Hamlet Audience Essay

T. S. Eliot called Hamlet the Mona Lisa of drama (Selected Essays, 124), claiming that Shakespeare had overworked it without achieving a finished artifact, by which he seems to have meant one that neatly matched some formula such as only a Freudian could rationalize. In fact, structurally Hamlet matches one of the oldest and most effective plot lines in literary history, which we now see most often in the form of the detective story, as W. H. Auden has argued. A crime has been committed and some more or less well-meaning figure feels obliged to identify the criminal, prove guilt, and secure punishment. The pattern is at least as old as the Oedipus of Sophocles, which already involved the ironic twist of the investigator of a regicide discovering that he himself is the murderer he is pursuing. Hamlet has a similarly tortuous pattern: an intuition that the king his father was murdered by his usurping uncle encourages Hamlet to seek revenge, but he hesitates because the hallucination reinforcing his intuition does not present sufficient proof of his uncle's guilt. Hamlet defers justice while seeking to precipitate proof by increasingly provocative behavior, but accidentally kills his girlfriend's father in the mistaken belief that he has caught the king in a compromising position. At this point the pursuer of a murderer has himself become a homicide and in turn suffers the consequence of a diabolic revenge, which provides the proof he needs to justify the killing of his uncle. But in pursuing his own vengeance in response to the plot to kill him, he also kills his now-dead girlfriend's brother, and himself barely succeeds in executing his uncle before his own delayed death from poison. Like that of Oedipus, this story now looks like an orthodox Aristotelian tragedy of a gifted man falling to ruin through an error, in this case the mistaken killing of his potential father-in-law through excessive zeal. The high tally of resulting deaths (including the hero's mother, through another misdirected poisoning device of the uncle) leaves a shattering situation at the play's end, one depressing enough to ensure the negative feelings in the audience which Aristotle solicits from his ideal tragedy: empathy for the failed hero and fear of undergoing any similar experience. There seems little opportunity for the positive feelings evoked by the dual mode of tragedy preferred by Cinthio and Lope de Vega, that of tragedy with happy endings.

It is in this context that Eliot's complaint provides an avenue of escape from the rigorous Aristotelian formula. The play is indeed not tightly constructed and its digressions and variants tend to go off at so many tangents to the core story that the whole complex can be treated as a gigantic Rorschach test which can be interpreted any way one wants. This already achieves some of the audience involvement sought by Castelvetro, Cinthio, and Lope: the audience takes delight in achieving an interpretation transcending that allowed to the characters by the script. This satisfaction can be seen in the triumph of Ernest Jones and his followers in finding some ingenious kind of Freudian interpretation, or in the self-satisfaction of any other critic who believes he has found a definitive interpretation. In view of this consideration perhaps one might simply say that Shakespeare complicates his play deliberately to the point that almost any reasonable approach might seem to clarify the action somewhat, so that everyone, no matter what the assumptions, can achieve the pleasure of creating a plausible hypothesis. This would explain the multitude of conflicting interpretations historically accumulated by commentators, and might well be considered the terminating point for any critical discussion. In these terms no interpretation could ever be correct, since no possibility of solution was ever intended by the playwright; absolute impenetrability open to infinitely fascinating speculation was always his artistic aim.

The trap seems so well-designed for this purpose that avoidance of entrance is nearly impossible for an enthusiastic critic, though one may consider Cinthio and Lope as guides to its methods. For example, one may wonder why Purgatory and other Catholic terms are so frequent in the script while Hamlet is repeatedly identified as coming back to Denmark from the noted Reformation university of Wittenberg, where Luther established himself shortly after its foundation. In fact "Shakespeare and Catholicism" is the current fashionable topic among most Shakespeareans so there have been dozens of books published about Shakespeare's religion, which bear on the degree of Christianity registered in the world of Hamlet. Most agree religious implications are at least latent. One of the earlier of these studies, Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge, suggests revenge is unchristian whatever one's denomination, and that the play establishes this as an issue in Hamlet's hesitation about killing the usurper. Michael Wood's BBC Shakespeare program is remarkably committed to the new view that Shakespeare was a covert Catholic as the play's allusions suggest. This issue was first broached by scholars like Peter Millward (The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays, etc.), and gains some reinforcement from E. A. J. Honigman, Shakespeare: the "Lost Years", and Roy Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Christian Premises. One currently fashionable analyst of this issue is Stephen Greenblatt who has abandoned New Historicism for the religious bandwagon in focusing his book on the issue of Purgatory in Hamlet, but he is so personally hostile to Christianity that his work may be misleading for any deeper investigation.

For my own views about this tempting issue, I think that, like most Elizabethans, Shakespeare remained saturated in Catholic tradition whatever his formal commitment. He was surrounded by people who had been Catholics like his parents, and his mother's whole family the Ardens, not to mention the Earl of Southampton (see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580). As for Wittenberg, it was a newly founded university associated closely with Luther and the play's references are therefore quite significant. I see Hamlet as the new Puritan crashing into corrupt "ancien régime" Denmark, which would be more or less Catholic in a decadent kind of way, just as Angelo is going to reform corrupt Catholic Vienna in Measure for Measure. However, there is a further complication in that Shakespeare likes to telescope cultural history. King Lear is an ancient, pre-Roman British king, but Edgar was one of the great Anglo-Saxon kings a millennium later (as are names like Edmund, Oswald, etc. discussed in the later chapter on this play). Old Hamlet appears to be largely a pre-Christian Scandinavian monarch, dressed like Beowulf and committed to primitive rituals such as trial by duel: despite his hints of impending Christianity, his call for revenge seems pagan, even diabolic, as his son senses. So in one way the play is also about the need for the coming of Christian pacifism to the old revenge-structured pagan culture of Scandinavia, reflected in the brutal saga which is its ultimate source. By this view, young Hamlet aspires to reform Denmark in two senses, first in rejecting the heroic pagan values of the old sagas, and secondly as a Reformation Puritan repudiating the degenerate morals of much late medieval society. I think the play works well in both terms. So Hamlet is a reformer against his father's revenge culture, and also against the increasingly Machiavellian culture of old Catholic Europe, as reflected by his ambivalent uncle, a Borgia-like figure.

Perhaps this confident analysis merely illustrates my own entrapment into happily "explaining" Hamlet, but it may serve somewhat to heighten a sense of the multilayered structure of the play and its potential resonances with the playwright's own circumstances and the religious conditions at the time. It may even have been expedient for Shakespeare to confuse any theological framework for his play, for references to religion on stage were forbidden by the government, as we can see in the dropping of all Christian allusions found in the first quarto of Richard III in later editions of it after the edict was promulgated in 1606. Nevertheless, the play affords a genuine challenge to the audience to evaluate the behavior and motivations of young Hamlet through considering such issues as whether he is really mad, or just acting provocatively under stress, an issue complicated by the example of a more involuntary madness in Ophelia. If registered accurately and fully, the script is not just about Hamlet's situation and options for revenge, but about what happens to several young people whose fathers are killed, for this includes no fewer than four characters: Hamlet, Fortibras, Ophelia, and Laertes. This multiple situation further entangles audiences in debates about moral interpretation of the plot. Such uncertainty has proved so irresistible that the UC Shakespeare Forum at one point held a trial of Hamlet, based on evidence cited from the play by the cast of a production of Hamlet at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival, and presided over by Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Judge John Noonan (also an expert in canon law). The jury of about sixty UC Shakespeareans cleared Hamlet of the charges of treason and sexual harassment, but did find him guilty of homicide.

