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The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View

Author(s): David Leverenz


Source: Signs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1978), pp. 291-308
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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The Woman in Hamlet: An
Interpersonal View

David Leverenz

"John,I guess there are some people around here who


thinkyou have some littleold lady in you."[JOHNDEAN,
Blind Ambition]

"Who's there?" Bernardo's anxious shout, which begins Shakespeare's


most problematic play, raises the fundamental question of Hamlet's
identity.Various male authorityfiguresadvance simpleanswers.For the
Ghost, Hamlet is a dutiful son who should sweep to his revenge and
forgetabout his mother. For Claudius, Hamlet is a possible rebel who
should be either made tractableor banished and killed. For Polonius,
Hamlet is the heir gone mad throughfrustratedlove of Ophelia, whom
Polonius has denied him partlyforreasons of state.But for Hamlet, the
roles of dutifulson, ambitious rebel, or mad lovesickheir are just that:
roles, to be played for others but not felt for himself.The "Who" re-
mains unsettled within and without, "the heart of my mystery"
(3.2.351).1
The mixed and contradictoryexpectations of these fatherfigures
reflecttheir own divided image of dutiful reason and bestial lust. At
times their power seems to be defined by their abilityto order women
and children around. Hamlet sees Gertrude give way to Claudius,
Ophelia give way to Polonius, and himselfat last yield to the Ghost. But
Hamlet also sees duplicityand falsenessin all the fathers,except perhaps
his own, and even therehis famous delay may well indicateunconscious
perception,ratherthan the unconscious guiltascribed to him by a strict
Freudian interpretation.Hamlet resistshis father'scommands to obey.
Despite his illusoryidealizationof the senior Hamlet as pure and angelic,
he senses the Ghost'scomplicityin the paternaldouble-speak thatbends
Gertrude and Ophelia, indeed bends feelings and the body itself,to

1. I am using the Pelican edition of Hamlet,ed. Willard Farnham (New York: Pelican
Books, 1957). The 1605 edition'stitleis The TragicallHistorieofHamlet,PrinceofDenmarke.
The epigraph is taken fromJohn Dean, BlindAmbition: The WhiteHouse Years(New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1976), p. 47.
[Signs:Journalof Womenin Cultureand Society1978, vol. 4., no. 2]
? 1978 by The Universityof Chicago. 0097-9740/79/0402-0004$01.20

291

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292 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

self-falsifyingReason and filialloyalty.Hamlet is part hysteric,as Freud


said, and part Puritanin his disgustat contaminationand his idealization
of his absent father.But he is also, as Goethe was the firstto say, part
woman. Goethe was wrong, as Freud was wrong, to assume that
"woman" means weakness. To equate women with weak and tainted
bodies, words, and feelingswhile men possess noble reason and ambi-
tious purpose is to participatein Denmark's disease dividingmind from
body, act fromfeeling,man fromwoman.
Hamlet's tragedyis the forced triumphof filialdutyover sensitivity
to his own heart.To fulfillvarious fathers'commands,he has to denyhis
self-awareness,just as Gertrudeand Ophelia have done. That denial is
equivalent to suicide, as the language of the last act shows. His puritani-
cal cries about whoredom in himselfand others,his hystericaloutbursts
to Ophelia about nunneriesand painted women,are the outer shell of a
horror at what the nurtured,loving,and well-lovedsoul has been cor-
rupted to. From a more modern perspectivethan the playallows,we can
sense that the destructionof good motheringis the real issue, at least
fromHamlet's point of view.
Freudians, too many of whom have theirown paternal answers to
"Who's there,"see Hamlet as an unconscious Claudius-Oedipus, or as a
man baffled by pre-Oedipal ambivalences about his weak-willed,pas-
sionate, ficklemother.2While acknowledgingHamlet's parricidal and
matricidalimpulses,we should see these inchoate feelingsas responses,
not innate drives. Interpersonalexpectations,more than self-contained
desires,are what divide Hamlet fromhimselfand conscripthim to false
social purposes. In this perspective,taken from Harry Stack Sullivan,
R. D. Laing, and D. W. Winnicott,Hamlet's supposed delay is a natural
reaction to overwhelming interpersonal confusion.3 His self-

2. See Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysisand Shakespeare,rev.ed. (1964; reprinted.,


New York: Octagon Books, 1976), pp. 163-206, for various parricidal and matricidal
interpretations.Erik Eriksondiscusses Hamlet's identityas delayed adolescent in "Youth:
Fidelityand Diversity,"Daedalus 91 (Winter 1962): 5-27; and Neil Friedmanand Richard
M. Jones develop furtherpsychosocialperspectives,to whichmyessay is indebted,in "On
the Mutualityof the Oedipus Complex: Notes on the Hamlet Case," AmericanImago 20
(Summer 1963): 107-31. More recentpsychoanalyticstudiesinclude Theodore Lidz, Ham-
let'sEnemy:Madness and Mythin Hamlet(London: Vision Press, 1976); and Norman N.
Holland, "Hamlet-My GreatestCreation,"Journal oftheAmericanAcademy 3
ofPsychoanalysis
(1975): 419-27. Avi Erlich'sHamlet'sAbsentFather(Princeton,N.J.: PrincetonUniversity
Press, 1977) came to myattentionafterthisessay was firstdrafted.It argues that Hamlet
unconsciouslyfears his mother and needs his father,a conclusion directlyopposed to
mine. Though Erlich'sbook has manyuseful insights,psychoanalytictheoryleads him to
mistakea wishfulmale fantasyfor interpersonalreality.
3. See Harry Stack Sullivan,The InterpersonalTheoryofPsychiatry (New York: W. W.
Studyin Sanityand Madness
Norton & Co., 1953); R. D. Laing, TheDividedSelf:An Existential
(London: Tavistock Press, 1960); D. W. Winnicott,"Mirror-Roleof Motherand Familyin
Child Development,"ThePredicament oftheFamily:A PsychoanalyticSymposium, ed. P. Lomas
(London: Hogarth Press, 1967), pp. 26-33; also D. W. Winnicott,TheMaturationalProcesses

