Death has been considered the primary theme of Hamlet by many eminent critics through the years. G. Wilson Knight, for instance, writes at length about death in the play: "Death is over the whole play. Polonius and Ophelia die during the action, and Ophelia is buried before our eyes. Hamlet arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The plot is set in motion by the murder of Hamlet's father, and the play opens with the apparition of the Ghost." And so on and so forth. The play is really death-obsessed, as is Hamlet himself. As as A.C. Bradley has pointed out, in his very first long speech of the play, "Oh that this too solid flesh," Hamlet seems on the verge of total despair, kept from suicide by the simple fact of spiritual awe. He is in the strange position of both wishing for death and fearing it intensely, and this double pressure gives the play much of its drama.
One of the aspects of death which Hamlet finds most fascinating is its bodily facticity. We are, in the end, so much meat and bone. This strange intellectual being, which Hamlet values so highly and possesses so mightily, is but tenuously connected to an unruly and decomposing machine. In the graveyard scene, especially, we can see Hamlet's fascination with dead bodies. How can Yorick's skull be Yorick's skull? Does a piece of dead earth, a skull, really have a connection to a person, a personality?
Hamlet is unprecedented for the depth and variety of its meditations on death. Mortality is the shadow that darkens every scene of the play. Not that the play resolves anything, or settles any of our species-old doubts and anxieties. As with most things, we can expect to find very difficult and stimulating questions in Hamlet, but very few satisfying answers.
Elsinore is full of political intrigue. The murder of Old Hamlet, of course, is the primary instance of such sinister workings, but it is hardly the only one. Polonius, especially, spends nearly every waking moment (it seems) spying on this or that person, checking up on his son in Paris, instructing Ophelia in every detail of her behavior, hiding behind tapestries to eavesdrop. He is the parody of a politician, convinced that the truth can only be known through the most roundabout and sneaking ways. This is never clearer than in his appearances in Act Two. First, he instructs Reynaldo in the most incredibly convoluted espionage methods; second, he hatches and pursues his misguided theory that Hamlet is mad because his heart has been broken by Ophelia.
Claudius, too, is quite the inept Machiavellian. He naively invites Fortinbras to march across his country with a full army; he stupidly enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his chief spies; his attempt to poison Hamlet ends in total tragedy. He is little better than Polonius. This political ineptitude goes a long way toward revealing how weak Denmark has become under Claudius' rule. He is not a natural king, to be sure; he is more interested in drinking and sex than in war, reconnaissance, or political plotting. This is partly why his one successful political move, the murder of his brother, is so ironic and foul. He has somehow done away with much the better ruler, the Hyperion to his satyr (as Hamlet puts it).
It's worth noting that there is one extremely capable politician in the play -- Hamlet himself. He is always on top of everyone's motives, everyone's doings and goings. He plays Polonius like a pipe and evades every effort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do the same to him. He sniffs out Claudius' plot to have him killed in England and sends his erstwhile friends off to die instead. Hamlet is a true Machiavellian when he wants to be. He certainly wouldn't have been as warlike as his father, but had he gotten the chance he might have been his father's equal as a ruler, simply due to his penetration and acumen.
In Act Two scene two Polonius asks Hamlet, "What do you read, my lord?" Hamlet replies, "Words, words, words." Of course every book is made of words, every play is a world of words, so to speak, and Hamlet is no different. Hamlet is distinguished, however, in its attentiveness to language within the play. Not only does it contain extremely rich language, not only did the play greatly expand the English vocabulary, Hamlet also contains several characters who show an interest in language and meaning in themselves.
Polonius, for instance, is often distracted by his manner of expressing himself. In Act Two scene two, for example, he says, "Madam, I swear I use no art at all. / That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity, / And pity 'tis 'tis true. A foolish figure, / But farewell to it, for I will use no art." Of course this is typical Polonius -- absurdly hypocritical, self-enamored, dull-witted. Just as he is extremely windy in recommending brevity, here he is fussy and "artful" (or affectedly artificial) in declaring that he is neither of those things. Polonius' grasp of language, like his political instinct, is quite shallow -- he gestures toward the mastery of rhetoric that seems like a statesman's primary craft, but he is too distracted by surfaces to achieve any real depth.
Another angle from which to consider language in the play -- Hamlet explores the traditional dichotomy between words and deeds. In Act Four, when talking to Laertes, Claudius makes this distinction explicit: "what would you undertake, / To show yourself your father's son in deed / More than in words?" Here deeds are associated with noble acts, specifically the fulfillment of revenge, and words with empty bluffing. The passage resonates well beyond its immediate context. Hamlet himself is a master of language, an explorer of its possibilities; he is also a man who has trouble performing actual deeds. For him, reality seems to exist more in thoughts and sentences than in acts. Thus his trouble fulfilling revenge seems to stem from his overemphasis on reasoning and formulating -- a fault of over-precision that he acknowledges himself in the speech beginning, "How all occasions do inform against me."
