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Ambivalence in the Player's Speech in Hamlet Author(s): Joseph Westlund Reviewed work(s): Source: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 18, No. 2, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama (Spring, 1978), pp. 245-256 Published by: Rice University Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/04/2012 01:16
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SEL, 18 (1978) ISSN 0039-3657

Ambivalence in The Player's Speech in Hamlet


The Player's speech and Hamlet's response to it convey an extraordinary sense of the difficulties involved in moving from thought to deed. Critics tend to restrict the effect of the episode. Harry Levin finds that "the 'damn'd defeat' of Priam, reminding Hamlet of his father, prompts him to renounce his hitherto passive role, to soliloquize on the Player's example, and finally to evolve his plan of action."' Arthur Johnston, however, argues that "sympathy lies with the victim, not the avenger. [The speech] paves the way for Hamlet's questioning of the 'honesty' of the ghost that has demanded of him that he perform such a deed."2 One sees Hamlet prompted to a course of action, the other sees him vindicated for avoiding revenge. Paradoxically, both interpreters are accurate-and incomplete; like the character they write about, they deny the strong ambivalence implicit in the episode. Levin thinks that Hamlet "renounces" his passive role; it would be more precise to say that he "denounces" such a role, and then decides to put on a play to test the Ghost. Hamlet avoids the overwhelming central action of taking revenge. No matter how good we may find his reason for doing so, he delays assuming his role as avenger. Neither critic gives weight to the suspicions raised by the timing of Hamlet's doubts; he never before expressed fear that the Ghost might be a devilish tempter. He brushed aside such a fear when Horatio and Marcellus raised it in I.iv, so that his entertaining it now seems rather suspect, especially at the end of a soliloquy devoted to his sense of guilt for doing nothing. In the light of his continual postponements, the decision to test the truthfulness of the Ghost seems yet another

"'An Explication of the Player's Speech," The Question of Hamlet (New York, 1961), p. 157; also see p. 161. The original version appeared in The Kenyon Review, 12 (1950). 2"The Player's Speech in Hamlet," SQ, 13 (1962), 27.





good reason for putting off his task. The Gonzago play itself produces a similar reaction: he is deeply moved, yet his passionate response leads to another delay.3 To take any of Hamlet's reasons at face value seems dangerous; they usually fail to be convincing. Hamlet's response to the Player's speech is ambivalent, as are his responses throughout the play. The speech can provide incentive, for Priam is "a dear father murder'd" like his own, and Pyrrhus the cruel avenger that Hamlet feels he ought to be. On the other hand, the speech makes revenge monstrous and leads to passivity; Hamlet can see himself as a savage killer like Pyrrhusperhaps even like Claudius, his own father's murderer.4 Rather than try to decide on one or another set of responses it seems best to explore their contradictory nature. The speech reveals the ambivalence so characteristic of Hamlet. Later, for example, he envies Fortinbras' resolution, yet expresses his admiration in such a way as to stress the emptiness and horror of sending so many men to their death even for an eggshell, a straw of honor. If we are to begin to understand the Player's speech and its effect upon Hamlet we must remember (as few critics seem to) that he is not "reminded" of the subject, does not simply "recall" it. Nor does Shakespeare provide a simple "mirror" in which to see the evils-or the necessity-of revenge. Hamlet chooses "Aeneas' tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter."5 An audience must assume that he finds this particular tale attractive for some reason. Because of his obsession with the need for revenge, his choice of a speech about the murder of a king must be an attempt to stir himself. Thus Levin's reading heads in the right direction. Yet someting happens during the recitation which leads Hamlet to postpone revenge. Rather than being a mere divergence of opinion, the contradictory responses of critics illuminate the opposed responses within Hamlet himself. The speech comes at one of those moments when the principal narrative action halts for a lengthy consideration of acting in the

3Johnston explains this puzzling delay by saying that Hamlet "spares" Claudius at prayer; thus he is no "'Base and Crafty coward,"' "no Pyrrhus, who slew Priam as he sought sanctuary" (p. 28). Most critics find Hamlet's ostensible motive horrifyingly base. 4See Johnston, p. 29. 5II.ii.434-436. Shakespearean citations will be to The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore, 1969): Hamlet, ed. Willard Farnham, pp. 933-974.




