I can no longer criticize Hamlet too harshly for not racing from the ramparts to run Claudius through with his rapier. I have procrastinated for longer than he in anticipation of writing this essay, and I had far less motivation to write it than he did to avenge his father’s murder. As a result I’ve developed an empathy for him that I lacked after earlier readings or viewings. I could tell you that food poisoning sidetracked me for a while, which felt eerily appropriate. Poison, after all, started the ball rolling in Hamlet. But I wasn’t sleeping in a garden and I ingested my poison orally and voluntarily albeit unknowingly; my sister did not pour it in my ear. And while Hamlet surely – in his mind – had some good reasons for delaying the deed, the fact remains, he put it off far too long, and arguably, never really did it at all. At least I’m finally writing.
Although writing an essay that few are likely to read is far less daunting than killing your royal uncle-turned-stepfather to placate your father’s ghost, consider this: Hamlet is perhaps the single finest, most famous piece of literature in the English language. And as such, has been produced, filmed, read, re-read, criticized and commented on as much as virtually any other single piece of art. Parts of it – scenes, phrases, characters, words – are so oft-referenced that they have literally become part of the gestalt; of our common psyches. Only this longest of Shakespeare’s plays has been translated in its entirety into Klingon (yes, really).
So let’s think about this again. Could I possibly have anything new and/or interesting enough to write about this oeuvre? Frankly, if my own father’s ghost came back to tell me that my uncle had poisoned him and usurped his wife and crown, I’d sooner “revenge his foul and most unnatural murther” (I,v,25) than write this essay.
But alas and alack, here I am in my office (Starbucks) run out of excuses. The time has come, so here goes nothing. Be kind, dear reader.
The notes I pencilled into the margins on this reading blended with those I made 34 years ago in the same volume, reading it for Paul Cubeta’s seminar at Middlebury. It’s the play I know best and think about the most, and most often, about (along with Macbeth). I feared in this rereading it might lose its luster for me; that familiarity might breed contempt. In fact, and much to my surprise and joy, quite the opposite happened. I luxuriated in the warm bath of the words, and they relaxed and revived me like lavender epsom salts. His language brings me to tears.
But it rattles me, too. I have considered, entertained, and dismissed many theories on why Hamlet does not do what he does not do. I ruminate. I ask friends, family, strangers, and myself again and again. To no avail. What was his problem?
Elizabethans accepted the phenomenon of ghosts, so the dead-but-wandering King Hamlet would’ve been judged a credible witness by a jury of his peers. Hamlet confirms the ghost’s assertions by observing Claudius’ reaction to the staged play mimicking his murder of his brother the king. Hamlet is not squeamish about murder itself. So what’s up?
I could write for so long about so many topics in this play, but that’s the one I’m focusing on. As Jerry Seinfeld might say: What’s up with Hamlet? Why doesn’t he just do the deed, avenge daddy’s death, and assume the crown ( or suffer what slings and arrows may come)? The theory that gelled in my mind after this particular reading is that Hamlet is more actor than act-er. Something happens to him, as a result of his father’s death and mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” (II,ii,57) to his uncle, and reinforced or catalyzed by his father’s ghost’s visitation, that forces him into a role rather than into action. The guard platform is a stage which renders him unable to act (take action) and the anguish of this impotence (vis-a-vis, perhaps, Ophelia as well) pushes him to act (play a role) instead. He more portrays than becomes either a suicidal madman or vengeful son. Faced with a similar untimely and violent loss of a father, Ophelia does the former, and Laertes the latter, infinitely more effectively than Hamlet ever does either.
Hamlet (the younger), whose name is identical to his dad’s (nary a Jr. or II to distinguish him), is more his father’s understudy than heir. It seems no coincidence, then, that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and that Hamlet has more lines than any other character in any Shakespeare play. As Jaques notes in As You Like It, for Hamlet: “All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts,” (II,vii,140-2) Macbeth, too, has some wisdom apropos to Hamlet: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.” (V,v,24-6).
