hesitates at suicide because of "the dread of something after death," no matter how unbearable life is, so does he hesitate at his task of revenge, and with equally good reason.

The physical act of killing the King would be as easy to Hamlet as that of committing suicide, but in both cases the unknown consequences to the soul give him pause. In this he is very different from Macbeth, who, believing as does Hamlet in an afterlife, would, in pursuit of his purpose in this world, "jump the life to come." In puzzling out the reasons for his instinctive hesitance to kill the King, he finds a parallel in the natural human reluctance to commit suicide, even when death seems preferable to life; it is a commendable reluctance because God has set "his canon ‘gainst self slaughter." Similarly, Hamlet would jeopardize his soul if he committed the murder of "God’s anointed" unless he was quite certain that in doing so he was an instrument of God’s justice.

A crucial point in the confrontation with Ophelia is whether Hamlet is aware of the "lawful espials," Claudius and Polonius. In most productions he is made so aware, but Shakespeare never leaves us in doubt about such matters, and so I prefer to assume that he does not know they are there. If he did, his natural impetuosity, particularly in the fury with which he ends the scene, would have led him to disclose the hidden men. Furthermore, I feel certain that he cannot even suspect the presence of the King, or he would never so prematurely reveal his intention with "Those that are married already, all but one, shall live."

This is the first time Hamlet has seen Ophelia since his intrusion upon her in his assumed madness. At the first sight of her, reading a devotional book, his old love wells up in him. Her greeting of him has an almost studied formality:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

He answers with an equal formality: "I humbly thank you, well, well, well." The repetition of "well" is a cover for suspicious consideration. The whole occasion is suddenly suspect. If she has been kept from him, why is she now seeing him? She then offers to return his gifts to her, which implies that she expected to see him. Is the same scheming hand behind this as first separated them? Is his adored Ophelia allowing herself to be a cat’spaw to entrap the man she pretended to love? And under the cover of praying too? Small wonder that his tone changes to "Ha, ha! Are you honest?" His disgust that his "most dear lady" should be a perfidious wretch makes him lash out in a crescendo of vicious, hurtful words. If she is false, there is no virtue in man. "We are arrant knaves all." Repeatedly he tells her to go to a nunnery, a gibe which has lost its force today. Its surface meaning is that such a pious prayer-book-carrying maid should escape from the wicked world and preserve her chastity in a convent, but to the Elizabethans the word "nunnery" also meant a brothel, a meaning it had acquired from the ant monastic zeal of the Reformation. Convinced that Polonius is responsible for Ophelia’s charade, Hamlet suddenly says, "Where’s your father?" It is probable that the master of spying is lurking somewhere within earshot. Frightened and tormented Ophelia, who could not have anticipated this question, blurts out, "At home, my lord," but she is not a good liar, and her tone confirms Hamlet’s angry suspicions and also his fury that she should lie to him. His words make clear that he does not believe her: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house." His final denunciation, in which "thou" changes to "you,~~ is of all female hypocrisy, of which Ophelia has just given him the supreme example:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance [i.e. cover your loose and lewd behavior with a mask of innocence]. Go to; I’ll no more on ‘t. It hath made me mad.

Poor Ophelia, in her distraction, her first step to insanity, laments the loss of the perfect being she once knew and loved, a Hamlet who occasionally peeps out from the tormented being we see in the play:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
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, quite, quite down!

She is convinced that Hamlet is indeed mad. The King is now certain that Polonius is wrong; there is something more than frustrated love disturbing Hamlet. He had overheard the threat, "all but one shall live." The very percipient Claudius says:

Love! His affections [i.e. his emotional state] do not that
way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger. . .

The King decides to remove the potential danger by sending Hamlet to England to collect "neglected tribute." (This reference to Danegeld, extorted from the English by the invading Danes, would put the action in the tenth century. It might be interesting to see a production set in that period, but nobody would be more surprised by it than Shakespeare himself; to him Hamlet was very much his contemporary.) Polonius still sticks to his "neglected love" theory, and persuades the King to postpone his decision until Hamlet has been subjected to one more trap, a meeting with his mother with Polonius as eavesdropper.

