“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.’


Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Death is the final destination for Hamlet (and Hamlet), but even so, despite the prince’s multiple desires to escape the prison of his flesh, he does not go down gently.  Having put up Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel, Claudius does his best to make sure that Hamlet is finally dispatched – whether it be by Laertes’ swordsmanship, the poisoned “treacherous” weapon, or poisoned wine.  Yet Hamlet, newly aware that “the readiness is all,” fails to be compliant.  He fights back.  Having teetered so long in irresolution, Hamlet ONLY becomes a revenge tragedy in its concluding – in fact in its dying – moments.  Even so, the play never loses its interest in the chaotic unpredictable nature of death.  Laertes is wounded by his own sword.  Gertrude drinks the poison intended for her son.  Claudius is stabbed only when Hamlet realizes that he himself has been mortally wounded.  (Would he have done it otherwise?  Doubtful, I think.)  Shakespeare’s pacing of this final scene is truly astonishing, and is, I suspect, something that’s only truly comprehensible in performance – from Osric’s announcement of the duel to the moment when Gertrude collapses is only around 200 lines, perhaps ten minutes on stage; yet is only another fifty lines before Laertes, Claudius, and finally Hamlet are finished and dead (or dying) onstage.  Quite suddenly, in almost the blink of an eye, the revenge is complete, the revenger is quickly dying, and everything is very nearly over.

But although our hero is, characteristically, still thinking of his audience while he prepares himself for his final interruption, the certainty that “the rest is silence,” he is also fully aware that events have come full circle.  The play ends at it began, with the death of a Hamlet.  ‘You that look pale and tremble at this change,” he says to the spectators crowding around,

That are but mutes or audience to this act,

Had I but time – as this fell sergeant Death

Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –

But let it be.

One can only imagine the things he could tell us…if there was but time…

But the play will not quite let Hamlet be.  Just after he is interrupted by death, and starting on that long overdue (and awaited) journey to the “undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns,” the stage is filled with “warlike noise,” drums and trumpets, as the Norwegian army of Fortinbras swarms on.  Hamlet’s corpse is lifted and carried off, destined for what the new King of Denmark announces will be a soldier’s funeral.  Is it fitting?  It is the last misunderstanding, but this time our hero is no longer around to protest.


From John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet, continuing on the subject of death from the chapter “Hamlet’s Return.”

“If disease [MY NOTE:  Or, as I’d put it rot or “sullied flesh”] is the leading motive of Hamlet as a whole, that of its finale is death.  It opens in a grave-yard where clowns, in whom custom has made internment a property of easiness, sing and jest amid the grim adjuncts of the charnel-house; and after an antimasque on the theme of the ancient profession of grave-maker, we are led to consider skulls of various kinds:  a politician’s, a edwin-booth-as-hamlet-act-5-scene-1courtier’s, a lawyer’s, a jester’s, and lastly (in imagination) Alexander the Great’s.  There follows a funeral, the funeral of a suicide; (Wilson’s footnote:  ‘I am not suggesting that Ophelia was a suicide, only that the Gravediggers’ altercation, the maimed rites and the churlish priest’s words make the funeral that of a suicide; it is the atmosphere not the fact that matters.’); and men struggle horribly by the open grave.  The scene changes, and we are once more among the less enduring habitations of the living, only to be reminded that what the living live for is to compass the death of one another.  The hero proudly relates how by his contrivance two men have been

   put to sudden death,

Not shriving-time allowed.

And he in turn is then inveigled into a game of skill, in the which he is treacherously slain with a poisoned blade, after himself killing two other persons, while yet a fourth drinks death from a poisoned cup.  The ground is strewn with corpses, like some forest glade at the end of a long day’s chase.  And the play closes with the invocation

         O proud death,

What feat is toward in thine eternal cell,

That thou so many princes at a shot

So bloodily hast struck?—

with an inventory of its contents in the summary

Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads;

and with soldiers bearing off the bodies to the sound of a dead march and the peal of ordnance.


