Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hamlet: Tragic Virtue

Shakespeare was interested in the way insignificant persons can change, promote or derail the schemes of their betters while mindlessly pursuing their own eccentric and unrelated schemes. What the gentlemen of Messina (Much Ado About Nothing) are too stupid to discover, a shallow fool, Dogberry, brings to light. Poor instruments, as Cleopatra says, may do noble deeds. Or they may change the course of history in a way that no one could have predicted. Polonius in Hamlet, like Lucio in Measure for Measure, is important because of his self-importance, his lack of self-awareness and his simplicity: he makes things happen because he is a simple minded busybody who doesn’t know what he is doing. Hamlet, notoriously, does not know what he is doing either; but Hamlet knows it.

It is Polonius who decides that Hamlet must be mad—so much in love with Polonius’s daughter that he goes mad indeed when she jilts him—and sets up the scenes that put this idea, and more, to the test. It is Polonius’s insatiable appetite for information and his itch to be at the center of things that keeps him busy and conspicuous for more than half the play, and finally kills him. As he bustles about in pursuit of his idée fixe, the audience begins to take his measure even as that audience is being perplexed by Hamlet. Knowing nothing about love or madness, Polonius sets up a series of scenes in order to test his hypothesis. None of these scenes go as he expects. Intentions always go awry in Hamlet—that principle is embedded in the structure of the play—and the intentions of Polonius are as important for the seemingly
aimless action of this play as are those of the ghost. In the chaotic economy of Hamlet, this man who never knows what he is doing is an appropriately unwitting agent.

Polonius is an old man on whom everything is lost. Insults go right over his head. People like him have been the stock in trade of comic playwrights and novelists for the last four hundred years. Why this tragedy should require such a comically obtuse fellow to move it along is an interesting and important question.

Since Hamlet is disinclined to act, someone else must do so if there is to be a play at all. The hero, throughout, is almost entirely passive, responding merely to people who come to him, or to traps that others have designed. The only action that Hamlet initiates is a play, The Murder of Gonzago, and he would never have thought of it if a troupe of actors had not happened to come to Elsinore. Nor would he have figured out the truth about how his father died on his own (though he has his suspicions); the spirit of his father has to tell him.

There is one moment in the play when one might be tempted to take Polonius seriously. His advice to his son is almost as famous as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. No one ever quotes the bitter wisdom of the Player King, but everyone knows at least some of the rules of prudent lifesmanship on which Polonius lectures Laertes, especially the complacent admonition,

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man. I.3.78-80

Bunkum. The scoundrels and con artists of the world are certainly notbeing false to themselves as they ply their trades. Iago is being perfectly true to himself—insofar as he or anyone else understands thatself—as he deceives Othello. There could be a connection between
self-knowledge and morality; that depends on the self and its principles.

Polonius, complacent and infatuated with his own eloquence, does not understand that he is merely uttering platitudes: his advice to Laertes does not come from inner experience but from books, the literary tradition of such fatherly advice being already both ancient and
well-known in 1600. And since his idea is only a platitude, it carries no weight and is easily forgotten. It is no help at all when difficult choices have to be made. So Laertes, who prides himself on being a gentleman and man of honor, is oblivious to the dishonorable nature
of the plot that he and Claudius jointly hatch against Hamlet’s life in Act V. Like father, like son. Having neither inner selves nor principles to be true or false to, they have no internalized sense of shame. They are not morally autonomous agents but creatures, rather, of an inauthentic world of fashion, gossip, rumor, prejudice, platitudes, conventional niceties, received opinions. The court at Elsinore, like any social institution, is full of people just like them: not villainous characters for the most part, not smilers with knives like Claudius, but ordinary people who also take their selves and principles for granted and can only be shamed by some form of public exposure.

Polonius’s comic scene with Reynaldo shows us a man who is willing to risk dishonoring his son in order to enjoy, vicariously, the life that he thinks his son is living in gay Paree. It is a scene that seems to serve no particular dramatic purpose, one of the scenes, perhaps, that Samuel Johnson was complaining about in his notes, “that neither forward nor retard” the action of the play. But it tells us something important about Polonius. It brings out his avidity for information at any cost, and it suggests a possible parallel with Hamlet’s real father: each is parasitic on the life of his son, and each is indifferent to the fact that, by using his son to satisfy his own passion or curiosity, he puts him at risk. But, because the scene is lightly handled, as if to bring out the comic irrelevance of Polonius, audiences are unlikely to connect the scene or horrendous visitation that has just taken place. The scene belongs to the banal world of a court inhabited by mediocrities, not monsters. As Nicholas Grene aptly remarks, “Part of Hamlet’s difficulty in executing his father’s commands is the very banality of the world in which he
finds himself. The world of Hamlet is an ordinary world, a world of the morally second-rate." The ghost is still very much a part of that world, in his contempt for his brother and his passion for revenge, a motive which, while understandable, is not only unchristian but second-rate
by any civilized standard. That’s why he is in Purgatory: he’s too virtuous for Hell, too earth-bound for Heaven.

Hamlet, like Romeo and Juliet, has a pair of star-crossed lovers, but Hamlet and Ophelia never have a chance to escape from Denmark, or even to think about it; their affair is snuffed out almost as soon as it begins. The combined action of necessity and contingency in the earlier
tragedy is crystal clear; the tragic machinery works like a clock, all its gears and levers in plain view. Nothing is simple or clear in Hamlet, least of all the reasons that lead Polonius to decide that Ophelia should end her tentative love affair with the prince. The scene in which she is
forced to do so is as important as are the ghost’s revelations for the future action of the play, and Shakespeare wastes no time in putting it before us.

