Though there are in Hamlet more direct utterances of the poet's inmost spiritual life than in any of his earlier works, he has none the less succeeded in thoroughly disengaging his hero's figure, and making it an independent entity. What he gave him of his own nature was its unfathomable depth; for the rest, he retained the situation and the circumstances much as he found them in his authorities. It cannot be denied that he thus involved himself in difficulties which he by no means entirely overcame. The old legend, with its harsh outlines, its mediæval order of ideas, its heathen groundwork under a varnish of dogmatic Catholicism, its assumption of vengeance as the unquestionable right, or rather duty, of the individual, did not very readily harmonize with the rich life of thoughts, dreams, and feelings which Shakespeare imparted to his hero. There arose a certain discrepancy between the central figure and his surroundings. A Prince who is the intellectual peer of Shakespeare himself, who knows and declares that "no traveller returns" from beyond the grave, yet sees and holds converse with a ghost. A royal youth of the Renaissance, who has gone through a foreign university, whose chief bent is towards philosophic brooding, who writes verses, who cultivates music, elocution, and rapier-fencing, and proves himself an expert in dramatic criticism, is at the same time preoccupied with thoughts of personal and bloody vengeance. Now and then, in the course of the drama, a rift seems to open between the shell of the action and its kernel.
But Shakespeare, with his consummate instinct, managed to find an advantage precisely in this discrepancy, and to turn it to account. His Hamlet believes in the ghost and--doubts. He accepts the summons to the deed of vengeance and--delays. Much of the originality of the figure, and of the drama as a whole, springs almost inevitably from this discrepancy between the mediæval character of the fable and its Renaissance hero, who is so deep and many-sided that he has almost a modern air.
The figure of Hamlet, as it at last shaped itself in Shakespeare's imagination and came to life in his drama, is one of the very few immortal figures of art and poetry, which, like Cervantes' Don Quixote, exactly its contemporary, and Goethe's Faust of two centuries later, present to generation after generation problems to brood over and enigmas to solve. If we compare the two great figures of Hamlet (1604) and Don Quixote (1605), we find two. Don Quixote belongs to the past. He embodies the naïve spirit of chivalry which, having outlived its age, gives offense on all hands in a time of prosaic rationalism, and makes itself a laughing-stock through its importunate enthusiasms. He has the firm, easily-comprehensible contours of a caricature. Hamlet belongs to the future, to the modern age. He embodies the lofty and reflective spirit, standing isolated, with its severely exalted ideals, in corrupt or worthless surroundings, forced to conceal its inmost nature, yet everywhere arousing hostility. He has the unfathomable spirit and ever-changing physiognomy of genius. Goethe, in his celebrated exposition of Hamlet, maintains that in this case a great deed is imposed upon a soul which is not strong enough for it:
"There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered. A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away." 
This interpretation is brilliant and thoughtful, but not entirely just. One can trace in it the spirit of the period of humanity, transforming in its own image a figure belonging to the Renaissance. Hamlet cannot really be called, without qualification, "lovely, pure, noble, and most moral"--he who says to Ophelia the penetratingly true, uncomfortable words, "I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me." The light of such a saying as this takes the colour out of Goethe's adjectives. It is true that Hamlet goes on to ascribe to himself evil qualities of which he is quite innocent; but he was doubtless sincere in the general tenor of his speech, to which all men of the better sort will subscribe. Hamlet is not model of virtue. He is not simply pure, noble, moral, &c., but is, or becomes, other things as well--wild, bitter, harsh, now tender, now coarse, wrought up to the verge of madness, callous, cruel. No doubt he is too weak for his task, or rather wholly unsuited to it; but he is by no means devoid of physical strength or power of action. He is no child of the period of humanity, moral and pure, but a child of the Renaissance, with its impulsive energy, its irrepressible fulness of life and its undaunted habit of looking death in the eyes.
Shakespeare at first conceived Hamlet as a youth. In the First Quarto, he is quite young, probably nineteen. It accords with this age that he should be a student at Wittenberg; young men at that time began and ended their university course much earlier than in our days. It accords with this age that his mother should address him as "boy" ("How now, boy!" iii, 4--a phrase which is deleted in the next edition), and that the word "young" should be continually prefixed to his name, not merely to distinguish him from his father. The King, too, in the early edition (not in that of 1604) currently addresses him as "son Hamlet;" and finally his mother is still young enough to arouse--or at least to enable Claudius to pretend--the passion which has such terrible results. Hamlet's speech to his mother--
"At your age
The hey-day of the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment,"
does not occur in the 1603 edition. The decisive proof, however, of the fact that Hamlet at first appeared in Shakespeare's eyes much younger (eleven years, to be precise) than he afterwards made him, is to be found in the graveyard scene (v. I). In the older edition, the First Gravedigger says that the skull of the jester Yorick has lain a dozen years in the earth; in the edition of 1604 this is changed to twenty-three years. Here, too, it is explicibly indicated that Hamlet, who as a child knew Yorick, is not thirty years old; for the Gravedigger first states that he took to his trade on the very day on which Prince Hamlet was born, and a little later adds: "I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years." It accords with this that the Player-King now mentions thirty years as the time that has elapsed since his marriage with the Queen, and that Ophelia (iii. I) speaks of Hamlet as the "unmatch'd form of blown [i.e. mature] youth."
