Helpless Hamlet in the Hand ofFlawless Shakespeare
Lastly, let me entreat, and beseech, and adjure, and implore you not to write an essay on Hamlet. In the catalogue of a library which is very dear to me, there are about four hundred titles of separate editions, essays, commentaries, lectures, and criticisms on this sole tragedy, and I know that this is only the vanguard of the coming years. To modify the words, on another subject, of my ever dear and revered Master, the late Professor Child, I am convinced that were I told that my closest friend was lying at the point of death, and that his life could be saved by permitting him to divulge his theory of Hamlet, I would instantly say, ‘Let him die! Let him die! Let him die!’ (Hamlet.1)
The Tragedy of Hamlet; Prince of Denmark is one of the most profound prolonged prolific tragedies of Shakespeare. The play was first performed in 1600, by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Richard Burbage took the role of protagonist Hamlet. According to some Shakespeare’s scholar, Shakespeare himself had played the role of the Ghost of Hamlet's dead father. The very prolegomenon of the Hamlet is quite enough contemplative to draw the attention of the reader. Master craftsmanship of gray-hair-Shakespeare is present from the very beginning of the play.
Barnardo: Who’s there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
Barnardo: Long live the king!
Francisco: You come most carefully3 upon your hour.4
Barnardo: ’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco
Coleridge points out that the opening scene of Shakespeare’s play carries a significant meaning to the drama. It acts as a key note to the play. The play opens with a confusion and illusion between Barnardo and Francisco regarding their identity. Coleridge says about the play that:
In all the best attested stories of ghosts and visions, as in that of Brutus, of Archbishop Cranmer, that of Benvenuto Cellini recorded by himself, and the vision of Galileo communicated by him to his favourite pupil Torricelli, the ghost-seers were in a state of cold or chilling damp from without, and of anxiety inwardly. It has been with all of them as with Francisco on his guard, — alone, in the depth and silence of the night ; — "twas bitter cold, and they were sick at heart, and not a mouse stirring. (Coleridge's Lectures On Shakspeare And Other Poets And Dramatists)
The line “Long live the king!” is very ironical because king has already died moreover taking of the name of the king summons the spirit of the old king after few movement. Marcellus aptly says “Something is rotten with the state of Denmark”. It is also needed to notice that the play opens with an interrogation mark. This interrogation not only evokes the present status of Denmark, but also throws a lot of crucial questions about the paly- How does Claudius become king? How is old Hamlet murdered? Will Hamlet be the king by restoring the throne? The very confusion of the beginning probably indicates the terrible moment of holocaust of the end.
Appearance of ghost hints the supernatural atmosphere of the play. The opening scene creates a nexus between the fictional and real world, which helps the reader to prepare their mind to apply “willing suspension of disbelief”. It also transports them from the hardcore mundane real world to a suspenseful dramatic world. Entrance of the Ghost rapidly sieges the entire concentration of the readers and it makes readers curious to know about the plot of the entire play in spite of its immense volume.
Marcellus: Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again!
Barnardo: In the same figure like like the king that’s dead.
Marcellus: Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
Barnardo: Looks ’a not like the king? Mark it, Horatio.
Horatio: Most like. It harrows me with fear and wonder.
Barnardo: It would be spoke to.
Marcellus: It. Speak to it, Horatio.
Horatio: What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form In which the majesty of buried Denmark Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee, speak!
Hamlet is in between cerebral and emotional conflict. Being a highly learned man he is yet unable to emancipate himself completely from the grip of superstitious dogmas. The anthropocentric philosophical study is yet not able to illuminate the mind of the age. He follows the ghost’s direction without thinking twice about his own safety. Horatio and Marcellus they try their best to dissuade to follow the ghost.
Horatio: “No, by no means.”, “Do not my lord.”, “Be ruled, you shall not go.”
Marccellus: “You shall not go, my lord.”, “Let’s follow. ‘Tis not fit thus to obey him.
Hamlet, as the titular prince of Denmark seeks vengeance for the murder of his father at the hands of his Uncle Claudius. Prince Hamlet’s suspicious mind and haunted thoughts of sleepless nights lead him to a disequilibrium lunatic state. Such unbelievable shocking news of murder of his father by his uncle Claudius creates a traumatic instability in his personality. Conspired death of his father by his uncle leads to a result of embittered experience of his life. He thinks a lot and gets confused several times to take a decision. As the conspiracy is inside his family, that is why it is not that much easy to take the revenge by killing his cruel uncle Claudius. To kill Claudius means to make his own mother widow again. The dilemma that oscillates in his mind each and every day is whether to kill Claudius right now or to take the revenge after confirming the truth. In order to prove the ghost story he has arranged a play within the main framework of the play. The plot of the play was very much like that of the murder of his father. The Murder of Gonzago or The Mousetrap rightly affirms the suspicion of his mind by observing king and queen. Meta-theatre concept is very much significant to reveal the original truth and to verdict credibility the story, what has Hamlet listened from the ghost father. He deliberately manipulates the story of the play for the sake of conviction of Claudius. Through the help of Polonius he is able to reach his goal to be assured that king and queen are responsible for the murder of Old Hamlet.