The presentation of The Murder of Gonza go, which Hamlet renames The Mousetrap to suit his private purpose, is a turningpoint in the action, for it resolves Hamlet’s doubts and establishes the authenticity of the Ghost. In preparation for it, we have Hamlet’s brilliant discourse on the art of acting. In it Shakespeare has an opportunity to contrast the more natural playing of his own company with the broader style of Edward Alleyn and the Admiral’s Men, but it has an immediate dramatic purpose too: Hamlet is particularly concerned that the interpolated speech, which he has written, shall be a convincing reconstruction of Claudius’s crime; it must shock him into a revelation of his guilt, and, to do this, the acting must have immediacy and verisimilitude.

Hamlet, conscious that his judgment may be warped by passion, tells his plan to the dispassionate Horatio—we hear that he has already told him the Ghost’s story—and secures him as an additional witness.

As he comes to see the play, the King greets Hamlet with "How fares our cousin Hamlet?" In reply he receives another cryptic riddle, but, although the King pretends not to understand it, he must be aware of its implication. In order to avoid any suspicion of the truth, Hamlet shrewdly hints that his trouble is what the King’s spies had thought it to be: frustrated ambition. He does not want to dull the surprise of the play, and says, "I eat the air, promise crammed."

The Queen invites Hamlet to sit by her, but this would not have given him a position of vantage from which to rivet his eyes to the King’s face. Instead he chooses to sit at Ophelia’s feet, which Polonius seizes on as further proof that his love theory is right. The conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia is private, and at some distance from the King and Queen. In a cruelly bantering mood, a fit sequel to his last conversation with her, Hamlet degrades Ophelia with obscene innuendo.

The play is given twice, first in pantomime and then with dialogue. This, too, has a dramatic purpose. In Claudius, Hamlet has a worthy opponent. He is clever, subtle, and courageous. The dumbshow leaves him quite unmoved. He is so certain that no one can possibly know his secret that it is going to take much to make him see the play as more than a coincidence; and, even when he begins to suspect the purpose of the performance, he will strive hard not to betray his guilt. There is no evidence in the text that even Gertrude knew of the murder, and I believe her to be innocent of the knowledge. Hamlet, in his nervous anxiety, cannot leave well enough alone; he goes to the royal couple to make certain that they have not missed the point. Among the interpolated words in the play was undoubtedly the couplet, spoken by the Player Queen:

In second husband let me be accurst!
None wed the second but who killed the first.

Hamlet’s private comment on this had been, "Wormwood, wormwood!" As soon as he speaks to the Queen, the King challenges him with "Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in’t?" Claudius begins to suspect that, in some incredible way, Hamlet knows the truth. As the tension mounts, Hamlet cannot keep still; he returns to Ophelia for another obscenity, cries out against the overacting of the villain in the play, for Claudius must see himself in that villain, and rushes back to hammer guilt into the King’s ear. The King rises in fright and hurries from the room calling for lights; anything can happen in the dimly lit spectators’ part of the chamber. Hamlet has succeeded in his purpose, but in his impetuosity he has also revealed his knowledge to the King, and has thus put him on his guard; in uncovering the King’s secret, Hamlet has also uncovered his own.

Hamlet’s immediate reaction is one of wild ecstasy, as it had been when he first learned from the Ghost that his melancholy was justified. He gets the confirmation he needs from Horatio, and then turns to deal in his madly happy mood with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have come to rebuke him for angering the King, and to say that his mother wants to see him. The tone of the two spies is now openly hostile, but they restrain themselves once more in an attempt to probe Hamlet, and again he tells them that his strange behavior is due to the fact that he lacks advancement. Rosencrantz counters with "How can that be when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark?" Hamlet’s reply is that his ambition is impatient; he halfquotes the proverb, "While the grass grows, the horse starves. He then chastises his erstwhile friends for their lying and hypocrisy, aimed at plucking out the heart of his mystery. That phrase has been often quoted as though it referred to the universal mystery of human life, but in context it is merely the description of the object of two spies, commissioned to discover the reason for his strange conduct.

