Interpretations of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s day were very concerned with the play’s portrayal of madness. The play was also often portrayed more violently than in later times. The play’s contemporary popularity is suggested both by the five quartos that appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime and by frequent contemporary references (though at least some of these could be to the so-called ur-Hamlet). These allusions suggest that by the early Jacobean period the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatization of melancholy and insanity. The procession of mad courtiers and ladies in Jacobean and Caroline drama frequently appears indebted to Hamlet. Other aspects of the play were also remembered. Looking back on Renaissance drama in 1655, Abraham Wright lauds the humour of the gravedigger’s scene, although he suggests that Shakespeare was outdone by Thomas Randolph, whose farcical comedy The Jealous Lovers features both a travesty of Ophelia and a graveyard scene. There is some scholarly speculation that Hamlet may have been censored during this period. Theatres were closed under the Puritan Commonwealth, which ran from 1640–1660.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, theatres re-opened. Early interpretations of the play, from the late 17th to early 18th century, typically showed Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure. Critics responded to Hamlet in terms of the same dichotomy that shaped all responses to Shakespeare during the period. On the one hand, Shakespeare was seen as primitive and untutored, both in comparison to later English dramatists such as Fletcher and especially when measured against the neoclassical ideals of art brought back from France with the Restoration. On the other, Shakespeare remained popular not just with mass audiences but even with the very critics made uncomfortable by his ignorance of Aristotle’s unities and decorum.
Thus, critics considered Hamlet in a milieu which abundantly demonstrated the play’s dramatic viability. John Evelyn saw the play in 1661, and in his Diary he deplored the play’s violation of the unities of time and place. Yet by the end of the period, John Downes noted that Hamlet was staged more frequently and profitably than any other play in Betterton‘s repertory.
In addition to Hamlet’s worth as a tragic hero, Restoration critics focused on the qualities of Shakespeare’s language and, above all, on the question of tragic decorum. Critics disparaged the indecorous range of Shakespeare’s language, with Polonius’s fondness for puns and Hamlet’s use of “mean” (i.e., low) expressions such as “there’s the rub” receiving particular attention. Even more important was the question of decorum, which in the case of Hamlet focused on the play’s violation of tragic unity of time and place, and on the characters. Jeremy Collier attacked the play on both counts in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in 1698. Comparing Ophelia to Electra, he condemns Shakespeare for allowing his heroine to become “immodest” in her insanity, particularly in the “Flower Scene”.
Collier’s attack occasioned a widespread, often vituperative controversy. Hamlet in general and Ophelia in particular were defended by Thomas D’urfey and George Drake almost immediately. Drake defends the play’s justice on the grounds that the murderers are “caught in their own toils” (that is, traps). He also defends Ophelia by describing her actions in the context of her desperate situation; D’urfey, by contrast, simply claims that Dennis has discerned immorality in places to which no one else objected. In the next decade, Rowe and Dennis agreed with Collier that the play violated justice; Shaftesbury and others defended the play as ultimately moral.
Early eighteenth century
Criticism of the play in the first decades of the 18th century continued to be dominated by the neoclassical conception of plot and character. Even the many critics who defended Hamlet took for granted the necessity of the classical canon in principle. Voltaire‘s attack on the play is perhaps the most famous neoclassical treatment of the play; it inspired numerous defenses in England, but these defenses did not at first weaken the neoclassical orthodoxy. Thus Lewis Theobald explained the seeming absurdity of Hamlet’s calling death an “undiscovered country” not long after he has encountered the Ghost by hypothesizing that the Ghost describes Purgatory, not death. Thus William Popple (in 1735) praises the verisimilitude of Polonius’s character, deploring the actors’ tradition of playing him only as a fool. Both Joseph Addison and Richard Steele praised particular scenes: Steele the psychological insight of the first soliloquy, and Addison the ghost scene.
The ghost scenes, indeed, were particular favourites of an age on the verge of the Gothic revival. Early in the century, George Stubbes noted Shakespeare’s use of Horatio’s incredulity to make the Ghost credible. At midcentury, Arthur Murphy described the play as a sort of poetic representation of the mind of a “weak and melancholy person.” Slightly later, George Colman the Elder singled out the play in a general discussion of Shakespeare’s skill with supernatural elements in drama.
