Summary of the Plot
Although editors divided Hamlet into five acts, the play is structured in three movements, each of which covers a startlingly short period of time. In each movement the scenes follow each other very rapidly, with no longer break than the nights in which the characters are sleeping, or trying to. The first critic to see this was the distinguished actor, producer, director and playwright Harley Granville-Barker in his Preface to Hamlet(1936). Although the 1605 Second Quarto and the 1623 First Folio texts (the two most authoritative early texts of Hamlet) differ in many ways, the three movement structure is apparent in both: the first spans two nights and one day; the second, two months later, spans three days; the third two days.
The first movement
The first movement has five scenes and, as Granville-Barker dryly puts it, “coincides with the first act of the editors”. This movement begins at midnight on the castle ramparts where it will also end, a day and a night later.
The sentries are clearly very frightened about something. The actor playing Francisco, the sentry who is being relieved by Barnardo, has a tiny part, but it includes the unforgettable lines:
For this relief much thanks. ’Tis bitter cold,
And I am sick at heart.
It soon becomes clear that a Ghost or “thing” has appeared on the two previous nights. When Marcellus – the most thoughtful and vocal of the sentries – arrives he has brought the learned and sceptical Horatio with him. Marcellus tells Barnardo that he “entreated” Horatio to join them so that he can “approve our eyes” if the “thing” appears again, and because Horatio is a scholar who will know how to address the “thing”. Horatio insists that it is their “fantasy” and that it will “not appear again” – whereupon it does, as every theatre-goer would expect. But once again it stalks off without speaking.
In the anxious discussion that follows, the thoughtful Marcellus wonders whether the thing’s appearance might be connected with the alarmingly mysterious, pell-mell way in which the country has been preparing for war: “tell me he that knows”. The well-informed Horatio then explains “how the whisper goes” in a long story that introduces the play’s important political theme.
Thirty years ago old King Hamlet had accepted a challenge to personal combat from King Fortinbras of Norway, who then lost Norwegian “lands” as well as his life. Denmark is now threatened with an invasion since young Fortinbras, who is not yet King of Norway, has “shark’d up” an army of “landless resolutes” so that he can avenge his father and reclaim the lost lands.
Although these thoughtful men all agree that the “thing” looks “like” King Hamlet they never once suppose that it is what it tells Hamlet it is, “thy father’s spirit”. They all suspect it is demonic. It is important to notice this, since 19th century critics always assumed – as did important 20th century critics like A.C. Bradley and Stephen Greenblatt – that the “thing” just is the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.
At this point the “thing” re-appears, to everybody’s amazement, but stalks away again without speaking. Dawn is breaking, and Horatio and Marcellus set off to find young Hamlet and tell him what they have seen.
The second scene begins with what is evidently the new King Claudius’s first Council meeting. The main item on the agenda is the threat of invasion from Norway, which the King has already all but contained – through an impressive combination of diplomacy and craft. The new king is not an old-style warrior king, like his dead brother, whose widow Claudius has married.
Hamlet, in a black mourning cloak, is grieving for his dead father, and when he is left alone his torrential first soliloquy explodes with his feelings about his mother’s second marriage, a marriage which took place so soon after his father’s death. Horatio and Marcellus then arrive to tell him about the Ghost, and he promises to join them on the ramparts.
In the next scene, Ophelia, the daughter of Claudius’s Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, is warned by both her father and her brother, Laertes, to be wary of Hamlet’s talk of love: Hamlet’s royal duties mean she will eventually be cast aside. Her father’s onslaught is so fierce that she promises to break off communications with the Prince. (By the end of the play Polonius’s family will all be dead, with Hamlet directly or indirectly responsible.)
The fourth scene begins at midnight on the second night, when Hamlet joins Horatio and Marcellus on the ramparts, and the first movement’s climax comes in its fifth scene when the “thing” finally speaks. Hamlet has already been shattered before he meets the Ghost. Now he is shattered again as he is given the “dread command” to kill the new king, Claudius. Claudius, he is told, murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father, by pouring poison into his ear – and had been sleeping with Hamlet’s mother even before the murder. As Hamlet later puts it, Claudius “killed my King and whored my mother”.
The second movement
When the second movement begins it is quietly established that time has passed since the first. Laertes is back in Paris and in need of more funds from his father. The ambassadors have just returned from Norway. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived from Wittenberg, after being “sent for” by Claudius.