There can be no doubt that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to attract the sympathy of audiences substantially. This effect is the inevitable outcome of his numerous soliloquies, which tend to involve any audience in his point of view. Many years ago I saw a very youthful Hamlet at UC Irvine (directed by Robert Cohen) actually sit down on the edge of the stage and talk directly to the audience about his problems—the effect was staggeringly intimate and cathartic, though totally against both neoclassical decorum and Coleridgean suspension of disbelief. However, it made absolutely clear that the play was not a problem itself, but about problems: the nature of proof of guilt, the authority to impose justice, the validity of recourse to violence, not to mention the extent of children's dutifulness. Curiously enough, while Getrude is another of Shakespeare's obsessive mothers, like Constance and Volumnia, the issue of perverse mother-son relations hardly arises until the age of Freud. Hamlet's attack on his mother's sexuality appears more a part of his campaign to discredit and discomfort Claudius than an expression of personal possessiveness. At no point is there the least indication of physical exploitation in Hamlet's concern for his mother. In the sixteenth century, the issue of a man's marriage to his deceased brother's wife was not a morbid preoccupation of stage character, but the issue which decided the fate of England, for it was the occasion of Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, a specific which Shakespeare was to take up in due course in All Is True.

Another crucial aspect of the play's complexity is the play within the play, a favorite device of Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, not to mention the innumerable artificial events like Lear's mock trial of his daughters and the misleading dialogue which Iago stages with Cassio to confuse Othello. Why is Shakespeare so concerned with such demonstrations of artifice if not to distance his audiences from the emotions on stage, just as he makes Macbeth and Cleopatra at their moments of crisis allude directly to actors misplaying their roles? By using such alienation effects, Shakespeare must want a poised and thinking audience pleased by its intellectual and emotional superiority to the characters on stage, not an agonizing empathic one such as postulated by Aristotle. If this seems an imposition on this text, one has only to look at the behavior of Shakespeare's on-stage audiences to get clues about how he may expect the offstage audience to react. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the court audience on stage openly evaluates the inadequacy of the players of Pyramus and Thisbe to the point of direct discussion with them about whether their acting procedures are acceptable. The same open disruption of stage reality appears in the court's treatment of the Pageant of The Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare's choruses, prologues and epilogues to scripts like Henry IV, Part 2,Henry V, As You Like It, Pericles and Henry VIII all establish a similar open mutual awareness between casts and audiences for the full plays themselves.

These examples invite similar exploration of the handling of the two prominent performances staged within Hamlet: the speech of Pyrrhus from a supposedly neglected and unsuccessful Trojan play (analogous thus to Troilus and Cressida), and The Murder of Gonzago. These enactments are set in a context of sustained discussions of the theatre profession and acting techniques which elaborately remind every audience that they are watching a demonstration of professional skills, not surrendering credulously to self-projection into the action. The technical discussion invites us to compare the performance of the stage actors within the play to acts performed in "real life" on- or off-stage in terms of the play's world: staged re-enactments are obviously always remediable, the others are terrifyingly definitive. The Murder of Gonzago is treated by Hamlet as a purely artificial event in which he can directly intervene, just like courtiers with the performances in other Shakespearean plays within plays. Nevertheless, Claudius reacts physically to the enactment, since he leaves. Is this because we are to think that he believes he is seeing a real murder on stage? Surely not. He has supposedly applied the issue raised by the staged murder to his own previous experience, as we see in his later soliloquy exploring his life-circumstances (3.3). The relationship to his personal actions is exact, as his subsequent analytic soliloquy illustrates: in terms of the play's world, Claudius has become more aware of his own situation via the recreated one. So the point of such a play's relation to its audience may be to arouse awareness of an issue, leading to analysis and discussion of how to deal with related specific (not archetypal) experiences. Mere random emotional thrills are for horror movies and literal pot-boilers like Titus Andronicus or Disney World rides.

This rational outcome may be confirmed by examination of the effect of the Pyrrhus speech, which at first seems one of those needless digressions from the essential plot line that make the play overlong. On the contrary, it is another of these multiple analogues to the play's main story line that enrich and diversify the discussions it is designed to arouse. One of the issues most discussed about the whole play is Hamlet's long delay in effective action that has invited eager speculation about what identifiable cause for it was intended by Shakespeare. In fact Hamlet frequently expresses doubts about the moral authority of his father's ghost:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a dev'l, and the dev'l hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy.
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this.

The analogue of the evil effects of the weird sisters in Macbeth is surely relevant grounds for accepting the validity of Hamlet's doubts. Even the exact meaning of the departure of Claudius from Hamlet's play also remains subject to interpretation: a director can make the behavior so extravagant that it becomes fair evidence of guilt, but the script remains ambiguous, despite Hamlet's initial confidence about it as solid proof. Soon thereafter (3.3.73-96), whatever his momentary rationalization for it, Hamlet again hesitates to kill Claudius.

What is startling about the Pyrrhus speech is how its compressed action mirrors Hamlet hesitating to kill the king. Pyrrhus also seeks to kill his enemy Priam, King of Troy:

Unequal match'd
Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide,
But with the wiff and wind of his fell sword
Th'unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium.
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear; for low his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverent Priam, seem'd i'th'air to stick.
So like a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
But as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless, and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region; so after Pyrrhus' pause
A roused vegeance sets him new a-work.
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armor forg'd for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.

One cannot but be struck by the short line, "Did nothing," that leaves a metrical gap matching the pause in the action. Even the obsessed Pyrrhus hesitates before this last, fatal stoke, in which he matches Hamlet's own delay before an irrevocable act, which comparably gives Denmark over to the rule of its enemy. By contrast, the Norwegian Fortinbras has been forced to take his time over revenge and thereby secures retribution without even striking a blow. Inaction leads to success. The allusion to the Cyclops in the Pyrrhus speech subtly reinforces this crucial point, because at first sight his hammer blow is what counts, but in fact the revolt of the Titans against the gods failed, as we are reminded by the word "eterne" applied to Mars' armor, which cannot be shattered by such mere force. Inaction in uncertain matters appears to be the best initial response, as Hamlet initially intuits and finally consciously decides, though too late to extinguish the powder-train of violence he has fired by mistakenly killing Polonius. Even the Trojan implications of the Pyrrhus speech reinforce this conclusion, because every educated Elizabethan knew, if only from Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, that from the fall of Troy came the flight of Aeneas to Carthage and thence to Italy, which led to the founding of Rome. And the grandson of Aeneas was the Brutus who supposedly created and gave his name to ancient Britain. So the blow of Pyrrhus was ultimately not the end of Troy, but the initiation of the triumph of Trojan influence throughout the western world. Resort to violence may prove counterproductive to one's goals. Awareness of this startling implication throughout the play gives the perceptive spectator a rewarding sense of positive discovery transcending issues of mere pity and fear.

Once a spectator seizes on the possibility of such an interpretation a whole flood of parallels is detectable in the script: by failing to hesitate before verifying his victim's identity, Hamlet kills Polonius instead of Claudius. Mistakenly suspecting Claudius was his father's murderer, Laertes hastily leads a rebellion to punish the wrong man. However, by the end of the play Hamlet himself has ceased to be obsessive about action and no longer feels pressed to resolve situations prematurely:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't to leave betimes, let be.

