Perhaps there is no other work in literature (other than certain scriptures) that has been more commented upon than Hamlet, so there’s little point trying to think up new angle. I doubt there’s anything I or anyone else can say about this play that has not been said before. The best I can do, I think, is simply to say what the play means to me – more especially, what the play meant to me on this particular reading – and not worry about whether or not what I have to say is original or trite.
It is impossible to discuss this play without talking about the character of Prince Hamlet. And here, one must beware of simplifying, as any simplification of a central character so very complex and intricate is to reduce the stature of the play. I have read a great many embarrassing accounts of the character of Hamlet that seem to suggest that he is really only suffering from a bit of teenage angst; that his “problems” may all have been sorted out with a bit of therapy, perhaps, or with some good wholesome advice; and that his problem is essentially that of indecisiveness, and if only the poor dear could make up his mind, everything would have been OK. And I read these accounts and find myself wondering how it can be possible for anyone to approach something so very complex, and come away with something so very simplistic. Yes, it is true that we cannot pluck out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, but to come away from this play blissfully unaware even of the existence of the mystery seems to me to display a most extraordinary lack of critical insight. Even if we can’t untie all the knots, let us at least acknowledge their existence.
But before we move on to the character of Hamlet, let us first consider the pacing of the play, which seems to be unlike that of any other of Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is neck-and-neck with Richard III as Shakespeare’s longest play, but where Richard III is constantly moving forward, powered by the dynamic charisma of its central character, Hamlet, like its protagonist, frequently appears inactive. Indeed, for long stretches (most notably in Act Two, the very point where we’d expect the drama to build up momentum), it seems entirely static. Perhaps “static” is not the best way to describe it, as there is a movement, but the movement is not in a forward direction. But then, there are passages (such as the third act) where everything seems to happen at the same time – where the dramatic climaxes seem to be piled on each other with breathless and feverish intensity.
In this, I think, the pacing reflects the protagonist. For, as is well-known, Hamlet is, for much of the time, inactive. But that needs to be qualified: he is inactive in that he does not do much; but his intellect is constantly on the move. In this, he is matched in all of Shakespeare’s plays only by Prince Hal. Hamlet’s mind is constantly active, constantly probing, constantly spotting connections and making quicksilver leaps from one theme to another. Even as he is saying one thing, that razor-sharp mind of his is racing on to something else. No-one on stage can keep up with the speed of his thought, and even after years of acquaintance with the play, the reader or the audience can be wrong-footed. And this extreme internal activity, coupled with an extreme external inactivity, gives this play a curiously cerebral quality.
Of course, Hamlet isn’t always inactive: there are times when, despite his strong leaning towards the cerebral, he seems unable to control his mounting passion. Ironically, this most thoughtful of characters frequently commits the rashest of acts without thinking. And Hamlet is aware of this element in himself: this is why, before he goes to see his mother in Act Three, he has to remind himself that he must not kill her. He cannot trust himself: he knows that once he is overcome by passion, he is capable of anything. He knows this, and he fears it. And yet, when he does go to see his mother, despite all the resolutions he had made to himself only to speak daggers to her but to use none, I think he really is on the point of killing her. His mother certainly thinks so (“Thou wilt not murder me?”), and had it not been for Polonius crying out from behind the arras, it would have been Gertrude rather than Polonius, I think, who would have ended up as Hamlet’s victim.
The pacing of the play seems to reflect this paradoxical nature of Hamlet – this sense of physical inactivity despite the constant intellectual probing, punctuated by sequences of feverish passion and unthinking action. This sort of pacing – almost by fits and starts – seems to me unlike anything Shakespeare had attempted in any other play.
Consider that very first scene, in the battlements. Yes, it does establish an atmosphere of fearsome uncertainty, and its very first line (“Who’s there?”) resounds through the play as we try to piece together the various disparate elements of Hamlets personality into one coherent whole. But in terms of dramatic exposition, the scene is completely unnecessary: every single piece of exposition in this first scene is recapped and expanded upon in the second. Indeed, starting with the big court scene (as do so many other Shakespeare plays) would have been an obvious thing to have done. So why does Shakespeare place this court scene second? In dramatic terms, what exactly is gained by that first scene on the battlements?
I think the main purpose of the scene is to set the tempo. It was certainly very daring to set such a slow tempo for what is, after all, an exciting revenge tragedy, but Shakespeare’s primary interest was not, I think, the plot. Indeed, he seemed to go out of his way to ensure stretches that can only appear dull to those members of the audience whose primary interest is merely “what happens next?” Shakespeare deflects the focus of the dramatic interest from “What happens next?” to “What is going on in Hamlet’s mind?” And to explore this, he needs a leisurely tempo, which is quite at odds with the nature of the revenge plot on which the play is based.
It is also to ensure a leisurely tempo that he made Polonius so very tedious and long-winded. Between Hamlet learning of his father’s ghost (nearly half an hour into the play) and his actually seeing the ghost there are two lengthy scenes. And then, at the start of Act Two, Shakespeare makes us wait again, filling in time with Polonius’ tedious rambling. And then, when Hamlet does appear, he speaks a lot, but doesn’t do much. And we may well wonder: what the hell kind of a revenge tragedy is this?
In thematic terms, Shakespeare revisits certain themes that had concerned him before: for instance, there is the theme of how we should remember the dead so as to give meaning to our own lives. This theme had appeared towards the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and appears also in Twelfth Night, which was being written at roughly the same time as Hamlet. The idea of duty to the departed is touched upon as well in the brief but important tomb scene in Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio’s commitment to the memory of one he believes dead is a necessary step before that which was lost can be restored. (This is a theme expanded upon later in The Winter’s Tale.)
There is the theme also of fathers and sons, which, as we shall see, continues from the two Henry IV plays: in many ways Hamlet is a close relation to Prince Hal. And Hamlet is also, I think, a sort of mirror image of Mark Antony in Julius Caesar: in the earlier play, Mark Antony takes decisive action to avenge the murder of Caesar, who had been for him a sort of spiritual father: this is in marked contrast to Hamlet’s failure (for reasons far too complex ever to be fully understood) to take decisive action to avenge the death of his own father. (And of course, Mark Antony’s effective action despite having been thought a worthless dissipater relates him back to Prince Hal.) Hamlet is often thought to be related to Brutus rather than to Antony, but I don’t know that this particular parallel is very striking. It is true that they both think long and hard before killing, but the reasons for killing and the reasons for their reluctance to kill are very different. Psychologically, the two characters are so very different that they don’t even throw much light on each other even when considered in terms of contrast: it’s the contrast between Hamlet and Antony that seems to me the more interesting.
But what can one say about Hamlet’s character within the confines of a short essay without avoiding over-simplification? Perhaps it is best to acknowledge first and foremost that even the product of the most piercing critical insight can be, at best, only part of the truth.
The first thing I notice about Hamlet’s character is a tremendous intelligence. There is nothing in Shakespeare’s source material that requires Hamlet to be so intelligent a character: to give him so quick and so probing an intellect was entirely Shakespeare’s decision. And it strikes me as incredible that Shakespeare, when creating Hamlet, did not have in mind a prince of comparable intelligence he had created only a few years earlier – Prince Hal. The parallels are striking. When I read recently the Henry IV plays, what struck me as their central theme was the troubled relationship between Hal and his father: the climax of these plays comes when Hal and his father are reconciled shortly before the latter’s death: this is the reconciliation that the son had long longed for. Hamlet, on the other hand, did not have the opportunity to be reconciled with his father, who had died very suddenly when he had been at university: and it seems to me that this reconciliation was a consummation devoutly to be wished. For there had clearly existed a gulf between father and son, and the unresolved breach becomes, in this play, a spiritual wound that refuses to heal.
Very well, one may say, this is yet another theory – or, more accurately, yet another hypothesis. Where’s the evidence in the text? I think the evidence is there, albeit circumstantial. And that if one takes this as a working hypothesis, much that is puzzling can begin to make sense.
First of all, the two Hamlets, senior and junior, had quite different values. Hamlet’s father is always spoken of as a military man: even his ghost appears in armour. But there seems little of the military in young Hamlet. Indeed, had he shared his father’s military values, he would have done what we see young Fortinbras doing – he would have raised an army, and challenged for his birthright. But, instead of adopting military values, Hamlet had buried himself in books. Is it not possible to see Hamlet’s escape from the court to the University of Wittenberg as analogous to Prince Hal’s escape from the court to the ale-houses and taverns? I don’t insist on this final point. But it does seem to me fairly obvious that Hamlet feels more at home at the university (to which he wishes to return) than he does in the court, and that he gives no indication at all of sharing his father’s military values.