Quite spontaneously, it seems, Polonius and Laertes gang up on Ophelia and force her to break off relations with Hamlet. As if speaking with one mind, they tell her that Hamlet is just like other men; all he cares about is sex. Don’t trust him; he will tell you anything to get
you into his bed; once bedded, soon forgotten. (Polonius’s remarks in this respect are particularly rank, gross and cynical.) This accusation is not, as it happens, entirely gratuitous, as Hamlet himself knows only too well: his mother has just made it clear to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear that she is a vigorously sexual being and doesn’t care who knows it. She just couldn’t wait, it seems, to get into her brotherin- law’s bed—not even one month, says Hamlet when we meet him for the first time. Like mother, like son? Neither Polonius nor Leartes would be so stupid as to say such a thing. They don’t have to. They are not afraid that Hamlet won’t marry Ophelia (which is what they tell her) but that he will. Her name, a transliteration of the ancient Greek word for gain, profit or advantage, ofeilia, shows exactly what she means to her father and brother. These men are entirely dependent on royal favor and they do not want to be on the losing side of the coup d’etat that has just taken place and may soon claim another victim. Anyone who knows anything about the ways of the political
world—and Polonius certainly considers himself to be very wise about such things—would assume that Hamlet probably does not have long to live. Ophelia mustn’t have anything to do with him. Since this scene precedes the Ghost’s account of how poison had been poured into his ear, and the lies with which the ear of Denmark has been abused in the ensuing cover-up, the audience may not see Polonius’s assault as a metaphorical poisoning. It is only in retrospect,
knowing the play as a whole, that the meaning of the scene becomes clear: character assassination. It is as if this play about doubt and uncertainty were willing for a time to give Polonius and Laertes the benefit of the doubt.

Polonius and Laertes think they are protecting themselves and Ophelia by preventing her from marrying the Prince. Instead, their efforts serve to draw them into the conflict that will destroy them all.

Intentions always go awry in this play, as we have already noted. The well-known gap between Hamlet’s intention to avenge the death of his father, and the actions that such an intention requires, coincides with a hole in playtime that the play hides with one hand and reveals with the other. When Hamlet exits, at the end of I.5, saying “the time is out of joint”, the clocks in Denmark stop and are not restarted for at least two months. How do we know? Because Hamlet makes a joke about the power of time to assuage grief as he is chatting with Ophelia before the opening of his play. When she asks him why he is so merry, he replies with cheerful malice, “What should a man do but be merry, for look you how cheerfully my mother looks,
and my father died within’s two hours.” “Nay,” replies Ophelia, “Tis twice two months.” (Hamlet, in his reply, acts as if he hasn’t heard that word “twice”—or doesn’t want to hear it.) We already know, from Hamlet’s first soliloquy, that his father has been dead for not quite two months when the play begins. (Gertrude marries Claudius less than a month after the death of Hamlet Senior. About a month later, his ghost begins to walk.) So Hamlet sits on what he learns from the ghost fortwo months, which may feel like two hours to him, and does nothing. Or almost nothing, for he does manage to speak and behave in such a way as to attract attention and alarm the King. So empty is this time, otherwise, that the play virtually ignores it; for that, as Granville-Barker acutely notes in his discussion of the play, is what Hamlet is doing.

“It would never occur to us,” says Harold Jenkins in his introduction to the Arden edition, “that Hamlet is neglecting his revenge if he refrained from saying so himself”—unless we happen to have noticed how much time has elapsed between the end of the first act and the beginning of the second. Since no audience is likely to pick up on the fact that a crucial two months of Hamlet’s life are unaccounted for, Shakespeare could only draw our attention to the fact that Hamlet is neglecting his duty by having him talk about it.

This analysis of play time may be pedantry but it is not idle; the deviousness of the play forces us into it. The question is, why doesn’t Shakespeare treat this matter in a more straightforward way? Why not make it clear to the audience, in no uncertain terms, that time passes and nothing happens? Why not be a little more explicit about the kind of behavior that is upsetting the court, alarming the King, and making people like Polonius think Hamlet’s gone mad? We can infer Shakespeare’s intentions from what we know about the play and the literary tradition (or traditions) from which it emerged. (See my other essay on this play, "Hamlet: The Madness and The Critics.)

Whatever really happens—or doesn’t happen—to Hamlet as a consequence of the ghost’s horrific revelations has to remain as obscure to the audience as it is to Hamlet and those around him; we can’t understand him any better than he understands himself, which is not at all. 

Hamlet no longer knows who he is; he has lost his way and knows it. That is a postulate of the play: This is not a play about a man who can’t make up his mind, as Lawrence Olivier says at the beginning of his film, but a man who is remaking his mind and self as he goes along. That is why the play, as Goethe observed (a brilliant insight which he made no further use of) seems to have no plan. As Granville-Barker might have said, Hamlet seems to be making itself up as it goes along because that is what Hamlet himself is doing.

It took a long time for the deviousness of Hamlet—its radical strangeness—to sink in.
Thomas Kenny, in 1864, seems to have been the first person to notice this quality:

“Hamlet is, perhaps, of all the plays of Shakespeare the one which a great actor would
find most difficult to embody in an ideally complete form. It would, we think, be a mistake
to attempt to elaborate its multiform details into any distinctly harmonious whole.
Its whole action is devious, violent, spasmodic. Its distempered, inconstant irritability is
its very essence. Its only order is the manifestation of a wholly disordered energy.”

The spirit of Virgil, Dante’s literary hero, is sent from Heaven to rescue him from fear and
confusion, and set him on the right path at the beginning of The Divine Comedy. No spirit, from an intact literary or spiritual tradition, is available to rescue Hamlet from his fear
and confusion. The spirit that comes to show him his way is the single-minded and morally questionable ghost of his father, released momentarily from Purgatory, and the path he puts him on is that of a moribund theatrical tradition, the revenge play.

