Act Five, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
As our examination of Hamlet draws to an end (I’m thinking two more posts – today and Sunday – and I’m waiting all of your comments/questions/etc. on the play!), I’d like to open with a bit from Bloom (I’m going to save his concluding thoughts for the last post on Hamlet) who I think is extraordinarily strong in his examination of Act Five:
WE DEFY AUGURY
“Why does Hamlet consent to enter Claudius’s murderous mousetrap, the poisoned duel with Laertes? The question opens again into the larger enigma: Why does Hamlet the Dane return to Elsinore, evidently with no plans to depose of execute his usurping uncle? The shuffling Claudius is bound to act: had the duel not snuffed out Hamlet, a dozen further schemes would have followed. Detachment toward his dilemma is all but absolute in the new Hamlet: ‘We defy augury.’ Defiance is scarcely detachment, but Hamlet’s defiance is not easy to characterize.
So fierce is the prince’s wit, advanced beyond even his prior brilliance, that it can obscure the audacity of his reentry into the Danish court. By returning, he has no options beyond killing or being killed. The same mob that followed Laertes could more readily have been summoned by the prince, beloved by the people, according to Claudius’s earlier, rueful admission. Yet Hamlet entertains no such prospects. Power is there, whenever he chooses to take it, but he no longer desires to be king. What, if anything, does he still want?
Something in Hamlet dies before the play opens, and I set aside the prevalent judgment that the deepest cause of his melancholia is his mourning for the dead father and his outrage at his mother’s sexuality. Don’t condescend to the Prince of Denmark: he is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are. That, ultimately, is why we need him and cannot evade his play. The foreground to Shakespeare’s tragedy is Hamlet’s consciousness of his own consciousness, unlimited yet at war with itself.
Though Shakespeare’s overly hermetist references are scattered elsewhere, sometimes in unlikely contexts, like Coriolanus, I belatedly agree with Dame Frances Yates that the Shakespearean Theater of the World has subtle links to visionaries like Giordano Bruno and Robert Fludd. Shakespeare was not like Victor Hugo and W.B. Yeats, an occultist, but then he was not any other single thing either, be it Catholic, royalist, or conservative. Preternaturally, he picked up anything useful to him that was available in his era. I hesitate to call any particular utterance by Hamlet a central statement, but this comes closest:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form an moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god…
One knows that Shakespeare was not Pico della Mirandola – hermetist, Kabbalist, Neoplatonist – but Pico would have been happy to agree that in apprehension we could again be gods. Hamlet uniquely fuses apprehension and comprehension, and could be viewed as the hermetist, Anthropos, or Man-God, come again. What could the professors at Lutheran Wittenberg taught Hamlet, even in the arts of literature and theater? Hamlet potentially is a great poet-dramatist, like his creator, who attended no university. We do not (and need not) know Shakespeare’s prime malaise, but we know Hamlet’s: to be a mortal god in an immortal play. Any Fortinbras or Laertes could chop Claudius down; Hamlet knows he deserves the prime role in a cosmological drama, which Shakespeare was not quite ready to compose.
LET IT BE
The final act of Hamlet is a maelstrom, punctuated by its protagonist’s admonitions: ‘Let be’ and ‘let it be.’ Too wise not to sense the Claudius-Laertes plot, Hamlet nevertheless affirms his desire to come to an end of playacting:
I shall win at the odds. Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; but it is no matter.
A director might advise his Hamlet to slow down for ‘how ill all’s here,’ since the wonderful ‘ill all’s’ needs to be sounded clearly. Horatio tries to hold off the end, but Hamlet will not:
Not a whit. We 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 now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
I have repunctuated this intricate passage, according to my sense of it. Hamlet’s New Testament references are personal, and have neither a Calvinist nor a Catholic aura. Clearly, he is audacious enough to adopt the accents of Jesus so as to appropriate them for the passion of his own betrayal (by Laertes) and his own sacrifice, though not to Yahweh alone, which was the stance of Jesus. If there is a precise providence in a sparrow’s or a prince’s fall, such providence nevertheless excludes Calvin’s system. But what is ‘it?’ ‘Death’ can be only part of the answer: resolution of impasse is as large a part. Hamlet, weary of drama, casts his role definitively. ‘The readiness is all’ may reflect the Geneva Bible’s phrasing of Jesus’ gentle irony concerning the disciple Peter asleep on watch: ‘The spirit indeed is ready, but the flesh is weak.’ Hamlet thrusts aside his natural fear of annihilation, in order to center upon what I judge to be a bitter rhetorical question: ‘What is’t to leave betimes?’ The precise moment of annihilation does not matter, because we know nothing about anything (or anyone) we leave behind. For Hamlet himself, death is not tragic, but an apotheosis.
APOTHEOSIS AND TRAGEDY
Hamlet, as a ‘poem unlimited,’ is too large for tragedy, though it is the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark. What is a tragedy, and what is an apotheosis?
Tragedy began as Dionysian song and dance, in archaic theater. Friedrich Nietzsche assimilated Hamlet to ‘the Dionysian man,’ and observed that Hamlet thought not too much, but much to well:
‘Not reflection, no – true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.’
I once found this persuasive, but begin to doubt it, because I think that Hamlet was a new kind of man, and I have affirmed his affinities with the David of the Book of Samuel. The Dionysian is a very old kind of man: an ecstatic. Hamlet is as critical as he is creative, as rational as he is intuitive. He does not listen to the voice of the god, but rather to his own voice, which both mediates and expands his own consciousness of self. If Hamlet perishes of the truth, such truth is barely external. Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be.
Ever time I have managed to get through an entire performance of Hamlet – increasingly difficult these days – I have to admit that even my most intense rereadings of the play do not prepare me for the cognitive and aesthetic effect of Hamlet’s death upon me. Apotheosis is an extraordinary challenge even to Shakespeare’s exaltation of a human being to a seeming transcendence? Despite Horatio’s loving evocation of flights of angels, Horatio and Hamlet seem to mean different things by ‘rest.’ Horatio may hint at resurrection, but Hamlet has experienced resurrection already, and may expect only the silence of annihilation. Shakespeare, who perhaps accepted that for nearly all his protagonists, wants something different for Hamlet. The prince may not be going to join Falstaff ‘in Arthur’s bosom,’ yet he is going to move us to an apprehension of value gained rather than lost by his immolation. Though Hamlet’s apotheosis is so difficult to describe, the audience’s sense of it appears to be all but universal. Even to the most secular among us, Hamlet’s death has vicarious resonances, though it cannot be called an atonement.
What Jesus still is to many believers, Hamlet still is to many skeptics: the exemplary figure. Shakespeare, whatever his personal convictions, did not compose either as believer or skeptic. The passion of Hamlet (to call it that), seems more Davidic than Christlike, but then believers do accept David as Jesus’ ancestor. Charisma gloriously expires upon stage, to our edification. We tend to feel augmented, rather than diminished, by Hamlet’s death. The eloquence of the prince’s departure, in the theater, has rivals in the last moments of Lear and of Macbeth, but possibly no rivals as a suggestion of apotheosis. How can Shakespeare attain so unique an effect when Hamlet overtly does not contend with supernal powers, but only with the wretched shuffler, Uncle Claudius?
The poet Swinburne, a good Shakespearean critic, observed that ‘the signal characteristic of Hamlet’s inner nature is by no means irresolution or hesitation or any form of weakness, but rather the strong conflux of contending forces.” I think that it is a clue to Hamlet’s charisma, to his highly individual power over change and the final form of change – that is to say, over nature and death. Hamlet discovers that his life has been a quest with no object except his own endlessly burgeoning subjectivity. This truth, intolerable to any of us, helps turn Hamlet into an angel of destruction. Contending with unknown powers within his own self, the prince seems to struggle also with the spirit of evil in heavenly places.
Wrestling Jacob, hardly a foretype of Hamlet, held off a nameless one among the Elohim (perhaps the angel of death) and survived to win the new name of Israel. Hamlet, at the close, identifies himself with his own angel of death, and wins no new name. Indeed, he dreads bearing ‘a wounded name,’ and enjoins Horatio to go on to endlessly tell Hamlet the Dane’s story. Breaking from his sources, Shakespeare gave the same name to the Hamlets father and son, but they are as unlike as, say, Yahweh and Jesus, absurd as it is to compare the warrior-king to the God of Abraham, or the Son of Man to the prince of skeptics. And yet all comparison is rendered absurd by Hamlet’s enigmatic apotheosis.
Both the play and his own sensibility confine Hamlet: he is too large for tragedy, for his own self, and weirdly too titanic for imaginative literature. Shakespeare, though he fought against his creature’s transcendence of all forms, loses the battle in the final scenes. Paradoxically, what ought to have been (as T.S. Eliot argued) aesthetic failure became the most absolute of aesthetic triumph, by standards the character and the play pragmatically have invented. I have no idea whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet’s apotheosis, but more than other writer, he sets in motion energies that in themselves give the impression of being transcendental, rather than either personal or social. We do not know precisely how it is that we come to believe Hamlet has jeopardized his life in the high places of the field. Why are we persuaded that somehow Hamlet fights for us? That apparently infinite fascination of the figure stems from the enormous magnification of consciousness that it embodies, yet also from the refinement of consciousness into a quintessence that plausibly can intimate apotheosis.
HAMLET AND THE HIGH PLACES
W.H. Auden, ambivalent toward Hamlet, remarked that the prince’s lack of faith both in God and in himself resulted in the stance of the player’s or actor’s constant state of performing. As I have admitted, the Hamlet of the first four acts seems to sustain just such a judgment, though I also have surmised that Shakespeare defended against Hamlet by thus rendering him histrionic. All of us in the audience share Shakespeare’s ambivalence toward Hamlet, for one some level the prince frightens us as much as he attracts us. And yet the Hamlet of the final scenes is very different. An aura of transcendence surrounds him, as here in the astonishing speech with which he seeks reconcilement with Laertes:
Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;
But pardon’t as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows, and you must needs have heard,
How I am punish’d with a sore distraction.
What I have done
That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o’er the house
And hurt my brother.
Does Hamlet, then, believe in his former madness? Do we? When did it end? It began as an antic disposition, another weapon in the struggle with Claudius, and then was exploited by Hamlet, even abused until it bordered upon derangement. Each of us decides separately whether the border was crossed: I think not. And yet I do not find dissimulation in this noble speech. Hamlet is past that: he has moved from player to poet, but poetry, at its best, lies against time, and time’s ‘It was’ (to appropriate Nietzsche). Too prescient not to know that a plot is under way (‘how ill all’s here about my heart’), Hamlet is testing Laertes, and presumably does not believe the grudging response ‘I do not receive your offer’d love like love/And will not wrong it.’ that is a mere lie, against the present, and I hear irony in Hamlet’s rejoinder:
I embrace it freely,
And will this brother’s wager frankly play –
Hamlet the son, unlike Hamlet the father, is too knowing not to recognize another ‘brother’s wager,’ akin to Claudius’s murderous wager against the king. Wine cup and fencing foil are both poisoned, betraying how desperate Claudius has become. Hamlet discovers this almost as soon as we do, and goes into the duel spiritually prepared for it. Why, then, does he preclude Claudius’s mousetrap with:
….I have shot my arrow o’er the house
And hurt my brother.
Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver. He has very little of his sister Ophelia in him. Shakespeare lavishes everything upon Hamlet; there is little left for any other character in the play, the Grave-digger briefly excepted. Though Hamlet fences with great skill, and finishes off Claudius with brutal contempt, the prince’s mind is disengaged, throughout this scene of slaughter. Conceding his own likely death when entering Claudius’s trap, Hamlet is already in his own place, the high place of dying. We can name that place only because it is Hamlet’s, but no one else in the play, not even Horatio, will help us to recognize it. It is the place where even the most acute of all self-consciousnesses, Hamlet’s will lose the shadow of self while continuing to expand as a consciousness. What we have called Western Romanticism is the last embellishment of Hamlet’s great shadow, cast off to become a thousand other selves.
The anti-Hamlet arrives with the belated reentrance of Fortinbras, who has marched over the stage, with his army, in Act IV, Scene iv. Hamlet enters there only after Fortinbras has exited, and the Norwegian prince parades into Elsinore a few lines after the Prince of Denmark’s death. By this interesting ellipsis, Shakespeare emphasizes that Hamlet and Fortinbras never meet. Why are they kept apart?
Shakespearean omissions fascinate me: Lear and Edmund never exchange a word; Antony and Cleopatra, except for a moment, are not seen alone together; it is left uncertain whether Othello and Desdemona ever consummated their marriage. So sly is Shakespeare that Hamlet has time to mock the fop Osric but is not allowed to confront Fortinbras, whose father was slain by Hamlet’s father, and who, like Hamlet, is blocked from the throne by an uncle.
Hamlet, with amiable irony, has termed Fortinbras ‘a delicate and tender prince’ who marches off to Poland ‘to gain a little patch of ground’ not large enough to bury those who will die disputing it. But Fortinbras is a head-basher, like his late father and like King Hamlet. It is another irony that Hamlet, who has just stabbed Claudius with the envenomed rapier, and then forced poisoned wife down his uncle’s throat, prophesies that Fortinbras will be elected the new king of Denmark, and casts his own vote: ‘He has my dying voice.’
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
[Exeunt marching, bearing off the bodies, after which a peal of ordnance is shot off.]
By ‘most royal,’ Fortinbras means ‘like father, like son,’ which is all he can understand. Shakespeare concludes the play with audacious irony: Hamlet receives full military honors, as if he too would have become a great killing machine. The largest representation we have of consciousness carried beyond conceivable limits is to be buried as though he were Henry V.
Fortinbras represents the world, but not the audience. Doubtless, Hamlet would have been courteous enough to Fortinbras had they met, but what could they have said to each other?”
And more on Sunday evening. Enjoy your weekend.