Hamlet’s father is dead before the play starts, of course, so the only meeting between father and son occurs when Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost. Hamlet is not sure whether or not the ghost really is his father: he comes in a “questionable shape”, after all. “Alas, poor ghost!” says Hamlet at one point – not, significantly, “Alas, poor father!” But what has long struck me about this scene is that Hamlet’s father displays no affection for his son – not a single term of endearment, not a single indication of paternal love. However, he demands love from his son: “If ever thou didst thy dear father love…” That conditional “if” is interesting: it’s not “As thou didst thy dear father love..” but “If thou didst thy dear father love…” There’s still, obviously, room for doubt on that point, just as Henry IV doubted the love of Prince Hal. And it is at this point that Hamlet seems to break down: as soon as the ghost refers to Prince Hamlet’s love for his father, Hamlet almost involuntarily comes out with: “Oh God!” Now, it is worth asking why Hamlet reacts so very emotionally at this particular point. Why does this reference to his love for his father elicit such a response? The words that follow seem to me tremendously striking, and reinforce the parallel between the relationship between father and son in this play, and in the Henry IV plays: if ever Prince Hamlet loved his father, he must “revenge his foul and unnatural murder”. As in the earlier plays, the father expects filial love to be expressed in the form of adherence to duty.
Prince Hal had steeled himself in the earlier plays to live up to his father’s expectations, but in Hamlet’s case, this is something he is incapable of doing. The reasons for his incapacity are open to debate (and, as I suggested earlier, they go way beyond mere teenage angst, or an inability to make up his mind), but his awareness of his incapacity has devastating consequences. And this is why, I think, Shakespeare had to make Hamlet so intelligent a character: his tragedy proceeds not merely from of the flaws in his character (as is predicated by the very reductive formulae defining the tragic genre), but from his keen awareness of his flaws. For Hamlet desires more than anything else to be what he knows he cannot be.
Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i’ the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall
To make oppression bitter
Yet, at the same time, all that is so important to Hamlet – honouring the memory of the dead, living up to his father’s expectations – seem to be of little importance to anyone else. His own mother, who should have remembered his father most, has virtually forgotten about him – “within a month”: and he cannot forgive her for this. And to compensate for her forgetting, Hamlet has to recreate in his own mind an image of his father as a sort of superman – an ideal human being that could never have existed:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr…
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man
And this goes hand in hand with a sort of self-loathing, a self-castigation for his failure to be a Hyperion, a demi-god:
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules
The dividing line is clear: on one side is Hamlet’s father, Hyperion, Hercules: on the other, the much-hated Claudius … and himself.
Hamlet’s failure to live up to the standards demanded by his dead father’s spirit takes on a particular significance by the end of the first act: the very thing Hamlet knows he cannot be, he is now urged to be. The ghost clearly has an objective reality in the play, as Hamlet is not the only one who sees it, but it is also in many ways a manifestation of Hamlet’s own self-accusing persona – that part of his psyche that sets himself standards he knows he cannot live up to.
Those who do live up to his father’s standards, Hamlet admires. I cannot see any other reason why Hamlet should admire Fortinbras, whom he knows to be a warmonger leading vast armies to their deaths for no very good reason. (And I think, incidentally, that it would be a marvellous coup de theatre to present Fortinbras as a frail teenager – almost a boy: after having heard so much about this proud warrior, Fortinbras (Strong-in-arms), to see him as a young lad would be a marvellous shock – both for the audience, and also, I think, for Hamlet. Otherwise Hamlet’s reference to him as a “delicate and tender prince” would make no sense at all.) And those whose values are opposed to those of his father’s, Hamlet hates. Most painfully, this includes his own mother.
And it includes Claudius, whom Hamlet hates even before he becomes aware of his guilt. But the picture Hamlet presents of Claudius is not the Claudius we see. In the first scene in which Claudius appears, we see him as a dignified figure in control of his court, and who knows how to assert his authority when Prince Hamlet challenges it with his insolence. And he is also, rather admirably, a skilled diplomat who knows how to diffuse a difficult international situation without going to war. (I personally have a sneaking suspicion that, judged as a king, Claudius may well have been better than his more military-minded brother.) We see him loving to his wife; and we see him later a very sympathetic and tortured figure, as he struggles with his own sense of guilt (interesting premonitions of Macbeth here!) Indeed, seen from a slightly different perspective, he could easily be a tragic protagonist himself. Yes, we discover in time that he has committed a grievous crime, but we do not see him as Hamlet sees him – we do not see him as a satyr to his brother’s Hyperion.
However, as the play progresses, Claudius’ authority starts to crack. This is partly due to Hamlet, and partly also to his own sense of guilt. Towards the end, we see him plotting to murder his nephew; and at the very end, his moral authority is so eroded that he lacks even the courage to leap across the stage and knock the poisoned drink from his beloved wife’s hands.
Gertrude seems to me one of the most pathetic characters in all of Shakespeare. She is not the most profound person, but she has a deeply loving nature. It is she, after all, who is given the most lyrical lines of the play: her description of Ophelia’s death surely contains some of the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s blank verse. And it is hard not to be moved by the naïve tenderness of her lines at Ophelia’s graveside:
Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.
She is capable of loving deeply. As Claudius acknowledges, she dotes on her son; and she dotes also on Claudius (given how quickly they marry after her first husband’s death, it seems obvious that they had been lovers). And it is this that is at the root of her tragedy: the two people whom she loves with all her being are “mighty opposites”. When she tells Hamlet that he has “cleaved [her] heart in twain”, it is obvious what she is referring to: she now realises that a single heart cannot accommodate simultaneously the love she has for her son, and the love she has for her husband. Hamlet tells her to throw the “worser part of it” away – i.e. to turn her back on her husband – but her heart has reasons that Hamlet’s head cannot comprehend. And in the end, this cleft heart is her downfall. I do not believe that she drinks the poisoned drink by accident: as soon as Claudius puts a pearl into Hamlet’s drink to mark it out from the others, she knows what it signifies. Of the two people she loved, one is trying to kill the other, and she cannot save her son without incriminating her husband. The only way out is to take the drink herself. It is a tender act of self-sacrifice. When Claudius tells her not to drink, she insists: “Pardon me,” she says. I don’t think this is merely a polite rejoinder: it is, I think, an impassioned plea for forgiveness.
How old, exactly, is Hamlet? In the graveyard scene, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to tell us that he is thirty. The gravedigger started his career when Hamlet was born, and that was thirty years ago. Working back from this point, it must follow that Hamlet had been thirty all through the action of this play, as the action of the play couldn’t have lasted more than a few months at most. But I don’t think Shakespeare intended us to calculate back. As in Othello, Shakespeare was happy to play fast and loose with the time scheme. For, before the final act, Hamlet is referred to throughout as “young”. And this is not merely to distinguish him from Hamlet senior: the nature of his “youth” is often referred to – even by Ophelia. For a thirty-year-old to be continually referred to as “young” is absurd, and is likely to be conducive to comedy rather than to tragedy: Iago, after all, tells us that he is twenty-eight, and no-one would consider describing him as “young Iago”. A thirty-year-old Hamlet who is constantly described as “young” is reminiscent of nothing so much as that Monty Python sketch in which Terry Jones in drag keeps chucking a fully grown John Cleese under the chin and going “coochy-coo!” over him as if he were a toddler. (“I am the Minister for Overseas Development,” says Cleese at one point.)
After having tied myself up in knots over this issue in the past, I think now that the solution is quite simple. I think Hamlet was young in the first four acts, but thirty in the last. And if that isn’t consistent with the time scheme of the play, so much the worse for the time scheme: Shakespeare didn’t worry about such trivialities here, any more than he did in Othello. In the earlier acts, we must, I think, see a man who is intelligent enough to see through the people around him, but sufficiently young and inexperienced to be shocked by what he sees. But in the final act, we see a man who has achieved maturity. That does not mean he has become more intelligent: but it does mean that he is no longer tortured by the various questions which he cannot answer. The reason why these questions no longer torment him is not that he has found the answers for them, but because he has now acquired the serenity of mind that enables him to live with these questions remaining unanswered. Whether or not he is physically thirty is beside the point: he is now mentally thirty.
And in those thirty years since his birth, those thirty years it has taken him to achieve this serenity, a gravedigger has been digging graves. The presence of death makes itself felt very powerfully in the later stages of the play – not merely the death of fathers, but one’s own death. In the earlier acts, Hamlet had asked himself how one must remember the dead: how long should the memory of the dead live on in one’s mind? Now, the question is posed in its most basic form: “How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?” Never has the question of mortality been posed with such unadorned directness.
What exactly is the nature of this wisdom Hamlet seems to have acquired? What is it that reconciles him to it all? Nihilists tell us it’s his awareness of nothingness: “The rest is silence” – nothing really maters. Those of a more religious frame of mind tell us it’s his awareness of divinity: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we will.” The truth, I think, is considerably more complex and more profound than any partisan interpretation can hope to encompass, and I am not sure, frankly, that I understand it myself. “Let be,” as Hamlet himself might say.
Hamlet is a work of unfathomable depths. This does not mean that one shouldn’t dive in, but it does mean, I think, that any understanding is but provisional until the next reading, or the next time one sits down to think about it. The main thing, I think, is never to trust anyone who professes to understand this play fully. And, even after a lifetime’s acquaintance with this work, one must keep one’s own mind open for new possibilities.