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  • Title: Hamlet: General Introduction
  • Author: David Bevington
  • General textual editors: James D. Mardock, Eric Rasmussen
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Associate coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-434-9

    Copyright David Bevington. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: David Bevington
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Hamlet: General Introduction

    1When Hamlet's erstwhile boyhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, encounter Hamlet after the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," they attempt to be stern with him. The King, Claudius, has left the performance chamber in visible distress, presumably because the murder play too closely resembles Claudius's own crime of killing his brother, Hamlet's father, in order to seize the throne of Denmark and to marry the dead king's widow, Gertrude. No one knows of Claudius's crime except himself and Hamlet and Hamlet's dear friend, Horatio. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know only that Hamlet's exceedingly erratic behavior in staging such a play before the King has upset the monarch. Hamlet now understandably regards his former friends as spies for the King, who has indeed commissioned them to observe Hamlet and report to the King. They inform Hamlet that the Queen, his mother, has sent for him to explain his dangerously mad behavior.

    Hamlet plays the madman by suddenly asking for a recorder, a flute-like musical instrument, which he hands to Guildenstern and requests him to play upon this pipe. Guildenstern replies that he cannot. Hamlet insists: all one need do is to blow into it with one's mouth, press down on the various holes with fingers and thumb, whereupon the recorder will "discourse most eloquent music." It is "as easy as lying," he said. When Guildenstern protests that he lacks the skill to do so, Hamlet answers with a simile that says much about his view of himself and the situation he faces in Denmark:

    Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass, and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though can fret me, you cannot play upon me.
    (3.2.349-71)

    This is Hamlet at his best as a profoundly witty observer of the human condition. For all his seemingly mad ways, which we as audience know to be at least in part his stratagem to mislead and confuse his great antagonist, the King, Hamlet is deeply in earnest. He scathingly denounces his erstwhile friends not just for spying on him but for assuming that they can diagnose his condition with some trite explanation. Any human being is more complex than that, and Hamlet sees himself, as do we, as unusually sensitive and resistant to simple analyses. How dare they assume, as they do, that his madness is truly madness and that it is a product of frustrated ambition to be king? Rosencrantz has just asked him, "what is your cause of distemper?" When Hamlet answers that question sardonically by saying, "Sir, I lack advancement," Rosencrantz swallows the bait whole in his reply: "How can that be, when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark?" (3.2.338-41).

    This answer is insulting and frivolous, from Hamlet's point of view. Why should he be content to be named the next in royal succession when he is the son and heir of the dead king and has every right to be king now? Rosencrantz has also made the silly mistake of taking Hamlet's answer at face value, probably because it conforms with Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's own view of the case; they analyze his symptoms from their own point of view. They are young and ambitious; their conversations with Hamlet have centered on the topic of ambition from the very first moment of their meeting (see 2.2.251-63). In Hamlet's estimation, they are misled by seeing others as like themselves. We later learn that Hamlet is indeed understandably aggrieved with Claudius for having "killed my king and whored my mother, / Popped in between th'election and my hopes, / Thrown out his angle for my proper life" (5.2.64-6), the "election" in this case being the naming of a king for Denmark; but to conclude from this that Hamlet has lost his wits owing to political frustration is to oversimplify matters to the point of absurdity. Hamlet enriches his satirical fury at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by punning, as he characteristically does. "Though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me," he concludes, using "fret" in the double sense of "irritate" and "press upon the frets or stops of a musical instrument," and "play upon me" in the sense of "play me as if I were a musical instrument" and "fool with me."

    5Polonius does much the same thing as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: he diagnoses Hamlet as a man whose motivations must be like those that prompt Polonius to be the person he is. Polonius's glib solution is that Hamlet suffers from love-sickness. The answer is appropriate not only because Polonius knows that his daughter Ophelia has been courted by Hamlet, but because Polonius thinks he knows personally what love-sickness is all about. When he reports how Ophelia has returned to Hamlet the love letters he has written her and has denied his access to her, Polonius sees at once the cause: "This hath made him mad" (2.1.110-12). We as audience are attuned to a more complex explanation, namely, that Hamlet is pretending to be mad and is using Ophelia's rejection of him as part of his deception. But Polonius entertains no doubts of the veracity of his analysis. He knows what love-sickness is like: "Truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this" (2.2.189-91). The assumption is not illogical, not without some possible element of truth, but it is propounded by Polonius with such fatuous self-assurance that it savors of pompousness. "Hath there been such a time," he asks the King and Queen, "That I have positively said ''Tis so,' / When it proved otherwise?" Polonius is serenely confident in his ability to pierce to the truth of the darkest secrets. "If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the center" (2.2.153-9). Such a pompous bleat deserves the ridicule that it receives from Hamlet. This is a major reason why Hamlet finds Polonius utterly impossible: his easy self-assurance of his ability to analyze human behavior runs entirely counter to Hamlet's deep persuasion that human beings are infinitely complex, and that our greatest wisdom (as Socrates also once observed) is to realize that we know almost nothing about ourselves or the universe in which we live.

    Hamlet also despises Polonius for crediting himself with having been a good actor, having enacted the part of Julius Caesar in what sounds a lot like Shakespeare's own play on the subject (3.2.96-103). Dramatic representation is too precious a thing, in Hamlet's view, to be entrusted to an old fool. Hamlet cherishes the company of the visiting players as avidly as he practices shooting barbed satirical remarks at Polonius.

    Gertrude is another person in the play with an explanation of Hamlet's mad behavior: as she says to her new husband, the cause is "His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" (2.2.57). This is sensible enough even if also too narrow an explanation. The main point here is that it is generated as an analysis by Gertrude's own guilty feeling about herself. She sees herself as responsible: Hamlet is her son, and she has deserted him by marrying Claudius. Ophelia, too, in her way, accepts her father's diagnosis of love madness because he has said so and because, once again, she sees the matter through her own emotional preoccupations. Hamlet thus becomes, in this amazing play, a kind of Rorschach test in which each viewer's interpretation of what he or she sees is revelatory of the intellectual and emotional state of mind of the viewer. Small wonder that Hamlet has remained a fascinating enigma for readers and viewers ever since the play was first written and produced.

    Claudius is an especially perceptive analyst of Hamlet's behavior, as well he might be, since he knows what the others do not know, that he has secretly murdered his brother. Claudius thus has reason to fear that Hamlet has somehow figured out his crime. Claudius is far more ready than the others to doubt that Hamlet is truly mad. "What he spake, though it lacked form a little, / Was not like madness," he says to Polonius, when they have overheard Hamlet's bitter denunciation of Ophelia (3.1.166-7). Polonius of course clings still to his shopworn thesis that "The origin and commencement of his grief / Sprung from neglected love" (180-1), but Claudius knows better. "Love? His affections do not that way tend" (165). Still, Claudius's analysis is its own way narrowly defined by Claudius's own emotional mindset. Suffering the pangs of guilt and even despair over what he has done (3.3.36-43), Claudius can only see Hamlet as his most dangerous enemy, the one person who could undo all that Claudius has accomplished in seizing the Danish throne and marrying the dead king's widow. Hamlet is thus to Claudius an enemy to the state of Denmark as well as to the King personally. He must be killed by whatever means necessary. The latter half of the play thus becomes a contest between two men, each trying to kill the other, both wary and resourceful.

