The estimable Waggish has been pondering Hamlet's notorious explication of the action in The Murder of Gonzago, that the murderer who pours poison into the porches of the player king's ear is "one Lucianus, nephew to the King." For Waggish, the line conduces to a skeptical reading of Hamlet: we cannot know that the ghost was in fact the ghost of Hamlet, Sr., because whatever elicits Claudius's violent reaction, it isn't the depiction of a brother murdering his brother. Waggish cites this line to rebut what he thinks a weak argument that Richard Levin makes (one that I find rather appealing, myself): that the fact that the play twice, and early on, raises the possibility that the ghost may be a devil pretty much means that that can't be the solution. Shakespeare wouldn't begin the play announcing its most important spoilers. (This isn't Levin's emphasis, but I think it's implied in his argument.)
Anyhow Waggish's post prompted me to want to go a little farther. Let's start with Claudius's confession. After "The Mousetrap" (the name of the play The Murder of Gonzago is called "The Mousetrap") Claudius seeks solitude in order to reflect on his sins. In his soliloquy he says, "I did the murder," and also that his offense "hath the primal eldest curse upon't: / A brother's murder." So now we know.
But there's a principle of interpretation that also comes into play here: if we know now, then we didn't know before. As with D.K. Lewis's idea of common knowledge, we know that Shakespeare knows we know, but this means that Shakespeare didn't know we knew before, which means that we may have thought we knew but we didn't actually know. And this means that Hamlet doesn't know. Up till now, he has all the relevant information that we do. But now we have more information, information that Shakespeare regards as decisive and that Hamlet doesn't have. So much for Hamlet's delaying too long: he can't justly kill Claudius unless he knows Claudius is guilty. The fact that Claudius is guilty is not enough by itself. (Cf. Orson Welles's Touch of Evil.) You can't gamble on the guilt of another by executing them: the gamble is itself tantamount to depraved indifference. You need proof. Hamlet is clear on this: he won't gamble, since the spirit he saw may be a devil. By contrast, his evil twin Iago (lacks advancement; hates the calm and serene leader who has taken power; seeks through the sheer outrageous energy of self-resourcefulness to unsettle that supremely stable leader; soliloquizes to the audience a lot and even asks who's calling him a villain as Hamlet does; spends a lot of time thinking about the sheets on which sexual activity might be taking place) -- his evil twin Iago says he doesn't know whether Othello is actually guilty but that he will act as though it's a certainty. (I think there's another way that Othello is a riff on Hamlet, one with the wrong characters in each play: Hamlet would never have killed Desdemona on the evidence Othello's given: Othello would have avenged his father's death as quickly as Laertes plans to.)
So, we know Claudius is guilty, and also may be surprised to learn that Hamlet doesn't know it. Does he ever get evidence as decisive as ours? No he doesn't. Nor, in Act 5, does he ever mention his father again.
Okay, he does refer to the presumed victim just once more in Act 5, referring to Claudius with the words "He that killed my King and whored my mother," but that just makes it briefly conspicuous that he doesn't refer to Hamlet, Sr. as his father any more. The motive for revenge, the murder of his father, has dissipated. When he kills Claudius its for crimes he himself has seen committed: the manslaughter of his mother, the reckless negligence of Laertes's death, and his own murder. But there's no mention whatever of his father in that last scene.
So Hamlet never takes revenge for the murder of Hamlet, Sr. We should feel this is right. The Mousetrap has shown someone contemplating the murder of the King, but that someone is his nephew. If you're Claudius, this looks like a threat, not a representation of your own crime (as Waggish points out). After all, Claudius never killed his uncle.
So why does Hamlet mess up the description? Why doesn't he tell the Court that Lucianus is the brother of the king? The Freudian reading, of course, is that Hamlet has telescoped Claudius and his father together. Claudius has done what he wished to do, namely kill his father. Now Claudius has taken over the paternal power that Hamlet wished to arrogate to himself (killing Polonius is a poor substitute for this), so that Claudius is in the father position and Hamlet remains the eternally oppressed child. Imagining killing Claudius is a way for him to take revenge on Claudius for the very thing that Hamlet wished to do. More: it's to do the very thing that Hamlet wished to do, to kill the (new) paternal figure but legitimately revenging the murder of his father by murdering his father. All of this is anticipated in Claudius's astonishing offer of peace to Hamlet in the first act, when he invokes Reason,
whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.' We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father.
He has Cain and Abel ("the first corse") on the brain here already, as he will in his soliloquy, but doesn't seem very anxious about it. At any rate, the point is the strange depth with which he allows and even encourages Hamlet to fantasize about his death. Fathers must die. Think of Claudius as a father. Claudius must die. (Ivan Ilyich is almost thinking about this moment, when the tautology of mortality suddenly horrifies him.) It's as though he's saying, as Freud and Jones will, if you think about killing me, it's a tribute to me: it means you'll think of me as a father. Claudius will take it as a tribute.
