WHY HAMLET DELAYED KILLING THE KING
By: A. Clutton-Brock
|The following article was originally published in Shakespeare's Hamlet. A. Clutton-Brock. London: Methuen & Co., 1922.
I will begin my explanations of the delay by laying down the principle that nothing which may be said about any character in a play is of any value unless it can be expressed by that character on the stage, or, at least, unless it is an assistance to the acting of that character; for characters in a play have no existence except in their parts, as figures in a picture have no existence except in the picture. But there is this difference between a play and a picture, that a play exists fully only when it is acted; it is like music and needs executants. So in a play there is more than the words, although often we can deduce that more only from the words. That is so in the case of Hamlet. We cannot doubt that to Shakespeare and his company the play was more than the words; he, being a master of the stage, not only wrote the play but saw it being acted as he wrote it, and the words were only part of it for him. They were communicated to the players in writing, but the rest of the play, the business, was communicated to them orally by Shakespeare himself; and this business was as much a part of the play as the words. Further, it is possible that all the business was not devised by Shakespeare; an executant may also be a creator and Burbage may have helped to create Hamlet in its fullest and most authentic life. He may here and there have seen more in his part than Shakespeare himself had seen; and Shakespeare may have joyfully consented to his discoveries.
So it is the business of an actor always, since a play lives fully only on the stage, to make what discoveries he can about his part. And this he must do, when all tradition of the original business is lost, out of the words alone. The test of his discoveries is, whether they can be acted, and whether they fit the part as the dramatist has written it. If they do, they may actually elucidate some obscurity in the words, may be a rediscovery of some business with which the playwright himself explained the meaning of his words. But it is not only an actor who can make such discoveries or rediscoveries. It is open to anyone to say how he thinks a play or a part ought to be acted; for, in saying this, he gives his opinion of the real and full meaning of the play. He is not passing away from the play, or the character, into psychology or into an imagined history of the character as he was when off the stage. He is not, for instance, telling what Hamlet learned at Wittenburg; he is merely deducing the rest of the part from the words. But, if he goes beyond this and conjectures anything that could be of no use to a player, since it could neither be acted nor have any bearing on the acting, then he is wasting his own time and that of his readers.
This is the test I shall try to apply to my own explanation of Hamlet's delay. Can that explanation be acted, or would it help a player to act the part? Is it not only consistent with the words, but also an elucidation of them? If it is, then I am not passing into irrelevant science because I advance a psychological theory or use psychological terms of which Shakespeare himself was ignorant. As he knew aesthetically what he did not know scientifically, so we may know scientifically what we do not know aesthetically; and we may make use of our science, our psychological formulæ, not to criticize him and find him wanting because he was ignorant of them, but to rediscover that part of his aesthetic purpose which has been lost with the original business of the play. I assume that the character of Hamlet has the consistency of a creation, that Shakespeare knew what he would do and made him do it. If I describe his behaviour in psychological terms, it is not with the aim of travelling beyond the play into speculation about a Hamlet who has no existence, but of discovering how his words ought to be supplemented with action and in what mood he ought to speak them.
Shakespeare's plays can be experienced as he meant them to be experienced only when they are acted. But a performance may be misleading, may cause us actually to read a play wrongly, to ignore some essential point in it which has been ignored in the performance. This I think has happened in the case of Hamlet. In most performances of it that I have seen, the very text, and so the whole part of Hamlet, was misrepresented on an essential point. Hamlet was presented, except for a few unaccountable lapses from decorum and a few regrettable actions still more unaccountable, as a perfectly well-behaved English gentleman; whereas in the text it is all the other way. There Hamlet behaves outrageously except in some of the soliloquies, when he is alone with Horatio, in part of his interview with his mother, and in his converse with the players. In particular, his behaviour to Ophelia is obscene and cruel; and if this is toned down, if his dirty jokes in the play-scene are left out, as they usually are, if his demeanour throughout is far more sympathetic than his actions or his words, then a Hamlet is presented to us who is not Shakespeare's at all, and who is not to be explained in terms either of his words or of his actions.
Yet the text is plain enough; for not only does Hamlet begin to behave wildly immediately after his interview with the Ghost; but, when dying, he insists that all through the play he has been misrepresenting himself; and his last anxiety is that Horatio shall set him right with the world--
- Horatio, I am dead;
- Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
- To the unsatisfied.
And again, a few lines later--
- O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
- Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
- If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
- Absent thee from felicity awhile,
- And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
- To tell my story.
His anxiety cannot be merely that Horatio shall explain the external facts, the murder and his mother's unfaithfulness, which could be done in a few words. It is that Horatio shall make the world understand what he himself, now that his brain is cleared by approaching death and a task at last performed, understands so clearly that he thinks Horatio too must see it. He cannot tell his story because he is dying; he has strength only for one practical task, to recommend Fortinbras for King; and his last words are--"The rest is silence," meaning that he cannot say what he most wishes to say.
