Book Chapter

Hamlet within Hamlet

by Rhodri Lewis


Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, was no fan of Shakespeare. Surveying the development of English drama from the vantage of the early 1700s, he lamented Shakespeare’s “natural Rudeness, his unpolish’d Stile, his antiquated Phrase and Wit, his want of Method and Coherence, and his Deficiency in almost all the Graces and Ornaments of this kind of Writing”. And yet Shakespeare was not to be dismissed out of hand: “the Justness of his Moral, the Aptness of many of his Descriptions, and the plain and natural Turn of several of his Characters” meant that he could help to nurture the self-­examination and self-­discourse on which Shaftesbury believed moral knowledge must be based. Hamlet was particularly noteworthy in this respect, and was to be viewed as “almost one continu’d Moral: a Series of deep Reflections, drawn from one Mouth, upon the Subject of one single Accident and Calamity, naturally fitted to move Horrour and Compassion. It may properly be said of this Play, if I mistake not, that it has only One Character or principal Part”. Faced with such comments, one might respond that Shaftesbury was a woefully bad reader of vernacular literature, and that his over-­fastidious tastes are precisely the sort of thing that Shakespeare enjoyed turning on its head. But a disconcerting fact remains: Shaftesbury was the first, or one of the first, to delineate an approach to Hamlet that has held the field since the second half of the eighteenth century. Within this, the emphasis is placed squarely on Hamlet the morally and philosophically significant character at the expense of Hamlet the ambiguous and frequently bewildering work of drama. Just as directors have felt compelled to cut—and sometimes to rearrange—in order to stage Hamlet successfully, so scholars and critics have neglected those aspects of the play that have threatened to hinder their interpretations of its central character.

William Kerrigan identifies a slightly later starting point for modern Hamlet criticism: “it all begins with the Romantic Germans”. Which is to say that as an object of critical attention, Hamlet only comes to life with the tragedy of thought, thwarted self-­realisation, and philosophical yearning imagined by Goethe, A.W. Schlegel, and their English epigone, Coleridge. To any student of the play, Kerrigan’s view is familiar and widely confirmed. Shaftesbury may have laid the egg, but it took the Romantic sensibility for it to hatch. Hamlet emerged as an epoch-­making figure, an enigma through whom Shakespeare dramatized the struggle of the modern subject to find a path through the suffocating thickets of moral, personal, and political existence. At the same time, there has been little or no consensus as to how this enigma should be decoded. Hamlet has played host to an unusually diverse, though only seldom antipodal, range of interpretations. As Harry Levin put it in the late 1950s, Polonius’s response to “Hamlet’s ink-­blot test—his agreement that the cloud resembles now a weasel, then a camel, now again a whale—succinctly foreshadows the process of interpreting the play” evinced by its modern students. On this reckoning, Hamlet criticism is a literary Rorschach test in which pretty much anything goes—one in which critics project their own theories, preoccupations, or neuroses, or in which they vie to offer perceptions of the play that are calculated to display their creative virtuosity, or in which they seek to confirm their methodological or ideological fraternity. Analogously, David Bevington estimates that “the staging, criticism and editing of Hamlet . . . from 1599–1600 to the present day . . . can be seen as a kind of paradigm for the cultural history of the English-­speaking world”. One might regret the narrowness of Bevington’s focus (not least because Murder Most Foul ranges some way beyond the confines of the Anglosphere), but it would be hard to dissent from the tenor of his judgement. The only sticking point is the suspicion that if the history of Hamlet criticism sheds so much light on those who wrote it, then those who wrote it might not always have put themselves in a position from which to offer revealing criticism of the play.

By contrast, Margreta de Grazia insists that we start again. For her, the Romantic and post-­Romantic emphasis on the inexpressible mysteries of the Prince’s mal du siècle have led to the unwarranted and misleading abstraction of Hamlet from the play of which he is a part; even the most historically minded of Hamlet’s critics have expended their reserves of learning and ingenuity in attending to questions whose origins lie nearly two centuries after the play itself, and that are largely besides the point. After demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that the problem of Hamlet’s character only became a critical concern in the course of the eighteenth century, de Grazia sets herself the task of illustrating “what happens when what has been overlooked [in the last two centuries of Hamlet studies] is brought back into view”. This is not, and could not be, an exercise in simple historical retrieval. Other than that Hamlet is the palimpsest of an earlier revenge play on the same subject (the lost work known as the Ur-­Hamlet), that something in it appealed to what Gabriel Harvey called the “wiser sort”, and that the Prince’s performed mania left a vivid impression on early audiences, next to nothing is known of the ways in which Hamlet was initially regarded. Likewise, the later seventeenth century has little of note, and almost nothing positive, to say about the play. Even the striking depiction of the First or Second Folio—open at the beginning of Hamlet—that appears in Anthony van Dyck’s ca. 1638 portrait of the courtier poet, Sir John Suckling (see figure 1), owes its existence to Shakespeare’s uncertain reputation. Suckling, in line with the motto from the Roman satirist Persius superimposed on the rock in the lower right (ne te quaesiveris extra, “do not look beyond yourself” or “do not look to any opinion but your own”), seeks to advertise his freely independent cast of mind. Neither Shakespeare in general nor Hamlet in particular may meet with the approval of those in thrall to neoclassical decorum, but they are caviar to the well-­bred connoisseur. The first sustained critical engagement with Hamlet would have to wait until 1736.

In the face of this silence, de Grazia reconstructs a play about the unhappy plight of an early modern prince who believes himself to have been dispossessed of his birthright. This malcontent has been wronged by his dead father (who did not nominate his son as heir to his kingdom), by his uncle (who guilefully assumed the kingship after the death of his brother the king), by his mother (whose public re-­marriage to her first husband’s brother elevated the claims of her former brother-­in-­law above those of her son), and by the court of which he is a prominent part (whose other members were responsible for settling on his uncle as the best candidate for the kingship). Furthermore, as Claudius is the legitimately elected king of Denmark, this Hamlet cannot voice his grievances without committing high treason; these grievances, not the existential commonplaces of critical tradition, are “that within which passes show” (1.2.85). For Shakespeare, the revenge plot thus becomes a medium through which Hamlet can act out what would otherwise have remained unspoken, and is secondary to the personal-­political dynamics animating the play. Hamlet’s much discussed “delay” in effecting the revenge demanded of him by his father’s ghost is not the result of epistemological, philosophical, or religious scruples any more than it is an expression of cowardice or melancholy or the unbearable lightness of being. Rather, Shakespeare had to work with the grain of the materials he had chosen: his sources—Saxo Grammaticus, Belleforest, and the Ur-­Hamlet—had Hamlet stay the hand of vengeance, and so therefore did he. Shakespeare made the best of the dramaturgical situation by having Hamlet riff the stock theatrical roles of the Clown, madman, Vice, and devil—all of which figure his feelings of disenfranchisement. What might look like the revenger’s madness (qua insanity rather than rage) is, in fact, literally antic: ludic, grotesque, and self-­consciously metadramatic. When the time comes to take appropriate vengeance on Claudius, Hamlet is ready and willing to strike.

