as every actor is supposed to want to play Hamlet, it would
seem that every author wants to write about him. He has received
more performances in the theatre and more explication on the printed
page than any other character of Shakespeare. Theatergoers collect
Hamlets as philatelists do stamps, and in both cases, it would seem,
the rarer and stranger the specimen the more it is cherished.
Since every actor is unique, no two
performances of any role will be exactly alike, not even when an
understudy strives, or is made to strive, hard to copy his
principal, but it is particularly true that all Hamlets are
different. More than once in the history of the play, four separate
productions have been offered to the public in one city in one year.
Hamlet is such an all encompassing human phenomenon that it will
absorb and be illuminated by actors of quite contrary qualities. It
is a particularly naked part, and no actor will succeed in it who
tries to hide himself, and no actor will completely fail who is
content to let Hamlet take hold of him rather than he of Hamlet.
Just as every actor’s Hamlet is
himself, so is every writer’s. He sees in the character what his
personality, predilections prejudices, beliefs lead him to see. And
so do I. In what follows I am prompted by two considerations: to
contradict Goethe’s conception of Hamlet and the many subsequent
versions of it, and to provide for an actor a blueprint of the
character as I see it, always remembering that a blueprint is not
To begin with, a brief quotation from Carlyle’s translation of
William Meister’s Apprenticeship, which gives the essence of
Goethe’s conception of Hamlet: "A lovely, pure, noble, and most
moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero,
sinks beneath a burden it cannot bear and must not cast away. All
duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities
have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but
such for him." "Without the strength of nerve which forms a hero."
If that is true, Hamlet, and with him the play, lacks true tragic
stature. Coleridge’s Hamlet, while more impressive as a tragic
figure than Goethe’s, is from a similar mold: "He is a man living in
meditation, called upon to act by every motive human and divine, but
the great object of his life is defeated by continually resolving to
do, yet doing nothing but resolve." These conceptions of an
ineffectual saint are much better descriptions of Shakespeare’s
Henry VI than his Hamlet. In arriving at the "lovely, pure, noble,
and most moral nature" concept, one feels that Goethe must have
completely missed Hamlet’s gross obscenities, and Coleridge’s "doing
nothing but resolve" seems to ignore the fact that Hamlet has an
extraordinary record of slaughter; in the course of the play he
willfully causes the death of five people, one on impulse, two in
anger, and two by diabolical cleverness; this spineless wretch is
the first to jump aboard in an attack on a pirate ship. It is, of
course, true that the whole action of the play derives from Hamlet’s
hesitation in killing Claudius, but I think the hesitation to be
that of a strong man, not a weak one.
Before we proceed to trace Hamlet’s
character as he is revealed in the play, we must consider his age.
Shakespeare’s use of time is poetic and dramatic rather than
chronometric. To quote what I have said elsewhere:
How old is Hamlet? There is only one clear indication, and that is
in the graveyard scene, after his return from England, when we learn
by implication that he is thirty years old. But he is a student in
the university at the beginning of the play, and in Elizabethan days
students usually left the university at the age at which they now
enter; we are to think of him as a very young man. The action of the
play occupies but a few months and yet in that time Hamlet has aged
ten years. This, I think, is precisely what Shakespeare intends; the
Hamlet who returns from England is a much more mature man than the
one who left Denmark.
Just before the play begins, Hamlet had been a student at
Wittenberg, separated from Elsinore and the Court by a journey of
some weeks, and so any news he receives from home is already old. He
hears that his father has died suddenly of a snakebite; furthermore,
his uncle is now king, and, most incredible of all, has married the
The fact that Claudius has become king is not really surprising.
Only late in the play does Hamlet complain that his uncle had
"popped in between the election and my hopes." The country had been
in a nervous state expecting an invasion by young Fortinbras, at the
head of a lawless band of adventurers, in revenge for his father’s
death at the hands of King Hamlet. A strong new king was immediately
needed; the election of Claudius, particularly in the absence of
Hamlet, was inevitable. What is more, it was immediately justified,
because Claudius manages to dispel the threat of invasion by
appealing to the King of Norway to curb his nephew, Fortinbras; the
ambitious young soldier was the more ready to cancel the projected
invasion because the object of his revenge, Hamlet’s father, was now
dead, and in return he received free passage through Denmark to
fight against Poland.
There are grounds for believing that Hamlet was antipathetic to his
uncle prior to the marriage, for he saw in him the opposite of those
qualities for which he admired his father. Hamlet sums up the
difference in "Hyperion to a satyr." The contrast is clear in their
attitude to drinking in the Court; King Hamlet had forbidden it
while King Claudius encouraged it. Hamlet approved and, to some
extent inherited, his father’s values. The fact that Gertrude could
marry, and so soon, a man so opposite to her son’s father was a
natural shock to Hamlet. The truth probably was that Gertrude found
the sensuality of Claudius more congenial than the austerity of his
The first action of Hamlet in the play is one of overt defiance. The
period of royal mourning has been declared over, much sooner than
the normal custom, but at a ceremonial meeting of the Court, with
everybody in colorful costume and regalia, the Prince deliberately
appears in solemn black. Hamlet’s first words, an aside, reveal his
mordant wit; he says that Claudius is "A little more than kin and
less than kind." The word "kind," of course, is used as in the
phrase "not my kind." From Hamlet’s point of view, he would have
been less than kind in any case, but the marriage has made his
detested uncle his stepfather too. The new King behaves to the
Prince impeccably; publicly he proclaims him his heir and begs him
not to return to Wittenberg. The Queen adds her entreaties and
Hamlet makes it clear, in acquiescing, that it is her plea he is
responding to. The King deliberately ignores this slight by
describing the response as "a loving and a fair reply," and a
"gentle and unforced accord." The ceremony is over and Hamlet is
No other character in Shakespeare is so much left alone on stage.