Yet this dance of death with its appalling catastrophe is less painful to contemplate than the hopeless frustration presented by the preceding movement of the drama.  Our sense of relief is due in part to the purging of the emotions by the pity and terror of tragedy, in part to the excitement of the fencing-match before it suddenly becomes a shambles, but most of all to a renewal of our interest in and admiration for the hero himself.  Hamlet returns from his voyage a changed man, with an air of self-possession greater than at any other time of the play.  We are not told why [MY NOTE:  Bloom goes deeply into this – I’ll be posting that later in the week.]; but we may fancy, if we like that the seas have helped to expel the ‘something-settled in his heart,’ or that he has gained confidence from the hoisting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with their own petard, or that simply his ‘cause of distemper’ is wearing off.  The real source of the change is, of course, a technical one.  The requirements of tragic drama compel his creator to win back our respect for him before the end, to dissipate the clouds at sunset.  Hamlet, we feel, is himself, or almost himself; and we begin to hope once again, though because he is the hero of a tragedy we know that our hope is fain.

Of this change, as with previous developments, we receive due forewarning.  There is not a touch of despondency in his letters.  That written to Horatio is business-like, shows its author master of the situation in which he finds himself, and fills us with anticipation for the future.  The letter to the King is brief, not to say curt; but it contains one sentence which, we may guess, gave Hamlet great pleasure in the writing. ‘To-morrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes.’  He had watched those smiling, furtive eyes as they blenched at the vision of one victim being done to death in mimic show; how will they look when confronted with a second intended victim safe and well?  In any event, there will be no smile in them as they light upon the word ‘To-morrow.’

When he appears in the grave-yard, Hamlet considers its human remains a little ‘too curiously’ perhaps, but in very different mood from that of his jesting with the guts of Polonius.  His mind is no longer infected; the nausea in ‘And smelt so? pah!’ is sufficient indication of that.  Further, though he meditates on death, and even seems to be resigned to it, there is no longing for it; thoughts of suicide have been put from him.  As for the task, so far from worrying about it, or reproaching himself with neglect, he speaks of it calmly and with apparent assurance; telling Horatio that the King has filled the cup of his inquiry to the brim and that it is time an end was put to it.  Lastly, the ‘antic disposition’ has entirely disappeared; and though he makes fun of Osric he does so without bitterness, if with a good deal of contempt.  Hamlet is, in short, except for one incident, the complete Prince; dignified, cool, reflective, very noble in his speech to Laertes before the fencing-match, and nobler still in death.

Yet beneath all this lurks the old Hamlet, the less excusable because his distemper has all but vanished. Shakespeare never lets us forget that he is a failure, or that he has failed through weakness of character.  And as failures will, he has become a sentimentalist in his last phase.  He stands by the newly made grave with the skull of Yorick in his hands, and the world, itself ever sentimental, loves to picture him thus.  But the grave across which he casts his jests or utters his philosophy of vanity of vanities, that creed of sentimentalists, has been prepared for a woman whom he has brought to death.  The corpse of Ophelia is real; the vanity, as Horatio hints, is Hamlet’s over-curious imagination tracing ‘the noble dust of Alexander, till a’ finds it stopping a bung-hole.’  Moreover when the shrouded figure is borne in, and its identity is made plain, the man who has just been moralizing almost tearfully upon the remains of a jester dead three-and-twenty years ago, can find nothing to utter but unconcerned surprise. (Wilson’s footnote:  ‘If we remember that when he last saw her he was thinking of her, and treating her, like a prostitute who had consented to tempt him to self-betrayal, the unconcern seems natural enough.’)  ‘What, the fair Ophelia!’  It is very much what he says when he comes upon her first in the nunnery scene; and he could hardly have said less had he recognized the pretty daughter of his washerwoman being borne to her burial.  Dr. Bradley interprets the exclamation as the utterance of ‘one terrible pang,’ but if Shakespeare had intended that, he must have phrased it otherwise.  The epithet ‘fair’ makes it remote, almost callous.  We are reminded of the bored Macbeth and his

She should  have died hereafter.

Such involuntary coldness produces its own reaction, as the speaker recollects what the dead had once been to him and is shamed by the recollection.  Macbeth seeks to excuse his insensibility by generalizing his loss in ‘Out, out, brief candle!;’ and the rest.  Hamlet, being ‘most generous,’ will have the greater shame; it is moreover aroused by the Queen’s

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife

and is then immensely aggravated by the ‘bravery’ of Laertes’ grief.  ‘O, it offends me to the soul, to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags,’ Hamlet had declared to the First Player.  The indecent over-emphasis of Laertes likewise offends him to the soul, a soul already offended by its own under-emphasis.  The result is explosion, the last exhibition of that uncontrolled hysteria which we have seen at work throughout the play.  Hamlet explains it later to Horatio as a ‘towering passion,’ of anger with Laertes; and there can be no doubt that the rodomontade about ‘forty thousand brothers,’ drinking eisel and eating crocodiles, which concludes

nay, an thou’lt mouth,

I’ll rant as well as thou,

is in the main prompted by the desire to heap Ossa upon the Pelion of Laertes.  What more there is in it is not love for Ophelia – that had been dead and buried long before she was – but self-reproach that love is absent: he is careful to say, ‘I loved Ophelia.’  The outburst makes a fine scene, however, and the excitement of it no doubt brings him pleasure.  And if in retrospect he feels a little apologetic, that is only because the similarity of their situations gives him a fellow-feeling with Laertes; not on Ophelia’s account.  Indeed, he does not mention her then, and at no time seems in the least conscious that he is responsible for her death.  He is outraged by the staginess of Laertes; though he has himself come to prefer dreams to reality and play-acting to deeds.

We do not, of course, realize all this at once as we sit and watch the scene in the theater.  It is there ready to be seen as we later ponder or talk over the sinuous, shimmering changes in Hamlet’s mood which flash in and out of sight like a lizard.  But Shakespeare, as so often, in this play above all others, offers us a double plane of vision, the one for reflection and the other for immediate apprehension.  [MY NOTE:  Or, as Godard put it, the poet vs. the playwright.]  There can be no doubt that our first reaction to the funeral scene is intended to be in Hamlet’s favour.  The re-entry of Laertes in act 4 has given Claudius an ally, young, attractive, much wronged and, above all, most determined and energetic.  His figure for a while overshadows that of Hamlet, and is meant to.  But the time has come to redress the balance, and Shakespeare with his usual boldness brings the young men first face to face with each other by the open grave of her whose death gives the brother the strongest claim upon our sympathy, and is most likely to alienate us from the lover responsible for it.  Hamlet’s conduct is strange, even terrible.  But when the attendants have parted them, and he stands away from the grave quivering with a passion that gradually subsides into a pathetic reminder of the old friendship between them, the ranting insincerity of Laertes has become commonplace and contemptible beside the agony of this great and tortured spirit.  For we are left in no doubt about the agony, whatever be its cause.  And as we note it and, prompted by the queen, remember the mental distraction with which he is cursed, we acknowledge his essential nobility and pity his affliction.  His affliction even leads us to condone his part in Ophelia’s death.  The unhappy girl is doubly buried; in the grave-yard and in the minds of the spectators.  We forget her at any rate for the moment; and Hamlet’s silence about his responsibility, noted above, helps us to forget.  The showman does not wish our minds to be running upon that just yet.

It is the same story in the matter of Hamlet’s revenge.  Though he speaks of his duty and behaves as if he had returned fully intending to carry it out, he takes no effective action to that end.  Indeed, Shakespeare shows us that, but for the discovery of the crowning treachery in the fence with Laertes and his excitement thereat, he never would have killed the King.  He may demand passionately

     Is’t not perfect conscience

To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damned,

To let this canker of our nature come

In further evil?

But it is only the old reflection ‘now might I do it.’  And Horatio, the clear-eyed, makes this striking rejoinder:

It must be shortly known to him from England

What is the issue of the business there.

In other words, if the deed is to be done at all, it must be at once; for directly the news of the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reaches Claudius, all opportunity for action will be gone.   Hamlet brushes this aside impatiently

It will be short, the interim is mine,

And a man’s life no more than to say ‘One;”

a single pass, that is, will finish Claudius off.  And he then, as Dr. Bradley  notes, immediately changes the subject. But neither Dr. Bradley  nor, I fancy, any other modern has seen that Shakespeare brings the English ambassadors in at the end of the play in order to demonstrate how short the interim actually is and to register the fact that though it had been at Hamlet’s disposal he fritters it away.

That these points generally escape notice shows how quietly and unobtrusively they are made.  For, once again, though Hamlet is Hamlet to the end of the play, his creator wishes now to emphasize the nobility of the man rather than his weakness.  Both nobility and hamlet-saltoweakness are exemplified in the business of the fencing-match which Hamlet out never to have undertaken, and by means of which the catastrophe is effected.  We love him for the very carelessness with which he falls in with the designs of his enemies, culpable as that carelessness is; and our mingled feelings are well expressed for us in advance by the King’s confident prophecy to Laertes that

He being remiss,

Most generous, and free from all contriving,

Will not peruse the foils.

It is a comment Shakespeare gives Claudius on purpose to catch our sympathy with his victim.  WE love him, again, for the fatalism, reliance upon Providence, call it what you will, which eh employs to justify this carelessness.  He has been plucking the lapwing Osric, feather by feather; and hardly has the fop retired with his message than another lord enters with an enquiry from the King to know if his ‘pleasure hold to play with Laertes,’ or whether he ‘will take longer time.’  Mr. Granville-Barker has taught me that this second, and at first blush entirely superfluous, emissary was introduced by Shakespeare in order to interpose a brief interval between the raillery with Osric and the solemnity of the moment that follows the lord’s exit.  To expiate upon such a moment is to suffocate it; a better way is direct quotation:

Horatio:  You will lose this wager, my lord.

Hamlet:  I do not think so.  Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice.  I shall win at the odds; but thou wouldn’t not think how ill all’s here about my heart – but it is no matter.

Horatio:  Nay, good my lord –

Hamlet:  It is but foolery, but it is such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a woman.

Horatio:  If your mind dislike anything, obey it.  I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

Hamlet:  Not a whit, we defy augury.  There is special provivdence 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, of aught he leaves, know what is’t to leave betimes, let be.

Hamlet is fey, as heroes have been since the dawn of literature, but was ever feydom so wonderfully set forth, or a doomed hero more adorable

Finally, we love him for his attitude towards Laertes.  His admiration for others, and his charming and easy bearing towards his inferiors in rank – the two traits are closely associated – have endeared him to us from the beginning of the play.  Indeed, when the springs of the affectionate sympathy with which we follow his career are explored they will be found to consist, apart from the innate grandeur of his spirit, very largely in two things: first, the unreserved, almost boyish, delight with which he greets Horatio and Marcellus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the players, as they come in one after another; and secondly the affection he himself displays, especially in the confidential talk as the play scene opens, towards his friend Horatio.  This impulsive magnanimity finds its last and most attractive expression in his behavior to Laertes.  ‘That is Laertes, a very noble youth,’ he exclaims to Horatio as he first catches sight of him in the funeral procession.  And he captivates us completely by the ‘gentle entertainment’ he uses before they fall to play; for the good faith of his request for pardon and of his pleas of ‘a sore distraction,’ as most critics have done, is to murder a beautiful effect.  Shakespeare intended the speech to win our hearts, and never for a moment expected us to take it at anything but its face value.  The proof of Hamlet’s sincerity is that his later conduct is consistent with it and that Laertes is evidently shaken by his generosity.  He calls Laertes ‘my brother’; he declares that he ‘will this brother’s wager frankly play;’ he compares his ‘ignorance’ with Laertes’ ‘skill;’ and he asserts that the King ‘has laid the odds o’th’weaker side.’  He had told Horatio that, ashamed of his treatment of Laertes at the grave-side of Ophelia, he intends to ‘court his favors.’  He does so in simple-hearted and ingenuous honesty; for he admires Laertes, and his admiration at once redounds to his own honor and blackens that of the unworthy object of it.

‘I’ll be your foil, Laertes,’ he cries,

in mine ignorance

Your skill shall like a star i’th’darkest night

Stick fiery off indeed.

The words, genuine enough on Hamlet’s part, are dramatic irony on Shakespeare’s.  The roles of the two men are now completely reversed.  Hamlet’s irresolution has shown drab in contrast with the brilliant impetuosity of his rival, fresh from Paris and burning with revenge for his father.  In the sphere of action Laertes puts him utterly to shame.  But decision and determination do not make ‘character,’ though the world thinks so.  There is also nobility and generosity, honor and integrity of soul, and in this sphere Hamlet shines ‘like a star i’th’darkest night’ against the base iniquity of his opponents.  The sword-play of the last act, in short, symbolizes the conflict of two principles, the eternally recurrent, never concluded, battle between disinterested and material ends.  From the time of Socrates, ‘who drank his poison and is dead,’ the champions of the spirit have paid the price; for the princes of this world are all-powerful.  They are, moreover, unshackled by scruple; they have not to shrink at buying ‘an unction of a mountebank.’  That Hamlet dies fighting in this battle is his vindication.  Called upon for deeds he fails, dismally and completely; he is immortal for what he is, for the ‘noble substance’ which no failure can ‘dout,’ no death can annihilate.”

So…a simple question for the group.  Do you love Hamlet (the man, not the play?)


More tomorrow…


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