Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).

Preliminary Notes on Hamlet  

Theology. In Christian terms, revenge amounts to usurpation of God’s providential prerogatives. But this interpretation of revenge clashes with a more ancient one that’s easily seen at work in Classical literature: in The Oresteia, for instance, Orestes would be wrong not to take vengeance on his father Agamemnon’s killer. How could Orestes not kill Clytemnestra? He and we know that such an act will bring the Furies down upon his head, but it must be done in spite of the penalty incurred. The Elizabethans love a good Senecan-style revenge tragedy, as the popularity of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy shows, but Shakespeare, who revels in the form just as much as anyone else (Titus Andronicus, anyone?) seems to face most squarely the theological dilemma it entails.

Skepticism. There is something to the idea that Hamlet is a man out of his time, someone not quite fit to be a tragic hero. That’s true even if his problem isn’t really “delay,” although he accuses himself of it. He makes his share of false assumptions and rash mistakes. I say only half in jest that the Prince’s problem may be that he has read Montaigne’s Essays and soaked in some of their epistemological skepticism. The play’s proddings towards revenge don’t seem solid to Hamlet: there is only a ghost who tells him what he wants to hear: Claudius is stealing his mother’s attention and his kingdom, so the man must be paid back.

Recognition. At what point in the play does Hamlet attain clarity about the nature of his actions? He must have come round to the idea that he needs to let things shape up as they may. But exactly how he has come that far isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps his realization is due to a number of experiences (facing the shock of Ophelia’s death, meditating on that army going to its death “even for an eggshell,” bantering with the Gravedigger and encountering Yorick’s skull as an object of meditation, escaping from the ship that was taking him to his death in England, being ransomed by pirates at sea, his conflicted feelings about Ophelia and his mother, etc.) In The Poetics, Aristotle says that well-crafted tragedies turn upon the hero’s arriving at some fundamental insight (anagnorisis, recognition, “un-unknowing”) about the mistake he or she has made. Characterize Hamlet’s insight into his situation—what is the insight, and what has led him to it? Connect this question to the gravedigger scene. What finally makes the play’s resolution possible—is it that Hamlet has been unable to act and something now makes him able to act? (Oedipus Rex, for example, combines recognition with “reversal”—expecting good news from a messenger, Oedipus instead learns that the guilt lies squarely on his own shoulders.)

Specific Notes on Hamlet

Act 1, Scene 1. (336-40, Guesses about a ghost)

The watchmen and Horatio offer some surmises: Horatio suspects that the ghost’s appearance “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (338, 1.1.68). They’re on watch because young Fortinbras is planning to take back the territory his father had lost to Hamlet Sr. Barnardo supposes the same thing when he says, “Well may it sort that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars” (339, They feel foreboding, a sickness at heart; but they have only general knowledge, and Horatio’s idea (340, 1.1.150-52) is to seek out Hamlet and have him interact with the ghost; it seems logical to him that the young Prince will be able to attain particular, intimate knowledge of the spirit’s purpose.

Act 1, Scene 2. (340-46, Hamlet’s grief schooled, soliloquized; suspicions; ghost info!) 

Hamlet’s grief seems impolitic, self-indulgent, even prideful—at least to Claudius, who must govern. But Claudius’ rhetoric betrays a “schizoid” sense of his own conduct. He sees with “one auspicious, and one dropping eye” (341, 1.2.6-14), which is of course unnatural and nearly impossible even to imagine. The new King’s grief over his brother’s death is pushed aside by his evil ambition to retain the crown he has unfairly won, and his scoffing at young Fortinbras’ supposition that Denmark is “disjoint and out of frame” (341, 1.2.20) is ironic since, as we later find out, there’s nothing but disorder in Claudius’ realm. At this point, however, if we are a first-time audience, we don’t yet know that Claudius is a murderer, i.e. that the ghost’s story is true, so the new king is entitled to be annoyed with the excessive grief and surliness of Prince Hamlet. As Claudius points out, he has the backing of the citizenry, and Gertrude’s advice to her son is not without wisdom: “Thou know’st it is common, all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity. / … Why seems it so particular with thee?” (342, 1.2.72-75)

Soon thereafter, Hamlet speaks his first soliloquy, lamenting that “the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (343, 1.2.131-32), reproaching the general run of females in the person of Gertrude—“Frailty, thy name is woman!” (344, 1.2.146)—and profoundly disparaging Claudius in comparison with Hamlet, Sr. The latter was, says the Prince, “Hyperion” to Claudius’ “satyr” (344, 1.2.140), which makes Gertrude’s choice to remarry all the more contemptible. Hamlet’s imagination at this point, even before he hears the ghost’s damning information, seems morbid: he sees the whole world as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (344, 1.2.135-36), one inhabited entirely by “things rank and gross in nature” (344, 1.2.136). Hamlet seems to play with the amount of time that has passed between the old king’s death and Gertrude’s marriage, and that she was apparently in genuine sorrow for her first husband only makes her subsequent conduct more unacceptable. Hamlet is already obsessed with the dark intimation that people are not what they seem: Gertrude is not the loyal wife she seemed, and Claudius is not the rightful successor the court and the people apparently believe he is. But Hamlet also knows that he must repress this obsession in public: “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (344, 1.2.159). Privately, things are different: he already seems to suspect that “some foul play” (346, 1.2.255) was involved in his father’s death or that “foul play” is now afoot, even though his questioning of Horatio about the ghost’s appearance indicates genuine uncertainty about its provenance and mission. The stage is set for Hamlet’s moral mission, if we call “revenge” a moral mission. Indeed, the question will trouble Hamlet as the play proceeds. But for now we hear the sententia, “[Foul] deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (346, 1.2.256-57). To me, this line indicates that the “deeds” to which Hamlet refers have already been committed, in his estimation. There is an ambiguity in this last passage of Act 1, Scene 2, a bit of shuffling between matters of state (“My father’s spirit—in arms!” 344, 1.2.254) and essentially private thoughts about the suspicious loss of a dear father.