So the tragedy and the interest of Hamlet lie in the fact that, by some compulsion, he is forced to misexpress himself in action and in words. What is that compulsion? There has been much speculation about it, as that Hamlet was too much a dreamer to act when violent action was demanded of him. This ignores the fact that he does act violently throughout the play and it does not explain his outrageous behaviour. It is based upon those very misrepresentations of Hamlet, as a well-behaved English gentleman, which ignore the text; and it is the result of a desire to draw some kind of moral lesson from the play, to prove that all these disasters happened because of some weakness in Hamlet's character. In fact, as Mr. Robertson says, Hamlet has been "scolded, as never hero was before, by literary persons conscious of their own consummate fitness for killing a guilty uncle at a moment's notice." Yet the causes of this compulsion are, I think, made plain in the text and, if once understood by an actor, would show him how to play the part.
The first thing to be noticed in the text is that Hamlet's behaviour, up to his interview with the Ghost, is quote normal. He is aghast, as anyone would be, at his mother's quick remarriage and troubled by doubts about foul play to his father; but, just before the Ghost appears, he is talking calmly about the evils of drunkenness. Further, his behaviour during the interview is also normal, considering the news the Ghost has to tell him. When the Ghost speaks of murder, he says, just what we should expect him to say--
- Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
- As meditation or the thoughts of love,
- May sweep to my revenge.
Those words are the natural prelude to a tragedy of revenge; yet the tragedy that follows is not one of revenge; and, as soon as the Ghost has gone, Shakespeare begins that other tragedy which he has designed and which is different from anything that could have been even conceived in the earlier play. For then it is that Hamlet's behaviour begins to be abnormal. He repeats the words--"Remember thee?" and insists on them as if he were already aware of some obstacle to remembrance--
- Yea, from the table of my memory
- I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
- All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
- That youth and observation copied there;
- And thy commandment all alone shall live
- Within the book and volume of my brain,
- Unmixed with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
- O most pernicious woman!
- O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
- My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
- That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
- At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark.
- So, uncle, there you are.--Now to my word;
- It is "Adieu, adieu! remember me":
- I have sworn't.
This, as the rest of the play proves, is not mere rhetoric; there is an obstacle to rememberance of which he speaks afterwards; and when he writes on his tables, he is already fighting with it.
It has been pointed out that "table of my memory" suggests to him his tables or notebooks; and a few lines on there is another suggestion of the same kind, the mere sameness of the words carrying his mind from one thought to another, where there is no other connection between them. Horatio cries--"Illo, ho, ho, my lord!" and Hamlet answers--"Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come"; that is to say, he answers a simple cry as if it were the cry of a falconer to his birds. This being at the mercy of words and their chance suggestions is a symptom of mental disorder; and it is the first sign of that disorder in Hamlet. It may also be a sign of the struggle for coherence--his mind is in such confusion that he clutches at any clue to a meaning and so lets the accidents of language make his sense for him. All his strange behaviour with Horatio and Marcellus is of a piece with this. He speaks "wild and whirling words," in the hope that the words themselves will express a purpose or a sense which he cannot find in his thought. He is on the point of telling the others what the Ghost has told him and then flinches from it with the words--
- There's ne'er a villain dwelling in Denmark--
- But he's an arrant knave--
Something prevents him from telling; but it is not policy, it is an obstacle within himself, a repulsion that he does not understand. And finally this obstacle becomes for the time his purpose; and he makes them swear with desperate particularity that they will be silent about the whole matter.
Every one to whom the scene is not staled by use must feel the strangeness of it, especially Hamlet's joking with the Ghost; but the strangeness is equalled by the certainty with which it is conceived and executed. It is Shakespeare at the height of his power, setting himself a task of extreme difficulty and performing it as no one else could. But here, if he were influenced by the old play, we should expect to see clearly its influence and its crudity; for the pretended madness of Hamlet is part of the original story and we may assume with Mr. Robertson that it was pretended in the old play, as it is in the German version, to avert the suspicion of the King. Further, madness is very crudely treated in the Elizabethan drama, is often a joke or a mere spectacle, as even in The Duchess of Malfi; but here there is no trace of this crudeness or of the old motive except in the words--
- How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
- As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
- To put on antic disposition on--
which, as I have said, were probably put in to satisfy those who, remembering the old play, would expect the same pretence of madness in this one, or who might, at least, ask questions about Hamlet's behaviour. Clearly Shakespeare has his own new purpose; and what is it?
That, I think, we may learn from the text. Hamlet is suffering a violent nervous shock from the Ghost's news, a shock which affects his behaviour throughout the play; and it is stressed in this scene as we should expect it to be, if of so much future importance. Therefore an actor should stress it in his acting; he should make us see the nervous shock revealing itself in Hamlet as soon as the Ghost leaves him. So, and only so, I think, can he make the scene intelligible. Hamlet must be "all to pieces" as his talk and his intentions are all to pieces.
But how does this nervous shock affect him during the rest of the play? It may be that we, with our greater psychological knowledge, can explain that which Shakespeare makes happen because he knows that it would happen, better than he could have explained it. Therefore I will venture to apply a psychological formula to Hamlet. No doubt an expert psychologist could put it better; but I must do the best I can, applying to it always this test--Could it be acted? or would it help a player to act the part?