    Horatio is invaluable in the play as the one person who comes closest to understanding Hamlet and his predicament in its full complexity. Horatio is the only one Hamlet can trust and love. He is the one whom Hamlet bids to outlive him so that Horatio can tell Hamlet's true story. Importantly, Horatio is a skeptic. Hamlet regards him with such affection and respect partly because Horatio is a true stoic, and is one who befriends Hamlet not for reasons of self-advancement but out of disinterested fondness and mutuality. He is, as Hamlet lauds him just as the play-within-the-play is about to begin,

    A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
    Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
    Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
    That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
    To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
    That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
    In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
    As I do thee. (3.2.66-73)

    10This is the highest possible praise that Hamlet can offer to anyone. One must be indifferent to the blandishments of Fortune, not just to that goddess's severities and caprices; if one is truly indifferent to what Fortune can offer, one cannot be disappointed. Hamlet aims to be like that himself, and may eventually succeed to a degree. He and Horatio, longtime friends and fellow students at Wittenberg University, have persistently disagreed about philosophical matters. Horatio, being the skeptic, insists in scene one of the play, before the Ghost appears, "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear" (1.1.34), only to qualify this skepticism when his doubts are refuted by empirical evidence: "Before my God, I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch / Of mine own eyes" (60-2). Hamlet conversely insists on a larger view that makes room for spiritual possibilities: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.175-6). Their philosophical disagreement is friendly and deeply respectful; they learn from each other. At the heart of their friendship is the belief that truth is multiple and mysterious and almost unattainable, even though one must persist in seeking it, as Horatio does in his resolve at the end of the play to obey Hamlet's behest to him: "Report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied" (5.2.341-2).

    Hamlet's search for truth centers on the burning question: how did his father die? At first, lacking any hard evidence, he mourns and is deeply disaffected with life itself. "Oh, that that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into dew!" he soliloquizes when he is first left alone on stage. "Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" (1.2.129-32). As a believing Christian he cannot take his own life, since suicide is, in the eyes of the Church, the most heinous of sins. But Hamlet yearns for surcease. Denmark is to him "an unweeded garden / That grows to seed" (135-6), governed by a king whom Hamlet despises. Hamlet's mother has demonstrated by her hasty marriage to her brother-in-law Claudius that her vows of love to her erstwhile husband were empty. "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (146), Hamlet generalizes, indicting womanhood itself. Her sin is appalling to Hamlet. It points to carnal excess, even to incest. That term is applied to her throughout the play by Hamlet and by the Ghost of Hamlet's father. Today we might not regard the marriage of a widow to her dead husband's brother as incestuous, but Hamlet clearly does, and Elizabethan custom would have seen the point. Especially if Gertrude had had an affair with Claudius before the death of her husband, that deed would have struck at the very heart of family relationships. How guiltily involved was Gertrude in what has happened?

    Claudius is, as we first perceive him, a canny and suave antagonist for Hamlet. His first speech of public justification of his having married Gertrude and having assumed the throne is a masterpiece of political persuasion. The sudden and unexplained death of his brother has left Denmark in serious peril, under threat of invasion by its old enemy, Norway. Claudius's marriage to Gertrude, he argues, has been in the national interest, providing a continuity with the previous regime. She is to be "Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state" (1.2.9). Together they will stand firm against the persistent efforts of Norway to recover those lands lost by the King of Norway to the dead King Hamlet. We have already heard Horatio's account, in scene 1, of how that surrender occurred: Old Fortinbras, the Norwegian king, challenged King Hamlet to a duel, stipulating that the winner was to take possession of both Norway and Denmark (1.1.86-99). King Hamlet won, whereupon Norway became a dependent state to her neighbor and rival. Although the compact was an honorable one, characterized by Horatio as "Well ratified by law and heraldry" (91), Norway has chafed under the loss of independence. Old Fortinbras's son and heir, young Fortinbras, sees the opportunity to take back all that was lost. Claudius must now resist that attempted intrusion. He does so by energetic military preparation for invasion, by advertising Denmark's preparedness, and above all by astute diplomacy. His dispatches ambassadors to Norway with instructions to inform Old Fortinbras of Denmark's awareness that young Fortinbras is planning an invasion, and to suggest that the Norwegian King would do best to cool the hot temper of Prince Fortinbras. Claudius offers young Fortinbras instead the opportunity of marching peacefully through Denmark to go attack Poland instead. Old Fortinbras readily agrees, and young Fortinbras is thus bought off (2.2.60-80). Peace is restored. Claudius's diplomatic move is nothing less than brilliant.

    What an amazing contrast between this new ruler of Denmark and his brotherly predecessor! One can scarcely conceive of that earlier time in which two rulers engaged in a one-on-one duel with the fate of their two kingdoms hanging on the strength of their two right arms. The duel savors of an old world of chivalric romance, where kings stood tall in the saddle. Hamlet's image of his father is like that: he recalls and idolizes a king of unimpeachable integrity and personal bravery, ready to defend his kingdom by his personal might. Claudius, on the other hand, is a diplomat, who prefers negotiation to bloodshed. His success is less manly, no doubt, but it succeeds. Whatever we may prefer today in the way of settling disputes between countries, Hamlet sees his dead father and his living uncle in starkly contrastive terms. To view them together is to compare "Hyperion to a satyr" (1.2.140), the sun-god to a lecherous and loathsome half-man-half-animal. He later accuses his mother, in her shifting of loyalties and affection from King Hamlet to Claudius, of having exchanged a Mars, a Jove, a Mercury for "a mildewed ear." "Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed," he asks her, "And batten on this moor?" (3.4.56-68). Hamlet's revulsion against Claudius is, to be sure, partly explainable as an Oedipal crisis so characteristic of children (especially sons) suddenly presented with a step-father in place of the beloved dead true parent, like David Copperfield when his widowed young mother marries Edward Murdstone. Hamlet overreacts, deeply disappointing his mother, who pleads with her son to accept the new marriage on which her future happiness depends. Yet Hamlet is profoundly right in that Claudius has murdered his own brother to gain the throne and to take Gertrude as his wife. However plausible Claudius may be in his wish to rule Denmark well--better, perhaps, in his own view, than the recklessly chivalric old Hamlet would have done--and however truly devoted he may be to Gertrude, his gaining those things has been criminal and by means that, as he acknowledges, have endangered his immortal soul.