Hamlet is the man of language, of words, of the magic of thought. He is not fit for a play that so emphasizes the value of action, and he knows it. But then, the action itself is contained within words, formed and contained by Shakespeare's pen. The action of the play is much more an illusion than the words are. Hamlet invites us to consider whether this isn't the case more often than we might think, whether the world of words doesn't enjoy a great deal of power in framing and describing the world of actions, on stage or not.
By the time Hamlet was written, madness was already a well-established element in many revenge tragedies. The most popular revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan period, The Spanish Tragedy, also features a main character, Hieronymo, who goes mad in the build-up to his revenge, as does the title character in Shakespeare's first revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. But Hamlet is unique among revenge tragedies in its treatment of madness because Hamlet's madness is deeply ambiguous. Whereas previous revenge tragedy protagonists are unambiguously insane, Hamlet plays with the idea of insanity, putting on "an antic disposition," as he says, for some not-perfectly-clear reason.
Of course, there is a practical advantage to appearing mad. In Shakespeare's source for the plot of Hamlet, "Amneth" (as the legendary hero is known) feigns madness in order to avoid the suspicion of the fratricidal king as he plots his revenge. But Hamlet's feigned madness is not so simple as this. His performance of madness, rather than aiding his revenge, almost distracts him from it, as he spends the great majority of the play exhibiting very little interest in pursuing the ghost's mission even after he has proven, via "The Mouse Trap," that Claudius is indeed guilty as sin.
No wonder, then, that Hamlet's madness has been a resilient point of critical controversy since the seventeenth century. The traditional question is perhaps the least interesting one to ask of his madness -- is he really insane or is he faking it? It seems clear from the text that he is, indeed, playing the role of the madman (he says he will do just that) and using his veneer of lunacy to have a great deal of fun with the many fools who populate Elsinore, especially Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps this feigned madness does at times edge into actual madness, in the same way that all acted emotions come very close to their genuine models, but, as he says, he is but mad north-nothwest, and knows a hawk from a handsaw. When he is alone, or with Horatio, and free from the need to act the lunatic, Hamlet is incredibly lucid and self-aware, perhaps a bit manic but hardly insane.
So what should we make of his feigned insanity? Hamlet, in keeping with the play in general, seems almost to act the madman because he knows in some bizarre way that he is playing a role in a revenge tragedy. He knows that he is expected to act mad, because he thinks that that is what one does when seeking revenge -- perhaps because he has seen The Spanish Tragedy. I'm joking, of course, on one level, but he does exhibit self-aware theatricality throughout the play, and if he hasn't seen The Spanish Tragedy, he has certainly seen The Death of Gonzago, and many more plays besides. He knows his role, or what his role should be, even as he is unable to play it satisfactorily. Hamlet is beautifully miscast as the revenger -- he is constitutionally unfitted for so vulgar and unintelligent a fate -- and likewise his attempt to play the madman, while a valiant effort, is forced, insincere, anxious, ambiguous, and full of doubts. Perhaps Hamlet himself, if we could ask him, would not know why he chooses to feign madness any more than we do.
Needless to say, Hamlet is not the only person who goes insane in the play. Ophelia's madness serves as a clear foil to his own strange antics. She is truly, unambiguously, innocently, simply mad. Whereas Hamlet's madness seems to increase his self-awareness, Ophelia loses every vestige of composure and self-knowledge, just as the truly insane tend to do.
Harold Bloom, speaking about Hamlet at the Library of Congress, said, "The play's subject massively is neither mourning for the dead or revenge on the living. ... All that matters is Hamlet's consciousness of his own consciousness, infinite, unlimited, and at war with itself." He added, "Hamlet discovers that his life has been a quest with no object except his own endlessly burgeoning subjectivity." Bloom is not the only reader of Hamlet to see such an emphasis on the self.
Hamlet's soliloquies, to take only the most obvious feature, are strong and sustained investigations of the self -- not only as a thinking being, but as emotional, bodily, and paradoxically multiple. Hamlet, fascinated by his own character, his turmoil, his inconsistency, spends line after line wondering at himself. Why can't I carry out revenge? Why can't I carry out suicide? He questions himself, and in so doing questions the nature of the self.
Aside from these massive speeches, Hamlet shows a sustained interest in philosophical problems of the subject. Among these problems is the mediating role of thought in all human life. "For there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so," he says. We can never know the truth, he suggests, nor the good, nor the evil of the world, except through the means of our thoughts. Certainty is not an option. And the great realm of uncertainty, the realm of dreams, fears, thoughts, is the realm of subjectivity.