One of the most striking facts about Hamlet is the speed with which this man forgets this ghost and the dreadful task it has laid upon him. “Remember me,” it commands, but that as Hamlet quickly learns, is beyond his power. Do we forget what we want to forget? In almost no
time at all the ghost becomes a distant, if oppressive, memory, and Hamlet, who has no idea why he wants to put it out of his mind, becomes a mystery to all including himself.

The only person not confounded by Hamlet is Polonius, the great explainer, a man who knows little but thinks he is wise. Nothing can shake his confidence in his own perspicacity and what it tells him about Hamlet. But since the wisdom of Polonius is strictly conventional, while wit is surprising and original, it is only natural that Hamlet should remain an enigma to him; or that
he should confuse what in Hamlet is authentically strange or wayward with madness.

Anyone, like Hamlet, who tries to reconstruct or reimagine himself is likely to seem strange or even mad to those to those who have always been able take themselves for granted. What's it like when one can't do that? When all your assumptions about yourself and your place in the world are slipping away? Reconstructing a self is a desperate act, like sawing off the branch you are sitting on; you wouldn’t do it if you didn’t have to. There are no rules, charts or guidebooks. It is easy to make unforgivable mistakes, take a wrong turn, get irretrievably lost, go mad indeed.

Madness is still a mystery. We have names for conditions that we think we know something about, like schizophrenia or depression, but then we have this word, 'madness', which refers to something huge and scary and unknown, and we have another word, 'mad' that is used to describe actions or attitudes that we don't understand or fear or disapprove of: the words and actions of Hamlet, for example.  Madness, in other words, is often a matter of opinion.
The fact that it is Polonius, of all people, who pronounces Hamlet to be mad is a reason not to take that diagnosis at face value, especially when you consider the absurd scene (II.2) in which he serves it up to the King and Queen. Nowhere else in this play will you find a more naively confident display of intellectual impotence. Polonius’s ostentatious display of rhetorical foot-work is comic, in part, because it doesn’t do quite what he intends it to do. He wants to impress the King and Queen with his perspicacity and knowledge and doesn’t hear the note of impatience in Gertrude’s terse command to get on with it: “more matter with less art”. It would never occur to him that his art reveals an absence of matter. “What is madness?” he asks. Why, “what is’t but to be nothing else but mad?” This delightfully simple-minded tautology is followed by an engagingly self-satisfied grammatical pun, as the madness of Hamlet is “declined”:

And he repelled, a short tale to make,
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for. II.2.151

We should not be too scornful of Polonius’s efforts here. Forced to define the nature of madness, few of us would be able to improve much on his rhetorical question.

Polonius’s attempt to communicate the incommunicable can be compared to Hamlet’s, as described by Ophelia in her account of his visit. Polonius’s account is all art and no matter. Hamlet’s body-language is clearly expressive, but of what? Polonius’s rhetoric is intended
to conceal but actually reveals the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Hamlet seems to have something to say that he either cannot or will not reveal, but it is also possible that, like Polonius, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

He looked, says Ophelia, “As if he had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors.” Hamlet Sr.’s ghost had been loosed out of purgatory to speak of horrors. Is that what Hamlet wanted to speak to her about?—the burden that had recently been placed upon him by his dead father? For a man who is as suspicious of seeming as he is, he seems (as Ophelia describes him) to be putting on an extraordinarily theatrical performance. But what is it a performance of? The horrific experience of talking to a dead man? The metaphorical hell of the abandoned lover? Or is he regretfully abandoning her? Is he mocking the theatrical gestures of despair, or naturally falling into them, or both? No one knows, including Hamlet, who, for the moment, at least, is so distraught that doesn't know if he is coming or going.

Shakespeare put this scene into indirect discourse to avoid having to include stage directions at least as elaborate as those describing the pantomime in The Murder of Gonzago. Here too we can make a pretty good guess about Shakespeare’s reasons: by putting his stage directions
into Ophelia’s mouth, Shakespeare avoids the necessity of having to commit himself and the play to a particular interpretation of Hamlet’s gestures. Shakespeare must have wanted the meaning of this scene to be enigmatic. Hamlet is clearly in despair, but why? Polonius, in his simplicity, thinks he knows.

From this strange pantomime much follows, including the scenes in which Polonius puts his ideas about Hamlet’s madness to the test. The first of these tests (in II.2), in which Polonius is
invited to see himself as a fishmonger, is comic in the way a conversation can be when one person is fishing for information and gets more than he bargains for (and more than he can understand), and because of the way Hamlet dangles the really interesting bits just out of Polonius’s reach.

Though it’s a bit of a reach for the audience, it is not impossible to follow the string of associations that link fishmongers to dead dogs to kissing carrion to Ophelia. The unifying conception, clearly, is sex: the randy sexuality of Gertrude, the congenital randiness with which Polonius has just besmirched the character of Hamlet, the randiness associated with fishmongers’ daughters (in 1600), the universal randiness of nature which breeds maggots promiscuously in dead dogs and dead kings—and will soon breed them in us all. What’s of particular interest is the logic that leads Polonius by the nose to the seething, stinking carcass that has been prepared just for him: a wittily fit comeuppance for his lies. “You think you know all about sex do you?”( Hamlet seems to be saying). “You don’t know the half of it. Nature is one huge sexpot, all she cares about is reproduction, and that beautiful daughter you think you’re protecting is as much a part of nature as you or me or my mother. Watch out: if the sun can breed maggots in a dead dog just by looking at it, what might it do to some really choice carrion?—your naturally randy daughter, for instance. Better yet, what might a man do?—the son of a king, say. Don’t let her out of your sight.”

This is not the man that Ophelia has just described, so distraught he doesn’t know what to say. When we see him here he is in such perfect control of his words and meanings that he can use them for his own amusement and ours; as if the self he is reconstructing has suddenly
taken shape.