    The means by which Claudius has secured the kingship for himself again suggest the accomplished politician. Clearly he has planned the murder for some time before the event. He understands, as a superb practitioner in the art of politics, that he must first ingratiate himself to those who will accede to his ascendancy to the throne. Denmark chooses its kings by "election." The term, used several times in the play, clearly means a process by which certain "electors" choose the next ruler. The process is not unlike that of the Papacy in Rome, when the College of Cardinals convenes in secret to make its choice. In the Renaissance, a prominent model of "election" was that of the so-called Holy Roman Empire of central Europe, where the electors were certain princes hereditarily entitled to the honor of choosing the next emperor, like the Spanish Charles V, elected in 1519. In such instances, only the chosen few would have an electoral voice. It is to such honored persons that Claudius says, in scene 2, "For all our thanks", in that they "have freely gone / With this affair along" (1.2.15-16), meaning both the marriage and his election to the throne. Hamlet refers later to this process when he complains to Horatio how Claudius has "Popped in between th'election and my hopes" (5.2.65), thereby frustrating Hamlet of the election he might properly have assumed would have been his as the son and heir of the dying king. Similarly, Hamlet prophesies just before he dies that "th'election lights / On Fortinbras" (357-8), thereby casting his presumably decisive vote for his successor.

    15The electors who have chosen Claudius to be their king before the beginning of the play presumably include Polonius, who is present and who is warmly thanked personally by Claudius for all that he has done. "The head is not more native to the heart, / The hand more instrumental to the mouth, / Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father" (1.2.47-9), the King says to Polonius's son Laertes, who is asking permission to return to France after having attended the royal funeral and wedding. Claudius knows how to flatter both father and son in this business: he grants Laertes the favor of permission to leave as a kind of payment for Polonius's unwavering loyalty to the King. Claudius drops Laertes's name into what he says no fewer than four times in nine lines of conversation (42-50), using the politician's well-practiced trick of personalizing his speeches. He must know that Polonius deeply mistrusts Hamlet as a young whipper-snapper to whom no sane elector would entrust the kingship. We will see more of this animosity between Polonius and Hamlet as the play proceeds. Claudius and Polonius, conversely, understand each other. They comprehend the language of trading votes for political favors. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. And Polonius is quite right from his self-interested and even patriotic point of view: Claudius is the "safer" choice as king. Polonius knows that loyalty will be duly rewarded with promotion and trust.

    As he readied himself for the business of murdering his royal brother, Claudius must also have calculated his chances very carefully about Gertrude. Would she agree to marry him? We never learn if he broached his scheme to her before the event, though it seems doubtful. Later Hamlet does confront his mother briefly with this question when he says to her that his own mistaken bloody deed of killing Polonius is "almost as bad, dear mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother" (3.4.29-30). But her quick answer, incredulously repeating his words, "As kill a king!" evidently satisfies him that she knew nothing of Claudius's murderous plans, for Hamlet turns instead to the other more plausible accusation that she has been faithless and wanton. The Ghost of Hamlet's father apparently regards her as guilty of lesser crimes than those of her new husband, for the Ghost instructs Hamlet in his revenge to punish Claudius with death but to leave Gertrude "to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her" (1.5.87-9). Even if she was not complicit in murder, however, she may have unintentionally encouraged Claudius by a tangible warmth of affection. He must have known that he could have her if her husband were suddenly out of the picture. Certainly, in Hamlet's view, she has violated all sense of decency by joining Claudius so quickly in bed.

    Hamlet has no clear basis for doing anything about the new kingship and the marriage, both of which he deplores, until he learns from his father's Ghost the horrid nature of that king's death. This is presumably why the Ghost returns as he does to the mortal sphere, at night, on the battlements of the castle, terrifying the night watch and dismaying even Horatio with his spectral appearance. They all see the apparition as indicative that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," as Marcellus puts it (1.4.90). Horatio's willingness to abandon his skeptical disbelief in ghosts offers convincing evidence that this one is real, and that the Ghost does indeed resemble the dead King Hamlet. "I knew your father," says Horatio to Hamlet, when he and Marcellus and Bernardo bring news of the Ghost's appearance to Hamlet. "These hands are not more like" (1.2.212-13). The Ghost has appeared to them, "Armed at all points exactly, cap-à-pie," armed from head to foot (201). He wore his beaver or visor up, so that Horatio was able to see his face (232). The play takes pains to authenticate the Ghost as being a wraith of the dead king. And Hamlet has no doubt of this at first. The Ghost begins his talk with Hamlet by saying, "I am thy father's spirit" (1.5.10), and proceeds with a tale that clearly describes things that only Hamlet's father could know and tell about: his sleeping in his orchard in the afternoon, his being poisoned by a "leperous distilment" poured into "the porches of my ears," his insistence that Hamlet "Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damnèd incest" (64-5, 83-4), and still more. Indeed, Hamlet is prepared from the start to believe all he is told. "Oh, my prophetic soul! My uncle!" he exclaims (42). The only uncertainty, seemingly, is how Hamlet is to proceed. "Oh, cursèd spite / That ever I was born to set it right!" (197-8). Yet he knows he must and will do something.

    Does Hamlet delay unnecessarily? A venerable line of criticism, dating back to Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, argues that Hamlet fibrillates, unable to act because of scruples and uncertainties. The line of criticism was forcefully picked up by Sigmund Freud and then by Freud's disciple, Ernest Jones, who in Hamlet and Oedipus (1910, revised edition, 1949) propounded the theory that Hamlet is driven by an Oedipal attachment to his mother that arouses his agonized fury but then blocks any effective action on his part by an unconscious identification with Claudius for having murdered King Hamlet and married Gertrude, thereby achieving what Hamlet himself unconsciously longs for. How can Hamlet punish Claudius for what Hamlet himself has desired? The idea still enjoys considerable currency to the extent at least of a belief on the part of many readers and audiences that Hamlet's tragic flaw, according to Aristotelian theory, must be his incessant reluctance to act. Certainly Hamlet does repeatedly berate himself for delaying matters, especially in his soliloquy beginning "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (2.2.550), and then later when the spectacle of Fortinbras's army about to march off to Poland for a perfectly meaningless military campaign inspires Hamlet to declaim, "How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!" (4.4.33-4). Yet we can also ask whether the questions raised by Goethe and Coleridge were not at least in part a product of their own Romantic sensibilities and hence their wish to see Hamlet as like themselves, listlessly caught up in poetic ambiguities. We need to explore other ways of examining delay, by asking if delay is not sometimes the wisest course, especially in view of the complexities and uncertainties of action. Hamlet himself certainly comes to reflect on these cautions against acting precipitately.

    His first response to what his father tells him of his fearful death is to yearn for action that is swift and decisive. "Haste me to know't," he says to the Ghost, "that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge" (1.5.30-2). In a soliloquy that is prompted by the First Player's moving Virgilian account of the death of King Priam and the grief of Queen Hecuba at the siege of Troy, Hamlet positively bellows his eagerness for violent revenge: "Bloody, bawdy villain! / Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! / Oh, vengeance!" He bitterly recriminates himself for being one who, though "the son of a dear father murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must like a whore unpack my heart with words / And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, / A scullion!" (2.2.580-8). Yet that very idea immediately enkindles two thoughts that counsel prudence and calculation. The first idea is to test the Ghost's veracity: Hamlet decides that he should arrange to have Claudius see a play dramatizing a story like Claudius's own, to see whether the King's reaction to a theatrical image of his deed may not goad him into some involuntary confirmation of his secret guilt. The second thought is that the Ghost Hamlet has seen may in fact be the devil, intent on tempting Hamlet to damn himself by some rash act. Hamlet knows that "the devil hath power / T'assume a pleasing shape" and is capable of being "very potent" with persons afflicted by weakness and melancholy, as Hamlet is. Perhaps then the devil "Abuses me to damn me" (604). In arriving so quickly at these two thoughts, Hamlet entertains a notion that is antithetical to what he has believed at first, that what the Ghost has said to him is true. Is Hamlet merely rationalizing, as a way of evading action? Hamlet is certainly right, according to widespread beliefs in Renaissance England, that melancholy can engender hallucinations of the sort he imagines, and he is no less right in believing, as a good Christian, that the devil could tempt his victims this way. King James and Samuel Harsnett were only two among many learned writers who warned of the spiritual dangers lying thus in wait for the unwary.