There is much that is manifestly and importantly right in de Grazia’s account. Yet in circling her wagons in so determined a fashion—in seeking to defend Hamlet by uprooting the critical traditions that have grown up around its title character—de Grazia sequesters the relationships between personal and political existence that animate so much of the play. Finally, something about the way in which Hamlet speaks and acts (whether on his own, in company, or under the guise of his antic disposition) is surely meant to be unusual and arresting. To neglect this is significantly to diminish Hamlet’s capacity to challenge us. Generations of the play’s students may have distorted the Prince in their own likenesses, but the difficulties their work identifies and seeks to address cannot easily be defined away or written off to the curiosities of Elizabethan theatrical convention.


My contention is that there is no need for us to do anything of the sort, and that Hamlet can be read as a profound meditation on the nature of human individuality without relying on conceptual frameworks drawn from the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-­first centuries. Just as historical discourses beyond those of Hamlet itself provide a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the political and dynastic forces shaping life in Shakespeare’s Denmark, so what might be called Hamlet’s “character” appears in unfamiliar and revealing relief when read against the textual contours of the psychological, rhetorical, and moral-­political theorizing that lay at the heart of sixteenth-­century humanism. Stephen Greenblatt gets it right: “Shakespeare’s characters have a rich and compelling moral life, but that moral life is not autonomous. Instead, it is in each case intimately bound up with the particular and distinct community in which the character participates”. For Shakespeare and the culture of which he was a part, the personal or moral could no more remain private than the political could remain the province of public life alone.

These broadly contextualizing reflections gesture towards something at the core of this book’s interpretative strategies: the conviction that only to read Hamlet isn’t even to read Hamlet. My belief is that anyone proposing to read the play closely needs to do so alongside fine-­grained analyses of the numerous discursive traditions in which it has such a considerable share, and that these traditions include but extend far beyond the territories of dramatic and theatrical history. To speak in such terms is to get an inkling of just how exhilaratingly difficult a play Hamlet can be: apprehending it in even an approximation of its full complexity demands stereoscopic vision, and comprehending it demands the patience to explore it in the formal, cultural, intellectual, and historical round. To cast this thought a little differently, the reason Hamlet has been able so successfully to transcend the historical moment of its production is that William Shakespeare was responsible for writing it, not the spirit of the late Elizabethan age. The hard task is that we cannot hope to be conversant with how and why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did without seeking to reconstruct aspects of sixteenth-­century life as he is likely to have encountered them. That is to say, the materials, language, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, orthodoxies, and constraints with which he worked, and which he transforms through the demands of his dramatic art. Sometimes, such reconstructions can be straightforwardly historicist. More often than not, they require the exercise of the historical, scholarly, moral, aesthetic, or theoretical imagination. Further, and as this emphasis on imagination is intended to suggest, they should never be understood as singular or fixed: Hamlet is anything but a unicursive text, and there are many paths both through and around it. At all times, my guiding principle has been that in selecting the languages through which to interpret her objects of study, the literary critic must be able to exploit the disciplines of the scholar without being limited by them. No matter how hard-­won or historically sensitive a contextual reconstruction might be, its literary critical value depends on its ability to furnish the reader with some form or other of expository or interpretative payoff. It has to pass the “so what?” test.

As will become apparent over the course of the next several hundred pages, I take it that my approach not only better locates Hamlet within Hamlet, but that it offers to rehabilitate a coherent and intensely challenging work of tragedy—albeit one in which Shakespeare steadfastly disregards the rules of Aristotelian and humanist poetics. (Many of the troubles in reading Hamlet come from the determination to align it with a tragic paradigm by which Shakespeare set only the slightest store; in fact, as I argue in my concluding chapter, Shakespeare’s tragic model resembles the more flexible notion of tragic “sublimity” expounded by the Pseudo-­Longinus.) In Stephen Booth’s aptly irreverent phraseology, critics have too often been prepared “to indulge a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something”. Throughout, my working assumption is that Shakespeare was neither frustrated nor inarticulate, and that he carefully crafted Hamlet with particular effects and purposes in mind.

Here as elsewhere, Joel Altman’s Tudor Play of Mind offers much of value. For Altman, humanist drama “functioned as a medium of intellectual and emotional exploration” for sixteenth-­century minds that had been taught to think in the rhetorical tradition, and that “were accustomed to examine many sides of a given theme”. Meaning of one sort or another “could be discerned only through the total action of the drama. Thus the experience of the play 
was the thing”. Altman goes on to place Hamlet and Hamlet “on the edge of Elizabethan humanism”, marking the point at which many of its governing assumptions can be said to have died. Justifiably so. But to anyone seeking to understand Hamlet, his emphasis on attending to the “total action of the drama” remains exemplary. It’s just that doing so is tough, the more so if we are to “experience” the play in anything like the manner of those who encountered it in and around the year 1600. Furthermore, and as Lorna Hutson has outlined with astute clarity, Shakespeare’s dramaturgy is unusually “inferential”. Rather than spelling out how, where, when, or why the action is unfolding, Shakespeare presents his audience with the circumstantial data required for them to infer or deduce its causes for themselves; and, on many occasions, to question the processes through which their inferences or deductions have been reached. No matter how creative or well-­read or assiduous a twenty-­first-­century Shakespearean one might be, this manner of proceeding can result in bafflement. What is more, although this perplexity frequently does the work of Aristotle’s primal wonder, it just as often leaves one feeling adrift. All the more reason that we should neither baulk at nor fetishize the interpretative challenges posed by Hamlet, much less attempt to negate them by seizing upon one aspect or other of the play in order to refashion its entirety in the image of our own interests. The need to take pains, like the need to respect indeterminacy or irreconcilability, might just be the point. We frequently hear versions of the claim, most prominently voiced by Laurence Olivier, that Hamlet is the tragedy of a young man who cannot make up his mind. I would prefer to describe it as a tragedy in which Shakespeare confronts his audiences with the realization that they have no fixed points of reference with which to help them make up theirs. It begins with Barnardo, on watch but deprived of the light with which to see. Hearing a noise and sensing that others are around, he calls out: “Who’s there?” (1.1.1). He never receives an answer. Throughout the play, Shakespeare compels us to grapple with his question for ourselves—unaided, and alone.

