Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Hamlet, prince of Denmark
A recurring motif in Hamlet is of a seemingly healthy exterior concealing an interior sickness. Mere pretense of virtue, as Hamlet warns his mother, “will but skin and film the ulcerous place, / While rank corruption, mining all within, / Infects unseen” (3.4.154—6). Polonius confesses, when he is about to use his daughter as a decoy for Hamlet, that “with devotion’s visage / And pious action we do sugar o’er / The devil himself”; and his observation elicits a more anguished mea culpa from Claudius in an aside: “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! / The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word” (3.1.47—54).
This motif of concealed evil and disease continually reminds us that, in both a specific and a broader sense, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). The specific source of contamination is a poison: the poison with which Claudius has killed Hamlet’s father, the poison in the players’ enactment of “The Murder of Gonzago,” and the two poisons (envenomed sword and poisoned drink) with which Claudius and Laertes plot to rid themselves of young Hamlet. More generally, the poison is an evil nature seeking to destroy humanity’s better self, as in the archetypal murder of Abel by Cain. “Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven,” laments Claudius, “It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (3.3.36—8). To Hamlet, his father and Claudius typify what is best and worst in humanity; one is the sun-god Hyperion and the other a satyr. Claudius is a “serpent” and a “mildewed ear, / Blasting his wholesome brother” (1.5.40; 3.4.65—6). Many a person, in Hamlet’s view, is tragically destined to behold his or her better qualities corrupted by “some vicious mole of nature” over which the individual seems to have no control. “His virtues else, be they as pure as grace, / As infinite as man may undergo, / Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault.” The “dram of evil” pollutes “all the noble substance” (1.4.24—37). Thus, poison spreads outward to infect the whole individual, just as bad individuals can infect an entire court or nation.
Hamlet, his mind attuned to philosophical matters, is keenly and poetically aware of humanity’s fallen condition. He is, moreover, a shrewd observer of the Danish court, familiar with its ways and at the same time newly returned from abroad, looking at Denmark with a stranger’s eyes. What particularly darkens his view of humanity, however, is not the general fact of corrupted human nature but rather Hamlet’s knowledge of a dreadful secret. Even before he learns of his father’s murder, Hamlet senses that there is something more deeply amiss than his mother’s overhasty marriage to her deceased husband’s brother. This is serious enough, to be sure, for it violates a taboo (parallel to the marriage of a widower to his deceased wife’s sister, long regarded as incestuous by the English) and is thus understandably referred to as “incest” by Hamlet and his father’s ghost. The appalling spectacle of Gertrude’s “wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (1.2.156—7) overwhelms Hamlet with revulsion at carnal appetite and intensifies the emotional crisis any son would go through when forced to contemplate his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage. Still, the Ghost’s revelation is of something far worse, something Hamlet has subconsciously feared and suspected. “Oh, my prophetic soul! My uncle!” (1.5.42). Now Hamlet believes he has confirming evidence for his intuition that the world itself is “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135—7).
