Introduction to Hamlet from the Norton Shakespeare

Stephen Greenblatt

 

"Who's there?" Shakespeare's most famous play begins. The question, turned back on the tragedy itself, has haunted audiences and readers for centuries. Hamlet is an enigma. Mountains of feverish speculation have only deepened the interlocking mysteries: Why does Hamlet delay avenging the murder of his father by Claudius, his father's brother? How much guilt does Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, who has since married Claudius, bear in this crime? How trustworthy is the ghost of Hamlet's father, who has returned from the grave to demand that Hamlet avenge his murder? Is vengeance morally justifiable in this play, or is it to be condemned? What exactly is the ghost, and where has it come from? Why is the ghost, visible to everyone in the first act, visible only to Hamlet in Act 3? Is Hamlet's madness feigned or true, a strategy masquerading as a reality or a reality masquer­ading as a strategy? Does Hamlet, who once loved Ophelia, continue to love her in spite of his apparent cruelty? Does Ophelia, crushed by that cruelty and driven mad by Hamlet's murder of her father, Polonius, actually intend to drown herself, or does she die accidentally? What enables Hamlet to pass from thoughts of suicide to faith in God's providence, from "To be, or not to be" to "Let be"? What was Hamlet trying to say before death stopped his speech at the close? Hamlet, as one critic has wittily remarked, is "the tragedy of an audience that cannot make up its mind."

Shakespeare probably wrote Hamlet in 1600 (shortly after Julius Caesar, to which Polonius seems to allude at 3.2.93), but the precise date of composition is uncertain, and this uncertainty is compounded by the exceptionally complex state of the text. The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke is included in the First Folio of 1623, but most editions of the play since the eighteenth century have incorporated passages that appear only in an earlier text, the Second Quarto, dated 1604 and entitled The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. In the present edition of the play, based on the Folio text, lines that appear only in the Second Quarto are indented and numbered separately, so that readers will be able to assess the difference between the two versions. The Second Quarto has come to be known as the good quarto – in contrast to the so-called bad quarto, the first known printed version of Shakespeare's play, published in 1603. This First Quarto, regarded by most scholars as a highly suspect text, is little more than half the length of the play we now read and even in what it includes contains many striking differences. (The Prince's most famous soliloquy, for example, begins "To be, or not to be, ay there's the point.") Hamlet is a monument of world literature, but it is a monument built on shifting sands.

With a text so fraught with uncertainty, it is tempting to think that our unresolved questions are largely the result of the perplexities that must inevitably come with the pas­sage of time and the vagaries of editors. Yet the play in all its versions seems designed to provoke such perplexities. "What art thou?" Horatio asks the Ghost, and the question, unanswered, is echoed again and again until it seems to touch on everything: "Is it not like the King?" (1.1.57); "Why seems it so particular with thee?" (1.2.75); "What does this mean, my lord?" (1.4.8); "Whither wilt thou lead me?" (1.5.1); "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?" (2.2.536-37); "Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" (3.1.122-23); "What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?" (3.1.127-28); "Do you see nothing there?" (3.4.122); "What is it ye would see?" (5.2.306). The dream of getting answers to such questions tantalizes many of the play's characters and drives them to scrutinize one another. But the task is maddeningly difficult. When Hamlet repeatedly asks Guildenstern, one of the school friends whom his uncle has set to spy on him, to play the recorder, Guildenstern protests that he does not know how. "You would play upon me," Hamlet returns, "you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery. . . . do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" (3.2.335-40).

Hamlet at once invites and resists interrogation. He is, more than any theatrical character before and per­haps since, a figure constructed around an unseen or secret core. Such a figure in the theater is some­thing of a paradox, since all that exists of any character onstage is what is seen and heard there. But from his place onstage at the center of a courtly world in which he is "the observed of all observers" and hence a person allowed virtually no privacy, Hamlet insists that he has "that within which passeth show" (1.2.85). What is it that he has "within"? In the nine­teenth century, following a suggestion by the German poet Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe, critics frequently argued that Hamlet has within him the soul of a poet, too sensitive, delicate, and complex to endure the cruel pressures of a coarse world. In the twentieth century, following a suggestion by the founder of psycho­analysis, Sigmund Freud, many critics have speculated that Hamlet has within him an unresolved Oedipus complex, a sexual desire for his mother that prevents him from taking decisive action against the man who has done in reality the thing that Hamlet uncon­sciously desires to do: kill his father and marry his mother. On occasion, this psychological speculation has been challenged by a political one: Hamlet hides within himself a spirit of political resistance, a subversive challenge to a corrupt, illegitimate regime shored up by lies, spies, and treachery.