When thinking about Hamlet as an architectonic whole, it can thus be useful to recall that Hamlet belongs to a larger dramatic entity: though he dominates the play that shares his royal patronym, he only exists in relation to those on stage around him. Yes, Hamlet speaks more and more powerfully than any other character. Yes, his soliloquies allow us to witness him thinking out loud in a way that is unprecedented, and that continues to provide those playing him with a form of cadenza through which to exhibit their actorly skill. But as Frank Kermode rightly emphasizes, Hamlet’s dramatic presence is framed by his interactions with his fellow characters—interactions that are typified by deliberate pairing, or doubling. If we accept Shakespeare’s numerous direct and indirect invitations to compare him with Horatio, Laertes, Fortinbras, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophe­lia, or his father’s ghost, he appears just as problematically flawed as they do; further, it becomes clear that his flaws, weaknesses, and blind spots stand in continuous rather than contiguous relation to theirs. Hamlet is emphatic but unconvincing, given to philosophizing but philosophically incoherent, conscience-­stricken but capable of the utmost cruelty without a second thought, and self-­interested without being able to determine where that interest, or that self, might lie. Despite Hamlet’s professions to the contrary, these pairings do not consist of opposites, whether mighty or mismatched. Instead, their component parts exist in contrapuntal relation to one another, and draw attention to discomfiting similarity where none would seem to exist. Their effect is that of a moral and dramatic fugue. To be sure, Shakespeare has a certain amount of fun with the indistinguishability of courtiers like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as, e.g., at 2.2.33–34), and gestures back to works like The Comedy of Errors in so doing. But Elsinore is no Ephesus: there is a sense in which all those constrained to exist within the moral economy of Hamlet are interchangeable. All are bluffing their way through the dark.

What sets Hamlet apart from the remainder of the dramatis personae is the degree to which Shakespeare explores through him the insight that the insufficiency of received ethical and political wisdom does not just have public consequences. Transposed onto the person of Hamlet, it calls into question the fundamentals of who and what a human individual might be said to be. By revealing that even Hamlet, discontent as he is with the prevailing moral order, is bound by cultural circumstance to use his intelligence as his accomplice rather than his guide, Shakespeare discloses something of the plight faced by every inhabitant of his Danish playworld. In a sort of double synecdoche, the part speaks for the whole just as the whole represents the part; all are cut off from the resources through which they might understand themselves or make their existences meaningful. As I explore in my discussion of hunting language in chapter 2, this dynamic is one of the things that separates Hamlet from the revenge tragedy tradition of, for example, Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Here, the revenger is bound to find a way in which to act virtuously when the civic space has been corrupted by the actions of those at the top of the social and political hierarchy. Generally speaking, this proves to be impossible. In seeking the wild justice that his heart demands, the revenger is moved to disregard morality and legality, and must therefore die. Even so, as circumstance rather than an inherently defective moral orthodoxy is to blame for the predicaments in which these revenge protagonists find themselves, a version of order is reasserted at the end of the play—after, that is, the villains and their revengers have been removed from the scene. But in Hamlet, the actions of those at the top of the social and political hierarchy (including Claudius, Old Hamlet, and Hamlet himself) are a symptom of whatever it is that’s wrong, not its cause. There is no discernible framework of right and wrong; no epilogue affirming that all will be well if only princes conduct themselves virtuously. Humanist orthodoxy as dramatized in Hamlet is instead a set of doctrines that distorts reality and constrains all human beings to obscure their true natures—from themselves as much as from others. In being preoccupied with obtaining and asserting power of various kinds, this orthodoxy only pretends to be concerned with either virtue or veracity. Just as it forces us to play at being ourselves, it prevents us from assuming truly meaningful roles in the public, private, intellectual, or artistic spheres.

Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-­exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate. The owl of Minerva has been and gone.


This book has five substantive chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 lay the foundations on which chapters 3 to 5 build. Chapter 1 establishes the place of Hamlet in relation to the humanist moral philosophy of the long sixteenth century. This was principally developed around the writings of the Roman rhetorician, lawyer, politician, and moral theorist Cicero, for whom one of the governing metaphors of civic existence was derived from the stage. Chapter 2 explores Shakespeare’s repudiation of this Ciceronian-­humanist model through Hamlet’s pervasive (and hitherto all but ignored) discourse of hunting, fowling, falconry, and fishing. Within the world of the hunt, the notion of acting—
of performing a particular role—is just as important as it is within a stage production. But here the roles one plays are not measured by reason, virtue, propriety, verisimilitude, or even the pleasure they might give to an audience. Instead, one acts to mislead one’s predators or one’s prey and, just as frequently, to mislead oneself about the appetitive nature of one’s existence.

The remaining three chapters consider how Hamlet the character should be read as part of a work of drama shaped by the assumption of roles that claim the authority of nature, morality, tradition, or religious belief, but that turn out to be corrosively inadequate. In framing these chapters, I have used as something between a heuristic and a structural principle the three “partes” of the human “understanding” categorized by Francis Bacon in the second book of his Advancement of Learning. These consist of memory, imagination, and reason. In their turn, they correspond to the three chief products of human “learning”: history, poetry, and philosophy. Following Bacon’s lead, chapter 3 examines Hamlet’s memory and accomplishments as a historian; chapter 4 examines Hamlet’s imagination and his accomplishments as a poet; chapter 5 examines Hamlet’s reason and his accomplishments as a philosopher. Each chapter consists of a series of commentaries on the passages in which Hamlet evinces the persona in question, often reading Hamlet’s performances alongside those of others in the play. Of course, these commentaries can be read simply as commentaries. Taken together, however, they in each case cohere into an argument about Shakespeare’s dissatisfaction with various forms of late-­sixteenth-­century humanist convention.

Each of these three chapters is concerned more with what Hamlet says than with what he does. I defer to nobody in my attachment to Wittgenstein’s doctrine that words are in and of themselves deeds, but talking about revenge is not an act of the same sort as vindictively cutting off someone’s head. Hamlet’s foremost domain is that of linguistic action, and it is my contention that Shakespeare makes him speak as he does in order to suggest certain things about (i) the qualities of his mind and disposition and (ii) the nature of the parts he seeks to play. At risk of repeating myself, I should stress that my goal here is in no sense to indict Hamlet’s character or intelligence: although generations of critics have claimed otherwise, I do not take him to be any worthier of praise or blame than the remainder of those in Shakespeare’s Denmark. It is just that by giving us more access to Hamlet than to the play’s other characters, Shakespeare allows us to observe the intermingling of humanist doctrine not only with political life, but with the emotional, ethical, and intellectual imperatives of an individual existence. In other words, through the personae that Hamlet tries and fails to make his own, Shakespeare casts Hamlet’s discursive life as the emblem of a cultural order that has definitively fallen off. Conscious though Hamlet seems to be that something fundamental is out of joint, he must think and speak through that which he would disregard: the saws and observations of his Wittenberg education. Thus constrained, he finds it impossible even to acknowledge the nature of the problems with which he is confronted, let alone to diagnose them or to set them right.

