Paul A. Jorgensen

As the world’s most famous play, Hamlet draws upon an almost shameless quantity of popular themes. Most of these, moreover, are sensational and sufficient to compel the groundlings to stand throughout Shakespeare’s longest play. But the revenge tradition that underlies it, and that gives it gripping excitement, would have struck contemporary audiences as profoundly different from such bloody tragedies as they were used to. It was a hero who, because of his sensitive, moral nature, suffers keenly from his task. His is, as both his loved Ophelia and his friend Horatio say, a noble mind; and all evidence points to his reluctance to be cruel in order to be kind. The play for succeeding audiences has consequently become more than a simple revenge play: it has become archetypal as the ordeal of taking repulsive but occasionally passionate action. "It is we," wrote William Hazlitt, "who are Hamlet."’ And Coleridge acknowledged, "I have a smack of Hamlet, if I may say so." Few of us cannot identify with the hero, and many are the warm discussions about what is his "mystery" (3.2.352). Not only students, lay people, and troubled souls have argued about the melancholy Dane; psychoanalysts have also generously donated their services to unravel probably the most complex character in literature.

But we must not underestimate, however crude it may be, the underlying revenge tradition. It gives to the play not only plot but also what we have called the tragedy of passion. Indeed, Hamlet’s words to his only friend, Horatio—"Give me that man / That is not passion’s slave" (3.2. 68—69)—express one of the main struggles that Hamlet himself must undergo. For this tradition, Shakespeare draws mainly upon Seneca, partly upon The Spanish Tragedy, and also upon a cruder anonymous version of the play, now known as the Ur-Hamlet, no longer extant. Moreover, Shakespeare draws upon almost all of the horrendous elements of the tradition. Hamlet is summoned by the ghost of his father to avenge his death at the hands of his brother Claudius. He sinks into a deep sadness, close at times to madness, in his mission. His already sick mind is sullied by sex—notably the incest of his mother, who has married Claudius within a month or two of the funeral. Not especially Senecan are the episodes involving Polonius’s family, notably Ophelia and her tragic love for Hamlet, or though her madness and probable suicide are partly in the tradition. More conventional are Hamlet’s delay (though not its psychological causes) and his cunning concern to make the revenge as appropriate and condign as possible. The play within the play, which Hamlet devises to "catch the conscience of the king" (2.2.590—91), is surely an exploitation of the popular episode in The Spanish Tragedy. Many of the subsequent violent elements—the murder of Polonius, the leaping into Ophelia’s grave, the fatal duel with Laertes, the accidental poisoning of Gertrude, and the ultimate, condign slaying of Claudius—are variations upon the revenge tradition. But those elements that would have most pleased and been recognized by the audience are the burden of revenge, the ghost, madness, incest, delay, and appropriateness in technique of revenge. What the audience would have witnessed with wonder are the philosophical extensions of cruel finesse and passion. These extensions, attributable largely to the noble and brooding mind of the revenger, are well expressed by him as "thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls" (1.4.56). In them recrimination for delay takes the form of self-analysis and of anguished reflection upon the state of man that have scarcely been excelled.

As in Julius Caesar, the play that probably preceded it by only a year, the protagonist is of a noble, philosophical mind. Shakespeare found compellingly interesting during these years—and probably never again—a protagonist who is not primarily of heroic stature. (Bradley, intent upon making all four of the major heroes awesomely large, had to attribute to Hamlet "genius," and Bradley could not have done even that for Brutus.) These two are men of conscience and thought who have placed upon them an in congenial burden, made even more intolerable by the crude environment that produces it.

In placing Hamlet in the revenge tradition, we must seek to correct the common stereotype that critics who depend upon this tradition make of Hamlet’s revenge. Hamlet’s task is not so simple as killing the king. His, rather, is the most profound kind of revenge (if one can justly call it that) imposed upon any hero. His task is to set the times right, to purge the court of Elsinore. This duty, then, is much more profound in yet another sense than revenge tragedy.

The play concerns the purging, partly by revenge, of a corrupt society. Hamlet must make of man more than a beast. And in doing so, he must constantly struggle nor to be a beast himself, not to let his noble mind be overthrown, not to lose his "capability and godlike reason" (4.4.38), not to let his heart lose its nature.

