Hamlet (Shakespeare's Play)
Hamlet (Olivier)
Hamlet (Zeffirelli)

Study Guide for Hamlet


1. The following books might be useful for your study of Hamlet. For the classic Freudian reading, see Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (New York: Doubleday, 1954); for a rather straightforward approach to various problems in the play see John Dover Wilson, What Happens In Hamlet, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1967); for three good brief essays on an introductory level see Shakespeare: The Tragedies, ed. Alfred Harbage (Twentieth Century Views series, Spectrum, S-TC-4); for an interesting approach through the rhetoric of the plot see Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York: Viking, 1961); for one standard old anthology see David Bevington, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet (Boston: Heath, 1960); for comments on Hamlet by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, see either Clifford Leech, ed. Shakespeare: The Tragedies (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1965), or STC's Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. Thomas Middleton Rqysor (New York: Dutton, 1960), 2 vols.; for D.A. Traversi's sensible analysis, see An Approach to Shakespeare, vol. 2; for a brilliant brief analysis and some intriguing statements about point of view, see Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1965): 234-44; and for the starting point for any study of the major tragedies, see A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Fawcett, 1965). (Please note that I usually give the date of the first paperback publication; several of these books are reprints of earlier editions.)

Also: Susanne L. Wofford, ed., William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Complete, Authoritative Text [Riverside Shakespeare] with Biographical and Historical Contexts, Critical History, and Essays from five Contemporary Critical Perspectives (New York: Bedford-St. Martin, 1994); in the series, Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism.

Aside from the usual material on texts and sources (note the volume's complete title), the apparatus includes useful bibliographies, a "Glossary of Critical and Theoretical Terms," a brief history of the criticism of the play-the "Critical History of Hamlet"-and introductions to the "Critical Perspectives" with brief essays responding to the question, "What is . . . ?" for Feminist Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Deconstruction, Marxist Criticism, and the New Historicism.

Essays: Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism"; Janet Adelman, "'Man and Wife Is One Flesh': Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body"; Marjorie Garber, "Hamlet: Giving up the Ghost" (the Deconstruction example, but mostly psychoanalytic); Michael D. Bristol, "'Funeral-Bak'd Meats': Carnival and the Canivaleque in Hamlet" (the Marxist example: excellent, but not very Marxist); Karin S. Coddon, "'Suche Strange Desygns': Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture."

Some of the authors continue the (impolite) custom of talking of "Acts" in Hamlet without justifying (or even theorizing . . .) the practice. I find that custom "more honored in the breach than the observance" and ask you not to imitate them.

Adelman's essay might be read along with Ernest Jones's Oedipal reading (or, I'd say, instead of). Adelman makes much of puns and how "Shakespeare recapitulates the material of infantile fantasy," but the psychoanalytical approach here has a strong feminist inflection and very usefully concentrates on Gertrude, Hamlet's concentration on Gertrude, and the question of masculine identity.

Bristol's essay takes off from Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas on Carnival and uncrowning and moves on to an insightful reading of the play, doing very interesting things with Claudius "as a complex variant of the Lord of Misrule," class issues generally-and especially in the graveyard scene (an analysis that includes alternative meanings of the scene with different directorial decisions on whether or not to have the gravedigger[s] stay on stage when the gentlefolk arrive, and where to place him if he does stick around).

Coddon's New Historicist essay demonstrates the relationship between madness and treason in Elizabethan elite thought and how the real-world case of Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, can illuminate the hesitation to act of Hamlet, prince of Denmark. I'll comment briefly on "What Is the New Criticism?" by Ross C[.] Murfin, the series editor. This won't exactly theorize my position, but it will hint at my prejudices, since in this brief space Murfin hits three.

p. 373: The reference to "the public drawing and quartering of a Frenchman" in France correctly gets the phrase used in the decree specifying the method of execution but risks misleading undergraduate readers since "drawing and quartering" in England from 1283 to 1870 was different from what they did to the poor guy who tried to assassinate the French King Louis XV. All an undergrad needs to know on p. 373 is that the Frenchman was tortured to death in public. Mr. Murfin risked confusing young readers or didn't care or doesn't know what "drawing and quartering" meant historically. And that is my prejudice against some of the New Historicists: just not knowing or caring much about the details-none of which is important, but all of which make the texture of history.

pp. 368-69: The idea that LitCrit is a field of battle in which New Historicism is really new and a contender "to become a dominant critical influence." I like the now fairly old idea of looking at what people in literature do when we do what we do and the rough division of us into Scholars, Critics, Theorists. Reality is a web, a complex household, a field of forces-as the biologists, mystics, physicists, and sociologists have said-and we can divide it up all sorts of ways. With literature you can look at how texts were produced and what they meant in their time and their influence back on their society/culture, and you're acting as a scholar; or you can privilege the text or a set of texts (for the moment anyway) and reduce the rest to context, background-and you're a critic; or you can look at a bunch of texts and/or how critics look at those texts and function as a philosopher or metacritic-and be a theorists. And each of us can do all those jobs, and we can use each others' work. In this division of the minute part of reality that is LitCrit., there's not much difference between old and new historicism: most stereotypically scholars dealing with archival material to find out about literature as a historical activity. What's changed is the histories looked at and the political uses of those histories. (The Old Historians tended to be conservatives looking at the histories of elites. The new ones are usually Leftists looking more at the oppressed than the oppressors. )

p. 371: Quoting Michel Foucault on history not being understandable as "some great evolutionary process." I'd say evolution can be a useful analogy-if you understand neoDarwinian theories of evolution.

pp. 370, 375: Praising self-consciousness and the theorized-and using the phrase "For the Elizabethans": I approve of consciousness and self-consciousness, and some of my best colleagues do do Theory. I see problems with lack of attention among «da younger guys» to scruffier departmental battles implicit in picturing LitCrit as a social "Darwinist" struggle for hegemony among competing "Contemporary Critical Perspectives," for which perspectives non-Contempo need not apply, or they will bury us. Critics who picture contemporaries as The Fighting Ideologues shouldn't picture earlier peoples as "The _____," with a monolithic view of most things. I'll note Robert Ornstein's Rule of Generalizations: Don't use a degree of generalization about "The Elizabethans" that you'd hesitate to use with your neighbors.

More generally for my approach-you'll see it below.


2. I frankly confess to liking Hamlet as a theater experience-a blood 'n' guts revenge play-much more than I like it as an excuse for literary philosophizing. I will not, then, be able to give a consistent presentation of the play in this study guide; I just don't have one. Instead, I went through the mass of criticism on my desk several years back and recorded some of the comments I had found most useful for my study of Hamlet. For consistent treatments of the whole play, see Bradley, Levin, Wilson, Jones.




GHOST: Hard to tell what the Elizabethans believed after three changes of religion [Catholic to "Anglo-Catholic" under Henry VIII to strongly Protestant under Edward VI, back to Catholic under Mary to moderate Protestant under Elizabeth], but officially both Protestants and Catholics believed that ghosts could be sent by either God or the devil. Even if you were initially convinced that the ghost was honest-as who wouldn't be-you should test it eventually. Blood revenge was strongly supported only by fencing masters. Moralists, theologians, lawyers [and English law] all denounced blood revenge-in real life. On the stage, convention permitted public, blunt-Englishman style revenge. The revenger however, usually got so deep in blood that he had to be killed off at the end of the play. In Hamlet there is just not any interest in the morality or immorality of revenge: Hamlet feels that he is morally obligated to kill Claudius, and we accept this, regardless of our personal feelings about revenge in the real world. It would solve all our problems if we were sure about the ghost. If he came from God, we'd know that Hamlet's only fault is not killing Claudius soon enough. If the ghost were demonic, we'd know that Hamlet was being tempted to do evil. We're never sure about the ghost-and let it go at that.

CLAUDIUS: Strong king, and he loved his wife-that makes him human but still a villain.

POLONIUS: Advice on prudence [to Laertes and Ophelia] seen as admirable. Still not the good old man that Gertrude sees. He plays games with people-including his own children. He has generally become morally blind.

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN: Future manipulators of people. No end to their loyalty [to King Claudius]. But can we accept Hamlet's attitude toward them?

OPHELIA: Only real victim. Innocent-and innocence will be destroyed at Elsinore. We see in the destruction of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Hamlet is an emissary of evil. If he's not working for the Devil, we have to explain why he can still bring such disaster.

ANTIC DISPOSITION: It doesn't particularly allow Hamlet to test Claudius-and, most of the time, Hamlet at least thinks he knows the truth. It does allow him to draw into himself.

HAMLET: Intellectually, he goes after two questions: (1) What is the nature of the world? How is it that the murdering of his father and the whoring of his mother are possible? (2) What is the nature of Hamlet? Why does the "natural" duty to revenge feel strange to him? Hamlet comes to see the world as a sterile promontory. He generalizes from insufficient data read with prejudice. He never asks whether Ophelia is guilty in her collaboration; he assumes that she is. This pessimistic view of life doesn't yield revenge, though; it yields inactivity. By the time he gets to the Nunnery scene, he's almost totally isolated himself.

"Now might I do it, pat"-Refusal to kill praying Claudius: Hamlet cruel and brutal [in this scene] but dramatically right for a desperate young man who sometimes gets rather hysterical.

MURDER OF POLONIUS: Puts an end to a very brief view of himself as "scourge and minister." Hamlet doesn't return to the theme again. The murder is educational, though, in that it teaches him how killing gets done: just get emotional and act; don't think much. The logic might run something like: Human nature is evil. / Therefore my nature is evil. / Therefore I should take revenge without thought.-Therefore I send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.

POST-SEA VOYAGE HAMLET: Isn't misanthropic in the graveyard scene, just realistic. He certainly isn't submitting to Providence with joy. Seems to believe that he just can't do anything: {Since I can't take revenge, let's just forget the whole thing.-RDE} Too much cost if he attempts to do his duty. Hamlet acts the final scene with as much dignity as possible: he'll play the prince. He makes the final murder into a conscious, public ritual. Right and danger no longer matter; he wants self-fulfillment. Hamlet plays his role and asks Horatio to interpret it to the world.

SUM OF HAMLET: He must satisfy both the ghost and his own nature; for Hamlet both public and private duty must coincide. He's in {for an education in} the ways of [an evil] world.


B. ALLAN LEWIS (lecture notes: Shakespeare Institute, 1969 [A. Lewis is a theatre historian and practitioner of "Performance Criticism): Notes opening scene on battlements and "rottenness" motif made explicit in 1.5: impression of both the "beyond man" and [the less than human of] rottenness. We see the rot more: the business-as-usual attitude of the Court, Polonius's cynical interpretation of Hamlet's motives for Ophelia-all symbolized in the liquid image of poison and the water that drowns Ophelia. The "beyond man" and the rottenness ideas are combined in the ghost: he's obviously from beyond, and he tells the full depths of the rottenness. We see corruption throughout. Corruption of friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, abuse of love when Ophelia is used to spy on Hamlet. Misanthropy hits bottom in Nunnery Scene: if the world is this rotten, don't reproduce. Hamlet has a mission in life: to cleanse his world. But why him?

PRAYER BY CLAUDIUS: First time we the audience are sure that Claudius is a murderer [hinted at earlier in 3.1.49 f.].

CLOSET SCENE [3.4]: Hamlet kind of hysterical here; Gertrude must feel a threat. The first rash act by Hamlet is the murder of Polonius. Now Hamlet is also guilty. He's part of the corrupt world and necessarily corrupted by it. Ironic given Hamlet's role of purger. Turning point of the play, but not particularly a tragic flaw [sic, mistake?] Hamlet more of a revenge play than [it's like] some Greek tragedy. Hamlet away for a whole "act" after murder of Polonius and we get to see Claudius and Laertes in action. Laertes is all impetuousness and passion-no mind or understanding. Claudius easily defeats such passion and gets Laertes to plot against Hamlet for the sake of Laertes's "honor." Laertes now part of corruption. Different Hamlet comes back from sea voyage: he's been acting. He gets resigned to things and finally takes action at Elsinore. The results are all bad. His commitment yields disaster. He doesn't accept Divine Providence; he's just ready to die. ["For everything there is a season, / And a time for every purpose under heaven."] Passionate energy released in Hamlet after he gets full proof that Claudius is a murderer. But chance has brought about revenge. Final result is that the whole Danish line is dead, and the world belongs to Fortinbras. Both the evil and the good are dead (cf. Lear). Not a play of madness, procrastination, or Providence-it's about action in an evil world.


C. MORRIS CARNOVSKY (Actor-a comment): The basic question of Hamlet is "Shall a man be forced even by the ghost to perform a deed against his will [and nature?]" Carnovsky sees revenge as contrary to Hamlet's best instincts. He feels that Hamlet must live life according to his own choices  . . . . There is an insistence in the play upon the tragic integrity of Hamlet.