Act 1, Scene 3. (346-49, Laertes and Ophelia lecture each other about virtue) 

Laertes has evidently been taught well in the arts of windbaggery by his father Polonius since he lectures Ophelia sententiously about the dangers of giving in to the importunate suit of a lustful young man far above her station. (346-47, 1.3.5ff) This advice is sound enough as such things go—Hamlet is, after all, a Prince, so he is not free to love as he wishes without thought of Denmark; but as Gertrude later admits when Ophelia is dead, she had hoped the two lovers would in fact marry. But in any case, Ophelia holds her own, showing that while circumstances may constrain her, she is not lacking in understanding or the courage to speak her own mind. (347-48, 1.3.45ff) Polonius soon comes onto the scene and offers similar advice, accusing Ophelia of naivety about Hamlet’s intentions and showing that he reads the character of others as a function of stereotypes: Hamlet is a young, lusty bachelor, and is therefore not to be trusted, quite aside from his status as a prince. (348, 1.3.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 4. (349-52, Ghost beckons to Hamlet) 

At the beginning of Scene 4, Hamlet discusses the Court of Denmark’s fondness for alcohol, declaring that his country is “traduc’d and tax’d of other nations” (350, for this weakness. In his 1948 film adaptation of the play, Laurence Olivier chooses to quote directly from this passage and apply the words to the Prince himself, who by implication suffers from “a vicious mole of nature” (350, in that he simply cannot “make up his mind” (Olivier’s voiceover). But this is an overstatement, perhaps, since there is good reason to doubt the purposes of a ghost such as the one Hamlet sees here for the first time: “What may this mean, / That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel / Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon . . . ?” (351, 1.4.32-34)

Act 1, Scene 5. (352-56, Ghost commands, Hamlet vows: resentment, strategy) 

The Ghost then recounts in bloodcurdling detail exactly what happened to him and who is responsible for it, eliciting an excited “O my prophetic soul!” (353, 1.5.41) from the Prince, as if he had suspected all along that Claudius had killed his father. The terms the Ghost uses to describe both Claudius and Gertrude are strongly reminiscent of the very ones Hamlet had used shortly before. I think we may be certain that the Ghost exists in the play-world, but at the same time, it’s almost as if Prince Hamlet is talking to himself. He is utterly convinced at this point, begging the Ghost that he will, “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift / As meditation, or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (352, 1.5.29-31).

There is a problem with the Ghost’s demand for vengeance, however: God says in Deuteronomy, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense” (32:35). Why, then, should a soul in purgatory (a Catholic concept, by the way) be fixated on revenge? Revenge is an ancient pagan demand, and it seems petty. But Hamlet Sr. was a warrior king, so perhaps his demand that his son should punish Claudius seems reasonable in that context: the latter is a “traitor to his lord” and a dishonorable wretch who has corrupted the state. The Ghost insists that “the royal bed of Denmark” be redeemed from its current status as “A couch for luxury and damned incest” (353b, 1.5.82-83), but his call still seems mostly a private affair. It strains the “fatherly king” framework, and would require the son to set himself against the current order of the State, most likely at the cost of his own life. The Ghost has laid upon the Prince an extremely difficult set of demands—not only must he kill the new king without damning himself, but he must deal with Gertrude in such as way as not to damn her: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (353b, 1.5.85-86). How is the young man to do these things? He was already “tainted” in his mind before he ever saw the Ghost, we might say, and what’s more, since the Ghost deals in the ancient imperative of revenge, it makes sense to remind ourselves that even the most righteous acts of revenge in ancient literature entailed pollution that had to be atoned for afterwards. One thinks of Odysseus purifying his great hall after the slaughter of those mannerless suitors who have beset Penelope, or the dreadful punishment incurred by Clytemnestra when she killed Agamemnon, or the penalty threatened against Orestes by the Erinyes after he in turn killed Clytemnestra. In either the pagan or the Christian context, to take revenge is to pollute oneself in the doing. Had Shakespeare written a mindlessly celebratory “revenge tragedy,” we wouldn’t need to think any of these things, but there seems to be a metageneric dimension in Hamlet that positively demands such consideration.

One might take the Ghost’s appearance as a general protest against Denmark’s rotten condition, but the Prince doesn’t seem certain of much yet, as we can see from his words and actions after the Ghost bids him farewell. On the one hand, we hear that Hamlet is determined to take revenge: “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / . . . And thy commandement all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (354, 1.5.98-99, 102-03). His wax-writing-tablet metaphor seems sincere, although it’s perhaps slightly comic in that Hamlet, a young man who has (accurately or otherwise) become a byword for deferral and delay, speaks of writing at the very instant when he’s most certain of his desire to act: “make a note to myself, take revenge,” so to speak. His indecisiveness or resentment at the task to which he has been called shows much more strongly, of course, in his concluding words during this scene: “The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (356, 1.5.189-90). That abrupt remark suggests anything but a determination to proceed “with wings as swift / As meditation” to a “sweep[ing]” revenge, the precise manner of which has been left to his own devising. One other useful thing to draw from Hamlet at this point is his remark to Horatio and the Watchmen that he may, at some points, “think meet / To put an antic disposition on” (356, 1.5.172-73). He has already hit upon the strategy of feigning something like lunacy to accomplish his great task. It may be difficult to tell at some points just how much control Hamlet has over his speech and his actions, but here, at least, we see that he puts his wildness down to strategy.

