Wilson: Antic Disposition
Happens in Hamlet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959),
pp. 105-108. Copyright © 1959 by Cambridge University Press.
Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.
This study first appeared in 1935.
[See Hamlet, II.ii.159—185 in which Polonius proposes to use his
daughter Ophelia as a bait for Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius
conceal themselves behind an arras; at which point Hamlet enters
unexpectedly and is spoken to by Polonius—ED.]
Everything that Hamlet here says is capable of an equivocal
interpretation reflecting upon Polonius and Ophelia. "Fishmonger,"
as many commentators have noted, means a pander or procurer;
"carrion" was a common expression at that time for "flesh" in the
carnal sense; while the quibble in "conception" needs no explaining.
And when I asked myself why Hamlet should suddenly call Polonius a
bawd and his daughter a prostitute—for that is what it all amounts
to—I could discover but one possible answer to my question, namely
that "Fishmonger" and the rest follows immediately upon "loose my
daughter to him." Nor was this the end of the matter. For what might
Hamlet mean by his sarcastic advice to the father not to let the
daughter "walke i’th Sunne," or by the reference to the sun breeding
in the "carrion" exposed to it? Bearing in mind Hamlet’s punning
retort "I am too much in the ‘son,’" in answer to Claudius’s
unctuous question at J.ii.64,
And now my
cousin Hamlet, and my son,
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
— and recalling
Falstaff’s apostrophe to Prince Hal: "Shall the blessed sun of
heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? a question not to be
asked. Shall the son of England prove a thief and take purses? a
question to be asked," is it not obvious that Hamlet here means by "Sunne"
the sun or son of Denmark, the heir apparent, in other words
himself? And if so, "let her not walke i’th Sunne" is to be
paraphrased "take care that you do not loose your daughter to me!"
What then? Hamlet must have overheard what Polonius said to the
King. The context allows no escape from this conclusion, inasmuch as
what Hamlet says to Polonius is only intelligible if the conclusion
be allowed. It remains to examine the text in order to discover, if
possible, what Shakespeare’s intentions, clearly impaired in some
way by corruption, may have been. We are left, of course, to
conjecture, but even so we are not entirely without clues. Says
- You know
sometimes he walks four hours together
- Here in
and as he speaks we
may imagine him jerking a thumb over his shoulder towards the inner
stage before which the three plotters stand, their faces to the
audience. Words and the action are a direct invitation to the
spectators to look in that direction; and, as they do so, Hamlet
enters the inner stage from the door at the back, his eyes upon his
book, quite unconscious at first that his uncle, his mother, and
Polonius are on the outer stage, which stands for the audience
chamber of the castle. In short, "Here in the lobby" is equivalent
to a stage direction, and marks with practical certainty the moment
at which Hamlet comes in and the place of his entry. And it is the
right moment; for the entry should seem unquestionably accidental,
lest the audience should suspect him of deliberate spying. It would
never do, for example, to let him linger in his place of
concealment. Between the King’s question "How may me try it
further?" and his resolve "We will try it" there lie eight lines of
dialogue. They just give Hamlet time to enter the lobby, grow
conscious of voices in the larger chamber beyond, pause for a moment
beside the entrance thereto, compose his features, and come forward.
But brief as the period is, it is long enough for him to take in the
whole eavesdropping plot and to implicate Ophelia beyond possibility
of doubt in his ears as one of his uncle’s minions.
Hamlet’s accidental discovery of the intention to spy upon him has a
bearing much wider than his attitude towards Ophelia. Indeed, the
manner in which it eases the general working of the plot is strong
testimony in its favor. As we shall find, it constitutes the
mainspring of the events that follow in acts II and III; it renders
the nunnery scene playable and intelligible as never before; it adds
all kinds of fresh light and shade to the play scene. In a word, its
recovery means the restoration of a highly important piece of the
dramatic structure. For the moment, however, let us confine our
attention to the matter in hand; and see what it tells us about
Hamlet’s relations with the daughter of Polonius. Here its value is
at once obvious, since it casts its light backward as well as
forward and enables us for the first time to see these relations in
proper perspective and as a connected whole.
Jones: Hamlet and Oedipus
and Oedipus (London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1949; New York:
W. W. Norton & Company, inc., 1949), pp. 5253, 5960, and 82.
Copyright © 1949
by Ernest Jones. Reprinted by permission of the publishers. This
study appeared in
its original form in 1910.