The process of thought in Shakespeare's mind is evident. At first it seemed to him as if the circumstances of the case demanded that Hamlet should be a youth; for thus the overwhelming effect produced upon him by his mother's prompt forgetfulness of his father and hasty marriage seemed most intelligible. He had been living far from the great world, in quiet Wittenberg, never doubting that life was in fact as harmonious as it is apt to appear in the eyes of a young prince. He believed in the realization of ideals here on earth, imagined that intellectual nobility and fine feelings ruled the world, that justice reigned in public, faith and honour in private, life. He admired his great father, honoured his beautiful mother, passionately loved the charming Ophelia, thought nobly of humankind, and especially of women. From the moment he loses his father, and is forced to change his opinion of his mother, this serene view of life is darkened. If his mother has been able to forget his father and marry this man, what is woman worth? and what is life worth? At the very outset, then, when he has not even heard of his father's ghost, much less seen or held converse with it, sheer despair speaks in his monologue:
"O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew:
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!"
Hence, also, his naïve surprise that one may smile and smile and yet be a villain. He regards what has happened as a typical occurrence, a specimen of what the world really is. Hence his words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth." And those others: "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!... in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world!" These words express his first bright view of life. But that has vanished, and the world is no longer anything to him but a "foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." And man! What is this "quintessence of dust" to him? He has no pleasure in man or woman.
Hence arise his thoughts of suicide. The finer a young man's character, the stronger is his desire, on entering life, to see his ideals consummated in persons and circumstances. Hamlet suddenly realizes that everything is entirely different from what he had imagined, and feels as if he must die because he cannot set it right.
He finds it very difficult to believe that the world is so bad; therefore he is always seeking for new proofs of it; therefore, for instance, he plans the performance of the play. His joy whenever he tears the mask from baseness is simply the joy of realization, with deep sorrow in the background--abstract satisfaction produced by the feeling that at last he understands the worthlessness of the world. His divination was just--events confirm it. There is no cold-hearted pessimism here. Hamlet's fire is never quenched; his wound never heals. Laertes' poisoned blade gives the quiuetus to a still tortured soul.
All this, though we can quite well imagine it of a man of thirty, is more natural, more what we should expect, in one of nineteen. But as Shakespeare worked on his drama, and came to deposit in Hamlet's mind, as in a treasury, more and more of his own life-wisdom, of his own experience, and of his own keen and virile wit, he saw that early youth was too slight a framework to support this intellectual weight, and gave Hamlet the age of ripening manhood. 
Hamlet's faith and trust in humankind are shattered before the Ghost appears to him. From the moment when his father's spirit communicates to him a far more appalling insight into the facts of the situation, his whole inner man is in wild revolt.
This is the cause of the leave-taking, the silent leave-taking, from Ophelia, whom in letters he had called his soul's idol. His ideal of womanhood no longer exists. Ophelia now belongs to those "trivial fond records" which the sense of his great mission impels him to efface from the tablets of his memory. There is no room in his soul for his task and for her, passive and obedient to her father as she is. Confide in her he cannot; she has shown how unequal she is to the exigencies of the situation by refusing to receive his letters and visits. She actually hands over his last letter to her father, which means that it will be shown and read at court. At last, she even consents to play the spy upon him. He no longer believes or can believe in any woman.
He intends to proceed at once to action, but too many thoughts crowd upon him. He broods over that horror which the Ghost has revealed to him, and over the world in which such a thing could happen; he doubts whether the apparition was really his father, or perhaps a deceptive, malignant spirit; and, lastly, he has doubts of himself, of his ability to upraise and restore what has been overthrown of his fitness for the vocation of avenger and judge. His doubts as to the trustworthiness of the Ghost leads to the performance of the play within the play, which proves the King's guilt. His feeling of his own unfitness for his task leads to continued procrastination.
During the course of the play it is sufficiently proved that he is not, in the main, incapable of action. He does not hesitate to stab the eavesdropper behind the arras; without wavering and without pity he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to certain death; he boards a hostile ship; and, never having lost sight of his purpose, he takes vengeance before he dies. But it is clear, none the less, that he has a great inward obstacle to overcome before he proceeds to the decisive act. Reflection hinders him; his "resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," as he says in his soliloquy.
He has become to the popular mind the great type of the procrastintor and dreamer; and far on into this century, hundreds of individuals, and even whole races, have seen themselves reflected in him as in a mirror.
We must not forget, however, that this dramatic curiosity--a hero who does not act--was, to a certain extent, demanded by the technique of this particular drama. If Hamlet had killed the King directly after receiving the Ghost's revelation, the play would have come to an end with the first act. It was, therefore, absolutely necessary that delays should arise.
