Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Hamlet: The Play Hamlet: The History Hamlet: The Characters Hamlet: The Criticism More Hamlet
Hamlet: An Ideal Prince
The following article was originally published in Hamlet: An Ideal Prince. Alexander Wellington Crawford. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916.


After three centuries of acting and more than a century of critical study we are still wondering what Shakespeare meant by his play of Hamlet. More had been written about the play and the character than about any historical person, with a single exception, and yet no satisfactory explanation has been reached, and we are still trying to solve the riddle of the drama. The acknowledged difficulties in all the theories have led some critics to the conclusion that the trouble is with the play itself, and that no theory can hope to reach a complete and satisfactory explanation. Professor [Charlton M.] Lewis has recently said that "The difficulties that confront any theory about Hamlet induce at last a belief that no single theory is admissible--that neither the play nor the character is a consistent whole." [1]

The usual interpretations of Hamlet make it a very curious and mysterious but not a great play, and the Prince a very interesting psychological phenomenon but not a great character. Critics have said that it is an inconsistent and rambling play, and the Prince a weak and irresolute character. The intelligence of the world, however, has not been content to regard either the play or the character as an enigma or as a commonplace. The persistent conviction of the play-going public, which in the case of Hamlet means the intelligent and scholarly public, is that it is a great play and a noble character, the greatest play and the greatest character in all dramatic literature. No theory can satisfy the public, therefore, which does not see in the play something majestic and in the character something noble and grand.

Whatever may be our present difficulties with the play or the character, there is no evidence that either presented any great problems to the play-goers in the days of Elizabeth. There is abundant evidence that Hamlet was one of the most popular of Shakespeare's plays in the dramatist's own day, as in ours, and it is fair to assume that it was not a puzzle to them, but presented some rather definite meaning about which there was general agreement. It is altogether unlikely that it could attract so much attention in such a practical age if the play was to them the riddle it has become to us. The men of the adventurous and stirring times of Elizabeth were not much given to speculation, after the supposed manner of Hamlet, but were interested chiefly in the practical affairs of the individual and of the nation. The literature that was popular in those days had to do mostly with the exciting events of the time in church or state, and the great popularity of Hamlet suggests that the play may have had some such significance. Great works of literature generally have a deep meaning for the age for which they are produced, and seldom fail entirely of comprehension. They become mysterious only to after generations, when the local and temporatl conditions have changed, or when some phase of their content has been overlooked. The clue must then be found in a reconsideration of the work and of the conditions of its original production.


It has become apparent to most students of Hamlet that no existing theory of the play is entirely satisfactory. The usual interpretations all alike fail to account for the unequalled interest always shown by the public in both play and character. The two outstanding theories doubtless contain much that is valuable, though they have also much that is valueless. The Goethe-Coleridge theory, especially, has done injustice to the character of Hamlet, and has even become a great obstacle to a proper interpretation of the play. As Professor [Hiram] Corson says: "I am disposed to think that Coleridge and Goethe, by the substantially similar theories they advanced, in regard to the man, Hamlet, contributed more, especially Goethe (as he exercised a wider authority than Coleridge), toward shutting off a sound criticism of the play, than any other critics or any other cause." [2]

The Goethe-Coleridge theory is the chief source of the notion that Hamlet is a victim of procrastination. These two great critics have made much of Hamlet's delay in carrying out the injunctions of the ghost, and have attributed it to a certain irresoluteness of character. They have said that the difficulties were all internal, and claim that Hamlet is too deficient of will or too overbalanced of mind to carry any plans into execution.

Ulrici was probably the first to repudiate such inherent deficiencies in the character of the Prince. Present-day readers are ready to endorse Ulrici, and to assert that on the contrary Hamlet is "a powerfully and healthily endowed nature, with the most brilliant gifts of mind and heart." [3] Professor Bradley says he is a "heroic, terrible figure. He would have been formidable to Othello or Macbeth." [4] Professor Lewis tells us that "In Kyd's play Hamlet was not guilty of procrastination," and he says he "cannot believe Hamlet is to blame for any irresoluteness." It is also true, as he further says, that "audiences do not condemn Hamlet as a weakling; they are with him all the time." [5]

The attempts to make it appear that Hamlet is incapable, that he is guilty of indecision and procrastination, have not satisfied the public any better than the critics. In the early part of the play he seems to them exceedingly forceful and capable of almost anything. The play impresses audiences with the idea that he is laboring under some sort of restraint. Hamlet does not have to urge himself forward, but to hold himself back. His words after his first interview with the players, that have been taken as an excuse for his inability to act, are rather a bitter self-reproach for not acting without further evidence of the king's guilt, an upbraiding of himself for permitting himself to be restrained. In the next moment, however, he sees the folly of this, and satisfies himself that it is much better to wait for further evidence. The spirit he has seen may be the devil, but the play will reveal beyond doubt the king's guilt or innocence. It is the part of wisdom, then, to wait for the evidence.

These elements of the situation have been much better understood by the Klein-Werder theory. This theory definitely repudiates the view of Hamlet's character that regards him as incapable, and as a weakling. It views the difficulties of the prince as external rather than internal, and explains the delay as necessary in order to procure adequate corroboration of the revelations of the ghost. Hamlet has had suspicions which are verified only by the ghost, though by nothing that would convince any one but himself, and not sufficient to warrant even him in taking the life of his uncle. The ghost, too, had told him not to harm his mother, and this very greatly hampers him in the execution of his task. To strike the king without at the same time striking the queen requires the highest wisdom and the most dexterous skill.

Werder does not regard Hamlet's task as the mere killing of the king, but the execution of justice upon the king. He says, "His task is justly to punish the murderer of his father ... and to satisfy the Danes of the righteousness of his action." [6] Hamlet is called upon to "revenge" his father, not merely to kill the murderer of his father. The process of vengeance is very different from the act of slaying. To kill the king at any time he chanced to meet him might be comparatively easy, but it would be only "hire and salary, not revenge" (III. iii. 79), and would only complicate and not fulfil his true mission. Hamlet's task is Hamlet: An Ideal Prince. Alexander Wellington Crawford. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1916.

more than to take the life of the king. He must bring him to justice and if possible to confession, that he may himself appear justified before the people, and before his own conscience.

This theory, then, gives a better explanation of Hamlet's conception of his duty than any other, and fail only because it comes short of the full explanation. Werder does not seem to understand the larger social and political aims of Hamlet, and therefore cannot assign a motive sufficient to account for his course throughout the play. On the Werder theory, the play must be called a tragedy of failure, for Hamlet never did succeed in publicly convincing the king of his crime and of justifying his execution. The theory has made a notable advance upon the Goethe-Coleridge theory, but cannot be said to have plucked out the heart of Hamlet's mystery. Both of these classic theories fail, as all others fail, because they persistently ignore certain parts of the play as written by Shakespeare. Some of these elements are in the original sources of the drama, and some of them have been added by Shakespeare himself. It is these overlooked features of his play that distinguish Shakespeare from all other dramatists, and raise his play above the many others of personal revenge, and place it in a class entirely by itself. And it is these parts that alone can furnish the key to the entire mystery.


With the failure of all theories to explain Hamlet, some recent critics are disposed to give up the pursuit and are trying to content themselves with the thought that perhaps after all the dramatist was only endeavoring to present the mystery of life and to portray only its deep inscrutability. Professor Dowden has said that Hamlet is not an enigma or a puzzle, but "a mystery." He says, "Shakespeare created it a mystery, and therefore it is forever suggestive; forever suggestive and never wholly explicable." [7]

In reference to King Lear the same writer expounds his conception of Shakespeare's art in these words: "If life proposes inexplicable riddles, Shakespeare's art must propose them also." [8] If life is a mystery, such critics would say, we must be content to let Shakespeare present it as such. We do not understand our own life, these critics imply, and we need not wonder that we cannot understand Hamlet's problem. To us as to Hamlet, the mystery is complete, and both problem and solution are hidden from us, the one as inscrutable as the other.

This kind of criticism, however, returns upon itself. We are much worse off if it is life rather than the play that is the great mystery. The desire to solve the riddle of the play is only that it may throw some light upon the problem of existence. But if the purpose of the play is only to confirm the mystery of life, then the darkness is only deepened, and the confusion is worse confounded. This view would forget that Shakespeare was a man writing for men, about problems of human existence, and not a Creator endowing his work with life. All human thought about life, whether in art or literature or philosophy, is an attempt to understand mand and his life, not to draw a veil of mystery over it and declare it inscrutable. It would be an entirely false view of art that would regard it as its business to declare its subject matter mysterious. A drama that would attempt to portray only the mystery of life would really mean nothing, and would have no reason for its existence. A criticism that sees nothing in Hamlet but the inscrutability of life thereby admits its own failure and its own inscrutability. An interpretation that neither explains the play nor the life that the play attempts to depict has little right to exist. Life may be a mystery, but human thought and art stubbornly refuse to admit it, and their very stubbornness constitutes their right to speak to us. Hamlet may be to us a mystery, but it is only because we have failed to understand it, and not because it is inscrutable. In a play so universally lauded we suspect there is embodied a view of life that it will be worth our while to understand. And the fact that criticism has not yet solved the mystery only serves to invite us to renewed efforts to interpret its view of life.


The chief material for the interpretation of a Shakespearean play is always the dramatist's own words, so far as textual criticism can furnish them. In the case of _Hamlet_, as of the other plays, we doubtless have inherited a fairly correct copy of the acting version, and the slight discrepancies and inconsistencies within the text itself are likely of quite minor importance, and do not affect the general meaning of the play. [9] With the text before us, then, there seems no good reason why we cannot understand the play, and get from it the meaning the dramatist intended. If we hit upon the right method of interpretation, a careful study of the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, should disclose to us the heart of Hamlet's mystery.

There are many other things, however, that might help us in understanding the play. Great assistance might come from a knowledge of the production of the play under the direct supervision of the dramatist himself, but the records are too meagre to be of any real value. Researches into the literature and history of Elizabethan England have added much to our knowledge of the period, and have enabled us to see the play in connection with the general and theatrical conditions of the times, but these have not unravelled the secret of the play for us. The comparisons of the play with other plays of the type, the revenge plays, have not brought us much nearer to the heart of Hamlet. Shakespeare always seems to write above the level of thought and passion of all other dramatists. And the search for the "sources" of Shakespeare's plays in the works of earlier dramatists and authors has so far yielded nothing of very great value. What we may lack through the loss of Kyd's Hamlet it is impossible to say, but the meagre results of the comparisons of other plays with their known sources leads inevitably to the conviction that Kyd's play could not furnish the key to Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare seems to make quite independent use of all the material he finds in earlier stories or plays. These, however, may give us a point of view for the story and serve as a valuable introduction to the dramatist's own work.

Though we cannot unravel the mystery of Hamlet by studies outside the play itself, it is nevertheless true that sometimes very valuable hints or suggestions can be found in the sources from which plays have been made. Shakespeare does not often change the inner character of a story, but rather deepens and broadens its meaning, and gives it a larger significance. Sometimes, as in the case of The Merchant of Venice, he brushes aside the more recent renderings of a story, and goes back and gives a new interpretation of its original meaning. He sees a truth hidden in an old story that has not been fully developed, and he puts it through the crucible of his own imagination, and brings out its hidden wealth. This, apparently, is what he has done in the case of Hamlet. The original story, however, is to him only a hint, and the more vital parts of the drama are his own contribution.

Of the probable sources of the story of Hamlet, only two are accessible, the original story as told in Historica Danica of Saxo Grammaticus and the Hystorie of Hamblet, by Francis de Belleforest. Kyd's play of Hamlet has been lost, and the German play, Fratricide Punished, very probably has either a common source with Hamlet or is a later version of the story. We must look for the "sources" of Shakespeare's play, then, only to the Historia of Saxo, and the Hystorie of Belleforest. It is quite remarkable that Saxo, Belleforest, and Shakespeare contain features not to be found in the German play, and these will be seen to be of great value in our interpretation.

Even in Saxo the revenge of the murder of his father is much more than an individual and personal matter with Hamlet. The killing of the king not only accomplishes an act of individual justice, but is at the same time a deliverance of the country from the rule of a king who is both a murderer and a corrupting influence in the life and politics of Denmark. Claudius, or Fengo as he is called in Saxo, is an evil influence in the country, and his rule is in very great contrast with that of the elder Hamlet who preceded and with that of the younger Hamlet who follows him, for in Saxo the prince lives to become the next king. As Latham says, "The Hamlet of the fourth book is no weakling in any sense of the word, neither is he either a fool or idiot, natural or pretending. On the contrary, he is a warrior of the true Norso type, and a politician and a strategist of unrivalled cunning." [10] He seems, indeed, to be the type of the National Hero, and was in character and conduct a sort of Danish Prince Arthur.

In Belleforest, however, this conception is still more clearly in the mind of the writer. Here Hamlet definitely poses as the deliverer of the people in his revenge upon the king. After he has killed the king he addresses the people, speaking of himself as "the author of your deliverance," and telling them "they should be thankful for such and so great a benefit as the destruction of a tyrant, and the overthrow of the place that was the storehouse of his villainies, and the true receptacle of all the thieves and traitors in this kingdom." He proceeds to tell them that in killing the king he had two motives; first, "vengeance for the violence done unto my lord and father," and, secondly, "for the subjection and servitude that I perceived in this country." He then explains to them that he did the deed himself out of a desire to spare the people. "But it liked me best to do it myself alone, thinking it a good thing to punish the wicked without hazarding the lives of my friends and loyal subjects, not desiring to burden other men's shoulders with this weight; for that I made account to effect it well enough without exposing any man into danger, and by publishing the same should clean have overthrown the device which at this present I have so happily brought to pass." [11] Then, after further reviewing the career and character of his murderous uncle, he says, "It is I that have taken away the infamy of my country, and extinguished the fire that embraced your fortunes.... I was grieved at the injury committed both to my father and my native country.... I am the author of your preservation." [12]

It appears, then, that in these two earliest known forms of the old Danish legend, Hamlet is portrayed as a national hero, and the deliverer of his country from the corruption and servitude of the wicked king, his uncle, and that he accomplished this end by his own valor and without hazarding the lives of the people of Denmark. No wonder, then, as the story proceeds to tell, he "won the affections of the nobility, that some wept for pity, other for joy, to see the wisdom and gallant spirit of Hamlet." [13] These noble deeds make Hamlet a real national hero, and it is this spirit Shakespeare has apparently incorporated into his play, and that up to this time has not been appreciated by critics and readers.


With this conception of the story, it becomes important to study very closely the situation as developed in the early scenes of Hamlet. The dramatic exposition will prove to give us the right point of view for a proper understanding of the play. A good deal of the trouble comes from the fact that the play has not been approached in the right manner. With few exceptions the existing interpretations of the play attempt to understand the drama by first trying to understand the character. The critics seem to forget that the play is not the history of a certain Prince of Denmark, but a work of imagination, based as we see upon legends, but constructed or reconstructed according to the dramatist's views of human life. Hamlet, like all other dramas, is "an arranged spectacle" in which there are many persons, but one chief person. The Prince, Hamlet, cannot be said to be the play, though he is the one person upon whom the action of the play turns. We should try, then, first, to understand the drama; and then we may hope to understand the man Hamlet. The Prince is not the play, though he is the chief character of the play.

If Shakespeare in this play has adhered to his usual practice in striking the key-note in the first scene, then we must believe that the initial situation of the play has developed before the Prince makes his appearance. Hamlet comes upon the stage for the first time in the second scene, after many of the dramatic elements have already been introduced into the situation. The condition of affairs in Denmark, the relation of Denmark to Norway, and the ambitions of young Prince Fortinbras, are all carefully outlined by the dramatist before Hamlet comes upon the stage. Furthermore, the ghost appears to others on three several nights before it appears to him, and he receives his commission only in the fourth scene. The dramatic situation is therefore developed in large part before he appears, and his interview with the ghost seems only the completing factor. It would seem, then, that Hamlet is not the play in himself, but only a factor in the solution of the problem, though a factor so large that he soon dominates everything and becomes the dramatic hero.