Something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. The monarch on whom the health and safety of the kingdom depend is a murderer. Yet few persons know his secret: Hamlet, Horatio only belatedly, Claudius himself, and ourselves as audience. Many ironies and misunderstandings within the play cannot be understood without a proper awareness of this gap between Hamlet’s knowledge and most others’ ignorance of the murder. For, according to their own lights, Polonius and the rest behave as courtiers normally behave, obeying and flattering a king who has been chosen by a constitutional process of “election” and therefore can claim to be their legitimate ruler. They do not know that he is a murderer. Hamlet, for his part, is so obsessed with the secret murder that he overreacts to those around him, rejecting overtures of friendship and becoming embittered, callous, brutal, and even violent. His antisocial behavior gives the others good reason to fear him as a menace to the state. Nevertheless, we share with Hamlet a knowledge of the truth and know that he is right, whereas the others are at best unhappily deceived by their own blind complicity in evil.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for instance, are boyhood friends of Hamlet but are now dependent on the favor of King Claudius. Despite their seeming concern for their one-time comrade and Hamlet’s initial pleasure in receiving them, they are faceless courtiers whose very names, like their personalities, are virtually interchangeable. “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,” says the King, and “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” echoes the Queen (2.2.33—4). They cannot understand why Hamlet increasingly mocks their overtures of friendship, whereas Hamlet cannot stomach their subservience to the King. The secret murder divides Hamlet from them, since only he knows of it. As the confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius grows more deadly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not knowing the true cause, can only interpret Hamlet’s behavior as dangerous madness. The wild display he puts on during the performance of “The Murder of Gonzago” and then the killing of Polonius are evidence of a treasonous threat to the crown, eliciting from them staunch assertions of the divine right of kings. “Most holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many many bodies safe / That live and feed upon Your Majesty,” professes Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz reiterates the theme: “The cess of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What’s near it with it” (3.3.8—17). These sentiments of Elizabethan orthodoxy, similar to ones frequently heard in Shakespeare’s history plays, are here undercut by a devastating irony, since they are spoken unwittingly in defense of a murderer. This irony pursues Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their graves, for they are killed performing what they see as their duty to convey Hamlet safely to England. They are as ignorant of Claudius’s secret orders for the murder of Hamlet in England as they are of Claudius’s real reason for wishing to be rid of his stepson. That Hamlet should ingeniously remove the secret commission from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s packet and substitute an order for their execution is ironically fitting, even though they are guiltless of having plotted Hamlet’s death. “Why, man, they did make love to this employment,” says Hamlet to Horatio. “They are not near my conscience. Their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow” (5.2.57—9). They have condemned themselves, in Hamlet’s eyes, by interceding officiously in deadly affairs of which they had no comprehension. Hamlet’s judgment of them is harsh, and he himself appears hardened and pitiless in his role as agent in their deaths, but he is right that they have courted their own destiny.
Polonius, too, dies for meddling. It seems an unfair fate, since he wishes no physical harm to Hamlet and is only trying to ingratiate himself with Claudius. Yet Polonius’s complicity in jaded court politics is deeper than his fatuous parental sententiousness might lead one to suppose. His famous advice to his son, often quoted out of context as though it were wise counsel, is, in fact, a worldly gospel of self-interest and concern for appearances. Like his son, Laertes, he cynically presumes that Hamlet’s affection for Ophelia cannot be serious, since princes are not free to marry ladies of the court; accordingly, Polonius obliges his daughter to return the love letters she so cherishes. Polonius’s spies are everywhere, seeking to entrap Polonius’s own son in fleshly sin or to discover symptoms of Hamlet’s presumed lovesickness. Polonius may cut a ridiculous figure as a prattling busybody, but he is wily and even menacing in his intent. He has actually helped Claudius to the throne and is an essential instrument of royal policy. His ineffectuality and ignorance of the murder do not really excuse his guilty involvement.
Ophelia is more innocent than her father and brother, and more truly affectionate toward Hamlet. She earns our sympathy because she is caught between the conflicting wills of the men who are supremely important to her—her wooer, her father, and her brother. Obedient by instinct and training to patriarchal instruction, she is unprepared to cope with divided authority and so takes refuge in passivity. Nevertheless, her pitiable story suggests that weak-willed acquiescence is poisoned by the evil to which it surrenders. However passively, Ophelia becomes an instrument through which Claudius attempts to spy on Hamlet. She is much like Gertrude, for the Queen has yielded to Claudius’s importunity without ever knowing fully what awful price Claudius has paid for her and for the throne. The resemblance between Ophelia and Gertrude confirms Hamlet’s tendency to generalize about feminine weakness—“frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146)—and prompts his misogynistic outburst against Ophelia when he concludes she, too, is spying on him. His rejection of love and friendship (except for Horatio’s) seems paranoid in character and yet is at least partially justified by the fact that so many of the court are in fact conspiring to learn what he is up to.
