William Shakespeare's HAMLET THE PLAY THE PLOT Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is at school in Wittenberg, Germany, when his father, King Hamlet, dies. He comes home to Elsinore Castle to find his mother, Queen Gertrude, married to his uncle Claudius, the late king’s younger brother. Claudius has had himself crowned king. Soldiers guarding Elsinore report to Hamlet through his friend Horatio that his father’s ghost has been seen on the battlements. Hamlet goes with them to see the ghost, which speaks to him, saying that Claudius has murdered the king by pouring poison in his ear and that he, Hamlet, must avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet swears to do this, but his philosophic mind is deeply upset at the shock of his uncle’s treachery and his mother’s possible involvement in it. In the meantime, three related series of events are happening at the Danish court: 1. First, the nations of Denmark and Norway have been engaged in border disputes with each other and with the neighboring country of Poland; King Hamlet became a hero in the eyes of his people by winning one such battle. Now Fortinbras, son of the late king of Norway, and nephew of the present, ailing king, wants Claudius’ permission to march his army through Danish territory on the way to fight the Poles. 2. Second, Claudius’ chief adviser, the elderly Polonius, is troubled by the behavior of his hot-headed son, Laertes, and his sensitive daughter, Ophelia. He is sending Laertes off to Paris to acquire polish and courtly manners, and instructs young Reynaldo to spy on him and report back if he falls into bad company. As for Ophelia, both Polonius and Laertes are concerned that she may be becoming too attached to young Hamlet, who has been sending her trinkets and love poems. They caution her to be careful, since it’s not likely that the heir to the throne would marry someone below his royal station. 3. Third, Claudius and Gertrude are concerned over Hamlet’s behavior, which was moody before the ghost spoke to him and has become increasingly disturbed, though they of course do not know why. They send for two of his school friends from Wittenberg, the Danish nobles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to try to discover the source of his moodiness. Arriving at the court, these two try to cheer Hamlet with news of a traveling company of actors on their way to Elsinore. This gives him a solution to one of his major worries—how to determine whether the ghost is really his father’s spirit and is telling the truth, or is an evil spirit sent to tempt him into sin. He will have the actors put on a play about a courtier who poisons a king and seduces the queen. Claudius’ reaction to the play will reveal the truth. Meanwhile, Ophelia tells her father about a disturbing encounter she has had with Hamlet, who was behaving strangely. Polonius concludes that Hamlet’s frustrated love for her has made him go mad. To prove this to Claudius, he has his daughter confront Hamlet in a corridor where he and the king can spy on them. Hamlet comes in, musing on death and whether or not he has the right to take a man’s life. When Ophelia interrupts him, he becomes emotionally violent, denies he ever loved her, and urges her to go into a convent. Claudius is greatly upset by the scene, which makes him begin to fear that Hamlet has found out the truth about his father’s death. The performance of the play confirms Claudius’ worst fears. During the pantomime prologue, Hamlet starts making double-edged remarks that drive Claudius out, angry and ashamed, when the actors have barely begun to speak. The court scatters in confusion, and Hamlet tells Horatio he is now totally convinced the ghost was telling the truth. Gertrude, furious with her son sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to tell him she wants to see him in private, in her chambers. On the way there Hamlet sees Claudius, defenseless, kneeling and attempting to pray. Hamlet thinks about killing him then and there, but holds back, believing that a man killed while praying would go to heaven, hardly a
suitable punishment for Claudius’ crimes. Hamlet cannot of course hear Claudius’ thoughts, which are preoccupied with his inability to pray and his unwillingness to show true repentance by renouncing both the throne and his marriage to Gertrude. Arriving at his mother’s room, Hamlet is harsh and bitter with her, despite having promised himself (and earlier the ghost) to treat her gently. He accuses her of murder and incest—her new husband is her brother-in-law—attacking her so forcefully that Polonius, who has hidden behind a tapestry (“arras”) in case she needs assistance, cries for help. Hamlet stabs what he thinks is Claudius, and is disappointed to learn he has killed only the meddling old man. Over the corpse, he tries to convince the now-frantic Gertrude to give up her second marriage. He is interrupted by the ghost, who reminds him that he has sworn to kill Claudius and leave his mother in peace. Their conversation convinces Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, that her son is indeed mad. In the meantime, Claudius has worked out a plan: He will send Hamlet, guarded by his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on a diplomatic mission to England, carrying a sealed letter that asks the English king to arrest the troublesome heir and put him to death. After a bitter confrontation Rosencrantz and Guildenstern capture Hamlet and bundle him off to the ship bound for England. On the way there they pass Fortinbras’ army marching to Poland. The sight makes Hamlet reflect on his failure to avenge his father, while Fortinbras is bringing honor to his. When Ophelia learns of her father’s death, she goes insane. Laertes returns from Paris, swearing vengeance on his father’s murderer. The sight of his mad sister deflates his anger, and he allows Claudius to convince him that her madness is all Hamlet’s fault. Meantime, Horatio learns that an unexpected stroke of luck has saved Hamlet’s life: The ship he sailed on was attacked by pirates, who took him prisoner but let the others continue. Since Hamlet had discovered the treachery in Claudius’ letter and replaced it with one requesting instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two have sailed to certain death. In return for the promise of ransom Hamlet is released by the pirates on the Danish coast. Claudius, told of Hamlet’s return, persuades Laertes to take his revenge in a formal duel, in which he will wound Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Before it takes place, the two have an unexpected clash in the graveyard where Ophelia, who has drowned herself, is being buried. Hamlet, who did not know of her death, is shocked into anger at the sight of Laertes leaping emotionally into the grave, and the two young men nearly get into a brawl over her coffin. Having received Laertes’ formal challenge, Hamlet apologizes to him graciously before the assembled court and the duel begins. They are evenly matched, so Claudius attempts to improve the odds by offering Hamlet a cup of poisoned wine, which, however, Queen Gertrude drinks. Laertes manages to wound Hamlet with the poisoned sword, but in the scuffle that follows they switch weapons and Laertes is wounded with it, too. Feeling the effect of the poisoned wine, Gertrude collapses, and the court finally realizes what Claudius has been up to. Hamlet at last achieves his revenge by stabbing Claudius with the poisoned weapon. Laertes, dying, confesses and begs Hamlet’s forgiveness. Hamlet has just enough strength left to stop Horatio from drinking the dregs of the poisoned wine, and dies in his friend’s arms, begging him to tell the world the true story. Fortinbras, whom Hamlet names as his successor, arrives in time to claim the throne and lament the horrible events. THE CHARACTERS HAMLET Hamlet may be the most complex character any playwright has ever placed onstage. Over the centuries critics have offered a multitude of explanations for Hamlet’s behavior, but none of them has wholly been able to “pluck out the heart of my mystery,” as Hamlet himself puts it. Eighteenth—and nineteenth-century theatergoers saw him as the classic ideal of the Renaissance courtier, poet, and philosopher. You can make a case for this view, since Hamlet often sees immediate events in a larger perspective. Ophelia’s “O what a noble mind” speech is one of many suggesting that Shakespeare meant us to think of him this way.
Yet Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who may strive for philosophy and poetry, but has in fact, by the end of the play, caused a good many violent deaths. While the earliest view was that Hamlet is simply a victim of circumstances, later critics saw him as a beautiful but ineffectual soul who lacked the strength of will to avenge his father. Passages in the play provide justification for this point of view, most notably in Hamlet’s own soliloquies. Detractors of this view point out the cruel and barbaric aspects of Hamlet’s behavior—his badgering of Ophelia, his rough treatment of Polonius’ corpse, his reason for refusing to kill Claudius at prayer, and most of all the callous and seemingly unjust way he has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death. To these commentators, either Shakespeare had badly assimilated such crudities from his source material, or Hamlet is himself a crude and unpleasant character, and his poetic speeches merely sugarcoat the bitter pill. As the study of psychology developed into a science in the late nineteenth century, critics began applying its precepts to the play, viewing Hamlet as something close to a manic-depressive whose melancholy moods—as his failure to take revenge continues—deepened into self-contempt. This attitude draws some historical support from the Elizabethan belief that every human is dominated by one of four mental conditions called humors, each caused by the dominance in the body of one internal organ and its secretions. Hamlet, the notion runs, would have been seen by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as a victim of the melancholy humor, which was especially associated with thinkers and philosophers. The trouble with this interpretation is that it does not explain Hamlet’s frequent jokes and his many attempts at action. The advent of Freudian psychology provided an additional twist to the “melancholy” interpretation. Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones asserted that Hamlet was a victim of what Freudians call the Oedipus complex, that is, a desire to take his father’s place in his mother’s affections, a desire that would naturally trigger intense feelings of guilt if the father suddenly died. Jones’ version, which partially inspired Sir Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation (1948), is made believable by the intense overemphasis Hamlet puts on his mother’s actions, despite the ghost’s commands. Many, many other explanations of Hamlet’s motives have been offered, ranging from an excessive ambition that uses the ghost as a chance to seize the crown and then feels guilty about doing so, to an apathy that makes him hold back on philosophic grounds, since all action is futile. A few commentators have even proposed the unlikely possibility that Hamlet is a woman who has been raised as a man to provide the throne with an heir, thus explaining Hamlet’s reluctance to commit the “masculine” act of revenge. What commentators and interpreters sometimes forget is that Hamlet is first a character in a play, and only secondly (if at all) a demonstration of this or that view of human life. You might say that Hamlet is not a classifiable type of person because he is a specific person, who, like ourselves, is made up of many different impulses and moods. It’s possible for a soft-spoken professor of philosophy, under the right circumstances, to commit murder, just as it’s possible to be depressed one day and crack jokes the next. Hamlet is a person of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, raised to occupy a high station in life and then suddenly confronted with a violent and terrifying situation in which he must take drastic action. It’s hardly surprising to find him veering between extremes of behavior, hesitating, demanding proof, looking for the most appropriate way to carry out his task. The fact that Hamlet is a thinking as well as a feeling person, conscious of the good and bad points in every step he takes, makes the act of revenge particularly painful for him. Revenge is not Christian, and Hamlet is a Christian prince; it is not rational, and Hamlet is a philosopher; it is not gentle, and Hamlet is a gentleman. Unlike the typical hero of an Elizabethan revenge play (or a modern gangster movie), Hamlet does not approach his task in an unquestioning, mechanical way. He has qualms about it, as any of us might if asked to do the same thing. It releases violent emotions in him, the intensity of which shocks and unbalances him. This questioning of what is instinctive and preordained, the testing of the old tribal code by a modern, troubled consciousness, is perhaps what makes the play so great and so universal in its interest. As you read Shakespeare’s play you will discover for yourself the specific things Hamlet says and does that make his motives understandable to you, just as every critic, reader, and playgoer over the centuries has picked the elements he or she most responded to in the young prince’s tragic story. That will be your interpretation of Hamlet. If you follow the play closely and seriously, your opinions are likely to be every bit as valid as those of professional critics or teachers.
OTHER CHARACTERS Hamlet is the unquestioned center of the play. If he is not onstage he is almost always the subject of discussion in virtually every scene. Nevertheless, Shakespeare has taken pains to give the other characters as strong and independent an existence as possible. They are not mere foils for Hamlet, but distinct individuals who coexist and conflict with him, though their stories are told in a more fragmentary fashion. GERTRUDE Hamlet’s mother, the queen of Denmark, is a touching and mysterious figure. You never learn explicitly how much Gertrude knows about her husband King Hamlet’s death, or how deeply she is attached to her new husband, Claudius. She never expresses her feelings, either, about the morality of marrying her brother-in-law, though this was considered incestuous at the time. But she expresses her concern for her son and her affection for Ophelia, plus (in the Closet Scene) a vague sense of guilt that only adds to the mystery about her. The ambiguity of Gertrude’s position reaches its height in the final scene, when she drinks from the poisoned cup. Whether she knows it’s poisoned is something you will have to decide for yourself. CLAUDIUS The king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle and later his stepfather, is shaped from a stock type familiar to Elizabethan theatergoers—the neglected younger brother who seeks to take over his older brother’s title by unscrupulous means. Claudius, however, is a complex figure about whom Shakespeare gives you a good deal of information. You learn how the public attitude toward him has changed in Denmark (and changes again after Polonius’ death); you learn about his drinking habits and his personal appearance as compared with his late brother’s. Above all, you see him in action politically—manipulating, placating, and making pronouncements—and you see how his tactics in dealing with Norway or Poland link up to the conduct of his personal affairs. There is no question about his political ability, which is tied in with his talent for manipulating people and converting them to his point of view, as he does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Some interpretations of the play suggest that we are meant to see him as more suited to the role of king than Hamlet is. His constant hypocritical smiling makes him easy to dislike, yet his genuine remorse in the Prayer Scene makes him more sympathetic, and hence more difficult for Hamlet to kill. Note that nowhere in the play does he directly express his feelings for Gertrude. THE GHOST Barnardo’s remarks in the first scene make clear that the ghost is identical in appearance to the late King Hamlet. Hamlet’s worry over whether it is “an honest ghost” is unusual for the time, an aspect of his intellectually probing nature. Ghosts were common figures in Elizabethan plays—an inventory of costumes for one theater included a cloak “for to go invisible.” Belief in ghosts and omens was prevalent in England, and in the theater it was assumed that they could be trusted. Another long-standing but unverifiable tradition, incidentally, says the role of the ghost was played by Shakespeare himself, and was his greatest performance. POLONIUS The father of Laertes and Ophelia is clearly a knowledgeable man. He holds an influential position at court, though the text never specifies what title he holds—or whether he is a holdover from King Hamlet’s reign or newly appointed by Claudius, who appears to hold him in very high esteem. We know from Gertrude’s reaction to his death that she is fond of him (“the good old man”), and that she has considered a marriage between her son and his daughter. In the context of the Fortinbras subplot, Polonius’ name, which means “from Poland,” is worth noting. Though a comic figure at whose bureaucratic doubletalk we are meant to laugh, he has a visibly sinister side as well, a penchant for political intrigue and spying. While his tactics are shady, his intentions are usually good, making him, like Claudius, a mixture of good and evil. LAERTES Polonius’ son is one of several young men whose behavior is explicitly contrasted with Hamlet’s. A courtier in training, he is not a politician like his father, but proud, hasty, sincere, and utterly devoted to fulfilling the demands of honor—traits that will sadly prove his undoing when he falls in with Claudius’ plot. Apart from the implied running comparison with Hamlet, the chief interest of his character is the genuine intensity of his passion for the outward forms of honor. To get his sister a decent burial, for instance, he will openly quarrel with the priest; to avenge his father, he will violate the code of honor and even the dictates of his conscience with the poisoned weapon. In his own way he is an innocent like his sister, comparing himself at the end, as Polonius compared Ophelia at the start, to a game bird caught in a trap.
