The intellectual – Hamlet1
Intellectuals may rejoice that the most canonical text of western imaginative literature figures one of our tribe as its protagonist. Prince Hamlet is undeniably an intellectual, a student at the University of Wittenberg whose “inky cloak” (1.2.77) swaddles him not just in melancholy but in “[w]ords, words, words” (2.2.189). At the same time, we may be justifiably concerned that many believe Hamlet’s intellectualism hobbles him from doing justice.
The central question of Hamlet is why the prince takes so long to avenge his father’s murder. Psychoanalysts, literary critics, and philosophers have all offered their answers, many of which reflect their general explanations for procrastination. Following suit as a legal scholar, I contend that Hamlet’s delay arises from an intellectual commitment to perfect justice. Faced with a terrible injustice, he is forced to correct it himself because, as in Titus Andronicus, his adversary controls the state. Hamlet certainly has the ingenuity to correct that injustice immediately. However, he bides his time because he wishes to secure not only justice but poetic justice. With respect to Claudius, he arguably attains that perfect justice. But he inflicts so much collateral damage in the process that his actions are ultimately unjustifiable.
Hamlet shows why those committed to social justice often feel ambivalence towards intellectuals. On the one hand, the critical distance that intellectuals have from the world allows us to imagine idealized forms of justice. On the other hand, when we cling too tightly to those ideals, we dissociate from reality. Hamlet adds another layer to the lesson of Macbeth. It is not just that poetic justice does not naturally come into being. It is also that, when human beings are perfectionists about justice, we risk doing immense harm.
Hamlet builds on a revenge tragedy composed by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus in the thirteenth century, reworked by the French author François de Belleforest in 1570, and reproduced yet again for the English stage by an unknown author (possibly Shakespeare) in the lost Ur-Hamlet of the 1590s. Shakespeare’s rendition begins with Prince Hamlet of Denmark mourning the loss of his illustrious father, also named Hamlet. King Hamlet allegedly died after being stung by a serpent while sleeping in his garden. To make matters worse, Prince Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, married Queen Gertrude less than two months after Hamlet Sr.’s death. In doing so, Claudius took the crown that should have descended to Hamlet. Early in the play, a ghost resembling Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet and his friend Horatio. Declaring that Claudius has murdered him, the ghost enjoins Prince Hamlet to avenge his death.
While Hamlet initially agrees to do so, he comes to doubt whether the ghost is truly his father’s spirit, or a devil sent to tempt him. He decides to stage a play reenacting the murder (the famous play-within-the-play titled The Mousetrap) to gauge Claudius’s response. When Claudius reacts with consternation, Hamlet is satisfied of his guilt. Hamlet’s next opportunity for revenge, however, occurs when Claudius is praying alone in his chapel. Hamlet does not kill Claudius because he believes that if Claudius is killed while praying for forgiveness, his soul will mount directly to heaven. During a later conversation with his mother, Hamlet becomes aware that someone is eavesdropping on them behind an arras, or tapestry. The prince draws his sword and kills the counselor Polonius in the belief he is the king.
Realizing the threat that Hamlet poses to him, Claudius sends him to England in the custody of two of the prince’s childhood companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with a letter secretly ordering his death. Hamlet rewrites the letter to require the execution of his two erstwhile friends. He then returns to Denmark, where Ophelia, who is Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s former lover, has gone mad with grief and committed suicide. Ophelia’s brother Laertes begins an uprising against Claudius, but Claudius successfully redirects Laertes’s fury toward Hamlet. The youth challenges Hamlet to a fencing match. Though purportedly just an athletic contest, the duel has been arranged by Claudius and Laertes with murderous intent. Claudius has poisoned Hamlet’s drink, and Laertes has envenomed the tip of his foil.
During the fencing match, Gertrude dies after she drinks from the cup meant for her son. Laertes and Hamlet mortally wound each other with the poisoned rapier, which changes hands during the match. On the brink of death, Hamlet finally kills Claudius. Word arrives from England that Rosencrantz and Guild-enstern have been executed according to Hamlet’s plan. Horatio wishes to follow the dying Hamlet by committing suicide, but Hamlet asks him instead to live and tell his story. Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, takes over the kingdom, restoring order at the cost of Denmark’s independence.
The core question of the play is why Hamlet delays his revenge. As literary critic A. C. Bradley states, “But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?” (Bradley 2005: 69). (The seven lives, in order of demise, belong to Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet.) The psychoanalyst Ernest Jones called the mystery of Hamlet’s delay “the Sphinx of modern Literature” (Jones 1976: 22).
Many have tried to solve the riddle. Freud believes Hamlet’s delay derives from an Oedipus complex: “Hamlet is able to do anything—except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of his own childhood realized” (Freud 1955: 265). Goethe deems Hamlet too delicate: “a lovely, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away” (Goethe 1824: 75). Nietzsche takes him for a nihilist: “In this sense the Dionysian man may be said to resemble Hamlet: both have for once seen into the true nature of things,—they have perceived, but they are loath to act; for their action cannot change the eternal nature of things” (Nietzsche 2007: 41).