The formula is this--That when Hamlet was implored by his father's ghost to avenge his murder, and in particular to put an end to the incestuous marriage between his mother and the murderer, his conscious resolve, made with all the force of his will, was to obey his father. But the shock which he suffered on hearing of the murder, and particularly on realizing the full horror of his mother's re-marriage, made, as it were, a wound in his mind, which hurt whenever he thought of the murder, or of his uncle, or of his mother's connection with his uncle. The pain of the wound was so sharp that, unconsciously, he flinched from it and seized every pretext to forget it. He would will to remember it as he willed to take vengeance; but here "the law of reversed action" worked within him. The more he tried to force himself into action, the more his unconscious invented pretexts why he should delay to act. In fact, the play is made by Hamlet's irrelevance, not by his purpose of revenge. It is the essence of the tragedy that this irrelevance, the result not of any weakness in Hamlet's character but of nervous shock, causes many deaths where there should be only one, and causes Hamlet to misexpress himself in action and in talk. The soliloquies are the great exception. They are far more numerous than in any other of Shakespeare's plays, and they are there to contrast the real with the misexpressed Hamlet and to keep the former in our minds. It is commonly assumed that they are an unnatural device, like arias in an opera; but there are some people who do soliloquies aloud, especially those who are disordered in their minds; and the style of Hamlet's soliloquies is that of a man talking to himself, differing, for the most part, sharply from the style of the more rhetorical passages in the play. An actor could mark this difference; he could lapse into spoken reverie, sometimes brooding, sometimes passionate; and Shakespeare, in one place at least, has insisted how deep this reverie is. For Hamlet is so lost in his first soliloquy--"O! that this too too solid flesh would melt"--that he does not recognize Horatio and then says with a start--"Horatio--or do I forget myself." At least this seems to me the natural dramatic meaning of the passage; though to Mr. Robertson it suggests "long severance." In the soliloquies Hamlet is puzzled by his own behaviour and in them Shakespeare himself insists that that behaviour is abnormal. He must have a purpose in this, artistic and dramatic, not scientific; and that purpose is to represent the complete Hamlet, the Hamlet of his own thoughts as well as the Hamlet who is provoked to excess by people and things. Think of the play without the soliloquies, and you will see that the inner Hamlet is as much a part of the drama as the outer; without the inner, the outer would be the erratic puppet that Mr. Robertson and Mr. Eliot make him out to be.
Mr. Robertson and Mr. Eliot are right when they say that the play deals with the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son, though Mr. Eliot is wrong when he says that the effect cannot be shown in the play. It is shown, whenever Shakespeare wishes to show it, though it is not the whole theme of the play. And no doubt, because the murder of his father is inextricably associated with his mother's guilt, it is repulsive to him, not merely as an act or in its consequences, but as a very subject of thought. That, and not his own wrongs, is the reason why he hates his uncle so bitterly--and I have never seen an actor stress this hatred as much as it is stressed in the text. Hamlet has, as it were, a "phobia" of the very subject; merely to think of it brings a whole train of hideous, uncontrollable associations into his mind, from which he will escape by any unconscious device.
So much for the formula, which was unknown to Shakespeare and which, by itself, will not, of course, account for the effect of the play upon us. That is produced mainly by Hamlet's character; and the formula, I would insist, is not a part of his character but rather a mechanism to which it is subject and to which any other character might be subject. The effect of the play is produced by subjecting that particular character to that particular mechanism, though Shakespeare, of course, never put it so to himself. He saw Hamlet, with the certainty of intuition, behaving in a certain way. Perhaps, reading the old play, he said to himself--"But would a man need to pretend madness in such a case?" And then, perhaps, suddenly he saw the whole story in terms of reality; saw the man of whom that story might best be told and saw it happening to him. In most great plays the story is old; the dramatist shows his genius in discovering the people of whom it ought to be told; and, when he has done this, the story becomes his own and he can make his own play of it. Then he does not illustrate the story with his characters; rather they make the story and make it new; and this is what happened with Hamlet. Whether he was drawn from some one whom Shakespeare knew, or from himself, or from both, or whether he was conceived because he was the man for that story, we feel that it could be told about no one else. Take, for instance, the device of the play-scene, itself a pretext for escaping from the task of revenge -- Is not Hamlet the only one of all Shakespeare's tragic characters to whom that device would be quite natural? You cannot imagine it occurring to Othello, or Coriolanus, or Macbeth, or Romeo. Or take the soliloquies--they must be uttered by a man in the habit of expressing himself to himself, a man with a gift for expression; and Hamlet has this beyond any other of Shakespeare's characters. He is the only one of them, as Mr. Bradley says, who seems, himself, a man of genius and who can put his conscious self before himself with Shakespeare's own power. The fact that he cannot put his unconscious self before himself is the tragedy.
Further, for the fullness of the tragedy, there is needed an incompatibility between the revenge imposed on Hamlet and his own character. You can imagine Coriolanus performing that revenge, and probably killing his mother into the bargain, without hesitation. But it is not merely pity or greatness, still less irresolution, that makes the task distasteful to Hamlet. He has too rich a nature to be narrowed into a vendetta; he is interested in everything, capable of enjoying everything. Ophelia describes the normal Hamlet when she says--
- Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
- The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword;
- The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
- The glass of fashion and the mould of form--
And this richness is always rebelling against the narrow passion of revenge imposed upon it, and hating the King all the more because of the alien and importunate hatred that he inspires; it rebels against the impoverishment, the obsession, caused by the nervous shock. Hamlet would be doing so many things; and he is forced to be thinking of only one thing and that a thing contrary to his own nature. The tragedy would be far less if Othello were the hero of it; just as, if Hamlet had been Desdemona's husband, that tragedy would never have happened.
