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Scholarly critics have long regarded William Shakespeare’s seventeenth-century tragedy, Hamlet, as perhaps the single greatest piece of English literature ever produced. In his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom calls the phenomenon of Hamlet’s character “unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature” (384), and the play itself “the Mona Lisa of literature” (391). Written almost entirely in iambic pentameter, Hamlet’s flowing poetic rhythm, utilized in conjunction with deeper thematic elements and outstanding character depth (particularly Hamlet’s), separates itself from virtually all other works.
The play’s many adaptations–put to use through most all forms of modern media including television, motion picture, and theater–in addition to its new critical interpretations written in context of the modern world, continually stir up fierce debate and captivate audiences throughout the world. Criticism of the renowned tragedy of Hamlet stems far beyond straightforward, fundamental thinking, and delves deeper into the heart of the play, in search of more profound meaning within every aspect, albeit large or very small.
One particular facet of the tragedy that is subject to seemingly endless dispute among critics is that of Prince Hamlet’s delay in murdering his uncle and the current king of Denmark, Claudius. Scholars propose numerous reasons for his delay, ranging from conservatives ones like his inability to judge falsehood from reality, to farreaching ideas such as that Hamlet suffers from clinical depression, or even an Oedipal complex in which the desire for his mother causes Hamlet’s delay.
However a critical function of the play revolves around Hamlet’s confrontation with the supposed ghost of his father, his delay, transformation, and its subsequent calamitous results.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness, his haunting soliloquies concerning heaven, hell, suicide, and life after death, and his description of the ‘potent poison’ each serve as examples of central tragic points within the play. Regardless of whether or not the ghost is truly the devil, young Hamlet falters–as well he should–in response to its violent request. His initial fear of the ghost’s nature and evil itself causes Hamlet’s delay, and his eventual succumbing to darkness leads to his tragic downfall.
Just after midnight and just before the private verbal exchange with the ghostly being, Hamlet, alongside his good friend Horatio and a castle guard, Marcellus, catches an initial glimpse of the ghost. At first glace, startled Hamlet ponders the nature of the haunting entity and makes a first reference toward good versus evil:
Angels and ministers of grace defend us! / Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, / Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked or charitable, / Thou com’st in such a questionable shape / That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me! (I.iv.39-45)
Hamlet’s indecisiveness as to the origin of the ghost all the more piques his interest in the figure, and, as Roland Frye notes in his Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, Hamlet’s internal struggle with good and evil begins at this precise moment (127). The mysterious ghost immediately beckons Hamlet away from the others, but the two men warn Hamlet to stay away. Hamlet disregards their plea, asking, “Why, what should be the fear? / I do not set my life at a pin’s fee, / And for my soul, what can it do to that, / Being a thing immortal as itself / It waves me forth again. I’ll follow it.” (I.iv.6468). This initial response to the ghost’s summon, although it portrays Hamlet as a fearless, intrepid character, suffering from utter despair, contrasts his later opinion of the ghost’s intention, which, justifiably, delays him in his ultimate action of murder. Furthermore, only later in the play does Hamlet have the ability to determine whether the ghost speaks the truth in the first place.
To understand Shakespeare’s ultimate intent in developing Hamlet’s character, delay, and impending downfall, one must first acknowledge the relationship between Hamlet and Christian theology. Many scholars assert that Hamlet (among other Shakespearean dramas) is in fact a Christian play, although evidence has proved simply inconclusive as to whether Shakespeare was truly himself a follower of Christ. Roland Frye, a main supporter of Shakespeare’s Christian beliefs, disagrees with scholar A. C. Bradley in his belief that, although Shakespeare’s words refer directly and explicitly to God and the devil, heaven and hell, “[these] ideas do not specifically influence his representation of life, nor are they used to throw light on the mystery of its tragedy” (4). In sharp contrast, Frye concurs with critic G. Wilson Knight who holds the view that Shakespeare’s plays are at least essentially–and at points blatantly–Christian, in that it finds important the references to the figure of Christ and the doctrine of redemption (4).