His solitary selfcommunings are so characteristic that to many
people they have become the total picture of the man, a misanthropic
world-weary melancholic, the courageous man of action completely
forgotten. Yet every soliloquy has a dramatic as well as a
To me, Hamlet’s first soliloquy is the expression of an internal
struggle to overcome a deep sense of guilt. His suit of mourning has
been a visible and public protest against the royal marriage, a
protest in which he is completely alone, and in which he has hurt
his mother and been gently rebuked by the generosity and
consideration of his uncle. At this stage, he has small logical
grounds for disapproval, for everybody else rejoices in the new king
and the new marriage. All he has to object to is that the marriage
has taken place too soon and that it is incestuous. To deal first
with the second point: To describe the marriage as incestuous was
not the product of a sick imagination, but a legal fact. It was not
until 1907 that such a marriage was allowed in England. To the
Elizabethans, as to Hamlet, the marriage was incestuous, and this
was an important issue to them, for their own Queen Elizabeth owed
her throne to the fact that Henry Viii’s marriage to Katharine of
Aragon was incestuous in exactly the same way as that of Gertrude to
Claudius, in that Katharine had been the widow of Henry’s brother,
Arthur; it was on this ground that the marriage had been annulled.
Of course, Hamlet would have objected to his mother’s marriage if it
had taken place after the official period of mourning was over and
if the detested man had not been his uncle, but it will be a long
time before he will openly acknowledge that. Now he makes much in a
crescendo of repetition of the unseemly haste of the marriage, but
nobody shares his disgust, so he must hold his tongue.
In this first soliloquy we find his tendency to unpack his heart
with words in full spate. His wrath is turned not only against the
frailty of women as shown in his mother’s marriage but against the
corruption of the society that can approve it. His wish for death
and threat of suicide are, to be, characteristically violent
expressions of his disgust, guilt, and frustration, of the kind that
violent men often express with angry shouts of "I wish I was dead!"
The "To be, or not to be" soliloquy is a very different matter.
The lonely outburst is followed by the appearance of Horatio,
Marcellus, and Bernardo, who have come to tell Hamlet about the
Ghost. Hamlet’s joyous surprise at seeing his good friend an fellow
student, Horatio, is a wonderful relief after the solitaire distress
of the soliloquy. Horatio had made the journey from Wittenberg to be
present at King Hamlet’s funeral. We can assume from this that he,
like the young Prince, admired and share the values of the dead
monarch, but he is careful not to each Hamlet’s disapproval of the
o’er hasty marriage.
Horatio is Hamlet’s Rock of Gibraltar throughout the play) He
confides in him alone, he submits his suspicions to the cot
formation of Horatio’s judgment and finally dies in his arms, or
trusting him with the justification of his acts to posterity. The
first thing we hear of Horatio is that he is a scholar, and this
intellectual bent he shares with Hamlet, but temperamentally they
are opposites. Hamlet praises Horatio for the qualities that he
himself conspicuously lacks. Horatio is not "passion’s slave;" he
has a imperturbability of mind and spirit that nothing can shake.
Hair let, when he is about to test Horatio’s friendship and judgment
Since my dear soul was
mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hath ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core—aye, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. . .
But now Horatio has brought news of the Ghost. Since this at the
heart of Hamlet’s subsequent dilemma, some preliminar consideration
must be given to it. Horatio’s reaction, when he was first told of
the Ghost, was that which most people today would have had:
Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him.
When he does see the Ghost himself, Horatio does not assume it is
the spirit of the dead king, even though it looks like him. Instead
of treating the apparition as though it were indeed the king,
Horatio challenges it to declare its nature, and later charges it to
stay and speak, if it can. He addresses it as "illusion . . ."
Ghosts, still a matter of controversy, were particularly so in
Shakespeare’s day. The growing appeal to reason made supernatural
phenomena subject to much skepticism. The official denial by the new
Church of England of the doctrine of Purgatory, which many had
assumed to be the abode of restless spirits, complicated the issue,
and made people more ready to believe that apparitions were evil in
origin. Upon mature consideration, Hamlet shares Horatio’s
The spirit that I have
May be the Devil, and the Devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape. Yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. .
Even before he has seen the
Ghost, Hamlet assumes that it is probably an emanation of Hell:
If it assume my noble father’s person, I’ll speak to it though
Hell itself should gape And bid me hold my peace. .
But Hamlet is eager for communication with the Ghost, whatever it
is. He is oppressed in spirit to an extent which the marriage seems
hardly enough to justify. Both he and Horatio feel that the
apparition bodes ill; Horatio thinks it foretells "some strange
eruption to our state," but Hamlet’s expectation is much more
specific and personal: "I doubt [i.e. suspect] some foul play."
Maybe his melancholy is justified beyond his knowledge.
It is this which makes him cry out later that his soul had been
prophetic; it had known more than his mind.
At his first sight of the Ghost, Hamlet instinctively prays to
Heaven for protection. In addressing the apparition, he immediately
states his doubts about its origin, whether it be an agency of God
or the Devil:
Be thou a spirit of health
or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape, [i.e. seeming to invite
That I will speak to thee. .
But Hamlet wants to believe it is the spirit of his dead father, for
he yearns for some knowledge which will explain and justify his
When the Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow it, Horatio’s first reaction
is to assume evil intent, and he and Marcellus strive to restrain
Hamlet forcibly, but he throws them both off; Hamlet is no physical
weakling. He even threatens to kill them. Horatio says, "He waxes
desperate with imagination;" Hamlet, unlike Horatio, was always
subject to impulsive and irrational action.
The first thing the Ghost tells Hamlet is that he has come from Hell
where he is suffering the torments of the damned,
Till the foul crimes done
in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. .