The Court of Elsinore

Most of the action in Hamlet rakes place in the Court of Elsinore, which appears first in the second scene. Superficially, especially after the bleak, heartsick fear of the opening scene, set at midnight on the battlements and terrorizing not only the sentries but also the skeptical Horatio with two appearances of the Ghost, it seems to be a warm, bright, and civilized setting. After the midnight out-of-doors darkness — a darkness emphasized by Marcellus’s opening and unanswered question to the seemingly void universe as well as to Francisco, "Who’s there?" (1. 1. 1)—it is an indoor scene full of color and fine dress. Claudius, from the throne, reassuringly, brilliantly brings the newly formed state together. He logically explains the hasty marriage and the "mirth in funeral" (1.2.12). He warmly deals with his supporter counselor Polonius, and genially gives his counselor’s son, Laertes, permission to go to Paris. The threatened invasion of Fortinbras is expertly dealt with. Only Hamlet, a man on whom rests what G. Wilson Knight calls "the embassy of death, remains darkly alone, unresponsive to warm, reasonable consolation and a proffered stature as a son. Hamlet, who will prove to be the most difficult stepson in literature, answers only his mother’s plea to stay in Denmark, and even she does not escape his scathing wit.

On the whole, however, it seems to be a comfortable court. And scene 3 stresses this impression by bringing together in close intimacy Polonius and his family. Laertes gives words of worldly, experienced caution to protect his sister’s virtue, but affection is shown even in her bantering reply to Parisbound Laertes. Polonius then arrives and gives, in a celebrated fatherhood speech, counsel on a prudent but gentlemanly life. The most important function of the scene is the restraint placed upon Ophelia in not seeing Hamlet. He will but trifle with her, or "wreck" (2. 1. 113) her. Hamlet, of a noble nature free from all contriving, is later severely shaken by the narrow vision of the restraint and the close-hearredness that it represents. It is, all in all, a scene and a family not untypical of the court as, in more insidious and corrupt forms, we shall generally see it. It is narrow, politic, suspicious—a prison that does not have, like Hamlet, "a heart unfortified" (1.2.96).

Yet, even without the Italianate villainy of Claudius, it is a court that will somehow merit the scourging of a terrible kind. Typical again are the character and fate of Polonius’s family, which to a person will be wiped out. To grasp the true nature of Elsinore, and the purgation that it will receive, we must not begin with Claudius or Polonius or the premature settling of a disturbed state. We must not begin with a sophisticated indoor scene. These scenes are often, as
As You Like It and King Lear illustrate, less close to reality than the scenes set in the forest or on the heath. We must, in short, begin the play as Shakespeare does, at midnight on the battlements; with characters confronting without pretense or control the raw evil, the rottenness of the state of Denmark.

This Bodes Some Strange Eruption to the State

Many modern productions of the play omit, with serious consequences, the entire first scene. Their reasoning may be practical, for drastic cuts are necessary in Shakespeare’s longest play. But a fundamental misunderstanding of the play is also likely. It is a scene that, as Horatio explains, "is prologue to the omen coming on," sent by "heaven and earth together" (1. 1. 123, 124). Horatio likens it to the prodigious events preceding the death of Caesar. A state is in jeopardy, and to the Elizabethans that threat of war meant that a sinsick land is to be scourged. This first scene describes at length the preparations against an invasion by Fortinbras, who is also omitted from many productions, even though he will appear prominently at the end of the play. True, the Ghost will appear with his "dread command" (3.4. 109) in the fifth scene, but he is needed at the start by his position to dominate the state’s peril and to give, like Fortinbras, a military beginning as well as a military ending to the play. He terrifies not just because he is a ghost but also because he comes in the "warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march" (1. 1.47—49). He is the only ghost in extant Elizabethan drama to appear in armor. He deserves the first scene—even without Hamlet—to sound the note of the dominant theme of doom.

Long and soft peace was not an auspicious condition in Elizabethan thought. Military theorists and theologians warned repeatedly that its symptoms were those of a sinful and sick land, ripe for sacking. There is an excessive softness in Claudius’s kingdom, a peacebred decadence. The new king differs markedly from his martial brother. All the parasites of peace here have proliferated: courtiers—sinister and suave like Claudius, politic like Laertes, false like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or effete like Osric; corrupt lawyers and impeded justice; artful and affected language; in fact all the decadent types and qualities mentioned in Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. More serious still are the moral corruption’s of a peacetime state threatened by corrective war: sexual aberrations and license (extending to Laertes and to the recurrent image of the harlot); social disease imaged by "impostume" (4.4.27) and "canker" (5.2.69); the "oppressor’s wrong (3.1.71); "rank" (1.2. 136; many times emphasized, often by Hamlet, and connoting sexual stench); and gross debauchery in such forms as heavy drinking, usually and ominously conjoined with the sound of cannon.