Another of my central arguments is that Hamlet’s attachment to the parts of the historian, poet, and philosopher arises from his inability to inhabit the one role that should, he feels, be his after his interview with the Ghost—namely, that of the revenger. Precisely because Hamlet’s feelings are never as intensely vindictive as he pretends they are to the Ghost and to himself, his feints at self-­exploration—like his philosophizing as a whole—form part of an elaborately self-­deceiving ruse, a means of evading the situation in which he has become embroiled and the realities that underpin it. Rather than a loving son compelled by circumstance to kill against his better judgement, the providentially appointed executioner of a body politic that is irremediably debauched, or one of two mighty opposites whose mission to take down the other could not avoid incurring collateral damage, Hamlet emerges as confused, self-­indulgent, and frequently heedless. As one who fails to take responsibility for his actions or his station in life, who fails to confront his own emotional disposition—and who, by cleaving to the humanistic roles of the historian, poet, and philosopher, does not have to. His death closes a chapter in which he causes his family, along with Denmark’s political autonomy, to be obliterated. The rest, as Fortinbras’s bombast, drums (5.2.366), and peal of ordnance (5.2.409) immediately confirm, is by no means silence. Indubitably, something is and will remain rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet is a victim, a symptom, and an agent of this decay.

Chapter one

Hamlet, Humanism, 
and Performing the Self

Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict, though no doubt more so in some periods than in others.

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity

Hamlet has been on stage for sixty-­four lines before we hear him speak. After deflecting his uncle’s query as to “How it is that the clouds still hang on you?” (1.2.66) and his mother’s urging to “cast thy nighted colour off” (1.2.68), he disparages “the fruitful river in the eye”, along with “the dejected haviour of the visage, / Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief”. He continues with the boldly apodictic assertions that as the commonly received signs of mourning “are actions that a man might play”, they cannot “denote me truly”. In sum: “I have that within which passes show, / These [are] but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.80–86). On this account, Hamlet views the conventionally mediated self as an exercise in glibness or plausibility, something with no greater claim to authenticity than an actor feigning to be someone other than himself while on stage. He further insists not only that he has no interest in appearances, but that—unlike Claudius, Gertrude, and their courtiers—he sees things are they really are: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’ ” (1.2.76). As the energy he has invested in his black-­clad attitudinizing might already suggest, he is bluffing. Appearances, and the display of emotion, are exactly what preoccupy his thoughts. The point becomes incontestable once Claudius and Gertrude leave him alone on the stage. Now he concedes that he is at a loss to penetrate the surface of human affairs: “How weary, stable, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133–34; emphasis mine). In place of this sapping uncertainty, and like many adolescents before and since, Hamlet seeks to cope by fashioning his feelings of unease and of alienation into a highly visible sort of anti-­identity. By performing this alienation as prominently as possible—by condemning the rituals and mores of the court in word and gesture, and by seeking a return to Wittenberg—he implies that life in Elsinore under Claudius and Gertrude is superficial, compromised, and dishonest. More fundamentally, he declares his belief that being seen to shun this world is the only way in which he can vouchsafe his integrity. Here I stand, disaffected in black. I can do no other.

Hamlet returns to questions of performance and self-­display after his encounter with the newly arrived company of players. In so doing, he further calls into question the existence of the inner authenticity by which he had earlier set such store:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!

For Hecuba!

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her,

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,

And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,

Make mad the guilty and appal the free,

Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed

The very faculties of eyes and ears. (2.2.544–60)

Hamlet’s change of emphasis is striking. The actor is no longer dismissed as a medium for counterfeit or otherwise devalued sentiment; he is to be admired, even envied, in virtue of his ability to move his audience.

Perhaps so, but these lines are conflicted. Their conflict provides the occasion to discern something more integral about Hamlet’s attitudes to individuality and self-­performance. One important clue is provided by his use of “monstrous”. Monstrosity here denotes something unnatural or hybrid—something that has deviated from or gone beyond the natural order of things. Sometimes, such monstrosity is the work of forces obscure and possibly supernatural, as in so-­called monstrous births. On other occasions, it is the product of human innovation and ingenuity; early modern writers frequently described as monstrous artistic or artificial creations that transgressed the perceived modesty of nature. To take an example that might seem somewhat ludicrous, Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses condemns the Elizabethan fashion for “great and monstrous Ruffes”. Misconceived, overdone, or otherwise ill-­executed works of literary imagination fared little better. Puttenham has it that true poetic invention is “nothing disorderly or confused with any monstrous imaginations or conceits”, while Sidney inveighs against the stylistic vice of “Eloquence apparelled, or rather disguised, in a courtesan-­like painted affectation . . . with so far-­fet[ched] words that may seem monsters but must seem strangers to any poor Englishman”. As for actors, they were often depicted as the most flagrantly monstrous of all. In William Rankins’s hectoring judgement, although they “in outward shew séeme painted sepulchres”, if one stops to “digge up their deeds”, one “finde[s] nothing but a masse of rotten bones”. He continues that “Some terme them Comedians, othersome Players, manie Pleasers, but I Monsters, and whie Monsters? Bicause under colour of humanitie, they present nothing but prodigious vanitie”. Like the wrong sort of courtier, actors can appear to be virtuously humane, but are devoid of anything but self-­interest within.

For Rankins, part of the threat posed by actors is that their monstrosities are contagious—that is, able to provoke in their audiences responses that are intrinsically and irremediably fraudulent. By contrast, in humanist defences of stage plays, the power to move an audience through illusion was comprehended as an agent of moral improvement or instruction. Hamlet’s soliloquy offers an uneasy fusion of the two positions. He grants the monstrosity of actorly skill (recall his earlier apprehension that Gertrude had fabricated a grief for Old Hamlet that she did not feel [1.2.149, 154–55]), but also appreciates its capacity to “Make mad the guilty and appal the free”. Much more might be said of Hamlet’s attempt to fuse these competing traditions, but for now I would stress only two points. First, that Hamlet’s reflections on the players provide him with a medium through which he can negotiate his inability to serve as an agent of vengeance. Second, that Shakespeare uses these lines to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Hamlet has a propensity for misleading self-­dramatization.