So in The Mousetrap, it seems to matter more to Hamlet to push that possibility away than to stick to his plan. He insists that the murderer is the King's nephew, lest there be any misunderstanding of how he feels about Claudius. Well, that proves, doesn't it, that Claudius is right to see the Mousetrap as about Hamlet's fantasy of murdering him. Combine and cancel terms, and I think you'll find that "This is one Lucianus, nephew to the King" means "This is one Lucianus, son to the King."
I don't think the Freudian reading is necessary or even right. What I do think is that the line bespeaks an anxiety on Hamlet's part, an anxiety that Freud nailed, even if he may have come up with a psychoanalytic backstory that wasn't Shakespeare's. I think Shakespeare has another backstory instead: that it's perfectly likely that Claudius is in fact Hamlet's father. We don't know how long he and Gertrude have been lovers. How can Hamlet now be worried about this? And how could he possibly express his worry? The play does though, every time it has a character press Hamlet to call Claudius his father.
What a father! He killed Hamlet's King! And what a conflict: to whom should Hamlet be loyal? That's what the fifth act seems to bring out, at least as a latent but powerful possibility. How can Hamlet choose? But there's another choice to be made: if Hamlet, as a kind of reverse-Orestes, kills his father for the murder of his mother. So the fifth act changes everything: Hamlet never revenges the death of Hamlet, Sr., since in the end he is true to himself and puts his father above his king.
That's what Hamlet, Sr. has urged him to do over and over, but with the presumption that Hamlet, Sr. was his father. Hamlet, Sr.'s depraved indifference to what he's asking his supposed son to do -- who is he, Sutpen? -- makes sense if it's two acts of revenge in one: he gets his brother's son, whom he naturally hates, to kill his own father. No wonder Hamlet worries that the ghost seems sort of devilish.
At any rate the identification of Lucianus as the King's nephew seems calculated to ward off this idea, even as it economically prevents Hamlet from getting the proof he needs but doesn't really want -- the proof that Claudius killed Hamlet, Sr., who is his brother, whether or not he's Hamlet, Jr.'s father.
And yet this does seem a little unsatisfying: do we really want to believe that Claudius got away with that one crime? Are we okay with the idea that Act Five leaves the opening issues unresolved? Well, what if Claudius didn't kill his brother? After all, he brings Abel up without any apparent anxiety (as I've noted). Yes, there's his confession. But I don't think it's as decisive as it looks. Consider again the very fact that The Mousetrap provokes him to his anguished soliloquy. Why does it? Well, the Player Queen has told her husband that she'll never remarry after his death: "A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed. / In second husband let me be accursed: / None wed the second but who killed the first."
[Lest you think (as some have in an argument about my post that's occurring elsewhere) that this isn't as relevant as I'm making it, notice that Hamlet repeats the very same claim in his own voice right after Claudius's failed prayer:
HAMLET: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
GERTRUDE: As kill a king!
HAMLET: Ay, lady, 'twas my word.
So Hamlet insists that a widow's remarriage is equivalent to murder -- or worse than literal murder: his killing of Polonius is almost as bad as what Gertrude has done. (I'm taking Hamlet's "and marry" as a kind of hendiadys for "by marrying" but its fine if you want to see the adultery as the murder. This also parallels the Player Queen's speech: being kissed is killing the first husband; wedding the second is killing the first. Same pairing.)]
How is second marriage supposed to be like murder? The Deuteronomical text which requires (rather than prohibits) a dead man's brother to marry his widow does so in order to make sure that the dead man lives on through his descendents (through collateral descent, and also through protection). Hamlet may be the mirror reversal of this situation. Claudius has robbed Hamlet, Sr. of paternity. He's the true father. And now he's insisting that he is the father. A man's memory may outlive him by half a year, as Hamlet says, but then he'll be gone for good. So Claudius sees The Mousetrap, and like his best-beloved Gertrude (they really do love each other) he's struck to the heart by what he's done. He's removed his brother from history. Not by literally killing him, but as the Player Queens says: a second time he's killed his brother dead, by father Hamlet, marrying Gertrude, setting his own nuclear family right. They're all perfectly set, and Hamlet, Sr. is confined to fast in fires. He died naturally, and then the truth came out, which is that he was just a dead-end on the highway of history. His wife has another, truer husband; his "son" has another, truer, more literal father. He's dead indeed. And Claudius realizes finally how awful that is.
Awful enough that it's what happens to him at the end of the play.