A great many students of the play have expressed surprise that nowhere does Hamlet give distinct utterance to his conception of the nature of the task assigned him by the ghost. He nowhere explains clearly his own motives, not even in his private talks with his friend, Horatio, nor yet in his soliloquies. This may be due in part to the fact that Hamlet is not the play. As we have seen, the problem of the play cannot be solved by reference only to the prince. The situation of the play is developed before he comes on the stage, and as we shall see later the full solution is reached only after his death. Moreover, the character of his troubles and his task of revenge are of such a personal nature that he cannot reveal them even to Horatio. The fact that his troubles are only suspicions, that cannot be verified at present, forbids a declaration even to his bosom friend.

Hamlet very properly has the habit of silence. There is about him, as has been said "an habitual secrecy" that resists all our prying inquisitiveness. He scarcely deigns even to mention his suspicions to himself, and his soliloquies do not disclose fully his inner thoughts. In his first soliloquy, which occurs in his first appearance on the stage, Hamlet denounces his mother's "o'erhasty marriage," as if this were all that troubled him. His great grief almost breaks his heart, yet he concludes by reminding himself that he must not speak out, saying:

"But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!" (I. ii. 159.)

In all his associations with his friends, moreover, he enjoins them to the strictest secrecy regarding any revelations made to them. When Horatio and the others tell Hamlet of the appearance of the ghost, he draws from them all the information he can, and then pledges them to the utmost secrecy, saying, "Give it an understanding, but no tongue." (I. ii. 249.) After he has himself seen the ghost they ask him, "What news, my lord?" But he denies them, saying, "No; you will reveal it." He then seems to think of telling them, first pledging them to secrecy, and begins by saying, "There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark," and then changing his mind for fear they will disclose it, he adds indifferently, "But he's an arrant knave." A few moments later, after assuring them, "It is an honest ghost," he makes them swear solemnly upon the cross of his sword, "Never make known what you have seen tonight." [14]

Hamlet finds it impossible even to make a confidant of Horatio, for not only is his trouble only a suspicion, but it is of the most intimate personal kind, involving as it does the honor of his mother. Fortunately, the friendship between the two is so genuine and strong that Horatio remains his trusty friend without a knowledge of all that is in Hamlet's mind and heart. It is clear, however, that Horatio knows much more than the others, and more than Hamlet is reported as telling him. At the end of the play, when he is dying, Hamlet solemnly charges Horatio after his death to:

"report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied."
(V. ii. 326-7.)

Then after giving his voice for the election of Fortinbras as the next king of Denmark, he dies with these words on his lips: "the rest is silence." (V. ii. 345.)

No words of Hamlet, then, fully disclose his thoughts and his motives, nor is it necessary that they should. All his words are naturally spoken with the closest reference to the entire situation and the conditions about him. These conditions must, therefore, interpret for us his words and his motives, and if properly understood will make his words clear. Shakespeare does not find it necessary to have Hamlet openly and explicitly declare his thoughts. But he does take particular pains to explain very fully the dramatic situation and all the surroundings of Hamlet, and these give the requisite meaning to his words. It is the supreme art of Shakespeare to delineate his characters in the most intimate relation to the situation and movement of his dramas, and never in isolation or apart from the action of his plays. In the case of Hamlet, there are fewer explicit words than usual in his plays, and probably for the reason that he has more carefully elaborated the situation that should give the words and actions the meaning required. It is only in these dramatic surroundings that we can find the clue to the character and motive of Hamlet, and these the critics have not been able to understand.


Largely from the influence and example of Goethe, nearly all criticism of Hamlet has overlooked and ignored the dramatist's careful exposition of the situation as given in the first scene of the play. Goethe declared the initial situation of the play to be a useless and inartistic encumbrance to the story, and led the way in disregarding it in the interpretation. This first scene, however, contains the dramatist's own exposition of his play, and outlines for us the environment in which Hamlet is to perform his part. The fallacy has unfortunately been passing current among scholars that Shakespeare was very careless in reconstructing the old plays upon which he worked, and they have therefore felt no necessity of paying the strictest attention to all the elements that he works into his dramatic compositions. But it is now high time to cease ignoring whatever he has written, especially what he has himself added to the material that came to his hand. The criticism that attempts to find all of Shakespeare's thought without studying carefully all his words has utterly failed, as was inevitable, and should now be abandoned.

As a consequence of this misconception, no adequate explanation has ever been offered of many elements that the dramatist has with seemingly great care outlined in the first scene of the play. The relations of the two kingdoms of Denmark and Norway, which the play explains very fully, have never been seen to have any significance for the play as a whole. The part of young Fortinbras has in the same manner never been made clear, and he is usually treated as a very unimportant incident. This is surely a great mistake, for almost the entire first scene is given over to these topics, and they constantly recur to the very end of the play, where finally the crown of Denmark passes to Prince Fortinbras. This fiery young warrior seems always to be hovering over Denmark, like an eagle over its intended prey. He appears directly in the fourth and fifth acts, and is a factor in every act but the third, in which the ghost comes to whet Hamlet's "almost blunted purpose." The dramatist has done everything possible to indicate that great significance attaches to the relations of the two kingdoms, and of the two princes.

Goethe spoke of these circumstances surrounding Hamlet as the "external relations of the persons," and declared that Shakespeare had managed them very badly, and to no dramatic purpose. He made bold to say that "All these circumstances and events would be very fit for expanding and lengthening a novel; but here they injure exceedingly the unity of the piece, particularly as the hero has no plan, and are, in consequence, entirely out of place." He proposes concerning "these external, single, dissipated, and dissipating motives, to cast them all at once away, and substitute a solitary one instead of them." He then elaborates his plan, which is, briefly, to eliminate all reference to Wittenberg and the universtiy and to connect Horatio directly with Norway by making him the son of the viceroy, and "When Hamlet tells Horatio of his uncle's crime, Horatio counsels him to go to Norway in his company, to secure the affections of the army, and return in warlike force." [15] Goethe scarcely even takes the trouble to consider all the references to the relations of Denmark and Norway, but brushes them aside as entirely out of place.

The changes which Goethe proposed to make might conceivably produce an excellent play, for Goethe's genius may have been equal to the task. But the resulting drama would no longer be Shakespeare's, and it would have no more relation to his play than his Hamlet has to Kyd's. It might still be called Hamlet, but the motive and the character of the prince would be changed and would have no relation to the one we know. The futility of these suggestions upon the part of Goethe serves only to make clear the difficulties critics have experienced in interpreting these "external relations to the persons." It is, therefore, of the highest importance to scrutinize these elements of the play with the utmost care, to see if after all they do not constitute a very significant part of the dramatic situation. If they do, then we may expect them to contain the true motive of the play and offer the key to the solution of its mystery.

It should be observed at the outset that these troublesome "external relations" are Shakespeare's own contribution to the story, for there is no reference to young Fortinbras in any of the extant possible sources of the drama, and no such exposition of the existing relations of the two kingdoms. The Hystorie of Hamblet alone refers to Norway, but only to tell how Hamlet's father had overcome the king of Norway before the opening of the story. No hint is given of the present strained relations of the two kingdoms. If Shakespeare had found such relations in the story he adopted, it is conceivable that he might have left them standing in little or no connection with the motive of the play, as he may have done with certain other minor features of the story. But when he added them himself, they must certainly be considered as having a very vital relation to the meaning of the play. The reference to Norway in the earlier story seems to have furnished him with a hint, and he wove carefully into his play the relations of the two kingdoms.

These new elements of the story Shakespeare utilized from the first, for they appear in the First Quarto substantially as in the First Folio. These deliberate additions to the story furnished an encompassing situation to the play, and supplied the elements that lifted Hamlet's motive from the low level of personal revenge to the high plane of national purpose. This enables Shakespeare to endow his hero with a much loftier and nobler passion, and to connect the action of the play with a more truly dramatic situation. The dramatist had previously done a similar thing in Romeo and Juliet, where he made love serve the purpose of reconciling two rival houses, and in The Merchant of Venice, where he made the love of Portia and Bassanio the means of frustrating the cruel revenge of Shylock. Shakespeare was never satisfied with being a mere psychologist of human passion, but contented himself only when he could portray also its moral and spiritual meaning.


The greetings in the opening lines of the first act seem to indicate an unusual watchfulness and nervousness on the part of the guards, due, as later conversation discloses, to the previous appearances of the ghost, and to the warlike state of the kingdom. Denmark, it seems, is threatened with the revolt of Norway, which had become a tributary kingdom under the late king Hamlet. This old king was a great patriot, it would appear, and now his ghost shows itself among the guards of the palace, as if to inspire or to take part in the defense of the kingdom. With the change of guards, the conversation turned to "this thing," "this dreaded sight," "this apparition," which they "two nights have seen;" and which as they spoke appeared for the third time, in "warlike form" as before.

Horatio, the wise and faithful friend of Hamlet, regards this as a matter of grave national import, and fears that it "bodes some strange eruption to our state." As his next speech indicates, Horatio is well acquainted with the past history and with the present affairs of the kingdom. Through him the dramatist lays before us the general situation of the play.

Marcellus then asks for an explanation of the warlike preparations he sees going on all around. (This inquiry reveals the fact that there are four distinct forms of military and naval activity on the part of the Danes, all of which are quite unusual. He speaks first of the extraordinary watchfulness of the guard, which he calls, "this same strict and most observant watch." This would seem to indicate that they expect war, and fear they may be suddenly attacked. Then he discloses the fact that workmen are kept busy by night as well as by day in rushing preparations: "So nightly toils the subject of the land." Added to this is the active manufacture of cannon and purchase of implements of war from foreign marts, indicating their fear of a sudden attack that may possibly find them unprepared. And finally, he speaks of the feverish haste in building ships, and the fact that they are impressing men into the work, and keeping them busy even on Sundays. When this fact is considered in connection with the strict watch, it seems plain that they fear a sudden attack from the sea. Marcellus notices that all these preparations are being pushed with "sweaty haste" and wants to know the reason, saying, "Who is it that can inform me?" (I. i. 70-79.)

In repy to the inquiry of Marcellus, Horatio undertakes to explain, and says that these preparations are intended as a defense against the threatened attack of young Fortinbras of Norway. To make the matter clear, he goes on to explain how the trouble arose between the two countries. It seems that the elder Hamlet was a brave but peaceable man, and that he was "prick'd on by a most emulate pride, dared to the combat," by the elder Fortinbras. The "valiant Hamlet" did not pick the quarrel; but when he was attacked would not permit another to take advantage of him, and boldly stood up for his own. In the ensuing war Fortinbras was slain, and part of his dominion passed under the sovereignty of Denmark.

Now the young Prince of Norway has come into power, and wants to recover "those foresaid lands," and for this purpose is gathering an army and making other warlike preparations. Denmark is therefore compelled to make ready to resist the attack, and the coming in armor of the ghost of the late king is taken at once as having something to do with "his country's fate." The king appears to be ready once more, even in spirit, to combat "the ambitious Norway," and to defend his country. Horatio does not hesitate to connect the coming of the ghostly apparition with this apparent crisis in the affairs of Denmark, and likens it to the portents in Rome before the fall of "the mightiest Julius," and regards this as evidence of the interests of heaven in the forthcoming struggle. This interpretation of the situation seems to satisfy Marcellus, and may be regarded as the true explanation. It is borne out by Bernardo, too, who connects the coming of the ghost of the former king with the impending war.


The ghost in Hamlet no doubt performs an important dramatic function. Whatever may have been Shakespeare's belief about ghosts, he utilizes the popular conception to render objective what is in the minds of his characters. The ghosts or witches that appeared in Macbeth spoke out only what was in his mind, and revealed his inner thoughts to the audience better than any words of his could do. In the same way, the ghost in Hamlet discloses to us the suspicions already in the minds of Hamlet and his friends. When Hamlet sees the ghost and hears its revelations, he voices this thought by saying, "Oh my prophetic soul!" (I. v. 40.) And the fact that it first appears to the friends of Hamlet suggests that they shared his suspicions and perhaps even anticipated them, though no word had been spoken. The inquiry of Marcellus about the cause of the warlike activity and his later remark about the rotten condition of Denmark seem to imply a suspicion that he is endeavoring to verify or disprove.

The scepticism that all at first show concerning the ghost seems to indicate their unwillingness to put faith in their suspicions. They do not willingly think evil of the king, and they all want some undoubted proof, not only of the fact of the ghost's appearance, but of the truth of his words. Horatio hesitates to take the word of Bernardo and Francisco, and is convinced only by the actual sight of the ghost. Hamlet, apparently the least suspicious of all, for he is the last to see the ghost, seems reluctant to believe Horatio and the others have seen it. To convince him, Horatio assures him with an oath of the truth of his report, saying,

"As I do live, my honor'd lord, 'tis true." (I. ii. 221.)

His doubts are not finally removed until the fourth scene when he sees the ghost for himself. At last, the evidence overcomes his moral reluctance to believe such foul suspicions, and Hamlet is convinced of the guilt of the king.


So much is said in the play about the ghost's warlike form that great significance must be attached to that fact. On its appearance on the stage Horatio speaks of it as having on

"that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march." (I. i. 47-49.)

And when Marcellus asks,

"Is it not like the king?"

Horatio replies:

"As thou art to thyself;
Such was the very armor he had on
When he the ambitions of Norway combated." (I. i. 58-61.)

When Marcellus further observes its "martial stalk," Horatio suggests that

"This bodes some strange eruption in our state." (I. i. 69.)

Then after Horatio has explained to Marcellus and the others the reason for the warlike preparations and the impending danger from Norway, Bernardo remarks:

"Well may it sort, that this portentous figure
Comes armed through our watch, so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars." (I. i. 109-111.)

It is quite clear, then, that they regard the king's appearance in arms as a portent of grave danger to the state from the ambitions of young Fortinbras of Norway.

When they inform Hamlet of the aparition, one of the points they specially mention is that he was "arm'd." Horatio describes the ghost as

"A figure like your father,
Armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe." (I. ii. 199-200.)

Hamlet seems not more impressed with the appearance of the ghost than with the fact that he was "arm'd." After being apparently convinced that the ghost had actually appeared, in great excitement he questions his friends until all three assert that the ghost was "arm'd." Then he cross-questions them, and, when convinced of the truth of their statement, he begs them to keep the matter secret, and

"Give it an understanding, but no tongue." (I. ii. 249.)

When alone, he observes:

"My father's spirit in arms! All is not well;
I doubt some foul play." (I. ii. 254-5.)

It is the general opinion, then, that great significance is to be attached to the fact that the king appeared in armor. When we take this in connection with the fact that he appeared to the guards, as they said, "upon the platform where we watch'd," it is impossible not to infer that the king came upon a patriotic mission, and that his appearance was intended to have a relation to the defense of Denmark.

All that Hamlet's friends had told him was soon confirmed by the appearance of the ghost to him in the same guise. As if to confirm the words of his friends, he notices that the "dead corpse" of his father is again clad "in complete steel." (I. iv. 52.) The apparition will say nothing, however, in the presence of all, though he makes it clear by beckoning Hamlet that he has something for his ear alone. As the ghost and Hamlet withdraw for their private interview, Marcellus feels that it is upon the business of the state that the ghost appears, and remarks:

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." (I. iv. 90.)

To this Horatio replies, "Heaven will direct it." The inference they all appear to draw is that the visit of the late king's spirit is in connection with the impending danger to the state of Denmark. This seems to imply that the task that is falling to Hamlet is not merely a personal matter between him and his father, but a momentous undertaking of great national import.


Though we see nothing of the elder Hamlet on the stage, except his ghost, it is really he who is the mainspring of all the action of the play. It was the desire to gain his crown that had impelled Claudius to the murder, and it is the filial duty of Hamlet to his father that urges him to his revenge upon the king. This conflict, then, of the murderer and the avenger of the elder Hamlet constitutes the main plot of the play, and from this grows the entire narrative.

