Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Many consider Shakespeare to be the best writer who ever lived, and most consider this to be his best work, which means that Hamlet is a strong candidate for the honor of being the finest work ever written. Ever!
There’s a Stationers’ Register reference to this one in 1602 so orthodox contorters prefer to downplay or ignore strong indications of much earlier popularity, such as Henslowe logging in his diary a performance in 1594 (Farina 195), the wooden board reference to the play having been produced in the courtyard at The Golden Cross in the city of Oxford in 1593, and Thomas Nashe’s August 1589 reference to “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of Tragical speeches.” Stratfordians have postulated a so-called Ur-Hamlet from the late 1580s.
The story, not particularly historical but which might perhaps be set roughly in 1050 (Asimov 80), comes from a Scandinavian folk-tale of “Amleth,” written down by Saxo Grammaticus, the 13th-century Danish historian, and transported in a French 1576 version into the English play from the 1580s now lost, which some tentatively suggest may have been Thomas Kyd’s, others that it was Shakespeare’s own first version. Stratfordians like to imagine that the Ur-Hamlet was written by Kyd since The Spanish Tragedy, which they also like to imagine Kyd wrote, is another revenge play. Along with Arden of Faversham then, before he is thirty years old, Kyd “is credited with three of the most popular tragedies of the Elizabethan period, which, when they are published, do not bear his name while some indifferent things do” (Clark 634). For a more sane Oxfordian resolution to all this, see Eddi Jolly, “Dating Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” The Oxfordian 2 (1999): 11-23. Both Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest’s French version could be found in the library of Oxford’s father-in-law Burghley (Farina 196; Anderson 190).
Three different published Shakespeare versions create textual confusion. One, the First Quarto from 1603, sucks:
To be, or not to be; ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep — is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream. Ay, marry, there it goes….
This appears to be a reconstruction from memory on the part of some actors.
This is an enormously long play, Shakespeare’s longest, as if Shakespeare intended to go beyond likely dramatic production, at least in the public theaters, and get everything into a true work of literature not simply dismissable as a play-text. So most productions make cuts where they will.
Regarding the Zeffirelli Hamlet from 1990 starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, one critic called the film “Lethal weapon mets fatal attraction in what turns out to be a dangerous liaison” (Dawson, qtd. in Crowl 57).
Hamlet is supposedly the most quoted figure in Western culture after Jesus, maybe the most charismatic too (Bloom 384), and part of the experience of reading Hamlet, even for the first time, is to recognize material that somehow you already know in its original intense context: “the experience of Hamlet is almost always that of recognition, of recalling, remembering, or identifying some already-known phrase or image” (Garber 466).
The first lines:
“Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”
“Long live the King!”
The first word, “Who,” signals a theme of questioning identity. This is a changing of the guard during their 24-hour watch. They expect attack, as is obvious from their paranoia, and we are not told why at first; nor are they. It’s a cool way to start a play, with two characters’ mutual defensiveness (even though we find out in the very next line that Barnardo was expected at exactly this time!) and an insistent reserving of one’s identity. “Barnardo is told to ‘unfold’ himself, ushering in the cloak-and-costume imagery, and also the imagery of folded paper and writing, which will become so predominant later in the play” (Garber 479). The knee-jerk sloganeering of the third line is an interesting phenomenon too under such circumstances. Thus we start in confusion, tension, and murkiness, not sure who is in charge. And Barnardo refers to himself in the third person, so, linguistically, identity is alienated.
These characters have Italian, not Scandinavian, names. This may signify nothing more than Shakespeare’s penchant for all things Italian (Asimov 80), or it may suggest that they’re mercenaries. What further would that imply? And what is the significance of one guard feeling “sick at heart” (I.i.9)? It certainly adds to the sense of impending doom. Note the wintry implications here and keep track of the seasons; but remember also “the time is out of joint”!
Horatio, a scholar and friend of Hamlet with a healthy touch of skepticism, is asked to hear the soldiers’ report of strange sightings. “Sit down a while, / And let us once again assail your ears, / That are so fortified against our story” (I.i.30-32). Barnardo here introduces the theme of ears and in a disturbing aggressive metaphor. After we’ve been anchored in the real, practical world, and just as we’re starting to hear about recent events, the Ghost itself interrupts by showing up (less than forty lines into the play!). Now it seems as if the guards wanted Horatio along to accept responsibility (I.i.42, 45). (Shouldn’t they be following military protocol and reporting to the superior officer?) The Ghost says nothing, and when it recedes, one guard claims, “It is offended” (I.i.50) — because of the oath “By heaven” in the previous line? When asked, “Is it not like the King?” Horatio responds, “As thou art to thyself” (I.i.58-59), rendering the issue of identity tenuous. “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (I.i.69); consider the double meaning of this utterance.