It is surely not fortuitous that this allusion to the fall of a sparrow is taken from St. Matthew's Gospel, 10:29 when Jesus warns his hearers against usurping God's will. Any member of the Hamlet audience with an alert biblical sense (which probably meant most of them, in a Protestant nation) would recognize that by this point Hamlet is relaxed, pacific, even perhaps in a state of grace, since he quotes the New Testament with such conviction. Recognition of this moral advance from the surly, raging youth at the start of the play would be a pleasant experience for any spectator, as indeed would be Hamlet's increasing recovery of a sense of humor from the earlier point when he teases Polonius, or ridicules Rosencranz and Guildenstern, to his easy manners with the gravedigger. Such passages from Act Two onwards provide the audience with a welcome variety of pace, and relief from stress, which neither Aristotle nor rigorous neoclassicists like Voltaire would tolerate. These merry moments occur in scenes that Olivier played faultlessly in his film of Hamlet in comparison with the labored Freudianism of too many other serious parts of that film, which I got into trouble over with my high-school English teacher for insolently considering to be failures of insight. Kozintsev's film of Hamlet by contrast perpetually lightens the tone through such episodes, and he also heightens the pace and vividness of the action throughout in a way which keeps one's attention alert.

In only the broadest terms can Hamlet beconsidered a play conforming to the Aristotelian mode of tragedy, in which a talented individual makes a specific mistake which leads to his death. At the same time that it has this negative element in its conclusion, the play also has the positive outcomes specified by Cinthio as part of a tragedy with a double plot: if Hamlet is dead so is the usurping murderer Claudius and his henchmen, including the erratic Laertes, who ultimately repents of his murderous trickery, like Edmund in Lear. Cinthio specifies such a conclusion as the mark of the double-plotted tragedy: "it gives extraordinary pleasure to the spectator when he sees the astute trapped and deceived at the end of the play, and the unjust and wicked finally overthrown" (Gilbert, 257). Moreover, in performance the play systematically breaks almost all the rules attached to the single-plot tragedy, in the interest of offering the spectator positive rewards. Ironically the script requires Hamlet to attack the irregularity of popular drama which "makes the unskillful laugh" as when the clowns pre-empt attention "to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider'd" ( 3.2.25, 41-2). This might well apply to the black humor of the gravediggers. While Hamlet at times can be this condescending academic, mocking his live audiences in the yard, they are also distanced from him to the extent that he conforms to Lope de Vega's specifications for a lover: "wretched, unhappy, foolish and inept" (Gilbert, 548). Simple empathy with the hero is not maintained. On the other hand, the often confusing speech and behavior of Hamlet, while indecorous, would seem to be exciting to audiences by Lope de Vega's estimate: "Equivocal speech and uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd" (Gilbert, 547). Guarini also has no hesitation in rejecting Aristotelian decorum in his heroes: "do princes always act majestically?" (Gilbert, 508). So Hamlet's frequent descents into incoherence, humor and even buffoonery illustrate another trait that the play shares with tragicomedy.

I would like to conclude this systematically positivist interpretation of Hamlet by pointing out how it may drastically alter our sense of the play's most famous lines, always seen as reflecting Hamlet's option of evading the obligation to revenge by suicide, at least to interpreters like Goethe:

To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

The choices are clearly between patient survival and death. But the form of the latter outcome, supposedly suicide, is less simply expressed than it seems at first sight: "take arms" suggests something more than "a bare bodkin." The phrase invariably means "prepare for battle" and this is reinforced by the word "opposing"—in other words, the choices are to endure frustrating adversity without physical action (as does Fortinbras somewhat involuntarily) or to resort to militant opposition to the challenges, which will precipitate death, as indeed it does for armed activists in the play who resort unwisely to violent action, as both Hamlet and Laertes do mistakenly at moments of crisis. Thus Hamlet intuits in this famous speech that his real choice is not simply between inaction or suicide, but between patience and hasty action, which is suicidal. The wrong choice of the latter course is also the one made by Romeo, Othello, Macbeth, and even Antony. So the evidence for this pacifist interpretation is not limited to the script of Hamlet. But the best confirmation of this reading is surely Hamlet's own ideal of how human excellence is to behave:

As one in suff'ring all; that suffers nothing.
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well co-meddled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts.

This poised and yet relaxed condition in the face of complex adversity is one that Hamlet himself also finally attains, even though mere self-defense ultimately justifies him in decisive action at last. In the face of all the previous calculated complexities of the play, the perceptive audience's intended assent to this pacific principle is the playwright's greatest reward for them in Hamlet, as Lily B. Campbell has argued in Shakespeare's Heroes: Slaves of Passion.


Eliot, T. S. 1951. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Stephen Booth (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "On the Value of Hamlet" in Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, edited by Norman Rabkin, Columbia University Press, 1969, pp. 137-76.

[In the following essay, Booth reviews the events of Hamlet from the audience's perspective, arguing that the issues which critics have identified as problems with the play are made bearable in performance since the play provides the audience with "the strength and courage . . . to flirt with the frailty of its own understanding."]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hamlet as we have it—usually in a conservative conflation of the second quarto and first folio texts—is not really Hamlet. The very fact that the Hamlet we know is an editor-made text has furnished an illusion of firm ground for leaping conclusions that discrepancies between the probable and actual actions, statements, tone, and diction of Hamlet are accidents of its transmission. Thus, in much the spirit of editors correcting printer's errors, critics have proposed stage directions by which, for example, Hamlet can overhear the plot to test Polonius' diagnosis of Hamlet's affliction, or by which Hamlet can glimpse Polonius and Claudius actually spying on his interview with Ophelia. Either of these will make sense of Hamlet's improbable raging at Ophelia in III.i. The difficulty with such presumably corrective emendation is not only in knowing where to stop, but also in knowing whether to start. I hope to demonstrate that almost everything else in the play has, in its particular kind and scale, an improbability comparable to the improbability of the discrepancy between Hamlet's real and expected behavior to Ophelia; for the moment, I mean only to suggest that those of the elements of the text of Hamlet that are incontrovertibly accidental may by their presence have led critics to overestimate the distance between the Hamlet we have and the prelapsarian Hamlet to which they long to return.

I think also that the history of criticism shows us too ready to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something, but, as I said before, the accidents of our texts of Hamlet and the alluring analogies they father render Hamlet more liable to interpretive assistance than even the other plays of Shakespeare. Moreover, Hamlet was of course born into the culture of Western Europe, our culture, whose every thought—literary or nonliterary—is shaped by the Platonic presumption that the reality of anything is other than its apparent self In such a culture it is no wonder that critics prefer the word meaning (which implies effort rather than success) to saying, and that in turn they would rather talk about what a work says or shows (both of which suggest the hidden essence bared of the dross of physicality) than talk about what it does. Even stylistic critics are most comfortable and acceptable when they reveal that rhythm, syntax, diction, or (and above all) imagery are vehicles for meaning. Among people to whom "It means a lot to me" says "I value it," in a language where significant and valuable are synonyms, it was all but inevitable that a work with the peculiarities of Hamlet should have been treated as a distinguished and yearning failure.

Perhaps the value of Hamlet is where it is most measurable, in the degree to which it fulfills one or another of the fixable identities it suggests for itself or that are suggested for it, but I think that before we choose and argue for one of the ideal forms toward which Hamlet seems to be moving, and before we attribute its value to an exaggeration of the degree to which it gets there, it is reasonable to talk about what the play does do, and to test the suggestion that in a valued play what it does do is what we value. I propose to look at Hamlet for what it undeniably is: a succession of actions upon the understanding of an audience. I set my hypothetical audience to watch Hamlet in the text edited by Willard Farnham in The Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore, 1957), a text presumably too long to have fitted into the daylight available to a two o'clock performance, but still an approximation of what Shakespeare's company played.


