Chapter II

"Speak...Tripplingly On the Tongue"

[The works cited appear at the bottom of the page.]

The Romantics understood that to explicate by exclusively accentuating particulars mars any imaginative synthesis art offers, but paradoxically it is through the appreciation of the particulars that one appreciates and transcends to the universals. In Chapter XIV of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge argues that, “In order to abstain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts...but having done so, we must then restore them in our conceptions to the unity, in which they actually coexist." (1) In the past, Shakespearean scholarship has suffered by ignoring this advice, advice which I believe is essential to Bloom’s thesis, as cited in Chapter I, that Shakespeare invented personality, the sum of which is a myriad of particulars. For example, a pioneer study of language in Shakespeare, Professor Spurgeon’s Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us catalogues image patterns, a necessary but not sufficient condition for understanding the scope and breath of Shakespeare's genius. William Leary believes that, “We must not succumb to the notion that such patterns constitute “the key” to a play’s meaning. Images and image patterns are, at most, part of the whole.” (2) Bloom notes that Hamlet’s genius so transcends any particulars he encounters in the sterile world of Elisnore that in creating the Prince, Shakespeare dramatizes his own boundless soul. Leary and Bloom are correct, and in considering Hamlet’s image patterns and motifs, the thesis of ghostly malevolence and Shakespeare's use of irony in dramatizing it must constantly be kept in mind.

Image patterns are thematically and dramatically quite significant, but only insofar as they contributes to the play’s grasping of the universal. Shakespeare would probably agree with Coleridge’s notion of “organic” form being innate:

In Hamlet, Shakespeare's “outward form” consists of the structure discussed in Chapter I, the dramatic integrity of which could not be sacrificed to preconceived patterns and motifs.

Shakespeare intends to dramatize the consciousness of a young man facing the macrocosmic horror of a murdered father, corrupted mother, vacillating girl friend, and especially a malignant ghost, and although the dramatist never formally articulated the process by which this could be most effectively realized, he undoublty would agree with Henry James:

This is Hamlet; his troubled life embraces the fools, embraces Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia and the ghost, and the mirror in which they all are reflected is Hamlet’s consciousness. the play records the “fine intensification and enlargement" of it, and to this end the images which make dramatization possible are significant.

Shakespeare perceived a relationship between dramatization of consciousness (end) and images (means), but he had to learn to make the synthesis work. In early plays such as Romeo and Juliet, it does not fully--the play is more poetry than drama, for the images seem to dominate the characters they ostensibly serve to illuminate. Romeo and Juliet lacks a certain self-control and is more a dramatized sonnet (Indeed one appears in the guise of dialogue) using conventional courtly love language than a play in which the images reflect the character’s deepest feelings and desires. In the garden, for instance, Romeo sees Juliet and...

Whatever the poetic merit, the passage fails dramatically, as images exist for their own sake almost as epic similes. The initial metaphor is amplified by a personification, modified by an adjective clause. the passage then concludes with more personification and metaphor. Such compounding almost makes us forget why Romeo is there. It makes the play a dramatized sonnet.

Shakespeare's mature style reflects another significant departure from his early period. In writing the later histories such as Henry V and the great tragedies, he developed the ability to compress a wealth of ethical, metaphysical and psychological nuances in a line or phrase, thereby enabling the audience to concentrate on the dramatic situation rather than to be distracted by poetic digressions. Shakespearean tragedies are complex dramatic metaphors. His protagonists “feel” their situations, and metaphor becomes the means Shakespeare uses to wed (in the words of James) picture and scene.

A few lines from Henry IV illustrate how far Shakespeare had progressed, and point to what will mature in Hamlet. When upbraiding his son (certainly a Hamlet theme), for behavior undignified, Bolingbroke asks God’s pardon for his son’s misconduct:

The tersensess of a politician / father plagued by guilt (Claudius) reflects the skill of the dramatist who has all but mastered his craft. First Shakespeare places the image in a single subordinate clause, thus compelling syntax to forbid domination. Equally important the image accommodates the speaker’s mood. Bolingbroke, an embryonic Claudius (who will become an embryonic Macbeth and so on...), exhibits the craftiness and skill of a political boss using self-righteousness to mask guilt. To use flight imagery appropriately suits this man who “like a comet” was wondered at. Prince Hal’s flight, however, appears apart from his ancestors, allowing “vile participation” that Bolingbroke deplores. We are reminded that Hamlet will find himself “too much in the sun.”

Most essential, however, to dramatic intent is the lack of obscurity and length. Bolingbroke’s concern, being faced with Percy’s rebellion, must be to present a united military defense, for which he certainly needs his son’s cooperation. He knows Hal’s reputation seriously jeopardizes his chances, so chastisement cannot be prologued, nor can it be elaborate. Rather than pursue the flight image for its own sake, Shakespeare terminates it. Bolingbroke makes his point as will Claudius who must struggle with his “limed soul.

Before considering the significant patterns in Hamlet and their relationship to the ghost’s malign influence, we must examine the structural concept Shakespeare uses to make it dramatically effective. In Shakespeare Plain, Leary notes that, “...images may be repeated at intervals throughout a play so as to form a pattern. Often these patterns will suggest one play’s principal meaning or will form an illuminating parallel with other elements in the drama so as to reinforce the meaning that these elements yield.” (5) Patterns thus reveal universals, and the various ones that emanate from the play are called motifs and have a dramatic function similar to musical notes in a Beethoven symphony. Shakespeare understood this connection and in the major tragedies, one passage usually serves as a theme passage as opening notes in the Fifth Symphony. Identification of the passage, usually spoken by the protagonist, is critical to an understanding of what the motifs lend to Hamlet’s relationship to the ghost.

Even a cursory examination of Hamlet suggests one predominate motif: disease that corrupts all it invades both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Several others exist as corollaries, all deriving from the theme passage: music, blood, microcosm / macrocosm, weather, heaven / hell, garden, fate and fortune, sex, and supernatural images. When used by Hamlet, these motifs develop and enhance the dramatic situations in which they occur;

The theme passage must satisfy two criteria: it should embody the play’s significant motifs and also bear significantly on dramatic action. In this instance, I have chosen I, iv, 13-38 with Hamlet speaking prior to the ghost’s entry. Voicing disgust with Claudius’ debauchery, Hamlet responds to Horatio’s query regarding how customary his “uncle-father’s” behavior is:

The authority for the passage is Q2. Even though we do not know Hamlet’s future, we are allowed to observe not only the philosophical premises which govern his behavior, but also how he thinks since the murder just as Ophelia’s tribute explicates how he may have behaved prior to it. Without such detail, much of what Hamlet says and does would lose import. contextually the passage is crucial to a dramatization of the Prince’s consciousness.

The passage has a tripart structure. setting a characteristic pattern for Hamlet’s thinking: thesis, antithesis and synthesis (if possible). Lines 13-22 outline an objective occurrence, 23-32 provide a conceptual reaction and analysis, and 31-38 offer a (tentative) synthesis.

As Hamlet shivers on the battlements, his concentration is interrupted by the ...flourish of trumpets, and two pieces [of ordnance]...” Claudius’ drunken revelry nauseates Hamlet who waits in dread anticipation for his the ghost. As Plato well knew when postulating the good as absolutely self-sufficient and self-contained, one cannot test any action without comparing it to some objective or subjective standard. (Click here for additional details on the influence of Plato in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.) Hamlet’s standard are the values of the Denmark he once knew, or at least thought he knew: “achievements...[which are] / The pith and marrow of our attribute” (objective) and his own moral code as articulated by Ophelia (subjective). “Pith and marrow” connote substantial rather than accidental changes that Claudius has occasioned. Hamlet’s assessment suggests that even the most virtuous situations have the potential for corruption. “They clep us drunkards...,” he observes. “Us” has more than a generic connotation as undoubtedly many of the same courtiers who so willingly acknowledged Claudius’ marriage once served King Hamlet. Hamlet too feels tainted by the same activity. The conditions could not be more foreboding for the ghost’s appearance.

In the second part of his analysis, Hamlet’s thinking evolves from the condemnation of Claudius’ situation to a philosophically more conceptual analysis that broadens the frame to “particular men” who innocently in the pre-volitional sense have a “vicious mole”. The Variorum defines “mole” as a blemish of any kind. (6) In King John, Constance uses the word to express her loathing for Arthur's disfranchisement:

Continuing, she argues that at birth, “Nature and fortune joined to make thee great,” and that “...Fortune, oh, / She is corrupted, changed,... / She adulterates hourly....”

The passage correlates with Hamlet’s remarks. Shakespeare speaks of “foul moles” in the context of “blots” and “stains,” all connoting corruption and decay. Secondly, they appear not to be indigenous to Arthur, who is more a victim of the “bitch-goddess’ fortune, now King John’s whore: “France is a bawd to Fortune and King John-- / That strumpet Fortune (III,i,60-61). The correspondence means that both Arthur and Hamlet’s (“particular men”) are innocent at birth, but when (the pre-scientific) notion fortune chooses to inflict her wiles, the “mole” grows and corrupts. There exists, in other words, something in human nature that has the potential to corrupt. That the ghost knows this too suits Shakespeare's intention, for it appears when Hamlet finishes. The irony implicit in its visitation will have horrid consequences.

