"Let us haste to hear it
And call the noblest to the audience."
Despite all that has been written about Hamlet and Hamlet, what happens is remarkably clear: a heartbroken youth is commanded by that which he believes to be the ghost of his dead father to revenge the paternal murder and in so doing, confronts maternal infidelity. Not much else happens except for the Polonius-Ophelia complications. Hamlet then is a tragedy of youth and unfulfilled potential. Younger than Macbeth, Othello and Lear, the Prince's life is in the future, especially since to him the time is "out of joint" in the present. But the macrocosm to him is very old and very much a mystery and quite corrupt; therein lies the irony I will discuss. In the Renaissance, the mystery surely must have been much more acute. Only in our own century has science and technology attempted to "catch the conscience" of the universe by predicting what will happen next. When Shakespeare lived, Galileo, Sacred Scripture, and fate and fortune were contending for metaphysical and scientific primacy. Hamlet must be considered in light of the ghost question. If the ghost is Astral, into what kind of macrocosm in Hamlet born? Henry James wrote:
Life is, in fact, a battle...Evil is insolent and
strong; beauty enchanting but rare, goodness very
apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant;
wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in
great places, people of sense is small, and man-
kind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands
is not illusion...no evil dream of a night; we wake
up to it again and again for ever and ever; we can 1
neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. (1)
Hamlet might well agree, adding though, that evil dreams pervade the day as well. Horror is the reality of a murdered father and unfaithful mother, events interpreted for him by a malevolent spirit. Although Hamlet may wish to escape his destiny, his time is "out of joint" and he cannot. The irony to which this study has referred is occasioned by a malevolent ghost, and its explication defines the play's meaning.
To proceed will require a modification of Bradley' s structure as explained in Chapter I. Dramatically, Hamlet's resolve (A) to avenge his father's death mandates the Prince's ascending to Act III; therefore Claudius (B) appears to ascend until the play's final moments of bloody terror. Yet this structure ignores Shakespeare's use of irony, which when considered requires a modified structure; with Hamlet (B) in descent until III, and conversely Claudius in ascent (A) until III. Now Hamlet, influenced by a malevolent ghost, descends to Act III (B), and thereafter ascends contrary to the ghost's intent. Further, the climax shifts from III,ii (the mousetrap) to III,iv (the bedroom scene), and Claudius rises to III,iii (at prayer), whereafter he descends. III, iv is an A/B scene, and the play's ironic turning point, Both these structures exist simultane- ously, and the tension between them helps to generate and maintain the irony.
Shakespeare teases with hints of the irony to come. Horatio's,
If there be any good thine to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me
Speak to me...
is ironic not because he articulates the conventions of Elizabethan demonology, but since no good thing is to be done either for the ghost or at its bidding. Marcellus' admonition can hardly be the reason the ghost vanishes. It cares nothing for him or Horatio; it wants Hamlet's soul. Likewise Hamlet's caustic replies to Gertrude and Claudius (I,ii) will only appear to be nullified by the ghost.
Prior to the ghost meeting Hamlet, Shakespeare intensifies the irony by employing a time motif in the first soliloquy:
But two months dead-nay, not so much, not two--
...and yet within a month,.
A little month...
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer...
Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married-0 most wicked speed! To post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
Later in the play, the interlace appears when Hamlet, prior to the "mousetrap," tells Ophelia:
Hamlet: For look you how cheerfully my
Mother looks and my father died within two hours
Ophelia: Nay, 'tis twice two months, my lord.
Hamlet: So long?...
Time for Hamlet means Gertrude's (and Ophelia's) morals, and the more he remembers, the more intense his loathing becomes. He envisions a dialectic between time and evil forebodings, and the ghost is only to happy to provide a synthesis, a task made so difficult by Hamlet's formidable intellect, and here the irony intensifies. By appealing to Hamlet's sense of purpose, the ghost knows exactly how to ensnare. Angst becomes purpose: revenge, but deliberately misdirected, Hamlet may curse his time being "out of joint," but at least he thinks he knows what must be done.