Act 2, Scene 1. (356-59, Polonius gathers intelligence from Ophelia) 

Polonius is both an endearing character, full of well-intentioned, if comically delivered, advice to his children (and the royal couple) and a meddling intelligencer who deals with those same children in a sneaky, underhanded way. He sets spies on Laertes to find out if the young fellow is behaving (356-57), and, after having commanded Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, he tethers her near him like a sacrificial goat to find out what’s eating him and inform Claudius and Gertrude of it. But at this point, Polonius’ assumption that the Prince’s distraction is “the very ecstasy of love” (358, 2.1.103) seems reasonable, based upon what Ophelia has told him about Hamlet’s bizarre sighing and strange state of undress.

Act 2, Scene 2. (359-72, C & G & Polonius ponder Hamlet’s behavior; Hamlet greets R & G, hears players rehearse; adapts Gonzago to trap Claudius) 

Everybody’s favorite nobodies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their first appearance in the play (359-60, 2.2.1-18), and Voltemand brings what seems to be good news about that troublesome issue of young Fortinbras “sharking up” an army of ruffians to take back what his father lost to the Danes—now the young blade wants only to use Denmark’s territory as a marching ground on his way to Poland, where he has other fighting to do. (360-61, 2.2.60-79) Polonius’ insistence that he has “found / The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (360-62, 2.2.48-49) excites Claudius, who says, “O, speak of that, that do I long to hear!” (360, 2.2.50) Together these remarks suggest that Hamlet has been putting on a good show, taking up his “antic disposition” early in the game since “lunacy” would not be the right term with which to describe he initial surliness and melancholia in Act 1. The Prince must, we presume, act in such a manner as to draw Claudius beyond his semi-comfortable geniality towards Hamlet, and into the active agent’s circle of consequence and blood revenge. Polonius is certainly moved to act: he declares to the King and Queen, “I’ll loose my daughter to [Hamlet]. / Be you and I behind an arras then, / Mark the encounter. . .” (362, 2.2.163-64). This determination is made stronger still when Hamlet wanders into the scene and Polonius engages him (sans Ophelia as yet) in a strange conversation that is afterwards carried on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after Polonius exits. Not realizing the irony of his formalistic amazement at Hamlet’s “pregnant replies,” Polonius admiringly says, “Though this be madness, yet there is / method in’t” (363, 2.2.203-04).

Hamlet kindly receives his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he deftly, but rather gently, unmasks their dishonesty preparatory to his later, much harsher dealings with them. After the pair admit that they were indeed “sent for” (365, 2.2.284), Hamlet suggests that the King and Queen are worried about his mopishness, nothing more, and he immediately utters one of the most famous invocations of Renaissance humanism and aliveness to the beauty of a world people were beginning to see afresh after centuries of otherworldliness (that’s the stereotype, anyway—the Middle Ages weren’t as drab as we like to suppose). “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!” (365, 2.2.293-300) He says all this only to bring the whole “majestical roof” (365, 2.2.291) down on our heads, reminding us that we are but the most refined dust in the cosmos, a “quintessence of dust” (365, 2.2.298). The letdown is deepened by Rosencrantz’s dirty-minded interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and the whole thing leads directly to the announcement that a troupe of actors (“players”) is on the way to Elsinore. (366, 2.2.304-07)

Hamlet comments briefly on the state of late Elizabethan theater, saying that the mannerisms of child actors (he refers to the current craze for plays put on by children) have become an object of mockery—there’s too much affectation, too much pandering to the crowd, too much willingness to break the dramatic illusion. (366, 2.2.331-51) Denmark is disturbed as well; things aren’t what they seem, and the stage “chronicles” the age. Hamlet listens with rapt interest to the player’s interpretation of the tragic ending of the Trojan War. (369-70, 2.2.448-98) In The Aeneid, Book 2 (lines 675ff, Fagles translation) Achilles’ son Pyrrhus (called Neoptolemus in The Iliad and The Odyssey) has the simple task of revenging his father, and he proceeds with all swiftness to his bloody deed. (Odysseus’ brief account of the young man’s career in The Odyssey at 11.575ff has Neoptolemus behaving with great forthrightness throughout the War, too.) It is the Trojan Prince Aeneas who is filled with horror at the sight of his king Priam’s corpse because it puts him in mind of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. Aeneas’ rage flows at once to perfidious Helen, and is only cooled by a vision of his mother Venus, who tells him to look to his family in their time of need. As for Hecuba’s grief at the murder of her husband, the player makes it seem so natural that even he gets worked up imitating it. Hamlet beholds the real article—he has a murdered father to avenge—so why doesn’t he act at once? (371, 2.2.536-39) Things are so much simpler in fiction; a noble lie or mere representation may allow us to perpetuate our highest ideals, but real life is weighed down with epistemological uncertainties, Machiavellian considerations, and “vicious mole[s] of nature” such as indecisiveness. Hamlet’s revenge imperative is hindered by Christian scruples and by doubts about the Ghost’s purpose and provenance, as his soliloquy from line 550 onwards shows: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a [dev’l], and the [dev’l] hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / . . . Abuses me to damn me” (372, 2.2.575-80). Basing his plan on the literary gossip that “guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / . . . proclaim’d their malefactions” (371, 2.2.566-69), he invests much hope in his augmentations to The Murder of Gonzago as a means of discovering certainty in the guilty visage of Claudius. (372, 2.2.571-75) This plan does not give us license to despise fiction as the mere opposite of “real life”—in this instance, the public, political realm, the world of cold, hard reality and necessity, is exactly what allows Claudius to keep his murderous nature hidden from everyone but himself.