The second point is of much greater moment and arises from the suggestion that Hamlet might have to play the part of the avenger at all. Despite acknowledging the “motive” and “cue” for vengeful action, he has failed to experience the condign intensity with which “the son of a dear father murder’d, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell” (2.2.579–80) might expect to be seized. As things stand, his soul and his conceit are not as one. Hamlet therefore considers the notion of forcing them together through art, and of feigning the part assigned to him by the Ghost. Like any other successful dramatic performance, this would be monstrous—it would involve Hamlet transgressing his natural condition by pretending to be something that he is not. It might nonetheless assuage his unease and, if executed correctly, could help to bring Claudius to justice or punishment. But as Hamlet’s soul and conceit would only seem to cohere in such an enterprise, he considers it beneath his dignity. Immediately, he scorns the performative mode: he will not “like a whore unpack [his] heart with words” (2.2.581), or otherwise pretend to feelings that are not his own. Though he is able to pass himself off as insane in order to elude the surveillance of the court, he cannot bring himself to adulterate the role of the vengeful son. Only to play the part of the revenger would be to admit that adulterate vengeance is all he is capable of—that something about his natural disposition constrains him to pretence in answering the call of filial duty. Be this as it may, Hamlet’s imagination has been so gripped by the power of dramatic performance that he is not now able to let the idea go. How does he respond to it? Not by forcing himself into the outward shape of the revenger, but by returning to a plan that he put into motion before the apparent self-­scrutiny of his third soliloquy: to have the Murder of Gonzago played with the addition of “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines” (2.2.535). Hamlet chooses to delegate responsibility for initiating his vengeance to the dramatic professionals, who will be paid to perform “something like the murder of my father / Before mine uncle” (2.2.591–92), and who will thereby procure public confirmation of his guilt.

It might be wondered why Hamlet is worrying about proof or evidence when he has already asserted his clear belief in the potency of his “motive” and “cue”, and has framed his self-­disgust in terms of his inability to respond to them as he feels he must. Hamlet is alert to the problem, and changes the question in order to avoid it. The issue he seeks to address is no longer his unresponsiveness, but whether the “motive” and “cue” offered to him by the Ghost are a legitimate warrant for revenge. Hamlet now reflects that the Ghost may have been “a devil”, one that has played on his “melancholy” in order to “damn” him; accordingly, he must “have grounds more relative” if he is to contemplate retributive action against Claudius (2.2.595–99). As Horatio’s concerns about the nature of the Ghost have already illustrated, this is an intellectually and religiously respectable position. In this instance, however, Hamlet is guilty either of misunderstanding it or of advancing it in bad faith. Immediately, he leaves little doubt that his belief in the validity of the Ghost’s testimony is undimmed: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.600–601). Had Hamlet proposed to explore, scrutinize, examine, dissect, or even to expose the regal conscience, it might be possible to take his newly introduced evidential doubts at face value. But in proposing to “catch” it like vermin or a common criminal, he makes plain his conviction—rather than his conjecture, or even his presumption—that Claudius’s conscience is stained. Viewed from this perspective, Hamlet uses the players’ monstrous versatility not to test the Ghost’s truthfulness, but to put greater distance between himself and his unsettled identity as a revenger. Unable or unwilling to perform the part scripted for him by the Ghost, he plans to exploit the players’ art to cast himself as a forensic inquisitor—a part that, once again, he is unable fully to make his own. With astonishing precision, Shakespeare has Hamlet delude himself that he is laying the groundwork for his vengeance while simultaneously, and in reality, moving himself further and further away from the possibility of any such deed.

For all its passionately kinetic flair, Hamlet’s third soliloquy is as restless as it is evasive, and as evasive as it is incoherent. In its evasiveness, it is also profoundly disingenuous—it pretends to search for the truth of things, but in fact makes no effort to do anything of the sort. As such, I take it not only to typify Hamlet’s manner of thinking and of speaking, but to suggest that his discursive performances are the direct result of his inability to comprehend either his “that within” or the ways in which he might attempt to externalize it. Despite his struggles, he finds it impossible to know either himself or how to exist within the natural, political, and familial orders to which he belongs. In their turn, these struggles are embedded in the unresolved tension of his attitudes to the mutually obscuring claims of acting, authenticity, and the power to make things happen in the world.

There has been no shortage of scholarship on Hamlet as a work of meta-­dramatic and meta-­poetic reflection; chapter 4 below is itself a contribution in this kind. Nevertheless, I know of no study that takes account of Hamlet in connection with the single most pervasive medium through which the relationship between selfhood and performance was discussed in the sixteenth century: the moral philosophy championed by generations of humanist writers and teachers. This philosophy was shaped through and around Cicero’s treatise De officiis (“Of duties”) and provided the theoretical frame of public life for the duration of the long sixteenth century. The Ciceronian tradition is important not only on its own terms, but because it offers the wherewithal to generate readings of life in Shakespeare’s Denmark that are as novel as they are revealing, and that bind together the personal, the political, and the religious into a richly interpenetrative whole.

For the remainder of this chapter, my task is thus threefold. First, I outline the doctrines of moral philosophy as the humanists understood them. Second, I demonstrate Shakespeare’s familiarity with these doctrines. Third, I suggest a viewpoint that the rest of this book will, I hope, confirm beyond any reasonable doubt: namely, that Hamlet offers a portrait of refractory moral dislocation that, as it was intended to, leaves these doctrines in ruins.

Humanism, Self-­Knowledge, and Public Living

In the medieval and early modern periods, “moral philosophy” (or sometimes “practical philosophy”) was the branch of learning concerned with the good governance of human life. It was divided into three interlocking parts: ethics (concerned with the governance of the individual), oeconomics (concerned with the governance of the family or household), and politics (concerned with the governance of the state or of civic society). All human beings could aspire to some competence in the first two parts of this schema—even women and children, whose inexperience and overly emotional dispositions, it was believed, left them incapable of reaching fully considered judgements. By contrast, humanist pedagogues elaborated on the advice given at the beginning of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and set aside politics as the province of mature and well-­educated males. As politics was the province of such males, and as political instruction was the crowning portion of an education in moral philosophy, so mastery of moral philosophy belonged only to the masculine few. With bold anachronism, Shakespeare reflects this tradition in having his Hector judge that Paris and Troilus, who have been urging that the Trojans take the fight to the Greeks in the name of chivalric honour, are “not much / Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philos­ophy”. In the early modern universities, it followed that the teaching of moral philosophy generally proceeded from ethics to oeconomics, and arrived at politics only after the ethical and oeconomic groundwork had been laid. It is interesting to speculate how far through his Wittenberg education Hamlet might have been, but in the figures of Claudius, Polonius, and most members of the court (including Horatio), Hamlet offers no shortage of those who can be taken to be conversant with moral philosophy in the round.