I have presented a case for private revenge rather than public. If accepted, then so executing it negates God's mandate. Worse still, Hamlet is ordered by the ghost to prioritize: revenge supersedes Gertrude's salvation. If Shakespeare had been any less, Hamlet might well have fulfilled the command, killing Claudius. Yet, we must realize that Hamlet's dramatic ascent (A) is mitigated by an acquired love melancholy. His pornographic imagery and treatment of Ophelia mirrors his revulsion for Gertrude's act; not the person. Priam's story allegorizes the grief as the good and bad angels dramatize consciousness in Doctor Faustus. Both King Hamlet's death (Priam) and Gertrude's conduct (Hecuba), apparently visited on Hamlet by capricious fortune, are considered in the soliloquy immediately following the performance, Yet, we know that in addition to fortune, God allowed spirits to influence human activity quite frequently, Hamlet believes the 'mousetrap' will settle matters, but when the irony of ghostly malevolence is considered, the simile,
This is most brave,
That I, the son of dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing...
implies Gertrude's condition. In Renaissance 'psychology' Hamlet s memory, so pregnant with love / hate for Gertrude and Ophelia, has corrupted fancy, affecting understanding, reason, and ultimately will. Thus the synthesis Hamlet thinks will work is off the mark, as the ghost intended. Ironically, the Prince identifies the source of his agony, but no result is forthcoming since he equivocates:
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell...
The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.
(IIl,ii,580 / 594-599)
Whether the ghost is Purgatorial or malevolent makes a substantative difference. If the ghost is benevolent, then Hamlet is merely being precautionary and skeptical. The ghost in his mind therefore becomes no different from a human whom he mistrusts. However, if the ghost be a malevolent Astral spirit, irony invades the lines. Tragically, Hamlet has identified the source of his woe, an evil visitor from beyond mortality, but fails to recognize fully what we (and Horatio) know, The difference is appalling but fully consistent with James' and Lavater's views on what ghosts are permitted to do. By substituting; "vicious mole" for weakness and prefixing love to melancholy, we find the Machiavellian spirit striking Hamlet at his most vulnerable moment. In other words, a benevolent spirit nullifies the irony and makes Hamlet's situation dramatically absurd by reducing macrocosmic horror to simply another obstacle Hamlet must overcome.
In Act III, A and B dramatically and ironically reverse. When the diagram is restructured to allow for irony, Hamlet's zenith, the "mousetrap," becomes his nadir, for the ghost has won a substantial victory. The instances of irony pervade. In the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet questions the necessity of living in a macrocosm that offers him the current alternatives of violence or ministering to Gertrude. The soliloquy's pathos heightens if the ghost is evil, A good spirit would command public revenge and ministering to Gertrude. Were this the case, then Shakespeare would not have written, "To be or not to be. The familiar dialectic exists because the ghost wants it to, and the irony is that Hamlet misidentifies the source, calling it,
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune... (III,i,58). Commentators who deny the role of the supernatural as a potential thematic and compositional protocol likewise miss the irony.
Without the ghost, then his fortune would be just that, a bit of bad luck no different from the rebels whom Henry V exposes before he sails for France, but in Hamlet the macrocosm is not that benign. Just as Cassio is no match for Iago, so Hamlet cannot fathom the challenge he faces. Hamlet's horror dissipates if the ghost is good.
Had the Prince committed suicide, the ghost could have claimed a 'moral' victory which it wants, revenge notwithstanding for the result would be the same: a lost soul. The soliloquy is ironically a dramatization of Horatio's warning in I,iv, and perhaps enough of it remains to prevent suicide. Hamlet apparently in descent (I-III) has been led to the metaphorical "cliff" of suicide and madness (love melancholy), but ironically the soliloquy marks the germ of the ascent or reversal which grows from the depth of despair.
What "puzzles the will" now acquires an epistemological dimension involving a progression:
To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream-there's the rub;...