Their oversimplification of his dilemma and their facile analyses vex Hamlet as much as their meddling. When they presume to diagnose his malady, the courtiers actually reveal more about themselves than about Hamlet—something we as readers and viewers might well bear in mind. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think in political terms, reflecting their own ambitious natures, and Hamlet takes mordant delight in leading them on. “Sir, I lack advancement,” he mockingly answers Rosencrantz’s questioning as to the cause of his distemper. Rosencrantz is immediately taken in: “How can that be, when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark?” (3.2.338—41). Actually, Hamlet does hold a grudge against Claudius for having “Popped in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2.65), using the Danish custom of “election” by the chief lords of the realm to deprive young Hamlet of the succession that would normally have been his. Nevertheless, it is a gross oversimplification to suppose that political frustration is the key to Hamlet’s sorrow, and to speculate thus is presumptuous. “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!” Hamlet protests to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery” (3.2.362—5). An even worse offender in the distortion of complex truth is Polonius, whose facile diagnosis of lovesickness appears to have been inspired by recollections of Polonius’s own far-off youth. (“Truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love, very near this,” 2.2.189—91). Polonius’s fatuous complacency in his own powers of analysis—“If circumstances lead me, I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the center” (2.2.157—9)—reads like a parody of Hamlet’s struggle to discover what is true and what is not.
Thus, although Hamlet may seem to react with excessive bitterness toward those who are set to watch over him, the corruption he decries in Denmark is both real and universal. “The time is out of joint,” he laments. “Oh, cursèd spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.197—8). How is he to proceed in setting things right? Ever since the nineteenth century, it has been fashionable to discover reasons for Hamlet’s delaying his revenge. The basic Romantic approach is to find a defect, or tragic flaw, in Hamlet himself. In Coleridge’s words, Hamlet suffers from “an overbalance in the contemplative faculty” and is “one who vacillates from sensibility and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.” More recent psychological critics, such as Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones, still seek answers to the Romantics’ question by explaining Hamlet’s failure of will. In Jones’s interpretation, Hamlet is the victim of an Oedipal trauma: he has longed unconsciously to possess his mother and for that very reason cannot bring himself to punish the hated uncle who has supplanted him in his incestuous and forbidden desire. Such interpretations suggest, among other things, that Hamlet continues to serve as a mirror in which analysts who would pluck out the heart of his mystery see an image of their own concerns—just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read politics, and Polonius reads lovesickness, into Hamlet’s distress.
We can ask, however, not only whether the explanations for Hamlet’s supposed delay are valid but also whether the question they seek to answer is itself valid. Is the delay unnecessary or excessive? The question did not even arise until the nineteenth century. Earlier audiences were evidently satisfied that Hamlet must test the Ghost’s credibility, since apparitions can tell half-truths to deceive people, and that, once Hamlet has confirmed the Ghost’s word, he proceeds as resolutely as his canny adversary allows. More recent criticism, perhaps reflecting a modern absorption in existentialist philosophy, has proposed that Hamlet’s dilemma is a matter not of personal failure, but of the absurdity of action itself in a corrupt world. Does what Hamlet is asked to do make any sense, given the bestial nature of humanity and the impossibility of knowing what is right? In part, it is a matter of style: Claudius’s Denmark is crassly vulgar, and to combat this vulgarity on its own terms seems to require the sort of bad histrionics Hamlet derides in actors who mouth their lines or tear a passion to tatters. Hamlet’s dilemma of action can best be studied in the play by comparing him with various characters who are obliged to act in situations similar to his own and who respond in meaningfully different ways.
Three young men—Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras—are called upon to avenge their fathers’ violent deaths. Ophelia, too, has lost a father by violent means, and her madness and death are another kind of reaction to such a loss. The responses of Laertes and Fortinbras offer rich parallels to Hamlet, in both cases implying the futility of positive and forceful action. Laertes thinks he has received an unambiguous mandate to take revenge, since Hamlet has undoubtedly slain Polonius and helped to deprive Ophelia of her sanity. Accordingly, Laertes comes back to Denmark in a fury, stirring the rabble with his demagoguery and spouting Senecan rant about dismissing conscience “to the profoundest pit” in his quest for vengeance (4.5.135). When Claudius asks what Laertes would do to Hamlet “To show yourself in deed your father’s son / More than in words,” Laertes fires back: “To cut his throat i’th’ church” (4.7.126—7). This resolution is understandable. The pity is, however, that Laertes has only superficially identified the murderer in the case. He is too easily deceived by Claudius, because he has jumped to easy and fallacious conclusions, and so is doomed to become a pawn in Claudius’s sly maneuverings. Too late he sees his error and must die for it, begging and receiving Hamlet’s forgiveness. Before we accuse Hamlet of thinking too deliberately before acting, we must consider that Laertes does not think enough.
