sur la toile
Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres
These notes are just an introduction to the basic themes of Hamlet for persons reading the play for the first time. More advanced readers will turn to bibliographies and studies on Shakespeare; they may also want to consult the material on Hamlet which can now be found on the Internet.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
William Shakespeare was born on the 23rd of April 1564 (and christened on the 26th) in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the county of Warwickshire. His mother, Mary Arden, came from a family of landowners whilst his father, John Shakespeare, a rich trader in the guild of furriers and glove-makers, enjoyed enough reputation and wealth to have a role in public affairs (he rose to the position of bailiff of Stratford in 1568).
Shakespeare’s plays were published with little, if any, supervision on his part. A group of unscrupulous editors published a number of his plays in quarto versions, some faithful to the original, some more or less with the author’s consent. Some plays are incomplete and full of errors. There is disagreement amongst critics concerning the exact dates of several of the plays.
1592 Richard III
1592-1593 The Comedy of Errors
1593 Titus Andronicus
1594 The Rape of Lucretia
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
1594-1595 Love’s Labour’s Lost
1594-1598 The Taming of the Shrew
1595 Romeo and Juliet
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1596 The Merchant of Venice
1597 Henry IV
1598-1599 Much Ado About Nothing
1599 As You Like It
1600-1601 The Merry Wives of Windsor
Hamlet (This first great tragedy was an immediate success and was
staged until the closure of the theatres in 1642)
1602 All’s Well That Ends Well
Troilus and Cressida
Measure for Measure
1605-1608 Timon of Athens
1607 Antony and Cleopatra
1610-1611 The Tempest
1611 The Winter’s Tale
1613 Henry VIII
The Two Noble Kinsmen (in collaboration with John Fletcher)
A. The two greatest trends to have influenced and marked the English language after the Norman invasion of 1066 have been:
Not a mouse stirring
Frailty, thy name is woman
More matter, with less art
Hold the mirror up to nature B.
Shakespeare has survived all the ages: rooted in the Renaissance he survived the Enlightenment, Romanticism, realism, the Industrial Revolution; he has adapted to the computer age and is spreading throughout the Web. He endures, he is indestructible. He speaks to everyone; for some he is a Marxist, for others a misogynist; some say he is close to what we would nowadays call the far right, etc. Perhaps he has none of these characteristics, perhaps he is all these things at once, as we all are. He has wonderfully anticipated all the schools of psychology of the 19th and 20th centuries. He knows human nature, consequently he knows us, and consequently we recognise ourselves in his characters.
It is probable that Hamlet has its origins in a popular Icelandic saga mentioned for the first time by Snaebjörn, an Icelandic poet of the tenth century. The Danish historian and poet Saxo Grammaticus refers to it at the end of the twelfth century. In this Latin work recounting the history of Denmark Shakespeare’s future character appears under the name Amleth in a story probably influenced by the classical history of Lucius Junius Brutus. Here is the story:
Horvendill, the father of Amleth, is killed by his brother Feng, who then marries Gerutha, the widow of his victim. Amleth feigns madness in order to appear ineffectual and harmless in the eyes of Feng, who would spare him for these reasons. He evades the snare of a young woman sent by his enemies and kills a spy concealed in his mother’s bedroom. Ophelia and Polonius are already vaguely sketched, as is the episode concerning a letter ordering the assassination of Amleth by the king of England. Amleth manages to intercept this letter and it is the two messengers who are killed instead. Amleth marries the daughter of the king of England, returns to Denmark and assassinates Feng, whom the king of England has secretly promised to avenge. He sends Amleth to the court of the queen of Scotland, who falls in love with him and marries him in her turn. Amleth then defeats the king of England and returns to Jutland with his two wives.
However there are controversies concerning the exact origins of Hamlet. Some see Hamlet as the product of Jutland’s folklore, an interpretation supported by the possible etymology of the name of the protagonist as meaning mad Onela, suggesting some identification with the Swedish king Onela mentioned in Beowulf. Others find Oriental (Persian) or Celtic (Irish) origins. Parallels can also be found in the English romances of Havelock, Horn and Bevis of Hampton.
