Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Hamlet: The Play Hamlet: The History Hamlet: The Characters Hamlet: The Criticism More Hamlet
A Short Introduction to the Study of Hamlet
The following article was originally published in: A Short Introduction to the Study of Hamlet. Robert West Taylor. Marlborough College, 1867.

The story of Hamlet, from which Shakespeare took the main incidents of his tragedy, appears in a History of Denmark by Saxo Grammaticus, a native of Elsinore, written about the twelfth century, and first printed in 1514. It was included in a series of "Histoires Tragiques," by Belleforest, published some fifty years later, and was afterwards translated into English. The earliest copy that remains bears the date 1608, which is subsequent to that of Shakespeare's play, but the story was evidently known much earlier. There already existed a drama on the subject in 1589, and in 1594 a piece with this title was put on the stage of the theatre at Newington Butts. Some persons have supposed, though without sufficient ground, that this earlier drama was the work of Shakespeare himself, and formed the groundwork of the present tragedy. The text which we now have first appeared in 1604, but an earlier edition exists bearing the date 1603, which some critics have judged to be simply a pirated transcription of the play by an unknown hand; but the method which is observable in the additions made to it in the later copy, all of them serving to bring out more clearly the character of Hamlet, leads us more naturally to the conclusion that they are both the work of Shakespeare himself, who thus helped the solution of a problem which probalby puzzled his contemporaries, as it has puzzled many generations since his time. It will be interesting to notice, as we read the play, the changes thus made by the poet.

The "Historie of Hamblet" may be thus briefly told. Horvendile was a Dane -- the most notable of the pirates who scoured the Northern seas. His fame excited the envy of Collere, king of Norway (cf. Fortinbras in the play), who challenged him to single combat. Horvendile was victor, and returned home with much treasure, the greater part of which he sent to his sovereign Roderick, who thereupon gave him his daughter Geruth (Gertrude) to wife. "Of this marriage proceeded Hamblet." Now this Horvendile had a brother, Fengon, whose jealousy was excited by this display of royal favour. Having first seduced his wife, he invited Horvendile to a banquet, with her connivance, and traitorously slew him, alleging afterwards that Horvendile would have slain his wife, and the he, in defense of the lady, had slain him. He then married Geruth, and seized on the provinces which had been under his brother's command. Hamblet, perceiving that his life was in peril, counterfeited the madman, but his feigning was looked upon with suspicion by some of the sharper spirits about the court, who advised the king "to set some fair and beautiful woman in a secret place, that with flattering speeches, and all the craftiest means she could use, should purposely seek to allure his mind." (cf. the interview with Ophelia). But from this danger he was saved by a gentleman who had been brought up with him (cf. Horatio), and by the affection which the lady herself bore him. This device having failed, Fengon, by the advice of one of his courtiers (cf. Polonius), departed from the court, and let Hamblet be shut up in a chamber with his mother, the courtier himself being hid behind the hangings of the chamber, to overhear and report their conversation. Hamblet, suspecting some mischief, "used his ordinary method of dissimulation, and began to crow like a cock, beating with his arms upon the hangings of the chamber; whereby, feeling something stirring under them, he cried, 'A rat, a rat!' and presently, drawing his sword, thrust it into the hangings: which done, he pulled the counsellor, half-dead, out by the heels, made an end of killing him, and, being slain, cut his body in pieces, which he caused to be boiled, and then cast into an open vault, that so it might serve for food to the hogs." Having once more searched the room, he spoke roundly with his mother in terms which the "Historie" gives detail.

Fengon returns and finds his counsellor dead, but does not at first imagine that Hamblet has committed the murder. Fearing, however, some further mischief, he sends him to England, in company with two of his ministers (cf. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), who bore letters "that contained Hamblet's death." But he, suspecting his uncle's purpose, "raised out the letters that contained his death, and instead thereof graved others, with commission to the King of England to hang his two companions; and, not content to turn the death that they had devised against him upon their own necks, wrote further that King Fengon willed him to give his daughter to Hamblet in marriage."

