I came down with the flu on Sunday night, while at Obama HQ and most likely because we all share computers in the office. So, I have been home since Monday, and looking at the computer (or even sitting upright) has been mostly intolerable, so instead I am reading Shakespeare until ready to sleep again, which is frequently. I've re-read Richard III, Henry IV, and Hamlet so far. And when I lay down to rest I think about the plays until I drop off, and since I am now sporting a temp of 103.1 F, I figured this is the ideal time for me to spout off about something I have no training in: Shakespearean criticism.
My (lengthy) ravings are after the jump.
My edition of The Complete Works (Wordsworth Editions, hardcover) places the plays in chronological order, which is helpful. Richard III, the earliest work of the three, is really cartoonish in comparison to his later villains. He's not just bad, he's self-consciously and purposely bad, and doesn't really care, and has to be laid low in the end by his paranoia and the intervention of the ghosts. He's not tragic at all.
Hamlet is many people's favorite play, and probably the most criticized. When I was an adolescent, like a lot of teens, I identified with Hamlet's seeming insecurity and impulsiveness. Reading it 30 years later, it appears very different. I once read a piece of criticism of Hamlet by a professor named Ball in Pittsburgh that said Hamlet was a spy story. John LeCarre, the spy novelist, in all of his books dwells on the theme that a spy is someone who is always in danger of losing oneself, because his whole life consists of seeming to be something he isn't. Lying destroys the self, which I now think is the theme of Hamlet.
The bookends to the play are two characters with very different personalities: Horatio and Fortinbras. Horatio is a man of reason, who is empirical in his thinking and concerned with truth and justice. Fortinbras is a man of action, concerned with honor. What unites them is that they are both honest. Neither of them dissemble throughout the play. Fortinbras is off to fight a battle over a useless scrap of land in Poland for the sake of pride and martial honor, in which many men will die. Both of them outlive the events of the play, Horatio to tell the truth to all of what has happened and to be instrumental in placing Fortinbras on the throne of Denmark.
All the other principal characters die. The message of the play is that they come to violent, early ends because at heart they are all cowardly, unable to admit the truth and face the consequences of their actions, and that lying is both dishonorable and destroys the self. Beginning with the late King Hamlet, who is dead when the action starts, his ghost tells Hamlet that he is bound to be tormented in the afterlife because he died without atoning for his sins. Why hadn't he atoned? For the same reason that his brother later admits he cannot truly atone for murdering him: He was unable to admit the truth and give up the advantages that he gained by his sins. In other words, King Hamlet was too cowardly to admit the truth and face the consequences. That his brother the usurper is even more craven almost goes without saying. When Hamlet pricks his conscience with the play-within-the-play, he has the opportunity to admit his crime and either abdicate or commit suicide, but he doesn't. Out of lust, pride and fear, he continues the deception.
Polonious is also an obvious deceiver. He thinks he can manipulate everyone around him. He packs his son Laertes off to school with a solemn speech about morality, then enlists the aid of his friend to spread lies about Laertes being a wastrel so that, if any of it comes true, it will be more easily reported back to Polonious. He manipulates his daughter Ophelia and tries to do the same with Hamlet, unsuccessfully. It's subtly comic that this learned advisor to royalty, who sees himself as a master of seeing through people, is completely unaware of the fact that the King murdered his brother.
The Queen principally deceives herself. In the scene in her chamber with Hamlet, at the end of which Polonius dies, she is revealed to have ignored the obvious signs that King Hamlet's brother murdered him. Out of lust, weakness and perhaps a sense of urgency to further mask the knowledge she should have had, she re-married far too soon and thus dishonored the memory of her husband twice over. Even when she is confronted with the truth by Hamlet in her chamber, she is still unable to do the right thing: She knows she's married a murderer, but she goes back to him anyway. She is too cowardly to tell the truth and bring shame on herself.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also faithless and dishonest. They are schoolmates and friends with Hamlet, but they have to think long and hard about admitting to Hamlet that the King has sent them to him. Hamlet sees right through them, and says later as he's being packed off to England that he'll trust them as much as he would trust a "fang'd viper."
Laertes is mostly honorable, but ends up deceiving others, too, which causes his death. He is full of righteous anger at Hamlet for killing his father, but allows the King to avoid punishing Hamlet because the King fears Hamlet's popularity. Laertes conspires with the King to challenge Hamlet to the fencing duel, and use treachery to get his revenge instead.
Even fair Ophelia is a liar and dishonorable. She allows her father to manipulate her and change the way she interacts with Hamlet, because Polonius's theory is that Hamlet's madness is due to young love. But after her father's death and Hamlet's departure, when she truly goes mad, she reveals a greater secret. She sings a song:
Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed."
"So would I a done, by yonder sun,
And thou hadst not come to my bed."
She sings this song because she and Hamlet have been lovers, and she thinks he has spurned her because she was not virtuous enough, which I think is probably true. But unable to keep chaste and then unable to admit it (she lies to Polonious about it), she goes mad. Further dishonoring herself, she commits suicide.
Hamlet, though, is the biggest coward of them all. He says as much, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." But we know this is not true. The straightforward, honest Horatio is not a coward. The fierce Fortinbras is not a coward. Hamlet is a coward, because he is an unwholesome melding of the characters of Horatio and Fortinbras, and his indecision between truth and justice on one hand, and truth and honor on the other, tears him apart.
Hamlet callously uses others for his own ends. He "plays back", as LeCarre terms it in his novels, Rosencratz and Guildenstern to feed misinformation to Polonius. He upbraids and verbally abuses Ophelia during their contrived meeting, "Get thee to a nunnery!" both because he wishes to keep her father and the King off balance and also, I think, because he is as disgusted with her giving in to his lust as he is disgusted with his mother for leaping into bed with her husband's brother. Ophelia's only crime was loving him, and his treatment of her is shameful.