The action that the first scene of Hamlet takes upon the understanding of its audience is like the action of the whole, and most of the individual actions that make up the whole. The first scene is insistently incoherent and just as insistently coherent. It frustrates and fulfills expectations simultaneously. The challenge and response in the first lines are perfectly predictable sentry-talk, but—as has been well and often observed—the challenger is the wrong man, the relieving sentry and not the one on duty. A similarly faint intellectual uneasiness is provoked when the first personal note in the play sets up expectations that the play then ignores. Francisco says, "For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold,/ And I am sick at heart" (I.i.8-9). We want to know why he is sick at heart. Several lines later Francisco leaves the stage and is forgotten. The scene continues smoothly as if the audience had never focused on Francisco's heartsickness. Twice in the space of less than a minute the audience has an opportunity to concern itself with a trouble that vanishes from consciousness almost before it is there. The wrong sentry challenges, and the other corrects the oddity instantly. Francisco is sick at heart, but neither he nor Bernardo gives any sign that further comment might be in order. The routine of sentry-go, its special diction, and its commonplaces continue across the audience's momentary tangential journey; the audience returns as if it and not the play had wandered. The audience's sensation of being unexpectedly and very slightly out of step is repeated regularly in Hamlet.

The first thing an audience in a theater wants to know is why it is in the theater. Even one that, like Shakespeare's audiences for Richard II or Julius Caesar or Hamlet, knows the story being dramatized wants to hear out the familiar terms of the situation and the terms of the particular new dramatization. Audiences want their bearings and expect them to be given. The first thing we see in Hamlet is a pair of sentries. The sight of sentries in real life is insignificant, but, when a work of art focuses on sentries, it is usually a sign that what they are guarding is going to be attacked. Thus, the first answer we have to the question "what is this play about?" is "military threat to a castle and a king," and that leads to our first specific question: "what is that threat?" Horatio's first question ("What, has this thing appeared again to-night?" I.i.21) is to some extent an answer to the audience's question; its terms are not military, but their implications are appropriately threatening. Bernardo then begins elaborate preparations to tell Horatio what the audience must hear if it is ever to be intellectually comfortable in the play. The audience has slightly adjusted its expectations to accord with a threat that is vaguely supernatural rather than military, but the metaphor of assault in which Bernardo prepares to carry the audience further along its new path of inquiry is pertinent to the one from which it has just deviated:

Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we two nights have seen.


We are led toward increased knowledge of the new object—the ghost—in terms appropriate to the one we assumed and have just abandoned—military assault. Bernardo's metaphor is obviously pertinent to his occupation as sentinel, but in the metaphor he is not the defender but the assailant of ears fortified against his story. As the audience listens, its understanding shifts from one system of pertinence to another; but each perceptible change in the direction of our concern or the terms of our thinking is balanced by the repetition of some continuing factor in the scene; the mind of the audience is in constant but gentle flux, always shifting but never completely leaving familiar ground.

Everyone onstage sits down to hear Bernardo speak of the events of the past two nights. The audience is invited to settle its mind for a long and desired explanation. The construction of Bernardo's speech suggests that it will go on for a long time; he takes three lines (I.i.35-38) to arrive at the grammatical subject of his sentence, and then, as he begins another parenthetical delay in his long journey toward a verb, "the bell then beating one," Enter Ghost. The interrupting action is not a simple interruption. The description is interrupted by a repetition of the action described. The entrance of the ghost duplicates on a larger scale the kind of mental experience we have had before. It both fulfills and frustrates our expectations: it is what we expect and desire, an action to account for our attention to sentinels; it is unexpected and unwanted, an interruption in the syntactical routine of the exposition that was on its way to fulfilling the same function. While the ghost is on the stage and during the speculation that immediately follows its departure, the futile efforts of Horatio and the sentries (who, as watchers and waiters, have resembled the audience from the start) are like those of the audience in its quest for information. Marcellus' statement about the ghost is a fair comment on the whole scene: "'Tis gone and will not answer" (I.i.52), and Horatio's "In what particular thought to work I know not" (I.i.67) describes the mental condition evoked in an audience by this particular dramatic presentation of events as well as it does that evoked in the character by the events of the fiction.

Horatio continues from there into the first statement in the play that is responsive to an audience's requirement of an opening scene, an indication of the nature and direction of the play to follow: "But, in the gross and scope of my opinion,/ This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I.i.68-69). That vague summary of the significance of the ghost is political, but only incidentally so because the audience, which was earlier attuned to political/military considerations, has now given its attention to the ghost. Then, with only the casual preamble of the word state, Marcellus asks a question irrelevant to the audience's newly primary concerns, precisely the question that no one asked when the audience first wanted to know why it was watching the sentries, the question about the fictional situation whose answer would have satisfied the audience's earlier question about its own situation: Marcellus asks "Why this same strict and most observant watch/ So nightly toils the subject of the land" (I.i.71-72). Again what we are given is and is not pertinent to our concerns and expectations. This particular variety among the manifestations of simultaneous and equal propriety and impropriety in Hamlet occurs over and over again. Throughout the play, the audience gets information or sees action it once wanted only after a new interest has superseded the old. For one example, when Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus arrive in the second scene (I.ii.159), they come to do what they promise to do at the end of scene one, where they tell the audience that the way to information about the ghost is through young Hamlet. By the time they arrive "where we shall find him most conveniently," the audience has a new concern—the relation of Claudius to Gertrude and of Hamlet to both. Of course interruptions of one train of thought by the introduction of another are not only common in Hamlet but a commonplace of literature in general. However, although the audience's frustrations and the celerity with which it transfers its concern are similar to those of audiences of, say, Dickens, there is the important difference in Hamlet that there are no sharp lines of demarcation. In Hamlet the audience does not so much shift its focus as come to find its focus shifted.

Again the first scene provides a type of the whole. When Marcellus asks why the guard is so strict, his question is rather more violent than not in its divergence from our concern for the boding of the ghost. The answer to Marcellus' question, however, quickly pertains to the subject of ours: Horatio's explanation of the political situation depends from actions of "Our last king,/ Whose image even but now appeared to us" (I.i.80-81), and his description of the activities of young Fortinbras as "The source of this our watch" is harnessed to our concern about the ghost by Bernardo, who says directly, if vaguely, that the political situation is pertinent to the walking of the ghost:

I think it be no other but e'en so.
Well may it sort that this portentous figure
Comes armèd through our watch so like the king
That was and is the question of these wars.


Horatio reinforces the relevance of politics to ghosts in a long speech about supernatural events on the eve of Julius Caesar's murder. Both these speeches establishing pertinence are good examples of the sort of thing I mean: both seem impertinent digressions, sufficiently so to have been omitted from the folios.

Now for the second time, Enter Ghost. The reentrance after a long and wandering digression is in itself an assertion of the continuity, constancy, and unity of the scene. Moreover, the situation into which the ghost reenters is a careful echo of the one into which it first entered, with the difference that the promised length of the earlier exposition is fulfilled in the second. These are the lines surrounding the first entrance; the italics are mine and indicate words, sounds, and substance echoed later:

Horatio. Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Bernardo. Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course t' illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one—

Enter Ghost.Marcellus. Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.


Two or three minutes later a similar situation takes shape in words that echo, and in some cases repeat, those at the earlier entrance:

Marcellus. Good now, sit down, and tell me he that knows,
Why this same sttict and most observant watch,
So nightly toils the subject of the land . . .

. . . . .

Enter GhostBut soft, behold, lo where it comes again!

(I.i.70-72, 126)

After the ghost departs on the crowing of the cock, the conversation, already extravagant and erring before the second apparition when it ranged from Danish history into Roman, meanders into a seemingly gratuitous preoccupation with the demonology of cocks (I.i. 148-65). Then—-into a scene that has from the irregularly regular entrance of the two sentinels been a succession of simultaneously expected and unexpected entrances—enters "the morn in russet mantle clad," bringing a great change from darkness to light, from the unknown and unnatural to the known and natural, but also presenting itself personified as another walker, one obviously relevant to the situation and to the discussion of crowing cocks, and one described in subdued but manifold echoes of the two entrances of the ghost. Notice particularly the multitude of different kinds of relationship in which "yon high eastward hill" echoes "yond same star that's westward from the pole":

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
Break we our watch up. . . .