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Signs Winter1978 293

preoccupation is paradoxically grounded not so much in himselfas in


the extraordinaryand unremittingarray of "mixed signals" that sepa-
rate role fromself,reason fromfeeling,duty fromlove.
Hamlet has no way of unambiguouslyunderstandingwhat anyone
says to him. The girlwho supposedly loves him inexplicablyrefuseshis
attentions.His grievingmothersuddenly marries.His dead father,sud-
denly alive, twice tells him to deny his anger at his mother'sshocking
change of heart.Two of his best friends"make love to thisemployment"
of snooping against him (5.2.57). Polonius, Claudius, and the Ghost all
manifestthemselvesas loving fathers,yet expect the worst from their
sons and spy on theirchildren,either directlyor through messengers.
Who is this"uncle-father"and "aunt-mother"(2.2.366), or thiscourtier-
father,who preach the unityof being true to oneself and othersyetare
false to everyone, who can "smile, smile, and be a villain" (1.5.108)?
Gertrude's ihconstancynot only bringson disgust and incestuous feel-
ings, it is also the sign of diseased doubleness in everyone who has
accommodated to his or her social role. Usurping Claudius is the symbol
of all those "pretenders,"who are now tryingto bring Hamlet into line.
No wonder Hamlet weeps at the sight of a genuine actor-the irony
reveals the problem-playing Hecuba's grief. The male expressing a
woman's constancyonce again mirrorsHamlet's need. And the role,
though feigned,at least is openly played. The actor'stearsare the play's
one unambiguous reflectionof the grief Hamlet thought his mother
shared with him before the onset of so many multitudinousdouble-
dealings.
To killor not to killcannot be entertainedwhen one is not even sure
of existingwith any integrity.Being, not desiring or revenging,is the
question. Freudians assume thateveryonehas strongdesires blocked by
stronger repressions,but contemporarywork with schizophrenicsre-
veals the tragic varietyof people whose voices are only amalgams of
other people's voices,withcausticself-observation or a stillmore terrify-
ing vacuum as theirincessantinwardreality.This is Hamlet to a degree,
as it is Ophelia completely.As Laing says of her in TheDividedSelf,"in
her madness, there is no one there. She is not a person. There is no
integral selfhood gexpressedthrough her actions or utterances. In-
comprehensible statementsare said by nothing. She has already died.
There is now only a vacuum where there was once a person."4 Laing

and theFacilitatingEnvironment (New York: InternationalUniversityPress, 1965). I rec-


ognize that the interpersonal approach is in some ways tangential to the major post-
Freudian development in psychoanalysis,the Britishobject-relationsschool. Nevertheless,
I believe it is more useful for literarycriticism.A quasi-Laingian studyof Shakespeare is
Terence Eagleton's Shakespeareand Society:CriticalEssays on ShakespeareanDrama (New
York: Schocken Books, 1971).
4. Laing, p. 95. Laing's dismissal of Ophelia's statementsas "incomprehensible"is
odd, given his extraordinarysensitivity to the meanings in schizophrenicvoices.

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294 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

misrepresentsher stateonly because there are manyvoices in Ophelia's


madness speaking throughher, all makingsense, and none of themher
own. She becomes the mirrorfor a madness-inducingworld. Hamlet
resiststhese pressuresat the cost of a terrifying
isolation.Once he thinks
his motherhas abandoned him,thereis nothingand no one to "mirror"
his feelings,as Winnicottputs it.5Hamlet is utterlyalone, beyond the
loving semi-understandingof reasonable Horatio or obedient Ophelia.
A world of fathersand sons, ambitionand lust,considersgrief"un-
manly,"as Claudius preaches (1.2.94). Hamlet seems to agree, at least to
himself,citinghis "whorish"doubts as the cause of his inabilityto take
manly filialaction. This female imagery,which reflectsthe play's male-
centered world view,representsa coverthomosexual fantasy,according
to Freudian interpretation.6Certainly Hamlet's idealizations of his
fatherand of Horatio's friendshipshow a hunger for male closeness.
Poisoning in the ear may unconsciouslyevoke anal intercourse.And the
climacticswordplaywithLaertes does lead to a brotherlyunderstanding.
But these instancesof coverthomosexual desire are responsesto a lack.
Poisoning in the ear evokes conscious and unconscious perversityto
intimatethe perversionof communication,especiallybetweenmen. The
woman in Hamlet is the source of his most acute perceptionsabout the
diseased, disordered patriarchal society that tries to "play upon this
pipe" of Hamlet's soul (3.2.336), even as a ghost returningfrom the
dead.
* * *

The separation of role fromselfis clear in the opening scene. Anx-


ietyprecipitatesa genuine question, "Who's there?" It is answered not
with"Francisco,"thenaturalrejoinder,but with"Nay,answerme. Stand
and unfold yourself" (1.1.2). Franciscorestorespublicritualby the pre-
scribed challenge of a guard, not the response of a friend.To private
uneasiness he responds with public norms. Berardo's answer to the
command to "unfold yourself' is equally self-avoiding."Long live the
king!" he cries (1.1.3). His identity,in the prescribed convention,is
equivalent to respectforthe king.Yet the not-so-long-lived kinghas just
died, and the new king,who was to have been Hamlet the younger,has
been displaced by the old king'sbrother.Who is the rightfulking?Who
is there?The question returns,under the formulaicphrase thatdenies
any problemsof loyaltyor succession.
5. See Winnicott,"Mirror-Roleof Mother and Familyin Child Development."
6. ErnestJones,Hamletand Oedipus(London: VictorGollancz Press, 1949), pp. 86-87,
sees "repulsion against woman" as coming fromrepressed sexual feelingsand a "splitting
of the motherimage"; he connects Hamlet's diatribesagainstwomen to unconscious fear
of incestwishes.Avi Erlich,in Hamlet'sAbsentFather,explores pre-Oedipal dynamicsmore
thoroughly.

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Signs Winter1978 295

Francisco departs withan odd and disconcertingaddition to a con-


ventionalfarewell:"For thisreliefmuch thanks.'Tis bittercold, /And I
am sick at heart" (1.1.8-9). Tensions between the head and the heart,
noble reason and diseased emotion,centerthe play. Yet thisfirstexpres-
sion of heart-sick feelings has no explanation. The watch has been
"quiet"-"Not a mouse stirring,"Franciscogratuitouslyadds (1.1.10). By
act 3 Hamlet will be devising a play he calls "The Mousetrap," which
would make the new king a mouse and suggest that royal stabilityis
corroded at its base. But for now these jagged interchanges,like the
half-linesstaggered on the page and the roles confused by the guards,
seem simply"out of joint," withno clear perspectiveon who has been
guardingwhat,whyBernardo seems scared,and whyFranciscofeelssick
at heart. The darker questions recede into the comfortable self-
definitionsof Horatio and Marcellus,who respond to the next "Who is
there?" with "Friends to this ground" (Horatio) "And liegemen to the
Dane" (Marcellus, 1.1.15). Horatio, whose firstword is "Friends," is the
only one of this group to define himselfboth withinand beyond con-
ventional public deference. As yet we cannot sense the incompatibility
between being friendsand being liegemen. By act 5 the gap is so wide
that Horatio declares himself"more an antique Roman than a Dane"
(5.2.330) and triesto drink fromthe poisoned cup to followhis friend
both from and to a poisoned state. All we know now, though, is that
more seems afoot than simplythe changing of a guard.7
Identity,in the firstscene, is defined as role, specificallyas loyalty
among functionariesof a state.But feelingshave been partlyvoiced that
are curiouslydisconnected from roles. There is no coherent voice for
more private feelings,in this case fear; rote is the norm. The polarity
between mind and passions reflectslarger polaritiesin the social order,
or rather in a societypretendingto be ordered along the father'slines.
These polarities become more apparent in the contrast between
Claudius's opening speech and Hamlet's firstsoliloquy.Claudius speaks
in the language of public command, withphrases tailoredand balanced,
the royal"we" firmlyaffixedto his crown. Oxymorons prescribea unity
of opposites,and his balanced phrasingis only twicedisrupted withthe
realityof seized power: "Taken to wife,"and "So much forhim" (1.2.14,
25). For Claudius, reason, nature, and submissionare joined in a facile
unity.