Just how much time has passed is only established much later in the Mousetrap scene (3.2): when the “mad” Hamlet says to the astonished Ophelia, “look how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours”, she replies: “Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord.” Her elegantly phrased reply helps us to put this together: there is an interval of two months between the death of Hamlet’s father and the beginning of the play, and another two months pass between the play’s first and second movements. As Granville-Barker brilliantly shows, Shakespeare wants to indicate the passage of time in natural, unobtrusive ways.
The first scene in the second movement is short and in two parts. Polonius is both funny and morally unpleasant – furthering the play’s exploration of notions of honour – when he tells Reynaldo he must go to Laertes and spy on him there, using underhand methods if necessary. Polonius also hears from Ophelia of Hamlet’s distracted behaviour. This alarms Polonius because he himself had insisted that Ophelia break off private communications with the Prince, which she has done for the last two months – and now the Prince is more mad than ever. Polonius heads off to tell the King that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet’s madness.
The King and Queen welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the next scene, and Claudius tells them he hopes that they can discover the reason for Hamlet’s “transformation”. When they leave to find Hamlet, Polonius explains his new theory: Hamlet, he says, is mad with love for Ophelia. The Queen still thinks Hamlet’s behaviour is due to his father’s death and her “o’erhasty” re-marriage to Claudius, but she doesn’t dismiss Polonius’s theory, and Claudius and Polonius make a plan for Hamlet to meet Ophelia again so they can eavesdrop on what is said.
In the two months that have passed since the Ghost issued its “dread command”, Hamlet has done nothing except feign madness; he himself is, as he says, “lapsed in time”. When a company of Players arrives at court Hamlet decides that they can stage a play which will test whether or not the Ghost was telling the truth. During the performance of the play, Claudius responds in a way which convinces Hamlet (though not Horatio) that Claudius did murder his father. Hamlet, however, has made no plan about what he should now do. Shakespeare’s plays, and not just his tragedies, typically build towards a climax – in Hamlet, the climax comes in Act Three, scene two, then spreads through the two scenes which follow: the so-called prayer scene, and the so-called closet scene where Hamlet has a searing encounter with his mother. Not surprisingly, many Freudian critics see this as the most important scene of the play.
When he finds the defenceless Claudius on his knees in the prayer scene, he doesn’t kill him, or confront him. Instead he goes off to meet his mother in the closet scene, and we hear him calling “Mother, mother, mother!” from “Within”, while he is still offstage.
Soon after this scene begins Hamlet butchers Polonius, who is hiding behind an arras – Hamlet thinks he is stabbing the king – and having done so makes a morbid joke about it.
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell;
I took thee for thy better; take thy fortune;
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.
The second movement finally ends when Hamlet sees Fortinbras’s army entering Denmark as he leaves for England, where Claudius has now planned that Hamlet will be killed.
The third movement
The third movement begins in Act Four, scene five and, as in the first movement, there are five scenes. The tension rebuilds at once. Poor Ophelia has gone mad. Laertes arrives from Paris, infuriated by his father’s death and “hugger-mugger” burial, and leading an army of rebellious Danes who cry “Laertes shall be king!”
In the closet scene Hamlet had berated his mother, telling her she must stop sleeping with Claudius. “Refrain tonight,” he says, “And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence” – as though he were telling her how to stop smoking. But when it looks as though Laertes will kill Claudius she rushes to defend him by holding on to Laertes. She obviously still loves Claudius, who shows himself perfectly able to deal with Laertes and “calm his rage”. He plots with Laertes to have Hamlet killed in a fencing match – Laertes’s sword is to have a poisoned tip.
Hamlet, meanwhile, has discovered the plot against his life and arranged for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed instead. On arrival back at Elsinore, he goes to the graveyard to meet Horatio and encounters the gravediggers. The gravediggers discuss Ophelia’s apparent suicide by drowning and produce a skull belonging to the King’s former jester, Yorick, and Hamlet addresses it, ruminating about death. Laertes arrives, and he and Hamlet fight in Ophelia’s grave. Amazingly, since Claudius and Laertes are both in such a hurry to kill Hamlet, the final duel takes place later on the same day Ophelia is buried.
The catastrophe with which the play ends comes as a wild series of accidents. Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup meant for Hamlet and dies. Learning that the man she loved had meant to poison her son is her final agony, unless she is still alive to hear her son’s brief and pitiless farewell: “Wretched mother adieu.” Hamlet wins the first two rounds against Laertes, but then Laertes stabs or cuts Hamlet before the third round.