Act 3, Scene 1. (372-76, Players! “To be …”; Hamlet breaks Ophelia’s heart) 

The King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to encourage this new business of the players’ coming to Elsinore. (372, 3.1.27-28) Perhaps it will draw out the reason for Hamlet’s eccentric behavior. He and Polonius will conceal themselves to hear Hamlet talk with Ophelia. (373, 3.1.45) Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the main point of which is to state that our ignorance of what comes after death keeps us from acting on our resolutions in this life. Hamlet’s wild words to Ophelia concern mainly the impossibility of virtue maintaining itself in a corrupt world: “get thee to a nunnery” probably means just that—remove yourself from this wicked world, and seek shelter from the “arrant knaves” who go about in it. Hamlet denies that he ever established any relationship with Ophelia, that he ever made any promises. (374, 3.1.119-20) He asks Ophelia where her father is (375, 3.1.130), a line usually taken to indicate that he knows he’s being overheard. At line 142, Hamlet seems to lose his composure in a way that is not entirely scripted, and he utters words that frighten Claudius: “I say we shall have no moe marriages, etc.” (375, 3.1.142-48) Claudius derives from this outburst the thought that Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind is “not like madness” (375, 3.1.163), so he must be watched even more closely. The Prince’s “melancholy,” says Claudius (whose guilt had already been spurred by Polonius’ unwitting words about “sugar[ing] o’er” (373, 3.1.50) the most damnable deeds with piousness), “sits on brood” (375, 3.1.164) over something still darker, and that is what he finds most troubling about the young man’s hostility towards him.

Act 3, Scene 2. (376-85, Hamlet lectures players; Gonzago & D-Show outs Claudius; Hamlet lashes out at R & G, anger flows against Gertrude) 

Hamlet admonishes the players about their craft: his key bits of advice are that they “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (20) and make certain “to / hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue / her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (377, 3.1.14-40). In part, this is a moral statement akin to what we may find in Samuel Johnson much later—actors should display virtue as it is, and force vice to confront itself head on. Hamlet means to do just that by means of his spectacle: simply showing and then speaking Claudius’ sin should make that sin’s effects register on his countenance. (378-82, 3.2.123-238) No embellishment is necessary for such a hideous sin as his. Hamlet’s words strike home when he tells the offended Claudius, “No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest—no offense i’ th’ world” (381, 3.2.214-15). The King has consistently failed to take the measure of the consequences entailed by his evil conduct; his stability of mind depends on repressing consciousness of that conduct. Hamlet is cruelly merry with Ophelia in this scene—he seems to be baiting her, blaming her for the sins of his mother. (378, 3.2.101-15) The dumb show soon follows (379, 3.2.122ff)—it is an eerie scene that shows Claudius what he has done, no more, no less. But the dialogue also plays up the absolutely binding quality of the oath that Gertrude has violated, in Hamlet’s view: “Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, / If once a widow, ever I be wife!” (381, 3.2.202-03). That sort of language equates Gertrude with a villainess such as Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Forced to watch “himself” commit the same dark sin twice, Claudius howls out, “Give me some light. Away!” (382, 3.2.247) With the King out of the scene, Hamlet’s anger turns first towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he disabuses of any hope that they may “play upon” him like a musical instrument (384, 3.2.341), and then to Gertrude, who is perhaps the main target of the whole scene, so savage is the representation of her role in the bloody affair. The Prince’s rejection of “instrumentality” is interesting in its own right—what Hamlet seems to need most of all, at this point, is to take control of events, and we will see that he must let go of this desire to control what happens around him before his revenge can be effected. But with respect to Gertrude, Hamlet’s words are even harsher than were those in The Murder of Gonzago; he says, “Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such [bitter business as the] day / Would quake to look on” (385, 3.2.360-62). Perhaps this violent thought is directed towards Claudius only, but it’s hard to avoid supposing from what follows that it also applies to Gertrude: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural; / I will speak [daggers] to her, but use none” (385, 3.2.365-66).

Act 3, Scene 3. (385-87, Claudius decides to send Hamlet away; bootless prayer) 

The King has decided in his anger that Hamlet must be off to England, and Rosencrantz speaks more truly than he knows when he says to Claudius, “The cease of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What’s near it with it” (385, 3.3.15-17). These two flatter the King that what he does is necessary to protect the welfare of the state and the people: “Most holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many bodies safe / That live and feed upon your Majesty” (385, 3.3.8-10). The political realm is like an exoskeleton protecting Claudius from the ravages of introspection, and even from the guilt that comes when one knows one is putting off such inward-tending thoughts. This is the same sort of “tyrant’s plea” that accounts for the magnificent hollowness of Satan’s rhetoric in Paradise Lost. Confronting Adam and Eve in Book 4, Satan says, “. . . Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just, / Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, / By conquering this new World, compels me now / To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.” At line 36 and following, Claudius kneels and tries to confront “the visage of offense” (386, 3.3.36-72), but he cannot because he won’t give up the crown, the effects of his sin. It’s doubtful if we are to understand this attempt at repentance as sincere—doesn’t it seem as if Claudius isn’t so much sorry for killing the king as determined to indulge himself in remorse? Is he just “feeling sorry for himself”? Most likely, to judge from the results of his kneeling prayer: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (387, 3.3.97-98). Hamlet looks almost as much the villain as the King at this point, when he reveals his earnestly un-Christian desire that Claudius’ soul at death “may be as damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (387, 3.3.94-95). But just at this point, the King relieves Hamlet of the need to contrive such an outcome by showing that he is completely unable to repent for his mortal sin, or even to take the first necessary steps that would reclaim his chance at salvation.