Imagery, as we have noticed, goes deeper than "seems" (1.2.75— 76), the picture of Elsinore given in the second scene. Without dwelling upon the wellknown disease images catalogued by Caroline Spurgeon,4 we readily recall such dominant expressions of physical deterioration as "the fatness of these pursy times" (3.4. 154) and "the drossy age" (5.2. 181). Especially basic to the play is a hidden kind of disease, sometimes discovered too late. This kind of image is unmistakably related to peacebred corruption in one of the most important and overlooked passages in the play (it is overlooked in productions because the scene in which it appears is usually cut). Hamlet comments upon the appearance of Forrinbras’s army as follows: "This is th’impostume of much wealth and peace, / That inward breaks, and shows no cause without / Why the man dies" (4.4.27— 29). Barnabe Riche (an author whose Farewell to Militarie Profession Shakespeare read) indicates the specific kinds of inward rottenness concealed in peacetime: deceit, fraud, flattery, incontinence, inordinate lust, and "to be short . . . al manner of fllthinesse. "Riche, moreover, got his diagnosis from a respected authority: St. Augustine in The City of God.

In fact, most alarms to England had theological origins, based upon biblical analogues and hence most terrifying to Elizabethans. Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah were cities especially subject to visitation of armed portents: but the sinful city that compellingly caught the horrified attention of England was Jerusalem before its destruc tion by Titus. Was there no way in which military devastation could be avoided? In a sermon called Gods Mercies and Jerusalems Miseries, Lancelot Dawes expounds the text from Jeremiah 5:1. The text is to search in the city for a man "that executeth Judgment and seeketh the truth and I will spare it." Only one man, it is emphasized, need be found. Such a minister of judgment must be able to give drastic physic to the moral disease of the city, for "from the sole of her foot to the crown of her head, there be nothing found in her but wounds and, swelling, and sores full of corruption."

Such a man is not to be found in Jerusalem. Nineveh, however, was redeemed, and its redemption was found in many a sermon. But its success on the stage is more significant of popular appeal and helps clarify the meaning of Hamlet to its audience. In A LookingGlass for London and England, Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene dramatized the frightening sins of a city under a sensual monarch, the appearance of an angel who brings in Jonas and Oseas as prophets to scourge the court repeatedly with moral warnings, and finally the internal purgation of the city within the appointed forty days.

If we consider Hamlet to be, like Jonas and Oseas, a wildly speaking voice of judgment and correction, we may be struck by other parallels between the two plays. Rasni, the king, "loves chainbering and wantonesse," indulges in carousing, and rules a kingdom of "filthinesses and sinne." He is threatened: "The foe shall pierce the gates with iron rampes. ‘‘ The most arresting specific parallel is that Rasni falls sensually in love with, and marries, his own sister.

Hamlet is too complex a play, and Hamlet too various a character, to fit comfortably into any tradition. One must, however, attempt to account for as many of its images as possible, especially if these give the play and its hero a significance greater than killing a king, or suffering from delay, or meaningless abuse of others, or near madness.

O Heart, Lose Not Thy Nature

Hamlet, as a corrective surrogate form of war in Denmark, wages a still more crucial war as an instrument of destiny. He is a human being, one who must battle within himself a war in itself, a war between ruthlessness (a terrible passion) and humane feelings. The Ghost, in his story to his son, tells him not to pity him but to take stern action. The early Hamlet, though sickeningly bitter at his mother’s perfidy and the "bloat" (3.4. 183) king’s lust, is mostly a noble mind, one not, despite Ophelia’s words, yet overthrown. Near the end of the play, when he has killed Polonius, he can be heartless—"Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! / I took thee for thy better" (3.4.32—33); this is the only elegy he can pronounce over the dead father of his once beloved—and there is bestiality in his "I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room" (3.4.2 13). Perhaps, however, his most insightful view of the murder is a resignedly philosophical one:

For this same lord,
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

The two key words are scourge and minister. The latter is an untainted of God. I Richard III the virtuous Richmond on the eve of battle prays to God, "Make us thy ministers of chastisement" (R3 5.3.3 14). A scourge, on the other hand, has taken on himself revenge, like Tamburlaine, and is ultimately doomed. Such, at any rate, is the view of Fredson Bowers.8 But the two words are often used interchangeably in the religious literature of the day, and Hamlet must, though he does not at first kill, behave with the cruelty of a scourge in setting the time right.

He is not, even from the beginning, temperamentally suited for a dispassionate enlightening of the moral sense of his mother, Ophelia, Polonius, or other tainted attendants at Elsinore. Once, doubtless, he had been. But when we first see him he is morbidly disillusioned with life and man ("man delights not me," 2.2.305) and woman. All is rank. Exacerbating his world view is the dread command of the ghost. This command, with its clinical account of his sexual mother, renders him incapable of a reasoned correction of others. The Ghost’s command that usurps all else is "Let not the royal bed of Denmark be/A couch of luxury and damned incest" (1.5.82—83). This order makes for the savage attempt to mortify and chasten even so virtuous a girl as Ophelia

More important, it makes him partly blind to the purging that his victims are undergoing of their own nature. Polonius, on his own, knows, as he places the book of devotion in Ophelia’s hands, that

We are oft to blame in this,
‘Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage And pious action, we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.
(3. 1.46—49)

And even Claudius himself has his conscience wrung by this observation, for in an aside he virtually cries out:

O, ‘tis true.
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burthen!
(3. 1.49—54)

Claudius is, however, more caught in conscience by Hamlet’s playwithintheplay. His great soliloquy makes him more than a onedimensional villain. He prays for the mostneeded virtue in the play (perhaps in Shakespeare)—an open heart:

Help, angels! Make assay.
Bow, stubborn knees, and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe.
All may be well.