On his return to Denmark, having been betrothed to the daughter of the King of England, he sets fire to the palace where the nobles are feasting, and rushes into Fengon's chamber and stabs him to death. After vindicating his conduct before the people he is elected king -- returns to England -- marries both the king's daughter and a Scottish princess -- kills the King of England who had plotted against him -- goes to Denmark with his two wives, one of whom betrays him, and is slain by Wiglerus, the successor of Roderick.

Such is the story that Shakespeare has ennobled into the play which his name always recalls. In its main features, as Professor Gervinus has remarked, [1] it is almost identical with the story which has formed the plot of some of the grandest works of Greek tragedy. And yet what a difference between Hamlet and Orestes!

The characters in which the interest of the play is centered are not many. The King and Queen tell their own tale; the former an unprincipled man, with very little vestige of a conscience. The prayer scene shows that he is not without some remorse for his sin; but his attempts at repentance, like his nephew's attempts at action, go no further than fruitless words. He is designed apparently to be a set-off to the conscientious side of Hamlet's character.

The Queen is not without marks of a better nature. Her affection for her son, and her qualms of conscience at the rapidity of her marriage with her paramor, her evident freedom from all complicity in her former husband's murder, all prepare us for the effect of Hamlet's violent appeals to her better nature. And yet even this is only transient. There seems to be in her, too, somewhat of the warm and impulsive but unsteady nature which we see in her son.

Horatio is the Pylades of this new Orestes, and it is only as the steady friend, and as the convenient interlocutor to serve as a foil for Hamlet's soliloquies, for such they really are (especially in the graveyard scene, Act V, scene 1), that he is used by the poet. In Act III, scene 2, a passage which does not appear in the earlier quarto, Hamlet describes his character. I shall have occasion to refer to this again.

The dramatic purpose of the character of young Fortinbras, also a later addition, will appear when we consider that of Hamlet.

Respecting Laertes, I cannot do better than quote the words of Professor Gervinus. I translate them freely, not having the English translation at hand:

"Thus clear in itself, the main purpose of the piece and the conduct of its hero is further illustrated by the speaking contrast in which the poet has set Laertes to Hamlet. In his history and position Hamlet may see the counterpart of his own. Hamlet has slain Polonius. His son Laertes, a sort of hero 'comme il faut,' a good swordsman, a knight of the French school, as choleric as Hamlet is melancholy of temperament -- a man with none of those brilliant gifts of mind and intellect which Hamlet possesses -- flies from the distant Paris to Denmark to avenge his father's murder. Of his father's precepts, this one seems to have fastened its hold upon him:

'Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.'

The one thought of his revenge possesses him, and every nerve in him is strained to action, even before he knows with certainty who is the murderer. The king has had the body of Polonius secretly interred, and has so attracted suspicion to himself. But the position and the power of the murderer do not bewilder Laertes. A mere report, whisperers and calumniators, are the sources of his suspicion, not 'an honest ghost,' risen from the grave. He has not the power and the means that Hamlet has -- but

'For his means, he'll husband them so well,
They shall go far with little.'

He is not the lawful heir to the throne, not strong in the favour of the people, not a prince of the royal house -- but he, the subject, excites an uproar that 'looks giant-like,' and makes even the king quake on his throne. When he comes before Claudius he curses the drop of blood that's calm in him as proclaiming him a bastard. He dares damnation, and cries--

'To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!'

while Hamlet broods and doubts 'mid all his certainty. He would 'cut his throat in the church,' and even the king approves this, for--

'No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarise'--

while Hamlet in pious scruples passed this king by, because he was praying. Laertes goes so far as to poison his sword, in order to secure his object in the duel with Hamlet, thus staining his knightly honour, though otherwise he deals with his revenge as that to which he is in honour bound -- while Hamlet is bound to his by heavier obligations of conscience. But, in the midst of this passion that thus throws conscience to the winds, he confines himself to the one object of his revenge; while under Hamlet's dilatory steps the innocent Polonius is slain, Ophelia is crazed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fall victims, Hamlet himself and his mother are fordone. The king had no need to address to Laertes advice which had more point for Hamlet--

'That we would do,
We should do when we would; for this would changes,
And hath abatements and delays, as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.'

But he had just as little need to warn him against involving the innocent in his revenge; the man of righteous passion surpasses in moderation the refining artist of revenge. To his father's

'Good friends thus wide he'll ope his arms,
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with his blood.'