theatrical sense. If we may consider the obvious for a moment, Hamlet dwells throughout the play on the close relation between fiction and reality, between acting on a stage and doing deeds in the world. His first line in the play is an aside, a kind of miniature soliloquy which alerts us that he already plays a role. From the start the Prince stands outside the world of Denmark, a world which forces him and others to assume various roles.6 In addition, doing deeds proves so difficult that he longs to be able to perform his task with a full and easy success like that of the Player who acts with "his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit" (II.ii.540-541). In play-acting, imitative action, one can define and control a situation free from the vagaries of the real world where thought and feeling, the deed they may lead to, and the consequence thereof are all open to a host of influences beyond comprehension or control. Thus play-acting has great attractions for a hero who finds moving from passion to action so difficult. If he could take life as "only a play" he might loosen up, stop fretting about the host of difficulties implicit in doing a deed. Hamlet embraces this attitude at several crucial points: for example, he plays the role of a madman, of a swashbuckling adventurer on route to England, of a brave and unsuspecting noble when he accepts Laertes' challenge to a duel in Claudius' court. The irrationality of the last response indicates Hamlet's deep need to assume roles: he knows Laertes seeks revenge and that Claudius has already tried to kill him, yet he accepts the challenge and brushes misgivings aside. Treating life as a kind of fiction in which he merely plays a role gives a sense of freedom; it is often the only way he can move from what he feels to some roughly appropriate deed. Still, the real world cannot be escaped or surmounted for long: his assumed madness blends into deep emotional distress, his play at duelling turns into actual murder. The fictions Hamlet finds so liberating soon turn out to be replete with the vagaries and frustrations of life itself.7
6For an interesting psychoanalytic view of this, see Neil Friedman and Richard M. Jones, "On the Mutuality of the Oedipus Complex: Notes on the Hamlet Case," American Imago, 20 (1963), rpt. in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. M. D. Faber (New York, 1970), pp. 121-146. 7Another motive for requesting the Player's speech, and for putting on the Gonzago play, may be that Hamlet tries to master the fact of his father's murder by repeating it. By experiencing the painful loss in fictional analogies Hamlet attempts to move from being the passive sufferer to the active creator-much as a child, to use Sigmund Freud's example, will create a game out of a distressing event like visiting the doctor in an effort to master it. Hamlet's attempts are of





The Player's speech sets up an analogy between fiction and fact which proves so fitting that it has dreadful resonance. It turns out to be a speech all too appropriate to Hamlet's task, for it becomes a mirror of his own situation in all its paralyzing complexity. Hamlet would like to see himself as Pyrrhus taking revenge on Priam for the death of his father Achilles; but, on the other hand, Hamlet can also see himself as Aeneas recounting the horrible murder of his king and "father" Priam. That is, the Player's speech serves as both a rehearsal of Hamlet's revenge on Claudius and as a retrospective view of Old Hamlet's murder. This double perspective constricts Hamlet. As hellish Pyrrhus he might sweep to action, but as pious Aeneas he might dwell in passion over a murder he cannot redress. The passive and active sides of his character clash before us during the recitation of the speech. We see, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in Hamlet, why he finds it immensely difficult to move from feeling to deed. Hamlet starts the speech by saying: "'The rugged Pyrrhus, like th' Hyrcanian beast'"; but he immediately qualifies the first line: "'Tis not so; it begins with Pyrrhus." His characteristic precision, careful awareness-are all conveyed hesitation, qualification-his by this brilliant minor detail. What he drops from the first line is the simile between Pyrrhus and "th' Hyrcanian beast" (or tiger). From his mistaken addition of the comparison we sense that he regards Pyrrhus as being what he ought to be: cruel, instinctive, swift to act. Yet in the light of the animal images in Hamlet we already get a glimpse of the ambiguity inherent in Hamlet's response to the speech and to taking revenge upon Claudiuswhom he calls a "remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" (II.ii.566). Hamlet continually compares Claudius and Gertrude to animals with inhuman, "kindless," instincts. Although he would like to see himself as a cruel tiger, something within him frustrates his desire. Pyrrhus is at once an example of what Hamlet feels he ought to be, and of what he feels he cannot be. Already the implication emerges that even justified revenge can be monstrous.8 This may
limited success. As Freud points out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, being "obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience" differs from "remembering it as something belonging to the past" which can be dealt with less compulsively and more effectively (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. and ed. James Strachey [London, 1955] 18.18). 8However, I differ in this from Johnston and others-notably, Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, 1967) and Harold Skulsky, Spirits Finely Touched