The “vicious mole” acts like a cancer, corrupting the spirit and blurring mental and moral awareness. Ironically, the ghost exacerbates the condition, while Hamlet believes it mitigates. Hamlet’s contact is the court, but given his predispositions, we infer that “Shakespeare is asking us to think of him.” (7).

Hamlet argues that the mole is “of nature." Location of identification of evil’s source in Shakespeare is difficult. Philosophers of course have debated the issue since the pre-Socratics. For a detailed examination of pertinent philosophical questions relevant to the nature of evil, consult Dr. Donna Freitas’ perceptive and detailed analysis. Bradley, discussing the question at length, concludes:

Bradley’s order / chaos hypothesis suggests the Greek perspective (Plato's Timaeus) later Christianized by Plotinus. The cosmic order ordained by God (the Artificer) is deconstructed by the evil in the form of a malignant ghost; the macrocosm becomes infected, and the good suffers much in the process, in this case Hamlet. Hamlet further explains however that all men do not posses the same degree of evil: “So oft it chances...” that the mole harms some more than others. Unfortunately, Hamlet’s own dispositions make him more than susceptible to the ghost. If the defect is natural, then guilt to a degree may be mitigated. In melodramatic fashion, Shakespeare recognized the possibility in Richard III:

Richard, although deformed and loathed at birth, freely chooses to pursue villainy. Having innate physical, psychological or moral deformities may occasion empathy, but the thrust of Shakespearean tragedy is never to deny responsibility. Milton will later make this clear in Paradise Lost when God address his Son:

Just before the temptation scene in Book IX, Adam is appropriately warned by the Angel...


Appropriately, Hamlet in a moment will ask for “Angels and ministers of grace” to defend him from the horror he suspects. Milton believes that the Creator has given man sufficient courage to balance reason and passion (Plato's soul), and if such is achieved, a moral victory will emerge. Bradley’s argument suggests that the victory will be quite costly, perhaps even costing the protagonist his life.

Hamlet observes an important consequence of the congenital poisoning when he marks that the “mole” may be triggered by an “...o’ergrowth of some complexion...” resulting in “...the pales of forts of reason,...” being compromised as Ophelia later observes. If Hamlet’s mind in her opinion lacks balance, then Milton's argument that passion dominating reason be dangerous prevails; Professor Campbell reminds us that Shakespeare's tragic heroes are “slaves” to passion, and Hamlet himself expresses similar sentiments when lauding Horatio’s virtues.

“Overgrowth” demonstrates Hamlet’s fondness for garden imagery, a powerful motif in this play and the history plays. In Hamlet references appear in the “sullied flesh” soliloquy and the bedroom scene with Gertrude. Shakespeare associates the motif with decay and “things rank”. “Complexion” refers to what is overgrown and means one of the humors--in dramatics, a tragic predisposition. Given Hamlet’s character, how might he be disposed to act in the situation he confronts? One response on the cognitive level would be his fondness for the dialectic--Levin reminds us that he loves to question; he loves to treat first principles as assumptions (Plato), but it would be a mistake to assume that this is all Hamlet does. The implication insofar as Shakespeare inherited the classical / Medieval traditions, would be a fall from greatness, with ironically, an ascent given the pragmatics of Medieval drama; after all Everyman (including Hamlet) is saved because there is “Providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

Assigning a Shakespearean protagonist a dominant humor which becomes imbalance is standard Renaissance psychology, but too often it may lead to a misconception of the ‘tragic flaw’ idea inherited from the Greeks, in this case stipulating that Hamlet is melancholic and therefore prone more to introspection than decisive action, a belief perpetuated by the Romantics, especially Coleridge. There indeed may be melancholic aspects to his personality, but the question of whether that humor is dominant should not be assumed as was the case in the Olivier production; recall the voice over at the film’s outset that Hamlet is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind. This study will offer a different hypothesis when Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is examined.

In addition to “birth” and “complexion,” Hamlet notes that “...habit too much o’rleavens / the form of plausive manners...” as another condition actualizing the mole’s potential. “Habit” is used in Shakespeare in the sense of a fixed mode of behavior and dress, as in Pericles: "Opinion’s but a fool that makes us scan / The outward habit by the inward man." (II,ii, 56-57), or thus in Duncan's words, “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.” (I,iv, 11-12). Habit then as dramatized in Macbeth by the clothing motif (9) is a kind of subject internal clothing, or that by which we recognize a man has himself. The meaning is more substantive than a routine or behavior; it is the premise from which that routine develops.

According to the line, this “habit” excessively “o’erleavens,” or invades to corrupt as weeds choke healthy flowers in a garden. In Macbeth, the analogy of ill-fitting garments expressing the same idea dramatizes Macbeth's unsuitability for the throne. What it “o’erleavens in Hamlet is expressed as “...the form of plausive manners...” with form implying behavior sanctioned by the Divine order (Timaeus again), consistent with one’s assigned place on the chain of being. Any overgrowth corrupts the proper deportment or arrangement suggested by form as Ulysses believes in Troilus and Cressida:

Hamlet states these Renaissance correspondences regarding order and design in the macrocosm and microcosm. It all makes sense if we recall Marcellus’ warning, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” (I,iv,90). What a fitting way to terminate the scene in which the ghost appears to “divert” the calm of the “married” state of Denmark, a state torn by murder and an incestuous remarriage.

Thus far, Hamlet has attributed the defect of the vicious mole to birth, disposition and habit. Now he traces it to “Nature’s livery or Fortune’s star...” “Livery” provides continuity by using clothing imagery to imply defect’s relationship to habit, but another connotation emerges. “Livery” means, in legal jargon, “ of property into one’s possession.” (Onions). Thus nature, at one’s birth, delivers one defect (the vicious mole) as if the clauses of a contract were being honored. The other alternative, “fortune’s star,” implies something different from what has been discussed. Textual anomalies hinder interpretation. The Variorum cites Theobald’s emendation of “star” as “scar,” stating the latter connotes more aptly a “mark of infamy.” (10) Q2 reads “ftarre” so the emendation lacks support, but contextually “scar” does convey the better sense. The mole’s growth apparently may be aggravated by fortune’s contact so much that it becomes one the play’s most important motifs and is usually thought of by Hamlet as a whore, capriciously withholding favor.

Lines 33-88 propose a synthesis. The subject of the sentence, “His,” changes the number, and the antecedent must be identified. The shift itself marks Hamlet’s fondness for vacillating between the general and particular, a characteristic of the great soliloquies. Bloom’s hypothesis that Hamlet’s intellectual sophistication transcends his contemporaries is thus validated. “His” means “these men” (l.30), and since it modifies “virtues,” Hamlet states a fundamental conviction that human nature is essentially good, but may too easily overcome by the mole. (11) His antecedents are undoublty Gertrude, Ophelia and his one remaining exemplar, Horatio, and no doubt how he at times views himself. Similes following “His virtues else...” dramatize Hamlet’s conviction that virtue triumph, but..."Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault.” (I,iv,35-36) means virtue’s seeming inability to withstand the mole’s corrosive power, as Bradley suggests. The irony implicit in the synthesis will be impelled by Hamlet’s relationship to the ghost and what it commands.

The concluding lines have puzzled commentators. Q2 reads,

The Variorum devotes over six pages of commentary, and the Arden edition three. The Variorum suggests the linguistic puzzle cannot be solved (12), while the Arden paraphrases the general sense of the lines, “...the small amount of evil in some way gets the better of ‘the noble substance.’ (13). In what way? How is the ghost involved? The Arden edition is partly mistaken when the explanatory footnote for “the general censure” that precedes the line in question states, “What the single fault corrupts is not, as so widely assumed, the man’s character, but the opinion that formed of it, his reputation or ‘image’.” (14) The correction resulting in public c condemnation must precede it. Reputation could not be sullied if the mole did not infect the macrocosm and the microcosm, the role assigned to the ghost by Shakespeare.

The theme passage contains many motifs. Primarily of course disease imagery suggests a devouringly predatory nature like Ulysses’ “universal wolf." Other motifs including macrocosmic / microcosmic parallels, coldness and darkness dramatizing grief, fate and fortune, garden imagery, and the corruption of love by lust and prostitution.

I spoke of Hamlet’s epistemology as vacillating between abstraction and specific referents in an effort to achieve synthesis; the play dramatizes the tensions developing macrocosmically between conflicting astronomical and philosophical theories of realism and nominalism. Baconian science was on the ascent. Hamlet’s awareness of these tensions (notice his use of the word “doubt” [...that the earth doth move...] determines weltanschauung: the realities of his father’s death, his view of women, and of course the ghost. His task which he both loves and hates puts his time “out of joint.” The ghost intends these particulars to have a specific malevolent connotation.

The first issue concerns the oft posed question of delay. Put in the context of this discussion, it is better to demonstrate how Hamlet’s intense intellectual activity finally copes with the two referents most affecting his behavior: a mother and girl friend both of whom he simultaneously loves and hates, and a ghost whose malevolence he both suspects and rejects. To consider Hamlet a cognitive introvert does violence to Shakespeare's intention for two reasons: irony is obscured and only half the dialectic is recognized. The implied answer to “Must I remember?” is the “sullied flesh” soliloquy. Any so-called hesitation or intellectual paralysis reflects the cognitive struggle of a wit made diseased by the referents mentioned. Hamlet’s wit struggles to integrate reality as the ghost wishes to him to perceive it fragmented: a house [kingdom, mind, soul] divided against itself cannot stand. Banquo knows that the devil can “speak true,” and according to Hamlet “assume a pleasing shape.” When Hamlet strives for synthesis, the ghost counters with fragmentation as in the bedroom scene. Thus when confronted with a spirit, exercising caution would be the norm; at the very least its moral authenticity requires validation.