Although not granted the same prestige as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or Politics within sixteenth-­ and seventeenth-­century university curricula, Cicero’s De officiis provided the core of humanist moral philosophy, and was a text to which sixteenth-­century English schoolboys were introduced at an early stage of their educations. It was the second book to be printed after the invention of the movable-­type press (the first was the Gutenberg Bible), and its doctrines are prominently digested in the lines spoken against Hythloday in book 1 of Thomas More’s Utopia. It was also accorded a practical value to match its doctrinal and educational status: on Henry Peacham’s account, confirming a humanist commonplace with its origins in Pliny, Elizabeth I’s long-­serving chief advisor William Cecil (first Lord Burghley) would, “to his dying day . . . alwayes carry it about him, either in his bosome or pocket, beeing sufficient . . . to make both a Scholler and an honest man”. At least as importantly, and as the compendious scholarship of T.W. Baldwin long ago put beyond question, Shakespeare knew the De officiis well.

In the popular summary of another Baldwin, the mid-­sixteenth-­century printer and author William, Ciceronian moral philosophy entailed

the knowledge of preceptes of all honest maners, whiche reason acknowledgeth to belonge and appertayne to mans nature (as the thyng in which we differe from other beastes) and also is necessarye for the comly governance of mannes lyfe.

It taught one how to regulate self and civic existence in a manner that was “comly” (that is, agreeable and respectable) in virtue of conforming to the natural condition of human life.

Even so, Cicero and his humanist imitators comprehended human nature in a very particular way—one that, as we shall see, Shakespeare came to find wholly unsatisfactory. As the possession of reason and language meant that sociability was a natural part of the human condition, social virtues such as honour (honestas) and propriety or seemliness (decorum) were employed to frame the proper scope of human nature; one had to learn how to become fully human. Accordingly, Cicero places great weight on the Delphic maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seauton), usually rendered in Latin as nosce teipsum, and in English as the instruction to “know yourself”. In the Platonic and Stoic traditions, the pursuit of self-­knowledge could involve withdrawal from the active life to an uncontaminated space from which to contemplate the truth. In the De officiis, things are different, and its prescriptions are as far from Plato as they are from Descartes’s thinking “I” or the inwardness and self-­discovery of the Romantics and post-­Romantics. Here, to know oneself is to understand how one’s individual abilities and disposition (the hard-­to-­translate Latin ingenium) allow one best to play a role within the clearly defined arena of public life. To have self-­knowledge is to know what one is capable of, and to know how to cultivate one’s capabilities for the greatest measure of public good. Being alert to the demands of decorum enables one to choose the appropriate career, to speak and deport oneself correctly, and at all times to act with honour. Furthermore, by behaving decorously one comes to know oneself better, thereby creating a virtuous circle of seemliness and honestas. But for Cicero, the best way in which to develop such self-­knowledge was to recognise the likeness of oneself as reflected in others: directly, from interpersonal observation; indirectly, by studying examples from the historical record. Virtues were to be explored and imitated, while vices were no less instructive in revealing the kinds of behaviour that were to be avoided. Elsewhere, Cicero adapts an Aristotelian idea in maintaining that one’s friends enable one to discern the image of oneself in a sort of morally exemplary mirror.

In the hands of humanist teachers and writers, these Ciceronian ideals were readily assimilated to Christian piety, as they were to versions of Platonic and Stoic self-­knowledge; truth could not threaten truth, even if one could 
not always be certain how the differences between its various manifestations were ultimately to be resolved. In due course, the nosce teipsum topos would ­become proverbial. As Erasmus opines in his Adagia, the injunction to know oneself commends

moderation and the middle state, and bids us not to pursue objects either too great for us or beneath us. For here we have a source of all life’s troubles: every man flatters himself, and blinded by self-­love takes to himself without deserving it all the merit that he wrongly denies to others. Cicero in the third book of letters to his brother Quintus: “As for that famous Know thyself, you must not think it was uttered merely to reduce our self-­conceit; we should also recognize our own blessings”.

Even Calvin was able to paraphrase the Ciceronian position with a measure of equanimity. Likewise, although Cicero wrote for a republican rather than monarchical audience—indeed, actively to preserve the Roman republic—his guidelines were enthusiastically incorporated within the humanists’ favoured advice-­to-­princes genre, where the would-­be sovereign was counselled to know himself as a man before he could hope to act as a virtuous ruler. Not to do so would leave him susceptible to self-­regard and the flattery of courtiers, and unable to understand the concerns of his subjects. For Laurence Humphrey, it was essential that before entering into public life, a prince should “learne to knowe him selfe, which is hardest: solitary to reverence him selfe, which is seemeliest, to rule him selfe whyche is mightiest . . . to conquer him selfe, which is most victorious”. Other than conducing to virtuous government, another reason that princes should take care to know themselves is alluded to by Shakespeare’s Lucrece. In the course of her doomed attempts to make Tarquin cease and desist, she reminds him of the doctrine (originally voiced by Scipio in Cicero’s De re publica) that princes are “the glass, the school, the book” through which their subjects are able to learn about themselves, and to behave accordingly.

Some idea of the pervasiveness attained by this Ciceronian-­humanist model of self-­knowledge is given by the generation of guidebooks offering to reflect, and thereby to offer knowledge of, the human condition that became popular in the later sixteenth century. Their starting point was that although self-­knowledge was indispensable, the ways in which one has been disposed by nature to think and feel are not always easy to understand. As so often, the Huguenot encyclopaedist Pierre de La Primaudaye is representative:

For it is a harder matter to knowe the nature and qualities of our soule and of our minde, the vertues and affections therefore, to enquire and consider of it well, and to knowe what may be knowen therefore, as also the diverse and holow lurking holes, the turnings and windings therein, then to know the bones, flesh, sinews, and blood of our bodies, with 
all the matter whereof it is made, and all the partes and members thereof.

By granting their readers better knowledge of themselves and those around them, these guidebooks promised the opportunity more profitably to make one’s way in this world, along with the wherewithal to prepare oneself for the next. They also cautioned that not to know oneself and one’s appropriate place in the order of things was culpably negligent and would lead to failure, ignominy, and vice. La Primaudaye again: “Ignorance of a mans selfe . . . and the want of knowledge wherefore and to what end he is borne, is the cause of error, of evill, of leaving the right way to follow the crooked, of wandring out of the plaine way to walke in the ragged and uneven way, or upon a dangerous and slipperie mountaine: and lastly, of forsaking the light to walke in darknes”. For the culture to which La Primaudaye belonged, the light of self-­knowledge comprised wavelengths that were at once personal, existential, civic, and religious.