There are many evidences in the play that the elder Hamlet was a very different man from his brother Claudius. Not only was one the innocent victim and the other the cold-blooded fratricide, but the rule of the two kings was as different as possible. Under the elder Hamlet the kingdom of Denmark had been honorable at home and respected abroad. It seems to have been a kingdom which both citizen and alien recognized as strong and good. But under Claudius the good name of Denmark had been lost, and the wholesome fear of her just power had passed away. Corruption and debauchery now stalk through the land, and foreign powers think it weak and debased. On the confession of Claudius himself it appears that young Fortinbras thinks its weakness affords him a good opportunity to make war upon Denmark, and a fitting time to seize the lands that his father had lost to the elder Hamlet. It is for this reason that he is now threatening Denmark, and if we can judge from the condition of the land, he might reasonably look for a complete triumph.

The change that has come over the country is but an index of and the effect of the difference of the two kings. The younger Hamlet has made most striking contrasts between his father and his uncle. In the interview with his mother, when he tries to dissuade her from continuing her guilty relations with the king, he calls her attention to the portraits of the two, saying:

"Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentiment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow ...
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man;
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows;
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear
Blasting his wholesome brother." (III. iv. 53-65.)

The character of the elder Hamlet is further strikingly depicted in Horatio's explanation of the war preparations to Marcellus and the others. It is evident from this speech that he was a most noble king, who ruled solely in the interests of his kingdom, and not in his personal interests. He had no ambitions, and in no way molested any of his neighbors, but kept his land in prosperity and peace. He was not, however, a weak but a very valiant king, "For so this side of our known world esteem'd him" (I. i. 85), as Horatio goes on to say. He made no wars, but did not hesitate to go to war to defend his own. He would not permit any other to plunder him. He was a peaceable king, but not a peace-at-any-price king.

Therefore, when Fortinbras of Norway challenged him to war, he valiantly took up the challenge, and if we are to judge by the brevity of Shakespeare's account of the war, he very speedily overcame and slew Fortinbras. By his victory the lands that were in dispute fell to Denmark, and so long as he lived they remained his without question. Only when he was dead did Norway once more think itself able to challenge Denmark and dare it to combat. The weakness of Claudius, the young prince Fortinbras thought, afforded him his opportunity.

It is the sort of strength and virtue that makes the elder Hamlet a real national hero. He was not the type of the aggressive and conquering hero, who made war for the sake of war and conquest. With that kind of hero Shakespeare had no sympathy. He was, however, the dramatist's ideal king, who loved peace, and would never make war, but who would not hesitate to go to war in defense of his right and of his nation. He would not wage an aggressive war, but was valiant enough to defend his kingdom when attacked. This is the only kind of hero Shakespeare recognizes, and for this kind he had the most profound admiration. Few of the critics have appreciated this character of the elder Hamlet, or have seen in the account any significance for the play. Werder alone seems to get a glimpse of it when he speaks of him as the "hero king, Hamlet's father." [16]

In considering the younger Hamlet it is worthwhile to observe that previous to Shakespeare's version of the story, in both Saxo and Belleforest, the names of father and son were different. The name of the father in both earlier versions was Horvendil, and only the son was Hamlet. But Shakespeare has given the name also to the father, thus making the son the namesake of the father. This fact, taken together with the son's wonderful devotion to the father, make it evident that Shakespeare desired to have them conceived as of similar character. Certain it is that he has left the impression that the son is but a second Hamlet, of the same character, and of the same self-sacrificing yet heroic type. As the father was an ideal king, so is the son an ideal prince, and Fortinbras in the last speech of the play says that if Hamlet had been put on the throne, there is no doubt he would have prov'd most royally."


The second scene of the play makes it clear that it is the weak and corrupt condition of Denmark under Claudius that affords occasion for the warlike activities of Fortinbras. From the beginning of the play Hamlet has had suspicions, which are gradually confirmed as the plot develops, that Claudius has exerted a very evil influence upon the country. The later development shows that Hamlet has rightly divined the true inwardness of the situation. Claudius himself is fully cognizant of the state of affairs, and from his lips we get the true explanation. He discloses the fact that young Fortinbras has no such wholesome fear and respect for him as he had for the late king, and makes the damaging admission that:

"young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,...
... hath not fail'd to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father." (I. ii. 17-24.)

Claudius further remarks that he has written to Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras, imploring him to restrain the fiery temper of his nephew, and now dispatches two courtiers to the same end. Only by weakly supplicating Norway is Claudius able to keep peace with his neighbor and prevent an invasion. This weakness is in great contrast to the days of the elder Hamlet, when the Danish royal power was feared and respected, both at home and abroad.

There is no doubt that Claudius was a thoroughly bad man. If like Hamlet we cannot prove it at the opening of the play, we need only wait for the later developments and for his villainous attempts on Hamlet's life. Claudius is indeed as much a villain as Macbeth, and with little or nothing of Macbeth's great ability. The ghost speaks of him as one "whose natural gifts were poor to those of mine!" (I. v. 51-52.) And Hamlet, comparing him to his father in his later interview with his mother, calls him:

"A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings." (III. iv. 96-98.)

Yet Claudius, though a villain, was capable of quick and effective action. He was clever enough to leave no traces of his crime when he killed his brother, and he showed dispatch and skill in quickly bringing about the election of himself as the next king before Hamlet could return from the university. This same power of speedy action is his greatest strength, and enables him to make Hamlet's task at once exceedingly difficult and dangerous.

Gradually there is disclosed in the play considerable evidence of a general corruption and weakening of the state under the example and influence of Claudius. Hamlet is conscious of it on his return from the university, and the king readily admits his dissipations. No doubt Hamlet's sad words about the condition of the world in his first soliloquy are spoken more with reference to Denmark:

"Fie on't! O fie! 'Tis an undweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely." (I. ii. 135-7.)

The king had led the way in dissipation and debauchery, and in his first interview with Hamlet promises elaborate festivities (I. ii. 121-9). In the same scene Hamlet refers to these habits, and satirically tells his friend Horatio: "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" (I. ii. 175). In his next conversation with Horatio, Hamlet again speaks of the king's drinking habits, and says:

"The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge." (I. iv. 8-12.)

When Horatio asks if this is a Danish custom, Hamlet replies that "it is a custom more honor'd in the breach than the observance." At a later time when Hamlet tries to show his mother the baseness of his uncle, he speaks of him as "the bloat king" (III. iv. 182).

To the virtuous mind of Hamlet, one of the worst features of this debauchery is that it has destroyed their reputation among nations, and the fair name of Denmark has suffered irreparable loss:

"This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition." (I. iv. 17-20.)

Then he moralizes upon the baneful influence of "some vicious mole of nature" that corrupts the whole being, until such men

"Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault." (I. iv. 35-6.)

The inevitable implication of course is that the whole state of Denmark has been corrupted by the king's bad habits and vicious nature until

"the dram of eale,
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal." (I. iv. 36-8.)

This condition of corruption impresses both Hamlet and his friends almost from the outset. When the ghost has vanished after his appearance to Hamlet and the others, Marcellus at once recognizes its relation to the country, and says, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I. iv. 90). It is Hamlet, however, with his deep moral nature, who most fully recognizes the king's corrupting influence upon Denmark. After the ghost has revealed to him the matter and the manner of his murder, Hamlet at once sees that the crime is not a mere matter between him and Claudius, but that it has engendered a bad condition of affairs in the state and that it is imperative upon him to set himself to the task of reparation:

"The time is out of joint--O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!" (I. v. 189-190.)

These thoughts are no doubt in Hamlet's mind when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell him the only news is "that the world's grown honest." To this he quickly replies that "your news is not true," and goes on to say that "Denmark's a prison," and "one o' the worst," and at any rate "to me it is a prison" (II. ii. 233-246). A little later in his great soliloquy, referring to his grievous troubles and sufferings, he calls them "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (III. i. 58). No doubt he is thinking not only of the foul murder of his father, but of the times that are out of joint and that he must try to set right.

There has been a feeling from the first that the coming of the ghost has had to do with affairs of state. Horatio, who has just come from Wittenberg when Marcellus and others report to him of seeing the ghost, volunteers the idea that "This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I. i. 69). Horatio knows nothing of the murder and yet he thinks the ghost has to do with affairs of state. When he sees the ghost, he thinks of three possible reasons for its appearance. He may want something done; or may want to tell where he has hoarded some treasure; or he may be privy to his country's fate. Taken in connection with what he has just said of the impending danger from young Fortinbras, it seems to indicate a feeling that all is not well with Denmark. Hamlet, however, is the only one who fully comprehends the actual truth.


Hamlet's skepticism about the ghost vanishes only when he sees it for himself. At first sight he wonders for a moment whether or not it is some evil spirit sent to do harm. But these doubts soon vanish as he sees the semblance of his father before him. When he first heard of its appearance from his friends, he had resolved to speak to it at any hazard if it looked like his father:

"If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it, though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace." (I. ii. 243-5.)

This pictures Hamlet as a most dutiful and devoted son, with a perfect faith in his father, and a willingness to undertake anything in his behalf.

As soon, therefore, as he has dispelled his first fears at the sight of the ghost, he addresses himself to him, calling him, "Hamlet, King, father," and begs him to tell him why he leaves his tomb and revisits "the glimpses of the moon" (I. iv. 53). He implores him, "Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?" (57). He apparently expects some task to be assigned him, and is ready to listen and obey. He says he does not set his life at a pin's fee, and intimates his resolve at any cost to follow it. He feels that when the ghost beckons him it is fate crying out, and he feels strong for any task:

"My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve."

When his friends try to restrain him from following the ghost, he breaks loose and says:

"Unhand me, gentlemen;
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me;
I say, away! Go on; I'll follow thee." (I. iv. 81-6.)

In the private interview with the ghost that follows, Hamlet hears the story of his father's "foul and most unnatural murder," confirming all his worst suspicions. His devotion to his father is shown in his eager attention to the sordid story of his uncle's villainy and his mother's weakness, and in the declaration of his willingness to give himself up to the duty of revenge. He is impatient of the slow rehearsal of the murder, and cries out:

"Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge." (I. v. 29-31.)

When he has heard the whole story, he promises the ghost that he will give up every other ambition to accomplish this filial duty, and bursts out into a frantic passion of devotion and vengeance, saying:

"from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,...
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter; yes, by heaven!" (I. v. 98-104.)

Hamlet's first thought is that it is his mother who is primarily responsible for the crime, and he cries out, "O most pernicious woman!" But this thought his father's ghost does not encourage, and has already told him not to contrive against his mother.

The injunction of the ghost to revenge his murder was subject to two restraints. The ghost firt enjoined him, "Taint not thy mind." This Hamlet apparently understood as meaning that in revenging his father's murder he was to regard his task as moral, and was to keep his own moral nature uncontaminated. His mission was to restore moral order in Denmark, and not to make matters worse by committing crimes himself. Then the ghost said further, "Nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught." Hamlet had been too ready to charge the crime to his mother's influence, and now the ghost admonishes him that he is to strike Claudius down without striking his mother. He is charged to work vengeance on the king without harming the queen. He is to be an avenger of his father, and not a destroyer of his mother. This restraint not to harm his mother greatly complicated his task, for the king and queen were so bound together that it was all but impossible to separate their fates.

These restraints laid upon Hamlet in the accomplishment of his great task were in fact but the restraints which is own moral nature and his great reverence for his father's character would impose upon him. His great devotion to his father, as Werder suggests, was probably due in part to the fact that he turned to him when he found his mother so ignoble. This love for his father and his own moral conviction now found expression in the words of the ghost. He was determined then to preserve his own honor and to spare his mother, leaving her to heaven and to her own conscience. His task, therefore, was extremely difficult in itself, and was made still more arduous by the highly complicated circumstances of the case. These restraints, however, Hamlet freely imposed upon himself, for he could not bring himself to sacrifice his own moral nature or to do violence to his mother even in so great a cause as the avenging of his father's murder. In Hamlet, then, the dramatist has portrayed not only a most intellectual but also a most moral character.


The task of Hamlet, then, can only be appreciated when considered in reference to all the attendant circumstances. The situation that the dramatist has so carefully developed is most portentous, and the moral restraints that Hamlet has imposed upon himself very greatly circumscribe him in the accomplishment of his task. The disordered internal conditions of the kingdom must be seen as the occasion if not the cause of the incipient revolt of the young Prince of Norway, and the threatened invasion of Denmark. As the son of the late king, and as a possible future king himself, Hamlet must look upon these conditions and this impending invasion with great alarm. His dearest friend, Horatio, thoroughly understands the threatening danger, and it must be assumed that Hamlet knows it equally well. The circumstances are so complicated and the conditions so disheartening that no wonder Hamlet curses the fate that assigns him the task of setting it right. (I. v. 189-90).

It is into this troubled state that Shakespeare ushers this young and noble-minded Prince of Denmark. Critics have seen little or no significance in this condition of affairs, and have not appreciated the magnitude of Hamlet's task. They fail to understand his motive because they have overlooked the dramatic situation. Yet it is these conditions that furnish the element in his motive that has baffled inquiry, and that explains the whole course of his conduct throughout the play. To understand these fully will furnish the necessary setting for his great burden of sorrow over the untimely death of his father and the "o'erhasty marriage" of his mother.

All these attendant circumstances and the suspicion of foul play in the death of his father have induced in Hamlet a condition of sadness that is noticed by everybody about the court. The king, not knowing Hamlet's suspicions, and the queen, not being a party to the crime, endeavor to arouse him from his melancholy by reminding him that his father's death was not exceptional, for death is common, and "all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity." To this Hamlet replies, "Ay, madam, it is common." He spurns the suggestion to put off his mourning robes, and intimates that something still more grievous than the death of his father is preying upon his mind:

"But I have that within which passeth show;
These, but the trappings and the suits of woe." (I. ii. 85-6.)

When the king and queen have gone out, leaving him to his sorrow, his first soliloquy reveals his great burden of spirit. He feels the load of grief so great that he would almost rather die than live. He would like to relieve his heart by telling his suspicions to someone, but they are as yet only suspicions, and he must hold his tongue.

All of Hamlet's suspicions are confirmed in the private interview with the ghost, in the course of which he is called upon to "Revenge his foul and unnatural murder." The story given out that his father was killed by the sting of a serpent the ghost first characterizes as false. Then he proceeds to reveal the truth that

"The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears the crown." (I. v. 39-40.)

At once Hamlet bursts out with "O my prophetic soul," revealing for the first time in the play that he has suspected the real truth. Then follows the true story of the crime. As the king was sleeping in his orchard (garden) he was poisoned by his brother, Claudius, who at once became possessed of his crown, and, in less than two months, of his queen:

"Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd." (I. v. 74-5.)

This revelation and injunction assign to Hamlet his task. In a word, he is to revenge his father's murder, committed by his uncle who now wears the crown of Denmark. Up to this point, there is little difference between Hamlet and contemporary revenge plays of which Professor Thorndike has made such an exhaustive and excellent study. [17] Even the earlier stories of Hamlet have but little of the more tragic character that Shakespeare has put into his play. Neither murder nor revenge are in themselves true tragic material. It is only when great human and moral issues are involved in them that they become tragic. These Shakespeare reads into the stories he borrows, or he cannot use them at all. Sometimes he finds hints of this character in his stories, and his genius gives them the tragic expression. To most readers "The Hamlet of Belleforest was a crude, coarse, revengeful, unmeditative, and bloodthirsty murderer." [18] But Shakespeare grasped the tragic possibilities of the story, which other dramatists had missed, and which many critics have overlooked.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play of a different sort from the old revenge plays. He has raised his play above the low level of blood vengeance by the complications he has introduced into the problem, and by the larger and more patriotic intentions depicted in his hero. With Hamlet it is not a matter of private vengeance for personal wrong, but of public revenge for a national treason. Hamlet has constantly in mind the national rather than the personal bearing of his task, and is always solicitous that his act when committed shall be seen to be an act for the public good. When dying he still keeps this thought in mind, and begs Horatio to "report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied." (V. ii. 326-7.) He suggests that he will bear "a wounded name" unless Horatio shall be at pains to tell his story.