In 1735, Aaron Hill sounded an unusual but prescient note when he praised the seeming contradictions in Hamlet’s temperament (rather than condemning them as violations of decorum). After midcentury, such psychological readings had begun to gain more currency. Tobias Smollett criticized what he saw as the illogic of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which was belied, he said, by Hamlet’s actions. More commonly, the play’s disparate elements were defended as part of a grander design. Horace Walpole, for instance, defends the mixture of comedy and tragedy as ultimately more realistic and effective than rigid separation would be. Samuel Johnson echoed Popple in defending the character of Polonius; Johnson also doubted the necessity of Hamlet’s vicious treatment of Ophelia, and he also viewed sceptically the necessity and probability of the climax. Hamlet’s character was also attacked by other critics near the end of the century, among them George Steevens. However, even before the Romantic period, Hamlet was (with Falstaff), the first Shakespearean character to be understood as a personality separate from the play in which he appears.
Not until the late 18th century did critics and performers begin to view the play as confusing or inconsistent, with Hamlet falling from such high status. Goethe had one of his characters say, in his 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “Shakespeare meant…to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it…A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away.” This change in the view of Hamlet’s character is sometimes seen as a shift in the critical emphasis on plot (characteristic of the period before 1750) to an emphasis on the theatrical portrayal of the character (after 1750).
Already before the Romantic period proper, critics had begun to stress the elements of the play that would cause Hamlet to be seen, in the next century, as the epitome of the tragedy of character. In 1774, William Richardson sounded the key notes of this analysis: Hamlet was a sensitive and accomplished prince with an unusually refined moral sense; he is nearly incapacitated by the horror of the truth about his mother and uncle, and he struggles against that horror to fulfill his task. Richardson, who thought the play should have ended shortly after the closet scene, thus saw the play as dramatizing the conflict between a sensitive individual and a calloused, seamy world.
Henry Mackenzie notes the tradition of seeing Hamlet as the most varied of Shakespeare’s creations: “With the strongest purposes of revenge he is irresolute and inactive; amidst the gloom of the deepest melancholy he is gay and jocular; and while he is described as a passionate lover he seems indifferent about the object of his affections.” Like Richardson, Mackenzie concludes that the tragedy in the play arises from Hamlet’s nature: even the best qualities of his character merely reinforce his inability to cope with the world in which he is placed. To this analysis Thomas Robertson adds in particular the devastating impact of the death of Hamlet’s father.
By the end of the 18th century, psychological and textual criticism had outrun strictly rhetorical criticism; one still sees occasional critiques of metaphors viewed as inappropriate or barbarous, but by and large the neoclassical critique of Shakespeare’s language had become moribund. The most extended critique of the play’s language from the end of the century is perhaps that of Hugh Blair.
Another change occurred right around the Romantic literary period (19th century), known for its emphasis on the individual and internal motive. The Romantic period viewed Hamlet as more of a rebel against politics, and as an intellectual, rather than an overly-sensitive, being. This is also the period when the question of Hamlet’s delay is brought up, as previously it could be seen as plot device, while romantics focused largely on character. Samuel Coleridge, for example, penned a criticism of Hamlet during this period that raises views which continue to this day, saying basically that he is an intellectual who thinks too much, and can’t make up his mind. He extended this to say that Shakespeare’s ultimate message was that we should act, and not delay. Coleridge and other writers praised the play for its philosophical questions, which guided the audience to ponder and grow intellectually.
Late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries
At around the turn of the 20th century, two writers, A. C. Bradley and Sigmund Freud, developed ideas which built on the past and greatly affected the future of Hamlet criticism. Bradley held the view that Hamlet should be studied as one would study a real person: piecing together his consciousness from the clues given in the play. His explanation of Hamlet’s delay was one of a deep “melancholy” which grew from a growing disappointment in his mother. Freud also viewed Hamlet as a real person: one whose psyche could be analysed through the text. He took the view that Hamlet’s madness merely disguised the truth in the same way dreams disguise unconscious realities. He also famously saw Hamlet’s struggles as a representation of the Oedipus complex. In Freud’s view, Hamlet is torn largely because he has repressed sexual desire for his mother, which is being acted out by and challenged by Claudius.