7. See Roy Walker,"Hamlet:The Opening Scene," in The Timeis Out ofJoint(Folcroft,


Pa.: FolcroftLibraryEditions,1948), reprintedinShakespeare:
ModernEssaysin Criticism,ed.
Leonard F. Dean (New York: Peter Smith, Publisher, 1961), pp. 216-21. For broader
commentarieson the play's"interrogativemood," see also Maynard Mack, "The World of
Hamlet,"Yale Review41 (June 1952): 502-23, widelyreprinted;Harry Levin,The Question
ofHamlet(New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1959); and Bernard McElroy,Shakespeare's
MatureTragedies(Princeton,N.J.: PrincetonUniversityPress, 1973), pp. 29-88.

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296 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

Fie, 'tis a faultto heaven,


A faultagainst the dead, a faultto nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers,and who stillhath cried,
From the firstcorse tillhe that died to-day,
"This must be so."
[1.2.101-6]

To personifyan abstraction,reason, is characteristicof Claudius's per-


spective, in which abstract states are more real than persons. Un-
fortunately realityintrudes;in therushof his logiche misrepresents"the
firstcorse," who was obviouslyAbel, not a fatherbut a brotherkilledby
brother,as in Claudius's crime.The heartwillintrudeitsguilt,no matter
how speech triesto deny factand feeling.The rhetoricof formalobedi-
ence avoids, while suggesting,the simple starkrealityof a father'smur-
der, a son's grief,and a murderer'sguilt.
Claudius's speech revealsa second assumptionalreadysensed in the
personificationof reason. When he speaks of "our whole kingdom ...
contractedin one brow of woe" (1.2.3-4), he presentshis kingdomas a
single person. He furtherconnects the language of personal love with
the language of public war,since makingwar among stateshas the same
unityof opposites thathe wantsto prescribeforindividuals,even forhis
wife. Gertrude, whom he defines only in her disjointed roles as "our
sometimesister,now our queen," is thus "Th' imperialjointress to this
warlikestate"(1.2.9). Marriage is simplythe prelude to aggression.The
only arena for "joining" is the ordering of the state for war, not the
expressingof desire in the marriagebed. Polonius continuesthe inver-
sion of love and war more explicitlyin his advice to Ophelia: "Set your
entreatmentsat a higherrate/Than a command to parley"(1.3.122-23).
Laertes also echoes the language of war in speakingof love to her: "keep
you in the rear of youraffection,/Out of the shot and danger of desire"
(1.2.34-35). In thiscollusion of ambitiousfunctionaries,the state is the
only real person,whose war withother person-statescan be told as love,
while the loves and fears of persons can be expressed only as warlike
obedience to the purposes of states.8
Hamlet's firstprivatediscourseopposes thedehumanizingunitiesof
the king'spublic preachingpoint forpoint.Where Claudius assumes the
oneness of reason and nature in filialsubjection,Hamlet piles contrary
on rebellious contrary,especiallyof mind and body. Indeed, Hamlet's
soliloquy is obsessed withlanguage of the body-sullied (or solid) flesh,

8. Laingdefines as a processbywhichmembers
"collusion" ofan intimategroup,such
as thefamily,conspireknowingly or unknowingly to validateone member's "falseself,"
thatselfwhichconforms to otherpeople'sexpectations. andSociety
Eagleton'sShakespeare
analyzeshowvariousfalseunitiesinHamlet forcethehero'ssubjectivity
intobeingmanipu-
latedas an object.

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Signs Winter1978 297

appetite, feeding, father'sdead body, tears, incestuous sheets, "galled


eyes" (1.2.155), and finally the heart and tongue: "But break my
heart, for I must hold my tongue" (1.2.159), an intuitionthat precisely
describes his fate. Parts of the body, rank, gross, and unweeded, over-
whelm any pretense at understanding.
Elsewhere Hamlet attemptsto recastthe language of public ritualas
personal feeling. When his friendssay farewellwith the conventional
"Our dutyto yourhonor," Hamlet respondswitha half-ironicinversion:
"Your loves,as mine to you" (1.2.253-54). Duty and love stillhave some-
thing in common, he hopes. But his language in the firstact more
broadly participatesin the most pervasiveassumptionof Claudius, that
reason is whatmakes a man. Hamlet is disgustedat the thoughtof "some
complexion . . . breaking down the pales and fortsof reason" (1.4.27-
28). Those "pales and forts"echo Claudius's equation betweenwar and
love. Here is the inward castle of the mind on which,metaphorically,
Bernardo and Francisco stand guard, though against what is still un-
certain. "Nobility"connotes the mind's royalty,as befitsa prince's role.
"Nature,"on the otherhand, is associatedwiththe rabble,revelingin the
bestial dregs of "swinish phrase" and scandal, "some vicious mole of
nature in them" (1.4.19, 24) that cannot help but get out. Just as
Claudius falselyconjoins nature and obedience into the smooth illusory
primacyof reason, so Hamlet, searchingfortruthat the other extreme,
lumps nature, feeling,beasts, and body together,all as negatives.
Hamlet is "unsocialized,"a psychiatristmightsay,hearingreportsof
his hostile puns, asides, and soliloquies. Unfortunatelyhe is far more
socialized than he can perceive. He stilltakes refuge in the shared as-
sumptionsof those around him,who locate the selfin the mind's obedi-
ence to patriarchalorder, the body's obedience to abstractions.Whether
speaking as Polonius,who can talkso gliblyof "wit"as having "soul" and
"limbs" (2.2.90-91) and swear that"I hold my duty as I hold my soul"
(2.2.44), or as Rosencrantz,who expounds so eloquently on how the
"single and peculiar life" is only part of the "massy wheel" of majesty
(3.3.11-23), or as Laertes, who takes such pains to instructOphelia that
Hamlet is "circumscribed/ Unto the voice and yieldingof that body /
Whereof he is the head" (1.3.22-24), this common public voice denies
privatefeelingand privateidentity,while assertingthe false union of all
the parts of the social body in subjection to majesty.As Rosencrantz
declares (3.3.12-13), this power is "much more" than "the strengthand
armor of the mind" itself.Again the warlikeimage is symptomatic.
The Ghost seems to be the one father who speaks straight,and
Hamlet's encounter with him precipitatesclarityabout what has hap-
pened and what he must do. But while confirmingHamlet's perception
of external wickedness, the Ghost invalidates Hamlet's feelings. He
speaks to the mind'ssuspicionsof Claudius whiledenyingHamlet's more
profound heartsicknessover Gertrude. Claudius's villainyis clear, and