D. ROBERT ORNSTEIN (Shakespeare scholar).

PLOT: Contrasts the tight plot of Oedipus Tyrranos with the looseness of Hamlet: Perfect plots seem incredible. Oedipus too neat. Life isn't like that. Hamlet takes an intensely melodramatic plot, a primitive plot, and sets is in a very sophisticated world. Violence in revenge plays makes sense: worlds of passion and violence. The world of Hamlet is not bizarre; horrible things happen in a normal world. Contrast the simple political world of Julius Caesar: two "worlds" in Hamlet, the glitter of the court within the blackness of the battlements. Suggestion here that the safety of the court may be an illusion-or, worse, whatever safety exists may be purchased by the brutalization of others. Ornstein contrasts Hamlet's amusement with death in the graveyard with his obsession with death at the beginning of the play. No existential whine here or radical skepticism. It's what we know that disturbs us, not the mystery of what we don't know. Notes motifs of poison, ulcer, sickness, painting, and acting. There appears to be a nightmare world in Hamlet. How disillusioned is Hamlet? We're not horrified by Hamlet's horrible crimes. We see things from Hamlet's point of view and believe that flights of angels really will sing him to his rest. . . . Shakespeare not a moralist who wondered what might have happened [or what the world would be like?] if people acted differently. Characters must act the way they did. The question now is, How do we feel about the character? And this questioning of our feeling gets us to examine the characters as if they were real, Well, How "real" is [say] Horatio? We're not given much information about him. All that's presented is his relationship with Hamlet. If plot in Hamlet is less important than characterization, What are we to make of Horatio? Horatio isn't needed for the plot. What is his function?

Ornstein contrasts Hamlet's plot-and Shakespeare's plots in general-with Greek drama or a modern play like Death of a Salesman. We get the whole story here-like the medieval cycle plays that went from Creation to the Apocalypse. (Ornstein notes the Tempest as an exception: we get an intentionally boring exposition of the past in Tempest. There is also a sense of the past in Julius Caesar: a sense of what Julius Caesar used to be.) In Hamlet, too, there is a sense of the past. The Ghost tells us of it, and Hamlet's first solo brings up the past two months. Gertrude wasn't faithful back then. Will Hamlet be faithful now? How much did Gertrude know about the murder? Was she an adulteress?

SUICIDE: A definite option here, not just some pathological action. Hamlet tells Horatio, "Absent thee from felicity a while"-the felicity of death.

POLONIUS: Shrewd in a way. "To thine own self be true" is appropriate: Laertes untrue to himself in murdering Hamlet.

DELAY: Cut out some fourteen lines from the play and no one would worry about delay. Hamlet brings up this question, so it's important to us. We see everything in terms of Hamlet-but this "Hamlet" includes our idea of the Hamlet that was, the Hamlet that existed before his father's death and his mother's hasty marriage. And, indeed, all narratives delay.

Notes the impression of the randomness of life. Hamlet draws this randomness of life in general into his own life. It's mere coincidence that the players arrive-but Hamlet uses them for the Mousetrap [the test of Claudius by the play showing a murder like that of King Hamlet by Claudius]. Polonius notes that the actor changes color [in the player's speech on Priam and Hecuba]-but Hamlet thinks up using the playlet to trap Claudius.

We see something of the "old" Hamlet in his jokes about Osric and in his enjoyment of the fencing match. This last could be significant in that the whole play is something of a fencing match. A metaphor becomes stage "reality" [this is the literalization, or dramatization of a symbol].

CLAUDIUS: Fine politician. He always has someone else do his dirty work with the noteable exception of the murder of King Hamlet, where it was necessary that there be no witnesses as Claudius commits what is, in political terms, a perfect crime-cf. Macbeth. Not a hypocrite: a hypocritical Claudius would think that he had repented.

OPHELIA: She snaps. We never see her going mad. No development-just one huge change. We must intuit the intermediate steps. She's still Ophelia-but she's crazy now. Polonius' death + Hamlet's brutality makes it plausible that should would snap.

FINAL SCENES: Reconciliation here? Fortinbras clears the stage and gets Hamlet's dying voice [i.e., "vote"]. But no one gives a damn about Fortinbras. And if we do care about him, he's the guy who went to fight for an eggshell. No curtain on the Elizabethan stage; hence no curtain scenes. Life has to come breaking into the last scene. (Exception: Shakespeare's King Lear.) Life is a continuum; art has form. Ending must be there, and it must be right. Does it matter that Hamlet finally stabs Claudius? Hamlet has just said that it doesn't matter. Hamlet is dangerous in that last scene. He kills Laertes before he knows that he's dying himself. Hamlet knows that Fortinbras is an idiot. The noble part of him knows that Fortinbras's expedition to Poland is ridiculous. But Hamlet sees both sides of every question. Fortinbras' final speech is silly and yet glorious. Hamlet gets a soldier's funeral. Older Hamlet returns first time(s) dressed as a soldier. What's all this preparation for war? The danger is the rottenness inside Denmark. In the graveyard Hamlet jokes about conquering soldiers. Was it a joke to have been Hamlet? Hamlet is angry at Claudius's guile in trying to kill him-but he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to it without qualm.

Notes "sea change" in Hamlet; a very different character returns to Denmark. (Cf. Romeo's leaving Verona a boy and then returning to treat Paris like a child.) His jokes at the grave, though, end when he discovers it's for Ophelia. He's also not joking at his own death. No Stoicism at his death. He worries about his reputation. He can't be all that sick and weary of the world. He must regret his own death, and he must tell Horatio, "Absent thee from felicity a while"-pain of dying and the pain of living.

Very little character development here (and in Shakespeare in general). E.g., Claudius is just revealed as the play progresses. Claudius scheming to the end. He can watch his beloved queen die, and he can say, "I'm just hurt" when he knows the foil he's been stabbed with is poisoned.

GERTRUDE: just shallow. Moment or two of remorse and then "I hope all will be well" [characterizing Gertrude's attitude with a line by Ophelia (4.5.67)].

TIME: Does love last? Do people change? Does time bring freedom to Hamlet at the end? No real technical problem of "delay" in the play: the Mousetrap is only some twenty minutes after the ghost scenes. We didn't know some four months had passed. Two senses of time: (1) the action of the play [sic] and (2) what people say about time. But all plays delay-otherwise they'd mostly end in the second scene. NOTE: This is a fairly accurate transcription of Ornstein's lectures. I come by my disorganized approach by training as well as natural inclination.]


4. SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE (see #1 above):

CLAUDIUS: Notes Claudius's lines on the "divinity that doth hedge a king"-"Proof, as indeed all else is, that Shakespeare never intended us to see the king with Hamlet eyes, tho', I suspect, the managers have long done so."

HAMLET: "Shakespeare's mode of conceiving characters out of his own intellectual and moral faculties, by conceiving any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess and then placing himself, thus mutilated and diseased, under given circumstances. . . . In Hamlet I conceive him to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to outward objects and our meditations on inward thoughts-a due balance between the real and the imaginary world. In Hamlet this balance does not exist-his thoughts, images, and fancy [being] far more vivid than his perceptions, and his very perceptions instantly passing thro' the medium of his contemplations, and acquiring as they pass a form and color not naturally their own. Hence, great enormous intellectual activity, and consequent proportionate aversion to real action, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities."


5. A.C. BRADLEY (Shakespearean Tragedy [1904]):

CONTEXT OF SHAKESPEARE'S MATURE TRAGEDIES: Notes approximate order of the later tragedies: Julius Caesar. Hamlet/Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus. "Both Brutus and Hamlet are highly intellectual by nature and reflective by habit. . . . Each, being also a 'good' man, shows accordingly when placed in critical circumstances, a sensitive and almost painful anxiety to do right . . . the failure in each case is connected rather with their intellectual nature and reflective habit than with any yielding to passion [the key to the fate of the heroes of the later tragedies]. . . . Moral evil is not so intently scrutinized or so fully displayed in them [Julius Caesar and Hamlet contrasted with later plays]. In Julius Caesar, we may almost say, everybody means well. In Hamlet, though we have a villain, he is a small one" (73).

PLOT OF HAMLET-AND DELAY: Bradley calls our attention to the sensationalism of the ploy of Hamlet and notes that the obvious question after a plot summary would be, ". . . why in the world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?" (79) [i.e. Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Hamlet himself (for seven), plus the eighth death: Claudius].

DRAMATIC FOILS FOR HAMLET: "Laertes and Fortinbras . . . are evidently designed to throw the character of the hero into belief. Even in the situations there is a curious parallelism; for Fortinbras, like Hamlet is the son of a king, lately dead, and succeeded by his brother; and Laertes, like Hamlet, has a father slain, and feels bound to avenge him. And with this parallelism in situation there is a strong contrast in character; for both Fortinbras and Laertes possess in abundance the very quality which the hero seems to lack so that, as we read, we are tempted to exclaim that either of them would have accomplished Hamlet's task in a day" (80).

Bradley rather neatly disposes of any theories that would explain Hamlet's delay merely in terms of external difficulties: (a) Hamlet never mentions such difficulties [and talks about all sorts of things]. (b) Hamlet says explicitly once (4.4.45) and implies many times that he could kill Claudius if he wanted to. (c) Laertes raises the people against the king with no difficulty at all. We must assume that the well-beloved Hamlet could also do so. (d) The Mousetrap is not arranged to expose Claudius publicly as a murderer; it's to convince Hamlet of Claudius's guilt. (e) Hamlet never talks about bringing Claudius to public justice, so there's no problem with convincing the Court (etc.) of Claudius's guilt (83-4).

CHARACTER OF HAMLET-AND DELAY: "For Hamlet, according to all the indications in the text, was not naturally or normally such a man [to delay], but rather . . . a man who at any other time and any other circumstances than those presented would have been perfectly equal to his task and it is, in fact, the very cruelty of his fate that the crisis of his life comes on him at the one moment when he cannot meet it, and when his highest gifts, instead of helping him, conspire to paralyze him. . . . For the cause [of Hamlet's irresolution] was not directly or mainly an habitual excess of reflectiveness. The direct cause was a state of mind quite abnormal and induced by special circumstances-a state of profound melancholy. Now Hamlet's reflectiveness doubtless played a certain part in the production of that melancholy, and was thus one indirect contributory cause of his irresolution. And again, the melancholy once established, displayed as one of its symptoms, an excessive reflection on the required deed. But excess of reflection was not, as the [melancholy] theory makes it, the direct cause of the irresolution at all; nor was it the only indirect cause; and in the Hamlet of the last four acts [i.e., Hamlet for most of the scenes of Hamlet,] it is to be considered rather a symptom of his state than a cause of it" (93-94).

Note that Robert Ornstein and Sylvan Barnet-and I-are happy to acknowledge our debt to Bradley. E.g., Bradley notes the Hamlet that was: the fearless, athletic, frank, impetuous one: " . . . he must have been quick and impetuous in action; for it is downright impossible that the man that we see rushing after the Ghost, killing Polonius, dealing with the king's commission on the ship, boarding the pirate, leaping into the grave, executing his final vengeance, could have been shrinking or slow in an emergency. Imagine Coleridge doing any of these things!" (94-95). (And film students should note which of "these things" may seem inappropriate in L. Olivier's Hamlet and decorous in M. Gibson's. [See below on Ophelia's description of Hamlet as Renaissance-Ideal man.])

"He [Hamlet] cares for nothing but human worth, and his politeness toward Polonius and Osric and his 'schoolfellows' [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] is not wholly due to morbidity, but belongs in part to his original character. Now, in Hamlet's moral sensibility there undoubtedly lay a danger. Any great shock that life might inflict on it would be felt with extreme intensity. Such a shock might even produce tragic results. And, in fact, Hamlet deserves the title 'tragedy of moral idealism' quite as much as the title 'tragedy of reflection'" (98).

"Suppose that violent shock to his moral being of which I spoke; and suppose that under this shock, any possible action being denied to him, he began to sink into melancholy; that no doubt, his imaginative and generalizing habit of mind might extend the effects of this shock through his whole being and mental world. And if, the state of melancholy being the deepened and fixed, a sudden demand for difficult and decisive action in a matter connect with the melancholy arose, this state might well have for one of its symptoms an endless and futile mental dissection of the required deed. And, finally, the futility of this process, and the shame of his delay, would further weaken him and enslave him to his melancholy still more. . . . . It was the moral shock of the sudden ghastly disclosure of his mother's true nature, falling on him when his heart was aching with love, and his body doubtless when weakened by sorrow" (100-1).

"It would be absurdly unjust to call Hamlet a study of melancholy, but it contains such a study." Melancholy theory: "it accounts for the main fact, Hamlet's inaction. For the immediate cause of that is simply that his habitual feeling is one of disgust at life and everything in it, himself included . . . " (104-5). Also accounts for Hamlet's energy, his useless as opposed to his excessive thinking (much of the time Hamlet is just thinking of something else), his inability to understand why he delays (107-9). ". . . this pathological condition would excite but little, if any, tragic interest if it were not the condition of a nature distinguished by that speculative genius on which the Schlegel-Coleridge type of theory lays stress. . . . Whenever this [tragic] mystery touched us, whenever we are forced to feel the wonder and awe of man's god-like 'apprehension' and thoughts that wander through eternity, 'and at the same time are forced to see him powerless (it would appear) from the very divinity of his thought, we remember Hamlet" (109).


6. FROM TOM STOPPARD'S ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1966; New York: Grove, 1968) 49-51. In the scene below, Rosencrantz plays himself interviewing Prince Hamlet, while Guildenstern plays Hamlet; I spell out the speech headings, but perhaps we should come to see these two as "Ros" and "Guil."


ROSENCRANTZ: . . . My honoured lord!

GUILDENSTERN: My dear fellow!

ROSENCRANTZ: How are you?


ROSENCRANTZ: Really? In what way?

GUILDENSTERN: Transformed.

* * *

GUILDENSTERN: Go into details. Delve. Probe the background. Establish the situation.

ROSENCRANTZ: So-so your uncle is the king of Denmark?!

GUILDENSTERN: And my father before him.

ROSENCRANTZ: His father before him?

GUILDENSTERN: No, my father before him.