Mid- and late-twentieth century
Later critics of the century, such as T. S. Eliot in his noted essay “Hamlet and His Problems“, downplayed such psychological emphasis of the play, and instead used other methods to read characters in the play, focusing on minor characters such as Gertrude, and seeing what they reveal about Hamlet’s decisions. Eliot famously called Hamlet “an artistic failure”, and criticized the play as analogous to the Mona Lisa, in that both were overly enigmatic. Eliot targeted Hamlet’s disgust with his mother as lacking an “objective correlative”; viz., his feelings were excessive in the context of the play.
Questions about Gertrude and other minor characters were later taken underwing by the feminist criticism movement, as criticism focused more and more on questions of gender and political import. Current, New Historicist theories now attempt to remove the romanticism surrounding the play and show its context in the world of Elizabethan England.
In creating Hamlet, Shakespeare broke several rules, one of the largest being the rule of action over character. In his day, plays were usually expected to follow the advice of Aristotle in his Poetics, which declared that a drama should not focus on character so much as action. The highlights of Hamlet, however, are not the action scenes, but the soliloquies, wherein Hamlet reveals his motives and thoughts to the audience. Also, unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, there is no strong subplot; all plot forks are directly connected to the main vein of Hamlet struggling to gain revenge. The play is full of seeming discontinuities and irregularities of action. At one point, Hamlet is resolved to kill Claudius: in the next scene, he is suddenly tame. Scholars still debate whether these odd plot turns are mistakes or intentional additions to add to the play’s theme of confusion and duality.
Much of the play’s language is in the elaborate, witty language expected of a royal court. This is in line with Baldassare Castiglione‘s work, The Courtier (published in 1528), which outlines several courtly rules, specifically advising servants of royals to amuse their rulers with their inventive language. Osric and Polonius seem to especially respect this suggestion. Claudius’ speech is full of rhetorical figures, as is Hamlet’s and, at times, Ophelia’s, while Horatio, the guards, and the gravediggers use simpler methods of speech. Claudius demonstrates an authoritative control over the language of a King, referring to himself in the first person plural, and using anaphora mixed with metaphor that hearkens back to Greek political speeches. Hamlet seems the most educated in rhetoric of all the characters, using anaphora, as the king does, but also asyndeton and highly developed metaphors, while at the same time managing to be precise and unflowery (as when he explains his inward emotion to his mother, saying “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”). His language is very self-conscious, and relies heavily on puns. Especially when pretending to be mad, Hamlet uses puns to reveal his true thoughts, while at the same time hiding them. Psychologists have since associated a heavy use of puns with schizophrenia.
Hendiadys (a figure of speech used for emphasis: the substitution of a conjunction for a subordination. The basic idea is to use two words linked by the conjunction “and” instead of the one modifying the other. E.g. in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 1, line 54: “with chains and prison” but the phrase means “with prison chains” or Exodus 15:4 “the chariots of Pharaoh and his army” for “the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, or In The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, it occurs at 4.1.36, when Shylock says, “to have the due and forfeit of my bond”.) is one rhetorical type found in several places in the play, as in Ophelia’s speech after the nunnery scene (“Th’expectancy and rose of the fair state” and “I, of all ladies, most deject and wretched” are two examples). Many scholars have found it odd that Shakespeare would, seemingly arbitrarily, use this rhetorical form throughout the play. Hamlet was written later in his life, when he was better at matching rhetorical figures with the characters and the plot than early in his career. Wright, however, has proposed that hendiadys is used to heighten the sense of duality in the play.
Hamlet’s soliloquies have captured the attention of scholars as well. Early critics viewed such speeches as To be, or not to be as Shakespeare’s expressions of his own personal beliefs. Later scholars, such as Charney, have rejected this theory saying the soliloquies are expressions of Hamlet’s thought process. During his speeches, Hamlet interrupts himself, expressing disgust in agreement with himself, and embellishing his own words. He has difficulty expressing himself directly, and instead skirts around the basic idea of his thought. Not until late in the play, after his experience with the pirates, is Hamlet really able to be direct and sure in his speech.