In preparing for his meeting with his mother, Hamlet cautions himself, knowing that his all too ready passion may get out of control when he thinks of her guilt. Apart from his natural feeling for her, the Ghost had warned him to take no revenge against his mother. It is going to be difficult, for he is in a dangerous mood:

... Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on. . .

The Mousetrap has indeed caught Claudius and provoked two reactions in him: a confirmation of his plan to send Hamlet to England, and a deep religious sense of guilt. He strives to pray for forgiveness,

but that cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.

Hamlet comes upon the King at prayer, and his failure to take the easy opportunity to kill him is often adduced as the ultimate proof of his essential weakness, which is the result of the conflict between his conscience and his duty. But I have already pointed out that to kill the King at prayer would have been evading the obligations of the primitive revenge code. It took strength, not weakness, to stay Hamlet’s hand. Critics have accused Hamlet of being barbaric in his reasoning, but it is the code, not Hamlet, which is barbaric; as well accuse every American who fights in Vietnam of being warlike. It should also be remembered that Hamlet’s restraint at this point leads to a much finer discharge of his duty to his dead father; in the end, the guilt of Claudius will be patent and public, and his death no secret act of private vengeance.

As he approaches his mother’s room, Hamlet calls out to her. This is an indication that, in spite of his warning to himself, he is emotionally highly charged, which becomes evident in the initial stichomythic dialogue. In preventing his angry mother from leaving the room and forcing her to sit down, his keyed up state makes him use unnecessary violence; Gertrude is frightened and cries out; the hidden Polonius adds his own cries and Hamlet, beside himself, thrusts through the arras, and kills the unseen eavesdropper. Hamlet cries out, "Is it the King?" A moment’s reflection would tell him that it couldn’t be, because he has just seen the King at prayer, but Hamlet’s most notable weakness is that his brilliant brain is often overwhelmed by his fiery impetuosity; he lacks Horatio’s calm.

Still in his almost hysterical state, he blurts out his suspicion of his mother:

A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.

There is no justification whatsoever for the first part of Hamlet’s suspicion, and Gertrude is understandably appalled and mystified by it; it is but another proof of Hamlet’s madness. Nowhere does the Ghost suggest that the Queen was a party to his murder. All he accuses her of is adultery, and even this he blames upon the seductive powers of Claudius. The Ghost still loves his Queen, and is solicitous of her. Nor does Hamlet, in striving to make her acknowledge her guilt in the marriage, again suggest her guilt in the murder; it was a black suspicion which spewed out of his irrational depths. But as he contrasts the two kings, Gertrude’s guilt in the marriage is tapped, and she cries out:

O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinet.

Oh, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.

At this moment, Hamlet is all too sane for Gertrude’s comfort, but then the Ghost appears and does not reveal his presence to her, and, as Hamlet speaks to it, seeming to address the empty air, she is brought back to the purpose of the meeting, which was to probe Hamlet’s madness. His conduct now leaves no doubt that he is mad. The Ghost says,

Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.

I believe this to be a comment on the specific scene, rather than a general injunction to Hamlet; he had been told to leave his mother to Heaven, and here he is torturing her. All his efforts of revenge should be centered on Claudius. It is Hamlet who assumes that the Ghost has come to chide him because Claudius still lives. The Ghost bids Hamlet to calm his mother. The bad, pirated First Quarto of the play has an occasional revealing gleam, and in this scene there is such a one, probably the record of an observed performance. It contains the stage direction: "Enter the Ghost in his night gown." This domestic touch again suggests that the Ghost is more concerned with the Queen in this scene than with Hamlet. The last look the Ghost gives is one of compassion, not anger or stern command; compassion for his sinful wife and tormented son. Hamlet’s comment is:

Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects; then what I have to do
Will want true colour, tears perchance for blood.

After the Ghost has vanished, and taking advantage of Hamlet’s kinder attitude to her, Gertrude tries to show him that his speaking to nothing is proof of madness. Here is a new danger for Hamlet; his reproof of his mother will be dismissed as coming from a madman; he has put the antic disposition on too well:

Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.

He again returns to his accusations, now turned to pleas that she will no longer share the bed of Claudius. When she says, "O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain," it is not clear whether it expresses distress about Hamlet’s condition or guilt for her marriage; perhaps both.

It is probable that the scene was originally meant to end with the couplet:

I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.

But the reason for the afterthought, both in Shakespeare and Hamlet, seems clear. The sweep of the play depends upon the HamletClaudius action; from this point of view the Gertrude scene has been a digression, and the main drive of the play must be resumed before the scene ends. But for Hamlet too there is a similar purpose. What will Gertrude tell Claudius? Above all, the King must not be warned that the madness is a cloak for some nefarious purpose. He warns the Queen in a most roundabout way, even hinting in a story about an ape who breaks his neck in trying to fly, that she might do herself harm unwittingly. She gets the point and says:

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.

And she keeps her word, for all she reports to the King is the death of Polonius, which she ascribes to Hamlet’s madness, and adds the plea that "He weeps for what is done." She even keeps quiet about Hamlet’s disclosure that he has a plan to get rid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The death of Polonius is Claudius’s final argument for the dispatch of Hamlet to England, an argument cogent even for his mother:

His liberty is full of threats to all,
To you yourself, to us, to everyone.
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?
It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt
This mad young man. But so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit.

The "so much was our love" is, of course, a sop to Gertrude. Claudius speaks very differently when she is not there: "How dangerous is it that this man goes loose!" We then hear of Hamlet’s popularity, an echo of Ophelia’s account of him:

Yet must not we put the strong law on him. He’s loved of the distracted multitude, ‘Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes.

But Claudius maintains the pretense of solicitude in telling Hamlet why he must leave the country:

Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done, must send thee hence
With fiery quickness.

Hamlet, whose attitude in this confrontation has been mordantly witty and insolent, replies to the King’s protestation of good intentions with the cryptic, "I see a cherub that sees them."

The First Folio and far too many productions omit the wonderful soliloquy beginning: "How all occasions do inform against me." Any pruning of the text to bring a production within normal playing time does a disservice to Shakespeare; thus it has been normal in the past completely to omit the character of Fortinbras, so losing a vivid dramatic contrast to Hamlet. Fortinbras too had felt he had been saddled with the obligation of revenge, and to fulfill it he had been ready to lay waste a whole country; his enemy had been King Hamlet, who had slain his father in a fair fight. Now Fortinbras is passing through Denmark, by agreement, to fight against Poland. He is a man who will always find a reason for war. There had been no grounds of even wild justice in his original intention to invade Denmark. But Hamlet’s obligation is as much to punish evil as to revenge a murder. In contrasting himself with Fortinbras, Hamlet again ponders whether cowardice is what really is holding him back, though he knows that there is the wisdom of scrupulous justice in the delay. Only the brave man can contemplate the possibility of cowardice in himself; the coward must justify his conduct by magnifying any scrap of bravery he can find in himself. Hamlet knows that impetuous violence is easy for him, but it is not enough. It is not enough that justice should be done, but that it should be seen to be done, as it finally will be. His reason and his blood must work in harmony, but the sight of the single-minded Fortinbras makes him long for such simplicity:

How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!

Not once in this scene does Hamlet lament the fact that he is being taken away from the object of his revenge. Had he really had any cowardly reluctance to kill Claudius, he would have welcomed this intervention of Fate. But he knows that somehow or other he will get back to Denmark and his task. The unforeseen adventure of the pirate ship affords him the opportunity.

In his letter to the King, telling him of his imminent return to Denmark, Hamlet is at pains to raise no suspicion. He was given a royal commission and has failed to carry it out. "Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes, when I shall, first asking your pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange return." On receipt of the letter, the King and Laertes concoct their dastardly plans for the certain death of Hamlet. Claudius has already said that it is his consuming love for Gertrude that makes it impossible for him to move openly against Hamlet, for she "lives almost by his looks," but their plans are such that

for his death no wind of blame shall breathe,
But even his mother shall uncharge the practice
And call it accident.

We next see Hamlet with Horatio in the churchyard, and there is a new maturity in him, as he makes his observations on the great mocker, Death. Jacques would find him as good company as he did Touchstone, as he moralizes on how Death makes naught of the skills and aspirations of the politician, the courtier, the lawyer, the jester, and the emperor.

The freshly acquired maturity in Hamlet is seen in his en counter with Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. In his new contempt for unpacking the heart with words he outrants Laertes. When Laertes attacks him, he says something which is only now true of him: "I am not splenitive and rash." When he does his mockranting, his mother pleads for him on the old grounds:

This is mere madness,
And thus awhile the fit will work on him.
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

As if to prove her point, Hamlet says gently to Laertes:

Hear you, sir.
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever

In his later talks with Horatio, in which he tells him of how he had substituted for the King’s orders, aimed at securing his own death, orders to secure the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet has a sense that God is using his impetuosity for His own purposes; this alone would account for the strangeness of his return to Denmark.

And praised be rashness for it; let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Roughhew them how we will.

After his mocking exchange with the "waterfly," Osric, who has come to invite him to a rapier match with Laertcs, his serious mood returns again, but this time he has a sense of his own approaching death. His meditations on death in the churchyard and his new awareness of an overruling destiny are joined in the ultimate reflection: "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 flow; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all."

There is no sense, as the climax approaches, that Hamlet is about to achieve his purpose. It is as though Shakespeare wanted to lull the audience into a temporary forgetfulness so that the inevitable may yet come as a surprise. All our thoughts are on Hamlet’s Fate, for we know he cannot escape the poisons of Laertes and Claudius. It is this which lends a moving irony to Hamlet’s plea for forgiveness to Laertes. Previously he had pointed out to Horatio the similarity of their causes:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his. .

It seems as if destiny does indeed determine the end. To begin with, Hamlet surprises everybody by surpassing in swordsmanship the much vaunted Laertes, who is forced to wound Hamlet with the poisoned point during a moment of rest. This knavery releases the old fury in Hamlet which sweeps everything before him. Then it is the Queen who drinks from the poisoned cup. Finally, in total justification of Hamlet’s delay, the guilt of the King is publicly proclaimed by the Queen and Laertes, who says:

The King, the King’s to blame.
He is justly served.
It is a poison tempered by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.

As death approaches Hamlet it is "felicity" and he leaves a "harsh world." Horatio is left to report his cause aright and to declare his voice for Fortinbras in the election to the vacant throne of Denmark, but in his first report this upright, loyal friend says of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whose deaths are reported from England, "He never gave commandment for their death." In such a man as Horatio, who knows that they had died as a result of Hamlet’s counter scheme, this can only mean that he honestly feels that Hamlet is not morally responsible for their deaths. He remembers Hamlet’s own words:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment.
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.

Fortinbras, whose home is the battlefield and whose values are a soldier’s, gives his highest praise to Hamlet:

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally . . . .

Through the ages Hamlet has been and will continue to be the "observed of all observers." Briefly—and yet at more than twice the length I have given to most of the other characters— this one observer has outlined a blueprint for his conception of Hamlet. Others have seen and will see him differently, and all will see their own truth in this quintessential man, the most fascinating of all Shakespeare’s characters.

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