be why Hamlet begins a kind of epic simile which he immediately rejects; the stress abruptly shifts from an heroic scope to Pyrrhus, to the man himself. This shift occurs continually in Hamlet's own responses to his task. For instance, at the outset he moves from a grand realization that "the time is out of joint" and thus demands heroic action, to "O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right" (I.v.188-189). In Virgil, Aeneas elaborates upon a simile at the start of the same episode: Like to the adder with venimous herbes fed, Whom cold winter all bolne hid vnder ground, And shining bright when she her slough had slong Her slipper back doth rowle with forked tong, And raised brest, lift vp against the sun.9 Virgil's account helps us to place the tone of Shakespeare's version.10 When Virgil's Aeneas compares Pyrrhus to a snake the

(Athens, Ga., 1976), pp. 15-86. The moral problem involved in taking revenge never becomes explicit within the play; it lurks in the background and adds to the mystery of a world where nothing is fully comprehensible. Although Hamlet questions virtually every aspect of the world around him, he leaves this problem alone. When he remarks, for instance, on being prompted to his revenge "by heaven and hell" (II.ii.570) all that seems clear is his profound uncertainty about the nature of his quest and about his attitude toward it. Some critics think differently. Skulsky, for example, concludes that "in Hamlet a man embraces the possibility of violating a dictate of conscience in response to an alternative-and extrinsic-sanction of conduct. His only problem in justifying action, at first, is to contrive a diagnostic means simply of convicting or acquitting a suspected evildoer"(p. 250). Such arguments tend to underestimate the character's complexityand the audience's. Can the hero or the audience of a revenge play separate "conscience" from "honor"? Hamlet blurs such a distinction, for conscience and honor are both caught up into the largely inaccessible realm of superego dictates. Critics who attempt a precise logical definition of the play's attitude toward revenge work contrary to the uncertainty, mystery, and ambivalence which pervade Hamlet; on this, see Maynard Mack, "The World of Hamlet," Yale Review, 41 (1952), 502-523. 9The "Aeneid" of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, ed. Florence H. Ridley (Berkeley, 1963), II.609-613, p. 82. '0Unlike Aeneas, Hamlet does not identify Pyrrhus with a snake. Hamlet (and Shakespeare) tend to follow Virgil's account; and a snake-and the poison associated with it-fits the reported cause of Old Hamlet's death and the Ghost's account of his murder. We might speculate that a snake could be too appropriate here, too analogous to the murder of Old Hamlet by Claudius. Hamlet's attempt to stir himself to revenge might flounder at once if the snake appeared in the simile, for the oedipal implications would be obvious; the snake is not only an ancient phallic symbol, but in this context extremely sadistic and all too appropriate to the actual murder and to oedipal fantasy. In addition snake imagery pervades Aeschylus' trilogy on Orestes, a legendary figure whose matricidal impulses Hamlet might be thought to share. Far from exposing such parallels,




connotations are far more derogatory than the comparison to a tiger. Yet in the Aeneid the snake becomes transformed so that it takes on a grandly malevolent quality, a kind of heroic beauty. The Player's speech evokes none of this quality; the figure Hamlet would model himself upon is deeply flawed. This proves true of the other revenge figures in Hamlet, despite Hamlet's admiration for their resolution: Laertes' hot-headed and unprincipled approach and Fortinbras' primitive unthinking approach simply will not do for anyone so aware of himself as Hamlet. The avenger Hamlet describes seems ominous from the start. The corrected first lines run: "'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,/ Black as his purpose, did the night resemble. .. ."' Again, if we look back at Virgil we are struck by the difference. There Pyrrhus stood "reioysing in his dartes, with glittring armes"; this leads to the simile in which the snake "shining bright when she her slough had slong" raised her breast "vp against the sun." No gleam of light enters Hamlet's portrayal; the only color glimmers in sinister abstraction: Pyrrhus has a "dread and black complexion smeared/ With heraldry more dismal. Head to foot/ Now is he total gules" (443-445). Hamlet presents an almost allegorical figure of revenge, one with no redeeming traits. No Virgilian tension remains between the heroic and the monstrous, between the beautiful and the terrifying. Hamlet's Aeneas sees only evil and horror in an appalling murderer. For Hamlet, who must seek Claudius and slay him, his role as a kind of Pyrrhus would seem unbearable. Indeed, the emphasis on black links Hamlet to the speech in a very different way. He probably still wears mourning clothes; from the start he is identified with black, with his "inky cloak" and "customary suits of solemn black." He will not cast off his "nighted color" because it symbolizes his passionate grief. Pyrrhus' identification with black defines him as a hellish doer of deeds, whereas Hamlet's identification with black defines him as a pious sufferer. Ironically, Hamlet's model begins to be Aeneas, the son who can only lament the muzder of his king.