The Werder theory is no doubt correct in maintaining that Hamlet not only wishes to be able to justify himself to his own conscience, but likewise before the people at large. He must so carry out his revenge that he will appear not as a vulgar regicide, but as a moral and patriotic avenger. He wishes, Werder says, to convince the people before the deed, and have the king brought to public confession and justice. Shakespeare had just shown in Julius Caesar, written shortly before Hamlet, that a deed of killing even for public reasons cannot well be justified after it is committed. Better far to justify such an act and show its moral necessity before it is undertaken.

Hamlet must, therefore, act not rashly or vindictively, but with due deliberation, and with the larger interests always in mind. To "revenge" the death of his father, in the complicated conditions of Shakespeare's play, is not the simple matter the older theories of Hamlet seemed to think. It is a sufficiently difficult and delicate task to execute vengeance upon a king in any case, but as Shakespeare has conceived his plot, it will require all the wisdom of his young scholar from the university. It will be necessary, moreover, to proceed with very great caution and absolute secrecy for a time. He therefore keeps the matter of the ghost's revelations strictly to himself and binds his friends who had seen the ghost to "never make known what you have seen tonight." (I. v. 143.) He must quietly gather whatever further evidence is available, and he must have time to mature and perfect his plan of revenge. He must at the same time dispossess his uncle's mind of all suspicion, if possible, and for this end he resolves "to put an antic disposition on."

The easiest way for Hamlet to get revenge on Claudius would be to stir up a civil war, as Laertes afterward attempted, and with his popularity it would certainly be successful. This, however, would be at the bloody cost of many of his innocent countrymen, and would at the same time invite the threatened attack from Fortinbras. Both of these eventualities he strives to avoid. Like the Hamlet of Belleforest, he will not involve his countrymen in his undertaking. He wants to strike the king without striking his native land. His task, therefore, is enormous, and it must be executed single-handed. He must strike the king, and at the same time prevent civil war, and a condition that would lay the country open to foreign attack. He must, therefore, be cautious, and when he acts must appear like the ghost in armor--a defender and not a destroyer of his country.

Hamlet does not like the task of revenge, and frankly says so. But as a dutiful son and patriotic prince he is willing to go through with it even at the cost of his own life. It is no easy matter to attack one who is surrounded with all the power and prerogatives of royalty. Claudius flatters himself that he is safe, hedged in as he says by divinity and surrounded by so many hirelings. The task is therefore a gigantic undertaking for a young and inexperienced prince, and, as Shakespeare has pictured it, worthy of the noblest and most intellectual character in his entire drama.


There is much evidence in the play that Hamlet deliberately feigned fits of madness in order to confuse and disconcert the king and his attendants. His avowed intention to act "strange or odd" and to "put an antic disposition on" (I. v. 170, 172) is not the only indication. The latter phrase, which is of doubtful interpretation, should be taken in its context and in connection with his other remarks that bear on the same question. To his old friend, Guildenstern, he intimates that "his uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived," and that he is only "mad north-northwest." (II. ii. 360.) But the intimation seems to mean nothing to the dull ears of his old school-fellow. His only comment is given later when he advises that Hamlet's is "a crafty madness." (III. i. 8.)

When completing with Horatio the arrangements for the play, and just before the entrace of the court party, Hamlet says, "I must be idle." (III. ii. 85.) This evidently is a declaration of his intention to be "foolish," as Schmidt has explained the word. [19] Then to his mother in the Closet Scene, he distinctly refers to the belief held by some about the court that he is mad, and assures her that he is intentionally acting the part of madness in order to attain his object:

"I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft." (III. iv. 187-8.)

This pretense of madness Shakespeare borrowed from the earlier versions of the story. The fact that he has made it appear like real madness to many critics today only goes to show the wideness of his knowledge and the greatness of his dramatic skill.

In the play the only persons who regard Hamlet as really mad are the king and his henchmen, and even these are troubled with many doubts. Polonius is the first to declare him mad, and he thinks it is because Ophelia has repelled his love. He therefore reports to the king that "Your noble son is mad" (II. ii. 92), and records the various stages leading to his so-called madness (II. ii. 145-150). No sooner, however, has he reached this conviction than Hamlet's clever toying with the old gentleman leads him to admit that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (II. ii. 203-4.)

Thought is suits the king's purpose to accept this pronouncement of Polonius, he is never quite convinced of its truth. His instructions to his henchmen, "Get from him why he puts on this confusion" (III. i. 2), imply that he understands it as pretense and not real lunacy. He soon admits that Hamlet's actions and words do not indicate madness but melancholy:

"What he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness." (III. i. 163-4.)

But it serves his wicked purpose to declare him a madman, and to make this the excuse for getting rid of him by sending him to England. In this as in everything the king is insincere, and seeks not the truth but his own personal ends.

Ophelia's view that Hamlet has gone mad for love of her is of no value on the point. She is herself, rather than Hamlet, "Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh." (III. i. 158.) The poor distracted girl is no judge of lunacy, and knows little of real sanity. She cannot enter into the depth of his mind, and cannot understand that it is her own conduct that is strange and incoherent.

There need be no doubt, then, that Hamlet's madness was really feigned. He saw much to be gained by it, and to this end he did many things that the persons of the drama must construe as madness. His avowed intention was to throw them off the track. To understand the madness as real is to make of the play a madhouse tragedy that could have no meaning for the very sane Englishmen for whom Shakespeare wrote. There is dramatic value in such madness as Lear's, for the play traces the causes of his madness, and the influences that restore him. Lear's madness had its roots in his moral and spiritual defects, and the cure was his moral regeneration. But no such dramatic value can be assigned to Hamlet's madness. Shakespeare never makes of his dramas mere exhibitions of human experience, wise or otherwise, but they are all studies in the spiritual life of man. His dramas are always elaborate attempts to get a meaning out of life, not attempts to show either its mystery, or its inconsequence, or its madness. If Hamlet were thought of as truly mad, then his entrances and his exits could convey no meaning to sane persons, except the lesson to avoid insanity. But it needs no drama to teach that.


One of the most outstanding characteristics of Hamlet is his subtle and persistent humor. It crops out at every turn, and indicates the essential soundness of his mind. Madness does not lie this way. Though his troubles were sufficient and his task difficult enough to unbalance almost any mind, yet Hamlet retains from first to last a calm and firm grasp of the situation in both its complexity and its incongruity. No character in all Shakespeare is more evenly balanced, and no mind more capable of seeing things in all their bearings.

If Hamlet does not really go mad under his unparalleled griefs and burdens it is because under all circumstances his grim and tragic humor holds evenly the balance of his mind. In some of the most tragic moments of his career he has the sanity to play with his tormentors and with the sad conditions of his life. As Sir Herbert Tree has said: "But for humor he should go mad. Sanity is humor." [20]

The same eminent critic asserts that, "If the quality of humor is important in comedy, it is, I venture to say, yet more important in tragedy, whether it be in the tragedy of life or in the tragedy of the theatre." [21] With reference to this element of humor in the play of Hamlet, Sir Herbert Tree says: "In Hamlet, for instance, the firmament of tragedy is made blacker by the jewels of humor with which it is bestarred.... The first words Hamlet sighs forth are in the nature of a pun:

He little more than kin, and less than kind.

"The king proceeds: 'How is it that the clouds still hang on you?' 'Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun,' says Hamlet, toying with grief. Again, after the ghost leaves, Hamlet in a tornado of passionate verbiage, gives way to humor. Then he proceeds to think too precisely on the event. But for his humor Hamlet would have killed the king in the first act." [22]

In nearly all his references to the condition of affairs in Denmark, Hamlet indulges in a grim, satirical humor. His first meeting with Horatio furnishes opportunity. Directly after the warm greetings between the friends the following conversation takes place:

HAMLET: But what is your affair in Elsinore?...
HORATIO: My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
HAMLET: I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
HORATIO: Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.
HAMLET: Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. (I. ii. 174-180.)

Again, when Hamlet is swearing his friends to secrecy concerning the ghost, they hear the voice of the ghost beneath, saying, "Swear," and Hamlet remarks:

"Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art there, true-penny--
Come on; you hear this fellow in the cellarage;
Consent to swear."

When, after shifting their ground, the ghost's voice is again heard, saying, "Swear," Hamlet says:

"Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer!" (I. v. 148-163.)

After his play, The Mouse-trap, Hamlet feels so elated at the turn of events and his success in getting evidence of the king's guilt that he playfully suggests to Horatio that if all else failed him he might make a success of playing and get a share in a company:

HAMLET: Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers--if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me--with two Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
HORATIO: Half a share.
HAMLET: A whole one, I.
For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very--pajock.
HORATIO: You might have rhymed. (III. ii. 263-273.)

Even in his conversation with Ophelia, there is a touch of Hamlet's ironical humor. He slanders himself, saying: "I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me." Then, after Ophelia's false declaration that her father is "at home, my lord," he falls to railing women on marriage, and says to her:

"I heard of your paintings, too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more marriages; those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go." (III. i. 142-9.)

In talking with various spies that the king sends to catch him, Hamlet indulges in much humor and banter. He seems to take particular delight in plaguing old Polonius with his sarcasm and nonsense. When Polonius comes to him, asking, "Do you know me, my lord?" Hamlet quickly retorts: "Excellent well; you are a fishmonger." Then, after further satirical banter of the same sort, in reply to Polonius' inquiry what he is reading, he answers: "Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled ... and that they have plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams..." (II. ii. 173-199.)

Again, on the occasion when Polonius comes to summon him to the queen's presence, Hamlet pokes fun at the old fellow, making him say that "yonder cloud," first, is "like a camel," then, "like a weasel," and finally, "like a whale." (III. ii. 359-365.) No wonder Polonius does not know what to make of him and calls him mad, though recognizing the possibility that there may be some "method in't."

Another aspect of Hamlet's humor glints forth in his dealings with his old school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When these unconscionable spies come to him to inquire what he had done with the dead body of Polonius, he first answers: "Compounded it with dust, whereto 'tis kin." Then he suggests that Rosencrantz is only "a sponge ... that soaks up the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities ... When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again." (IV. ii.)

With Osric he gives way to a bantering and jeering humor very similar to that with Polonius. He first calls him a "water-fly," then "a chough ... spacious in the possession of dirt." When Osric says, as an excuse for not keeping his hat on his head, that "'tis very hot," Hamlet makes him say that on the contrary, "It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed," and the next moment again that "it is very sultry and hot." (V. ii. 83-99.)

In the graveyard scene with the clowns Hamlet indulges freely in a grim and melancholy humor. On the first skull he says: "It might be the pate of a politician ... one that would circumvent God, might it not?" On the next he reflects: "There's another; why may this not be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?" Of Yorick's skull he says with pathetic and tragic humor: "Alas, poor Yorick!--I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." Then to the skull he says: "Where be your gibes now? you gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your grinning? quite chop-fallen?" (V. i.)

"Even in dying," as Sir Herbert Tree says, "he breaks into a sweet irony of humor, in meeting the 'fell sergeant death.' 'The rest is silence.' Hamlet ends as he began, in humor's minor key. Here is the humor of tragedy with a vengeance. Poor Hamlet, too much humor had'st thou for this harsh world!" [23]

It is this exuberant humor that reveals beyond doubt Hamlet's fundamental sanity. Shakespeare was too good a judge of character and of human nature to mingle such humor with madness. He has given Hamlet nearly all varieties of humor, from the playful to the sardonic. Speaking of the king, Hamlet's humor is caustic and satirical. To Polonius and the other spies he is playful and contemptuous. In the graveyard over the skulls he is sardonic and pathetic, and over Yorick's he is melancholy. In all alike he is sane and thoughtful. This unfailing humor that toys with life's comedies and tragedies alike does not come from madness, but from sanity and self-possession. This should make certain the real soundness as well as the great fertility of Hamlet's mind. Humor and madness do not travel the same road.


The Hamlet that appears in the drama is not the Hamlet with whom the other characters of the play are familiar. Up to the opening of the play there had been apparently nothing about him to make him off from his friends and companions. He had grown up with no noticeable qualities or peculiarities, and had had no other plan of life than that which young princes generally pursue. He had been at college acquiring the education and culture proper to his place in life. He appears to have grown up to the strength of a noble young manhood as the leader of a group of friends, all of whom esteemed him highly. He was a good friend, a devoted son, a most popular prince, and was not moved by any great ambitions, nor by any designs against anyone.

But when he first appears on the stage in the royal presence (I. ii), he is marked as a melancholy man. His mother remonstrates with him for going about with his eyes downcast, and for being morose and sad. His mother even requests him to leave off his mourning garments, his "inky cloak" as he calls it, and accuses him of mourning over-much for his father. The king, too, tries to draw him away from his sorrows, by reminding him that he is not the first to lose a father, saying, "your father lost a father." Then he thinks to console him by suggesting that he will himself be a father to him, and that he is next heir to the throne. The king denies his request, however, to return to the university, and says that instead they will have plentiful festivities in Denmark. At a later time he speaks of the great change in him as "Hamlet's transformation," and instructs his courtiers "To draw him on to pleasures." (II. ii. 15.) At the same time the king begins to wonder if there is anything afflicting Hamlet besides the death of his father.

Hamlet's melancholy, as we know, was due not so much to the suddenness and unexpectedness of his father's death, as to the suspicious circumstances. He knew that the king had stolen his "precious diadem," when he secured his own immediate election to the crown of Denmark, but he seemed to grieve very little over his loss. He knew also that there was an unseemly haste in the marriage of the king and his mother that reflected somewhat upon her honor. Then he had suspicions that the death of his father was not as it was given out, but that there was some foul play on his uncle's part. The interview with the ghost had made this more than a suspicion.

The revelations of the ghost wrought a great change in the mind and habits of Hamlet. In an instant he experienced another transformation that was to change him into an active participant in passing events. This change was chiefly a subjective and moral transformation, which he tried to conceal, especially from the king. The ghost had called upon him to revenge the murder, and he had definitely dedicated himself to that great task. He had promised the ghost that he would wipe from the table of his memory "all trivial fond records":

"And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain." (I. v. 102-3).

This change, however, he could not conceal entirely, for it manifested itself in his outer behavior. Ophelia noticed it when he next visited her and spoke of it to her father. He had been accustomed to such a scrupulous neatness in dress and courtliness of manner that she later spoke of him as "The glass of fashion, and the mould of form." (III. i. 153.) But now all this had disappeared, and he grew careless about his apparel, and even came to her in loose attire, and painfully nervous:

"Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors." (II. i. 81-84.)

To this offense he added the apparent rudeness of staring her in the face for some time, and then went out of the door keeping his eye upon her to the last. Hamlet was evidently testing her to see if she was likely to be true to him in the new task the ghost had assigned him.

This visit of the ghost, then, marked the adoption of his new purpose, and changed the whole trend of his life. Henceforth, the revenge becomes his one all-absorbing aim. His conception of duty hereafter rules, and he makes everything else subservient. His whole life is now to be devoted to his filial duty. This great change in his life the dramatist has portrayed fully for his audience that they may be impressed with the effect of the ghost's visit upon the mind of Hamlet, and that they may realize its importance in the development of both plot and character.


From the opening of the play, Hamlet has been marked as a melancholy man. Apparently this had not been his previous character, for the king has spoken of it as "Hamlet's transformation." This change in him was brought about by brooding on the events that had just happened, and had been not only a mental but especially a moral reaction.

Hamlet is portrayed as having a very sensitive and a very moral nature. He had been greatly shocked by the things that had happened, and the suspicions he harbored constituted a direct challenge to his moral faith. If the truth was as he feared, then there was occasion to question the righteousness and justice of the world, and to wonder if life were worth living. This, apparently, was Hamlet's first encounter with great trouble, with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and it proved a great trial to his moral nature.