In the theme passage, Claudius’ drunken celebration is the thesis, and the antithesis reflects Hamlet’s willingness to derive inductively reasoned conclusions (Bacon’s epistemology) from it that form the cognitive elements of the antithesis insofar as there is enough evidence to suggest that he, by disposition, prefers the opposite sense of life. If that were not true, then thoughts such as “his virtues else, be they as pure as grace, / As infinite as man may undergo...” would not appear. Any synthesis the theme passage may express however, cannot for a mind like Hamlet’s be final. Hamlet is not a static character. What the theme passage does is suggest a mode of analysis; not a fully actualized conclusion. Hamlet’s after all is living in a time when accepted scientific and philosophical and theological conclusions were under great dispute; we recall the importance of his university. Hamlet will continue to, in Donne and Keats like fashion, absorb every paradox and dialectically test the ghost to determine what it is and what it wants. The Prince’s thinking thus becomes increasing complex as more paradox emerges. His experiences cause him to question formally accepted premises as any good scientist would when confronted with new evidence. In this case, does he believe after the actions of uncle, mother and girl friend that man’s dispositions are good?

This dialectic continues to unfold, and the direction it assumes is influenced strongly by the ghost’s direction, and Hamlet’s responses. The proposed synthesis, keeping in mind that Utopia means ‘nowhere’ as Plato well understood, as influenced by the malevolent ghost is the major focus of this study. For now, it has been demonstrated that the theme passage reflects the way Hamlet thinks and contains images that serve as motifs.

Chapter I noted the importance of initial scenes. The dramatist creates and maintains a mood, quickly dispenses with expository information, and holds attention. Two sentinels stand the watch, and the interrogative mood dominates. “Who’s there?” sets atone of mystery that becomes more insidious with Francisco’s, “’Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart.” (I,i,8-9). Dramatically tension is sensed, paradoxically emanating from calmness suggested by “Not a mouse stirring,” but this is crux of the play. We are to learn quickly that man’s efforts to calm and secure the state matter little when forces beyond him, which, as Eissler reminds us, the new science was struggling to understand, engage the consciousness. Shakespeare exploits the mood by forestalling what occasions this struggle until line 24, but even then, the source is only identified as a “thing.” We call something a thing when we do not comprehend its essence. Suspense escalates with the foreboding presence of quiet horror. Evil, as in The Turn of the Screw, manifests itself covertly and ambiguously.

Shakespeare reminds his audience of macrocosmic sickness by paralleling Julius Caesar. Horatio warns, “This bodies some strange eruption to our state,” (I,i,73). We recall in Caesar that graves open and blood rains from the heavens. “Eruption” foreshadows of course the chaos loosed in Denmark and Hamlet; something is rotten. The “thing” cannot be good.

Although Horatio’s encounter with the ghost fails to elicit a response, his mentioning that, “ started like a guilty thing...” (l.153). denotes a poetic imagination. Under normal circumstances, the imagination might occasion optimism, but the mood here is gothic. The mole’s progress appears unrelenting. What has appeared is still a “thing”, and why is it guilty? Of what?

Scene ii contains a powerfully effective image which directly foreshadows the theme passage, while the context dramatically reflects Hamlet’s mood:

Gertrude's clothing imagery suggests Macbeth's ill-fitting garments, but for Hamlet they ironically fit quite well, so he thus extends the image: "...I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe." (I,ii, 85-86)

In the theme passage, “oft” has the same connotation as “common,” Both have macrocosmic / microcosmic connotations involving the ghost. Ironically, all that lives does not die (Hamlet later puns on this idea), and here Shakespeare suggests an analogy. King Hamlet passes from life to death to perhaps life eternal, while for the present Hamlet has ironically passed from life to a kind of anti-life, a condition the “thing” would like to see permanent. The tone of the passage suggests an embittering cynicism, occasioned by the defects of the ‘particular men’ with whom Hamlet must associate, and a ghost which he will encounter shortly.

The Queen asks why King Hamlet’s death “seems” so particular with him, and her son’s reply demonstrates the dialectical mode. The clothing (appearance) reflects Hamlet’s mental anguish which clashes with the Queen’s good cheer (appearance). Hamlet craves the reality, and her conduct nauseates him. (15). The clothing imagery is but a pale reflection of a deeply felt angst.

Lines 129-136 conceptually outline the angst, wherein “sullied” used by the Arden edition is correct. Primarily, it is consistent with the theme / motif pattern of decay and corruption, and appears elsewhere in the canon to connote the same meaning, often in terms of marital infidelity as in The Winter’s Tale:

What is sullied stains purity and carries a sexual connotation perfectly appropriate for Hamlet in that the soliloquy, from a masculine perspective, denounces women's frailty. The image of decaying, rotting flesh foreshadows the theme passage, the fishmonger scene, the Gertrude-Hamlet bedroom interview when the Prince uses “blister” to convey his disgust, and most significantly the language of the ghost.

In the first part of the soliloquy, disease imagery describes the macrocosm as an “...unweeded garden / That has grown to seed...” (ll.135-136). Garden imagery reveals the “o’ergrowth” mentioned in the theme passage, leading to decay. All is “sullied.”

The second part of the soliloquy, lines 137-157, contains several foreshadowing theme passage references. As a “satyr,” Claudius is a man / beast, with Hamlet believing the latter in control. In Claudius, the mole has done its worst, breaking down,”...the pales and forts of reason...” by an “...increase of appetites...” recalling again Ulysses wolf. In this connection, Hamlet speaks of a dialectic between the king and his father (“hyperion”), adding that “...a beast that wonts discourse of reason / would have mourned longer.” This inversion of the chain of being endows the bestial with rationality God reserved for humans, but Gertrude’ incestuous lust negates the Divine order. Sexual appetites evidence the mole’s potency. A tentative thesis occurs in but one line, which in this case is definitive: “It is not, or cannot come to good.” (l.58). Its philosophical, dramatic and ironic base is the theme passage, as the interlacing motifs validate.

Scenes iv and v dramatize Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost, appropriately introduced by the theme passage. The passages philosophical and moral concepts in that passage are actualized as spirit and mortal converse. Typically, Hamlet reacts dialectically:

But its “questionable shape” defies explanation, and dialectically its challenge offers Hamlet the most baffling and heartbreaking challenge he must endure. When the ghost beckons, Hamlet responds over the objections of Marcellus and Horatio. Hamlet must treat first principles as assumptions, as their dialogue echoes the theme passage:

The subtle irony of the initial lines, referring to body and soul, will be central to Hamlet’s relationship with the ghost and bears heavily on the origin question--first principles must be treated as assumptions. “Thing” repeated again identifies this time Hamlet’s soul with how the ghost is identified. Shakespeare links images deliberately. Now, however, Hamlet must consider that identification, and he will let no one deter that inquiry. Thus prior to the interview, he achieves a potential synthesis predicated on his ability to make an unalterable decision. No paralysis of will or passion exists. In the Republic, (Desmond Lee translation), Plato uses verbs of passion to inspire cognition:


Hamlet may well have written these lines!!! Hamlet's pleasure is in the mind (and elsewhere); he has also the courage to passionately find the truth--the good; in this case what the ghost is. The “Neman lion.” suggests this courage (the element of Plato's soul regulating reason and appetite). Ironically, though the beast was strangled by Hercules in the first of his twelve labors. Shakespeare dramatizes malignancy--it will indeed to take courage to face what is ahead for Hamlet.

The dramatist also wishes to portray Hamlet’s resolve to reconcile opposites. Clearly inhibitions occur only when the “vicious Mole’ becomes sufficiently potent to break down reason allowing passion to reign unchecked; Hamlet knows this as his later pun on the diet of Worms indicates--he too must stand!! Undoubtedly, Horatio recognizes the intensity of his friend’s passion as he warns, “He waxes desperate with imagination.” (I,iv,87). “Desperate” means to act regardless of the danger, and “imagination’ here implies mental activity, transcending sense perception. In excess as Sidney’s Defense of Poetry warns, imagination can lead to insanity. (Click here for details.) Hamlet cannot be stopped; he may indeed be mad.

Scene iv ends with assurance that Hamlet’s fate is not unwatched; Horatio’s , “Heaven will direct it,” (I,v,91) validates the irony that this study intends to document. Hamlet does not hear the line, nor would it matter if it did. Whether he eventually will is contingent on his relationship with the ghost.

Hamlet’s interview with the ghost flows with currents of an ulcerated cancer. As in Troilus and Cressida, the “enterprise is sick.” In V, i the ghost in rapid succession talks of “foul crimes,” “prison house,” the “freezing” of “blood,” a “foul and unnatural murder,” a “rank and adulterate beast,” “lewdness,” and “garbage.” This intense concentration of grotesque images reflects the “o’ergrowth.” of the mole’s infection. At the conclusion of the interview, Hamlet achieves a synthesis that will have far-ranging implications. He is told to revenge the murder, but...