Shakespeare is misunderstood when Hamlet is taken for that entirely modern product--a mind diseased by morbid reflection, without capacity for action. It is nothing less than a freak of ironic fate that he should have become a symbol of reflective sloth, this man who has gunpowder in every nerve, and all the dynamic genius in his nature.
It was undeniably and indubitably Shakespeare's intention to give distinctness to Hamlet's character by contrasting it with youthful energy of action, unhesitatingly pursuing his aim.
While Hamlet is letting himself be shipped off to England, the young Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, arrives with his soldiers, ready to risk his life for a patch of ground that "hath in it no profit but the name. To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it." Hamlet says to himself (iv. 4):
"How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!...
... I do not know
Why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do.'"
And he despairs when he contrasts himself with Fortinbras, the delicate and tender prince, who, at the head of his brave troops, dares death and danger "even for an egg-shell":
"Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake."
But with Hamlet it is a question of more than "honour," a conception belonging to a sphere far below his. It is natural that he should feel ashamed at the sight of Fortinbras marching off to the sound of drum and trumpet at the head of his forces--he, who has not carried out, or even laid, any plan; who, after having by means of the play satisfied himself of the King's guilt, and at the same time betrayed his own state of mind, is now writhing under the consciousness of impotence. But the sole cause of this impotence is the paralyzing grasp laid on all his faculties by his new realization of what life is, and the brooding born of this realization. Even his mission of vengeance sinks into the background of his mind. Everything is at strife within him--his duty to his father, his duty to his mother, reverence, horror of crime, hatred, pity, fear of action, and fear of inaction. He feels, even if he does not expressly say so, how little is gained by getting rid of a single noxious animal. He himself is already so much more than what he was at first--the youth chosen to execute a vendetta. He has become the great sufferer, who jeers and mocks, and rebukes the world that racks him. He is the cry of humanity horror struck at its own visage.
There is no "general meaning" on the surface of Hamlet. Lucidity was not the ideal Shakespeare had before him while he was producing this tragedy, as it had been when he was composing Richard III. Here there are plenty of riddles and self-contradictions; but not a little of the attraction of the play depends on this very obscurity.
We all know that kind of well-written book which is blameless in form, obvious in intention, and in which the characters stand out sharply defined. We read it with pleasure; but when we have read it, we are done with it. There is nothing to be read between the lines, no gulf between this passage and that, no mystic twilight anywhere in it, no shadows in which we can dream. And, again, there are other books whose fundamental idea is capable of many interpretations, and affords matter for much dispute, but whose significance lies less in what they say to us than in what they lead us to imagine, to divine. They have the peculiar faculty of setting thoughts and feelings in motion; more thoughts than they themselves contain, and perhaps of a psychological development, it lacks the lucidity of classical art; the hero's soul has all the untranspicuousness and complexity of a real soul; but one generation after another has thrown its imagination into the problem, and has deposited in Hamlet's soul the sum of its experience.
To Hamlet life is half reality, half a dream. He sometimes resembles a somnambulist, though he is often as wakeful as a spy. He has so much presence of mind that he is never at a loss for the aptest retort, and along with it, such absence of mind that he lets go his fixed determination in order to follow up some strain of thought or thread some dream-labyrinth. He appals, amuses, captivates, perplexes, disquiets us. Few characters in fiction have so disquieted the world. Although he is incessantly talking, he is solitary by nature. He typifies, indeed, that solitude of soul which cannot impart itself.
"His name," says Victor Hugo, "is as the name on a woodcut of Albert Dürer's: Melancholia. The bat flits over Hamlet's head; at his feet sits Knowledge, with globe and compass, and Love, with an hour-glass; while behind him, on the horizon, rests a giant sun, which only serves to make the sky above him darker." But from another point of view, Hamlet's nature is that of the hurricane--a thing of wrath and fury, and tempestuous scorn, strong enough to sweep the whole world clean.
There is in him no less indignation than melancholy; in fact, his melancholy is a result of his indignation. Sufferers and thinkers have found in him a brother. Hence the extraordinary popularity of the character, in spite of its being the reverse of obvious.
Audiences and readers feel with Hamlet and understand him; for all the better-disposed among us make the discovery, when we go forth into life as grown-up men and women, that it is not what we had imagined it to be, but a thousandfold more terrible. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Denmark is a prison, and the world is full of such dungeons. A spectral voice says to us: "Horrible things have happened; horrible things are happening every day. Be it your task to repair the evil, to rearrange the course of things. The world is out of joint; it is for you to set it right." But our arms fall powerless by our sides. Evil is too strong, too cunning for us.
In Hamlet, the first philosophical drama of the modern era, we meet for the first time the typical modern character, with its intense feeling of the strife between the ideal and the actual world, with its keen sense of the chasm between power and aspiration, and with that complexity of nature which shows itself in wit without mirth, cruelty combined with sensitiveness, frenzied impatience at war with inveterate procrastination.
Back to Hamlet Criticism
- Wilhelm Meister, Book iv. chap. 13.
- "On Hamlet's Age." E. Sullivan. New Shakspere Society's Transactions. 1880-86.