Hamlet: Questions of Morality and Mortality
Hamlet excels all the other Shakespeare works I’ve read—that’s my take on it, with only Othello left to visit. It probably could have been a little shorter, at times more to the point—after all, “bevity is the soul of wit,” but its messages, intrigue, bad guy and plot have so much in them that you can’t help but come away moved and maybe a bit changed.
The story is of the complete annihilation of two families, Hamlet’s and his girlfriend’s. Under different circumstances, the couple surely would have lived long, happy, fulfilling lives as king and queen of Denmark, other than the odd battle with Norway’s aspiring Fortinbras. But they were unfortunate to be born at a time of ambition, jealousy and murder. (Wait! That’s constant in human history.)
The plot is simple. Hamlet’s father, also named Hamlet, is murdered by his own brother who aspires to the throne and the bed of his brother’s queen. He seizes both quickly (too quickly the queen, in Hamlet’s eyes). Hamlet suspects foul play, and his suspicions are borne out by the appearance of an apparition that appears to the prince and associates. The ghost recounts a story of “murder most foul,” his own murder at the deceptive, grasping hands of the new king. The ghost (the former king), was struck down before he had a chance to repent and is left for a time to wander the earth in the night, while suffering hellish agony during daylight hours. (Contrast Hamlet’s refusal later to kill the king while his stepfather prays for fear he is repenting at that very moment and thus would be eligible for Heaven. The murdering uncle had no compassion on the older Hamlet.) The ghost’s command to Hamlet: Revenge! Kill the usurping king.
Hamlet affects madness to test the “good” ghost’s information and to position himself for the vengeful blow. The test takes the form of a play, “The Death of Gonzago,” which Hamlet wants presented by a visiting troupe of players. He asks that in the altered play, they mimic the way his father was slain–poison in the ear while sleeping. If the new king flinches in guilt, Hamlet will know the ghost has told the truth. During the play, which Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap,” the king is visibly touched to the quick. Hamlet is sure.
At the same time, king and queen worry about Hamlet’s moodiness and wonder its cause. The queen, who seems excessively attached to Hamlet, thinks the problem is the death of his father and her sudden remarriage to Hamlet’s uncle. A verbose, busybody—but oddly at times in the play wise—minister is sure Hamlet’s agitation is due to instructions he has given his fair daughter, Ophelia, who is romantically attached to the prince. He told her she should give Hamlet no attention, because he was out of her league. Her shunning Hamlet is obviously, according to minister Polonius, the cause of his madness. He and the king determine to test this hypothesis, by setting up, then watching interaction between the young couple. (People spying on other people is an intentional, necessary constant in the play.) Alas, after watching Hamlet’s feigned nonsense, it’s clear Hamlet’s course of lunacy is not created by the loss of the love of the maiden.
Hamlet is not well suited or quick to revenge, struggling with his assignment. At one point, he comes upon the king in prayer. But he convinces himself it wasn’t the right time and place. His father has to haunt him again to steel him for the bloodletting.
Away to England with Hamlet, commands the King, with intentions to have the prince murdered on the island. But first, another test. Polonius will hide in the queen’s closet (a small office, although mostly played as the queen’s bedroom now) while the queen seeks the truth from Hamlet. Polonius hides behind a tapestry. In Polonius’s hearing, Hamlet gives a tongue lashing to his mother so heavy that the queen cries for help. The good minister responds with noise from his hiding spot. In an instant, Hamlet is upon him, stabbing him through the covering. Alas, Hamlet is disappointed to find he has not killed an eavesdropping king. Polonius’s body idles on the floor, while Hamlet finishes turning a mirror on his mother’s inner self.
Hamlet is sent to England for his execution, but he turns the conspiracy on its members, and the king’s messengers and Hamlet’s former friends “Dear Rosencrantz” and “gentle Guildenstern” are put to death by the English instead. In the meantime, his true love Ophelia has become mad because of her father’s death and killed herself in her insanity. (Interesting contrast that Hamlet feigns craziness because of the death of his father and broods over thoughts of suicide, while poor Ophelia’s sanity has been truly destroyed by the death of her father, and in her madness, she breaks the strictly obeyed at the time commandment against taking one’s own life.)
Laertes, Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, away in France, returns to avenge his father’s murder. The king now conspires with Laertes: The king will wager on Hamlet being above to withstand the fierce fencing skills of Laertes as a cover for a double-sure plot to kill the prince. Laertes will use an unblunted rapier to scratch Hamlet, while “anointing” its tip with poison to ensure the prince’s death. The king will also offer, during the match, a poisoned drink to the prince.
