Classics Of English Literature Essays By Barbara Daniels

Hamlet (1)
    Hamlet must be one of the most discussed works of literature with many different interpetations by critics and actors. In the overview and Act-by-Act analysis I will take one definite line and leave it my readers to make up their minds as to whether or not they agree with me. This is why the Overview is longer in this case.
    Much has been made of Hamlet's delay in carrying out the instructions of the Ghost but, if the four main soliloquies were to be omitted, there is good reason for procrastination. It is then the straightforward story of a reverger who waits for proof and the right opportunity, acts and is then, ironically, killed himself. Yet within the play as it stands, the soliloquies are prominent and, in them, Hamlet keeps reproaching himself, asking himself why he is not acting and so the problem is pressed on us by the writing. The objective facts are that he needs proof that the Ghost is genuine and he does not have many opportunities for revenge except when Claudius is praying and that is unacceptable. He exceeds his instructions here as he was not told to send his uncle to Hell, merely to dispose of him, and he also exceeds his orders concerning his mother whom he is expressly told to leave to Heaven. On the level of plot alone, he fails in his duty because he allows other matters to intrude and the contrast with Laertes is striking and central.  Yet there would be no major problem if Hamlet did not draw attention to the fact of his delay. If the soliloquies were cut, the causes of procrastination are purely external: once the King has seen the Mouse-trap and Hamlet has his proof, Claudius has his Swiss Guards around him and Hamlet is sent away. We have a mysterious sense of Hamlet's own guilt about inertia being emphasised to us: it is not a survival of an old plot which Shakepeare hopes we will not notice; it is an integral and stressed part of this drama.
    The play is a tragedy of character, possibly the first in European literature. A central theme is that murder will out and that Heaven punishes crime: the idea is given a strongly religious colour. In Act I Shakespeare suggests a situation very like Argos after the murder of Agamemnon (except that here the killing is private).  There has been a great crime and the King is the main criminal although Gertrude is guilty of adultery and incest: she married in haste and Hamlet is shocked by the shamelessness of it. The story is similar to the skeleton of that related by Aeschylus: there is a sickness in the body politic which must be cleansed at whatever expense but what makes the difficulty in Hamlet is that the hero is psychologically ill-equipped to be the instrument of cure: in modern terms he has a psychological complex. The tragedy lies in this flaw of inadequacy and the sickness with which he is infected stemming from the crime committed by Claudius. His mind is poisoned and we see his nausea and disgust with life in the first soliloquy: his mother's frailty is only part of the problem.  He is a diseased soul. Skakespeare drew on contemporary ideas of neurotic melancholy man but gives us something more: a study in fixation. Hamlet cannot move thoughts of his mother's guilt out of his mind: the command was to leave her alone but the Ghost has to re-appear to rebuke him for blunting the edge of his wrath on his mother. Hamlet is not normal for the first four Acts; he is no longer the ideal Elizabethan and his assumed role of sickness is not wholly a mask - it is genuine. In Act V he is sane and his thoughts on death are objective and rational. 
    It is a religious tragedy in that the sense that evil must be destroyed before the state can be purged and recovery is seen in spiritual terms (though not explicitly and formally religious) and good is destroyed along with evil. In that way it resembles Greek tragedy and is ultimately mysterious: crime is punished and health and justice restored but at the expense of good. The unique element in Hamlet is the extension of the idea of poisoning to the mind of the hero, underlined by the obsessive disease imagery throughout.
    Hamlet's malady is not explicitly analysed nor is a rational account given - his psychic energy is drained away by some means but it is connected with his mother's guilt. His depression, disillusionment and rage are due to the collapse of everything his life was based on. Man had seemed so wonderful to him and his famous eulogy is a tonic passage of the Renaissance. He realises he is ill but does not excuse himself - as he might - on the grounds that the situation is dire and lurid and that he has to keep it secret. We may feel that his emotion at the beginning is extreme and this is to show us that it is an already unfit Hamlet who has to cope with the Ghost's message and that he cannot deal with the implications and instructions. What he says about doubting the Ghost is possible and it is rational to check up. Yet when the test has worked and Claudius is clearly guilty, Hamlet's lack of balance is revealed: his hatred of Claudius has disqualified him from taking a proper view and he is led by his emotions and consumed more by hatred and jealousy than by a disinterested sense of duty.
    It is a leisurely, spacious play with textured details of ordinary life, full of ambiguities and contrasts, one of the main being the life of the indoor court and the supernatural events on the battlements. (It does not have the ritualistic simplicity of Greek drama). This is stressed and thematic: there is an everyday world depicted - though interrupted by the intrusion of the unusual - and there is the archaic-sounding Ghost from the prison-house with its weird and legendary connotations. Hamlet is a Renaissance man and contrasts with the strange figure of his father, producing a striking mix of spectres and modern civilisation. There is no attempt to make the Ghost a convention and it is possible that Shakespeare, playing the part himself, wrote it expansively and with relish. Its appearance is heralded to encourage suspension of disbelief (the Elizabethans had mixed views in the subject) and it dominates Act I and the background of the play until after Act III. It is the instrument of cleansing by means of the exposure of Claudius and there is an added sense of Providence: an unseen power ensures that Hamlet finally does his duty.
    It is not simply a Revenge Tragedy with a complicated modern man inserted as protagonist; Hamlet's sickness is connected with the original crime through the disease imagery - but he becomes unjust when he loathes others such as Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Ophelia who know nothing about the murder. The overarching idea is that, when the King is evil, everything is rotten in the state and everyone suffers. Claudius is not an inefficient king but a murderer and so nothing can be right until he is punished but the avenger may perish. It is not the problem of killing the anointed king as Claudius has become a repugnant object not a monarch, outside the pale, for whom Hamlet has no sympathy. All themes and actions lead back to the central crime which, ironically, interferes with Hamlet's course of action and soul. When he is enabled to act by Providence, it is, tragically, at his own expense.
    Other considerations worthy of further investigation and themes are: garden imagery; disease imagery; women; heaven and earth; spying; revenge and the revenge hero; hypocrisy; fate; Hamlet's talents; melancholy; acting in the dual sense of deeds and playing a role; madness; soliloquies; the question of what is Man; theatrical imagery and plays; conflict; contrasts between Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras; fathers and sons; use of language; the rich texturing of detailed everyday life and the enormous difference between this and the supernatural or divine world.
Act-by-Act analysis of the play starts on Page 2
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Act IV scene i
    Clauidius shows himself compassionate and concerned about the reason for Gertrude's sighs and "profound heaves" and she does tell Claudius that Hamlet is "Mad as the sea and wind" as she has promised and evidences the sudden killing of Polonius; Claudius seizes on this as justification for his plan to have Hamlet sent away and killed. He is the self-regarding politician here and claims that he would be criticised if he did not take measures, although he does not admit Gertrude to all his plan. Disease imagery is prominent in his speech although Gerturde uses a simile of purification. Hamlet does seem both mad and dangerous and Claudius, the crafty statesman, can use his strange manner to call a council and plan for his voyage to England. We are not clear whether or not he is genuinely suffering when he claims that his "soul is full of discord and dismay" but he is not an entirely unsympathetic character here.
    The very brief scene ii has of interest Hamlet's disillusionment with courtiers and flatterers and his teasing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whom he no longer trusts and sees as part of the corrupt entourage of Claudius. Yet this attitude is unjust at this point as they were not part of the original crime and have done nothing yet except watch him, which is what he expected when he undertook his "antic disposition."
    Scene iii shows Hamlet again fencing with the opposition but first we learn of his popularity with the ordinary people and Claudius' awareness that, if he acts openly against him, he will endanger his own popularity. His phrase "smooth and even" describes himself perfectly as it refers to his plan to send Hamlet away which must appear as a "deliberate pause" [the result of careful deliberation/thought]. Hamlet's refusal to say where he has left the corpse of Polonius does not have the note of tragedy and touches on the comic or grotesque. His repetitious stress on the word "fat" recalls his phrase "bloat king" used to Gertrude and underlines his disgust at the over-indulgence of the court and its lack of self-respect and decorum. The humour is morbid but makes an audience laugh out loud: Hamlet is quick-witted and finds pointed gibes to insult and fox his opponents, telling Claudius that, if his messengers cannot find Polonius in heaven, he should "seek him i' th' other place" [hell] himself. The jokes are verbal but also arise appositely from the situation: Hamlet has the upper hand for the moment and is more subtle and intelligent than they are. This scene should be compared in tone with that with the grave-diggers later but here the characters concerned are central to the plot and the attitude to death is loaded. Claudius is the hypocritical oily-tongued politician when he bids Hamlet go, urgent when he makes the arrangements and, when he runs through his plan for his murder in England, he is the crafty unrepentant stateman, weighing up the situation and using any weak spots to his criminal advantage. The disease imagery now states explicitly that Hamlet is a "hectic" [wasting fever] within Claudius: the irony is that he blames Hamlet for being the illness in him whereas his crime is the main cause of the sickness in Hamlet.
    Scene iv introduces another young man to form a contrast with Hamlet: Fortinbras, man of action, leading his army. He is the force for the restitution of law and order and yet is not truly connected with the other characters in the play and so his role is functional and thematic. He speaks directly and plainly and is competent to do what is necessary, all of which shows Hamlet as different. We now have three young avengers, if we include Laertes as potentially ready to deal with his father's slayer. These troops are the ones who had permission to pass through Denmark in Act II scene ii and are about to fight over a tiny, worthless piece of land. Hamlet is struck by the situation and the cost in life and money needed to "debate the question of this straw" [battle over so little]. (These lines 25,26 may be more naturally spoken by the Captain as Hamlet cannot know the facts stated). He again resorts to disease imagery with the metaphor of the "imposthume" [inner abscess] feeding on a too affluent society and breaking within it whilst showing no outward symptom - he cannot forget the "fat" element in the Danish court. The disease imagery throughout the play is frequently that of a hidden corruption lurking beneath apparent health.
    Hamlet's fourth main soliloquy: "How all occasions do inform against me" also draws attention to his own delay, this time because he is disgusted with himself by comparison with the daring Fortinbras. The situations are not parallel, however, since Hamlet, as avenger, must act alone outside the law to repair a hidden crime. He questions the use of the God-given capacity to reason which distinguishes man from beast (another reference to the theme of what makes a man) and which he feels he is allowing to "fust ... unused" whereas he might equally argue that he is over-doing that faculty.  The phrase "craven scruple" [cowardly misgiving] needs us to recognise that contemporary attitudes to revenge would have expected him to have scruples but do the task nevertheless. That audience would have thought that he should kill Claudius and set right the disjointed time but also that he should have doubts and misgivings. They would have accepted that he had to perform wrong deeds in pursuit of a rightful end. His tragedy is a particular example of a universal predicament: action is necessary but all action in a fallen world involves the person in evil. Because of the disease which has spread to his mind and soul, he is more and more involved in the world's evil. His introverted thoughts do not deal with whether or not he should obey his father but why he is not doing so. He is aware he has "cause, and will, and strength, and means" and sees such pointed examples as Fortinbras who is willing to "find quarrel in a straw" but Hamlet confesses obsessively that he cannot act. We do wonder when he uses the word "mortal" if he is afraid of death as he sees the unfearing man of action, "a delicate and tender prince/Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed ..." as an ideal although it is not rational of him to make the comparison: his dilemma is both political and personal and extremely complex on both levels as he could be accused of ambition and is damaged psychologically. He places the concept of honour at the centre and feels his has been corroded by "a father killed [his father has been killed not that he has killed his father], a mother stained [ditto]" whilst he lets "all sleep." He knows that the dispute for Fortinbras is trivial compared to his and vows: "from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth", but the astute reader or listener will note that he is merely vowing that his mind will be vengeful, not his actions. He thoughts are already bloody but his deeds are not. The play contains many near parallels and Fortinbras is an explicit one but Hamlet's position is unique.
    Scene v adds to the theme of madness as Ophelia has lost her wits as a result of Hamlet's treatment of her and because her father has been killed (another parallel) by her ex-lover. It also revives the theme of families whilst delaying the main plot to further the sub-plot. The description of Ophelia's derangement is moving and convincing with a detailed account of the physical behaviours which her madness triggers; spoken by the trustworthy Horatio we know there is no exaggeration or histrionics. The mood of the scene is altered by music when she enters and, in its sadness and poignancy, it forms a contrast with the previous war-like appearance of Fortinbras and his men.
    Claudius is deeply moved and feels that. "When sorrows come, they come not single spies [single scouts]/But in battalions" listing six such causes of grief: Polonius slain; Hamlet's just removal; the ordinary people unsettled; the misjudged hasty burial of Polonius; the madness of Ophelia; the arrival of Laertes, returned to avenge his father's death. He is both self-justifying over his treament of Hamlet but self-reproaching over the interment of Polonius and is the anxious ruler when he realises there is trouble in the country, which we accept is mostly the result of his crime, the major cause of sickness in the body politic. He compares all this to a "murdering piece" [a small cannon which shoots many scraps of metal at once] and is profoundly agitated about his position. When there is a noise he calls for his Swiss Guards and we are reminded that Hamlet has had no recent opportunity to kill him as either he or the King has been closely guarded. In that sense his play back-fired as it proved he was dangerous and needed constraints (Lucianus was nephew to the King.)
    Laertes is a threat to Claudius' rule and the common people admire him although their fickleness is a sign of corruption in the state - there are few mentions of them in the play, however. When he enters he seems to think Claudius killed his father, an error which emphasises the parallel with Hamlet as he is willing to attack the villain directly. His misunderstanding is improbable as is the sudden meeting with his mad sister, but both are for dramatic effect and blatant contrast. Laertes over-does the flowery language for further contrast as the honourable young avenger but Claudius is apparently unafraid, claiming that as King he is hedged by divinity, although, almost comically, Gertrude has to be told twice to refrain from clutching at Laertes as protection for her husband. Laertes' violent language again has the function of contrast although Hamlet is not short of extreme words and phrases. The effect of this episode dramatically is that Laertes will risk all: unprompted by an instruction from anyone else; erroneously (he has less information than Hamlet); for a less significant figure; openly and acknowledging that he has little power but that he will use it effectively (ll. 135,6)
    The derangement of his sister's mind gives Laertes further cause for revenge when he realises that the same man has killed his father as sent his sister mad. The word "rose" was also used by Ophelia of Hamlet and so that scene is evoked as an added poignancy. Leartes stresses the absence of an instructing figure in his story (l 165) and the pathos continues with Ophelia's giving out herbs and flowers with distracted references to the cause of her loss of wits. These phrases make us ask what it was that sent her mad: Hamlet's "antic disposition" and inexplicable behaviour or her father's sudden death. If the first, we have the irony that Hamlet's pretended madness caused true derangement in someone else. A further irony is that there was no need for her family's caution: a marriage to Hamlet would have been approved. Laertes and Claudius come to an agreemen but the young man is also aware of the meagre funeral given to his father, for which no reason is given. This is a long scene concerned with Polonius' family at the point when the main plot might be advancing and so is probably for change of mood, dramatic contrast and parallels. Laertes will risk all (but not now alone) for his garrulous old father as Fortinbras (again accompanied) is risking all for a trifle.
Continue to Act IV scene vi on Hamlet page 9
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