Hamlet is not a humorless plotter like Brutus, but a man who is better at making jokes about his situation than he is at changing it. He'd rather cut up his enemies with wit than a sword. Just to be sure we fully take in the feline delicacy of Hamlet’s wit, Shakespeare has him make a mirror of it for Polonius to look into.

Pol. What do you read, my lord?
Ham. Words, words, words.
Pol. What is the matter, my lord?
Ham. Between who?
Pol. I mean the matter that you read, my lord.
Ham. Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old
men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes
purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a
plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams; all which,
sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it
not honesty to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, shall
grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.


This is wit for wit’s sake. It doesn’t do any work in the play; it is play, not work. And while wit can be cruel, it can also be beautiful. The matter that oozes from old eyes that are no longer good for much— Polonius’s as we know are especially purblind—could have been imagined in some pretty ugly ways, but is here whimsically transformed into a substance that manages to be, ambiguously, not only thick and gummy but exotic, precious, even fragrant. It is a delicate touch, as is the crab that Polonius suddenly becomes, scuttling backward in time to recover his lost youth. Polonius was a young man once; not only handsome but witty—perhaps.

Hamlet is a satirical rogue but not of the rough, shaggy sort that Renaissance etymologists assumed to be lurking behind the word ‘satire’ which, they thought, was derived from ‘satyr.’ His wit often has the lightness of touch we have just observed, even when he is being coarse (by our standards), as in his conversation with Ophelia before and during the performance of his play. A. C. Bradley found such frank joking about sexual matters unforgivable and could not imagine how any lady could tolerate it. But Ophelia doesn’t seem to mind overmuch and is no more heavy-handed in her rebuke than Hamlet is in his jokes. “You are naught, you are naught,” she says and that “naught” has about as much force behind it as “naughty” would today. She is as playful in her way as he is in his. The deranged misogyny (“I have heard of your paintings wellenough....You jig and amble, and you lisp...”) of the nunnery scene (in III.1) seems to have been easily forgiven and forgotten.

The conversation that most obviously combines work (the work of inquiry) and play occurs when Hamlet has his first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Ham. My excellent good friends! How dost thou,
Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencranz! Good lads, how do you both?
Ros. As the indifferent children of the earth.
Guil. Happy, in that we are not over-happy, on Fortune’s capwe are not the very button.
Ham. Nor the soles of her shoe?
Ros. Neither, my lord.

Ham. Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
Guil. Faith, her privates we.
Ham. In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true, she is a strumpet. What news?
Ros. None, my lord, but the world’s grown honest.
Ham. Then is doomsday near. But your news is not true. Let me question more in particular.

Though the tone is playful, the inquiry is not. When Rosencranz and Guildenstern identify themselves, deprecatingly, as fortune’s “privates” in both senses of the word, they think Hamlet won’t get their private joke. Wrong: he learns from their own mouths that they are shameless and will do anything, no matter how obscene, for pay. Asked for the latest news, they think they are being slick when they say that “the world’s grown honest.” They think Hamlet won’t get the
point—that they have come to sell their shifty services to this crooked King because they could not find anyone else who would hire such a pair of unconscionable rascals. Wrong again. Goethe thought it a particular stroke of genius that there should be two of these fellows instead of one:

What these two persons are and do, it is impossible to represent by one. In such small matters we discover Shakespeare’s greatness. This lightly stepping approach, this smirking and
bowing, this assenting, wheedling, flattering, this whisking agility, this wagging of the tail, this allness and emptiness, this legal knavery, this ineptitude and insipidity—how can they be
expressed in a single man? There ought to be dozens of these people, if they could be had; for it is only in society that they are anything: they are society itself; and Shakespeare showed
no little wisdom and discernment in bringing in a pair of them.

Like Polonius, who also knows what side his bread is buttered on, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shameless; like Laertes, they have no morally autonomous selves to be true to. Like societies, like nations, like kings, they have interests, not morals. Claudius is different
because he can be shamed.

Hamlet’s playfulness manifests itself in other ways. The very first thing Hamlet does with the information that the ghost has given him about his uncle is to gleefully turn it into a truth universally acknowledged (at least in Denmark): “that one may smile, and smile, and be a
villain”. This is followed by the mock-serious tautology, “There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark but he’s an arrant knave”. (And then the scene slides off into farce—in which even the ghost participates.) The first thing Hamlet does when his play achieves its intended purpose
and sends the King off the stage, screaming for light, is play: first with Guildenstern (“Will you play upon this pipe?”) and then with Polonius (“Do you see yonder cloud . . .?”). What does Hamlet do with Polonius’s body? Play with it, of course: “Safely stowed.” When the King demands, “Where’s Polonius?”, the reply is witty and pointed: “At dinner.” And so is the ensuing dialogue about worms and beggars and kings. It is mad—or manic—wit to be sure, and also perfectly genuine: not an act but the gallows humor of a man, virtually at the end
of his tether, who knows that Nature is all there is. When you’re dead, you’re dead, “that’s the end” (having completely forgotten, once more, that he has just seen a ghost.) The end of life for everyone, kings or beggars, is to become food for maggots—to be recycled, not resurrected.
This strikes Hamlet, beset by men who don’t understand that they too are nothing but worms’ meat, as a great joke; the fact that they don’t get it makes it funnier still. It is, of course, no time for joking, but that’s the point: having run out of time, all he can do is mock the fools who have cornered him. And so once more Hamlet dramatizes the fact that playing, not acting, is what he’s best at.

The Murder of Gonzago (which seems to have been entirely of Shakespeare’s devising) is Hamlet’s one carefully planned act. It is fiction, or as Polonius would say, a bait of falsehood to catch a carp of truth. Like Polonius, Hamlet hopes by indirection to find direction out.
It does not occur to him that while he may catch “the conscience of the king,” he will also have lost his one advantage in his deadly game by revealing what he knows.

