J. Dover Wilson: Antic Disposition

From What 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 Polonius:

You know sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby;

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.

Ernest Jones: Hamlet and Oedipus

From Hamlet 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 so on.

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?

From Proceedings of the British Academy, XXX VIII (London: Oxford University
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 often misunderstood.

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 confusion.

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.

G. 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.

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.

Salvador de Madariaga: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

From On Hamlet, 2nd ed. (London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1964), pp. 14-16.
Copyright 1948 by Salvador de Madariaga. Reprinted by permission of the author
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 before
them all, let us look at those two lines in 1.4.

unhand me gentlemen,
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 way.

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 you
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.

Peter 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 meansED.

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