(I.i. 166-68)

The three speeches (I.i. 148-73—Horatio's on the behavior of ghosts at cockcrow, Marcellus' on cocks at Christmas time, and Horatio's on the dawn) have four major elements running through them: cocks, spirits, sunrise, and the presence or absence of speech. All four are not present all the time, but the speeches have a sound of interconnection and relevance to one another. This at the same time that the substance of Marcellus' speech on Christmas is just as urgently irrelevant to the concerns of the scene. As a gratuitous discussion of Christianity, apparently linked to its context only by an accident of poulterer's lore, it is particularly irrelevant to the moral limits usual to revenge tragedy. The sequence of these last speeches is like the whole scene and the play in being both coherent and incoherent. Watching and comprehending the scene is an intellectual triumph for its audience. From sentence to sentence, from event to event, as the scene goes on it makes the mind of its audience capable of containing materials that seem always about to fly apart. The scene gives its audience a temporary and modest but real experience of being a superhumanly capable mental athlete. The whole play is like that.

During the first scene of Hamlet two things are threatened, one in the play, and one by the play. Throughout the scene the characters look at all threats as threats to the state, and specifically to the reigning king. As the king is threatened in scene one, so is the audience's understanding threatened by scene one. The audience wants some solid information about what is going on in this play. Scene one is set in the dark, and it leaves the audience in the dark. The first things the play teaches us to value are the order embodied in the king and the rational sureness, purpose, and order that the play as a play lacks in its first scene. Scene two presents both the desired orders at once and in one—the king, whose name even in scene one was not only synonymous with order but was the regular sign by which order was reasserted: the first confusion—who should challenge whom—was resolved in line three by "Long live the king"; and at the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus, Tightness and regularity were vouched for by "Friends to this ground. And liegemen to the Dane." As scene two begins it is everything the audience wanted most in scene one. Here it is daylight, everything is clear, everything is systematic. Unlike scene one, this scene is physically orderly; it begins with a royal procession, businesslike and unmistakable in its identity. Unlike the first scene, the second gives the audience all the information it could desire, and gives it neatly. The direct source of both information and orderliness is Claudius, who addresses himself one by one to the groups on the stage and to the problems of the realm, punctuating the units both with little statements of conclusion like "For all, our thanks" and "So much for him" (I.ii.16, 25), and with the word "now" (I.ii.17, 26, 42, 64), by which he signals each remove to a new listener and topic. Denmark and the play are both now orderly, and are so because of the king. In its specifics, scene two is the opposite of scene one. Moreover, where scene one presented an incoherent surface whose underlying coherence is only faintly felt, this scene is the opposite. In scene one the action taken by the scene—it makes its audience perceive diffusion and fusion, division and unification, difference and likeness at once—is only an incidental element in the action taken or discussed in the scene—the guards have trouble recognizing each other; the defense preparation "does not divide the Sunday from the week," and makes "the night joint-laborer with the day" (I.i.76, 78). In scene two the first subject taken up by Claudius, and the subject of first importance to Hamlet, is itself an instance of improbable unification—the unnatural natural union of Claudius and Gertrude. Where scene one brought its audience to feel coherence in incoherence by response to systems of organization other than those of logical or narrative sequence, scene two brings its audience to think of actions and characters alternately and sometimes nearly simultaneously in systems of value whose contradictory judgments rarely collide in the mind of an audience. From an uneasiness prompted by a sense of lack of order, unity, coherence, and continuity, we have progressed to an uneasiness prompted by a sense of their excess.

Claudius is everything the audience most valued in scene one, but he is also and at once contemptible. His first sentences are unifications in which his discretion overwhelms things whose natures are oppugnane The simple but contorted statement, "therefore our . . . sister . . . have we . . . taken to wife," takes Claudius more than six lines to say; it is plastered together with a succession of subordinate unnatural unions made smooth by rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and syntactical balance:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th'imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.


What he says is overly orderly. The rhythms and rhetoric by which he connects any contraries, moral or otherwise, are too smooth. Look at the complex phonetic equation that gives a sound of decorousness to the moral indecorum of "With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage." Claudius uses syntactical and rhetorical devices for equation by balance—as one would a particularly heavy and greasy cosmetic—to smooth over any inconsistencies whatsoever. Even his incidental diction is of joining: "jointress," "disjoint," "Colleaguèd" (I.ii.9, 20, 21). The excessively lubricated rhetoric by which Claudius makes unnatural connections between moral contraries is as gross and sweaty as the incestuous marriage itself The audience has double and contrary responses to Claudius, the unifier of contraries.

Scene two presents still another kind of double understanding in double frames of reference. Claudius is the primary figure in the hierarchy depicted—he is the king; he is also the character upon whom all the other characters focus their attention; he does most of the talking. An audience focuses its attention on him. On the other hand, one of the members of the royal procession was dressed all in black—a revenger to go with the presumably vengeful ghost in scene one. Moreover, the man in black is probably also the most famous actor in England (or at least of the company). The particulars of the scene make Claudius the focal figure, the genre and the particulars of a given performance focus the audience's attention on Hamlet.

When the two focuses come together ("But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son—") Hamlet's reply (I.ii.65) is spoken not to the king but to the audience. "A little more than kin, and less than kind" is the first thing spoken by Hamlet and the first thing spoken aside to the audience. With that line Hamlet takes the audience for his own, and gives himself to the audience as its agent on the stage. Hamlet and the audience are from this point in the play more firmly united than any other such pair in Shakespeare, and perhaps in dramatic literature.

Claudius' "my cousin Hamlet, and my son" is typical of his stylistic unifications of mutually exclusive contrary ideas (cousin, son). Hamlet's reply does not unify ideas, but disunifies them (more than kin, less than kind). However, the style in which Hamlet distinguishes is a caricature of Claudius' equations by rhetorical balance; here again, what interrupts the order, threatens coherence, and is strikingly at odds with its preamble is also a continuation by echo of what went before. Hamlet's parody of Claudius and his refusal to be folded into Claudius' rhetorical blanket is satisfying to an audience in need of assurance that it is not alone in its uneasiness at Claudius' rhetoric. On the other hand, the orderliness that the audience valued in scene two is abruptly destroyed by Hamlet's reply. At the moment Hamlet speaks his first line, the audience finds itself the champion of order in Denmark and in the play, and at the same time irrevocably allied to Hamlet—the one present threat to the order of both.


The play persists in taking its audience to the brink of intellectual terror. The mind of the audience is rarely far from the intellectual desperation of Claudius in the prayer scene when the systems in which he values his crown and queen collide with those in which he values his soul and peace of mind. For the duration of Hamlet the mind of the audience is as it might be if it could take on, or dared to try to take on, its experience whole, if it dared drop the humanly necessary intellectual crutches of compartmentalization, point of view, definition, and the idea of relevance, if it dared admit any subject for evaluation into any and all the systems of value to which at different times one human mind subscribes. The constant occupation of a sane mind is to choose, establish, and maintain frames of reference for the things of its experience; as the high value placed on artistic unity attests, one of the attractions of art is that it offers a degree of holiday from that occupation. As the creation of a human mind, art comes to its audience ready-fitted to the human mind; it has physical limits or limits of duration; its details are subordinated to one another in a hierarchy of importance. A play guarantees us that we will not have to select a direction for our attention; it offers us isolation from matter and considerations irrelevant to a particular focus or a particular subject. Hamlet is more nearly an exception to those rules than other satisfying and bearable works of art. That, perhaps, is the reason so much effort has gone into interpretations that presume that Hamlet, as it is, is not and was not satisfying and bearable. The subject of literature is often conflict, often conflict of values; but, though the agonies of decision, knowing, and valuing are often the objects of an audience's concern, an audience rarely undergoes or even approaches such agonies itself. That it should enjoy doing so seems unlikely, but in Hamlet the problems the audience thinks about and the intellectual action of thinking about them are very similar. Hamlet is the tragedy of an audience that cannot make up its mind.

