Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Hamlet: The Play Hamlet: The History Hamlet: The Characters Hamlet: The Criticism More Hamlet
The Puzzle of Hamlet
The following article was originally published in The Ghost in Hamlet and Other Essays in Comparative Literature. Maurice Francis Egan. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1906. pp. 139-69.

"The puzzle of Hamlet" is a phrase frequently repeated; and the more Hamlet is considered by the critics, the oftener it is repeated. The reasons for it may be found in the lack of serious study given to the text of this incomparable drama and psychological study, as well as in the neglect by readers of culture of the contemporary literature of Shakespeare's time. Added to these is the strange habit of guessing at Shakespeare's meaning from a modern point of view. This habit is fixed by the determination of so many persons to read the past as if we possessed the one ray capable of illuminating it. It is as if we thought the secrets of old rolls of papyrus could reveal themselves only under the rays of the electric light. Hamlet has been made a puzzle because of our inability to look at the text from the point of view of a contemporary. "'Ow could Shakespeare 'ave lived in such a nasty 'ouse without gas?" asked a Cockney at Stratford. It is easy to supply the gas.

In one of the most scholarly works in the department of English literature written in the last fifteen years, A History of Criticism, George Saintsbury says, speaking of the critical necessity of confining ourselves to the actual texts:

"This is not perhaps a fashionable proceeding. Not what Plato says, but what the latest commentator says about Plato; not what Chaucer says, but what the latest thesis-writer thinks about Chaucer--is supposed to be the qualifying study of the scholar. I am not able to share this conception of scholarship. When we have read and digested the whole of Plato, we may, if we like, turn to the latest German editor; when we have read and digested the whole of Shakespeare, and of Shakespeare's contemporaries, we may, if we like, turn to Shakespearean biographers and commentators."

A fault in much Shakespearean criticism is that it is too reverential. The writer who scans the Bible, alert to find an anachronism or an exaggeration, sprawls at full length before the silliest "sallet" of the Bard of Avon, or perhaps of Messrs. Hemynge and Condell, in rapt admiration. Hysterical girls after a morning recital by Paderewski are no more ecstatic than some of the Shakespearean acolytes. This blazon ought not to be; it makes Shakespeare an idol hidden in clouds of incense, an idol to be worshipped as unreasoningly as all idols are worshipped. From what we can discover of the English of the sixteenth century--and no great list of historical references is needed to show this--we know that they regarded a play as a play, not as an enigma to be thought about, written about, discussed as a problem in philosophy. All the reconstructions of the Elizabethan playhouse show that the auditors went there to weep or laugh, to love the hero and to detest the villain, to applaud the good and to hate the bad. The recent revival of the Catholic morality play, Everyman, ought to give us a clue to the truth that the drama in England, from the day of its appearance in the monasteries to the day of its disappearance under the ban of ultra-Protestantism, was written to be seen and heard, not to be read or academically analyzed. Again, although we talk of the continuity of history, we do not take seriously the truth it implies--that in essentials human nature has always been the same, and that by recognizing these essentials we get the keys to many things of the past that are closed to us by the unconscious assumption that we are a new order of beings, transformed by the Reformation and experimental philosophy!

That the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans did not, in the space of a few years, break completely with the beliefs and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church; that they, in spite of the manner in which distance and romance have transfigured them, took a matter-of-fact view of life; and that there were varying shades of belief, opinion, and taste are facts that might well be taken into consideration in discussing the meaning of Hamlet. No audience will flock to a playhouse to see a tragedy which it does not understand or with which it is out of sympathy. The moralities and miracle plays were almost too obvious for our present taste, but not more than sufficiently obvious for the liking of the English of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The dramas of Shakespeare, Fletcher, Chapman, and the rest may contain a cipher: that is another question. It is certain that the noble earl who liked to listen to music or to mingle with his countrymen of a lower caste at bear-baitings did not go to see Hamlet for the zest of solving any problem, whether a cipher or not.

A lover of Shakespeare, recognizing these things, has two quarrels on his hands, or, at least, two reasons for irritation in his mind. One is with the expositor of Hamlet who treats the text as a mere matter for the student; the other with the actor who, having in his art so many means that make for clarity, uses the play as if his own personality were the first thought, and the meaning of the author the second. To these reasons for discontent may be added the student's disregard of the actor's part in the making of the play, and the actor's slavish obedience, in minor details, to the student. The student forgets that Hamlet was written to be acted, and the actor does not recognize that neither philological guesses of the note-maker nor the exact shape of Laertes' cloak is of consequence, provided the value of each character be so expressed that the meaning of the tragedy is full and clear. When the actor can impress on the student that, if "intuitional" interpretation is to be allowed, he has the advantage, because he is forced in the exercise of his art to take Shakespeare's point of view, we may have less critical dust thrown in our eyes.

There is now no difference of opinion as to the position of Hamlet in the literature of the world, Voltaire having been thrown out of court. Insight into man's heart and mind, and into the fundamental varieties which underlie life, expressed in words of piercing beauty and aptness, is acknowledged to exist in this play to an amazing degree; but if the art form in which these appear is defective, the symmetry of the masterpiece is affected. In a word, if the play does not answer all the requirements of a play, if it is not interesting and clear, Shakespeare made a serious mistake in adopting the dramatic form. If Shakespeare was not sure whether Hamlet was mad or not, or whether he was noble or not, or whether he loved Ophelia or not, or whether Gertrude had sinned or not, he had the commentators of the future in his mind's eye, and he wrote for them; but as his utter disregard of the future of his written plays shows that he did not consider the commentators, he must have had in mind an immediate audience. And for the audience of the moment the dramatist must be sure of what he wants to say, and must say it with vigor. There have been exceptions, no doubt, but not enough to prove that a so-called drama, of the vagueness of one of Henry James' novels, could hold the attention of normal auditors. From the first, Hamlet, as a play, is clear and admirably constructed to meed the demands of the London stage of the time.

A glance at the source of the play--the Historie of Hamblet--connotes the evident purpose of Shakespeare to show that the Prince of Denmark counterfeits madness. Hamblet, in the Historie, is, however, a very young prince, who imitates Brutus, because he knows that his father-uncle, Fengon, suspects that he will avenge his father's murder as soon as he comes of age. He is a pagan, and he thinks and acts as a pagan; but Shakespeare was too much of his own time to be able to project himself into a pagan mind, and too much of an artist to forgo the opportunities offered by a conflict between Christianity and that nature which Edmund in his famous soliloquy called his "goddess." In this conflict lies the pregnant interest of the play.

If Hamlet had Edmund's contempt for any law but nature's, the play would have lost its deep dramatic interest. In the Historie of Hamblet, as in Malory's Morte Arthure, paganism shows plainly through the Christian veneering. The translators apologize for this, conscious always of the lack of sympathy in their readers for a prince, no matter how greatly injured, who would thirst for the mere satisfaction of vengeance. In Hamlet the pagan man bursts through the habits of the Christian mind. The young Prince will not kill Claudius at his prayers:

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. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

The pagan writing on the palimpsest has not been entirely effaced. Whether Shakespeare had read the Historie of Hamblet or not, or whether he founded Hamlet on an old tragedy derived from the Historie, it is evident that he had at least at heart the conflict between Christian law and that lawlessness, that giving way to natural impulses--to desire or hatred, knowing no law--which we call pagan. How coolly, too, Hamlet sends his treacherous friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to their death! His excuse would have seemed a valid one to Elizabethans, for the traitorous friends had been privy to a plot for compassing the ruin of one of the royal blood, and the rightful heir to the throne. Horatio is astonished that these two fellow-students should be let go straight to their fate. Hamlet says:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.

Hamlet does not doom these traitors to death in madness; it is not madness that makes him spare the King's life until he can think that the murder will plunge him into hell. He is frenzied for the moment, when he kills Polonius, behind the arras, believing that Claudius is listening there; he is nervously overwrought, and in the overwhelming horror of the Ghost's revelation, striving for self-control, until, in the tumult of heart and brain, he seems unbalanced and hysterical, but never, even for a moment, mad. The madness that he alludes to, in his pathetic words to Laertes, is evidenced in those episodes. It is the loss of that habitual balance which he admires so much in Horatio, who is never "passion's slave." Passion's slave at times Hamlet is. In this consists his madness.

Hamlet is essentially noble; he may decline from the law, but he knows, loves, and respects it. Claudius, on the other hand, being a man of parts, knows and hates it; he sins, and trembles before God, but before man he is every inch a king, in spite of Hamlet's passionate exaggeration of his defects. He accepts evil with open eyes. He would be virtuous if virtue could be reconciled with friendship for the world, the flesh, and the devil. He would be good if he were not compelled to make satisfaction for evil done to his neighbor. Luther's comfortable doctrine about works had not been preached in Shakespeare's Denmark. Claudius is no mere "king of shreds and patches," though some of the commentators and most of the actors make him so--as they make an arrant fool or a comic knave of Polonius, who was an accomplished Euphuist and a clever courtier.

It is impossible to enjoy the play, as a clear and logical work, without keeping in mind that it was written for the theatre, acted under the direction of Shakespeare, and made actual by what the stage-manager in our time would call "business." And this "business,"--the technical direction for the dumb show, or the actions suited to the word, which elucidates the meaning of speech, must have been as delicately and carefully considered as is every line in the text. The record of this "business" we have lost, and the loss is irreparable. If it existed, the student who looks on Hamlet as a text detached from dramatic action would not have had matters so much his own way, and the actor who derives most of his traditions from the practice of other actors of no greater knowledge than himself would not cause intelligent lovers of Shakespeare to wish that Hamlet might never be degraded by the glare of the footlights. Nevertheless, the impulse of the actor to cause the play to be as obvious as possible has wrought good results. The actor knows, what our critics do not seem always to know, that no accomplished playwright wants to obscure the processes or the objects of his drama, or to convert an acting play into an elusive study as Orphic as one of Richard Strauss's symphonic poems. He may, and he generally does, neglect every other character in the play, to round out that of the Prince; but at his worst he must regard the action as well as the words. His consciousness of an audience that does not care to think forces him to present effectively what the student in his closet refines, re-refines, and over-refines. Hamlet, with him, is a man, not a mind divorced from a man, and he has not such a superstitious regard for the text that he will allow words to stand, merely as words which have no meaning, if not illumined by gesture or facial expression. The actor makes mistakes at times: in his passion for effects, he overleaps truth, as when, after the death of Polonius, he weeps and groans in most unprincely fashion. Hamlet says:

For this same lord
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

At the end of this most dramatic scene Hamlet "drags in the body of Polonius," the Queen hurrying away by another door. The actor who should coolly and cruelly obey the stage direction would bring upon himself the hisses of the auditors and destroy all sympathy for Hamlet, unless it is presumed that he had suddenly become insane. The text of the interview between Hamlet and his mother ought to render that supposition out of the question, although Gertrude, horrified by the effect of the Ghost's appearance on her son, says:

This is the very coinage of your brain:
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.

She does not see her husband, Hamlet's father, "in his habit as he lived," come to hold the Prince, by the bonds of love, to his "almost blunted purpose." "Taint not thy mind," the spirit of the King--suffering, unpurged of crimes, not great in the eyes of men, but foul before the purity of God--has said. And now, not as a king, not as an outraged patriot seeing with clear eyes that sin is corrupting Denmark, and that the roots of the cancer must be torn out by Hamlet, but as a suppliant for the soul of the Queen, he comes. That the "illusion" was no illusion in the modern sense is shown by the stage direction in the First Folio, "Enter the Ghost." That the Ghost was no hallucination in the beginning of the play, Shakespeare takes pains to prove by the testimony of the soldiers, and, more convincingly than all, by the evidence of the clear-minded Horatio. As Hamlet was not mad, the dragging in of Polonius could not have been the only business set down for Hamlet after the exit of his mother; and "severally" is not sufficiently definite.

The actor whose instinct is true sees this, and supplies the business to save the situation. At times he is intemperate--there have been actors who grovelled at the feet of Polonius and howled with grief in the most unprincely manner and unphilosophical fashion. The student does not, as a rule, weep at all or conceive that Hamlet could have wept. He takes the text as it stands, and Hamlet, instead of for the moment assuming a coldness that he does not feel to impress the Queen with the surety of his purpose, becomes brutal in madness. Much of the text of Shakespeare, which seems inconsistent and is therefore held to have deep and even occult meaning by isolated students, simply needs the theatrical business--not set down in the stage Folio or the Quarto--to be clear and consistent. In minor passages this is very plain. For instance, in the First Act, when the Ghost passes, and Horatio cries out--

I'll cross it, though it blast me,

the business explanatory of this is differently interpreted by actors, and though great play is made with the cross-handles of the swords in the swearing scene, the usual method is for Horatio merely to cross the path of the Ghost. The famous romantic player, Fechter, made the sign of the cross, and, as the Ghost did not flinch--as it would have done had it been an evil spirit--he went on with his truly Christian appeal to a spirit in a process of purgation:

If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me,
Speak to me:
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,
O, speak!

What the actor of the Ghost did in Shakespeare's time, we have no means of knowing. The business accompanying Hamlet's

Look here, upon this picture, and on this,

is not even so important, yet it is sometimes a piece of very gross exaggeration. It will never be possible for an actor to insert the business in the grave-digger's scene, as described by M. de la Baume Desdossat, when he said that the author "fait jouer à la boule avec des têtes de mort sur le théâtre." The bowling with death's heads on the stage might easily be introduced to exemplify Hamlet's allusion to the old game of "loggats" by the performers who wanted to accentuate the Gothic and grim humor of the clowns. Knight smiles at the statement of the exquisite M. Desdossat, and yet some of the business introduced by the theatrical gravediggers is not less grotesque; and who can conclude that it is really out of keeping in the awful contrast Shakespeare makes? There is, as I have said, the evidence of no prompters' books to the contrary. The taste of the time is the only limit one can set to the grotesque in Shakespeare or in any author of his period. It is evident from the text that the spirit of Shakespeare is against exaggeration of any kind, and the taste of our time is with his. The actor of today runs a great risk when, as Laertes, he stands over the body of Ophelia, saturated with the water of the pool and bound by clinging plants, and says:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out.

Often these lines are omitted, and with reason. The actor is on delicate ground in uttering what, in our time, seems a bombastic exaggeration. We cannot tell whether Shakespeare softened his rhetoric by business. At any rate, we can be sure that the lines were delivered under Shakespeare's direction, so that they could in no way interfere with the pathos of the moment. The modesty of nature seems to be outraged by them, as they stand in cold print; but who can say that, from the actor's point of view--which was also Shakespeare's--they were not so presented that even today they would not have offended our taste? In most of our modern plays every direction is carefully written; no doubt is left by the author in the mind of the reader as to the exact position of any character at any given time on the stage. But these minute directions do not appear in the reading edition of the play--though, as a rule, the literary quality of modern plays is so poor that nobody cares to read them. They are arranged for the stage, and when they disappear from the stage, their value likewise disappears. They exist, like the score of an opera by Verdi, or a symphony of Beethoven, only when they are interpreted.

Shakespeare's meaning suffers when his plays are read as if they were intended merely to be read. A poet of the first class, and, consequently, a transfigurer of life, an interpreter of the fundamentals and universals of human character, he chose the form of expression most adapted to the feeling and taste of his time. It has been noticed many times that the limitations of the Elizabethan playhouse forced him to adopt a method more akin to that of the modern novelist than that of the modern playwright. His characters tell us, in their speeches, many things of local and temporal import which, in the modern play, are indicated, through the change in the theatrical apparatus, to the sight. The Queen's description of the death of Ophelia, and the poetic expression of Jacques's reveries would be mere "words, words, words," to the theatrical writer of the present day, who uses words in order to make pictures as seldom as possible. When Gower enters at the beginning of the fifth act of Pericles, he asks the auditors to do what the novelist often asks his readers to do--to "make believe," to "suppose."

In your supposing once more put your sight
Of heavy Pericles; think this his bark:
Where what is done in action, more, if might,
Shall be discover'd; please you, sit and hark.

The audience of today neither "supposes" nor "sits and harks." It sits and sees. Shakespeare could not adapt his plays to the modern theatre without destroying their literary value. At the same time they would have lost their power of appeal to the folk of his time, were they literature only, and not dumb show, at times, and very vigorous action as well.

The characters of Regan and Goneril in King Lear seem to be monsters of evil without any attractive traits. They are so wicked that many lovers of Shakespeare have classed them as theatrical puppets created as foils to Cordelia. And it must be confessed that the bare text gives this impression, for there are few phrases concerning them that suggest to the imagination that they are more than twin creatures wedded, unhumanly, to sin. Edmund, too, seems unhuman--a mind of lust and lawlessness, a pawn of the author's to bring out the emphatic lessons of the play, that sin blinds us to the truth--that both Lear and Gloucester suffered because, wedded to their pet sins, their minds had grown so darkened that they could not distinguish truth from falsehood. But neither Regan nor Goneril is a mere puppet. Regan and Goneril differ in attributes. Albany calls Goneril "a gilded serpent"; and on this hint the actor should build. Goneril and Regan are too often treated as evil twins, in no way different except in their love for Edmund. As for Edmund, he is most dependent on the author; the text is full of subtle hints, not always considered by either the reader or the personator. Edgar says:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

And Edmund replies:

Thou hast spoken right, 't is true;
The wheel is come full circle; I am here.

Dying, Edmund goes back, in triumph, to his sin again:

Yet Edmund was beloved:
The one the other poison'd for my sake,
And after slew herself.

Edmund is a character created for the actor, and it requires all the art of artful actors to interpret his subtlety. The puzzle-questions as to Edmund--Is he an atheist? Is he not a mere creature of circumstances?--become quite plain when Edmund appears in flesh and blood, with a will to choose Nature as his goddess, and a belief, at least, in nature's law. Iago himself, a self-degraded and super-subtle soul, is, too, human only in the actor's hands. His plottings, read in cold blood, on the printed page, make him seem to be simply a devil, sojourning for a time on earth in human form.

On the other hand, the theatre has a way of being careful in minor details, which are often stifling to the imagination, and careless in more important things not considered in a certain class of modern novels. A manager who prides himself on the minutiæ of a gondola in The Merchant of Venice or on the fidelity to detail in the view of a Venetian street in Othello will cut out those most important lines in the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet,

Unhousel'd, disappointed, unaneled.

They seem unimportant to the reader of Shakespeare who cannot conceive--being without present knowledge of historical data--their terrible meaning:

Unhousel'd, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!

The spirit's heart-wrung exclamation is that he died without the last sacraments, disappointed of his rights as a Christian, unshriven, without extreme unction. The statement affects Hamlet terribly; we learn it later in the play. Hamlet broods on it, and he does not keep in mind that the Ghost is not a lost soul, though suffering the pains of purgation; that he thinks only of those pains we know well from his soliloquy over the praying Claudius. Less archæology and more art, less attention to the conditions of minds in the play, would do away with the aspersion that the theatre, in the United States at least, has no historical sense.

The accent laid by the spirit of the elder Hamlet on his loss of the rites of the Church had its value, we may be sure, to the auditors in the Globe Theatre. It has its value today, not only to persons who have the historical sense, but to many who can see--whether we admit that Shakespeare's conception of the Ghost was strictly theological or not--that he realized what was meant by the cutting off of a Christian soul from its rights. Again, the Polonius of the modern theatre is a cross between a knave and a fool. It is true that Hamlet calls him a fool, but Hamlet in his fits of passion is not to be trusted. His picture of his uncle, for instance--"Hyperion to a satyr"--and his underrating the qualities of a courageous, cool, highly intellectual, but deliberately bad man, as Claudius was, ought to show the representors that Hamlet's estimate of Polonius should be taken only as the estimate of an overwrought, almost maddened, and supersensitive soul. Polonius was shrewd, capable of deep thought, cultured, after the older fashion of the Euphuists; and a closer study of the influences that made him possible would prevent the actors or the managers from misrepresenting his creator's idea.

In the prologue of the first act of Henry V, when Shakespeare despairs of crowding the splendid pageant of Agincourt into the theatre, he exclaims against the limits of the stage:

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance:
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth.

As a rule, Shakespeare adapts his dramas to the bounds of his theatrical world without any evident dissatisfaction with them. In fact, if his means of satisfying the sight had been greater, our pleasure in reading his plays would have been less.

No better example can be found in Hamlet of the loss the student suffers from the absence of the business used by the actors in the days of Elizabeth and James than in the first scene of the third act. Hamlet has unveiled his doubtful mind, and suddenly he sees Ophelia. A flood of tenderness sweeps over his heart:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.

It almost seems as if the wide-spread delusion that Hamlet is really mad were founded mainly on this scene; for here, unless some adequate reason for his suspicion of Ophelia's truth could be given to the auditors, he seems to be not only mad, but possessed of a brutal and sullen devil. It is enough for the close student of the play to believe, after careful comparison of various parts of the text, that Hamlet had come to distrust all women, and that he was vowed to "wipe away all trivial fond records"; but it is not enough for the average auditor, and we may be sure that there was some business arranged to explain obviously the Prince's outburst of wrath, after a moment, too, of extreme tenderness. The stage direction is simply "Exeunt King and Polonius." But where do they go for their "lawful espials"? Behind the arras? Into a gallery at the back of a room in the castle? The author sees that their presence must be made known to Hamlet, in order that he may have an excuse for acting the part of madness with such brutality. He must have some plain proof that Ophelia is playing upon him for the benefit of her father, and the auditors, according to the usage of the stage, must know that he has this proof; therefore it is the custom, in many stage presentments of the play, to reveal accidentally, for a moment, the presence of the King and Polonius. The insults of Hamlet--excusable only in a madman or one feigning madness--are directed then, not at the fair and gentle Ophelia, but at the listeners.

"I did love you once," he says with a breaking voice, and he adds, remembering, "I loved you not."

"I was the more deceived," Ophelia answers gently.

Then Hamlet, fearing his own weakness, frightens Ophelia with his accusations against himself. Her gentle face appeals to him, and he puts her to the test:

"Where's your father?"

"At home, my lord."

With the sensitive instinct of love, his face has read in Ophelia's that she is deceiving him.

There is no relenting after that. He loves her still, but he knows that she has deceived him. To the winds he flings his wrath; the listeners must believe him mad, and she-- "Frailty, thy name is woman."

Considered as a play, treated as intelligent actors who desired simply to bring out its meaning would treat it, Hamlet ceases to be a puzzle. It must be remembered, however, that, until the historical sense is cultivated in the theatres, light thrown on certain passages by the actor's instinct and insight will not pierce other passages equally worthy of illumination.

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