Hamlet: (to Gertrude) Madam, how like you this play?
Gertrude: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Hamlet: O, but she’ll keep her word.
Claudius: Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in ’t?
Hamlet: No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest – no offence i’ the world.
Claudius: What do you call the play?
Hamlet: “The Mouse-trap.”Marry, how? Tropically.This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna. Gonzago is the duke’s name; his wife, Baptista.You shall see anon. ’Tis a knavish piece of work – but what o’ that? Your Majesty, and we that have free souls, it touches us not. Let the galled jade wince: our withers are unwrung.
Hamlet is sympathetic towards his mother and his possessive attitude towards his mother is clearly present throughout the play. But love of Claudius for Hamlet is venomous and feigned one. False love of Claudius and deep affection towards Gertrude lead Hamlet to a great confusion to take his decision. Claudius is not happy with the behavior of Hamlet that’s why he wants to send him away from the kingdom for sake of his education. Claudius appoints Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, two friends of Hamlet, to consult with Hamlet to know about him more clearly. Claudius even tries to murder Hamlet but he has turned his plan against his conspirators and manages to save himself by applying a cunning trick. Again his cosmopolitan attitude towards the world makes him to think everything in a ramified way. His thoughts are complex because of his skeptical poetical philosophical mind. Hamlet’s habit of indecisiveness leads him to the perplexed agitation of his mind.
Hamlet: To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep No more, and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil Must give us pause. There’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life – For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,…(Hamlet.3.1.56-70)
In Hamlet the Ghost acts as a pivotal character to shape the play. The ghost has been represented as a victim of murder. In Shakespeare’s play they are visible to only individual one. Everything in the play Hamlet happens because of the ghost. Without the presence of the ghost the tragedy and destiny of Hamlet would have been different. The Ghost himself is completely harmless. It is the ghost which puts the seed of vengeance in Hamlet’s mind and uses him as an instrument to bring the poetic justice. Shakespeare infuses ghost in his play to attract the attention and interest of the reader. At that time it was considered as an object of black magic and highly forbidden in the Bible. Being fallen creature man is always interested in forbidden things. Although it is not clear Shakespeare himself believed in ghost or not.
In Hamlet Senecan motif is highly followed. One after another murder for revenge and ambition is clearly conspicuous in the play Hamlet. Total nine murders have taken place in the entire play. First murder happens before the opening of the play by Claudias to his brother Old Hamlet for sake of power and property. Then the second one is the murder of the fool Polonius by Hamlet thinking him mistakenly as Claudius. He Stabs him from behind a curtain believing him to be Claudius spying on him. And the third pathetic murder occurs to Ophelia, who went insane because of Polonius's death, and drowned herself off-screen. Again Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were killed by the king of England, when Hamlet gave them a note to take to him that told him to put the bearers of the note to death. Gertrude drank poisoned wine intended for Hamlet by Claudius and she dies. Claudius is stabbed by Hamlet, then forced to drink poisoned wine. Laertes is wounded by Hamlet with a poisoned sword. On the other hand, Hamlet is also wounded by Laertes with a poisoned sword, as part of Claudius's plan. Hamlet exchanges forgiveness with Leartes after Claudius’ death.
Hamlet: Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon— He that hath killed my king and whored my mother, Popp'd in between th' election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such cozenage—isv't not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? And is 't not to be damned To let this canker of our nature come In further evil?
Horatio: It must be shortly known to him from England What is the issue of the business there.
Hamlet: It will be short. The interim is mine, And a man’s life’s no more than to say “one.” But I am very sorry, good Horatio, That to Laertes I forgot myself, For by the image of my cause I see The portraiture of his. I’ll court his favors. But sure the bravery of his grief did put me Into a tow’ring passion. (Hamlet.5.2.64-79)
Finally the poetic justice has been done after the murder of Claudius by Hamlet. At the end of the play almost all the main characters are dead, only a few remain alive, like the chosen species of Noah’ great arch. Shakespeare leaves a few alive to tell the story. It can be called a play of alienation, where many characters have undergone through the process of murder.