When the first of these disturbing events occurred, Hamlet was at the university, and apparently he did not arrive in Denmark until they had all come to pass. The first of these was the sudden death of his father; caused as it was given out by a serpent's sting. The circumstances were suspicious and pointed to his uncle, Claudius, but there was no certain evidence.

Then followed immediately the election of Claudius as the new king, apparently before Hamlet could reach Denmark. The great popularity of Hamlet and the great love the people bore him, were doubtless known by him, and would cause him to think his uncle had tricked him in the matter of the election.

Within two months followed his mother's marriage to his uncle Claudius, which she herself afterward spoke of as their "o'erhasty marriage." To Hamlet this seemed so improper, and followed so hard upon the funeral of his father that he sarcastically spoke of it as due to

"Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked-meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." (I. ii. 180-1.)

These events had all occurred before the opening of the play, for when his uncle and mother appear on the stage for the first time (I. ii.) they are already king and queen. Hamlet, then, confronts these as accomplished facts, and his mind is troubled. The suspected villainy of his father's sudden death caused him great worry. He was not much concerned about losing the crown. But he was stirred to the depths of his moral nature by what he regarded as his mother's incestuous and o'erhasty marriage.

Added to these was the further fact that under the rule of Claudius his beloved Denmark was degenerating and being given over to corruption and to pleasure. Everything seemed to him to have gone wrong. His father is dead, his mother dishonored, and his country disgraced and weakened.

Under these conditions it is little wonder that he became melancholy, and was in doubt whether or not it was worthile to live. All he was chiefly interested in had failed. The men who were left did not interest him nor the women either. He was thrown cruelly back upon himself, and obliged to weigh everything anew. His confidence in the moral government of the world was shaken, and his moral faith was shattered. Everything that was most dear to him had apparently been forsaken of heaven, and he was left to struggle on alone. Under these adverse circumstances he wishes he were dead, and exclaims against the world:

"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (I. ii. 133-4.)

This, then, is Hamlet's melancholy. It is the melancholy of the philosophical mind, and is induced by the evils into the midst of which his young life is suddenly plunged. The course of the play discloses his efforts to overcome his doubts and to regain his native faith in God and in goodness and to right the wrong about him. The greatness of his mind and character is seen in the fact that he soon recovers from the first rude shock, and holding his faith in the ultimate victory of truth and right, he concludes that "It is not, nor it cannot come to good." (I. ii. 158.) Never again does he allow himself to fall into the slough of despond, but through darkness and light he holds to his faith in right.


There is no doubt that Hamlet from the first understood his task as more than taking the life of the king. With the rebellion of Fortinbras threatening, and on the "battleground of general corruption" which the rule of Claudius had induced, he saw his task to be a gigantic national undertaking. He was not called merely to the physical labor of the hangman, but to the moral task of the restorer of righteousness. To take the life of the murderer needed only the nerve of the common assassin, but to "revenge" the death of the late king called for wisdom and tact of the highest order. He well knew that he could not purge his country with an assassin's dagger, nor purify it by the king's blood. Unlike Fortinbras and Laertes, his passion was not vindictiveness, and could not be satisfied by avenging a guilty king on an innocent nation.

An immediate attack upon the king, then, might have been courageous, but it would have been foolhardy, and would have frustrated Hamlet's larger designs. The king was beginning to have a wholesome fear of Hamlet, and seemed to live in dread lest he should raise up an open rebellion against him. He thought himself of bringing the issue with Hamlet to a public accounting, but he was afraid of Hamlet's popularity, as he later admits to Laertes,

"Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him." (IV. vii. 17-18.)

Nothing would have been easier than for Hamlet to make it a public issue. If it was easy for Laertes at a later time to raise up a band against the king whom he thought had killed his father, it would have been doubly easy now for Hamlet, who according to Claudius himself was "loved of the distracted multitude." But this was the very thing Hamlet wished to avoid. He sees his nation already preparing to resist the threatened attack from Norway, and with heroic self-restraint and true patriotism he refrains from anything that might encourage his enemy. He is commissioned rather to save his country, as well from foreign aggression, as from the internal corruption that threatens its very existence. The case is desperate and the task difficult, and he would gladly pursue a more tranquil career. But he rises to the necessity, however reluctantly, and steadfastly pursues his appointed task.

In all this Hamlet remembers the warning of the ghost not to taint his mind. He obeys the injunction to keep a clear conscience, and not make himself a worse criminal in revenging the crime of his uncle. This marks the higher purpose and superior nobleness of character that Shakespeare has put into his Hamlet, thereby raising the tone of his play above all other versions of the story. The spirit of some other versions of the Hamlet story is very different, as may be gathered from the German play, _Fratricide Punished_, where we find in the Prologue the following injunctions to the pring: "Therefore be ready to sow the seeds of disunion, mingle passion with their marriage, and put jealousy in their hearts. Kindle a fire of revenge, let the sparks fly over the whole realm; entangle kinsmen in the net of crime, and give joy to hell, so that those who swim in the sea of murder may soon drown." [24]

This, however, was the very thing that Hamlet made every effort to avoid. As in the version of Belleforest, Hamlet was a deliverer of his people. He tried to save his beloved country from the unjust and corrupt rule of the king, and, as Shakespeare has added to his story, he has also to ward off the threatened attack of Fortinbras. Shakespeare has, therefore, made his task doubly difficult. He must revenge his father, which means he must deliver Denmark from the corrupting rule of Claudius. And he must do this without laying the country open to an attack from Fortinbras. The dramatist has made his task more complicated and hence more difficult than in any other version of the story. But in carrying him through without complete failure in either of his purposes, he has depicted in him a true national hero.


In Hamlet, then, Shakespeare has portrayed a kind of national hero that was new to his age. As the elder Hamlet would not make war except to save his country from attack, the younger Hamlet would do nothing that would bring about a civil war in Denmark, or that would invite an invasion from Fortinbras. This young prince was of a different stripe, and waged wars for ambition. As his captain expressed it:

"We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name." (IV. iv. 19-19.)

This was the old type of hero, who like the Roman generals laid other nations under tribute and brought many captives home to Rome. This old nationalism was aggressive and ruthless, and gloried in subjugating other people to its rule.

But Shakespeare had a vision of a new type of hero and of a new nationalism of peace. In the elder and younger Hamlet he has depicted heroes who would not force war upon others, and who would consent to war only to hold the possessions they had from the despoiler. The older wars had been the quarrels of ambitious and greedy kings who had not hesitated like the elder Fortinbras to dare his neighbors to combat in the hope of gaining territory or tribute. With these wars Shakespeare was entirely out of sympathy, as so many of his plays give evidence. His Henry the Fifth will not go to war to steal from France, but only to rescue those provinces which are assuredly his by right.

Shakespeare's Hamlet, then, is a patriot and hero of a new type, who aims only to do what is for the good of his country. Werder, therefore, is surely right when he says his purpose is not so much to punish Claudius as to bring him to justice -- to "revenge" his father's murder. His very inaction, wrongly called procrastination, assumes the character of the highest self-restraint and patriotism. His one fault is that he cannot always completely restrain himself in the face of such terrible provocation, and he occasionally suffers himself to act rashly and without due deliberation.

Many writers have answered the old error of the Goethe-Coleridge theory that Hamlet is incapable of action. On the contrary, he is quite capable of instant and swift action. He very quickly avails himself of the services of the players brought to court to amuse him, and turns them to good account. When he discovers someone behind the arras in his interview with his mother, he makes a sudden and daring pass that shows him not only capable of action but of impetuous and instant action. Again, on shipboard he proves himself gallant in boarding the pirate ship. And in the last encounter of the play, when treachery and villainy are manifest, he quickly dispatches not only Laertes but also the king.

The trouble with Hamlet is not inability to act, but an occasional inability to restrain himself in the midst of great provocation. It is only his determined intention to follow the ways of peace that holds him back at all. In the main he has most admirable self-control, and acts only as he has deliberately planned. In so great an undertaking as the revenge of his father amidst the troubled conditions of the times he needs to lay his plans well and be sure before he strikes, in order not to fail in his purpose or to give occasion for further trouble. It is only his occasional failure to restrain himself that is the immediate cause of the fatality of the drama.


From the beginning of the play, Hamlet has been a great problem and perlexity for the king. As the one living person most grievously injured by the murder of the late king, the guilty conscience of Claudius compels him to keep an eye on Hamlet. He has shown such diabolical cleverness in the murder of his brother that at first he has little fear that Hamlet will discover the truth. He is alarmed at his melancholy, and the first words he addresses to him in the play disclose his anxiety:

"But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son....
How is it that the clouds still hang on you?" (I. ii. 64, 66.)

Assuming that his sadness all comes from the death of his father, the king tries to reconcile Hamlet to the death by reminding him that "all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity." (72-3.) Seeing he cannot divert Hamlet's mind by chiding him, he then commends him for mourning for his father, and tries to turn his mind to his own affairs by saying to him, "You are the most immediate to our throne," and denies his request to return to Wittenberg, begging him

"to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son." (I. ii. 115-7.)

This feigned solicitude on behalf of Hamlet, the king carries out very adroitly, and succeeds in impressing it upon his henchmen. Rosencrantz has learned it, and at a later time gives it utterance. When he tries to draw out of him the cause of his distemper, Hamlet replies: "Sir, I lack advancement." Then Rosencrantz quickly responds: "How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?" (III. ii. 325-326.)

All this, of course, fails to deceive Hamlet, who is only made the sadder by the assurance of the king's dissimulation. In the great soliloquy in which he unburdens his heart, he sees no way out of his sorrows, and wishes that he might die. With no jot of any objective evidence, and with his suspicions plaguing him, Hamlet finds it necessary to conduct himself circumspectly in all his dealings with the king. Morally certain of the king's guilt, and assured of his depraved character, he breaks out into a flood of inquiries when first he sees his father's ghost. He begs piteously of the ghost,

"Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canoniz'd bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements....
Say, what is this? wherefore? what should we do? (I. iv. 46-57.)

There can be no doubt that after the disclosure of the ghost Hamlet wanted to kill the king. He evidently had this as part of his plan, and was awaiting only the proper time. He not only conceived it as no wrong, but even as a moral duty. He later said to Horatio:

"Is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?" (V. ii. 67-70.)

He wanted to kill the king, and, doubtless, as Bradley says, "without sacrificing his own life or freedom." He did not want to leave "a wounded name," but as Werder thinks he hoped to make it appear to the people as a right and proper revenge for the king's crime. And he therefore waited only for such objective evidence as would confirm his suspicions and as could be presented to the people. Hamlet had no desire to play the part of an assassin, but his conception of duty made him willing to take up the task of moral avenger.

The first step in the confirmation of Hamlet's suspicions was the disclosure of the ghost. This, however, did not fully and finally convince him, for he thought he might be deceived and the spirit he had seen might be an evil spirit that was trying to lead him to destruction:

"The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil; and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me." (II. ii. 574-579.)

He therefore resolves not to act without further evidence, and to await, as he says, "grounds More relative." (ii. 579-80.)

For some time, no means of obtaining the required evidence was at hand. Hamlet therefore had nothing to do but wait. The wished-for opportunity came only with the advent of the players. He had failed entirely to obtain any objective evidence of the suspected murder, but he at once saw in the play the chance to secure some real evidence. His quick wit seized upon the idea of having the players enact a scene like the reported murder of his father, and the response of the king to this play would reveal beyond doubt his guilt or innocence:

"I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mind uncle; I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick; if he but blench,
I know my course." (II. ii. 570-4.)

Before the enactment of the play, he took Horatio into his confidence, telling him that one scene of the play would "come near the circumstance, which I have told thee, of my father's death." (III. ii. 71-2.) Then he asked him to observe his uncle, and afterwards they would consult together and judge "his seeming."


In all his treacherous and nefarious undertakings the king found willing accomplices and tools. The chief of these was his crafty and unscrupulous old steward, Polonius. From the beginning there is evidence that the king had had assistance from him in the murder of his brother. When Laertes asked permission to return to Paris the king showed evidence of this obligation to Polonius by assuring Laertes that he would do whatever Polonius desired in the matter:

"The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have, Laertes?" (I. ii. 47-50.)

When Polonius requests it, the king immediately gives his permission for Laertes to return to Paris.

On his part, Polonius is at the king's service, and is prepared to go any length to please him:

"I hold my duty, as I hold my soul,
Both to my God and to my gracious king." (II. ii. 44-5.)

Just what assistance he had rendered the king in disposing of his brother and securing the crown the play does not make clear. But the deep debt the king acknowledges to Polonius suggests some very important and valuable service. Hamlet from the first knows he is dishonest and untrustworthy. When Polonius resents being called a "fishmonger," Hamlet says: "Then I would you were so honest a man." (II. ii. 175.)

The parting scene with Laertes discloses the subtle and crafty character of the entire Polonius family, and reveals further their close relation to the royal household. Even Laertes appears as a suspicious and not over-honorable young man. His parting advice to his sister shows him to have an evil mind, and exhibits him as crafy and "wise," but not generous or noble-minded. Ophelia on her part suspects that her brother, while exhorting her to virtue, himself follows pleasure:

"But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede." (I. iii. 46-51.)

Polonius himself appears exceedingly sagacious and cunning, and entirely lacking in moral principles. He is perfectly willing to do any bidding of the king, and is only a crafty old time-server. His advice to his daughter shows him very politic and very indelicate, but entirely lacking in the larger wisdom. Ophelia herself is a tender-hearted maiden, but her rearing under the tuition of her subtle father has made her weak and tractable. This scene depicts the entire family in a very unfavorable light, that is not substantially changed throughout the rest of the play.

Polonius is so naturally suspicious and crafty that he even spies upon Laertes in Paris. On sending Reynaldo to him with money, he instructs him before he visits Laertes "to make inquiry of his behavior." (II. i. 4-5.) The methods he instructs Reynaldo to employ are in themselves low and dishonorable.

It is in connection with Ophelia, however, that the base, unscrupulous character of Polonius is most in evidence. He induces this poor, foolish girl to give up her letters from Hamlet that he may look them over and read them to the king in order to see if they can find anything to trap Hamlet. He is completely at the king's service, and when he inquires of the king, "What do you think of me?" the king replies, "As of a man faithful and honorable." (II. ii. 128-129.) Polonius is so well satisfied with his own ability as a spy that he assures the king he will find out the mystery of Hamlet without doubt, for he can find truth even when hid in the center of the earth. (II. ii. 157-8.)

The masterpiece of the old man's villainy, however, is his use of his daughter as a decoy to entrap Hamlet. In his zeal to serve the king he does not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter, for which Hamlet calls him a "Jephthah." He arranges with the king that sometime when Hamlet is walking in the lobby, as he frequently does, then

"At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him;
Be you and I behind an arras then." (II. ii. 161-2.)

This suits the king admirably, and he explains it to the queen, requesting her withdrawel:

"For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia.
Her father and myself, lawful espials,
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge." (III. i. 29-34.)

In the interview, Hamlet treats Ophelia most honorably until he discovers that he is speaking as well to ears behind the arras. Most students, and especially the actors, are conscious of deficient stage directions for this scene, and recognize the need of some visible or audible move upon the part of Polonius or the king that reveals their presence to Hamlet. At once the tone of Hamlet changes, and he turns harshly upon Ophelia, and takes back all words of affection. Then, apparently thinking she may not realize the baseness of her treachery and thinking to give her one more chance to disavow her part in it, he inquires, "Where's your father?" When she replies, "At home, my lord," he is sure not only that she is a party to the spying but that she is also untruthful. Then with a few harsh words he leaves her, never to trust her again.

