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Character of Life in Hamlet
Probably more has been written on Hamlet than any other literary work in history. Our purpose here is not to re-examine the area already well covered and add a further opinion to the enormous variety already expressed. Our primary concern is not with the character of Hamlet, the reasons for his delay, the morality of his action or other such topics. Rather it is to study the character of life as expressed in the circumstances and through the characters of the play. Nevertheless, it will be necessary to consider many of these questions in some detail for their bearing on our central pursuit.
There is a single broad movement of life connecting the entire story from beginning to end. It begins thirty years before the present action when Hamlet’s father, then King of Denmark, was challenged by Old Fortinbras, then King of Norway, to combat. Old Hamlet slew Fortinbras and won dominion over all his territory. On the day of their combat young Hamlet was born (V.i. 163). Thirty years later the King’s brother Claudius murders Old Hamlet, marries his wife the Queen and becomes his successor. Again there is a challenge of war from Norway, this time from young Fortinbras, the old King’s son, but it quickly subsides. Young Hamlet takes up revenge of his father’s murder and finally succeeds in killing Claudius though he is himself killed in the process. Young Fortinbras arrives to claim his right over the kingdom, ending a cycle begun with his father’s challenge.
In viewing the context in which the characters live and act, immediately certain interesting observations strike us. There appears to be a relationship between young Hamlet’s birth and the first war with Norway, Old Hamlet’s death and threat of war with Fortinbras’s son, young Hamlet’s death and Fortinbras’s rising to power. This relationship expresses the life forces active in Denmark during the course of the play and it is in this context that all the characters and events must be understood.
We may begin our study with a close examination of Old Hamlet’s character and the state of Denmark under his rule. Our first question will be, “Why did Old Hamlet die?” He is a heroic figure of strength and courage, a firm and powerful ruler beloved by his subjects and feared by his enemies. During his reign both Norway and England are subservient to Denmark. For thirty years after his conquest of Norway, there has been relative peace and stability in the land. Of his purity and righteousness we are less sure. When his ghost appears it mentions “foul crimes done in my days of nature” and “all my imperfections on my head.”
The Ghost reveals to Hamlet the adulterous affair between his wife the Queen and his brother Claudius which led to a break in his marriage--“a falling off”--and then to his murder by Claudius. His Queen is a weak character of low consciousness seduced by words and gifts, too ignorant to suspect Claudius of murder, unashamed of her hasty remarriage. The Ghost’s concern is for revenge against Claudius, but he warns Hamlet not to harm the Queen. The old King is a doting and uxorious husband fully attached to a weak impure woman even after her true character is fully revealed. He is not angry with his wife but infuriated because he is replaced by “a wretch whose natural gifts were poor to those of mine!” It is his vital pride which demands revenge, the same “most emulate pride” which pricked him to accept Old Fortinbras’s challenge thirty years earlier.
When he appears as a Ghost he had
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger. (I.iii.232)
He is more sorry for his wife’s betrayal than he is angry for being murdered.
Old Hamlet is poisoned by his brother. The immediate outer cause is Claudius’s ambition. The inner sanction is his attachment to his wife. Old Hamlet is a powerful warrior with this single vulnerable spot through which he is attacked and his kingdom taken away. While awaiting the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet refers to this fault in general terms which apply equally well to himself:
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal. (I.iv.23-38)
Immediately following these words, the Ghost appears and it is apparent that the description fits Old Hamlet very well. He is a man respected by his subjects—
Hor: ...he was a goodly king.
Ham: He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again-- (I.ii.186)
with “one defect”, a strong man with a weak attachment to a woman of low character. After listening to the Ghost’s story, Hamlet calls him “old mole”; referring at once to his movement underground and the “mole of nature” which led to his demise.
The king represents the central will governing the kingdom. His personal strength and the obedience given him by his subjects establish an order or equilibrium of forces in the kingdom. Old Hamlet’s “one defect” is not merely a character weakness. In the plane of life it is an opening for hostile forces to attack. What Norway failed to accomplish by war, Claudius achieved by intrigue. A man whose front is fully armoured has left open a chink at the back through which he is slain.