OPHELIA Ophelia is Polonius’ daughter. Her name is generally thought to be derived from the Greek word apheleia, meaning “innocence.” This is certainly a good description of her outlook on life, every bit as ingenuous as her brother’s. It may not, however, apply to her sexual activity: The intensity of her feeling for Hamlet suggests that something more than a flirtation has gone on between them, and the bawdy “St. Valentine’s Day” song that she sings in her madness must have been learned somewhere, though its words should not be taken as literally describing the state of their relations. Some commentators have expressed shock at the coarse language Hamlet jokingly uses toward her in the Play Scene, but aristocratic manners were looser then, and it is really no worse than some of the interchanges between courtly lovers in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Ophelia’s meek reactions to Hamlet’s language presumably come not from shock, but from confusion over his abrupt change of mood and attitude toward her since the Nunnery Scene. She of course has no idea of the state he is in, and it is possible that she thinks his condition has indeed been caused by her following her father’s instructions and refusing to see him. Note that in the conflict between her love for Hamlet and her duty of obedience to her father’s orders, she bows to Polonius’ wishes. Hamlet is less obedient to the orders of the ghost, his father. HORATIO Hamlet’s trusted friend Horatio is a gentleman and a scholar, but he is not of the nobility, since he appears to have no position at court except in relation to the prince. Hamlet’s much-quoted tribute to him before the Play Scene (“Give me that man / That is not passion’s slave”) points up the balanced nature of Horatio’s personality, precisely the quality Hamlet himself lacks. Of course, Horatio is also not forced to undergo any experience as intense as those that Hamlet suffers through. In his moderation of temperament, as in his intermediate rank, he represents the Renaissance version of the ancient classical ideal, the man fortunate enough to live without either excessive joy or suffering in his life. His vaguely Roman name and his Roman-style attempt to join Hamlet in death at the end confirm this. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN Hamlet’s two fellow students from Wittenberg are unmistakably members of the Danish nobility, and noticeably frivolous students compared to the serious Horatio. (The life Polonius fears Laertes may be leading in Paris probably has some similarity to theirs in Wittenberg.) Their names, which mean “wreath of roses” and “golden star,” are authentic touches of local color, since both belong to aristocratic Danish families still in existence today. (Tradition, as usual unverifiable, says that two Danish nobles so named actually were sent on a mission to England in the late sixteenth century.) They are certainly courtiers skilled at politicking, and we learn enough from their evasion at their first meeting with Hamlet to justify his being suspicious of them. Whether they deserve to be put to death, however, is debatable, since they can have no idea of the king’s true motives in employing them. On the other hand, the fact that they meddle in the business of kings and princes without questioning motives is a comment on their lack of principle, and Hamlet, in telling Horatio of their impending deaths, does not hesitate to draw the moral (Act V, Scene ii, lines 62-68). FORTINBRAS The prince of Norway is a conventional, correct, ambitious military man, yet he is more an image in the play’s structure than an individual personality. Fortinbras’ chief role is to remind you, in the sphere of politics and kingship, of what Hamlet is not, just as Laertes does in the realm of family honor. Fortinbras figures in the play three times: at the beginning, when Horatio and, later, Claudius discuss his actions; in the middle, when Hamlet meets his troops; and at the very end. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the nephew of a reigning king, who is physically weak as Hamlet’s uncle is morally weak. The throne of Norway being occupied, he seeks conquests elsewhere, never questioning their value. When he assumes the throne, he reverses the military victory that was the great triumph of King Hamlet’s life. Fortinbras displays his inability to understand Hamlet when he orders a military funeral for him and declares that Hamlet would have made an excellent king. (He couldn’t possibly know this; in any case, it’s not likely to be true, at least not by Fortinbras’ own standards.) In short, Fortinbras’ soldierlike ability to ignore the moral complexity of life is a sort of saving grace for him. He is aptly summed up in his name, French for “strong-of-arm.” MARCELLUS, BARNARDO, AND FRANCISCO The three soldiers of the Danish King’s Guard are all ordinary, honest men, all suffering in their own way from the sight of the ghost, and from the mysterious air of gloom that has settled on Denmark with King Hamlet’s death. Marcellus is apparently of slightly higher rank than Francisco and Barnardo (also spelled Bernardo); he is on sociable terms with Hamlet and up to date on his whereabouts. Both he and Barnardo are articulate officers of an elite guard rather than common soldiers. Barnardo is more bluntly straightforward
but not less intelligent. Marcellus’ belief in ghosts, like his religious faith, is balanced against his honest practicality. His assumption that there is a logical reason for every phenomenon makes him similar in character to the captain of Fortinbras’ army, who speaks bluntly to Hamlet about the valuelessness of the land they are marching to conquer; possibly the same actor played both parts. CLOWNS The two characters usually—and mistakenly—designated as “First and Second Gravedigger” are a comedy act, the company’s resident low comedian and his straight man, identified in early editions of the play as “Clown” and “Other.” Although in many Elizabethan plays the material performed by clowns is irrelevant to and detachable from the story (since they traditionally “worked up” their own material), Shakespeare always took unusual pains to make them an organic part of the larger work. The role he creates here for the clown is a comic contradiction in terms—a cheerful gravedigger. His robust good spirits, talkativeness, and a love of argument are all amusingly inappropriate to the cemetery where he works, and are balanced by his democratically stoic sense that everyone is equal because we all come to the same end. Isn’t that exactly how you might expect human life to look from a gravedigger’s point of view? This simple workingman’s philosophy is elegantly balanced, at exactly the right point in the action, against the complexity of Hamlet’s soul-searching. The gravedigger’s companion, though often erroneously played as an apprentice or younger work partner, is a warden or church official in charge of the placement of graves in the churchyard. He does not argue with the clown for the simple reason that, as he is finally forced to admit, he agrees with him. THE PLAYERS Typically for professionals at work, these actors say virtually nothing that is not connected with their job, and are resolutely uninvolved with the events at court. What you learn from them is chiefly how Hamlet feels about them. As you might expect from a prince who is himself the hero of a play (at a time when the growth of Puritanism was causing constant protest against the dangerous influence of theaters in London), Hamlet is an enthusiast and a friend, one who believes deeply in the theater’s importance to society and who has many objections to performers who don’t live up to his high ideals for the art. From Hamlet’s friendly greeting, especially as contrasted with his reserve toward Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you can see that Hamlet is extremely fond of this particular company of actors; he is an aficionado of their less successful plays and twice addresses the player king as “old friend.” OSRIC, REYNALDO, VOLTEMAND, AND CORNELIUS Being a noble in attendance at a Renaissance court meant a variety of things. It meant a formal skill at elegant conversation, bearing, and dress; training in such gentlemanly activities as riding and swordsmanship on the one hand, music and writing poetry on the other. It meant the ability to use these skills in the service of the king, on matters ranging from international diplomacy to minor errands about the court such as the errand on which Osric is sent to Hamlet. And it meant the cunning to use the same skills for one’s own advancement in the royal favor, which could mean titles, decorations, and large grants of land or sums of money if one were successful. Osric is a courtier who is preoccupied with formal behavior. It is clear from Hamlet’s comments, and from Osric’s failure to perceive that he is being mocked, that he is little more than a foppish, gesticulating fool. (Compare his manner to the dignified bearing of the anonymous lord who comes to Hamlet immediately after Osric has left; the lord carries out his mission with a minimum of fuss in barely a quarter of the time it takes Osric to deliver a simple challenge to a fencing match.) Some critics have tried to read into Osric’s presence the notion that Claudius’ court is pretentious and decadent, but this is an exaggeration of both his foppishness and his importance. Courtiers were under no obligation to behave elegantly; they were members of a hereditary aristocracy and largely did as they pleased, which is precisely why displays of elegant manners and fine speaking were so valued by monarchs. Consequently, every court had its Osrics, and they turn up regularly in Elizabethan plays. It could more likely be considered a measure of Claudius’ good sense that he confined the trivial Osric to domestic errands and sent a reliable, well-spoken man like Voltemand on ambassadorial missions. From Voltemand’s brief report on his meeting with the king of Norway you can infer that he (and presumably the silent Cornelius as well) is an efficient, intelligent person of dignified bearing, just the sort a king can trust to get the business done. You get a glimpse of how such a man is molded, and of the kinds of backstairs business he might have to meddle in, from the little scene between Polonius and Reynaldo (presumably a young courtier in training). While sending him on a simple errand to bring money and letters to Laertes in Paris, Polonius teaches the boy to find out how Laertes is behaving by spreading mild slanders about him. Reynaldo is an alert and eager student.
PRIEST Stage tradition has made this “churlish priest” an unpleasant character. What his two brief speeches portray is a somewhat snobbish professional, compelled under political pressure to perform a task he regards as distasteful and improper. The only surprising part is that he is so outspoken in the presence of the king and queen, possibly from a wish to underline the extent to which he is protected by the church from their taking action against him. OTHER ELEMENTS SETTING Because the Elizabethan theater used little or no scenery, the sense of place in a Shakespeare play changes as the characters enter and leave the stage. Where it is important, Shakespeare always indicates the time and place of the scene through a line of dialogue (as in the first scene, “’Tis now struck twelve.”) or through a formal device like the fanfares that announce the entrance of the king and his court. The fact that the story takes place in Denmark in the twelfth century mattered very little to Shakespeare and his audience; the tradition of reproducing a historical period with realistic accuracy on the stage did not come into being till nearly two hundred years later. Elizabethan costumes were as lavish and expensive as could be, but they were the costumes of Shakespeare’s own time, whether the play was set in ancient Rome or medieval England. The image of Denmark is mainly communicated to the audience by Shakespeare’s using the cliche that the Danes were heavy drinkers, which is one reason he so strongly emphasizes Hamlet’s dislike for Claudius’ drinking habits. The world was just beginning to be mapped at this time, and a London audience probably had only the vaguest notion where Denmark was located: Shakespeare himself was so uninformed he confused Dansk, the Danish word for Denmark, with the Baltic seaport of Gdansk or Danzig, at that time a free city-state, which is how he came to the mistaken idea that Denmark shared a common border with Poland. All this proves that Shakespeare’s plays are set “in the mind’s eye,” in an imaginary world of their own, which is yours to conceive as you choose, within the limits of the play. THEMES 1. JUSTICE AND REVENGE All the action of Hamlet is based on the one task the ghost sets the prince: to avenge his father’s murder. This powerful demand is countered in Hamlet’s mind by three questions: Is revenge a good or an evil act? Is Claudius truly guilty and so to be punished? Is it Hamlet’s responsibility to punish him? Throughout the play Shakespeare raises questions about whether justice is to be left to the state or taken into one’s own hands, and about whether it is possible, in a cunning and deceitful world, to tell the good man from the criminal. These questions are focused on Hamlet, who must decide whether to avenge his father or not, and if so, how. They are reflected in the parallel stories of Fortinbras and Laertes, who also have obligations of revenge to fulfill. 2. DESTINY AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE Linked to the theme of revenge is the great question of Hamlet’s inner meditations: Is there a point to life at all? Do we suffer in this harsh world for a purpose, or simply because we are afraid to find out what may lie beyond it? And if there is a higher, universal force guiding each of us in a certain direction, how do we learn what it is so that we can accept its guidance? Much of Hamlet’s anguish is caused by his effort to link even the most trivial event to the order of the universe. Is he right in doing so? And does he succeed— does life finally reveal its meaning to him? 3. MADNESS AND SANITY The question of Hamlet’s sanity is openly discussed in the play and has been a subject of debate for centuries. Is Hamlet really mad? If so, what causes Hamlet’s madness? Is it his reluctance to take revenge? Is it his confused feelings about his mother? Is he in fact sane and the world mad for failing to understand the things he says? Is he sometimes pretending to be mad and at other times genuinely unbalanced? Remember, the play gives another example of madness in Ophelia, and you should ask some of the same questions about her. 4. APPEARANCE AND REALITY Allied to the question of Hamlet’s madness is a variety of references to the idea of acting a part or of presenting a false image to the world. Hamlet demands honesty, but is he himself always honest? Many other characters, at various times, seem to be playing parts, and the troupe of players is in the play as an active reminder that in real life a person can play many roles, and it is not always easy to tell what is true from what only appears to be true. At the very center of the play is Hamlet’s view of acting on the stage, expressed in his advice to the players. You can compare it with the picture Shakespeare gives of Hamlet, and the other characters, acting in their “real” lives.
5. WOMEN Hamlet’s views on women are complex and intensely emotional. The only two women characters in the play are the two who are most deeply attached to him—his mother and Ophelia, the young girl he loves. Why is his bitterness toward his mother so strong? What are the various feelings that go into his changing attitude toward Ophelia? As you study the play scene by scene, you’ll see to what extent the two women’s responses bear out the truth of his accusations, and to what extent they do not. 6. RIGHTS AND DUTIES OF KINGSHIP Shakespearean tragedy often turns on the question of who is to be king— on who is best qualified to accept both the privileges and the responsibilities of rule. As you read Hamlet, keep in mind these questions: What are the obligations of a king to his people? Who in Hamlet has the most right to be king? Who is most qualified to be king? Is an honest king necessarily the best king? Is a peaceful king better than a warlike one? How much say should the public have in choosing a king, and how much the nobility? In the scene-byscene discussion we’ll also take a look at what being king means to each of the four characters who claim the Danish throne—Claudius, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras—and how well each one would rule. 7. POISON AND CORRUPTION Corruption, rot, disease, and poison are among the chief sources of poetic imagery in Hamlet. The poison with which Claudius kills King Hamlet spreads in a sense through the entire country till “something is rotten in Denmark.” Look for examples of this imagery as you go through the play. Is the arrival of Fortinbras at the end meant to be a cure? If so, what sort of cure will it be? STYLE The language of Shakespeare’s plays tends to frighten many students and put them off. This comes from being told Shakespeare’s plays are great poetry. To get around this, always remember that for Shakespeare’s audience poetry was a kind of game, a way of marking in words the difference between a play and real life. For Elizabethans, the poetic imagery and feeling of the great speeches in Hamlet had the excitement that a big song number in a musical comedy or a rock concert has for us. Like music, poetry is a way of heightening the power of what is being said in a play. It does this with sound and rhythm, with images, and, in Elizabethan verse, with what we call rhetoric. Rhetoric was taught to educated people in Shakespeare’s time through the study of the Latin poets and orators. An Elizabethan gentleman was expected to be able to indulge in this elegant form of showing-off, and a gift for it was a way of gaining recognition at court or in the theater. Courtiers took for granted that flights of rhetoric would be part of any play they went to see, and ordinary people enjoyed it as something special and outside their daily experience. Shakespeare first became famous for his great rhetorical gift: You can see it in Hamlet when he makes Hamlet say he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers could, or when he makes his mother compare the pictures of his father and Claudius. Closely tied up with rhetoric as a field of study for the Elizabethans was logic, or the art of thinking in sequence. It is especially important in Hamlet because the hero is a student of philosophy, which means he has been learning how to express ideas in logical form. Sometimes Shakespeare uses logic to show Hamlet’s sense of humor, as when he “proves” that Claudius is his mother. At other times he builds, out of the textbook ideas of logic, the great soliloquies in which Hamlet meditates on the purpose of life and death. In fact, the line “To be or not to be: that is the question,” though the most famous in the play, is not original with Shakespeare; he is making Hamlet quote the opening of the standard philosophic debate on whether life is worth living. What is important, of course, is that these elements are always used in a human and individual way. Hamlet is a story about people and their lives, not a textbook discussion of abstract ideas. At the time it was written, Shakespeare was just beginning to develop the innovative approach of what we think of as his late style, in which the smooth and conventional rhetoric of his earlier plays is chopped up and fragmented to reflect the inner rhythms of a human mind, and not the polish of a system of writing in which all the characters think alike. When Hamlet bandies words with Osric or Polonius, or makes fun of Claudius’ proclamations, Shakespeare is ridiculing the conventions of rhetoric; and in the soliloquies, with their jumps from one thought to the next, he develops a lean and disturbing poetry that has made the play seem alive to every century. POINT OF VIEW
The main thing to remember about Hamlet, as about any play, is that it is not a novel, in which the story is seen through the eyes of the author or the character who narrates. A play is told by having the characters present their opposing points of view in conflict with each other. We call the sum total of what these represent, when the action is completed, the author’s vision. The great challenge of writing a play, which Shakespeare met more brilliantly than any writer who ever lived, is to make each character seem to take on an independent existence, with his own motives and his own approach to life, and yet have all these independent entities add up to one thing. Because Shakespeare’s sense of life was so broad and inclusive, many people have complained over the centuries that he does not tell his readers how to view the characters: Is Hamlet mad or sane, good or evil? Is it right for him to keep postponing his revenge? Are Claudius’ tactics justified? Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve to be put to death? In a general sense, Shakespeare answers all these questions for the audience of his own time by never directly attacking the standard beliefs of an ordinary Elizabethan theatergoer. Because his artistry is so great, however, his characters are so strongly individualized that their actions can be interpreted many different ways, like the actions of real people, whose motives we can never fully understand. As a result, there is no one interpretation, no permanently fixed point of view to a play like Hamlet; its beauty is bound up with the fact that it can mean so many different things to people and be understood in so many different ways. FORM AND STRUCTURE Elizabethan plays in general were loosely structured. They adapted the basic five-act form of ancient Roman tragedy, which had been revived by Italian scholars of the early Renaissance and brought back to London by English aristocrats traveling in Italy, to the needs of a commercial and popular theater. The basic elements of a revenge tragedy were very simple. There had to be a hero, who had been violently wronged and was justified in seeking revenge. His revenge had to be aimed at an opponent, or antagonist, equal to him in power and in cunning, or the play would degenerate into a mindless series of victories for the superhero, and so become monotonous. The action had to be carried on in an atmosphere of gloom and terror, preferably with supernatural elements. A woman the hero loved had to be involved in the action, if possible as an innocent obstacle to his achieving his goal of revenge. And there had to be a counterplot (or subplot), started by the antagonist to defend himself, which would engulf the hero just as his vengeance was accomplished. In that way the hero would achieve what has come to be called “poetic justice” on earth, and at the same time be punished by Heaven for his sin of committing murder. You can see that this simple structure is still very much with us in the violence of movies, television, and comic books. One reason we consider Hamlet better than these popular entertainments is that Shakespeare made his own variation on the form, fulfilling all its demands and at the same time rising above it through his brilliant use of language and his creation of complex characters. By making his hero a philosopher who doubts and mocks himself every step of the way, Shakespeare is able to prolong the suspense and devote the first three acts to the question of whether Hamlet will or will not take revenge. When Hamlet finally takes a decisive action, at the end of Act III (where the structure is expected to rise to a climax), it turns out to be a fatal misstep. Instead of killing Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius. This act engulfs him in the counterplot of Claudius and Laertes, which holds our attention until the play’s violent end. Hamlet’s hesitation allows Shakespeare to explore the meaning of revenge on both the philosophic and the psychological level, and to connect that act with the much larger question of the meaning of life. To make sure we never forget that Hamlet’s story is that of a father, mother, and son, Shakespeare contrasts it with the subplot of Polonius and his children. Both the plot and the subplot are fused together at the climactic moment when Hamlet kills Polonius. This act ultimately results in Hamlet’s death at the hands of Laertes, another son avenging his father. And both stories are framed in the story of Fortinbras, who avenges his father’s defeat at the hands of King Hamlet by taking over the Danish throne when Hamlet dies. Shakespeare’s superiority in such matters as moral and psychological subtlety is pointed up by his ability to contrast the way two characters respond to the same event or carry out the same action. Hamlet is so structured, for example, that we are forced to compare Hamlet’s use of the play to entrap Claudius with Laertes’s invasion of the palace with an angry mob; or Hamlet’s confiding in Horatio with Claudius’ efforts to manipulate Polonius. Shakespeare also uses the play’s
structure to contrast a character’s behavior with what we know of his thoughts and feelings, or to show him behaving differently in different situations. For instance, compare Hamlet’s speeches to the ghost with his conversation immediately afterward when Horatio and Marcellus find him; or compare Claudius’ public behavior in Act IV, Scene iii, with his “Do it, England” soliloquy right after. Because Hamlet himself is a wit and a maker of ironies, Shakespeare often uses him to point up these contrasts verbally and so intensify them, just as his mordant jokes heighten the atmosphere of gloom rather than dispelling it. As you explore Hamlet in more and more detail, the way Shakespeare balances and arranges the elements of its story will become more visible to you—and more exciting as well, since very new facet of the structure you find will reveal another nuance of Shakespeare’s vision, another aspect of the seemingly infinite range of his poetic mind. ACT I: EXPOSITION. The rotten state of Denmark is disclosed, and the ghost appears with his call for vengeance. ACT II: RISING ACTION. Hamlet tries to discover the truth about the ghost’s accusations. ACT III: CLIMAX. Hamlet springs his “mousetrap” and catches his proof—Claudius is guilty. ACT IV: FALLING ACTION. Claudius, not Hamlet, takes charge of events. ACT V: CATASTROPHE. The consummation of everyone’s vengeance is achieved in a bloody ending that leaves only Horatio alive to tell the tale.