Like madness, suicide is a theme that links Hamlet and Ophelia and shapes the concerns of the play more generally. Hamlet thinks deeply about it, and perhaps "contemplates" it in the more popular sense; Ophelia perhaps commits it. In both cases, the major upshot of suicide is religious. In his two "suicide soliloquies," Hamlet segues into meditations on religious laws and mysteries -- "that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter"; "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come." And Ophelia's burial is greatly limited by the clergy's suspicions that she might have taken her own life. In short, Hamlet appears to suggest that were it not for, first, the social stigma attached to suicide by religious authorities, and second, the legitimately "unknown" nature of whatever happens after death, there would be a lot more self-slaughter in this difficult and bitter world. In a play so obsessed with the self, and the nature of the self, it's only natural to see this emphasis on self-murder.
It's worth mentioning one of the major interpretive issues of Hamlet: was Ophelia's death accidental or a suicide? According to Gertrude's narration of the event, Ophelia's drowning was entirely accidental. However, some have suggested that Gertrude's long story may be a fabrication invented to protect the young woman from the social stigma of suicide. Indeed, in Act Five the priest and the gravediggers are fairly certain that Ophelia took her own life. One might ask oneself -- why does it make such a difference to us whether she died by her own hand or not? Shakespeare seems, in fact, to inspire this very sort of self-interrogation. Are we, like the characters in the play, so invested in protecting Ophelia from the stigma of suicide?
Which is the star of this play, Hamlet or Hamlet? T.S. Eliot, for one, unequivocally endorses the latter: "Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary." In effect, Hamlet is a play about plays, about theater. Most obviously, it contains a play within a play, detailed instructions on acting technique, an extended conversation about London theater companies and their fondness for boy troupes, several references to other theater (including to Christian mystery plays, and to Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar), and still more references to the stage on which it is being performed, in the globe theater with its ghost "in the cellarage."
But what is the point of this constant metatheatrical winking? Hamlet, among other things, is an extended meditation on the nature of acting and the relationship between acting and "genuine" life. It refuses to obey the conventional restrictions of theater and constantly spills out into the audience, as it were, pointing out the "real" surroundings of the "fictional" play, and thus incorporating them into the larger theatrical experience.
Most specifically, Hamlet is an exploration of a specific genre and its specific generic conventions. It is the revenge tragedy to end all revenge tragedies, both containing and commenting on the elements that define the genre. Modern audiences are quite comfortable with this sort of "meta-generic" approach. Think of modern westerns, heist movies, or martial arts movies. All of these genres have become almost obligatorily self-aware; they contain references to past milestones in their respective genres, they gleefully and ironically embrace (or alternatively reject) the conventions that past films treated with sincerity. Hamlet, in its relationship to revenge tragedy and to theater more generally, is one of the first dramas of this kind and perhaps still the most profound example of such post-modern concerns.
To put it cutely, Hamlet itself is the main character of the play, and Hamlet merely the means by which it explores its own place in the history of theater. To make things yet dizzier, Hamlet seems, deep down, to know that he is in a play, to know that he is miscast, to understand the theatrical nature of his being. And who's to say that we aren't all merely actors in our own lives? Surely, from a philosophical perspective, this is one of the basic truths of modern human life.
Hamlet is often called an "Elizabethan revenge play", the theme of revenge against an evil usurper driving the plot forward as in earlier stage works by Shakespeare's contemporaries, Kyd and Marlowe, as well as by the French writer Belleforest (Histoires Tragiques, 1576). As in those works, a hero plays minister and scourge in avenging a moral injustice, an affront to both man and God. In this case, regicide (killing a king) is a particularly monstrous crime, and there is no doubt as to whose side our sympathies are disposed.
As in many revenge plays, and, in fact, several of Shakespeare's other tragedies (and histories), a corrupt act, the killing of a king, undermines order throughout the realm that resonates to high heaven. We learn that there is something "rotten" in Denmark after old Hamlet's death in the very first scene, as Horatio compares the natural and civil disorders that occurred in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar's assassination to the disease that afflicts Denmark. These themes and their figurative expression are common to the Elizabethan revenge play genre in which good must triumph over evil.
But Hamlet is far more than an outstanding example of the revenge play. It is, to begin, a tragedy in which the attainment of justice entails the avenging hero's death. It is in the first scene of Act III that Hamlet speaks a soliloquy that has become a verbal emblem for Shakespearean tragedy and a measure of its thematic depth.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?
Two of the play's salient themes are interwoven here; human mortality or death and fortune or chance. On the level of plot action, Hamlet is an exceedingly mortal work: virtually all of the major characters—Hamlet, Claudius,...
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