ROSENCRANTZ: But surely--

GUILDENSTERN: You might well ask.

ROSENCRANTZ: Let me get it straight. Your father was king. You were his only son. Your father dies. You are of age. Your uncle becomes king.


ROSENCRANTZ: Unorthodox.

GUILDENSTERN: Undid me. * * *

ROSENCRANTZ: Usurpation, then.

GUILDENSTERN: He slipped in.

ROSENCRANTZ: Which reminds me.

GUILDENSTERN: Well, it would. * * *

ROSENCRANTZ: Your mother's marriage.

GUILDENSTERN: He slipped in. * * *

ROSENCRANTZ: It adds up.

GUILDENSTERN: Incest to adultery.


Your father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?

GUILDENSTERN: I can't imagine. . . .

Stoppard's Guildenstern is something of a dolt, so he probably can't imagine why Hamlet is upset; Stoppard can imagine, and in spelling out the situation so clearly he implies that a fair number of critics have been oddly insensitive in not figuring out why Hamlet is upset by what Gertrude correctly identifies as "the main"-the most immediate and obvious source of Hamlet's "distemper": "His father's death" and her and Claudius's "o'erhasty marriage" (2.2.56-57). If you've ever had a death and a quick remarriage in your family, you know that it's a serious matter. Add a major inheritance-the Danish Empire!-and a possible maternal adultery and avuncular murder of a beloved father, and Hamlet has good cause for "distemper" in a couple of senses.


7. BRUTE FORCE CRITICISM (citations to Pelican Shakespeare edition)


TEXT: See the general note on the text that comes with your copy of Hamlet. The details aren't important, but note well that the Hamlet you read is a conflated text, longer than anything Shakespeare's company every performed.



1: Opening line is a question, "Who's there?" In the immediate context it's just one nervous sentinel calling out to what turns out to be another sentinel. In the larger context of Hamlet, the question may have downright metaphysical overtones. In Hamlet generally, note all the questions.

25: "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy": first theory on the Ghost-it's all in their heads.

38 or so f.: Ghosts actually enters, followed by lots of evidence that the Ghost really exists and really looks like old Hamlet.

80-104: First parallels to Prince Hamlet: Old Hamlet fighting old Fortinbras, setting up parallels to young Hamlet and young Fortinbras.

112 f.: Horatio accepts the idea of omens and portents (on the basis of Classic examples).

145-57: Theory two on the Ghost: It acts rather "like a guilty thing," raising the possibility that's its a damned soul, as Protestant theology would have ghosts. (A Catholic ghost could come from Purgatory; no Purgatory in Protestant theology, and so-assuming that souls that go to heaven stay there-a ghost would have to be from Hell.)



1-16: The Court of Denmark went along with the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. "Business as usual" could be imaged on stage by having the Court dressed regularly, with Hamlet sticking out in his mourning black.

17-39: Claudius quickly and efficiently handles the threat of young Fortinbras. He's an effective king, certainly.

42-50: In his talk with Laertes, Claudius makes clear that he owes Polonius. Precisely why we don't know, but it appears that the chief minister of Denmark went along with Claudius's takeover, and the marriage of Gertrude and Claudius.

64-65: Claudius cues Hamlet with a reference to him as "cousin" (i.e., relative) and "son" (i.e., stepson). Hamlet's opening line is "A little more than kin, and less than kind": note the puns. Claudius is more than an uncle (as stepfather) and "less than kind" in the sense of "unkind" and "not quite our kind"-including "not quite human."

68-117: Gertrude and Claudius attempt to comfort Hamlet-and bring him to accept their marriage (etc.!)-by philosophizing on the death of fathers.

76-86: Hamlet denies seeming, playing a part. This is significant if we see Claudius and Gertrude playing roles before the Court as audience.

112-17: Hamlet wants to go back to the U. of Wittenberg (a famous university from much later than the time when England was part of the Danish Empire). Later we're told that Hamlet is thirty years old. If you want to make sense of this, see Hamlet as a graduate student. You might also work through why Claudius wants Hamlet around and not in Germany. (Keep an eye on the [true?] heir to the throne? Please Gertrude? Both? Other?)

125-28: Claudius is going to be drinking toasts today, with a technologically sophisticated flourish (anachronistic cannon). Note well Hamlet's later comments on this Danish royal custom: Hamlet's later comments may have more meanings than Hamlet intends.

Claudius may be a little unkingly in carousing.

Hamlet may be something of a puritanical snob and stiff (of the sort Shakespeare condemns in his comedies and shows as winners in histories).

129-59: Hamlet's First Soliloquy

129-30: Picture "sullied flesh" melting like dirty snow:

Hamlet sees flesh-including his own-as dirty.

Hamlet suggests that he wants to die. Overreacting?

130-37: Hamlet sees the world as well as the flesh as corrupt. How does this vision of things corresponds to things as we've seen them so far-at least in Denmark?

137-59: And why does Hamlet see himself, (his? all?) flesh, and the world as corrupt? Because, it seems, he sees his mother is corrupt: she betrayed the memory of his fine father and her worthy husband and married with Uncle Satyr, Claudius. Hamlet thinks that sex was at the bottom of this: "O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!"-Wicked in both Claudius and Gertrude, but Claudius doesn't count much with Hamlet.

Incestuous: By Canon Law (with Biblical complexities), forbidding a man to marry his brother's widow (a law known in England from the to-do over Henry VIII's attempt to get a divorce from his brother's widow).

159 s.d.: Enter Horatio et al.: Note Hamlet with friends.

180-81: Hamlet jokes bitterly about the "thrift" in having Claudius's and Gertrude's marriage so soon after old Hamlet's funeral-but it is a joke.

182 f.: Exposition on the Ghost.

244-46: Second theory on the Ghost hinted at here: It's a devil.

255-56: At the end of the scene, Hamlet says "I doubt some foul play"-i.e., he suspects something amiss. Evidence, perhaps, of rottenness in Denmark, but we know Hamlet is likely to see all sorts of things foul.


1.3: Introduction to the Polonius family at home

4-16: Laertes tells us the Hamlet has (at least) made a pass at Ophelia, and warns Ophelia against Hamlet.

17-24: Laertes explains to Ophelia and to us something an Elizabethan audience would have known: The "Head" of State (here seen as Hamlet, not Claudius) must marry for the good of, and following "the voice and yielding" of, the "Body Politic"-in a figure of speech taken rather literally in Shakespeare's day and until quite recently. In any event, note well: great ones of both sexes have only limited freedom to follow their desires in marriage. Love may be love, but business is business, and the business they've been born to is politics. They'll marry politically.

58-80: Polonius advises Laertes at length, and in a manner an educated Elizabethan might well find comic: Polonius varies them and cleans one of them up a bit, but his speech is literally one of "copy-book maxims." I.e., he uses "sentences" that school kids would write out and memorize to practice handwriting and Latin grammar and punctuation.

72: I know this one. I learned the "sentence," Vestis virum reddit: "Clothes make the man." Polonius gives the less cynical "For the apparel oft proclaims the man."

78-80: Polonius winds up with one of the moldiest of moldy oldies, "To thine own self be true," followed by the non sequitur that if you're true to yourself you can't be false to another. Yes, you can; if you're truly a liar. The final laugh, though-so to speak-is on us: the wordy old f*rt mouthing sententious clichés is right. As Robert Ornstein stresses, Laertes's fall comes when he is false to himself and then false to Hamlet.

89-end of scene: Note Polonius's dark suspicions and assumption that (sexual) passion will lead to betrayal-of women by men; cf. and contrast Hamlet. Note that Ophelia "shall obey."


1.4: First Ghost Scene (beginning)

7-22: Hamlet and Horatio on trumpets and ordinance when the king drinks.

14-16: Impress your friends! Actually understand "to the manner born" and "honored more in the breach than the observance"! You'd also better get this point, or I'll know that you haven't used the study guide.

"to the manner born": I've grown up with the custom.

"more honored in the breach than the observance": It's better if this custom is broken rather than followed.

23-38: "some vicious mole of nature":

Note the world "mole"; it gets applied to the Ghost.

The idea of a "dram of evil"-"the stamp of one defect"-corrupting a reputation. The observation is certainly true for reputations (for people who are very unlucky), but should we apply it to people themselves? If you see Hamlet thinking that one defect corrupts someone, you see him as one very inflexible, unforgiving, tight-assed thirty-year-old.

s.d. Enter Ghost: It may be significant that the Ghost's entrance follows the "dram of evil" business.

39-51: The first theory was that the Ghost was mere fantasy; Wrong! Second theory made explicit here: the Ghost may be "a goblin damned." I.e., he may be a damned ghost from Hell (the only place a ghost would come from in hard-core Protestant theology-especially a ghost seeking unChristian vengeance). Third Ghost theory introduced here: "spirit of health." Note spelling out of just how really weird it is to see Old Hamlet again.

52-57: Again with the questions! Note questioning as a mode in Hamlet. In The Question of Hamlet, Harry Levin says the play is in the interrogative: a big question. We get the same suggestion in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

68-74: Horatio introduces idea that the Ghost might drive Hamlet mad. Note that he puts sanity/insanity in terms of "sovereignty of reason," a reference to the theory in faculty psychology that Reason should rule over Passion and Will (the two "horses" controlled by the "charioteer" Reason).

90: Marcellus gets the line "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark": The image of rottenness is significant; note that it comes here from a reliable source who is not Prince Hamlet. Hamlet may have a poisoned view of his world, and it may be pretty "rotten."


1.5: First Ghost Scene (Part II)

2: The Ghost's first line is just "Mark me"; we will.

3-4: Hamlet is set in the Dark Ages, when England was part of the Danish Empire-and it is set in the Renaissance, where young Hamlet is a Protestant, and in Protestant theology one dies and goes to Heaven or one dies and goes to Hell. Old Hamlet, though, may be a Catholic, suffering in Purgatory: where souls get their sins burned off-or worked off some way-and can go to Heaven.

Whatever you make of the theology, note that Old Hamlet was less than a perfect man and died in sin: at least enough sin to send him to Purgatory, if not enough sin to send him to Hell.

9-13: Evidence for the Purgatory theory. If the Ghost is telling the truth, he's in Purgatory (but, then, the Devil is the Father of Lies, and a damned spirit couldn't be trusted to tell the truth).

25-41: The Ghost calls for revenge.

Hamlet is a tragedy of revenge, like Shakespeare's early Titus Andronicus (1594) and very unlike Romeo and Juliet (1596). The form goes back to (at least) the Roman playwright (and other things) Seneca and can be easily summed up. A powerful person commits a "perfect" crime; a ghost comes back to reveal the crime and name the murderer to a person who should get justice; the person can't get justice through legal means and (hence) must either forego justice or take blood revenge. With the exception of the highly ideological Atheist's Tragedy-which rewrites Hamlet and King Lear to get them politically correct-the person takes revenge, and that ordinarily makes him (almost always "him") a revenger. In trying to do good in the world-get justice-the revenger involves himself in evil, sometimes getting so deep into evil that only his death will restore his world. (Or his exile, as in the Mad Max trilogy [1980s].)

42-57: The Ghost accuses his brother of adultery in addition to the murder (and "incest," too, in marrying a brother's widow). Queen Gertrude is innocent of her husband's murder, but, if we believe the Ghost, she is guilty of adultery-and of very bad taste in taking Claudius over King Hamlet.

61-73: The murder was (1) a perfect crime-no witnesses, no physical evidence (no medical examiners back in the Dark Ages)-and (2) highly symbolic. The poison enters the ear of Denmark and spreads to the head and to the King's body: even so, corruption starts at the Head (the King) and moves into the Body Politic.

73-83: The Ghost makes a strong emotional appeal for young Hamlet to avenge his death and post-death suffering (for his pre-death sins: again, old Hamlet was less perfect than young Hamlet will remember him).

84-88: Very important warning here: Hamlet is to deal with Claudius, not Gertrude: "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven . . . ."

Why does the Ghost think it necessary to warn Hamlet away from thinking harm to Gertrude? Does Hamlet heed that warning?

Does the Ghost understand Gertrude? Without Hamlet's strange behavior and later accusations, would she have "thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her"? If not, why not?

She could be innocent of all charges except an overly-hasty marriage to an arguably forbidden and/or inferior second husband. Or she could be guilty of much but have little conscience. Other?

91: "Remember me": How well does Hamlet remember the Ghost?

92-112: Hamlet is (understandably!) upset by the Ghost's revelations.

Still, who does he mention first in condemnation, his murderous uncle or, at worst, adulterous mother?

Note Shakespearean cliché of appearance vs. reality: ". . . one may smile, and smile, and be a villain"-and not just in Denmark.

Hamlet swears revenge: a good sign esthetically that we'll get our money's worth in stage blood, not so good a sign for Hamlet's life and soul.

113-34: Horatio and Marcellus enter to Hamlet, and Hamlet gets really manic. We can be sure of this; Horatio talks of "wild and whirling words," and Horatio is a scholar and philosopher and something of a Stoic (in the tradition that led to Star Trek's Messrs. Spock and Data).

135-38: Hamlet's mild oath "by Saint Patrick" is probably significant, but I can't readily find an explication of it. I'd appreciate help from someone who knows the legends of Patrick (the historical figure seems not to have any recorded dealings with ghosts).

Note well the line, "It is an honest ghost," which both the Pelican and Riverside editors gloss as "genuine (not a disguised demon)" and "true, genuine." I assume that the literature on ghosts used "honest ghost" as a technical term-and "honest" can elsewhere means "true" or "honorable" or such words-but still! "Honest" also means honest, and the sense here is that Hamlet believes the Ghost and the Ghost's accusations.