It is this conception of self-­knowledge that underpins La Primaudaye’s assertion that to know oneself is to know one’s “person & nature”: one’s “person” was a decorous and seemly public self well fitted to the “nature”, or ingenium, with which one had been created. Moreover, “person” is a tellingly Ciceronian choice of language. In illustrating what he was getting at in respect of self-­knowledge and the public good, Cicero deployed a metaphor that was familiar to his audiences, but that would not have pleased Plato or Aristotle: stage drama. In Nicholas Grimald’s sixteenth-­century translation of the De officiis:

Let everie man therfore know his owne disposition: and let him make himself a sharpe judge bothe of his vices, and of his vertues: leste players maye seeme to have more discretion than we. For they doo choose not the best enterludes, but the fittest for themselves. For who upon their voices be bolde, they take Epigones, and Medea; who upon gesture do take Menalippa, & Clytemnestra. . . . Shal a player then see this in the stage, that a wiseman shall not see in his life? We shall chieflie therefore labour in those thinges, wherunto we shall be moste apte.

This point of comparison is thoroughly in keeping with the broader thrust of the De officiis, in which the social part or role adopted by an individual is his persona. Personae were the masks worn by Greek and Roman actors to make their on-­stage characters known. By extension, they came to do duty both for on-­stage characters as a whole, and for the actors who played them. Despite the externality of one’s personae, the fact that they depended on the natural force of one’s ingenium and enabled one to perform a script governed by honestas and decorum meant that, for Cicero, they constitute one’s true identity. One came to find oneself through concentrated acts of what, with only a little licence, can be thought of as prosopopoeia, or rhetorical personification. As these mask-­making metaphors imply, such identities were far from singular. Decorum demands that one behave differently in different situations, making it necessary to adopt personae that change according to the contexts in which one has to operate. For instance, if one is a magistrate, one must set aside one’s amiable persona if a friend appears on trial in one’s court.

Writing half a century after Hamlet, Thomas Hobbes had some mischievously literal-­minded fun with Cicero’s civic ardency. In the culminating sixteenth chapter of Leviathan’s first book, he maintains that

[t]he Word Person is latine: insteed whereof the Greeks have πρόσωπον [prosopon], which signifies the Face, as Persona in latine signifies the disguise, or outward appearance of a man, counterfeited on the Stage; and somtimes more particularly that part of it, which disguiseth the face, as a Mask or Visard: And from the Stage, hath been translated to any Representer of speech and action, as well in Tribunalls, as Theaters. So that a Person, is the same that an Actor is, both on the Stage and in common Conversation; and to Personate, is to Act, or Represent himselfe, or an other; and he that acteth another, is said to beare his Person, or act in his name[.]

Hobbes’s point is made in support of his contention that there is no natural form of political representation, whatever contrary claims might be advanced within Ciceronian, Christian, or Aristotelian theories of government. Rather, as it is acknowledged that individual persons only signify when doing things and that individual activity is defined by pre-­scripted civic roles, so it should be acknowledged that personal and political identity are conferred by the script. For Cicero, this script is the natural gift of the honestas and decorum that bind civic society together, whereas for Hobbes it is written by an authority figure, ultimately the sovereign. In his turn, the sovereign represents or “personates” each individual within civic society. (This is the idea that animates the visual conceit of Leviathan’s famous title page.) To impute naturalness to political or personal identity was to confuse the issue. It was also to mistake what enabled humankind to elevate itself above the rest of the animal kingdom; uniquely, the political institutions of human life were constructed through a “covenant” reliant on language and willpower, not on instinct.

In Hobbes’s estimation, Cicero’s dramatic metaphor is thus a clue that moral philosophy is contingent. Cicero may have thought that he was encapsulating the natural order of things in a readily comprehensible form, but he inadvertently confirmed that attentiveness to “outward appearance[s]” was the only means through which to regulate ethical, oeconomic, or political conduct. Accordingly, when Hobbes examines the injunction to self-­knowledge, he emphasises that one should pursue it in order better to understand the behaviour of others and the operations of civic society. If we attempt to judge other people by their actions alone, we will be led astray—but “whosoever considereth what he doth, when he does think, opine, reason, hope, feare, &c, and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts, and Passions of all other men, upon the like occasions”. Nothing here of the humanist emphasis on identifying the qualities of one’s ingenium as the prelude to assuming a station in life defined by honestas and decorum. Self-­knowledge is instead a vital skill for getting on. Furthermore, in one who plans to be a prince or sovereign, the stakes are proportionately higher: “he that is to govern a whole Nation, must read in himself, not this, or that particular man; but Man-­kind”. Although this “be hard to do, harder than to learn any Language, or Science”, the prospective ruler had no need to despair. Hobbes had written Leviathan with exactly these difficulties in mind.

It goes without saying that Shakespeare and Hobbes differed radically as men and as writers. While I like to think that the author of Troilus and Cressida would have seen the merit in Hobbes’s translation of Homer, it might even seem absurd to place the two alongside one another. I do so to draw further attention to one of this book’s principal claims: that Hamlet is a play every bit as concerned as Hobbes’s Leviathan with the discursive legacy of Cicero’s De officiis as accumulated in humanist moral philosophy, and that this concern motivates the play’s troubled portrait of human identity. Unlike Hobbes, Shakespeare had no ethical, political or philosophical system of his own to advance, but Hamlet indicates that he came to find humanist moral philosophy deficient in the face of human experience as he observed it. That he came to extend, if not to endorse, a version of the opportunistic nominalism espoused by Falstaff—“What is honour? A word”. Mercifully, the biographical question of quite why Shakespeare should have developed such a view before writing Hamlet in or just after 1599 is beyond the scope of this book. Its goal is simpler, if far from clear-­cut: to establish that Hamlet dramatizes the failings of received wisdom in making sense of, and in governing, human existence on the individual and collective levels. While humanist educators stuck to their pious ideology in championing the light of self-­knowledge, for the Shakespeare of Hamlet, humankind is bound in ignorance of itself.