Act 1, Scene 1: At the castle Elsinor in Denmark, the sentries have invited Horatio to join them and talk about a ghost which has appeared before them during the previous nights. For the sentries this is a sign of imminent danger, perhaps indicating an attack by Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. Horatio refuses to believe them but then the ghost suddenly appears, and he recognises it as the King of Denmark, who has recently died. It says nothing and disappears almost immediately. It reappears shortly afterwards and seems on the point of speaking when the crowing of a cock, signalling dawn, obliges it to disappear. Horatio decides to warn Prince Hamlet.
Act 1, Scene 2: In his castle Claudius is addressing his Council and refers to his accession to the throne, the death of Hamlet’s father, his own marriage to Gertrude, the widowed queen, and announces that he has written to the old king of Norway, charging him with the task of reining in the ambitions of his nephew, Fortinbras, who wants to reclaim land lost by his father to Hamlet's father. He then speaks to Laertes, the son of his advisor, Polonius, giving him permission to return to Paris. Turning to Hamlet he questions him as to the source of his melancholy, urging him to put an end to his sadness, which he deems excessive, and asks him not to return to the University of Wittenberg. The queen adds her own pleas to those of the king and Hamlet promises to do his best to follow their wishes.
Act 1, Scene 3: Laertes is preparing to leave for France. He warns his sister Ophelia against Hamlet’s declarations of love as, even if they are genuine, he is a prince and may not be able to marry whom he chooses. Polonius arrives and showers Laertes with advice before telling Ophelia to avoid Hamlet. Ophelia promises to obey him.
Act 1, Scene 4: Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost on the battlements. On hearing the sounds of merriment from the feast arranged by the new king Hamlet comments on the reputation for drunkenness acquired by the Danes, a tendency which in a people or an individual can often be ruinous: ‘The dram of evil/ Doth all the noble substance often dout/ To his own scandal’. The ghost appears and Hamlet implores it to speak. The ghost makes a sign that Hamlet should follow it and he does, against the advice of his companions.
Act 1, Scene 5: The ghost declares itself to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father, returned to earth to spur him to wreak vengeance. He tells Hamlet he was murdered by his uncle Claudius who, taking advantage of his being asleep, poured poison into his ears. Having achieved his dark mission Claudius persuaded everybody that the king had been bitten by a snake. Hamlet’s father was killed before he had an opportunity to confess his sins, and is thus condemned to wander in Purgatory. He orders Hamlet to kill the murderous and incestuous brother but not to harm his mother who will, in any case, be subjected to remorse by her conscience. The ghost disappears.
Act 2, Scene 1: Polonius suspects that his son Laertes is living an immoral lifestyle and sends an envoy, Reynaldo, to Paris in order to spy on him. Ophelia arrives, bewildered by Hamlet’s recent behaviour. He came to her, pale and shaking, his clothing in disarray, and did nothing but hold her by the arms and stare at her for a long time, without saying a word. Polonius is sure that Hamlet’s behaviour is due to Ophelia’s coldness towards him, and decides to speak of it to the king.
Act 2, Scene 2: Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, to sound him out as to the reasons for the strange changes in his behaviour. Polonius enters and announces the return from Norway of the ambassadors, with the news that the King of Norway has persuaded Fortinbras to invade Poland instead of Denmark. He also states his belief that the cause of Hamlet’s madness is unrequited love, Ophelia having spurned his advances. This reason scarcely persuades the king and queen. The queen thinks it is her hasty marriage which has caused her son to lose his mind.