He goes on to suggest, though he is forbidden to describe, the
horrors of Hell.
But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
This emphasis of the Ghost on his torments is very important
and is the reason for Hamlet’s sparing Claudius when he finds him at
prayer. The theology of the day believed that King Hamlet was
enduring the torments of Hell because he died without having a
chance to make his peace with God. Yet he was a good man, but all
men are sinners. Claudius was a murderer, but he might in prayer be
confessing his sin and seeking the forgiveness of God. Never would
he be more ready to die, and thus Hamlet would not fulfill the
obligations of revenge, for if the good king went to Hell, so much
more must the wicked one. Even after the account of the murder, the
Ghost again emphasizes that he had no chance to secure the last
rites of the Church:
Thus was I, sleeping, by a
Of life, of crown, of Queen, at once dispatched;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
Hamlet has learned not only of
the murder of his father, but also of the previous adultery of his
mother. In describing this, the Ghost has used imagery which will
remain with Hamlet:
. . . Lust, though to a radiant angel linked, Will sate itself in a
And prey on garbage.
But the Ghost lays all the blame upon "that adulterate beast,"
Claudius, who had seduced Gertrude with his "wicked wit and gifts,"
and he commands Hamlet:
Taint not thy mind, nor let
thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to Heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. . .
Hamlet is so overwhelmed by the revelations of the Ghost that, again
"desperate with imagination," he can scarcely refrain from
collapsing physically. And then a wild ecstasy dominates him. He had
been right all along, and all the others had been wrong. "Oh,
wonderful!" Then suddenly he becomes cautious. He cannot tell what
he has heard, not even to Horatio. He has just sworn, on the
evidence of an apparition, that he will commit the ultimate crime of
killing a king. It will be sure proof to Horatio that the Ghost came
from the Devil. What was more, if Hamlet persisted in believing the
Ghost, it would be Horatio’s bounden duty to reveal the story to the
King; loyalty to the throne was a paramount duty to all good
Elizabethans. No king was more aware of his divine authority than
There’s such divinity doth
hedge a king
That treason can but peep to what it would, Acts little of his will.
And so Hamlet must hide his
purposes even from Horatio. He resorts to "wild and whirling words,"
still exalted by his new justification. In this spirit he says:
Touching this vision here, It is an honest ghost, that let me tell
you. When calmness returns, doubts about the ghost will return too.
Now Hamlet hears the Ghost again, insisting that he make his
companions swear to tell nothing of what they have seen. But only
Hamlet can hear the Ghost; and so, when he talks to an unseen
presence, the others assume that he has become unbalanced. (Gertrude
has exactly the same reaction in the Closet scene, when she can
neither see nor hear the Ghost.) Sensing their reaction to his
strangeness, Hamlet immediately turns it to good account. He has a
solitary, difficult, and dreadful task to perform; he will need a
cover perhaps to allow him greater freedom:
I perchance hereafter shall
To put an antic disposition on.
Having got them to swear to secrecy, Hamlet decides he cannot leave
them with no explanation at all. They would naturally assume that
the supernatural visitation had been an omen of some ill to come.
Indeed, both of them at separate times had so interpreted it. Hamlet
now, his ecstasy spent, confirms them in that belief:
The time is out of joint.
Oh, cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.
This, to Horatio and Marcellus, is an innocent formula; Hamlet has
been called upon to perform some great national duty. They still
stand apart from him, but he assures them that he is his normal self
and their friend again with, "Nay, come, let’s go together."
The play is nearly half over before we see Hamlet and Ophelia
together, and yet the relationship and its problems have been well
established by that time. We first hear of it when her brother and
then her father warn her against Hamlet, who, however much he
professes to love her, cannot marry her, because he is of the royal
blood and she is not. (One of the great ironies of the play is that
they were wrong in this matter, for at Ophelia’s burial, the Queen
I hoped thou should’st
have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.)
Polonius and Laertes were genuinely solicitous of Ophelia’s
wellbeing. I have pointed out elsewhere the evidence for believing
that father and son were lasciviously inclined, and judged Hamlet’s
intentions from their own in such a case. To protect her from what
he thinks will be the inevitable outcome, Polonius forbids Ophelia
to see or correspond with Hamlet, and, as a dutiful and trusting
daughter, she obeys.
We next hear of Hamlet’s forcing himself into her room and behaving
like a conventional madman. She rushes to her father in terror to
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,
No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
Ungartered and downgyved to his ankle,
Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of Hell
To speak of horrors, he comes before me.
It helps to understand this passage if we compare it with
Rosalind’s description in As You Like It of a man, mad for love:
A lean cheek.., a blue eye and sunken [i.e. eyes heavy with dark
shadows] . .. an unquestionable spirit [i.e. beyond words, and
wanting none; Hamlet’s only sound is a heavy sigh in the reported
scene with Ophelia ] . . . a beard neglected . . . Then your hose
should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned,
your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless
Small wonder that Polonius’s immediate reaction is "Mad for thy
love?" Ophelia says that, in obedience to her father, she has
refused to see Hamlet or to accept his letters.
What is Hamlet’s motive in this strange episode? Two things have
happened since we last saw him: he has begun to play the madman, and
he has suddenly found his beloved Ophelia barred from him. He must
know that Ophelia is acting in obedience to her father, whose values
he despises. In assuming the disguise of the mad lover, he is doing
two things: telling Ophelia how much he loves her and yet protecting
his new identity, for he knows that Ophelia will report the scene to
her father, who will in turn report it to the King. But alas!
Ophelia is not moved to compassion, but to terror. She has
disappointed him a second time; the first was when her love for him
was less than her respect for her father.