140-48: Hamlet wants his friends to swear to remain silent about the Ghost, a crucial point for the plot. I'm not sure why Hamlet wants an oath upon the cross of a sword, but he does, and the Ghost shortly agrees.

148-62: The Ghost is under the stage, in "Hell" in the symbolism of the "Theater of the World" (and some theatrical jargon where "Above" [stage] = "Heavens" and "Below" [stage] = Hell). That's interesting for the Ghost's credibility: Hell implies a damned spirit working for the Father of Lies, but Hamlet here believes the Ghost utterly (maybe for confirming Hamlet's suspicions, which a disguised devil would also do, given the nastiness of Hamlet's suspicions and their potential for causing evil).

166-67: "The are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy": i.e., Horatio's personal philosophy of Stoicism-a very unmystic system-and philosophy generally, using "your philosophy" as the Gravedigger will use "your whoreson dead body" (5.1.160).

169-80: Hamlet says he may put on "an antic disposition."

Madness was popular on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, and Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1586? 1588?) set a mark for notable mad scenes by revengers, so don't make too much of Hamlet's madness. Note, though, Robert Ornstein's suggestion that "antic" may be or become a genial role for Hamlet. Alternatively stated, Hamlet may play the madman well because he is close to freaking out. There may also be the idea here that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. later stated as "We are what we pretend to be" (Mother Night), so Hamlet may both pretend madness and (thereby) become mad.

182: Hamlet thinks the Ghost a "perturbed" spirit. I think this word has gotten milder over time, and has definitely lost its astronomical meaning. Picture great disturbance and erratic movement.

188-89: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!": Shakespeare is big on time, and usually it's best to go with it. Comic figures often do so (e.g., Viola in Twelfth Night); tragic figures sometimes try to force time (e.g. Macbeth in Macbeth)-and politicians in the Histories need to carefully track it.

Is time itself "out of joint" in Denmark or even the world over the death of one king?

The Ghost cried for revenge (as they will in Revenge Plays), and pretty well told Hamlet to skewer his uncle Claudius at the first opportunity. But who said anything about fixing time? Even if the time is out of joint and can be fixed-who appointed Hamlet to the job? Hamlet's tragedy may lie in part in having the hubris to think it's his job to repair the whole bleeding world (or at least Denmark): killing Claudius is quite enough for him, and maybe too much. And maybe he should worry less about Time repair and more about the problematic nature of skewering even nasty people.



1-73: Polonius instructs his servant to spy on Polonius's son, Laertes. Note lines 63-66 for Polonius's politic "wisdom" and method for finding truth: "By indirections find directions out." Polonius is like Romeo and Juliet's Friar Laurence in a comic mode, but he's a serious player in the politics of Denmark, and one owed by Claudius. Chuckle at the old coot, but view him realistically enough to judge him for manipulating his children; while we're at Rom. analogies, Polonius is also rather like Old Capulet.

77-119: Ophelia and Polonius on Hamlet.

77: Note that "closet" means a private living area, usually small (e.g., the dressing area just outside of a bedroom).

78-82: Hamlet hits many of the clichés for madness generally and, arguably, for one madly in love, Amor insanus brevis est: "Love is a brief madness" or, for romantics, a longer-term malady.

83-84: Ophelia's description of Hamlet's look is significant. Hamlet may have at least talked to one "loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors"-if we see the Ghost as a damned spirit (and therefore not to be trusted. (Although "The Devil can speak true," as the saying goes, the devil does so only to use small truths to lead us to an absolute Falsehood: little favors to lead to the great harm of damnation [see witches in Macbeth]).

85-87: Polonius jumps directly to the question "Mad for thy love?" and takes Ophelia's careful answer as solid proof.

101-19: In his ca. 1900 essay on "Laughter," Henri Bergson places the source of the comic in "the superimposition of the mechanical upon the organic," specifically upon the human. Hence, Polonius's jumping to a conclusion and rigidly sticking with that conclusion is comic (cf. and contrast the stubbornness of such comic old men as Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice). Still, figure out precisely what Polonius's motivations might be here: What advantages can he get out of Hamlet's madness? What sort of damage control must he do if the madness comes from Ophelia's rejecting Hamlet's love.

Some place in through here begin thinking about an important bit of "subtext" (in this course, what the director and cast need to know that isn't explicit in the script). Did Hamlet and Ophelia have a sexual relationship? The script doesn't say one way or another, but the actors playing Ophelia and Hamlet had better know, since it will condition their physical responses to one another, including how they pronounce their lines. And the rest of the cast need to know if their characters know who's been sleeping where (and when and for how long). Gertrude's sexuality is very important-yea, overly important-to Hamlet; what's the significance of his sex life?



1-39: Entrance to Hamlet of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

The major things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do in Hamlet is try to get information from Hamlet; accompany Hamlet to England, where Hamlet is to be killed, and get killed themselves through Hamlet's trickery-for which he feels not the least bit guilty. How they appear and act will help determine how we react to the news that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," which in turn will condition how we respond to the death of Hamlet.

If we see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as relatively innocent, their deaths become rather like that of Paris at the hands of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. If we see them as pretty corrupt, then their deaths are rather like those of assorted minor villains in Richard II (when Richard is murdered), Henry V (the three traitors), and King Lear (the Captain who murders Cordelia). How would you have them played? Interchangeable, I'd think; the script invites that; but how about in terms of smarminess? If they "smarm" onto the stage here and look pretty bad, then we can say "good riddance" when Hamlet has them killed. But what if they're sympathetic?

Consider how you could-with casting, costuming, makeup, lighting, voice, camera-work, and other technical stuff-make these two smarmy, sympathetic, or whatever, and thereby condition audience response to them and (thence) to Hamlet.

40-53: Polonius enters to Claudius and Gertrude and is greeted warmly by Claudius: "Thou still [=always] hast been the father of good news."

Did that news include something like, «I have recommended to the Council that they endorse the Queen's decision to marry you; you will be married and crowned before young Hamlet arrives to claim the throne . . . Your Majesty»? That's not in the script-our text-but whether or not anything like that happened is important subtext for the actors.

Polonius follows his trade of "policy" to find the "cause of Hamlet's lunacy."

54-57: Gertrude needs to be somehow distracted while Polonius talks to Claudius, since the King tells her Polonius says he's found the "source of all your son's distemper." However that's played, it should prepare us for an important short speech. Gertrude points for us that Hamlet should be upset by "His father's death and" her "o'erhasty marriage" to Claudius.

58-84: The ambassadors Claudius sent to Norway bring news that Claudius's diplomacy has been highly effective, deflecting the attack by Fortinbras to reclaim Norwegian possessions now held by Denmark. Fortinbras asks-and will receive-safe passage through the Danish Empire to Poland, where he can, if he likes, fight to the last Norwegian and Pole. An attack by Fortinbras upon Denmark would've been very bad; a small and inconclusive attack on Poland by Norway can work to Denmark's profit. Claudius may be a murderer-we have only a Ghost's word for that so far-but he is an effective king.

85-151: Polonius, in his loquacious, mildly comic, stereotypical Old Man's fashion, presents his theory that Hamlet is mad for unrequited love.

95: Gertrude's "More matter, with less art" and other lines in through here make an important point: she's a smart, no-bullsh*t lady. She may be insensitive; she may be immoral; but she is not stupid. Keep that point firmly in mind.

108-124: Hamlet's letter to Ophelia. Note

(1) the "religion of love" business in calling Ophelia "celestial, and my soul's idol";

(2) that "beautified" is a word, not Polonius's pretentious "phrase" (cf. Justice Shallow and Bardolph on "[better] accommodated" in 2 Henry IV 3.2.63-70).

(3) Hamlet's reference to his body as "this machine." Later in the 17th c. and following, much is to come of the idea of the body as a machine, and what was later to become a scandalous idea goes by here without comment by even Polonius.

151-67: Polonius handles the problem of the mad Hamlet politically-and a mad Prince is indeed a political problem-but solely politically. At least he has no qualms in volunteering to "loose" his daughter to Hamlet and then joining the king in spying upon them. All is for the good of the State and for the good of Hamlet-but Polonius uses people awfully casually. Remember this when you consider that Hamlet includes the fall of the House of Polonius.

171-216: Hamlet and Polonius.

174-79: Following up on "loose" (in a dialog Hamlet didn't hear), Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger" = a seller of fish, in formal English, but also a pimp, in Elizabethan slang. In either sense, Hamlet implies, a fishmonger is a more honest man than a politician like Polonius, and that politicians are fairly typical: "To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand."

And note shift of forms: we're now in prose, not verse.

181-82: "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog": a subjunctive formulation based on the idea of spontaneous generation: that carrion, influenced by the sun and heat would produce maggots and other wee beasties. The rest of the introductory adverbial clause goes on "being a good kissing carrion": this reading has "dead dog" = a bit of carrion good for kissing. An alternative reading has it "being a god kissing carrion": i.e., the sun's rays touching the dead dog = a god (Helios, Ra-the deified Sun) "kissing" dead flesh. Either way, Hamlet interrupts the sentence to go from rotting flesh to-"Have you a daughter?" pursuing the theme of the corruption of all flesh, but especially female flesh, possibly including female flesh-Ophelia-that Hamlet has known or joined. Hamlet may start with his mother as corrupted flesh in marrying Claudius and then extend the image to himself and the world.

An extreme form of this logic is made explicit in Shakespeare's King Lear. If even the vagina is corrupt-"There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit . . . !" (4.6.125-30)-then no human being can be decent. Of course, Lear is nutty when he sees vaginas that way, so Hamlet's "antic disposition" may be an extremely congenial role for a man near the edge.

183-190 (or so-prose lineation varies): Polonius tells us in an aside that in his youth he "suffered much extremity for love, very near this." Riiiiggghhht . . . . Cf. Justice Shallow on his wild youth (in 2H4)-which he did NOT have-and note that Hamlet isn't mad for love. However we read this aside, it doesn't speak well for romantic posturing.

190-93: "What is the matter, my lord?" / "Between who?": Note first that Hamlet reads, which is probably the Renaissance Hamlet much more than the Viking lord from the Dark Ages, and second Hamlet's wise-ass wit on what he reads. Note also that "Between who," like "To who" in Shakespeare's Richard III was an acceptable enough variant on "Between whom" and "To whom." So if you're hassled about using "who" instead of "whom," you can respond with, "Oh, sorry. I've been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately and forgot our modern affectation of distinguishing so, uh, nicely between 'who' and 'whom.'"

217-370: Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1)

232-33: On Fortune. Note that one standard epithet for Fortuna was "The Bitch Goddess." Luck is not a lady in the sense that she'll be faithful to any man. Fortune raises people up on her wheel, only to throw them down again (see Fluellen on Fortune, Henry V 3.6.29-37).

233-34: ". . . the world's grown honest": Note repetition of "honest." Note also the idea that honesty will be abroad in the world only during the Millenium, when "doomsday"-Judgment Day-is near.

241-62: On Denmark as prison, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to find the cause of Hamlet's madness in thwarted ambition. "Madness" Theories so far:

Hamlet: "antic disposition"-an act only.

Gertrude: Loss of father and distress at her marriage.

Polonius: Unrequited Love Theory.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Thwarted ambition.

Note very well Hamlet's idea that nothing is "good or bad but thinking makes it so." Henry Bolingbroke denies such relativistic epistemology in Shakespeare's Richard II (1.3.294-300), and such relativism in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida may seem silly, and is certainly dangerous and, arguably, antiethical. Still, it's gotten a lot of play of late, so note that radical relativism was emphatically thinkable ca. 1600 and hardly a new invention then. Note also that Hamlet may have trouble believing that murder is OK if his uncle thinks it so or adultery is OK if his mother likes it.

Consider carefully where the madness theories are coming from. Gertrude is sensible and open-minded. Polonius goes for a theory that has him central to matters but not guilty of any wrong-doing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do well to remind us that Prince Hamlet might well wonder why he's not King Hamlet II, but they also may be "projecting" their own thoughts.

271-89: Hamlet has to go to a lot of trouble to get from his (former) friends that they were sent for. Why? Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to avoid reminding Hamlet that he's crazy, or are they setting themselves up to serve Claudius against Hamlet? What does Hamlet conclude? How good is his evidence?

The play sets up Hamlet as the "point of view character," but plays are by their nature "objective," and we can shift identification. Identify now and then (even) with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Do they do wrong? Do they do anything wrong enough to justify killing them?

291-306: Hamlet's "Apostrophe to Man"

Throughout: Note that this speech is in prose (you won't impress the educated by citing this as some of Shakespeare's great poetry).

292-99: Hamlet acknowledges that his view of the world is tainted. The earth is a "goodly frame," the air and sky "brave" and "majestical"-but to him it appears "but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors." For someone who denigrates "seeming" so much in his opening scene, it must be important to know that something is one way but seems to you something quite different. Take Hamlet at his word here: he perceives deeply, but probably in twisted ways.

300-306: The apostrophe proper, although not properly (as Polonius might say) an apostrophe: i.e., he doesn't directly address Man. He does, though, praise us extravagantly, in a brilliant summation of the most optimistic Renaissance secular views of our species: we are like angels, even gods; we are "the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals" (as opposed to the traditional Christian view-reemphasized by Protestants-that only grudgingly acknowledges us created "a little below the divine beings" [in the Old Testament formulation] but tainted by original sin so badly as to make Natural Man basically beastly and depraved). Still, we are also "this quintessence of dust" and now no delight to Hamlet: "Man delights not me-nor woman neither. . ."-especially not women, it may be.