The murder of the king is a very powerful action releasing powerful currents of reaction. It creates a huge disturbance to the balance of life forces in the kingdom, a power vacuum. Had Claudius been a more powerful man than his brother, or one with greater support from the people, he might have been able to subdue these forces and reestablish the old equilibrium. But Claudius is no match either in strength or popularity for his dead brother. The result is that his action is quickly answered by reactions from life around him. When a king falls, he
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What’s near it with it: it is a massy wheel,
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined: which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan. (III,iii.16-23)
When the play opens Old Hamlet is dead and his brother is on the throne. There are numerous signs that the stability and health of the country is suffering. Francisco, a soldier on the watch, is “sick at heart”. When Bernardo asks, “What, is Horatio there?” Horatio responds, “A piece of him.” (I.i.19) The ghost’s appearance is said to indicate “some strange eruption to our state.” Reference is made to the super-natural events in Rome just before the murder of Julius Caesar. Marcellus sums up the impression:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I.iv.90)
At the same time we learn that Denmark is busy with war preparations in response to news that young Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to reconquer the lands lost by his father. Claudius’s first act as king is to deal with this foreign threat. It is not uncommon for a new king to be so challenged as a test to his capacity and the integrity of the country under his rule. Life immediately presents Claudius with a test of strength which he appears to handle successfully. But in fact the outer challenge from Fortinbras subsides only when young Hamlet decides in earnest to revenge his father’s death. As in Othello the threat of war with the Turks vanishes only to be replaced by Iago’s intrigues, so here Norway retracts her threat to Claudius’s rule only when Hamlet resolves to end it himself.
There is an imbalance of forces in Denmark resulting from the king’s murder, Claudius’s usurpation of the crown intended for Hamlet, and an incestuous and hasty marriage to the queen. Life forces react to the disequilibrium and move for a new order which is finally achieved with the death of Hamlet and Claudius and the rise of young Fortinbras to power.
The key figure in this movement from beginning to end is Hamlet and the movement can be understood only when Hamlet’s role in it is fully grasped. We have noted that Hamlet’s birth and the battle of his father with Old Fortinbras occurred on the same day. Though on the surface the two events appear completely independent, the laws of life reveal a deeper connection. Simultaneity in life is an expression of interrelationship. The vibration or consciousness of an event attracts other events which are similar or are in reaction to it. In the present case Hamlet’s birth is associated with a challenge to Denmark’s sovereignty and the outbreak of foreign war. He is born on the day of victory and throughout his life Denmark is master of its neighbors. At the moment of his death, the balance shifts and young Fortinbras rises to power uncontested. In some way which we need to discover, Hamlet represents a powerful force in Denmark whose birth coincides with conflict abroad and whose death is associated with conflict and destruction at home.
As we have seen, Old Hamlet is a powerful and able ruler in the traditional sense. He is the vital hero who commands by force and maintains his kingdom by his strength. Peter Alexander observes that “when father and son meet in the closing scenes of the act, not merely two types, but two ages confront one another.”1 Young Hamlet has some of his father’s courage and nobility but in other ways is a completely different man. He is predominantly a mental character. In Sri Aurobindo’s words, “Hamlet is a Mind, an intellectual, but like many intellectuals a mind that looks too much all around and sees too many sides to have an effective will for action. He plans ingeniously without coming to anything decisive. And when he does act, it is on a vital impulse. Shakespeare suggests but does not bring out the idealist in him, the man of bright illusions.”2
Hamlet is born into royalty and as such is destined to rule Denmark. He lives in an age where vital strength is the sole criterion for survival. The king must be first a warrior ready to discipline his people and fight his enemies. In this society the role of mind is to support vital strength, not to have free play in creating and acting out its own possibilities. In Hamlet, mind appears as a new development of consciousness. There is no integration of mind and emotion and vitality which is the case in individuals and societies where mental culture is of long standing. Hamlet’s is a nascent mentality in a vital society. All those around him are of the old strain and he stands out in opposition.
We see that the nature of Hamlet’s mind is to enquire into and question everything. His keen insight penetrates the surface appearances of people and events around him and threatens the conventional society with a greater self-consciousness than it can bear. He sees through the smiles of Claudius, the affectations of his mother, the platitudes of Polonius, the spying of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and everywhere he strips naked their underlying motives or makes folly of their pretense.
In addition to keen insight, his mental development has made possible a refinement of the emotions and sentiments which Bradley terms moral sensibility or moral intelligence. His affection for his parents and his friends is uncommonly deep and genuine. So is his disgust for anything ugly--his uncle’s drunkenness, his mother’s shallowness and sensuality, the courtiers’ lies and pretenses, etc. This characteristic of his intelligence makes the impact of life’s disillusionments not only a repulsion in his mind but also a severe blow to his heart’s emotions.
Knowledge and will are the two powers of mind. Observation is the first born which moves through stages from confusion to illusion to insight. Only when knowledge is established, mental will can become fully active. Hamlet’s mind is in the stage of observation. He sees through the illusions and false appearances but his vision ends there. It is a negative perception valid in its own right but incomplete. Hamlet ponders the nature of deceit, disease and death, but fails to grasp the positive values of life, love and truth. His understanding provides no basis for action, only for endless questioning and thoughts of suicidal escape. The mental will is undeveloped and ineffective. This explains why he is prone to constant mental agitation which does not translate into action. He acts only when mind is brushed aside and the vital is free to move unimpeded--that is, when the gap between mind and the vital is temporarily filled. It also explains why he finds it so difficult to revenge his father’s murder. Revenge is a vital motivation. It can activate mind only to the extent that mind is subservient to the vital. Left to itself mind finds no interest or satisfaction in it.