A furious scuffle follows, from which Hamlet emerges with Laertes’s sword – whether by accident or design. Hamlet then knows that Laertes’s sword is “unbated”, or untipped, but he doesn’t know that it is envenomed and that he is now dying. Some stage Hamlets then cut or wound Laertes, while others are so enraged that they run him through. The dying Gertrude tells Hamlet that the drink was “poisoned”, and Laertes tells him that the sword is envenomed, that they are now both dying, and that “the king’s to blame”.
Hamlet immediately stabs Claudius with the same sword, forces the rest of the poisoned drink down his throat, and tells him to “follow my mother”. There is little or no sense that he is finally carrying out the Ghost’s “dread command”, since Hamlet never says (and the Court doesn’t know) that he is killing the man who “killed my king”. If the deeply religious Hamlet we saw in the play’s second scene had known that he had “not half an hour of life”, he would have immediately called for a priest. But now his final act, before dying himself, is to give his “dying voice” to young Fortinbras as the next King of Denmark – so that the Tragedy of Hamlet includes the Tragedy of Denmark. The third movement then comes to an end. To quote Hamlet’s dying but perhaps hopeful words, “The rest is silence” – although the gravediggers will have a lot to do.
Hamlet is a play about how a noble mind becomes unhinged – about the way in which a positive and brilliant Renaissance scholar begins to question the whole basis of the world into which he was born, turning in on himself and questioning everything in which he once believed. In showing us this so vividly it is a play which forces us, as audiences and readers, to do much as he does and to ask what, if anything, gives life value or meaning.
Hamlet has been driven into his terrible radical scepticism by the shattering events of his life. As A. C. Bradley eloquently put it in Shakespearean Tragedy, perhaps the most influential book ever written on the playwright, Hamlet is “already well-nigh overwhelmed with sorrow and disgust” at the beginning of the play after his father’s death and his mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” (in Gertrude’s phrase [2.2]). Then, when the Ghost appears to him, he suffers a further “tremendous shock” when he is told “that his mother was not merely what he supposed but an adulteress, and that his father was murdered by her paramour”.
The terrible impact of the Ghost’s “dread command” (3.4) shows in the difference between Hamlet’s first and fourth soliloquies, a difference which many critics, including Bradley, disregard. But the difference is crucial if we are to understand the disintegration of Hamlet’s mind.
His first soliloquy is tormented and tempestuous, with Hamlet revealing that he has only been restrained from killing himself by the divine prohibition on suicide:
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon gainst self-slaughter. (1.2)
n fact, as the philosopher Schopenhauer pointed out in his famous essay “On Suicide”, there is no divine prohibition on suicide in the Bible, unless we think it can be extrapolated from the sixth of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” But the point is that Hamlet thinks there is such a prohibition.
In his fourth soliloquy, Hamlet is once again “meditating on suicide”, as Bradley says, but he is not, as Bradley also maintains, “precisely where he was at the time of his first soliloquy two months ago, before he ever heard of his father’s murder”. This time there is no mention of the “Everlasting”, or any mention of religion whatsoever – only whether it is “nobler” simply to be a victim or to act.
To be, or not to be, that is the question –
Whether ’tis 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. (3.1)
This is a soliloquy distinguished by its utter bleakness and loneliness. There is no sign here that Hamlet is thinking about what he must do to obey the Ghost or establish Claudius’s guilt: if he is thinking at all about the Ghost when he describes death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”, he certainly isn’t thinking of the Ghost as, in Bradley’s phrase, a “messenger of divine justice”.
As for Claudius, there is no suggestion that, if he is guilty, killing him could provide a remedy for the horrors of existence that the “To be or not to be” soliloquy so gravely, and impersonally, describes. The whole soliloquy illustrates the French poet Mallarmé’s brilliant observation that Hamlet makes the real world of Elsinore seem unreal, and “effaces the too clearly defined beings about him by the disquieting or funereal invasion of his presence”, moving through the play as “the dark presence of the doubter”.
Yet Hamlet, as we have noted, was not always like this, and Ophelia’s only soliloquy in the play is helpful for the light it sheds on his state of mind. Her soliloquy is concerned with the astonishing change that has taken place in the man she loves. It is as if there are two Hamlets, and one has disappeared:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’observed of all observers – quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vow,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me
T’have seen what I have seen, I see what I see. (3.1)
For Ophelia, the idea of two Hamlets is not some kind of metaphor. It is a terrible and inexplicable reality. But if we borrow her idea as a metaphor, we can see how her two Hamlets are both alive in the soliloquies that she can never hear, jostling and sometimes colliding with each other and very unhappily, so that their collisions produce the different kinds of logical and emotional incoherence that appear in the soliloquies.