310-54: This section on "an eyrie of children" makes sense in terms of what has been called "The War of the Theatres," between the adult companies of "common players" (like Shakespeare's) and the then-fashionable boys' companies. How much of the "War" was based on real grievances and competition and how much on hype is difficult to tell nowadays. The whole to-do is of interest to theatre historians, and I'll ask only how today-if at all-this section fits into Hamlet.

365-70: Hamlet's statement on Hamlet's madness: he's mad only "north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." Precisely what the Elizabethan puns here mean needn't concern us; note well, though, that Hamlet gives fair warning to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and Claudius and Gertrude) that he's not completely mad.

In Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley pointed out how exciting Hamlet would be for an audience that didn't know it, and this point has been repeated by Michael Kahn talking about school kids as his best audience for a very long production of Hamlet in 1969. Hamlet is playing a high-stakes game with those he sees as opponents; watch it closely (and recall the critical observation that Shakespeare structures many of his plays as dances-or duels; Hamlet ends with a literal duel).

371-531: Hamlet and the Players

371-410: Polonius, after his fashion, introduces the Players and gives us a pedantic comic taxonomy of dramatic genres. Polonius also thinks the Players are quite good. How should they be played?

411-36: Hamlet welcomes the players as "good friends." As either text or subtext, is Hamlet welcoming them also as colleagues? That all princes play the role of monarch was suggested by Shakespeare in his histories; is Hamlet more conscious of a role than most politicians? Even here, is Hamlet starting to see the Players as allies? If any of these possibilities are true, how could you suggest them in performance? If they can't be suggested in performance, can they be true?

438-51: I doubt a Viking prince would know much in the way of drama (theatre pretty well having died out-or having been suppressed-in the late ancient world and not getting started again until after the time of Amleth, the historical model for Hamlet [which I'll date in the middle of the 11th c. a bit after the time of Knut the Great, King of Denmark and England]). Still, a Viking prince probably would know great gobs of Nordic saga, and you should note well that it was plausible for someone to remember a significant chunk of a work of literature. Our memories (except perhaps for sports trivia) aren't what they used to be.

454-506: The Player's Speech on the Death of Priam and Grief of Hecuba, with audience comments

461-69: "Pyrrhus" is another name for Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, the hero of Homer's The Iliad. Achilles was a Greek leader against Troy, the city of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Before the wooden horse trick (recounted in Virgil's Aeneid) and the breaching of the walls of Troy, Achilles is killed. Hence, Pyrrhus can be seen as a son of a king whose father has been killed. Count so far, princes whose fathers were killed: Fortinbras (whose father was chivalrically killed by King Hamlet), Pyrrhus (whose father was killed in the war against Troy), and Hamlet (whose father, the Ghost alleges, was murdered).

Note well the image of Pyrrhus like unto "a painted tyrant" paralyzed with his sword above "Th' unnerved father," King Priam. ". . . Pyrrhus stood, And like a neutral to his will and matter / Did nothing." The paralysis isn't good, but, then, neither is acting like a tyrant.

475-80: Pyrrhus doesn't delay, however, but only pauses until "Aroused vengeance sets him new awork," and he murders Father/King Priam. How do you feel about Pyrrhus's revenge in the killing of Priam? How do you think Shakespeare's audience would have felt?

Historical trivia: By one convoluted theory, the ancient British were descended from the Trojans; and the English could see themselves as British, or heirs to the British.

480: Here and below, note references to "strumpet Fortune," whose raising people to greatness and them dashing them down constitutes de Casibus "tragedies": stories Concerning the Fall of Illustrious Men and Women (to translate a famous title by the medieval author, Boccacio).

486-92: Everybody's a critic! Note also Hamlet's snappy answer to Polonius's "This is too long": perhaps Shakespeare's preemptive move against criticism of Hamlet, even in its shorter forms.

493-506: Pyrrhus's Revenge, and The Player weeps for Queen/Mother Hecuba. (And boy is she a mother! In one version I learned, she had 50 children [or maybe that was just sons].) How do you feel about the grief of this Queen/Mother/Wife for the death of her husband? How do you feel about the gory details of Pyrrhus's revenge?

510-14: Hamlet on players generally-actors-as "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time." Here and below, note Hamlet as a fairly sophisticated analyst of theatre.

515-19: Hamlet presents a good view of noble magnanimity here: "The less they deserve, the more merit in your bounty"; this also fits in well with the ultimate magnanimity in Christian theory: God's Grace. On the other hand, there is a view of human nature requiring Grace that is suitable for a grad student at Wittenberg U., Martin Luther's school in Hamlet's far future and Shakespeare's relatively recent past. Not so much as John Calvin, but still pretty strongly, Luther stressed that what "every man" deserves is "whipping" and far worse (we deserve damnation: Original Sin and all).

520-30: Note "We'll hear a play"; it's a significant usage. And here Hamlet introduces the idea of a slightly modified playlet-a play within a play-"The Murder of Gonzago" (cf. and contrast "Pyramus and Thisbe" in A Midsummer Night's Dream: the playlet the lovers hear).

533-91: Hamlet's Second Soliloquy, Usually Called "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"

533-43: Hamlet is impressed that the player can bring himself to act-after the fashion of players-upon the suffering of Hecuba. The weeping for Hecuba is impressive, but there is an interesting silence in the soliloquy: the death of Priam. Hecuba is no more to the player nor to Hamlet than Priam is, so why no word at all on Priam?

543-56: On the one side the player, weeping for Hecuba; on the other Hamlet, not acting at all-not in the sense of getting things done. But why should he be doing anything besides mourning his father and lamenting the sad state of the world where he didn't become king upon his father's death?

Historical note, which Shakespeare will make more explicit later: the Danish throne was elective, so there was nothing unconstitutional about Claudius's becoming king. If you knew that, you'd know Hamlet has less of a gripe than if we assumed primogeniture inheritance. If you didn't know that, you might wander why Hamlet didn't raise a rebellion to get rid of a usurping uncle.

What must Hamlet assume to think he has something he ought to be doing? Only at the end of this section do we learn for sure that Hamlet is sure the Ghost is honest and telling the truth.

557-65: Hamlet comes up with a theory why he hasn't acted yet: maybe he's a coward.

562-67 (sic): Hamlet gets onto the imagery of guts (in our phrase) and other innards, says some very bad things about Claudius, and sees his duty as feeding "the region kits / With this slave's offal." His final cry is a cliché of the genre: "O vengeance!" In Pyrrhus's mode? Fortinbras's? (The mode of Tybalt or Romeo or Shylock in earlier plays? Laertes's mode later in Hamlet? Again, so far, how do you feel about revenge?)

568-73: Hamlet catches himself and now feels guilty about going on so long about feeling guilty. Note imagery of corruption: he compares himself to a whore or "drab" (ordinarily female) and then gets closer to home: "A stallion!", which strongly suggests a male whore.

Historical note: If it involves sex and doesn't require batteries or Velcro, "it" is probably ancient. See Norman Mailer's Egyptian Evenings and the biblical Book of Leviticus.

574-90: Hamlet gets the idea to use a playlet to get Claudius to expose himself as a murderer.

(1) Huh? We've just seen him arrange "The Murder of Gonzago." Possible explanation: this section of the soliloquy is "recapitulation," in which the character explains what has gone through his head (or hers, as the case may be). Do you find this theory necessary here?

(2) Hamlet might be trying for a public confession from Claudius, making private vengeance unnecessary. Does he actually do that? Does he even plan anything more than a private proof?

583-91: Here, for the first time, Hamlet comes to doubt the Ghost.

Because it took a while to come down, so to speak, from his excitement over seeing a Ghost and hearing a story that confirmed his worst suspicions about his mother, uncle, himself, the court, and the world?

Because he's found another excuse to delay?

Esthetic note: See above on R. Ornstein's reminder that all narratives delay. No delay, / Too short a play.

Because it's a damn good idea to doubt a Ghost, especially if you're a Protestant? Good point, actually, even if you find it mostly rationalization. Even Elizabethan intellectuals who believed in Purgatory and honest ghosts would have to allow that devils can "assume a pleasing shape" and that a melancholy person especially is susceptible to delusions. And when that Ghost is commanding you to kill a king and relative-check out the story.


3.1: The Nunnery Scene (Opening)

1-28: The King and Queen learn from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they're not going to learn much from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

(1) Guildenstern sees Hamlet's "affliction" as "a crafty madness."

(2) Rosencrantz tells his royal patrons that Hamlet was "niggard [i.e., stingy] of question, but of our demands / Most free in his reply." Is that what you recall? (Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conclude offstage that Hamlet thoroughly beat them at the question and answer game.) Do these guys seem too sophisticated to be trusted?

32-37: Claudius and Polonius will use Ophelia to test out Polonius's pet theory that Hamlet is mad for love. Are these two "lawful espials"?

38-43: Gertrude plays good wife and obeys the request to leave, and wishes Ophelia luck. Here and below note the possibility that the Queen at least may see Ophelia as a potential match for Hamlet.

44-54: Polonius makes a mildly flippant comment on appearance of piety covering less pious realities, "that with devotion's visage / And pious action we do sugar o'er / The devil himself"-and Claudius completes the line aside with "O, 'tis too true," and goes on to give the first direct evidence we have (although just a hint) that Claudius really has murdered King Hamlet. Note well Claudius's imagery here: Hamlet isn't the only one to put disgust, including self-disgust, in terms of "The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art."

Political note: A number of Shakespeare's tragic heroes go through a phase of sexual disgust and misogyny. But are the plays they are in misogynist, and, if they are, what should the consequences of that be for, say, teaching those plays to children? Alternatively, a school the size of Miami undoubtedly has an occasional student or two working as a drab or stallion. Should workers in the sex industry get upset with "whore" as a term of abuse? (Miami students have worked at less reputable jobs [e.g., strike-breakers] so don't be too shocked at the idea of mere sexual prostitution at Miami.)

56-190: The "Nunnery Scene" Proper

56-90: Hamlet's Third Soliloquy, "To be, or not to be"

56: Actually, in terms of the plot, "To be, or not to be" is not the question. There are lots of questions: Gee, did I really talk with a ghost? Is the Ghost lying or telling the truth? If the Ghost is telling the truth about the murder, what should I do about it? If I ignore Christian doctrine and get revenge, would that be evil? Should I do it anyway? If I should-how? And Hamlet has already decided to test the word of the Ghost in his last soliloquy. Why isn't this soliloquy on ethics or tactics?

My question here is neither flippant nor peculiarly modern. In The Atheist's Tragedy, from a little after the time King Lear was produced, the potential avenger agonizes over the ethical issues revolving around «To kill or not to kill?»

56-82: Hamlet decides that the only thing keeping most of us from killing ourselves is "the dread of something after death"-presumably punishment in a more or less Christian afterlife-in a place Hamlet describes as "The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns." Well, there is Christian doctrine on the afterlife if Hamlet wanted to invoke it-but Shakespeare might well avoid such issues: it was physically dangerous for an Elizabethan playwright to deal too directly with "high and ghostly matters." More immediately, though, the Ghost is a traveler who apparently did return. That's one point; the second is-Huh? If "The fool [= wicked person] says in his heart, 'There is no God,'" then all sorts of people don't really believe in heaven or hell, and for sure all sorts of people just don't believe in heaven or hell, even among theists. Why, then, aren't atheists or theistic "mortalists" (like the "Preacher" in Ecclesiastes [Koheleth]) killing themselves right and left?

Theatre History Note: Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has sometimes been called a "sketch" for Hamlet. Consider that possibility seriously and examine Brutus's soliloquy "It must be by his death" (2.1.10-34). Brutus is an intellectual who can't think his way out of the clichéd paper bag. It may be that Hamlet, in his melancholy or congenitally or as a victim of too much schooling, also doesn't think well.

83-88: These lines on "conscience" and too much thought and "this regard"-i.e., overchewed consideration-may be significant for Hamlet's delay; for sure they've been a prooftext for the critics who think Hamlet's problem is thinking too much. Consider the possibility that it's not too much thinking but too screwed-up thinking.

90-161: Nunnery Scene proper

90-103: The traditional return of gifts (upon «breaking up»).

103: "Are you honest?" Again with the questions! But this one seems somewhat out of nowhere. How would you motivate it?

(1) She's returning his gifts, and he's already in a foul mood and thinking of women's frailty; he needs no additional motivation.

(2) We could have him spot Claudius and Polonius.

(3) Other suggestions?

103-14: Note repetition of "honesty." Honesty may be a very basic (base, low-born) virtue, but it seems important to Hamlet, and Shakespeare. In the sense of "chaste," note its importance from at least the early Midsummer Night's Dream through The Tempest (perhaps Shakespeare's last play); in our sense note honesty as a motif in the Henry plays of Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy of Histories, culminating in Fluellen on Henry V's honesty (H5 4.7.100-110).

114-19: Hamlet and Ophelia on a love that once was and may or may not still be. Note well Hamlet's view that our "old stock" is so bad (from Original Sin, we may assume) that we can't really be virtuous.

121-30: "Get thee to a nunnery"-with "nunnery" meaning "convent," but with the possibility of a slang undertone of "brothel" (Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy). Note Hamlet on his own offenses and his low idea of humankind. If you want Hamlet to have spotted Claudius and Polonius earlier, you can stress "revengeful, ambitious" as Hamlet lists his sins.