Whichever view Shakespeare took in light of Christian teaching, it is made clear through his writing that, even if he did not intend to portray men and women explicitly as Christian figures, Shakespeare undoubtedly felt it important to weave at least some moral religious thought and belief through his tragedies. According to Frye’s book, Hamlet and its characters fit into several major categories of religious doctrine, including but not limited to beastliness versus humanity, appearance of the devil, flattery and counsel, freedom, prayer, and judgment. For example, Frye notes Shakespeare’s implementation of prayer, a universal method of worship, through Claudius’s character in a later scene in the play: “One of the most interesting treatments of prayer in the plays is that of the anguished Claudius, in which we find a number of commonplace sixteenth-century attitudes towards prayer. ‘Pray can I not,’ Claudius says, and we will note…another point…that Claudius seems never to be quite assured that God will forgive him” (223-224). Additionally, Harold Bloom bluntly compares Hamlet to the God of the Hebrew Bible:
God…particularly in [the book of] Job, composes best in rhetorical questions. Hamlet is much given to rhetorical questions, but unlike God’s, Hamlet’s do not always seek to answer themselves. The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist. Hamlet, certainly an ironist, does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other. (386)
William J. Grace, in his Approaching Shakespeare, recognizes a strong connection between Shakespeare, the Elizabethan era, and the study of the supernatural, another important element implemented by the playwright:
Shakespeare was close to the medieval world in which there was a serious belief in the devil and evil spirits as efficacious personalities. Since his time we have gone through periods of rationalism and [skepticism] which make us less imaginatively sympathetic to these deeply held beliefs… Specifically, Shakespeare made artistic use of traditions that he found no reason to question; and…the intensely personal approach to evil characterizing Shakespeare’s drama was partly rendered possible by the rich imagery that these traditions afforded. (143)
Hamlet’s subtle release of religious views, in addition to its main character’s fear of evil and the devil, help turn the prince into an almost surreal, heroic character himself; however, Hamlet’s tragic failure lies in the succumbing to his fear of–and his following of–evil.
The personal confrontation with the ghost in Act I, Scene v of Hamlet initiates the central conflict within the play. The ghost of whom appears to be King Hamlet, after beckoning Hamlet away from the others, immediately describes to Hamlet the horrific place from which it emerges: “But that I am forbid / To tell the secrets of my prison house, / I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes like starts start from their spheres” (1.v.13-18). Hamlet, horrified, continues to listen to the ghost who resembles his recently deceased father. The official word to the people of the Danish kingdom concerning King Hamlet’s death, brought forth to the audience via the ghost, is that a serpent stung him while resting in the garden. However, the ghost recounts his version of the chilling story:
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand / of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched, / Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled, / No reck’ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head. /0, horrible, o, horrible! Most horrible! / If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not. (I.iv.74-81)
Furthermore, the ghost warns Hamlet to avoid confrontation with his mother, Gertrude, saying “Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (1.v.86-88). It also deems Denmark’s royal bed a “couch for luxury and damned incest”, in reference to Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage less than two months after the king’s death. The startling revelations brought forth by the ghost stun both the audience and Hamlet alike, and the play quickly unfolds.
Most scholars undoubtedly agree upon the ghost’s vengeful nature, noting that King Hamlet’s ghost desires Hamlet to avenge a death with another death; where they differ is whether the ghost is truly the King’s spirit returned, or in fact the devil himself. George Santayana notes that, although the spirit supposedly ascends from Purgatory, it “fears to scent the morning air, trembles at the cock-crow, and instigates the revenging of crime by crime” — and thus fails to meet the criteria of a holy and redeemed soul, a soul that would in fact ascend from Purgatory (227).
Moreover, Lisa Hopkins’ article identifies a potential historical problem with the assumption that the ghost hails from Purgatory: “[In] the case of Hamlet, it is worryingly noticeable that the Protestant prince, hailing from the heartland of Lutheranism and educated at Wittenberg, a university famous in England chiefly through its associations with Luther himself and with the Pope-baiting Dr. Faustus, nevertheless has a father whose ghost is (supposedly from] Purgatory, a location in which only Catholics believe” (102). In Act II, Hamlet makes an explicit reference to his uncertainty as to the nature of the ghost during a famous soliloquy:
“The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 7 As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me.” (11.11.610-615)
Hamlet proceeds to further delay the murder, determined to decide whether the ghost speaks the truth–by means of the play-scene. Breaking down each piece of evidence, it appears clear that Shakespeare, even if not intentionally portraying the ghost as a hellish being, at least desires to spark some contemplation and desire to learn more amongst the audience.
Some scholars offer another theory that the ghost may even be a hallucination on behalf of Hamlet’s current disarray (a result of his mother’s marriage to Claudius, whom he dislikes), and a result of his particularly peaceful disposition in a confused state. In addition, they note that Gertrude fails to witness the ghost during the closet scene later in the play. However, most critics easily disprove this theory since, as George Santayana demonstrates, Horatio and others clearly observe the ghost on more than one occasion around Elsinore Castle (231). In addition, Santayana dismisses a popular notion that the ghost is simply a representation of something larger: “It would be easy to rationalize [the Ghost’s appearance) as a sort of symbol or allegory. Hamlet’s character and situation were well conceived to base such a hallucination upon…But Shakespeare was evidently content to take the Ghost literally, and expected his audience naturally to do the same” (231). J. Dover Wilson further attempts to disprove the hallucination theory by maintaining that Shakespeare intentionally presents the ghost more than once in the first act of the play in an effort to not only firmly convince Horatio and the guards of its existence, but also to convince a skeptical audience (133).