Act 3, Scene 1: In the hope of discovering the reasons for Hamlet’s distress, the king and queen decide to engineer a meeting between him and Ophelia. Polonius asks her to pretend to be alone whilst he and the king hide behind a tapestry. Hamlet enters and declaims his famous monologue, ‘To be or not to be’, up until the moment he notices Ophelia. He denies any love for her and advises her not to marry and to enter a convent instead. Claudius now starts to believe that Hamlet’s madness is not due to unrequited love and suspects that he might pose a threat to his crown. He decides to get him out of the way by sending him to England. Polonius suggests one final attempt at discovering the reasons for Hamlet’s behaviour by arranging a meeting with his mother, Gertrude.
Act 3, Scene 2: Having given his instructions to the actors, Hamlet asks Horatio to observe the reactions of the king during the performance. The king, queen and their court attend the performance. Hamlet, his head on Ophelia’s knees, prepares to make comments to her about the play, which is preceded by a mimed summary of the action, followed by some words addressed to the public by a character called ‘Prologue’. The spoken play itself begins, stressing the themes of treason, murder and incest. At the moment Lucianus pours poison into the ear of the king Claudius rises and leaves the hall in anger, even though Hamlet had forewarned him that the play would deal with the murder of Duke Gonzago in Vienna.
Act 3, Scene 3: Claudius charges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with escorting Hamlet to England. Polonius goes to spy on Hamlet’s meeting with with the queen. Left alone, the king experiences remorse for his actions, and gets down on his knees to pray and ask for forgiveness for his sins. Hamlet enters and could easily kill the king, but refuses the opportunity as the king would go to heaven if killed whilst praying.
Act 3, Scene 4: Polonius, hidden behind a hanging curtain, overhears the conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet. Hamlet’s wild behaviour and manner so frighten the queen that she cries out for assistance. When Polonikes a move, betraying his presence, Hamlet kills him, believing him to be the king. He then admonishes the queen for her unworthy behaviour and loss of virtue. The ghost of the dead king arrives and urges Hamlet to seek vengeance against the king but not to add to the suffering of his mother.
Act 4, Scene 1: Gertrude is now convinced that her son is in the grip of madness, and informs the king of the death of Polonius. The king realises that he probably was Hamlet’s target and tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to leave immediately for England with Hamlet.
Act 4, Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to discover where Hamlet has hidden Polonius’ body. Hamlet mocks them and refuses to answer. Nevertheless he agrees to meet the king.
Act 4, Scene 3: Hamlet refuses to answer the king’s questions but pretends to be happy to go into exile. Left alone, Claudius reveals that he has ordered that Hamlet be executed on his arrival in England.
Act 4, Scene 4: Before leaving for England, Hamlet meets Fortinbras, who is crossing Denmark to battle for barren lands. Musing on the futility of this action, considering what is at stake, Hamlet, who has to avenge the death of his father and his mother’s dishonouring, reproaches his own inactivity. (Fourth soliloquy: "How all occasions do inform against me.")
Act 4, Scene 5: Ophelia arrives, driven mad by the death of her father and the loss of Hamlet. The queen tries to reason with her, but she says nothing, contenting herself with singing lovers’ laments.
Act 4, Scene 6: Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet in which he describes how his ship had been attacked by pirates, who spared him after receiving assurance that they would be received by the king of Denmark. Hamlet informs Horatio that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still on their way to England.
Act 4, Scene 7: Claudius holds Hamlet responsible for the death of Polonius and Ophelia’s madness, and tells Laertes the reasons which pushed him to spare Hamlet; apart from the affection of his mother, Hamlet has the support of the people. A messenger arrives and announces Hamlet’s return. The king considers stratagems and suggests that Laertes provoke his nephew into a duel.
Act 5, Scene 1: Hamlet and Horatio come across two gravediggers preparing Ophelia’s tomb. Hamlet talks to them concerning the nature of life and death. Examining skulls uncovered by the gravediggers he is saddened to find that of Yorick, the fool who so amused him in his childhood.