Revenge and Hamlet’s delay
Within Hamlet, the stories of five murdered father’s sons are told: Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, Pyrrhus, and Brutus. Each of them faces the question of revenge in a different way. For example, Laertes moves quickly to be “avenged most throughly of [his] father”, while Fortinbras attacks Poland, rather than the guilty Denmark. Pyrrhus only stays his hand momentarily before avenging his father, Achilles, but Brutus never takes any action in his situation. Hamlet is a perfect balance in the midst of these stories, neither acting quickly nor being completely inactive.
Hamlet struggles to turn his desire for revenge into action, and spends a large portion of the play waiting rather than doing. Scholars have proposed numerous theories as to why he waits so long to kill Claudius. Some say that Hamlet feels for his victim, fearing to strike because he believes that if he kills Claudius he will be no better than him. The story of Pyrrhus, told by one of the acting troupe, for example, shows Hamlet the darker side of revenge, something he does not wish for. Hamlet frequently admires those who are swift to act, such as Laertes, who comes to avenge his father’s death, but at the same time fears them for their passion, intensity, and lack of logical thought.
Hamlet’s speech in act three, where he chooses not to kill Claudius in the midst of prayer, has taken a central spot in this debate. Scholars have wondered whether Hamlet is being totally honest in this scene, or whether he is rationalizing his inaction to himself. Critics of the Romantic era decided that Hamlet was merely a procrastinator, in order to avoid the belief that he truly desired Claudius’ spiritual demise. Later scholars suggested that he refused to kill an unarmed man, or that he felt guilt in this moment, seeing himself as a mirror of the man he wanted to destroy. Indeed it seems Hamlet’s renaissance-driven principles serve to procrastinate his thoughts. The physical image of Hamlet stabbing to death an unarmed man at prayer, from behind, would have been shocking to any theatre audience. Similarly, the question of “delay” must be seen in the context of a stage play – Hamlet’s “delay” between learning of the murder and avenging it would be about three hours at most – hardly a delay at all.
The play is also full of constraint imagery. Hamlet describes Denmark as a prison, and himself as being caught in birdlime. He mocks the ability of man to bring about his own ends, and points out that some divine force moulds men’s aims into something other than what they intend. Other characters also speak of constraint, such as Polonius, who orders his daughter to lock herself from Hamlet’s pursuit, and describes her as being tethered. This adds to the play’s description of Hamlet’s inability to act out his revenge.
Feminist critics have focused on the gender system of Early Modern England. For example, they point to the common classification of women as maid, wife or widow, with only whores outside this trilogy. Using this analysis, the problem of Hamlet becomes the central character’s identification of his mother as a whore due to her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet, in consequence of which he loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she were a whore also.
In the 20th century, feminist critics opened up new approaches to Gertrude and Ophelia. New Historicist and cultural materialist critics examined the play in its historical context, attempting to piece together its original cultural environment. They focused on the gender system of early modern England, pointing to the common trinity of maid, wife, or widow, with whores outside of that stereotype. In this analysis, the essence of Hamlet is the central character’s changed perception of his mother as a whore because of her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet. In consequence, Hamlet loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she too were a whore and dishonest with Hamlet. Ophelia, by some critics, can be seen as honest and fair; however, it is virtually impossible to link these two traits, since ‘fairness’ is an outward trait, while ‘honesty’ is an inward trait.
Carolyn Heilbrun‘s 1957 essay “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” defends Gertrude, arguing that the text never hints that Gertrude knew of Claudius poisoning King Hamlet. This analysis has been praised by many feminist critics, combating what is, by Heilbrun’s argument, centuries’ worth of misinterpretation. By this account, Gertrude’s worst crime is of pragmatically marrying her brother-in-law in order to avoid a power vacuum. This is borne out by the fact that King Hamlet’s ghost tells Hamlet to leave Gertrude out of Hamlet’s revenge, to leave her to heaven, an arbitrary mercy to grant to a conspirator to murder. This view has not been without objection from some critics.
Ophelia has also been defended by feminist critics, most notably Elaine Showalter. Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men: her father, brother, and Hamlet. All three disappear: Laertes leaves, Hamlet abandons her, and Polonius dies. Conventional theories had argued that without these three powerful men making decisions for her, Ophelia is driven into madness. Feminist theorists argue that she goes mad with guilt because, when Hamlet kills her father, he has fulfilled her sexual desire to have Hamlet kill her father so they can be together. Showalter points out that Ophelia has become the symbol of the distraught and hysterical woman in modern culture.