It is Hamlet's fate to be concerned in the death of all the Polonius family. Ophelia, discarded, broods over her misfortune, and at last goes distracted. No doubt the sadness and disappointment of her relations with Hamlet had something to do with her madness and her death. Polonius himself pays for his treachery with his life the next time he attempts to spy upon Hamlet in the interview with the queen. Laertes survives until induced by the king to accept the duel with Hamlet, when he is killed with the poisoned rapier he had treacherously prepared for the prince. He lived to discover the insidious designs of the king in arranging the duel, and to repent his part in it. He acknowledged his own wrong-doing, saying, "I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery" (V. ii. 294), and with his dying words absolved Hamlet from all blame either for his father's or his own death, and begged his forgiveness:

"Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet;
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me!" (V. ii. 316-8.)


The king had also other willing but less capable spies in his service. We find him using two of Hamlet's playmates (II. ii. 11) and school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (III. iv. 202), pretending to be anxious to remedy Hamlet's trouble. He instructs these young men

"To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather ...
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus." (II. ii. 15-17.)

The king seems to hope and to fear against hope that his nephew has no suspicions of the murder, though he thinks it best to watch him very carefully. At first these old friends of Hamlet's may not have known the treachery of the king, and may not have intended to be used against him, but later they prove themselves the willing tools of any baseness the king can devise. They continued to do the king's bidding after Hamlet had made it very apparent that he regarded them as traitors to his own interests.

With the resourcefulness that so often characterizes the desperate man, the king utilizes these henchmen to try to discover the mystery of Hamlet. But Hamlet is easily more than a match for them, as he was for Polonius, and they very soon find out that he is not open for inspection. They approach Hamlet just as Polonius is leaving, without having gained any information, but not in time to hear Hamlet's remark, "These tedious old fools." They are received very cordially by Hamlet, and greeted by him as "My excellent good friends," in a way to shame them of their mission, if they had any shame in them.

The fact that they were handed on to him by Polonius seems to put Hamlet on his guard. Almost at once he asks them what brought them hither, and when they cannot answer clearly he puts it to them more pointedly, "what makes you at Elsinore?" Their evasive answer leads him to ask directly, "Were you not sent for?" and they confess they were. This exceeding smallness of their characters leads him to try to shame them by his eloquent words on the greatness of man: "What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" (II. ii. 295-9.) They are not shamed and not warned, however, but like the simple pass on and are punished.

These intimations that Hamlet is not unconscious of their mission do not dissuade them from further attempts. After the play, they try him once more, and again fail, this time ignominiously. They are not so wise and clever at dissembling as Polonius, and it does not take Hamlet long to turn the tables on them. Very stupidly, they ask him directly, "What is the cause of your distemper?" When they admit they cannot play upon the pipe he offers them, he turns sharply on them, saying, "You would play upon me," and ends up by telling them, "Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me." (III. ii. 354-5.)

In spite of this complete exposure, they continue to act the part of traitors. Their last treachery is to assist in Hamlet's banishment to England, and but for his adroitness they would have been participants in his execution. They were such willing and unscrupulous agents of the king that Hamlet has no compunctions in turning their treachery upon themselves and contriving that they be "hoist with their own petar."

There is no need to shed tears over these traitors. Though Hamlet was a very unwilling "scourge and minister" of heaven in the death of Polonius, he has no hesitation in preparing revenge upon his school-fellows. He wept bitter tears for killing Polonius, even though he recognized the justice of his death, but he did not weep over the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In view of the baseness of their act and the great issues at stake for himself and his country, he recognizes the moral retribution of the end that overtakes them:

"They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow." (V. ii. 58-59.)

The baseness of these spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as Polonius, serves to reveal further the desperate character of the king. He was ready to use every treachery against Hamlet, and would not stop before putting him to death. No doubt it was only the great popularity of Hamlet in Denmark and the fear that any treachery might be discovered that prevented him from committing another murder. His dealings with Hamlet, apart from the ghost's words and his own confession, make clear to us that he was quite capable of the murder of his brother. But his adroitness in covering up the traces of his villainy make Hamlet's task very difficult. And the retribution that finally overtakes him is not more for the foul murder of his brother than for the new treachery of the duel.


The relations of Hamlet and Ophelia, and the apparent cruelty of her casting-off, have been the subject of much discussion. Hamlet himself appears to have found it almost heartbreaking to discard her, and finally did so only when convinced that she was treacherous and untruthful. Any condemnation or justification of Hamlet's conduct in this sad affair can be reached only by a very careful consideration of all the circumstances.

There is much evidence in the play that Hamlet once loved Ophelia sincerely. The parting words of Laertes to his sister as he is about to return to Paris make it clear that Hamlet had long been known as her lover. (I. iii.) Hamlet's letter assured her of his unalterable love, and vowed that he loved her best. (II. ii.) In the scene in which Polonius and the king are concealed behind the arras, he told her "I did love you once." (III. i. 114-15.) And in the burial scene, over her dead body, he uttered the words, "I loved Ophelia," and went on to say that his love was more than that of forty thousand brothers. (V. i. 257-9.) Ophelia herself thought he loved her, and reported to her father that, "He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me." (I. iii. 99-100.)

Other persons of the play also thought he loved her. The queen said mournfully at the funeral, "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." (V. i. 232.) Laertes was at first doubtful of his love for her but later admits, "Perhaps he loves you now." (I. iii. 14.) Polonius, too, had his doubts, and was convinced only by Hamlet's visit to Ophelia in which he appeared ungroomed and troubled in mind. (II. i.) Even the king seemed satisfied that Hamlet's love for Ophelia was genuine and honorable.

At first, Laertes and Polonius were unwilling to believe that Hamlet had honorable intentions toward Ophelia. Laertes was the first to warn his sister against Hamlet, and to suggest to her that Hamlet wished only to take advantage of her. And Polonius likewise warns her against him, saying that his vows are "But mere implorators of unholy suits." (I. iii. 129.) He therefore instructs her to repel his letters and to deny to him access to her. (II. i. 108-110.)

The reason for this skepticism was that neither Laertes nor Polonius thought Hamlet, as a Prince, could marry the daughter of a chamberlain. Laertes assured his sister that Hamlet would not be free to choose a wife for himself, but would be "subject to his birth," and that his choice would be settled by the necessities of the state. (I. iii. 17-24.) Polonius at first did not deign to make this explanation to her when he warned her against Hamlet, but seems later to have reminded her that "Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star." (II. ii. 140.) At first, then, Polonius said, "I fear'd he did but trifle" (II. i. 112), though later he appears to be convinced of the reality of Hamlet's love.

In view of his love for her, Hamlet did not find it easy to give up Ophelia. Even to the last he loved her, though he found it impossible to marry her. For this, there appear to be two reasons. In the first place, he found love and marriage incompatible with his task of revenging his father. As soon as he received the revelations of the ghost he realized that his task would require the renunciation of every other plan of life, and the abandonment of every other hope and ambition. He promised the ghost to "wipe away all trivial fond records," and assured the ghost that

"thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter." (I. v. 102-4.)

Hamlet may have thought that his great task would absorb all his energies, and tax all his powers, not leaving any opportunity for love and marriage; or he may have thought that in his hazardous adventure he would likely lose his life. In either case, love and marriage were not for him.

It is quite likely, however, that there was also another reason as well. Hamlet seems to have been convinced that Ophelia did not now love him, whatever might have been the case in the past. When Ophelia remarked about the prologue to his play of The Mousetrap that "'Tis brief, my lord," he instantly retorted, doubtless thinking both of his mother and of her, "As woman's love." (III. ii. 143-4.) Whether the cause of her ceasing to love him was fickleness or an inability to appreciate the noble qualities of his nature, the fact seems to be that Hamlet felt she no longer loved him. It was a great grief to him, and he did not part with her without great sorrow.

Hamlet, however, did not discard her until he found her treacherous and untruthful. Had Ophelia not given herself to her father's schemes against him, he might have continued his affections, but when he was obliged to doubt her fidelity, there was nothing left for him but to cast her off. When he visited her, dishevelled and nervous, his purpose apparently was to pry into her very soul, and see if he could trust her. The doubts that came to him then were confirmed later when he found her playing the part of decoy for her father. This was the final and convincing evidence of her unworthiness, and he never trusted her after.

Hamlet's behavior toward Ophelia was no doubt cruel, as all such affairs are cruel; but as with his mother later he was cruel only to be kind. It should be recalled that at the time of his parting interview with her Hamlet was very greatly burdened in spirit. He had just spoken his great soliloquy, and had debated with himself the question of pursuing his revenge even at the cost of his life. With this load upon his spirit he must have felt her treachery very keenly. Her assumption of the part of injured innocence while all the time she knew that her father and the king were listening to every word of Hamlet, and then her falsehood when asked about her father, surely revealed her unworthy of the noble Hamlet. It was only then that he suggested she should never marry by saying, "Get thee to a nunnery."

There is no evidence in the play that Ophelia herself actively took part against Hamlet, but only that she accepted the position of decoy for her father's craft and cunning. Her very weakness, however, was itself an enemy to Hamlet's welfare, and he had to leave her. But he felt her faithlessness very keenly. It was not, however, the fault of Hamlet that Ophelia's mind became distracted. The prime cause of her misfortune was rather the suspicions and the treachery of her father and the king, whose innocent victim she was.

But Hamlet never forgot his love for "the fair Ophelia." At the play, when his mother asked him to sit by her, he lay down at Ophelia's feet instead, saying, "No, good mother, here's metal more attractive." (III. ii. 103.) Ophelia still had some power over him, and he continued near her throughout the play. Then when he found himself at last unwittingly at her funeral, his old love returned and led him to vie with Laertes in the expression of grief and he says:

"I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum." (V. i. 257-259.)

It is apparent, then, that though he had cast her off, he never ceased to love her. In her death he pitied her, but he could never scorn her.


In spite of all his efforts and his "antic disposition," Hamlet had not secured any objective evidence that the king was guilty of his father's murder, and he still hesitated to execute the injunctions of the ghost. The first event that afforded him a real opportunity, however, was the bringing of the players to court, presumably to divert him from his melancholy. His quick wit instantly seized upon the occasion given him to turn them to his own account. He welcomes the actors, and recognizes the first player as an old friend, and expects that he will lend himself to his ends. THen he tries out the first player, and after satisfying himself of their ability, he arranges for them to enact a play that he calls The Murder of Gonzago. He wants them to have it ready, as he says, by "tomorrow night."

Hamlet seems greatly pleased at this opportunity. It furnishes him with just the kind of opening he has awaited, and Hamlet the inactive becomes henceforth Hamlet the valiant. His refraining from killing the king at sight is now seen, for the first time clearly, to be part of a more comprehensive and far-reaching scheme. He instantly grasps the possibilities of this opportunity, and his evident delight is observed by those about him. In reporting the incident to the queen later, Rosencrantz said, "there did seem in him a kind of joy to hear of it." (III. i. 18-19.)

At first Hamlet does not report his plans even to Horatio, and we learn them only from his soliloquy:

"I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle; I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick; if he but blench,
I know my course." (II. ii. 570-4.)

In this soliloquy he discloses his mind for the first time. He has hesitated to kill the king on the sole evidence of the ghost, for "the spirit that I have seen May be the devil." He has, therefore, waited for additional evidence:

"I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king." (II. ii. 579-581.)


In order that his schemes may not miscarry, Hamlet coaches the players very carefully until he gets them in condition to render his play in a fitting manner before the king. He first instructs them in enunciation, telling them to "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." (III. ii. 1-2.) Then he warns them against violent gesticulations, saying, "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hands, thus; but use all gently." (4-5.) He exhorts them to temperance in the expression of passion, without, however, falling short of due intensity, urging, "Be not too tame neither, but ... suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature." (15-18.) He reminds them that the one rule of acting is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature." (20-1.) The purpose of it all is, he says, "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." (21-3.) He closes his advice by words meant to restrain the activities of the clowns, and keep them in their proper places.

This advice to the players shows the high artistic ideals Hamlet, and Shakespeare, entertained for the drama. It is to retain its previous high character, and is not to be a mere form of amusement either for the groundlings or the better class. It is to keep, too, a very distinct ethical function, and to serve as a means of instructing the people in morals. Acting is to be sincere, and the methods of the drama at once realistic and idealistic. The times should be mirrored on the stage, and yet the whole spirit should be that of high moral idealism. No reference is made to the dramatic controversies of the day, but the entire purport of the advice implies that the dramatist has in mind the romantic drama, with its union of comedy and tragedy, and with its indifference to all "unities" except that of action. The noble words of the advice indicate further the dramatist's intention to endow Hamlet with the highest intellectual and moral character.


The success of Hamlet's little play before the king exceeded his wildest expectations. Horatio and Hamlet carefully watched the king, while seemingly preoccupied in conversation with the queen and Ophelia. The sight of the dumb-show and of the two chief actors as king and queen makes the king uneasy, lest there should be some offense in it. But Hamlet assures him, ironically, that "they do but jest, poison in jest; no offense i' the world." When asked the name of his play, he says it is called, figuratively, The Mouse-trap, and then gives an outline of the argument. The play, however, proves the undoing of the king, for when he witnesses the poisoning he can endure it no longer and rises and goes out. His guilt is now manifest, as well as the innocence of the queen. She sees no significance in the performance, beyond the play itself, but the king is caught in Hamlet's mouse-trap.

During the performance of the play, Hamlet reveals by his excitement the great strain under which he has been living. His anxiety to entrap the king and to observe the least trace of guilt in him as the player king is poisoned leads him beyond the boundst of tact and of discretion. His eagerness to explain the play, and to assure the king that there is no offense in it, together with his comments as the play proceeds, and especially during the poisoning scene, must have convinced the king that Hamlet was consciously trying to entrap him. But so excited was Hamlet that for once he failed in tactfulness. From this time the king was convinced that Hamlet was dangerous, and made all haste to dispatch him to England.

With the complete and unmistakeable proof of the king's guilt afforded by the play, Hamlet's delight becomes uncontrollable. He breaks into popular ditties as soon as he is alone with Horatio, and is so well satisfied that he exclaims jubilantly, "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound." (III. ii. 274-5.) All doubt is now removed, and he is prepared to enter actively upon his task of revenge. This marks another Hamlet "transformation," and from this time he shows a more merry spirit, as Ophelia observes at the play. But the king is now equally alive to the issue, and Hamlet has to encounter equally active opposition. Almost single-handed he has to challenge the king with his host of hirelings, and with all the power and prerogatives of a ruler at his command.

There has been a good deal of discussion about Hamlet's little play. It is apparent from Hamlet's intention of adding to the play "a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines" that it did not altogether suffice as it stood. Diligent search has been made for these additional lines in his play of Gonzago, but they have not been identified. It has been recently suggested that these lines cannot be identified because, instead of adding to the play he had, Hamlet found it necessary to write an entire new play that would come closer to the circumstances of his father's murder. By this means he was able to depict accurately what the ghost had told, and make a certain test of its truth. The entire success of his play proved beyond doubt that the ghost had been a good spirit and had told him the truth.


Hamlet has now obtained corroboration of the ghost's accusation of the king. He is no longer in any doubt about it himself. His reluctance to kill the king should now all vanish, if he were waiting only for confirmation of the king's guilt. The Werder theory, then, finds support in its contention that he has still not gained all the evidence he requires, for even this is not objective evidence and would not satisfy the public opinion. The evidence he has obtained serves to convince him and Horatio, but would not be accepted as conclusive in a court of law or before the public. Hamlet, however, has lost all his moral reluctance, and henceforth is ready to revenge his father when the opportunity comes.

The play has served to prick the king's conscience, and in his soliloquy now for the first time he acknowledges his guilt, and displays considerable remorse:

"Oh, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder!" (III. iii. 36-38.)

But he cannot pray, for he is not willing to acknowlege his crime: "May one be pardon'd and retain the offense?" Yet he is constrained to kneel, thinking there may be some virtue in that act, hoping he may be led to repentance and confession. This is the point to which Hamlet apparently wanted to lead him, but he does not repent and cannot pray. Never again does he come so near to the throne of grace, but he passes on unforgiven.