142-46: Hamlet lists female offenses in a catalog in a literally ancient tradition (going back at least to the Hebrew Prophets). His conclusion against marriage puts him in a polemical tradition that celebrated virginity over marriage (a tradition not liked by Protestants).

147-50: "Those that are married already-all but one-shall live." Why does he say this? If he hasn't seen Claudius, the line serves no immediate purpose; if he has seen Claudius, he's consciously threatening him.

151-61: Ophelia's speech, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" Note her (possibly idealized) vision of Hamlet as courtier, soldier, scholar (cf. and contrast Lady Percy's tribute to dead Hotspur at the beginning of Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV, and Cleopatra on the dead Antony near the end of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra). Ophelia describes the ideal Renaissance prince, not the Viking warlord; still, he should be something of an athlete: the soldier bit, plus the classical ideal of sound mind / sound body.

Film note: Laurence Olivier quite consciously played a relatively effete Hamlet, in a performance parodied by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero and «answered» by Mel Gibson's performance in the Zeffirelli film of 1990. Use Ophelia's description as important evidence for deciding what (your) Hamlet should be like.

162-75: Claudius rejects the love theory-and doesn't believe Hamlet is mad: "There's something in his soul / O'er which his melancholy sits on brood"-and he decides to get Hamlet out of Denmark, fast.

176-90: Ever-clever Polonius isn't going to totally give up his love-madness theory and suggests an interim action before sending Hamlet away: let his mother have a talk with him, but with Polonius listening it. (Note where that idea leads.)


3.2: The Mousetrap Scene

1-44: Hamlet and the players. Note well Hamlet's advice to them.

19-23: Hamlet thinks drama's purpose is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature"-suggesting a realistic view of the medium.

36-42: And Hamlet speaks for all playwrights in telling the actors to stick to the script and not ad lib for laughs.

50-86: Hamlet and Horatio, second significant interchange

60-71: This is a crucial text for critics who discuss "Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion."

Philosophical Note: Horatio is a Stoic of the old Roman fashion (not Greek; Greek Stoicism was purer and discouraged family ties, friendship, and patriotism); and as a Stoic Horatio is truly in control and not subject to Fortune. The basic philosophy is simple: What can I truly have control over? My reason and will. What limits my reason and will, or, more precisely, the control of my reason over my will (so far as the will literally motivates everything else)? Well, external events-Fortune-and my internal passions. Solution: Minimize external ties and maximize control over the passions. This theory was very popular during Shakespeare's time, and also condemned. For a play starring a Stoic, see George Chapman's The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois; for an attack on Stoicism, see Erasmus's The Praise of Folly; for Shakespeare doing destructive testing, as 'twere, on a Stoic hero, see Othello.

73-86: Hamlet explains to Horatio the test of "The Mousetrap."

73-74: "the circumstance[,] / Which I have told thee, of my father's death"-What?!? So Shakespeare sums up what might have been a great scene: Hamlet the soldier, courtier, scholar explaining to the Stoic intellectual Horatio how King Hamlet was killed-reduced to an embedded clause plus phrase. Here is another intriguing silence.

87-260: Mousetrap Scene (proper)

97: Polonius once played Julius Caesar and was killed by Brutus: Foreshadowing, I think, of both the death of Polonius (and of some royals).

107-18: Hamlet's lines to Ophelia on lying in her lap and "country matters"-carefully pronounced "c(o)unt-ry" by Derek Jacobi in a notable BBC production-are quite gross. How loudly should Hamlet be lewd here? (The louder the lewder-or are lewd lines worse when whispered?) What does it do to your opinion of Hamlet that he can speak obscenely to a lady he can no more than suspect is working against him-and a lady who can legitimately feel jilted by Hamlet? And what if Hamlet speaks grossly to her after having had sex with her? After more spiritual intimacies? Again, the actors playing Hamlet and Ophelia must know their history, and the rest of the cast must know what their characters know. Much may be rotten in the state of Denmark.

119-29: Here we get our first indication of how long the action of the play has been: four months since the death of King Hamlet.

(1) The wedding did come very quickly after the funeral: yea, with shocking speed even nowadays.

(2) Hamlet hasn't put off revenge all that long.

(3) If even a great king can be forgotten so quickly, it is true as the old Romans said, and the Stoics stressed: "All glory is fleeting."

(4) Given the lewdness earlier, "the hobby-horse is forgot" can have a nastier secondary meaning than a ballad line: in Othello and The Winter's Tale, a "hobby-horse" is a wanton woman, available for "riding."

If Ophelia wanted to hear the line this way, she could think herself compared to a "hobby-horse," forgotten by Hamlet. For a more feminist subtext, note that the hobby-horse in May games and morris dances could be a strongly masculine symbol-basically masculine, so to speak-which could be applied to King Hamlet (or any male). The lines can have such meaning-but only, I'd say, if the actors play them that way.

129-38: The Dumb Show pretty well gives away the whole plot of "The Murder of Gonzago" and circumstances of the murder of King Hamlet. Why doesn't Claudius react?

(1) One theory has Claudius made of very stern stuff, so it takes a repetition of the scene to shake him.

(2) Other theories note how easy it is to play this scene so Claudius is occupied and doesn't see the Dumb Show. (Even with our overly tame audiences one sometimes needs to get their attention. Elizabethan audiences weren't overly tame, nor overly polite. One might "project" that upon a Renaissance style play implausibly performed at a Viking court.)

(3) Hamlet may just be wrong about drama's effects upon guilty folk.

(4) Claudius may be innocent. We still have no real evidence.

144-45: "'Tis brief, my lord." / "As woman's love." Hamlet may be still harping upon his mother and her o'erhasty marriage. He may be complaining about Ophelia if he thinks that she dumped him (as Polonius suggests she did, upon his orders). If Hamlet dumped Ophelia, though, then there's a irony here at Hamlet's expense.

146-20: First part of "The Murder of Gonzago"

170-76: The player queen promises to be faithful to the memory of her husband, and nothing in the play accuses her of being unfaithful to him while he's alive. So the playlet doesn't accuse Gertrude of adultery.

178-207: The player king speaks wisely about Mutability in our lives under the sun and how passions fade and fortunes change (O, Fortuna!). Recall that in speaking of "friends for life" and "love lasting forever" and similar things we say and mean and (possibly) think Hamlet naive to believe.

222: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks": Obviously; just be sure you get the line right when you quote it.

227-34: Claudius realizes something is up. Note Hamlet's lines for the source of the nickname of the scene, and that he means "The Mousetrap" "Tropically"-i.e., as a trope, a figure of speech, or, here, a kind of allegory or analogy.

235, 249-57: "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king": An important line. It is followed by the playlet stage business of Lucianus's pouring poison into the player king's ear, followed by Hamlet's "'A poisons him i' th'garden for his estate . . . ." If Lucianus is nephew to the king, and we see and hear Lucianus poison the king-then an obvious interpretation of what we've just seen is that Hamlet has threatened to murder Claudius.

(1) So much Hamlet's plan to test the king! (at least for members of Shakespeare's audience who've followed this).

(2) Aside from their basic corruption, the Court can go along with Claudius in what he does with Hamlet because they just heard Hamlet threaten to kill Claudius-provided the line is said loudly.

(3) Especially if the line is said quietly-and in a Hamlet more a family tragedy than a political one-this is evidence for an Oedipal reading. Lucianus in Hamlet's line is "Nephew to the king" in "The Murder of Gonzago". Lucianus in the "Mousetrap" is Claudius, and the player king is King Hamlet. By a simple exchange, Lucianus/Hamlet kills player king/King Hamlet-and then goes on to marry the victim's wife. Hamlet is in a situation like that of Oedipus of Thebes: someone, anyway, has killed his father and married his mother-but it's Claudius, not Hamlet. Here Hamlet identifies with that murderer. So suggests Britton Harwood of Miami U., improving upon Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus.

258-60: Exit Claudius; exeunt all save Hamlet and Horatio.

How you picture this exit/exeunt is important. I'll give away the plot and tell you Claudius murdered King Hamlet, so "The Murder of Gonzago" with Hamlet's identification of Lucianus translates, «I know you killed my father, and I'm going to murder you for it.» The Queen and Court may just hear, in my words, «I'm going to murder you, dear Uncle/King.»

261-84: Hamlet now trusts the Ghost, and Horatio doesn't contradict him, so an audience may miss the "Lucianus, nephew" bit. Note, though, that what Horatio says commits him to no position.

284-357: Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Note the edge on his wit contest with guys who were until recently at least good buddies if not friends: Hamlet's in high passion, and dangerous. Note also Hamlet's use of the proverb, "While the grass grows, the horse starves"; he reinforces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their view that Hamlet's motive is ambition for the crown of Denmark. Is this projection on their part of what they would feel in Hamlet's position? (If so, how could that be acted?)

317-20: Gertrude wants to see Hamlet "in her closet"-and be sure you know what "closet" means in Elizabethan English (see above).

330-57: Hamlet with the Guildenstern and recorders (a fairly simple instrument to play on a beginner's level). Hamlet accuses Guildenstern of wanting to play upon him as a musician would play upon a pipe. Hamlet rejects their attempt to "pluck out the heart of my mystery": a line that has been taken as a rebuke to critics who wish to "solve" the problem of Hamlet.

358-70: Hamlet with Polonius

360: Hamlet is under pressure to go to see the Queen. Keep that in mind when he does go to see Gertrude.

361-70: Polonius will see a cloud looking like a camel or a weasel or a whale: he's a courtier and will hardly argue the point! Plus, Hamlet has earlier been a relativist in his epistemology, going so far as to bring into question even ethics: if "nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so." Here, though, Hamlet seems to mock such relativism.

371-84: Hamlet's Fourth Soliloquy: "'Tis now the very witching

time of night"

372-74: Note imagery of contagion and willingness to "drink hot blood"-presumably Claudius's.

374-84: But Hamlet doesn't go after Claudius but goes to his mother. Is he following orders like a good son and subject and all, or should we see a deeper psychology working?

378-83: Since the Emperor Nero murdered his mother, and since Hamlet talks of speaking daggers but using none, we might suspect he'd like to kill his mother now. For sure he intends to chide her roughly.



1-4: Claudius has decided to send Hamlet to England. The audience won't know for a while-and it seems unlikely-but the actor playing Claudius should know if England for Hamlet also means (as it will later) Hamlet's death.

8-10: Guildenstern on how important kings are, especially for the many people "That live and feed upon your majesty"-either all Danes, or Guildenstern and people like him (the lines are ambiguous).

11-23: Rosencrantz expands on Guildenstern's remarks, on the Body Politic and how great a thing a king's death is: "The cess of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What's near it with it . . ."-or is like a big wheel rolling downward.

Cf. and contrast the Fool's lines in King Lear on big wheels-in our sense-going downhill (2.4.61-83).

Note these lines for theories of tragedy that stress the importance of high-ranking people, especially kings. Note for Shakespeare's ideas on Divine Right, who says such lines, and when?

The tragedy of the Hamlet family will also be that of Denmark.

27-35: Polonius is enthusiastically pursuing another spying scheme, and another one involving Hamlet and a woman. When he dies, remember that he, as Hamlet thinks with Ros. and Guil., "did make love to this employment" (see 5.2.56-59).

36-71: Claudius's soliloquy and attempt to pray

36-38: Finally a confession: our proof Claudius murdered King Hamlet.

43-47: Claudius speaks well of mercy, and in radical Calvinist theories Divine Grace is necessarily rather arbitrary (if God's will were determined-or even strongly influence-by our actions, God would not be absolute but at least slightly subject to humans).

51-63: Still, Claudius knows better: you can't repent a crime while keeping the loot from it. He may be kneeling in prayer, but his being in a state of Grace-if that's a legitimate concern to anyone-is really doubtful.

73-96: Hamlet's Fifth Soliloquy: "Now might I do it pat . . ."

We have just gotten proof that Claudius is the murderer of King Hamlet, and we have just gotten good reason to believe Claudius is not in a state of Grace. Hamlet can't know these things, but he does believe the Ghost, and he accepts the "duty" to revenge, and now he can do it. And he doesn't. Why?

75-93: He says he doesn't want to send Claudius to heaven, but what does he have to do with determining where Claudius's soul ends up? It's pleasant to hope that our enemies are suffering eternal torments in Hell, but I suspect it's not nice to wish our enemies in hell-and, besides, damnation can't be assured.

95-96: So Hamlet goes to see his mother, offering evidence that she is what's bugging him, more even than Claudius.

97-98: Claudius admits that his prayers did no good. Ironic that Hamlet didn't kill Claudius when he had the chance-and the starting or central point of what we might call the "turning plateau" of Hamlet. If you want to talk of Hamlet's hamartia-his tragic mistake-this might be it: not rejecting revenge on the one hand, or just doing it here-"pat"-on the other.


3.4: Closet Scene

1-4: Polonius indicates that the Court is aware of Hamlet's "pranks," suggesting that he at least sees Hamlet as problem and threat.

7: Hamlet calls Gertrude "mother" frequently. He needn't. More formally she is "Your Majesty," "Your Grace," "Madam," or "Lady."

11-16: In Polonius's theory, Gertrude was to upbraid Hamlet; instead, Hamlet upbraids Gertrude for being "your husband's brother's wife"-an accusation of incest.

23-26: Hamlet slays Polonius: he's guilty of Murder One, if you've got a decent prosecutor; it's still homicide of some sort with a good defense lawyer.