Polonius hurries to the King with his explanation of what Claudius
describes as "Hamlet’s transformation," but the King has made his
own arrangements to find out what is wrong. He has sent for
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s boyhood friends, to
sound him out. I feel that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two
gentlemen spies, as Marlowe was.
It is probable that Marlowe’s death before he was thirty was
connected with espionage. When he was a student at Cambridge he had
long and unexplained absences, but the university authorities were
pacified, or at least silenced, by the Queen’s Privy Council, which
declared: "he had behaved himself orderly and discreetly, whereby he
had done Her Majesty good service, and deserved to be rewarded for
his faithful dealings . . . . it was not Her Majesty’s pleasure that
anyone employed as he had been in matters touching the benefit of
his country should be defamed by those who are ignorant in the
affairs he went about." Plot and counterplot were such constant
elements in the life of Elizabeth and her country that espionage was
an inevitable part of the body politic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
were secret emissaries of their King in much the same way that
Marlowe was of his Queen, but Gertrude sees them merely as friends
of her son; the King’s relationship with them is very different when
the Queen is not present. I believe their honest motivation is
loyalty to the throne and protection of the monarch. It is
Rosencrantz who gives memorable expression to the significance of
the death of a king,
upon whose weal depends and
The lives of many. The cease of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What’s near it with it. .
Did the King sigh, but with a general groan.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are only villains from Hamlet’s point
of view. Had his father lived, they would have remained friends, for
their loyalty and service is to the throne, not to a person.
Polonius, who is far more than Hamlet’s "tedious old fool," uses
spying as a natural source of knowledge; he even employs it against
his own son and daughter, whom he loves. He has extracted from
Ophelia the details of Hamlet’s "solicitings," and proudly reads to
the King a love letter, which he treats like a captured document.
The King is not convinced that Hamlet’s madness is due to love, and
so Polonius sets up a trap by which he and the King will spy upon a
meeting between the two lovers. But first Polonius will encounter
Hamlet himself in an attempt to discover the reasons for his strange
In the scene with the wily Lord
Chamberlain Hamlet delivers some shrewd thrusts under cover of his
distraction. As Polonius says, "Though this be madness, yet there is
method in’t." Particularly does he make it clear by implication that
he understands why Polonius has forbidden Ophelia to see him, and
that he despises him for holding the values which prompted him to
it. He makes conception sound loathsome, as he pretends to endorse
Polonius’s decision to separate Ophelia from him. "For if the sun
breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god kissing carrion —Have you a
daughter? . . . Let her not walk i’ the sun. Conception is a
blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Polonius misses the
point of this, merely seizing on the mention of "daughter" as a
confirmation of his diagnosis of Hamlet’s trouble, and he leaves to
effect the meeting with Ophelia which will afford the King final
proof that frustrated love has driven the Prince mad.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now enter to fulfill their mission to
probe Hamlet, who greets them with the open delight with which he
had previously welcomed Horatio. In no time at all they are
indulging in bawdy chitchat. Then the spies begin their work. Just
as Polonius from his sensual predilections had assumed frustrated
sex to be the answer to the Hamlet problem, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern with their preoccupation with kingship and power assume
the answer to lie in frustrated ambition, for Hamlet’s expectation
of the throne had been at least and quite unexpectedly postponed.
This immediately puts Hamlet on the alert, for this must surely be
what the King suspects. (At this stage, Claudius can have no inkling
of Hamlet’s knowledge of the truth, for no one could possibly know
of his crime, least of all Hamlet, who had been hundreds of miles
away at the time.) Hamlet senses that the presence of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern at Court is not a "free invitation" and he presses
them until they are forced to confess that they were sent for. His
attitude to them changes; they are yet another example of the
perfidy of men. He tells them that he does not know the reason for
his melancholy, and goes on to describe his sadness at the gulf
between actual man and his infinite capacity. Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are quick to change the subject and tell Hamlet of the
approach of the players. With a carefully calculated double
entendre, to assure the emissaries of the King of his dutiful regard
for him, he says, "He that plays the King shall be welcome. His
Majesty shall have tribute of me."
The interpolation about the boyplayers is often dismissed as mere
topical coloring and an opportunity for Shakespeare to make a
hostile comment on behalf of his fellow players; although that
element is undoubtedly in it, Shakespeare is primarily a playwright
and uses the story for a very telling analogy. Just as the players
have been dispossessed by the children and forced to travel, and
just as their patrons have proved fickle in their loyalty, so
Claudius has dispossessed King Hamlet, and the people have proved
likewise fickle. ". . . my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that
would make mows at him while my father lived, give twenty, forty,
fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little."
Hamlet’s final comment to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before
Polonius enters to herald the players has been the subject of much
speculation: "But my unclefather and auntmother are deceived . . . I
am but mad northnorthwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk
from a handsaw." The amusing description of Claudius and Gertrude
covers the bitterness that not only has his hated uncle become his
father but his beloved mother has become merely his aunt. He seeks
to assure them that they should not be too worried about him, for he
is only a few degrees away from the true north of sanity. The last
sentence is ambiguous, depending upon whether "hawk" and "handsaw"
are considered as birds or tools. I prefer to regard them as birds,
the handsaw being a heron. Then the sentence has a very subtle
meaning, the heron being much larger than the hawk but less deadly.
The south wind was the dangerous one, bringing plague and disease. (
Caliban’s curse on Prospero was: "A southwest blow on ye,/And
blister you all o’er!") So it seems to me that Hamlet is saying, "In
times of unseen danger, I can tell a foe from a friend, even though
the foe looks the more innocent of the two." This, like many of the
cryptic utterances of his "antic disposition," deliberately veiled a
truth which he had great personal satisfaction in uttering; only he
knew that he was describing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In their
later report to the King and Queen, Guildenstern says that Hamlet
with a crafty madness,
When we would bring him to some confession
Of his true state.