In the canon, sleep implies restful innocence . Macbeth murders it, since only the innocent sleep. In dialectical fashion, Hamlet tests, and death, which he does not want, is replaced by sleep, The implied synthesis is dreaming: the sleep of death' allows at least a chance to dream, and applying Shakespeare's view of the creative process from A Midsummer's Night Dream, dreaming is a metaphor for Hamlet's imagination creating a reality free from "...the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to..." The soliloquy may thus offer a life-affirming ascent the puzzled will cannot yet actualize. I said may because Hamlet has bad dreams, and again the malevolence question counts for much. If the ghost is not evil, then it is easier to believe that Hamlet's dreams sustain, but if evil perhaps they are tainted. Given Ophelia's assessment, Horatio's warning, and especially his desire to save Gertrude, however, enough of his essentially optimistic spirit remains that the irony is now visited on the ghost, Hamlet still dreams of helping Gertrude, his enterprise "...of great pitch and moment..."
It is no accident that fresh from these thoughts, Hamlet bitterly denounces Ophelia's virtue. The dream vanishes when confronted with a reality he believes corrupt. Dramatically the scene demands a malevolent spirit. Her references to a "...noble mind...o'erthrown..." and especially "That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth / Blasted with ecstasy" imply a past when Hamlet's imagination bodied forth the pleasing forms of courtier, soldier, and scholar.
The irony anticipates Lear who cannot learn to love until, taunted by the Fool, he is driven mad. In Hamlet the Fool is replaced by a malevolent Astral spirit, using the Fool's technique but to damn rather than redeem, and the irony is its achievement of the opposite.
Although Hamlet wishes to dispense with the Claudius / revenge business hastily, he cannot. The "mousetrap" must be activated. If Claudius behaves as hoped, then the ghost is good; if not,
...it is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy.
Immediately after the King enters, Hamlet engages Ophelia in bawdy conversation, in itself rather telling considering what his priorities are supposed to be. When the King does leave in choler, drama and irony merge. Hamlet joyfully tells Horatio:
O good Horatio, I'11 take the ghost's words for a
thousand pound. Didst perceive?
Dramatically Hamlet appears at his zenith (A), and Claudius at his nadir (B). The ghost seems vindicated, and the self-confessed murderer must die, Viewed ironically the circumstances are different, but for the moment the ghost has scored an impressive victory, The imaginative resolve of Hamlet's last soliloquy is redirected. The ghost has him, and revenge must follow. Likewise Claudius appears crushed, but as the next scene unfolds he never comes closer to salvation.
An ironic interpretation of III,ii is mandated by a malevolent spirit's operation, and Hamlet's last soliloquy. The imaginative passion of the soliloquy is quickly rekindled as if the "mousetrap" were an interlude. When Hamlet thinks of Claudius, the language is intellectually caustic, but as the "witching-time" lines indicate, Gertrude inspires passionate conviction. Ghostly malevolence is all but negated, and what is supposed to be on Hamlet's mind following the play is displaced by the zealous fervor of missionary resolve. The irony is that the ghost's intentions generate the opposite effect, which explains why it appears in the bedroom scene. Hamlet should be plotting; revenge, but now (B) Hamlet is ascending for Gertrude must be saved.
A turning point occurs when Hamlet spares Claudius at prayer. He wants Claudius in hell, but the fact the King is spared indicates a formal modification of the ghost's command. "My mother stays!" (III,iii, 96) is all that matters to Hamlet in ascent.
In Shakespeare's universe those with even the best intentions suffer profoundly, even unto death. Causality flows from malignancy in the macrocosm and / or the character's own "vicious mole," (the microcosm), Paradoxically, even those of the most conspicuous virtue contribute to their own demise through the very exercise of that virtue, Certainly Lear wrongs Cordelia, but does not her excessive frankness help drive him to passionate excess? Macbeth's soldierly prowess and exemplary courage become Lady Macbeth's instruments to cajole him into murdering Duncan.
Comparatively, Hamlet's situation is prototypical for the major tragedies, His passion to no small degree deliberately ignited by the ghost (malignant macrocosm) corrupts reason, and Polonius dies. Juxtaposed with B ascending is in the old model--A descending--for the ghost does win, to say in effect, 'Ihave you now, but do not forget your primary mission'.
An important question that if unanswered would jeopardize the malignant ghost theory is why Shakespeare had the ghost return at all if the murder of Polonius is sufficient to damn Hamlet's soul. Two responses are possible. When the Queen suspects she might die, her cry startles Polonius:
Polonius: [Behind the arras.] what ho! help!
Hamlet: How now? A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead.
[Thrusts his rapier through the arras.]
Polonius: [behind.] O , I am slain.
Queen: O me, what hast thou done?
Hamlet: Nay, I know not.
Is it the king? [Lifts up the arras and discovers Polonius, dead.]
Queen: O what a rash and bloody deed is this!
Hamlet: A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
Legally and theologically complicated, the scene admits multiple interpretations. If Hamlet believes the voice to be Claudius', then revenge could mitigate guilt, except that the ghost argues private revenge, and from Hamlet's point of view the assassination could hardly be the result of deliberate planning. Caught in the heat of his interview, the death is treated more like an annoying interruption. Citing the French Academie, Lily Campbell articulates what appears to be Hamlet' s position:
For no man is so dull of understanding, but he knoweth
that effusion of bloud is forbidden by God, and that out-
rage being in no sort permitted, muche lesse may a christ-
ian forget himselfe so far as to kill another, except it
be through necessitie in defending his owne bodie, or in
the service of his prince & countrie in a just war. (2)
Since none of the exclusions apply and since Hamlet does "forget himselfe," guilt appears undeniable. Burton, however, casts serious doubt on the degree of guilt:
...in some cases, those hard censures of such as offer
violence to their own persons, or in some desperate fit
to others, which sometimes they do, by stabbing, slash-
ing, &c., are to be mitigated, as in such as are mad,
beside themselves for the time, or found to have been
long melancholy, and that in extremity, they know not
what they do, deprived of reason, judgment,, what shall
become of their souls, God alone can tell...We ougHt
not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures, as some
are; charity will judge and hope the best...
(Vol. II. Part I. Sec, 4, Mem, 1.77-78)
The excerpt rather aptly paraphrases Hamlet's condition at the moment he slays Polonius, and guilt therefore is mitigated. If the rash few who judge harshly be without charity, then the ghost certainly qualifies and appears to warn Hamlet that he must continue just in case Polonius' death be only a necessary condition for damnation and not a sufficient one. That this view be Shakespeare's intent becomes event when Hamlet, reflecting the crime says,
For this same Lord
I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him.
Hamlet does not say "scourge or minister." His "and" allows for the possibility of salvation, something the ghost cannot risk. (3). From the ghost's perspective, Hamlet's resolve has lapsed, and dramatically B's ascent is blocked, but again Shakespeare's manipulation of irony implies the opposite. He acknowledges his role as "scourge and minister," vowing to continue the latter. He counsels Gertrude, but now and for the remainder of the play, he is more sublime, for Polonius' death qualifies the irony and gives the ghost some measure of victory, Fundamentally or metaphysically, however, the irony continues with Shakespeare intending to dramatize how malignancy ultimately serves the Divine order.
In dramatizing how evil must ultimately serve Good, Shakespeare follows but enriches the traditions of Medieval miracle and morality plays, Everyman's debauched life, for example, ironically, assures salvation after repentance. In The Second Shepherd's Play, Mak and Gill are forgiven their theft, and the shepherds adore Christ Child. Shakespeare utilizes this paradox as in Romeo and Juliet when Friar Laurence warns Juliet that despite the disease and contagion and "unnatural sleep," that plague humanity, "A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents." (V,iii,153-154) From that contradiction, the Montagues and Capulets reconcile but at the terrible cost of the younger generation's lives. In I Henry IV, Prince Hal must endure Bolingbroke's wrath, but he
...will redeem all this on Percy's head,
And in the closing of some glorious day
Be bold to tell you that I am your son.
After Othello throws "...a pearl away..." and takes his life, Cassio notes, "For he was great of heart." (V,ii,347 ff.). Shakespeare uses evil as an instrument of excising itself, but always at the expense of much good.
In Hamlet, the irony is sublime. When the ghost departs, the Prince immediately proselytizes Gertrude, but his tone-sobered by the ghost's presence-is different:
My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have utter'd...Bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word, which madness
Would not gambol from.