Act 5, Scene 2: Hamlet tells Horatio how he was able to substitute for a letter from the king asking the English authorities to execute him another demanding the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the bearers of the message. Next he tries to effect a reconciliation with Laertes and offers him apologies for having wronged him. Osric, a courtier, enters to ensure that Hamlet takes part in the duel. Laertes had seemed ready to accept Hamlet’s friendship but now insists that they fight each other; Hamlet accepts the challenge and the duel begins. After the first exchanges and parries the king offers the poisoned goblet to Hamlet, who puts it aside. Hamlet carries the opening exchanges and the queen drinks to his health from the poisoned goblet. In the following chaos both duellists are wounded by the poisoned sword, the queen dies and Laertes reveals the plot concocted by himself and the king. Hamlet throws himself on the king and stabs him with the poisoned sword before finishing him by forcing him to drink from the deadly goblet. Laertes dies after a reconciliation with Hamlet. Horatio also wants to drink from the goblet but Hamlet dissuades him, charging him with telling the story of the tragedy. At that moment Fortinbras arrives from Poland and Hamlet expresses his wish that the prince of Norway should rule Denmark. He dies in his turn. The ambassadors arrive and announce the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Fortinbras orders that Hamlet be given funeral honours.
One could read Hamlet simply, simplistically even, as a revenge tragedy. Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, is killed by his brother, Claudius, who, overriding the rights of succession, appropriates both the crown and the wife of Hamlet’s father. The ghost of the father reveals everything to his son, and all the elements of the revenge tragedy are in place: Hamlet has an obligation to avenge the murder, the usurpation, and the adultery. This he does by killing Claudius at the end of the play.
All these themes, as well as others, are found in Hamlet. However, it is important to remember that Hamlet himself is at the centre of everything, and it is on him that all the great themes are focused. There is no other character in literature so rich, so complex, so enigmatic, at once so opaque and transparent.
If the heroes of the great classical tragedies are all confronted by choices, it is because they are all obliged to resolve them in one manner or another: once the decision is taken, everything else follows, accompanied by acts of majestic nobility or, at the other extreme, of abject decay and ruin. For Hamlet nothing is simple, everything raises questions. His dilemma is not about what decisions he should take but rather whether he will be able to make any decisions at all. According to some interpretations, Hamlet makes no decisions and instead projects the image of an indecisive, inactive and passive individual, a romantic incapable of action who is in some ways snivelling and pathetic; he is nothing but a compulsive talker taking pleasure in his own words. Jean-Louis Barrault said of him that he is ‘the hero of unparalleled hesitation’. He astonishes us with soliloquies of unequalled beauty, his emotions are of stunning force, but he does not evolve beyond them. This is why T.S. Eliot regarded Hamlet as a failure and said that it presented a character ‘dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible because it exceeds the events that occur’. Why so much emotion and so little action? That is his nature, say some critics: this is what he is, the absolute opposite of Macbeth. Others see him as stunted by an Oedipus complex which has turned him into a belated adolescent, somewhat mad, mired in sterile existentialist ponderings (this alone would disqualify him as king!). Others still see him as suffering from an overdose of chastity. Others go further: is he not simply a puritan or a homosexual? A drunkard, even? Could he be the unfortunate hero, the hero-victim for whom life holds nothing but frustration and disillusionment? The murder of his father and the revelation that his own brother was his assassin (who then throws himself on the widow, Hamlet’s mother!), the betrayals by Gertrude, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even Laertes: it is not only the state of Denmark which is rotten, it is the entire world. The celebrated French critic Henri Fluchère, who sees Hamlet as ‘the first Shakespearean drama which can lay claim to both extremes in personality and universality’, interprets the play as a symbolic representation of the battle between man and his destiny, his temptations and contradictions.