Act 3, Scene 4. (387-92, Polonius killed, Gertrude forced to look within) 

After himself slaughtering the hidden Polonius, Hamlet goes so far as to accuse Gertrude of taking part in Claudius’ plot to murder Hamlet, Sr. when he blurts out, “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother” (388, 3.4.27-28). She seems genuinely shocked at the suggestion. Hamlet has little time now for a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (388, 3.4.30) like Polonius, a man everyone else held in high regard and with whom they showed considerable patience, and he drives onward to make Gertrude confront her sinfulness as directly as he made Claudius behold his during the “Gonzago” scene. Hamlet suggests that Gertrude’s lust is not even excusable by reference to the heat of youth; at her age, he insists, “The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment” (389, 3.4.68-69). His efforts succeed without too much trouble since Gertrude cries, “Thou turn’st my [eyes into my very] soul” (389, 3.4.79). At this point, Ernest Jones’ “Oedipal reading” of the play comes into its own, if it hadn’t already: Hamlet can scarcely stand to imagine—and yet can’t help but imagine—his mother in bed with Claudius, where they spend their time “honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” (389b-90, 3.4.82-84) The obsession is so deep that the Ghost must step in to admonish Hamlet about his “almost blunted purpose” (390, 3.4.101) of taking revenge against Claudius.

As for Polonius, to the thought of whom Hamlet now returns, there is some remorse, but it’s quickly smoothed over with philosophizing: “For this same lord, / I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister” (391, 3.4.156-59). Hamlet tells Gertrude not to let on that he’s not exactly insane, and he confides in her, at least to a degree, what he has in mind. Knowing he cannot trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says nonetheless, “Let it work, / For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar, an’t shall go hard / But I will delve one yard below their mines, / And blow them at the moon” (392, This is an odd exclamation since Hamlet knows only that he’s being “marshal[ed] to knavery” (392, of some sort; he can’t know the precise plan, but speaks with almost military precision, promising to turn their evil back upon them.

Act 4, Scene 1. (393-94, Claudius is dismayed about Hamlet’s conduct) 

The King is by now “full of discord and dismay” (394, 4.1.40) at the turn of events; he knows Hamlet’s sword was meant for him.

Act 4, Scene 2. (394-94, Hamlet mocks R & G as instruments of Claudius) 

Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a “sponge” (394, 4.2.11, 14-16) who “soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities” (15-16). As for Claudius, he is “a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing.” His odd remark that “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body” (394, 4.2.25-28) most obviously refers to Polonius’ corpse, but it might be interpreted along the lines of the longstanding political doctrine that the king has both a civil or corporate body (imperishable) and a natural, mortal one. In this sense, perhaps Hamlet is making an oblique threat against Claudius.

Act 4, Scene 3. (394-96, Hamlet mocks Claudius, who has commanded his death) 

Claudius realizes the desperate state in which he stands: “Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev’d, / Or not at all” (395, 4.3.9-11). Then follows Hamlet’s quizzical “fishing” conversation with the King, which culminates with the fine demonstration that “a king may go / a progress through the guts of a beggar” (395, 4.3.30-31). The adornment and aggrandizing of this decaying body, so easily inducted into the dark processiveness of nature, is what Claudius has traded his soul for, so in this respect he truly is “a thing . . . nothing.” Hamlet calls Claudius “dear mother” (396, 4.3.51), a slip-up that seems sincere since he has had trouble keeping the two apart in his mind. Claudius is increasingly disturbed by Hamlet’s presence, and even by his very existence: requesting “The present death of Hamlet” (396, 4.3.66), Claudius says, “Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (396, 4.3.66-68). But what the King seeks most of all is security: “Till I know ‘tis done, / Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er [begun]” (396, 4.3.68-69).

Act 4, Scene 4. (396-98, Another resolution from Hamlet over Fortinbras’ march) 

Young Fortinbras seeks conveyance through Denmark on his way to Poland, and the Captain Hamlet speaks to doesn’t think much of his assignment: “We go to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (397, Hamlet takes the point to heart, making yet another resolution that his mind will contain only thoughts of vengeance from now on: “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (398, But this one is no more permanent than the ones he made earlier in the play—this is fundamentally not Hamlet’s nature, if we may endow a literary character with such a thing. Part of the interest in Hamlet is, of course, that not only is the time “out of joint,” but the hero himself is “out of joint,” not immediately adapted to the dreadful role he must play. In this way, I think the romantic reading of the tragedy, in which Hamlet is too aloof and philosophical to carry out such a task as revenging a murdered father briskly, is worthy of respect.