With a similar "crafty madness" Hamlet compares Polonius with the
Biblical Jephthah, but all Polonius got from it was another
reference to "daughter," completely missing the implication that
Jephthah had unwittingly sacrificed his daughter for a political
purpose, and she had died an unwilling virgin because she was an
Hamlet is a friend of the actors and a very knowledgeable critic of
acting. He immediately calls upon the leading player for a sample of
his wares, choosing a description of the death of old Priam by the
sword of young Pyrrhus, a passage Hamlet himself knows by heart.
There is one part of the extract which has particular significance
for Hamlet. Pyrrhus, wounded in the collapse of the building, is
temporarily halted in his vengeful slaying, but only to resume his
dread work with more fury:
So as a painted tyrant,
And like a neutral to his will and matter
But, as we often see, against some storm
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful Thunder
Doth rend the region; so after Pyrrhus’ pause
Aroused vengeance sets him new awork;
And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall
On Mars’s armour, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
That pause of Pyrrhus will torment Hamlet as soon as he is alone. He
is pausing too; but why? Can it possibly be cowardice, the basest of
failings? He vents his fury in words against himself, and then
against Claudius. He gives way to an uncontrolled verbal paroxysm,
and then pulls himself up sharply, despising himself for such
Why, what an ass am I!
This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by Heaven and Hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall acursing, like a very drab,
Fie upon’t! Foh! About, my brain! .
And never again does Hamlet
unpack his heart with words. When he hears Laertes doing so over
Ophelia’s grave, he mocks him with imitation, saying,
...Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.
Hamlet knows very well why he does not sweep to his revenge. He must
first be assured that the Ghost is honest, for no one is more aware
than he of the enormity of what he is called upon to do, and the
coming of the players has inspired him with a plan to test
Claudius’s guilt. Before he indulged in his passionate soliloquy, he
had already arranged with the players to play The Murder of Gonzago
before the King, with "a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which
I would set down and insert such lines, of course, being to make
certain that Claudius could not miss the parallel with his own
The famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy has, I think, been largely
misinterpreted in its dramatic significance. Hamlet is really not
contemplating suicide in it at all. It is concerned with
"enterprises of great pitch and moment" which assuredly means the
revenge killing of the King, and not Hamlet’s suicide. Again, he is
considering the reasons for his delay, but now he does not accuse
himself of cowardice. He says that just as one rightly hesitates at
suicide because of "the dread of something after death," no matter
how unbearable life is, so does he hesitate at his task of revenge,
and with equally good reason.
The physical act of killing the King would be as easy to Hamlet as
that of committing suicide, but in both cases the unknown
consequences to the soul give him pause. In this he is very
different from Macbeth, who, believing as does Hamlet in an
afterlife, would, in pursuit of his purpose in this world, "jump the
life to come." In puzzling out the reasons for his instinctive
hesitance to kill the King, he finds a parallel in the natural human
reluctance to commit suicide, even when death seems preferable to
life; it is a commendable reluctance because God has set "his canon
‘gainst self slaughter." Similarly, Hamlet would jeopardize his soul
if he committed the murder of "God’s anointed" unless he was quite
certain that in doing so he was an instrument of God’s justice.
A crucial point in the confrontation with Ophelia is whether Hamlet
is aware of the "lawful espials," Claudius and Polonius. In most
productions he is made so aware, but Shakespeare never leaves us in
doubt about such matters, and so I prefer to assume that he does not
know they are there. If he did, his natural impetuosity,
particularly in the fury with which he ends the scene, would have
led him to disclose the hidden men. Furthermore, I feel certain that
he cannot even suspect the presence of the King, or he would never
so prematurely reveal his intention with "Those that are married
already, all but one, shall live."
This is the first time Hamlet has seen Ophelia since his intrusion
upon her in his assumed madness. At the first sight of her, reading
a devotional book, his old love wells up in him. Her greeting of him
has an almost studied formality:
Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
He answers with an equal
formality: "I humbly thank you, well, well, well." The repetition of
"well" is a cover for suspicious consideration. The whole occasion
is suddenly suspect. If she has been kept from him, why is she now
seeing him? She then offers to return his gifts to her, which
implies that she expected to see him. Is the same scheming hand
behind this as first separated them? Is his adored Ophelia allowing
herself to be a cat’spaw to entrap the man she pretended to love?
And under the cover of praying too? Small wonder that his tone
changes to "Ha, ha! Are you honest?" His disgust that his "most dear
lady" should be a perfidious wretch makes him lash out in a
crescendo of vicious, hurtful words. If she is false, there is no
virtue in man. "We are arrant knaves all." Repeatedly he tells her
to go to a nunnery, a gibe which has lost its force today. Its
surface meaning is that such a pious prayer-book-carrying maid
should escape from the wicked world and preserve her chastity in a
convent, but to the Elizabethans the word "nunnery" also meant a
brothel, a meaning it had acquired from the ant monastic zeal of the
Reformation. Convinced that Polonius is responsible for Ophelia’s
charade, Hamlet suddenly says, "Where’s your father?" It is probable
that the master of spying is lurking somewhere within earshot.
Frightened and tormented Ophelia, who could not have anticipated
this question, blurts out, "At home, my lord," but she is not a good
liar, and her tone confirms Hamlet’s angry suspicions and also his
fury that she should lie to him. His words make clear that he does
not believe her: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play
the fool nowhere but in’s own house." His final denunciation, in
which "thou" changes to "you,~~ is of all female hypocrisy, of which
Ophelia has just given him the supreme example:
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you
one face and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and
you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness
your ignorance [i.e. cover your loose and lewd behavior with a mask
of innocence]. Go to; I’ll no more on ‘t. It hath made me mad.