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298 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

clearlystated. But manyother aspects of the Ghost'saccount are mixed


signals denying simple feeling. After hearing of the "sulph'rous and
tormenting flames" awaiting his father, Hamlet cries "Alas, poor
ghost!"-a Gertrude-likeresponse (1.5.4). "Pityme not," the Ghost re-
joins (1.5.5), rejectingthe empathyhe has just solicited.He wants only
"serioushearing"and revenge.Yet the Ghostthengratuitouslydescribes
"my prison house" and forcesits horrorson Hamlet by suggestingthat
knowledge of the truthwould shatterhis son's body. This is already a
Laingian "knot,"9designed to exaggerate the father'sstrengthand the
son's weakness. Feelings are frivolous; manly endurance is true for-
titude.As he willdo withGertrude,the Ghost impliesthathis son is too
frailto hear; so is anyone with"ears of fleshand blood" (1.5.22). Don't
pityme, runs the message-but boy, whatyou wouldfeel ... Yet whyis
fatherin Purgatory?Not because of his heroic or virtuousstrengthbut
because of "the foul crimes done in my days of nature" (1.5.12). So in
these firstfewlines the fatherhas: (1) told his son not to pity,yetencour-
aged him to pity,(2) accentuatedhis son's earthlyweakness and his own
immortalstrength,yettold Hamlet of"foul crimes,"and (3) equated pity
withfrivolity and dutifulhearingwithseriousness,while picturingHam-
let's feelingsin language that dismembersthe body in its exaggerated
seriousness.
The mixed signals persist.We never learn what the "foul crimes"
consist of, though they are apparently extensive enough to have the
Ghostcryout "O, horrible!0, horrible!mosthorrible!"at the thoughtof
his "account" for"myimperfections"(1.5.78-79). Yet the major burden
of his discourse is to contrasthis "dignity"and "virtue"withClaudius's
crimes.We have alreadyheard fromothers,notablyHoratio,about King
Hamlet's warlike"frown"and armor (1.1.60-62). There is verylittlein
the Ghost's own speech, however,to support a sense of virtuousinteg-
rity.His surprisinglyweak affirmation of his love's "dignity"statessim-
ply "That it went hand in hand even with the vow / I made to her in
marriage,"presumablyto remain faithful(1.5.48-50). Even his love can
be fullysummarizednot be feelingbut by "vow" or public ritual.And as
a king,his peacetimebehaviorseems to have been primarilysleeping on
the job. Otherwise he would not have been killed as he was "Sleeping
withinmyorchard,/Mycustomalwaysof the afternoon"(1.5.59-60). He
is also viciouslyuncharitableto his queen, whileat the same timeforbid-
ding his son fromhavingthatsame feeling.10Throughout his speech the
9. See R. D. Laing, Knots(London: Tavistock Press, 1970). This is an extension of
GregoryBateson's "double bind" theory;see G. Bateson, D. D. Jackson,J. Haley, and J. H.
Weakland, "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,"BehaviouralScience 1 (October 1956):
251-64.
10. Harold C. Goddard, in TheMeaningofShakespeare (Chicago: Universityof Chicago
Press, 1951), vol. 1, develops an interpretationalong parallel lines,withthe Ghost as devil
imposinga "divided mind" on Hamlet. Goddard's reading is finallya Christianone, argu-

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Signs Winter1978 299

Ghost is preoccupied withthe body,and as withHamlet,Gertrudeis the


focusforthatconcern. Her change from"seeming-virtuous"behaviorto
"lust" puts the Ghost into a paroxysmof disgust,not so much at the vile
seducer as at the woman who could move from"a radiant angel" to a
beast who preys"on garbage" (1.5.46, 55-57). The kingof "foul crimes"
presentshimselfas an angel now.
Hamlet's idealizationof his fatherand disgustwithClaudius reveals,
as Freudians have rightlyargued, a splittingof the son's ambivalence
toward the father.But the various mixed signals in the Ghost's speech
show how the father'scommunication,not the son's intrapsychicre-
pressions,fostersambivalence.Fatheris, in fact,more like Claudius than
the Ghost can dare admit. They both speak withthe arrogantabstract-
edness of majesty-"So the whole ear of Denmark / Is ... / Rankly
abused" (1.5.36-38)-yet theybothshow theirparticularbodies, in word
or deed, subvertingthe false nobilityof royal role. And the Ghost is
particularlyambivalentabout "nature"itself.Though he invokeshis own
"foul crimesdone in mydays of nature" (1.5.12), he concludes, "If thou
hast nature in thee, bear it not" (1.5.81). From "Pityme not" to "Bear it
not," the Ghost'scommands falsifyboth the father'srealityand the son's
"nature." They exaggerate father'svirtues,demean Hamlet's responses,
and establisha confusingset of connectionsbetween nature, lust, feel-
ing,and Gertrude,all of whichmustbe resolutelydisowned to followthe
father'sdirectivestoward filialrevenge,a "natural feeling"unnatural to
Hamlet.'t Even the minor fatherfigures,like old Priam and Yorick,are
vividin theirinfirmbodies, not in theirdignifiedprecepts.Yet precepts
are the "me" that Hamlet has to remember.
Through her impossible attempt to obey contradictoryvoices,
Ophelia mirrorsin her madness the tensionsthat Hamlet perceives.As

ing that Art,or the play withinthe play, could have converted Claudius to repentance if
Hamlet's uncontrollablevengefulnesshad not intervened.AnotherChristianreader sensi-
tive to the Ghost's duplicityis Eleanor Prosser,in Hamletand Revenge(Stanford,Calif.:
Stanford UniversityPress, 1967). Christian readings, like too many Freudian readings,
tend to substitutethe false answer of duty for the real question of identity.
11. The Ghost has occasioned immense controversy.Of those who see the Ghost as
other thanbenign,see above, and also Richard Flatter,Hamlet'sFather(New Haven, Conn.:
Yale UniversityPress, 1949); G. Wilson Knight,The WheelofFire, 2d ed. (London: Me-
thuen & Co., 1965); and J. Dover Wilson,WhatHappensin Hamlet(Cambridge: Cambridge
UniversityPress, 1967). Most criticssee the Ghost as the good fatherto whom Hamlet
should submit. In Fools of Time: Studiesin ShakespeareanTragedy(Toronto: Universityof
Toronto Press, 1967), p. 80, Northrop Frye concludes that "God's main interest,in
Elizabethan tragedy,is in promotingthe revenge,and in makingit as bloody as possible."
For a Jungian view,which superficiallyresembles my own in its prescriptionfor men to
encounter the woman in themselves,see Alex Aronson, Psycheand Symbolin Shakespeare
(Bloomington: Indiana UniversityPress, 1972). In Aronson's view the Ghost is Hamlet's
dramatizedunconsciousness,as Hamlet triesto freehimselffrom"his entanglementwitha
Hecate-like Magna Mater" (p. 235).