A vast tragedy, negating any attempt at a single interpretation, Hamlet is before anything else the drama of a man who does not hesitate to confront his own imperfections and who refuses illusions and idealised appearances:
‘What 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 animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me...’ (Act Two, Scene Two, Arden)
The tragedy, Fluchère tells us, takes place above all in Hamlet’s consciousness, as
all the events which form the play’s framework are reduced to a symbolic representation, to an internal unrest which no action will resolve, and no decision will quell. The deepest theme, masked by that of vengeance, is none other than human nature itself, confronted by the metaphysical and moral problems it is moulded by: love, time, death, perhaps even the principle of identity and quality, not to say ‘being and nothingness’. The shock Hamlet receives on the death of his father, and on the remarriage of his mother, triggers disquieting interrogations about the peace of the soul, and the revelation of the ghost triggers vicious responses to these. The world changes its colour, life its significance, love is stripped of its spirituality, woman of her prestige, the state of its stability, the earth and the air of their appeal. It is a sudden eruption of wickedness, a reduction of the world to the absurd, of peace to bitterness, of reason to madness. A contagious disease which spreads from man to the kingdom, from the kingdom to the celestial vault’:
Fluchère’s reading situates Hamlet’s drama within the ruptures of an isolated and bruised subjectivity. According to this interpretation, which places the accent on the dissolving of identity and on a Sartrean problematic of being and nothingness, Hamlet’s tragedy appears as the quintessence of a moral and metaphysical instability which some associate with the experience of modernity. Hamlet’s decline and bitterness indeed match his extraordinary lucidity. The tragedy of Hamlet, nevertheless, clearly exceeds the boundaries of the tormented consciousness of its protagonist.
The third act of Hamlet opens with a remark by the king, Claudius, who instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old school-friends of his nephew, to discover why the latter ‘puts on this confusion,/ Grating so harshly all his days of quiet/ With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?’ For over three centuries hundreds of experts have turned their attention to the problem of Hamlet’s madness. Hundreds of articles have been written, and dozens of controversial theories have been put forward and countered. The characters of Shakespeare’s play are themselves desperate to discover the origins of the affliction which mars the prince of Denmark. Whilst Polonius sees Hamlet’s conduct as the result of disappointed love, Ophelia can only see the symptoms of pure madness. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern it is ambition and frustration which are gnawing away at the young heir to the throne. Finally, for Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who in this joins most critics, at the root of it is a warped reaction, including rejection, to the death of his father and her own hasty remarriage. This interpretation does indeed play an essential role in the play. Hamlet himself never ceases speculating not only about the overt or covert motivations of other characters but also about the uses and abuses of power, the faults of passion, action and inaction, the significance of ancestral customs as well as the question of suicide. Most of the characters observing Hamlet’s behaviour can’t agree whether it is fake and calculating or whether the prince really is suffering from a mental illness threatening the ‘noble, sovereign reason’ which separates men from beasts (Claudius). Claudius himself is conscious of the fact that the conduct and words of his nephew are at one and the same time completely irrational and absolutely coherent. Basing his judgement on the theories of ancient medicine, he attributes the ambiguities of the deranged speeches to the workings of a harmful temperament provoking a state of deep melancholia. ‘[W]hat he (Hamlet) spake’ he concludes, ‘though it lack’d form a little/ Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul/ O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,/ And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose/ Will be some danger’ (Act 3, Scene 1). In this respect a parallel can be traced between the ‘methodical madness’ of Hamlet and that of Ophelia. In effect, whilst everyone agrees that ‘their words have no sense’, their words and actions are still the object of an exceptional curiosity on the part of their entourage. ‘Her speech is nothing’ the unnamed gentleman who opens Act 4, Scene 5 tells us, ‘Yet the unshaped use of it doth move/ The hearers to collection. They aim at it,/ And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,/ Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,/ Indeed would make one think there might be thought,/ Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.’ ‘What education in madness!’ finally exclaims Laertes, meditating on a nothingness which ‘is worth more than all thought’. It is to be noticed that, in the context of Shakespeare’s work, Laertes’ perplexed state echoes that of Edgar in King Lear when he—captivated by the logic and rigour latent in the madness of his king—declares ‘what reason in this madness’. Each character tries to decipher the madness of Ophelia and Hamlet because the ambiguities of their deranged discourses seem to reveal a terrible sickness capable not only of threatening the psychological equilibrium of the individual but of infecting the kingdom as well as the world beyond: ‘it goes so heavily with my disposition’ says Hamlet, ‘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 nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ (Act Two, Scene Two)
HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
Forced to play a role which brings him nothing but misfortune and alienation, Hamlet envies those who, unlike him, do not allow themselves to be tormented by ‘the scruples of conscience’. For this reason he admires the equanimity of his friend Horatio, whom he includes amongst those fortunate people ‘Whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled/ That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger/ To sound what stop she please’. In other words, whilst Horatio ‘no revenue hast but [his] good spirits/ To feed and clothe [him]’, it is precisely his ability to be someone ‘that Fortune’s buffets and rewards/ Hast ta’en with equal thanks’(Act Three, Scene 2) that allows him to escape suffering. The stoic Horatio, who admits to being ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’(Act 5, Scene 2), does not succumb to destructive passions. He does not nourish ill-considered hopes and in this avoids frustrations and disappointments. It is because all these qualities are united in Horatio that Hamlet implores him, before his own death, not to give in to the temptation to commit suicide and to stay alive in order to tell the whole truth.
