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Hamlet Scene Summary

Act I

Scene 1

The Battlements of Elsinore Castle. The atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty is set
with the first words of the play – Barnardo says, “Who’s there?” (1.1) This first line also
sets up the idea of being and seeming. The watch tell Horatio of the ghost, which
explains their fears but also indicates that “Something is rotten in the state of
Denmark.” (1.4) But who is the ghost exactly? “Who’s there?” also sets up the search for
real identity, the truth behind the masks of the characters inhabiting Elsinore.

Scene 2

Claudius opens the scene as King, and sets about showing just what a skilled public
speaker he is. Later we’ll see how this public persona is at odds with his private
thoughts. He carefully speaks of the proper amount of feeling that has been shown in
grief and joy, in King Hamlet’s funeral and his marriage: “In equal scale weighing delight
and dole.” He then turns to the matter of Norway and Fortinbras and shows his skill as a
politician by sending Voltemand and Cornelius to Fortinbras’ uncle to curb his nephew
who has been pestering Claudius for the lands his father lost to King Hamlet. Fortinbras
assumes Denmark to be weakened by the death of King Hamlet – Claudius’ message is
palpably designed to show that the change of king has not weakened Denmark at all.

Claudius then grants Laertes his request to go to France, and assures Hamlet of his
status as heir to the throne of Denmark by calling him “my son” and “the most immediate
to our throne.” He uses these as justification for keeping Hamlet near, rather than
allowing the Prince to return to Wittenberg. All of this shows Claudius as a shrewd, oily
politician whose main aim is understandably securing the ill-gotten throne of Denmark.
He deals with the matter of his marriage following hastily upon the funeral - and how
the public might see this - and the matter of the outside threat of Fortinbras skillfully.

It is only when he tries his ‘kind words’ on Hamlet that he falters and something of his
true nature is revealed. Hamlet’s resistance is embodied in his refusal to get rid of his
mourning clothes, and his insistence that he is a man who is as he seems: “I know not
seems.” Claudius seems somewhat irritated by this and he insults Hamlet for his
“stubbornness” and “unmanly grief.” This shows Claudius is a little rattled as he loses his
‘cool’ and ‘smoothness’ and succumbs to personal attack. You can also take Hamlet’s
funeral garb as a visual reminder of the past, and his continuing grief over it. This grief
is understandable – he’s just lost a father he thinks of as “Hyperion”. The hyperbole
here indicates the extent of Hamlet’s regard, and that his grief matches this is no
surprise.

Set up in this second scene then is the conflict between remembering and forgetting –
Claudius and Gertrude want to forget, and later we see the extent of their feelings of
guilt – but Hamlet remembers.
Indeed, he still feels his loss intensely as indicated in his first soliloquy: “O that this
too, too solid flesh would melt.” Hamlet’s grief is so unbearable it drives him to thoughts
of annihilation, and his anger at the swiftness of his mother’s and uncle’s forgetting is
palpable: “Hyperion to a satyr” and “frailty, thy name is woman.” He also feels intensely
the burden of memory: “Must I remember?” But he cannot deny it like his mother and
uncle are so ready to do, but nor can he speak of it – after all, his uncle already seeks to
obliterate King Hamlet’s memory with oily words of reconciliation, oily because he also
harshly rebukes Hamlet for clinging to the past. Hamlet now knows he lives in a court
with a dissembling king. All is not what it seems, and his agony at how this alienates him
is clear: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”

Scene 3

This scene focuses on the second family enmeshed in the double standard at the court
of Elsinore. Laertes gives advice to Ophelia, warning her to be careful of her chastity
around Hamlet. His aim is to protect her because “in the morn and liquid dew of
youth/Contagious blastments are most imminent.” His use of the word “contagious” is
portentous in terms of the disease imagery in the play, and his own youth, Ophelia’s and
Hamlet’s prove vulnerable to the “blastments” he refers to. All are a product of the
corruption that spreads from the conflict between remembering and forgetting.

Polonius reveals himself to be somewhat foolish as he in turn gives Laertes advice before
the latter’s departure for France. His ‘eight sentences of advice’ read like a shopping
list from a book of platitudes.

Scene 4

Back on the Battlements of Elsinore. Hamlet awaits the ghost with Horatio and
Marcellus. When the ghost appears Horatio warns Hamlet lest the ghost “draw you into
madness.” He doesn’t realise it as his intention in these words is focused on the
immediate danger, but progressively through the play Hamlet’s memory of the ghost
does push him to the brink.

The Ghost is the manifestation of memory. It is all Hamlet’s suspicions confirmed (“O my
prophetic soul!” [1.5]), and it confirms also that “Something is rotten in the state of
Denmark.” Marcellus’ words are important. A minor character who represents the more
ordinary folk of Elsinore speaks them. People other than Hamlet feel the atmosphere of
wrongness that surrounds King Hamlet’s death. Marcellus indicates that this ghostly
manifestation of memory is a visible sign of disease in the state – it is implied then that
to banish the Ghost is to free Denmark from corruption. It falls to Hamlet to confront
the past, keep it alive as it were, in order to purge Denmark of the disease that infects
the kingdom. Marcellus’ words imply Claudius is the begetter of the disease, because the
ghost is Claudius’ foul deed come back to haunt Elsinore.

Scene 5

Hamlet is alone with the Ghost on the walls of Elsinore Castle. The Ghost commands
Hamlet to “Remember me.” Hamlet’s anguished awareness of the burden of memory
(“Must I remember?”), which in 1.2 was based on his suspicions only, is now reinforced by
the weight of what the Ghost tells him is truth, and the ghost’s insistence that he
remember. Because the ghost confirms suspicions already present in Hamlet’s mind, it is
little surprise that Hamlet is initially moved to take it at its word. He says he’ll “wipe
away all trivial fond records . . . And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the
book and volume of my brain.” At this moment Hamlet, confirmed in his lonely suspicions
about his father’s death, commits himself to the single-minded pursuit of revenge. This
impulsive act is understandable in the circumstances. Hamlet’s grief is still raw. His
father’s Ghost confirms his suspicions, affirms his remembering, and gives his anger
justification: “pernicious woman” and “smiling damned villain!”

Hamlet swears Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy. He tells them he will “put an antic
disposition on”. His concern now is with protecting himself, which he must do doubly
because he is the living vessel of memory, of the truth of what happened. He sees his
uncle may “smile and smile and be a villain.” He cannot trust the king, who rules supreme.
He decides to fight double act with double act.

His last words are not born of arrogance: The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/That
ever I was born to set it right.” This is simply Hamlet’s awareness of the burden his
father’s Ghost (memory) has placed on him. He takes up the burden reluctantly, in
keeping with someone who in 1.2 said, “Must I remember?” He sees it as a “curse”, yet he
accepts the responsibility “to set it right.” At the end of Act I Hamlet is a sympathetic
character. It is easy to feel for his loss, to understand his grief and the anger he
directs at his uncle and mother. It is easy to admire his cunning – the plan to “put an
antic disposition on” – and to admire his commitment to putting things right.