As cited in Chapter One, we might recall Prosser's brilliant identification of these lines with Lady Macbeth's equivocal 'testing' of Macbeth's love as a prelude to murder. No benevolent spirit would have commanded Hamlet thus; the agony imposed by that dialectic, that testing of first principles, plagues Hamlet for the rest of the play; his reaction, “And Shall I couple hell?” (l.93) is what the ghost wishes. It is this that Hamlet must test. The ghost’s plot to damn Hamlet beings now and is made all the more vicious by its seemingly benign intent. Never did Hamlet need the ability to reason dialectically more than now. Evil in the guise of good of course appears elsewhere in Shakespeare. Iago’s,

mime the ghost’s tactics, and just as every character in Othello is thus duped, calling Iago “honest " throughout, so Hamlet too has been duped, inviting madness, death and damnation. Hamlet continues:" O most pernicious woman, / O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!" (I,v, 105-106). “Pernicious” echoes the them passage if other plays are recalled. In Richard II, Aumerle, York’s son, refers to Bolingbroke as a “pernicious blot,” (IV,i,325), that must be removed. In Macbeth, Macduff condemns the king's tyranny as avarice which, “grows with more pernicious root / Than summer-seeming lust.” (IV,iii,85-86). Shakespeare uses the word to covey a sense of deep-rooted infection, capable of fantastic growth. The images of lust and garden are obviously central to Hamlet; when calling her “pernicious,” he incorporates images from the theme passage and the first soliloquy. The act of writing ironically dramatizes a synthesis characterized by total commitment. Perhaps the intensity of the passion required to sustain it may obscure the requisite testing.

That the ghost’s commands should be his destiny is why the scene concludes with Hamlet believing,

Does Hamlet’s recognition mitigate the obscurity just noted? The ghost too knows time is disjointed, and its task is to prevent Hamlet from fully realizing how much so it is, and what the consequences are.

Hamlet’s encounter with Polonius, the “fishmonger scene,” in Act II has more bawdy language directed at father and daughter. The causal agent may be the ghost; if so the vicious mole continues to grow, fed by the results of the interview plus the actions of Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia, whose report to her father interlaces with the Hamlet-ghost interview:

Ironically as A seems to ascend, the toxicity of Hamlet’s condition grows more malignant, acquiring in the “fishmonger,” scene pornographic overtones. Probably taking his cue from the ghost which spoke of “celestial bed,” “lust,” and “garbage,” Hamlet speaks of “...maggots in a dead dog...” (II,ii,181), with conception normally being a blessing except in Ophelia’s case. An important aspect of the conflict dramatized in Hamlet is the moral corrosion affecting every major character, leading Hamlet to suspect that the only escapes from “...the secret parts of Fortune,” (II,ii,235), may be the grave or scientific inquiry . The irony persists; the ghost must be smiling, for it knows that unlike what Hamlet earlier believed, the soul can be harmed in the hereafter.

Hamlet uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as tuning forks to sound his own convictions regarding man’s nature in a corrupted macrocosm. He begins by examining (testing) the consequences of a previous thesis; His weltanschauung before the King's death; man’s potential for good, and Ophelia’s assessment (III,i, 153), and its modification by the vicious mole theory as exacerbated by the ghost. From this union of pragmatic reality and the supernatural comes one of the clearest expressions of dialectical inquiry in the play:

If Hamlet’s conclusions accurately reflect his thinking, and he believes they do despite the fact that he now prefers “pestilent congregation” and “quintessence of dust” to “excellent canopy” and “noble in reason”, he feels justified in deriving a new set of dialectical premises (16); that is the elucidated principles must be treated as assumptions.

Earth and air, two of the four elements (humors in man), were thought to correspond to melancholy and blood, respectively (17). As Hamlet considers each, their beneficial and harmful effects generate the dialectical tension characterizing his mood. Earth (melancholy) is both goodly and sterile, and air (sanguine) is both brave and foul. Does he know as Macbeth will learn that fair is foul and foul is fair? The images he uses suggest an explanation for evil that parallels the vicious mole’s growth within the microcosm. Certainly disease imagery interlaces with the theme passage as it does when Hamlet considers the microcosm. Affirmed then is man’s essential goodness: “infinite,” “angel,” “god” and the “paragon of animals,” all of which suggest the grandeur implied in the theme passage where man’s virtues prior to corruption, are “pure as grace”. Certainly that is what Ophelia thinks of Hamlet’s “noble mind’ before it is overthrown. Given the murder and the ghost, however, Hamlet now tests the opposite: the paragon becomes dust.

Each affirming synthesis resolves itself into a denial, so more testing is needed. Hamlet’s philosophy exhibits what appear to be retrograde tendencies as if he drops on the divided line, or “deconverts” back to the cave, becoming once again a prisoner. Hamlet of course sees Denmark as a prison (cave), and uses dialectical inquiry to escape it. We know from the Republic, of course, that the freed prisoner who becomes a philosopher king must against his will return to free others still entrapped by ignorance. Plato thus employs verbs of force such as “compelled,” and Hamlet curses the time that he must set right. The good implies the evil, with the resulting synthesis pro tem, as “man delights me not.” Further testing is needed. Significantly therefore, he affirms the ideal which when confronted with his present reality, becomes grossly tainted. Both macrocosm and microcosm are now “unweeded,” possessed by “things rank and gross." Hamlet’s conclusions thus far inescapably verify the degree to which the “vicious mole” augmented by the ghost, permeates his philosophy, so the task of the ghost is to stop the dialectic. For it, the current synthesis must be final. Each ennobling thought, regardless of its felt intensity, succumbs for the moment at least insofar as a “particular fault” corrupts even a “paragon.” The existential dimension cannot be mistaken: Hamlet must chart his way.

The “to be” soliloquy recalls the ‘sullied flesh’ metaphor of the theme passage; sleeping, a metaphor Shakespeare often uses for child like innocence (Macbeth’s, “...the innocent sleep / Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleee of care...” (II,ii, 35-6) for example), would for Hamlet “... end / The heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to...” Although Hamlet has not yet murdered, his father’s death, mother’s remarriage and the ghost’s commands constitute sufficient cause for his soul to crave release from its “vicious mole”, and given his predisposition for dialectical testing, may imply his wish “to be” once again untainted. The soliloquy would be life affirming. The lines suggest the same affirming / testing of assumptions mode Hamlet employs elsewhere. “To be or not to be” connotes not so much the desire to live or die as to exist or not to exist under the mole’s control. Perhaps the most significant “test” Hamlet must apply is whether the mole, the ghost’s instrument, will ultimately prevail. Since he views the mole and the ghost as givens, and he wishes as one possibility to “take arms against a sea of troubles,” then how to accomplish the task puzzles his will. Renaissance psychology mandates the will cannot make proper decisions until wit purges it of error; and Hamlet does tell us his wit is diseased. He knows that, but does he know the ghost is the cause, a task made especially difficult since it mandates the exposing of a killer. Does Hamlet know that the devil can speak true, can lure us to damnation with honest trifles. Is the killing of his father a trifle, compared to the loss of his soul? Is Hamlet correct in Act I when he argues that the ghost cannot hurt his soul since it is immortal? These questions plague Hamlet in the “to be” passage, but Plato reminds us that ascending to the good is never easy, and never finished.

Hamlet’s alternatives seem intolerable, a condition deliberately encouraged by the ghost which warns that it...

Thus Hamlet must have these thoughts in mind when he argues that, “...the native hue of resolution / Is Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought...” (III,i,84-85. Referencing other plays helps. In II Henry IV, as York plots to seize power, he hopes to “change doubt to resolution,” (III,ii,332). and horrified by Burnam Wood’s apparent mobility, Macbeth cries to the messenger, “I pull in resolution, and begin / To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend...” (V,v, 42-43). In each case, resolution and doubt are antonyms. Does Hamlet lack resolve because the hue of resolution “is sicklied over”--disease imagery interlacing with the theme passage and the first soliloquy? If so he is more easily a prey to the ghost's equivocations.

What does “pale cast of thought?” mean? Are the lines an attempt at synthesis? Shakespeare can use thought to mean, “care, anxiety, sorrow, melancholy.” (Onions). Troilus, for example, so connotes when urging Cressida to forget her cares:

In the context of sleep imagery, “thought” contrasts with a baby’s innocence, and in Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth and Hamlet, irony pervades. Hamlet’s “melancholy”, occasioned by the mole-ghost construct paralyzes “resolution” as cancers infect healthy tissue, a condition the ghost is only too glad to see worsen. An instructive comparison using the same disease imagery in a context implying its effect on the will is Iago's polemic to Roderigo:

Virtue is likewise a “fig” to the ghost; it too reads well the passions, with its cold cynicism, and chooses to unbalance the triadic elements of the soul Plato described. Of course as well, Hamlet embodies disease imagery to dramatize the process of decay. Dialectical testing applies through the delineation of the opposites. The will (if check by wit and thus as free as is possible from the mole), has the “corrigible authority” to determine what will grow, i.e.,to make proper decisions. The thesis outlines what must have been Hamlet’s thinking prior to the murder and visitation if Ophelia’s judgment is accurate. The antithesis, reflective of disease imagery and the vicious mole / ghost spreads a a result of a murder, marriage, and ghostly mandates. The blunt truth is that Hamlet does not want her left to heaven; if the bedroom interview is any indication, he passionately desires her salvation on earth and in the afterlife, and the great angry he evidences when, for example, questioning the “frailty” of women generically grows from a will which must struggle with a monumental task.