The situation in consciousness expresses literally in life. Hamlet has grown to manhood, his faculty of knowledge is developed, but he is excluded from the throne which is the true power for action. In this respect he is not merely an individual but a representative of a growth in the society as a whole. He is part of and represents the royal house of Denmark, the central will (“head”) of the state. Not only is his birth a new development in the society, but it threatens the existing social consciousness and evokes a response of fear and hostility from it. In other words, his birth marks the appearance of a greater possibility, a greater power of consciousness, to rule Denmark. Because it is a higher development it has a power over the existing society and also poses a threat to it. But because it is young and not yet integrated with the present achievements of the civilisation, it is awkward, unbalanced, weak and its appearance creates a temporary disequilibrium or gap in the consciousness of the society.
This gap is a weakness which invites a challenge. The challenge comes from Norway as war. But the vitality of Denmark embodied in Old Hamlet is strong and the result of the threat is an expansion of Denmark’s sovereignty over a far greater area. In life, a new emergence usually brings with it an upset, accident or temporary difficulty. But where the basis is firm and the new element positive, the net result is an expansion and progress. In this case Hamlet’s birth marks the rise of Denmark as a greater international power.
Now let us turn to the text and follow the movements of life. The appearance of the Ghost and the news of war are simultaneous. The violent act of murder, though unknown to the public, evokes a violent challenge from abroad.
When we first meet Hamlet he is sunk in deep melancholy. When his black attire is being noticed, he tells the queen:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.85)
Once alone he reveals the nature and depth of his suffering. His mother’s behaviour has sickened and disheartened him. She, who clung to the king like a vine and whom Old Hamlet treated so lovingly, has proved most venal:
Let me not think on’t--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer--married with my uncle. (I.ii.145-151)
Hamlet is in a profound vital depression. His mind is paralysed and morbid. All he can do is contemplate the horror of his Mother’s incestuous wedlock. He had seen the lowness of her character and his mind generalises it as a truth of life and the world:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (I.ii.133-137)
But essentially his response is vital, not mental. He feels identified with his mother. As J. Dover Wilson writes, “For his blood is tainted, his very flesh corrupted, by what his mother has done, since he is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh....Hamlet felt himself involved in his mother’s lust; he was conscious of sharing her nature in all its rankness and grossness; the stock from which he sprang was rotten.”3 As he later tells Ophelia in the nunnery scene:
I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. (III.i.123)
It is this feeling of his own defilement and impurity which causes his melancholy, paralyses his will, and brings the constant thought of death and suicide.
When Horatio seeks out Hamlet to tell him of the Ghost, there is an interesting example of a type of subtle perception quite common in life which we usually dismiss as coincidence.
Ham: My father!--methinks I see my father.
Hor: Where, my lord?
Ham: In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
Hor: I saw him once; he was a goodly king.
Ham: He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.
Hor: My Lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
Ham: Saw? who?
Hor: My lord, the king your father. (I.ii.184-91)
Before Horatio can speak a word of seeing Hamlet’s father, Hamlet says he saw him and when later the Ghost tells Hamlet of the murder, he replies, “O my prophetic soul!” indicating the nature of his earlier vision.
When the Ghost appears, Hamlet shows both courage and a reckless abandon born of despair:
Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin’s fee. (I.iv.64)
The Ghost relates how Claudius wooed his queen to adultery with wit and gifts, then poisoned the sleeping king and robbed him of his life, his crown and his queen. The Ghost commands him to
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (I.V.25)
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damn’d incest. (I.V.82)
On top of the already crippling weight of his mother’s incestuous marriage comes knowledge of her adulterous infidelity and his father’s murder. There is no anger in Hamlet’s response, no furious resolution to revenge. Rather he feels himself collapsing and his mind fainting away from the knowledge.
O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. (I.v.93)
He responds to the Ghost’s words--to remember and avenge him--with a decision of the mind and attempts to impress on his memory the command:
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain: (I.v.98-108)
The implication is that if he does not write it down he may forget. How to forget unless from utter horror and despair? Hamlet’s mind and heart and body rebel against the knowledge. His emerging power of mental consciousness is oppressed by an enormous burden which threatens to destroy it.
