Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
Laurence Olivier once referred to Hamlet as the story of a man who can’t make up his mind. While there are elements of indecisiveness in Hamlet’s actions, to say he can’t make up his mind is a gross over-simplification of his situation. Hamlet knows what must be done, but doesn’t know if he has the moral fortitude to carry out what needs to happen. Hamlet serves as a redemptive figure in the play, lamenting the “heavy-headed revel” the country has fallen into, and from the end of Act I, Hamlet realizes that to redeem his country, he may have to pay the ultimate price, losing his life in the bargain. “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” These are issues he tackles in his most famous speech, “To be or not to be.”
Contrary to modern interpretations, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is not about suicide. It’s about sacrificing oneself for the greater good. While his “O that this too too solid flesh” speech in Act I does touch on the issue of “self slaughter” by Act III, Hamlet realizes that if he’s to confront the king over the accusations the ghost has made, he’ll be putting himself in harm’s way. Even if he manages to slay Claudius, he may not have justification enough to save his own life afterward. Regicide, the murder of a king, was both a serious accusation to level against another, as well as a difficult crime to defend against. Generally speaking, ghosts of dead kings make lousy witnesses in court, and there may not be enough remaining evidence for Hamlet to challenge the elected ruler, particularly since he stands to gain the throne himself, making his intentions suspect. By whatever means Claudius gained the throne, he made enough of a case before his peers to justify becoming king over his nephew, who may have been viewed as too thoughtful and not decisive enough to rule with the increasing tensions brought about by Old Hamlet’s death.
Early in the play, Claudius puts on a good show of being in charge, dispatching ambassadors to Norway, granting leave for Laertes to return to France, and attempting to get to the bottom of Hamlet’s discontent. He appears to be a man at the height of his powers, and at this point, the momentum definitely rests with him. The play is essentially a balancing act between Hamlet and Claudius. At the beginning, Claudius is confident and in charge, and as the first two acts unfold, Hamlet slowly balances the scales up to the point at which he springs the play within a play. At that point, the scale temporarily tips in his favor, leaving Claudius to scramble to regain the upper hand. Hamlet knows the truth about his uncle, and whether or not Claudius is fully aware that Hamlet knows of the murder, he at least knows Hamlet is a real enough threat that needs to be eliminated. It’s at this point where we finally begin to see cracks in the elaborate facade Claudius has built around himself. He acknowledges, at least to himself in private, that he’s guilty of the murder of Old Hamlet, and regrets not being conciliatory enough to purge himself of the crime through his prayers.
Shakespeare frames the story using the tale of Old Hamlet versus Old Fortinbras thirty years earlier, as related by Horatio in the first scene of the play. Provoked by Old Fortinbras, Old Hamlet defeated him in single combat, thereby securing his kingdom, all of which happened on the day Hamlet was born, as we learn in the scene with the gravedigger in Act V. Now, with Old Hamlet dead, and Hamlet not the successor, the throne is no longer secured, and recent actions by Fortinbras make it seem he’s preparing to test his claim to the kingdom. Thus we have the “warlike” preparations with which we begin the play, as Claudius, anxious to secure his rule, prepares for a threatened attack by Fortinbras. Throughout, Horatio serves as a sort of silent observer and narrator, filling in crucial plot points, and being the one entrusted by Hamlet at the end to convey the story.
It seems appropriate that Polonius spends so much time hiding behind curtains, because so much of the play happens behind the scenes. The murder of the king, the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet’s alleged interactions with Ophelia, Ophelia’s death, and most of what happens with Fortinbras, all happen offstage and are related to the audience through one of the characters. In fact, a large portion of the play is consumed with filling in facts not exhibited onstage. Most of Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia happen offstage and are only known via what she says about them, and the audience has a right to be skeptical of the accounts.
The framing device of Fortinbras is often left out of modern adaptations, primarily due to time constraints, and I believe the play loses something in doing so. As written, it provides us with another level of complexity in which to interpret the story, and lends weight to the ghost’s claim that he must walk the earth, “Until the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away” thus suggesting an ulterior motive for Old Hamlet’s demand for revenge. It provides the play with the outer circle of Old Hamlet killing Old Fortinbras in single combat, followed by Claudius killing Old Hamlet and usurping his kingdom, then Hamlet killing Polonius, provoking Laertes’ revenge against Hamlet which leads to Laertes death as well, and finally, Hamlet killing Claudius before dying himself. Hamlet’s only act as successor to the throne is to name Fortinbras as his successor, thereby restoring to Fortinbras the kingdom Old Hamlet took from his father, and bringing the story full-circle.