The First Hamlet whom Ophelia recalls at such loving length had been a glorious epitome, the very embodiment of the ideal Prince and “courtier” that Christian humanist writers like Erasmus and Castiglione had imagined fondly in The Education of a Christian Prince(1516) and The Book of the Courtier(1528): a Renaissance polymath whose love of the classics was always tempered by his Christian faith, a scholar who was also a soldier and was even (although the Hamlets we see onstage hardly ever make us suspect this) “the glass of fashion and the mould of form”. This superman was moreover the man who, as Ophelia tells her father in vain, “hath of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me”, “hath importuned me with love / In honourable fashion”, and “hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, / With almost all the vows of heaven” (1.3).
The words “of late” are significant. Hamlet himself uses the same words in telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how he has “of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” (2.2). But Ophelia’s “of late”, as well as echoing this, is helpful in a more specific way in that it confirms what has triggered her father’s and brother’s alarm. Hamlet has evidently been expressing love for her since his return from Wittenberg to attend his father’s funeral – in other words, he was wooing Ophelia not long after his father’s death, though not necessarily (and we might think necessarily not) after his mother’s remarriage.
Not only that. As the woman Hamlet has “importuned” with “love” in “honourable fashion”, Ophelia would have been the obvious person for Hamlet to confide in, had he ever wanted or needed to talk about what has shattered his life. Indeed, she was also the only available confidante, since Hamlet doesn’t even know that Horatio is in Denmark until the end of the play’s second scene. Immediately after that, in the third scene, Ophelia promises to “obey” her bullying father by cutting off all communications with Hamlet, regardless of his feelings. She keeps that promise through the next two months (between the first and second movements of the play), until her father instructs her to meet Hamlet again so that he and the King can eavesdrop on their conversation.
Ophelia’s soliloquy then confirms that Hamlet has never confided to her the reason or reasons for the terrifying change that she cannot understand. She – or “I, of ladies most deject and wretched, / That sucked the honey of his musicked vows” (3.1) – is still helplessly bewildered by what she sees as the gulf between the man Hamlet was and the man he now is. Since she can’t understand what has happened, or what has “o’erthrowne” her First Hamlet’s “noble mind”, the last lines of her soliloquy describe the Second Hamlet in a cursory though horrified way by emphasising that he no longer is what he was.
His “noble and most sovereign reason” is now “Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh”, and the “unmatched form of feature of blown youth” has been “blasted with ecstasy”, or madness. Yet Hamlet’s mind has not been completely “o’erthrown”, nor has the First Hamlet died or been altogether supplanted. In the tortured first soliloquy he is still fascinatingly alive, though not well. His delight in literature and his learned humanist passion for the classics still breaks through when he suddenly compares his mother’s tears at his father’s funeral with those of Niobe, who was “all tears” when her 14 children were killed by the gods because she loved and boasted about them too much.
That reference to Niobe isn’t some detachable classical allusion; it is part of the uncontrollable flood of thoughts and memories that overwhelms him when he remembers the funeral and the wedding that followed “a little month later”. It is spontaneously recalled, like the marvellous detail about “those shoes”: Hamlet had noticed, with characteristic keenness, how the new shoes his mother had worn for the funeral were worn again at her wedding, since too little time had passed for them to seem “old”. It’s worth noticing how Niobe doesn’t disappear after this characteristically rapid and unforced reference to her being “all tears”. She is still hoveringly present in the soliloquy’s last lines, when Hamlet extends the contrast with his mother’s “most unrighteous tears”.
The legendary Niobe was so inconsolable in her grief that her tears continued to flow after she had been turned into stone. Unlike Niobe’s tears in this magical legend, however, Gertrude’s eyes have dried too quickly. The allusion to Niobe illustrates Ophelia’s idea of there being two Hamlets, and we see this in the famous soliloquies which she can’t hear. His earlier mental habits still persist, as the reflexes of a wonderfully copious and resourceful, trained mind. It is still natural to Hamlet to appeal to first principles, to recall “he who made us”, and commend “god-like reason”, even when he cannot keep this up.