Horatio explains the situation (albeit his theory, really) regarding Fortinbras and the international politics. In the previous generation, old Fortinbras of Norway lost a battle, and lands, to old King Hamlet. Now young Fortinbras (a Hotspur character?) may be planning a retaliation. Horatio refers to the strange signs preceding the assassination of Julius Caesar, which makes some critics suspect this play was written when Julius Caesar was still a recent accomplishment. The same question arises here: there may be “signs,” but of what? [The reference to a plague and a comet may suggest events of 1582 (Clark 641).] Although “There is no historical King of Norway by the name of Fortinbras,” meaning “strong-in-arm,” such as name “isn’t so farfetched” given Sven Forked-beard, Eric Bloodaxe, and others (Asimov 84).
The Ghost appears again and Horatio asks if it wants some kind of help, or to convey some knowledge of national importance, or if it wants to reveal where there’s a buried treasure. But a rooster crows and the Ghost recedes again. Subsequent superstitious talk of supernatural omens adds further to the anxious atmosphere, including reference to what was a supposed signal of the coming “Saviour” (I.i.159). Doubt and uncertainty are the prevailing emotions in this play. The word “question” is used 17 times in the play. And in the end Hamlet will acknowledge that much is left unanswered.
King Claudius — “Shakespeare has chosen an aristocratic Roman name” to replace his source’s “Feng” (Asimov 87) — speechifies about the recent funeral of his brother and his recent marriage to the widowed Queen, Gertrude. “His speech is a model of policy, a masterly reduction of language to formal public utterance. Its very first word is the politician’s ‘though’ — a conditional hedge” (Garber 481). Claudius notes that grief and mirth are both publicly called for — essentially announcing that two-facedness is necessary. He also slyly blames the “better wisdoms” of the court council for the quick wedding (I.ii.15) and, presumably, assumption of the throne. There’s no real apparent reason it should not have passed to Hamlet: he’s old enough, though Asimov assures us there is nothing particularly unusual historically in this sort of succession (87f). And the “incest” ought to be touchy. This is not just Hamlet’s overdramatizing: it was technically considered incest at the time. (King Henry VIII married his brother Arthur’s legal wife Katherine of Aragon, but a state ceremonial purification was required.)
More news from the relatively healthy Norway includes reference to Fortinbras’ uncle’s decrepitude — a physicalization of the moral corruption of Claudius, since the parallel is unavoidable: Claudius wants an uncle to stop a hot-headed nephew from seeking vengeance for his father’s death! A peculiar bit of diplomacy, but classic “projection” from Claudius.
The next order of business is Laertes’ request to return to his travels abroad. (Laertes is the Greek name of Odysseus’ father, but why did Shakespeare choose this?) His father Polonius is court advisor, and although Claudius’ praise for the latter is peculiar (I.ii.47-49), leave is granted. This is yet another instance of a young man wanting to leave court at the start of a Shakespeare play.
Claudius now turns to Hamlet, and “They address each other with freezing, calculated politeness” (Asimov 91): “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son–” (I.ii.64). Hamlet’s first line — “A little more than kin, and less than kind” (I.ii.65) — is a wise-crack; he can’t resist this kind of thing, and snots off again immediately, insisting “I am too much in the sun” (I.ii.67), with a pun on “sun.” He seems like a young student, maybe in his late teens, despite later information. He’s a bit of a smart-aleck, shooting his mouth off, convinced of his own passions. He can’t stand the stench of corruption and likes to rant about hypocrisy. His capacity for feeling is true but he also can’t resist the posture of feeling. And he plays with language hyperconsciously — as in all the hashing out of “seems” here: “I know not ‘seems'” (I.ii.76). Lots of these are the kind of traits that drive parents crazy — especially step-parents. But he’s also right, and Hamlet does “have that within which passes show” (I.ii.85).
We are drawn to him by his youth, his intelligence, and his vulnerability. As soon as he appears we are conscious of one of the sources of his appeal: his immense capacity for taking life seriously…. He has a larger-than-life capacity for experience, a fullness of response, a depth of feeling, a vibrancy of living, which mark him out from the ordinary. He is a raw nerve in the court of Denmark, disconcertingly liable to make the instinctive rather than the conditioned response. (Wells 204-205)
The King’s attitude for grief or any situation: put on a good front as if in control. But his pontification against excessive grief subtly includes about a dozen insults towards Hamlet (I.ii.92ff), perhaps very indirectly suggesting he would not be mature enough to rule a country. Claudius makes clear he would like Hamlet not to return to school in Wittenberg — a university not founded until 1502 (Asimov 92). No doubt Claudius wants to be able to keep an eye on Hamlet (I.ii112ff). He ends the ceremony with reference to a celebratory drink (prompting Samuel Johnson to propose that here and elsewhere, Claudius seems to be a bit of a sot).