Hamlet, the Machiavellian Prince: An Exploration of Shakespeare's Use of Machiavellian Politics
Shakespeare's Hamlet is not simply a morality play surrounding a grief-mad prince; it is a complex study of political maneuvers as described by Machiavelli. "The rules of this politics, Machiavelli's political science, then, are the choreographed moves, countermoves, and tricks that bring to life the actions of the successful new prince and others."(Tarlton, 8) Many literary critics approach Machiavelli from the perspective of good versus evil. Machiavelli was neither; he was a realist. Machiavelli recorded his analysis of events that he studied or observed, and thus derived his principles of political science. In this paper, the reader will explore Shakespeare's use of Machiavellian politics (as described in The Prince) within the script of Hamlet. Hamlet's world involves jealousy, murder, familial relationships (and their internal struggles), and political scheming. "All the world's a stage," wrote Shakespeare; what we see in the theatre is simply a truer reflection of our lives. "Being within the field of action and never above it, there is only so much an actor seeking lo stato [the state, referring to the creation of a state by the prince] can ever discover. The fiction of il principe nuovo [the new prince] is a device to project one's own position as actor into political situations." (Breiner, 3, 30) We shall observe the following Machiavellian principles in Hamlet: 4. the political scheming that fuels the tension in the play 5. the new prince's enemy, created by the prince's own actions 6. the realization of hidden conspiracies and the deceptions used both to create and to unveil them 7. the role of the characters in the play as actors within their own sub-plots 8. the hidden personal motivations that drive the individual characters
Although Hamlet begins the play as a somewhat nave prince, he soon gains political astuteness and thespian skill that rivals even the actor who plays the part of Hamlet. Hamlet must walk a razor-thin line between deceit and truth, action and inaction, and love and hate. His agonizing journey along the edge of this razor crystallizes his purpose: to avenge the death of his father. Shakespeare sets the stage with a classic example from Machiavelli's political philosophy. In Act I, Scene 2, we learn of the death of the King of Denmark and the subsequent marriage of the queen to his brother, Claudius (1638:1-15). The old king, who came to power by right of succession, is replaced by Claudius. Claudius moves quickly to consolidate power by marrying the queen. "Because men are won over by the present more than the past," it is logical for him to do so. (Tarlton, 3) The wedding takes place within two months of the King's death, "But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two," says Hamlet (1641: 138). Claudius continues the Danish tradition of a wedding feast followed by a night of drunken revelry (1641:125). The political moves of the new king serve to highlight the Machiavellian aspects of the play: "Machiavelli becomes truly interested when the hereditary prince is overthrown, the new prince is born, and the new political world, full of danger, comes to life." (Tarlton, 2) Claudius, as the new king, has already created a fearsome enemy for himself Prince Hamlet. The quick remarriage of Hamlet's mother, the queen, is a moral outrage to Hamlet, and violates Machiavelli's stricture in chapter 17 of The Prince, "He [the prince] can endure very well being feared, whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women." (1494) By taking his brother's wife as his own, Claudius has given Hamlet a potent reason to hate him, on top of Hamlet's all-consuming grief (1640:85). "The very situation that gives him [Claudius] the occasion to act also provides his opponents with a new occasion to take his stato [state] away." (Breiner, 2) In Act I, Scene 5, Hamlet learns from his father's ghost, "The serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown." The ghost reveals what Hamlet already felt to be true: the murder of the former king by his brother, Claudius (1651:38). Hamlet, seeing the truth of the "wrongness" he has felt, is convinced that he should avenge his father's death. "Haste me to know it, that I, with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge...O my prophetic soul! My uncle!" (1651:30-40) The reader is now drawn into a complex Machiavellian conspiracy, in which Shakespeare makes extensive use of Machiavelli's precept, "He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived. " (1496) Hamlet's realization of the deception employed by his uncle jades him, however, to the ghost's message. Hamlet no longer trusts appearances; knowing that his uncle is playing out a large deception, he is unsure if the ghost is honest or not. In fact, Hamlet no longer trusts anyone even Polonius, the chief advisor. Hamlet tells Polonius, "to be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand." (1662:174) Hamlet distrusts his friends as well, "My two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fanged..." (1692:203) In the Danish court, Claudius managed to deceive his brother, concealing his lust for power (and his lust for the queen) behind a smiling face and lying lips. Claudius also manages to deceive the entire court concerning the death of his brother; Hamlet is the only courtier that senses something wrong: "I doubt [perceive] some foul play; I would the night would come! Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth overwhelm them, to men's eyes." (1644:260) "The third phase of princely action requires the prince to feint; a moving or invisible target is hardest to hit." (Tarlton, 7) The importance of this skill to Hamlet is found in chapter 18 of The Prince, where Machiavelli writes, "everyone sees what you appear to be; few experience what you really are." (1497) The art of the successful feint must be taught to nobles, especially within the realm of fencing. Fencing was a required skill for nobility in the pre-firearm era; those who wished to avoid the assassin's blade were as skilled in the salle as they were in the council chamber. Hamlet elects to use his own deceptive ploy to discover the truth about his father's death. Additionally, he plans to use his affected insanity as an excuse for his eventual revenge upon Claudius. (1647:170) Hamlet knows "the actions of friends and enemies alike will be based on what they take the prince to be." (Tarlton, 7) What better defense for his actions than that the grief-stricken prince lost his mind and, in a fit of rage, murdered his uncle? Hamlet expands and intensifies his deception with the arrival of the theatre troupe he creates a play within his own play, within the overall play. "The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," said Hamlet (1671:552). The action within Hamlet's play reflects the actual events of the former king's death; the words he wrote to accompany the action scene are designed to provoke a response from Claudius' guilty conscience. "For murder, though it have no
tongue, will speak...I'll have the players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle; I'll observe his looks; if he but blench, I know my course," (1671:540-552) says Hamlet. Hamlet and the other characters in this tragedy are all actors within the context of the play, in the physical world of the theatre, and within the schemes that the characters develop to further their own interests. "The prince as literary fiction becomes the prince as exemplary actor, teaching us how to discover the various entries for action...in the field of political conflict." (Breiner, 35) Even the casual reader of Hamlet will notice the various motivations and hidden machinations that absorb the main characters. The king, Claudius, is busy trying to figure out Hamlet's behavior at the start of the play; later, after Polonius is killed, he plots Hamlet's death with Laertes, Polonius' son. Claudius even hopes that Hamlet will commit some offense that results in his death while he is gone to England. Hamlet of course, is focused on his vengeful plot and the play-acting that is making everyone at court think he has really gone mad with grief over his father's death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play their part in trying to draw Hamlet out of his "madness," but Hamlet discerns their intent as well as their purpose in coming to Denmark in the beginning of the play. He knows that the king and queen have sent for his friends; he dismisses their efforts as insincere and motivated by reward rather than by friendship. Hamlet tells them later, "Though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me." (1684:335) Polonius, until his death, is pushing his daughter forward as a possible match for Hamlet, while trying his best not to seem to be involved in their romance. "The brilliance of this strategy is that there is no strategy at all in the eyes of anyone watching." (Corum, 4) The interplay of competing interests and the undercurrent of punnery that is rampant throughout the play are the driving forces behind Hamlet's popularity throughout the world. Hamlet, in one sense or another, is acted out in each of our lives every day. We all use Machiavelli's principles to accomplish our goals and to protect our achievements. People in the business world engage in "honest" deception in order to protect their interests. Academics and smart-alecks alike use their knowledge of the English language to make fun of and to criticize other people. We learn the art of deceit at a young age; how many times did you trick your friends or siblings into giving up that coveted toy so that you could have a turn with it? We learn this art from the examples that are set before us. In Machiavelli's view, the good of the state was the driving moral code. Machiavelli observed that an effective leader should not be limited by a religious or moral code, as good governance sometimes requires the use of religiously or morally unacceptable behavior. The key to effective leadership for Machiavelli was that the prince appears to have all the positive qualities -- while quietly reserving the negative qualities for use as needed. Shakespeare's plays, especially Hamlet, include situations and characters that seem to be torn directly from Machiavelli's manuscript. The literary union of these two authors gives us a potent demonstration of the power of language within the political world, and yields a script for our leaders (both political and literary) to follow. Works Cited Breiner, Peter. "Machiavelli's "New Prince": Exemplary Actor or Literary Fiction or Both?" Midwest Political Science Association Conference, August 3-6, 2003. 18 November 2004 . Corum, Richard. "Understanding Hamlet: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents." CT: Praeger, 1998. netLibrary. Wayne G. Basler Lib., Blountville, TN. 18 November 2004 . Mack, Maynard. "The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (Expanded Edition)." 1997. NY: W.W. Norton [parenthetical citations] Tarlton, Charles. "The deeds of great men": Thoughts on the Literary Motives and Imaginary Actions of Machiavelli's New Prince. CLIO 29.4 p417- . Gale Group Databases. Wayne G. Basler Lib., Blountville, TN. 18 November 2004 .