Clearly the idea of the play within a play and theater as life as theater is a strong theme in Shakespeare; no more so anywhere than in Hamlet. Shakespeare is the height of English-language (and perhaps all) drama, and Hamlet arguably the pinnacle thereof. It is no surprise, then, that the line between the play and the action therein would blur particularly in this character as he struggles to come to terms with his dilemma.
Hamlet and his cohorts reinforce this notion throughout the play in many ways. When the new King Claudius and his blushing bride (Hamlet’s mother Gertrude) beseech him to ‘get it over already’ (his mourning and sourness over his once-uncle-now-stepdad’s marriage to his mother and confiscation of the crown), he tells them that his grieving is simply “actions that a man might play.” (I,ii,84)
In warning Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, Polonius tells her he’s just “acting as he must act in the position he occupies” (I,ii,26 footnote, Riverside Shakespeare)
We often find Hamlet alone on stage speaking – nay, pontificating and soliloquizing – much more than he’s spoken to (or ever listens to anyone). Even when he meets his father’s ghost for the first time (I,iv) Hamlet urges him to speak, but rattles off twelve more lines before taking a breath long enough to give the ghost a ghost of a chance at getting a word in edgewise. He finds that the encounter addles his “distracted globe” (I,v,97), referring ostensibly to his head, but of course as well to the eponymous theater where Elizabethans would have seen the play. There are many references throughout to his ‘act’ and ‘part’.
Perhaps, though, the strongest confirmation of Hamlet’s transition from act-er to actor is his own creation and revelation of this strategy to Horatio. The very first thing that occurs to him to do in this situation where he’s just discovered that his uncle has poured poison in his dad’s ear while he was napping in the garden to kill him and steal his wife and country, is to act crazy. He tells Horatio that he plans to “put an antic disposition on” (I,v,72).
Yossarian had to have read this play before concluding (in Heller’s Catch-22) that the best way to get out of flying any more missions was to declare himself insane. Until, of course, he comes up against Catch-22:
“You mean there’s a catch?”
“Sure there’s a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat really isn’t crazy.”
Hamlet uses the mask of madness to avoid the combat of love, confrontation, and regicide, and the responsibility to his father, court, country, mother, Ophelia, and civility. Like Yossarian, though, he can’t claim insanity because in claiming it he proves he’s not. Acting, for Hamlet, starts as an alibi, but the lines blur for him and he gets lost in his role.
Hamlet is focused more on “words, words, words” (II,ii,192) than action, action, action. He has “of late-/…lost all my mirth, foregone all/custom of exercises” (II,ii,295-7). But the traveling theater troupe’s arrival in Elsinore is an Epi-pen in the arm for him. It literally revives him; he seems most alive and animated when amongst the players. He assumes his place with them as member and director. He greets them with glee and demands that Polonius treat them even better than they deserve. He implores that they perform a speech right away – before they even get to wash up or eat – but launches into it himself before they even get a chance. He directs them continuously, meticulously, and tediously throughout their stay. I swear if he weren’t the popular prince they’d have told him to piss off.
He seals the deal by hatching a plot to reconfirm Cladius’ guilt via a play. Second strategy that involves acting: “the play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (III,ii,904-5) The play is indeed the thing. In his “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech (III,ii,550), he laments that these actors reciting fictional lines seem better able to evoke emotion than he can with dire reality provoking him. He echoes this lament in Act IV, scene iii when he encounters Fortinbras’ army, which acts with little motivation while he, with it in abundance, cannot.
In quizzing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius wonders why Hamlet “puts on this confusion” (III,i,2); even he sees that it’s an act. And Hamlet notes that he has more offenses than “time to act them in” (III,i,126). But not only is he an actor, he’s a bad actor. Prior to the players’ performance in Act III, scene ii, he once again assumes the roles of director and critic and and gives a long dissertation on what constitutes good and bad acting. And he embodies virtually all of the characteristics of the latter. He may as well be – and perhaps is – talking to himself. For instance, he admonishes them to “suit the action to the word,/the word to the action,” (III,ii,17) which he hardly ever does. He suggests that bad actors “imitated humanity so abominably” (III,ii,34-5), but isn’t he just as guilty of that? He is acting like a grieving, vengeful young man, but does nothing about it.