Indeed a major aspect of Hamlet’s excoriating mission is that even while it threatens to narrow his own heart and humanity (witness his callousness toward the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), it awakens feelings of guilt in his victims.

Gertrude, morally obtuse, is his major obstacle in enlightenment, even as she is (though not in Freudian interpretation) the powerful threat to his role as minister rather than scourge. At once one of the most important and most enigmatic passages in the play is the Ghost’s command concerning her:

But howsomever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother ought. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.

Perhaps "Taint not thy mind" applies to the entire revenge mission, and in following that injunction Hamlet is reasonably successful. But the sexual nausea with which he views and treats his mother makes him almost hysterically and carnally passionate. When he is going to his mother’s chambers at her request for the "closet scene, he must try to fortify his heart: "Soft, now to my mother. / O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom" (3.2.377—79). So distraught is he, yet so anxious to carry out the Ghost’s commands and his own deep feelings for Gertrude, that the scene is one of the most powerfully poetic in the play, despite its painfully sexual nature. It is also a crucial scene in that it carries out, in the largest sense, the ultimatum of the Ghost’s charge: "Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest" (1.5.82—83). Luxuty, it will be remembered, kept its Latin and romance meaning of licentiousness, of rank abundance, and of sumptuous pleasure, suitable to a kingdom of decadent peace.

Largely upon this scene, therefore, and not upon the killing of Claudius, depends the cleansing of what is rotten in the state of Denmark. And Hamlet succeeds through his brutal yet ardently moving rhetoric. He cries to Gertrude:

Leave wringing of your hands. Peace, sit you down
And let me wring your heart, for so I shall
it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damned custom have not brazed it so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense.
(3 .4. 35—39)

So broad reaching, he cries, is her deed, that

Heaven’s face does glow,
And this solidity and compound mass,
With heated visage, as against the doom,
Is thoughtsick at the act.
(3 .4.49—52)

In effect, Hamlet correctly sees the earth as sick against the coming of the "doom." He is carrying out the fullest meaning of the Ghost’s command, a meaning in which Gertrude’s vileness and subsequent recognition are central. With a persistent battle between passionate morality and morbid sexual revulsion in his soul, he pictures for her the stench and sweat of her sexual nature:

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty—

She pleads with him to stop: "O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain" (3.4. 157). In so confessing, she becomes (if we except Laertes) the last and certainly most important sinner whose heart Hamlet has opened.

The cruelty and even filth of his tactics make it sometimes questionable whether he fulfills his mission untainted. His earlier cruel wit may be written off as "antic disposition" (1.5. 172) as may his "wild and whirling words" (1.5. 133) used to his old friends. He is probably right, in so intolerable a corrective role, to see himself as both scourge and minister.

But, as we must more deeply recognize, Hamlet is our hero because, although forced into cruelty and even sadism, he is one of the most beautiful in soul of any man Shakespeare created. We remember mainly his heartrending soliloquies and his suffering. None but he could speak words like

To die, to sleep— No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.

He may say that the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow" (5.2.58—59). But, again, he can apologize humbly to the murderous Laertes, and he can go beyond his own plight when he states that "by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his"

Still more in his favor is the concern for all human agony in his soliloquies; and still more, the religious commitment that comes to him after the hectic fever of his scourging. He learns: "There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Roughhew them how we will" (5.2.10—11). As his doom draws near, we see more of his own and not the age’s suffering: "But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart" (5.2.20 1). Perhaps his first unselfish recognition is expressed in the biblical parable: "There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" (5.2.208—9).

With consummate artistry, therefore, Shakespeare is able to make the final scene of his most spiritually endowed hero twofold. Hamlet has earned, first, the beautiful tribute of Horatio, a man not given to unrealistic statements: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (5.2.348—49). And secondly, but not usually shown, is the conclusion expressed by Fortinbras, a conclusion representing his highest tribute. He had come to claim his "rights of memory in the kingdom" (5.2.378), though really to carry out a scourge that he himself does not know the basis for. He orders:

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and for his passage
The soldiers’ music and the rights of war
Speak loudly for him.

The last sounds are of cannon, not for Claudius, but for Hamlet and regenerate Denmark.

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