27: "Is it the king?": As the text of the play stands, a very stupid question, since Hamlet just left the king praying. (But see below 4.1.13-15.)

28-32: Gertrude accuses Hamlet of "a rash and bloody deed," and he changes the subject to murder. What evidence is there that Gertrude was complicit in the murder of King Hamlet? How would you have her say "As kill a king?" if you had her know that King Hamlet was murdered-and by Claudius? What's the evidence? Should we accept the playlet's suggestion that "None wed the second but who killed the first"?

32-33: Hamlet talks of Polonius's "fortune" and makes the useful observation that "to be too busy is some danger."

34-89: Hamlet spells out for Gertrude what he sees as Gertrude's frailty.

66-68: Hamlet may idealize his father, "this fair mountain," and he really hates his uncle, "this moor." What should we make of these lines? (Bigoted if "moor" puns on «dark-skinned person»?)

69-72: Hamlet wants to know why his mother would leave his father for Claudius. One obvious answer: because King Hamlet was dead and Claudius was alive and a lively suitor and a good candidate for king.

Hamlet assumes Gertrude's motive couldn't have been love, "for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it's humble, / And waits upon the judgment . . . ." Riiiggghhht! If you see Hamlet as 30, he should know better, because at 16 he probably thought that about people 20-something, and at 20-something he probably thought that about ancient folk of 30. The logic is that Gertrude is too old to have desired (lusted after?) Claudius; therefore she chose him as a reasonable choice; but it's unreasonable to go from King Hamlet to Uncle Satyr. If Hamlet just turned 30, Gertrude is probably in her mid- to late-40s, and (if typical) still in fine form sexually. Hamlet's disgust with the body may be coming though here.

73-89: Hamlet expands on what a dweeb his uncle is and (therefore) how poor Gertrude's senses or judgment had to be and/or how strong her lust. Unlike Stoic sorts (and others more philosophical than passionate), Gertrude's ". . . reason panders will"-with will primarily in the sense of "lust."

Uh, Hamlet's just murdered Polonius on a stupid guess that Polonius might be Claudius. Does he have much credibility as a spokesman for judgment against passion? (Having Polonius's corpse highly visible would help make this point. [Cf. Caesar's body in Julius Caesar.])

90-92: Hamlet may be something of a putz in his accusations against his mother, but they may have the useful service of getting her to glance-if just momentarily-at least the tackiness of her behavior (cf. and contrast Henry V with the traitors in Shakespeare's Henry V).

93-104: Hamlet expands farther and in greater grossness on how Gertrude's second husband wasn't as good as her first, and that Hamlet might find the idea of sex between his mother and Claudius unpleasant: note the imagery of "rank sweat," "enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty." Indeed, Hamlet may want to go with King Lear when Lear buys perfume to sweeten his imagination (4.6.129-30), or maybe they can get up a (recovering) sexophobes group.

102-40: The Ghost returns to get Hamlet back on track. We see the Ghost; Hamlet sees the Ghost; but Gertrude doesn't. She may be insensitive, or ghosts are like that. (Might you stage it so that Hamlet's crazy, and we're crazy with him? If so, how?)

140-56: Hamlet probably does well to tell Gertrude to avoid the thought that "not your trespass but my madness speaks"-but are these mutually exclusive? Like, I don't think he's mad, exactly, but he's hardly anyone's idea of a paragon of mental health. Note again the imagery: here of sex with Claudius as spreading "the compost on the weeds"; note also the complacency of "Forgive me this my virtue" and the assumption of an age grown fat, when "Virtue," such as his, "itself of vice must pardon beg." He is right about rottenness in Denmark, but his own self-righteous is a problem-especially if you see Hamlet as in some sense a Christian play, in a tradition that supposedly condemns prigishness (and by a playwright who often satirized prigs).

160-70, 182-86: Hamlet really, really dislikes Claudius and is really sickened at the thought of Gertrude's having sex with Claudius.

173-78: Hamlet seems kind of sorry here to have killed Polonius; note that he sees this as part of his being God's "scourge and minister." Fredson Bowers has a fine essay on "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge" (PMLA 70 [1955]: 740-49); see it for details. For our course, note that heaven's "Minister" would be a positive role, "scourge" a negative role. A scourge of God was used to punish (figuratively whip) the wicked, and then God threw the scourge into the fire: i.e., God uses wicked people to punish other people, so he can damn the wicked scourges without injustice (and get a net gain in salvation).

203: "I must to England; you know that?" Well, we did, but does Shakespeare tell us how Hamlet found out?

203-10: Hamlet really doesn't trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and is already scheming against them, and mentions his scheme in a formulation rather like that of Shylock in Merchant of Venice promising to teach the Christians a thing or two about revenge.

212-16: Hamlet will "lug the guts" of Polonius out and, like a good son, wishes his mother good night. The lines sometimes get a laugh. Should they? I.e., should we want people so identifying with Hamlet and so alienated from the old f*rts that they'll laugh at Hamlet's cleaning up his little mess? (Maybe: we need to identify with the "sweet prince" tragic hero.)



7-12, 27: Gertrude is probably protecting her beloved Hamlet in stressing his craziness and saying "'A weeps for what is done." She also overprizes Polonius in characterizing him as just "The unseen good old man."

Has Gertrude learned anything from Hamlet? Should she have learned anything? Aside from a hasty and, uh, unconventional marriage, what from her point of view is her sin? (How should we see Claudius and think of the dead King Hamlet? Hamlet sees Claudius as dirt and his dead father as godlike; should we agree?)

13-15: Claudius takes seriously that Hamlet might have killed him.


4.2: Hamlet talks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, rather flippantly about Polonius and Claudius-and nastily about them: Rosencrantz as a sponge. (That's especially nasty if you know that "sponge" was a slang term for The Parasite character in Roman comedy: from the idea of soaking up the patron's substance, but also from the use of sponges as we use toilet paper.)



4-6: Claudius-a reliable source-tells us that Hamlet is well loved by the Danes; if it turns out that they are ready for a rebellion (and it does), then Hamlet could lead them. Note also motif of appearance vs. reality and senses vs. judgment, and the standard complaint by authority-types that there's a bunch of soft-headed liberals out there who sympathize with criminals and not with their victims.

18-38: Darkly comic dialog between Hamlet and Claudius on where Polonius's body is (and where his soul might be). Note start of worm motif: we're moving toward a graveyard.

44-67: This section makes clear that in Claudius's intentions at least, England = death for Hamlet.



1-7: Enter Fortinbras.

17-29: Hamlet and a Captain in Fortinbras's army on the military objectives of Fortinbras's expedition: a patch of ground not worth the effort, but men will die for it. One explanation: a figurative abscess "of much wealth and peace"-so men will fight to waste money and lives.

32-66: Hamlet's Sixth Soliloquy: "How all occasions do inform against me"

32-33: Hamlet's getting into a kind of stimulus/response mode: he sees something, and he'll use it for a guilt trip.

33-35: "What is a man . . . ?": Important question here and in King Lear and (in the sense of "adult male human" especially) in Macbeth. In his current mood, Hamlet feels that just living isn't enough; a real man needs some sort of purpose.

36-39: Minimally, Man is a rational animal, and we should use our "godlike reason"-for something.

39-46: Hamlet can't figure out why he hasn't killed Claudius and admits to having "cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't."

Possibilities: "Bestial oblivion," "craven scruple / of thinking too precisely on the event"-i.e., getting overly fastidious about the outcome-or maybe plain cowardice.

53-56: "Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honor's at the stake": Tough quote. A few moments ago, Hamlet noted that it was stupid to kill and be killed over something not worth fighting for. Here Hamlet does a 180: True greatness is NOT to be found fighting or striving for something truly important but to fight and strive greatly over nothing, if one can get honor by striving or fighting or lose it by staying back from the struggle. Wow, man, Existential! For real. See that ancient Existentialist Koheleth, the Preacher in the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes: "All that thine hand shall find to do, do it with all thy power: for there is neither work nor invention, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest" (9.10, Geneva translation, modernized). But Existentialist in an aristocratic way.

OK, so Hamlet will do his thing, which seems to be revenge: "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" And he exits to go to England, and out of the play for a goodly while.



1-75: Her brother in France and her father murdered by Hamlet (possibly her ex-lover, certainly her "ex" in some sense), Ophelia goes mad. As Robert Ornstein has stressed, we don't see this: she's sane, then she's mad (cf. and contrast Lady Macbeth in Macbeth). Note well her songs: Shakespeare seems convinced that madfolk talk a lot about sex.

Yet again, we don't know if Ophelia and Hamlet have "done" what currently evil-minded Hamlet would see as "the dirty"; Ophelia must know. If nothing else she must know if her songs refer to what Hamlet has done, what, in madness she thinks he's done, what they have done-whatever.

81-95: Claudius makes clear that Denmark is ripe for rebellion. Hamlet could have led such a rebellion, had he thought of the obvious. Why didn't he?

102-08: A messenger repeats the point. Laertes is leading a mob-Laertes!-so Hamlet would have found power lying in the streets.

112-15: Enter Laertes: If Laertes can get to Claudius, Hamlet could have (as Hamlet a short while back admitted).

Score of sons with fathers killed: Fortinbras, Hamlet, Pyrrhus, and now Laertes. Hamlet is the star, so the other guys are foils.

116-20: "That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard . . .": Laertes has no problem with revenge, except figuring out who to get it on (and he hasn't even found out about Ophelia yet).

How do you feel about Laertes here? Is blood revenge really in the blood? Do true sons necessarily skewer parents' murderers? Maybe, but the idea is radically unChristian and even antiChristian. (That it's a common idea among [nominal?] Christians, however, has to be acknowledged. [Fornication is also common, but Christians usually don't feel righteous fornicating; many do feel righteous getting revenge. See Shylock's comments, MV 3.1.45-63]).

122-25: Somewhat anachronistically, Claudius believes in the Divine Right of Kings or something like it. (Divine Right theory was really big in the Renaissance, not the medieval period.) Note that the strongest statements on Divine Right in Shakespeare are made by or about Richard II (a rather poor king who gets his throne stolen) and Claudius, a usurper.

131-36: The social, theological, and political implications of blood revenge are made pretty explicit here: "To hell allegiance, / Vows to the blackest devil . . . !" Laertes dares damnation; do we want Hamlet to do the same? If we don't, what in-Hell?-do we want him to do?

153 f.: Enter Ophelia. (This is not a good day for Laertes.)


4.6: Horatio gets a letter from the captured Hamlet. How do you want to account for Hamlet's capture? Good luck (all things considered)? Divine Providence? Sheer chance? For sure part of Hamlet's "fate" here comes from his character: he's the sort who'll board a pirate ship in the "compelled valor" of a sea fight. Ophelia said he was a soldier; but we know nothing of his experience at sea. Following A. C. Bradley, we can picture Hamlet as an athletic, passionate sort kept cooped up too long: he needed a nice sea voyage, and a rough, unambiguous battle. If you have trouble putting that together with an intellectual, well, that's our cultural problem.



10-22: Claudius to Laertes on why he hasn't had Hamlet executed:

(1) Gertrude really likes Hamlet, and Claudius loves Gertrude.

We might add the suspicion that Claudius owes Gertrude unspoken debts, even as he owed Polonius: being husband to the Queen is useful if one desires to be King. Do you think Claudius really loves Gertrude? I think he does; Shakespeare was to go on to write Macbeth, where not only a usurper but a downright tyrant has a really good relationship with his wife.

(2) The people really like Hamlet. Even in a much shortened acting text this much should come out: if Laertes could raise a rebellion, Hamlet could've led one easily. Real question for me: Why didn't he?

80-111: Claudius sets up Laertes for a duel. Two things: Can you believe that good report of Laertes's skill with the rapier would "so envenom" (significant word!) Hamlet "with his envy" that Hamlet would want to duel with Laertes as soon as possible? Second, note that Hamlet is a pretty good fencer: again, an athlete, and again, a sport appropriate for Hamlet, the play, imaged as a duel.

112-23: Claudius takes up here some of Hamlet's themes: love cooling and, emphatically, delay as a temptation.

124-27: What would Laertes do for revenge? He'd cut Hamlet's throat in church. That makes him better than Hamlet when Hamlet refused to murder Claudius at prayer-if we take Hamlet's word for Hamlet's motivation-but rather worse than not just Hamlet but maybe your average human. Claudius, for his own reasons, agrees: "Revenge should have no bounds."

130-61: Temptation of Laertes Proper: Claudius suggests the duel scheme, which Laertes improves upon with the idea of a foil not only unbated but poisoned. And then, for icing on Laertes's welcome-home cake:

162 f.: Gertrude relates the piteous death of Ophelia.


5.1: Graveyard Scene

Enter two clowns: "Clowns" means "rustics," but the Clown here would also be the Clown of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. There is a role for the Clown even in the tragedies.

10-11: ". . . an act hath three branches . . .": Hamlet has not acted, not in the sense of "done," or "performed."

82-100: Hamlet jokes with Horatio about a skull and death; apparently the sea voyage has done him a lot of good.

120-33: Hamlet swaps lines with the gravedigger and Horatio on the precision of language in these our over-sophisticated times: a legitimate complaint of a Renaissance prince, and probably a common enough complaint-and an old one-in the Dark Ages, even before Knut the Great.