However, things are less certain than they seem to Hamlet at this moment. Revenge is
“wild justice” as Bacon puts it, meaning that it can get out of control. Also, Hamlet’s
suspicions about the Ghost’s true origins have not surfaced yet. At the moment Hamlet
is resolved, noble, sad. But the ghost’s command that he “revenge his foul and most
unnatural murder” is a command fraught with problems; what if the ghost is a devil sent
to tempt Hamlet by telling him exactly what he wants to hear? And even if the ghost is
who it says it is, there is still the matter of revenge – and in this Hamlet seems a
reluctant revenger, a reluctant ‘hero’ of revenge tragedy.

Act II

Scene 1

This scene begins the main thread of Act II – that Elsinore is a world of growing
paranoia, and this paranoia breeds surveillance. In scene 1 we see Polonius hiring
Reynaldo to go and spy on Laertes, his own son.

Scene 2

The scene opens with the king and queen in court, and introduces Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern who the king has hired to spy on Hamlet. This act in itself shows the lie in
Claudius’ words of reconciliation to Hamlet in 1.2: “my son”. Claudius’ real intent in
keeping Hamlet at Elsinore is proved – to have him watched. Claudius is shrewd; he does
not trust Hamlet. He seeks to control Hamlet by surveillance.
Polonius enters to tell Claudius his ambassadors from Norway are returned. Buoyed with
the good news that Fortinbras swears he will never again take arms against Denmark,
and instead intends on attacking Poland, Claudius hears of Hamlet’s ‘madness’ from
Polonius. Polonius shows Claudius and Gertrude a ‘love letter’ and offers his opinion that
Hamlet is mad for love of Ophelia. However, as is often true in this play where
interpretations reveal more about interpreter, his interpretation says more about his
obsessive control of his daughter’s chastity than about Hamlet’s motives.

Polonius, Claudius and Gertrude conspire together to watch Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia
when he is out walking. The way Polonius puts it is crude, and shows a shameless
willingness to exploit his daughter to satisfy his own and the king’s and queen’s curiosity:
“I’ll loose my daughter to him.”

Claudius and Gertrude then exit, and what follows is the famous scene in which we first
see Hamlet’s “antic disposition” as he tears Polonius’s affected intectuallism apart. The
allusion Hamlet makes to “conception” is interpreted by Polonius as proof of Hamlet’s
‘lust’, and Polonius no doubt thinks he is the height of cleverness when he says: “Though
this be madness, yet there is method in’t”. (Although he hits the mark, quite by
accident). Hamlet’s sometimes witty ridicule of the dishonest Polonius can be taken as
further evidence of Hamlet’s anger and contempt at the double standards Claudius’
lackeys play at.

This is further seen when Hamlet is with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He plays the
stereotypical melancholic - “Denmark’s a prison” and “what is this quintessence of dust?”
– although each comment he makes also manages to reveal that world weariness we know
stems from his burden of memory (refer to notes on first soliloquy, 1.2). He is able to
both play a role and to express his feelings through his “antic disposition”. It is both a
disguise and a way to vent his grief and anger. Hamlet, while playing the role of the ‘mad’
prince also directly and stunningly exposes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for what they
are – spies: “You were sent for”. It says a lot about Claudius that he will stoop as low as
hiring former friends of Hamlet to spy on him, and it is contemptible that his former
friends are only too willing to do so for cash. It is also important in that this illustrates
how vulnerable Hamlet’s position at court is. Even his former friends might turn on him,
in service to his uncle. This serves to expose Hamlet’s growing alienation – and all this
before he has started any measures of his own at Claudius.

Hamlet is then informed of the arrival of the players, and we see his excitement about
drama – Hamlet loves the art of acting, even if in his uncle’s court its actuality angers
him. Soon he melds the art with the actuality in the play “to catch the conscience of the
king.”

Hamlet’s third soliloquy reveals his thinking since his resolution to fill his mind with
revenge in his second soliloquy in 1.5. The immediate stimulus for his thoughts is the
players, whose passion he compares to his own, and he finds himself wanting. His
disillusionment with humanity as stated to Polonius 20 lines earlier, “Use every man after
his desert, and who shall scape whipping”, is equally applied to himself. Hamlet feels
shamed that an actor in a play can show more passion for a fictional character than he is
able to for revenge in real life. He accuses himself of being “unpregnant of my cause”
and “Am I a coward?” He then goes on to turn this self-doubt into a motivating force,
and he fans the ashes of his self-accusation into an inferno against his uncle:
“Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! O vengeance!” However, the fact
he has to stir himself up shows how far his weariness has set in since his resolution in
Act I. There, there were signs of reluctance – he felt “cursed”, he felt “Must I
remember?” Now, the revenge tragedy hero of 1.5 chokes on self-doubt. He compares
himself to a whore who must “unpack my heart with words” when he is motivated to
revenge by “heaven and hell”. The contrast in cosmic and personal forces is striking – he
is like a “whore” but has been commanded by “heaven and hell”. The gulf between the
powers that command him, and his feeling of personal inadequacy, has widened.

Nevertheless, in the midst of his self-doubt he gets to thinking – and he hits on the plan
to prepare a play to dispel all his doubts. The play will show both the king’s guilt, and at
once also show therefore that the Ghost is honest and not a devil. Hamlet will have
“grounds/More relative than” a Ghost’s word for it. He wants the proof of his own eyes.
His love of acting as an idea will meld with reality to reveal the truth. Given Hamlet’s
own awareness of his “weakness’ and “melancholy”, and how these make him vulnerable to
“a pleasing shape” his plan is a sensible one. Since I.5 his impulse to revenge has lost
impetus on a new wave of uncertainty – what if the ghost is not honest? It is to his
credit that in the midst of terrible self-doubt and reluctance he can find the will to plan
and to act. He wants to prove the accuracy of his memory to himself, to dispel all doubts
– after all it’s the uncertainty about the truth of our memories that adds to the anguish
they can give us.

Act III

Scene 1

The Great Hall of Elsinore Castle. Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz,


Guildenstern, Ophelia and Lords all plot to spy on Hamlet, using Ophelia as bait, in order
to test Polonius’ theory of Hamlet being ‘mad’ with love. This is what it appears, a
‘ganging up’ to expose the truth of Hamlet’s ‘madness’ through ‘experimentation’. Nothing
highlights the prince’s alienation, and the nastiness of Claudius’ court, more palpably
than this. Note also the willingness to involve the ‘innocent’ Ophelia who is the willing
pawn in the play. This picture of courtly corruption through double standards is further
strengthened by Claudius’ first admission of guilt, in an aside. He compares the ugliness
of his deed to his “most painted word”, and ends “O heavy burden!” Claudius is fully
aware of his deceit, and the hideousness of the crime it hides. He also feels the burden
of memory, of conscience, which is a result of his past crime. This aside shows us at last
that he cannot entirely deny the past. That he cannot also reveals that memory will not
be so easily repressed. It is always there, even as we try to hide it or distract ourselves
from it in lust and drinking (as Claudius also does – in the Zefferelli film the camera
shows us the night’s revels as Hamlet looks on all in black).