    20This thorny question must have been further exacerbated for Shakespeare's audience by the play's allusions to Purgatory. The word itself is not actually mentioned inHamlet (it is named elsewhere twice, in Romeo and Juliet and Othello), but when the Ghost describes to Hamlet how he is "Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the days confined to fast in fires" until the "foul crimes" done in his "days of nature / Are burnt and purged away" (1.5.11-14), he seems unmistakably to be talking about Purgatory. Roman Catholic doctrine had evolved that concept partly as a way of explaining what must happen to souls of those who depart from mortal life without having received Last Rites or Extreme Unction. Since Church teaching held that salvation was not possible without forgiveness of sins, the souls of all those persons dying without forgiveness were thought to be held in a place not unlike what the Ghost describes to Hamlet, where they would penitently suffer until they had made sufficient satisfaction for their sins. Presumably in King Hamlet's case the "foul crimes" that he had committed were not violent crimes like murder, for only those who were deemed worthy of eventually receiving God's grace were granted the dispensation of Purgatory rather than hell. King Hamlet's "foul crimes" must have been the pride, anger, envy, covetousness, gluttony, slothfulness, and lechery constituting the Seven Deadly Sins to which all humans have been incessantly prone since the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Dante devoted the middle of three books of his Divine Comedy to a vivid description of what Purgatory could be like.

    Although the Protestant Church of the English Reformation had discarded the concept of Purgatory as an official doctrine, the idea remained popular. It serves in Hamlet as a vivid depiction of the Ghost's horrible suffering, and hence as a prod to Hamlet to revenge his father's "foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.26). When the Ghost describes how he died "Unhousled, disappointed, unaneled, / No reck'ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head" (78-80), we see that Shakespeare was well versed in Catholic theology: the terms here mean that King Hamlet died without having received the Holy Sacrament in the holy process of contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. Shakespeare need not have been a Catholic to know this theological language, but he certainly knew what it meant and what its theatrical force would be in a play about the murder of a king.

    What then is Hamlet to do? One answer comes to him with the arrival of a troupe of actors, on tour, hoping to be commissioned to perform at Elsinore Castle. These actors are well known to Hamlet. He greets them one by one, especially the lead player and the boy actor who is to enact the female roles, provided his voice has not yet changed; Hamlet, noting that the boy has grown taller since they last met, jokes with him about this. This troupe is quite like groups that toured the English countryside with their plays, acting in innyards, great houses, and the like. Hamlet in fact has just learned from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about a current rivalry between "the tragedians of the city" and "an aerie of children, little eyases," who are "most tyrannically clapped" for the way in which they have challenged the older and more traditional actors, giving them such competition that the older troupes are obliged to travel, with all the risks and inconveniences of itinerant performance. This remarkable passage of the text (2.2.337-62) is contained only in the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, not in the earlier quartos. It unmistakably points to a keen rivalry that did take place in the late 1590s in London between adult acting companies like the Lord Chamberlain's Men to which Shakespeare belonged on the one hand and, on the other hand, juvenile actors performing indoors in Blackfriars and similar venues to sophisticated audiences willing to pay a higher price for plays that were daringly satirical of political and social vagaries in the London of their time. The boy companies had been shut down during most of the 1590s for what the licensing authorities warily regarded as subversive disrespect, but they had then been allowed to play again in 1598-9 with the result that edgy satire was, as Rosencrantz says, "now the fashion." This notorious theatrical episode subsided as quickly as it had started up, but was at its highest pitch while Hamlet was being staged. Hamlet is fascinated at the account he hears, for theater is an essential preoccupation with him.

    No sooner has Hamlet greeted his old friends than he asks the First Player, the one in charge of the company and its lead actor, for a sample recitation. Once he has admiringly heard it, he proceeds to his next request: can the troupe play "The Murder of Gonzago"? And could they "study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in't"? (2.2.538-42). The First Player readily agrees to do so; this is their stock in trade as traveling players, and quick memorizing is one of their most highly developed skills. The piece that the First Player has recited meantime is a curious passage, resolutely Virgilian in its diction and narrative content as it depicts the ugly slaughter of King Priam of Troy by the remorseless Pyrrhus or Neoptolemus, whose role of avenging the death of his father Achilles offers a striking parallel to that of Hamlet. Even more vividly, the Virgilian monologue describes the pitiful fate of Queen Hecuba, running up and down barefoot and poorly clad, mourning the slaughter of her husband with tears of such abundance as to be capable perhaps of dampening the flames that are consuming Troy. Her tears, and those of the First Player as he tells the sad tale, provoke Hamlet to reflect on his own grief and the inadequacy of his response to his father's death. If an actor can weep for Hecuba even though he does so "in a fiction, in a dream of passionn," when Hecuba can mean nothing personally to him, cannot Hamlet act on behalf of "a king / Upon whose property and most dear life / A damned defeat was made"? (2.2.551-71). Hamlet's language, as he visualizes this moment, is acutely theatrical: he wonders what the actor would do "Had he the motive and cue for passion / That I have" (561-2). Theater is fundamental to Hamlet's way of interpreting his existence, centering as it does on what it means to act. One can act in a play; one can act in performing a mission like that bestowed on Hamlet by his dead father. As the gravedigger wisely if gnomically says, in Act 5, "an act hath three branches—it is to act, to do, and to perform" (5.1.11-12).

    Before the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," presumably with Hamlet's additions, Hamlet instructs the actors in the mysteries of their trade. They accept his advice politely, even if with tactful suggestions that it is familiar terrain to them. "I hope we have reformed that indifferently with us, sir," says the First Player, when Hamlet has urged them not to "tear a passion to tatters," to saw the air with their hands, to mouth their lines, to strut and bellow and out-Herod Herod with exaggerated gestures, or to "make the judicious grieve" with inappropriately comic byplay. They know better than to do these things. But Hamlet needs to say what he says, and in doing so illuminates the very way in which the play of Hamlet itself performs a function that is vital to all human endeavor. This is Hamlet's artistic manifesto. The purpose of playing is and always has been "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and feature" (3.2.1-43). The concept of the mirror captures for Hamlet (and, one suspects or even assumes, for Shakespeare also) the way in which poetic and dramatic art reflects back to us a heightened picture of who we are and what we are like, so that we can learn from this instructive depiction. From studying such a reflection we can learn to strive to be our best selves. Art is an imitation of life, as Aristotle had said centuries earlier, though Shakespeare may have intuited this great truth from his own genius and his studious practice of the art of playwriting more than from classical precedent.