Hamlet’s first soliloquy — “O that this too too sallied [sullied? solid?] flesh would melt” (I.ii129ff) — concerns his disgust for the seething mass of maggotry that is humanity. He bemoans the fact that suicide is a sin, and also offers the famous line, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (I.ii.146), extrapolating from his reading of Gertrude’s hasty remarriage within two months of his father’s death. Queen Elizabeth provoked an early poem by Oxford: “when I see how frail these creatures are / I muse that men forget themselves so far” (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 687). Hamlet is rather too consumed with his mother’s private life, and the “tortured syntax” is emotionally appropriate for his anguish (Wells 206).
“But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.159). Throughout the play, true expression of oneself and one’s thoughts and emotions is being capped off. Nearly everything is done in secrecy. [The Ghost was restricted from speaking; vows of secrecy followed, and everyone has been sneaking around since and will continue to do so.]
Horatio and the guards privately inform Hamlet that they have seen the Ghost. Hamlet grills Horatio, possibly even trying to trip him up (I.ii.239). But Horatio is clearly on the level and Hamlet will look into this! Castiglione in The Courtier advised having “one dependable friend,” and Horatio will prove to be Hamlet’s (Ogburn and Ogburn 632).
If Hamlet’s family can in any way be considered “dysfunctional,” this scene shows the sick perversity of typical functional families. Mother apparently had the good sense to die; we hear nothing of her. Brother Laertes is rather overly concerned with what sister Ophelia does with her genitals. Daddy Polonius is a jackass, rattling off sententious platitudes to Laertes right and left. Sanctimonious modern-day buzzards pick over this speech for scraps to fling at us, smugly citing the holy name of Shakespeare instead of acknowledging that these “few precepts” (I.iii.58) or “Bits & Pieces” are being lobbed by an idiot:
“Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice…” (I.iii.68)
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” (I.iii.75)
“to thine own self be true…” (I.iii.78)
“Looney observes that we are prone to take the phrase ‘To thine own self be true,’ as nobler than it can have been meant, following as it does ‘a speech which, throughout, is a direct appeal … to mere self-interest'” (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 658). In other words, despite your natural inclinations and instincts, obey these 114 rules, oh and just be yourself! This catalogue of advice captures the moral schizophrenia of the play: to which self be true? Polonius has reduced real thought to the level of the platitude. “Modern quoters cite ‘Shakespeare’ at their peril when they are actually, and recognizably, quoting Shakespearean characters carefully crafted to be at variance with their own language” (Garber 483).
The very second Laertes leaves, the hypermonitoring Polonius asks Ophelia what he had been saying to her (I.iii.88). Regarding Hamlet, whose attentions to Ophelia Laertes wanted her to dismiss as trifling, Polonius rejects the possibility of sincere affection; all Hamlet’s vows to her are traps, “springes to catch woodcocks” (I.iii.115). He uses mercenary language, treating her as a dumb commodity, in instructing Ophelia how to play stupid pointless political manuevering games. Ophelia gets so much crappy advice in this play that finally she can’t act on her heart. And her last line in the scene is: “I shall obey, my lord” (I.iii.136; cp. I.ii.120).
Our sympathies are with the younger generation in this play. The older generation is callous and corrupt, even though they automatically have authority. The younger characters are weaker and uncontrolled. It’s the agony of being young, unable to do things, and automatically not having the right.
Claudius is drinking again, Rhenish wine at this point, and Hamlet recognizes that despite himself being a Dane and “to the manner born” (I.iv.15) (not “manor,” as often misquoted), that “sot” is a bad reputation for a state leader to earn (witness Yeltsin, or Ted Kennedy): sound political awareness on the part of a young guy who will never get a chance to be in power.
The Ghost appears, and although Horatio is worried about the danger of going over brinks (both literally and metaphorically), and although Marcellus senses that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.90), Hamlet will follow the Ghost: “My fate cries out” (I.iv.81).
The Ghost, who declares himself Hamlet’s “father’s spirit” (I.v.9) “come to stir him, in traditional Elizabethan and Senecan fashion, to revenge, and also a kind of superego, a conscience-prodder, inseparable from Hamlet himself” (Garber 469), has been established as objectively real. However, he describes a Purgatory that certainly sounds a lot like Hell. He announces “Murther most foul, as in the best it is” (I.v.27), but still wants Hamlet to become a murderer. Hmm. Perhaps revenge makes it another matter? The Ghost confirms Hamlet’s suspicions about his uncle, and despite the Ghost’s ranting excessively about his wife and brother’s incestuous lust, Hamlet is to concern himself only with revenge on Claudius. Although Hamlet harbors an ideal image of his father as the embodiment of perfection and an idyllic image of the way life was, the Ghost laments being killed before having a chance for penance, “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin” (I.v.76). The Ghost’s emphases, despite his message, become Hamlet’s own: 1) his own sensations (poison and now), 2) fury at Gertrude, 3) Gertrude and Claudius in bed, 4) then the murder (French 147). Actually, Laertes is more concerned with ceremony and social forms, and may have carried out the Ghost’s instructions better. Hamlet will be given to feeling self-indulgently and articulating mainly to himself all the nuances of the experience of this situation. The ghost expects Hamlet to become another version of himself, like the Fortinbras situation. (It’s been mentioned that the Ghost is rather medieval, Hamlet renaissance.) Anyway, it doesn’t take a supreme intellect to eliminate Claudius, so the role Hamlet is expected to fill does not really match him.
It is almost as if Jesus had been asked to play the role of Napoleon (as the temptation in the wilderness suggests that in some sense he was). If Jesus had been, ought he to have accepted? The absurdity of the question prompts the recording of the strangest of all the strange facts in the history of Hamlet: the fact, namely, that nearly all readers, commentators, and critics are agreed in thinking that it was Hamlet’s duty to kill, that he ought indeed to have killed much sooner than he did. (Goddard, I 333)
Pouring poison in the ear serves as a nice literalization of a metaphor for this play. It’s certainly what Polonius and Laertes do to Ophelia, Claudius to Laertes later, etc. A manic Hamlet announces his absolute focus on revenge (I.v.98ff), but the possibility seems unlikely.
“Now to my word,” he cries as he puts up his tables. Why “word”? Why not, “now to my deed”? Because two Hamlets speak in one in an unconscious pun. By “now to my word” Hamlet thinks he means “now to my promise.” But the Other Hamlet means “now to the world of words, the world of thought in contrast to the world of blood.” (Goddard, I 353)
Hamlet calls his mother “O most pernicious woman!” (I.v.105); and, as for Claudius, he asserts “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!” (I.v.108). He rejoins the others and notes that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (I.v.166-167) — “what we would now call ‘science'” (Asimov 105). Hamlet swears Horatio and the guards to silence about the Ghost, and no coy hinting either (I.v.173ff). He claims he will “put an antic disposition on” (I.v.172) — don’t be surprised if he starts acting odd, in other words. Hamlet ends the scene with an insightful reading: “The time is out of joint,” and the hint of ambivalence about his mission: “O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (I.v.188-189).
Hamlet is being called upon to play a role, one well-defined in the revenge-play genre. But this theme involving the self and the role is obviously very problematic, as one sees in countless other facets of the play. As one of my students put it: Hamlet is “a hero because he’s struggling with two morally correct contradictory demands. It is right to kill Claudius as a Dane/Son/Prince/Liegeman/Soldier-Prince but it is wrong to kill people as a Christian/Nobleman/Scholar/Human” (DM). The question is raised: acting is based on what? If supernatural instruction, then every moron who thinks his dog is channelling Elvis will prove a vigilante. Hamlet should perhaps not be so readily condemned for testing his suspicions, trying to find proof, even if this paralyzes one too. On the other hand, we can’t wait around endlessly for absolute proof that ozone disintegration leads to the greenhouse effect.
“To nearly everyone Hamlet himself and the play give the impression of having some peculiarly intimate relation to their creator” (Goddard, I 332). “In some sense or other, … Hamlet’s problem must have been Shakespeare’s” (Goddard, I 338). “we are dealing with both a personal and a political or dynastic situation” (Garber 468).
The name Hamlet, it has been pointed out, resembles helmet, or mask. “Hamlet is only a slightly disguised, or faintly masked Oxford” (Ogburn and Ogburn 637). Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (born April 1550), had a mother who remarried not long after her husband’s peculiarly sudden death in 1562. Edward was in his teens, and she married beneath her in rank. Just as there are no truly warm maternal figures in the plays, we get no evidence of much affection between Oxford and his mother: she mentions him only in passing in a letter to Lord Burghley, in whose household Oxford grew up as a royal ward. The young Oxford repeatedly petitioned to be excused from court in order to travel, or to see military adventure, but, except for one Scottish campaign, this was continually denied. His brother-in-law — Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby — served as an English ambassador to Elsinore early in the 1580s (Farina 197; Anderson 191). “He was ordered to go to Elsinore and there to invest King Frederick II with the Order of the Garter” (Clark 635). “The actual setting visualized by Shakespeare seems to have been Kronborg Castle in Elsinore,” built in 1580 by Frederick II (Asimov 81). Shakespeare correctly and uniquely uses the term Dansker (II.i.7), the Danish word meaning Dane (Ogburn and Ogburn 640).
Oxford transferred original immediate family trauma to the court, just as his life was transferred when his father died. If the play originates in 1583, as Clark and others suspect, then the Ghost father may also partly represent Oxford’s mentor and father figure at court, the Earl of Sussex, who as Lord Chamberlain to the Queen’s household from 1572 to his death in 1583 was in a position to foster and promote Oxford’s playwriting efforts and help him “stage those plays for Court performance” (Clark 644; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 632). When Sussex lay dying, he is recorded as having said of the Earl of Leicester, “beware of the Gypsy, for he will be too hard for you all, you know not the beast so well as I do” (qtd. in Clark 649). Leicester benefitted from Oxford’s delayed inheritance and wardship, and, compounded with his reputation as a poisoner — of his wife Amy Robsart, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, Lord Sheffield, the King of Sweden, “and many others supposed to have crossed his path or thwarted his wishes” including the Earl of Sussex (Clark 658) — is often considered the likely inspiration for Claudius. Leicester and Christopher Hatton, another long-time enemy of de Vere, ascended at court during Oxford’s banishment in the early 1580s; the Spanish Ambassador reported to King Philip, “The Queen is completely in the hands of these two men, Lycester and Hatton” (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 631). Therefore, Hamlet “is all too ready to believe that it is his father’s, his ancestral, spirit, the spirit of Vere — truth — come to plead for vindication, here at court where it has been so treacherously violated” (Ogburn and Ogburn 681).
Polonius has long been considered a caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, with the playwright parodying Burghley’s long-winded advice in his Precepts to his own son, published only years after Oxford’s, Shakspere’s, and Burghley’s deaths, suggesting that the playwright had to have seen it or heard this kind of preachiness firsthand (and there’s no connection between Burghley and Shakspere). The Precepts were a series of this kind of browbeating:
Suffer not thy sons to cross the Alps, for they shall learn nothing there but pride, blasphemy, and atheism; and if by travel they get a few broken languages, they shall profit them nothing more than to have one meat served up in divers dishes…. Beware of being surety for thy best friends; he that payeth another man’s debts seeketh his own decay. Be sure to keep some great man thy friend, but trouble him not with trifles; compliment him often with many, yet small, gifts. Towards thy superiors be humble, yet generous; with thine equals familiar, yet respectful…. Trust not any man with thy life, credit, or estate, for it is mere folly for a man to enthral himself to his friend. (qtd. in Clark 647)
Polus and Pondus were nicknames for Burghley in contemporary notes, Polus appearing thrice in Gabriel Harvey’s 1578 Gratulationes Valdinenses (Atkinson, in Clark 668). In the 1603 “bad quarto” version of the play, the character is named Corambis; Burghley’s Latin motto was “Cor unum, via una” (one heart, one way), and with “bis” meaning twice or again, the playwright contorts the motto with the idea of ambiguity, signifying double-dealing — two-facedness (Ogburn and Ogburn 566). Burghley was the Queen’s spymaster, a dubious honor he shared with Walsingham eventually during the reign. He was known for his spying tactics (like Polonius). Some orthodox Shakespeareans are trying to backpedal on the Burghley/Polonius identification these days because of what it means regarding the authorship.
Ophelia, in Greek, means both “help” and “a source of gain,” according to Andrew Werth, “Shakespeare’s ‘Lesse Greek.'” The Oxfordian 5 (2002): 11-29 (cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 655). “Oxfordians recognize the reference to Burghley’s possible use of his daughter Anne to gain entry into the nobility through her marriage to the Earl of Oxford” (Werth 21). Or as O-phelia, her name may signify “the lover of O.”
When Horatio and Hamlet meet again for the first time in the play and exchange politenesses of humility, Horatio declares himself “your poor servant ever.” Hamlet responds, “Sir, my good friend — I’ll change that name with you” (I.ii.162-163). Name? Why not “position” or “ranking” if he means the word “servant”? Oxfordians suggest he means the name: “ever” = E. Ver, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of O — Oxford.