“Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.”


Act One, Part Five

By Dennis Abrams


This is going to be my last post on Act One.  I’m going to take a day off tomorrow, and my next post will be Sunday evening/Monday morning (depending on what part of the world you’re in), which will begin our close reading of Act Two.  So if you haven’t started it yet, now’s the time.

And while I have your attention…what do you all think so far of the blog?  Is the pace OK?  Too slow, too fast?  Too much info?  Is there anything I’m not covering that you’d like me to, or, conversely, anything I am covering that you have not a lot of interest in?  Let me know what I can do to help improve your reading experience.

And as far as the play goes…what do you think so far?  For those of you who have never read it…what the experience like?  And for those of you who have read it two, three, four…how every many times, are you seeing things you’ve never seen before?  Share your experiences with the group!

And so to finish off this week’s look Act One of Hamlet (along with introductory material), I’d like to share with you Tony Tanner’s reading from his book, Prefaces to Shakespeare, which is, I think, highly interesting and provocative.

“Why is Hamlet so long, and what do I mean by saying that it is nearly all ‘interim?’  It is, famously, a delaying play, a play about delay. Hamlet’s procrastination, if that is what it is, has been endlessly discussed.  At the simplest level there is the unassailable argument of ‘no delay, no play,’ and certainly if Hamlet had hurried to dispatch Claudius as soon as the david_garrick_in_hamlet_act_i_scene_4ghost had issued his imperative, or even if he had killed him when, by his own account, he might ‘do it pat’ shortly after the ambiguous success of his ‘play,’ we would not have the ‘play’ we have.  But mere dramaturgical expediency would not have made Hamlet the most famous and inexhaustible western tragedy of our modern era, and we must certainly enquire a bit more curiously than that.  Here are some words from Claudius, inciting Laertes to revenge:

    That we would do

We should do when we would, for this ‘would’ changes,

And hath abatements and delays as many

As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents…

(IV, vii, 118-21)

‘Should’ and ‘would; ‘tongues’ and ‘hands;’ intention and obligation; word and deed – the complex inter-relation and interaction between these things occupy much of the play.  And ‘accidents’ turn out to be crucial.  ‘Abatements’ covers weakenings and bluntings of resolve and general retardations, and these all contribute to the lengthening of the play.  Once again, we are looking at the ‘interim’ between prompting or provocation – the ‘first motion’ – and performance – the ‘dreadful deed.’

Let us consider the matter of slowness and speed.  When the ghost promises to tell Hamlet about his ‘unnatural’ murder (but is there such a thing as a natural murder?), Hamlet responds:

Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift

As meditation or the thoughts of love,

May sweep to my revenge.

The analogies are startlingly but prophetically inapposite.  As swift as meditation?  It is precisely because Hamlet meditates so much – thinks ‘too precisely on th’event,’ finds the ‘native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ – that he can act so little.  ‘Sweep’ to his revenge is very exactly the last thing he does.  It is Claudius and his regime that move quickly.  He and Gertrude married before the mourning for her husband was completed – as Hamlet comments:

     O, most wicked speed to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.

When Claudius perceives that Hamlet is becoming distinctly dangerous, he dispatches him to England ‘with fiery quickness.’  Hamlet knows very well that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the bearers of some plot against him:  ‘they must sweep my way/And marshal me to knavery.’  Claudius and his gang are the ‘sweepers’ and work with ‘wicked speed.’  Hamlet’s instincts – scholar that he is (i.e. given to the life contemplative) – are all the other way.  When he is told about the ghost, but before he has heard his story, his reaction is – to do absolutely nothing:

     Then sit still, my soul.  Foul deeds will rise,

Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.

Stillness is associated with virtue, as it was in the Elizabethan mind.  As is made clear in the ghost’s comment on his wife’s hasty marriage to the brother who murdered him.

But virtue, as it will never be moved,

Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,

So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,

Will sate itself in a celestial bed

And prey on garbage.

The lustful are always on the move.  How the meditative and would-be virtuous Hamlet can find an appropriate way to insert himself into, and to intervene in, a court, a society, for him a world, now given over to, taken over by, those who, to satisfy their appetites, act with ‘fiery quickness’ and ‘wicked speed,’ is indeed the great prolonging problem of the play.  No wonder there are ‘abatements and delays.’