    25Dramatic art, for Hamlet, should aim at a very high cultural standard. It must not cater to the "groundlings," the "unskillful," the iunjudicious, who, in Hamlet's austere view, are for the most part "capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise" (3.2.11-26). Groundlings were those who stood around the platform stage in theaters like the Globe, and were indeed an important part of Shakespeare's audience, so that the insult here seems a bit jarring, but it may be that Hamlet, in speaking directly to them, is warning them of what "groundlings" are all too capable of and is thereby congratulating those among them who will choose to be discriminating and judicious rather than philistine.

    Earlier, in his conversation with the players, Hamlet pointedly praises a dramatic speech he heard once that "pleased not the million." It was "caviare to the general," that is, an expensive delicacy not calculated to please uneducated tastes. Despite its lack of popular success, or perhaps indeed all the more precious because it was not fawned upon by the multitude, it found favor among a select audience of those "whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine," who could see that it was "an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning." It had no "sallets" or spicy improprieties that might indict the author of affectation, but chose instead to pursue "an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine" (2.2.434-45). The monologue on the death of Priam and the grief of Hecuba, in all its Virgilian classical style, is indeed a sample drawn from this treasury of high art. The extensive attention paid in Hamlet to this critical discourse on the nature of dramatic imitation strongly suggests that in this play Shakespeare is talking about and defending his own art. He is unapologetic about its refined and selective view of what an ideal audience should be like. The play demands very high standards of taste, of cultural knowledge, and of commitment to the moral purposes of great art. Persons from any social class may participate; all they need do is espouse the vision of an art that is ennobling.

    This discourse on dramatic art is no digression. It prepares for "The Murder of Gonzago," intended as that play is to demonstrate Hamlet's hypothesis that dramatic mimesis can discover truth by revealing to viewers or readers their innermost identities. Hamlet has predicted as much in soliloquy when he reflects that "I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the nature of the scene / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaimed their malefactions. / For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ" (2.2.589-95). This is precisely what happens at the performance of "The Murder of Golnzago." Claudius rises in obvious emotional turmoil to leave the performance space at the very moment when the player villain, Lucianus, pours poison into the sleeping King's ear. Hamlet reinforces the application of this action to the story of how King Hamlet was murdered by informing his auditors that "You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife" (3.2.259-62). Claudius is so overwhelmed by having been shown a picture of his own crime that he attempts in the next scene to pray for forgiveness, even though he knows that he cannot do what forgiveness demands, that he surrender the crown and the woman for whom he did this crime (3.3.36-64). Not only has Hamlet's plan worked brilliantly to prove to Hamlet (and Horatio) the truth of what the Ghost has told Hamlet, thereby dispelling Hamlet's doubtful fears that the Ghost may have been a devil tempting him to damn himself; it has also demonstrated the veracity of Hamlet's theory of how high drama can work on its audience by awakening conscience.

    Did the performance of "The Murder of Gonzago" contain those "dozen or sixteen lines" that Hamlet asked the First Player and his troupe to memorize and include in their show? Presumably so; they would hardly have dared or wished to disobey Hamlet's command. We are thus invited to speculate as to which lines may have served this purpose. Appropriately enough, the show begins not with a depiction of the actual murder but with an extensive dialogue between the Player King and the Player Queen about their marriage. They have lived together for thirty years. The Player Queen is worried about her husband's health; women, she says, are inclined to be extremely anxious about such matters. Her intensity of her anxiety is great in directly proportionate to the greatness of her love for him, she insists. The Player King replies by agreeing with her that death is approaching him, but he bids her not to worry too much about his approaching deaththat: she will live on, honored and beloved, and will no doubt find another husband. This idea puts the Player Queen into a tizzy of deep distress and denial: "A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed" (3.2.182-3). Hamlet comments in an aside: "Wormwood, wormwood!" When she continues to protest her purity of devotion, insisting that "Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife / If, once a widow, ever I be wife!", Hamlet again comments, sotto voce: "If she should break it now!" And after the conversation ends with still more protestations on her part, Hamlet cannot resist asking his mother, "Madam, how like you this play?", to which she replies, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (220-8). Clearly the scene has made Gertrude uncomfortable, much as the depiction of the murder itself shortly afterwards will awaken torment in Claudius's soul. Again we see Hamlet's thesis about the moral function of dramatic art borne out and illustrated. Even though the scene between Player King and Queen is longer than a dozen or sixteen lines (perhaps Hamlet got carried away as he was writing), the passage seems admirably fitted to what Hamlet has wanted to say in dramatic form about his mother and about feminine frailty more generally. The use of dramatic fiction enables him to explore such delicate matters without resorting to direct accusation. It enables him to test and evaluate her response. His intent in staging "The Murder of Gonzago" thus has been to find out the extent not only of his stepfather's guiltiness but of his mother's as well. Hamlet as playwright has scored a double hit.

    Having satisfied himself and Horatio as to the truth of what the Ghost has said—"Oh, good Horatio, I'll take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound," he exults (3.2.284-5)—and having heaped scorn on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their insensitivity and disloyalty in the barbed exchange about playing on a recorder, Hamlet proceeds resolutely to his mother's chambers. He has been bidden to go to her, and that is what he especially wants to do. This will enable him to cross-examine her as to the degree of her complicity in the crime that has occurred. As he leaves the stage, however,, Shakespeare is careful to give Hamlet a briefly soliloquy in which he reassures himself--and, no less importantly, the audience--that he will use no violence. "O heart," he says, "lose not thy nature! Let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom." Nero's name is invoked as a great archetype of a man who had murderedring his own mother, Agrippina, who for her part had murdered her husband, Claudius—not the Claudius of this play, but the "I Claudius" of the early Roman empire. Hamlet insists to himself and to us that he "will be cruel, not unnatural," and that he "will speak daggers to her, but use none" (3.2.392-5). This reassurance is directed at us so that we can appraise accurately his actions in the Queen's chambers when he arrives there. Shakespeare doesn't want us worrying that Hamlet is so aggrieved at his mother that he might employ violence. Hamlet is in fact conforming with what his father's Ghost asked of him, to leave Gertrude "to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her" (1.5.87-9). Dead father and son agree that her guilt, however great, is manifestly less than that of her second husband.

    30On his way to his mother's chambers, Hamlet happens to come across his uncle at prayer, attempting in vain to beg the mercy that he knows he cannot have because he is simply incapable of giving up the throne or Gertrude. Hamlet nearly manages to kill Claudius at this point. He refrains at the very last, reasoning that if he were to dispatch Claudius in a moment of true penitence Hamlet would send his soul to heaven, not to hell, leaving Hamlet's father's death unavenged. This reasoning is plausible enough; Hamlet, a devout Christian, knows the efficacious power of penitence. Hamlet's decision is nonetheless, as we perceive it, deeply ironic, because the King's attempt to pray has proved to be utterly ineffectual. If he were to die now, Claudius would presumably be headed for hell. But the scene has another purpose as well, when seen from the point of view of dramatic construction. If Hamlet were to kill Claudius right now, the play would be essentially over. It would be a typical revenge play ending with the fulfillment of revenge, like Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and many another of this popular genre. Shakespeare evidently had a very different ending in mind, as we shall see. To conclude the story at this point would be to portray Hamlet as a successful and bloody revenger acting to in accordance with the code of revenge: an eye for an eye. This would complete the a plot, but at the cost of tainting Hamlet with the kind of bloodiness that would necessarily colors our view of him as such a revenge remorseless protagonistrevenger. The demands of revenge would have been satisfied, but what about the demands of a more complex view of human action?

    Hamlet's searing interview with his mother offers him an opportunity to move toward the achievement of one of his goals, that of encouraging a sense of guilt to prick and sting his mother's conscience. The encounter even seems to afford him an opportunity to kill the King and thus avenge his father's murder, and he seizes it. Hearing a man's voice beyond a curtain in his mother's chambers, he stabs. This action shows that Hamlet is indeed capable of decisive and even violent action. He has resolved, in deciding not to kill the King at prayer, that he would do so instead when the King is "drunk asleep, or in his rage, / Or in th'incestuous pleasure of his bed, / At gaming, swearing, or about some act / That has no relish of salvation in't" (3.3.89-92). Timing his vengeance thus would be to insure the greatest degree of revenge, a revenge directly appropriate to what Claudius has done to his brother. But once Hamlet has stabbed, he learns immediately that he has made a grave mistake. He has killed a "wretched, rash, intruding fool," Polonius, having mistaken him for his "better," Claudius (3.4.32-3). The action has seemed entirely logical: what man's voice might one he expect to hear in Gertrude's private chambers other than that of her husband? The opportunity seems perfectly calculated for revenge, yet Hamlet has made a serious error. It is one that will determine much of the course of the play: it will contribute to Ophelia's madness and perhaps even her suicide, it will bring Laertes back from France filled with rage and ready to conspire with the King against the life of Hamlet, and it will provide an excuse for the King to exile Hamlet to England. Hamlet sees that he will have to pay for his homicide, however plausibly intended. Actions have their consequences. No matter how intently one yearns for an opportunity to act, the choice to act requires a canny ability to distinguish between a committing deed rashly and postponing it for reasons of prudence. Laertes is another who will learn that seemingly just plotting for revenge (against Hamlet, in his case) can lead to fatal and unjust consequences.

    Gertrude is anxiously waiting for a chance to scold Hamlet for his hostile behavior. Why is he acting so madly? Why can't he see that her happiness depends on her new marriage? She speaks defensively, upbraiding him with "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended" (3.4.10). He has a quick answer, punning as he so often does: "Mother, you have my father much offended." The word "father" can mean both "step-father" and blood father. Yet her refusal to see her own wrongful behavior from Hamlet's point of view quickly collapses under the weight of his unsparing indictment. Accused of having deserted a noble husband out of bodily lust for one who in Hamlet's view is so unworthy, Gertrude and having done so out of bodily lust, Gertrude cries out, pleading for mercy and confessing her awareness that she has sinned. "Oh, Hamlet, speak no more! / Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such dark and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct" (90-3).

    Hamlet bears down on her so unrelentingly that the Ghost of her dead husband comes to her aid, urging Hamlet to get on with his "almost blunted purpose" (115) of avenging the dead King instead of tormenting his mother. Why is the Ghost solicitous in this way? Might he not perceive that Hamlet is undertaking to awaken Gertrude's conscience? Earlier, the Ghost has said that he does indeed hope that Gertrude's conscience will be pricked and stung, though he does not instruct Hamlet to be the agent of that process. Perhaps we are to see that the Ghost still harbors feelings of tenderness and compassion toward his one-time wife; he was notably considerate and even gallant toward her in his lifetime, so loving to her, Hamlet tells us, "That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly" (1.2.141-2). This may also explain why the Ghost does not speak to Gertrude, or appear to her visually, though he does appear to us and to Hamlet. Commentators have understandably wondered if this phenomenon is a signal to us that the Ghost is at this point ephemeral, a product of Hamlet's overraught imagination, but Ghost lore in the Renaissance readily allowed that spirits could make selective appearances of this sort (as in Banquo's appearance to Macbeth in that play, 3.4.37-108). Again, the explanation here could be personal and psychological. What could the Ghost wish to say to his widow, whom he remembers so fondly but with such disappointment?

    What Hamlet has to say to his mother quickly takes the form of a homily, pleading with her as a Christian to save her soul before it is too late. "Confess yourself to heaven," he urges. "Repent what's past, avoid what is to come" (3.4.156-7). Hamlet knows the power of prayer, and he knows how difficult it can be for one must throw off one's wicked ways and repent. Claudius knows that he cannot do this, but Hamlet hopes (so does his father's Ghost) that Gertrude can begin a new life through penitence and reform. Her sin, whatever it was, seems not to have been "mortal" in this theological sense. But the process of reform is painful. Hamlet's instructions are clear: "Go not to my uncle's bed" (166). Falling into bad habits is vastly easier than struggling back out of them, and yet recovery can be accomplished one step at a time if one is resolute. "Refrain tonight, / And that shall lend a kind of easiness / To the next abstinence; the next more easy,." he tells his mother. One can almost "change the stamp of nature" this way. Hamlet says all this compassionately, even apologetically, for he knows that if Gertrude can only be "desirous to be blest" he will want to beg a blessing from her (172-9).

    35Confronted with the fact that he has done serious wrong in killing Polonius, no matter how plausibly the act was intended, Hamlet comes to the conclusion that his destiny is under the control of an ultimately benign providence. "For this same lord," he says, referring to Polonius, "I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister" (179-82). "Punish me with this" appears to mean that Hamlet sees he will have to answer to heaven for the death of Polonius. "This with me" suggests the converse, that Polonius got what he deserved at Hamlet's hand for snooping; death was no doubt a severe punishment, but Polonius in effect asked for what he got. In both cases, Hamlet holds to the view that however mistaken both he and Polonius may have been in what they did, heaven had a purpose in mind. Providence makes use of everything to achieve its intents, though frail mortals too often fail to understand how this can be so. As Hamlet later says to Horatio, when Horatio has urged Hamlet not to engage in dueling with Laertes if his mind misgives: "Not a whit, we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. 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't to leave betimes? Let be" (5.2.217-22). But how, in Hamlet's view, does heaven go about making use of even the most seemingly inconsequential events? And what then is Hamlet's cue as to how he is to play his part in a drama created and staged by providence?

    The rest of the play can be read in this way, and Hamlet chooses to read it accordingly. A direct result of the killing of Polonius is that Laertes comes back to Denmark in fury, seeking to revenge a father's death in a way that clearly resembles the charge that Hamlet has received from his father. Hamlet and Laertes are thus dramatic "foils" in the play, characters who serve as instructive comparisons and contrasts to each another, much as a "foil" or thin piece of metal placed under a precious stone serves to set off its brilliance. "I'll be your foil, Laertes," says Hamlet to him (5.2.253), punning on the fact that they are about to fence with "foils" or rapiers. Fortinbras is similarly a son undertaking to avenge a wrong done to his father. All three sons make instructive choices between forthright action and delay, with serious or even fatal consequences if they make the wrong choice. Laertes chooses forthright and, as it turns out, rash action. Knowing Hamlet to be the slayer of his father—a fact about which there can be no doubt, nor is it ever denied by Hamlet himself—Laertes enters into a dangerous conspiracy with the King to kill Hamlet. When asked by Claudius what deed he would undertake to show himself his father's son, Laertes replies, "To cut his throat i'th' church" (4.7.127), in other words, to act violently without religious or moral scruples.

    What Laertes agrees to do is indeed violent, and it is also expressly in violation of the code to which a gentleman ought to adhere. He will duel with Hamlet with a sword secretly "unbated" (139), that is, not blunted at its tip, and coated with a poison of extraordinary potency. "I'll touch the point / With this contagion, that if I gall him slightly, / It may be death" (147-9), he says to the King, who promises toi prepare a poisoned cup to make sure of Hamlet's death. Laertes realizes too late that he has made a profoundly unethical choice: "And yet it is almost against my conscience," he admits in an aside after the dueling has commenced (5.2.299).

    More seriously, he has misjudged where the culpability really lies in assigning responsibility for his father's death. Laertes does not know that Claudius is a murderer. To conspire with him against Hamlet is to become an unwitting tfool in Claudius's scenarioscheming. Too late, as he lies dying from having been struck by the poisoned tip of the fencing weapon that he has been forced by Hamlet to exchange with Hamlet's, Laertes sees the justice of what has happened. The "foul practice" to which he rashly consented has turned itself on him. He sees too that the King is the one who is really "to blame" and is "justly served" by being forced by Hamlet to drink off the poisoned cup (5.2.320-9). Laertes and Hamlet exchange forgivenesses; they know that each has grievously wronged the other, but under circumstances that turn the ultimate blame on Claudius. "The King, the King's to blame" (324).

    A profound puzzle arises out of Hamlet's growing conviction that divine providence is in charge of his life. Perhaps this is a result of Shakespeare's having transported his rigorously pagan source, the original life of Hamlet by the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, into the Christian world of the Renaissance. Saxo's hero proceeds to his revenge with a zeal unsullied by moral considerations: feigning madness as a strategy to throw off his royal antagonist, Saxo's Hamlet finally manages to destroy the King and his courtiers in a magnificent holocaust of fire. Shakespeare's Hamlet, conversely, is a Christian. Although he fervently embraces the cause of revenge on behalf of his murdered father, and never questions revenge directly on moral grounds, he does perceive that something has gone wrong with his attempts to carry out a deliberate revenge. The death of Polonius is a warning: forthright action need not achieve the desired result, and may in fact seriously backfire. Elsewhere, too, forthright action can lead ironically to unintended consequences or at the very least to results that are unworthy, pointless, even absurd. Fortinbras is an instructive example, in Hamlet's view. Bravely motivated by a desire to avenge a wrong done to his father by the Danish king, Fortinbras cannily agrees to bide his time by marching south through Denmark to attack Poland. Why Poland? Observers agree that it is not worth conquering. A captain serving under Fortinbras assures Hamlet that the Norwegian army goes there "to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name." Yet Fortinbras is prepared to risk "Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats" to achieve possession of "this straw." He will willingly expose "what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death, and danger dare / Even for an eggshell" (4.4.19-54). Hamlet is impressed with such bravura intensity, and even uses this example as one more means of urging himself on in his assigned task of revenge, but he sees with beautiful clarity the absurdity of Fortinbras's Polish campaign.

    40Once he has been sent toward England but has managed to defeat that plan by escaping from his captors and returning to Denmark, Hamlet understands even more certainly what all this means to him now. Rashness has its place in human behavior, but it must be tempered by an awareness that providence is at work in all we do. "Rashly," he says to Horatio, "And praised be rashness for it—let us know / Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us / There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will" (5.2.6-11). Hamlet says this by way of what has happened to him on board ship as he was being sent toward England. An opportunity presented itself to him to search the packets of his escorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where, as he had suspected, he found a secret commission to the King of England enjoining that monarch to order the execution of Hamlet. Once he had substituted their name for his in the execution order, he was then able to conceal the clever switch by finding in his own purse a perfect copy of his father's royal seal, with which he resealed the document and thereby avoided detection. As he tells the story, Hamlet interprets this event in providential terms. "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant," he cries (48). His having the royal seal in his purse was no doubt the result of his own agency at some point, but he could not have planned how he would need it now; that is where providence offered its invaluable assistance. So too with the amazing story of his ship's being pursued by a pirate vessel that came alongside in such a way that Hamlet was able to escape his captors and persuade the pirates to take him back to England, in return for "a good turn" he would then do them (4.6.13-29). Here was more providential assistance, taking the form, as it so often does, of events quite improbable and unpredictable.

    Thus it is that Hamlet resolves his crisis of how to carry out his father's dread command: he will await the opportunity that heaven will provide. That solution seems entirely contrary what the Ghost has told him, to "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder" (1.5.26), but Hamlet is serenely confident that providence will know what to do. Such faith is very much in keeping with Church teaching. Indeed, to doubt that heaven will know how and when to act is in itself a kind of disobedience and even blasphemy. This idea is also in keeping with what Hamlet says to Horatio in the wonderful scene at Ophelia's graveyard. Picking up the skull of the clown Yorick who was once the King's jester, Hamlet imagines the bodily remains of Alexander the Great turning to a "noble dust" that might then end up "stopping a bunghole" in a barrel. Horatio is incredulous at such an apparently absurd idea, but Hamlet is quite serious. We must all come to this inglorious business of lying in the earth and perhaps having some gravedigger "jowl" our skull to the ground "as if 'twere Cain's jawbone" (5.1.76-7). Courtiers, lawyers, the rich, the poor, all must come to this. So must Alexander, who, having died and been buried, "returneth to dust." "The dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?" (209-12). Such reflections on the vanity of human existence prepares Hamlet to view the end of his own story as at once a noble fulfillment of providential will, and ridiculous, since all human striving is ultimately in vain.

    The concluding action of Hamlet can indeed be read as Hamlet perceives his story. His surrendering his will to that of providence leads directly to a duel with Laertes. The duel is not Hamlet's idea; he agrees to it without suspicion of foul play and without any intention of using it somehow to finish off Claudius. Only when Laertes unfairly wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword during what was supposed to have been a lull in the action does Hamlet realize that foul play is afoot. He turns on Laertes, presumably forcing him to exchange their weapons, and wounds him. As Horatio observes, "They bleed on both sides" (5.2.307). When Laertes, knowing that he is dying, confesses what has happened and concludes by saying "The King, the King's to blame" (323), Hamlet then turns on the King with "Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damnèd Dane, / Drink off this potion." Having stabbed Claudius with the poisoned sword as well ("The point envenomed too? Then, venom, to thy work," 324), Hamlet forces Claudius to drink the very poison that the King prepared for Hamlet. The action is of course violently homicidal, but it is a spontaneous response to the King's directly menacing attack on Hamlet and himself. It is not the result of cunning fulfillment of a revenge plot on Hamlet's part. An impartial jury might arrive at a verdict of justifiable homicide.

    What is more, this action solves another problem that Hamlet has heretofore found intractable: it finds a way for his life to end without suicide. From the earliest moments of the play, Hamlet has yearned for surcease: "Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!" (1.2.129-32). Later, when he encounters Ophelia reading on a book, his mind is still on the appeal of suicide as a means of surcease, of ending his existence "With a bare bodkin." He is still debating the big question: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing them." To die is "to say we end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to." The idea is immensely attractive to Hamlet: death is "a consummation / Devoutly to be wished." Yet the "rub" remains when Hamlet considers "what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil." "The dread of something after death" puzzles the will and "makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of." Hamlet can find no answer. The dilemma leads to indecision: "the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" (3.1.57-89). This indecisiveness is part and parcel of the uncertainty that attends his search for a means of avenging his father's murder. In both cases the solution of the problem is truly problematic, since action itself is so vastly complex an issue. Yet the play's final scene does resolve the difficulty in both instances. Hamlet kills Claudius essentially without premeditation, and he is provided an honorable, active, and honorable way to die without suicide.

    Hamlet's reading of his own tragedy thus answers many criticisms aimed at him by some readers and viewers. If his delay in killing Claudius turns out to be vindicated by the way the story ends, this delay can hardly be his "tragic flaw" or "tragic mistake" of the sort that Aristotle, in his Poetics, defines as the hamartia of great tragedy: a defect or tragic error that explains downfall of a great figure. Shakespeare gives little evidence of having known Aristotle's works, especially the Poetics. Some of his tragedies, like Othelloand Macbeth and Coriolanus, lend themselves to Aristotelian analysis. Others, likeRomeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, do not. As a playwright he was more of a pragmatist than theoretician, in an English vein of playwriting that devised approaches to tragedy without depending on Aristotelian formulas. Hamlet, arguably, belongs to this native tradition, even while it is also blessed with classical insights like the Virgilian account of the fall of Troy. Rather than seeing Hamlet as a demonstration of how hamartia can bring a great man down, Hamlet's own reading of his story encourages us to see it as a tragedy of sacrifice, in which the protagonist dies not for his sins and failures but as a consequence of his having undertaken the cause of righting a great wrong in an imperfect world.

    45Such an interpretation seems appropriate when we hear Horatio intone, over the dead body of his friend: "Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (5.2.362-3). Similarly, Fortinbras pronounces a sad eulogy: Four captains are to bear Hamlet's body to a stage and honor him with "The soldier's music and the righte of war," for "he was likely, had he been put on [i.e., invested in the office of King] / To have proved most royal" (398-401). These stirring tributes bear out nicely what Ophelia has grieved about over earlier: that a seeming madness could have oppress visited such a "noble mind" in whom she admiringly sees "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword, / The expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion, and the mold of form" (3.1.153-6). She attributes to Hamlet a potential for greatness as a statesman, a military leader, and a learned wise man, much in the same language of praise used to laud Henry V in Shakespeare's play about that heroic king.

    Lest we see all this as somehow lightening or compensating for the tragedy of Hamlet, we must remember that he is dead, along with so many other persons on stage in the final scene. Moreover, his dear friend Horatio is there to read Hamlet's story in terms that are distinctly not providential. Horatio tells Fortinbras and the ambassadors from England that they will hear from him a story "Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall'n on the inventors' heads" (5.2.383-8). History, in Horatio's skeptical view, is filled with sudden and unexpected turns that defy providential interpretation. History is above all, in this vein of thinking, a chronicle of human beings who, well intentioned or otherwise, fall into traps they have devised for others. This is a profoundly ironical view of history. As Hamlet has said earlier to his mother, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "'tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoised with his own petard." Hamlet assures her that he will find a way "to delve one yard below their mines / And blow them at the moon" (3.4.213-16), and so it proves when he outwits them by intercepting their missive to the King of England and by sending them on to the doom that had been prepared for Hamlet himself. As Hamlet tells Horatio later on, in recounting this adventure, "they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow" (5.2.57-9). We need not agree entirely with the harshness of this judgment; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be seen as doing their best to carry out the wishes of a king whom they genuinely admire and of whose murderous ways they have no knowledge. But we can see that Hamlet and Horatio, for all their philosophical differences, share an ironic view of history—the difference being that Hamlet sees it also providentially.

    The saga of Fortinbras offers another complication to any interpretation of the play's ending. What are we to make of the fact that Fortinbras is to inherit Denmark as part of his kingdom? Granted, no one else is left alive to do the job; Horatio lacks the social qualifications, and is, by his own declaration, "more an antique Roman than a Dane" (343). Still, Fortinbras's inheritance of power is jarring. He has been, throughout, the model of forthright and ruthless action. Horatio, in scene 1, views Fortinbras as an unprincipled adventurer, ready to take advantage of Denmark's evident weakness in a time of political transition. Fortinbras's relentless quest for military success prompts Hamlet to reflect that "thinking too precisely on th'event" may result in "A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward" (4.4.42-4). Even if one must fear one's own cowardice at such moments, should one not realize that one quarter of the equation counsels wise delay? If divinity shapes our ends, does it not matter how we "Rough-hew" that destiny with our individual actions? Are not we more attracted to Hamlet's fine-tuning of the debate than to Fortinbras's inclination to strike first and think afterwards? Why is he here, in the final scene, anyway? Did some intuition tell him that his plan of biding his time in Poland would now bear fruit in gaining the Danish throne? What are we to make of this ironic and sudden change in the fortunes of these two countries, that Denmark, heretofore master over Norway, is now her subsidiary?

    Perhaps this irony is well suit fited to this profoundly ironic play. Hamlet has fitfully been viewed as one who might rule Denmark ably, even brilliantly. But that appears to be possible only in another world, one in which Denmark is no longer "an unweeded garden" (1.2.135). Claudius, during his brief reign, has proved to be just the sort of monarch that Denmark pragmatically longs for: militarily strong against invasion, suave in diplomatic efforts to keep those enemies at bay, and politically united under a king who is a superb rhetorician in the art of persuasion, which after all is rhetoric's main purpose. Polonius loves this king, as do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet is the chief opposing figure, but he despises politics and makes no attempt to flatter persons he regards as toadies like Polonius. Idealizing as he does his warlike father, Hamlet is no person to conduct the kinds of diplomatic trade-offs that Claudius handles so adroitly. Fortinbras is another kind of leader, one who practices a more direct and ruthless control, wholly unlike what we think Hamlet might choose, but ruthlessly effective in the world as it exists. Hamlet is too noble, too idealistic, too intellectual, for the job. As he dies, he sees that and accepts the consequences of this, as indeed he has few if any other options. The tragedy of Hamlet is as much a tragedy of the fallen state of the world as it is of its protagonist. Hic transit gloria mundi .