To find the king thus alone seemed also to be Hamlet's long-looked-for opportunity. But once more he witholds his dagger, and instead falls into his habit of philosophy. He recognizes that he has his chance, saying:

"Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't; and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged." (III. iii. 73-5.)

But for some reason the conditions do not suit him, and he refrains, saying, "this is hire and salary, not revenge." He thinks the king would go to heaven from his prayers, and so he prefers to kill him some time when he finds him drunk or in some other sin, "that his soul may be as damn'd and black as hell, whereto it goes."

This, however, has seemed to most critics entirely out of accord with the acknowledged moral character of Hamlet. It seems brutal and barbaric, not human or Christian. It has, therefore, been suggested that this passage is not Shakespeare's, but a relic of the old play that Shakespeare has failed to work out of his play, or has for some unaccountable reason overlooked. Other suggest that it is only another excuse Hamlet makes to himself for further procrastination, and is intended to deceive no one but himself. Richardson suggests that he merely offers this motive as "one better suited to the opinions of the multitude," and that he was withheld "by the scruples, and perhaps weakness, of extreme sensibility." [25] But none of these seem adequate explanations, for they are too conjectural, and have too little basis in the play itself.

The words of the play leave it by no means certain that Hamlet wants to see the king consigned to eternal damnation for the murder. It needs to be recalled that in the teachings of the church and in the popular thought hell was but the place of the dead, and might mean either perdition or purgatory. It is more than likely, therefore, that Hamlet desired only that the king's soul might go to purgatory and not to heaven. He wanted him not to go to perdition, but to the place of purification, for he was altogether unfit for heaven. This conception is borne out by the German play, where "hell" undoubtedly means purgatory. Hamlet there says when he kills the king: "But this tyrant, I hope he may wash off his black sins in hell." [26] It may be an expression of the same idea in Marlowe's Faustus, where Benvolio says as he stabs Faustus: "Hell take thy soul." [27]

There is a further reason for Hamlet's self-restraint. It is likely that Hamlet regarded the king's prayer as giving him the right of "sanctuary," which Hamlet as a pious man would not violate. The stage directions in Shakespeare are very meagre, and say only that the king "Retires and kneels." There is no reference to any altar or chapel, as if the king had entered the temple to pray. But the German play has fuller stage directions, and under Act III., Scene I., in which the account of this incident is given, there are the directions: "Here is presented an Altar in a Temple." At the close of his self-accusation the directions are: "The King kneels before the altar." [28]

Here, then, is probably the true explanation. Hamlet does not want to violate the sanctuary in killing the king, and thus bring sin upon himself. And he does not want the king to go straight to heaven, as he might if killed at his prayers. Hamlet wants to make sure that he will go to purgatory, where he will be punished for his crime, but where also, as the German play says, "he may wash off his black sins in hell."

This desire not to desecrate the holy altar is in perfect keeping with the moral and pious spirit of Hamlet. To revenge his father's murder is a filial duty to which he is ready to sacrifice his own life. But he is not to taint his own mind by doing a greater wrong. He will, therefore, not commit an impiety even in the discharge of so solemn a duty.

In contrast with this nobleness, however, stand the king and Laertes. When the king has incited Laertes against Hamlet, he feels so vengeful that he says he is even ready "To cut his throat i' the church." The king instantly agrees with this infamy, saying:

"No place indeed should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds." (IV. vii. 128-9.)


Before sending Hamlet to England one more attempt is made to solve the mystery of his strange behavior. He is now recognized as a troublesome and dangerous character, and the king sees in him a direct challenge to his own position. With the failure of the king and his spies to bring Hamlet to time, Polonius arranges that he shall be interviewed by his mother. The old steward tells the queen to use her influence with him, and advises her to "lay home to him," and to "Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with." (III. iv. 1-2.)

From the beginning, however, it is the queen who is interviewed by Hamlet. His finer moral sense has been shocked by his mother's conduct, and he takes her to task with as much severity as becomes a son. In his remonstrance against her marriage with the king he "speaks daggers but uses none." His powerful spirit upbraids and convicts her of her sins, and she tries to escape from him. But his strong will compels her to listen, and he says:

"Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you." (III. iv. 18-20.)

In the heat of the conference he discovers someone eavesdropping, and thinking it the king, makes a pass through the arras, only to find he has killed old Polonius. The old man has at last suffered the penalty of his intrigue and of his devotion to the king's nefarious schemes. It was no part of Hamlet's plan, however, and he afterwards grieved bitterly at the fatal mistake of his impetuosity. But the provocation was very great, and for the moment his hand got the better of his judgment. It would have been equally a mistake, however, had it been as he thought the king. The time was not yet ripe for the execution of the king, as he had not yet secured the objective evidence. But he was morally certain of the king's guilt and could not stay his hand.

During his interview with his mother the ghost appears to Hamlet for the last time. He has been delaying, and, it seems to the ghost, neglecting his task of revenge. He comes, therefore, as he says, "to whet thy almost blunted purpose." Though tardy, Hamlet has not forgotten his duty. He has only held back for the time to be ripe, and to gain the necessary evidence. He has been trying to obey all the injunctions of the ghost, and has been endeavouring to carry out the revenge without tainting his own mind or harming his mother. There is now some evidence that his mother's interests and his consideration for her have done much to restrain him.

The ghost is manifesting invisible to the queen, and she regards Hamlet as mad when he addresses the apparition. She sees him bend his "eye on vacancy," and thinks him in some grave distemper. Bewildered to see him looking into what is to her only empty space, and yet apparently seeing some object, she asks him, "Whereon do you look?" and Hamlet replies, "On him, on him." Looking upon the pitiful ghost of his father deeply stirs the spirit of Hamlet, and makes him equal to the great revenge. But turning once more to his mother he finds her looking piteously on him instead of the ghost, and apparently thinking him distracted. The sight of the distressed look of his mother, and the thought of the ghost's command not to harm her, once more take him from his strong resolve, and he feels more like weeping for his mother than revenging his father. His love for his mother and his desire to save her take the sternness out of his resolve, and he is more disposed to shed tears than blood. He, therefore, begs her:

"Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects; then what I have to do
Will want true color! tears perchance for blood." (III. iv. 127-30.)

It is important, therefore, to notice that Hamlet's love for his mother and concern for her honor, together with the injunction of the ghost, acted as a great restraint upon his pursuit of revenge. There was great danger that in striking the king he should also strike his mother. And his hand was therefore stayed till he could find an opportunity to strike without harming her.

In respect to his mother, Hamlet's desire was that she should cut herself loose from the king. His moral nature is shown in his desire to have her quit the dishonorable relationship with the king, and live a virtuous life. The whole purport of his interview with her was to rouse her to a recognition of the immorality of her present life. The visit of the ghost offers the occasion for speaking even more plainly to her, and he beseeches her:

"Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past, avoid what is to come." (III. iv. 149-150.)

But the queen was obdurate. She could be made to see "black and grained spots" upon her soul, but she would not relinquish her evil life. Hamlet's words might cleave her heart in twain, but she would not take his advice to

"throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half." (III. iv. 157-8.)

All he could do, then, was to warn his mother, on peril of breaking her own neck, not to tell the king that he is only "mad in craft."

Then he recalls to her that he is to be sent to England, in charge of his old school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he ventures the prophecy that these false friends will be "hoist by their own petar." Hamlet seems fully aware of his own superior ability of mind, and believes that even with the adverse circumstances he can still manage to turn the course of events to his own advantage. It is only by the rapid combination of untoward conditions after the killing of Polonius that he is finally overthrown, though even then he wins the moral victory.

Though Hamlet has not been able to persuade his mother to give up her sinful life, she, nevertheless, retains her love for her son. A side glimpse of her is given in the next scene in which she displays considerable excellence of character and love for Hamlet. The king finds her where Hamlet had just left her after the interview, and he asks, "Where is your son?" She is obliged to make known the death of Polonius, but she tries to shield Hamlet from her husband by urging that he is "mad as the sea and wind," and that he had killed Polonius by mistaking him for a rat behind the arras. Guarding the secret of his feigned madness she further pleads for him by saying that now "He weeps for what is done." (IV. i. 27.) Her evasions, however, do not save her son from the ever-deepening suspicions of the king, who now calls him "dangerous," and finds a better excuse to banish him.


Very gladly would the king dispatch Hamlet by less subtle means than he had used to dispatch his father. But Hamlet's great popularity forbids the king attempting any outer violence. He is forced to acknowledge that the people love Hamlet, though the thought is very distasteful to him:

"Yet must not we put the strong law on him;
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes." (IV. iii. 3-5.)

The king now sees that something desperate must be done with Hamlet or he will fall victim to him. It is very apparent that he at any rate does not labor under the idea that Hamlet is incapable of action. He is, on the contrary, so fearful of his ability to act and to act quickly, that he prepares to send him to England at once. He makes the excuse that it is for Hamlet's own safety, and announces to him:

"Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,
... must send thee hence
With fiery quickness." (IV. iii. 39-42.)

Hamlet is, therefore, sent at once to England, then a tributary country to Denmark. Claudius gives orders to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not to wait till the next day, but to take him at once: "Delay it not; I'll have him hence tonight." (IV. iii. 54.) The king likewise sends orders for the death of Hamlet, and he thinks that the recollection of recent chastisement by Denmark will induce the king of England to execute his orders. Claudius is now thoroughly alarmed at the possible danger from Hamlet, and therefore orders the king of England to put him to immediate death:

"Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me; till I know 'tis done,
Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun." (IV. iii. 64-67.)


Just before the embarkation, the presence of Fortinbras hovers once more over the stage, apparently as a temptation and suggestion to Hamlet. On this occasion he is using his license from Claudius to march across Denmark on his way to Poland. He had sent this message to Claudius, by one of his captains:

"Go, captain, from me greet the Danish king;
Tell him that by his license Fortinbras
Claims the conveyance of a promised march
Over his kingdom." (IV. iv. 1-4.)

The king had succeeded in warding off the imminent attack of Fortinbras upon Denmark at the opening of the play by a direct, but humiliating, appeal to the old uncle of the prince. At that time the ambassadors from Claudius to the old king of Norway brought back the very welcome word that Fortinbras had been restrained from his intended revolt and invasion of Denmark. The interpretation of the matter offered by Horatio in the first scene of the play was confirmed by the report of the ambassadors. The old king had been led to believe that Fortinbras intended his army for a campaign "against the Polack," but was grieved to find that it was really against Denmark. Wherefore, he had suppressed his nephew's levies, and rebuked the young man, who now

"Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give the assay of arms against your majesty." (II. ii. 70-1.)

At this the king of Norway was much pleased, and gave Fortinbras

"commission to employ these soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack;" (II. ii. 74-5.)

And requests Claudius,

"That it might please you to give quiet pass
Through your dominions for this enterprise." (II. ii. 77-8.)

Fortinbras, therefore, in prosecuting his march through Danish territory against the Polack is only availing himself of a privilege previously granted by Claudius.

The juncture of Fortinbras' march across Denmark with Hamlet's banishment to England was no doubt intended by the dramatist as an opportunity for Hamlet, had he been so minded. It is very likely that had Hamlet seized the occasion he could have enlisted Fortinbras in a common attack on Claudius. The ease with which Laertes later raised a rebellion against the king would suggest that one with Hamlet's popularity and the prestige of his princely character could very readily have raised an army to join with Fortinbras. Hamlet could well afford to promise Fortinbras the return of his forfeited lands when they had jointly deposed Claudius. But all this temptation Hamlet steadfastly refuses.

Instead of making common cause with Fortinbras, Hamlet steadfastly maintains his way of peace. The readiness of Fortinbras for war stands in very striking contrast to the peaceable ways of Hamlet, and is doubtless intended by the dramatist to bring out Hamlet's character. Shakespeare was a hater of war and a lover of peace, and he therefore portrays in his greatest character the heroism of peace. But the coming of Fortinbras was surely meant as Hamlet's temptation. He declines, however, to bring about a civil war, that would mean the sacrifice of many innocent persons and the rending of the kingdom, though he does not set his own life at a pin's fee. Hamlet, however, only takes the coming as an inspiration to follow up more earnestly his own appointed task of revenging his father's murder. If Fortinbras, for so trifling a cause, and with so little provocation, could lead an army to Poland, surely he in his own great and just cause, should be more active:

"Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (IV. iv. 65-6.)

His cause, however, is peace, not war, and he must revenge the murder and put in joint the broken times without doing more harm than he is charged to remedy. His task is to save his people, not to destroy them.


Upon his return from Paris, Laertes learns of the death of his father, and charging it against the king, raises a small revolt against him, and enters his presence to work his revenge. He has succeeded in gathering a considerable following and they evince their faith in him by asking that he be made king. The attendant reports to Claudius that the people cry:

"'Laertes shall be king!'
Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
'Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!'" (IV. v. 102-4.)

The king has some trouble in pacifying him, and explains that it was not he that had killed his father, saying, "I am guiltless of your father's death." Laertes is finally pacified by the king's avowal of his innocence, and by his suggestion to arbitrate their differences.

Before Laertes can fully adjust his suspicions of the king, he is all but distracted at seeing his sister enter, singing incoherent songs in her madness, and not even recognizing him. The sorrow of Ophelia's disappointment has borne very heavily upon her, and her mind has become distracted. The poor, weak, innocent girl, in trying to be a dutiful daughter had become an untrustworthy lover, and now she is out of her mind. Hamlet's behavior toward her was doubtless severe, but anything else would have been unjust. Though disappointed and distracted, her suffering is lessened by the thought that it is her lover who is "Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh."


Meanwhile Horatio has had a letter, and the king a note, from Hamlet, saying that he has returned to Denmark. It is only in the last act of the play, however, that we learn the whole story, when Hamlet finds time and occasion to narrate it carefully to Horatio. It seems that the ship conveying him to England was attacked by the pirates, and that in the fight he boarded them, and later induced them to set him ashore in Denmark, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to continue their voyage to England. He expects that the report of what happened to them will soon reach Denmark and cause him further trouble with the king; and he therefore feels the necessity of great haste if he is to forestall the king and carry out his plans.

With the return of Hamlet to Denmark, Laertes soon learns that it was Hamlet and not the king who had killed his father. The king eagerly seizes the opportunity to transfer the quarrel to Hamlet, and very skillfully arranges a duel between the two to settle their grievances. If it be the duty of Hamlet to avenge the death of his father, it is scarcely less the duty of Laertes to avenge the death of Polonius. The king whets the wrath of Laertes by telling him that Hamlet is very dangerous, for

"he which hath your noble father slain
Pursued my life." (IV. vii. 4-5.)

This incenses Laertes the more, and makes him very willing to attack Hamlet. He accepts with eagerness the king's suggestion of a duel with Hamlet, and like his father he is not unwilling to use foul means. The entire Polonius family seem not to be above treachery and deceit.


Hamlet's return at the time of Laertes' little revolt leaves the impression that Denmark was now ripe for a rebellion. If we are to take the words of the king, no one in the kingdom was so well beloved as Hamlet, and hence no one so likely to be successful in rebellion. But casting aside this temptation, he presents himself first in the churchyard, where he discourses wisdom to Horatio and the grave-diggers. Possibly he went there to mourn over his father's grave, and to sorrow over that of Polonius, for he is in the vicinity of the latter when the burial party arrives. Hamlet is shocked to find himself present at the funeral of "the fair Ophelia," and to notice that they are burying her with "maimed rites," because, as he hears the priest say, "Her death was doubtful." These things had been told him by the grave-digger, but he had not suspected they referred to Ophelia. When the body is lowered into the grave, Laertes in the ecstasy of his grief leaps in to express his lasting love for his sister. Then Hamlet, feeling that his love for her is greater than that of forty thousand brothers, also leaps into the grave to show his affection. Laertes, however, has been incensed against Hamlet by the king, and, not taking his act as friendly, grapples with him. The quick passion of the prince responds, and the two have to be separated by attendants. For this impetuosity Hamlet suffered deeply, as he afterwards explains to Horatio, saying:

"I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;...
But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion." (V. ii. 75-80.)