Hamlet leaves them submerged, potential; this may be why Shakespeare and Hamlet shift to "th' Hyrcanian beast." For an account of the imagery in the Oresteia, see Patrick Roberts, The Psychology of Tragic Drama (London, 1975), pp. 149-168; Roberts interprets the snake as a phallic symbol without being as reductive as most critics since he relates it to a theory of pre-oedipal fantasies developed by Melanie Klein (where it can also stand, for example, as a symbol of sadistically greedy nursing).




When Hamlet turns the speech over to the Player he stops at the very point where "'the hellish Pyrrhus/ Old grandsire Priam seeks."' Hamlet hands the narrative to the Player at the exact moment when the action is to begin. (Levin finds the moment "appropriate" but does not say why, p. 150.) Shakespeare could hardly have chosen a better place, for the break emphasizes Hamlet's tendency to stop just short of doing the deed. Even in this fictional representation of revenge Hamlet stresses that it is only play-acting by putting it at a further remove as a Player's uninvolved re-creation of a role. Hamlet breaks off the narrative just before the murder and insists upon its distance from reality; Pyrrhus comes across as unrelievedly evil. Both facts indicate that he must sense-on some level of consciousness-the parallel between "reverend," "old grandsire Priam" and Old Hamlet. Both victims are associated with age, value, and respect; both are unable to defend themselves as they are treacherously, remorselessly, inhumanly murdered. A striking image underscores this parallel. Priam's murderer attacks his "milky head"; Old Hamlet's murderer puts in his ears a poison which "doth posset/ And curd, like eager droppings into milk,/ The thin and wholesome blood." Here as elsewhere milk symbolizes human, life-giving riches and goodness; a few lines later we hear that the gods' compassion might have "made milch the burning eyes of heaven" had they seen the murder and felt sympathy. The idea that Shakespeare designed this speech to make the analogy serve as both rehearsal and retrospective view helps clarify its relation to Virgil's account. In imitating a passage so famous we might wonder why Shakespeare forgot or omitted the horrifying detail about Priam being murdered in the blood of a son killed before his eyes. It would seem highly appropriate to so sensational an account. Perhaps he felt that the detail would distort the analogy. As a rehearsal of Claudius' murder attention would shift to a son he does not have; as a retrospective view of Old Hamlet's murder attention would shift to a son who was not present. In either case the crucial parallels would be blurred. In light of the speech's contradictory nature we might wonder why Hamlet insists that he finds a strong incentive for action. He protests too much, which suggests that part of him does not mean what he says. If Hamlet were to take revenge on Claudius, he might become hellish and bestial like Pyrrhus; Claudius might become a victim for whom sympathy would be due. Revulsion





toward the murderer (Pyrrhus, Claudius) and sympathy for the victim (Priam, Old Hamlet) determine Hamlet's inconclusive reaction to the speech. He can go no further than "The Murder of Gonzago." Hamlet as murderer of Claudius would himself become a kind of Claudius. The ambivalence expressed by the movement of the speech and by Hamlet's response make the standard psychoanalytic reading of the play especially pertinent. If one thinks of Hamlet as suffering from unresolved oedipal desires, and there is ample reason to do so, then Claudius has perpetrated in reality what Hamlet has repressed. He cannot kill Claudius, for Claudius represents the most buried part of his own "personality," the most obscure part of his character. "He therefore becomes enmeshed in obsessional and self-destructive procrastination in his endeavor to fulfill his father's demand for revenge."'1 We arrive at much the same conclusion by different means: the murderer of Claudius becomes a kind of Claudius. The contradictory implications of the speech suggest why Hamlet suddenly decides that "the spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil" (584-585). The task looms as so momentous and terriblelike Priam's murder and the consequent fall of Troy, like Old Hamlet's murder and the consequent rotting of Denmark-that Hamlet puts off revenge. One part of him says that he must take revenge, another part finds it horrible; he attempts to reconcile these conflicting feelings by saying that he fears the Ghost may be a devil. Let us look forward for a moment to the play within the play where Shakespeare uses analogy in much the same manner and with similar effect. In "The Murder of Gonzago" we at first seem to be witnessing a retrospective enactment of Old Hamlet's murder by Claudius, just as at first we seemed to be seeing only a rehearsal of Hamlet's taking revenge on Claudius in the Player's speech. When Hamlet announces that the murderer is "one Lucianus, nephew to the king" (III.ii.235), he shifts the perspective and creates a parallel murder scene which terrifies Claudius. It was difficult enough for Claudius to endure a review of the murder of Old Hamlet in the dumb show, but now he faces a rehearsal of his own murder at his nephew's hands. His cause for alarm increases a few lines later when Hamlet commands the actor to 'begin, murderer. Leave thy damnable faces and begin.
"Friedman and Jones, p. 125.





Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge" (242-244). Claudius did not murder for revenge, but he might expect his nephew to do so. This interpretation seems to clear up the question of why both the dumb show and the Gonzago play are necessary; only after the retrospective view of Old Hamlet's murder has been firmly established does Hamlet (and Shakespeare) turn to the ominous rehearsal of Claudius' murder. The past murder and the one to come fuse here as they do in the Player's speech; the full force and implications of both deeds are present simultaneously.'2 Hamlet adds a final straw just before Claudius breaks off the performance: "you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife" (III.ii.253-254). To anyone who finds strong oedipal feelings in Hamlet this ought to be striking confirmation: Lucianus, nephew to the king, will gain the king's wife when he murders him. This is not simply a reference to the fact that Claudius gained Gertrude when he murdered Old Hamlet, for in the projected taking of revenge the nephew will gain the queen's love. The remark seems, by its position as the last word before Claudius rises, the final terrifying stroke: the last and conclusive detail of the mythic and psychological pattern comes into the open. If we feel that Claudius senses this, at whatever level of consciousness, it explains why he can no longer endure the performance. Claudius fears Hamlet as Laius fears Oedipus, and hence shortly prepares his murder. If we feel that Hamlet somehow senses his role in the analogous mythic and psychological relationship, it helps explain why he avoids murdering his mother's husband and why he goes instead to upbraid her and to demand that she abstain from abhorrent sexual intercourse. Both men try to defend themselves from the terrible consequences of the family triangle.13 Claudius' immediate response to the Gonzago play parallels Hamlet's response to the Player's speech. He falls into a passive state wherein the will becomes paralyzed by contradictory wishes. He flees the room and thereby confirms his guilt; he tries to pray but fails. His will, like Hamlet's, cannot move him from passion

'2Johnston sees a "mirror . . an image of the original murder" (p. 29); Levin finds "not so much a re-enactment of King Hamlet's death as ... a preview of young Hamlet's revenge" (p. 88). '3Ernest Jones, quite disconcertingly, says that "there is no talk of adultery or incest" in the play scene; see Hamlet and Oedipus (Garden City, 1954), p. 101. In this he follows Otto Rank.



A Y E R 'S


to action, from word to deed; his sense of guilt proves insufficient to stir him to a redeeming act of contrition and repentance. Hamlet is not the only one in Hamlet who finds it impossible to turn his feelings into appropriate deeds. His problem is not simply personal but one common to the world in which he lives: Claudius cannot repent, Fortinbras cannot attack Denmark, Laertes resorts to an underhanded revenge which shames him, Ophelia must renounce her love, and Gertrude shifts back and forth between her irreconcilable affection for Claudius and for Hamlet. But Hamlet seems to suffer the most. One very important aspect of staging the play is that it allows him to make others suffer the way he does. Ophelia must endure coarse remarks of an extremely vindictive sort. Gertrude must suffer through the Player Queen's prolonged insistence that she will take no second husband, for "none wed the second but who killed the first" (III.ii.172). Hamlet places Ophelia, Gertrude, and Claudius in situations where they cannot act openly or directly; his aggression comes out as he taunts them the way he taunts himself. He may want to force Claudius to repent-as he tries to force Gertrude to do in the closet scene-but the effect of the Gonzago play is to make others suffer as he does.'4 Returning to the Player's speech from the play within the play we are struck even more forcefully by the way it multiplies over and over those who suffer, or might be thought to suffer. Not only Hecuba, but anyone who saw the murder and her grief would have pronounced Fortune treasonous. Priam's murder and Hecuba's grief might even "'have made milch the burning eyes of heaven/ And passion in the gods'" (II.ii.505-506). More of the speech concentrates upon passionate responses, either described or postulated, than upon the deed itself. Passion gains a new and more poignant significance. Pyrrhus as bloody avenger proves inhuman; but Priam, Hecuba, and the Player in his response to their suffering, all bring forth human compassion. The only unambiguous models suggested by the Player's speech are Hecuba and the Player himself; it is to them, not to the