Hamlet’s play has other consequences that no one could have predicted: the death of Polonius, the redemption of Gertrude, Hamlet’s exile and return, the madness and death of Ophelia, and so on, concluding finally with the death of Hamlet and the triumph of Norway over Denmark.

The strangest thing about The Murder of Gonzago is the way it reflects on the larger play of which it is a part. The Player King, for example, takes a tolerant view of his wife’s inconstancy, which he regards as inevitable. Speaking to the Player Queen about his approaching death (from sickness or old age as he thinks), he reflects sadly but realistically on the fragility of promises and the weakness of the will in a changing world:

I do believe you think what now you speak,
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.

Inconstancy is natural and inevitable, virtually a law of nature. So general are the terms of this law of universal frailty that it applies to Hamlet as well as to his mother. In the heat of passion, he swears a great oath of revenge; the passion ending, as all passions must, something
happens to that passionate purpose. It gets lost, and from time to time we find Hamlet trying to bring it back. When the players arrive, fortuitously, the speech he asks for is a horrendous description of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, taking hideous revenge on Priam for the
death of his father. But if Hamlet expects the example of Pyrrhus to whet his blunted purpose, he is mistaken. Much to his surprise and mortification, it is the artificial tears of the player, weeping for Hecuba, that shame him. And while he uses the example of the player’s tears
to whip himself into imagined violence (“. . . I should have fatted all the region kites,/With this slave’s offal”), the form of action he finally hits upon is nothing so primitive as the revenge of Pyrrhus, “mincing” the limbs of Priam with his sword while Hecuba is forced to watch; far from it. Putting on a play that strips your enemy of his lies, exposing him for what he is, is not only more civilized but more elegant, as well as morally superior. Under the primitive political circumstances in which Hamlet finds himself, however, it is not enough. If he doesn’t kill the King, the King will kill him. But Hamlet, for all his wit, does not understand this elementary political fact.

The whole play is like that: events slipping and sliding out of control, taking turns that had not been intended or foreseen. In this play, people have only momentary control over the consequences of their words and actions, which is another way of saying that things rarely go as
expected. Johnson criticizes Hamlet for being “rather an instrument than an agent,” but that is a distinction that the play seems to have been designed to blur.

Hamlet is an ironist, and irony, we commonly think, is incompatible with sincerity. Hamlet shows us that the common view is wrong: irony makes it possible to be sincere in a corrupted and corrupting world. Irony can be a form of honesty. So Hamlet always means what he says
even if he does not always say all that he means. Anyone who can maintain that precarious balance is an ironist—a sincere ironist.

Hamlet, to be sure, doesn’t always know all that he means. Nor does he always keep his balance; no one does. We are like him in that if in little else.

He loses his balance, most notably, when he falls into the trap set for him by Polonius and the King, with Ophelia as bait, and treats her, as Johnson remarks, with “useless and wanton cruelty.” Just when he thinks he has figured out why people consent to remain in this world
despite its multitudinous insults and indignities, he comes upon Ophelia. He had forgotten all about her, just as he forgets from time to time about the job he has been given to do. The great meditation on being and not being gives no more weight to dispised love than to the law’s delay or the insolence of office, and ignores Woman and Sex altogether. There are worse indignities to a noble mind, perhaps, than the pangs of dispised love: there are the pangs of desire.

Johnson assumes that Hamlet is playing the madman in this scene which, it seems, is how (in the eighteenth century) the scene had always been played. It seems to me, however, that Hamlet has every reason to be incensed when Ophelia assumes, as if she doesn’t know better, that it was Hamlet who dumped her instead of the other way around. He’s not mad, or pretending to be, but angry. For once he says all that he means, and more, without a trace of irony.

Though he begins by talking to Ophelia as a person, he ends by treating her as an abstraction, Woman. What irritates him about Woman is her power as a sexual being to distract and confuse Man: not her weakness, or “frailty” but her power to remind men that they are part of the dung and the mire of Nature whether they like it or not, “nailed,” as Montaigne says, to the worst place in the universe. To be part of Nature is to be a sexual being, driven to procreate by the lash of desire, like everything else that flies or swims or crawls. The disgusting work of generation never stops.

Hamlet can only remove himself from Nature and its promiscuous sexuality by ignoring the fact that he too is a sexual being. Woman with her wiles is in league with Nature to prevent that and Ophelia, poor girl, gets the blame. She becomes, in his eyes, Woman. Ophelia, the unique, suffering person, no longer exists, no longer counts, sacrificed like Jephthah’s daughter to an abstraction. No one—not Hamlet, her father or the King—cares a pin for her pain and confusion. It is the most painful and tragic scene in the play, a wretched confusion of cross purposes and missed opportunities. In that sense, the scene is characteristic of the play as a whole, even as it shows us a side of Hamlet we haven’t seen before by dramatizing a failure of wit and intelligence and a loss of self-possession.

Hamlet is ordinarily the most self-possessed of characters and his wit is ordinarily in complete possession of its own meanings. This enables him to control almost every conversation, as he dominates every scene. None of the other characters is aware of the power or speed of Hamlet’s mind. Since they can’t follow him, they think he may be mad. It is another paradox of this most paradoxical of plays, that the wittiest person in it is commonly thought to have lost his wits.

Though the word ‘mad’ may be the unconscious tribute that mediocrities pay to wit, the mediocrities are not necessarily wrong in thinking, or at least suspecting, that madness and wit are related. The intellectual elite of Shakespeare’s day thought so too. Shakespeare
didn’t have to read Montaigne—though he probably did—to ask Montaigne’s question:

Of what is the subtlest madness made but the subtlest wisdom? As great enmities are born of great friendships, and mortal maladies of vigorous health, so are the greatest and wildest manias born of the rare and lively stirrings of the soul; it is only a half-turn of the peg to pass from the one to the other. In the actions of the insane we see how neatly madness
combines with the most vigorous operations of our soul. Who does not know how imperceptibly near is madness to the lusty flights of a free mind and the effects of supreme and extraordinary virtue?