Heliocentric Hamlet: The Astronomy of Hamlet
If imagination is the lifeblood of literature, then each new scientific advance which extends our scope of the universe is as fruitful to the poet as to the astronomer. External and environmental change stimulates internal and personal tropes for the poetic mind, and the new Copernican astronomy of the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries may have altered the literary composition of the era as much as any contemporaneous political shifts. Marjorie Nicolson, in "The Breaking of the Circle," argues that the heliocentric system greatly influenced the metaphysical poets, especially John Donne, as it necessarily mated the concept of a universal macrocosm with the preexisting notions of a personal microcosm and earthbound geocosm. Nicolson claims that the Elizabethans, Shakespeare included, failed to apply the new motion of heavenly bodies to their own bodies of work, and that their obsolete cosmology confers obsolescence upon their literary endeavors. I will argue that Hamlet, written in the aftermath of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus and Tycho Brahe's cosmological observations, not only follows many of Nicolson's tenets for the metaphysical poetry of the time, but stands as a central metaphor for the ambiguous period between Copernicus's initial theories and Galileo's visual proofs in Sidereus Nuncius. The conflict of Hamlet is the geocentric pitted against the heliocentric; Hamlet the "son/Sun" must revenge his Hyperion father's death by deposition of his traitorous and swinish uncle from the English throne, the center of the action and royally emblematized through the Sun. But the addition of the macrocosmic/heliocentric view to Hamlet's preexisting microcosmic that is, self-centered or, to use a word that rings of etymological irony, solipsistic obsessions does not make for a happy marriage; rather, the two spheres, representing externality and internality, stall Hamlet's geocentric development earthly, physical action. Hamlet's legendary propensity to delay stems not from a mere excess of thought but from a divisive thought process that clouded Shakespeare's times: its fractured and debated cosmology. As Nicolson postulates, "'Correspondence' between macrocosm and microcosm, which man had accepted as basic to faith, was no longer valid in a new mechanical universe and mechanical world" (Nicolson, xxi). In Nicolson's eyes, King Lear reflects Shakespeare's preoccupation with the new cosmology more in astrological than astronomical terms: "Disruption in the heavens presaged disruption upon earth, the storms of the geocosm paralleled those in the microcosm, but our attention and Shakespeare's is centered on Lear, the man, rather than on the world and the universe" (Nicolson, 149). Even Nicolson cannot deny, however, that "Donne and Hamlet were men of about the same age, experiencing the same world-sorrow at crucial moments in their careers" (Nicolson, 136). Hamlet is searching for the answer to a mystery at one point he even reprimands Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for attempting to "pluck out the heart of my mystery" (III.ii.356-357) and the unknown is what drove Donne as well to his scientific poetry: "As for the universe, that remained an even more insoluble riddle. All that the human eye could discover about the nature of the cosmos was known; the rest even the theory of Copernicus remained surmise. Into the globe, into the universe, man read over analogies drawn from his body, then read them back again to explain his mystery. Earthbound in his finite microcosm, his mind was free to roam into the macrocosm, there to create new worlds, made in his own image." (Nicolson, 9) Hamlet is highly analogous, pivoting around Hamlet's opposition of his dead father and his foil, Claudius: "So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr" (I.ii.139-140). Harold Jenkins explicates: "...the antithesis here between the sun-god, with his majestic beauty, and a creature half man half beast epitomizes in the two brothers the complex nature of man like a god and like a beast." Hamlet prefigures this allusion in just his second line: "Not so, my lord, I am too much in the son" (I.i.67). The obvious filial pun and the ironic counterpoint to the prince's melancholy mien and black costume aside, Jenkins notes that Hamlet's wordplay "is an unmistakable glancing at the sun as a royal emblem" and "to his having been turned out from the place Heaven gave him and deprived of the throne." Claudius, too, recognizes the throne's central and personified position in the court as he finesses Laertes: "The head is not more native to the heart, / The hand more instrumental to the mouth, / Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father" (I.ii.47-49). These analogies can be read only as lofty poetic diction unless we contextualize them in the cosmological debate. As Marcellus relates, Horatio, the play's Skeptic, denies the ghost's existence until he has witnessed it for himself, a similar defense for those who would not adhere to the heliocentric model until Galileo's telescopes furnished visible proof: "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him, / Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of 1
us. / Therefore I have entreated him along / With us to watch the minutes of this night, / That if again this apparition come, / He may approve our eyes and speak to it" (I.i.26-32). Hamlet reminds Horatio of mankind's philosophic ignorance, both celestial and telluric: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (I.v.174-175). Hamlet's poem to Ophelia makes the most explicit astronomical statement of the play in juxtaposing the verity of his love for her (which turns out to be false, or so he claims) with the accepted Ptolemaic system: "Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love" (II.ii.115-118). The ghost himself links to a cosmic disturbance the frightful story of his murder, one that would "Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres" (I.v.17). According to one of the sentries, the Capella star (I.i.39-41) heralded the ghost's first appearance, and even Horatio recalls the astral omens before Caesar's fall in Rome: "As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, / Disasters in the sun; and the moist star, / Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands, / Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse" (I.i.120-123). The ghost's appearance makes his own time no exception: "And prologue to the omen coming on, / Have heaven and earth together demonstrated / Unto our climatures and countrymen" (I.i.125-127). The ghost amplifies the dissonance between Claudius's immorality and his own heavenly position: "So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage" (I.v.55-57). While few would refute the claim that the ghost is a signifier of the supernatural, statements like these (and it is difficult to pass them off as mere celestial conceits), as well as Gertrude's parallel blindness towards both the ghost (III.iv) and Claudius's deception, mark the ghost as a bearer of the supra-natural: a cosmological symbol of extension beyond the supposedly "natural" boundaries and orbits of the universe. Indeed, the tension between the natural and the super-natural is what is making Denmark rotten. Hamlet comments on the confused nexus between old and new, and on the necessity of his mission: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.196-197). But the genius of Shakespeare is that Hamlet, too, is trapped in a cosmic no-man's-land. His self-loathing verbalizes mankind's spatial confusion as much as it pronounces its moral ambiguity: "What should such fellows as I do crawling between / earth and heaven?" (III.i.128-129) When Hamlet refers to "this distracted globe" (I.v.97) after the ghost's message, he deploys a triple pun on "globe" as "head," the earth, and the Globe theater. The first two meanings complement each other in the overriding cosmic theme of man as confused by the heavens, and the last definition reminds us that the original audience was similarly caught up in debate. In his gloom, Hamlet even regresses to a pre-Ptolemaic view of the earth as flat: "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (I.ii.133-134) The chaotic time is exemplified by Nicolson's conception of the broken circle of the Sun's nonexistent orbit: "Beauty was dead; proportion and symmetry had disappeared. The Circle of Perfection was gone from the heavens. Not only the world, but the whole universe suffered corruption. As man decayed and the world decayed, the universe too was dying. The old animate world, of which man was a living part, as it in turn was part of a living universe, was at its end" (Nicolson, 103). For such a jumbled, asymmetrical time, Hamlet is as precisely structured and balanced as a play can be, note Hamlet's (probably) deceptive madness countered by Ophelia's real insanity, or the multitude of doubles: Hamlet/Laertes, Hamlet/Fortinbras, King Hamlet/Claudius, Ophelia/Gertrude, Polonius/Osric, even the sentries have different Weltanschauungs, as the minor character Francisco departs his post with "'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" (I.i.8-9), a line that fleshes out his slim characterization and, as Dover Wilson points out, foreshadows Hamlet's melancholy. One character who is certain of his own and the celestial path is Claudius. He analogizes Gertrude's relationship to him as that of a star in a Ptolemaic sphere: "She is so conjunctive to my life and soul / That, as the star moves not but in his sphere, / I could not but by her" (IV.vii.14-16). In his attempt to squelch Hamlet's depression and, one suspects, an investigation into his father's death, Claudius plays off the traditional Shakespearean duality of reality versus appearance in a speech which iterates via puns the rebuttals to the Copernican hypothesis (italics mine): It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschool'd; For what we know must be, and is as common, As any the most vulgar thing to sense
Why should we in our peevish opposition Take it to heart? Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd... ...We pray you throw to earth This unprevailing woe... (I.ii.95-103, 106-107) Claudius is codifying Hamlet's geocentric opposition, one which is aligned against nature and incorrectly attributes centrality to heaven. He would rather he "throw to earth" his despair or, as Jenkins suggests, "bury it (along with his father)." In either case, Claudius attempts to repress Hamlet through the earth's geocentric core, and it spurs the prince's mission to invert his reactive and microcosmic view: "...this goodly frame the earth seems to / me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy / the air, look, this brave and o'erhanging firmament, / this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it / appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours" (II.ii.299-303). Rather, Hamlet attempts to awaken himself and the other characters to a macrocosmic vision of infinity, a notion which he shared with the metaphysical poets of his day. Man has forever been fascinated by the infinite reach of the stars, and Nicolson contends that "the idea of the infinity of the universe and an infinity of worlds...was implied in the Copernican system" (Nicolson, 137-138; italics original). The aesthetics of infinity, as Nicolson calls them, relate back to Hamlet's memory of his God-like father who could have led his nation into the heliocentric era: "For centuries Infinite had been God's word, not man's. But now man was beginning to apply to an expanded universe adjectives and epithets long reserved for Deity" (Nicolson, 154). Hamlet's macrocosmic visions, however, are always thrown back to earth, as when he describes his deceased childhood jester, Yorick, as "a fellow / of infinite jest" (V.i.178-179), then considers how even Alexander the Great, who conquered as much of the known universe as possible, likewise died a geocentric death: "Alexander returneth / to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam" (V.i.202-203). Hamlet, too, has been straitjacketed by his depression: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a king of infinite space were it not that I / have bad dreams" (II.ii.254-256). His invocation to God reminds us of Nicolson's argument that the infinite formerly applied only to God. Were it not for his "bad dreams," the geocentric nutshell would be no barrier but Claudius's tyrannical rule is stifling his infinitude. But more than that, Nicolson's original thesis, that the correspondence between the macrocosm and microcosm was no longer valid under the new astronomy, is Hamlet's essential conflict and is what further "nutshells" his earthly movement. Most of the criticism of Hamlet focuses on delay-theories, and it has often been pointed out that by Hamlet's not killing Claudius at several key opportunities, the body count racks up considerably by the play's end. When Claudius is in the midst of prayer (in the exact middle of the play, no less), or as close to a macrocosmic relationship with God as possible while still keeping both feet and knees on the geocentric ground, Hamlet refrains from killing him with the explanation of his own "limited earthly vision" (Jenkins's note for "circumstance"): "And how his audit stands who knows save heaven? / But in our circumstance and course of thought / 'Tis heavy with him" (III.iii.82-84). Yet it is Hamlet's soliloquies that engender the greatest atmosphere of delay. The famous "To be or not to be" speech, immediately pairing Hamlet's struggle over life or suicide with the passive voice, has a similar movement to his other monologues. His words usually break free momentarily from the solipsistic specific to the philosophical abstract, then return back to himself, as when Ophelia appears at the end (III.i.88) and Hamlet begins his cruel treatment of her and of himself. His soliloquy in Act IV, Scene IV plays up his recursive orbit with heightened irony. After Hamlet rouses himself to revenge by shaming himself with comparison to the "twenty thousand men" that "fight for a plot / Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause" (IV.iv.60, 62-63) in short, a reminder of the trivial nature of geocentric struggles Hamlet determines "O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth" (IV.iv.65-66). That "or" may as well be "and," since Hamlet has proved with his geocentrically stalled tactics that thought alone, bloody or not, is not enough to bridge Nicolson's micro/macrocosmic divide. Only when he revenges his father and redeems himself by killing Claudius does Hamlet escape the geocentric limitations; the "peal of ordnance" (V.ii.408) which is shot off to signal his courageous death can be viewed in light of the play's cosmic tension as the prince's final aerial release from the antiquated geocentric into the modernized heliocentric. Whether or not any of Shakespeare's audience in the Globe theater was moved to reconsider their Ptolemaic beliefs through Hamlet is questionable, but 1
perhaps Shakespeare, ever one to acknowledge the importance of posterity, planted his cosmic allusions merely to note for future generations the ambiguous juncture man was in at the turn of the 17th-century, with both feet on Earth and both eyes on the Sun. WORKS CITED: Marjorie Nicolson, "The Breaking of the Circle" (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1950). William Shakespeare, The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet, ed. Harold Jenkins (England: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1982).
In Violence, the Rest is Silence
Location is everything. The setting of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the royal court, functions as more than the backdrop to the drama. On the contrary, embedded within the play is the implicit significance of its environment. Court society, with its emphasis on attaining nobility, maintaining the power balance between the monarch and the members of court, and a detailed code of conduct regarding the relations between the sexes, exerts an overarching influence over the characters in the play. The most salient aspect of Hamlet is its main characters notorious delaying to avenge his father's unjust murder. Critics have often struggled with how to account for Hamlet's incessant deliberations and have focused on his character construction. Yet people do not exist in a vacuum; Hamlet is an integral member of the society he belongs to. Examining Hamlet's conduct within the context of court society affords the reader the opportunity to contexualize and better understand Hamlet's perplexing behavior. Not only does Hamlet dramatizes its protagonist's revenge narrative, it also dramatizes the intricate relationship between its characters and Court Society. Threaded through Hamlet's revenge narrative is the narrative of courtly restraint. The narrative of courtly restraint offers an interesting interpretation of Hamlet's aggression towards women. In his essay, " 'To Please the Wiser Sort': Philosophy in Hamlet" John Guillory argues that Hamlet's "misogyny" is not a hatred of women. Rather, the desublimation of his courtier tendencies leads him to unleash aggression towards the women in his life. In order for Hamlet to kill Claudius, fulfilling his vow to avenge his father's death, he must realize violence within himself. Yet he must also do this within the context of Court Society, a society that restrains violence and encourages cultural refinement. The events of the play dramatize Hamlet's struggle to act violently. By transforming himself from the courtier to the "pre-courtier" revenge hero, Hamlet undoes the sublimation of violent impulses and avenges his father's death. His delays and deliberations are symptomatic of this transformation. His interactions with women can be understood in the context of the desublimation of courtly persona. In order to understand what the desublimation of the courtier entails, it is important to explain what Norbert Elias calls the "civilizing process" of the nobles. Elias sees the process of "courtization" as "a long term transformation of human society...the transformation of warriors into courtiers." It becomes the project of the monarchy to constrain and subdue the members of court society so that their violence towards each other, and especially against the monarch, becomes unacceptable within the confines of the established order. Women play an interesting role in court society. Elias points out that, "women, considered as social groups, have far greater power at court than any other formation in this society." In the context of restraining spontaneous impulse, the women come to symbolize what the men cannot impulsively have. The reduction of spontaneity causes what Elias terms a "civilizing detachment" in the relations between men and women. The qualities of a courtier good manners, selfrestraint are constructed by the court world in order distance the sexes and to complicate relations between members of the court world. The males must court the females; they can not simply have them. The women are a large part of why the courtiers must "civilize" themselves.
Hamlet's aggression towards Ophelia can therefore be understood in the context of courtly constraints. As a woman, she represents his need to sublimate his violence and impulses. He rejects her in the process of rejecting the barriers of court society. The civilizing process requires a transformation from warrior to courtier. There's a subordination of the self that occurs in this transformation from warrior to courtier. Elias explains: To keep one's place in the intense competition for importance at court...one must subordinate one's appearance and gestures, in short oneself, to the fluctuating norms of court society that increasingly emphasize the difference, the distinction of the people belonging to it. Courtly life becomes a game with rules and restrictions, one false move and the courtier opens himself up for attack of the nonviolent sort. The world is constructed like a game there are rules and regulations that dictate proper behavior. The individuals that comprise the members of court are all implicated in the relationship to the court power structure. At one point in the play Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that "Denmark is a prison." Courtly life is confining; Hamlet's frustration is understandable in light of what Elias deems this. the "intense competition for importance." The courtiers must control their impulses in order to succeed in this environment of restraint. Elias suggests that by "subordinating" themselves, the members of court are concealing their own natural impulses. The dynamic of courtly life entails an implicit deception; the phrases of speech, mode of dress, and general interpersonal conduct are not the true representations of the individuals involved. Life in the court also "demanded incessant self-control, a complex and carefully calculated strategy in one's dealings with social equals and superiors." The courtier becomes a subdued, calculating toady, forever appealing to superiors for recognition and reward. This is why, as Elias points out, "membership of the court increasingly entails a pacification, a heightened control of warlike habits." This leads to the restriction and control of aggressive impulses. What this also implies is that these courtiers, if they followed their own impulses, would be violent warriors. There is no room for the individual that does not want to be violent, or a courtier. There's polarity between violence and propriety. As a courtier, Hamlet is conflicted between the rules of propriety he has maintained and the promise of violence he gives the Ghost. Hamlet is a textbook example of the restrained courtier. Elias discusses the way that spontaneous impulse was held in check in the court world: "The deliberate sizing up of a situation, the taking of bearings, in short, reflections intervene more or less automatically between the affective, spontaneous impulse to act and the actual performance of the action or deed." Elias's assessment of court society makes for a tidy explanation of Hamlet's deliberations. Hamlet's need to constantly question and reflect on his situation is "automatic" behavior for him. Elias calls this the "armour-plating of self-restraint. In the absence of actual battle, the courtier girds himself for battles within the court by reigning in spontaneous impulse. Hamlet's inaction, therefore, is not simply a symptom of moral quandaries, but a result of his inability to throw off the shackles of court society. The need for reflection and hesitation are part of the control exerted on the courtier by court society, and it is "automatic" or habitual for the courtier. Guillory focuses on Hamlet's philosophizing in the play with relation to a problematic between what he terms "theatrical fashion and court faction." Guillory defines fashion as "the sublimated, aestheticized expression of faction, a political reality." The fashion of the court is the masked, or sublimated, expression of a political reality. The necessity of court life is that things remain unsaid, political realities are rarely discussed. Courtly fashion, with its myriad of intricacies and nuances, becomes the encoded language of political discourse. Hamlet's philosophizing is his way of decoding this fashion and revealing the political truths of the court or faction. As Guillory puts it, Hamlet's "performance of philosophy" is "an attempt to consolidate 'the wiser sort' around their knowledge of unspeakable political truth. Philosophy itself names their knowledge, without naming its content." In Hamlet's circuitous approaches to the act of revenge is the constant presence of a fruitless "performance of philosophy." His pontificating never leads to a resolve; rather it serves to stultify the action. He can never openly acknowledge the evil he knows Claudius has committed. Hamlet is verbally castrated; he is free to soliloquize, but only in a limited capacity. He can never address the issue through speech, yet for most of the play that is his choice of defense.