These recurrent attempts to pluck out the heart of Hamlet's mystery are a modern continuation of an interpretive activity that goes on throughout the play itself. Attempting to solve the riddle of Hamlet's strange behavior, Polonius speculates that the Prince is desperately lovesick for his daughter, but Claudius concludes, after spying on Hamlet's conversation with Ophelia, that "his affections do not that way tend" (3.1.161). Rosen-crantz and Guildenstern propose that Hamlet is suffering from ambition – after all, though Denmark is an elective monarchy, the Prince could have hoped to succeed his father on the throne – but Hamlet vehemently refutes the charge: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" (2.2.248-50). Claudius doubts that Hamlet is mad and, though he never directly articulates this suspicion, seems to fear that the Prince somehow knows of his secret crime, but Ham­let's painful inferiority, his melancholy insistence that he has something "within," is already clear from his first appearance, before the Ghost's revelation. Gertrude therefore seems wiser to argue that her son's distemper at least originates in "his father's death and our o'er-hasty marriage" (2.2.57).

As we first encounter him, Hamlet is a young man in deep mourning, which his mother and uncle both urge him to cease. The death of fathers is natural and inevitable, they point out, and while it is customary to grieve, it is unreasonable to persist obstinately in sorrow. Hamlet responds that his grief is not a theatrical performance, a mere costume to be put on and then discarded. When he is alone onstage a few moments later, he discloses, in the first of his famous soliloquies, a near-suicidal despair and a corrosive bitterness centered on the haste with which his mother has remarried. This bitterness is intensified by Hamlet's idealized image of his father and by painful memories of what had seemed to him his parents' perfect mutual love. As he broods on the brief time between his father's death and his mother's remarriage, Hamlet's tormented mind convulsively shortens the interval: "two months," "nay, not so much, not two," "within a month."

Hamlet's soliloquies are carefully crafted rhetorical performances. Thus, for example, the celebrated lines that begin "To be, or not to be; that is the question" (3.1.58ff.) have the structure of a formal academic debate on the subject of suicide: prudently considering both sides of the question and rehearsing venerable commonplaces, Hamlet does not once use the words "I" or "me." Yet here and elsewhere his words manage with astonishing vividness to convey the spontaneous rhythms of a mind in motion. Shakespeare had antici­pated this achievement in such plays as Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and Julius Caesar: King Richard, Prince Hal, and Brutus all have intimate moments in which they seem to disclose the troubled faces that are normally hidden behind expressionless social masks. But in its moral complexity, psychological depth, and philosophical power, Hamlet seems to mark an epochal shift not only in Shakespeare's own career but in Western drama; it is as if the play were giving birth to a whole new kind of literary subjectivity. This subjectivity – the sense of being inside a character's psyche and following its twists and turns – is to a large degree an effect of language, the product of dramatic poetry and prose of unprecedented intensity. In order to convey a traumatized mind straining to articulate perceptions of a shattered world, Shakespeare developed a complex syntax and a remarkably expanded dic­tion. By one scholar's count, he introduced over six hundred words in Hamlet that he had not used before; many of these words do not appear, at least with the form or meaning they have here, in any previous English text. The innovative inwardness is not restricted to scenes in which Hamlet is alone onstage, nor is it restricted to the Prince himself; indeed, many of the deepest psychic revelations in the play are conveyed not in moments of iso­lation but in disturbing exchanges, intimate encounters in which love and poison are intertwined.

These innovations are not called for by the story itself. In Hamlet, as in so many of his plays, Shakespeare was recycling narratives long in circulation. The legendary tale of Ham­let (Amleth) was already recounted at length in the late-twelfth-century Danish History compiled in Latin by Saxo the Grammarian. In Saxo's version, which was adapted in French in Francois de Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques (1570), the unscrupulous Feng ambushes and kills his brother Horwendil and marries Horwendil's wife, Gerutha. Hor­wendil and Gerutha had a son, Amleth, who, though young and surrounded by Feng's henchmen, undertakes to avenge his father. The problem is survival: Amleth's every move is carefully watched. In order to avert suspicion and buy time, the cunning Amleth pre­tends to be feebleminded. His strategy works: with the active assistance of his mother, whom he has shamed into collaborating with him, Amleth eventually succeeds in killing his uncle, along with the uncle's followers, and is enthusiastically proclaimed King of Denmark. No ghost and no sickening uncertainty: the murder of Amleth's father is public knowledge, flimsily justified by Feng's claim that Horwendil was mistreating Gerutha. (In Belleforest's adaptation, Fengon and Geruth were having an adulterous affair.) Not only is there no problem of doubt for Amleth, there is also no problem of conscience, for in pre-Christian Denmark revenge was not a violation of the moral or religious law but a filial obligation.

This is the rough outline of the story Shakespeare inherited, along, it seems, with at least one other version about which we know tantalizingly little: by 1589, English audi­ences had evidently seen a play, now lost, on the theme of Hamlet. Apparently, this play – which scholars call the Ur (original)-Hamlet—featured a ghost who cried, "Hamlet, revenge!" On the basis of the barest shreds of contemporary evidence, scholars have con­structed elaborate theories about this supposed source play, but there is little agreement among them. Further details have been pieced together speculatively by studying a Ger­man version of Hamlet, called Der bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Punished). The text of this crude version dates from 1710, long after Shakespeare, but some scholars conjecture that it was based on the Ur-Hamlet, perhaps as performed in Germany by an itinerant company of English actors. The text (which other scholars argue was based on Ql, the bad quarto) includes such features as the use of the play-within-the-play to test the truth of the ghost's tale, the sparing of the usurper king at prayer, Ophelia's madness, and the climactic slaughter resulting from poisoned sword and poisoned drink. Still other scholars, though a distinct minority, dispute the whole existence of a non-Shakespearean Ur-Hamlet and spec­ulate instead that the bad quarto reflects a very early version of the play that Shakespeare himself authored and that gave rise to the smattering of early allusions to the Hamlet story.

Assuming that there was an Ur-Hamlet, an Elizabethan staging of the story that pre­ceded Shakespeare's, its author remains unknown. Many scholars have assigned it to Thomas Kyd, who wrote The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587), one of the most successful and enduring Elizabethan plays. The Spanish Tragedy itself has features that strikingly antici­pate Shakespeare's tragedy, including a ghost impatient for revenge, a secret crime, a hero tormented by uncertainty and self-reproach, the strategic feigning of a madness that seems disturbingly close to the real thing, a woman who goes mad from grief and commits sui­cide, a play-within-the-play, and a final slaughter that wipes out much of the royal family and court, along with the avenger himself. Kyd's play is entirely structured around the problem of revenge – "wild justice," in Francis Bacon's haunting phrase – and gave rise to a whole genre of revenge plays in which Hamlet participates.

These plays generally share certain conventional assumptions. First, revenge is an indi­vidual response to an intolerable wrong or a public insult. It is an unauthorized, violent action in a world whose institutions seem unable or unwilling to satisfy a craving for justice. Second, since institutional channels are closed and since the criminal is usually either hidden or well protected, revenge almost always follows a devious path toward its violent end. Third, the revenger is in the grip of an inner compulsion: his course of action may be motivated by institutional failure – for example, the mechanisms of justice are in the hands of the criminals themselves – but even if these mechanisms were operating perfectly, they would not allow the psychic satisfactions of revenge. Fourth, revengers generally need their victims to know what is happening and why: satisfaction depends on a moment of declaration and vindication. And fifth, revenge is a universal imperative more powerful than the pious injunctions of any particular belief system, including Christianity itself.

Shakespeare had already produced a sensationally violent, crude version of these con­ventions in Titus Andronicus. In Hamlet, he at once reproduces them and calls them into question. The audience knows for certain – from Claudius's tortured attempt to pray in Act 3 – that there has been a "foul murder," a fratricide successfully covered over by the story that a serpent stung the sleeping King. But Hamlet does not overhear Claudius's confession and has only the questionable testimony of the Ghost. That testimony is open to question because the nature of the Ghost is open to question. The Ghost speaks as if he were condemned to a term of suffering in the realm Catholics called purgatory:

 

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

(1.5.10-13)

 

But Protestant theologians vehemently denied that purgatory existed and argued that spirits thought to be ghosts were in fact devils sent to lure humans into sinful actions. Hamlet responds at first as if he believes the Ghost to be the authentic spirit of his father returned from the dead, but he subsequently expresses serious doubts, and in the play's most famous soliloquy he speaks of death as "the undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveller returns" (3.1.81-82).

The test Hamlet devises to authenticate the Ghost's accusation – carefully watching the reaction of his uncle to The Mousetrap –  appears to resolve any doubts: "I'll take the Ghost's word," Hamlet exults, after the King has stormed out in a rage, "for a thousand pound" (3.2.263-64). Yet even here Shakespeare introduces an occasion for uncertainty: after all, the murderer in the play-within-the play is "one Lucianus, nephew to the King" (3.2.223). Claudius's anger could have arisen from the spectacle of the player-nephew killing his player-uncle and not from the spectacle of his own hidden crime. The effect on the audience is not so much to cast doubt on the Ghost's word as to uncouple Hamlet's inner life once again from the external world, even at the moment that he himself thinks they are at last securely linked.

This uncoupling, this sense of inward thoughts and feelings painfully cut off from the world around him, haunts virtually all of Hamlet's relationships. When he speaks with his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with the courtier Osric or with Polonius, he is deliberately evasive, but his exchanges with Ophelia are equally oblique and baffling. Even with his intimate friend Horatio, there is some gap across which Hamlet struggles to speak: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio," Hamlet says after his first encounter with the Ghost, "than are dreamt of in our philosophy" (1.5.168-69). (The quarto variant – "in your philosophy" – marks the gap between them still more sharply.) When Hamlet directly confronts his mother with the charge of murder, she reacts with astonishment. The painful words that follow, Hamlet's weird, tormented admonition to his mother to shun her husband's bed, do indeed seem to strike home: "These words like daggers," Gertrude exclaims, "enter in mine ears" (3.4.85). But the Ghost's sudden reap­pearance, visible this time only to Hamlet (and, of course, to the audience), convinces his mother that her son is mad. "Do you see nothing there?" asks Hamlet, to which his mother, certain that her son is hallucinating, replies steadfastly, "Nothing at all, yet all that is I see" (5.4.122-23).

Ironically, the distance between what Hamlet sees and what those around him see is smallest in the case of Claudius, since both share a knowledge of the secret crime that has poisoned the kingdom, and each maneuvers against the other throughout the play. But their fatal opposition never rises to view until the final violent seconds, nor does Hamlet ever establish unequivocal, unambiguous public confirmation of his uncle's guilt. It would have been easy for Shakespeare to provide such confirmation, for example in a last speech by the mortally wounded usurper, but he chooses instead to leave what Horatio calls "th' yet unknowing world" (5.2323) in the dark. Until the explosion of treason and murder, the horrified bystanders know only a court in which the loving Claudius appeals to Hamlet as his "son" and wagers on his skill in fencing. Hamlet begins an explanation – "O I could tell you" – but he is cut short by death. The effect is to extend Hamlet's tragic isolation, his gnawing inward pain, all the way to his final silence.

What would it take to get rid of this pain? The possibility of cleansing, definitive action at once continually tantalizes and eludes the Prince. Such action is embodied in the soldier Fortinbras, but if Hamlet finds some way of easing his mental anguish, it is not through any comparable martial exploit, nor is it through the secret plotting undertaken by Laertes. The spiritual calm to which he gives voice near the play's close – "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" (5.2.157-60) – descends upon him before, not as a result of, his revenge. The act of revenge itself happens in a flash of rage, without planning, without any self-vindicating declaration by Hamlet to Claudius, and without any public confession of guilt by the usurper. Revenge leaves the Prince not with inner satisfaction but with intense anxiety over his "wounded name."

Standing on a stage littered with corpses, Horatio promises to fulfill Hamlet's dying request to tell his story, but his account of "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts," though it may be accurate, must be inadequate to the play we have just witnessed. For Hamlet situates the need for revenge in a context that goes beyond any crime, however heinous, and that seems resistant to violent solutions. Before the Ghost discloses his uncle’s villainy, Hamlet was suffering from the traumas of mortality: the searing pain of his father’s death, a troubled recognition of his mother’s sexuality, a sickening awareness of the vulnerability and corruptibility of the flesh. There was a time, the play implies, when Hamlet embodied all the hopes and aspirations of his age and his own vision of human possibility was unbounded – “What a piece of work is a man!” – but that vision has given way to bitter disillusionment: “And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.293-94, 297-98).

In Hamlet's melancholy consciousness, human existence has been reduced to dust at its dustiest. Though Claudius's secret crime is a political act that has poisoned the public sphere, the roots of Hamlet's despair seem to lie in a more intractably inward place, a place perhaps less consonant with revenge than with suicide. If there were only the evil usurper to depose, Hamlet might compass a straightforward course of action, but his soul-sickness has receding layers: beyond political corruption, there is the time-serving shallowness of his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and beyond this there is Ophelia's dismayingly compliant obedience to her father, and beyond this there is his mother's dis­turbing carnality, and beyond this there is the ongoing, endlessly transformative, morally indifferent cycle of life itself. For Hamlet, the quintessence of dust is not only the cold, inert matter produced by the nauseating triumph of death – the flesh of Alexander the Great metamorphosed into a plug of dirt stopping up a beer barrel – but also living matter pullulating with tenacious, meaningless vitality, produced by the equally nauseating tri­umph of life. "We fat all creatures else to fat us," Hamlet tells Claudius, "and we fat ourselves for maggots" (4.3.22-23).

In a world pervaded by decay, the process of natural renewal has come to seem grotesque and disgusting:

 

'Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

 (1.2.135-37)

 

These lines immediately give way to bitter reflections on his mother's sexual appetite: in Hamlet's diseased consciousness, the spectacle of nature run riot, of uncontrolled breeding and feeding, centers on the body of woman. His bitterness at his mother's remarriage spreads like a stain to include all women, including the woman he had once ardently courted. "Get thee to a nunnery," Hamlet urges Ophelia, as if the only virtuous course of action were renunciation of the flesh. "Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" (3.1.122-23) Even this desperate advice seems to be undermined by Hamlet's obsessive sense of rampant female sexuality and of his own corruption, since in Elizabethan slang "nunnery" could also be a term for "brothel."

The fragile Ophelia begins to crack under the strain of Hamlet's misogynistic revulsion. Gertrude, who takes the full force of this revulsion, is evidently made of stronger stuff, but when confronted alone by her son, she fears for her life. Both women sense the violence and despair seething in Hamlet beneath what he calls his "antic disposition" (1.5.173). That disposition, manifested in his disordered dress and in the "wild and whirling words" (1.5.137) that he begins to speak after encountering the Ghost, casts Hamlet in the strange role of jester in the court in which he is the mourning son and the heir apparent. Of all Shakespeare's tragic heroes, he is at once the saddest and the funniest. His blend of sar­casm, riddling, and sly wordplay initially strikes those around him as folly, but this first impression continually gives way to an uneasy awareness of hidden meanings: Claudius, alert to danger, notes that "there's something in his soul / O'er which his melancholy sits on brood" (3.1.163-64). The "something" Claudius senses is in part the murderous design of the revenger, but it is also the philosophical meditation on life and death that haunts Hamlet throughout the play. This meditation reaches a climax in the graveyard, where Hamlet, trading zany quibbles with the gravediggers, directly confronts the corruption and decay that had obsessed him ever since his father's death. If there is any release for Hamlet from this obsession – and it is not clear that there is – it comes from an unflinching gaze at a skull, the skull of the jester Yorick, but also, by extension, his father’s skull and his own.