Poor Ophelia, in her distraction, her first step to insanity,
laments the loss of the perfect being she once knew and loved, a
Hamlet who occasionally peeps out from the tormented being we see in
Oh, what a noble mind is
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
She is convinced that Hamlet is indeed mad. The King is now certain
that Polonius is wrong; there is something more than frustrated love
disturbing Hamlet. He had overheard the threat, "all but one shall
live." The very percipient Claudius says:
Love! His affections [i.e. his emotional state] do
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger. . .
The King decides to remove the potential danger by sending Hamlet to
England to collect "neglected tribute." (This reference to Danegeld,
extorted from the English by the invading Danes, would put the
action in the tenth century. It might be interesting to see a
production set in that period, but nobody would be more surprised by
it than Shakespeare himself; to him Hamlet was very much his
contemporary.) Polonius still sticks to his "neglected love" theory,
and persuades the King to postpone his decision until Hamlet has
been subjected to one more trap, a meeting with his mother with
Polonius as eavesdropper.
The presentation of The Murder of Gonza go, which Hamlet renames The
Mousetrap to suit his private purpose, is a turningpoint in the
action, for it resolves Hamlet’s doubts and establishes the
authenticity of the Ghost. In preparation for it, we have Hamlet’s
brilliant discourse on the art of acting. In it Shakespeare has an
opportunity to contrast the more natural playing of his own company
with the broader style of Edward Alleyn and the Admiral’s Men, but
it has an immediate dramatic purpose too: Hamlet is particularly
concerned that the interpolated speech, which he has written, shall
be a convincing reconstruction of Claudius’s crime; it must shock
him into a revelation of his guilt, and, to do this, the acting must
have immediacy and verisimilitude.
Hamlet, conscious that his judgment may be warped by passion, tells
his plan to the dispassionate Horatio—we hear that he has already
told him the Ghost’s story—and secures him as an additional witness.
As he comes to see the play, the King greets Hamlet with "How fares
our cousin Hamlet?" In reply he receives another cryptic riddle,
but, although the King pretends not to understand it, he must be
aware of its implication. In order to avoid any suspicion of the
truth, Hamlet shrewdly hints that his trouble is what the King’s
spies had thought it to be: frustrated ambition. He does not want to
dull the surprise of the play, and says, "I eat the air, promise
The Queen invites Hamlet to sit by her, but this would not have
given him a position of vantage from which to rivet his eyes to the
King’s face. Instead he chooses to sit at Ophelia’s feet, which
Polonius seizes on as further proof that his love theory is right.
The conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia is private, and at some
distance from the King and Queen. In a cruelly bantering mood, a fit
sequel to his last conversation with her, Hamlet degrades Ophelia
with obscene innuendo.
The play is given twice, first in pantomime and then with dialogue.
This, too, has a dramatic purpose. In Claudius, Hamlet has a worthy
opponent. He is clever, subtle, and courageous. The dumbshow leaves
him quite unmoved. He is so certain that no one can possibly know
his secret that it is going to take much to make him see the play as
more than a coincidence; and, even when he begins to suspect the
purpose of the performance, he will strive hard not to betray his
guilt. There is no evidence in the text that even Gertrude knew of
the murder, and I believe her to be innocent of the knowledge.
Hamlet, in his nervous anxiety, cannot leave well enough alone; he
goes to the royal couple to make certain that they have not missed
the point. Among the interpolated words in the play was undoubtedly
the couplet, spoken by the Player Queen:
In second husband let me be
None wed the second but who killed the first.
Hamlet’s private comment on this had been, "Wormwood, wormwood!" As
soon as he speaks to the Queen, the King challenges him with "Have
you heard the argument? Is there no offense in’t?" Claudius begins
to suspect that, in some incredible way, Hamlet knows the truth. As
the tension mounts, Hamlet cannot keep still; he returns to Ophelia
for another obscenity, cries out against the overacting of the
villain in the play, for Claudius must see himself in that villain,
and rushes back to hammer guilt into the King’s ear. The King rises
in fright and hurries from the room calling for lights; anything can
happen in the dimly lit spectators’ part of the chamber. Hamlet has
succeeded in his purpose, but in his impetuosity he has also
revealed his knowledge to the King, and has thus put him on his
guard; in uncovering the King’s secret, Hamlet has also uncovered
Hamlet’s immediate reaction is one of wild ecstasy, as it had been
when he first learned from the Ghost that his melancholy was
justified. He gets the confirmation he needs from Horatio, and then
turns to deal in his madly happy mood with Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern, who have come to rebuke him for angering the King, and
to say that his mother wants to see him. The tone of the two spies
is now openly hostile, but they restrain themselves once more in an
attempt to probe Hamlet, and again he tells them that his strange
behavior is due to the fact that he lacks advancement. Rosencrantz
counters with "How can that be when you have the voice of the King
himself for your succession in Denmark?" Hamlet’s reply is that his
ambition is impatient; he halfquotes the proverb, "While the grass
grows, the horse starves. He then chastises his erstwhile friends
for their lying and hypocrisy, aimed at plucking out the heart of
his mystery. That phrase has been often quoted as though it referred
to the universal mystery of human life, but in context it is merely
the description of the object of two spies, commissioned to discover
the reason for his strange conduct.
In preparing for his meeting with his mother, Hamlet cautions
himself, knowing that his all too ready passion may get out of
control when he thinks of her guilt. Apart from his natural feeling
for her, the Ghost had warned him to take no revenge against his
mother. It is going to be difficult, for he is in a dangerous mood:
... Now could I drink hot
And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on. . .
The Mousetrap has indeed caught Claudius and provoked two reactions
in him: a confirmation of his plan to send Hamlet to England, and a
deep religious sense of guilt. He strives to pray for forgiveness,
but that cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen.