Guillory extends the argument beyond the bounds of the play to suggest that Hamlet's performance of philosophy resonates with a portion of Shakespeare's audience, namely the courtly elite. This sector of the population relates to Hamlet's inability to act, with his sublimation of violence. And the performance of philosophy, containing an Irresolution of fundamental questions, its reflections on its own failure to comprehend the totality of the real, tends toward the suspension of action (particularly violent action) and thus toward the cultivation of a certain elite pleasure in philosophizing. Because these courtiers are prevented from violent action, they are resolved to participate in an act of "irresolution." Philosophizing becomes a comfortable positioning of one's inadequacy to act; the act itself is paralyzing. There is a causal relationship between philosophizing and inaction. Since Hamlet is presented by the text as a Wittenberg student called back home from school, he is constructed as a person prone to thinking critically. He is a scholar, not a soldier. His studies abroad have taught him to think and reflect and challenge, not to murder. The fact that Wittenberg is an anachronism in the play is significant. The Hamlet of Shakespeare's imagined Denmark attends a school that did not exist during the play's historical time period. However, Hamlet's audience no doubt understood the implications of mentioning of the famous university. Hamlet is a product of fine British schooling, a student of thought, not of war. The cultivation of this "elite pleasure in philosophizing" is emblematic of the behavior necessitated by the sociology of court society. Guillory makes reference to the work of Elias and Francis Barker when buttressing his point that "court society imposed upon its participants the necessity of exercising great restraint on impulsive modes of behavior, particularly in the realm of aggressivity." Hamlet is a product of this court world. He is constrained and restricted by the mechanisms of courtly life. However, he does not fit neatly into the confining role mandated by his status as a courtier. He is in the world but not of the world. Hamlet has internalized the modes of behavior established by court society. Yet, despite his integration into the courtly world, he is willing to abandon those rules of conduct to promise revenge to a ghost of his father. His promise to the Ghost in understandable; after all, he is moved by the Ghost's narration of Claudius's treachery and want to avenge the unjust murder. However, he is so easily won over by the Ghost's admonitions; if Hamlet is the critical thinker we are meant to think he is, he should have hesitated more. Yet he uncharacterstericaly pledges his services without a moment's thought. It is significant that the Ghost comes to him dressed in military garb (usually ghosts appear in their burial shrouds). Hamlet's father, a celebrated war hero, beseeches Hamlet to be violent by reminding him of his own inadequacy as a soldier. Hamlet the King haunts Hamlet with the notion of unresolved violence. The Ghost presents Hamlet with a visible representation of the polarity of violence and propriety inherent in court life. The Ghost makes clear that the only way Hamlet can redeem his father's soul is acting violently. Therefore Hamlet the thoughtful courtier must attempt to be Hamlet the warrior. The tension between Hamlet's position and his promise result in a self-narrative that is fraught with contradiction. This is most clear in his intense vow of revenge. His declaration to the Ghost is that he will Wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past That youth and observation copied there, And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain. (1.5.99-103) Hamlet admits to his own reeducation of violence. He so easily wipes away the years of grooming, training, and formal education that has prepared him for a life in court society. Yet he can only process his conduct using the language of education and civil society. He replaces "fond records" and "books" with a commandment that will exist in the "book" of his brain. His language belies his purpose. If he were to really replace his revenge for culture, he would not need to articulate it. Violence implies a rejection of speech; the act speaks for itself. His commitment to avenge his father's murder is therefore problematic. Contained within his promise of violence is hi "automatic" allegiance to culture and civility. He still operates within the modes of established court behavior.
In his eagerness to appease his father's Ghost he swears whole-heartedly in the only way he knows how by referring to the "book" of his brain. The only way he can express true resolve is by offering the power of his mind. The point of this promise is that it should be translated into action, not thought. Hamlet's promise of revenge contains a contradiction in content and in practice. Not only does he rename the violence promised as a "commandment" to be contained within a book, he also refutes the promise as he is making it. He is talking to a Ghost, a representation of the past. This is a past that retells itself until it is resolved. The Ghost's narrative is one that begs to be retold and remembered, echoed in the Ghost's request of "Remember me." In the same breath that Hamlet vows revenge, he wipes away "all forms, all pressures past." Included in those "pressures past" is the memory of his father. He is telling the representation of his father's past that he will wipe away any record of that past. His promise is then meaningless. This speech, articulating whole-hearted allegiance to the Ghost, is filled with conflicting ideas. Hamlet's idea of his self-narrative could not be more confusing. The intellectual grooming of his past is so distasteful to him that he rejects it and starts anew. He replaces his narrative of books and records with a narrative of revenge. But the logic of his promise collapses in on itself when examined closely. He thinks that he needs to wipe away the past in order to memorialize it. Hamlet actually does want to memorialize the Ghost in a meaningful way. The irony is that when attempting to narrate his decision, Hamlet's speech is thoughtful yet lacks clarity of thought. This scene is puzzling because Hamlet easily and whole-heartedly rejects the confines of his upbringing. More than simply avenging an undeserved murder, he sees this revenge as an opportunity to begin anew, to have only one rule, one "commandment." With his promise of revenge Hamlet gains a singularity of purpose not afforded him as a member of the courtly elite. This purpose is also more attractive to Hamlet. The promise of revenge rings truer for Hamlet than the need to be a courtier. He has an emotional attachment to this promise; it is his way of perpetuating his father's memory. Being a courtier is inherently deceptive and constraining; avenging his father is somehow more meaningful for him. Hamlet wants to prove his mettle as a warrior of justice, but he can not break so easily from "the glass of fashion and the mould of form." Guillory points out that Hamlet's problem is not "how to exact revenge on Claudius's person but how to overcome the courtly inhibition of agressivity he has internalized so well." So not only is he struggling against a constricting society, Hamlet is also fighting internal demons of restraint. He is also too smart to simply kill Claudius right away. The text introduces him as an educated courtier returning from his studies at Wittenberg. The implausibility of this type of character avenging his father's death with "wings as swift as meditation" is obvious. No audience would have accepted a tidy revenge plot with Hamlet as the protagonist. Hamlet is a thinker, not a warrior. Hamlet's clumsiness and deliberations, though grating at times, resonate with his audience. He is a person struggling on the abyss of transformation; he is someone who wants so badly to do something, but falls prey to the seduction of procrastination and pontificating. When Hamlet does kill someone, it does not resolve the political problem brought on by Claudius's usurpation of the throne. "The effect of Polonius's murder," Guillory argues, "is rather to drive Hamlet in the last two acts of the play into another mode of philosophizing...Hamlet's philosophizing has been in a certain sense radicalized by his moment on deinhibited violence." Guillory sees this act of violence as the point of departure for Hamlet's performance of philosophy and as the vehicle for Hamlet's engaging of "real philosophy," or a meditation on substance. Killing has a revelatory function for Hamlet. He does not abandon philosophy after he kills Polonius, but rather improves his philosophizing. The seductive irony is that an act of violence becomes the catalyst for improving philosophy, a position of inaction. After this point in the play he straddles the worlds of violence and thought, never quite settling in either camp. It's not surprising that the confrontation with death, and his confrontation with violent impulse, would enhance his meditation on substance. Up until this point, Hamlet's grasp of philosophical ideas lacked empirical evidence. The more Hamlet destroys life, the better he understands it. This act of uninhibited violence is also one of absolute clumsiness. The image of Hamlet stabbing through the arras, ignorant of his target, trying to convince himself is it Claudius when there is no possibility that it could be Claudius since he has just left him in another room, is so emblematic of his enterprise. When Hamlet does resort to violence, he stabs into the darkness, ungracefully killing, and not fulfilling his purpose.
One can extend Guillory's idea of a "performance of philosophy" to define this act as a "performance of violence." In the same way that Hamlet uses philosophy to express knowledge without addressing content, his initial act of violence displays spontaneous impulse but accomplishes nothing. Murdering Polonius actually works to worsen Hamlet's situation. He kills Ophelia's father, committing the very crime against her that he is supposed to be avenging. Murdering Polonius effectively equalizes Hamlet and Ophelia insofar as they both experience their fathers' murders. Murdering Polonius is also interesting because it marks Hamlet's aggression towards women. He comes to Gertrude's closet in a rage. The implication in the text is that he wants to murder her. "Come, come and sit you down," he says, "you shall not budge./ You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you."(3.4.17-19) He comes to her in order to confront her about her unfaithfulness. Though he does not articulate his intentions, his language implies violence. He is obviously threatening her with some sort of violence because Gertrude's next line is "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?" Hamlet wants to kill her; he enters her private closet, an indication that he is no longer abiding by the rules of courtly propriety. He violates the accepted norms of courtly conduct, thus compromising his reputation and renouncing his position as the polite courtier. His anger towards Gertrude is not only because she has been disloyal to Hamlet's father, but also because she is a woman and as a woman she embodies the reasons for his courtly restraint. Therefore, it would be reductive to view Hamlet's violence towards women as misogyny. It's not that Hamlet hates women, it is how women are implicated in the rules of court society that spurs his violence towards them. Gertrude accepts the deception inherent in court life and actively participates in it. She easily switches her allegiance to Claudius after he kills King Hamlet. She is good player in the courtly game; her strategy is to assimilate into the twisted rules manadated by the court. Hamlet gets mad at her for this because he sees it as a breach in her loyalty to his father. He takes her conduct to indicate a lack of remorse, when really she is doing her best to survive in Claudius's court. Gertrude's behavior indicates that thought she is a member of the court, she does not feel constrained by its restrictions. By remarrying Claudius she conveys complicity with the rules of court society. Ophelia's response to being a woman implicated in court society differs from Gertrude's. Whereas Gertrude is comfortable with the fluctuating norms of court society, Ophelia is disturbed by their fluid constructions. Like Hamlet, she is a youth constrained by the court. As a woman, she must marry well and protect her most valuable asset- her virginity. Laertes alludes to this when he warns her not to take Hamlet too seriously. When describing Hamlet, Laertes says, "his will is not his own./ For he himself is subject to his birth." (1.3.17-18) Since Hamlet is destined to inherit the throne, he is not free to love whomever he wants. Ophelia, as the object of Hamlet's intended affections, must consider the strategies that will result in a successful marriage. The nature of courtly life is such that even her supposed lover does not have the freedom to choose her. Ophelia faces the same pressures as the courted that Hamlet faces as the courtier. Her restraints, though different than Hamlet's, function to confine her within accepted social mores. "Weigh what loss you honour may sustain," cautions Laertes, "If with too credent ear you list his songs/ Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open." (1.3.29-31) He does not advise her to be careful because she may get hurt, but rather because she may sustain a "loss" of honor. He encourages her to restrain herself and protect her chastity, her only "treasure." In a world where women are the target and men the civilized archers, Ophelia must guard her prize. The implication is that she will be worthless once she compromises her honor. Her value as a person only matters insofar as relates to the rules established in the court. Ophelia does not casually accept the rules mandated for her a woman in the court. In contrast to Gertrude she protests to her position in this world and conveys her distaste for Laertes's concise summation of her situation. Her famous lines, in which she tactfully chastises Laertes, reveals her insight into the mechanisms of courtly life. "Do not as some ungracious pastors do,/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,/ Whiles like a puff'd and reckless libertine/ Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads." (1.3.47-50) She realizes that his advice to her is tinged with a certain hypocrisy; he tells her to be chaste, yet he can be reckless. This incident is the first indication that Ophelia is not comfortable with the atmosphere of courtly life. She knows that the accepted social norms are unfixed and unfair. Her voice in this passage is lucid and conveys a penetrating understanding of her environment. Like Hamlet she is implicated in the restriction of the court, and like Hamlet she eventually resorts to violence in response to those restrictions.
Ophelia's position in this web of courtly life is significant both for what it reflects about her role as a woman in court society and for her status as recipient of Hamlet's desublimated aggression. Francis Barker sees Ophelia as "the object of all that masculine discourse which seeks, along with the text itself, at once to use and control her, allotting her a passivity and a marginality that is both poignant and repulsive." Yes, Ophelia is relegated to the role of the love interest, the fragile daughter whose virtue must be safeguarded, and the thoughtful sister. But this does not make for a neat equation of viewing her as victim of misogyny. Though she is confined to this "masculine discourse" she manages to break out of that constraint and create her own. Barker points out that while the response of Hamlet and Laertes to the confinements of their world is violence, in Ophelia "it prompts to breakdown (but also to a kind of empowerment), when at last she interrupts the action and finds a voice." Her voice, defined by the rest of the characters as "mad", is also "both weirder and truer than rational discourse" argues Barker. She frees herself from the illusory constructs of Claudius's court world by articulating in a voice that is "truer" and therefore construed as weird. Whereas Hamlet philosophizes and uncodes nothing of the faction of Claudius's monarchy, Ophelia uses a speech that "doth move the hearers to collection." (4.5.8-9) If Hamlet's desublimation requires him to abandon propriety and civility, to choose violence over speech, then Ophelia's own recognition is the result of her embracing speech to articulate truths. She co-opts the male discourse and subverts it. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia enters the court singing "mad" songs and giving flowers to Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius. This scene illustrates Ophelia's use of language and symbol to expose the truth of Claudius's court. In her madness she exhibits clarity of thought; she is able to say those truths without fear of impropriety. The editor of the Arden Shakespeare, Harold Jenkins, comments that "the plants have their meanings appropriate to their recipients" and extensively glosses the significance of the scene. Ophelia gives rosemary and pansies to Laertes, fennel and columbine to Gertrude and rue to Claudius. Jenkins argues that "with rosemary and pansies, the first two flowers, Ophelia indicates and Laertes accepts an emblematic meaning, thereby inviting us to do the same which follow." The flowers therefore clearly have an intended meaning for their recipients and that meaning is not lost on the recipients. Laertes calls it a "document in madness" but then quickly acknowledges that this document has "thoughts and remembrances fitted." (4.5.176) Meaning that she exhibits all the qualities of madness, but the content of her speech and action are inescapably rational and sensible. She gives fennel and columbine to Gertrude and those Jenkins argues symbolize flattery and insincerity combined with "cuckoldry," or marital infidelity. She gives the King rue which symbolizes "the rue of regret including not merely sorrow but repentance." This emphasizes the King's need for repentance that he has divulged to audience in 3.3 and is reinforced during his prayer scene. She bids the King to wear his "with a difference" which Jenkins understands as the difference between innocence and guilt. She also gives the King a daisy, which Jenkins admits has proved baffling. It would seem to be an emblem of love's victims and she gives it to the King as an afterthought, which offers a bit of symmetry to her giving everyone two flowers. The "withered violets" assume a dual meaning. The recipient of the flower should ideally be her lover since violets symbolize faithfulness. Jenkins explores the irony of the violet's withering in relation to Laertes' early warnings to Ophelia when he compared Hamlet's love to a violet "sweet, not lasting." In her grief for her father's death is also the grief for her lost lover. Jenkins concludes that the violets "have a double implication: they recall along with a lost love Polonius's faithful service to the state (the first thing suggested to us about him) while seeming to rebuke a court which knows faithfulness no more." And again, this is directed at the King and Gertrude, by extension. Jenkins also points out that in giving Laertes "rosemary for remembrance" Ophelia plays in his revenge the role of the Ghost in Hamlet's. Equating Ophelia with the Ghost allows for her to have a pivotal role in Laertes's and Hamlet's simultaneous revenge narratives. Her agency, though, like the Ghost's, must be coded through means other than acceptable civil discourse. The Ghost comes as apparition, she comes in madness. Those two routes seem to be the only way to communicate and effectively prompt action in the courtiers. Ophelia's flowers function as a parallel to Hamlet's performance of philosophy. She expresses her knowledge and alludes to its content without ever defining it. She uses the guise of madness to publicize her insight into the sins and
grievances of Claudius's court. Her discourse, like Hamlet's, is coated for smoother consumption by members of the court. Despite the fact that her listeners are struck by the "fitted"ness of her mad ramblings, they do not acknowledge the truths she reveals. The members of Claudius's court resist the requests of both Hamlet and Ophelia to repent and transform. The irony is that these two characters can only declare truths through indirect means, and it is their means that undermine their cause. The question of Ophelia's agency in co-opting the male discourse is left ambiguous in the text. The text resists a tidy explanation as to whether or not Ophelia's rational-though-mad discourse is internal or a symptom of her breakdown. She is marginalized and diminished by the other characters. Those perspectives indicate Ophelia's position in court society. The word "nothing" is repeatedly used to describe Ophelia in direct relation to her sexuality. The first time Hamlet uses the word it has sexual connotations. In their dialogue before "The Mousetrap," Hamlet verbally spars with Ophelia, his wit and cruelty obvious, her wit overshadowed by her innocence. Ham: Do you think I mean country matters? Oph: I think nothing, my lord. Ham: That's a fair thought to lie between maiden's legs. Oph: What is, my lord. Ham: Nothing. (3.2.115-119) Besides the "nunnery" sequence, this episode no doubt wins in terms of displaying the verbal assault Hamlet unleashes on his women, now understood in the context of his attempt to desublimate violence. Jenkins glosses "country matters" to prudently refer to "physical lovemaking." And "nothing" to be "in jocular allusion to virginity, perhaps with specific reference to the male 'thing.' Alternatively the figure O, in allusion to the woman's sexual organ." Therefore Hamlet is crassly referring to Ophelia's sexuality in terms that diminish her. She is only nothing in comparison to his "thing." This passage marks Hamlet's public rejection of Ophelia. In acting out his aggression towards her Hamlet comes closer to realizing his own violent impulses. Yet even this aggression is manifested through language, not action. He verbally abuses her instead of physically assaulting her. The traces of courtly conduct are still present within his rejection of Ophelia. His aggression towards her is still coded. Hamlet's use of "nothing" becomes emblematic for how the other characters describe Ophelia's presence. When describing Ophelia's mad ramblings to Gertrude, the Gentleman says, "her speech is nothing" (4.5.7) and then goes on to say how it moves the hearers to collection. This, added to Laertes's conclusion that "this nothing's more than matter," (4.5.172) combines to classify Ophelia and her speech as nothing but still uneasily dismissed. She is caught on the periphery of male discourse as Barker pointed out, yet that periphery here is defined as a vacancy. She surrounds the center and is "nothing," but her nothing has undeniable presence. The males at the center are therefore defined in relation to the vacancy at the periphery. Barker discusses Ophelia within his larger argument of the practice of memory in Hamlet, or what he terms "inadequate commemoration." From the ghost's injunction to Hamlet, to "remember me" the text, and the characters, are required to fulfill this practice of memory. Barker stresses the fact that the boys in the play, rather than remembering the girl they both loved, resort to a violence that forgets Ophelia. Ophelia's funeral is neither an authentic expression of grief nor an effective public ritual... the practice of memory is shattered by the spectacle of Laertes and Hamlet at each other's throats in the grave itself, the funeral disrupted by their towering, competitive, violent anger. Once again, Ophelia's voice is stamped out within the cacophony of male discourse. By the end of the play, when the action begins, that male discourse takes the form of violence. Comparing Ophelia and Hamlet's response to Claudius's court world polarizes their difference as characters. Hamlet tries words at first. He uses speech to try to uncover the injustice of Claudius, but his pontificating is nothing more than a performance of philosophy, a position that affords him the luxury of inaction. Ophelia finds her voice through madness. She is caught within the confines of male discourse and must transcend that discourse to communicate her unhappiness. By the end of the play, Hamlet has chosen to communicate through violence. He abandons speech for action and so does Ophelia. She resorts to violence as well; her violence is directed inward while Hamlet's is towards others. Her suicide functions to signify her own admission of violence in the context of courtly restraints.