One reason Hamlet may resonate with audiences is because its basic story echoes some of the oldest mythic traditions in humankind, in particular those of the fertility gods such as Attis and Adonis. Hamlet serves as just this sort of redeeming figure, the sacrificial king who, by his death, purges his land of its corruption. This is a theme as old as civilization itself, as early agrarian societies lived by the ebb and flow of the seasons, growth in the summer, harvest in the Fall, death in the winter, rebirth in the spring. Myths of dying saviors such as Attis feature the same sort of sacrifice, the blood of the dying king rejuvenating the soil, making it fertile again. Early succession rituals celebrated the dead king reborn in the person of the son. It’s no surprise that Hamlet is said to be thirty years old, the same age Jesus is reported to be in the Gospels, as both serve a similarly redemptive role in his respective story.
The main source for Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears to have been Gesta Danorum, a collection of myths and histories set in Denmark and written by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century. Shakespeare most likely used the French translation by Francois Belleforest, which came out in 1570 and is said to have more direct parallels to Shakespeare’s story. The story told by Shakespeare was further altered to fit into the conventions of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. The parallels between Saxo Grammaticus’ story to Shakespeare’s include the murder of an eavesdropping courtier, and a visit to England meant to dispose of the prince. In the original Danish story, Amleth, as he’s known, makes it to England, raises an army and successfully opposes his uncle for the throne. Saxo’s Amleth is fully a man of action, though he, too, feigns madness to avoid detection by his uncle.
The story of a usurped king and his avenging son, with a murdering uncle and fickle queen, seems to also echo the myths surrounding Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, which are, themselves, echoes of the Egyptian myths of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Orestes, the avenging son in this tale, is a descendant of the cursed House of Atreus, which arose from the grandsons of Tantalus. Part of the story of Agamemnon parallels that of Jephthah in Judges 11:34-39, which Hamlet alludes to while talking to Polonius about Ophelia. Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, in part for the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan war. Clytemnestra also has an affair with Agamemnon’s adopted brother Aegisthus, who takes part in the murder. In the stories surrounding Orestes, he takes revenge by killing both his mother and his uncle and in some dramatizations, Orestes is driven mad by his actions, which finds it’s parallel in Hamlet’s feigned madness in both Saxo’s and Shakespeare’s work. Whereas the god Apollo instructs Orestes to kill Clytemnestra, with Hamlet, the ghost explicitly tells him the opposite in regards to his mother, “Leave her to heaven.”
Play within a play within a play?
The play we know as Hamlet may have been revised from an infamous earlier attempt by Shakespeare or another playwright, which had met with considerable derision from critics of his time. The existing play makes a number of references to this earlier attempt throughout, in particular while Hamlet is instructing the actors, though there are other subtle references to it elsewhere in the play. From the references in Shakespeare’s play, we can surmise it must have been badly over-written and over-acted. “The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,” Hamlet says during the play within a play, which sounds suspiciously like something a critic might say, and may have been lifted from an actual review of the original work. Other scenes feature lines which also seem to be recalling an earlier failed attempt, such as Act III, Scene II, where Hamlet tells the players:
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.”
The language again suggests the words of a critic, and may have been taken verbatim from what people were saying about the original.
After dispatching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with Hamlet, Claudius makes a speech in which, on the surface, he seems to be asking England to rid him of his problematic nephew. One can imagine, however, the playwright himself standing before the audience speaking the lines, asking them to kill the memory of the previous play:
“…thou mayst not coldly set
Our sovereign process; which imports at full,
By letters congruing to that effect,
The present death of Hamlet. Do it, England;
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me…”
If Hamlet does originate with an earlier attempt by Shakespeare, perhaps the parallels to Greek mythology place the original closer to the time Titus Andronicus was written, as it, too, contains passages which seem to reference the myths surrounding the House of Atreus. In particular, the manner in which Atreus takes revenge on his brother Thyestes finds itself recreated in how Titus avenges himself against Tamora and Saturninus. Niobe, the aunt of Atreus and Thyestes, who’s turned to stone and weeps continuously over the loss of her children as punishment for insulting Demeter, is mentioned by Hamlet in his “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy at the end of Act II. At the conclusion of Orestes’ story, he atones for the sins of his family and lifts the curse from the House of Atreus. Hamlet is not so lucky, as evidenced by one of his last speeches where he implores Horatio to tell his story (Act V, Scene II):
“…what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!”
Despite Hamlet’s redemptive function within the play, Shakespeare does not make it part of Hamlet’s destiny to become king himself. To this end, the murder of Polonius, Hamlet’s one impulsive act within the play, serves its function, sullying Hamlet, and garnering the vengeance of Laertes. In the end, though, Hamlet completes his mission, and in his sole act as king, by conveying the election lights on Fortinbras, he turns the kingdom over to someone who can restore order to the land. The dying king takes upon himself the sins of his people, thereby clearing the slate and allowing them to start anew. The cycle of death and renewal continues on.
Online resource for Saxo Grammaticus.
The Golden Bough at Bartleby. Resource for mythic savior/kings.
Sources of Hamlet, at Wikipedia.