Gertrude and the Lords disappear to make way for the conspiracy to proceed as Hamlet
enters. Claudius and Polonius hide. Hamlet’s famous fourth soliloquy follows: “To be or
not to be”. It seems to follow directly from 1.2 and 2.2 in that it continues his feeling of
self-doubt and his struggle with his mission to remember, and lay the Ghost of the past
to rest. He asks whether it is more noble to endure the status quo or to take arms
against a “sea of troubles” (metaphor for his anguish and despair) – does it take more
character to endure the heartache or to act on it? To remember or forget? He again, as
in 1.2, feels an impulse towards self-annihilation – to end all his grief in suicide. But God’s
law and doubt about the “undiscovered country” stop him. He feels the world is filled
with too much calamity, and he identifies that “the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied
o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Note his use of adjectives here – resolution is
“native”, natural, where thought (read for thought, self-doubt) is “pale”, sickly and
unnatural. Hamlet is already beginning to see that life and vitality lie in surrendering to
action and that thought paralyses. This foreshadows his resolution in Act V, his
acceptance that do what we will as human beings, “the readiness is all” (5.2).

The soliloquy shows us a man painfully aware of his present limitations, and of the
burden of memory. This reveals a man in touch with his soul deeply, aware of his grief,
filled with conscience, but frustrated by it at the same time because conscience makes
things more difficult. Conscience forces him to face life. Hamlet sees the temptations
of oblivion, but his conscience draws him back from the edge – he sees this as
“cowardly”, but do we in the audience? His blaming himself is in character, for his crisis
at the moment is understandable – the burden placed upon him by the ghost is a huge
one, as he accepted, a little too easily, in 1.5. Then his thoughts were bound by
resolution, now they dissipate in doubt and an awareness of the emotional complexity of
the issue of memory and identity – for Hamlet is well aware that he is far from perfect:
“The fair Ophelia – Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins remembered.”

This quiet reaching after another is touching – Ophelia has lost this side of Hamlet as he
must protect himself from his uncle’s spies. This shows us his desire for another’s
comfort, another’s prayers. It is a profoundly human thing to want in the circumstances
and reminds us of Hamlet’s loneliness, as he cannot say this to Ophelia lest she tell
Polonius. Hamlet is well aware that Ophelia is the willing agent of her father and the
king, as the following events show.

Hamlet’s ‘abuse’ of Ophelia, while Polonius and the king watch on, creates both revulsion
and pity. We pity Ophelia because she is told by Hamlet that “I loved you not”, and “Get
thee to a nunnery”, but at the same time we understand Hamlet’s desire to have her
safe, both from him and from the wider world of Elsinore. He probably does still love
her, as his tender words at the end of the fourth soliloquy suggest. In this case he is
only “cruel to be kind” as he seeks to remove her from the corrupt world he feels
threatened by, and to remove her affections from himself because he is aware her
attachment to a melancholy ‘revenger’ puts her in danger. On another level we can
understand his seemingly cruel behaviour in terms of the spying going on at this time –
he puts on an ambiguous display for any would-be watchers, which at once protects him
from being ‘found out’ and allows him to vent his grief once more in bitter jesting.

Ophelia’s reaction to Hamlet’s display shows her enduring tenderness for him: “Oh what
a noble mind is here o’erthrown”. This gives us some indication of the esteem in which
she holds Hamlet. His “antic disposition” fools her into believing this is a different
prince from the one she knew prior to King Hamlet’s death – and indeed he is, if not in
quite the ways she imagines. This “noble mind” is still fuelled by intense grief – not a
surprise since his father was murdered and he finds out his uncle is the killer! However,
we still get glimpses of Hamlet’s “noble mind” in his tender sentiments (“Nymph, in thy
orisons/Be all my sins remembered”) and even in his self-questioning which reveals a
moral courage his uncle entirely lacks, even if Hamlet himself does not see this facing up
to himself and his dilemma as courage.
The using of Ophelia as bait reveals the success of Hamlet’s ambiguous “antic
disposition” – Polonius still believes his ‘madness’ is the product of “neglected love” while
Claudius sees it as “There’s something in his soul/O’er which his melancholy sits on
brood”. He then hatches his plan to send Hamlet to England to be rid of him. Both these
interpretations are continuations of Polonius’s and Claudius’s own thoughts – Claudius has
had Hamlet watched from the outset, perceiving him rightly as a threat to the stability
of his position, and Polonius from the outset has seen Hamlet’s ‘madness’ as caused by
love. Both interpret Hamlet’s act according to their own fears – Claudius for his position
and Polonius for his daughter’s chastity. However, Claudius’s paranoia is spot on. He
fears Hamlet because Hamlet single-mindedly remembers what Claudius so much wants
to forget.

Scene 2

This scene picks up on Hamlet’s plan in 2.2 to meld acting with reality to trap “the
conscience of the king”. He develops this idea further with Horatio: “Give him heedful
note, /For mine eyes will rivet to his face, /And after we will both our judgements
join/In censure of his seeming.” Horatio is to bear witness also, to strengthen the proof.
Notice how Hamlet connects seeing with truth here, as he will also do in 3.4 with
Gertrude.

The play proceeds, and Claudius, discomforted, rises to leave calling for light, which is
significant on a symbolic level as light banishes the shadowy play, and therefore the
demons it raised for Claudius. Hamlet reacts with glee: “What, frighted with false fire?”
Horatio confirms that he too saw the king’s reaction: “I did very well note him.” The play
appears to have succeeded in confirming the ghost is a true one: “I’ll take the Ghost’s
word for a thousand pound.” In the Zefferelli film, Claudius looks very agitated and pale
as he stumbles from his throne. And we already know, from Claudius’s guilt-stricken
aside in 3.1, that the Ghost is true. Finally, Hamlet’s memory is vindicated. Now, all that
remains is Hamlet’s resolution for revenge.

He resolves to start with his mother, in his fifth soliloquy: “I will speak daggers to her
but use none.” He resolves to confront her with the unpleasant truth, but he will not kill
her: “O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.”
He resolves also to hold on to his ‘nature’ and not become a matricide.

Scene 3

Claudius plots with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to send Hamlet to England. Polonius
appears to tell Claudius Hamlet is on his way to his mother, and he says he’ll spy on what
proceeds between them. Claudius, alone, prays for forgiveness, but cannot repent and
surrender his ill-gotten throne. This reveals his greed exceeds his piety – he simply
hopes he may be forgiven and keeps the throne: “All may be well.” This shows what a
total hypocrite he is, as he is fully aware his “offence is rank, it smells to heaven”.
Hamlet then enters on his way to his mother, and his sixth soliloquy is his blackest and
angriest. This is not surprising as he is still new-fired by the confirmation of his uncle’s
guilt revealed by the play, and we can sympathise with the rage that accompanies this
confirmation.
Hamlet asks himself if his uncle’s soul goes to heaven if he kills him now, while he is
praying, is he revenged? Does this satisfy the Ghost’s idea of revenge? This is unclear in
Hamlet’s mind. He is dutiful in that he wants his revenge to be thorough, but his desire
to see his uncle’s soul condemned to Hell is also the play’s most overt demonstration of
Hamlet’s rage. It would be fair to say that here Hamlet’s grief spills over into blackest
anger – however, one can still make sense of this anger, given what his uncle has done
and given how his uncle has treated him (constant spying etc). Hamlet’s extreme hubris
at this point stems from grief, and from the cloying environment he has had to endure
since his uncle started his campaign of surveillance to bind Hamlet, to crush his potential
as a threat to his throne. The rage Hamlet feels and his desire to relish Claudius’s
damnation are an expression of the revenger re-awakened in Hamlet. They are also a
release-valve for his burden of memory, memory that since the play scene has been
confirmed in Hamlet’s mind as fact.