Hamlet comes upon the King at prayer, and his failure to take the
easy opportunity to kill him is often adduced as the ultimate proof
of his essential weakness, which is the result of the conflict
between his conscience and his duty. But I have already pointed out
that to kill the King at prayer would have been evading the
obligations of the primitive revenge code. It took strength, not
weakness, to stay Hamlet’s hand. Critics have accused Hamlet of
being barbaric in his reasoning, but it is the code, not Hamlet,
which is barbaric; as well accuse every American who fights in
Vietnam of being warlike. It should also be remembered that Hamlet’s
restraint at this point leads to a much finer discharge of his duty
to his dead father; in the end, the guilt of Claudius will be patent
and public, and his death no secret act of private vengeance.
As he approaches his mother’s room, Hamlet calls out to her. This is
an indication that, in spite of his warning to himself, he is
emotionally highly charged, which becomes evident in the initial
stichomythic dialogue. In preventing his angry mother from leaving
the room and forcing her to sit down, his keyed up state makes him
use unnecessary violence; Gertrude is frightened and cries out; the
hidden Polonius adds his own cries and Hamlet, beside himself,
thrusts through the arras, and kills the unseen eavesdropper. Hamlet
cries out, "Is it the King?" A moment’s reflection would tell him
that it couldn’t be, because he has just seen the King at prayer,
but Hamlet’s most notable weakness is that his brilliant brain is
often overwhelmed by his fiery impetuosity; he lacks Horatio’s calm.
Still in his almost hysterical state,
he blurts out his suspicion of his mother:
A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
There is no justification whatsoever for the first part of Hamlet’s
suspicion, and Gertrude is understandably appalled and mystified by
it; it is but another proof of Hamlet’s madness. Nowhere does the
Ghost suggest that the Queen was a party to his murder. All he
accuses her of is adultery, and even this he blames upon the
seductive powers of Claudius. The Ghost still loves his Queen, and
is solicitous of her. Nor does Hamlet, in striving to make her
acknowledge her guilt in the marriage, again suggest her guilt in
the murder; it was a black suspicion which spewed out of his
irrational depths. But as he contrasts the two kings, Gertrude’s
guilt in the marriage is tapped, and she cries out:
O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black
and grained spots
As will not leave their tinet.
Oh, speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.
At this moment, Hamlet is all too sane for Gertrude’s comfort,
but then the Ghost appears and does not reveal his presence to her,
and, as Hamlet speaks to it, seeming to address the empty air, she
is brought back to the purpose of the meeting, which was to probe
Hamlet’s madness. His conduct now leaves no doubt that he is mad.
The Ghost says,
Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
I believe this to be a comment on the
specific scene, rather than a general injunction to Hamlet; he had
been told to leave his mother to Heaven, and here he is torturing
her. All his efforts of revenge should be centered on Claudius. It
is Hamlet who assumes that the Ghost has come to chide him because
Claudius still lives. The Ghost bids Hamlet to calm his mother. The
bad, pirated First Quarto of the play has an occasional revealing
gleam, and in this scene there is such a one, probably the record of
an observed performance. It contains the stage direction: "Enter the
Ghost in his night gown." This domestic touch again suggests that
the Ghost is more concerned with the Queen in this scene than with
Hamlet. The last look the Ghost gives is one of compassion, not
anger or stern command; compassion for his sinful wife and tormented
son. Hamlet’s comment is:
Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects; then what I have to do
Will want true colour, tears perchance for blood.
After the Ghost has vanished, and taking advantage of Hamlet’s
kinder attitude to her, Gertrude tries to show him that his speaking
to nothing is proof of madness. Here is a new danger for Hamlet; his
reproof of his mother will be dismissed as coming from a madman; he
has put the antic disposition on too well:
Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass but my madness speaks.
He again returns to his accusations, now turned to pleas that she
will no longer share the bed of Claudius. When she says, "O Hamlet,
thou hast cleft my heart in twain," it is not clear whether it
expresses distress about Hamlet’s condition or guilt for her
marriage; perhaps both.
It is probable that the scene was originally meant to end with the
I must be cruel only to be
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
But the reason for the
afterthought, both in Shakespeare and Hamlet, seems clear. The sweep
of the play depends upon the HamletClaudius action; from this point
of view the Gertrude scene has been a digression, and the main drive
of the play must be resumed before the scene ends. But for Hamlet
too there is a similar purpose. What will Gertrude tell Claudius?
Above all, the King must not be warned that the madness is a cloak
for some nefarious purpose. He warns the Queen in a most roundabout
way, even hinting in a story about an ape who breaks his neck in
trying to fly, that she might do herself harm unwittingly. She gets
the point and says:
Be thou assured if words be
made of breath
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.
And she keeps her word, for all
she reports to the King is the death of Polonius, which she ascribes
to Hamlet’s madness, and adds the plea that "He weeps for what is
done." She even keeps quiet about Hamlet’s disclosure that he has a
plan to get rid of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The death of Polonius is Claudius’s final argument for the dispatch
of Hamlet to England, an argument cogent even for his mother:
His liberty is full of threats to all,
To you yourself, to us, to everyone.
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?
It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt
This mad young man. But so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit.
The "so much was our love" is, of course, a sop to Gertrude.
Claudius speaks very differently when she is not there: "How
dangerous is it that this man goes loose!" We then hear of Hamlet’s
popularity, an echo of Ophelia’s account of him:
Yet must not we put the strong law on him. He’s loved of the
distracted multitude, ‘Who like not in their judgment, but their
But Claudius maintains the pretense of solicitude in telling
Hamlet why he must leave the country:
Hamlet, this deed, for
thine especial safety,
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done, must send thee hence
With fiery quickness.