Only the murderer of his father will he hit -- only this mark has he before his eyes, and he states it formally at the moment when he comes before Claudius, in the sharp, straight-forward inquiry for his father; but in this one object 'his will not all the world else shall stay him.' And this for what a father?"

The character of Polonius is well summed up in Hamlet's words:

"Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell;
Thou find'st to be too busy in some danger ...
This counsellor,
Who was in life a foolish, prating knave." (Act III, scene iv)

He is the complaisant, toad-eating courtier (Act III, scene ii); perhaps not positively vicious, but absolutely devoid of any higher principle than the world's idea of honour (Act II, scene i). The experiences of a long life have given him a certain shrewdness (which enables him for instance to detect the method in Hamlet's madness), but he is eaten up with conceit upon it as if he were a very Solomon (Act II, scene ii):

"Else this brain of mine
Hunts not the trail of policy so sure
As it hath used to do....
Hath there been such a time, I'd fain know that,
That I have positively said 'Tis so
When it proved otherwise."

This idea of his own wisdom makes him a meddling busybody. He can trust neither son nor daughter to their own guidance. His famous speech of parting advice to Laertes -- almost the only one in the play which could lead one to respect the man -- appears to me rather the prosy sermonizing of a man proud of his own wisdom and knowledge of the world than the affectionate leave-taking of a father from his son. And in his meddling he shrinks from no deceit. Sooner than confess himself backwards in discernment, he takes to himself the whole credit of the discovery of Hamlet's love for his daughter. He who not so long before had bidden his submissive daughter to be scanter of her maiden presence, utterly regardless of her known feelings towards Hamlet, uses her as a decoy to lure from him some confession of his real state. And this is the father for whom Laertes will be most thoroughly avenged, even to the casting aside of conscience and knightly honour.

The touching interest that attaches to the scenes that depict Ophelia's madness must not close our eyes to the essential weakness of her character. She is a mere commonplace girl when compared with a Portia or an Isabella. After submitting, without a word, to give up her love, she lends herself, equally without a protest, to the combinations of her father and the king. Her affection for her father is her one redeeming feature, and it helps to heighten the contrast which is tacitly drawn between Polonius and the father of Hamlet. The purity of her character has been assailed without sufficient ground, but we may be allowed to doubt whether Shakespeare would have put into the mouth of Imogen --even as mad -- the song which Ophelia sings (Act IV, scene v) or have made her a party to the dialogue in the play-scene.

But it is in the complex character of Hamlet that the interest of the play lies -- so much so that "Hamlet without the character of Hamlet" has become a proverb for an absurdity.

Hamlet is "fat and scant of breath" (Act V, scene ii), a description which is too often unnoticed. He is of a phlegmatic temperament, with well-trained sensibilities, prone to brood over, and see, the dark side of everything; at the same time keen to discern the ridiculous -- fitted for a philosophic life of contemplation -- capable of sudden and strong emotion, but without the steadiness which is required for action; like all such characters, seizing every excuse for avoiding what is painful to himself, even to the bearing of a load of woe; ready even, were it not that his conscience and his reason forbid it, to escape from painful duty by suicide; frittering away the time for deeds in useless meditation and mental analysis; looking at all sides of a question, instead of taking that one-sided view which leads to action; and with all the unfeeling hardness which generally accompanies such a character, sacrificing his dearest friends to his own intertness. He is ready enough, in theory, to recognize the greatness of more active souls, but there is a touch of scorn and pity in his very praise. Such a character is not his ideal, but rather that of Horatio, who can preserve an even temper through all the vicissitudes of life. It is the power to bear, and not the power to do, which commands his strongest sympathy. Thrown in an age when this power to do is presented under its more brutal aspects (as shown in the combat of his father with Norway, the murder, the seduction of his mother), his finer spirit shrinks from all contact with it. The features of the time, the brute carouse, the artificialness of the court are the objects of his condemnation or his ridicule: "things gross possess it merely." Still he himself, with all his culture, has not escaped its coarseness. Even the supposition of his madness will not entirely excuse the ribaldry of his language to Ophelia and his mother. This seems to me one of the most delicate touches which the poet has given. His purpose is to show that a mere philosophiser, though put in such a light as to enlist our strongest sympathies, falls far short of the highest character; and in this particular he hints by contrast at the purifying and elevating effects of action.