Scene 4

In this scene Hamlet kills Polonius in a brutal, spontaneous act of violence, and confronts
his mother with the truth of her deeds. From Hamlet’s sixth soliloquy where he wishes
to make sure Claudius is damned forever it is easy to see what mood he is in. These two
actions thus are a continuation of the pent up anger he finally releases in the
justification he feels the play has given him by its confirming the truth of the Ghost.

First, his murder of Polonius is the tragic result of a spontaneous act of violence, and
shows the kind of “wild justice” revenge is. Hamlet, in giving way to righteous rage, opens
himself to just this kind of casual cruelty. We can understand why it happens, but here
Hamlet is at his nadir – this is simply the tragic result of excessive anger spilling over
into wanton violence. We see it again in Laertes’ extreme rage in Act 4. Hamlet asks, “is
it the king?” but it is only the king’s spy. Of course, Polonius risked himself by spying
here, and you could argue it is his own eagerness to ‘poke his nose in’ that undoes him.
However, Gertrude is right when she exclaims: “what a rash and bloody deed is this!”
Hamlet immediately pounces on this in his “wild justice” and turns it around on her: “A
bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother, /As kill a king and marry with his brother.”
This is Hamlet’s “You go not till I set you up a glass/Where you may see the inmost part
of you.” Hamlet, in his righteous fury, will be the mirror, the conscience of his mother.

However, Hamlet does spare a moment for the pitiful Polonius, and his words show
momentary compassion if not repentance: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool,
farewell.”

Up until this point we have not been able to tell just how much Gertrude knows about the
murder of King Hamlet. Hamlet now relentlessly exposes his anger at her for so quickly
betraying the memory of the father he worshipped: “Here is your husband, like a
mildewed ear/Blasting his wholesome brother.” Claudius is the disease that destroyed
King Hamlet. Hamlet asks his mother what on earth could possess her to marry Claudius,
was she blind: “what judgement/Would step from this to this?” His “glass/Where you
may see the inmost part of you” works: “Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul.”
Gertrude sees her imperfections: “there I see such black and grained spots/As will not
leave their tinct.”
Hamlet drills her with more images of disease and rottenness: “the rank sweat of an
enseamed bed, /Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty.”
Not for the first time Hamlet associates forgetting with animals – pigs here (“nasty
sty”). Forgetting, to Hamlet, is to debase your human nature, to become less than human.
Forgetting is lying to oneself regarding the truth. Hamlet has sought the truth from the
outset, been suspicious of appearances with good reason. One can understand, given his
quest for the truth of his memory why he has such contempt for the act of forgetting.
Does he want his mother to remember so he can respect her again, so there can be
reconciliation?

The extreme imagery he uses smacks of desperate alienation, a desperate need for
catharsis based on mutual sharing with his mother of the sins of the past. After the
reappearance of the Ghost Hamlet is desperate to assure her he is not mad: “Lay not
that flattering unction on your soul, /That not your trespass but my madness speaks; /It
will but skin and film the ulcerous place, /Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
/Infects unseen.” If Gertrude can convince herself Hamlet is mad – “This is the very
coinage of your brain” – then all of what Hamlet has confronted her with, and that she
has acknowledged (“black and grained spots”) can be ascribed to his ‘madness’. Is it any
wonder Hamlet desperately assures her he is in his right mind?

Also, his argument shows his understanding of the results of denying the truth of the
past – it will “but skin and film the ulcerous place”. In other words, forgetting is simply
covering up; it doesn’t make the past go away. Instead, Hamlet reveals in this gross but
stunning image, the rot spreads unseen beneath the surface, making things worse.
Hardly is Claudius even established on his throne when he is organizing spies to watch
Hamlet, despite his oily “my son”. (1.2) This makes the atmosphere at Elsinore
increasingly paranoid. Early on even Marcellus feels “something is rotten in the state of
Denmark” because of what the ghost presages. Claudius’ denial of his sin has bred literal
corruption in the court, which is a place of conniving, lies and spies: “that one may smile,
and smile, and be a villain.” (I.5) Gertrude, going along with it all, is complicit by
association if not deed.

Hamlet “must be cruel only to be kind” because he sees that in continuing to try to
forget the past only lies and deceit result, and the court becomes a place of dishonesty,
“something rotten”. In the light of this brilliant disease metaphor his confrontation
becomes the anguished pleading of a son to his mother to end the alienation and lies, and
to repent: “Thus bad begins, but worse remains behind.” Healing can then begin, at least
between them. Some small measure of reconciliation is hinted at with Gertrude’s “O
Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain” and “What must I do?” In her despair she is
willing to surrender herself to her son’s keeping, rather than Claudius’s.

It is tragic therefore that Hamlet subsequently feels he must threaten his mother into
silence (194-7). She agrees, and is true to her word as in 4.1 she deceives Claudius about
the extent of Hamlet’s ‘madness’ in order to try and protect him in regard to the murder
of Polonius.

The Ghost’s reappearance certainly invites more questions than answers, but it does
provide fine drama – in the midst of Hamlet’s tirade to his mother the ghost enters and
Hamlet appears to be responding to thin air to a bewildered Gertrude. Hamlet says the
combination of the Ghost’s appearance and plea for justice would make even stones feel
pity: “His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones/Would make them capable.” Its
presence torments Hamlet who begs it turn away its gaze lest it weaken his impulse for
revenge: “Do not look upon me/Lest with this piteous action you covert/My stern
effects.” The Ghost’s power over Hamlet is palpable. The pity and fear it invokes, as it is
the visible manifestation of a terrible memory, weigh on Hamlet to the extent that he
sees its overwhelming aspect as too much to bear if he is to carry on. This feeling is
consistent with his self-doubt and his awareness of the burden of memory in his
soliloquies of 2.2 and 3.1. On the other hand, Gertrude’s inability to see the Ghost may
indicate her moral blindness – she cannot see it because it is the memory she seeks to
forget.

Act IV

Scene 1

Gertrude’s private room. The very private anguish shown by Hamlet, and Gertrude’s
private anguish in response, now become dissembling in the presence of Claudius.
Gertrude says Hamlet is “Mad as the sea and wind”, but she is protecting her son who
has just slain Polonius and spoken slanders against the king. As she says in 3.4: “I have no
life to breathe/What thou has said to me.” In other words Gertrude will keep the truth
hidden. She appears to accept Hamlet’s explanation that he is not mad in 3.4 and is
ready to trust his advice: “What shall I do?” Now she tells Claudius Hamlet killed
Polonius out of madness. She herself called his action “rash” and “bloody” but never did
she call it mad until now. She dissembles to Claudius – gone is the brutal honesty and
anguish of 3.4, to be replaced by caution and deceit.

In other words, Claudius’s and Gertrude’s relationship, built as it is on murder, is at least


part show – Gertrude plays here the distraught mother and Claudius the supportive
husband. However, we now know what guilt lies beneath this veneer of happy couples –
both have expressed their burden of guilty memory, Claudius in his aside and Gertrude in
her private room with her raging son. Claudius’s claim that he has indulged Hamlet’s
“liberty” far too long out of “love” is straight hypocrisy – his ‘love’ is soon to be
expressed by ordering Hamlet’s murder: “Do it England.” (4.3) Also, we know from 3.1
that Claudius has been suspicious about the true nature of Hamlet’s “antic disposition”,
that it hides “something in his soul” (3.1). That’s why he has had Hamlet watched:
“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” (3.1) He has hardly, therefore, been
indulging Hamlet’s liberty as generously as he claims here. Claudius and Gertrude’s
marriage is full of dishonesty.