His earlier, harmonious and humanistic view of Nature has been displaced and badly shaken, but his doubts have not turned him into a nihilistic, cynical figure like Iago – the scheming villain of Shakespeare’s Othello. Even the remorselessly steady anguish of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy admits his continuing concern with what is “nobler in the mind”. He continues to think about “honour” more frequently than he thinks about revenge. He cannot surrender entirely the idea of honour, like Iago, Falstaff or Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, although he comes to wonder whether it is only “a fantasy and trick of fame” – and tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (2.2). In a brilliant introduction to the New Penguin edition of Hamlet, Anne Barton notes: “At the end of Richard II (1595), Shakespeare had made it apparent that the medieval world of heraldry, honour, gages, oaths, and ceremonial combat within which the action began was now obsolete and even faintly absurd”. Similarly, in Hamlet, says Barton, “the new reigns in Norway and Denmark appear to have closed the door on a heroic past”.
The contrast between Richard II and his pragmatic successor Henry IV, or between Hotspur and the Machiavellian Prince John reappear in “the distinction between the banished, chivalric world of the elder Hamlet and [King] Fortinbras and the hard-headed, unglamorous court of Claudius”. This sense of a world that has been lost – reflected in Hamlet and in the plays which Shakespeare wrote after Hamlet – is even stronger than Barton suggests.
As Shakespeare was writing the play, optimism about the human condition, and the very idea of a benign universe, was being undermined in all kinds of ways. The new astronomy had decentred man as well as the planet Earth. The Italian philosopher, Machiavelli, had challenged traditional notions of degree. The French philosopher, Montaigne, had questioned natural law, our ideas of the self and just about everything else. The English metaphysical poet, John Donne, famously describes the effect of such momentous changes in his poem The First Anniversary, when he reflects on how “new Philosophy calls all in doubt”:
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation…
Enter Ophelia’s Second Hamlet, the Hamlet whose world has been turned upside down and who can no longer believe in the world he once believed in. As the critic Philip Edwards notes, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy represents “a trough of despair” into which we don’t see Hamlet fall again – but the whole of the rest of the play is coloured by its pessimism.
And at the heart of that soliloquy, and indeed of the play itself, is a profound and disturbing quarrel about the nature of nature itself and the values we believe in. Another example of this comes at the end of the long second scene in Act Two, when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of the animals – and yet, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me…
It is a speech often seen as, in Philip Edwards’s words, “a brilliant perception of the anguish of Renaissance man in general and of Hamlet in particular”. But at the end of the speech Hamlet punctures the rhetoric himself – “Man delights not me” – and there is little in the play to lighten his dark view of the human condition. Hamlet may keep open, just, the “possibility”, as Edwards puts it, that “there is a higher court of values” than those which operate around us and that the words “salvation” and “damnation” have meaning, but it seems, by the time we have witnessed the horrors of the last act, a very faint possibility.
Rank and Degree
When Philip Larkin called his first collection of poems The Less Deceived he was recalling that wrenching moment in Hamlet when the Prince tells Ophelia, “I loved you not”, and she replies: “I was the more deceived.” We are unlikely to notice, and I don’t think any editor mentions, her unfortunate slip, which measures her distress: she forgets to say “My lord”. When Polonius dresses his daughter down so fiercely in the third scene for not "understanding” herself he means she has been forgetting her place in a feudal society and, still worse, compromising her father by forgetting his importance in the Danish hierarchy: “You do not understand yourself so clearly as it behooves my daughter, and your honour.”
Hamlet himself can seem indifferent to rank and degree. His easy and familiar welcome to the Players is characteristic and engaging. When Horatio recalls that Hamlet’s father was a “goodly king”, the breathtaking simplicity of Hamlet’s reply is very moving:
He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.
But this apparent indifference to rank and degree is not democratic, and is closely linked to what G.R. Hibbard calls Hamlet’s princely hauteur. He has no scruple in pulling rank on those he dislikes or despises. Polonius, the man Hamlet describes as a “tedious old fool”, has no recourse when Hamlet bullies him into behaving like one by forcing him to agree that “yon cloud” looks like a camel, but no, wait a minute, isn’t it more like a weasel, or even a whale?
Polonius has no choice but to grit however many teeth he still has and agree each time. In Act Two, scene two, Hamlet’s behaviour is even worse: he mocks Polonius not in private but in public, telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that “That great baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling clouts”, and explaining to the Players that Polonius prefers “a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”.
As for the Players: having ruined their performance, Hamlet shows no concern about what may happen to them. Will they be paid, or thrown into a cell? Tom Stoppard had evidently wondered about this when he showed his Players being deported in the boat that is taking Hamlet to England.