The lines interlace with Ophelia's assessment. The sweet bells "...out of tune and harsh" become the "healthful music" that apparently characterized Hamlet once. Ironically the Divine order compels evil to serve good; the ghost thus brings Hamlet the very peace it wishes to negate. Hamlet pursues Gertrude's heart, "cleft...in twain," and she promises compliance.
III,iv dramatizes A (Hamlet) in descent, but I have demonstrated how Shakespeare uses irony to show ascent (B). From that perspective, the intent is clear. Hamlet's youth, his passion, and heretofore relatively secure existence prevents him from appreciating the irony of his situation, precisely because he is too close to it to render an objective judgment; a condition not lost on him when praising Horatio.
The ambiguity characterizing the play's metaphysics remains only if it is viewed microcosmically, i.e. from Hamlet's point of view, When macrocosmically considered, we transcend and observe Hamlet, Gertrude and the ghost from above. Perspective catches the conscience of the play and its ghost . In the tradition of but obviously more sophisticated than the morality play, we observe a tragedy of revenge in which a malignant Astral spirit tests, by Divine permission, Hamlet's soul in the same way Death stalks Everyman. Puzzled by a "time...out of joint," Hamlet appears dramatically to have failed, but perhaps not ironically.
We, however, know more than the Prince. His inherent decency, although compromised by overt cruelty, never substantially wavers. Ignoring the spirit's command to private revenge, Hamlet focuses his mental energy on saving Gertrude, even at the risk of personal damnation. For the crime of Polonius' death, he pays with his life, but we know he does all within his power to redeem Gertrude. Ironically the ghost, despite its malevolence, contributes as all beings do in a Universe where Providence governs even the fall of a sparrow.
Acts IV and V show Hamlet ascending, but the irony lessens as he realizes the implications of Polonius' death and his decision to subordinate revenge to saving Gertrude. I have noted earlier, for instance, that Hamlet's, "I see a cherub that sees them. [Claudius' intentions.] (IV,iii,51), places him in touch with a universe more theocentrically orientated than its fatalistic counterpart prior to Act III. Hamlet learns that what appears to be the "cursed spite" of his birth has all along been orchestrated by God. Thus the "How all occasions..." soliloquy implies a synthesis lacking in earlier ones:
What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and Godlike reason
To fust in us unus'd.
The irony is his repudiation of the sleep imagery employed earlier. Theologically Hamlet has grown; he now equates sleep as proper to animals and activity as proper to man.
How far Hamlet has come and what bearing the malevolent Astral spirit has on his progress may be realized by examining three passages, Thinking of Gertrude in his first soliloquy, he laments:
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer--
In the second act, he tells Ronsencrantz and Guildenstern:
What piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason...
and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
And in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet's dialectical anguish culminates:
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of though,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
Initially Hamlet is tormented by Gertrude's infidelity and King Hamlet's death; he thus identifies with man's bestial, non-rational instincts. The irony is that a Renaissance audience would not fail to recognize his ripeness for the malignant spirit's overtures. Without such an assumption, many of his lines in Act I lose their import. His fate does cry out, and time is out of joint much more than he suspects, but the most poignant moment when the irony virtually crescendos is his threat to Horatio:
Why, what should be? the fear?
I do not set my life at a pin's fee,
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
How could a Renaissance audience not shutter with death and / or damnation as the known response? Modern observers miss the irony since our scientifically minded society has degraded ghosts and 'evil spirits' to the last days of October. If Shakespeare were talking about drug addiction, our shuttering might be audible. Ironically Hamlet becomes the "...beast that wants discourse of reason..." by failing to recognize the import of his own words.
By the time Hamlet engages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the irony has begun to reverberate to the ghost. In theological terms, God uses evil to destroy itself. Dramatically, man is dust, but the potential for rational behavior at least exists. Given the ghost's effect, why does Hamlet admit the possibility? On the one hand it may be argued that he really does not insofar as the language of the passage suggests a negative' synthesis: "Man delights not me-." Yet, an examination of the interval from the ghost's departure to the conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may provide clues. Once more, Ophelia's testimony is crucial. In IIl, i,75 ff. the terrified girl tells Polonius of Hamlet s apparently 'mad' behavior, symptoms we have seen of love melancholy. Two possibilities exist: Hamlet may really be 'mad,' in which case the ghost has worked very quickly. Perhaps this is so, but the following reports of Hamlet's conduct all concern Ophelia: The 'love' letter is read (11.115 ff,), and the "fishmonger scene:' (11, 171 ff,) occurs. It would appear that what saves Hamlet from the ghost's malign influence is his love for Ophelia, paradoxically expressed for reasons that have been explained in quasi-pornographic language. Even Polonius notes, "Still harping on my daughter. (II,ii,187-188). Precisely! Hamlet simply cannot forget her because he still loves her, and Polonius knows there is "method" to the madness, Gripped by love that turns to love-melancholy, the Prince's method, which ironically Polonius observes but does not fully understand, is to denounce what he loves the most, foreshadowing the bedroom scene with Gertrude whom he treats in precisely the same manner, It is this second possibility that fits Shakespeare's intention. The seriousness of which he masks (as in Lear) with bawdy language. Hamlet and his companions jest about Fortune's privates, and he concludes the loss of mirth' discourse with..."nor woman neither..." (II,ii,30). He means the opposite, but since God forbids spirits to read minds, the irony begins to harm the entraper.
Act III, scene i seems to negate Hamlet's cautious ascent; "sicklied o' er with the pale cast of thought" implies a strong resurgence of the "vicious mole," which most be occasioned by the most important dramatic event between II,ii and III,i, the Priam-Hecuba performance and soliloquy, "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I." Previous analysis has explained Hamlet's depression in terms of the correlation he sees between Hecuba / Priam and Gertrude / Claudius. Resentful of Gertrude's apparent lack of scruples, he contrasts her with an idealized portrait of Hecuba whose fidelity he admires, but Hecuba is but "...a dream of passion" who, especially given his 'reality,' could never exist.
The irony results from a comparative look at II,iiii, 594 ff. - "The spirit that I have seen may be a devil...," and III,i, 84 ff, - "And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied over...." The former occasions the latter, but Hamlet's equivocation ("may be a devil") prevents him from seeing the truth which is precisely what a malevolent Astral spirit, corrupting the wit, would desire. Yet, what foreshadows B's ascent in the "To be" soliloquy is Hamlet's reference to dreaming. We note another interlace, In the Hecuba / Priam soliloquy, Hamlet says,
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit...
In our third example, the "To be" soliloquy, he reflects: "To die, to sleep; / To sleep, perchance to dream--(III,i,64-65). According to Ophelia's assessment and the dramatics of the play itself, Hamlet has the soul of a poet. He welcomes the players and finds their performance fascinating. As with so many other instances, he ironically asserts both thesis and antithesis simultaneously. His dream of an idealized world requires two metaphysical primaries: Gertrude's purity and Ophelia's love. Yet, both seem so evasive that his dreams are bad, but significantly he denies the content of his present dreams, not the concept itself. He still wants to dream, His use of "nothing," syntactically parallels "Hecuba," recalls the irony of Lear's, "Nothing can come of nothing," (I,i,87). A great deal comes from nothing: Lear's insanity and all too painful recovery. In Hamlet, Hecuba (i.e., Gertrude) has shattered his dream. She is a "nothing" whom Hamlet devoutly wishes to make a 'something.' The ghost's command, however, expressly forbids it.
The interlace has a bawdy connotation. "Die" implies the sexual climax, followed normally by exhaustion and sleep, and "perchance" dreaming of the experience. Since Hamlet's dreams are bad, however; the implication is that die means sexually wicked or an act of prostitution, thus interlacing with the "fishmonger" scene. Again, though, the concept--dreaming--is present. The ghost has "sullied" the content, but the existence of the concept foreshadows a reversal, dramatically realized in Hamlet's one attempt to save his mother, The 'philosophical' culmination of the irony is, as noted, the "How all occasions" soliloquy, There again sleeping is used, but this time rejected for a 'here-and-now' reality which defines man as godlike and rational. (IV,iv,33-39). All three passages--(I,ii,l50-151); (II,ii, 303-308), and (III,i,84-88)--imply Hamlet's growth and attempt to disassociate himself from the malignancy caused by the ghost, The irony in that during the process, he may not fully recognize the source, macrocosmically, of the contamination.
Another dimension of the irony, Hamlet's so-called procrastination, may be explained in terms of an agonizing introspection in time, needed to reestablish a previously sacred conviction that the universe is rational, Naturally he hesitates to respond to a spirit that may be evil, and the delay question rather than one of the play's more perplexing ambiguities ic ironic insofar as Hamlet fails to achieve fully the proper synthesis. However, despite the ghost's best efforts which are nearly successful, Hamlet does achieve precisely that which the ghost did not intend: personal salvation. Three reasons determine that result, He acknowledges guilt for murdering Polonius and is willing to accept the consequences, attempts to save Gertrude. Thus Horatio's words, "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. (V,ii,364-365), may have Purgatorial validity. The lines dramatize awareness on Horatio's part that Hamlet's essential nobility remains uncompromised.
Throughout the play, Hamlet's thoughts vacillate from past to present to the future. Adults are usually future orientated; children live for the moment, demanding instant gratification. Hamlet's maturity then is reflected in the most philosophically sophisticated statement he makes:
We defy augury, There is 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 now; if it be not
now, yet it will come, The readiness is all. Since no
man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to
leave betimes? Let be.
As noted in Chapter I, "augury" means "art of the augur, divination by omens," (Onions) and is the operative word when correlated with its used in "The Phoenix and the Turtle," written at approximately the same time as Hamlet. Of the "shrieking Harbinger," (owl) Shakespeare writes:
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever's end,
To this troop come thou not near!
The union of the Phoenix and the Turtle, as if violated by the "fiend," is marred:
Death is now the phoenix' nest
And the turtle's loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity.
'Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity
Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she
Truth and beauty buried be.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
The parallels to Hamlet are striking: Infirmities (the murder, Gertrude's infidelity, Polonius' orders) prevent Hamlet and Ophelia's actual union, but it was nonetheless "married chastity," culminating in death. Specifically, Ophelia's mad songs which imply sex with Hamlet before marriage and her suicide alludes to the phoenix's act of self-destruction in world where womanly subservience to men was the norm, but this time without regeneration. "Truth may seem, but cannot be" recalls Hamlet's letter to Ophelia: "Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love." (II,ii,117-118) The paradoxes suggest the angst of a soul tormented by the apparent disintegration of theocentric truths previously held inviolate, one of the consequences of dialectical inquiry.
A more fundamental or metaphysical allusion remains, In the poem, truth and beauty appear to die, caused apparently by the "shrieking harbinger" that is precursor of the "fiend," In Hamlet the same dramatization occurs. The essential interlace image between poem and play is "augur." In I,i, Horatio speaks of the macrocosmic disorder prefiguring Caesar's death. He reminds his listeners:
And even the like precurse of fear'd events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
Of course the ghost enters immediately thereafter and is the omen which augurs macrocosmic and microcosmic horror. In the poem the "shrieking harbinger" is the "augur of the fever's end," death. When Hamlet defies augury, he consciously rejects the ghost and its malevolence, opting instead for Providence that governs even the sparrow. What matters now is preparation: "The readiness is all." The frequent time shifts Hamlet uses recall fortune's vagaries, but this time her powers are seen as controlled by God. The irony is that Hamlet realizes too late the ghost's mission: to prevent synthesis between a seemingly irrational fortune and Providence. He must die, but if Horatio is correct, the ghost has won a battle but lost the war for Hamlet's soul.
But, where does Hamlet's soul go? A Socratic irony offers an instructive parallel. Throughout The Republic, Socrates argues for the ideal soul and state, and from his dialogues come the 'buzz words' of classical philosophy such as 'balance' and 'well-rounded'. If man and state are in harmony, an enlightened society, a utopia will exist. During the enlightenment progress augmented by the scientific revolution came to mean exactly that. Rather than wait for heaven in the afterlife, why not have it now? The irony of this philosophy was not lost on Swift and Pope. What is the last book of Gulliver's Travels about? We are told by the persona Gulliver that 'houyhnhnm' means "the perfection of nature," (Chapter III); which Gulliver more and more comes to accept, seeing himself as a poor Yahoo. Yet in Chapter IX, the houyhnhnm General Assembly debates whether to exterminate the Yahoos! So much for utopia!