Claudius has also begun using disease imagery, in regard to Hamlet. Just as Hamlet
perceives Claudius as a “canker” (cancer) spreading corruption through Denmark, so
Claudius views Hamlet as a “foul disease” infecting “even the pith of life”. The central
metaphor of the play is predominantly used by its ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ and to a certain
degree both are right. The rottenness in Denmark has spread to Hamlet; he is filled
with anger and darkness in 3.3 especially: “Now I might do it pat . . .” Hamlet’s brooding
and potential for rage do threaten the stability of Claudius’s reign, but we must not
forget the rottenness began with Claudius. The ghost that Marcellus takes as the
palpable evidence of rottenness in the state is a product of Claudius’s foul murder.
Hamlet’s disease that makes Claudius feel so uncomfortable is a product of Claudius
himself – Hamlet is right, Claudius is the cancer, even if Hamlet has become infected.
Scene 2

A corridor in the castle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pursue Hamlet for the
whereabouts of Polonius’s body. They are on the king’s business. Why has Hamlet taken
Polonius’s corpse? Firstly it continues his “antic disposition” and secondly he is trying to
get at Claudius. It is Hamlet’s deliberate flouting of the king’s authority. Hamlet
describes Rosencrantz through metaphor to a sponge that “soaks up the king’s
countenance”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are simply a reflection of the king’s desires.
Hamlet throws their king-sanctioned authority back in their faces, and back into the
face of Claudius.

Scene 3

We learn from Claudius how uncomfortable he feels: “How dangerous is it that this man
goes loose.” He then refers to Hamlet’s enduring popularity with the common folk of
Elsinore. This makes Hamlet’s flagrant flouting of Claudius’s authority even more grating
– the people still love him. Claudius then cannot obviously attack the prince because it
would make his own position more precarious.

Claudius is further convinced of the need to rid himself of Hamlet, not just have him
watched, by Hamlet’s joking about the worms’ progress through Polonius’s body. Here
Hamlet taunts Claudius by stressing corruption (“worms”) feeds on both beggars and
kings. Death makes no distinctions; it is the great leveler. The implicit threat here is
obvious. Hamlet follows it up with “seek him i’th’other place yourself”, in other words ‘go
to Hell’. The worms are “politic” because they infiltrate the body in the same way as
Polonius has insinuated his way into Hamlet’s privacy. Hamlet is growing bolder, nastier (a
reflection of the anger we see in him in 3.3 and 3.4) in his “antic disposition.” He is now
attacking Claudius directly, and exposing through clever pun and metaphor the nature of
the corruption in Elsinore more intensely than before. He combines an image of
corruption (“worms”) with the word “politic” to link the rottenness in Denmark with its
court of spies (Polonius).

Claudius then hatches a plan to ‘cure’ the ‘disease’ of Hamlet, and shows us at the same
time his willingness to be extreme: “Diseases desperate grown/By desperate appliance
are relieved.” The extremity of Claudius’s solutions is in character. After all, when he
wanted the kingdom and lusted for his brother’s wife he murdered for it. He later tells
Laertes: “revenge should have no bounds.” (4.7) This reveals Claudius for what he is, a
man willing to break with his better nature (we do see he feels remorse in the Chapel
scene, 3.3) and use murder to get what he wants. A very dangerous man indeed,
especially as he does it consciously.

Contrast Claudius’s lack of boundaries with Hamlet: “O heart, lose not thy nature” (3.2)
and “I will speak daggers to her but use none.” (3.2) Hamlet’s revenge knows limits,
limits that he tries to set on himself. Even if we don’t condone Hamlet’s actions, he at
least shows conscience. Claudius “knows no bounds.”
So, Claudius orders Hamlet to England. Hamlet responds with a glib: “Good” but also
hints at his suspicions when he says: “I see a cherub that sees them.” Claudius
consciously packs Hamlet away to be killed, while still saying he is “Thy loving father.”
Nasty.

More light is thrown on Claudius’s feeling that Hamlet is a disease: “For like the hectic in
my blood he rages.” Claudius feels infected by Hamlet’s defiance. It appears Hamlet as a
disease mainly afflicts Claudius. Compare this to Hamlet who sees Claudius as the source
of the corruption in the whole of Denmark. This shows us Claudius’s selfishness. He
wants to get rid of the ‘disease’ Hamlet to cure himself: “England . . . thou must cure
me.” Hamlet wants to get rid of the ‘disease’ Claudius in order to cure the whole state:
“And is’t not to be damned/To let this canker of our nature come/In further evil?” (5.2)
Whatever we think of murder and revenge Hamlet is motivated in the end by more than
just a personal desire for ‘satisfaction’.

Hamlet can act impulsively (and disastrously), and his jests can be cruel – he isn’t
perfect, he’s human, and filled with a melancholy and weakness he is fully aware of (see
2.2). However, he also thinks beyond himself, he sees cause and effect. This, of course,
is partly why he berates himself so much for his indecision. It is harder to be decisive if
you are aware of cause and effect; this awareness is a hallmark of conscience – a
weakness in a revenger, maybe, but surely desirable in a human being. Harold Bloom says
Hamlet is not the tragedy of a man who thinks too much, but the tragedy of a man who
thinks much too well. I agree.

Note: denying the past, forgetting, is an attempt to be rid of the burden of conscience –
by forgetting, the guilt you feel over past actions can be postponed. This also
perpetuates the guilt, and turns you into a person who is not what they seem as they
must continually disguise the ‘truth’ about their guilt to prevent others from finding out.
Eventually, such a person may cease to be conscious of this process even though their
life is dominated by it. There is little awareness of cause and effect here. Life becomes
the day to day business of self-avoidance, of pretending everything is all right.

Scene 4

The sea coast near Elsinore. Fortinbras seeks permission from Claudius to traverse
Denmark on his way to war with the Poles. Hamlet arrives on his way to England and in
his seventh soliloquy he compares the warmonger Fortinbras’s actions to his own pursuit
of revenge.

The soliloquy is consistent with his previous ones, in that it shows a man of deep
thought, who admires the intellect, at odds with the very faculty he exhalts because it
is thought that leads to ‘cowardice’, the inaction Hamlet feels dishonours him. Earlier he
described human beings as the “paragon of animals” because they are: “noble in reason . .
. infinite in faculties” (2.2). It is our capacity for thought that raises us above what he
describes in 4.4 as “Bestial oblivion.” Hamlet’s contempt for forgetfulness is again
associated with animals. This shows how low he thinks forgetting is – it is to become sub-
human.

However, as he did in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates forgetting
here, even as he spurns it in the phrasing he employs: “Now whether it be/Bestial
oblivion, or some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th’event”. Hamlet feels
trapped because he feels a seemingly equal contempt for forgetting and for “thinking
too precisely” which he describes as “craven”. Forgetting is to become bestial; thinking
makes you a coward. He is caught between the temptation to forget, which he despises,
and his capacity to think, a quality he has shown admiration for but also despises
because it makes action difficult. It is implied by what follows that Hamlet associates
courage with action.