Fortinbras of Norway, as his name implies (“strong in arms”), is one who believes in decisive action. At the beginning of the play, we learn that his father has been slain in battle by old Hamlet and that Fortinbras has collected an army to win back by force the territory fairly won by the Danes in that encounter. Like Hamlet, young Fortinbras does not succeed his father to the throne but must now contend with an uncle-king. When this uncle, at Claudius’s instigation, forbids Fortinbras to march against the Danes and rewards him for his restraint with a huge annual income and a commission to fight the Poles instead, Fortinbras sagaciously welcomes the new opportunity. He pockets the money, marches against Poland, and waits for occasion to deliver Denmark as well into his hands. Clearly this is more of a success story than that of Laertes, and Hamlet does, after all, give his blessing to the “election” of Fortinbras to the Danish throne. Fortinbras is the man of the hour, the representative of a restored political stability. Yet Hamlet’s admiration for this man on horseback is qualified by a profound reservation. Hamlet’s dying prophecy that the election will light on Fortinbras (5.2.357—8) is suffused with ironies, so much so that the incongruity is sometimes made conscious and deliberate in performance. Earlier in the play, the spectacle of Fortinbras marching against Poland “to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” prompts Hamlet to berate himself for inaction, but he cannot ignore the absurdity of the effort. “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats / Will not debate the question of this straw.” The soldiers will risk their very lives “Even for an eggshell” (4.4.19—54). It is only one step from this view of the vanity of ambitious striving to the speculation that great Caesar or Alexander, dead and turned to dust, may one day produce the loam or clay with which to stop the bunghole of a beer barrel. Fortinbras epitomizes the ongoing political order after Hamlet’s death, but is that order of any consequence to us after we have imagined with Hamlet the futility of most human endeavor?
To ask such a question is to seek passive or self-abnegating answers to the riddle of life, and Hamlet is attuned to such inquiries. Even before he learns of his father’s murder, he contemplates suicide, wishing “that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ’gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.131—2). As with the alternative of action, other characters serve as foils to Hamlet, revealing both the attractions and perils of withdrawal. Ophelia is destroyed by meekly acquiescing in others’ desires. Whether she commits suicide is uncertain, but the very possibility reminds us that Hamlet has twice considered and reluctantly rejected this despairing path as forbidden by Christian teaching—the second such occasion being his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in 3.1. He has also playacted at the madness to which Ophelia succumbs. Gertrude identifies herself with Ophelia and like her has surrendered her will to male aggressiveness. We suspect she knows little of the actual murder (see 3.4.31) but dares not think how deeply she may be implicated. Although her death is evidently not a suicide (see 5.2.291—7), it is passive and expiatory.
A more attractive alternative to decisive action for Hamlet is acting in the theater, and he is full of exuberant advice to the visiting players. The play they perform before Claudius at Hamlet’s request and with some lines added by him—a play consciously archaic in style—offers to the Danish court a kind of heightened reflection of itself, a homiletic artifact, rendering in conventional terms the taut anxieties and terrors of murder for the sake of noble passion. Structurally, the play within the play becomes not an escape for Hamlet into inaction but rather the point on which the whole drama pivots and the scene in which contemplation of past events is largely replaced with stirrings toward action. When Lucianus in the Mousetrap play turns out to be nephew rather than brother to the dead king, the audience finds itself face-to-face not with history, but with prophecy. We are not surprised when, in his conversations with the players, Hamlet openly professes his admiration for the way in which art holds “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.22—4). Hamlet admires the dramatist’s ability to transmute raw human feeling into tragic art, depicting and ordering reality as Shakespeare’s play of Hamlet does for us. Yet playacting can also be, Hamlet recognizes, a self-indulgent escape for him, a way of unpacking his heart with words and of verbalizing his situation without doing something to remedy it. Acting and talking remind him too much of Polonius, who was an actor in his youth and who continues to be, like Hamlet, an inveterate punster.