The question of Hamlet's madness is a difficult one to solve. He has brooded over the strangeness of his father's death till a settled melancholy has fallen upon him -- his mind is at any rate in an unhealthy state -- when the appearance of the ghost overpowers him so that he feels his reason is giving way. Anxious in his sensitive way to avoid the pity of his friends, he tells them he may at times put an antic disposition on. In the scenes in which there is reference to his father's death, it seems to me his mind unhinged finds its own expression. In the scene with Polonius I cannot but think him feigning.

It may, however, be useful to examine the character in detail. I have, therefore, given an analysis of those scenes in which Hamlet appears.

His first appearance (Act I, scene ii) shows his mocking character -- his weariness of the world -- his brooding disposition:

"My father--methinks I see my father..."

and the rousing of his latent suspicions of foul play.

In Act I, scene iv, there is much to throw light on Hamlet's character. His is the

"Overgrowth of some complexion;
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason;"

his

"The dram of ill,
That doth the noble substance often doubt."

His subsequent delays are not the effects of cowardly fear; under the influence of a momentary excitement he does not "set his life at a pin's fee" and each petty artery in his body "is hardy as the Nemean's lion's nerve."

But even here we have the germs of that fatalism which is afterwards more fully developed, and which is not seldom the creed of those who cannot carve out circumstances for themselves--

"My fate cries out."

The ghost's revelation kindles in him swift thoughts of revenge on that uncle to whom his prophetic soul had pointed as the author of this foul play. Yet even here the want of steady earnestness in his character betrays itself. After breaking out into a rhapsody of words and protests, he must needs take out his tablets and

"Set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

and with a complaisant chuckle at this "happy thought," he puts up his tablets with a

"So, uncle, there you are."

There is nothing in the whole play which depicts more forcibly his want of fixity of purpose, his readiness to be carried away by the most trivial suggestion. It is the same characteristic which afterwards seizes upon that other happy thought--

"The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

The same triviality shows itself in the falconer's answer--

"Hillo, ho! ho! boy, come, bird, come!"

with which his rapid power of association greets Horatio's cry--

"Hillo! ho! ho! my lord!"

Inclined at first to proclaim his uncle's villainy--

"There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark,"

he suddenly breaks off with--

"But he's an arrant knave."

But spite of this trifling, which not seldom accompanies strong feeling, his heart's grief bursts out at times:

"As for mine own poor part,
Look you, I'll go pray."

He feels already the insufficiency of culture for the new circumstances in which he is placed; they require something which the studies of Wittenberg have not provided for:

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy."

The scene closes with another expression of the same feeling -- an expression which Goethe has well chosen as the key to the whole play:

"The time is out of joint! O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right."

An interval of two months (Act III, scene 2) occurs before the beginning of Act II. A "transformation" has come over Hamlet; neither

"The exterior nor the inward man
Resembles what it was."

The first account which we have of it is in Ophelia's description of his visit. In one of his paroxysms he has burst into her chamber, his dress in disorder--that might be consistent with his feigning--but his

"Look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosèd out of hell
To speek of horrors;"

his

"Sigh so piteous and profound,
That it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being;"

these surely are not feigned; they are the signs of a real insanity, a very ecstasy, though not, as Polonius thinks, of love. The image of her to whom he once paid court is now confused in that general idea of womanly frailty which is mother's conduct has given him; the long "perusal of her face" seems to ask the same question which at a subsequent interview he puts in words: "Are you honest?"

The conscience of the queen hits the cause of his "lunacy" more nearly than Polonius:

"I doubt it is no other than the main,
His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage."

The letter which Polonius brings from Hamlet (Act II, scene 2) still bears trace of his mind's disorder: it is a very touching one. Its simplicity of declaration, the longing that it betrays for some comfort in his distress, the weariness of life conveyed in its closing words-- "whilst this machine is to him," all win our strongest sympathy. Polonius recounts the stages of his disorder, and Dr. Conolly [2] lays much stress upon them as the regular symptoms of melancholy madness. I can only look upon the passage as one of the old man's tedious prosings.