Hamlet, whose attitude in this confrontation has been mordantly
witty and insolent, replies to the King’s protestation of good
intentions with the cryptic, "I see a cherub that sees them."
The First Folio and far too many productions omit the wonderful
soliloquy beginning: "How all occasions do inform against me." Any
pruning of the text to bring a production within normal playing time
does a disservice to Shakespeare; thus it has been normal in the
past completely to omit the character of Fortinbras, so losing a
vivid dramatic contrast to Hamlet. Fortinbras too had felt he had
been saddled with the obligation of revenge, and to fulfill it he
had been ready to lay waste a whole country; his enemy had been King
Hamlet, who had slain his father in a fair fight. Now Fortinbras is
passing through Denmark, by agreement, to fight against Poland. He
is a man who will always find a reason for war. There had been no
grounds of even wild justice in his original intention to invade
Denmark. But Hamlet’s obligation is as much to punish evil as to
revenge a murder. In contrasting himself with Fortinbras, Hamlet
again ponders whether cowardice is what really is holding him back,
though he knows that there is the wisdom of scrupulous justice in
the delay. Only the brave man can contemplate the possibility of
cowardice in himself; the coward must justify his conduct by
magnifying any scrap of bravery he can find in himself. Hamlet knows
that impetuous violence is easy for him, but it is not enough. It is
not enough that justice should be done, but that it should be seen
to be done, as it finally will be. His reason and his blood must
work in harmony, but the sight of the single-minded Fortinbras makes
him long for such simplicity:
How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!
Not once in this scene does Hamlet lament the fact that he is being
taken away from the object of his revenge. Had he really had any
cowardly reluctance to kill Claudius, he would have welcomed this
intervention of Fate. But he knows that somehow or other he will get
back to Denmark and his task. The unforeseen adventure of the pirate
ship affords him the opportunity.
In his letter to the King, telling him of his imminent return to
Denmark, Hamlet is at pains to raise no suspicion. He was given a
royal commission and has failed to carry it out. "Tomorrow shall I
beg leave to see your kingly eyes, when I shall, first asking your
pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange
return." On receipt of the letter, the King and Laertes concoct
their dastardly plans for the certain death of Hamlet. Claudius has
already said that it is his consuming love for Gertrude that makes
it impossible for him to move openly against Hamlet, for she "lives
almost by his looks," but their plans are such that
for his death no wind of
blame shall breathe,
But even his mother shall uncharge the practice
And call it accident.
We next see Hamlet with Horatio in the churchyard, and there is a
new maturity in him, as he makes his observations on the great
mocker, Death. Jacques would find him as good company as he did
Touchstone, as he moralizes on how Death makes naught of the skills
and aspirations of the politician, the courtier, the lawyer, the
jester, and the emperor.
The freshly acquired maturity in Hamlet is seen in his en counter
with Laertes at the grave of Ophelia. In his new contempt for
unpacking the heart with words he outrants Laertes. When Laertes
attacks him, he says something which is only now true of him: "I am
not splenitive and rash." When he does his mockranting, his mother
pleads for him on the old grounds:
This is mere madness,
And thus awhile the fit will work on him.
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.
As if to prove her point, Hamlet says
gently to Laertes:
Hear you, sir.
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever
In his later talks with Horatio, in which he tells him of how he had
substituted for the King’s orders, aimed at securing his own death,
orders to secure the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet
has a sense that God is using his impetuosity for His own purposes;
this alone would account for the strangeness of his return to
And praised be rashness for it; let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Roughhew them how we will.
After his mocking exchange with the "waterfly," Osric, who has come
to invite him to a rapier match with Laertcs, his serious mood
returns again, but this time he has a sense of his own approaching
death. His meditations on death in the churchyard and his new
awareness of an overruling destiny are joined in the ultimate
reflection: "There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
flow; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all."
There is no sense, as the climax approaches, that Hamlet is about to
achieve his purpose. It is as though Shakespeare wanted to lull the
audience into a temporary forgetfulness so that the inevitable may
yet come as a surprise. All our thoughts are on Hamlet’s Fate, for
we know he cannot escape the poisons of Laertes and Claudius. It is
this which lends a moving irony to Hamlet’s plea for forgiveness to
Laertes. Previously he had pointed out to Horatio the similarity of
But I am very sorry, good
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his. .
It seems as if destiny does indeed determine the end. To begin with,
Hamlet surprises everybody by surpassing in swordsmanship the much
vaunted Laertes, who is forced to wound Hamlet with the poisoned
point during a moment of rest. This knavery releases the old fury in
Hamlet which sweeps everything before him. Then it is the Queen who
drinks from the poisoned cup. Finally, in total justification of
Hamlet’s delay, the guilt of the King is publicly proclaimed by the
Queen and Laertes, who says:
The King, the King’s to
He is justly served.
It is a poison tempered by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.
As death approaches Hamlet it is "felicity" and he leaves a "harsh
world." Horatio is left to report his cause aright and to declare
his voice for Fortinbras in the election to the vacant throne of
Denmark, but in his first report this upright, loyal friend says of
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whose deaths are reported from England,
"He never gave commandment for their death." In such a man as
Horatio, who knows that they had died as a result of Hamlet’s
counter scheme, this can only mean that he honestly feels that
Hamlet is not morally responsible for their deaths. He remembers
Hamlet’s own words:
Why, man, they did make
love to this employment.
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
Fortinbras, whose home is the
battlefield and whose values are a soldier’s, gives his highest
praise to Hamlet:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally . . . .
Through the ages Hamlet has been and will continue to be the
"observed of all observers." Briefly—and yet at more than twice the
length I have given to most of the other characters— this one
observer has outlined a blueprint for his conception of Hamlet.
Others have seen and will see him differently, and all will see
their own truth in this quintessential man, the most fascinating of
all Shakespeare’s characters.