Hamlet might be described as an epistemological tragedy that constantly plays on alarming gaps between what the audience knows and does not know, and between what the audience knows that characters in the play do not know. The audience knows, after listening to his attempt to pray, that Claudius did indeed murder his brother, but Hamlet never knows that. As Anne Barton rightly emphasises, “for the greater part of the play Hamlet possesses only the word of a possibly unreliable ghost, plus his own instinctive dislike of Gertrude’s second husband as his basis for revenge”.
Hamlet thinks he knows that Claudius killed his father, and happens to be right. But he is no less certain that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were willing accomplices to Claudius’s plan to have him murdered in England, and in that case he happens to be wrong – or, at the very least, has no solid grounds for his belief that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aware of the contents of the sealed letter (ordering Hamlet’s death) that they are to deliver to the King of England.
Neither Hamlet nor the audience ever know the extent of Gertrude’s guilt, although Hamlet thinks he knows that too when he says “almost as bad good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother”.
Hamlet is devastated by the Ghost’s claim that Claudius had “Won to his shameful lust / The will of my most seeming virtuous queen”. Yet neither we nor Hamlet can know whether Claudius had, as Hamlet puts it, “whored my mother” weeks or months or even years before he “killed my king”. By the end of the closet scene we cannot even be sure that Gertrude herself knows that her second husband killed King Hamlet – just as we can never be certain whether Ophelia knows or even suspects that Prince Hamlet killed her father.
While we know that Hamlet has seen the Ghost, Claudius never knows or suspects this. And in the final scenes does Gertrude insist on drinking because she suspects the wine is poisoned and intended for Hamlet? We can never know, because the text does not tell us, what happens between Gertrude and Claudius, from the moment when she promises to her son that she will stop sleeping with her husband to the moment when she places herself between Claudius and Laertes’s sword – just as we can never know what happens to Hamlet that might account for the difference between his almost jubilant mood at the end of Act Two and his profoundly discouraged mood, shortly afterwards, when he delivers his most famous soliloquy.
Who or what is the Ghost?
Whenever Christianity enters Shakespearean tragedy it is usually as a source of further terror, not consolation. Hamlet seems to me no exception to this general rule. From the moment we hear about the Ghost in the first scene, Shakespeare is raising questions about the nature of Christianity. What is the Ghost? Where does it come from? What does it want?
In Act One, Scene Five, Hamlet asks precisely this in his astounded and fearful response when he first sees the Ghost:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1.5)
To Professor Roy Battenhouse, a deeply Christian critic, the question Hamlet poses to himself about the Ghost’s intentions is the most important of all the questions to be answered about the play (see p.38). And when Battenhouse says that Hamlet doesn’t pursue or answer it, he means that he never pursues it in any sustained or rigorous way, and that the answers he does give are wildly different. This is certainly true.
At the end of Act One, when Hamlet rejoins Horatio and the others after his meeting with the Ghost, he declares: “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.” Moments later, however, when Horatio and the others hear the Ghost speaking for the first time, Hamlet addresses “this fellow in the cellarage” in a familiar and even mocking way, calling it “boy”, “truepenny” and “old mole”, as though it were another of the stage devils that inhabited or disappeared into the “cellarage” under the Elizabethan platform stage.
In the “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy at the end of Act Two, his doubts are troubling him again, and he is considering whether the Ghost was sent to take advantage of his suicidal melancholy:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil – and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. (2.2)
He then plans to set the “Mousetrap” – as a way of testing the Ghost as well as Claudius. In the two months that have passed since he heard its “dread command”, he has done nothing. Now, his spirits seem to lift as he makes his ingenious plan. But then – not many minutes later in the theatre, and on the very next morning in the play’s timeline – he is delivering his “To be or not to be” soliloquy and describing death as a country from which “no traveller returns”. He can hardly have forgotten the Ghost, but at this point, with the Mousetrap only hours away, he seems, once again, to have rejected the idea that the Ghost could be what it claimed to be: “thy father’s spirit”.
Then – finally – when he thinks that the Mousetrap has been a complete success, he tells Horatio: “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (3.2). And after this he never again worries about whether the Ghost might be “a goblin damn’d”, not “a spirit of health”, whether it comes “from heaven” or “from hell’’, and whether its intentions might be “wicked” not “charitable”. He stops thinking about the most important question, or three questions, that he himself had posed as soon as he saw the Ghost.
So when the Ghost makes its final appearance in the so-called closet scene – and not in its suit of armour but in a “nightgown”, according to the First Quarto – the guilt-stricken Hamlet asks, “What would your gracious figure?” and refers to himself as “your tardy son”:
Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That lapsed in time and passion lets go by
Th’important acting of your dread command? (3.4)
By this time, nothing can shake Hamlet’s belief that the Ghost just is what from the first it claimed to be – “thy father’s spirit”.