The dramatics of the scene acquire such intensity from the disease imagery of the previous soliloquy that Ophelia doubts Hamlet’s sanity. It is in this context that her evaluation of the Hamlet she once knew, “Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state / The gloss of fashion and the mould of form...” (III,i,154-155) acquires validity. It the feminist critics cited in the first Chapter, Pennington and Epestin, remind us.

The intensification of Hamlet’s agony continues as he and Horatio await the planned exposure of Claudius. As usual, his thoughts are introspective and communicative. His releases permit confirmation of Ophelia’s insightful evaluation, from Hamlet himself:

As Lily Campbell's title suggests, Shakespeare's tragic heroes are passions' slaves, which is the precise reason Hamlet loves Horatio; his friend has been able to achieve a synthesis--to live and love life--struggling to overcome “Fortune’s buffets and rewards.” This transcendence, contrary to popular assumption, does not imply a metaphysics so speculative that living in the so called “real world” becomes something to avoid; rather it mandates embracing life with all of it hopes and fears. Hamlet would well understand (as did Plato and Pope) that man is created half to rise, and half to fall, and is ultimately the world's glory, jest and riddle. The trick of course is to maintain the proper balance between the elements of the soul and their macrocosmic correspondences. Failure to do so constituted insanity in the Renaissance.

Music interlaces confirm this evaluation. Ophelia’s tribute laments Hamlet’s lapses; the “bells” of reason ae “jangled”, and the Prince himself warns his alleged friends that they “...would play upon me... / seem to know my stops,... / sound me from my / lowest note to the top of my compass...” (III,ii,344-358), while asserting, “...there is / much music, excellent voice in this little organ...” Indeed this is true, though sadly almost beyond recollection, which makes his affection for Horatio all the more poignant. His friend after is “...not a pipe for Fortune’s finger / To sound what stop she pleases. “ Except cognitively, he is the measure of what Hamlet apparently once must have been, only to a greater degree. Thus the tone invites a recollection of happier moment and is one of the essential clues to the real Hamlet, to the essence of his soul and in view of present circumstances dictated by a Fortune corrupted by the ghost, tragically ironic.

The tone of guarded enthusiasm changes, however, when Hamlet thinks of Claudius. His mood darkens, and the images suggest the mole / ghost’s potential to infect the imagination, making it, “ foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” (III,ii,83-4). Vulcan’s history explains Hamlet’s simile. In Book IV of The Metamorphosis, Ovid describes the liaison between Mars and Venus, Vulcan’s wife, which Vulcan foils...

The Hamlet parallels are obvious. The foulness of sexual infidelity and defilement permeates. Homer also tells the story placing it and any supernatural occurrence in the context of divine amusement often purchased at the cost of human suffering. Supernatural forces in Hamlet either occasion or exacerbate mortal agony. The grotesque union of Claudius and Gertrude makes Hamlet sick; the sight to him is also “shameful.”

Chapter I argues that the play immediately following the exchange with Horatio contains Hamlet’s “mousetrap” emendations. Lucianus conjures Hecate's aid as does Macbeth, a practice according to Lavater, which is “...utterly repugnant to the Lawe of God, that he should confirme Witchcraft and Socerie...” (18). Those who participate invite damnation which, if we accept Hamlet’s emendation, foreshadows why he wants Claudius spared at prayer. Reginald Scot reports that veneficium or murder by poison, is a popular charge against witches:

Scot provides an example of a monk who poisoned King John and “persuaded the people with lies, that he had doone a good and meritorious act.” (20). Scot’s description and example suit Hamlet’s intention regarding Claudius and the ghost. Since Hamlet wants desperately to believe Claudius a murderer, what better way to test him than to evoke the powers of darkness capable of performing acts that allegedly parallel his own? The existence of Hecate and immoral acts associated with witches and ghosts catered to minds only on the verge of the scientific revolution; minds that explained a macrocosm full of unknowns in terms of Grendel-like monstrosities waiting to snare the morally weak.

Shakespeare’s dramatization of Scot in King John is instructive. First, like Claudius, John maintains power as a result of a crime. Although he does not kill Arthur himself and indeed later regrets his death, the intent is nonetheless clear:

Later when John knows he has but moments to live, he responds to Prince Henry’s empathy, using disease and supernatural images:

A good deal of Renaissance cosmology is subsumed in John’s final gasp. The mole corrupts as a fiend; or in Hamlet a ghost.

Corruption of course pervades Hamlet. The Prince suffers from bad dreams which prevent him from becoming king of infinite space and a diseased wit which prevent him from restoring straight away a morally righteous environment; thus he must test. The ghost’s presence is Shakespeare’s objective dramatization of the mole’s growth, interlacing with the microcosm in terms of the disease imagery common to both:

Macrocosm (ghost:)

Microcosm (Hamlet:)

Thus Hamlet has Lucianus speak of “midnight weds,” and “Hectate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected”. “Blasted” carries important connotations in the canon: In King Richard III, Gloucester, the future King Richard, weds garden and satanic imagery to explain one of his physical deformities:

Of course Macbeth’s use of the word is significant:

Indeed the heath is blasted as Macbeth to his dismay will discover. The irony equivocation he ignores; his curiosity to learn what the witches / demons know will cost him his soul. Will the same happen to Hamlet?

Timon of Athens may be viewed as allegorical summary of the issues dramatized more substantially in the great tragedies. This love / hate allegory offers therefore a pedagogical summary:

What a summary of Hamlet if the ghost has its way. Does it? We note Ophelia’ use of “blasted”:

Hamlet’s mind is blasted, the prelude to insanity. Ophelia’s credibility is supported if we recall Horatio’ warning to Hamlet that the ghost could draw him to a cliff’s edge, change its shape to something horrible, and make him mad. Recalled are the theme passage, the first soliloquy, and Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia that occasioned the response just cited, and of course the bedroom scene with Gertrude.

The purpose of all of this in the “mousetrap” is to dramatize what must be expelled--a wicked murdering king. The play apparently provokes the darkness--recognized in his prayer scene--that the Prince wants exposed, just as macrocosmically the ghost flees the dawn returning to its “prison house.” The interlaces persist.

The structural analysis maintains that A and B reverse during the play. Hamlet’s fortunes appear to decline, while his uncle’s seem to improve, but in each instance and not without ironic implications. To be determined is whether the disease imagery undergoes a corresponding change.

Before Hamlet has a chance to recover or plan, Gertrude “ most great affliction of / spirit ...” (III,ii,303-04) summons him, and the first time disease imagery appears thereafter is in Hamlet’s response to Rosencrantz: “My wit’s diseased.” (l.313). Hamlet had just triumphed in exposing Claudius and believes the ghost is honest, but ahead lies his greatest emotional and moral challenge: the salvation of Gertrude, a task which interdicts the ghost’s command that she be left to heaven. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy defines wit as

An interesting parallel emerges. The text associates scholar with passivity. If we recall Ophelia’s judgment again, Hamlet is anything but passive; the brooding introverted intellectual characterization is not sustained. The wit is an active power of the rational soul that allows Hamlet to act, but it now it is diseased. Thus for the moment it cannot teach understanding without which the will cannot make informed choices. The consequences are significant, since we understand how Hamlet thinks. The ghost is responsible. Rephrased in terms of Hamlet’s fondness for dialectic thinking, Burton’s definition thus reads:

But a paradox pervades. In the “Intimations Ode, “ Wordsworth expresses a sentiment that might have appealed to Hamlet. Rather than be grateful for all opposites being reconciled with the resultant harmony, Wordsworth as an adult is more appreciative for, “...those obstinate questionings / Of sense and outward things, / Fallings from us, vanishings; / Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realised...” (IX). Hamlet too is appreciative of the struggle. His all encompassing intellectual passion and zest for life could never be at home in a universe of perpetual synthesis. For him that existence would define a hell of boredom. He wants to question, so the former definition is not pleasing to Hamlet. His task now concerns his mother. If the ghost knows all of this, what role does it assume in using Hamlet’s virtues against him?

Hamlet’s concerns may thus be charted

Event: / Corresponding response:

These conflict, precluding synthesis, so testing is again imperative when Hamlet tells us his wit is diseased, and educated authorities like Horatio warn Hamlet the devil finds such a condition inviting. The ‘vicious mole’ prevents successful testing, and we must wonder whether the ghost in the guise of “assuming a pleasing shape” wants the condition worried.

As Hamlet prepares for his mother, he focuses on the hoped-for result with such intensity that his youthful missionary zeal redirects his resolve to dispatch Claudius to implementation of a moral imperative: save Gertrude. Therefore, disease imagery now functions in a different context, subservient to what G. Wilson Knight calls “life themes.” (22), of which more will be said momentarily. A turning point for Hamlet is the soliloquy ending III, ii:

Knight compares Macbeth, “Now o’r the one half-world / Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse / The curtained sleep Witchcraft celebrates / Pale Hecate’s offerings....” (II,i,49 ff.). Initially the comparison seems apt as both speakers choose supernaturally horrifying images to dramatized their tortured consciousness, but the differences emerge. Macbeth loathes the murder he will shortly commit, whereas Hamlet appears to want to invoke the powers of darkness; he “...could drink hot blood,...” a metaphor for excessive passion that characterizes a sacred duty. More apt is Lady Macbeth’s,

In each the speaker apostrophizes darkness for resolve, but whereas Lady Macbeth desires a substantial metaphysical change (without realizing the consequences), Hamlet speaks conditionally and metaphorically. He “could” drink hot blood but adds, “O heat, lose not thy nature.” The Nero metaphor moreover precludes the kind of horror Lady Macbeth invites, but will the results be the same? Is Lady Macbeth ‘praying’ to what commands Hamlet? What would Banquo say?