Additional references to the devil and the underworld abound throughout Hamlet. Approaching Shakespeare presents a further connection between King Hamlet’s ghost and Hamlet’s incongruousness as he attempts to disprove a common theory:
Shakespeare was well read in contemporary matters of demonology and, in fact, made expert use of this knowledge in relation to his work… Seen in the light of historical criticism, the question whether the ghost is a devil is a serious one–not, as some have thought, a new means on Hamlet’s part of continuing his unconscious reluctance toward his duty of punishing Claudius. (Grace 145)
As Grace indicates, Shakespeare was well educated in the language of demons, and scholars acknowledge his inclusion of the devil in more than one of his works. Further, he calls the ghost a “pioneer’ spirit, that is, a devil working in the bowels of the earth, in reference to the ghost repeatedly shouting ‘swear’ to Horatio and the guards from beneath the stage (146). Laertes, son of Polonius, refers to the devil in Act V when he curses Hamlet while grappling with him in the grave: “The devil take thy soul” (V.i.260), he shouts, to which Hamlet simply replies, “Thou pray’st not well” (V.i.261). Frye offers that this is yet another intentional reference to the devil that helps to shape Hamlet’s character and to give the tragedy a mysterious, dark undertone, emphasizing a stark contrast between good and evil. An earlier reference toward the devil is made during the closet scene. Hamlet, in his confrontation with Gertrude, demands of her: “What devil was ‘t/ That thus cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?” (III.iv.77-78).
One must ask, then, when Hamlet’s transformation between fear and vengeance ultimately occurs. Scholars offer somewhat contrasting views on this subject; nevertheless, all undoubtedly agree that Hamlet does turn away from light and, irreversibly, toward darkness. Hamlet, a decent, well-educated young prince at the onset of the tragedy, a man avoiding confrontation with enemy-figures (primarily his mother, Gertrude and despised uncle, Claudius), keeps to his own matters. However, over the course of the play, Hamlet realizes the futility of his postponement, and thus commits sinful, distasteful acts to fulfill his internal desire to overcome his fear, even though that fear is essential to maintaining morals–that fear of evil (Foss 23).
Some, like William Grace, identify Hamlet’s transformation moment as during the prayer-scene, in which Claudius kneels in prayer, whilst Hamlet, noting Claudius’s desire for clemency, chooses to wait until Claudius will certainly be damned. “Here the villain moves toward integrity, the hero away from it” (Grace 37). Others deem the Hamlet’s soliloquy upon a plain outside the castle as the conversion point, specifically when he proclaims, “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV.v.65-66). Therefore, Hamlet, a man no longer wary of integrity or goodness, then chooses to shamelessly murder not only Polonius in Gertrude’s bedroom, but both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In any case, the ghost’s revelations to Hamlet in the first Act prove at least partly true, since Claudius, during the prayer-scene, confessed to the murder (Wilson 142). Still, Hamlet’s uncertainty as to the ghost’s nature remains; the difference is, in fact, that Hamlet is no longer wary of that uncertainty or fear.
After Hamlet’s transformation, his character’s once moral, decent nature disintegrates, and all that remains is his once-masked vengeance, now unconstrained; the tragic conclusion looms in the near distance. In the final Act, and as a direct result of Hamlet’s transformation, Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet himself each tragically perish, dead of poison, sword, and villainy. As Hamlet lay dying, fatally stabbed by Horatio’s poisoned sword, he acknowledges his newly christened character: “O, I die, Horatio! / The potent poison quote o’ercrows my spirit.” (V.ii.353-354), referring not only to poison in the literal sense, but more so to the destructive poison of evil that overcomes him. The ghost, consequently, is finally revenged. Here, Harold Bloom sums up the outcome of the play in relation to the ghost: “Had Hamlet remained passive after the Ghost’s visitation, then Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself would not have died violent deaths. Everything in the play depends upon Hamlet’s response to the Ghost” (387).
Hamlet, over the course of the play, comes to firm grips with his fears of the ghost’s nature and its true intention. However, Hamlet’s indecisive, yet somewhat conflicting views of man and evil build a window of opinion and speculation among critics. Hamlet’s fear of evil as the chief cause of his delay is an opinion only some share, and it can be critiqued as a thesis, nothing more. Strong evidence agrees with this fear theory, yet no one but Shakespeare possesses the ability to justify his true intention. Shakespeare, upon a vast canvas of human emotion, paints a striking, epic image of human thought and response. Hamlet’s fear of evil and the ghost causes his delay and ultimate downfall.
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