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
So, what is the answer to the central question: is Hamlet mad? Is he mad partly because his pain and metaphysical doubt are beyond him? Is his madness a strategy for better observing and manipulating others, and furthermore to protect himself? Or does he take cover under an artificial madness which absolves him from all responsibility and allows him to find comfort in inaction, to split himself in some way, to be at once an actor in and a spectator of the staging of life, of his life? Or is he, all things considered, just insane? Each of us has to decide, according to taste and temperament.
The critical applications of the famous theory of the Oedipus complex to the tragedy of Hamlet are innumerable. It was Freud himself who, in an essay published in 1905, was the first to try and resolve in psychoanalytical terms the enigma offered by Hamlet’s behaviour. According to Freud, the personal crisis undergone by Hamlet awakens his repressed incestuous and parricidal desires. The disgust which the remarriage of his mother arouses in him, as well as the violent behaviour during their confrontation in the queen’s bedroom, are signs of the jealousy which he constantly experiences, even if unconsciously. Hamlet is absolutely horrified by the thought that his mother could feel desire for Claudius, whom he describes as a ‘murderer and villain,/ A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe/ Of your precedent lord’.
Such an act
A little after, the ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly appears in order to assuage the anger of his son and implore him to take pity on his mother’s great distress: ‘This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose./ But look, amazement on thy mother sits./ O step between her and her fighting soul./ Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works./ Speak to her, Hamlet’.
THE QUEEN: If it be,
Three other Shakespeare plays have ghosts as characters: Julius Caesar (Brutus is visited by the ghost of Caesar), Macbeth (Banquo’s ghost interrupts Macbeth’s banquet) and Richard III (the king is haunted by the ghosts of his victims). In Hamlet, the role of the ghost, who appears as early as the first scene, is to trigger the action by revealing Claudius’ crime and by demanding vengeance. For the celebrated English critic John Dover Wilson (1881-1969), the ghost of Hamlet’s father is thus ‘both a revenge-ghost and a prologue-ghost’. ‘It is one of Shakespeare’s glories’, he continues, ‘that he took the conventional puppet, humanised it, christianised it, and made it a figure that the spectators would recognise as real, as something which might be encountered in any lonely graveyard at midnight . . . The Ghost in Hamlet comes, not from a mythical Tartarus, but from the place of departed spirits in which post-medieval England, despite a veneer of Protestantism, still believed at the end of the sixteenth century’. What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p.52.
Hamlet gives us seven soliloquies, all centred on the most important existential themes: the emptiness of existence, suicide, death, suffering, action, a fear of death which puts off the most momentous decisions, the fear of the beyond, the degradation of the flesh, the triumph of vice over virtue, the pride and hypocrisy of human beings, and the difficulty of acting under the weight of a thought ‘which makes cowards of us all’. He offers us also, in the last act, some remarks made in conversation with Horatio in the cemetery which it is suitable to place in the same context as the soliloquies because the themes of life and death in general and his attitude when confronted by his own death have been with him constantly. Four of his seven soliloquies deserve our special attention: ‘O that this too sullied flesh would melt’, ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’, and ‘How all occasions do inform against me’.