Key figures in psychoanalysis—Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan—have offered interpretations of Hamlet. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud proceeds from his recognition of what he perceives to be a fundamental contradiction in the text: “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations“. He considers Goethe’s ‘paralysis from over-intellectualization’ explanation as well as the idea that Hamlet is a “pathologically irresolute character”. He rejects both, citing the evidence that the play presents of Hamlet’s ability to take action: his impulsive murder of Polonius and his Machiavellian murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Instead, Freud argues, Hamlet’s inhibition against taking vengeance on Claudius has an unconscious origin.
In an anticipation of his later theories of the Oedipus complex, Freud suggests that Claudius has shown Hamlet “the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized” (his desire to kill his father and take his father’s place with his mother). Confronted with this image of his own repressed desires, Hamlet responds with “self-reproaches” and “scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.” Freud goes on to suggest that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality”, as expressed in his conversation with Ophelia (presumably in the ‘nunnery scene’ rather than during the play-within-a-play), “fits in well” with this interpretation.
Since this theory, the ‘closet scene’ in which Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters has been portrayed in a sexual light in several performances. Hamlet is played as scolding his mother for having sex with Claudius while simultaneously wishing (unconsciously) that he could take Claudius’ place; adultery and incest is what he simultaneously loves and hates about his mother. Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death may be read through the Freudian lens as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. Her unrequited love for him suddenly slain is too much for her and she drifts into insanity.
In addition to the brief psychoanalysis of Hamlet, Freud offers a correlation with Shakespeare’s own life: Hamlet was written in the wake of the death of his father (in 1601), which revived his own repressed childhood wishes; Freud also points to the identity of Shakespeare’s dead son Hamnet and the name ‘Hamlet’. “Just as Hamlet deals with the relation of a son to his parents”, Freud concludes, “so Macbeth (written at approximately the same period) is concerned with the subject of childlessness.” Having made these suggestions, however, Freud offers a caveat: he has unpacked only one of the many motives and impulses operating in the author’s mind, albeit, Freud claims, one that operates from “the deepest layer”.
Later in the same book, having used psychoanalysis to explain Hamlet, Freud uses Hamlet to explain the nature of dreams: in disguising himself as a madman and adopting the license of the fool, Hamlet “was behaving just as dreams do in reality […] concealing the true circumstances under a cloak of wit and unintelligibility“. When we sleep, each of us adopts an “antic disposition”.
In the first half of the 20th century, when psychoanalysis was at the height of its influence, its concepts were applied to Hamlet, notably by Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, and Jacques Lacan, and these studies influenced theatrical productions. In his The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud’s analysis starts from the premise that “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations”. After reviewing various literary theories, Freud concludes that Hamlet has an “Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do”. Confronted with his repressed desires, Hamlet realises that “he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish”. Freud suggests that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality”—articulated in his “nunnery” conversation with Ophelia—accords with this interpretation. This “distaste for sexuality” has sparked theories of Hamlet being what is now referred to as a homosexual or asexual. John Barrymore‘s long-running 1922 performance in New York, directed by Thomas Hopkins, “broke new ground in its Freudian approach to character”, in keeping with the post-World War I rebellion against everything Victorian. He had a “blunter intention” than presenting the genteel, sweet prince of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with virility and lust.
Beginning in 1910, with the publication of “The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: Study in Motive, Ernest Jones—a psychoanalyst and Freud’s biographer—developed Freud’s ideas into a series of essays that culminated in his book Hamlet and Oedipus (1949). Influenced by Jones’s psychoanalytic approach, several productions have portrayed the “closet scene”, where Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters, in a sexual light. In this reading, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother’s “incestuous” relationship with Claudius while simultaneously fearful of killing him, as this would clear Hamlet’s path to his mother’s bed. Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death may also be read through the Freudian lens: as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. She is overwhelmed by having her unfulfilled love for him so abruptly terminated and drifts into the oblivion of insanity. In 1937, Tyrone Guthrie directed Laurence Olivier in a Jones-inspired Hamlet at The Old Vic. Olivier later used some of these same ideas in his 1948 film version of the play.
In the 1950s, Lacan’s structuralist theories about Hamlet were first presented in a series of seminars given in Paris and later published in “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet“. Lacan postulated that the human psyche is determined by structures of language and that the linguistic structures of Hamlet shed light on human desire. His point of departure is Freud’s Oedipal theories, and the central theme of mourning that runs through Hamlet. In Lacan’s analysis, Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus—the cause of his inaction—and is increasingly distanced from reality “by mourning, fantasy, narcissism and psychosis“, which create holes (or lack) in the real, imaginary, and symbolic aspects of his psyche. Lacan’s theories influenced literary criticism of Hamlet because of his alternative vision of the play and his use of semantics to explore the play’s psychological landscape.
In the Bloom’s Shakespeare Through the Ages volume on Hamlet, editors Bloom and Foster express a conviction that the intentions of Shakespeare in portraying the character of Hamlet in the play exceeded the capacity of the Freudian Oedipus complex to completely encompass the extent of characteristics depicted in Hamlet throughout the tragedy: “For once, Freud regressed in attempting to fasten the Oedipus Complex upon Hamlet: it will not stick, and merely showed that Freud did better than T.S. Eliot, who preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet, or so he said. Who can believe Eliot, when he exposes his own Hamlet Complex by declaring the play to be an aesthetic failure?” The book also notes James Joyce’s interpretation, stating that he “did far better in the Library Scene of Ulysses, where Stephen marvelously credits Shakespeare, in this play, with universal fatherhood while accurately implying that Hamlet is fatherless, thus opening a pragmatic gap between Shakespeare and Hamlet.”
In the essay “Hamlet Made Simple”, David P. Gontar turns the tables on the psychoanalysts by suggesting that Claudius is not a symbolic father figure but actually Prince Hamlet’s biological father. The hesitation in killing Claudius results from an unwillingness on Hamlet’s part to slay his real father. If Hamlet is the biological son of Claudius, that explains many things. Hamlet doesn’t become King of Denmark on the occasion of the King’s death inasmuch as it is an open secret in court that he is Claudius’ biological son, and as such he is merely a court bastard not in the line of succession. He is angry with his mother because of her long standing affair with a man Hamlet hates, and Hamlet must face the fact that he has been sired by the man he loathes. That point overturns T.S. Eliot’s complaint that the play is a failure for not furnishing an “objective correlative” to account for Hamlet’s rage at his mother. Gontar suggests that if the reader assumes that Hamlet is not who he seems to be, the objective correlative becomes apparent. Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy not because his mother quickly remarries but because of her adulterous affair with the despised Claudius which makes Hamlet his son. Finally, the Ghost’s confirmation of an alternative fatherhood for Hamlet is a fabrication that gives the Prince a motive for revenge.
Hamlet contains many elements that would later show up in Gothic Literature. From the growing madness of Prince Hamlet, to the violent ending to the constant reminders of death, to, even, more subtly, the notions of humankind and its structures and the viewpoints on women, Hamlet evokes many things that would recur in what is widely regarded as the first piece of Gothic literature, Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto, and in other Gothic works. Walpole himself even wrote, in his second preference to Otranto:
“That great master of nature, Shakespeare, was the model I copied. Let me ask if his tragedies of Hamlet and Julius Cæsar would not lose a considerable share of their spirit and wonderful beauties, if the humour of the grave- diggers, the fooleries of Polonius, and the clumsy jests of the Roman citizens, were omitted, or vested in heroics?”
Paul Cantor, in his short text called simply Hamlet, formulates a compelling theory of the play that places the prince at the centre of the Renaissance conflict between Ancient and Christian notions of heroism. Cantor says that the Renaissance signified a “rebirth of classical antiquity within a Christian culture”. But such a rebirth brought with it a deep contradiction: Christ’s teachings of humility and meekness (“whoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”) are in direct conflict with the ancient ethos that is best represented by Achilles’ violent action in the Iliad (“I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me”).
For Cantor, the character of Hamlet exists exactly where these two worlds collide. He is in one sense drawn towards the active side of heroism by his father’s legacy (“He smote the sledded Polaks on the ice”) and the need for revenge (“now could I drink hot blood. And do such bitter business as the day/ Would quake to look on”). Simultaneously though, he is pulled towards a religious existence (“for in that sleep of death what dreams may come”) and in some sense sees his father’s return as a ghost as justification for just such a belief.
The conflict is perhaps most evident in 3.3 when Hamlet has the opportunity to kill the praying Claudius. He restrains himself though, justifying his further hesitation with the following lines: “Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying;/ And now I’ll do it- and so ‘a goes to heaven,/ And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d:/ A villain kills my father, and for that/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/ To heaven.”. At this moment it is clear that the prince’s single mind and body are being torn apart by these two powerful ideologies.
Even in the famous 3.1 soliloquy, Hamlet gives voice to the conflict. When he asks if it is “nobler in the mind to suffer”, Cantor believes that Shakespeare is alluding to the Christian sense of suffering. When he presents the alternative, “to take arms against a sea of troubles”, Cantor takes this as an ancient formulation of goodness.
Cantor points out that most interpretations of Hamlet (such as the Psychoanalytic or Existentialist) see “the problem of Hamlet as somehow rooted in his individual soul” whereas Cantor himself believes that his Heroic theory mirrors “a more fundamental tension in the Renaissance culture in which he lives“.
Maynard Mack, in a hugely influential chapter of Everybody’s Shakespeare entitled “The Readiness is All”, claims that the problematic aspects of Hamlet’s plot are not accidental (as critics such as T.S. Eliot might have it) but are in fact woven into the very fabric of the play. “It is not simply a matter of missing motivations,” he says, “to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in“. Mack states that “Hamlet’s world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions“. He highlights numerous examples: “What a piece of work is man!… and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”; “To be, or not to be- that is the question”; “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”; “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?”. The action of the play, especially the scenes outside the castle, take place in a kind of logical fog. The opening scene is riddled with confusions and distortions: “Bernardo?”; “What, is Horatio there?”; “What, has it appeared again tonight?”; “Is not this something more than fantasy?”.
Hamlet himself realizes that “he is the greatest riddle of all” and at 3.2.345 he expresses his frustration with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “how unworthy a thing you make of me… call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me”. Mack says that the confusion of the drama points “beyond the context of the play, out of Hamlet’s predicaments into everyone’s”.
Other critics such as Martin Evans expand upon Mack’s notion of built in mystery, claiming that even the textual discrepancies between the three known versions may actually be deliberate (or at the very least they add to the effect). Evans also argues that Shakespeare’s impenetrable text and Hamlet’s ‘unplayable’ strings could be meant to reflect the deep anxieties that were felt in an era of philosophical, scientific and religious disorientation. The works (and actions) of Machiavelli, Copernicus and Luther had upset hierarchical notions of virtue, order and salvation that had persisted since the Middle Ages.
Hamlet is in a sense the inscrutable and enigmatic world within which human beings had to orient themselves for the first time. We are each characters in a play just like Gertrude, Polonius and the rest—where they are trying to grasp Hamlet, we are trying to grasp Hamlet. Whatever interpretation we walk away with though, whether it be existential, religious or feminist, it will necessarily be incomplete. For Mack, human beings will always remain in an “aspect of bafflement, moving in darkness on a rampart between two worlds”.
David P. Gontar in his book Hamlet Made Simple proposes that most of the puzzles in the play can be resolved by conceiving of Prince Hamlet as the son of Claudius, not Hamlet the Dane. Note that Hamlet is suicidal in the first soliloquy well before he meets the Ghost. Gontar reasons that his depression is a result of having been passed over for the Danish throne which is given inexplicably to the King’s brother. This tends to imply an impediment to succession, namely illegitimacy. On this reading some collateral issues are resolved: Hamlet is angry at his mother for an extramarital affair she had with Claudius, of which he, the Prince, is a by-product. Further, the reason Hamlet cannot kill the King is not because the King is a father figure but, more strongly, because he is Hamlet’s actual biological father. We can deduce, then, that the Ghost is in fact a liar, who shows no concern for Hamlet’s own personal welfare. He confirms the fatherhood of King Hamlet in order to give Hamlet an incentive for revenge.