Hamlet can be thought of as a gloss on this passage. How is madness related to wisdom, and wisdom to madness? And what’s the difference? These are questions that the play raises. Hamlet’s wit characteristically walks a thin line between the subtlest madness and the
subtlest wisdom. There are no sign posts to tell either him or us when he is going astray. Instead of taking conventional meanings of ‘madness’ and ‘reason’ for granted, Shakespeare leaves them open, undefined and as ambiguous and uncertain as they are in life.

Hamlet’s famously delayed revenge is not a problem which has to be explained if we are to understand the play; it’s what makes the play possible. To adapt T. S. Eliot’s metaphor for the function of meaning in poetry, Hamlet’s revenge is like the piece of meat that the burglar
throws the dog to keep it quiet while he steals the family jewels. While we are waiting for Hamlet’s revenge to be consummated, we are being entertained and educated by his wit (and Shakespeare’s), and robbed of our illusions: that we always know where we are, who we are, what we are doing, and why; or that we know what reason is, or wisdom, or folly, or madness. Uneasily situated between the subtlest wisdom and the subtlest madness, and sharing our uncertainty as to which is which, the wayward wit of Hamlet is well placed to unsettle the rational conventions we live by. And one of the most important of these is the idea that the thing that separates us from the beasts—reason, discourse, foresight—gives us the power to control our lives and control events in the world. “Sure he that made us,” says Hamlet in his frustration,

with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d.

Hamlet is not the only one who has a right to feel frustrated by the impotence of reason. His father and his uncle might as well have let their reason fust for all the good it does them. Every plan or plot is dogged by the law of unintended consequences. In the final catastrophe, whatever can go wrong does go wrong. The King dies but, unluckily, so do the Queen and the Prince. “The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it”, remarks Johnson with his usual intelligence.

What Johnson took to be a fault in the play can also be understood as an intentional irony that frames it. The first thing we learn about the dead King is that he fought and won a duel with Fortinbras’ father over some territory that had been in dispute between Norway and
Denmark. The play ends with the destruction of Denmark’s royal family and the loss of Danish independence. Denmark is in the bag and Fortinbras has only to claim it.

By putting revenge above every other value or consideration, the ghost of Hamlet’s father destroys everything he had cared about in life. The Player King, Hamlet’s other and wiser father, would have known better than to try to impose his will on the living from beyond
the grave. Curiously, it is this character from Hamlet’s own play, a figment of his imagination as it were, who emphatically enunciates the principle or law of unexpected consequences that is embedded in the paradoxical action of the play as a whole:

But orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown:
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

One can pretend to be mad but not witty; such counterfeits are exposed in a hurry. If you think that Hamlet’s jokes, which no one else ever seems to get, are merely the “antic disposition” we are warned about at the end of Act I, you will at least concede that they are sui generis, not something put on, or faked for the occasion. Maybe he’s pretending to be mad, maybe not; there’s no way to settle the point (Polonius, for one, isn’t sure what to think: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”), but either way it is a demonstration of spontaneous
intellectual and imaginative energy. There’s nothing forced about Hamlet’s wit; it is who he is, whether he is putting on an act, as some think, or merely being himself. But who is he? Horatio’s “sweet prince” or a cold-blooded killer? Is Hamlet the only sincere person in
the play, as William Empson and Lionel Trilling propose, or as devious and dishonest in his own way as Claudius is in his? Is the wickedness of Hamlet’s wit a healthy antidote to the hypocrisy of Polonius and the court, or is it just wicked?— “diseased,” as he himself, at one point, is prepared to concede. Is Hamlet, as many critics have concluded, the unwitting carrier of the poison or disease that is rotting the state of Denmark? Or is he, as Simon Russell Beale presented him in a production by the Royal National Theater, some years ago, a man who has
lost his way? His humanistic assumptions about the sovereignty of reason, the dignity of man and the goodness of the world having been suddenly whisked out from under him, Hamlet is thrown back on his own inner resources. (Christian piety, it is worth noticing, is not an
option.) Such a spiritual crisis, far more common in 1600 than is generally realized, makes Hamlet our contemporary.

If there is critical consensus on these questions just now, it is not in Hamlet’s favor. The eighteenth, nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth-century critics seemed to like him on the whole, while disapproving of his treatment of Ophelia, his neglect of duty, or his attempt
to play god with the life of Claudius. Late twentieth-century opinion seems to have turned increasingly hostile. Having for several years followed conversations about Hamlet on the internet (the Shaksper[sic] mailing list edited by Hardy Cook), I would say that he is more
likely to be characterized as devious than as sincere, and not a sweet prince at all but a bully and a killer. Much of the animus seems to derive from confusion about the roles of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially the manner in which they meet their
deaths: are they innocent victims of a senseless struggle for power or do they, as Hamlet thinks, merely get what they deserve? A substantial majority seems to regard them as the former.

They are not innocent victims. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not the innocent bumblers that Tom Stoppard makes them out to be in his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. They are corrupt, serviceable villains like Oswald in King Lear. Polonius is the King’s
self-appointed secret agent. He is killed because he is in a place where he should not have been, eavesdropping on a conversation that is none of his business.

Polonius’s death occurs at a crucial moment in the play and one that he himself, as usual, has set up (III.1.187): “after the play/ Let his queen-mother all alone entreat him...And I’ll be plac’d... in the ear/ Of all their conference.” Polonius gets himself killed because he interferes
just when Hamlet is about to do the one thing that he wants to do more than anything else: force his mother to see herself as the shameless person that she has become and reclaim her from the phony, sleazy world of the Poloniuses, Claudiuses, Rosencrantzes and
Guildensterns. Only then can she become a real—i.e. morally autonomous—person. Hamlet succeeds in this project but it is not easy. Gertrude, naturally, does not want to see herself as she is. She puts up a struggle, and this struggle, when she cries out in fear for her life, costs Polonius his. Hamlet, already perhaps regretting his failure to kill the King when he had him at his mercy (in III.3) and thinking he has been given a second chance, joyfully stabs him through the arras. Neither Hamlet nor Gertrude gives the matter more than a passing thought. This is rather heartless of them no doubt, but Hamlet is right: Polonius was asking for it. Spying is risky business; don’t complain if you get hurt.

The unease and even outright dislike that Hamlet inspires can’t, I think, be entirely accounted for by his callous dismissal of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or even by the seemingly gratuitous cruelty toward Ophelia in the nunnery scene (III.1). It is not so much
what Hamlet does that bothers people but what he is: a “corrosive inwardness” (Stephen Greenblatt’s term, I think) that completely dominates the play. We are unwilling to believe that such inwardness might be a normal concomittant to the moral autonomy that Hamlet is
trying to retain: though he has temporarily lost his bearings, it never occurs to him to fall mindlessly back on some conventional code of honor or duty or piety. Our modern word for the condition that Hamlet is trying to retain is “authenticity,” a word which no longer refers,
merely, to the provenance of certain documents or works of art, but also defines a state of being that the irresistible power of the modern corporate state has forced us to demand and invent; what the poet, Marianne Moore, calls “a place for the genuine.”

Surely, we may think, the strikingly inward consciousness of this man—so sudden, strange, wayward, and in the end, self-defeating—though obviously brilliant and original, must also be pathological. This is the line that critics were beginning to take toward the end of the
eighteenth century and which became hugely influential when Coleridge took it up, giving it an appearance of philosophical plausibility in his lectures of 1808 and 1812. 

“In order to understand Hamlet, it is essential that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds. Man is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense; but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect; for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action....In Hamlet
[Shakespeare] seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses and our meditation on the working of our

And four years later:

 "Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth: that action is the chief end of existence—that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed
otherwise than as misfortunes, if they withdraw us from, or render us repugnant to action...."

Though Coleridge’s argument is philosophically jejune, the dissociation of thought and action that he brought to our attention (so successfully as to make it a hallmark of the play) reminds us of the larger question that the Western philosophical tradition has never managed to settle: how to persuade or coerce the Passions into accepting the sovereignty of Reason. Despite the incessantly repeated lessons of experience, and the teachings of David Hume, most of us take
it for granted that reason is not merely instrumental but normative: Reason ought to control the passions and in all right-thinking people it normally does. 

Hume showed us that reason is, ought, and could only be the slave of the passions. Since Hamlet’s behavior, considered in the abstract, apart from the poetry of the play, seems obviously irrational to right-thinking people, he must be either mad indeed, or borderline: what begins as an act turns into the real thing. The trouble with this rationalistic view of the play is that, first, it puts one squarely in Polonius’s camp; and, secondly it cannot be
sustained by a detailed analysis of what Hamlet actually says. Hamlet’s wit is always sound, always makes sense; though frequently odd, wayward, even perverse, it is consistent with what an original mind and personality might actually say.

Though Hamlet’s difficulties are certainly unique, they are not different in kind from those of any morally autonomous life: any life, that is to say, lived and more or less consciously understood, in Michael Oakeshott’s terms, as “an adventure in personal self-enactment.”
Religion, for such adventurers, becomes a matter of choice, human imperfections are taken
for granted, and the great thing is to know how to belong to oneself and to live by that understanding. Any such life is certain to find itself caught up in innummerable obscure, muddled and often squalid skirmishes over the rights of others, obligations to self, the truth of
statements, the lies large and small that people accept without question: dilemmas that can be rationally understood but not resolved. We are largely on our own in these matters, with nothing but our wit, intelligence, or conscience to see us through. Our conduct in these
squabbles and negotiations, in which ignorance is inevitable, unforgivable mistakes are easily made, defeat is common and victory rare, shows what we are made of. If one is not a fool and can learn to distinguish an honest person from a crook, honor from dishonor, good
faith from bad, one may begin to earn the trust of others. Otherwise, neither religion nor philosophy is likely to be of much use. Authenticity is not given but earned, forged in the struggle of the autonomous self for moral integrity. “Corrosive inwardness” is not a
bad description of how such a self, so engaged, is likely to be perceived.

To the extent that an autonomous moral consciousness responds with irony or skepticism to the clichés and platitudes of conventional morality—as, on occasion, it must—such a consciousness is likely to be perceived as corrosive or destructive.

Neither side, neither the morally autonomous adventurers nor the respectable and conventional stay-at-homes, is necessarily right or wrong about the creative/ destructive effects of moral autonomy. They represent different moral interests and Shakespeare has managed to represent their opposing claims in this play. That, in part, is what has made it so controversial, thorny and elusive.

“In art,” remarks Oscar Wilde, “there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” People and their societies are like works of art in this respect: a truth about a person or a society is often the sort of thing of which the contradictory
is also true. There is, after all, something to be said for the (supposedly) inauthentic social world which includes, along with the time-servers, opportunists, crooks, con-men and hypocrites, the masses of ordinary folk who live their lives as best they can, mind their own
business, take their morality as they find it, and don’t ask too many questions: people like the gravediggers with whom Hamlet chats as if he had all the time in the world, who are as authentic as the graves which it is their job to dig. The effect of this wonderful scene (IV.3),
insufficiently remarked, is to release us momentarily from the corrupt, constricted, world of the court at Elsinore—as Hamlet has already been released, into a world of action and adventure on the high seas—and remind us that there is a world of ordinary people in Denmark with whom Hamlet can converse on terms of easy familiarity, where jokes about death, the great leveller, can be exchanged freely and easily without having to be aimed at anyone
in particular. 

But time has run out for Hamlet, the King and Queen, the court, and Denmark: Denmark’s dysfunctional royal family has managed to set in motion the forces that are about to destroy it
as well as the fragile independence of Denmark. It is the best and the brightest member of this family, the only son, who should have been its hope for the future, whose political paralysis actually causes the final catastrophe. The alienated and disenchanted view of Hamlet is by
no means groundless, therefore, but grounded in an important, though partial, truth about him and the play: that his wit is, in some sense, “diseased,” (or dis-eased), that he himself is the unwitting carrier of the fever that “rages” in the blood of Denmark’s body politic, as in the
blood of Claudius (“like the hectic in my blood he rages.” IV.3.69) If we had to give this disease a name, we might call it the dis-ease of authenticity: the intense discomfort of a normally hypocritical society when it discovers that a morally autonomous and uniquely selfaware
individual of unusual intellectual and imaginative power has arrived and taken up residence.

From his first appearance, it is clear that Hamlet is an irritant simply by virtue of what he is: an honest man who lives by his own principles even (or especially?) if he thereby undermines the entire, recently constructed facade of order and authority. By insisting on the authenticity of his own behavior when we are meeting him for the first time (I.1), Hamlet dramatizes the inauthenticity of the King and Queen. That, under the circumstances, is a political act—or would be if Hamlet were thinking politically. Unfortunately for him and for Denmark, that is what he is unable or unwilling to do: “dodge and palter in the shifts of lowness,” as Antony says one must if one is politically weak. Hamlet resembles Brutus in this one respect at least: both
men are too virtuous to play the political game as it has to be played, unscrupulously and, if necessary, ignominiously.

The word “virtuous” shows us where the boundary is that divides the moral worlds inhabited by these two men, Brutus and Hamlet: the one, Brutus, self-consciously philosophical in a well-established (Stoic) philosophical tradition, who knows what the virtues are and how they
hang together (to have one you have to have them all, according to Aristotle); and the other, Hamlet, the uneasily self-conscious possessor of a virtue, authenticity, that hadn’t yet been named and that none of the philosophers in Brutus’s pantheon had ever heard of.

Hamlet is not a mindless fanatic like Gregers Werle in Ibsen’s Wild Duck who tries to force his own ideas of authenticity and moral autonomy onto a family that is quite happy within its protective fictions and illusions and wholly unprepared emotionally and intellectually to
respond to his demands. Unlike Ibsen’s antihero, Hamlet is not trying to be a moral hero. He does not see himself as a man whose mission in life it is to shake up the corrupt world of which he knows himself to be a part (“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born
to set it right.”) Yet Hamlet is a troublemaker simply by being true to himself. The only person he is trying to change is his mother, and in this he is being true to his deepest moral feelings. By placing this private act of moral redemption ahead of his public or political responsibilities,
however, he ruins everything.

Denmark is a perfectly commonplace and thoroughly secular state, full of ordinary people who just want to be left alone. A particularly heinous murder has just been committed, and the killer--as everyone knows--is happily seated on the throne, having married his victim’s widow. As Shakespeare knew and the history plays demonstrate, every regime is bloodstained. If Denmark is rotten, it is rotten in the way all human societies are rotten: because political power can never withstand rigorous moral scrutiny; because no political leader can afford the luxury of telling the people the whole truth and nothing but the truth when what
they prefer is fiction (if you do, there is a pretty good chance it will be used against you by your enemies); because words and deeds never match up in the real political world and the art of political rhetoric is to conceal this fact; because people accept the lies or half-truths their
leaders tell them when it is in their interest to do so.

Claudius is a pretty good king even if he is not a good man. It may even be the case (the Machiavellian case) that he is a pretty good king because he is not a good man. It is obvious that Claudius knows his business. Like Bolingbroke, he is not a soldier but a “politician”, a
man of “policy” (hateful words to men of honor like Hotspur). His foreign policy is shown to be effective; he is good at analyzing information; he sees things as they are, not as he would have them be; he is cool in emergencies and he knows men, their weaknesses and
hypocrisies. He knows exactly how to turn Laertes’ passion to his own advantage. The efforts of Hamlet Senior and his son, by contrast, merely serve to destroy the sovereignty of Denmark. By the end of the play, Fortinbras has the country firmly under Norwegian control.

It is entirely possible that this fictional Denmark would have been better served had Hamlet never been born—or the dead king, his father, not told his tale. The truth will not necessarily make you free. Ignorance, as the Danes discover to their cost, may not be exactly
blissful, but there are times, and this play shows us one of them, when it is preferable to knowledge.

Why does it seem right, then, that Hamlet should get a hero’s theatrical send-off at the end of the play? Because he, like Shakespeare and other great artists, has created the terms and standards by which he is to be judged. We readily forget or forgive the mess he makes of
Denmark because he has made himself into a new kind of hero, a man who does not seem but is, who can’t be bought and always tells the truth even if, like Emily Dickenson, he has to “tell it slant.” In a world where bad faith reigns, it’s either that or silence. Hamlet is the hero of
a standoff that has become a more and more familiar feature of our cultural landscape: the alienation of the individual sensibility and consciousness from a smug, morally inert, inauthentic world. Yet he would have been the last person to see himself as heroic. All he wants, at the end, is that his story should be told aright, not that he should become canonized or mythologized, put on a pedestal, a prop in Fortinbras’ political road show. The “stage”
that Hamlet’s body is displayed on at the end gives this paradoxical play about an unheroic hero, the heroic conclusion that he himself had never sought.


  1. This article was content informative but it did not have much do do with virtue. It was unhelpful in that sence, pretty misleading

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