It is not surprising, then, that this is how the Ghost was regarded throughout the long tradition of seeing the play through Hamlet’s eyes. Nineteenth-century critics speculated endlessly about the possible reasons for Hamlet’s “delay” without ever considering that one very strong and grave reason for not sweeping to his revenge was Hamlet’s doubts about the Ghost’s provenance. In this respect Bradley’s view that the Ghost is not only the ghost of Hamlet’s father but the “majestic” and incontrovertible “messenger of divine justice” is the apotheosis of this entrenched tradition.
Indeed Bradley goes further, arguing that Hamlet can be seen as Shakespeare’s “most religious” play and making light of all Hamlet’s doubts about the Ghost. So Hamlet’s troubled lines about how the Ghost “may be a devil”, for example, are dismissed as “an unconscious fiction” and an “excuse”:
Evidently this sudden doubt, of which there has not been the slightest trace before, is no genuine doubt; it is an unconscious fiction, an excuse for his delay – and its continuance.
Sudden? Not the slightest trace before? This is quite astonishing, and cannot be explained as a mere lapse of memory. Bradley, the most celebrated of all Shakespeare critics, is normally so lovingly respectful of the text, which he could probably have reconstructed from memory. He could hardly have forgotten what Hamlet said when he first saw the Ghost. Rather, he has blocked it out, because he is so convinced that Hamlet should have obeyed the Ghost’s “dread command”:
Hamlet, it is impossible to deny, habitually assumes, without any questioning, that he ought to avenge his father.
Bradley goes on:
Surely it is clear that, whatever we in the twentieth century may think about Hamlet’s delay, we are meant in the play to assume that he ought to have obeyed the Ghost.
But it isn’t at all clear, as we have seen, though Bradley is by no means the only important Shakespeare critic to take the Ghost at his word.
Stephen Greenblatt writes in Hamlet in Purgatory that “[t]he closet scene is the last time that Hamlet – or the audience – sees the spirit of his father.” Like Bradley, Greenblatt assumes that the Ghost just is the spirit of Hamlet’s father.
Others, however, are more sceptical – and they are surely right to be. Perhaps John Dover Wilson’s greatest achievement in What Happens in Hamlet? (1935) was to show how the doubts about the Ghost’s provenance would have been very real and alarming to the play’s first audiences. No less importantly, Dover Wilson argued that Shakespeare constructs his play “so carefully that we are never perfectly certain as to just who or what the Ghost is”; Roland Mushat Frye agrees
Hamlet is given a mandate that he cannot ignore, but from a source which remains mysterious from first to last.
Why are the doubts about the Ghost so disturbing?
When the American critic Stephen Greenblatt set out to write his book Hamlet in Purgatory, he was concerned, he says, only with the “poetics” of Purgatory; his “goal was not to understand the theology behind the ghost; still less, to determine whether it was ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’… My only goal was to immerse myself in the tragedy’s magical intensity.” This is rather like being concerned with the “poetics” and “magical intensity” of a torture chamber, rather than with what it actually is.
I think Wittgenstein was right to argue, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, that we cannot usefully discuss “poetics” – or so-called aesthetic values – without being concerned with the subject matter behind them. In other words, the constant emphasis on “poetics” in Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory sets it strangely apart from the historical, once-lived realities that fuelled what we might call the “Hamlet-terror” – the frightening dilemma into which the Ghost plunges Hamlet.
To diminish this play’s religious terrors is to diminish its dramatic terrors. Whether or not we agree with A.C. Bradley that this is Shakespeare’s most religious play, religion is at the centre of it, and of what we make of the Ghost’s instructions to Hamlet.
The Ghost, we must remember, sets him two tasks, not one. He must kill Claudius; this is, at best, the Old Testament view of revenge at its most primitive. But Hamlet is also told he must not “taint” his mind, and must leave his mother “to heaven” and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge “to prick and sting” her: this invokes the New Testament ethic, with its emphasis on inner repentance and its absolute prohibition of revenge.
A better introduction to Hamlet than Greenblatt’s study might be the poem, Satyre III: Of Religion, by the metaphysical poet, John Donne. Satyre III is a plea for tolerance in the divided, intolerant world of the 1590s, in which Protestants and Catholics denounced each other and Catholics were systematically persecuted.