As Marjorie Garber observes, critics have a powerful identification with Hamlet (I assume this is because critics are themselves intellectuals) (Garber 2008: 201). Because we see ourselves in him, we see his reasons for delay as our own: Freud sees Oedipus, Goethe sees his own sorrowful Werther, and Nietzsche sees his Dionysian man. I see no reason to depart from these great predecessors in proposing an explanation inflected by my own professional background. So I contend that Hamlet’s delay can best be explained by his pursuit of perfect justice. I do not think Hamlet delays because he is sexually conflicted, weak, or nihilistic. I think he defers his revenge because he wants it to be perfect. This explanation justifies his delays without justifying the ends they serve.
My initial point is that there is not one delay, but two. They occur during what a modern trial lawyer might call the “guilt” and “sentencing” phases of the play’s action. First, Hamlet delays because he is uncertain of Claudius’s guilt. This is a period of approximately two months between the ghost’s appearance and the performance of the play-within-the-play. Only after The Mousetrap does Hamlet become convinced of Claudius’s guilt. The second delay is more brief and more consequential. It is the delay in which Hamlet forgoes the chance to kill Claudius while Claudius is praying in the chapel. Both delays can be explained by Hamlet’s desire for perfect justice.
Everything begins with the ghost. Stephen Greenblatt notes, “[t]he ghost in Hamlet is like none other—not only in Shakespeare but in any literary or historical text … It does not have very many lines—it appears in three scenes and speaks only in two—but it is amazingly disturbing and vivid” (Greenblatt 2001: 4). These qualities are in sharp evidence during the ghost’s first speech to Hamlet.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine—
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
The ghost is in purgatory, the place where his “foul crimes” are “purged away” so he can enter heaven. The spirit says his torments are horrible, and we believe him in part because he describes them as indescribable.
The ghost is not just the object of punishment, but its agent. The ghost’s imperative is often summarized as follows: “If thou didst ever thy dear father love … Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!” (1.5.23, 25). Yet the ghost’s commandment is a good deal more specific. The ghost gives a meticulous description of both the crime and the proposed punishment:
Sleeping within my orchard—
My custom always of the afternoon—
Upon my secure hour they uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body
And with a sudden vigour it doth possess
And curd like eager droppings into milk
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Thus was I sleeping by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee bear it not,
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But howsomever thou pursues this act
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once:
The glow-worm shows the matin to be near
And ‘gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me.
On this account, Claudius poured poison into Hamlet Sr.’s ears, curdling his blood. The ghost’s tale, poured into our ears, is likewise bloodcurdling. The horror begins with the description of the poison’s physical effect: how “swift as quicksilver” the “leperous distilment” moved through “[t]he natural gates and alleys of the body.” The conflation of the sovereign body and the body politic, made frequently in Shakespeare, arises here in the comparison of valves and veins with “gates and alleys.” The sovereign has been poisoned—we now know why “[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90). Yet the physiological effects of the murder are as nothing compared to the religious ones. The ghost decries how he was “[c]ut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled.” Deprived of last rites, he is sent to final judgment “[w]ith all [his] imperfections on [his] head.” The descriptions of physical and religious corruption merge. The body morphs into a disgusting object, as if the king’s sins were surfacing—“a most instant tetter barked about / Most lazar-like with vile and loathsome crust / All my smooth body.”
Three instructions follow. First, “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest.” Prince Hamlet must kill Claudius. Second, “howsomever [he] pursues this act,” Hamlet must not “contrive / Against [his] mother.” Finally, he must remember his father: “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me.” Hamlet immediately agrees to the ghost’s commands—he asks to be emptied out and made into a pure instrument of revenge.
Upon cooler consideration, however, Hamlet’s shock cedes to skepticism, resulting in the first delay. This skepticism is justified, especially in historical context. Ghosts were widely seen as instruments used by the devil to lure the virtuous to perdition. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medici (1643) that those “apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandering souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villainy” (Browne 1951: 43). More specifically, as students from Wittenberg, known in Shakespeare’s time as Martin Luther’s bastion of Protestantism, both Horatio and Hamlet would presumably have doubts about a ghost returning from Catholic purgatory. Horatio warns Hamlet that the ghost may intend to “draw [him] into madness” (1.4.74). Even in his preliminary agreement to the ghost’s commands, Hamlet ponders where to place him: “O all of you host of heaven … And shall I couple hell?” (1.5.92–93). On reflection, he begins to take the latter possibility seriously: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a de’il, and the de’il hath power / T’assume a pleasing shape” (2.2.533–535).
Hamlet’s doubts about the ghost may be heightened by Claudius’s outward respectability. At this point, we, like Hamlet, are not certain that Claudius has murdered Hamlet Sr. The consummate politician, Claudius has allied himself solidly with the law on as many counts as possible. Before we even meet Claudius, Horatio observes that Hamlet Sr. and Fortinbras Sr. fought over some land. When Hamlet Sr. won that duel, land belonging to Fortinbras Sr. passed to Hamlet Sr. through “a sealed compact / Well ratified by law and heraldry” (1.1.85–86). However, Fortinbras’s son now seeks to reclaim that land, having “[s]harked up a list of lawless resolutes” (1.1.97) to help him. Part of the fault lies with the new Norwegian king, who has exercised inadequate supervision over Prince Fortinbras. In Norway, as in Denmark, the crown has moved from the original king to his brother, rather than to the king’s son. The unnamed King of Norway is thus Claudius’s foil in this play.