Act 4, Scenes 5-7. (398-408, Ophelia’s madness and death; Laertes’ rage; Hamlet is back in Denmark; Claudius and Laertes plot revenge) 

Ophelia brings dismay to the Court when she shows clear signs of madness. (398-99, 4.5.23-70) Perhaps her condition should not be much of a surprise since she has been used as an agent against Hamlet, dangled before him like a piece of meat. A love match has been perverted by the general condition of Denmark, as embodied in the selfish behavior of Polonius and the King. As for Ophelia’s references to flowers, well, flowers are natural beauties, things we use to express a whole range of human experience and sentiment. Ophelia’s mind is disordered, and she registers the corruption all around her, trying pathetically to beautify it with floral symbolism and songs. She has lost her father, and Gertrude will wear her “rue with a difference” (401-02, 4.5.163-179) because she has lost her son to England. Ophelia is the blighted flower of the kingdom, the beauty and innocence that has been sacrificed for the sake of its ambition and lust. Her demise shows the consequences of Denmark’s degeneracy even more clearly, perhaps, than all the play’s violence. Even Claudius seems genuinely stricken at this latest step in the march of events: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, / But in battalions” (399, 4.5.74-75), he laments to Gertrude, and no sooner has he said it than Laertes bursts in with the common folk at his back, shouting him up for the new king. His main function is, of course, to present an obvious contrast with Hamlet—Laertes will, unlike the Prince, “sweep to his revenge” without much delay; he has no scruples about the concept. Claudius speaks with amazing irony when he promises Gertrude that Laertes will not harm him: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will” (400-01, 4.5.120-22). Clearly, this truism afforded Hamlet, Sr. no protection from Claudius. Sailors pass a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, explaining how he managed to board a pirate ship that attacked the vessel bound for England. (403, 4.6.11-25) In Scene 7, the King explains to Laertes that so far, he has had to avoid confronting Hamlet because Gertrude and the people are fond of him. He temporizes: “I am guiltless of your father’s death” (401, 4.5.147). Hamlet’s letter to the King is ominous: “High and mighty, You shall know I am set / naked on your kingdom” (405, 4.7.42-43). This tone is no less alarming for the promise Hamlet tenders to explain how he has returned.

The King has come to see in Laertes his earthly salvation; the young hothead promises that he would do no less to Hamlet than “cut his throat ‘i th’ church” (406b, 4.7.98), and Claudius lays out the plot he has partly contrived (406, 4.7.84-88), only to find that Polonius is able to add a master stroke with the introduction of “an unction” (407, 4.7.113) he bought from some itinerant medical charlatan, which he will use to envenom the tip of his rapier. As surety, Claudius will offer Hamlet a poisoned chalice during the fencing match. (407, 4.7.130-31)

The scene concludes with the news that Ophelia has drowned. Gertrude’s beautiful, ekphrastic description of Ophelia’s death (4.7.166-83) honors her loss, but doesn’t redeem the faults that caused it. The death isn’t described as suicide, really; it seems that Ophelia simply stops resisting and is dragged down by her water-logged clothing. Another function of this episode is that it gives Hamlet space for the recognition that he must attain.

Act 5, Scene 1. (408-15, Gravedigger jests, Hamlet’s Yorick; Ophelia’s funeral) 

The Gravedigger scene works as comic relief, but it also gives us and Hamlet a broader perspective on events up to this point. (408-12, 5.1.1-199) The Gravedigger calmly goes about his business in the face of death, and even makes jests about it—jests that, as the Riverside editors inform us, refer to an actual law case, that of Hale v. Petit. (See The Shakespeare Law Library’s account of that case.) We will get no maudlin speeches or meditative musings over Yorick-skulls from him; he’s full of riddles about the sturdiness of the “houses” that gravediggers build. Hamlet appreciates by means of his experiences in this act (and in the fourth act) that the earthly prize of a kingdom, of reputation, of a patch of land, is a joke: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (412, 5.1.196). If the sought-for revenge is to be accomplished, it can only happen when Hamlet’s mind isn’t tainted by pride or earthly attachment, so his meditation on Yorick the Jester’s skull is vital. (412, 5.1.171-80) Why, indeed, should we cling to life? the skull seems to ask the Prince, who promptly aims this intuition at womankind: “Now get you / to my lady’s [chamber], and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that” (412, 5.1.178-79). Soon follows the funeral procession of Ophelia, the quibbling of the Churchmen over what rites to accord a possible suicide, and the preposterous one-upmanship between Laertes and Hamlet in and on Ophelia’s uncovered grave. (413-15, 5.1.200-84) This is obviously not the way Hamlet had meant to reveal himself to the King, but events have gotten the better of him for the moment, and he vents his grief. It almost goes without saying that the two men have ruined Ophelia’s funeral altogether. It’s just one final, if unintended, insult to this long-suffering character.

Act 5, Scene 2. (415-24, Hamlet’s recognition, challenge, fight, death) 

Killing Polonius got Hamlet shipped off to England to face execution, but now he recounts to Horatio how on the ship he learned an important lesson: “Rashly— / And prais’d be rashness for it—let us know / Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will . . .” (415, 5.2.6-11). It seems that this speech refers to Hamlet’s insomnia-induced impatience to know the contents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter. (415, 5.2.13ff) What exactly, he wants to know, is their “grand commission” (415, 5.2.19)? This known, he forges a new commission purporting that his old pals R & G should be executed on the spot, once they make it to the English King’s presence. His justification of this rather harsh turnabout is simply, “[Why, man, they did make love to this employment,] / They are not near my conscience. . . . / ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (416, 5.2.58). Perhaps this as an injustice on Hamlet’s part, an act of disproportionate violence against men who know nothing of the evil Claudius has done, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them; perhaps our minds are too thoroughly poisoned by listening to Hamlet for that to be possible. They serve the interests of the King against their friend, they are “sponges” just looking for preferment, and to Hamlet they are utterly insignificant pawns in the deadly game of chess between himself and Claudius. Well, if they’ll just be patient for about four centuries, Tom Stoppard will make it up to them by writing that witty play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so “all’s well that ends well,” right?