Of the passive responses in the play, the stoicism of Horatio is by far the most attractive to Hamlet. “More an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.343), Horatio is, as Hamlet praises him, immune to flattering or to opportunities for cheap self-advancement. He is “As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing, / A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards / Hast ta’en with equal thanks” (3.2.65—7). Such a person has a sure defense against the worst that life can offer. Hamlet can trust and love Horatio as he can no one else. Yet even here there are limits, for Horatio’s skeptical and Roman philosophy cuts him off from a Christian and metaphysical overview. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1.5.175—6). After they have beheld together the skulls of Yorick’s graveyard, Horatio seemingly does not share with Hamlet the exulting Christian perception that, although human life is indeed vain, Providence will reveal a pattern transcending human sorrow.
Hamlet’s path must lie somewhere between the rash suddenness of Laertes or the canny resoluteness of Fortinbras on the one hand, and the passivity of Ophelia or Gertrude and the stoic resignation of Horatio on the other. At first he alternates between action and inaction, finding neither satisfactory. The Ghost has commanded Hamlet to revenge but has not explained how this is to be done; indeed, Gertrude is to be left passively to heaven and her conscience. If this method will suffice for her (and Christian wisdom taught that such a purgation was as thorough as it was sure), why not for Claudius? If Claudius must be killed, should it be while he is at his sin rather than at his prayers? The play is full of questions, stemming chiefly from the enigmatic commands of the Ghost. “Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?” (1.4.57). Hamlet is not incapable of action. He shows unusual strength and cunning on the pirate ship, in his duel with Laertes (“I shall win at the odds”; 5.2.209), and especially in his slaying of Polonius—an action hardly characterized by “thinking too precisely on th’event” (4.4.42). Here is forthright action of the sort Laertes espouses. Yet, when the corpse behind his mother’s arras turns out to be Polonius rather than Claudius, Hamlet concludes from the mistake that he has offended heaven. Even if Polonius deserves what he got, Hamlet believes he has made himself into a cruel “scourge” of Providence who must himself suffer retribution as well as deal it out. Swift action has not accomplished what the Ghost commanded.
The Ghost does not appear to speak for Providence, in any case. His message is of revenge, a pagan concept deeply embedded in most societies but at odds with Christian teaching. His wish that Claudius be sent to hell and that Gertrude be more gently treated might, in fact, be the judgment of an impartial deity but here comes wrapped in the passionate involvement of a murdered man’s restless spirit. This is not to say that Hamlet is being tempted to perform a damnable act, as he fears is possible, but that the Ghost’s command cannot readily be reconciled with a complex and balanced view of justice. If Hamlet were to spring on Claudius in the fullness of his vice and cut his throat, we would pronounce Hamlet a murderer. What Hamlet believes he has learned instead is that he must become the instrument of Providence according to its plans, not his own. After his return from England, he senses triumphantly that all will be for the best if he allows an unseen power to decide the time and place for his final act. Under these conditions, rash action will be right. “Rashly, / And praised be rashness for it—let us know / Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.6—11). Passivity, too, is now a proper course, for Hamlet puts himself wholly at the disposal of Providence. What had seemed so impossible when Hamlet tried to formulate his own design proves elementary once he trusts to a divine justice in which he now firmly believes. Rashness and passivity are perfectly fused. Hamlet is revenged without having to commit premeditated murder and is relieved of his painful existence without having to commit suicide.
The circumstances of Hamlet’s catastrophe do indeed seem to accomplish all that Hamlet desires, by a route so circuitous that no one could ever have foreseen or devised it. Polonius’s death, as it turns out, was instrumental after all, for it led to Laertes’s angry return to Denmark and the challenge to a duel. Every seemingly unrelated event has its place; “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.217—18). Repeatedly, the characters stress the role of seeming accident leading to just retribution. Even Horatio, for whom the events of the play suggest a pattern of randomness and violence, of “accidental judgments” and “casual slaughters,” can see at last, “in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads” (5.2.384—7). In a similar vein, Laertes confesses himself “a woodcock to mine own springe” (5.2.309). As Hamlet had said earlier, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “ ’tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard” (3.4.213—14). Thus, too, Claudius’s poisoned cup, intended for Hamlet, kills the Queen, for whom Claudius had done such evil in order to acquire her and the throne. The destiny of evil in this play is to overreach itself.