The content in this last major soliloquy follows from the previous ones – we have a man
who is tempted to forget but refuses to lower himself to the level of the animals, a man
who is reluctant to act because he sees how disastrous that might prove (“Now could I
drink hot blood, /And do such bitter business as the day/Would quake to look on” [3.2] –
note the qualifiers “could” and “would” here: Hamlet is imagining the possibilities, and in
terrifying personification predicting the consequences), but a man who feels a coward
for not acting. Hamlet is being ripped apart by the battle between remembering and
forgetting, sensitivity to the consequences of violence and an obligation to fulfill his
honour and exorcise the Ghost through that same violence. As a mirror to us, Hamlet
shows just what a bunch of contradictory impulses a human being can become.

Hamlet comes to dwell again on his feeling of shame at the end of the soliloquy – he sees
Fortinbras leading twenty thousand men who “Go to their graves like beds”, a simile for
how easily they are willing to die “for a fantasy and trick of fame”, and he asks: “How
stand I then, / That have a father killed, a mother stained,/Excitements of my reason
and my blood,/And let all sleep . . .” Hamlet feels shamed by his inaction, but note his
awareness that the deaths of Fortinbras’s soldiers are futile, they die for “a trick of
fame.” At the same time as he berates himself for holding back he also sees the
senseless waste of life in leading men to war, in being a man of violence. Yet Hamlet
resolves that “from this time forth, /My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.” He
will become a man of violence, of action, even though he sees the futility of it, even
though he has contemplated where it might lead: “Now I could drink hot blood, /And do
such bitter business as the day/Would quake to look on.” (3.2) This smacks of
resignation – the man of thought feels himself forced to take up the mantle of revenger.

However, given how torn he has become in his circumstances we can empathise with his
feeling impelled to commit himself to some course. Anything to escape his feeling of
shame, his feeling torn between oblivion and thought and his aversion to both because
the first is bestial and the second craven. And don’t forget, lurking behind it all is his
increasing political power struggle with Claudius, which is becoming a war in that it is kill
or be killed (“Do it England”), and the specter of memory in the form of his father’s
Ghost.

Scene 5

The Great Hall of Elsinore Castle. This scene is important for three reasons. Gertrude
makes an important aside, Ophelia goes mad, and Laertes returns.

Initially Gertrude refuses to see Ophelia. She agrees to see her only on Horatio’s advice.
He says that Ophelia may help spread bad rumours about the court of Elsinore. Gertrude
then makes her aside, in which she expresses guilt and fears: “Each toy seems prorogue
to same great amiss.” Every small thing leads to great misfortune. A fitting comment on
the growing corruption in the court of Elsinore. Perhaps her initially not wanting to see
Ophelia is that then Gertrude must face a living manifestation of the wrongness in the
court of Denmark. This would be in keeping with her tendency to forget. Throughout the
play Gertrude is a person intent on satisfying the desires of the moment, and it is this
personality trait which kills her in the end as her sudden impulse to drink Hamlet’s
health leads to her poisoning. She is undone by spontaneous self-indulgence. The extent
to which she was complicit in the plot to murder Claudius, and how much she realises
about it, is not made clear. However, her expression of guilt here, and her reluctance to
see Ophelia, speak of a person who feels her “sick soul” but does not wish to face that
sickness in others. It reminds her that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
(1.5)

Ophelia is the growing illness and hysteria in the court of Denmark made manifest. She
too is a kind of ghost, haunting the castle, and her presence also shows us “something is
rotten in the state of Denmark.” In her words can be seen the immediate cause of her
sickness – her father’s death and Hamlet’s abandonment of her. When she sings “He is
dead and gone” she might be referring to either, as Hamlet is ‘dead’ to her. However, if
we look harder another obsession appears in her riddles – that is broken trust: “How
should I your true love know/From another one?” and “Before you tumbled me, /You
promised me to wed.” Ophelia has lost her father and Hamlet, she has been let down and
is now unhinged. She is a “document in madness” entirely different from Hamlet’s “antic
disposition”. She is a symptom of what is happening at Elsinore, and we can trace back
the start of these symptoms to Claudius’s cover-up through the traditional methods of a
police state – surveillance, spies and lies.

Remember, Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, while deplorable, was also a result of his
“antic disposition” to protect himself from this environment of surveillance. Also,
Polonius’ murder, however rash, would not have happened if he hadn’t been spying.
Hamlet was also enraged at women in general because of his mother’s willingness to
forget, and satisfy her pleasure in incest. Ophelia is a victim of Hamlet’s anger, but
Hamlet’s anger was a consequence of Claudius’s and his mother’s actions. The sins of two
people ripple out to affect, one by one, the other members of the two most important
families in Denmark. Both families end up destroyed. Hamlet is right in seeing Claudius
as the cancer – himself, Ophelia, Laertes are the tumors that result from this cancer.

It is Laertes, upon returning to Elsinore, who cries revenge: “I dare damnation.” Just
like Hamlet he is angered by his father’s murder and wants revenge. Unlike Hamlet he
needs no prompting Ghost, and unlike Hamlet he is all too ready to “dare damnation.” Not
for Laertes the drawn out ‘testing’ of a revenge-prompting Ghost’s genuineness. Laertes
says, “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged”. It takes Hamlet four Acts to get to
this point, and then he is calm and contemplative about it rather than incensed. Which
revenger do we prefer, a reluctant one or an eager one?

Laertes’ language in describing Ophelia demonstrates the hysteria and heightened sense
of despair engulfing Elsinore: “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, /She turns to
favour and to prettiness.” Elsinore feels at this time in the play like a sinking ship.
Claudius, struggling for the helm with Hamlet, is ever the correct politician in public. He
shows appropriate sadness at Ophelia’s state, “this is the poison of deep grief”, and is
reasonable and calm in his dealing with the threat of Laertes’ rage: “Why now you
speak/Like a good child and a true gentlemen.” What a hypocrite. The “poison of deep
grief” is in Hamlet too, for a father that Claudius himself killed! His flattery of Laertes
is simply a means of seeing him honour his desire for revenge on Hamlet. Laertes is a
gentleman if he follows his course of revenge "And where th’offence is, let the great
axe fall.” Claudius ends the scene again all too ready to murder, at least in principle (he
doesn’t expect Hamlet to come back), and he has already so kindly offered his support
to Laertes’ thirst for violence. This is manipulation, a game Claudius knows well.

Scene 6

Horatio reads a letter from Hamlet with two pieces of important information on it. The
first is that he’s headed home to Denmark after single-handedly boarding a pirate ship
that attacked his ship bound for England. The pirates took him prisoner and are
returning him to Denmark. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, secondly, are still bound for
England on the original ship. Here we see Hamlet the man of action – resolute in his
impulsiveness. His action was a violent one – “my thoughts be bloody” – but also clever.
For Hamlet has exchanged the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were bearing – “Do
it England” – so that it is his two betraying ‘friends’ that will be executed upon their
arrival in Britain. Thus, fortune, forethought and action combine in a victory over
Claudius’s machinations. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more casualties in the war
between Hamlet and Claudius. For it has become a war insomuch as war is kill or be
killed.