He evidently bore no ill-will to Laertes, and still loved Ophelia. But the incident shows his tremendous capabilities of instant action, and goes to disprove any theory that assumes in him any weakness, mental or volitional.


When they met for the duel, Hamlet made haste to assure Laertes of his love and goodwill by offering ample apology for his impetuosity at the grave of Ophelia. His first words were an apology, probably not only for his behavior at Ophelia's grave, but also for his part in her death and in that of Polonius:

"Give me your pardon, sir; I've done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman." (V. ii. 213-4.)

Then he explains that he was suffering from much distraction, and that if he had wronged Laertes he could not have been in his proper senses, and disclaims any purposed evil. He then begs him in the most cordial manner to

"Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,
And hurt my brother." (V. ii. 229-231.)

Laertes, however, refuses all reconcilement, and the incident but adds fuel to his burning wrath. He has been so misled and incited by the king whose perfidy had suggested the duel that he will accept no explanation. He gives further evidence of baseness and treachery in his willingness to accept the king's suggestion of poisoning his sword. (IV. vii. 135-40.) But the fates are against Hamlet. His "towering passion," growing out of the very intensity of his purpose, has twice led him into mistakes, and both times with the Polonius family -- first with the father, and next with the son.

Though morally justified in both cases, Hamlet scarcely excused himself, for he had no will to perform the part of the "scourge and minister" of heaven. Hamlet, however, does not have to wait long for his vindication. When in the duel both contestants are mortally wounded by the poisoned rapiers, Laertes at once admits his guilt and cries out: "I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery." (V. ii. 294.) Then, with his dying breath he reveals the king's part in the treacherous deed, and begs piteously,

"Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet." (V. ii. 316.)

In these last words he bears full testimony to the purity and the unselfishness of Hamlet's life, and absolves him from all blame:

"Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me!" (V. ii. 317-8.)


It was only in the duel that the wicked and perfidious character of the king was revealed, and his diabolical schemes fully unmasked. Laertes was the first after Hamlet and Horatio to recognize the real character of Claudius. As soon as he is wounded by Hamlet with his own exchanged rapier, there is at once disclosed before him the entire course of events. At first he blames himself for his part, and for his treachery, saying that he has only been caught in his own trap, and that he is "justly kill'd." Then as soon as it is apparent by the death of the queen from drinking the wine, he is doubly sure of the king's guilt for the whole affair, and says boldly, "the king's to blame." When the king dies, Laertes realizes it aas a just punishment and says:

"He is justly served;
It is a poison temper'd by himself." (V. ii. 314-5.)

The cry of treason raised by the attendants when Hamlet stabs the king is at once silenced by the words of Laertes justifying Hamlet's course. Not another word is uttered in the remainder of the play in the king's behalf. It took only a word from Laertes to unmask the character of Claudius, and to put his attendants and followers to complete silence. There seems to be no one left who has a good word to say on his behalf, and the treachery and perfidy of his life are fully accepted.

Nevertheless, there has been revealed no objective proof of the king's guilt for the murder of his brother. Hamlet has long been convinced of the truth of the ghost's words, though he has not secured any evidence except that from the ghost and from the undoubted certainty of the moral baseness of Claudius as revealed chiefly in his arrangement and management of the duel with Laertes. The cups of poisoned wine, intended for Hamlet, one of which caused the death of the queen, were evidence enough of his unscrupulous nature. His corrupt and immoral character was proven beyond any doubt, though with his death he carried away all traces of the objective evidence that Hamlet had wanted for the murder of his father. The death that seized him was accepted as a just retribution for his crimes, and for the baseness of his character, and he dies under the unanimous condemnation of all the persons of the drama.


The life task of Hamlet, imposed on him by the ghost, is fulfilled even in his death. The death of the king leaves him with only one dying wish, that his purposes may be explained to the people, lest he should be left with

"a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown." (V. ii. 331-2.)

This dying request, then, he leaves with his one tried and true friend, Horatio, begging him to show the people the reason of his conduct:

"report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied." (V. ii. 326-7.)

Horatio, however, is unwilling to live after Hamlet has died, and, saying he is more like an antique Roman than a Dane, he tries to drink the poisoned wine. HIs friendship for Hamlet is so strong that he wants to die with him. But Hamlet seizes the cup, and restrains him, begging him to live and devote his life to a vindication of Hamlet's course. With the earnestness born of a conviction that his cause was just, and his devotion to his task unselfish, he beseeches Horatio:

"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." (V. ii. 333-6.)

The friendship of Hamlet and Horatio is one of the finest in literature. Without fully understanding his plans until afterward, Horatio trusted Hamlet and was true to him. He seemed to understand him when no one else did. He was his true friend in life and in death, and after he is gone he speaks on his behalf of his fair name. Horatio had the fine moral character to appreciate the noble purposes and splendid life of Hamlet, devoted as it was to his filial and patriotic duty, and whose life purposes needed only to be known to be approved. Horatio accepts the task of reporting him aright, and disclosing the secrets that could only be revealed after his death. As Hamlet breathes his last, he corroborates his words, and bears eloquent testimony to the uprightness and nobility of his friend:

"Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" (V. ii. 346-7.)


Hamlet lived and died solely for Denmark. He did not regard his only life, but always thought of the good of his country. As he is pleading with Horatio to explain his cause to the people, the announcement is made of the approach of young Fortinbras on his return from Poland. Once more, then, and as the last actor in the drama, this young warrior is brought upon the stage. He is very different in character from his cousin Hamlet, and is the type of self-regarding ambition who is willing to make war and lose thousands of men in order to gain territory that adds to him nothing but a name. He is not, however, of the criminal type of Claudius, but possesses many barbaric virtues. As a cousin of Hamlet's, though much less excellent, he is now the nearest to the throne and recognizes some rights in the kingdom.

With is dying words, then, Hamlet speaks on behalf of Fortinbras. Apparently he wants the succession settled that the country may go forward in peace. In order to secure this, then, he gives his voice for the election, saying, "I do prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras." (V. ii. 342-3.) On his part, Fortinbras accepts the advantage his kinship and the voice of Hamlet give him, saying, "with sorrow I embrace my fortune." Horatio, sharing in the peaceable spirit of Hamlet, and fearing a possible disturbance, urges the immediate accession, "lest more mischance, on plots and errors happen." Fortinbras then accepts the kingdom, and closes the play by pronouncing a brief but noble panegyric over the body of Hamlet:

"Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally; and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him." (V. ii. 382-7.)


The success that has attended Hamlet's efforts proves him to be a deliverer of his country, as in the earlier versions of Saxo and Belleforest. He has rid his country of the corruption and criminality of Claudius without instigating a civil war, or causing the death of any innocent person but himself. He has refrained from the course of the vindictive Laertes of stirring up an internal insurrection, and has sacrified only himself to his country's welfare. The country has not been put into such turmoil and revolution as to invite an attack from the ambitious Fortinbras. The crown of Denmark has passed peaceably to his royal kinsman, Fortinbras, and Denmark goes on toward her national destiny.

Hamlet has triumphed, therefore, even in his death. He has revenged the murder of his father, but several other persons have also lost their lives. This he very much regretted, for he tried to strike only the king. He has, however, accomplished his task without causing war, and has discharged his duty both to his parent and to his country. All his plans have been realized, except his indifferent desire to become king, which he readily sacrificed to his larger duty. If any justification of his course of conduct is necessary, this will be undertaken by Horatio. Knowing Hamlet's concern for his good name, Horatio says he will

"speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about; so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning, and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventor's heads. All this can I
Truly deliver." (V. ii. 366-373.)

The death of Hamlet marks the extinction of the direct royal line of Denmark. Ulrici suggests that this is due to the wrong done by them as a line. Rather is it due solely to the crimes of Claudius, and but for Hamlet the punishment would have fallen also on the state. By his devotion he saved the state from being wrecked by his uncle's crimes, but in the very nature of things he could not save either himself or the wrong-doer. The over-ruling Providence, that is felt everywhere in the play, is manifest not in the extinction of the line of kings, but in the deliverance of the state in peace, though in the hands of another but related king.


There is practical unanimity among students of the play that Hamlet is the most intellectual character in the entire Shakespearean drama. Of the play, Rapp has said that "Of all the poet's works, and indeed of all works in the world, Hamlet appears to me to be the richest in thought and the profoundest." [29] Stedefeld says of the prince that he is "an intellectual hero, a Titan, who is far above his whole surroundings, rising thus above them by insight, learning, culture, wisdom, and knowledge of men and the world." [30] No other character brings such a wealth of intellect, such a well-trained mind, such profundity of thought to the solution of the problem which the course of life and of the world present to him. He is in every way a deep scholar and a philospher; and the unschooled Shakespeare shows his abiding respect for learning in making this scholar from Wittenberg the brightest mind among all the brilliant wits of his stage.

The persons of the drama and the readers of the play unite in proclaiming Hamlet also a most noble character. The difficulties that appear in the interpretation of the play are intellectual, not moral. There is difficulty in understanding the problem presented to his mind, but there is practical agreement on the excellence of his character. Critics have vied with one another to praise his noble personality. Goethe calls him "a beautiful, pure, and most moral nature." Campbell speaks of him as "so ideal, and yet so real an existence." Stedefeld says, "Hamlet is, according to the intention of the poet, in his whole bearing a noble, manly, chivalrous presence, with moral and religious feeling." Professor Dowden says that "One of the deepest characteristics of Hamlet's nature is a longing for sincerity, for truth in mind and manners, an aversion for all that is false, affected, or exaggerated." For this reason the play is sometimes spoken of as "a tragedy of moral idealism." But it is a tragedy that is at the same time a triumph.

Hamlet is distinguished among the characters of Shakespeare as the one pre-eminent for taking always the moral point of view. To all the other characters of the play he appears as a sort of moral-sense. Looking into his noble countenance they all became conscious of their wrong-doings. The king is convicted of his crime by the very presence of Hamlet. Polonius sees himself as a crafty trickster and moral idiot. The queen is conscience-stricken when her son speaks to her and exclaims:

"Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct." (III. iv. 89-92.)

There are no persons of the drama but realize his excellence, and in his presence are conscious of his goodness. It is he that brings the king to confess in his soliloquy the blackness of his deed, though he stifles his conscience, and does not declare his crime. And at the close of the play, all who survive unite in praise of his nobility.

Justice cannot be done to Hamlet without the mention of his religious spirit. The very fact that he has an apparition of his father's spirit reveals a belief in another world. Hamlet is an idealist, and explains everything to himself in terms of spirit. It is by a visitation of a spirit from the other world that he gets his life task, according to which he governs all his conduct. And he is not the fatalist Professor Bradley thinks he is, for his life is not the self-abandonment that appears in his theory. He is quite capable of taking "arms against a sea of troubles," and still thinks that Providence over-rules our plans for the larger good. It was after he had exerted himself most strenuously in the direction of his own affairs and had turned his banishment to England against his persecutors, that he says,

"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will." (V. ii. 10-11.)

Hamlet lived his entire life in this moral and religious spirit. All the qualities he admired and sought were qualities of mind and soul. He did not care for place or distinction, and would not allow his companions to call themselves his servants, but insisted on calling them friends. He hated shams and pretences, and loved sincerity and honesty of character. He had no false notions of royal dignity, and did not hesitate to love the daughter of the royal steward. He did not care for position, and had no laments for himself that he did not attain to the crown. He revered only moral and spiritual qualities in men, and worshipped God as the father of his spirit. He made the best of this life, and believed there was a better one to come. No character in all Shakespeare is so much an idealist. In the sordid conditions of his times, he lived entirely in the ideal world, and at the last sacrificed his life to gain an ideal end. He is at once the most intellectual, the most moral, the most truly religious, and at the same time the most heroic character in Shakespeare.


There can be little doubt that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to embody his ideal of the noble and patriotic prince. He had previously depicted from English history all sorts of princes and kings, and had found a noble prince in Henry the Fifth. Both Hamlet and Henry are distinguished by their lofty and intelligent patriotism, though Hamlet is much the finer and nobler character. Henry was conscientious, but not so self-sacrificing. He was noble, but not distinguished by great intelligence. He lacked Hamlet's intensity of moral conviction and his profundity of thought. The dramatist could find his perfect ideal only in a legendary character, where his own imagination could work upon his hero. This he might have found in Arthur, but he preferred to take a story already dramatized and picked out Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

In the English historical plays he had just written the dramatist found in all, with one exception, the stories of base ambition and vulgar lust for power. He had just concluded his studies of the long and bloody struggle between Lancaster and York, culminating in the brutal reign of Richard the Third, his one ideal villain. With the exception of Henry the Fifth, these rulers were ever ready at any time to plunge their country into war, and to keep it struggling for generations in the hope of realizing their own personal ambitions. They had never considered their country, but were always ready for civil war or foreign war if there was any chance to achieve their own glory.

But Hamlet is a prince of another sort. As in Saxo and Belleforest, and as well in the German play, his chief thought was for his country. He would rather endure the ills he had than involve his country in bloody civil strife, or invite the armed intervention of a foreign prince. Though his uncle Claudius was a corrupt and demoralizing influence on the state, Hamlet seemed to think it would only make matters worse to try to dethrone him by armed force. He therefore seeks other means of accomplishing his moral task, and trusts to the moral character of fate to find a way to avenge his father and deliver his country. His moral faith did not in the end miscarry, and he lived to see the murderer and tyrant punished and his own course vindicated. As a true patriot he did not count his own life at a pin's fee when the moral fate of his country was at stake. He was satisfied to see the crown pass peaceably to the head of one no less worthy than his kinsman Fortinbras of Norway. Under him the two rival nations could unite, and peace would be maintained.

Back to Hamlet: Dramatic Criticism

  1. The Genesis of Hamlet, by Charlton M. Lewis, p. 20. New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1907.
  2. Introduction to Shakespeare, by Hiram Corson, p. 213. Boston, D. C. Heath & Co.
  3. W. Oechelhauser, English trans. in Furness edition of Hamlet, appendix, p. 341.
  4. Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 102-3. London, 2nd edition, 1905.
  5. The Genesis of Hamlet, pp. 88, 92, 96.
  6. The Heart of Hamlet's Mystery, English trans. by Wilder, p. 54. New York, 1907.
  7. Shakespeare: His Mind and Art, by Edward Dowden, 13th ed., London, 1906, p. 126.
  8. Ibid, p. 258.
  9. Views About Hamlet. Tolman. p. 33. Boston, 1906.
  10. Two Dissertations on the Hamlet of Saxo Grammaticus and of Shakespeare, by R. G. Latham, p. 49, London, 1872.
  11. The Hystorie of Hamblet, English version of 1608, reprinted in Furness's Variorum Hamlet, II., p. 111.
  12. Ibid. pp. 112-3.
  13. Ibid. p. 113.
  14. Act I, scene v, 117-8, 123-4, 136, 143.
  15. Wilhelm Meister. Book V, chapter IV. Carlyle's translation.
  16. The Heart of Hamlet's Mystery, p. 68.
  17. "The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays," by A. H. Thorndike, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 1902, pp. 125-220; New Series, Vol. X., No. 2.
  18. Frank, The Tragedy of Hamlet, p. 132. Boston, 1910.
  19. Shakespeare-Lexicon, by Alexander Schmidt, 3rd edition, Berlin, 1902.
  20. "Humor in Tragedy," by Sir Herbert Tree. English Review, November, 1915.
  21. Ibid., p. 352.
  22. Ibid., p. 366.
  23. Ibid., p. 367.
  24. Furness' translation, Variorum Hamlet, II. p. 122.
  25. Essays on Some of Shakespeare's Dramatic Characters, 5th edition, 1798, p. 133.
  26. English translation in Furness, II, p. 142.
  27. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Temple edition, Scene XIII, 41.
  28. English translation in Furness, II, p. 132.
  29. English translation in Furness, II., p. 295
  30. Ibid., p. 343.
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