That Hamlet is suffering from an internal conflict the essential
nature of which is inaccessible to his introspection is evidenced by
the following considerations. Throughout the play we have the
clearest picture of a man who sees his duty plain before him, but
who shirks it at every opportunity and suffers in consequence the
most intense remorse. To paraphrase Sir James Paget’s well known
description of hysterical paralysis: Hamlet’s advocates say he
cannot do his duty, his detractors say he will not, whereas the
truth is that he cannot will. Further than this, the deficient
willpower is localized to the question of killing his uncle; it is
what may be termed a specific abulia. Now instances of such specific
abulias in real life invariably prove, when analyzed, to be due to
an unconscious repulsion against the act that cannot be performed
(or else against something closely associated with the act, so that
the idea of the act becomes also involved in the repulsion). In
other words, whenever a person cannot bring himself to do something
that every conscious consideration tells him he should do—and which
he may have the strongest conscious desire to do—it is always
because there is some hidden reason why a part of him doesn’t want
to do it; this reason he will not own to himself and is only dimly
if at all aware of. That is exactly the case with Hamlet.
It only remains to add the obvious corollary that, as the herd
unquestionably selects from the "natural" instincts the sexual one
on which to lay its heaviest ban, so it is the various psychosexual
trends that are most often "repressed" by the individual. We have
here the explanation of the clinical experience that the more
intense and the more obscure is a given case of deep mental conflict
the more certainly will it be found on adequate analysis to center
about a sexual problem. On the surface, of course, this does not
appear so, for, by means of various psychological defensive
mechanisms, the depression, doubt, despair, and other manifestations
of the conflict are transferred on to more tolerable and permissible
topics, such as anxiety about worldly success or failure, about
immortality and the salvation of the soul, philosophical
considerations about the value of life, the future of the world, and
Bearing these considerations in mind, let us return to Hamlet.
Now comes the father’s death and the mother’s second marriage. The
association of the idea of sexuality with his mother, buried since
infancy, can no longer be concealed from his consciousness. As
Bradley well says: "Her son was forced to see in her action not only
an astounding shallowness of feeling, but an eruption of coarse
sensuality, ‘rank and gross,’ speeding posthaste to its horrible de.
light." Feelings which once, in the infancy of long ago, were
pleasurable desires can now, because of his repression’s, only fill
him with repulsion. The long "repressed" desire to take his father’s
place in his mother’s affection is ~timu1ated to unconscious
activity by the sight of someone usurping this place exactly as he
himself had once longed to do. More, this someone was a member of
the same family, so that the actual usurpation further resembled the
imaginary one in being incestuous. Without his being in the least
aware of it these ancient desires are ringing in his mind, are once
more struggling. to find conscious expression, and need such an
expenditure of energy again to "repress" them that he is reduced to
the deplorable mental state he himself so vividly depicts.
C. S. Lewis:
Hamlet—The Prince or the Poem?
Proceedings of the British Academy, XXX VIII (London: Oxford
Press, 1942), 1415. Copyright 1942 by Oxford University Press.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
This selection is a brief excerpt from the lecture.
For what, after all, is happening to us when we read any of Hamlet’s
great speeches? We see visions of the flesh dissolving into a dew,
of the world like an unweeded garden. We think of memory reeling in
its "distracted globe." We watch him scampering hither and thither
like a maniac to avoid the voices wherewith he is haunted. Someone
says "Walk out of the air," and we hear the words "Into my grave"
spontaneously respond to it. We think of being bounded in a nutshell
and king of infinite space: but for bad dreams. There’s the trouble,
for "I am most dreadfully attended." We see the picture of a dull
and muddy mettled rascal, a Johna dreams, somehow unable to move
while ultimate dishonor is done him. We listen to his fear lest the
whole thing may be an illusion due to melancholy. We get the sense
of sweet relief at the words "shuffled off this mortal coil" but
mixed with the bottomless doubt about what may follow then. We think
of bones and skulls, of women breeding sinners, and of how some, to
whom all this experience is a sealed book, can yet dare death and
danger "for an eggshell." But do we really enjoy these things, do we
go back to them, because they show us Hamlet’s character? Are they,
from that point of view, so very interesting? Does the mere fact
that a young man, literally haunted, dispossessed, and lacking
friends, should feel thus, tell us anything remarkable? Let me put
my question in another way. If instead of the speeches he actually
utters about the firmament and man in his scene with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Hamlet had merely said, "I don’t seem to enjoy things
the way I used to," and talked in that fashion throughout, should we
find him interesting? I think the answer is "Not very." It may be
replied that if he talked commonplace prose he would reveal his
character less vividly. I am not so sure. He would certainly have
revealed something less vividly; but would that something be
himself? It seems to me that "this majestical roof" and "What a
piece of work is a man" give me primarily an impression not of the
sort of person he must be to lose the estimation of things but of
the things themselves and their great value; and that I should be
able to discern, though with very faint interest, the same condition
of loss in a personage who was quite unable so to put before me what
he was losing. And I do not think it true to reply that he would be
a different character if he spoke less poetically. This point is
We sometimes speak as if the characters in whose mouths Shakespeare
puts great poetry were poets: in the sense that Shakespeare was
depicting men of poetical genius. But surely this is like thinking
that Wagner’s Wotan is the dramatic portrait of a baritone? In opera
song is the medium by which the representation is made and not part
of the thing represented. The actors sing; the dramatic personages
are feigned to be speaking. The only character who sings
dramatically in Figaro is Cherubino. Similarly in poetical drama
poetry is the medium, not part of the delineated characters. While
the actors speak poetry written for them by the poet, the dramatic
personages are supposed to be merely talking. If ever there is
occasion to represent poetry (as in the play scene from Hamlet), it
is put into a different metre and strongly stylized so as to prevent
I trust that my conception is now becoming clear. I believe that we
read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe
so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have
passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass,
rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this
particular man entered it.