It would be fatuous to suppose that Hamlet will tell us where Shakespeare’s sympathies lay, whether he accepted or rejected Protestant teaching on purgatory (Protestants argued that there was no such thing), whether he saw the Ghost as an instrument of Heaven or a “goblin damn’d” or indeed whether or not he actually believed in God. What can be said is that in his lifetime, when science did not offer any alternative account of creation to that presented by the Christian doctrine, most people thought it crazy to deny the existence of a Creator. How else could one account for the existence of everything else – that did exist?
There were atheists, of course, though they kept quiet about what they believed or refused to believe. To declare yourself one was like committing suicide: you would be killed, and your family left penniless, as well as disgraced. And the machinery of State and ecclesiastical censorship ensured that no “atheistic” book could ever be published. Christopher Marlowe, the dramatist who most influenced young Shakespeare, was widely believed to be an atheist and belonged to the sinister-sounding “School of Night”, also known as the “School of Atheism” (centred, it is believed, round Sir Walter Raleigh).
In Shakespeare’s plays the atheists are usually, but not always, villains like Edmund in King Lear or Iago in Othello. The non-villainous exceptions, like Claudio in Measure for Measure, are more startling. Claudio has been sentenced to death “for getting a maid with child”; the reasons why Claudio and the heavily pregnant Julietta haven’t married don’t matter here. What matters is that Claudio and Julietta are the only mutually loving couple in that very dark comedy, and that the decent, instructively ordinary Claudio plainly doesn’t believe in the Christian account of what happens after death when he launches into his terrified speech, “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where…”
Whether Shakespeare was an atheist we don’t know. Donne certainly was not: he was ordained as a Protestant and eventually became Dean of St Paul’s. But his poem Satyre III is a scornful indictment of the religious terrorism of the 1590s. He hated intolerance, maintaining both before and after his ordination that in “all Christian professions there is a way to salvation”.
Though it couldn’t be published, Satyre III circulated privately, and Shakespeare may have acquired a copy from the playwright Ben Jonson, a friend of his as well as of Donne. It would be astonishing if Shakespeare hadn’t read it before he wrote Hamlet. Donne’s Satyre III provides a better introduction to Hamlet than Greenblatt’s study because it helps us to relate what happens in the play to the terrors faced by all those who struggled with the problem of authority in the intolerant world of the 1590s. Indeed, if we take Satyre III as a guide to that world and its presence in Hamlet, we might go further. Even after his ordination, Donne feared that the rival religions might – by misrepresenting the moral nature of God – drive men into disbelief. If we were looking for a great work in which Donne’s fear was realised, we might consider Hamlet– where, if we “take the Ghost’s word”, divine justice would appear to have the morals of a fruit machine.
The idea that even the best of men must burn in hellish or purgatorial fires if they have the bad luck to die unanointed is itself barbaric; yet this is the reason for the torments the Ghost says he suffers. The idea resurfaces as Hamlet’s reason for not slaughtering the King while he is at prayer – he believes the King won’t go to hell if he kills him in this state.
Nor does Hamlet, despite his eloquence and the power and subtlety of his mind, ever ask the obviously pressing question about the ethics of revenge. To put it brutally, he never questions the moral nature of a deity who will fry his father for allowing himself to be murdered before he had engaged a priest. If Hamlet did not raise questions in an Elizabethan audience about the existence of God, it undoubtedly raised them about just how benevolent that God might be.
Themes & Symbolism
King Hamlet is murdered by having poison poured in his ear. The great French critic Hippolyte Taine says the play is also “the story of a moral poisoning” – the Ghost pours a more excruciating poison into young Hamlet’s ear when it claims that the Queen was sleeping with both brothers before one killed the other.
Ears feature prominently in Hamlet. Here are some examples:
And let us once again assail your ears,
They are fortified against our story (1.1)
Nor shall you do my ear that violence
To make it truster of your own report (1.2)
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood (1.5)
So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused (1.5)
and with a hideous crash
Take prisoner Pyrrhus’ ear (2.2)
And I’ll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference (3.1)
And wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches...(4.4)
I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb (4.4)
We can be mistaken “in what we see”, says Tony Tanner in his introduction to the Everyman Hamlet, “and we can hallucinate”. We can be mistaken in what we touch, too, or in identifying a taste or smell. “But in no other sense are we so vulnerable as in our hearing.” Tanner quotes Montaigne – our ears “are the most dangerous instruments we have to receive violent and sudden impressions to trouble and alter us” – and, agreeing with Hippolyte Taine, says that the Ghost “poisons” Hamlet’s ear with the truth of murder and incest – “for there are truths which, to all intents and purposes, ‘poison’ the hearer”.