Swift's persona Gulliver did not understand the classical models well any more than the literary Socrates saw Plato's intent. Plato and Swift well knew that utopias could not exist on earth unless one wishes to make the 'modest proposal' a reality which tragically occurred at Auschwitz. Thus Plato wants us to apply the dialectic to his own work, and thus Socratic irony comes to mean that when tested, any postulate becomes as assumption including his own!! That is the lesson of philosophy.
Gulliver at home goes mad because he rejects his humanity--he must be both Yahoo and Houyhnhnm, as Pope knew in Essay on Man. Hamlet does not reject his humanity--he embraces it. It is small wonder that Keats embraced Shakespeare as his model. Comparing the mind to a mansion with many dark chambers, he knew that a tragically short life span would prevent him from exploring them all, but he wanted to.
As Hamlet, Keats wanted to accept all possibilities including what this study has argued against: PURGATORY. If the ghost is evil and from hell, what it wants in this sense is for Hamlet to limit his inquiries and quit the dialectic. Then he would be damned. Hamlet of course will not comply. He questions till the end. His 'purgatory' consists in a perpetual and never-ending journey to find the truth, and that is quite frightening.
That is why one of his favorite words is "OR"--he loves to consider alternatives; not because he is a brooding introvert, but in the words of Martha Nussbaum,
The central task of education...is to confront the passivity
of the pupil, challenging the mind to take charge of its own
thought. All too often, people's choices and statements are
not their own...Words come out of their mouths, and actions
are performed by their bodies, but what those words and
actions express may be the voice of tradition or convention
the voice of the parent, of friend, of fashion. This is so
because these people have never stopped to ask themselves
what they really stand for, what they are willing to defend as
themselves and their own...They are like instruments on which
fashion and habit play their tunes, or like stage masks through
which an actor's voice speaks. (4)
How appropriate for Hamlet:
--he confronts the passivity of a court that has accepted moral degeneracy
--he taunts Polonius who loves words for their own sake
--he challenges theological and scientific conventions: his use of "doubt"
--he angrily denounces his two "friends" for playing him like an instrument
--he stages a play but rewrites it expose a moral horror and advance toward truth
Thus, Hamlet may lament the slaying of Polonius and Ophelia's suicide, but he may just as surely rejoice in the redemptive effort to save Gertrude and ultimately the rejection of a malevolent Astral spirit. The scales only seem balanced, but the great thinkers from Socrates to those yet but awaiting the moment to give expression to their ideas know that balance is an illusion. Growth must occur if humanity is to survive, and growth implies change. Growth is dangerous to the status quo, and many have paid the price for actualizing potential. To come out of the cave is intimidating; we take comfort in our allusions which is precisely what Shakespeare in his plays asks us not to do if we want to remain human. Given Horatio's benediction, may we not then conclude that Hamlet passed Providence's test: Have you enough courage and faith in yourself and Me to overcome whatever I allow in your world?"
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS for "HAMLET AND THE DAEMONS"
(1) Henry James, "Ivan Turgenieff," in James Miller (ed.). Theory of Fiction: Henry James; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972, p. 292.
(2) Peter de la Primaudaye, Esquire. The French Academie. Thomas Bowes, (Trans). as cited by Lily Campbell, "Theories of Revenge in Renaissance England," MP (February, 1931), p. 288.
(3) When compared to Hamlet's" actions in The Hystorie of Hamblet, salvation is all the more explicit. In the French version, "...he cried, A rat, a rat! and and presently drawing his sworde thrust it...which done, pulled the counsellour (halfe dead) out by the heeles, made an end of killing him, and beeing slaine, cut his bodie in pieces, which he caused to be boyled, and then cast it into an open vaulte or privie, that so it mighte serve for foode to the hogges." See: Variorum, Volume II, pp. 97-98.
(4) Martha Nussbaum. Cultivating Humanity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. pp. 28-29.