134-53: The Clown gives us Hamlet's age at 30 and jokes about the English as madfolk. Age 30 has bothered some critics: they've pictured "young Hamlet" younger, his actions more appropriate for a youth than a man. Do you have a problem with a 30-year old intellectual puritan? Note that many middle-aged people think youngsters tend to be priggish, and that Shakespeare may share the view: roguish old Falstaff vs. tight young Hal (and Prince John of Lancaster) in the Henry plays of the Second Tetralogy, young O. Caesar vs. older Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. Wild youth vs. sober age is one stereotype; there are others. As a practical theatre matter-how old would you cast Hamlet in your production. (Christian Slater could do a nice Hamlet, I suspect, if he can handle the verse, but as I write this he's at least near 30.)

154-60: Joke on how there are "many pocky cor[p]ses now-a-days that will scarce hold the laying in": note for motif of generalized corruption.

161: "your whoreson dead body": prooftext that "your" in "your philosophy" can just be a space-filling word, meaning no more than "whoreson."

170-83: Hamlet on the skull of Yorick, jester to King Hamlet. Note meditation on death, ending with a reference to "my lady's chamber." The image is conventional enough-under the makeup, you're old lady-but it may be significant that Yorick's lady-mistress was Gertrude.

184-204: On worldly greatness, tracing the recycled remains of Alexander the Great and the mighty Julius Caesar. Cf. and contrast Hamlet on "Rightly to be great" in meditating on Fortinbras's expedition to Poland.

205-30: No joking now as a real funeral approaches: Ophelia's. Note Gertrude on her hopes that Ophelia and Hamlet might have married: a politic statement, what with the Laertes threat, but quite possibly sincere as well.

233-70: Laertes and Hamlet compete at mourning Ophelia. Tacky and sentimental and romantic and heroic (?) combined-so how should it be played?

281-86: Claudius urges patience on Laertes: Laertes will be avenged. Note formulation "An hour of quiet shortly shall we see . . ." and see below on the "Catastasis" of Hamlet.



1-212: The "catastasis," a quiet moment in a play before the catastrophe (i.e., the conclusion)

1-62: Hamlet on conspiracy against him and how he thwarted it

6-12: In praise of rashness (as opposed to prudence) in a world where "There's a divinity that shapes our ends," in an image from carpentry, "Rough-hew them how we will." In a world where Providence rules, there's much to be said for impulsiveness. Is this a good lesson for Hamlet? The Stoic Horatio agrees, at least on Providence.

For me (and probably Erasmus) "Christian Stoic" is oxymoronic, but it was a popular Christian stance, going back to the very early Church Father Boethius.

19-25: «Flashback» narration: Hamlet learns of the plot to have him killed in England.

45-53: Hamlet's counterplot, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Note Hamlet's faith in Providence here. OK for saving Hamlet's life; how about for allowing him to have killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

55-62: Hamlet feels no guilt for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: They were willing tools, and, besides, "'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites." Note the fencing image here, and the snobbery.

63-72: Hamlet tells Horatio his grievances against Claudius and asks him if it's damnable for Hamlet to eschew revenge.

Claudius has "killed my king and whored my mother"-etc., including the obvious point that he's tried to kill Hamlet (which seems fair enough, given Hamlet's desire to kill him) and, for the first time: "Popped in between th'elections and my hopes." Only now does Hamlet give any indication that he at least hoped to become king. Oh-and it's an elected monarch (for those of us not up on the Danish constitution ca. 1000-1150).

Horatio responds to Hamlet's list of grievances and request for advice on killing Claudius only with "It must be shortly known to him from England / What is the issue of the business there"-a true comment that commits him to nothing.

73-75: Indeed, Claudius will soon learn the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"-word arrives just after the fencing match ends in multiple murders. Hamlet claims "the interim" and suggests he'll kill Claudius during that time. He does, but not as immediately premeditated murder. The line on "a man's life's no more than to say 'one'" may refer to fencing: Riverside refers readers to Hamlet's count of "one" when he first hits Laertes in their bout.

75-80: Hamlet makes explicit that Laertes is a (theatrical) foil to himself-"the image of my cause"-and regrets that he "forgot" himself. Note final joke of Polonius's "To thine own self be true": the old f*rt was right, and "forgetting" true selves can be very, very bad. See below, "but to know a man well were to know himself" (line 135-36). Note the line for the question of whether or not people have selves.

80-196: Hamlet and Horatio joke with-and at the expense of-the fop, Osric. We get some quiet humor here and the setting up of the catastrophe of Hamlet. Beyond that, Hamlet is himself again: he get a glimpse of the man Gertrude and Ophelia and the Danish commoners loved.


(1) Hamlet is an athlete, "in continual practice" at fencing. Or, so he says. The fencing we've seen has been metaphoric.

(2) Hamlet defies "augury" and puts himself into the hands of providence. "The readiness is all," and he will take what is to come. (Cf. "The ripeness is all" in King Lear.) Is Hamlet allowed a nondamning revenge because of his going with the flow here? (Maybe: in comedies, at least, going with the flow is very good; and in Christian doctrine trying to wrest the world to your will is the sin of Pride.)

212-350: The Catastrophe

215-32: Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, although he may not take as much responsibility as a moralist would demand. Hamlet killed Polonius, not just Hamlet's "madness."

233-40: Horatio comes through here as a kind of pedant of revenge. He (hypocritically) accepts Hamlet's apology in terms of "nature" but will consult with the experts on such matters to see if his honor will allow him to forgive Hamlet formally. Reputation and all. Depending on how we see his rank, Laertes here comes through as either a genteel twit or a noble twit; for sure, he's an upper-class twit contrasted with the generous and relatively magnanimous Hamlet.

Linguistic Note: Hard-nosed aristocratic theory has it that a gentleman-born is a gentleman, and a nobleman born is noble: it's a matter of very literal birth and breeding, as with pedigreed dogs and horses. "Gentle is as gentle does" is a competing theory. "Vile," "base," and "villain," "vulgar," and "common" started out referring to lowborn people. "Royal," "noble," "gentle," "genteel" referred to highborn people. What we mean by such terms today is an interesting question. Hamlet is of royal "blood" and, finally, he acts nobly.

255-70: First pass of the duel. Osric is officiating-and may end up an unkilled co-conspirator-and Hamlet is too open-hearted, or naive, to check the foils. Hamlet gets "One"-first hit.

276-83: Gertrude thinks Hamlet "fat"-out of shape-but he's still winning against Laertes. Gertrude also thinks she'll have a drink, and drinks from the poisoned cup that Claudius prepared. Note Claudius's prudent redundancy here: Laertes's foil is unbated and poisoned, and there's the poisoned cup as backup. The best laid schemes of villains may go awry in a world ruled by God's Providence-or maybe by Fate, Fortune, or Chance.

290-96: Hamlet and Laertes both wounded with the poisoned foil; Queen Gertrude feels the effect of the poison, speaks it, and dies.

297-308: Laertes reveals the plot.

309-16: Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned foil and forces the poison down his throat.

Hamlet knows a thing or two about redundant systems.

"Union" is a pun on the old word for pearl + Claudius's union with Gertrude.

Claudius is really cool throughout the scene, from "Gertrude, do not drink" earlier to "I am but hurt" here. He lives and dies a politician.

317-20: Laertes asks Hamlet's forgiveness and dies: this is the end of the House of Polonius.

321-29: Hamlet generously forgives Laertes and asks Horatio to look after Hamlet's reputation.

329-32: Like an old Stoical Roman (or like Juliet) Horatio will drink some leftover poison and follow Hamlet in death.

333-40: Hamlet wants Horatio to live and, for a while, to "absent" himself from the "felicity" of death so that he can tell Hamlet's story. In Othello, Michael Cassio is highly concerned with reputation, and that concern in him is both a good thing and an indication of his genteel shallowness. What should we make here of a desire for a good name?

350-end: The tying up of loose ends as Fortinbras enters-the world crashing in, as Ornstein says-to take over Denmark and (literally) clear the stage of the dead bodies.

Do you care that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead"?

Do you care who rules Denmark? Hamlet's dying vote and the last words of the play go to Fortinbras; is he a worthy inheritor?

Horatio wishes Hamlet, "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." Hamlet, indeed, had "a noble heart," but should we see him as merely "sweet prince"? How about also a very inelegant avenger?

Hamlet is to be buried as a soldier. In what war do we see him fight? Did he win or lose?

Hamlet's future: "The rest is silence"-we're not asked to speculate about Hamlet in the afterlife. Hamlet's future: a very popular play.

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Study Guide for Laurence Olivier's Hamlet



Hamlet.  Laurence Olivier, dir. and prod.  UK: Two Cities Films (prod.) / Arthur Rank Organization (release), 1948.  153 min. 




Hamlet            Laurence Olivier        Queen Gertrude:     Eileen Herlie

King Claudius:      Basil Sydney            Ophelia:            Jean Simmons

Polonius:           Felix Aylmer            Horatio:            Norman Wooland

Laertes:            Terence Morgan          Gravedigger:        Stanley Holloway

Marcellus:          Anthony Quayle


SUGGESTED READING: "Laurence Olivier's Hamlet" chapter of Anthony Davies, Filming Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1988). 



          1.  Setting: What period does Olivier set his Hamlet in?  Is it appropriate for his other productions decisions?  Do you find the castle realistic?  Do you find it cinematic or stagey?  Davies notes that "The film interiors are set in a vast, uncluttered, studio-built castle.  Of the two-and-a-half hours of action, very little takes place outside this set" (45).  Further, the camera work, especially the use of deep-focus, gives us a sense of spaciousness. 

                  A.  If one is to be that realistic, why not go on location and use a real castle?  Should one be realistic in a revenge play with a somewhat creaky plot and featuring a ghost? 

                  B.  If one obvious motif of Hamlet is Hamlet's feeling confined, why suggest a lot of space around him?  (Compare and contrast the Zeffirelli Hamlet on that one, where Mel Gibson's Hamlet gives his major speech on confinement in a rare outdoor scene.) 

          2.  Character.  Olivier apparently sees Hamlet's problem as epistemological and psychological (see below): Hamlet cannot make up his mind.  Starting from that premise, does Olivier make consistent directoral decisions?  (Selection of period, costuming, camera work, stage business--etc.)

          3.  Interpretation: Olivier uses Ernest Jones's Freudian interpretation of Hamlet.  Obviously, Hamlet is in an Oedipal situation: Claudius has killed Hamlet's father and married Hamlet's mother, and Hamlet may identify with Claudius too much to kill him.  (Brit Harwood of Miami U. points out evidence for this theory when Hamlet messes up his own "Mousetrap" scheme by identifying the murderer of the Player King as "one Lucianus, nephew to the king" [3.2.235].  That's certainly a political slip, since Claudius might well leave the play if innocent; his nephew just threaten to murder him!  Harwood says it's a Freudian slip.)  How does Olivier suggest Hamlet wants sex with Gertrude?  Does the Jones interpretation work in Olivier's production? 

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Study Guide for Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet



Hamlet.  Dir. Franco Zeffirelli.  UK: Icon (prod.) / Warner (dist.) and Nelson Entertainment, 1990.  Christopher De Vore and F. Zeffirelli, script.  Based on the play by William Shakespeare.  135 min.



Hamlet:                        Mel Gibson                        Claudius:                         Alan Bates

Gertrude:                     Glenn Close                        Polonius:                        Ian Holm

Ophelia:                       Helena Bonham-Carter         Horatio:                         Stephen Dillane

Laertes:                        Nathaniel Parker                 Guildenstern:                 Sean Murray

Rosencrantz:                Michael Maloney                 Grave Digger:                Trevor Peacock

Osric:                           John McEnery                     Ghost of King Hamlet:    Paul Scofield



         1.  The prolog, so to speak, the funeral of Old Hamlet. 

                  A.  What setting is established?  The title says, "Royal Castle of Elsinore, Denmark," but that gets tricky.  Shakespeare's Hamlet is set at a highly sophisticated Renaissance court where the Prince goes to a big-name university; and Hamlet is set simultaneously in a Viking country in the Anglo-Saxon period, when England was tributary to the Danish empire.  When do you place Zeffirelli's Hamlet?  Is the setting an era appropriate to Zeffirelli's other production decisions? 

                  B.  Note Claudius's speech to Hamlet here.  It's moved from Shakespeare's 1.2. 

                  C.  Note how Glen Close does Gertrude's grief, and how Mel Gibson's Hamlet looks at her. 

          2.  Like any play about royal politics, Hamlet deals with both public and private matters: the private doings of Kings and Queens and all, being of public importance.  How does Zeffirelli handle public and private scenes?  Which scenes that Shakespeare sets in a public forum does Zeffirelli make private?  Does he ever reverse that and have private scenes public? 

                  For this note especially the first interchange between Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare's script.  Hamlet is in rather ostentatious mourning in a court that would be dressed in bright apparel; Hamlet says aside "A little more than kin and less than kind" and puns on "sun" and "son" (1.2.64-67).  Where does Zeffirelli place this mini-scene?  How does he handle Hamlet's first lines--esp. how does he motivate "sun"/"son"?

          3.  You don't have to be a Freudian to note the importance of Hamlet's relationship to his mother and Gertrude's relationships generally.  How does Zeffirelli handle Close's Gertrude?

          4.  Laurence Olivier rather famously played a somewhat effete Hamlet, going so far as to dye his hair.  (The Last Action Hero has some fun with Olivier's Hamlet, so this point can't be all that academic.)  Should we see Gibson's Hamlet as a kind of answer to Olivier?  Or just a return to the athletic sort insisted upon in Shakespeare's script?  Both?  It seems an important point: much of the power of Hamlet comes from the image of a man of action for some reason unable to take action. 

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