In its final resolution, Hamlet incorporates a broader conception of justice than its revenge formula seemed at first to make possible. Yet, in its origins, Hamlet is a revenge story, and these traditions have left some residual savagery in the play. In the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, 1180—1208, and in the rather free translation of Saxo into French by François de Belleforest, Histoires Tragiques (1576), Hamlet is cunning and bloodily resolute throughout. He kills an eavesdropper without a qualm during the interview with his mother and exchanges letters on his way to England with characteristic shrewdness. Ultimately, he returns to Denmark, sets fire to his uncle’s hall, slays its courtly inhabitants, and claims his rightful throne from a grateful people. The Ghost, absent in this account, may well have been derived from Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1587) and seemingly of a lost Hamlet play in existence by 1589. The Spanish Tragedy bears many resemblances to our Hamlet and suggests what the lost Hamlet may well have contained: a sensational murder, a Senecan Ghost demanding revenge, the avenger hampered by court intrigue, his resort to a feigned madness, and his difficulty in authenticating the ghostly vision. A German version of Hamlet, called Der bestrafte Brudermord (1710), based seemingly on the older Hamlet, includes such details as the play within the play, the sparing of the King at his prayers in order to damn his soul, Ophelia’s madness, the fencing match with poisoned swords and poisoned drink, and the final catastrophe of vengeance and death. Similarly, the early unauthorized first quarto of Hamlet (1603) offers some passages seemingly based on the older play by Kyd.
Although this evidence suggests that Shakespeare received most of the material for the plot intact, his transformation of that material was nonetheless immeasurable. To be sure, Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy contains many rhetorical passages on the inadequacy of human justice, but the overall effect is still sensational and the outcome is a triumph for the pagan spirit of revenge. So, too, with the many revenge plays of the 1590s and 1600s that Kyd’s dramatic genius had inspired, including Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus (c. 1589—1592). Hamlet, written in about 1599—1601 (it is not mentioned by Frances Meres in his Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, in 1598, and was entered in the Stationers’ Register, the official record book of the London Company of Stationers [booksellers and printers], in 1602), is unparalleled in its philosophical richness. Its ending is truly cathartic, for Hamlet dies not as a bloodied avenger, but as one who has affirmed the tragic dignity of the human race. His courage and faith, maintained in the face of great odds, atone for the dismal corruption in which Denmark has festered. His resolutely honest inquiries have taken him beyond the revulsion and doubt that express so eloquently, among other matters, the fearful response of Shakespeare’s own generation to a seeming breakdown of established political, theological, and cosmological beliefs. Hamlet finally perceives that “if it be not now, yet it will come,” and that “The readiness is all” (5.2.219—20). This discovery, this revelation of necessity and meaning in Hamlet’s great reversal of fortune, enables him to confront the tragic circumstance of his life with understanding and heroism and to demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit even in the moment of his catastrophe.
Such an assertion of the individual will does not lessen the tragic waste with which Hamlet ends. Hamlet is dead, and the great promise of his life is forever lost. Few others have survived. Justice has seemingly been fulfilled in the deaths of Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, Laertes, and perhaps even Ophelia, but in a wild and extravagant way, as though Justice herself, more vengeful than providential, were unceasingly hungry for victims. Hamlet, the minister of that justice, has likewise grown indifferent to the spilling of blood, even if he submits himself at last to the will of a force he recognizes as providential. Denmark faces the kind of political uncertainty with which the play began. However much Hamlet may admire Fortinbras’s resolution, the prince of Norway seems an alien choice for Denmark—even an ironic one. Horatio sees so little point in outliving the catastrophe of this play that he would choose death, were it not that he must draw his breath in pain to ensure that Hamlet’s story is truly told. Still, that truth has been rescued from oblivion. Amid the ruin of the final scene, we share the artist’s vision, through which we struggle to interpret and give order to the tragedy that proves inseparable from human existence.