The basis for the comparison, though, is the willpower of each speaker. Hamlet's lines dramatize a consciousness firmly committed, and the disease / supernatural images become subordinated to nobility of purpose. “Could” marks a conscious effort to overcome a diseased wit and act on a life-affirming synthesis--is THAT what the ghost wants? Hamlet thus toys with the Nero image, but he will, unlike Lady Macbeth, use no dagger.

The “mole” however cannot be excised so quickly. Hamlet will be cruel, quite cruel, and Polonius will die, but that cannot obfuscate the Prince’s conviction that Gertrude's salvation is morally necessary for both their sakes--such a view certainly explains why the ghost tells Hamlet to “leave her to heaven.” Although of doubtful authenticity, Q1 reading may clarify:

The dialectic evidences stipulates that Gertrude deserves a more severe judgement than she will receive (thesis), but that she does not merit permanent suffering in hell (antithesis). The synthesis is forgiveness and mercy which is precisely what the ghost cannot have. The degree to which Hamlet loves his mother is the measure of the pain he feels by having to chastise her so unremittingly. The pain he suffers finds release in verbal cruelty. (23)

Claudius at prayer evidences Shakespeare’s skill in dramatizing consciousness using theme / motif patterns. Although Claudius never morally regenerates...

...he does recognize the ‘vicious mole’s existence in his soul and the need for repentance. Reminiscent of Hamlet’s “...things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely, “ Claudius speaks of his offense as ‘rank’ and smelling to heaven itself. As with Hamlet, Claudius requires his moment of introspection; it is his turning point, but the king’s willingness to enjoy the fruits of sin precludes salvation: “May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?,” he adds. (24)

Claudius cannot be judged exclusively from Hamlet’s perspective. The images in his soliloquy reveal a desire to right horrid moral offenses, a fact which becomes clear when comparing him to Macbeth. Both men commit murder for power, and may or may not earn fifth act sympathy, but however an audience may decide, the indisputable premise is that the universal bonding both characters to their damnation is supernatural malevolence. Let us note the textual parallels:



Parallel sets of images reveal a potential for greatness that could have been both men’s if they had not allowed passion and lust for power to corrupt their wills. The question is in each play, what external horror provides the catalyst? Does the ghost both win and lose, meaning that although Claudius is not killed, Hamlet wishes him in hell. (25), What favors the ‘victory’ for Hamlet, however, rests with ability to ‘covert” Gertrude; to get her out of the ‘cave’ of ignorance, incest and lust. His parting words to Claudius, “This physic but prolongs thy sickly days, (l.69), places Claudius beyond redemption, but without violating Divine law. Hamlet believes Claudius’ fate rests with God; now his concern is for Gertrude, who, if he has anything to say, has at least a chance for salvation.

Hamlet as a moral avenger is one of Shakespeare’s most dynamic characters. No charge of melancholic paralysis withstands the dynamics of son confronting mother. Hamlet believes purgation possible; but does the ghost want it to occur? Further, the confrontation dramatizes the dialectical method of treating first principles as assumptions so characteristic of Hamlet’s epistemology as “...That I must be their scourge and minister” (III,iv,177) implies.

Following the initial caustic exchange reminiscent of Anne and Richard in Richard II and in Hamlet, I,ii, the Prince defines his purpose with images recalling Cassius’ exchange with Brutus (26):

Two important truths emerge. Hamlet swears by the cross that Gertrude's condition has been a central (the central?) preoccupation, as the images which follow sustain. Hamlet’s greatest fear concerns the growth of the ‘vicious mole’ within his mother, a cancer threatening spiritual annihilation. By setting “up a glass,” as he earlier did with the ‘mousetrap,’ Hamlet hopes to achieve the same result as he did with Claudius, exposure but obviously with a different result--salvation. The question is whether the ghost so desires this result?

The volatile precariousness of Hamlet’s emotions--strained to the extent that for the moment, he wishes Gertrude were not his mother--accounts for Polonius’ death. The “rash and bloody deed" morally and legally is murder, but when Gertrude asks, “O me, what hast thou done?,” he replies, “Nay, I know not. / Is the king?” (III,iv,24-25). Several interpretations appear. Either Hamlet admits he cannot rationally explain is actions, or the crime consists in killing the wrong man: has the ghost in either case scored a victory? Another possibility suggest that he does not care, since the intensity of his passions for Gertrude are the only considerations. As a parallel, we may recall his obsession with following the ghost despite Horatio’s warning that it could damn him. The bloody deed for Hamlet, though, is not as morally wicked as killing a king and marrying with his brother (incest). (III,iv,28-29).

Perhaps moral fanaticism best describes the mood, so that naturally any interruption, especially one construed as spying, would be met with the harshest response. Subjectively, Hamlet for the moment does not immediately consider the implications and consequences. Polonius’ death is a dramatization of the mole’s corruption of the microcosm--is the ghost pleased? Has Hamlet been damned? Blood imagery as in Macbeth verifies the mole’s existence.

Strong transitive verbs punctuate Hamlet’s resolve; every instance of the mole's presence is countered by images suggesting the ideals he wishes Gertrude to regain. Hamlet tests such an act that...

Personification moves toward a synthesis:

For “compound mass” read the cumulative effects of the mole [here the blister of Claudius / the ghost's presence], forced now to content with its opposite; the ideal Hamlet wishes restored. The dialectical mode parallels and reinforces the tension between mother and son. Gertrude is asked to recognize the moral dialectic within and do her own testing to remove the gross affront to Heaven implied in the synthesis.

Is the resulting synthesis, however, marred by the ghost? “Tristful” (F1) connotes sadness, but Q2 reads “heated" which conveys the better sense of resolute anger meaning that the macrocosm itself deplores Gertrude’s actions as a violation of the natural order and thus is “thought-sick.” (27).

Symbolic of Hamlet’s dialectic is the picture of his father and Claudius, one of “grace” (thesis), and the other “like a mildew’d ear” (antithesis), that blasts his brother. The Arden edition notes that “mildew’d” refers to Genesis XLI: 22-24, in which the Pharaoh’s dreams of seven good ears of corn is blasted and devoured by seven thin ears.” (28). Utilizing the pictures, Hamlet demands Gertrude recognize the moral and sexual distinction, for,

He can but conclude that her “...sense / Is apoplex’d...” (ll. 72-73), meaning paralyzed (Onions), and a sudden stop of voluntary motion (Schmidt). In II Henry IV, Shakespeare uses the word to connote a paralyzing sickness, (29), and when Hamlet applies it to Gertrude, he invokes the “vicious mole’s (ghost’s) effect.

Believing Gertrude lacks the will to discriminate morally, Hamlet continues to test, implying demoniac possession as the cause, thus marking A's ascent:

As fire imagery interlaces with the ghost’s pronouncements, Shakespeare identifies the source of Gertrude’s affliction, but does Hamlet, especially after the ‘successful’ (?) mousetrap, fully suspect the devil / ghost as the cause? (Perhaps A ascending?). Another interlace with the ghost is “rebellious,” frequently implying promiscuity in a play with many Hamlet affinities, Measure for Measure as in “the rebellion of a codpiece” (III,ii,122). Gertrude’s lustful behaviour of course is the basis for Hamlet’s view of women, and it forfeits her right to be his moral exemplar, a role he dearly wishes she would resume. The destruction of virtue in youth is the inevitable result of the older generation’s misconduct as personified by the the macrocosmic transcendence of the ghost’s evil intent. In effect, Gertrude like Lear, violates her place on the chain of being, since, “...frost itself as actively does burn, / And reason panders will.” (I,iv,87). Certainly Hamlet knows this, or he would have used the phrase. “Panders” brings the dialectic to a tentative synthesis. Defined by Partridge as “to subserve the lust of,” the connotation implies the ghost / mole, --here thought of a sexually cancerous--intense passion for moral decay, caused when the will becomes corrupted by appetite, as Ulysses “universal wolf” metaphor so aptly describes. Gertrude provides a synthesis that her philosopher-king son began:

She is well aware of the mole’s existence and appears at least for the moment to be contrite, but the conclusion is not that simple. What does she know of the ghost which she cannot see? Hamlet’s merciless logic accepts Gertrude’s admission, defining its specifics as sexually depraved:

The language, especially to one’s mother, is strong, but so is her conduct, he believes. Hamlet’s chastisements measure the intensity of his resolve (A) and excellently illustrate Shakespeare’s ability to subordinate motifs to characterization and the dramatic situation, as Henry James recognized. Hamlet’s indictment, with its obscene particulars, appears to suggest the mole’s dominance, recalling for instance, the “unweeded garden” soliloquy. Hamlet here enacts the particulars of that soliloquy by insisting his mother face her crimes. “Enseemed” denotatively means grease-stained, but in context implies release of sexual fluids, and in this case in a pig sty. "Stew'd" was in the Renaissance slang for a brothel. Dramatically, disease / corruption imagery is in dialectical tension Hamlet's resolve, paradoxically increasing its intensity.

But perhaps the most significant interlace recalls the ghost's words to Hamlet:

Certainly it is not unreasonable to assume Hamlet's accusations would take the form of the ghost's since Shakespeare intends the essence of his tragedy to emerge from so proximate an identification with the spirit's commands; the interlace involves, however, an irony essential to how the ghost scenes should be interpreted. Because the ghost is malevolent and has so profoundly affected the vicious mole's growth in Hamlet, it is not surprising to find him using such vocabulary. Is A really declining as the ghost wishes?

Following the ghost's departure, Hamlet mollifies his tone, perhaps sobered by the reminder not to forget the primary command. Hamlet, though, cannot leave his mother who must, he believes, be compelled to see Claudius' true nature. the question then becomes whether Gertrude can be saved, and this is essential to proving the spirit evil. Hamlet wants her redeemed as evidenced by two of his responses:

The (guarded) optimism expressed recalls Ophelia's assessment of Hamlet who, now, desperately seeks a return to what was. Further, his second response indicates he understands zeal for its own sake, and as a means necessary to compel repentance: "I must be cruel only to be kind," (III,iv,180), An axiom in Renaissance psychology is the necessity for self-knowledge. (30). It implies the rational soul in an introspective mode, fully governing passion and keeping the humors in balance. For Hamlet to acknowledge, to in effect apologize, actualizes Ophelia's judgment and is one of the most convincing proofs that he is able of wrenching free from the ghost's influence.

Hamlet tries to persuade his mother that he is not so mad that his admonitions dare be ignored:

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses "skin" to mean a symptomatic cure, "...authority / Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself / That skins the vice o'the top, " (II,iii, 134-146). The inference is clear, but 'mining' offers the more significant interlace. Microcosmically, it is the mole's presence in the recesses of Gertrude's soul to which Hamlet refers, but macrocosmically, ghostly malevolence interlaces with the 'cellarage' scene:

Both Lavater's and Scot's opinion of devils tormenting miners will be considered in the next Chapter. For the present, the O.E.D., citing Hamlet's line, glosses mole as "one who works in darkness." Denotatively, mining per se is meant, but a connotative association with the devil, the prince of darkness, may be implied. The Renaissance still clung to literal interpretations of scripture, heaven was up and hell down, a belief still current, at least dramatically, in Paradise Lost where satan is cast out of heaven through uncreated chaos, down into the pit of fire that burns with no light. Such a plight, the ghost cannot describe to Hamlet.

Hamlet outlines Gertrude's salvation history with passionate intensity:

Now the focused anger of the 'sullied flesh' soliloquy finds a constructive outlet, not only for Gertrude but for Hamlet too. Implicit in his redemptive effort is also a selfish motive. If Claudius were removed and Gertrude saved, then non-ironically, the two conditions required for harmony would be actualized,. If the bedroom scene dramatizes Hamlet's consciousness in that regard, then he misunderstands the ghost's effect on what he is doing, something Horatio's warnings are meant to convey.

Hamlet, though, acknowledges the difficulty of Gertrude's burden by reminding her, in quasi-pornographic language, of Claudius as a moral degenerate: "bloat king," "pinch wanton," "reechy kisses,", and "Damn'd fingers," (ll.184-187), he reminds her. Is the ghost at work here?

The examination of III,iv, should conclude with Hamlet's treatment of Polonius, "I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room," (III,iv,214), he sarcastically declares. Hamlet is quite capable of simultaneously expressing gentle affection and overt cruelty. This emotionally derived dialectic occurs when his moral sensibilities are brutalized, especially by Gertrude's conduct. It is not that Hamlet regards Polonius' life as inconsequential; indeed the death will be a morally defined turning point for him, but rather Gertrude's behavior occasions such pain that the "...foolish prating knave..." seems to matter less. Has the ghost won an important victory?

Macrocosmically, the dialectic finds expression in Hamlet's awareness that Providence guides his existence, seeing to the unfolding of whatever fate he must endure. The belief is not new if we recall the end of Act I: "O cursed spite, / that ever i was born to set it right,: (I,v,196-197), but perhaps the attitude is. In other words, the resistance gradually synthesizes with acceptance, mitigating "cursed." As a moral crusader, Hamlet sees the time less 'out of joint,' and the implicit egoism in such a dialectic is indigenous to his character and must not be overlooked; it contributes to the development of the play's theological, if not scientific irony depending on how the "To be..." soliloquy is read. Is A ascending or descending?

We have discussed how Shakespeare dramatizes Claudius' abortive machinations to kill Hamlet. The disintegration implicit in his attempt--dramatized in Act IV--occurs because once allowed to grow, the 'vicious mole' becomes increasingly malignant. The characters' actions dramatize the growth, so there is only one major soliloquy in the act and none in Act V.

Early in IV,i, Gertrude, faithful to her promise, tells Claudius that Hamlet is "Mad as the sea and wind when both contend / Which is the mightier, (ll. 7-8). Ironically, Claudius' response attributes to Hamlet the very foulness he has perpetuated:

Claudius' preoccupation with corruption and disease continues; he speaks of "Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev'd / Or not at all." (IV,iii,9-11) thereby creating a parallel dialectic. Although the king appears in control, (B after III) the very use of disease imagery ironically foreshadows a synthesis obviously not intended: his death. In Claudius, the 'vicious mole' defies remission.

When questioned about Polonius, Hamlet taunts with disease imagery interlacing with the 'fishmonger' scene:

The interlace implies that hamlet sees Claudius as a pimp, one who has prostituted his mother; thus when he replies to the King's command that he make for England with , "I see a cherub that sees them, (l. 51), he assures Claudius that he knows his intention. The reference to 'cherub' connotes his trust in Providence, but can and will the ghost subvert the result?

Hamlet's final soliloquy, IV,iv, 32 ff., "How all occasions do inform..." contains little disease imagery beyond the significant mention of his mother being stained, (l. 57), His respect or Providence plus the impending departure make such references unnecessary. If he sees the macrocosm as subservient to God's will, then the concluding lines, "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth, (IV,iv,55-56) commit to public revenge unless the ghost can subvert the intent.

The dramatization of the catastrophe begins with the insane Ophelia, victim of Hamlet's brutality to her and of course Polonius. In Hamlet love can quickly become hate with the ghost's unleashing the vicious mole, but can the converse occur? Disease imagery figures incidentally but powerfully. Gertrude acknowledges her "...sick soul, as sin's true nature is..." (IV,v,17). Even Claudius is moved:

Since the mature tragedies generally lack the melodramatic flavor of a Richard III, we may feel some pity for Claudius but not much; that may await the more complete treatment of the character in Macbeth. Claudius is worse than Macbeth in some respects. While the latter is a moral but not a physical coward, Claudius is both as he calls for his guards when Laertes bursts in. (IV,v,94 ff).

Shakespeare's universe operates causally, occasioned by Providence's overseeing characters who often imperfectly plot their destinies influenced by corrupted wills, lusting appetites and supernatural agents exacerbating those conditions. What makes dramatic irony possible in that context is that often the characters receive what they most desire without understanding the consequences as Macbeth and Claudius do. Laertes thus succumbs to Claudius' entrapment without realizing he is but a pawn...

Just as the ghost "warms" Hamlet's sickness, so Claudius does for Laertes with the same result: death. Here macrocosm and microcosm symbolically converge, so that the ghost thinks what Claudius says, "For goodness, growing to a pleurisy. / Dies in his own too-much." (IV,vii,116-117). The idea expresses a fundamental paradox in Shakespearean tragedy: evil seems to generate from good which itself must suffer horribly before the good (macrocosmic / microcosmic harmony) be restored. In this play, the ghost is inextricably involved in ways alien and ironic to Hamlet's consciousness. Maybe he is too close to his situation to render objective judments--his intellect warns him of that possibility so he employs the dialectic and complements Horatio's wisdom which he may, nonetheless, not always follow, especially when the ghost is concerned.

As Shakespeare understood the power of metaphor to dramatize consciousness, he often constructed elaborate analogies to accomplish his intent. The metaphysics involved a fundamental dialectic that weds the pragmatic and observable to the intangible and supernatural:

Each selects and attempts to manipulate a victim, each uses disease imagery, and exemplifies the 'vicious mole's' growth. What therefore is the difference between the King to Laertes:

and the ghost to Hamlet:

And are not the responses likewise similar:


Both macrocosmic and microcosmic horrors correspond to promote the vicious mole's growth, dramatically and ironically. Thus Claudius proclaims, "No place indeed should murder sanctuarize; / Revenge should have no bounds." (IV,vii,126-127). The irony will visit Claudius in his own palace (B in decline), and does not the ghost demand the same revenge from Hamlet? Will irony likewise apply?

Ophelia's death inaugurates the catastrophe that culminates in Act V. Of it little is said beyond Gertrude's description and Laertes weeping which steels his revenge all the more. His "...speech of fire...' (l.189) and the water imagery suggests Lear's anguish when bound "...upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears / Do scald like molten lead." (IV,vii,46-48). Lear and Laertes suffer anguish born of their own misconceptions: Lear's from a failure to know himself, and Laertes from a failure to know Claudius. Grief can be easily manipulated to become revenge.

