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
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.
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 You Like It
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.
Bodes Some Strange Eruption to the State
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
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
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.
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
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
We are oft to blame in
‘Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage And pious
action, we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.
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!
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
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
And this solidity and compound mass,
With heated visage, as against the doom,
Is thoughtsick at the act.
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
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"
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.
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.