T.S.Eliot's approach towards Hamlet is quite different from others. He in his essay "Hamlet and His Problem" directly attacks the critics of Hamlet, especially Goethe and Coleridge.
Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on this play. (The Sacred Wood.)
Eliot considers Hamlet as an artistic failure. The play is unable to portray the inner psychological status of the protagonist through perfect atmosphere. According to him the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of hat particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
On the other hand Harold Bloom heavily criticizes for his impudence towards Hamlet. He tells ‘Eliot’s aggressive reading of this play has much to tell us about the role of the critic in configuring the identity of modernist poetic practice as well as demonstrating how the play lures readers, even one as astute as Eliot, into a fixation with its main character’. (William hakespeare’s Hamlet)
Through the voice of Hamlet we often get grave Shakespearean philosophies. "There are many things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Shakespeare’s wide knowledge about mankind and human psychology are clearly visible throughout the whole play. He ‘knew less Greek and Latin’. Shakespeare seldom maintains any grammatical rule in his play. Probably technical perfection is less important to him. He has confirmed it that language is not the barrier to be a great artist. Shakespeare’s play has the quality to please everyone, from Oxford scholar to drunken miller. Shakespeare has followed no rule; he has created rules. Experiment with different literary device makes him different from others Elizabethan playwrights. His artistic quality of characterization is unique and very powerful. Literature lovers have tasted Hamlet for a long period because of its rich ingredients, sublime plot, philosophical ramified speeches and thoughts. Hamlet is such a play which not only has transcended the age of its contemporary period, but also one after another centuries in an unabated manner.
To Shakespeare Hamlet is a hammer towards the immoral, incestual social affair. Shakespeare has never approved any licentious affair in his play. He has tried to instruct the society by providing good moral story. As an artist he is essentially moralist. In his play he always criticizes valetudinarian world and illegitimate affair. He not only knows the character of men and women better than any English writer but also their appetite. He knows well how much to show to spectator in order to keep the curiosity level always at high.
Hamlet is highly critical of women folk. Many critics have charged him because of his negligent attitude towards his mother and lover. Because of his contemptuous comments he becomes the object of victim of feminist critics. They often consider it as a gendered text.
Hamlet: O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie, ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed: things rank and gross in nature74
Possess it merely. That it should come to this –
But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two –
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on – and yet, within a month –
Let me not think on’t: frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears – why she, even she –
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle, (Hamlet.1.2.129-151)
Indeed it is quite shocking to hear such a phrase about womanhood, but it is also hard to hear about a mother who has incestuous affair and who is callous towards her husband and son. Hamlet is antagonist towards the women folk. But Hamlet's intuitive conclusion after observing only two women- his mother Gertrude and lover Ophelia is quite rashness of a scholar. Regarding the nexus between Hamlet and his mother critics have raised many explanations. Apart from the theory of Freudian Oedipal complex we may explain it from the Indian point of view that Hamlet's deep love towards his mother creates possessiveness towards her. Like a brother to sister and son to mother, Hamlet also tries to restore her mother from illicit affairs. His love is purely motherly love of what Polonius and Laertes has towards their daughter and sister Ophelia.
Shakespeare is often accused for his technical imperfections, which do not conform the ancient Aristotelian rules of drama. He hardly maintains the unity of time, place and action. But his play always has a strong and succinct structure and plot. He never bothers about the rules because he always has the public support. He knows well what to do and when to do being a successful professional playwright. Modern equipment of his drama always attracts and pleases the reader and observer. The whole canon of Shakespeare is metaphorically a cannon which can annihilate any contemporary literary enemy. At that time he was at the peak to lead the era. Shakespeare’s power of pen was so strong that it had changed the name of the era to his own name. His imperfections are also great perfection.
Bloom, Harold. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2009.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor . Coleridge's Lectures On Shakspeare And Other Poets And Dramatists. London : J. M. Dent ; New York : E. P. Dutton,1907.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Sacred Wood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921.
Franklin, M. (2019). Three cheers for 'Hamlet,' the greatest Shakespeare play of all time. [online] Mashable. Available at: https://mashable.com/2016/04/23/this-be-madness-hamlet- winner/#gpKPyw7wuZqV [Accessed 15 Apr. 2019].
List of Deaths Wiki. (2019). Hamlet. [online] Available at: https://listofdeaths.fandom.com/wiki/Hamlet [Accessed 15 Apr. 2019].
Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2006.