But before looking more carefully at this central problem, we might do well to consider another rather curious aspect of the play which certainly contributes to its length.  In a word, there seem to be two of everything.  There are two kings (one dead, one alive); Hamlet now has two fathers (Claudius being now ‘uncle-father’); there are two sons who have to avenge murdered fathers (Hamlet and Laertes – Fortinbras makes a third but I’ll come back to that); Claudius sends two ambassadors to Norway – Cornelius and Voltimand; and there his two tools, made almost comically indistinguishable – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The ghost appears to Hamlet twice; Laertes makes a double departure; Hamlet’s play to catch the king is performed twice; Hamlet abuses two women; after the play he goes and speaks daggers to his mother and then, when it seems he has finished, he does it again.

But it is perhaps above all in the amazing language of the play that we most often encounter what seems like a compulsive doubling, as though Shakespeare will not use one word when he can think of two.  I will run together a few examples:  ‘the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes,’ ‘the gross and scope of my opinion’; ‘this posthaste and romage in the land;’ ‘the extravagant and erring spirit;’ ‘the dead waste and middle of the night’; ‘the perfume and supplicance of a minute’; ‘the shot and danger of desire’; ‘the pales and forts of reason;’ ‘the single and peculiar life’; ‘the book and volume of my brain’; ‘this encompassment and drift of question’; ‘the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind’; ‘the motive and cue for passion;’ ‘the hatch and the disclose’; ‘the teeth and forehead of our faults’; ‘the proof and bulwark against sense’; and so on.

This is not just Shakespeare exploring and exploiting the resources of the English language as he found it, as no one before (or since) had done – though it is gloriously that as well.  On the one hand, Shakespeare continually confronts, or assails, us with strange couplings, unexpected conjunctions, at every turn, or in every speech.  Either the pair is too similar – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ‘book and volume’ – or so different that you would expected them to be kept separate, not, that it, in the same clause – or in the same bed:  ‘perfume and suppliance’ – Gertrude and Claudius.  One of the things that all these varying odd-doublings serves to point up is that the central rottenness of this out-of-joint society is an incestuous relationship grounded in murder.  Murder and incest are the most graphic and violent or lustful ways of annihilating the differences and annulling the separations and distinctions on which any society depends.  ‘More than kin, and less than kind’ – these are Hamlet’s first words; only one letter separates ‘kin’ and ‘kind’ – similar indeed, almost echoic.  But the difference is also important.  We must know ‘kin’ from ‘kind’ (though we should be kind to all our ‘kind.’)  Through Claudius’s incestuous marriage, Hamlet has become at once too closely ‘related’ to him, and more distant and antipathetically alienated from him.  Kin and kind are merging or falling apart in all sorts  of ways throughout the play.  Kinship terms have become oxymoronically muddled – ‘uncle-father and aunt-mother’, ‘my cousin and my son;’ and the continuities effected by appropriate kinship relationships have been skewed off course – Claudius should not marry Gertrude, but he does; Hamlet should marry Ophelia but he does not (Ophelia is the most pathetic victim of this sick and perverted society).  Something has gone wrong at the controlling centre.  This feeling is only enhanced by what seems like the uncontrollable tendency towards redundancy and proliferation which, I have tried to suggest, characterizes the atmosphere of the play.  I take it as that a cancer is the uncontrollable multiplication of cells to the mortal detriment of the housing organism.  As the imagery of the play constantly reminds us, the society in which Hamlet finds himself is very sick indeed – ‘ulcerous,’ cancerous; and, among other things, the structure of the play enacts that condition.

In this polluted and poisoned atmosphere, Hamlet finds it very difficult to know, to decide, how to act.  Or whether to act.  Indeed, what, exactly, ‘acting’ is.  A traditional avenger would have no problem…”


