I can’t help thinking of Hamlet as a sort of neurotic cousin of Prince Hal’s. I had suggested this tentatively when I wrote about Hamlet as part of my trawl through the Shakespeare plays, but I think I am less tentative about it now. Of course there are very salient differences between Hamlet and the Prince Hal we see in the Henry IV plays: Shakespeare wasn’t interested in merely repeating himself, after all. But the parallels are so very striking that it is hard to avoid the impression that Shakespeare was exploring similar themes from a somewhat different perspective. And if so, comparing and contrasting the two characters seems a fruitful exercise.
Both princes are extraordinarily quick and intelligent. Hamlet could easily have held his own with Hal and Falstaff in terms of quickness of wit and of verbal dexterity; and while no-one in Hamlet’s play can quite keep up with him, one doubts whether Falstaff or Hal would have had such problems. These three seem to me quite indisputably the three most intelligent characters Shakespeare ever created.
More crucially, both Hal and Hamlet live under the shadow of an immense obligation of duty. Both their fathers expect filial love to be shown in the form of adherence to duty: Hal’s father, King Henry IV, laments his son’s apparent dereliction of that great weight of duty, while the ghost of Hamlet’s father commands his son to duty with the words “if ever thou didst thou dear father love”. (And this is the only point during the meeting with his father’s ghost that Hamlet appears to break down: “Oh God!”) Hal, of course, accepts his responsibilities, as he knew from the start he had to; he is reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and, in accepting his father’s values, he breaks off connection with his surrogate father, Falstaff. But in doing so, he has also to amputate away a big part of himself. What he becomes after this amputation we may see in Henry V: here, we see the great leader of men, but, inevitably, there is something missing; and that something is that part of himself he had discarded. King Henry V cannot, though he tries, forge the bonds with the common people that his former self, Prince Hal, had done with such ease. The assumption of responsibility requires a sacrifice of a big part of one’s own self.
Shortly after writing Henry V, Shakespeare went on to write about Hamlet, another intelligent prince, also under the weight of a call to duty; but this prince had not been reconciled to his father before his father’s death, and is now crushed under the weight of the responsibility that is placed upon his shoulders. Unlike Hal, he cannot steel himself to amputate away that part of himself that prevents his assuming his filial duty.
I can’t help wondering also to what extent Hamlet actually grieves for his father. He knows he should. He castigates his mother, and indeed develops a sort of hatred for her, for her refusal to grieve for her husband. And yet, while he opens to the audience some of the deepest recesses of the mind, at no point do I remember him exhibiting any real grief for his father’s death. And when he meets his father’s ghost, there is conspicuously no expression of love or even of affection on either side.
If it is indeed the case that Hamlet cannot grieve, then the awareness of this is intolerable – as intolerable, perhaps, as is the burden of duty now placed upon him. For Hamlet knows that lack of grief for the dead robs life itself of any pattern that could render it significance. Customary suits of solemn black, windy suspiration of forced breath, the fruitful river in the eye, the dejected ‘havior of the visage, together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief – these, indeed seem. Hamlet goes on to say that he has that within himself that which “passeth show”; but whether that which passes show is indeed grief, which he never expresses, or, possibly, an inability to grieve, he does not specify.
It is hard to imagine a character so self-aware as Hamlet not to be aware of this, although it may be too painful for him to acknowledge openly. Is this, I wonder, why Hamlet keeps castigating himself so mercilessly throughout the play?
I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?
Of course, it will be objected that I am building an edifice on what is no more than a conjecture. Perhaps. But without this conjecture, there is too much about Hamlet that I cannot make sense of. Why, despite a facility with language that enables him to express the subtlest and most elusive of thoughts and feelings, does he never express grief for his father? Why does he express no love or affection when he meets with is father’s ghost? Why does he castigate himself so mercilessly throughout? Why does he admire Fortinbras even while recognising him as being but a warmonger?
Hamlet’s path of development is complex, and there can be no single way of interpreting it. But most readers and audiences tend to agree that while he does carry out his duty at the end, the Hamlet at the end is not the same Hamlet we had seen at the start, and that, as with King Henry V compared to his former self, there is something that is missing. Possibly the two princes had made similar journeys, albeit via different routes.
Another character who makes a similar journey is, I think, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. At the start of the play, he is roundly dismissed, as is Prince Hal, merely as a riotous drunkard – as a person of no real consequence. But, when duty calls, he, like Prince Hal, answers it; and the duty that calls him is the same duty that calls Prince Hamlet – that of avenging a murdered father. (Caesar had been for Antony a father figure.) And this riotous drunkard, this playboy, transforms himself into a ruthless politician and soldier. Shakespeare does not, in this play, consider what Antony had to sacrifice of himself in order to achieve this transformation. But perhaps he returns to this in Antony and Cleopatra. Commentators tell us not to think of this play as a sequel to the earlier Julius Caesar, and that is probably sensible advice, but I wonder if the two plays are entirely unconnected. For here, in the later play, we see Antony no longer young: he is well past his prime, and now facing old age. Having made his decision to choose duty over his personal inclinations, he has lived a life of service to his country, as a politician, as a soldier, and as a ruler. He is renowned and respected for all this. But that part of him which he had been forced to sacrifice has not entirely gone away. And now, in his sunset years, it returns and makes its claim. All that Antony had lived his life for, all that he had sacrificed for, now come to mean nothing: kingdoms are clay. All he wants now is to befuddle that once sharp mind of his with alcohol, and fall into Cleopatra’s arms. And even from this Shakespeare creates the sublime.