Whilst they are talking, Hamlet comes in, reading a book of satire (another hint at his disposition). The interest of the spectator in this his first appearance after his "transformation," is worked to its full pitch by the pathos of his mother's words:

"But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading."

Polonius boards him, and Hamlet, who, it seems to me, is now in one of his lucid intervals, quizzes him unmercifully under cover of his supposed madness. He knows that he is believed to be mad for love, and so it is on Ophelia that his discourse partly runs. Still, though he knows full well what he is saying, the burden is on his mind -- his words are tinged with a gloomy sadness -- the doubt of men's honesty -- the thought of the grave -- ending with the pathetic, thrice-repeated sigh that is wrung from him:

"Except my life, except my life, except my life."

But that he has been simply quizzing Polonius is shown by the words which he uses at his departure:

"These tedious old fools."

The scene that follows with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shows Hamlet's suspiciousness, his high powers of imagination, and his keen appreciation of all that is grand in nature; but the passage which seems to throw most light on his character is his declaration--

"There is nothing either good or bad,
But thinking makes it so."

It is the declaration of the over-cultivated mind, which would measure everthing itself--the portraiture of an ideal dreamer.

Polonius reappears, and Hamlet again quizzes him, and feeds his vain conceit that he is mad upon his daughter.

The dialogue with the players shows Hamlet as a man of refined taste -- one who hates affectation, and yet himself affects a certain superiority in appreciating what is "caviare to the general;" but better still as the perfect gentleman in his intercourses with others, who, in spite of his degree, has made friends with the actors at Wittenberg, and who now lays down for Polonius the golden rule of entertainment:

"Use them not after their dessert--but after your own honor and dignity."

After their departure, he bursts out into a very characteristic soliloquy. The passion of the actor, who could weep for Hecuba, recalls to his mind the far greater cue for passion which he himself has. Yet he,

"A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peaks
Like John-a-dreams..."

and can--do nothing? No, but--say nothing. He is fully conscious that he is playing the part of a coward, and calls himself names to match; but this prompts to no action. Its conclusion is not "about, my hands," but "about, my brains." And salving over his dilatoriness with the excuse that

"The spirit I have seen
May be the devil,"

he triumphantly adopts the happy device--

"The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

In truth, he "lacks gall."

The third act opens with the report of the two friends. They speak of the confusion as "put on," but in the same breath allude to the "crafty madness" which makes Hamlet keep aloof rom a confession of his true state. Polonius' plan is then carried out, to discover, by means of Ophelia, whether love be the cause of his madness. Before he sees her, he utters the famous burden of his misery and confession of his weakness-- "To be, or not to be." His thoughts are still harping on suicide as the readiest means of ending this heartache, but his usual quickness of association leads him on from the thought of the sleep of death to the dreams that may come after death, till at last he gives us what perhaps is the best clue to his own conduct in the whole play:

"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 some great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."

His resolution had been strong enough in its native hue when first the ghost appeared, but too much thought--the letting "I dare not wait upon I would"--the weighing the so-esteemed duty of revenge against the guilt of manslaughter have sicklied it over, till it has lost even the name of action.

He breaks off at the sight of Ophelia, and his love for her finds its first expression in the request--

"Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

But her reception of him, and her returning to him his presents, awaken again his thoughts of womanly unfaith, to which he gives a somewhat coarse expression, dwelling on the power of beauty to overturn honest principle, and on the various deceits of womankind; but confessing the while that once he loved her, and, in spite of his immediate retraction, "I loved you not," showing that his first words were true, by his unwillingness that his love should be given to another.

"If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for a dowry....
To a nunnery, go."

This, again, is no feigning: that noble reason is "like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh."

The king correctly guesses his disorder: it is not a settled madness, in the stronger sense of the word, but

"A something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood."

The advice to the players, with which Scene 2 opens, must ever remain in the soundest basis of theatrical criticism; it were well if our actors read it and pondered it a little oftener. Still, there is a little too much pedantic contempt for the "groundlings."

To his profession of friendship for Horatio I have before alluded. The man to be worn at his heart of hearts is not a Fortinbras, though he can recognize his greatness, but that man who is not passion's slave--who is not

"A pipe for Fortune's finger,
To sound what stop she please."