After the ghost speaks to him, the rational side of Hamlet is still uncertain if it's the truth or whether he is mad or being deceived by the devil. To ward off Polonius's probing, he adopts the pose of madness, which keeps everyone off balance, but still, the pose is a lie. He then cleverly sets the trap of the play-within-the-play, during which he is given proof positive that the ghost was truthful, when the King flees the room. The confrontation with his mother in her chamber removes all remaining doubt, as she tacitly admits she knew she married her husband's killer.
This, I think, is the turning point for the entire play. Note at
this point, the only killing has been of King Hamlet by his brother,
which preceded the play. Hamlet now has proof of that murder. What
should he have done at that point? If he were a rational man, like
Horatio, concerned with justice, he would denounce his uncle as a
murderer and tell everyone about the ghost - to which there were other
witnesses - and the other evidence, forcing the King to abdicate. But
he doesn't do that. If he were a man of action and honor, like
Fortinbras, he would seek out the King and kill him openly, and claim
the justification of avenging his father. He doesn't do that, also,
even though either course would probably have worked to put Hamlet on
the throne: Both the King and Polonius note that Hamlet is immensely
popular with the people. Hamlet must also have known that deposing or
killing the King would have been condoned.
Instead, by being unable to come to terms with telling the truth, his actions in this scene set off the chain of death in the rest of the play. His mother, feeling threatened by him, cries out for help, and Polonius, hidden behind drapery, also shouts for help. Hamlet cries, "A rat!" and stabs Polonius through the curtains. Later, his mother attempts to partly excuse his actions by saying Hamlet truly thought there was a rat. But everything in the scene suggests that Hamlet knew it was a person he was stabbing. Polonius's cry would have alerted him to that. Why would he attack a rodent at that point? It's just not believable that a sword thrust at the height necessary to kill a man would be the point at which you would aim to kill a rat.
Hamlet simply murders Polonius and the cry of "rat!" is a deception. Even in his righteous rage, he cannot honestly kill, he must instead use a subterfuge. His hypocrisy is evident when, after pulling back the curtain, he is only disappointed he hasn't stabbed the King. Hamlet's murder of Polonius is the act that sets off the rest of the bloody chain of events. That is the tragic moment. If Hamlet had only been honest, all or almost all the resulting bloodshed could have been avoided.
The King and Queen cover up the murder of Polonius, burying him quickly and quietly, with no ceremony or even a marker. Once again, they conceal the truth for their own benefit.
Despite having proved the his uncle's guilt, Hamlet allows the King to pack him off to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He discovers that the King has contrived to have the English kill him, so he forges a new order to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed instead, and in a bizarre plot device, jumps onto a pirate ship and makes his way back to Denmark. But why did Hamlet write the forged death sentence for his former friends? The original order was sealed. There was no particular evidence that the two hapless schoolmates knew what was in it. So his forging of the new order is in essence two more murders, undertaken under false pretenses like the murder of Polonius so that Hamlet himself could escape responsibility for his own deeds. Like his uncle, Hamlet is a murderer and a liar.
The next major scene, with the two gravediggers, is brilliant. Not only does it provide comic relief, it adds a new layer of meaning to the entire play. The two of them banter back and forth, and then one of them says bluntly, about Ophelia:
Second Clown: Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been a gentlewoman, she would have out o' Christian burial.
First Clown: Why, there thou say'st. And the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even [fellow] Christian.
Hamlet and Horatio then enter the scene and, as the gravedigger throws up skulls, Hamlet riffs on the pointlessness of life and the vanity of people, since they all end up skulls anyway. But Hamlet doesn't grasp the full truth exposed in this scene. Much of the deception engaged in by the main characters has been out of fear of having their hypocrisy exposed, but the effort is only for themselves and the other "great folk", because the common people like the gravediggers can plainly see the hypocrisy of their "betters." Hamlet approaches the issue from the other way around, pontificating about how death reduces everyone to nothing but worm-food, but he can't make the next leap. If in the end death takes us all and makes us nothing, then clearly during life one should be honest, "to thine own self be true", as Polonius hypocritically says.
Note also that the burials of Polonius and Ophelia are both deceptions: Polonius's quiet and hurried to damp down scandal, and Ophelia's with Christian rites even though she's a suicide. In all things, the proprieties must be observed, until the end.
Next, of course, the death of Ophelia sends Laertes into a towering rage, culminating in Laertes and Hamlet grappling in Ophelia's grave. Hamlet then lies to Laertes and claims excuse for killing Polonius, saying it was madness, when we know Hamlet was feigning madness, because he says as much. Laertes engages in a deception of his own, as I said, with the King to kill Hamlet dishonestly in the fencing contest.
In the final scene, the Queen is the first to be killed when she drinks from the poisoned cup. Her husband tries to stop her but she she puts him off. The King could have blurted out that the cup was poisoned - told the truth - but instead he stayed silent as his wife unknowingly kills herself. This shows how much of a liar the King was when he told Laertes that he couldn't punish Hamlet for killing Polonius because it would kill his mother, and she was the most important thing in the King's life. He lets her die when he could prevented it because he doesn't love her, he simply wanted power.
Next Laertes and Hamlet stab each other with the poisoned foil. It is only then, as the Queen, Hamlet and Laertes die, that the truth comes out. The final tragic moment is when Hamlet stabs the King. It's tragic because it is the last thing that Hamlet does when it should have been the first thing he did as soon as he had proof of the original murder, but through his cowardice, he brings about the deaths of many others, including himself.