“To kill old Hamlet in the garden, with poison in the ears.”


Act One, Part Four

By Dennis Abrams


As we work our way through Hamlet, and through some of my favorite critical essays (whether or not I agree with them or not), I thought it might be useful to look at the play’s critical history in general.

In fact, it seems likely that the play has such an important place in the literary canon that the history of writing about Hamlet is in essence the history of literary criticism itself, as successive waves of readers and schools of thought have worked out their own interpretations and reading of this play.  In the 18th century, for example, neoclassical critics such as Voltaire strongly objected to the indecorous gravediggers and to the concluding round of onstage deaths, but in England, its popularity never wavered.

Dr. Johnson, for example defended its range and variety, saying “The incidents are so numerous, that the argument of the play would make a long tale. The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and solemnity; with merriment that includes judicious and instructive observations, and solemnity, not strained by poetical violence above the natural sentiments of man. New characters appear from time to time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and particular modes of conversation. The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of Ophelia fills the heart with tenderness, and every personage produces the effect intended, from the apparition that in the first act chills the blood with horror, to the fop in the last, that exposes affectation to just contempt.”

The Romantics were particularly enthralled with what they saw as the sublime interview 303584~The-Ghost-of-Hamlet-s-Father-Appears-to-Him-on-the-Battlements-at-Elsinore-Postersbetween Hamlet and the Ghost, and were preoccupied with the Prince’s apparent paralysis of will.

From then until the late 20th century, much of the writing about the play (including some of my favorite writing) was dominated by the question of Hamlet’s character, his sanity or insanity, and why he delays.  A.C. Bradley (as we shall see) influentially found that the core of the play’s power is in its juxtaposition of the scope of human thought with the limitations imposed by our own mortality; other scholars and critics continued to question a number of the areas the play deliberately leaves unresolved, such as the nature of Gertrude’s guilt, the nature of the Danish succession, and the precise status of the Ghost (who, apparently being temporarily freed from Purgatory, seems to belong more to a Catholic theology than a Protestant one.)

And then the Marxist school of criticism saw Hamlet either lauded as a revolutionary far ahead of his feudal time or reviled as a typically uncommitted bourgeois intellectual, but the play itself has been more central to the development not only of psychoanalytic criticism but to psychoanalysis itself:  Note Freud, who refers to the play in outlining his theory of infantile repression in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), and whose idea that Hamlet is immobilized in part because he too desires Gertrude and has entertained murderous wishes against his father (a large part of Olivier’s portrayal), was further developed by Ernest Jones in Hamlet and Oedipus (1949).

Since then, Hamlet’s dealings with both Gertrude and Ophelia have continued to be the main focus of psychoanalytic criticism (along with the feminist and deconstructive strains derived from it, much to the dismay of our beloved Harold Bloom), while more historically inclined commentators of varying ilks have tried relating the play to the fall of the Earl of Essex, to the Elizabethan succession crisis, Renaissance attitudes towards death, the Reformation, and the philosophy of Montaigne (which I can see), among much else.


To continue with Garber’s discussion of Act One, focusing on scenes four and five:

“For it is at this point in the dramatic action that the Ghost once again appears, as the scene shifts away from the plush and politic court to the stark cold air of the night watch.  The play’s first act is encapsulated by the Ghost’s appearance, in scenes 4 and 5.  The questions raised by the initial appearance of the inexplicable and silent Ghost have lingered hamlet-and-the-ghostall this time, and finally, with Hamlet, the spectators in the theater confront ‘this dreaded sight,’ this ‘illusion.’  Once more it mounts to the stage, and, for the first time, it speaks.  To whom does it speak?  To Hamlet alone, and to us, insofar as we are, for this moment, part of the ‘distracted globe’ that is Hamlet’s consciousness.  Horatio had four times asked it to speak, and received nothing but a sign.  Now it speaks to Hamlet, and the language of Hamlet the father to Hamlet the son is charged with a special kind of intensity:  ‘I am my father’s spirit.’  ‘I’ll call thee Hamlet, /King, father, royal Dane.’  Here is a different kind of advice from father to son.  Yet Hamlet speaks of his ‘prophetic soul.’  He has imagined, again in his ‘mind’s eye,’ the tale of murder that the Ghost will tell.  How can we divide the world inside Hamlet’s mind from that of the ‘real world’ of Denmark?  What is this ‘illusion,’ which comes to tell Hamlet what he already half knows?  For what does it stand, and why does it stir Hamlet to a feigned, creative madness, an antic disposition – to literally playing the fool?

For a long time scholars have debated the theological and religious implications of the Ghost, a debate well articulated in Eleanor Prosser’s Hamlet and Revenge and in a number of subsequent studies.  The Catholic belief in purgatory was not shared or permitted by the new Protestant sects, and Hamlet’s worry about whether this is a ‘spirit of health of goblin damned’ depends, to a certain extent, upon whether or not one could or should believe in a good or ‘honest’ Ghost.  Old Hamlet describes himself as ‘[d]oomed for a certain term to walk the night,/And for the day confined to fast in fires/Till the foul crimes done in days of nature/Are burnt and purged away.’  Several modes of ghost-belief and ghost-practice intersect here, including the ghosts of classical times that returned to demand proper burial, and the ghosts of earlier English drama – notably Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (written ca. 1587) – that framed their plays with calls for revenge.  In terms of the history of early modern drama in English, Hamlet is the centerpiece between a relatively early play like The Spanish Tragedy, with its Ghost, its play-within-the-play in ‘sundry languages,’ and its mad and mourning hero, Hieronimo, and a relatively late play like The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which the skull of the revenger’s dead beloved becomes his apt and unerring device to entrap her seducer, and in which the hero, emblematically named Vindice, is finally hoist by his own petard.  This progression from ghost to skull will, as we will see, be indicative of the way Hamlet itself progresses from the past to the future.

One significant piece of onstage evidence that we have about the status of the Ghost comes from its own language, a language that is in part a reflection of Hamlet’s inner consciousness, telling him what he already suspects and intuits, but is also, crucially, the voice of a world that has ceased to be.  ‘List, Hamlet, list, O list!’  ‘Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched.’  ‘Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled.’  ‘O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!’  ‘Adieu, adieu, Hamlet.’  Derived in part from contemporary translations of the tragedies of Seneca, this is a language that Shakespeare has already burlesqued in the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a play clearly intended by its actors to rival that of the best and most solemn of ancient classical tragedies.  ‘O thou, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall.’   ‘O grim-looked night, O night with hue so black,/O night which ever art when day is not.’  ‘And farewell friends,/Thus Thisbe ends,/Adieu, adieu, adieu.’  (This is the rhetorical figure known as the tricolon.)  The same triplets and the same repetitions haunt the Ghost’s language.  The Ghost in Hamlet speaks, then, out of a literary and dramatic tradition as well as a personal and private past.  His speech is more than medieval autobiography; it is epic drama.  The stately majesty of these triplets – ‘List, Hamlet, list, O list!’ – recalls a lost language and a half-forgotten world.  Thus old Hamlet emerges in costume, language, and message as the embodiment of lost epic and heroic values, the tutelary spirit of a heroic past.  This is as significant for his role in the play as his association with the purgatorial wanderings of the unshrived spirit, for he is a spirit of revenge, first cousin not only to Senecan and Elizabethan ghosts but also to the figure of Patroclus in the Iliad.  Like Patroclus, he reappears to press his reluctant champion into action in an epic world.

As always in trying to untangle these questions of history, culture, and affect, our best guide will be the play itself, which teaches even as it tests and tempts.  Let us ask, then:  What do we know about old Hamlet when we first encounter him in act I?  We know, from his first appearance, what he looks like.   He appears to the sentries and to Hamlet ‘[a]rmed at all points exactly, cap-a-pie,’ clad again in ‘complete steel,’ in armor from head to toe.  Not for him the soft silks and furs of the Claudius court, or the carefully ‘rich, not gaudy’ costumes of the worlding Laertes, or the posturings of the popinjay Osric.  Polonius is right, despite himself:  in this play the apparel does proclaim the man.  ‘Such was the very armour he had on,’ says Horatio,

When he th’ambitous Norway combated.

So frowned he once when in an angry parley

He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

The armor worn by old Hamlet is the same he wore when he defeated ‘the ambitious Norway’ – and who was Norway but old Fortinbras, the father of the young Fortinbras who will be first Hamlet’s rival, and then his chosen successor.  The drama seems to be playing itself out, over and over, in a cyclical fashion.  [MY NOTE:  Those of you who have been following this blog will remember Jan Kott’s observation of this process in Shakespeare’s history plays – the grand staircase of history…]  Old Fortinbras fights with old Hamlet, young Fortinbras with young Hamlet:  the dramatic movement here is one of repetition and reversal.  And the defeat of Norway came, significantly, in the epic style, in single combat, man against man, a heroic struggle.  Old Hamlet defended his country against invaders from outside, and not, as now – and as we saw in the confusions of the very first scene – from civil strife within.  We are meant, I think, to feel the difference between this ancient warrior in full steel, wielding his heavy weapons, and the chosen weapon of the new Denmark – and the new England – the rapier, Laertes’ pride.  Fencing schools, like theaters, were located by statute in the Liberties, or outskirts of London.  The Italian sword master Rocco Bonetti established a school of arms in London in 1576, and in 1590 Vincentio Saviolo arrived, and published in 1595 a two-volume treatise on the duello, explaining the use of the rapier and dagger, and setting out rules for ‘honorable Quarrels.’  But the rapier, despite its lethal effects (an Elizabethan statue of 1562 ordered that ‘no man shall…wear any sword, rapier, or any weapon…passing the length of one yard and a half a quarter of blade at the uttermost,”) was a weapon of sport and private quarrel, not a weapon of war.  The final fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, staged, at Claudius’s behest, ostensibly as a friendly challenge, a scene of public sport, marks a deliberate and forceful contrast with the previous offstage epic combat between the warriors of an earlier generation in which, as Horatio reported, ‘our valiant Hamlet’ – that is, old Hamlet – ‘[d]id slay this Fortinbras’ and inherit ‘by a seal’d compact/Well ratified in law and heraldry’ all the lands old Fortinbras possessed.

What else do we know about old Hamlet as the play begins?  The same contrast between old and new, heroic and fallen, manifest in the two kinds of martial combat that frame the play can be discerned in the imagery Hamlet uses to describe his idealized father.  He consistently chooses the language of heroic myth, so that, comparing old Hamlet to Claudius, he will say, ‘So excellent a king, that was to this/Hyperion to a satyr.’  Later he will offer a similar description to his mother:

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,

An eye like Mars, to threaten or command,

A station like the herald Mercury

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill…

These are Titans and Olympian gods, classical and pagan, not Christian.  They seem to belong in the world of the first speech that Hamlet urges on the traveling players, the world of vengeful Pyrrhus, and of good grandsire Priam and his loyal wife Hecuba, and the fall of the great kingdom of Troy.  We will have more to say about his old play, but even from the first it is important to note that King Hamlet is cast from the same ideal and heroic mold.

Old Hamlet is the voice of an older age of stable values, but his values are ultimately inadmissible in a world not of fathers but of sons.  His are the ideals against which the play will measure itself.  But it is no accident of theatrical construction that the Ghost drops out of the play, leaving the action in the hands and voices of the new man, the political men, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, each of whom is in a way more like Octavius Caesar than like Julius Caesar.  Hamlet is often compared to Brutus, since both spend so much of their onstage time ruminating on the human condition, often in passage of incomparable poetry that echo the thoughts and debates of contemporary philosophers.  But Hamlet, as we will see once again, is finally an ‘action hero,’ not only a philosopher.  And his mentors are many, not one:  old Hamlet, Claudius, the First Player, Laertes, and Fortinbras, to name just a few.

Yet in another way the Ghost does have a controlling part in the events that follow upon his spectral appearances.  ‘I could, he says to Hamlet, ‘a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul.’  Notice the recurrence of this word ‘unfold,’ from the initial challenge of the opening scene (‘who’s there? ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’)  The whole play is in some sense a process of unfolding, then folding, and unfolding again.  Though he does not tell his tale of purgatory, the Ghost tells another tale, equally mythic, that dominates and pulls together language, imagery, and action in Hamlet as a whole.  The tale he unfolds is the story of his own death, the answer to the questions we have been asking ourselves since the opening of the play:  What happened to old Hamlet?  What has caused the sickness in the state?  Even the tone of this tale is mythic, otherworldly.  It is a kind of inset allegory or emblem, a grim and timeless myth recounted within the tauter, more ornate, Renaissance fabric of the surrounding drama:

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in mine orchard,

A serpent stung me.  So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused.  But know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.


       Sleeping within mine orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of mine ears did pour

The leperous distilment…

Let us look for a moment at the anatomy of this fable.  It is in structure a kind of Eden myth, taking place in a medieval hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden.  Old Hamlet, the HFzSXZHYtE-2innocent upholder of ancient values, sleeping in a garden, is set upon by the serpent, Claudius, whose world is motivated by the satanic basic appetites of lust, pride, envy, and the desire for power.  This fable has a peculiar and far-reaching resonance.  Positioned as it is near the beginning of the play, the story will come to mind again and again as the changes are run on its basic values.  In effect it is this play’s riddle, the center of its radiating imaginative energy, a scenario that could also be called its primal scene.

To kill old Hamlet in the garden, with poison in the ears.

The ears are everywhere.  In the advices of fathers to sons that occupy much of the business of the first act; in the ear of Denmark, which his, in the Ghost’s phrase, ‘abused’ and in the whole process of eavesdropping:  Polonius dispatching Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and uncover information on his reputation; Claudius and Polonius behind the arras, or curtain, listening to Hamlet and Ophelia; Claudius sending for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s plans; Polonius again behind an arras, eavesdropping on Hamlet and Gertrude, stabbed to death this time for his pains.  The words that enter like daggers into Gertrude’s ears.  Hamlet’s question ‘Will the King hear this piece of work?’  ‘List, Hamlet, list, O list!’ cries the Ghost – hear, O hear.  And there is a sense in which he himself pours poison into the ear of Hamlet, inflaming him to agony, soul-searching, and revenge.

To kill old Hamlet in the garden, with poison in the ears.

Poison – the something rotten in the state of Denmark.  The whole chain of disease-and-infection imagery that is the most evident of the play’s many verbal themes:  ‘th’impostume of much wealth and peace,/That inward breaks and shows no cause without/Why the man dies.’  The contagion that spreads unwholesomely through the night.  The ulcers beneath the skin, unhealthily cosmeticked over with lies.  The poison, above all, of language – of deceit and unctuous pretense, the language of Claudius in his opening speech, the dangerous poison of words, words, words.  The words, often, of poisonous serpents – not only Claudius, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Hamlet will trust, he says, ‘as I will adders fanged.’  Serpents, too, with erotic and sexual connotations, a fall from innocence of a special kind.  The imagined corruption even of Ophelia.  The final engines of poison in the last scene, the poisoned cup and the poisoned rapier, time-honored sexual symbols, both fatal, and taken together (an emblematic scene also staged at the close of Romeo and Juliet).  The inevitably victorious serpent who is ‘my lady Worm,’ the force of bodily corruption and decay in the graveyard, who reduces to the same indifferent dust the great and the simple, the wicked and the pure.  The dust of Alexander stopping a bunghole, of Julius Caesar turned to clay.

To kill old Hamlet in the garden, with poison in the ears.

An Edenic garden, a garden of attempted innocence.  Adam as the first gardener, in the gravedigger’s mordant joke.  Gertrude, whose act ‘takes off the rose/From the fair forehead of an innocent love/And sets a blister there,’ joining together the themes of infection and the garden.  Hamlet, ‘[t]h’expectancy and rose of the fair state,’ in Ophelia’s phrase.  And Ophelia, ‘rose of May’ whose mad songs are all too apt in their scattering of flowers and whose watery death, ‘[w]hen down the weedy trophies and herself/Fell in the weeping brook’ seems to bring to life the language of Hamlet’s first bitter soliloquy:  ‘Fie on’t, ah fie, fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden/That grows to see.’  In the tragic action of the play, Ophelia becomes a symbolic self-deflowerer, performing ceremonially in her madness what she has been proscribed from doing erotically in her love.  All these patterns of intertwined language and action seem to flow from the Ghost’s private myth of murder.  Like the poison of which he speaks, his tale, with its call to revenge, ‘Holds such an enmity with blood of man/That swift as quicksilver it course through/The natural gates and alleys of the body.’

The call to revenge is a call to repetition:  to do the act again, to do it back, to repay injury with injury.  Revenge is repetition, and repetition is compulsion.  As we have noticed, the Ghost in Hamlet is a close relative to other ghosts that stalked the early modern stage, ghosts in plays by, among others, Seneca and Kyd.  The ‘revenge play’ was a popular part of the early modern repertoire, and Shakespeare continually reworked this genre throughout his career, even in as late a play as The Tempest.  But part of the conundrum of Hamlet is the need to establish some relation between revenge, as a moral dynamic and as a theatrical trope, and forgiveness.  When Polonius says he will sue the players according to their desert, Hamlet is round in his reply:  ‘God’s bodykins, man, much better.  Use every man after his desert, and who could scape whipping?  Use them after your own honour and dignity.’  Here is Hamlet’s version of the Goden Rule, akin to Portia’s courtroom plea on behalf of the ‘quality of mercy.’  Those readers who have regarded this complicated play as one that marks a cultural turning point between the endless cycle of revenge and the transformative power of a Christian acceptance (‘the readiness is all’) have tacitly assimilated it to the dialectic of Old and New Law.  Yet as with Portia, as also with Hamlet (and Hamlet), the voicing of a religious commonplace is nuanced and undercut by the dramatic context.  Hamlet may well wish the players a generous reception, and surely he misses no opportunity to puncture the empty platitudes of Polonius.  But he remains a revenger, though a revenger with a conscience and a consciousness.  His attraction to revenge and his resistance to it are part of the intellectual tension that makes Hamlet such an engaged and engaging character.  In this play, revenge – like the Ghost – goes underground.  Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘Revenge is a kind of Wilde Justice; which the more Mans Nature runs to the more ought Law to weed it out…certainly, in taking Revenge, A Man is but even with his Enemy; But in passing it over, he is Superior:  For it is a Princes part to Pardon.’  Whatever Hamlet’s own view, though, the tempering of justice with mercy, the exploration of both the political and the ethical expediency of revenge’s aftermath in reconciliation and forgiveness, is a principal preoccupation of Hamlet, as it is of many of the plays that surround it chronologically – The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well.  There is good reason for earlier critics to have considered grouping Hamlet with the ‘problem plays.’

The ghost of old Hamlet appears to the audience as a virtuous and positive force, recalling a decaying kingdom to the time of its pride and strength.  But the values the Ghost espouses are not so easily recaptured or restored.  The serpent has entered the garden, and the Edenic world, like the world of heroic myth, has given away to a world whose keynote is mortality.  If Adam was the first gardener, he was also the first to come to dust – to what Hamlet will call the ‘quintessence of dust,’ in a speech that closely parallels one of the most famous of all Renaissance humanist documents, Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.  But where Pico celebrated the mutability of mankind, Hamlet regards it with suspicion, even with dread.  Here is Pico:

‘[U]pon man, at the moment of his creation, God bestowed seeds pregnant with possibilities, the germs of every form of life.  Whichever of these a man shall cultivate, the same will mature and bear fruit in him.  If vegetative, he will become a plant; if sensual, he will become brutish; if rational, he will reveal himself a heavenly being; if intellectual, he will be an angel and the son of God.  And if, dissatisfied with the lot of all creatures, he should recollect himself into the center of his own unity, he will there, become one spirit with God, in the solitary darkness of the Father, Who is set above all things, himself transcend all creatures.  Who then will not look with awe upon this our chameleon, or who, at least, will look with greater admiration on any other being?’

And here, by contrast is Hamlet, framing his words with a vision of a sterile earth on the one hand and an empty human future on the other, so that the passage itself progresses from dust to dust:

[T]his goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.  This most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, 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?

In such a world, what is real, and what is illusory?  The Ghost is called an ‘illusion’ yet in some sense he is ‘real.’  He is seen by several persons, including the trustworthy and unimpressionable Horatio, as well as by the spectators in the theater. He speaks to Hamlet, and what he says seems also ‘real,’ if Hamlet’s ‘prophetic soul’ is to be trusted, since the news the Ghost imparts is expected news, truth, not fiction.  Yet the kind of world the Ghost proposes and remembers is in some sense illusory.  It belongs to mortality and to past history, and if Hamlet is to find the ‘real’ for himself he must seek it in a different kind of illusion.  That is what we will see him do in the subsequent action of the play.  Assuming his ‘antic disposition’ – his mask of modernity, his costume of the fool – Hamlet finds an electric gaiety and release with the players.  He is free to act through imagination and through art and improvisation as he cannot do in politics or in the world of decaying Denmark.  While the players are only maskers, and their play is fiction, and their passions are but a dream of passion, there is a way in which their brand of intentional illusion is more trustworthy, and more open to Hamlet, than is the way of the ghost.  It is fitting that ‘the play’s the thing’ wherein he will seek to catch the conscience of the King.”


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