Hamlet doesn’t feel right about the challenge, but rejects his instinct as “augury.” The two young men fight. Hamlet gets the better of Laertes because the prince has been practicing a lot while Laertes was in France. The king, then the queen, offer Hamlet a drink because of his exertions. But Hamlet declines—he’ll drink it later. The queen drinks to her son, unbeknownst to her that it is a “poisoned cup,” even though her current husband orders her not to drink it. She collapses during the final part of the fight, while Laertes frustrated that he cannot strike Hamlet cheats to scratch him with the poisoned rapier. Hamlet responds in anger and in the pursuing scuffle, Hamlet ends up with Laertes’s sword and penetrates his opponents skin with its still-envenomed edged. Thus Laertes, the queen and Hamlet are dying in unison. The king suggests the queen collapsed because of combatant blood. But the queen realizes it is the drink, then dies. Laertes confesses the king is the font of the conspiracy, then dies. Hamlet kills the king, then dies. Two families gone, attributable to the overreaching ambition and lust of Hamlet’s uncle. Denmark would have been left monarch-less, but for the arrival of Fortinbras of Norway who’s willing to take on the kingdom.
Mortality and Morality
The play raises questions of mortality and morality. “To be or not to be.” Is life worth it when there is so much tribulation, and what is the right thing to do? Revenge? In this case, righteous indignation, filial loyalty and revenge heap death on the royal family.
The main source for Hamlet is a twelfth century manuscript of Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus, printed in 1514, but probably captured by Shakespeare in the French Histoires Tragiques of Francois de Belleforest.
My earliest experience with Hamlet was when I was a young child. I, apparently frightened of the dark and everything that might go on when my eyes were closed, asked my father if one could be killed while praying. My father tried to divert my fears by telling me that Hamlet came upon Claudius (the king) while he was praying and couldn’t bring himself to kill him. At the time, I didn’t know who Hamlet was or why he would kill anyone. I assumed Hamlet was the bad guy. I took enough comfort from the story to continue praying with my eyes closed, but I wondered for years who were these men my father referenced.
There are several outstanding movie productions of the play:
1) Ken Branagh’s Oscar-nominated, four-hour production. It presents Denmark as less dreary than some of the other productions.
2) Currently available for free streaming at PBS Great Performances is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s more modern take on Hamlet. I believe it’s three hours long.
3) I was pleasantly surprised by Franco Zeffirelli’s abridged version. Some parts and lines are shifted within the plot, but it only requires a couple of hours to watch it. My surprise focused on Mel Gibson as Hamlet. I thought he did a fine job.
The downsides to revenge, ambition, lust, conspiracy are my takeaways from Hamlet. All four attributes return to the heads that conjured them.
Five bards to Hamlet, perhaps the best of Shakespeare:
Quotes I like:
Hamlet: How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!
Hamlet: He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.
Ophelia: Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven; whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.
Polonius: And these few precepts in thy memory see thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel; but do not dull thy palm with entertainment of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; for the apparel oft proclaims the man, and they in France of the best rank and station are of a most select and generous chief in that. Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet: The time is out of joint:—O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!
Polonius: It is common for the younger sort to lack discretion.
Polonius: Brevity is the soul of wit.
Queen: More matter and less art.
Hamlet: To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.
Hamlet: You yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward.
Hamlet: These is nothing either good or bad, but thinking it makes it so
Hamlet: Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?
Hamlet: Murder though it have no tongue, will speak with most miraculous organ.
Polonius: With devotion’s and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself.
Hamlet: 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? To die: to sleep; no more; and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. 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; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the 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 the 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 undiscover’d 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? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action.
Ophelia: To the noble mind rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
Ophelia: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?
Hamlet: What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.
Hamlet: Suit the action to the word, the word to the action
Queen: The lady protests too much, methinks.
King: What do you call the play? Hamlet: The mouse-trap.
King: What’s in prayer but this two-fold force, to be forestalled ere we come to fall, or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up; my fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’? That cannot be; since I am still possess’d of those effects for which I did the murder, my crown, mine own ambition and my queen. May one be pardon’d and retain the offence? In the corrupted currents of this world offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, and oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself buys out the law: but ’tis not so above; there is no shuffling, there the action lies in his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d, even to the teeth and forehead of our faults, to give in evidence. What then? What rests? Try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it when one can not repent? O wretched state! O bosom black as death! O limed soul, that, struggling to be free, art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay! Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel, be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
King: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
Hamlet: What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused. Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward, I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’ sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me: Witness this army of such mass and charge led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d makes mouths at the invisible event, exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake. How stand I then, that have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d, excitements of my reason and my blood, and let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men, that, for a fantasy and trick of fame, go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain? O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Queen: So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in feating to be spilt.
Ophelia: We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
King: When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalias!
Horatio: If your mind dislike anything, obey it
Hamlet: There’s 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