During the play-scene, Hamlet is in a state of great excitement, which finds its vent in wild, hurling words, violating at times all decency, but the old thought of the brevity of woman's love runs through it all. Ophelia's refusal of his visits must have had some heavy influence upon him, for it is throughout rather his mother's infidelity than his uncle's treachery on which he dwells.

Prof. Gervinus has well remarked that, if the speeches of the player-queen were as wormwood to his mother, those of the king should have been as thorns in his own side:

"Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity:
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending doth the purpose lose."

The play succeeds--the conscience of the king is caught--and what are Hamlet's first words? Not any outburst of passion at this confirmation of the ghost's story, but a merry song, and the applauding of his own cleverness--

"Would not this get me a fellowship in a cry of players, Sir?"

But his task is not a bit nearer completion, and even now nothing is produced but a violent scolding of his mother, preceded by a bombastic protest of what he could do--

"Such bitter business as the day would quake to look on."

His passion might play a Nero's part to his mother: of his uncle there is no thought.

On his way to her chamber he finds the king praying. Now he "might do it pat," but his procrastinating nature finds an excuse for delay in the devilish prompting that so his victim would go straight to heaven, and then where would be his revenge?

The scene with his mother is the one which brings out more than any other the hardness and unfeelingness of Hamlet's character. The way in which he makes light of poor Polonius' death and dismisses him with scant pity, though the victim of a mistake--

"I took thee for thy better"--

the violent abuse which he heaps upon his mother, neglecting the commands of his father's ghost, so much so that the "perterbed spirit" has once again to recall him to his duty--all this brings out the selfish side of a phlegmatic character, that covers at last its own misdoings with the excuse that

"Heavens hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister."

In the same mixture of selfishness and delight in the use of his cunning he has already planned the scheme which ends by his sacrificing his two innocent schoolfellows to his own safety:

"'Tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar."

In the opening scenes of Act IV, Hamlet seems clearly mad, though when he meets with Fortinbras he is full master of his reason. The greatness which he acknowledges in memorable words,

"Rightly to be great,
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw,
When honour's at the stake,"

sets him thinking once more on his own sluggishness, and minutely analysing its causes:

"Some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom,
And ever three parts coward....
From this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody."

And yet he lets himself be shipped off to England, and his bloody thoughts find their only vent in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the fate intended for him.

We lose sight of Hamlet for some time. In Act V, scene 2, we have his account of what took place in the interval. His mind was not at rest:

"In his heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let him sleep."

He discovers the intended treachery to which his two companions were no parties, forges his uncle's signature to a new document demanding their death, and comforts himself 'mid all this villainy, which does not lie near his conscience, by the thought

"There's a divinity doth shape our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."

On his return, he is first seen with Horatio in the graveyard scene. His talk with the grave-digger is interesting as a specimen of his imaginative power--of his delight in playing and refining upon words--and of his tendency to brood upon the hollowness and seeming of the world. [3] Even the grave-digger reminds him of his dead father, by alluding to the day when he overcame Fortinbras, but this does not catch his attention. His subsequent ranting over Ophelia's grave, provoked by Laertes' emphasis of grief,

"But sure the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion,"

Is another instance of that violent and transitory excitement which his mother recognizes as native to his character.

"Thus a while the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping."

There is something amusing, but at the same time conceited and arrogant, in the way in which Hamlet quizzes Osric in the last scene. On his departure he confesses to Horatio, "Thou would'st not think how ill all's here about my heart," but takes refuge in his old fatalism. "If it be not now, it will come." His apology to Laertes bears all the impress of his nobler nature, and his declaration therein of his own distraction and his madness should be sufficient answer to those who hold that this madness is feigned throughout.

But see how the old trifling spirit survives. He cannot even in his death agony avoid a pun: "Is thy union here?" alluding to the king's words, "And in the cup a union I will throw" (i.e. a pearl); and 'tis no regard for Horatio's life, but a selfish thought for his own good fame that makes him snatch the cup out of his hand:

"O, good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story."

Back to Hamlet Criticism

  1. Shakespeare Commentaries. G. G. Gervinus. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1863.
  2. A study of Hamlet. John Conolly. London: Edward Moxon & Co., 1863.
  3. Note one more of the sidelights that Hamlet almost unconsciously throws upon his own character: "The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense."
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