Readings of these soliloquies are varied and diverse. However, three remarks are in order:
The Hamlet of the first soliloquy is an outraged man who, disgusted by his ‘sullied flesh’, can see no outcome to his disgust other than death. To free himself from the grip of his flesh he must put an end to his life. But there is the rub: God, the Everlasting, he tells us, does not allow one to act in this way. God still rules the universe and Hamlet must obey his strictures.
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Hamlet’s attitude is different in ‘To be, or not to be’. He asks himself about death beyond religious considerations; the nature of his dilemma has changed, as Hamlet tells us with a lucid simplicity.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
In the first soliloquy Hamlet submits to rules and prohibitions; in the second he imagines and rationalises and decides to remain in the world, for the moment at least. But he goes much further. Throughout the final act he pictures the final scene. There, where another dramatist would have given the dying Hamlet a long discourse on death, Shakespeare has Hamlet say just a few words of disconcerting simplicity, ‘the rest is silence’, precisely because Hamlet has already said everything before:
Alas, poor Yorick! (Act Five, Scene One) And a man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one’. (Act Five, Scene Two)
The other two soliloquies are memorable because they reveal all the passionate nature of Hamlet’s personality. Observing young Fortinbras and his army on their way to conquer Poland—‘an eggshell’, ‘a wisp of straw’—Hamlet, on the edge of despair, asks himself why he, when he has so many reasons, cannot stir himself to action, why he cannot carry out the necessary act of vengeance. Why? Why? The last lines of Act Four are very revealing:
How all occasions do inform against me,
Some actors, including the very best, believe that the most beautiful soliloquy is that which comes at the end of Act Two, immediately after the first discussion between Hamlet and the travelling players. Here Hamlet is enraged, furious and rude. He lays himself, we feel, totally bare. He is no fool however. Recovering his spirits he devises a plan which will lead the king to betray himself. This is Shakespeare at the height of his theatrical prowess, stamping Hamlet’s language with relentless changes in tone, the peaks of rage inter-cut with short moments of profound depression or of incredulous questioning.
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
The character of Hamlet is without doubt one of the roles most coveted by actors. However, some claim it is also one of the easiest. The text is so beautiful and so expressive that it merely has to be spoken; it flows by itself effortlessly and it only remains for the actor to be coherent for the duration of the performance. Yet it is here that choices have to be made. How should one approach these soliloquies? Should one treat them as pieces of music and approach them as one would the arias of an opera? Shakespeare’s language certainly lends itself to such an approach. Or should one see these speeches as Hamlet’s thoughts which he expresses aloud, and deliver them as if he were speaking to himself? Alternatively, isn’t Hamlet in the act of saying something to the public through the special and particular magic of the theatre, isn’t he taking us into his confidence in an act of communion which resembles, in some aspects, an act of love? These three approaches are possible, as well as others, of course.
More than any of his other plays, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pure theatre, a theatre cascading through three or four layers, like Russian dolls.
With Hamlet Shakespeare has bequeathed us a supreme gift. It is a testament in which the creative genius of its author shines out, demonstrating his knowledge of the human spirit, his mastery of plot, and the unbelievable wealth of his language. But there is too much theatre within theatre in this play for us not to see that through a sustained engagement with this theme Shakespeare wanted to discover and to make known a truth rarely grasped, or even perhaps to tell us that there is no truth, save for that truth given existence by a genius through theatrical devices, representation, illusion and art. This is what Tom Stoppard understood very well, when, in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he took the two most insignificant characters in Hamlet, turned them into heroes, and reproduced entire passages from Shakespeare's play. This is theatre in its purest form which self reflexively claims itself as such. That idea was already present in Hamlet.