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300 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

in Laing's Sanity,Madnessand theFamily,Ophelia's "madness" is a natural


response to the unacknowledged interpersonalfalsitiesof the group.12
Her historyis another instanceof how someone can be driven mad by
having her inner feelings misrepresented,not responded to, or ac-
knowledged only through chastisementand repression. From her en-
tranceon, Ophelia mustcontinuallyrespond to commands whichimply
distrusteven as theycompel obedience. "Do you doubt that?"she opens,
after Laertes has told her, "do not sleep, / But let me hear fromyou"
(1.3.3-4). The body's natural desire to sleep must yield to the role of
always-attentive sister.Withoutresponding, perhaps not even hearing
her rejoinder to his demand, Laertes immediatelytries to plunge her
into a more severe doubt of Hamlet's affection,and thereforeof her
own. It is simplytoyingwithlust,he says,"a fashionand a toyin blood"
(1.3.6). Reflectingthe divisionbetween mind and body forcedon chil-
dren by fathersthemselvesdivided, Laertes speaks magisterially of how
"naturecrescent"in Hamlet mustbe "circumscribed"to thelarger"body"
of the state"Whereofhe is the head" (1.3.11, 22-24). Hamlet's voice can
go "no further/ Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal"(1.3.27-
28). A prince can express no feelingexcept as it furthershis social role;
the rest is transientsensuality,"The perfumeand suppliance of a min-
ute, / No more." "No more but so?" Ophelia responds,questioningbut
trusting,and Laertes rejoins ambiguously,"Think it no more" (1.3.9-
10). So the Ghost speaks to Hamlet and of Gertrude,emphasizingtheir
weakness and his strength.
Ophelia accepts Laertes's commands as a "lesson" to "keep / As
watchmanto myheart . . " (1.3.45-46). Yet her advice to him showsher
awareness of his possible double self, the pastor and the libertine,the
very division he used in describingHamlet. Punning on "recks" and
"reckless,"she displays an independent wit, much like Hamlet's more
constrictedopening puns. But her sense of the necessityfor a "watch-
man" over probable evils of the heart is as unquestioned as her accep-
tance of the militaryterminology.The fortressof the femaleheartneeds
its Bernardoes. She will doubt her feelingshenceforth.When Polonius
reinterpretswhat she calls Hamlet's "tenders / Of his affectionto me"
(1.3.99-100) as monetarytransactionsleading only to her father'sexpo-
sure as "a fool," Ophelia hesitantlyasserts the "honorable fashion" of
Hamlet's loving speech to her (1.3.111). Yet she mutelyaccepts her
father'sassumption that to "Tender yourselfmore dearly" is essential
for protectingfather'sself-image(1.3.107). Polonius is deliberatelyun-
concerned withwhathis daughter feels.His command to refuse Hamlet
any "words or talk" flies in the face of everythingOphelia has said
(1.3.134). Yet she has no choice but to say, "I shall obey, my lord"
(1.3.136).
12. R. D. Laing and Aaron Esterson,Sanity,Madnessand theFamily(London: Tavis-
tock Press, 1964). Estersonexpanded one chapter into TheLeavesofSpring:A Studyin the
DialecticsofMadness(London: Tavistock Press, 1970).

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signs Winter1978 301

For his part,Polonius is preoccupied onlywithhow he looks. Always


the fawningcourtier,the man who can say "I hold mydutyas I hold my
soul" in returnforbeing called "the fatherof good news"byhis new king
(2.2.42-44), his response to Claudius's questions about his daughter fla-
grantlyreveals his unconcern for anythingbut his own position. "But
how hath she / Received his love?" Claudius inquires. "What do you
thinkof me?" is her father'sanswer; "What mightyou think?"he anx-
iouslyrepeats (2.2.128-30, 139). For Polonius, his daughter is an animal
whom he can "loose" (2.2.162) to catch Hamlet's motive. He cares for
Claudius, for his role as "assistant for a state" (2.2.166), not for his
daughter's feelings.The subplot makes clear what the main plot obfus-
cates: Fathers perceive children as they do their wives and bodies, as
beasts to be controlled for the magnificationof their self-images,or
rather,forthe expression of theirdivided selves,theirreason and their
lust.These divisionsgrow fromtheircomplicityin playinga leading role
in a corruptstate. Polonius, puttingthe issue squarely,says to Ophelia,
"You do not understandyourselfso clearly/As itbehooves mydaughter
and your honor" (1.3.96-97). Ophelia mustaccept the role of honorable
possession and deny her love for Hamlet. This is not a question of
repressed sexual desire, though certainlyher anxieties, like Hamlet's,
have to do with feelingsdenied. It is a question of what it means to
understand oneself when the price is falsenessto others.
Hamlet himselffostersOphelia's crisis,to be sure. He sends her an
ambiguous poem which can be read as "Never doubt that I love" or
"Never suspect that I love" (2.2.119). He tellsher he loved her; then,"I
loved you not" (3.1.119). He seems to confirmLaertes's suspicions by
warning her of his lust and ordering her to a nunnery, which of
course-another mixed signal-could also be a whorehouse. His crude
jokes about "countrymatters"(3.2.111) as he lies in her lap at the play
toywithher role as honorable daughter,confirmhis lust,yetcontradict
the piteous picture he makes of himself in her room, wordless, his
clothesin disarray.His oscillatingacts of need and aggressionare Ham-
let'snastymirroringof whathe perceivesto be her mixed signalsto him:
her loving talks,then her inexplicable denial and silence. Firsthe mir-
rors her silence,then he mirrorsthe selfthat Polonius and Laertes have
warned her against. More profoundly,her behavior to him-since he
has no knowledgeof her obedience to Polonius's command-so evokes
Gertrude's inconstancythat Hamlet's double messages to Ophelia take
on a frenzied condemnation of all women. His soliloquies extend that
condemnation to the woman in himself. This Laingian knot of mis-
communicationscompounded, of false selves intensified,leads finallyto
self-mistrust,even to madness.
Not allowed to love and unable to be false,Ophelia breaks. She goes
mad ratherthan gets mad. Even in her madness she has no voice of her
own,onlya discord of othervoices and expectations,customsgone awry.
Most obviously,she does what Hamlet preaches, or at least what he

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302 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

feigns,in going mad. Thinking she is not loved by him, she becomes
him,or at least whatshe conceivesto be his "noble mind ... o'erthrown"
(3.1.150). Just as his absence in act 4 is reflectedin the absence of her
reason, so her suicide embodies what Hamlet ponders in his soliloquies.
Afterall, Polonius has instructedher thatlove denied leads to madness
(2.1.110-19), and Ophelia is foreverfaithfulto her contradictory direc-
tives.She herselfis a play withina play,or a playertryingto respond to
several imperiousdirectorsat once. Everyonehas used her: Polonius,to
gain favor; Laertes, to belittle Hamlet; Claudius, to spy on Hamlet;
Hamlet, to express rage at Gertrude; and Hamlet again, to express his
feignedmadness withher as a decoy. She is onlyvalued forthe roles that
furtherother people's plots. Treated as a helpless child, she finallybe-
comes one, veilingher perceptionsof falsehoodand manipulationin her
seeminglyinnocentballads.
Ophelia's songs giveback the contradictoryvoiceslodged withinher
and expose the contradictions."Where is the beauteous majestyof Den-
mark?" she asks of Gertrude as she enters (4.5.21)-a question Hamlet
has oftenasked of the state,as well as of his mother.She then shiftsto
her firstinterchangewith Polonius, expressed as his question and her
answer:
How should I your true-loveknow
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.
[4.5.23-26]

Polonius has told her that men are all alike, and Ophelia replies that
Hamlet has the constancyof a pilgrim.The firstverse also expresses
Hamlet's query to Gertrudeabout her switchin lovers,whilethe second
says good-bye to all faithfultrue-loves,whether brothers,lovers, or
fathers."He is dead and gone, lady" could refer to Polonius, Prince
Hamlet, Laertes, Hamlet the king, or the mythicalpilgrim.Her next
songs replace this faithfulmale withlustinglovers who defloweryoung
maids, then depart withoutfulfillingtheir vows of marriage. "Young
men will do't if theycome to't.By Cock, theyare to blame" (4.5.60-61).
Most readings take thissong forOphelia's own sensual desiresunder her
dutifulexterior-"For bonnysweetRobin is all myjoy" (4.5.185), where
Robin is a colloquial Elizabethan term for penis.l3 But "all" implies it is
the onlyjoy allowed her. The speaker is Gertrude'shelpless, manipu-
lated lust,veeringsuddenlyto Polonius and Laertes tellingher about the
dangers of male desire, and back again to Hamlet's sense of loss. The
13. See Harry Morris,"Ophelia's 'Bonny Sweet Robin,' " PMLA 73 (December 1958):
601-3; also see Carroll Camden, "On Ophelia's Madness," Shakespeare 15 (Spring
Quarterly
1964): 247-55; and Maurice Charney,Stylein Hamlet(PrincetonN.J.: PrincetonUniversity
Press, 1969), pp. 107-12.

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Signs Winter1978 303

songs mirrorevery level of the play,even Polonius's "flowery"speech;


yettheydo not express what Ophelia feels,except as sadness. Laertes is
rightto say, "Thought and affliction,passion, hell itself,/ She turns to
favorand to prettiness"(4.5.186-87). Mergingwitheveryone,she speaks
in a collage of voicesabout presentsensualityand absentfaithfulness,yet
dies, as Gertrude says so empathetically,"incapable of her own distress"
(4.7.177).
Ophelia's suicide becomes a littlemicrocosmof the male world's
banishmentof the female,because "woman" representseverythingde-
nied by reasonable men. In responding to Ophelia's death, Laertes, pa-
tentlythe norm forfilialbehavior,is embarrassedby his womanlytears.
He forbidshimselfto cry,"but yet/ It is our trick;nature her custom
holds, / Let shame say what it will." To be manly is to be ashamed of
emotion and nature. Saying farewellto her, he says farewellto thatpart
of himself: "When these [tears] are gone, / The woman will be out"
(4.7.185-88). His genuine feelingcannot be told except as a wishto get
rid of the feeling.Even Hamlet, so much more sensitivethan others to
"nature" and "heart,"equates woman with "frailty"(1.2.146) or worse.
"Whore" is his word forchangeable feelings,whetherthoseof Gertrude,
of "strumpet"Fortune (2.2.233), or even of himself.Hamlet echoes his
stepfather'sassociationof painted woman and painted word (3.1.51-53)
as he rails against himselffornot being the dutifulson:

Why,what an ass am I! This is mostbrave,


That I, the son of a dear fathermurthered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart withwords
And fall a-cursinglike a verydrab,
A stallion!
[2.2.568-73]

Words, feelings,beasts,and whoredom are as interchangeableas reason


and obedience. That women, grief,words,and the heartshould be con-
fused withnature, guilt,and the body, while filialobedience is equated
withnoble reason in opposition,is whatis rottenin Denmark. Linguistic
disorders express social disorders. Ophelia's drowning signifies the
necessityof drowningboth words and feelingsif Hamlet is to act the role
prescribedfor him. That he does so is the real tragedyin the play.

* * *

Hamlet'sfocus on ears that are abused stands as a metaphorfor the


violationof femalereceptivity.By thattoken,Hamlet in the end becomes
his own violator.Far frombeing a catharsisor a resolute confrontation,
or an integrationof the underlyingissues, the play's end is a study in

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304 Leverenz Woman in Hamlet

frustrationand failure.l4Hamlet retreatsto filialduty,allowingthe "ma-


chine" of his body (2.2.124) to accomplish the acts required of him.
Coming back to a worldof fathersand usurperswhereambitionand lust
have been definedas the only valid motives,he can speak thatlanguage
withouta qualm. "It is as easy as lying,"he has told Rosencrantzand
Guildensternbefore(3.2.343). Surrounded by "Examples grossas earth"
of sons "withdivine ambitionpuffed,"like Fortinbras,who can breezily
risk everything"Even for an eggshell" (4.4.46, 49, 53), Hamlet at last
resolves himselfinto a Do by obeying the dictatesof his fatherand of
"providence,"an abstractedand semiidealized father."I shall win at the
odds," he tells Horatio (5.2.200). It is a world where winningis the only
thing;all else is "foolery"forwomen. "But thou wouldstnotthinkhow ill
all's here about myheart,"he tellsuncomprehendingHoratio. "But it is
no matter.... it is but foolery,but itis such a kindof gaingivingas would
perhaps troublea woman" (5.2.201-5). To Hamlet's fourtimesrepeated
"but," Horatio lets the woman drop and responds only,"If your mind
dislike anything,obey it." Concerns formind and obedience are part of
the male world, to which Hamlet's stifledheart now responds not with
whorish"unpacking" but withsilence.
Silence is really the theme of the last act, not the almost farcical
excess of deeds and rhetoric.The graveyardscene showsthe last perver-
sion of reason, as clowns chop logic over the dead. These mini-
Claudiuses at least have the meritof not pretendinggrief,and theirwit
calls a spade a spade byassertingthe absolutenessof law and power,and
of class distinctionseven in death. Their jokes have to do withthe strong
and the weak: the gallows-makeror the grave-maker"builds stronger"
(5.1.40, 55), because theirsocial rolesabet the permanenceof death. "Has
this fellow no feeling of his business, that 'a sings at grave-making?"
Hamlet inquiries(5.1.62-63). "Custom hath made itin him a propertyof
easiness," Horatio replies (5.1.64). Feeling and custom, as ever op-

14. There is near-unanimouscriticalagreement,except forGoddard, thatthe lastact


promotesintegration.See Mack; McElroy; Harold Fisch,Hamletand theWord:The Covenant
Patternin Shakespeare(New York: FrederickUngar PublishingCo., 1971); Irving Ribner,
Patternsin ShakespearianTragedy(London: Methuen Press, 1960); Wilson; and Michael
Goldman,Shakespeare and theEnergiesofDrama (Princeton,N.J.: PrincetonUniversityPress,
1972). Goldman goes so faras to say,"The play ends witha finalunambiguousdischargeof
energy,"and the gunshotsprove that"The air has been cleared" (p. 90). Reuben Brower's
more sensitivereading,in Heroand Saint:Shakespeare and theGraeco-Roman HeroicTradition
(New York and Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1971), findsthe tensionbetweensoldier
hero and moral hero reduced to soldier in the end. For a strongerdissent from the
consensus, see L. C. Knights,SomeShakespearean Themesand an Approachto "Hamlet"(Stan-
ford,Calif.: StanfordUniversityPress, 1966), who findsHamlet engulfed by evil and the
cause of furtherevil. T. McAlindon, in Shakespeareand Decorum(New York: Barnes &
Noble, 1973), p. 67, notes that Fortinbrasis just "a crude strong-arm,"and Frye (pp.
29-30) sees Hamlet as selfishto the end. Lidz's Hamlet'sEnemy(see n. 2 above) reflectsthe
characteristicadaptive bias of lesser Freudians by discussingthe playas a ritualreestablish-
ing appropriate social defenses; he sees Fortinbrasas a "directand uncomplicatedhero"
who "bringshope for the rebirthof the nation" (p. 112).

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Signs Winter1978 305

posed but now withgreaterclarity,cannot be reconciled.Those who are


most at home with "wit" are also most at ease withcustom, reasoning,
and playing their roles. Words come as gliblyto them as to Osric, in
proportionas feelingsare denied.
It is clear to Hamlet now thatwords are of no use. "Nay, an thou'lt
mouth,/I'll rantas well as thou,"he throwsback at Laertes (5.1.270-71).
This is the posturingof animals, nothingmore:

Let Hercules himselfdo what he may,


The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.
[5.1.278-79]

Like Ophelia, Hamlet can mirrorhow others talk,though witha savage


ironythatemphasizes the distancebetween his inward feelingsand out-
ward rhetoric.He mocks the foppish Osric, who "did comply,sir, with
his dug before 'a sucked it" (5.2.179). He seems calm, controlled, at
arm's length fromwhat he says. Only Gertrude senses the truth:

This is mere madness;


And thus a while the fitwill workon him.
Anon, as patientas the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.
[5.1.271-75]

What seems like a manic-depressive"fit"to Gertrude(a betterdiagnosis


than Freud's "hysteria")is actually Hamlet's response to "the fit"of a
senselesssociety.He mouths itslanguage and assumes its stance of male
combat, while "the female dove" in him prepares for a final silence.
Earlier he had berated himselffor his dovelike gentleness: "But I am
pigeon-liveredand lack gall / To make oppression bitter"(2.2.562-63).
Now, while he puts on the necessarygall, the unspoken woman in him
outwardlyobeys paternalcommands ("mypurposes ... followthe king's
pleasure" [5.2.190-91]), whetherof Claudius, the Ghost,or Providence.
Inwardly he has already left the world of fathers,roles, and mixed
messages to rejoin Ophelia and Gertrudein death's constancy.Not until
Gertrudedies does Hamlet, dying,fulfillthe Ghost'sinstructions.To kill
Claudius as an afterthoughtto the Queen's death is his last little"dig" at
the "old mole" (1.5.162).
So much for Hamlet's "golden couplets,"the fledglingpoetryof the
self he has tried to "disclose." Ending his drama as he begins it, witha
play on words, he expires with "The rest is silence" (5.2.347). That
gnomic phrase could mean that there is no afterlife,despite Hamlet's
earlierscruples; that"rest"is equivalentto silence; thatmyrestis silence;
or thatthe restof mystoryis untold.All of these ambiguitiesare true,or
at least more true in their ambiguitythan the interpretationsthat so
quicklyfalsifyHamlet's story.Horatio immediatelyinvalidatesthe con-

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306 Leverenz Womanin Hamlet

nectionbetweenrestand silence byinvokingsingingangels: "And flights


of angels sing thee to thyrest."The noise of war,the "warlikevolley"of
drums and guns, drives out the silence utterly.We are back in the male
world of ambitioussons advancing to theirfathers'footsteps.
The play ends in a mindless sequence of ritual male duties, roles
without meaning. The Ambassador informsthe court that the king's
"commandment is fulfilled/ That Rosencrantz and Guildensternare
dead." Staring at the dead bodies of the King, Queen, Hamlet, and
Laertes, he can think only of saying, "Where should we have our
thanks?"(5.2.359-61). Horatio responds not withthe storyof Hamlet's
struggleto keep the integrity of his "noble heart" (5.2.348) but withthe
narrativeof Claudius's villainy,and perhaps of Hamlet's as well:

So shall you hear


Of carnal, bloody,and unnatural acts,
Of accidentaljudgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th'inventors'heads. All thiscan I
Truly deliver.
[5.2.369-75]

This is the public storyof an unnaturalworld,not the privaterecordof a


heart unspoken. It is a tale of deeds, not feelings.Yet it maybe the story
Hamlet knows willbe told. Afterall, Horatio himself,"As th'arta man"
(5.2.331), is manfullyfollowinghis duty to Hamlet's command,sacrific-
ing his wish for suicide. A storyborn of duty must be a man's story.
All the women are dead, and there are no more womanly tears.
Young "Strong-in-arm," who inheritsan irrevocablycorruptedworld,is
the arrogant, stupid, blundering finale to the theme of filialduty, to
whichboth the Ghostand Claudius had demanded Hamlet's conformity.
His tributeto Hamlet is cast in the rhetoricof a militarycommand: "Let
four captains / Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage" (5.2.384-85).
Here Hamlet is finally"fit"to the alien mold of soldierin the stage world
of the "captains." At the play's close, Fortinbrasludicrouslyundercuts
Hamlet's finalwords:

For he was likely,had he been put on,


To have proved most royal; and forhis passage
The soldiers' music and the ritesof war
Speak loudly for him.
[5.2.386-89]

How rightforthisman withouta touchof the femalein him to have such


confidencein "the ritesof war" as confirmationof Hamlet's identity!We
are back in the worldof the firstact, witha more ironicconsciousnessof
whatit means forFortinbrasto say,"had he been put on." A body politic

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Signs Winter1978 307

cannot take offitsclothesand venture,like Hamlet, "naked" and "alone"


(4.7.50-51); it can only "put on" more roles. From the firstanxious
question of the guards to the last pointlessorder to "Go, bid the soldiers
shoot," the militaryatmosphere pervades the language of the play.
Having learned how cruel one mustbe to be "kind" (1.2.65), Hamlet
puts on a "most royal" corruptedness (5.2.387). He acts as the world
does, speaks as the world speaks. Yet what a mockery it is, a self-
mockery,to say of Fortinbras,"He has my dying voice" (5.2.345). The
illegitimatesuccessioninstitutedbyClaudius concludes withthe triumph
of the son against whom these fatherswere at war. It is finalproofof the
interchangeability,in language and body, of all those in authority,
whether enemy or friend. It is also the concluding irony of Hamlet's
strugglefor speech. His last soliloquy is a voice dying into accord with
the senselessambitionand mindless"honor" of Fortinbras:"O, fromthis
time forth,/ My thoughtsbe bloody, or be nothingworth!"(4.4.65-66).
But now that the guns "Speak loudly for him" (5.2.389), Fortinbras
pompously distinguishesbetween carnage in field and in court, as if
Hamlet's death in battlewould have been eminentlyacceptable. "Such a
sightas this/ Becomes the field,but here shows much amiss" (5.2.390-
91). Hamlet is right;Fortinbrasdoes inherithis "dyingvoice," while the
restis silence.Justas the hawkishvoices of blood, honor, and ambition
inheritthe world of the fathers,withitsfalse roles and false proprieties,
so Hamlet the dove joins Gertrude and Ophelia as a much too ravished
bride of quietness.

* * *

Hamletis not so much a full-throated tragedyas an ironicstiflingof a


hero's identityby structuresof rule thatno longer have legitimacy.It is
the mostfrustrating of Shakespeare's playspreciselybecause it is the one
most specificallyabout frustration.Shakespeare uses the opposition be-
tween male and female to denote the impossibility of speaking trulyin a
public role withoutviolatingor being violated. Too aware of paternal
duplicity,Hamlet remains wordlesslymodem in his excess of words,
unable to centerhimselfin a societywhose "offenceis rank" (3.3.36) in
every sense, and where the quest for self-knowledgeis womanishlyat
odds withthe manlyroles he must put on. Even Ophelia only loved his
mind. Hamlet's final assumption of a swordsman's identityis not a
healthysolutionto Oedipal conflictsbut a mute submissionto his father's
command to "whet thyalmost blunted purpose" (3.4.112). The manly
identityis imposed, not growninto. Hamlet delays revenginghis father's
death because his real struggleis to restorehis mother'svalidationof his
feelings, though "whore" is the only word available to him for his
heartsickdisgust. For Freudians to call Hamlet a mini-Claudius,to ac-
cept his male world's perspectivesof ambitionand lust as sufficientmo-
tives,is to do what all the fatherswant to do: explain Hamlet by their

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308 Leverenz Woman in Hamlet

own divided selves. Perhaps even incestfantasies,as Laing tells us, may
be defenses against the dread of being alone.15
What T. S. Eliot took for Hamlet's failure, Shakespeare took for
theme,as I have triedto show.16It is a play "dealing withthe effectsof a
mother'sguiltupon her son," not as sexualitybut as identityitself.Ham-
let's self-doubtis joined to Gertrude'sinsufficiency. Her "negativeand
insignificant" character "arouses in Hamlet the feelingwhich she is in-
capable of representing," Eliot rightlysays, while the demand of his
fatherfor revenge calls Hamlet to a clear though false role.17But these
are not flawsin thedrama. They are flawsin the patriarchalorder,which
has cracked all the mirrorsforself-confirmation. Hamletsucceeds so well,
and has lasted so long, because it speaks so keenlyto the dissociationof
sensibilityEliot elsewhere describes.18Whetherwe call it role and self,
reason and nature,mind and body,manlyand womanly,or the language
of power and the language of feeling,we recognizethesedichotomiesin
our world and in ourselves. How poisonous rule o'ercrows every per-
son's spirit(5.2.342) is indeed the fundamentalanswerto "Who's there,"
as Eliot's critiqueimplies.To pursue the question, Hamlet learns much
too well, is not only to fail,but to participatein the collusion.

Department ofEnglish
LivingstonCollege,RutgersUniversity

15. Laing, DividedSelf,p. 57. Laing's systemsuffersfromits romanticizationof "true


self" as aloneness rather than the positive interdependence taught by Winnicott.For a
psychoanalyticcritiqueof Laing, see David Holbrook,"R. D. Laing and the Death Circuit,"
Encounter31 (July1968): 35-45. In Shakespeare and SocietyEagleton offersa similarcritique
of Hamlet himself:"Hamlet's insistenceon not being a puppet leads, finally,to a delightin
resistingany kind of definition;itbecomes,in fact,sociallyirresponsible,a merelynegative
response" (p. 61). My own sense is that Hamlet looks to women ratherthan to men for
self-definitionand that structuresof male rule induce his negation.
16. T. S. Eliot,"Hamlet" (1919), reprintedin SelectedEssays,3d ed. (London: Faber &
Faber, 1951), pp. 141-46. In The Tiger'sHeart: Eight Essayson Shakespeare(New York:
Oxford UniversityPress, 1970), p. 76, Herbert Howarth findsEliot mistakenbecause the
play is about "the helplessnessof whatis gentlebefore the onrush of whatis rank,"a nice
formulation.Richard A. Lanham's The MotivesofEloquence:Literary Rhetoricin theRenais-
sance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale UniversityPress, 1976) concludes thatHamletis two plays
with"two kindsof self,"revengerand self-consciousactor lookingforthe "big scene" (pp.
129-43). Charey's Stylein Hamlet says Hamlet responds to his world with four styles:
self-consciouslyparodic, witty,passionate, and simple. In my interpretationthe clash
Lanham sees betweenthe role-playing"rhetoric"self and the "serious" revengerselfmir-
rorsHamlet's role-inducingworld,withno mirrorforthe real self.In some respectsEliotis
rightto question Gertrude as an "objectivecorrelative";she is so much more constantin
Hamlet's hopes than in her weak, sensual actualitythatshe raises the question of whether
the woman in Hamletis only in Hamlet.
17. Eliot, p. 146.
18. T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), reprinted in SelectedEssays, pp.
281-91.

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