One of the most efficient, reliable, and usual guarantees of isolation is genre. The appearance of a ghost in scene one suggests that the play will be a revenge tragedy. Hamlet does indeed turn out to be a revenge tragedy, but here genre does not provide the limited frame of reference that the revenge genre and genres in general usually establish. The archetypal revenge play is The Spanish Tragedy. In the first scene of that, a ghost and a personification, Revenge, walk out on the stage and spend a whole scene saying who they are, where they are, why they are there, what has happened, and what will happen. The ghost in The Spanish Tragedy gives more information in the first five lines of the play than there is in the whole first scene of Hamlet. In The Spanish Tragedy the ghost and Revenge act as a chorus for the play. They keep the doubt and turmoil of the characters from ever transferring themselves to the audience. They keep the audience safe from doubt, safely outside the action, looking on. In The Spanish Tragedy the act of revenge is presented as a moral necessity, just as, say, shooting the villain may be in a Western. Revenge plays were written by Christians and played to Christian audiences. Similarly, traditional American Westerns were written by and for believers faithful to the principles of the Constitution of the United States. The possibility that an audience's Christian belief that vengeance belongs only to God will color its understanding of revenge in The Spanish Tragedy is as unlikely as a modern film audience's consideration of a villain's civil rights when somebody shouts, "Head him off at the pass." The tension between revenge morality and the audience's own Christian morality was a source of vitality always available to Kyd and his followers, but one that they did not avail themselves of. Where they did not ignore moralities foreign to the vaguely Senecan ethic of the genre, they took steps to take the life out of conflicts between contrary systems of value.

When Christian morality invades a revenge play, as it does in III. xiii of The Spanish Tragedy when Hieronimo says Vindicta Mihi and then further echoes St. Paul's "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord," the quickly watered-down Christian position and the contrary position for which Hieronimo rejects it are presented as isolated categories between which the character must and does choose. The conflict is restricted to the stage and removed from the mind of the audience. The effect is not to make the contrariety of values a part of the audience's experience but to dispel the value system foreign to the genre, to file it away as, for the duration of the play, a dead issue. In its operations upon an audience of The Spanish Tragedy, the introduction and rejection of the Christian view of vengeance is roughly comparable to the hundreds of exchanges in hundreds of Westerns where the new schoolmarm says that the hero should go to the sheriff rather than try to outdraw the villain. The hero rarely gives an intellectually satisfying reason for taking the law into his own hands, but the mere fact that the pertinent moral alternative has been mentioned and rejected is ordinarily sufficient to allow the audience to join the hero in his morality without fear of further interruption from its own.

The audience of Hamlet is not allowed the intellectual comfort of isolation in the one system of values appropriate to the genre. In Hamlet the Christian context for valuing is persistently present. In I.V the ghost makes a standard revenge-tragedy statement of Hamlet's moral obligation to kill Claudius. The audience is quite ready to think in that frame of reference and does so. The ghost then—in the same breath—opens the audience's mind to the frame of reference least compatible with the genre. When he forbids vengeance upon Gertrude, he does so in specifically Christian terms: "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven . . ." (I.V. 85-86). Moreover, this ghost is at least as concerned that he lost the chance to confess before he died as he is that he lost his life at all.

Most of the time contradictory values do not collide in the audience's consciousness, but the topic of revenge is far from the only instance in which they live anxiously close to one another, so close to one another that, although the audience is not shaken in its faith in either of a pair of conflicting values, its mind remains in the uneasy state common in nonartistic experience but unusual for audiences of plays. The best example is the audience's thinking about suicide during Hamlet. The first mention of suicide comes already set into a Christian frame of reference by the clause in which self-slaughter is mentioned: "Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (I. ii. 131-32). In the course of the play, however, an audience evaluates suicide in all the different systems available to minds outside the comfortable limitations of art; from time to time in the play the audience thinks of suicide variously as (1) cause for damnation, (2) a heroic and generous action, (3) a cowardly action, and (4) a last sure way to peace. The audience moves from one to another system of values with a rapidity that human faith in the rational constancy of the human mind makes seem impossible. Look, for example, at the travels of the mind that listens to and understands what goes on between the specifically Christian death of Laertes (Laertes: ". . .Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,/ Nor thine on me."—Hamlet: "Heaven make thee free of it" V.ii.319-21) and the specifically Christian death of Hamlet (Horatio: ". . . Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest . . ." V.ii.348-48). During the intervening thirty lines the audience and the characters move from the Christian context in which Laertes' soul departs, into the familiar literary context where they can take Horatio's attempted suicide as the generous and heroic act it is (V.ii.324-31). Audience and characters have likewise no difficulty at all in understanding and accepting the label "felicity" for the destination of the suicide—even though Hamlet, the speaker of "Absent thee from felicity awhile" (V.ii.336), prefaces the statement with an incidental "By heaven" (V.ii.332), and even though Hamlet and the audience have spent a lot of time during the preceding three hours actively considering the extent to which a suicide's journey to "the undiscovered country" can be called "felicity" or predicted at all. When "Good night, sweet prince" is spoken by the antique Roman of twenty lines before, both he and the audience return to thinking in a Christian frame of reference, as if they had never been away.

The audience is undisturbed by a nearly endless supply of similar inconstancies in itself and the play; these are a few instances:

The same audience that scorned pretense when Hamlet knew not "seems" in I.ii admires his skill at pretense and detection in the next two acts.

The audience joins Hamlet both in admiration for the self-control by which the player "could force his soul so to his own conceit" that he could cry for Hecuba (II.ii.537), and in admiration for the very different self-control of Horatio (III.ii.51-71).

The audience, which presumably could not bear to see a literary hero stab an unarmed man at prayer, sees the justice of Hamlet's self-accusations of delay. The audience also agrees with the ghost when both have a full view of the corpse of Polonius, and when the ghost's diction is an active reminder of the weapon by which Hamlet has just attempted the acting of the dread command: "Do not forget. This visitation/ Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose" (III.iv.111-12).

The audience that sees the ghost and hears about its prison house in I.v also accepts the just as obvious truth of "the undiscovered country from whose bourn n o traveller returns. . . ."

What have come to be recognized as the problems of Hamlet arise at points where an audience's contrary responses come to consciousness. They are made bearable in performance (though not in recollection) by means similar to those by which the audience is carried across the quieter crises of scene one. In performance, at least, the play gives its audience strength and courage not only to flirt with the frailty of its own understanding but actually to survive conscious experiences of the Polonian foolishness of faith that things will follow only the rules of the particular logic in which we expect to see them. The best example of the audience's endurance of self-knowledge is its experiences of Hamlet's madness. In the last moments of Act I Hamlet makes Horatio, Marcellus, and the audience privy to his intention to pretend madness: " . . . How strange or odd some'er I bear myself/ (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on) . . ." (I.v. 170-73). The audience sets out into Act II knowing what Hamlet knows, knowing Hamlet's plans, and secure in its superiority to the characters who do not. (Usually an audience is superior to the central characters: it knows that Desdemona is innocent, Othello does not; it knows what it would do when Lear foolishly divides his kingdom; it knows how Birnam Wood came to come to Dunsinane. In Hamlet, however, the audience never knows what it would have done in Hamlet's situation; in fact, since the King's successful plot in the duel with Laertes changes Hamlet's situation so that he becomes as much the avenger of his own death as of his father's, the audience never knows what Hamlet would have done. Except for brief periods near the end of the play, the audience never has insight or knowledge superior to Hamlet's or, indeed, different from Hamlet's. Instead of having superiority to Hamlet, the audience goes into the second act to share the superiority of Hamlet.) The audience knows that Hamlet will play mad, and its expectations are quickly confirmed. Just seventy-five lines into Act II, Ophelia comes in and describes a kind of behavior in Hamlet that sounds like the behavior of a young man of limited theatrical ability who is pretending to be mad (II.i.77-84). Our confidence that this behavior so puzzling to others is well within our grasp is strengthened by the reminder of the ghost, the immediate cause of the promised pretense, in Ophelia's comparison of Hamlet to a creature "loosèd out of hell/ To speak of horrors."