Yet almost immediately we see the strength and adeptness of his mind reassert themselves. He knows exactly how to handle his companions, refuses to reveal anything, and elicits an oath of secrecy from them. At the same time he decides on his course of action, “To put an antic disposition on” (V.v.172), and prepares them for a change in his behaviour. We agree with the critics who have argued that Hamlet’s madness is only half feigned and that he chooses the guise of an antic disposition to conceal his failing personality strength. But the madness is not merely a secondary result of his mother’s and his uncle’s acts. Rather from a wider viewpoint it can be seen that the existing social forces are covertly working through subconscious life channels to weaken or destroy the nascent mental consciousness in Hamlet by presenting it in its weak condition with an intolerable burden. It is the same movement that overtly confronted Socrates, Copernicus, Jesus and innumerable others who represented in themselves some new manifestation. Hamlet is not a symbol or a metaphorical image of an allegory. He is a living example of the process by which human life evolves and the dynamics of that evolution. We have stated earlier that his mind achieves primarily a negative power of insight rather than a positive will to action or an intuition of higher truths which could have saved him from despair. Had his mental will been developed he may have had the power and initiative to act definitively instead of endlessly delaying. But as it is he lacks the strength and balance of a mature mind. He finds himself in a time and conditions foreign to his nature and not conducive to the flowering of his mental consciousness.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right! (I.v.188)
This hostile movement of social forces has a variety of expressions. First there is the question of succession. If Dover Wilson is correct in his comprehension of Elizabethan values, we must understand that the queen committed not only adultery but also incest in marrying her husband’s brother and that Claudius was guilty not only of murder but also of usurping the throne from Hamlet, its rightful heir. It appears that the transition of power occurred quietly and smoothly without disturbance and once Claudius is King, he seems to have the full confidence of the court. How is it, we may ask, that no one has raised a vocal complaint against incest and usurpation--unless there is a subconscious consent in the collectivity to the illegitimate marriage and coronation?
Not only is there a lack of resistance or objection to Claudius but there are several conscious initiatives against Hamlet. The most powerful is the work of Laertes and Polonius to discredit Hamlet in the eyes of Ophelia and prevent the lovers from further meetings. It appears as simply the loving concern of a father and brother and we do not imply that they were conscious of anything more. But it is noteworthy that Ophelia was left free to her romance up until Old Hamlet’s death and Claudius’s ascension. The clear implication is that their attitude has changed after Hamlet was dispossessed of the crown. But is he not still a prince and a very fitting marriage partner? Why, then, the change? Their action has the effect of one final blow to Hamlet’s sense of life’s value and goodness. At a time when he is mourning his father’s death they deprive him of his one remaining support and the conclusion Hamlet draws from it is devastating. What else can he think but that Ophelia like his mother is weak, unfaithful, and has lost her affection for him? When later Hamlet breaks into her room with dishevelled clothes and shaking body he is obviously not feigning distress. It is one last desperate effort to find some emotional support and to confirm or deny his worst fears of her. Ophelia is a weak personality unable to respond to his need and frightened by his intensity. She remains motionless and he withdraws.
Laertes touches a deeper truth in his warning to Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet:
His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalu’d persons do,
Carve for himself; for on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state! (I.iii.17)
The phrase “subject to his birth” reminds us of Hamlet’s words before the Ghost’s appearance:
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin-- (I.iv.24)
Hamlet’s situation does not arise simply from his character. It results from this particular character of emerging mind being placed in the position as rightful heir to the throne. “His will is not his own” because he is caught in a wider movement of social evolution. On his life and action depends the future of Denmark. Laertes refers to the positive challenge placed on Hamlet by his birth while Hamlet refers to the negative burden of impurity he has inherited from his mother.
Polonius takes an active initiative against Hamlet. He tells Ophelia:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. (I.iii.132)
He is a foolish man but incapable of intentional malice. His great weakness is his pretense of knowledge and his constant urge “To case beyond ourselves in our opinions” (II.i.115) which is in direct contradiction to his advice to his son Laertes:
Give thy thoughts no tongue
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act. (I.iii.59)
Polonius’s action here and elsewhere is an expression of the conventional wisdom of the time followed ignorantly and blindly. He accuses Hamlet of false vows of love to Ophelia while completely accepting Claudius’s “seemings” of virtue. He is essentially a good man but not honest, and Hamlet tells him so:
Then I would you were so honest a man. (II.ii.176)
Subconsciously Polonius responds to the pressure of social forces moving against Hamlet and he becomes a willing instrument for their purposes. Both for his ignorant assertion and his unconscious collaboration, he reaps a swift reward. He is the first bystander to take sides and initiate a negative action and he is the first to fall.
One further example may be cited of the general movement against Hamlet. It is the readiness with which his old schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respond to the lure of royal recompense:
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
As fits a king’s remembrance. (II.ii.25)
They become willing agents of Claudius in his effort to discover Hamlet’s real motives and in his later attempt to send him to England for execution. Again we may claim that the agents were unconscious and meant no harm to Hamlet, only to serve the king and help their disturbed friend. Or at most we may accuse them of responding to a bribe. But life knows better than our naïve concession of justifiable motives. The very fact that a man becomes a channel for negativity to reach another person indicates some desire or willingness in him to see the other suffer. It is one expression of the law of inner-outer correspondence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respond to the general vibration of hostility and lend themselves as channels for its expression.
Having identified the forces seeking to permanently displace Hamlet from the throne, we need ask how then he survived as long as he did and eventually succeeded in accomplishing the ghost’s commission. Furthermore, how can we explain events such as his meeting the pirate ship which seem to actively support his cause even in spite of his own incapacity and unwillingness? The answer is that there is a counter balancing movement of life forces directly in opposition to the first, which fosters Hamlet’s cause and makes him an instrument or agent for its own intention. It is this force which Hamlet feels as Providence and A.C. Bradley dismisses as chance or accident.
The first expression of this other movement is the threat from Norway which immediately follows Claudius’s taking the throne. It is a direct challenge to Claudius’s rule and an indirect support to Hamlet. This deeper connection is confirmed by the fact that soon after Hamlet accepts the duty of revenge, the threat of outer war disappears and the direct confrontation of antagonists commences.
The attitudes of Francisco, Marcellus, Bernardo and Horatio are a second expression. We may take them as representative of the common people of Denmark, as opposed to the aristocracy. They express feelings of sadness, discontent and uneasiness over the rapid changes in the country. Their natural goodwill and loyalty is towards Hamlet, not Claudius, and because of it, when the Ghost appears they immediately seek him out and refrain from informing the new king. Horatio is more than a commoner but less than aristocracy. It is noteworthy that he alone actively takes Hamlet’s side, while all the others, including Ophelia, lend their silent or active support to Claudius. Of the major characters, he alone lives to tell the story.
A further example of the manner in which these social forces find avenues for expression is the sudden arrival of the players at Elsinore. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius view the players as a means to entertain Hamlet in the hope he will loosen up and reveal the true cause of his discontent. But Hamlet immediately recognises the troop as his old acquaintances and seizes on their profession as a means to trap the king. It is not chance that brings them, but an active force. Their goodwill towards Hamlet and his own fondness for drama draw them to the castle and they become willing agents for his plot, just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lend themselves for the king’s purposes.
There are other striking expressions of the life forces supporting Hamlet in his effort and carrying him forward in spite of himself. We shall return to these events shortly. But first we must enquire into the nature of these forces which at crucial moments seem to have saved him from disaster or raised him out of inertia into activity.
First, there is the basic goodwill of the people, their loyalty and devotion to Hamlet’s father and their high respect for Hamlet himself. Horatio calls Old Hamlet “a goodly king” and says that “this side of our known world esteem’d him” as a valiant man. Claudius tells us of the people’s regard for Hamlet:
He’s loved of the distracted multitude. (IV.iii.4)
Ophelia tells us more:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state. (III.i.158)
The goodwill of friends and the admiration or loyalty of the community are powerful positive forces in social life, just as illwill and public defamation are negative influences. This positive atmosphere acts as a channel for supportive conditions and events. In normal life we refer to it as good fortune, chance, luck, coincidence, according to our disposition.
There are also indications that the people suspected some foul play or immorality in the behaviour of Claudius and the queen. Horatio was certainly sensitive to the great haste with which the old king’s funeral was followed by the queen’s remarriage.
Hor: My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
Ham: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student,
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Hor: Indeed, my lord, it follow’d hard upon. (I.ii.176)
This also explains Francisco and Horatio’s expressions of discontent in the opening scene and Marcellus’s “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.90). A general feeling of suspicion, disapproval or moral outrage among the people would have a powerful influence on the events which followed. The substance of this claim is borne out by the readiness with which the people rise up against Claudius when Laertes learns of Polonius’s death and returns to Denmark for vengeance.
Laertes shall be king, Laertes king! (IV.v.108)
Obviously the new ruler was never completely accepted by the country nor did he have the full support of his people.
At a deeper level the positive support for Hamlet reflects the readiness and willingness of the country for an evolutionary advance, namely, to develop a governing mental consciousness. The resistance to this advance comes from the old established order, not the wider collectivity and we find the forces of the social life constantly fostering the movement. When it is disturbed by Claudius or delayed by Hamlet himself, the country shows signs of disease or decay symptomatic of the transition from an old to a new consciousness. John Holloway expresses the negative side of Hamlet’s role which is vital purification when he says that Hamlet acts “to purge from the society the evil which it could not otherwise escape.”4
A third contributing factor is the Ghost. According to Sri Aurobindo’s view of human psychology, it is the vital being of Old Hamlet violently thrown out of its body and now caught for a time suffering in the vital plane prior to dissolution. Because it is simply a vital force and not the full emotional personality, it lacks warmth and Hamlet feels no attraction or affection for it. Though disembodied, it is still an active force which Hamlet recognises as his father’s. The Ghost’s primary expression is of outrage at his wife’s unfaithfulness and his brother’s treachery. His pride is hurt because the queen chose a man of inferior quality over him.
...a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine! (I.v.51)
He is angry and his anger remains as a force in the atmosphere compelling Hamlet to seek revenge and supporting his cause against Claudius.
But the Ghost’s concern is not only with revenge. He is not only angry but also sad, and this sadness stems from his continued attachment to his wife. His last words to Hamlet on the battlement are not of revenge at all, but about the queen:
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul continue
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. (I.v.84)
Later the Ghost makes a final appearance in the queen’s bed-chamber at a time when Hamlet is confronting her with her sinful deeds. The Ghost says,
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose, (III.iv.110)
meaning to set him against Claudius rather than the queen. But the Ghost seems more concerned with the queen’s distress than with revenge:
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul. (III.iv.112)
These words are spoken out of weak attachment, not forgiveness and compassion. This is the “one defect” and the “vicious mole” which Hamlet just described. It not only costs Old Hamlet his life but takes his son’s as well. For, in fact, the queen is the true cause of her husband’s murder though she was probably unaware of Claudius’s deed. By allowing herself to be won over and seduced, she paved the way for Claudius to kill the king and claim the throne. In trying to spare her punishment, the Ghost is actually protecting the source of all the difficulty. So long as the queen remains alive, Hamlet is unable to kill Claudius. Hamlet senses this truth in himself. From the beginning his mother’s acts seem far worse to him than Claudius’s and all of his emotions are tied up in her.
The difference between Hamlet and his father is mind. Hamlet possesses true emotions born of mind while his father has only uncontrollable feelings flowing to an object, a foolish fondness aware of its own intensity, emotions of a low order lacking discrimination. Nevertheless, there is a marked similarity between Old Hamlet’s vital attachment to his wife and Hamlet’s relation to Ophelia. In courting her, Hamlet expresses a melancholy sadness and passionate attachment similar to his father’s. Ophelia, like the queen, is a weak, unformed personality, but she does not suffer from the same impurity and depravity. Her weakness is that of a passive submission to the insensitive commands of her father. When Hamlet comes to her in desperate need of support, she is too ignorant and frightened to respond. She is incapable of receiving or returning any intense emotions. Even had their relationship been allowed to continue, the stress of the intensity would have led to illness or separation.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers.
I have not art to reckon my groans. (II.ii.120)
On top of Hamlet’s disillusionment with his mother comes Ophelia’s denial. Any remaining faith he had is completely shattered.
Hamlet’s duty is set before him and yet he delays acting on it. We must now consider the eternally puzzling question of why he delays. Earlier we quoted Sri Aurobindo’s description of Hamlet as a mind, an intellectual, one who observes too many aspects of things to have an effective will for action. The power of understanding is born in him but not the executive power of mental will. What he sees and plans does not translate into action. So long as the act required is only mental, he can do it. Thus the speed with which he arranges the play scene to entrap Claudius and exchanges the king’s commission to England ordering his death for one bearing the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But he lacks the will and the integration of his personality to make his mind express itself in life.
Yet it is not merely a mental nature which keeps Hamlet inactive. Even before the Ghost’s first appearance, Hamlet is in a despairing condition. The Ghost’s words cannot excite him. He has no energy left either for rage or resolution or action. The mere attempt to remember the Ghost drains all his remaining energy. He can only write a note to himself. To Hamlet, the incident of murder is secondary. He has discovered his mother’s depravity and can never pardon it. This realisation absorbs all his strength and leaves him in a deep vital melancholy, incapable of initiative.
Moral repulsion from the act of revenge has frequently been cited as a cause of Hamlet’s delay. It is not apparent that Hamlet ever thought or felt that revenge was wrong. But aside from repulsion, it can be said that Hamlet felt a disgust with the entire world in which he lived and with the actions of all those around him. That disgust, arising from his insight into human motives and his emotional sensitivity, is itself enough to make him withdraw from life and seek some escape rather than take up positive action.
Hamlet himself is genuinely puzzled by his lack of anger, enthusiasm and energy for revenge. After the first meeting with the players, he compares himself with the actor who can bring forth tears and passion for a mere drama while he is passionless and inert:
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward? (II.ii.593)
He fails to understand his own character and the impact of his mother’s act on it. He excites himself to self-recrimination for not acting on his words and resolutions.
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words. (II.ii.609)
In the events which follow, he does act at several crucial junctures but only when circumstances provoke him. Then it is not the mind that decides and implements but the vital being which leaps impulsively and overwhelms him. Each time this happens life forces support him and his cause advances. His finding Claudius at prayer, after he vows bloody revenge, the attack of the pirate ship after he rewrites the king’s commission, the change of swords in the duel, are incidents which appear as mere chance or accident or dramatic device. But seen from a wider perspective, they conform to a basic law of life.
Hamlet is capable of observation and understanding but not of an initiative based on that knowledge. His power of action remains that of the vital impulsive man. He shares the lower nature of Laertes and Fortinbras who act swiftly and directly from vital passion and heroism. Hamlet constantly attempts to act from the mind with a faculty he has not yet fully developed, so his action ends with thought or speech. He can only “unpack my heart with words”. When he gives up the mental effort and allows the vital passions to express themselves, he is in his native faculty and in harmony with the life around him which is organised only at the vital level. That is why life “cooperates” with him at these moments and carries him forward.
It can be seen that so long as man lives at one level of consciousness, life at that level is a struggle and what the man seeks is always evasive. One man seeks fame, another wealth, still another affection. Even when he achieves them, somehow the experience is made sour. But as a man rises above the present level and renounces the methods or rewards of that level, life becomes cooperative at the lower plane. His most casual initiative becomes successful, the things he valued and never could possess come to him of themselves. Hamlet’s character has begun to rise beyond the level of vital functioning towards mind, but it is not yet able to act as the true mental man. His own lower nature and the life around him now present him with occasions where he is called on to return to the old level and offered all the fruits of success at that level--victory over his opponent, revenge of his father’s death, the crown of Denmark, etc. But the means he must resort to he has outgrown. No longer can he respond to the lure of ambition or the satisfaction of revenge. Were he to do so, it would be a regression into the past. Life challenges him to move forward and tempts him to move back. He is caught in the middle working out an evolutionary transition.
Though Hamlet’s central concern is the queen, his conscious foe is Claudius. Claudius lacks the passion and strength of his brother. He is clever, deceitful, amoral and manages everything by diplomacy rather than force. He wins a kingdom by seducing a woman and poisoning a sleeping brother. The use of poison reveals craft of the vital mind rather than rash impulsive action. As king, he displays tact and diplomacy in handling the rebellion in Norway and the uprising of his own people in support of Laertes. Old Hamlet’s murder is an outrage against the moral consciousness of the society and despite his capacities as a king he is unable to establish himself firmly.
At the consciousness level, Claudius is mind at the service of the vital, i.e. knowledge and reason employed for selfish gain rather than pursuit of ethics or ideals. The movement of forces he initiates with murder will not subside until his own death. Though political power and social support are in his favour, he is unable to remove the one remaining obstacle to his sovereignty. It is not Hamlet’s persistence, but the opposition of life forces that he is powerless to overcome. No sooner does he take the throne than Fortinbras declares war. He sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who in turn engage the players. The result is that Claudius’s guilt is exposed during the play scene. He sets Polonius to spying and Polonius is killed. He schemes to send Hamlet to his death in England and his emissaries die instead. He employs poison in the duel and his entire court, including his queen and himself, die of poison. Though his planning is clever and careful at each stage, it fails because the forces of life are supporting a higher evolutionary movement. Claudius’s is the vital mind thwarted by nascent but pure mentality and poisoned by its own capacity for evil.
In the Third Act Claudius and Polonius employ Ophelia as a stooge to make Hamlet reveal his purposes. Hamlet enters speaking his most famous soliloquy.
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (III.i.56)
The entire soliloquy involves a contemplation of two distinctly separate questions which are intermixed and confused in Hamlet’s mind. The first is the question of suicide. “To be, or not to be.” Immediately he switches to the second. Here he expresses the major difficulty in his personality. Should he allow the mind’s passivity to lead him or follow the vital impulse to action? As the two are separated by a wide gap in his character, he sees no way to reconcile them. Again he returns to suicide, “To die: to sleep,” but the doubt arises as to what follows death, “there’s the rub.” He lacks knowledge. He fears that what follows may be worse than the present life. Already he has heard from the Ghost of its sufferings. There may also be the subtle sense that what life confronts him with cannot be escaped by death. It is a direct expression of what he is and he must accept the challenge and overcome it.
Now he comes back to the question of thought and action.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.-- (III.i.84)
“Conscience” is both thought and religious fear. Hamlet confuses the question of suicide and the question of action. He refrains from suicide because he dreads the result: he acts the coward. But also the constant turning of thought, conscience, leads him to no action at all. Finally he concludes that it is the “pale cast of thought” which creates irresolution and prevents initiative.
The confusion expressed here is a natural outcome of Hamlet’s position. He feels he is a coward for not acting in life. He sees that his mind is incapable of acting decisively. He expresses the bewilderment of being caught in the middle unable to act positively or negatively. It is an expression of man in transition from a lower to a higher plane of functioning, having lost the effectivity of the lower level and not having yet achieved the greater power of the higher.
Shortly before the play scene, Hamlet praises Horatio in terms that reveal his own shortcoming.
... ……………………….for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingl’d,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, aye, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (III.ii.70)
Horatio possesses the integrality which Hamlet lacks, that commingling of “blood and judgment.” But Horatio’s is harmony at a lower level. Mind proper is unborn. His is the balance and stoical moderation that comes from a disciplined vitality and a practical physical intelligence unhampered by the emergence of true thought power and a mental vision of life. When he first hears about the Ghost from Marcellus, he maintains the skepticism of a modern student, “Tush, tush, ‘twill not appear” (I.i.165). But once he has seen it, his mind at once opens to all the superstition and folklore of his countrymen, “So I have heard and do in part believe” (I.i.165). Alongside a simple mind there is the beauty of a nature in harmony with the world. No sooner has the fearful presence of the Ghost left than he is moved to poetry by the coming dawn.
But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill. (I.i.166)
He is Hamlet’s one loyal friend and confidant. Horatio is the best of the old world, lending his support to the evolutionary movement but not himself a pioneer.
In the nunnery scene and the play scene Hamlet’s initiative is only mental. He sees through Ophelia’s pre-rehearsed gesture of returning his love letters and may be aware that Claudius and Polonius are listening. He gives the player last-minute instructions. He sets Horatio to watch the king’s face during the play to see if he reveals his guilt. He talks in threatening riddles to the king, gets Polonius to speak of Caesar’s assassination, and addresses Ophelia as if she were a prostitute. The play is a great success. Claudius jumps up in the middle as Lucius pours the poison into the player king’s ear. Horatio is convinced of the king’s guilt. Hamlet is excited and jubilant. The play has satisfied his mind, but having that satisfaction he does not have the capacity to act on the knowledge. He can only revel in his achievement.
Immediately Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return to invite him to his mother’s bedchamber where Polonius is to overhear their conversation from behind a curtain. Hamlet ruthlessly exposes his old friends:
Think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? (III.ii.385)
and mocks Polonius with the shapes of clouds. What began as mental initiative has released passionate excitement and thirst for revenge.
’Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. (III.ii.406)
It is not Claudius he thinks of in his rage but rather his mother.
O, heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none; (III.ii.411)
Hamlet is carried away by vital excitement and anger. He is ready to act, based on his feelings towards his mother, not on his knowledge of Claudius’s guilt.
Life immediately responds to his condition. He comes upon Claudius kneeling alone in prayer.
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. (IV.iii.36)
Claudius is moved by his conscience to pray but he has no intention to renounce the reward of his sins:
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. (III.iii.55)
His mind sees the nature of his crime but his vital does not repent.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (II.iii.97)
Though he is unrepenting, the act is a sanction for the social forces to punish him. His strength is divided by conscience, he is “to double business bound.” Subconsciously he consents to lose all he has gained by murder. In effect his prayers are heard and answered by life which takes from him what he could not bring himself to renounce. Had his repentance been more genuine, it would have weakened him sufficiently for Hamlet to act on the spot, and kill him.
Hamlet is presented with the ideal opportunity to avenge his father’s death.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying
And now I’ll do’t. (III.iii.73)
But now he is calmer and he responds to the situation not with impulse but with thought. Passion subsides and mind intervenes. He debates the merit of killing a man in prayer. Once thought begins, the urge and energy for action disappears. He is unable to utilize life’s opportunity and goes off to meet his mother.
In fact of life, Hamlet is right. The first necessity is to go to the source of all the difficulty and correct it. Until that is done, there is no sanction for dealing with Claudius. The one thing his emotions respond to is his mother. With her he needs no prodding to action. He is forceful and direct. He must restrain the passion which wells up in him. But there is the Ghost’s injunction that prevents him from harming her. The queen immediately senses his violent anger and is terrified.
What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho! (III.iv.21)
It is exactly what Hamlet would like to do, but is forbidden. Polonius is roused from behind the curtain by her cry. Hamlet, thinking it is Claudius, passes his sword through the curtain and kills Polonius. The passion that could not be directed at its object is deflected and strikes at that object’s tool.
1. Peter Alexander, Hamlet: Father and Son, Oxford University Press, 1955.
2. Sri Aurobindo, Mother India, August 1954, p. 52.
3. J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 42.
4. John Holloway, Shakespeare: Hamlet, Casebook on Hamlet, edited by John Jump, 1967, p. 162.