Hamlet brings up a new motive (though in speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he had already hinted at 384, 3.2.311 when he said, “I lack advancement”): he says that “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother” has also “Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes” (416, 5.2.66). In other words, Claudius’ hasty marriage with the Queen has deprived him for now of the succession. The Oedipal significance of this remark is not difficult to see. (On the theme of “inheritance,” see Anthony Burton’s “Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in Hamlet.”)

When the foppish Osric enters (417) bearing the King and Laertes’ challenge, Hamlet calmly accepts it, overriding Laertes’ misgivings with the grand statement, “[W]e defy augury. There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be [now], / ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if / it be not now, yet it [will] come—the readiness is all” (419, 5.2.157-61). This match is not of his making, but whatever happens, Hamlet accepts the outcome. This may be the insight or right attitude he has needed all along; he must become an instrument of God’s vengeance, which will turn the schemes of Claudius and Laertes against them. We might recall that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although all too willing to prostitute themselves to the designs of earthly rulers, nonetheless go to their deaths as instruments of forces larger than they can imagine, so in this sense they show Hamlet the way. Claudius’ plan is frustrated, and his union with Gertrude nullified when she drinks from the poisoned chalice: “I will, my Lord” (421, 5.2.234) There’s a Christian lesson to be drawn: the wicked will ultimately will find a way to destroy themselves; they are remarkably consistent in the patterns of their evil. Hamlet gains no earthly reward but death. Young Fortinbras enters the kingdom almost by accident (423, 5.2.305), in the wake of the old order’s self-destruction: he and other onlookers will hear from Horatio of “purposes mistook, / Fall’n on the inventors’ heads” (424, 5.2.324-29). There’s really no question of Fortinbras’ being a better ruler than his predecessors, though Hamlet’s final thoughts commend him. He is simply an opportunist in the right time at the right place. This hardly amounts to a strong purification of the State, though it’s fair to say that that was never really the play’s emphasis.

To return to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (423, 5.2.313-15), some critics see them as loose ends that Shakespeare has deliberately left hanging at the play’s conclusion—have they really deserved their harsh fate, considering that they are only minor players in a grand tragedy? Does their taking-off mean that God’s providential design is a bit “rough-hewn,” or at least that his justice is not self-evidently “just” to us? Perhaps, but in my view, this messy fact (along with Ophelia’s lamentable and unfair demise) doesn’t necessarily destroy the “providential” reading to which I have generally subscribed. At the least, Hamlet is a curious revenge play in that it ultimately denies agency to the very character who is most responsible for ensuring that the play’s villain gets what he deserves, and yet the revenge “gets itself accomplished” nonetheless, in the most hideously appropriate manner, as if Shakespeare’s God has much the same sense of “poetic justice” as Dante’s did. The play involves two levels of meaning: there’s something petty, intimate, and even sordid about the royal family, yet providence seems to guide Hamlet in carrying out his revenge. Hamlet is caught in the middle: a revenger whose nature and doctrine work against his mission.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake


Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, Marcellus and Bernardo looked to Hamlet’s friend Horatio to interpret the apparition they have seen. What assumptions does Horatio make, and what leads him to make such assumptions?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet speaks with bitter irony to Gertrude and Claudius. So far, what is apparent about Claudius from his remarks? To what extent does the King “speak reason” to a grieving son, and to what extent does his speech reflect upon him in ways he may not recognize?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet offers a soliloquy (i.e. speaks to himself) after he talks with Claudius and Gertrude. What seems to be his state of mind — what lies at the bottom of his depression? Does the famous “Oedipal interpretation” of the play begin to earn its stars at this point? If so, how?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Hamlet receive the news of his father’s appearance as a ghost to Horatio and the two watchmen?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia first listens to her brother’s departing sermon about chastity and politics, and then faces her father Polonius. How does this counselor understand Hamlet’s attentions to Ophelia? What advice does he give his daughter?

6. In Act 1, Scenes 4-5, the ghost beckons Hamlet to a private audience. On what grounds might the ghost’s demands be considered reasonable? On what grounds might they be considered unreasonable? (Is it appropriate for a Christian to take revenge? Where does the revenge code come from?)

7. In Act 1, Scene 5, follow Hamlet’s response to what he has just seen and heard. How much of this response do you consider appropriate in the circumstances and how much is jarring, contradictory, or unintentionally revealing? Explain your rationale.


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, Polonius keeps tabs on Laertes and is sure Hamlet has gone mad for love of Ophelia. Polonius is often portrayed to match Hamlet’s estimation of him as a “foolish, prating knave.” How would you stage this character, and why? (You might also consider Act 2, scene two, where Polonius lays out a plan for Claudius.)

9. In Act 2, Scene 2, evidently without prompting from Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sound out the cause of Hamlet’s disturbance. What does Claudius suspect — why should he be so concerned about Hamlet’s behavior?

10. In Act 2, Scene 2, Voltimand informs Claudius that the King of Norway has rebuked young Fortinbras for trying to get his hereditary lands back from Denmark. What is the rest of the news from Norway? What does Claudius’ response to this news suggest about his powers of statecraft?

11. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet enters reading, and Polonius questions him. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try their luck at getting the Prince to talk. Hamlet obviously knows he’s being spied upon, and so he manipulates his auditors. But to what extent, and where, does he perhaps reveal more about his mental state than he knows? Are there some unintended ironies and evidence of obsession here? Explain.

12. In Act 2, Scene 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that his favorite acting troupe is on the way to Elsinore. What connections does the Prince begin to make between drama and the rest of life? And how does his taste for speeches about the Trojan War reflect on his own situation and underlying motives? (Consider “Pyrrhus” as a possible point of comparison.)

13. At the end of Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet (alone) reproaches himself for his failure to act even though he (unlike an actor) has real-life motivation for taking revenge. But what doubts about his course of action does Hamlet betray? Where do these doubts seem to have come from — have the audience been adequately prepared to hear them? Explain.


14. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet speaks his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. He has already rejected suicide as un-Christian, so what exactly is the point of this speech — what does he admit? Does that admission entirely account for his failure to act so far? Explain.

15. In Act 3, Scene 1, Polonius and Claudius conceal themselves to hear Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia. The scene has been variously played, based on the director’s surmises about what Hamlet knows and when. How would you suggest an actor play the scene — to what extent does Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia seem sincere? When, if at all, does he become aware that he is being spied upon? Is he carried away, utterly sane, or somewhere in between? Explain with specific reference to the text.

16. In Act 3, Scene 2, why should there be a “dumb show” preceding the main play The Murder of Gonzago (or, in Hamlet’s revision, The Mouse Trap)? Why would this representational doubling up be the most effective way to “catch the conscience of the king”? Why does Hamlet need this confirmation anyhow? (You may want to refer to the end of Act 2, scene 2 for Hamlet’s explanation.)

17. In Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius (having decided to send Hamlet to England), privately assesses his spiritual state. Hamlet decides that killing the King just now would amount to “hire and salary, not revenge.” Based on what the audience hears, is Hamlet correct — what has Claudius come to understand about his spiritual condition? How does this scene also represent a clash between the play’s revenge plot and its Christian overtones?

18. In Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet confronts Gertrude, mistakenly killing Polonius in the process. What accusations does Hamlet level against his mother? Are they accurate? How does Gertrude respond to them? Also, how much of this scene, as you would play it, has to do with Hamlet’s private obsessions, and how much of it has to with matters of marriage and state? (Consider the appearance of the Ghost in this regard.)

19. At the end of Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet at first demands that Gertrude avoid Claudius and not reveal to the King that her son is “but mad in craft” rather than actually insane, but then he changes his mind and advises her to go to the King. What seems to be Hamlet’s strategy at this point — how is he trying to outmaneuver Claudius?


20. In Act 4, Scenes 1-4, Claudius deals with the aftermath of Polonius’ death, sending Hamlet off to England with a sealed death sentence. In scene 4, Hamlet catches sight of Fortinbras’ troops on their way to war in Poland. What insight does Hamlet gather from this incident — is the resolution he draws from it convincing, or unconvincing? Explain.

21. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Ophelia’s madness is on display and then she drowns in a brook. What has caused Ophelia’s insanity, and why do you suppose it takes the particular form it does — bawdy songs and obsession with the symbolism of flowers? Also, why is it appropriate that Gertrude should offer such a beautiful, elaborate description of Ophelia’s death? (Act 4.7.166-83 is one of Shakespeare’s finest flights of verse, aptly memorialized in Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting “Ophelia.”)

22. In Act 4, Scenes 5-7, Laertes bursts into Elsinore Castle demanding revenge for his father’s death, and Claudius steers him towards what appears to be a foolproof plot against Hamlet’s life. How has Laertes (here and elsewhere) served as a foil for Hamlet’s character and his relationship to the heroic revenge code?


23. In Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet, having made his escape at sea and been set ashore by pirates, now joins Horatio in an extended and partly comic confrontation with a punctilious gravedigger (“First Clown”) and several visual reminders of death (memento mori). In what sense does this scene advance the play’s action — at least indirectly — rather than just amounting to comic relief? What insight does Hamlet draw from talking to the gravedigger, meditating upon the skull of “poor Yorick,” etc.?

24. In Act 5, Scene 1, Ophelia’s funeral party arrives at the cemetery, and Hamlet competes with Laertes for the title of “Denmark’s most ridiculous grieving person.” Aside from bringing the major characters together, what does this scene accomplish structurally and thematically?

25. In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet explains to Horatio how he has managed to return to Denmark. If the beginning of this scene marks Hamlet’s recognition (in Aristotelian terms, his anagnorisis), what is that recognition and where does it seem to have come from? How do Hamlet’s utterances about “divinity” (providence) reflect on his adherence to an ancient revenge code that demands blood for blood?

26. In Act 5, Scene 2, the foppish courtier Osric makes the necessary sporting challenge, and Hamlet accepts. To what extent does the succession of events leading to four deaths (Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet) reconcile the revenge plot to Christian misgivings about revenge and Christian insistence on providence as the ruling order?

27. In Act 5, Scene 2, Fortinbras (having finished his bloody task in Poland), marches into Elsinore takes command of the situation — what does he make of the carnage that greets him? Why is it appropriate that Horatio should insist on a public display of the corpses to accompany his explanation of the tragic events?

28. In Act 5, Scene 2, theater-goers and critics have long noted the bizarre quality of Hamlet’s final scene — aptly embodied in the line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (Tom Stoppard has written a play by that title, starring none other than “R and G.”) How do you account for such a comic line at the culmination of a tragedy?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake