Act Five, Part Four
By Dennis Abrams
There’s so much to say about Hamlet (and Hamlet), so many different ways of seeing him (and the play). I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you all – I just want to share with you some of the ways of viewing Hamlet (and Hamlet) that I find most interesting, most intriguing, and, even when I don’t agree with them, the most stimulating.
But before I dig in…I found this online yesterday. If you could, I’d like everyone to take it, and post who you are…
“At the play’s close the audience is once again presented with the theatrical metaphor of a dumb show. Hamlet’s duel with Laertes, undertaken at the behest of King Claudius, is a staged piece of theater that, like all the other plays-within-the-play, goes tragically wrong. The poisoned cup and the poisoned rapier – again, time-honored sexual symbols in literature, art, and myth – are inadvertently exchanged, so that they wreak their harm on unintended victims. The ‘union’ Claudius ostentatiously drops into the cup of wine (‘The King shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath,/And in the cup an union shall be thrown/Richer than that which four successive kings/In Denmark’s crown have worn’ is a jewel – a ‘union’ was a pearl of singular beauty and great value. But the word was also used, in Shakespeare’s day as it is now, as a synonym for marriage. Whether or not the poison drunk by Gertrude got into the cup by way of the ‘union,’ as some critics have maintained (‘The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet,’ she says gaily, as the appalled Claudius urges, ‘Gertrude do not drink,’ and then remarks, aside, ‘It is the poisoned cup; it is too late’), it is the union itself in that other sense, the ‘o’erhasty marriage’ of Claudius and Gertrude, that carries and disperses the poison.
By the end of the scene they are all dead or dying. The duel is followed, then, by the order that the bodies be place ‘[h]igh on a stage,’ both playing-space and platform, to serve as a silent example. Even in his dying words Hamlet has addressed, not only the spectators upon the stage, but the audience in the theater – in the language of the theater:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act…
A ‘mute’ is a silent person, and also was, in Shakespeare’s time, a silent actor, one who had a nonspeaking role. We are all implicated in the outcome of ‘this change,’ of this tragedy.
But Hamlet’s final injunction is to his friend Horatio:
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity a while,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
The story is to be told to Fortinbras, and to the English ambassador, both representatives of the political world. However, the injunction to ‘tell my story’ is also – as we have seen so often at the close of Shakespearean tragedy – an injunction to perform the play. In Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, in almost every tragedy Shakespeare wrote, this invitation, to ‘speak of these sad things,’ is a way of making tragic events bearable, by retelling them, by placing them at once in the realm of the social and of the aesthetic. It is important to note that Horatio himself cannot really do this. He has not heard the soliloquies, without which the play has a very different quality, far more sensational and inexplicable. [MY NOTE: I hadn’t thought about that.] ‘[L]et me speak to th’ yet unknowing world,’ he says,
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I
This is and is not Hamlet.
From Frank Kermode:
“The plot against Hamlet is mature, but instead of a climax we have the graveyard scene: more delay inexplicable in commonsense terms. Even more extraordinary is the long scene with Osric. Osric wields courtly doubles (‘very soft society, and great showing,’ ‘the card or calendar of gentry’; and Hamlet mocks him with ‘his semblable in his mirror,’ even pointing out that ‘rapier and dagger,’ used by Osric as a doublet, is really two weapons, not one. Osric, as Hamlet remarks, has ‘only got the tune of the time’ and is a possessor of ‘fann’d and winnow’d opinions.’ Hereafter Hamlet, though complaining of heartsickness, is ready; heaven is ordinant. He asks Laerte’s pardon, says he is afflicted with madness. At least we have the duel and the deaths; we are offered alternative responses, woe or wonder, and Horatio’s promised explanation will expose accidental judgments, casual slaughters, plots and errors.
Not only Osric had the tune of the time; so had Shakespeare. Hamlet is literature’s greatest bazaar; everything available, all warranted and trademarked. The sense that it constitutes a quantum leap in the development of English poetry and drama is widely shared. Some will say that the greater achievements lay ahead, but in that case Hamlet was an essential preparation for them. Whatever a critic’s approach, this will remain true; for example, the whole idea of dramatic character is changed for ever by this play. Claudius is wonderfully rendered, but is still a guilty tyrant and usurper; Polonius is a garrulous bore, a crafty operator and spymaster, yet a respected statesman; we may think we know the type or put together from experience a good idea of it, but no one much like Hamlet ever existed before. That is why images of Hamlet usually reflect what came after, not before him. To take him as the herald of a new age is neither idolatrous nor hyperbolical. In this new age we need not expect matters to be made easy for us. The new mastery is a mastery of the ambiguous, the unexpected, of conflicting evidence and semantic audacity. We are challenged to make sense, even mocked if we fail.”
In Everybody’s Shakespeare, Maynard Mack makes a case for Hamlet receiving full military honors: “After the graveyard and what it indicates has come to pas in him, we know that Hamlet is ready for the final contest of mighty opposites. He accepts the world as it is, the world as a duel, in which, whether we know it or not, evil holds the poisoned rapier and the poisoned chalice waits; and in which, if we win at all, it costs not less than everything. I think we understand by the close of Shakespeare’s Hamlet why it is that unlike the other tragic heroes he is given a soldier’s rites upon the stage. For as William Butler Yeats once said, ‘Why should we honor those who die on the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.’”
From Northrop Frye:
“As the play slowly makes its transition to the final dueling scene, Hamlet modulates to a mood of complete and acceptance. He realizes he has not long to live, but commends himself to providence – the first indication we have had that such a thing is in his world – and says simply ‘the readiness is all.’ Horatio tries to tell him that he is still a free agent, and could decline the contest with Laertes if he liked, but Hamlet has already asked Osric ‘How if I answer no?’ and Osric has said ‘I mean, my lord, the opposition of your person in trial.’ Sometimes a no-answer is more informative than any pretence of an answer: Hamlet’s enemies will not wait very long now.
The sudden quieting of mood affects Laertes as well as Hamlet. Just as Hamlet, in spite of the powerful push to revenge given by the Ghost, could not bring himself to assassinate Claudius without warning, so Laertes, with both father and sister to avenge, feels ashamed of his poisoning scheme. Laertes and Hamlet die mutually forgiven, and with ‘heaven’ absolving them of mortal sins. This does not mean that the machine-god of the earlier action has suddenly turned sentimental, in spite of Horatio’s speech about flights of angels – angels who can hardly have read the first four acts. It means rather that the two elements of tragedy, the heroic and the ironic, have reached their final stage.
On the heroic side, the last scene reminds us what a tremendous power of mental vitality is now flowing into its delta. Against the sheer fact of Hamlet’s personality, all the reminiscences of this indecision and brutality and arrogance seem merely carping: the death of so great a man is still portentous, even if he doesn’t have Julius Caesar’s comets. On the ironic side, the immense futility of the whole action takes such possession of us that we feel, not that the action has been ridiculous, but that we can look at it impartially because it has no justifications of its own. Horatio, obeying Hamlet’s charge to tell the story again – a charge more weighty than any ghostly command to revenge – promises:
So shall you hear
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.
This is a summary of what I called earlier a tragedy without a catharsis. The ironic side of the play relates to what has been done, which is precisely nothing, unless we call violent death something. The heroic side of it relates to what has been manifested. Hamlet has manifested such a torrent of abilities and qualities that Fortinbras assumes that he would have been a great king and warrior too: two roles in which we’ve never seen him. Hamlet’s earnest injunction to Horatio to tell his story expresses something that we frequently meet in the resolution of tragedies. Othello’s last speech contains a similar injunction. The effect of this imaginary retelling is in part to present what the tragic hero has done in relation to what he has been: it asks for a totally conscious judgment, not just a subtracting of bad deeds from good ones.
The contrast between judging from actions and judging from character comes into the central struggle between Hamlet and Claudius. A man’s quality may be inferred from the record of what he has done, or it may be inferred from what he is trying to make of himself at any given moment. The former is, so to speak, the case for the prosecution: you’ve done such and such, so that’s forever what you are. Most of us are aware that our potential of interests and abilities steadily narrows as we get older, and that what we can still do becomes increasingly predictable. But we tend to resign ourselves to that, unless, like Claudius, we’re blocked by some major crime and we have enough intelligence and sensitivity to know that it is a major crime. Claudius is someone of great potential fatally blocked by something he has done and can never undo.
Hamlet has an even greater potential, and has not blocked himself in the same way. He is aware of the infinite possibilities inherent, at least in theory, in being human and conscious, but, of course, knows also that even someone as versatile as he still has only a limited repertoire. It takes a very unusual mind to feel that simply to be a finite human being is to be in some sense a prisoner. We all build secondary prisons out of our actions; but these are projections of the deeper prison of what we are, the limits of our powers imposed at and by birth. Hamlet, so far as it’s a study of its chief character, is perhaps the most impressive example in literature of a titanic spirit thrashing around in the prison of what it is. A naïve consciousness would say that, although bounded in a nutshell, it was also king of infinite space, but Hamlet’s consciousness is not naïve, and it dreams.
The stock remedy for the claustrophobia of consciousness is action, even though human actions is often destructive or murderous. But consciousness is also a kind of death principle, a withdrawing from action that kills action itself, before action can get around to killing something else. Hamlet himself often comments on his own inaction in these terms, often with a kind of half-realized sense that the Ghost cannot stimulate any form of vitality, however destructive, in the living world, but can only draw everything it touches down with itself into the shades below.
The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy, as hackneyed as it is, is still the kernel of the play. It’s organized largely on a stream of infinitives, that mysterious part of speech that’s neither a verb nor a noun, neither action nor thing, and it’s a vision that sees consciousness as a kind of vacuum, a nothingness, at the centre of being. Sooner or later we have to commit ourselves to nothingness, and why should so much merit be attached to dying involuntarily? The Ghosts insists that Hamlet mustn’t die before he’s killed Claudius, and the one thing that prevents Hamlet from voluntary death is the fear that he might become just another such ghost. Until the death of Ophelia releases him, he sees no form of detachment that would achieve the kind of death he wants: freedom from the world.
During the nineteenth century, and through much of the early twentieth, Hamlet was regarded as Shakespeare’s central and most significant play, because it dramatized a central preoccupation of the age of Romanticism: the conflict of consciousness and action, the sense of consciousness as a withdrawal from action which could make for futility, and yet was all that could prevent action from becoming totally mindless. No other play has explored the paradoxes of action and thinking about action so deeply, but because it did explore them, literature ever since has been immeasurably deepened and made bolder. Perhaps, if we had not had Hamlet, we might not have had the Romantic Movement at all, or the works of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard that follow it, and recast the Hamlet situation in ways that come progressively nearer to us. Nearer to us in cultural conditions, that is, not in imaginative impact: there, Shakespeare will always be first.”
And finally today (I promise I’ll finish up Hamlet tomorrow!), from Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, on Hamlet as icon:
“When Hamlet addresses the skull of Yorick, the audience observes an icon, a memorable visible representation, of mortality. Whether Clown, like Yorick and Gravedigger (a role played by the company clown), or Prince, like Hamlet, Alexander the Great, and Caesar, we all return to the same dust. The idea is simple and potent. Hamlet’s accompanying words are unusually plain; he speaks in prose of Alexander, in doggerel couplets of ‘Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay.’ It is not the words that stick in the spectator’s mind, but the visual image that is made possible by the stage prop of the skull. An iconic moment such as this endures in the popular imagination because it means the same thing in 1600, in 1800, in 2000. It will only lose its power when we find a way of cheating death.
Now consider another iconic image of Hamlet: the slender, melancholic prince clad in black, holding a book. Where the skull was an icon of the body, the book is an icon of the intellect. Only when Hamlet has put down the book and picked up the skull, when he has stopped philosophizing about death (‘To be, or not to be; that is the question’) and looked death in the face, is he ready to carry out his task and go to his own death. Once he has held the skull, Hamlet can say of death,
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.
The book is less easily read than the skull. It is multiply iconic. ‘What do you read, my lord?’ asks Polonius. ‘Words, words, words,’ replies Hamlet. The difficult comes in the passage from words to matter, from thoughts to actions. The holding of the book iconically represents Hamlet’s isolation, his difference from everyone else in the court of Elsinore. Claudius is a man of action; in the first act, we have seen him conducting a great variety of court business. Hamlet is a man of words. His very facility in words – that restless punning apparent from his first utterance, ‘A little more than kin and less than kind’ – seems an impediment to action. He contrasts ‘actions that a man might play’ to his own possession of ‘that within which passeth show.’ The bookish Hamlet of the first four acts of the play thus becomes an icon of the gap between visible appearance and ‘that within.’ Where Yorick’s skull reminds us of the bodily mortality which humankind shares with the beasts, Hamlet’s philosophizing reminds us of those less tangible qualities in which we are different from the rest of created nature: our powers of reasoning and of speech, our self-consciousness.
Whereas the icon of the youthful Prince holding the skull endures because audiences project onto it the same thing at all times, that of Hamlet reading his book endures because audiences project onto it both the same thing and very different things. The same thing because all thinking people desire to be more than quintessence of dust, to be ‘noble in reason’ and ‘infinite in faculty.’ Different things because different individuals and different ages have divergent conceptions of what nobility in reason and infinity in faculty might mean. The elusiveness of these conceptions gives the book-icon a complexity that is lacking in the skull-icon. The skull is a straightforward figure; it would be a misreading to associate it with anything other than death. The book is susceptible to many layers of reading; we cannot say precisely what it signifies and it is quite possible that we will be able to say mutually contradictory things a bout it.
Hamlet tells Polonius that his book contains some satirical moralizing about old men. He could of course be making this up: he is the one who is satirizing the old spy Polonius. The context of the particular book is immaterial. Hamlet has been to university at Wittenberg. In Shakespeare’s time, that place name had an iconic quality: because of its association with Martin Luther, it was synonymous with the Reformation. Hamlet’s book is therefore an icon of reformed reading. To read as a Protestant meant to probe one’s books – the Bible above all – for spiritual and moral edification, whilst simultaneously examining one’s own conscience. Historically speaking, Hamlet as reader is an icon of conscience.
At the end of his most celebrated soliloquy, Hamlet says
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sickled o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
For an audience in 1600, dieted on revenge drama in the tradition of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, one of the main respects in which Hamlet was a visible representation of ‘nobility in reason’ would have been his moral scruple, that Christian conscience which makes him aware that the revenger may all too easily descend to the barbarity of his antagonist. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is a good Christian. He accept that, however sickened he may be by the flesh, he must not break God’s law against ‘self-slaughter.’ Horatio regards him as a ‘sweet prince’; to Ophelia, he was once the all-round Renaissance man, soldier, scholar, and courtier. These are roles which can only be performed well by a man with a clear conscience.
Hamlet’s task is to will himself into the very different role of the revenger. He has some success. In casting off Ophelia and publicly humiliating her, he says farewell to all courtliness. In his shortest soliloquy, after he has been fired up by the play-within-the-play, he momentarily finds the style of the traditional stage-revenger:
Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
He is as capable of violent action as any other revenger – witness his casual lugging of Polonius’ guts into the neighbouring room. Nor doe he delay nearly so much as he tells us that he is delaying: he has to establish the authenticity of the ghost, to ensure that is not a devil sent to tempt him into evil action, and as soon as he has done this by watching Claudius’ reaction to the play, he goes off to kill him; he doesn’t kill him at prayer because that would be ‘hire and salary, not revenge,’ would send him to heaven not to hell; he then thinks that he has killed him in Gertrude’s chamber; it turns out that he has killed Polonius instead, and as a result he is packed off to England; as soon as he has tricked and dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, effected his daring escape via the pirate ship, and returned to Denmark, he is in a state of ‘readiness’ and the revenge duly takes place during the duel.
But the style of the ‘hot blood’ soliloquy is completely unlike that of the Prince’s other solo speeches, which are all much longer and more introspective. It is from them that we derive our image of the intellectual Hamlet: in the first act, so disgusted by his mother’s hasty remarriage that he wishes he were dead; in the second, moved to self-disgust by the way in which the player can work himself into a frenzy for the fictional sorrows of Hecuba, while he himself has not yet done anything about his father’s murder; in the third, meditating on the afterlife; and in the fourth, still chiding himself when he compares his own inaction with the military activity of Fortinbras and his army (‘How all occasions do inform against me/And spur my dull revenge!’). Hamlet’s self-analysis leads us to wonder whether his failure to kill the praying Claudius might be the result of procrastination, even mental paralysis, not calculation about whether he would be sending him to heaven or hell. The soliloquies present such a convincing picture of irresolution and inaction that even when it comes to the final scene we cannot help noticing that the killing of the King seems to happen by chance, to be not so much the climax of Hamlet’s plans as an incidental consequence of Laertes’ quest for revenge for the deaths of his father and sister.
The word ‘conscience’ in Elizabethan English did not only mean internal acknowledgement of the moral qualities of one’s motives and actions. An older usage of the word was still audible: it could also refer to the mere presence of inward knowledge. ‘Conscience’ was ‘consciousness.’ It is Hamlet’s extreme self-consciousness which sets him apart from the traditional revenger. When alone on stage, reflecting on his own situation, he seems to embody the very nature of human being; it is consciousness that forms his sense of self, his ‘character,’ and in so doing makes it agonizingly difficult for him to perform the action that is demanded of him.
For this reason, the philosophizing Hamlet has remained an iconic figure long after the particular issue upon which he tests his conscience (the morality and the consequences of blood-revenge) has lost the immediacy it had when the play was first performed. Hamlet has become a universal dramatic character because he is an icon of human consciousness.
Yorick’s skull remains the same, but Hamlet changes as conceptions of consciousness change.
Dr. Johnson, annotating the play for his edition of 1765, took the word ‘conscience’ in the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy merely to refer to the way in which criminal action may be checked by fear of eternal damnation in the hereafter. Johnson regarded Hamlet as a reluctant and ultimately unwitting instrument of divine providence – after all, the Prince is not the one who poisons the cup, and the rapiers are exchanged by chance. ‘Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent.’
By the time we watch Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of the play, from which I have taken my visual representation of the intellectual Hamlet, there has been a radical change. At the beginning of the film, a voice-over imposes an interpretation upon the play: ‘This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.’ This, in other words, is a tragedy of consciousness. Johnson regarded Hamlet as a blind instrument; Olivier reads the play in terms of the character’s agency, his growth from irresolution to action. ‘In scuffling they change Rapiers,’ reads the original Folio stage-direction. Hamlet is not consciously trying to get hold of the poisoned foil; it is providence, not the Prince, who hoists Laertes with the petard of his own envenomed point. But Olivier’s Hamlet is self-consciously in control: angry at being pricked with an unbated point, he flicks the rapier out of Laertes’ hand, traps it beneath his foot, refuses to return it to his opponent, and picks it up for himself. Olivier’s reading, from the assertion of Hamlet’s indecision in the opening voice-over to the staging of agency in the closing duel, was made possible by a shift in emphasis from ‘conscience’ to ‘consciousness’ that occurred in the intellectual life of late-eighteenth-century Europe. Olivier’s Hamlet was the Romantic Hamlet, the nineteenth-century Hamlet. ‘It was not until the nineteenth century,’ wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘whose speculative genius is a sort of living Hamlet, that the tragedy of Hamlet could find such wondering readers. Now, literature, philosophy, and thought are Shakespearized. His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.’”