Scene 7

Claudius continues his fanning of the flames of Laertes’ thirst for revenge. A messenger
arrives telling him Hamlet will present himself “to see your kingly eyes”. His plans foiled,
and with Hamlet still alive and in Denmark, Claudius turns even more to Laertes as the
instrument of Hamlet’s demise. Laertes, in keeping with his lack of consideration of
consequences, is eager at the news of Hamlet’s return (he did not know that Hamlet was
not supposed to return and that Claudius up to this point is simply ‘drawing him on side’):
“But let him come - /It warms the very sickness in my heart.” Claudius intensifies
Laertes’ resolve by playing on his sense of duty (honour) to his father: “Hamlet comes
back; what would you undertake/To show yourself in deed your father’s son.” Laertes
replies with: “to cut his throat i’th’church.” This satisfies Claudius: “Revenge should have
no bounds.”

This exchange touches off the ultimate irony in the play. Hamlet places boundaries on
his revenge at least in his thoughts (“I will speak daggers to her but use none”), even if
he sometimes acts with impulsive violence (the murder of Polonius). Hamlet is flawed,
but thinks about consequences. Claudius’s more traditional rules for revenge – that there
are none – ends the play in a bloodbath. Hamlet is not at the duel to kill Claudius and get
revenge; he is there because of Laertes’ desire for revenge and Claudius’s desire to see
Hamlet dead. It is very ironic that Hamlet, whose thoughts have been so troubled by
revenge through the play, dies as a victim of someone else’s revenge plot. And that
someone else happens to be the very person he was supposed to kill. Hamlet, in the end,
like Laertes and Gertrude, becomes a victim of Claudius’s poison, the literal poison and
the metaphorical poison Claudius has spread from his cup of murder.
The scene ends with Gertrude’s telling of Ophelia’s drowning. Note here how Ophelia’s
flowers become weeds – “weedy trophies” – another symbol of the growth of corruption
through the play. Claudius’s closing words are again indicative of his hypocrisy, his deceit
– he lies to his wife regarding Laertes: “how much I had to do to calm his rage.” He was
in fact doing the opposite.

Act V

Scene 1

A graveyard near the castle. The setting is important. It illustrates the proximity of
death/human mortality to the lives of those occupying Elsinore. Physically it illustrates
the nearness of death to us all. The graveyard scene shows the burial of Ophelia move
from pathos to the absurd, reflecting the jests that begin the act between the two
clowns. The existential absurdity of death comes through palpably here. The scene as a
whole is a meditation on human mortality, memory, and grief. It brings together these
key threads of the play, foreshadows the slaughter to come which results from the
corruption in the state fed by Claudius’s dangerous “revenge should have no bounds”
(4.7). This mutability is perhaps best illustrated by the play’s biggest irony – Hamlet
turns up to fight a duel and ends up dead as the result of another’s thirst for revenge.

The joking of the two clowns about death fits in with one of the play’s wider concerns –
human mortality. Hamlet is prompted to dwell on this by the Gravedigger’s casual tossing
of skulls from his digging. Here we see that Hamlet has not lost his enjoyment of wit as
he puns on the word “fine”: “Is this the fine of his fines and the recovery of his
recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt.” Hamlet reflects that in spite of all a
lawyer’s legal documents entitling him to land, death is the only end.

However, although this brooding continues when the skull is that of Yorick, his father’s
court jester, the tone alters here. Hamlet shows tenderness for the dead jester,
tenderness that results from remembering the dead. At the same time the memory of
Yorick repels him because of what he has become – a skull: “he hath borne me on his
back a thousand times – and now how abhorred in my imagination it is!” This exclamation
shows how a pleasant childhood memory can be tainted when we are faced with our own
mortality. Implicit here is that all our memories, our identities, are swallowed in the end
by death: “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust . . . “
Horatio warns Hamlet away from such brooding, to no avail.

In the end Hamlet is torn away by the progression of events, as Ophelia’s funeral
procession arrives. Here the characters’ different attitudes to grieving are exposed.
Laertes is over-the-top, leaping into the grave and using big allusions as hyperbole: “Now
pile your dust upon the quick and dead/Till of this flat a mountain you have
made/T’o’ertop old Pelion or the skyish head/Of blue Olympus.” In other words, pile dirt
on Ophelia’s grave until there’s a mound the size of the mountain home of the Greek
gods there. This can be seen as the extremity of his grief, or as somewhat gestural and
therefore artificial. Laertes is trying to prove the extremity of his grief, which is
immature. It’s perfectly possible to see it as both. His extremity is in keeping with a
man willing to “dare damnation” (4.4) for revenge.
Gertrude, on the other hand, is more restrained and dignified: “Sweets to the sweet,
farewell.” She recalls her hopes that Hamlet might have married her, and her gesture of
scattering flowers on the grave hearkens back to an earlier time of innocence.

Hamlet’s grief is obvious – he is offended by Laertes’ too prettified woe: “What is he


whose grief/Bears such an emphasis?” Hamlet suspects Laertes’ grief because it is too
strongly emphasized. However, Hamlet is prone to such hyperbole, too: “I loved Ophelia;
forty thousand brothers/Could not with all their quantity of love/make up my sum.”

The funeral becomes an absurd competition between Laertes and Hamlet over whose
grief is more real, as the pair fight over (or in) Ophelia’s grave. Interestingly, Claudius
is silent except for “Oh he is mad Laertes”. Gertrude echoes him: “This is mere
madness.”

The burial of Ophelia raises many questions. Is Hamlet’s behaviour a continuation of his
“antic disposition” coupled with his anger and grief: “Yet have I in me something
dangerous”? The wrestling match is fine drama, and increases the tension between
Hamlet and Laertes before their duel, but its context gives it an absurdity which
somewhat insults the memory of Ophelia which Gertrude so tenderly evoked with her
flowers. And what of Gertrude and Claudius’s remarks that Hamlet is mad?

Let’s put it all in context. Claudius says Hamlet’s actions are mad but in 3.1 he suspects
his ‘madness’ hides “something in his soul”. Hamlet himself alludes to this in 5.1 by
referring to “I have in me something dangerous.” This something is his knowledge of
Claudius’s crime, and his grief and rage at it. We know this from the soliloquies. Hamlet’s
‘madness’ in 5.1 is prompted by his grief and rage. He grieves for Ophelia and is enraged
at what he sees as Laertes’ overdone grief. His emotion then causes him to spill over into
similar extreme hyperbole and gesture. He is not to be outdone. This is not ‘madness’,
but extreme emotion boiling over. Dramatically it serves to show us that Hamlet is still
prone to ‘outbursts’ of extreme feeling, a contrast to his melancholic brooding over
Yorick’s skull earlier in the scene. We might also contrast his anxious, contemplative “To
be or not to be” soliloquy with his ranting at Gertrude. These swings are typical of a
melancholic character, and are consistent with Hamlet’s behaviour throughout the play.

Claudius calls it madness but again calls for Hamlet to be watched at the act’s end:
“Gertrude, set some watch over your son”. This echoes 3.1: “Madness in great ones must
not unwatched go.” However, during Act IV Hamlet made his danger to Claudius
increasingly obvious: “seek him i’th’other place yourself.” (4.3) Claudius then decided to
kill him, first through his failed plot with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and most
recently in his plot with Laertes, which is ongoing. So we must suspect Claudius’s
simplistic “he is mad” as Claudius himself suspects the ‘madness’ hides something else in
Hamlet. We must suspect his order to have Hamlet watched is a stopgap until the time
that he and Laertes can act. After all, he’s way beyond simply watching Hamlet now –
he’s having him watched and planning to kill him. Claudius’s public declarations and orders
are an oversimplified version of what he actually suspects, and is actually planning to do.
There is more going on behind the public façade – suspicions about what Hamlet’s
‘madness’ hides, and plots to have him removed.