Wilson Knight: The Embassy of Death
From "The Embassy of Death," in The Wheel of Fire (London:
Methuen ~r Co.,
Ltd., 1930, rev. ed. 1954), pp. 38-39. Copyright ‘© 1954 by Methuen
& Co., Ltd. Re.
printed by permission of the publisher.
Hamlet is inhuman. He has seen through humanity. And this inhuman
cynicism, however justifiable in this case, on the plane of
causality and individual responsibility, is a deadly and venomous
thing. Instinctively the creatures of earth—Laertes, Polonius,
Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, league themselves with
Claudius: they are of his kind. They sever themselves from Hamlet.
Laertes sternly warns Ophelia against her intimacy with Hamlet, so
does Polonius. They are, in fact, all leagued against him, they are
puzzled by him or fear him: he has no friend except Horatio, and
Horatio, after the ghost scenes, becomes a queer shadowy character
who rarely gets beyond "E’en so, my lord," "My lord—," and suchlike
phrases. The other persons are firmly drawn, in the round, creatures
of flesh and blood. But Hamlet is not of flesh and blood, he is a
spirit of penetrating intellect and cynicism and misery, without
faith in himself or anyone else, murdering his love of Ophelia, on
the brink of insanity, taking delight in cruelty, torturing
Claudius, wringing his mother’s heart, a poison in the midst of the
healthy bustle of the court. He is a superman among men. And he is a
superman because he has walked and held converse with Death, and his
consciousness works in terms of Death and the Negation of Cynicism.
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the
universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil
in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads
outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into
metal. They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one
after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are
strong with the strength of health —but the demon of Hamlet’s mind
is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of
their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he
goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back
again in their midst, meditating in graveyards, at home with Death.
Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied.
And last it slays Hamlet himself:
The spirit that
I have seen
May be the devil
It was the devil of the knowledge of death, which possesses Hamlet
and drives him from misery and pain to increasing bitterness,
cynicism, murder, and madness. He has indeed bought converse with
his father’s spirit at the price of enduring and spreading hell on
Earth. But however much we may sympathize with Ophelia, with
Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the Queen, and Claudius, there
is one reservation to be made. It is Hamlet who is right. What he
says and thinks of them is true, and there is no fault in his logic.
His own mother is indeed faithless, and the prettiness of Ophelia
does in truth enclose a spirit as fragile and untrustworthy as her
earthly beauty; Polonius is "a foolish prating knave"; Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern are timeservers and flatterers; Claudius, whose
benevolence hides the guilt of murder, is, by virtue of that fact,
"a damned smiling villain." In the same way the demon of cynicism
which is in the mind of the poet and expresses itself in the figures
of this play, has always this characteristic: it is right. One
cannot argue with the cynic. It is unwise to offer him battle. For
in the warfare of logic it will be found that he has all the guns.
de Madariaga: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Hamlet, 2nd ed. (London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1964), pp. 14-16.
Copyright 1948 by Salvador de Madariaga. Reprinted by permission of
and the publisher. This study first appeared in 1948
This procrastination cannot be due to an instinctive and fastidious
repugnance to killing, for Hamlet kills Polonius, and Laertes, and
in the end the King himself; and he dispatches Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern to their doom with true alacrity. Whence then does it
come? The answer will be found by examining all these cases. And
them all, let us look at those two lines in 1.4.
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
It is one of the key points in the drawing of his character. When it
comes to doing what he is determined to do, he will not hesitate to
kill even his closest friend, for Horatio is one of the gentlemen
whom he threatens sword in hand. Hamlet’s spontaneous tendencies are
therefore essentially individualistic; and, the point must be
emphasized, not even death of others, if need be, will stand in his
This the Hamlet whose behavior towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
we are now to study. They were his friends, and we know from his
mother that he had much talked of them and that
two men there
are not living
To whom he more adheres.
The two young men receive from the King a commission which, whatever
the King’s secret intentions may be, is honorable. Hamlet, the King
in fact tells them, is not what he was. The cause of the change "I
cannot dream of."
Therefore, I beg
so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather
So much as from occasion you may glean
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus
That opened lies within our remedy.
Guildenstern’s words show that the two young men understand their
work in an irreproachable way:
Heaven make our presence and our practices
Pleasant and helpful to him.
They enter upon their new duties at a later stage in the same scene.
Cordial and lighthearted, the meeting of the three young men leads
to some fencing of wits on ambition; for Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, who know nothing about King Hamlet’s murder, naturally
assume that the trouble with Hamlet is frustrated ambition (and so
in part it is): Hamlet, of course, parries, and as he tries to move
off, his two companions, in strict obedience to their master, the
King, say: "We’ll wait upon you." This raises his suspicions. "But,
in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Ellsinore?" They
are put out. Very likely they had not expected this alertness in a
Hamlet the King had depicted
So much from th’understanding of himself.
They try to plot a concerted answer, but in the end are honest to
him; and to his direct question they return a direct answer: "My
lord, we were sent for."
This scene is typical. Bearing in mind that, for Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, the King was their legitimate sovereign, and that for
all they knew, Hamlet was at least "queer,~~ the two young men
acquit themselves of their delicate duties with skill and dignity.
They do make mistakes later, and, as Guildenstern openly avows: "0
my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly." But
this other scene is one in which Hamlet’s whole in considered
egotism shows itself unashamed. He is, of course, excited by the
triumph of his stratagem, the play, whereby he has proved the Ghost
right and the King a criminal; yet this circumstance merely raises
the pitch of his mood, without in any way altering the essence of
his character. His behavior towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is
rude in the extreme. "This courtesy is not of the right breed," says
Guildenstern; and when Rosencrantz points out to him "you once did
love me," his answer is: "And do still, by these pickers and
stealers." He has a case; of course he has a case. And he puts it
with unforgettable beauty and truth in his apologue on the recorder.
"‘Blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" And
one can conceive his irritation at being followed and accompanied
when he would prefer to be alone. But, when all is said and pondered
on his behalf, the scene remains an exhibition of complete
selfcenteredness and of utter disregard for the feelings of others.
Alexander: The Complete Man
From Hamlet, Father and Son (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955),
pp. 183-185 Copyright © 1955 by the Clarendon Press. Reprinted by
permission of the author and the publisher. This selection is the
ending of the final chapter, "The Complete Man."
Tragedy, Shakespeare had come to see when he was writing Hamlet, is
a kind of consecration of the common elements of man’s moral life.
Shakespeare introduces the common man in Hamlet not for what we are
apt to think of as his "commonness" but for this strange power
however you care to name it that he possesses—we have used art, or
virtue, or we might have borrowed from Henry James "the individual
vision of decency." In Tragedy there is no longer a Chorus moving
round the altar of a god; but if Proust is right the spectators are
still participants in a supernatural ceremony.
Perhaps I may put the aspect of Tragedy I wish to keep before you
more clearly by drawing on Professor Harbage’s study of
Shakespeare’s ideal man. Collecting the approving references he
finds that this ideal man is soldierly, scholarly, and honest. If
these men seem to lack the larger idealism that is so common and
abundant in our own generation, there is no suspicion that
Shakespeare’s men will fail to back with their own skin their
apparently modest programs. As Professor Harbage says: "All
soldierly, scholarly, honest men are potential martyrs —you can
substitute for "martyrs" tragic figures. Of that Shakespearean type
Hamlet is the ideal. Shakespeare had before him in Saxo and
Belleforest what was presented as an ideal type. This type
Shakespeare transformed. To what may be called the instinctive
wisdom of antiquity and her heroic passions, represented so
impressively by Hamlet’s father, Shakespeare has united the
meditative wisdom of later ages in Hamlet himself. There is no
surrender of the old pieties, and the idea of the drama comes from
the impact of new circum1stances upon the old forms of feeling and
estimation; there is a conflict between new exigencies and old
pieties, that have somehow to be reconciled. The play dramatizes the
perpetual struggle to which all civilization that is genuine is
doomed. To live up to its own ideals it has to place itself at a
disadvantage with the cunning and treacherous. The problem Mr.
Chandler (1) sets his hero is infinitely
complicated in Hamlet—to be humane without loss of toughness. The
hero must touch both extremes: without one he is just brutal,
lacking the other he is merely wet. The problem Mr. Chandler has
posed for the writer of the story of crime Shakespeare solved, I am
suggesting to you, just after his thirtyfifth year, when he finally
transformed the ancient sagalike story preserved for us by Saxo into
the play we know as Hamlet.
1) Raymond Chandler, a modern writer of
detective stories, who describes his fictional hero in terms also
applicable to Hamlet: a man who is typical of humanity and yet
unusual, a humane and honorable person with a disgust for sham who
must combat human meanness by sometimes ruthless means—ED.