Before Ophelia's entrance, II.i has presented an example of the baseness and foolishness of Polonius, the character upon whom both the audience and Hamlet exercise their superiority throughout Act II. Polonius seems base because he is arranging to spy on Laertes. He instructs his spy in ways to use the "bait of falsehood"—to find out directions by indirections (II.i.l-74). He is so sure that he knows everything, and so sure that his petty scheme is not only foolproof but brilliant, that he is as contemptible mentally as he is morally. The audience laughs at him because he loses his train of thought in pompous byways, so that, eventually, he forgets what he set out to say: "What was I about to say? . . . I was about to say something! Where did I leave?" (II.i.50-51). When Ophelia reports Hamlet's behavior, Polonius takes what is apparently Hamlet's bait: "Mad for thy love?" (II.i.85). He also thinks of (and then spends the rest of the act finding evidence for) a specific cause for Hamlet's madness: he is mad for love of Ophelia. The audience knows (1) Hamlet will pretend madness, (2) Polonius is a fool, and (3) what is actually bothering Hamlet. Through the rest of the act, the audience laughs at Polonius for being fooled by Hamlet. It continues to laugh at Polonius' inability to keep his mind on a track (II.ii.85-130); it also laughs at him for the opposite fault—he has a one-track mind and sees anything and everything as evidence that Hamlet is mad for love (II.ii. 173-212; 394-402). Hamlet, whom the audience knows and understands, spends a good part of the rest of the scene making Polonius demonstrate his foolishness.

Then, in Act III, scene one, the wise audience and the foolish Polonius both become lawful espials of Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia. Ophelia says that Hamlet made her believe he loved her. Hamlet's reply might just as well be delivered by the play to the audience: "You should not have believed me . . ." (III.i.117). In his next speech Hamlet appears suddenly, inexplicably, violently, and really mad—this before an audience whose chief identity for the last hour has consisted in its knowledge that Hamlet is only pretending. The audience finds itself guilty of Polonius' foolish confidence in predictable trains of events. It is presented with evidence for thinking just what it has considered other minds foolish for thinking—that Hamlet is mad, mad for love of an inconstant girl who has betrayed him. Polonius and the audience are the self-conscious and prideful knowers and understanders in the play. They both overestimate the degree of safety they have as innocent onlookers.

When Hamlet seems suddenly mad, the audience is likely for a minute to think that it is mad or that the play is mad. That happens several times in the course of the play; and the play helps audiences toward the decision that the trouble is in themselves. Each time the play seems insane, it also is obviously ordered, orderly, all of a piece. For example, in the case of Hamlet's truly odd behavior with Ophelia in III.i some of the stuff of his speeches to her has been otherwise applied but nonetheless present in the play before (fickleness, cosmetics). Furthermore, after the fact, the play often tells us how we should have reacted; here the King sums up the results of the Ophelia experiment as if they were exactly what the audience expected they would be (which is exactly what they were not): "Love? his affections do not that way tend,/. . . what he spoke . . . / Was not like madness" (III.i. 162-64). In the next scene, Hamlet enters perfectly sane, and lecturing, oddly enough, on what a play should be (III.ii.1-42). Whenever the play seems mad it drifts back into focus as if nothing odd had happened. The audience is encouraged to agree with the play that nothing did, to assume (as perhaps for other reasons it should) that its own intellect is inadequate. The audience pulls itself together, and goes on to another crisis of its understanding. Indeed, it had to do so in order to arrive at the crisis of the nunnery speech. At exactly the point where the audience receives the information that makes it so vulnerable to Hamlet's inexplicable behavior in the nunnery scene, the lines about the antic disposition (I.v. 170-73) act as a much needed explanation—after the fact of the audience's discomfort—of jocular behavior by Hamlet ("Art thou there, truepenny?" "You hear this fellow in the cellarage," "Well said, old mole!" I.v. 150-51, 162) that is foreign to his tone and attitude earlier in the scene, and that jars with the expectations aroused by the manner in which he and the play have been treating the ghost. For a moment, the play seems to be the work of a madman. Then Hamlet explains what he will do, and the audience is invited to feel lonely in foolishly failing to understand that that was what he was doing before.


The kind of experience an audience has of Hamlet in its large movements is duplicated—and more easily demonstrated—in the microcosm of its responses to brief passages. For example, the act of following the exchange initiated by Polonius' "What do you read, my Lord?" in II.ii is similar to the larger experience of coping with the whole career of Hamlet's madness:

Polonius. . . . What do you read, my Lord?

Hamlet. Words, words, words.

Polonius. What is the matter, my lord? Hamlet. Between who?

Polonius. I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

Hamlet. Slanders, sir, for the satirical rogue says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am if, like a crab, you could go backward.

Polonius. [aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't. . . .


The audience is full partner in the first two of Hamlet's comically absolute answers. The first answer is not what the questioner expects, and we laugh at the mental inflexibility that makes Polonius prey to frustration in an answer that takes the question literally rather than as it is customarily meant in similar contexts. In his first question Polonius assumes that what he says will have meaning only within the range appropriate to the context in which he speaks. In his second he acts to limit the frame of reference of the first question, but, because "What is the matter?" is a standard idiom in another context, it further widens the range of reasonable but unexpected understanding. On his third try Polonius achieves a question whose range is as limited as his meaning. The audience—composed of smug initiates in Hamlet's masquerade and companions in his cleverness—expects to revel further in the comic revelation of Polonius' limitations. Hamlet's answer begins by letting us laugh at the discomfiture inherent for Polonius in a list of "slanders" of old men. Because of its usual applications, the word "slander" suggests that what is so labeled is not only painful but untrue. Part of the joke here is that these slanders are true. When Hamlet finishes his list, he seems about to continue in the same vein and to demonstrate his madness by saying something like "All which, sir, though . . . , yet are lies." Instead, a syntactical machine ("though . . . yet"), rhetorical emphasis ("powerfully and potently"), and diction ("believe") suitable for the expected denial are used to admit the truth of the slanders: "All which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for you yourself, sir. . . ." The speech seems to have given up comic play on objection to slanders on grounds of untruth, and to be about to play from an understanding of "slander" as injurious whether true or not. The syntax of "I hold it not honesty . . . , for" signals that a reason for Hamlet's objections will follow, and—in a context where the relevance of the slanders to Polonius gives pain enough to justify suppression of geriatric commonplaces—"for you yourself, sir" signals the probable general direction of the explanation. So far the audience has followed Hamlet's wit without difficulty from one focus to another, but now the bottom falls out from under the audience's own Polonian assumption, in this case the assumption that Hamlet will pretend madness according to pattern: "for you yourself, sir, should be old as I am if, like a crab, you could go backward." This last is exactly the opposite of what Polonius calls it, this is madness without method.