There are parallels between Hamlet's and Ophelia's struggle to escape the pressures of court society. Both experience the unjust murder of a father, both use speech to challenge the deception of the court, both resort to violence to resolve their frustration with their predicament. In the same way that Hamlet must desublimate his courtier tendencies and undo the habits of court life, so too does Ophelia respond to the confining nature of court life. Yet part of the tragedy of Hamlet is the failed relationship between these two young lovers. Neither one is able to overcome the external influences that propel their relationship towards disaster. If Hamlet and Ophelia are similar in their struggle against courtly life, one difference remains the text does not give Ophelia a mission. From the beginning, Hamlet is offered a way to redeem his father's memory and challenge the deception of court. His promise of revenge drives him into a process of violence whereby he must incorporate his aggression into his interactions with the members of the court. His relationship with Ophelia is casualty of his transformation. Despite her compelling character construction, she is still a woman in the context of court society. As such, she becomes the focus of much of Hamlet's aggression. Her response to court society, though admirable, is simply one way of dealing with those pressures. Gertrude's comfortable complicity is another. Opehlia's suicide serves to prove that in the context of court society that is female centered insofar as females are the central objects of desire, any form of violence that is in response to that society is a violence towards women. Since the text, and that world offers her no option to rival Hamlet's, she resorts to committing aggression towards a woman, herself.
A Christian Excuse for Cruelty: Violence in Hamlet and The Tempest One of the significant conflicts within Renaissance culture was how to rationalize the many instances of violence which took place in a society with such strong Christian values. While some preached from the New Testament of the importance of love and treating others well, many drew on the numerous descriptions of murder and war found in the Old Testament as justification for the violence occurring everyday. Both Hamlet and The Tempest depict the violence which follows a character's betrayal of his brother, a common episode seen in the Bible. However, whereas the many instances of violence in Hamlet are presented as extremely violent, The Tempest contains more threats of violence or psychological torture. While Shakespeare's graphic depiction of violence in Hamlet represents a reasonable desire to restore God's intended royal hierarchy, the lesser degree of violence in The Tempest signifies that force is not necessary because God will eventually restore political stability. Seventeenth-century Christianity was not entirely focused upon saving souls. Many times, religion served an ulterior purpose, acting to enforce a sense of order upon the public. The Bible was used to persuade people to follow the rules of God. However, it was not only the laws of God which were being imposed. A central idea in Renaissance society was the idea of the divine right of kings, where the king was appointed by God and acted as a representative for the will of God. Therefore, the laws of the rulers were to be followed as if they were directly from God; to defy the king was to defy God. Sharpe writes, "The distinction between disobedience to royal and divine authority, between crime and sin, were less clear cut than at present" (Sharpe 159). The perception that God appoints the ruler who would be best for the kingdom is extremely important in both Hamlet and The Tempest, and I believe this explains the Biblical allusions and the way in which Shakespeare represents violence in both plays. From the first act of Hamlet, there are clear similarities to Biblical stories. As the Ghost of Old Hamlet explains that he has been murdered by his own brother Claudius, he says to Hamlet, "The serpent that did sting thy father's life/ Now wears his crown" (1.5.39). The reference to a serpent is a Biblical allusion. In the story of Adam and Eve, Satan disguises himself as a snake and encourages Eve to disobey God and take a bite from the forbidden tree of knowledge. The description of Claudius as a serpent implies that he too is the embodiment of evil. In Renaissance society, ambition and the pursuit of power were seen as admirable qualities, and Shakespeare's description of Claudius in Biblical terms reminds the reader that Claudius' actions should viewed as reprehensible. The most evident Biblical reference in Hamlet is to the story of Cain and Abel. At the beginning of the Old Testament, two brothers offer sacrifices to God. God accepts Abel's sacrifice of sheep, but rejects Cain's offering. Cain then takes Abel out to a field and murders him in what Foakes calls "an act of wanton violence for which no motive is given" (Foakes 25). This act of violence is repeated in Claudius's murder of his brother, and Shakespeare mentions this many times. Claudius himself acknowledges the similarity to humanity's first murder, saying, "O, my offence is rank! It 2
smells to heaven./ It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,/ A brother's murder" (3.3.36). Hamlet also alludes to the story when he describes Cain as he "that did the first murder!" (5.1.72). Echoes of the Cain and Abel story are not simply a coincidence, but rather serve as a validation of the extreme measures of violence in Hamlet. Critics contend that Renaissance society was "a society in which the use of violence was accepted as a necessary means of maintaining order in hierarchal relationships" (Fletcher 192). That is, violence was often necessary to restore the social and political order which God had arranged. Old Hamlet was the ruler whom God appointed to rule Elsinore. However, when Claudius repeated the fundamental sin of murdering one's own brother, he destroyed the natural political order. Cohen writes, "An unequal power structure . . . must produce turbulence as the power axis shifts and is shifted by desire and possibility" (Cohen 4). The violence which results from Old Hamlet's murder is inevitable as Hamlet attempts to restore stability to the kingdom. Hamlet is considered one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays; by the final scene, Laertes, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet are all dead. While a body count of eight might seem extreme, the numerous religious references throughout the play function as a reminder that the violence is being used on God's behalf and is therefore justified. In relation to my argument, the most violent deaths are those of Claudius and Hamlet himself. The murder of Claudius is the primary focus of much of the play as Hamlet attempts to avenge the "murder most foul" (1.4.27) of his father. However, Hamlet's revenge is tainted by his moments of indecision. When he is finally presented with the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, he is consumed with the Christian notion of the afterlife. The common conception was that if one died while in prayer, they would automatically go to heaven. Hamlet explains that in order to guarantee Claudius a spot in hell, he must kill Claudius in his most natural state, "when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,/ Or in th'incestuous pleasure of his bed,/ At gaming, swearing, or about some act/ That has no relish of salvation in't" (3.3.89). The fact that Claudius will be subjected to God's punishment as well excuses Hamlet's violent thoughts. The actual murder of Claudius is equally complex. In the process, Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius in what Foakes calls a primal act of violence, or "violence that has no motive, or is inadequately motivated, violence that may appear to arise spontaneously, and to be essentially meaningless, until meaning is attributed to it after the event" (Foakes 16). However, after Hamlet kills Polonius, he says, "Heaven hath pleased it so/ To punish me with this, and this with me,/ That I must be their scourge and minister" (3.4.157). The Christian reading of this "rash and bloody deed" (3.4.26) implies that while the death of Polonius is regrettable, it is a necessary step in Hamlet's process of restoring God's order. The murder of Claudius is also graphic as Hamlet stabs him with a poisoned sword, yet it is depicted as retribution of Claudius's disregard for the natural order of rulers. Hamlet is not seen as committing a simple act of violent revenge, but rather, he acts as an agent of God and uses violence in order to punish the character who destroyed the kingdom's political stability. Hamlet's death at the end of the final scene comes as a shock to many readers, who have come to feel a sort of sympathy for this grief-stricken and confused protagonist. However, the death of Claudius would have made Hamlet the rightful heir to the throne. Although Hamlet was not evil or manipulative in the way that Claudius was, he lacked the characteristics of a good king. His indecisive nature and spontaneous violent outbursts would have made him unsuitable to govern the kingdom. Therefore, Hamlet's violent death is equally as necessary to maintain the political order. God instituted the murder of Hamlet so as to ensure that the best ruler would be at the head of Elsinore. The final scene shows Fortinbras as arriving to take the position of king, and his respect for the dead prince Hamlet indicates that God has chosen a worthy ruler. There are also many Biblical references found in Shakespeare's The Tempest, but these references are decidedly less violent in nature. Antonio betrays his brother Prospero in order to steal his title of Duke of Milan. However, this act of treachery is much less bloody, closely paralleling the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. After Joseph's brothers determined that he was the favorite of their father Israel, they conspired to kill Joseph. At the last minute, though, the brothers decided that they had nothing to gain from killing Joseph and instead sold him into slavery. Joseph was transported to Egypt, where he was blessed by God and eventually came to be in charge of the entire nation. Many years later, Joseph's brothers traveled to Egypt, and Joseph did not punish them but forgave them for their sins (Genesis 3743). Similarly, Antonio was jealous of his brother's power, but rather than murdering him, Antonio persuaded the King of Naples that he was a better ruler and should therefore be given the title of Duke. Prospero was sent to the island
where the play takes place, and he learned the art of magic and grew very powerful. Upon Antonio's arrival on the island, Prospero uses his magic to psychologically torture him, but eventually forgives him. Just as with Joseph, there are numerous instances throughout the play which suggest that God was watching over Prospero and Miranda. When Miranda asks if they arrived on the island because of foul play, Prospero responds, "By foul play, as thou sayst, were we heaved thence,/ But blessedly holp hither" (1.2.61). Later, Miranda again asks how they came to this island, and Prospero answer, "By providence divine" (1.2.160). While many critics have argued that Prospero is truly an evil figure, these references to heavenly intervention indicate God's presence in the life of this displaced ruler. Although the audience does not actually witness Antonio taking over Prospero's dukedom, Prospero goes into great detail while describing the events to Miranda. While the transfer of power is represented as extremely violent in many of Shakespeare's plays, this usurping was remarkably peaceful. Prospero explains that Antonio was already making all of the political decisions for the state, while he spent the majority of his time in the library. Prospero describes, "The government I cast upon my brother,/ And to my state grew stranger, being transported/ And rapt in secret studies" (1.2.75-77). Antonio grew accustomed to this authority, and after giving the King of Naples monetary tribute, he convinced the King to "confer fair Milan, with all the honours" (1.2.126-127) to him. The King's men captured Prospero and Miranda in the middle of the night, and they were sent to the island. While Antonio's methods are clearly underhanded, his actions are not physically violent. The nonviolence in a situation which was typically represented as murderous has particular significance. In addition to the obvious likeness to the Biblical story of Joseph, the lack of violence inflicted upon Prospero suggests that Prospero's death is not a part of God's plan to restore the natural political hierarchy. The second event which would typically be depicted as violent is Prospero's revenge. The revenge play was a popular theatrical tradition in the Renaissance, and as seen in Hamlet, the act of revenge often resulted in multiple deaths. In contrast, the revenge in The Tempest is considerably less violent. The purpose of Prospero's revenge is not to murder Antonio, but rather to elicit feelings of remorse in those that betrayed him. Even Prospero acknowledges that this method of revenge is atypical, saying, "The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance" (5.1.27-28). Instead of physical violence, Prospero relies upon psychological torment, inflicting the men with fits of insanity and letting the King believe that his son had died in the storm. There are numerous religious references throughout the quest for vengeance, suggesting God's involvement in Prospero's activities. After Prospero uses Ariel and other spirits to help induce the men's illusions, Ariel calls herself and the other spirits "ministers of fate" (3.3.61), implying that the spirits were acting as part of God's larger plan. In addition, Prospero uses a specifically Christian word choice in order to explain that his revenge is complete when Antonio and his men are "penitent" (5.1.28). These religious references and the lack of violence in Prospero's revenge are important because they signify that God was actively working to restore both the state of the men's souls and political stability, and he did not need Prospero to act as his agent in order to do so. What does the lack of human violence indicate about the need for supernatural intervention? In general, it was believed that God appointed the ruler who would best serve the kingdom, and violence was used in order to uphold these ideal political hierarchies. Prospero admits that he was more interested in his books than in ruling the kingdom, saying, "My library/ Was dukedom large enough" (1.2.109-110). He also acknowledges that Antonio was a successful ruler, saying that he had "Perfected how to grant suits,/ How to deny them, who t'advance and who/ To trash for over-topping" (1.2.79-80). The lack of violence used to remove Prospero and to avenge the loss of his title implies that God believed this shift in power was a positive transformation. The play concludes with the proper ruler, Antonio, still in power, officially ending the need for God to mediate the political stability. With such different representations of violence, it can be hard to believe that one author wrote both Hamlet and The Tempest. However, I believe that examining both plays allows the reader to discover Shakespeare's position on violence. As I stated earlier, the church and the state were inexorably linked together. Critics contend that religion was used to impose a certain set of values on the public, specifically the values of those in power. Sharpe argues that expressions of violence such as public executions were "not merely displays of brutality, bur rather attempts by the authorities to exert ideological control, to reassert certain values of obedience and conformity" (Sharpe 158). In this same way, those in power during Shakespeare's time used violence to maintain their power and then manipulated their Christian values in an attempt to justify their actions. I believe these plays serve as a critique on those using
religion to excuse the violence which inevitably occurs within political structures. Shakespeare uses the excessive violence in Hamlet as a caution against pretending that one is struggling for power simply on behalf of God. On the other hand, The Tempest has a much smaller degree of violence, suggesting that retribution is less for those who do not claim to be acting as a violent agent of God. Overall, these plays imply that an acceptable distance be placed between the inherently violent world of politics and the Christian realm which should never serve as an excuse for this violence. T.S. Eliot and His Objective Correlative Versus Shakespeare
T.S. Eliot's famous poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock shares many correlating themes with William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Despite their evident similarities in style, Eliot criticizes Shakespeare's Hamlet in his essay Hamlet and His Problems, calling it "a problem which proved too much for him" (Eliot,184). Eliot said that the main theme, the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son, was a failure because Hamlet's feelings were too strong to be stirred solely by his mother. Eliot called his own idea of having to have a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events, be the formula for a particular emotion, objective correlative. "The artistic 'inevitability' lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet" (Eliot,183). Hamlet is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is "in excess of the facts as they appear" (Eliot,183). Although he claims that Shakespeare's inability to fulfill the criterion of objective correlative ruins Hamlet, Eliot's own piece of work fails to meet this same standard. In trying to make his argument, Eliot's criticisms of Hamlet actually further connect it to his own writing, confounding his intentions. The inability to meet the objective correlative is just another characteristic, along with the themes of the effects of paralysis, a diseased world and Hell, existentialism, and death, that Hamlet and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock have in common. Hamlet is a paragon of paralysis. He is an extremely intelligent and analytical character. He constantly seeks answers for situations but in his search he produces more questions than answers. The combination of his natural proneness to anxiety and his perception of mankind's limitations stall his action. Hamlet is paralyzed by the discovery of his mother's sexual nature as well as his father's murder at the beginning of the play. His decisiveness is further hindered when he realizes that avenging his father's murder could have a severe impact not only on his own soul, but also on those closest to him and even the state of Denmark. The main character of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Prufrock, shares many characteristics with Hamlet. He is sharp and self-doubting to such an extreme that it inhibits his actions. His paralysis is contemporary, its sources being both sexual and social anxieties. Prufrock is a modern tragic hero because his concerns are real yet pathetic. His problems solely affect him, unlike societies' traditional tragic heroes whose actions affect justice and multitudes of people. Prufrock is quick to admit his difference from the traditional tragic hero Hamlet, "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be" (111). He does not carry the burden of influence that Prince Hamlet does. Despite their deviant concerns and altered tragic hero classifications, Prufrock and Hamlet are both plagued by an inability to act. The presence of the ghost in Hamlet is a supernatural omen pointing out that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I.iv.90). Following his encounter with his father's ghost, Hamlet becomes increasingly aware of the affect of Claudius's moral corruption on Denmark. Hamlet depicts the earth as a "quintessence of dust" and "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors" (II.ii.288). His description of the world as a prison, "a goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o'th'worst"(II.ii.38), conveys his feelings of entrapment on earth. He longs for death to end his suffering but his fear of Hell prevents his suicide. He is forced to endure the pain of life so he doesn't have to suffer for eternity. Hamlet concludes in his famous "to be or not to be" (III.i.60) soliloquy that no one would choose to withstand the pain of life if they were not afraid of what followed death. Like Hamlet, Prufrock hates the world as he sees it. Prufrock lives in a fragmented, barren world. His description of the city where he is from illustrates its sterility, "streets that follow like a tedious argument" (8) and "lonely men in shirtsleeves, leaning out of windows" (72). The skyline is, "like a patient etherized upon a table" (3) and "yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes" (17) fills the air. He uses these descriptions to express the absence of God in the world and implausible resurrection. His travels take the reader on a downward ride from the skyline all the way to the ocean floor, each descent stirring more painful emotions. Prufrock hints through a series of images that what comes after death will be worse, echoing Hamlet's fear of damnation. 2
The disarray of Hamlet's surroundings eventually lead him to develop an existentialist view of the world even though he retains his Christian beliefs. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (II.ii.288) In this scene he creates a glorified picture of the earth and humans and then diminishes their value. He does this to generate a sense of the great gap between what appears to be and what really is. He becomes conscious of this gap when his "seeming virtuous queen" (I.v.46) mother's sensual nature is revealed. Like Hamlet's, Prufrock's environment is unbearable to him. He looses all faith in the existence of God due to the extent of his disgust. Sexuality plays a significant role in the lifestyle of this society but it does not provide renewal. Instead of having relationships based on emotional connections people choose to spend "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels"(6). Even the shy, self-doubting Prufrock takes part in these sensually driven affairs. "And I have known the arms already, known them all-/ Arms that are braceleted and white and bare / (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)"(62-64). God's absence in Prufrock's world causes him to embrace the physical aspects of life. Hamlet becomes obsessed with the idea of death after his father's murder. The inevitability of death fascinates him. He often makes comments referring to every human's eventual death and decay. "We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service - two dishes, but to one table" (IV.iii.21). Hamlet delivers this address to the king shortly after the murder of Polonius to describe the balancing effect of death. Death brings the equality of all people for worms take no notice of the status of their meal. Hamlet's discovery of Yorick's skull further illustrates his fascination of the physicality of death. "Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft" (V.i.162). Prufrock has an intense anxiety of aging and death. He creates a delusion that he has plenty of time left. He repeatedly reassures himself that "indeed there will be time" (23). Nevertheless, he is extremely self-conscious about his signs of aging. "With a bald spot in the middle of my hair - (They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')" (40-41). Prufrock's awareness of his bald spot is much like Hamlet's fascination with Yorick's skull, it is his physical reminder that death is eminent. Hamlet and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock both fail to fulfill the objective correlative. T.S. Eliot is correct that Hamlet's discovery of his mother's true nature is not significant enough to meet the objective correlative. At no point in the play is a reason that can account for Hamlet's passionate behavior revealed. Neither can the main theme of Prufrock, the hopelessness and sterility of the modern world, be accounted for by any single object in the poem. Yet, both pieces of writing make sense and effectively convey the author's themes. How can this be when according to Eliot, "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective correlative" (Eliot,183)? The bottom line is that objective correlative cannot work in all cases. It is an interesting, but flawed idea. Every emotion cannot be linked to a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events because the human mind is boundless; it would be impossible to find a specific cause for every thought and feeling. Both parallel themes and this insufficiency of Eliot's objective correlative are what tie Hamlet and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock together. Works Cited Eliot, T.S. "Hamlet and His Problems." Hamlet, A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992. Eliot, T.S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. London, 1917. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992.
Thought as Inaction in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
"Understanding kills action." With these three simple words, Nietzsche explains the idea behind Shakespeare's development of the acting of thought as inaction, and also the reason that Hamlet hesitates for over 3000 lines of blank verse and prose to avenge the murder of his father. The motif of delay and inaction as thought can be seen in several instances throughout the play, the primary being that of Hamlet, though secondary performances are given by Laertes, Pyrrhus, and Lucianus (in The Mousetrap). These scenes serve as support and emphasis for the central part of the play. Hamlet expresses his thoughts primarily through his soliloquies, Shakespeare's vehicle to present inaction and delay; in essence, to act Hamlet's thoughts. The theory is that if the character is portrayed "thinking aloud early on [in the play] and then again and again and again...[the audience will] realize that thinking with him is an ongoing process" (De Grazia 1). Nietzsche offers an explanation for Hamlet's tendency toward internal contemplation: "That which we can find words for is something already dead in our hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." This statement gives a reason both for Hamlet's constant inaction (in thought) and his biting wit. Hepeppers his speech with contempt, because that which he speaks is dead to him, yet filled with meaning, resulting in many interesting conversations, especially with the adults, Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius. Nineteenthcentury critic Coleridge singles out Hamlet as "representative of modern tragedy because unlike Greek tragedies, Hamlet is driven not by an external agent or principle, but by his own inner prompting, his prophetic soul" (De Grazia 5). This "internalization of the self" represents one of Shakespeare's greatest contributions, and provides the basis for an understanding of the fundamental idea of the play (Bloom 408-9). Several critics identify the central action of Hamlet as indeed Hamlet's inaction. This is shown through the opinion that if one only discovers the reason for Hamlet's delay, he would "have the answer to Hamlet's character which is also the key to the entire play (for the play is his character)" (De Grazia 4). The most highly favored explanation for Hamlet's hesitation is that Hamlet is a persona too large for the revenge-tragedy that is Hamlet. Indeed, without the prince (as Shakespeare presents him), it becomes "the revenge of Hamlet," not The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Bloom 415). Without Hamlet's hesitation, his constant and deliberate thought, and "antic disposition" (De Grazia 11), the plot would go directly from the Ghost's briefing of Hamlet to the murder of Claudius, no questions asked. Hamlet's questioning of the ghost's validity, and consequently his questioning of everything else writes the play (Bloom 187). Critic Harry Levin describes Hamlet as "a play obsessed with the word Œquestion'", and Bloom makes it clear that "the question of Hamlet always must be Hamlet himself" (Bloom 386-7), because everything in the play depends on Hamlet's response to everything in the play, beginning with the ghost of his father. Nietzsche, in his explanation for Hamlet's hesitation, differentiates between Hamlet's inaction due to knowledge, and inaction due to reflection. Because of the Ghost's revelation, Hamlet gains knowledge, which, in effect, destroys the desire and the ability to act on that knowledge. From his work The Birth of Tragedy (1873): "Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom [which]...reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no - true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action...". This idea of knowledge and reflection and their effect on action provides insight to Hamlet's dilemma: without "the veils of illusion", or the absence of knowledge, he cannot perform his revenge. Hamlet's knowledge of the blindness and injustice of action outweighs all motives for action. The ugliness of the truth in Denmark's monarchy so disgusts him, he cannot act. "Denmark's a prison" (Hamlet II, ii, 262) - or so claims Hamlet. But of all Shakespeare's characters, Hamlet begins as the freest (Bloom 417-8). Hamlet's own inwardness and constant questioning denies himself that freedom. And this selfdenial forms from itself an ambiguity in Hamlet's reasoning, because, as stated by Harold Bloom, "Hamlet implicitly defines personality as a mode of freedom" (Bloom 427), but more as something originating within freedom, rather than a product of freedom. Thus Hamlet, perhaps the best-known personality in Western culture, denies himself a means of creating that personality. This paradox also serves to create delay. Hamlet deprives himself of choices, and so denies himself the ability to act.
As a result of Hamlet's intellect and Hamlet's reliance on Hamlet, much of Hamlet is in Hamlet's wit. In a simple and grotesque revenge-tragedy, Hamlet's inner monologue and quips drive much of the plot between the induction and the conclusion. Hamlet knows the corruption of Denmark is also in him, lending a connection between his "disposition to think" and his "indisposition to act" (De Grazia 2). Hamlet is aware that this burden rests on him, which effects his own actions as well as his reactions to events (those few out of his control). So his hesitation in his actions may be attributed to this overwhelming load. As stated by T.S. Eliot, "we find Shakespeare's Hamlet not in the action...so much as in an unmistakable tone." Hamlet's essence does not rest in the minimal action of the revenge play, but on Hamlet's theories, witticisms, and, overwhelmingly, internal deliberation (Eliot 3). Understanding of the play's core does not rest solely on Hamlet, though he does carry the bulk of it. Hamlet's own hesitation and inaction carries Hamlet, but the same characteristics in minor characters serve to underscore the essence of the play. The most deliberate of these assistant scenes is Pyrrhus's hesitation in the assassination of Priam, in the Player's recitation of Priam's slaughter. There are thirteen full lines fall between the raising of his sword and its strike of its mark: "...For lo, his sword, Which was declining on the milky head Of reverend Priam, seemed i' th' air to stick. So as a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood And, like a neutral to his will and matter, Did nothing. But as we often see against some storm A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still, The bold winds speechless, and the orb below As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder Doth rend the region; so, after Pyrrhus' pause, Arousèd vengeance sets him new a-work, And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall On Mars's armor, forged for proof eterne, With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword Now falls on Priam" (II, ii, 502-17).
The gods inflict "Priam's pause," whose wills are against Priam's death. But it mirrors Hamlet's hesitations in its allowing a pause for thought, a moment of inaction. Also, at the end of this break, Pyrrhus shows no regret for his murder of Priam, just as Hamlet shows no remorse or passion, in neither his murders nor his attack on Ophelia. Strangely, Hamlet will not commit his actual commission, the avenging of his father's death, until Hamlet himself is dying. It is as if his delay throughout the play, and the digressive deaths of other characters, allows him to avoid the looming guilt in his murder of Claudius. Bloom offers an interesting possibility as explanation for this peculiarity, as well as a justification for his hesitations. According to Bloom, Hamletmay not know whose son he is. The question on his mind is, "How far back in time did Gertrude's incest' go?" Bloom's suggestion: "What is really unique about Hamlet is not his unconscious wish to be patricidal...but rather his conscious refusal to actually become patricidal. Gertrude dies with Hamlet...but it is remarkable that Hamlet will not kill Claudius until he knows that he himself is dying, and that his mother is already dead" (Bloom 419). Only with the death of Claudius would Hamlet feel guilt, and can only commit the act once his mother is dead, so as not to face her disappointment, and he himself has been mortally wounded. Thus, Pyrrhus's actions (or inactions) reflect Hamlet's at Claudius's death, but while Pyrrhus feels no remorse, Hamlet, in this final act, for the first time fears guilt. The other two scenarios are minor imitations of Hamlet's behaviors. In Act III, scene ii, Hamlet curses Lucianus for his "damnable faces" (277), a reflection of Hamlet's contempt for his own dallying, or his looks "as if he had been loosed from hell" (De Grazia 15). Like Hamlet, Lucianus bides his time, until the right moment approaches for the committing of his deed. As Laertes plots his duel with Hamlet, his indecision as to whether or not to go through with the act mirrors Hamlet's inability to stay the course of his father's spirit's demand. As Shakespeare's plot required, both Laertes and Hamlet commit their crimes, despite their hesitations. Thus these two scenes imitate Hamlet's actions or thoughts, serving to emphasize Hamlet's influence over the play.
Unlike many tragedies, Hamlet is driven not by any outside factor or principle, but by the inner consciousness and knowledge of its protagonist. The characteristic themes and motifs of Shakespeare's masterpiece inspired the use of a new method - soliloquy - to convey an ingenious device: the representation of thought as inaction. This forced not only a change for future Shakespearean creations, but also prompted the revision of most of his previous works (Bloom 400). Thus, the idea of thought's representation in inaction influences not only Hamlet, but also the creation of drama since its conception. Works Cited Bloom, Harold. "Hamlet." Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Eliot, T.S. "Hamlet and His Problems." The Sacred Wood. London: Methune, 1920. De Grazia, Margreta. "Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics." Republic of Letters 2000 Conference at Oxford University. Cambridge, Sept. 2000. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square, 1992. Wasting Away in Denmark: Of Course There's a Woman to Blame William Shakespeare's Hamlet, says renowned pundit of literature, Harold Bloom, "is unsurpassed in the West's imaginative literature" (Bloom 384). Surely, its story, style, and many famous lines have transcended time and place to such an extent that even upon a first reading, the play may seem familiar. Humanity remains transfixed upon the Prince of Denmark, who is simultaneously incomparably intelligent, melancholy, uncommitted, witty, introspective, and unbalanced. The poor guy, as is commonly known, is commanded by the ghost of his father to seek revenge on his uncle for committing regicide/fratricide and marrying his mother. Added to this, Hamlet finds that the love of his life is suddenly and inexplicably shunning him, at a time when he needs the most support. While Hamlet does purposely assume an "antic disposition" (1.5.181) in order to discern his uncle's culpability, I contend that the only true madness Hamlet experiences is caused by Ophelia. Clearly, this idea originates with Polonius, who after talking to Ophelia about Hamlet's recent oddities and confirming that she has not seen him or accepted his letters (per her father's request), decides "that hath made him mad" (2.2.112). The scheme of Polonius and Claudius to overhear a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet causes them to decide this is not the case. However, there are other factors at work in the contrived reunion. First, it is distinctly possible that in either or both instances Hamlet overheard Polonius and Claudius discussing their intentions, as he enters on-stage shortly after, engaging in some aimless activity. Second, Hamlet probably knew that they were eavesdropping. Ophelia estranges herself from him for two months and then suddenly encounters him while reading a prayer -- the situation more than hints at chicanery. It has also been suggested that Ophelia lacks subtlety and tips him off in her acting. Most interestingly, Hamlet directly asks her, "Where's your father?" (3.1.131) and seems to make an implied threat to the king with, "Those that are married already -- all but one -- shall live" (3.1.150-151). That he would make these statements at all implies they are for the benefit of listeners (Muir 25). Hamlet, who is suffering great stress due to being kept from returning to college, being passed over for the crown, worrying about the shady acts of his uncle, and most importantly, losing his soul-mate, meets her again only to find that she is now cohort to his enemies. Of course, his reaction is going to be a little aggressive, especially since she opens by trying to return his gifts and her comment, "rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind" (3.1.103) is belligerent in itself and seems to suggest he is to blame. The scene is not as decisive as thought by Polonius and Claudius in indicating that love is not the cause of Hamlet's unease. Hamlet and Ophelia were engaging in sexual intercourse. Both Polonius and Laertes seem to at least suspect it in Act I, and caution her that if she her "chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity" (1.3.31-32), it will be an embarrassment to the family and a mistake on her part. Later, Hamlet makes many odd comments to Polonius, most significant of which is, "Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to 't? (2.2.184-186). The exact meaning is unclear, but the suggestion is definitely there that Ophelia is being unchaste. When yelling at Ophelia, he tells her "virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it" (3.1.118-120) -- almost 3
concretely stating that they have given license to lust -- and wishes that Polonius may "play the fool nowhere but in 's own house" (3.1.134), a euphemism for being a grandfather and also a literal intimation of his state if Ophelia conceives out of marriage. When she herself has gone crazy, her song seems to explain quite clearly what has transpired. Before Hamlet "tumbled" her, he "promised [her] to wed," and he would have done so, if she "hadst not come to [his] bed." (4.5.63-67). While clearly she is in a delusional state, her song has meaning. Even upon her death, the priest seems frustrated that Ophelia is receiving such reverence and Christian rites and complains that "yet here she is allowed her virgin crants" (5.1.232), rather than being lodged in unsanctified ground unceremoniously. That is to say, even the clergy doubt her purity. The fact of their sexual liaisons is significant for its magnification of the effects of their break-up. Sex is often mistaken for love or made to unhealthily buttress it. In the vernacular it is called "virgin baggage," but by consenting to intercourse both Hamlet and Ophelia felt that their love was forever and that there was a contractual obligation to remain together for all time. Having given up their virginity to each other made the break-up that much more devastating, as it was the seal of their agreement. One must assume that in the time of this play, sex outside of marriage was an even larger debacle, as it would entail great shame, lost social status, and the possibility of remaining unmarried for the rest of life, but even today it is significant, as a 2000 Reuters poll found that 72% of twelve to seventeen year old girls who have had sex regret it (Myers 358). Though Hamlet was male and ostensibly older, this applies to him, especially due to stricter social mores and his sensitivity. "After separations," says Dr. David Myers, "feelings of loneliness and anger -- and sometimes even a strange desire to be near the former partner -- are commonplace" (Myers 367). This explains Hamlet's "pragmatically murderous treatment of Ophelia" (Bloom 421), why he chose to be around her only to verbally attack her. When Ophelia comments on the players' brevity, Hamlet says they are brief "as woman's love" (3.2.152). He does love her, but cannot deal with her desertion on top of everything else. Hamlet also says during that scene, "I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying" (3.2. 244-245). Deprived of communication with her, Hamlet has not unjustifiably assumed that she is cheating on him. This is even more reason to unhinge him A recent study finds that men and women both respond equally and aggressively to emotional and sexual infidelity on the part of a significant other. It is, in fact, the third-leading cause of violent crime in the United States (Harris 11). To add jealousy into the mix of emotions Hamlet is feeling regarding Ophelia, it is amazing he did not actually kill her. Even simply the frustration-aggression principle (blocking of a desired goal creating anger which directly leads to aggression) could explain Hamlet's behavior (Myers 555). He wants Ophelia, she (like other things) is denied to him, and so he becomes increasingly erratic. "Prince Hamlet is more aware than we are that he has been assigned a task wholly inappropriate for him" (Bloom 388), and his heart is not in the revenge. There are many explanations for this, but regardless, his father's commandment, though Hamlet says it "all alone shall live" (1.5.103) in his memory, does not cause him to lose control like the loss of Ophelia. There is a noticeable difference between his repartee with Polonius, in which he is clearly pretending to be insane so as to play with him, and the actual break-downs he experiences when in confrontation with Ophelia. The "casual slaughter" (5.2.384) of Polonius could even be explained as some of Hamlet's emotions against Ophelia being misdirected to her father. It was a win-win for him regardless of whether it was Claudius or Polonius behind the curtain, and of course he felt no grief, for he was either avenging his dead father or castigating for his lost love. The "mysterious movement from Act IV to Act V" (Bloom 390), in which Hamlet transforms from the twenty-year-old hot-headed youth to the quieter, wiser thirty-something could also be explained along these lines. "Nothing of Hamlet's 'antic disposition' lingers after the graveyard scene" (Bloom 390), says Bloom again, and even there, it is only mockery directed at death. Ophelia is dead and his cause of madness is lifted. His grief (and perhaps his general fixation upon mortality) are the explanation of his behavior there, and his leap into the grave of Ophelia is perhaps a final episode of derangement inspired by her. Are we to believe that "forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love" (5.1.272-273) compare to Hamlet's love for Ophelia? I do not doubt the strength and the validity of his emotion. Shakespeare himself said that love makes fools of us all. Hamlet writes to Ophelia that he "is thine evermore ... whilst this machine is to him" (2.2. 123-124). To be denied, to see her seemingly conspire with his enemies, and to believe that the breadth of the devotion he felt for her in better times was a sham is more than enough to turn him into a lunatic. Love lends itself to hate, and, as the expression goes, when a man starts acting odd, cherchez la femme. For a man as brooding as Hamlet is in the first place to have a presumed life-partner leave is quite devastating and almost certainly weighs on his thoughts, eventually driving him to despair. It probably made him doubt all his relations and could help explain his vitriol toward his mother. As the two primary women in his life have each seemed to have deserted him, it is 3
no wonder he tells Ophelia that woman's "wantonness" has "made me mad" (3.1.148-149). It could even be the reason that Rosencratz and Gildenstern are not "near [his] conscience" (5.2.58). Though he says it is because of their "baser nature" (5.2.60) (read: low social class), this does not seem quite fitting to the well beloved prince, whereas selffulfilling prophecy that since one's soul-mate and mother so easily turned, one's childhood friends probably would, too, does. If we are to accept from Ophelia that Hamlet actually was a great guy (somewhat difficult with his resume of death-causing) and that his "noble mind is here o'erthrown" (3.1.153), then the best conclusion is that bitterness is the reason why. To be stymied in love is the ultimate cause for discontent. Works Cited Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. Harris, Christine. "Sexual and Romantic Jealousy in Heterosexual and Homosexual Adults." Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society 13 (2002): 7-11. Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare: Hamlet. Great Neck, New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Incorporated, 1963 Myers, David. Exploring Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers, 2002. Whore or Pure?
Most of the attention in William Shakespeare's Hamlet is directed toward the play's namesake the Prince of Denmark or at the least King Claudius, the villainous uncle who murdered his brother and seduced his wife. Critics and readers alike contemplate the inner workings of Hamlet's mind, yet don't devote as much thought to the dull, seemingly onedimensional character of Ophelia. She is defined by her relationships with other individuals: the daughter of a noble courtier, the lover of the Prince who murders her father, and the sister of a brother with somewhat powerful political status. A young female confined by habit and custom to a fairly subservient role, she doesn't spark much interest at first and seems to act simply as a basic plot device. However, the author had more extensive plans in mind for this character; Shakespeare utilizes Ophelia to illustrate the dual nature of women in Hamlet's eyes. Throughout the play, Hamlet holds a distorted view of women as heartless sexual fiends who can at times display virtue and innocence. He considers them almost to be instinctual animals with uncontrollable behavior extremes, instead of sensitive human beings whose actions might wobble back and forth somewhere in the middle ground of these two radical endpoints. Through Ophelia, one notices Hamlet's transformation into a man who believes that "women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire" (Shakespeare-Online). Does this explanation of a woman's temperament ring true? A closer look into Ophelia's actions and the circumstances surrounding them will give more insight into determining whether Ophelia is a seductive temptress, a pure virgin, or an example of dual nature. The first clue into Shakespeare's true intentions for the character of Ophelia comes directly from the name itself. The etymology of Ophelia is said to have two possibilities. One option claims that it is derived from the Greek word for "help" or "succour." The word could have also originated from "ophis" meaning "serpent" (English). If Hamlet was in reality as highly educated as would be assumed from attending a college such as the University of Wittenberg, he would have gained knowledge of the Greek language. The awareness of this interesting dichotomy of Ophelia's name might indeed be disturbing to Hamlet, and it could very well have led to his guardedness in dealing with the relationship between himself and Ophelia. Another worthwhile perspective on Ophelia's character is that which can be found in countless pieces of artwork spanning from the eighteenth century to present-day (Arts). Most of the pictures are solo portraits, emphasizing Ophelia's loneliness and lack of friendly ties, especially after all the male authoritative figures in her life abandon her. Many of these images depict her in nature dressed in flowing white gowns with long, loose hair, which might represent childlike innocence and simple disposition. The different faces hold either an eerily calm expression, illustrating Ophelia's strange behavior as she drowns, or a slightly distraught appearance as she is caught off guard in some stance. Although most of these likenesses would imply nothing but purity, several of the paintings retain some sexual element, even if it is only a seductive look. For instance, a few pictures reveal more of Ophelia than could be considered modest
or appropriate. Without even fully realizing what they were doing, the artists of these pieces picked up on some detail, however minute, of Ophelia's dual nature in Hamlet and subconsciously portrayed that in their artwork. Although such a result was most likely unintentional, Polonius makes a whore of his own daughter. When Ophelia becomes frightened and dismayed by Hamlet's wild appearance and behavior towards her while he was in her room, she rushes to her father for advice. In response to what he has just heard, that Hamlet has come before her, looking "as if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors," he goes to the royal court (II, i, 75-120). There, Polonius plans with Queen Gertrude and King Claudius to use Ophelia's charms to spy and learn why Hamlet is turning mad. Even though Polonius is not aware of the insinuation, Hamlet calls him a "fishmonger," which can mean a dealer in a disreputable trade; in other words, Hamlet is calling him a pimp (II, ii, 173). He continues on in the conversation to offhandedly warn Polonius of his daughter's possible conception (II, ii, 184-185). At some points such as this, when he openly flaunts their intimacy, it is apparent that Ophelia has been made a harlot from her love Hamlet as well. One thing seems to infuriate Hamlet more about Ophelia's lascivious nature than anything else - the fact that she "has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him" (Shakespeare-Online). When Ophelia obeys her father and attempts to end her relationship with Hamlet, he is painfully reminded of a very similar situation (III, i, 90-102). He can't help but to make the connection with how his mother Queen Gertrude chose his uncle King Claudius, disregarding her loyalty to his deceased father King Hamlet. If these choices are understood to have a sexual undertone, as Hamlet believes, then these "more imperative" relationships could easily be considered incestuous. Ophelia is again coerced into whorishness, not through any preference of her own, but because she must follow the path that her controlling male counterparts, and therefore society, set out for her. As Hamlet is reeling from Ophelia's recent initiation of their separation, he spits out "get thee to a nunnery" (III, i, 121). At first, it appears that he might be trying to preserve her goodness and protect her from the evil ways of men by ordering her to flee to a convent and away from the sin of men. However, when he repeats the same line with the addition of the retort, "Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too" (III, i, 136-139). Obviously, he is not referring to a nunnery in the literal sense if he is so bitter and includes "if you must marry," since someone living in a convent would not be able to marry. Hamlet makes it clear with these lines that he is speaking of a nunnery as slang for a whorehouse, and that he believes women, or "monsters" as he calls them, lead to the corruption of men. Despite the efforts of the men in her life to make of her a strumpet, it is apparent to those not blind sighted by outrage and distress that Ophelia symbolizes goodness. Characterized with childlike innocence and naivety, she has been sheltered by her brother Laertes and father Polonius her entire life (Hamlet Haven). Since she knows only loyalty and love towards Polonius and Laertes, Ophelia has no reason other than to believe they are considering her well-being when they instruct her to be wary of Hamlet (I, iii). For instance, as she watches the play with him, she replies only, "I think nothing, my lord" to his query of whether she thinks he's talking "dirty" to her. Even as Hamlet continues to barrage her with wisecracks and innuendos, Ophelia patiently disavows his remarks: "You are naught, you are naught: I'll mark the play" (III, ii, 106-137). When she is dishonest - she answers Hamlet that her father is home when he is behind the curtain - she acts out of genuine fear (III, i, 129-130). Even in her insanity, after she has lost all direction and support, Ophelia represents honesty and virtue. Her vulgar songs are only dismally reminiscent of the price that the corruption of society took on Ophelia's pure heart, and a reminder of the pain Hamlet caused her: "Quoth she, 'before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.' / He answers, / 'So would I ha' done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to my bed'" (IV, v, 62-66). Instead of evoking fear or horror, her behavior merely displays her helplessness and inspires pity. Just now in her madness and sorrow, can Hamlet's artificial perception of Ophelia as a licentious woman prove itself (Hamlet Haven). Although she will never realize it, Ophelia's own death will prove to exemplify the dual disposition of women that she portrayed throughout her life. Queen Gertrude describes her drowning as "her clothes spread wide, / And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, / Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, / As one incapable of her own distress, / Or like a creature native or indued / Unto that element" (IV, vii, 174-179). Mermaids were considered to be "eternally youthful, beautiful, embodying the mystery of the ocean, and possessing an alluring song." They were interchangeable with mythological sirens, who were thought to be "temptations of the flesh." However, since Ophelia returned Hamlet's
gifts, the usual pattern is reversed. Also, the mermaid has a physical human/beast duality; both points suggest Ophelia's continued dual nature after death with "feminine seductiveness" and "the rational call to epic duty" (Hamlet Haven). William Shakespeare employs the character of Ophelia to demonstrate the dual nature of women. Hamlet recognizes it in Ophelia as he feels that she hides her natural seductive personality behind a disguise of perfection and purity. Did this explanation ring true in the character Ophelia? In some ways it did, such as associations made between mermaids in death and her somber songs of madness. However, the dual nature could possibly have some merit when reflecting on the character of Queen Gertrude as well. In addition, perhaps a closer look should be taken at the male relationships in her life for good measure; her connections with Polonius and Hamlet seemed to oppose each other in a way. Honestly, Hamlet's madness could also find cause for two extreme personas in him - perhaps a dual nature of men should be discovered and investigated. Although King Claudius and Hamlet can prove to be curious character studies, critics and readers alike should instead contemplate the more interesting inner workings of Ophelia's mind - whore or pure?