Gertrude’s calling Hamlet ‘mad’ also can be explained. Her words here are interesting.
Perhaps they reflect increasing understanding of her son, perhaps she is continuing her
promise in 3.4 to say nothing and protect him. Remember she lied to Claudius in 4.1 about
Hamlet’s murder of Polonius being an act of madness to protect him. Here she says:
“awhile the fit shall work in him”, then she compares him to becoming as meek as a dove
with new chicks. Is Gertrude showing awareness that Hamlet’s fits subside readily and
then he is harmless? Or is she saying that he’s ‘mostly harmless’ to protect him from
how Claudius might react to his ‘madness’? Certainly the latter explanation fits with her
resolve to protect her son in 3.4 and her demonstration of that resolve in 4.1.

The above brandings of Hamlet as ‘mad’ are then much more than what they seem. They
reveal that such terms cannot always be taken at face value, especially in Elsinore where
words are weapons used to hide the truth, and provoke it into revealing itself.

5.1 moves from human mortality to the open wounds of Laertes and Hamlet, the two
revengers, to the suspect nature of the court of Elsinore with its watchers, its hidden
plots, and counter-plots. It brings together two sons’ extremity of grief and rage and
the corrupt political environment in a place of death. It combines the ingredients and
hints at the end for this tragic mixing.

Scene 2

This scene shows us Hamlet’s development from “bloody” thoughts (4.4) to stoic
acceptance of the mutability of life.

Right from the opening of the scene he says: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
/Rough hew them how we will – “. The balanced Horatio agrees. Hamlet refers here to
Christian patience, a marked change from his from now on “my thoughts be bloody” (4.4).
Hamlet’s fate is in the hands of ‘divinity’ – or in non-Christian terms you might say
chance. Whatever we do, Hamlet is saying, forces beyond our control shape our ends:
“the readiness is all.” We must prepare ourselves for death – this is our lifelong mission
and all that really matters. This is a change from Hamlet only a scene ago in 5.1 who felt
disgust at what Yorick had become. His attitude to death has become one of stoic
acceptance. The Stoics believed in patience and preparedness.

As for revenge, Hamlet asks: “is’t not perfect conscience/To quit him with this arm?
And is’t not to be damned/To let this canker of our nature come/In further evil?”
Hamlet is as speculative as ever – and even if he’s rhetorical here, the tone is not one of
full certainty. Hamlet wonders if it’s a bigger sin to let Claudius live to cause more harm.
Should Claudius, the “canker” (cancer) be allowed to spread his corruption further?
Hamlet wonders if it is “perfect conscience” to “quit him” because of the damage he
might spread in this world. His frame of reference for revenge has enlarged – he gives
five reasons for revenge here: because Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, took his mother
to bed, pushed in front of Hamlet’s own claim to the throne, is plotting against Hamlet’s
life and might yet cause further evil in the state. However, the fact he has to ask
Horatio “Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon” shows yet again his reluctance and
uncertainty regarding revenge that has dogged him through the play.

Osric’s appearance to invite Hamlet to the duel serves to highlight Hamlet’s admirable
qualities – Shakespeare builds up our admiration for the doomed prince so that we might
feel his loss more intensely. Hamlet shows he despises Osric’s affected language and
manner by making up, in lines 106-112, words (“definement”=definition, “inventorially”=as
an inventory/list), using pompous phrases (“the verity of extolment”=the truth of
praising) and repeating himself (“a soul of great article”=the list of his attributes is too
long). Even Horatio calls Osric: “This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head”.

Osric, Hamlet goes on to say, is typical of the flock of frothy, superficial people
fashionable in these frivolous (“drossy”) times. The “fanned and winnowed opinions” are
the wise, carefully considered opinions that people like Osric simply ignore. How many
people like this do you know? Osric is a mirror on the times, and Hamlet’s reasons for
despising him are good ones, supported by Horatio. Osric is a representative of
Elsinore’s fashionable society who will outlive people like Hamlet. Yay.

Note also Hamlet’s regrets about his behaviour towards Laertes in the graveyard: “But I
am very sorry, Horatio, /That to Laertes I forgot myself”. This is a sincere expression
of regret, certainly not the statement of a madman. Hamlet is fully aware that he ‘lost
it’ in the graveyard. More than that, he wishes he hadn’t. ‘Mad’ becomes a more and more
ridiculous label. This statement also tells us he did genuinely succumb to rage and grief,
it was not part of his “antic disposition” which he appears to have abandoned.

So Hamlet has developed – he sees preparedness for death as the main purpose of life,
and accepts that events move beyond our control. In this last one he proves correct as
Hamlet turns up for the duel without any plans other than to beat Laertes. The exact
plans of Claudius are unknown to him, although Hamlet accepts that “a man’s life’s no
more than to say ‘one’.” Claudius’s plans go awry, events spiral out of control, and this
justifies Hamlet’s new view that no matter what we do some outcomes seem due to
‘divinity’ or events beyond our control.

It’s already been stated how Claudius, metaphorically the poison (“canker”) in Denmark
throughout the play, brings the metaphor to life in his act of poisoning the wine, and
Laertes his blade. His “revenge should have no bounds” returns to hit him ironically as
the poison spreads from sword to Hamlet and Laertes and himself, and from cup to
Gertrude and himself. Both families, murdering uncle, revenging sons and incestuous
mother, are destroyed. And Hamlet, in the play’s biggest irony, dies due to revenge, but
not directly here because of his own obsession with it. Claudius’s poison spreads to kill
them all. In the end it is Claudius’s boundless willingness to kill and Laertes’ willingness
to “dare damnation” that directly destroy Hamlet, even if these two are reacting to
Hamlet’s own misdeeds in his pursuit of revenge.

As an argument against revenge the play is a strong one. The ending shows the damage
wrecked by boundless revenge, and all of Hamlet’s least admirable moments in the play
are a product of his acting on his thoughts of vengeance. For all Hamlet’s own despising
of himself for his inaction, it is his actions which prove most damaging – to Ophelia
especially. His reluctance, therefore, makes him seem better than the eager Laertes and
murderous Claudius. His reluctance, ironically, appears to make him more heroic than his
often awful actions.

The pathos of the ending is tempered by our knowledge that Hamlet was coming to
accept that “the readiness is all.” He was at last coming to terms with human mortality:
“a man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one’.” This was progress, and perhaps this is what
human life comes down to – accept the inevitable, prepare yourself for it, and be patient.
Certainly in the play rushing is often a result of passions running into extremes, and
ending in disaster. Also, Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness, which is sad as it’s
too late. But Claudius dies – sigh of satisfaction.

In the end the overall carnage overwhelms us with a sense of waste. The end result of
murder, revenge, incest and the society of double standards and surveillance that these
breed is a stark warning.

In a sense if we remember Hamlet – a play (ghost) from the past – we just might learn
from it! To forget is to condemn yourself, and on a global scale to help condemn
humanity, to endless recapitulation of what has been before. Remembering is the first
step to progress that has foundations sunk deep and lasting. As Otto Rank, 20 th century
psychoanalyst and author said: there is already so much truth in the world – what a pity
so few in any generation ever seek it out. Wow.

M L Turver 2000