When Claudius’ guilt over his dirty deed overwhelms him and forces him to leave the re-enacted scene of the crime, you’d think Hamlet would take him out before he could cross the threshold in egress. But nope, you’d be wrong. True showman that he is, Hamlet calls for music!
I love that the only person that Hamlet does skewer (Polonius, eavesdropping windbag) is hiding behind an ‘arras’, or tapestry wall hanging. But Dictionary.com gives the alternate definition as: “a curtain suspended loosely across a stage and used as a backdrop or part of a stage setting.” It’s apt that his only true act of bravado in the play takes when he cannot see or identify his victim in a pseudo-stage-on-the-stage. He has no problem killing behind a curtain without having to confront his victim.
Claudius’ wariness of Hamlet also supports the Hamlet-as-actor theory. He repeatedly says that the reason he just doesn’t kill Hamlet outright is that “he’s loved of the distracted multitude.” (IV,iii,4) Hamlet’s a celebrity. He’s popular with the masses. It’d be like killing Justin Bieber. Surely Hamlet knows that as well, and fame has gone to his head. He’s adopted the celebrity persona.
His return to Denmark involves a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque swashbuckling escape from a pirate ship (and his execution at the hands of England at Claudius’ behest) (Maybe Johnny Depp should take the next stab at Hamlet. Bad pun intended) is a scene from a B movie with him as the star. Back in Denmark he stumbles upon a gravedigger preparing Ophelia’s grave who claims that “an act hath three branches – it is/to act, to do, to perform.” (V,i,11-12) Hamlet got stuck at step one. In recounting the swashbuckling to Horatio he says “I could make a prologue to my brains./They had begun the play.” (V,ii,30-1) He is still on set and not on point, even at this late stage in the deadly game. And by using his father’s seal (a prop he conveniently had in his pocket during the voyage) on the letters he writes to replace Claudius’ directives and send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death, he is acting as king.
In the final scene – the climax – when he is finally ready to act (do) as well as act (perform) because he has almost no choice; circumstance forces his hand – he refers to himself in the third person almost like it’s an out-of-body experience for him to actually do what he set out to do in Act I. It’s like he’s watching someone else address Laertes and begin the dance of death they’re about to choreograph and perform. And that someone else would, of course, be him, as it’s been all along. Hamlet as actor. He claims that it was his ‘madness’ that killed Polonius, Laertes’ father, but that excuse falls as short as did Yossarian’s. He refers to the assembled witnesses as “this audience” (V,ii,240) and again “audience to this act” (V,ii,335).
Even in the end, he never truly avenges his father’s fratricide. Gertrude drinks the poison and dies. He touches Laertes with the poison-tipped epee only after he’s mortally wounded himself, and makes Claudius drink the poison only after he realizes that he’s poisoned his mother: “follow my mother,” (V,ii,326) he tells Claudius. He never ever mentions King Hamlet’s murder to him or anyone in the room. What about your daddy issues, Austin Powers???
He is a true diva, aware of the spotlight until the end. He wins the award for overacting with his drawn out and melodramatic dying scene, and rather than mentioning dad or revenge, he tells the ever-loyal Horatio to “absent thee from felicity a while,/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/to tell my story.” (V,ii,346-8) Really? My story? Not my dad’s story?? His hand is surely on his brow as he writhes in agony. But wait, Monty Python fans, he’s not dead yet! He manages to choke out, “the rest is silence”. Finally. “Good night sweet prince,” indeed (V,ii,358-9). Yes. Enough chatter, chatter, chatter as Mick Jagger would say.
It’s interesting that the words for act (do) and act (perform) are exactly the same in English. They are not in Spanish or French ( and I can’t claim to know in any other languages). My thesis wouldn’t work so well if the words were different, but it does in Shakespeare’s tongue. I cry every time I read those final words, not so much because his death is sad, but because he never really achieves his goal. The tragedy here is the inability of this poor, tormented soul to do anything. Existential crisis notwithstanding, Hamlet is nothing more than a player.
Henry IV, Part I next.