Nor would the tragedy of Hamlet have happened if he had been merely an amiable character of weak will; it does happen because the machinery of a strong will is disordered; and it is the contrast between the will and its disordered machinery which makes both the interest and the pity of the play. Hamlet would be a dazzling character in a comedy; but in his own play he has the beauty and pathos of a sick child as well; he is more fully revealed than he could be otherwise; he is in fact the man for the part.
All this is beyond the formula; yet the formula may help us to see it; it may discover for us the underlying logic of certain scenes which might otherwise seem exhibitions of mere comic caprice, and which often are so acted. There is, for instance, Hamlet's behaviour to Polonius, half comic, half pathetic. With Polonius he does put on an antic disposition, which is provoked by the fact that Polonius assumes him to be mad. In the first interview (Act II. Scene II.) Polonius says to him--"Do you know me, my lord?" and Hamlet plays up to the question by answering--"Excellent well; you are a fishmonger." We must all have wished we could enjoy the licence of madness when pestered by some eminent bore, and Charles Lamb took that licence; his behaviour to the man who asked Wordsworth whether he did not think Milton a great poet was like the behaviour of Hamlet to Polonius. "I must feel that gentleman's bumps," he cried, and had to be removed to Haydon's studio. But Polonius, besides being a bore incapable of understanding Hamlet, sane or mad, is a further source of disturbance to him in that he is Ophelia's father. Ophelia attracts and repels him for reasons which I will try to give when I come to the scene between her and Hamlet; she is closely, though accidentally, associated with his main trouble; and Polonius is incongruously associated with her. Thus Hamlet does harp on Ophelia to Polonius, as Polonius remarks, though not for the simple reason that he is in love with her. In the interview with Polonius, Shakespeare proves how closely he has observed melancholy, in himself or in others. Hamlet is fighting his melancholy while he trifles with Polonius; but twice he slips back into it with the irrelevant, sighed, or groaned, exclamations of a melancholiac. When Polonius asks him fussily--"Will you walk out of the air, my lord?" he answers--"Into my grave?" And when Polonius says--"I will most humbly take my leave of you," he replies--"You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life." The repetition here is a symptom of mechanical falling back into a persistent state of melancholy.
And then follows the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a scene such as no dramatist had ever written before and none has ever equalled since; for it is the dramatization of a disordered state of mind, the exhibition of it, not in analysis or soliloquy, but in dialogue never forced and remaining relevant to the play. This scene, to be acted intelligibly, must be understood; and the psychological formula will, I think, help us to understand every turn of it.
Remember that Hamlet, unconsciously, is seeking every pretext to escape from the thought of the murder and his mother's unfaithfulness, and that everything associated with these subjects is painful to him; everything connected with the court, for instance, for the court centres in the King and Queen. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are free from these associations, for they have only just returned to the court; and he welcomes them as a diversion from Polonius, one of "these tedious old fools" who belong to the wearisome and horrible world of the court. What Hamlet desires in his trouble is disinterested friends, like Horatio, not tainted by dull and wicked worldliness--friends who will seem to belong to his own happy, unwounded past. He takes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be such--"My excellent good friends! How dost thou, Guildenstern?--Ah, Rosencrantz? Good lads, how do ye both?" and in this warmth we can see him insisting to himself that they are what he would have them be, good lads, belonging to the past of friendship and freedom. But they do not answer in his mood--the contrast could, and should, be marked in the acting--there is all the disguised caution of the court in their reply--
ROSENCRANTZ: As the indifferent children of the earth.
- GUILDENSTERN: Happy in that we are not over-happy;
- On Fortune's cap we are not the very button.
And instantly Hamlet is on his guard too. "Nor the soles of her shoes?" he says, and then makes a dirty joke, as being the kind of conversation fit for courtiers. They continue the joke and so fall more and more into the "complex" of the court for him; and the suspicion grows in him that they have come with an object. What he longs for is friends without an object. "Let me question you more in particular," he says. "What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?"
Prison means for him the prison of his own mind, the complex into which they now are drawn. It is not a prison to them, they say; and he remarks how he is divided from them by his state of mind--"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so; to me it is a prison." And then Rosencrantz, cunningly but insensitively, begins to probe him, suggesting that ambition makes Denmark a prison to him. Hamlet sees that the misunderstanding is complete--that anyone should suspect him of ambition of all things! "O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have had dreams." Then, in his weariness, he is drawn into a passage of aimless with which he ends by saying--"Shall we to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason." The court and court-formulæ are the only things for them. They say together eagerly yet obsequiously, like two designing court-puppets, "We'll wait upon you"; and again Hamlet tries to turn them into friends--"No such matter; I will not sort you with the rest of my servants; for, to speak to you like an honest man, I am most dreadfully attended." Then suspicion possesses him again, and he asks--"But, in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?" They lie and he knows they lie--"To visit you, my lord; no other occasion"; and then his suspicion bursts out, still in conflict with his desire for friendship. "Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal justly with me; come, come; nay, speak." They can say anything but to the purpose, the purpose being that they shall convince him of their friendship. And then he puts his suspicion to them directly--"I know the good King and Queen have sent for you." Still they fence with him--"To what end, my lord?" And again he makes a yet wilder appeal that they shall be Horatios to him. "By the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no." They whisper fatally together, but then have the wit to confess they were sent for; and Hamlet, melted by this one piece of honesty, like a neurasthenic cannot forbear from telling them about the state of his own mind; only few neurasthenics can describe themselves so. He tells how his distaste, caused, though he does not know it, by the crime of the King and Queen, has spread to everything; and at the same time he shows us what a love of life that distaste has infected and perverted. Then, at the end, there is a sudden return of suspicion--"Man delights not me, no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so."
