William Shakespeare, Hamlet

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why is this bizarre, disorderly, long, and poorly transmitted tragedy from the turn of the 17th century the central work of the western literary tradition, its hero the keystone in the arch of modern literature? Because the distance he created between himself and the world is the chasm across which the serious artist has ever after beheld society—not as celebrant bard (Homer) or religious preceptor (Dante), but rather as jeering fool or insurgent radical.

Hamlet, the son who cannot fill his father’s armor, the poet and playwright who would rather compose a play than plot revenge, the inward emigrant who sniffs something rotten in the state, the maddened misogynist whose abuse compels his spurned lover to become a mad artist in her turn—it is Hamlet that and who taught the Romantics and the modernists, the Marxists and the feminists, everything they know. Unless we are satisfied that the social, political, and metaphysical world in which we find ourselves makes sense and can appease our desires, we are all the children of this prince who died before he could reproduce anything but his skepticism, disgust, and spoiled faith, which are his bequest to us.

But let’s not look directly at this black sun (“Not so, my lord; I am too much i’ the sun”), lest we be blinded. To approach obliquely, consider the tragedy’s comic-relief villains, or rather henchmen to the main villain, the sycophantic and hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are the perfect pair, nearly twins; who can tell them apart?

Claudius. Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.

Gertrude. Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz…

They are the play’s only perfectly symmetrical pair; they stand for difference in perfect accord, a world that can successfully make unity out of disparity, and yet they are wholly contemptible. All the other doublings in the play are distorted reflections: the two Danish kings, the warrior who smote the sledded Polacks on the ice and the smooth-talking Machiavel who favors diplomacy to war, are as “Hyperion to a satyr”; the two Hamlets, father and son, are as different as demigod and man (“no more like my father / Than I to Hercules”); the two vengeful sons, Hamlet and Laertes, dither manically and speed to vengeance, respectively; the two princes, Hamlet and Fortinbras, are polished intellectual and warlike general, respectively; the play’s two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, are passionate sensualist and pious nymph, respectively; the play’s two mad artists, Hamlet and Ophelia, differ in being man and woman, respectively, which means they have access to drastically different resources and levels of freedom in elaborating their dissent from the sane world.

We are invited endlessly to compare by the play’s seeming symmetries, but find in comparison only failed alliances and missed connections. Perfect understanding is mocked in the image of the bumbling duo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are easily dispatched in the prince’s only planned act of violence. Before he hoists them on their own petard, the prince even reproves them for imagining that they can understand him—reproves them, that is, for thinking even that a man may be identical to himself, let alone to another:

You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?

He upbraids his mother in similar terms earlier in the drama, when she encourages him to “cast [his] nighted color off” and asks why “seems it so particular” to him that his father should have died, since the death of fathers is both natural and common:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Those trappings and suits of woe, which would become the uniform of European and American bohemia, did in fact come to denote Hamlet’s followers truly, just as they do denote Hamlet truly. Consider the genuine strangeness of what he is actually telling Gertrude: don’t let my sad clothes fool you, he says, I really am sad. Even in identity, there is no union but always some surplus or deficit. That is a paradox this play, so much concerned with the difference between appearance and essence, would appreciate. “The apparel oft proclaims the man,” the superservicable and prying courtier Polonius informs his son in the course of a long speech advising the young man to cunningly manage his social role—a speech that concludes, in hilarious contradiction, with “To thine own self be true.”

Anyway, when Hamlet appears in excessive mourning before his mother at the beginning of the play, he does not know that his father was murdered. His crisis, the heart of his mystery, inheres in something other than the drama’s central conflict of regicide and revenge. It is nature and the common themselves that throw Hamlet into grief, woe, and dolor. Given this fact, the news from the ghost that his own death was in fact “unnatural,” in the sense that fratricide transgresses natural bonds of affection, should lift Hamlet’s spirits. Death is now a matter of justice; it is morally comprehensible. Rebalancing the scales of nature by taking Claudius’s life for the old king’s will end the mystery and restore nature. But as with all the play’s maladjusted pairs and doubles, the scales cannot balance—and even if they could, as with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their adjustment would necessitate stupidity, unthinking compliance to authority.

The ghost does Hamlet a different service than suggesting a path back to sanity: he provides an excuse for insanity. “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on,” Hamlet tells Horatio and the night watch after his colloquy with the spirit; but his disposition hasn’t been quite right since he came onstage in scene two. His madman act is the goad and alibi for three acts worth of improvisatory genius, as the prince cavorts about the stage delivering quasi-esoteric observations about the various sites of rot in the prison called Denmark. Providing a hint to psychoanalysis[1], the “science” that would base itself on this play, Hamlet also freely and recklessly disgorges his hatred and disgust, particularly at women. We can understand, though, that these misogynistic expectorations are an attempt to exorcizes what he is ashamed to behold as the woman in himself. Himself in disguise, himself in the act of infidelity to his beloved, he rails at women’s putative deceit and betrayal:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.

But Hamlet, in an act of bizarre symmetry, reveals to Ophelia the suppurating core at the heart of even the most eminent men’s sexual facade; and when Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia, now fatherless as the prince, has as little reason as he does not to spill Denmark’s secrets in riddling, punning poetry. She becomes in act four what her ex-lover has been since act two: a modern artist, attempting to evade the illusions of ideology that constrain her with cryptogrammic truths:

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

These lines, in which Shakespeare reveals as clearly as he possibly can that Hamlet and Ophelia have made love, expose the prince’s abuse of his lover as more far-reaching than even his cruel behavior (“get thee to a nunnery”) had previously intimated. Yet telling the truth in the face in the lying world changes nothing for the better and offers no relief to Ophelia, just as it will not do for Hamlet, because the wound, the “imposthume,” is inward—inside the self as well as inside the state. One of the play’s cautions is against warmongering, but we can also read it as a warning against projection: Denmark, the “warlike state,” per Claudius, likes to find its enemies outside itself, just as Hamlet blames women for his own problems and Ophelia’s inner life fails her after her men have left her in turn. The enemy in each of these cases is as much the self as the other. Neglect of this intimate enmity in the state and in the psyche causes so many of the play’s catastrophes, up to and including the climactic fall of the state to a foreign invader, Fortinbras—precisely the threat feared in the first place. And so Ophelia dies, submitting herself to the killing flux of nature that only social identity—here figured, again, as clothing—prevents us from confronting every day:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

Note, though, that Ophelia does not commit suicide (a topic of mocking dispute for the gravediggers of act five); she simply “goes with the flow” and allows herself to drown.

Doesn’t Hamlet do just the same? Consider the famous question: why does Hamlet delay? Because he is enjoying himself—uttering “wild and whirling words,” “words, words, words,” even writing some words—the “dozen or sixteen lines” he interpolates into The Murder of Gonzago, which Harold Bloom once tantalizingly speculated were not additions to the plot but rather the player king’s speech on the evanescence of affection and the futility of intention, a kind of stealth soliloquy on the prince’s part:

But, orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own…

More unbalanced pairs: will/fate, purpose/result. Intention and action are no guarantees. Perhaps it is better to act only in the sense of the theatrical masquerade, where no one expects real results. The play’s elaborate metatheatrical and metafictional gestures, its self-interrogation about what it means to act vs. to be, offer an amusing commentary to Shakespeare’s own artistic wildness, which was so to trouble and even offend critics of neoclassical (Johnson, Voltaire), realist (Tolstoy, Shaw), or religious (Tolstoy again, George Steiner) sensibility. For Hamlet is himself such an anti-Shakespearean critic, advising austerity to the players while he himself plays the fool:

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o’erstep not them modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…

Our hero “recks not his own rede.” By the time he says these lines, he has lost all faith in “the modesty of nature,” and in the play itself, the mirror fails as a motif, as discussed above. To quote Oscar Wilde:

[T]his unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters.

Hamlet’s true artistic gift is not for the composition of poetry (“I am so ill at these numbers”) but rather for an extravagant and improvisatory and paradoxical performance of authentic self, one staged in the hearing, to sound in the “mildew’d ear,” of Denmark’s eavesdropping auditory-surveillance state, where there may be a listener behind every arras. Hamlet goes so far in crafting a persona that may pierce all veils with the madman’s impunity that he prophesies centuries of regicide and revolution in one aphorism: “The king is a thing…of nothing.” Hence his inability to leave off playing (in all senses) and act (only in the one sense: that of changing the world for real). Hamlet is playing at the otherwise unspeakable truth.

As with Ophelia, though, the truth cannot save Hamlet. Nature is unnatural, “an unweeded garden” full of wandering spirits and incestuous killers and faithless lovers, and every attempt to rationalize it only creates the hypocrisy and organized violence of the court and the state. Polonius, a prying soulless dishonest sycophant, is the deep truth of the state, its “imposthume of much wealth and peace” that leads to meaningless slaughter; hence his own slaying does not draw to an end with him but is only succeeded by his resurrection as the equally verbose and officious Osric, an otherwise puzzling character who shows up just before the end of the play so we will not mourn the court that is about to be vanquished.

Because nature and culture are only two expressions of the one underlying disorder, because death is the final truth of essence and appearance (“let her paint an inch thick, to this favor must she come”), the only solution is to ride the wave to its crashing, to let the waters take you when and where they will. This is what Ophelia does, and, at the end, what Hamlet does too. In act five, still uncertain about his revenge, he agrees to the fatal fencing match with Laertes. Intuiting something amiss, he nevertheless tells Horatio that he plans to go ahead with the game:

[T]here’s a 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: since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

The black mass which ensues, parodying the play’s earlier resort to Catholic imagery by turning communion into poisoning, both does and does not contradict Hamlet’s rather Protestant assurances about God’s Providence.[2] It also shows the inseparability of play, whether at theater or fencing, and reality. Just as everything is natural and nothing is, just as everything is real and nothing is, so everything is and is not fated to happen. If it exists, how can it be unnatural, still less unreal? If it happened, how could it have happened otherwise? Because death (as well as war and betrayal and falsity and disease and hatred) is both natural and common, nothing adds up or balances. It may make sense to God, but it never will to us.

Shakespeare thus not only invents the modern artist in Hamlet and Ophelia, but offers us, in their final passivity, their dead-end faith, a way out of our black-clad if high-spirited and eloquent despair: give up the dream of putting the time or the world back into joint. “The readiness is all,” so we had better get ready. “Let be”—and what will be, in the end, is the unbeing of death. Before the curtain closes, though, the author of this purgatorial play—not to mention its hero—put on a hell of a show.

[1] Perhaps the social sciences—psychology, anthropology, sociology—are just the codifications of poets’ tropes and narratives.

[2] Every age creates its own Shakespeare, and our epoch’s bard is, we have decided, a crypto-Catholic (whereas previous eras have posited a Romantic genius, an English patriot, a psychoanalyst, an Existentialist, a dead white male, etc.). This is not because we have any particular concern for Catholicism, but because it allows Shakespeare to survive the postcolonial and feminist critique of the canon in the guise of an oppressed minority, which Catholics were in the England of Elizabeth’s reign. How to explain Hamlet‘s provocative evocation of the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict, with its ghost on leave from Dante’s Purgatory and its hero on leave from Luther’s Wittenberg? Whether our poet was reflecting on his own “double consciousness” or just brilliantly manipulating that of the audience, his aesthetic aim in this play is the same: to give us in the two sects yet another irreconcilable pair that demonstrates the inherent disorder or imbalance at the heart of being.



  1. Thank you for this great review of a great play.

    About Shakespeare’s Catholicism, Robert Miola’s articles on that subject are instructive. He’s pro-Catholic in crucial respects (friars are depicted in a positive light), and as Miola’s Norton edition intro argues, the play Macbeth operates from a Catholic idea of free will and action. Yet at the same time, he is everything and nothing.

    Hamlet or King Lear? We are still debating. Some days I say King Lear, others I say Hamlet (and maybe Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest play after all).

  2. A fascinating read; Hamlet is one of those Shakespeare plays that I prefer to read than watch.

    I like your thoughts about how Hamlet is such a ‘modern’ hero and how that status relates to the symmetry in the play. It seems to me that Hamlet’s possibly deliberate failure to complete the symmetries could be seen as linked to the Protestant-Catholic issue. Luther’s rejection of numerous Catholic traditions and practices was, arguably, the start of a process that would gradually move society’s values away from the pre-Reformation moral and ecclesiatical absolutes. I can see how Hamlet is a very modern hero as someone who is never definitely absolute – even when he does act decisively, he kills the wrong man.

  3. […] Looking back, I see that I did a lot of rereading in 2018. Some of it was out of necessity (teaching), and some for pleasure. Some of it showed up in the reviews I post here, while some of it was devoted to books I’ve already written about in the last five years. I was glad to have an opportunity to write about some old favorites, like Hamlet: […]

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