“It is hard to date with any certainty the action of the play.  Clearly it is an early Renaissance court of some kind.  The Hamlet story itself goes back to ancient Norse language…Hamlet, at the start, has just returned from studying in Wittenberg (whither he wishes to return, but is forbidden).  Wittenberg, of course, was where Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, thus effectively starting the Reformation in northern Europe.  If he is not – detectably – a devout Protestant, nevertheless Hamlet’s ‘conscience’ like his vocabulary, will be marked by Protestant thinking.  For a Protestant, the Ghost would indeed have been regarded as a devil from hell (for a Catholic it could be a spirit from purgatory – the play seems to incline that way, but let us not get involved in fruitless speculations about Shakespeare’s religious affiliations or allegiances.)  Perhaps more important, one of the main contentions of the Reformation thinkers was that ‘justification’ (salvation) could only be by faith, and not, not at all, by works as the Catholics maintained.  Our fates were ‘predestined,’ so it was folly to think that any human effort could influence the divine plan.  Taken to an extreme, this belief could see all attempts at significant salvational or restorative or corrective or expiatory action as, at best, futile, and more probably sinful.  This, surely, is the theology which, among other things, Hamlet has been studying.  Yet he is, most imperiously, called on to act.

Act as a good hero and soldier (following the models of Hercules, Mars, Pyrrhus); or act, by desisting from action, like a good Protestant (attending to the voice of Wittenberg)?  Here again, the instructions or orders from the Ghost compound rather than simplify the problem.  His first demand seems straightforward enough – (referring to himself as a hamletHamlet’s father) ‘Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’  (I will return to the problem of what is, or should be, ‘natural’ – central to Shakespearean tragedy – and whether there could be such a thing as natural murder.)  Here is the unambiguous old revenge code.  But then:

Murder most foul, as in the best it is,

But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

The Ghost has lost his point, even while trying to make it.  His ‘but’ tries to introduce a distinction, but fails to.  If murder is always ‘most foul’ (as in the best it is), his murder cannot be somehow ‘more foul’ than any other.  By definition, there cannot be comparatives within a superlative.  The repetition of the phrase reveals the impossibility of making distinctions.  The Ghost bewails and condemns a ‘most foul’ deed – and orders Hamlet to commit one.  No wonder Hamlet goes into a spin.  But even more puzzling:

But howsomever thou pursues this act,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive

Against thy mother aught.  Leave her to heaven.

‘Soul’, ‘heaven’?  This does not sound like the old revenge code.  If that’s the way it is, why not leave Claudius to heaven too?  (As Horatio – also from Wittenberg – comments after the initial commotion caused by the appearance of the Ghost – ‘Heaven will direct it.’  But will it?  Hard to be sure in this uncertain atmosphere.  In the event, Hamlet becomes a secular kind of ‘director’ – he puts on a play.)  Hamlet is to be a killer-avenger to the uncle-father, but a forbearing Christian to his mother-aunt.  The point, simple enough perhaps but crucially generative for the play, is that Hamlet’s mind, his ‘conscience’ becomes a meeting-place, a battlefield, a forcing house, a breeding ground, for the different codes, value systems, religions, cosmologies, which (with all due recognition of the prior influence of the Greek and Jewish traditions) formed the modern European mind – ancient heroism, Roman paganism, and Christian Reformation.  And monarchial feudalism.

In a most interesting little book, Carl Schmitt suggests that, rather than situating Hamlet between the Renaissance and the Baroque as Walter Benjamin does, we might more profitably see the play as coming (and dramatizing) somewhere between the ‘barbaric’ and the ‘political.’  He explains his terms.  Summarizing and simplifying—the ‘political’ means the evolution and implementation of a state in which politics were separated from religion. On the continent in the early seventeenth century, this was happening (Machiavelli was a crucial influence).  The ‘barbaric’ connotes a society still dominated by what Schmitt calls ‘pre-statal forms’:  it is feudal, and religion and politics are still inter-involved.  The sovereign state is a product of the divorce between religion and politics; what this meant, among other things is that power is no longer mediated though (and thus sanctioned by) God.  It becomes mundane.  But when a society is still in the ‘barbaric’ stage, power is conceived as coming from (and thus sanctified and legitimated by) some trans-human source.  As Schmitt sees it, the Stuarts remained unaware of the new movements on the continent, and were unable to detach themselves from the feudal and religious middle Ages.  James 1 (of England), for instance, still believed in the concept of ‘the divine right of kings’ although it was already an anachronistic notion by his time and would soon be done away with.  It is notable that the articulation of this doctrine in Hamlet is given to the supremely hypocritical Claudius – (‘There’s such divinity doth hedge a king’ etc.).  More, one feels by this time, of his desperate plastering over.  The society or the world of Hamlet is still predominantly ‘barbaric.’  But it is sick, and falling to pieces.

It is not my intention to explore the contemporary historical background to Shakespeare’s plays in this introduction.  But Schmitt points out something so interesting, and probably constitutively crucial for the play, that I will summarize it here.  He starts from the question of why the question of Gertrude’s guilt and complicity in the murder of her husband is left unclear and unresolved.  But she must not be touched.  It is as though there is a taboo on dealing directly with the queen.  Mary Stuart was married to Henry Lord Darnley who was assassinated by the Earl of Bothwell in February 1586.  Very shortly after, in May of the same year, Mary married the assassin (‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio’).  It was a big scandal and the question of Mary’s involvement was never settled.  Perhaps needless to say, Protestants were convinced she instigated it.  Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, the year of the first Quarto of Hamlet.  This means that Shakespeare was writing his play when the question of the succession to Elizabeth was both unclear and increasingly pressing.  Southampton and Essex supported James (Mary Stuart’s son) for the succession, and Shakespeare and the Players supported them.  Essex of course was executed (and his last words are said to be echoed in Horatio’s farewell to the dying Hamlet), and Shakespeare and the Players temporarily had to leave London.  James was baptized a Catholic but brought up a Protestant – thus enabling him to succeed to the English throne (he also wrote a ‘Demonology’ in 1597 in which he discussed the question of the apparition of ghosts).  He also honoured his mother and would hear no suggestion that she was involved in the murder of his father.  The parallels to Shakespeare’s play are too obvious to need spelling out – Schmitt calls it ‘the potent eruption of historical reality in the play.’  It would also provide a specific reason for why Shakespeare had to be so circumspect in his handling of the Queen.  Schmitt is suggesting that, among many many other things, the figure and situation of Hamlet contain lineaments and echoes of those of James I.  And thus, Hamlet’s bestowal of Denmark to Fortinbras, making a man from another country the legitimate successor – could be seen as, before James’ coronation, and augury and a hope; and after the coronation; a gesture of homage.  In this instance, the contribution of contemporary history seems to be both powerful and incontestable.  Which only makes it the more remarkable that, perhaps more than any other work, it has come to be felt to be a play for all time.

To place Hamlet in a period still in some ways ‘barbaric’ and feudal can be illuminating in another way.  Here are some words from Hegel concerning tragedy.  ‘The Greek heroes make their appearance in an epoch anterior to legal enactment…so that right and social order, law and ethical custom, emanate from them’; by contract, modern man acts ‘within the bounds already marked out for him by legislative enactments in the social order…he is only a member of a fixed order of society and appears as such limited in his range rather than the vital representative and individual embodiment of society himself.’  There are lawyers referred to (very disparagingly) in Hamlet, but not much sign of a legal system V0040652 Kemble in the role of Hamlet, standing on a grassy bank wearand ‘legislative enactment.’  There is nothing of what Hegel calls ‘the legalized fabric of modern society.’  Hence the traces of the archaic, the barbaric, the heroic ages in the play.  ‘The time is out of joint’ and Hamlet himself has to ‘set it right’: there are no police and law-courts to do it for him.  Claudius knows right from wrong, but he makes his own laws, which Hamlet is powerless to obstruct (though it is clear that he has been ‘illegally’ dispossessed); and Hamlet will spend the whole play trying to find ways to circumvent and frustrate, repeal and replace, the power-backed edicts of an usurping king.  Who still – an ultimate mockery – claims his power is God-given.”



And finally…to ponder over the weekend and as we continue…some questions raised by Marjorie Garber:

“Many of the questions that have trouble readers of Hamlet – and actors seeking the arc of his character – have tended to be about Hamlet’s behavior and motivation:

1.  What has caused him to lose all his ‘mirth’ even before he sees the ghost?

2.  Is the emotion that grips him, whatever it is, appropriate to its cause?  Or is it, as T.S. Eliot suggested, ‘emotion in excess of the facts as they appear/”  Eliot concluded that, in part because Hamlet’s emotion lacks this ‘objective correlative,’ the play, despite its many compelling aspects, is ‘certainly an artistic failure.’

3.  Why does Hamlet feign madness?  Or is it feigned?  Does he change, from first act to last?  Why can he kill Claudius in the last act, and not in the beginning of the play?

4.  Finally, most centrally, why does he delay?  Does he doubt the truth of the Ghost’s message?  Is he too cowardly to kill for revenge?  Is he unfit to be a hero?  This is what the German poet Goethe thought.  Is Hamlet a habitual procrastinator, who shirks all his obligations, including the obligation to revenge?  This is what the English Romantic critic and poet Coleridge thought.  Is he a prey to melancholy, that fashionable Elizabethan complaint that also grips Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and Orsino in Twelfth Night?  This is what the Victorian critic A.C. Bradley thought.  Or is he perhaps not delaying at all,but acting as swiftly as opportunity presents?”

Something to think about.


Enjoy your weekend.

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8 Responses to “Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.”

  1. Eddie C. says:

    I’m enjoying the play greatly, just as I did when I first read it decades ago. I find it still holds its place at or near the top of all Shakespeare, or indeed of all literature I’ve read. As great as many of the other works may be, I feel this play deserves its reputation within the whole of Shakespeare’s body of work. The only one I might rank as high may be King Lear, though we’ll have to see, since I haven’t read it in 20 years… (Of course, I have to admit to having fairly conventional preferences – of what I’ve read so far, my favorites are Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth (not in any particular order). However, the big revelation for me so far has been how much I have liked many of the histories, which I had previously not cared for much (not to reflect in any way on their quality, just having to do with my sketchy knowledge of history and feeling that they were confusing, etc.

    The only issue I have with the blog is that the literary criticism excerpts often reference parts of the play we haven’t read yet. In the case of plays I’ve already read, it’s not a big problem, but even then my memory is usually a bit rough until I have reread that part, though I recall the general outline of the plot, etc. It doesn’t bother me as spoilers or anything like that. I just feel that some of the analysis would be more useful to me if I read it after reading the entire play. I suppose it’s unavoidable, since it is obviously often important when discussing one part of a work to compare and contrast it to what comes later, etc.

    I think I may just skim each day’s entry and then go back and read them in their entirety when I have finished the play.

    • Eddie: I know you’re point about, shall we say, things in act three when we haven’t gotten to that point, but I’m TRYING to limit it to discussions where a theme, or use of word is discussed being used in act two, let’s say, and how it follows through into the next act — just so you’ll have a sense of what to look for. But I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.

    • Mahood says:

      Strangely Eddie, I’m the exact opposite: When reading the ‘classics’, I want to know absolutely everything about them before I even start, from plots and themes, through to the main discussions within literary criticism. I always try to have a rough idea of the main ideas of the work before beginning. For me, it makes the reading process easier – they are like maps and signposts that help me in the deeper appreciation of the texts (But that’s just me!).

      And with that, I’m going back to finish the remainder of Act 1!

      (By the way, who’s that with Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole in the YouTube clips?)

      • Mahood: I’m kind of with you on this one — I like having a rough idea what to look for (like “doublings”) for example. And the guy with Welles and O’Toole is Sir Huw Pyrs Wheldon, who hosted Monitor for the BBC from 1958-1964.

      • Eddie C. says:

        I guess you’re right. It doesn’t really bother me anyways. It’s not like I care about spoilers. (In fact, I’ve read this play more than any of the others, anyways, so I’m pretty familiar with it. However, my poor memory means I have forgotten nuances, etc.)

        I just meant that sometimes I don’t understand the point being made in an essay when it refers to stuff that hasn’t happened yet, so I feel like I’ll get more out of the criticism when I know what they’re talking about. I’m not really concerned about it revealing anything, etc.

        Actually, I have no real problem with this. I don’t know how else to do it, and besides it usually is important to put each part in the context of what happens in other parts.

        Maybe I’ll just reread the criticism after finishing to get the nuances I didn’t get the first time around.

  2. Eddie C. says:

    Oh, and yeah, I enjoyed the clips of O’Toole and Welles as well. I also enjoyed the previously posted clips from the BBC version of Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. (Though I’m not sure what I think of how Tennant plays Hamlet.)

  3. Catherine says:

    How quickly I’ve gotten far behind but am having trouble keeping up — a combination of more posts, less time on my part and my desire not to “skim” or rush the experience which I’m so enjoying.

    My routine is to 1) skim material about the play from a variety of sources — notes from the book, synopsis, Asimov’s, and other books you’ve mentioned; 2) read your post; 3) watch the clips while following along with the book and 4) do another reading.

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