Specifically, his willingness to do what we would all like to do, but can never bring ourselves to actually do. In that sense, Macbeth’s spirit is admirably entrepreneurial, despite its misguided ends.
Hamlet, another one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, shares in this spirit of resolute risk-taking, but is comparatively more hesitant in action. For this, however, he earns timeless, universal admiration – even 400 years on since his inception.
The question ‘Why does Hamlet continue to fascinate?’ is not a trivial one. After all, literature is meaningless without continual reception and appreciation. The fact that we admire Hamlet the character also tells us a lot about why we look up to politicians, artists and businesspeople for their larger-than-life personalities, despite our own preference for a safer, more orthodox approach to living.
Do we evaluate the worthiness of someone because they are ‘virtuous’, or rather, because they have the daring to challenge the basis of so-called virtue, and in the course of doing so, become ‘martyrs’ of values which are imposed by society, but fundamentally go against human nature?
Hamlet, for all his rhetorical grandeur, patrilineal loyalty and philosophical depth, is also a manslaughterer, a misogynist, and a self-absorbed intransigent. By no modern standard would we judge someone like him favourably today, and yet, in the Shakespearean cosmos, he is heroic before he is flawed.
My proposition, then, is that Hamlet fascinates because he is incredibly, unapologetically human, and not – as per most of the critical appraisal that’s been heaped on the play over the years – because he is somehow more elevated than the rest of us.
Hamlet is a man of extremes. And that, I suggest, is why we love him.
To understand more about why Hamlet is the rawest specimen of humanness, let’s close read a few of his key soliloquies (read the full text of the play here):
Act I Scene 2, ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’
What motivates Hamlet to his act of revenge? For most people, the first reason that comes to mind is Hamlet’s discovery of Claudius’ murder of his father, which happens in Act I Scene 5.
But the seeds of his wrath had been long sown, and the speech ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ is a good example of that.
In fact, Hamlet forebodes the tragedy to come in his line “It is not nor it cannot come to good”, which uncannily echoes Macbeth’s comments after his first encounter with the Three Witches in Act I Scene 3 – “This supernatural soliciting,/Cannot be ill, cannot be good”.
The one thing that Hamlet can’t stand is the “most wicked speed” with which his mother, Queen Gertrude, got over his father’s death (“But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two”) and remarried his uncle, in effect committing incest.
In a sense, he’s trapped in the worst sort of moral bind: he’s disgusted by what his mother has done, and yet can’t erase the fact that she’s his mother and that he’s obliged to love her –
No, by the rood, not so:
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife;
And–would it were not so!–you are my mother.
(Act III Scene 4)
The imagery in his speech is at once biblical and mythological, thereby highlighting the magnitude with which he views his mother’s betrayal.
First, his allusion to God as “the Everlasting” is his first hint at irony, since the event he will go on to lament over is the absence of everlasting affection (on the part of women, at least). Then, he presents –
an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
This is perhaps a decayed version of the Garden of Eden, with its decay a foregone conclusion that precedes even Adam and Eve’s committing of their Original Sin. By comparing the Claudius-led Danish Court to an abandoned garden in ruins, Hamlet also pre-empts Marcellus’ prophesying words in Act I Scene 5 –
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
To which Horatio aptly responds with –
Heaven will direct it.
In addition to his histrionic apostrophes to “O God! God!”, Hamlet twice makes reference to “Heaven”, but contextualises it against mortal references to draw a contrast between the nobility of his father and the fallibility of his mother –
“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?”
The way in which Hamlet fuses Greek and Roman mythology with Christian tropes is also interesting, and perhaps evidence of his struggling desire to find a belief system that can help him rationalise the disrupted order and calm the psychological mayhem that so besieges him.
While it is surely appropriate for an adoring son to compare his late father to “Hyperion”, the splendid titan, his comparison of Claudius to a “satyr”, the lustful and bacchanalian half-man half-beast, very much reveals a level of contempt that doesn’t take much to be converted into hatred – let alone the eventual knowledge of his uncle’s murder of his father.
On the other hand, it may seem strange that he should compare himself and his mother to figures he doesn’t think they are similar to. In the month after King Hamlet died –
… she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:
The Homeric allusion to Queen Niobe, wife of King Amphion of Thebes, is certainly a curious one. While Niobe is a symbol of bereavement in the Iliad, she wept not for her husband, but over the loss of her children – six boys, six girls, all of whom were killed by Apollo and Artemis as punishment for Niobe’s pride in her extraordinary fertility.
Is this ‘misallusion’ deliberate, in that Hamlet is hinting at his mother’s lack of grief over his father, or does it instead forebode Hamlet’s own death, one that’s arguably triggered by Gertrude’s initial decision to remarry his uncle (among other reasons)?
Hamlet carries on –
… – why she, even she –
O, God! A beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules:
Hamlet’s denial of his likeness to Hercules is an example of apophasis, the rhetorical device of bringing something up only to deny it.
But is Hamlet like Hercules?
While he doesn’t slay water monsters and wild boars like the Roman hero, one could certainly think of his filial revenge as an equally, if not even more, gruelling task, one that’s more psychological than physical in nature.
Ironically, he claims that even “a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourned longer” over his father’s death, implying that his mother is less humane than an animal. So, being more beastly than a beast, Queen Gertrude would have proved a worthy challenge even to Hercules himself.
Subconsciously or not, Hamlet at this point has already thought himself into the mould of the Herculean hero. Being like Hercules, then, there can only be monstrous forces for Hamlet to battle against, or so he thinks. This gives him the moral carte blanche to proceed with whatever it takes to avenge his father.
Anger invites dangerous imaginings, and forces us to behave in ways beyond the boundaries of reason, noble or otherwise.
Act II Scene 2, ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’
If we are our own worst critics, then Hamlet probably trumps all when it comes to verbal self-flagellation.
In fact, he almost seems to relish in talking himself down, so eloquent is his language of self-contempt you can’t help but suspect if he’s got a bag of ready-rehearsed insults up his sleeves, which he hurls at himself from time to time.
A key moment in which we see Hamlet’s self-hating tendency on display comes at the end of Act II Scene 2, after he witnesses the First Player’s performance of a speech about Queen Hecuba’s misfortunes, such as –
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs.
Impressed though he is by the Player’s skillful ability to put on such convincing affectations, Hamlet finds it “monstrous” that an actor could conjure up tears over mere fiction, when he personally has real cause to weep:
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
This awareness brings Hamlet a mixture of shame, guilt, fury, confusion, disappointment – all of which he directs towards himself. If a thesp can fake anger, then why can’t I – with real cause for anger – take action on my emotions and do what needs to be done?!
Here, it’s worth pointing out the meta-gesturing of this comment in a theatrical setting (for all the close reading that needs to be done, let’s never forget that Shakespeare is meant for the stage before the page). While speaking these lines, the actor playing Hamlet would essentially be poking fun at his own kind.
What’s more, Shakespeare is also having a cheeky dig at his audience, who, on the receiving end of spectacle, is always subject to the actor who –
… would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
So don’t underestimate actors and the power they have on us, says Shakespeare.
Anyhow, back to Hamlet, whose sudden outburst of impassioned rhetorical questions is perhaps itself a most extraordinary piece of theatrics –
Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie in the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
‘Swounds, I should take it:
In this hyperbolic tirade, Hamlet is trying to compensate for his emotional weakness with a verbal acceptance of physical abuse. Being slapped across the face, having hairs plucked off his beard or his nose twisted, being called the worst liar in the world – these ignominies mean nothing compared to the deep sense of shame he feels over not being able to take action and kill his uncle.
– for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, 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,
“An ass”, “the son”, “a whore”, “a very drab (meaning whore)”, “a scullion (meaning kitchen servant): apart from his actual role as “the son”, the other ones are all demeaning in the extreme, which begs the question as to who, in fact, really is speaking.
Is it Hamlet the mourning son, or Hamlet the Danish Prince, or rather, Hamlet the talented thesp who just a few moments earlier was having a playful impromptu dialogue with the First Player, a performance which Polonius had praised as “well spoken, with good accent and good discretion”?
While it would be a stretch to doubt that Hamlet’s grief is real, one must wonder if he isn’t at times acting himself into a state of mind that would force him to extreme action, largely because his rational self keeps reigning him in.
This sort of mental trickery isn’t a princely prerogative; I’m sure many of us are privy to it, too – it’s called coming up with an excuse. Except Hamlet’s ‘excuse’ is a more rhetorically souped-up, more emotionally laid-bare, and more philosophically fleshed-out affair.
If only we could convince ourselves in the same way as this tragic hero does, but alas, that might make our world an even more wayward place than it is now.
There’s definitely a thing as ‘one too many Hamlets’…
Act III Scene 1, ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’
“To be, or not to be”, to quote or not to quote, that is the question.
If there ever was a more re-appropriated (and misappropriated!) quote in the history of English literature, it’d have to be the first line of Hamlet’s Act III Scene 1 soliloquy.
In fact, Hamlet’s use of the ‘to be’ infinitive form carries a more specific meaning: he’s either saying “to live, or not to live”, or equally, “to die, or not to die”.
This is arguably the most fundamental question for any mortal, and one which we – Hamlet readers and non-Hamlet readers alike, have probably asked ourselves at some point in our lives.
Close reading the intricacies of Hamlet’s language aside, let’s spend a moment to consider just what he’s saying here. Why do we carry on living, he asks, despite the obvious suffering that living causes? And ‘suffering’, by the way, is all-encompassing –
there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
Living, it seems, comes with an unpleasant buffet of being oppressed, insulted, ignored, thwarted and spurned. Why, then, Hamlet asks, do we not just end our lives, and see death not as a threat, but as a balm – “quietus” – to the wounding scars of life?
But then, an equally important question arises:
What is death?
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
In the motley of analogy, asyndeton, anadiplosis, chiasmus and anaphora that the first two lines alone contain, Shakespeare conveys the curious paradox of life being more similar to, than different from, death, despite our conventional urge to contrast them as polar opposites in human experience.
Instead, the sensations of ‘living’ and ‘dying’ daily (or nightly) interact, during the time when we sleep and dream. Analogically, life and death are similar in nature; anadiplotically, they are successive in order; chiasmically, they ‘cross’ and interact in sleep – but asyndetonically, they are nonetheless distinct as two separate realms of existence.
Also, consider the difference between –
To die: to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream:
To sleep: to die;
To die; perchance to dream:
That Hamlet should have “to die” precede a pause and “to sleep” is revealing of his view on death. Like the “calamity of so long life”, dying is but the business of a ‘so long sleep’, and if you’re lucky, you get to breathe in a comforting caesura, and you get to dream as well.
Yet, we are terrified of the unknown “in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil”, so we continue to put up with the drudgery and pains of life.
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
The euphemism of the afterlife as “the undiscovered country” shows Hamlet’s ambivalence. There is a sense of adventure, but not without a level of danger that’s strong enough to deter one from embarking on the journey.
By comparing himself to the average human who can’t bring themselves to cross from life to death despite deep existential dissatisfaction, Hamlet recognises – and is frustrated with – his mortal limitations, specifically that of cowardice, which yields overthinking, worry and most problematically for him, inaction.
Ironically, our tragic prince is troubled by the one quality that makes him so fascinating, so human and so relatable – his very likeness to ourselves.
And we love him for giving both voice and scale to this vulnerability that’s latent in us all.
Act V Scene 2, ‘If it be now, ‘tis not to come’ and ‘Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong’
In the final scene of the play, Hamlet and Laertes face it off in a duel, instigated by King Claudius. It is also one of the moments in which we see Hamlet at his most profound; he graduates from being an anxious, borderline schizophrenic dawdler, to a more mature and stoic man at the apex of his princely stature.
This is evident in his rebuttal to Horatio’s advice against his taking up the duel with Laertes, which is at once witty and sage:
If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will
forestall their repair hither, and say you are not
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?
His defiance, reckless as it seems, is in fact the long-gestated result of a prolonged meditation (recall his earlier line in Act I Scene 5, “I/With wings as swift as meditation… will sweep to my revenge”).
At this point, Hamlet has done enough thinking to warrant throwing caution to the wind; he is literally dying to take action by now. Hence, also, the reiterated emphasis on the present, the “now”.
For five Acts, Shakespeare has granted our tragic hero the poetic mercy to delay that which is “to come”, but like death itself, “to” must eventually become “will” – indeed, “yet it will come”.
The Act V Scene 2 Hamlet, however, is not afraid, because he has cultivated his “readiness” through a painstaking process of thought and doubt to finally transcend beyond that which he so scorns upon – mortal cowardice.
Finally, he is able to match words with action, and in the antimetabole of “since no man has aught of what he/leaves, what is it to leave betimes?”, we see Hamlet’s understanding of death not as a stage subsequent to life, but of life and death as but two sides of the same coin, or perhaps, as the “heaven and earth” of an existential mirage.
Still, in his pre-duel remark to Laertes, Hamlet shows that he is fundamentally unwilling to be the ‘baddie’. He’s just born of too noble a stature to really want to offend anyone.
What’s most striking in his tone, though, is that he seems to be speaking in terms of the hereafter, as if he already knows that he’ll soon be gone from this world.
Apologetic as he may sound towards Laertes (“Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong”), Hamlet’s primary concern is with his posthumous legacy – how he will be viewed by those who know and love him –
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
No longer should our question be ‘which Hamlet is speaking?’, but rather, who even is Hamlet?
Hamlet performs a verbal identity split, first by externalising his “madness” as a moral scapegoat, then by referring to himself in the third-person, in effect severing ‘I’ from the “Hamlet [who has] wronged Laertes” –
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
This, surely, is linguistic virtuoso at play. He asks for forgiveness, but has already exonerated himself anyway.
Yet, in the earlier words of his own mother, “the hero doth protest too much, methinks”. For in his almost maniacal distancing of his ‘true’ self from his ‘maddening’ mind, Hamlet achieves the opposite, perhaps, by asserting his presence a bit too much, even if only through a repeated name.
Ultimately, victim though he may be to a troubled mind, Hamlet is aware that he is too great a figure, too poetic a man, and too human a character to be remembered poorly in our “most generous thoughts”.
I’m aware that this is a rather long post, but Hamlet is also a very long play. And by close reading a couple of our tragic hero’s most important speeches, I’ve only really covered the tip of the prolific Shakespearean iceberg.
Let me know if this is useful, and if you’d like another post on Hamlet in the future.
Do you find Hamlet fascinating, likeable, befuddling, irritating, or all / none?
Comment below with your thoughts on Hamlet the character and Hamlet the play! I’d love to hear from you.