The audience finds itself trying to hear sense in madness; it suddenly undergoes experience of the fact that Polonius' assumptions about cause and effect in life and language are no more arbitrary and vulnerable than its own. The audience has been where it has known that the idea of sanity is insane, but it is there very briefly; it feels momentarily lonely and lost—as it feels when it has failed to get a joke or when a joke has failed to be funny. The play continues blandly across the gulf. Polonius' comment reflects comically on the effects on him of the general subject of old age; the banter between Hamlet and Polonius picks up again; and Polonius continues his self-confident diagnostic asides to the audience. Moreover, the discussion of Hamlet's reading is enclosed by two passages that have strong nonlogical, nonsignificant likeness to one another in the incidental materials they share—breeding, childbearing, death, and walking:

Hamlet. For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—Have you a daughter?

Polonius. I have, my lord.

Hamlet. Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to't.

Polonius. [aside] How say you by that? Still harping on my daughter. Yet he knew me not at first. 'A said I was a fishmonger. 'A is far gone, far gone. And truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this. I'll speak to him again.—What do you read, my lord?

(II.ii. l81-90)

Polonius. [aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.—Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

Hamlet. Into my grave?

Polonius. Indeed, that's out of the air.[aside] How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. . . .


From beginning to end, in all sizes and kinds of materials, the play offers its audience an actual and continuing experience of perceiving a multitude of intense relationships in an equal multitude of different systems of coherence, systems not subordinated to one another in a hierarchy of relative power. The way to an answer to "What is so good about Hamlet?" may be in an answer to the same question about its most famous part, the "To be or not to be" soliloquy.

The soliloquy sets out with ostentatious deliberation, rationality, and precision. Hamlet fixes and limits his subject with authority and—considering that his carefully defined subject takes in everything humanly conceivable—with remarkable confidence: "To be, or not to be—that is the question." He then restates and further defines the question in four lines that echo the physical proportions of "To be or not to be" (two lines on the positive, two on the negative) and also echo the previous grammatical construction ("to suffer . . . or to take arms"):

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.


The speech is determinedly methodical about defining a pair of alternatives that should be as easily distinguishable as any pair imaginable; surely being and not being are distinct from one another. The next sentence continues the pattern of infinitives, but it develops the idea of "not to be" instead of continuing the positivenegative alternation followed before:

To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.


As an audience listens to and comprehends the three units "To die," "to sleep," and "No more," some intellectual uneasiness should impinge upon it. "To sleep" is in apposition to "to die," and their equation is usual and perfectly reasonable. However, death and sleep are also a traditional type of unlikeness; they could as well restate "to be or not to be" (to sleep or to die) as "not to be" alone. Moreover, since to die is to sleep, and is also to sleep no more, no vocal emphasis or no amount of editorial punctuation will limit the relationship between "to sleep" and "no more." Thus, when "and by a sleep to say we end . . ." reasserts the metaphoric equation of death and sleep, the listener feels a sudden and belated need to have heard "no more" as the isolated summary statement attempted by the punctuation of modern texts. What is happening here is that the apparently sure distinction between "to be" and "not to be" is becoming less and less easy to maintain. The process began even in the methodically precise first sentence where passivity to death-dealing slings and arrows described "to be," and the positive aggressive action of taking arms described the negative state, "not to be." Even earlier, the listener experienced a substantially irrelevant instability of relationship when "in the mind" attached first to "nobler," indicating the sphere of the nobility, and then to "suffer," indicating the sphere of the suffering: "nobler in the mind to suffer."

"The thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to" further denies the simplicity of the initial alternatives by opening the mind of the listener to considerations excluded by the isolated question whether it is more pleasant to live or to die; the substance of the phrase is a summary of the pains of life, but its particulars introduce the idea of duty. "Heir" is particularly relevant to the relationship and duty of Hamlet to his father; it also implies a continuation of conditions from generation to generation that is generally antithetical to any assumption of finality in death. The diction of the phrase also carries with it a suggestion of the Christian context in which flesh is heir to the punishment of Adam; the specifically religious word "devoutly" in the next sentence opens the idea of suicide to the Christian ethic from which the narrowed limits of the first sentences had briefly freed it.

While the logical limits and controls of the speech are falling away, its illogical patterns are giving it their own coherence. For example, the constancy of the infinitive construction maintains an impression that the speech is proceeding as methodically as it began; the word "to," in its infinitive use and otherwise, appears thirteen times among the eighty-five words in the first ten lines of the soliloquy. At the same time that the listener is having trouble comprehending the successive contradictions of "To die, to sleep—/ No more—and by a sleep to say we end . . . ," he also hears at the moment of crisis a confirming echo of the first three syllables and the word "end" from "and by opposing end them" in the first three syllables and word "end" in "and by a sleep to say we end." As the speech goes on, as it loses more and more of its rational precision, and as "to be" and "not to be" become less and less distinguishable, rhetorical coherence continues in force. The next movement of the speech begins with a direct repetition, in the same metrical position in the line, of the words with which the previous movement began: "To die, to sleep." The new movement seems, as each new movement has seemed, to introduce a restatement of what has gone before; the rhetorical construction of the speech insists that all the speech does is make the distinct natures of "to be" and "not to be" clearer and clearer:

To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.


As Hamlet describes his increasing difficulty in seeing death as the simple opposite of life, the manner of his description gives his listener an actual experience of that difficulty; "shuffled off this mortal coil" says "cast off the turmoil of this life," but "shuffled of f and "coil" both suggest the rejuvenation of a snake which, having once thrown her enamell'd skin, reveals another just like it underneath. The listener also continues to have difficulty with the simple action of understanding; like the nature of the things discussed, the natures of the sentences change as they are perceived: "what dreams may come" is a common construction for a question, and the line that follows sounds like a subordinate continuation of the question; it is not until we hear "must give us pause" that we discover that "what dreams may come" is a noun phrase, the subject of a declarative sentence that only comes into being with the late appearance of an unexpected verb. In the next sentence ("There's the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life"), logic requires that we understand "makes calamity so long-lived," but our habitual understanding of makes . . . of constructions and our recent indoctrination in the pains of life make us likely to hear the contradictory, illogical, and yet appropriate "makes a long life a calamity."

Again, however, the lines sound ordered and reasonable. The rejected first impressions I have just described are immediately followed by a real question, and one that is largely an insistently long list of things that make life a monotonously painful series of calamities. Moreover, nonlogical coherence is provided by the quiet and intricate harmony of "to dream," "of death," and "shuffled of f in the metrical centers of three successive lines; by the echo of the solidly metaphoric "there's the rub" in the vague "there's the respect"; and by the repetition of "for" from "For in that sleep" to begin the next section of the speech.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?


Although the list in the first question is disjointed and rhythmically frantic, the impression of disorder is countered by the regularity of the definite article, and by the inherently conjunctive action of six possessives. The possessives in 's, the possessives in of and the several nonpossessive of constructions are themselves an underlying pattern of simultaneous likeness and difference. So is the illogical pattern present in the idea of burdens, the word "bear," and the word "bare." The line in which the first of these questions ends and the second begins is an epitome of the construction and action of the speech: "With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,. . . ." The two precisely equal halves of a single rhythmic unit hold together two separate syntactical units. The beginning of the new sentence, "Who would fardels bear," echoes both the beginning, "For who would bear," and the sound of one word, "bare," from the end of the old. Moreover, "bare" and "bear," two words that are both the same and different, participate here in statements of the two undistinguishable alternatives: "to be, or not to be"—to bear fardels, or to kill oneself with a bare bodkin.

The end of the speech sounds like the rationally achieved conclusion of just such a rational investigation as Hamlet began. It begins with thus,

0 thoughts on “Hamlet Audience Essay”


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *