How do we talk about the most famous Shakespearean play? How, that is, do we approach Hamlet, a tragedy that has been rewritten, parodied, and echoes throughout theatrical and literary history so much so that it’s hard to shed all of that to get back to the text? In part, I think it’s okay if we don’t necessarily shed all of the history of the play because it makes for a rich intertextual, global, and much more diverse product today than it was when first performed. I say this to not foreclose your own journey to Hamlet, and to not discount your own associations or experiences with the play.
Hamlet has been praised as Shakespeare’s ultimate play, the pinnacle of his literary genius and his testament to a specifically modern sensibility that privileges inwardness and introspection. I won’t deny that the play is focused on the inner self and the passions, uncertainties, and troubles that individuals encounter. But I do want to encourage you to not read “modernity” into the play, if only because that would suggest, falsely, that Hamlet is the first work of literature to be invested truly in the psychic lives of its character(s). Instead, let’s take it for what it is: a highly complex, beautifully written, and ultimately a provocative dramatic work that raises many questions. Some of these questions are specific to Shakespeare’s day, while others are transhistorical. Our task will be to grapple with both types of questions to see if Hamlet troubles those inquiries or provides provisional answers to some of the most entangled problems of the human and the social.
For this last class session, I am not going to provide you with a thesis. Instead, I’m going to ask you to take on the critical work of thinking about how to teach Hamlet. How do we gain entry to this play? How do we share it with others? How do we make it speak to different identities? How, in other words, do we capture the behemoth that is this play?
One route would be to look at how actors have thought about and presented this play. To think about the so-called modern sensibility in the play, we need look no further than the many images of an intellectual Hamlet, one whom we could imagine reading Vonnegut or Nietzsche and wearing black turtlenecks.
We’ve sampled a few approaches to Shakespeare this semester, so I want to hear from you on what lens you would select to adopt for this play were you tasked with teaching this play to your peers. [Here we might think of feminist, political, postcolonial, character-based, psychoanalytic, or historicist approaches.].
Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s cover the basic plot outlines too, something we rarely have time to cover. But it bears focusing on here because the situation is so interesting:
How does the play start?
What is the political conflict stirring at the beginning of the play?
What is the Ghost?
What does the Ghost want?
Who is Hamlet?
How would we characterize Hamlet?
What is the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius like?
Why is Hamlet upset, initially?
How does Hamlet respond to the Ghost?
What is noteworthy or troubling about the Ghost?
What is Horatio’s role in the play?
Who is Ophelia?
How would we describe her? What are her desires? What are her constraints?
What is the role of hypocrisy in the play?
Okay, so I’m going to take my cue from what you’ve suggested. And I’m including passages that I find interesting, but I also hope you will bring up certain moments that you find provocative or perhaps confusing that we can explore.
I’m also going to offer, for the nonce, the fact that this play has been read, alongside The Tempest, biographically. Some scholars believe it no coincidence that Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, died in 1596, while the play Hamlet, focused very much on the relationship between fathers and sons, was written around 1600. And so once again, against this modernism that we might wish to read in the play, is a deep sense of nostalgia. Don’t forget that the play starts not with the current generation, but the father named Hamlet, the Ghost that demands that one not look forward but backwards.
The Ghost is a figure of this backward looking too because of the troubling religious issues that his very identity raises. As the Ghost tells his son Hamlet, he is a spirit forced to walk the earth for a proscribed time, the other time to suffer in flames. Many have read this as a Ghost of Purgatory, that Catholic site of punishment before one is permitted to enter Heaven. The Protestant Reformation did away with such a concept, so that the Ghost is troubling. It’s more troubling for our reading of the play because Hamlet and Horatio are both students at the University of Wittenberg, the place where Martin Luther famously nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses. So is the Ghost Catholic and Hamlet Protestant? Is Hamlet himself drawn to an older religious system, at least for those in England? Is he torn between multiple realms? Let’s look at the exchange between the Ghost Hamlet and his son, and I want to hear what you think.
Ghost: I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, oh, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love—
Hamlet: Oh, God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.
Hamlet: Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
Ghost: I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear.
’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
Hamlet: Oh, my prophetic soul! My uncle!
Ghost: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
Oh, wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
Oh, Hamlet, what a falling off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in the shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.
But soft, methinks I scent the morning air.
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distillment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
Oh, horrible! Oh, horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsomever thou pursues this act,
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near,
And ’gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me. (1.5.9-92).
Many scholars focus on Hamlet’s soliloquies, and we will cover a few of them, if only because it would feel wrong not to focus on at least a few of the most famous lines in the play. So let’s look at Hamlet’s first one, which reveals so much about his mental state, the political and social problems in Denmark, and also is representative of the dense language that characterizes the play.
Hamlet: Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! Oh, God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah, fie! ’Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month—
Let me not think on’t; frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she—
Oh, God, a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer—married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. Oh, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue. (1.2.129-159).
Hamlet: Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. 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 ’a do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’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. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (2.2.589-606).
Hamlet: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their current turn awry
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia.—nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
Ophelia: Good my lord,
How does Your Honor for this many a day?
Hamlet: I humbly thank you; well, well, well.
Ophelia: My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to redeliver.
I pray you, now receive them. [She offers tokens.]
Hamlet: No, not I, I never gave you aught.
Ophelia: My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord. [She gives tokens.]
Hamlet: Ha, ha! Are you honest?
Ophelia: My lord?
Hamlet: Are you fair?
Ophelia: What means Your Lordship?
Hamlet: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
Ophelia: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?
Hamlet: Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish it. I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.
Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. (3.1.57-131)
Hamlet: Not where he eats, but where ’a is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service—two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
King: Alas, alas!
Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
King: What dost thou mean by this?
Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar. (4.3.19-32).
Ophelia: You must sing “A-down a-down,” and you “call him a-down-a.” Oh, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter.
Laertes: This nothing’s more than matter.
Ophelia: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts.
Laertes: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.
Ophelia: There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. You must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say ’a made a good end— (4.5.175-189).
Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.7.167-184).