Death visits the final act with fury. The first scene, set in a graveyard, becomes a virtual allegory for what follows. Hamlet's participation and the tone recall the Ubi Sunt motif:

The impermanence of earthly existence demands a craving for immortality in a universe that appears to betray more than fulfill. Undoubtedly recalls the Gertrude interview--"Pinch wanton on your cheek"--nothing apparently sustains tranquillity.

The gravediggers prelude a greater woe; Hamlet's wrath is the synthesis of present reality and an ideal one of family unity and love; what might have been until the murder and the ghost:

Because Hamlet has do vigorously asserted the opposite even questioning her virtue, he may now be believed. Shakespeare dramatizes the synthesis, which finds an outlet ironically in a cemetery. Has the ghost won yet another victory?

The final scene is satiated with such bloody horror that the 'vicious mole' all but stalks the stage. Yet, Shakespeare carefully chooses counterpoints as if asking audience and character alike not to forget the dialectic:


The synthesis resolves much of the irony to which this Chapter has referred, but in a dramatic and not necessarily supernatural context. Although the mole's effects cannot so easily be negated, the lines do evidence a maturity uncommon to youth, however intelligent, but here mustered by suffering endured and inflicted. More blatantly, Hamlet's evaluation of Claudius recalls the 'vicious mole's' presence:

Despise the validity of the charges, there remains something self-righteous in the tone; that desire for the world to be set right by revenge--God's minister. Can the ghost pervert this aim? The lines could be a second theme passage: "whor'd" and "canker" are familiar by now, so the question concerns the degree of awareness. Of course, Hamlet has changed, and the righteousness with which he views his task is evidenced when he argues that Providence directs even the sparrow's fall. (V,ii,215-216). The question however becomes to what degree a malevolent ghost may modify Hamlet's resolve. Must it too be tested dialectically?

Disease imagery appears for the final time when Hamlet slays Claudius:

With Claudius' death, the cancer is excised, but the last line is difficult. Two opposite conclusions merit consideration. If Hamlet still wishes Claudius in hell, the implication appears to suggest that Gertrude too belongs there. Or, if Hamlet believes Gertrude did redeem herself, then Claudius deserves forgiveness after death. Considering that the Prince immediately forgives Laertes, an assumption might be that as long as public revenge has been executed, should God in his mercy forgive Claudius too?

Yet, that is countered by Hamlet's intense hatred for him, a malevolent ghost and his final lines:

Literally the explanation is clear, but if poison means the vicious mole's cancer, then Hamlet dies damning Claudius, Gertrude, and perhaps himself, so did the ghost win a great victory? The play appears to end as it began, with a question, but although it is very unwise to infer Shakespeare's personal conviction, might not Horatio's, "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest," (V,ii,365) imply that he intended Hamlet to be saved? If Boom is correct in asserting that Hamlet is a dramatization of Shakespeare's own intellect, then the bard may have had a personal reason for ending the play the way the line suggests. If so, is ghost a projection of some guilt Shakespeare felt insofar as his biography is not without marital discord? We do know he acted the ghost in productions. Bloom notes,

Dr. Johnson is Bloom's favorite critic, and there are shades of his influence in this assessment. For this study, however, a variant hypothesis might be that the ghost from hell wishes Hamlet to be more like himself, a "goblin damned."

Hamlet concerns diseases and its potential cure. The major characters become infected with moral decay, the mole's ultimate manifestation. Does Shakespeare allow Providence to restore harmony:

Hamlet as revenge tragedy offers bloody violence, metaphysical and moral horror, and many many questions. Shakespeare transcends the genre's elementary requirements, chiefly though his mastery of poetics and depth of characterization. By establishing a dominant motif of disease and corruption and skillfully developing it through a series of carefully chosen interlaces, always present in moments of dramatic and moral tension, he enhances the genre and provides a structure suggesting macrocosmic and microcosmic horror. How the ghost contributes to irony implicit in that analogy must be investigating by first dialectically proving malevolence.




(1) S.T. Coleridge. Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV in Elizabeth Schneider, (ed.). Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose. New York: Rinehardt and Winston, 1964, p. 271. (1871 edition).

(2) William Leary. Shakespeare Plain. New York: McGraw Hill, 1977, p. 174.

(3) S.T. Coleridge. Lecture Notes and Other Fragments in Thomas Raysor (ed.). Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism. New York: Everyman, 1964, p. 198.

(4) James, p. 230.

(5) Leary, p. 172.

(6) Variorum, p. 81.

(7) Wilson, p. 207.

(8) Bradley, p. 40.

(9) Macbeth in particularly rich in theme / motifs patterns: "Blood" for example appears over one hundred times, aptly focusing attention of the depth of evil to which the protagonist is capable. Significantly Banquo's warnings regarding the supernatural ("...can the devil speak true?") are cited in this study.

(10) Variorum, p. 82.

(11) That Hamlet believes man essentially good finds expression elsewhere, His, "O God I could be bounded in a nutshell..." (II,ii,254.) and "What a piece of work is a man..." (II,ii,303, ff.) are assumptions he dialectically tests. His disgust at Ophelia and Gertrude would not exist if the assumption were false.

(12) Variorum, p. 85. The critic, White, however cannot resist the attempt.

(13) Arden, p. 451.

(14) Arden, p. 201, note 35.

(15) The lines reveal a great deal about Hamlet's mind. The sonnets employ the same language of 'courtly love' but unlike Romeo who merely repeats conventional commonplaces, Hamlet speaks more substantially. Sonnet XXIX for example regards the "bootless cries" unheard by "deaf heaven" as the speaker curses his fate. In CXIX, the lover writes of Siren tears... / foul as hell within,... / Still losing what I saw myself to win!" Further, "Wretched error" cause a "madding fever!" Were Hamlet the traditional courtly lover, the despair might dissipate as Sonnets XXIX and CXXX imply, but he is not. No such conclusion is immediately possible, especially since a malevolent ghost does all it can to prevent one from occurring.

(16) The dialectic has its corresponding emotional dynamic which pervades the play, and profoundly influences cognition. Here is such an instance wherein Hamlet confronts both grief and joy, wishing for the latter but momentarily convinced that the former is more substantial; a condition the ghost must sustain, as Hamlet himself seems to know when thinking about the 'mousetrap.'

(17) To be considered in this study is Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Joan K. Peters in 1979 published an abridged edition, deleting the classical allusions, and noting in her introduction: "As foreign as some of Burton's terms and beliefs will be to the twentieth-century reader, it is remarkable how similar in its psychology and tone The Anatomy is to the "self help" books of our own era," See: The Anatomy of Melancholy (Milestones of Thought)., New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979, p.xv. The edition used in this study appeared in three volumes and is a reprint of the 1652 edition: New York: W. J, Widdleton, 1871.

(18) Lavater. Of ghoftes and fpirites walking by nyght. London, 1571, Part II, Chapter VII, p. 129.

(19) Scot. The Discoverie of Witchcraft. New York: Dover, 1972, p. 67.

(20) Scot, p. 68.

(21) Burton. The Anatomy of Melancholy. (Volume I) New York: J.D. Widdleton, 1871, Part I, Sec. 1. Member 2, Subsection X, p. 220.

(22) G. Wilson Knight. The Imperial Theme. London: University Paperbacks, 1965, p. 96 ff.

(23) Ernest Jones' psychological reading (Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Doubleday, 1954 ) calls the passage "savage," suggesting that although Hamlet intends no murder, the very mention of Nero, who murdered his mother, implies a subconscious desire to kill Gertrude for whom he harbors sexual jealousy, (p. 113). Dramatically, we have accounted for this "ID" being the "vicious mole's" presence. The point is if the mole were to grow unchecked, then perhaps Hamlet would kill her, but it has not yet reached that degree of potency, being checked by his desire to save her, which is precisely why the ghost wants her left to heaven--remove that command, and the spirit wins.

(24) An instructive parallel is Satan's soliloquy in Book IV of Paradise Lost.

(25) Hence, the graveyard imagery of the "witching time" soliloquy implies a preoccupation with the ghost's revenge command, but that "bitter business" must wait until Gertrude is confronted; an event therefore the ghost does not want to see happen.

(26) See Julius Caesar, (I,ii,54-78). Cassius, speaking to Brutus, offers his own consciousness as a "glass" wherein he may "discover,,, / That of yourself which you yet not know of."

(27) Shakespeare uses "heated" to convey resolute anger. See III Henry VI, "We'll never leave till we have thee down / Or bathed thy growing with our heated bloods." (II,ii,169-170). Othello too uses similar language when his calm is tested by Iago.

(28) Arden, p. 322. See Genesis: "In another dream, I saw seven years of grain, fat and healthy, growing...Behind them sprouted seven ears of grain, shriveled and thin and blasted by the east wind." Significantly in context, the good ears consume the thin ones.

(29) See: II Henry IV: "His Highness is fallen into this same whoreson apoplexy." (II,ii,125)

(30) See Lear: "...he hath even but slenderly known himself." (I,ii,290)

(31) Compare for example the Medieval lyric "Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Furent?" "Were beth they that bifore us weren, / Houndes ladden and havekes beren... / Were is that lawhing and that song,... / Al that joye is went away."

(32) Bloom, p. 387.