Then come the players, another diversion. They are outside the complex, but they are drawn into it; for they suggest to him a pretext by which he shall yet again put off his revenge, while seeming to advance it. In the soliloquy--"Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"--he begins by contrasting the players emotion over an imaginary sorrow with his own failure even to feel what he should, with his strange and persistent irrelevance. So he incites his conscious desire for revenge; but, out of that very incitement, comes another pretext for delay suggested by his unconscious; the spirit he has seen may be the devil and may have deceived him; he must have a proof of the King's guilt and the play will give it to him.
Now I do not say that all this can be acted; but I believe that, by means of it, an actor could give meaning and consistency to the part of Hamlet. If Hamlet is merely comic in his scene with Polonius, merely rhetorical in his soliloquies or in his account of his melancholy to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then it is but a part "with a lot of fat" in it; and one might indeed believe that Shakespeare had taken an old and crude play, kept its essential crudity, but made a fine talkative Hamlet for Burbage to display himself in. The play, as often acted, is like a concerto composed for a virtuoso pianist, with no logic of construction but plenty of showy passages for the piano. Many actors, famous in their day, have played it so; but, though there is Elizabethan rhetoric in it, if Hamlet plays his part rhetorically, he makes nonsense of it. He himself gives us warning on this point, in his advice to the players, which should be applied to his own part. "There be players that I have seen play and heard others praise ... that have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably." If you are to imitate humanity well, you must have something to imitate, just as if you are to play music well you must have real music to play. The scene with Rosencrant and Guildenstern is not merely words to be bellowed, nor is it merely character to be displayed; it is character subject to a particular psychological state which governs all its changes of mood; and it is in this counterpoint of character and psychological state that the main interest of the play lies. It would be possible, as it is necessary, to act Hamlet's eagerness of welcome to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and their easy yet mechanical response to it; to show his instant change of mood, falling in with theirs, his growing suspicion heightened by their hint about ambition, and then his sudden return to his first eagerness, now become desperate because it is sure of disappointment; and then again the intensity with which he describes his melancholy and tries to make them understand, what he cannot, why his distaste has spread to all things he loves most, while for the moment he loses it in the very description of all that he has ceased to care for. It would be possible to act all this, but only if the actor saw the meaning of it all; and the easiest way to this meaning, now, is by psychology.
It is to be noted that Hamlet welcomes the players as eagerly as he had welcomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--"You are welcome, masters; welcome all. I am glad to see thee well; welcome, good friends. O, my old friend! Why thy face is valanced, since I saw thee last; comest thou to beard me in Denmark?--What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last by the altitude of a chopine...." They at least have nothing to do with the court and they bring his free past back to him. Happy for the moment in this freedom, so that he may keep it, he cries--"We'll have a speech straight; come, give us a taste of your quality; come, a passionate speech."
As important as the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the scene with Ophelia; and, unless an actor understands this, and acts his understanding, he will make it merely mad and repulsive. The prelude to this scene is "To be or not to be," in which Hamlet is brooding more aimlessly than ever. Already he has lost the eagerness which the device of the play-scene had given him for a moment; he had forgotten all about his father's Ghost, and seems to be so far in unconscious doubt about it that he speaks of the "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." This may be Shakespeare's inadvertence but it is more likely Hamlet's oblivion. He is just speaking in general terms of how the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, being so deep in his own state that he presents it to himself as universal, when he sees Ophelia. For the moment his past again rushes back to him, and he addresses her like a rapturous yet courtly lover--
- Nymph, in thy orisons
- Be all my sins remembered--
Addresses her in fact as he had addressed her in the letter which Polonius reads to the King and Queen. Until the interview with the Ghost, he had been quite simply and without misgiving in love with her. It is the interview with the Ghost which changes his behaviour towards her, for reasons which I will now give.
Ophelia, while she recalls the past to him, is also horribly connected with the present. She is a woman like his mother, and also a woman of the court; and in the past he had loved her as he loved his mother. If we would explain the shock which his mother's adultery had given him in psychological terms, we may say that, having thought of her entirely as a mother, he found something vilely incongruous in her renewing of her sexual youth with his uncle, especially as his uncle had become physically loathsome to him. He can not longer think of her as his mother; she has become something else to him; and his mind is made sick and dizzy by the change of associations.
Further, it is a fact that men of delicate spirit expect and find something maternal in the women they fall in love with. The phrase "Œdipus complex" is now used to describe this association; but it suggests something unnatural and unhealthy, whereas the association itself is not only natural and healthy but an element in all love that is not mere desire. Men get an idea of woman from their mothers, and fall in love with women in whom they recognize the same idea. They are truly in love with an incarnation of the divine and universal woman. But, if a man's idea of his mother were suddenly destroyed, as Hamlet's was, by her adultery, the association between her and the woman he loved would be likely to infect his love with his disgust for his mother. So Hamlet, having seen his mother in Ophelia, still sees her, horribly changed, in Ophelia; and his anger with his mother involves her.
You may think this too fanciful; but the text bears it out and there is no other explanation of his sudden change of manner to Ophelia. She herself incites it by her provocative remark--
How does your honour for this many a day?--
implying that lately she has seen less of him than before; and still more by returning her presents, which no doubt, he imputes to her father's orders. "I never gave you aught," he says, meaning that he revokes his past love and all dealings between them. And then suspicion breaks into words, as with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "Are you fair? Are you honest?" But, in the midst of his cruel banter he remembers--"I did love you once"; and then follows a proof how much his mother is in his mind. "You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I love you not." He must be as faithless as his mother, he means; she had seemed to love his father. But, if he is doomed to be faithless, Ophelia had better have nothing to do with men. So he tells her to go to a nunnery. For the moment he has transferred the conviction of sexual sin from her to himself, because he is the son of his mother--"I could accuse myself of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me." And then gradually he falls more and more into a rage with Ophelia because he loves her still and because she is so meek. But his rage against her is his rage against his mother, whom he also loves, and he expresses it in abuse of all women of the court, who cannot be themselves, who must paint and amble and jig and lisp and talk hidden obscenities. All that he says is the very opposite of the truth about Ophelia, but that is why he says it. As with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he grows more and more desperately serious, as if hoping that she will be provoked into some reassuring defiance. But that is beyond her, which is her tragedy, and the tragedy of Hamlet's loneliness. His mother has failed him and Ophelia seems to fail him too; they are both of the court, of this world of murder and adultery and complying insincerity; even the woman he loves if of it; and all the while she is simply bewildered and frightened.
So in the next scene, after his advice to the players, he turns passionately to Horatio as one who is not of the court nor yet passion's slave like himself. All his affection, which has recoiled baffled from Ophelia, tries now to satisfy itself with Horatio; and it is again part of the tragedy that Horatio, with all his virtues, is not understanding. Shakespeare has conceived him for his part in the tragedy as surely as Hamlet himself. We may find no fault in him; but in Hamlet's affection for him and his temperate response to it, as if he were a kind of George Washington, we feel Hamlet's loneliness still more keenly.
The scene with Ophelia is merely painful and unintelligible unless the actor can show that Hamlet is misexpressing hismelf under a compulsion he does not understand. He must act his nervous instability and express it in every change of mood; or Hamlet will be only a brutal buffoon.
In the play-scene Ophelia attracts and repels him to further outrage all the more outrageous because it is before the whole court. If his obscenities are left out, as they usually are, the edge of the tragedy is blunted. Hamlet treats Ophelia before the court as one of the court, and the court should laugh at his dirty jokes. Ophelia herself hardly resents them; she is trying to do her duty by every one and she does not know what her duty to Hamlet may be.
Through the play-scene his excitement and his spirits rise continually. It seems to him that he is really doing something at last, when the players are doing it. Then, when the King has fled proving his guilt, he springs triumphant on to the stage and shouts his irrelevant verses; but instantly the tide begins to turn and he says ironically--"Would not this get me a fellowship in a cry of players?" He sees that what has been done is but play-acting; the King has been frighted, but with false fire.
Then in the following scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet has forgotten the play and his task and everything practical in a dramatic performance of his own with the recorders. He is here at the height of his powers, as if he were Shakespeare himself presented on the stage; but his triumph is one of art not of fact. His unconscious has turned him from the ugly world of fact into this other world of art where he can forget it for the moment.
It would be mere ingenuity, I think, to explain Hamlet's refusal to kill the King at his prayers as yet another trick of his unconscious finding any pretext to turn him from his task. In this case the explanation could not be acted and so would, I believe, be wrong. It may be that, in fact, a man such as Hamlet would find a pretext for refusing to kill his enemy in such a case; but the text here gives no hint of it. The explanation both of Hamlet's refusal and of Shakespeare's intention, is, I think, much simpler. What Hamlet really expresses in the scene is his extreme hatred of the King, upon which the text insists again and again. It is a physical as well as moral loathing, caused no doubt by the thought of the King's adultery with his mother. Here, above all, we have to rid our minds of the notion of a gentle, dreaming Hamlet. Hamlet does really wish to catch the King "in the incestuous pleasure of his bed"; he does wish to enjoy the pleasure of killing him; and he must be in a rage to do that, which he cannot be while the King is meekly kneeling upon his knees. The only way Hamlet can bring himself to think of revenge at all, associated as it is with the thought of his father's murder and his mother's adultery, is by working himself up into a rage with the murderer and adulterer. In this scene we should see him trying to do that and failing while the King prays before him.
This, I think, could be acted, so as to make even the theological scruple seem natural to us; but it is, for a modern audience, the most difficult scene in the play becuase the feelings of Hamlet not now express themselves in a theological formula. It is probable that Shakespeare kept that formula from the older play, since it is in the German version; but he has used it for his own purposes and adjusted it to the character of his Hamlet.
The first point to be noted about the scene between Hamlet and his mother is that almost throughout he behaves normally. Even the sudden stabbing of Polonius through the arras is what we should expect from the scene before. Hamlet would not kill the King praying but he is ready enough to kill him eavesdropping; indeed he could not find a better way of killing a man whom he loathed so much that he did not care to touch him even with a sword, than to stab him through a curtain. The words--"How now! a rat? dead, for a ducat, dead!" express the feeling with which he would wish to kill the King--as if he were vermin and, like vermin, skulking behind hangings. It is not natural to Hamlet to kill men, nor can he take any primitive pleasure in it; and this scene refutes once and for all the notion of some critics that he wished to make of his revenge a solemn act of justice. What he does wish is to get the King out of the way and then forget about him; and this wish is so strong that he is ready to kill him even in his mother's presence.
The scene begins a little theatrically as if Shakespeare had not, at this moment, a very firm grasp of Hamlet's behaviour--Hamlet is best revealed either in intimate talk or in that fantastic behaviour which expresses a thwarted desire for intimacy. To his mother he cannot be either intimate or fantastic. So Shakespeare falls back upon the splendid rhetoric which is his usual resource when at a loss. He insists upon Hamlet's physical loathing of the King and upon his horror of his mother's adultery directly and in language which is not peculiarly Hamlet's. Some of this scene seems written to make things clear to the stupider part of the audience.
It is curious that the Ghost should appear saying--
- Do not forget: this visitation
- Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose--
when Hamlet has just killed Polonius in mistake for the King. We may find ingenious explanations of this inconsistency; but here I suspect a survival from the old play. Shakespeare would consent to it because we do not notice the inconsistency when we see the scene acted, and because the Ghost's appearance, at this point, and in the presence of Gertrude though unseen by her, is most effective theatrically. Further, it has the dramatic effect of changing Hamlet's mood to his mother; for the Ghost says--
- But look, amazement on thy mother sits;
- Oh, step between her and her fighting soul.
- Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works;
- Speak to her, Hamlet.
And from this point Hamlet's manner to her is both kinder and more intimate. He is himself, and not merely a splendid speechmaker, in the passage--"My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time"; though he goes off into bitterness again when he thinks of her sharing the King's bed.
Hamlet here insists upon his sanity in a manner which proves that Shakespeare wished to insist upon it; and his sanity here is what we should expect, though he is face to face with the subject of his horror, he is able to express that horror to one of the persons who have caused it. This talking to his mother, like the play-scene, is for him an action which for the moment sets his spirit free. Instead of killing the King, he can talk about the King to her, a much more natural way, for him, of venting his hate. Those critics who reproach him for preferring words to acts forgot that it is a mark of civilization, not of weak will, to prefer words to acts of violence. Hamlet's desire is to change the mind of his mother; and he would, no doubt, if he thought it possible, try to change the mind of the King. What infuriates men like Hamlet in men like the King is the fact that their minds cannot be changed; that is why they seem to be vermin, but killing is no remedy for the fact that vermin in human shape exist.
Hamlet's behaviour to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and to the King, when questioned about Polonius, is an echo of his behaviour after his first interview with the Ghost and, like that, a reaction after nervous shock. It would be repulsive, if an actor playing it did not show the symptoms of nervous shock. But the moment the King tells him he is to go to England, the symptoms disappear. It is a practical diversion; something to be done and experienced which takes him away from his horror. His last words are--
Father and mother is man and wife: man and wife is one flesh; and so, my mother. Come, for England!
It is because the King and his mother are one flesh that he would rather escape from them than take revenge; killing is no remedy for that.
And then follows the scene in which Hamlet hears of the expedition of Fortinbras to Poland and contrasts the activity of Fortinbras with his own inaction. In this soliloquy his bewilderment at the processes of his own mind is clearly expressed. Nowhere else is there such rambling of thought, as if the conscious were feeling about for a cause which remains in the unconscious; or such argument about himself, as if that self were something not himself which he can observe but not control. Here he insists that there are no external obstacles to his revenge--
- Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,
- To do't----
And here he speaks of bestial oblivion, really the shrinking of his unconscious from the very subject of revenge, which expresses itself, to the conscious, in forgetfulness. Talking of Fortinbras, he tries to feel like Fortinbras, to dramatize himself as Fortinbras--
- Rightly to be great
- Is not to stir without great argument,
- But greatly to find quarrel in a straw,
- When honour's at the stake.
That is the more primitive kind of man that Hamlet, for the moment, would be, just as he had wished to be Horatio. But he cannot be either. He hates but with a hatred that cannot be satisfied with any act of revenge, since it is really not so much hatred even of the King as of a beastliness in life itself which the King represents for him. That is what is meant when Hamlet is called a philosopher. It is not that he is incapable of action but that action cannot satisfy a mind shocked by life itself. If he kills the King, he will not kill that beastliness, which, since the King and Queen first convinced him of it, have infected the whole of his world so that Denmark is to him a prison. It is like shell-shock, which establishes such a tyranny over the mind that little noises shock it like the shell. So Hamlet scents lust even in Ophelia, and the King's cold, murderous policy in all the courtiers. Not one of them will ever say the thing he means, for their meaning is always furtive and evil; and so he does not feel much regret over killing Polonius, who was eavesdropping like a courtier.
- The time is out of joint:--O cursed spite,
- That ever I was born to set it right!
That was his conclusion after he had heard of the murder of his father. All things, not merely the King and Queen, are wrong; so he will hail any chance of escaping from this world where beastliness reigns; he is like a neurasthenic who thinks that change of place will mean change of mind.
Hamlet's absence is convenient to the actor who plays the part, for it gives him a rest which he must need. It also gives the audience a relaxation from the exacting task of following all his subtleties; and, in the fifth act, he returns with all the more effect. This is enough, I think, to explain why Shakespeare dispatched him, making use, no doubt, of a crude device in the old play. Its crudity does not matter since it is not inconsistent with Hamlet's character, but rather natural to his mood, that he should seize any pretext for escaping. And then reappearing in the Grave-digger's scene he is drawn artfully and gradually into the action of the play. He does not return hot for revenge, but will talk of anything and particularly of the manners of courtiers--"This might be my Lord such-an-one that praised my Lord Such-an-one's horse, when he meant to beg it, might it not?"
At the beginning of this scene Hamlet seems dazed and aimless, ready to talk of the aimless dignity of death--"How long will a man lie i' the earth ere he will rot?" He comes back for a moment to himself in his memories of Yorick; but then talks of dissolution like Donne himself; one might indeed suspect that Donne remembered him in at least one famous passage of his sermons. But he is brought into the action again with Ophelia's funeral and with his own words--
But soft, but soft! aside: here comes the King.
Nowhere does he behave so outrageously as when he leaps into the grave where Laertes is mouthing grief and vengeance together. It is like Hamlet, as Mr. Bradley has remarked, to be thus aesthetically provoked by the manner in which Laertes exploits his situation. Adopting the same manner, dramatizing himself as Laertes, as before he had dramatized himself as Fortinbras, he cries--
- This is I,
- Hamlet, the Dane.
Nothing can be more theatrically effective--for those who see Hamlet as a melodrama; but it is also satire on the natural staginess of people like Laertes, and satire natural to Hamlet. HIs impatience with Laertes is an echo of his impatience with the player. "Begin murderer; pox, leave thy damnable faces, and begin." He does not believe in love that can express itself thus; and, seeing Ophelia's grave, he is aware that he loved her, though he cannot express his love with Laertes ranting there before the King--
- I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
- Could not, with all their quantity of love,
- Make up my sum--What wilt thou do for her?
Then follows a series of protestations with the sudden ending
- Nay, and thou'lt mouth,
- I'll rant as well as thou.
It is part of his trouble that he cannot express any of his most real feelings directly; when he would say that he loved Ophelia, he must parody her brother. He regrets it afterwards; but even then he adds--
- But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
- Into a towering passion.
The last of Hamlet's antic disposition is seen in his dialogue with Osric, again an echo of the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; for Osric, with his airs and graces, also makes him think of the court and sets him jangling out of tune. He parodies Osric to his face as he parodied Laertes; and he enjoys doing it, for again it is art which diverts him from reality. There is nothing Hamlet hates more than fashion for its own sake; and those who tell us that Shakespeare was a snob in his ridicule of the mob forgot that there is far more bitterness in his ridicule of courtiers. He has the artist's dislike for all kinds of unreality, whether it be a crowd shouting at the word of command or a courtier talking court-jargon. The little scene between Hamlet and Horatio before the fencing has in it the last touch of his melancholy with the sudden change to a sigh--"I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter."
And then follows the sense of destiny to be fulfilled at last--"If it be now, 'tis not to come: if it be not to come, it will be now: if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all; since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is it to leave betimes? Let be."
Asking pardon of Laertes, he is for the first time, before the court, an accomplished gentleman. He even pleads his own madness, or distraction; and here, if this change be well acted, we cannot but feel the end approaching. Laertes, like the young pedant that he is, says he must bring his cause before a court of honour; and Hamlet plays up to his gallantries with compliments that still seem to have a hint of irony in them--
- I'll be your foil, Laertes; in mine ignorance
- Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night,
- Stick fiery off indeed.
It is a politeness almost Chinese; and, another ominous sign, he is now ceremoniously polite to the King also. Then the end comes with a rush; and, even when the King and Hamlet are both dying, he remembers the King's worst offence, his adultery with the Queen--
- Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
- Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
- Follow my mother.
Then, the King being dead, he thinks no more of him. Dying himself, his last desire is that Horatio shall set him right with the world. The play ends with this desire unfulfilled; and the entry of Fortinbras tells that it is over and that life remains for good, commonplace people, such as Horatio, who certainly cannot explain Hamlet.
The end is sudden; but the reader must remember that it was written to be acted, and that actors can lay an emphasis which will give weight to a scene that seems to swift and light when read. The nature of the plot is such that the end could not be prepared or foreseen long beforehand. It must come of events which force Hamlet to act on the spur of the moment. The play is bitter tragedy throughout, perhaps the bitterest of all tragedies, but it is not gloomy, because of the brilliance and diversity of Hamlet's mind, because he is always his own Mercutio. He flashes and dances through a hideous world which heightens his beauty by contrast; and that beauty is the theme and justification of the play.