'4Johnston argues that the Gonzago play "has the expected results, of confirming the word of thc Ghost, and at the same time warning Claudius that Hamlet knows every detail" (p. 28). Why Hamlet should warn Claudius baffles me, unless part of him does not want to do the deed. Also, Hamlet takes pleasure in frightening the king and queen.




avenger Pyrrhus or the victim Priam, that Hamlet directs his attention in the soliloquy. He first blames himself for being unable to do what the Player does, unable to "force his soul so to his own conceit" that his "whole function" of bodily powers will work to carry out his conception of the role he plays (537-541). The Player's response can be completely adequate here, but Hamlet must move to substantial action, to doing deeds in a world of flux and complication where he cannot be sure of his part. His frustration with himself-and with his role as avenger-leads him to use extraordinarily forceful verbs in the following lines (drown, cleave, make mad, appal, confound, amaze), but he continues to express what he would do in theatrical terms as action on a stage (544-550). He blames himself because he simply mopes "unpregnant of [his] cause,/ And can say nothing." He confirms his remoteness from taking action by condemning himself for "saying" nothing whereas his problem is "doing" nothing. The confusion partly arises from his identification with the Player who "says" rather than "does." Still, Hamlet expresses himself as though he were an actor rather than Prince of Denmark. The other admirable model that Hamlet finds is Hecuba, and this might surprise us. The Player grieves, Hamlet notes, And all for nothing, For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, That he should weep for her? We might expect Hamlet to stress the victim, Priam, at least as much as the mourner; surely part of the Player's grief must be for the king whose slaughter he recounts. Hamlet's preoccupation with the queen obviously has much of its source in his preoccupation with Gertrude here and throughout Hamlet. During the Player's recitation Hamlet urges him to continue: "Say on; come to Hecuba" yet he interrupts to ask "'The mobled queen?"' (488491). His insistence on hearing about her, and his rather anxious interruption, stress his fascination with the passive response of the mournful survivor.'5 That is, he identifies with the figure most like himself. By implication he criticizes Gertrude as being unfaithful and perhaps guilty of some active role in the murder; she,

'5That Polonius takes "the mobled queen?" as literary criticism may mislead critics into thinking that Hamlet means to question the peculiar word; eager auditors often interrupt what they want to hear out of anxiety.





like Claudius, may be a kind of Pyrrhus "horridly tricked/ With

blood of fathers .. ." (445-446). Again, Hamlet stresses the pas-

sive sufferer instead of the doer of the deed or the victim. Like Hecuba, and ultimately like Aeneas, he must bear alone the burden of grief for the slain king, must endure the consequences of the deeds of others. Hamlet curses himself for cowardice in such strong terms and for so long that we expect the violence of his emotion to provoke him to instant revenge; yet he puts it off and turns back to a consideration of the power of drama which he hears has made guilty creatures "struck so to the soul that presently/ They have proclaimed their malefactions." If Claudius blenches, Hamlet says, "I know my course." We assume that he means he will take revenge. Hamlet's ostensible reason for putting on the play, that the spirit may be a devil, arises only during the last eight lines. This is disconcerting; yet Pyrrhic action, so black and hellish, hardly seems the better way if we fully respond to Aeneas' tale. Indeed, in terms of legendary history the Player recounts what we might call (if given to punning) a Pyrrhic victory. Aeneas led his people to Latium so that eventually Rome could be founded: a new and more glorious Troy replaces the one destroyed by the Greeks; Pyrrhus' action in killing Priam and bringing down Troy ultimately may be seen through Aeneas' eyes in an ironic light. Irony of a more obvious sort plays over virtually all the actions in Hamlet, for it is a world where (to use the Player King's pithy statement) "Our will and fates do so contrary run/ That our devices still are overthrown;/ Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own" (III.ii.203-205). The stratagem of the Player's speech, whose recital seems so perfectly suited for stirring Hamlet to vengeful action, works instead to reinforce his passion. Northeastern University