“Our wills and fates do so contrary run/That our devices are overthrown:/Our thoughts our ours, their ends none of our own.”


Act Three, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams

I found this description of Hamlet (the man, not the play, although he’s really a character in a play, but you know what I mean), in Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare that I kind of fell in love with – I think it captures him, at least for me.

“Hamlet is intellectual, but we do not learn this from his thoughts, for he has none; he does not deliver himself of propositions.  Of the many statements he makes there is none which is made for its own sake, and with the sense that it would be true at another time or place.  In any situation only the relevant portion of the person speaks; the whole man never does, except in the play as a whole, which can be thought of as his body speaking, or rather his life.  He is that unique thing in literature, a credible genius.  [MY NOTE:  Let me say that again, “He is that unique thing in literature, a credible genius.]  But the reason is that Shakespeare has kept our view restricted to the surface.  Here is an intellectual seen John_Barrymore_Hamlet_1922altogether from the outside.  We know him as one from the way he behaves, not from the things he says he believes.  We may not assume, indeed, that he believes what he says.  For one thing he is a soul in agitation, his equilibrium has been lost.  This glass of fashion and this mold of form, this noble mind whose harmony was once like that of sweet bells rung in tune, this courtier, soldier, scholar whose disposition has hitherto been generous and free from all contriving, this matchless gentlemen who has never been known to overstep the modesty of nature, is not himself save for a few minutes at the end when his calmness comes back like magic and his apology to Laertes can almost avert the catastrophe which every event has prepared.  His words elsewhere are while and whirling; or they are cruel in their kindness; or they are simply cruel.  Or they are spoken for a calculated effect – the calculation in most cases being extempore.  For Hamlet is immensely sensitive to his environment, and adjusts himself with marvelous quickness to its many changes.  His asides are sudden, like needles whose function is to keep both him and us awake to the farthest implications of the danger close at hand.  His repartee is pistol-swift, whipped out by one forever abnormally on guard against real or imagined enemies.  And his soliloquies are secret mirrors the subdued brilliance of whose shifting planes reflects the predicament that surrounds him, past and future as well as present.

Curiously then we know a man in terms of what he is not; this gentlest of all heroes is never gentle.  But it is more complicated than that.  Hamlet is an actor.  Like any character in whom Shakespeare was greatly interested, he plays a role.  He plays indeed many roles, being supreme in tragedy as Falstaff was supreme in comedy.  His long interest in the theater has taught him how, but his best tutors now are the pressure of circumstance and the richness of his own nature.  Like Falstaff he shows the man he is by being many men.  With the exception of Horatio there is no person in the play for whose benefit he has not conceived and studied a part.  He acts with the King and Queen, with Ophelia, with Polonius, with the court at large; taking on and putting off each role as occasion dictates, and at the climax of the tragedy wearing all of them simultaneously.  For in the scene of the play within the play he has his audiences for the first time together.  Now the fiction of Ophelia’s Hamlet must harmonize with that of her father’s, of the King’s, of the Queens, and with that of the general public.  Only a virtuoso would succeed.  But Hamlet, not to speak of Shakespeare, is a virtuoso, and he succeeds.  No playwright ever attempted a subtler scene, or ever achieved it with so little show of labor.  The only thing we are conscious of is the intentness with which we follow the waves of meaning across Hamlet’s face.  The whole meaning of the play is in vibration there, even if we cannot put it in words of our own.  There is, of course, no slightest reason why we should desire to do so.

As always in Shakespeare, the style of Hamlet is the man.  He is made of mercury and so has many styles, yet they are one if only because they ever are telling us of what he is made.  His tongue is as flexible as his mind.  It knows its way among all words, all tones, all attitudes.  And it is superbly trained.  The intellect of its owner is apparent in nothing so much as his literary skill.  With no notice at all he can say anything, and be master of what he has said.  ‘Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the work so fast?’ ‘To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man pick’d out of ten thousand.’ ‘You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal.’ ‘Then is doomsday near.’ ‘Denmark’s a prison.’ ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ ‘To be, or not to be: that is the question.’ ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.’ ‘Get thee to a nunnery, go.’ ‘I say, we will have no more marriages.’ ‘No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive.’ ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery.’ ‘I will speak daggers to her, but use none.’ ‘I must be cruel, only to be kind.’ ‘Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.’ ‘I see a cherub that sees them. ‘Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?  Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chopfallen?’ ‘But I am very sorry, good Horatio, that to Laertes I forgot myself.’ ‘But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.’ ‘If it be now, ‘t is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; yet it will come; the readiness is all.’ ‘The rest is silence.’ The simplicity of such utterances reveals a great man and a princely artist, and artist to much the master of his medium to be proud of what he can do with it, or even to be conscious that it is there…”


From Garber:

“In the refitting and revising of the play-within-the-play, The Mousetrap, we have a good example of how Renaissance plays were adapted for different occasions, sometimes by a second or third playwright.  Hamlet asks whether the players could learn ‘some dozen or sixteen lines’ he will insert, to do the work (the detective work, the cultural work), he needs the play to do, in testing Claudius’s guilt.  The Mousetrap is a dramatic fiction that resembles, very closely, what he thinks happened in ‘real life – the murder of the previous King, the good King, Hamlet’s father.  Later in the play Hamlet once again crucially revises a script, in this case the sealed letter from King Claudius, carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, requesting the King of England to cut off Hamlet’s head, and again he will imagine it as a staged action: ‘Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,/They had begun the play.’

The play’s events will turn in part on the visit of this group of traveling players to Elsinore…Why are the players traveling, rather than playing in a theater in the city?  As Hamlet points out, they were better off in the city, in terms of both their reputation and their capacity to turn a profit.  But we learn from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the fashion for child players, the boy actors performing satires in the private theaters, has driven the adult company out of the city.  Hamlet, a self-confessed aficionado of the HamletPlayerKing-Ltheater, provides a good brief description of the kind of actors and parts, there were in sixteenth-century companies, as well as an ironic commentary on the fictionality of real-life roles:  ‘He that plays the King shall be welcome; his majesty shall have tribute of me.  The adventurous Knight shall use his foil and target [sword and shield], the Lover shall not sigh gratis [without payment]…, the Humorous Man [someone governed by the one of humors, which were thought to influence the emotions, such as anger or melancholy]…the Clown…the Lady…’  Hamlet has met these players before, and he greets them as old friends.  The First player – the main actor, the star – has grown a beard since he saw him last; the boy who plays female parts (addressed by Hamlet as ‘my young lady and mistress’) has not only grown taller, his voice may soon be changing, rendering him no longer fit for women’s roles.

From Bloom:

Act III, scene ii, begins with forty-five lines in which Hamlet instructs and admonishes three of the players who are to enact his Mousetrap.  In this poem unlimited of so many wonders, nothing is more central than Hamlet’s excursus upon the purpose of playing.  Only the First Player, who will act the Player King, is allowed any replies, and these are confined to ‘I warrant your honour’ and ‘I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us.’  That is the player Will Shakespeare meekly accepting the authority of the player Richard Burbage, who transparently speaks not as the prince of Denmark, but as the resident dramatist of the Globe.  Something of the high good humor of this, four centuries ago at the globe, necessarily is lost to us now.  Yet the gain is larger than the loss, since we long to listen to Shakespeare’s own voice and rarely are offered it, even in the Sonnets.  Now we hear it:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as life the town-crier spoke my lines.  Nor do saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempst, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.  O, I offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise.  I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant, It out-Herods Herod.  Pray you avoid it.

The overactor, or roaring boy, is to imitate Shakespeare-Hamlet, who has just spoken, trippingly on the tongue, what I take to be the speech of the Player King, still too little valued by our critics and directors:

hamlet-player-kingPlayer King:   I do believe you think what now you


But what we do determine, oft we break.

Purpose is but the slave to memory,

Of violent birth but poor validity,

Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,

But fall unshaken when they mellow be.

Most necessary ‘tis that we forget

To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.

What to ourselves in passion we propose,

The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.

The violence of either grief or joy

Their own enactures with themselves destroy.

Where joy most reveals grief doth most lament;

Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.

This world is not for aye, nor ‘tis not strange

That even our loves should with our fortunes change,

For ‘tis a question left us yet to prove,

Whether love lead fortune or else fortune love.

The great man down, you mark his favourite flies;

The poor advanc’d makes friends of enemies;

And hitherto doth love on fortune tend:

For who not needs shall never lack a friend,

And who in want a hollow friend doth try

Directly seasons him his enemy.

But orderly to end where I begun,

Our wills and fates do so contrary run

That our devices are overthrown:

Our thoughts our ours, their ends none of our own.

Whose nature is mirrored here, Hamlet’s or humankind’s?  Do all of us will against our own characters/fates, so that our designs are always thwarted?  If character is fate, so that there are no accidents, then our desires do not matter.  Freud thought it was all over before our first birthday; Hamlet seems to give us even less freedom from overdetermination.  If everything that ever will happens to you is only a mirror of your own character, than holding the mirror up to nature becomes rather a dark activity:  all of us are the follow of time, victims of an unfolding we cannot affect.  I do not think that this is Shakespeare’s own vision, nor will it be Hamlet’s, in Act V, yet it is evidently Hamlet’s ground of despair in the life he has endured before his return from the sea.  When we see him in the graveyard, in Act V, he will have been resurrected.


Hamlet’s own nature never can be confined to a single purpose, but a mousetrap has only one function.  In Act V, Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature, yet in the abyss of Act II, Scene ii, through Act III, scene vi, all artistry is put to the question.  Are we spectators at a play, or are we the play?  ‘The players cannot keep counsel: they’ll tell all,’ Hamlet remarks to Ophelia.  But can we, under Shakespeare’s influence, still keep counsel?  Rightfully hurt, Ophelia tells Hamlet, ‘You are as good as a chorus, my lord.’  There is an implied reproach:  the chorus is not a protagonist.  With fierce wit, Hamlet replies, ‘I could interpret between you and your love if I could see the puppets dallying.’  Ophelia has no other love:  Hamlet would be spectator to his own dalliance.  The copulating puppets have no voice without the interpreter.  Oscar Wilde, interpreting the enormous influence of Hamlet, remarked that the world has grown melancholy because a puppet, a prince, was sad.  The Mousetrap is a puppet show, but so is Hamlet, at least until the end of Act IV.

Wilde argued that nature held a mirror up to playing, a contention echoed by W.B. Yeats, for whom mirror upon mirror was all the scene.  Hamlet, however generally melancholy, is never more exuberantly cheerful than when Claudius rises, ‘frighted with false fire,’ and rushes out shouting: ‘Give me some light.  Away.’  In the pride of having made a better mousetrap, Hamlet claims Shakespeare’s own share in the Globe’s proceeds:


Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, with Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players?


Half a share.


A whole one, I.

Could not The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, be retitled A Cry of Players?  What possesses Shakespeare to drive him on in this pack of theatricalities?  Richard Lanham, rhetorically more than aware that Shakespeare is ‘writing a play about the kind of play he is writing,’ brilliantly echoes Hamlet:  ‘Human flesh is sullied with self-consciousness, with theatricality.’  Yes, but no other human (or puppet, if you prefer) is as sullied as Hamlet.  Shakespeare’s theatricalism is there in all the plays, but nowhere else it is as aggressive as in Hamlet.  Why?  The prince, if we press him too close on this, is likely to compound us with the cat’s-paw Guildenstern:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me.  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 music, in this dark little organ, y et cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?  Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me.

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous.  [MY NOTE:  Yes.]  But for the Ghost’s second appearance, we wonder if Hamlet would murder Gertrude, as Nero executed his mother, Agrippina, who had poisoned her husband, another Claudius.  Hamlet duly warns himself against just this, but only after disclaiming, ‘Now could I drink hot blood.’  He is sufficiently rough with her to cause the outcry ‘What wilt thou do?  Thou wilt not murder me?’  In the event, he assuages his rage by manslaughter, skewering Polonius through a curtain, but the thrust is a displacement of his true will, which is to immolate Gertrude.

Despite the urgings of Freud, and of his hagiographer Ernest Jones, there are no traces of Oedipus in Hamlet.  The Hamlet Complex is not incestuous but again theatrical.  Hamlet, prince of players, kills players; at the tragedy’s close we are richer by eight corpses:  Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet himself.  The stage is bare except for Horatio and Fortinbras, and a bevy of spear carriers, and since Horatio attempts suicide, we might almost have been down to one, the killing machine Fortinbras.  That is prodigal even for Shakespearean tragedy, but belongs to the Hamlet complex, of which murderousness forms as large a component as does self-conscious theatricality.  Or are the two components fused:  should we speak of a murderous theatricalism?

Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, no matter what its defenders say, is palpably a bloody farce, a blow-up of Marlowe and Kyd.  Hamlet is anything but that, yet the glint in the eye of the maker of Titus Andronicus isn’t altogether extinguished in Hamlet.  What Hazlitt called gusto is the play’s salient characteristic.  Hamlet is so exuberant, whether in irony or grief, that his rhetorical excessiveness rivals Falstaff’s.  Falstaff, bless him and us, is not at all murderous: he rightly ascribes blood-madness to ‘honor,’ and he will have none of it.  We can be reasonably certain that Shakespeare shared more of Falstaff’s spirit than of Hamlet’s.  The speaker of the Sonnets has no will to hurt anyone, whatever the provocation.  If compelled to march into battle, he would have emulated Falstaff, and taken along a bottle of sherries-sack in his holster.

Falstaff, master of theater, nevertheless is scarcely theatrical.  Sir John need not play the part of Falstaff: he is neither a double man nor a counterfeit.  Hamlet is a multiple man: who can count him?  He says that he counterfeits madness, and I believe him, but how much else does he counterfeit?

Some critics believe Hamlet when he complains that he is caught up in a play not at all suitable for him.  [MY NOTE:  I tend to agree with this – imagine him, let’s say, in Othello – he would have seen past Iago and destroyed him with words in moments, while Othello would have had no problem taking out Claudius within moments of the ghost’s instructions.]  I once believed that, but now I rather doubt that we ought to give credence to Hamlet, because he is his own Iago as well as his own Falstaff.”


Your thoughts?




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1 Response to “Our wills and fates do so contrary run/That our devices are overthrown:/Our thoughts our ours, their ends none of our own.”

  1. Pingback: Lost Universe | Becoming is Superior to Being

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