Moral Dislocation and the Unsettled Self

In As You Like It, Jaques’s lines on the seven ages of man—“all the world’s a stage” and so forth—have an obvious share in the theatrum mundi topos inherited by the early moderns from their classical and medieval forebears: human life comprises a comedy or a tragedy (opinions differed) managed for the diversion of God and his angels. Proud delusions of anthropocentricity were to be checked accordingly. Furthermore, it is possible that Jaques offers a playful advertisement for the Globe Theatre, which opened its doors in autumn 1599, either just before or just after the earliest performances of As You Like It—and if several later accounts are to be credited, took as its motto the Latin commonplace totus mundus agit histrionem (“the whole world plays the actor”). Most crucially for the argument of this chapter, Jaques’s emphasis on realising one’s self by playing a variety of parts strongly suggests that Cicero’s nostrums were as basic to Shakespeare as they were to his peers. Julius Caesar, along with Troilus and Cressida the play that is in all respects closest to Hamlet, even shows Shakespeare the professional man-­of-­the-­theatre cracking some wry jokes about them. In the first instance, Cassius manipulates Brutus by making him see his “face” through the eyes of others (“for the eye sees not itself / But by reflection”)—purportedly understanding himself better, but in reality falling into line with Cassius’s plotting. Then, as Brutus bids his fellow republicans steel themselves for the conspiratorial task ahead, he invokes the theory of the personae directly: “Let not our looks put on our purposes, / But bear it as our Roman actors do, / With untired spirits and formal constancy”. While in character, an actor is indeed a model of constant decorum. What Brutus forgets is that after the performance is over, an actor sheds his mask before going on to play other roles. In due course, the conspirators will fail precisely because they do not match the dexterity or art with which Antony is able to employ differing rhetorical personae.

When manoeuvring Achilles into the field against the Trojans, Ulysses has recourse to the same ideas:

no man is the lord of anything,

Though in and of him there be much consisting,

Till he communicate his parts to others;

Nor doth he of himself know them for aught

Till he behold them formed in th’applause

Where they’re extended[.]

Achilles, his vanity piqued, is powerless. He resolves to take up arms anew. The plot of Measure for Measure is likewise set in motion by unease with the performance of publicly sanctioned roles. Specifically, by the Duke’s distaste for the exercise of power:

I love the people,

But do not like to stage me to their eyes:

Though it do well, I do not relish well

Their loud applause and Aves vehement;

Nor do I think the man of safe discretion

That does affect it.

We might sympathise, but his attitude—and fastidious preference for the anonymity of the cassock—is anything but harmless: it leaves the stage clear for the corrosive hypocrisy of Angelo’s rule. The political significance of one’s personae, and of the dramatic language used to make sense of them, is again underscored when Shakespeare has Coriolanus explain to Virgilia his exile from Rome: “Like a dull actor now, / I have forgot my part and I am out, / Even to a full disgrace”. His lines are inadvertently prophetic. As he finds his new role irreconcilable with his Roman past, he casts it off—with fatal consequences.

Although Hamlet never so directly indexes the civic personae, the play is little short of obsessed with the outline and implications of the Ciceronian model. For instance, when Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he speaks of

Hamlet’s transformation—so I call it,

Sith nor th’exterior nor the inward man

Resembles that it was. What it should be,

More than his father’s death, that thus hath put him

So much from th’understanding of himself

I cannot dream of. (2.1.5–10)

Claudius is always attuned to the expectations and assumptions of his onstage audience, and is expert at framing his thoughts within received and reassuringly familiar terms of reference. Here, he presents self-­knowledge as the capacity for adopting a conventionally sanctioned public role: Hamlet is behaving oddly, therefore he must in some measure be estranged from an understanding of his true nature. (It’s an idea to which Claudius will return when characterising Ophe­lia’s madness at 4.5.84–86.) On these terms, although the exterior Hamlet may no longer have much in common with even the disenchanted prince of Act 1, the “inward man” has only ever been accessible through its resemblance or similitude in Hamlet’s persona. This conception of true selfhood as something performed in accordance with social and political mores informs Claudius later remarks on the “something settled matter in his heart, / Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus / From fashion of himself” (3.1.175–77). It is only by displaying the culturally appropriate “fashion of himself” that Hamlet, like anyone else in the Ciceronian moral economy, can affirm that he knows who and what he is. We smile warily when Stoppard has one of his Players insist that “We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!”, but most sixteenth-­century Europeans would not have grasped the joke.

To take three further examples, that which causes Claudius such consternation—Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1.5.180)—is a disguise that calls into question what it means to play a public part just as much as Hamlet’s repudiation of those “actions that a man might play”, or his agitation at being unable to perform his grief as effectively as the visiting actors, might make one hesitate as to whether acting is an apt governing metaphor for human conduct. Likewise, Hamlet’s imputation of dishonesty to Polonius (“I would you were so honest a man” [2.2.176]) suggests that whatever else regulates the personal and political conduct of Denmark’s leading counsellor, it is not honestas as conventionally understood. This takes us to the heart of an essential difficulty in interpreting the De officiis. For Cicero and his humanist readers, honestas and its related adjective honestus connoted “honour”, the prestige or regard conferred and confirmed by decorum. But by the end of the sixteenth century in England, honestas also carries the charge of “honesty”, or the quality of integrity, truth-­telling, and plain dealing—something that had no need of social recognition, and that often required one to set out one’s stall out against the majority view of a subject, however unseemly it might be to do so. For Cicero there could be no awkwardness here, as these differing aspects of honestas were two sides of the same coin and could not exist independently of the other; for ethics to attain any virtue at all, they had to be public, and publicly acknowledged. But in a Christian world, things were different. Here, the maintenance of inward virtue could be conceived of as its own reward, vouchsafed by the watchful eye of God.

Finally, Hamlet depicts the seemliness of humanistic moral philosophy as a corrupting force: it has decayed into “seeming”, and is a marker of suspicion, hypocrisy, dissembling, and deceit. From “These indeed seem, / For they are actions that a man might play” (1.2.83–84) and “my most seeming-­virtuous queen” (1.5.46), to Hamlet enjoining Horatio’s judgement in “censure of [Claudius’s] seeming” (3.2.87) and Claudius’s caution that this “sudden sending [Hamlet] away must seem / Deliberate pause” (4.3.8–9)—throughout, decorum is only skin deep. Accordingly, and just as Machiavelli recommends in his Il Principe, the appearance of virtue is exploited to manipulative ends by ambitious and powerful men like Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet. But in Hamlet, such exploitations are also the province of the weak, the clueless, and the vacillating. Once the persona has been admitted as the currency of moral virtue, then public recognition or acceptance determines how that virtue is to be valued. Shakespeare takes no interest in the moralist’s standard complaint that the desirability of the ends cannot justify the duplicity of the means: he knows too much of the human capacity for ex post facto rationalization to entertain such easy ways out. Instead, Hamlet explores with unflinching sensitivity the ways in which an individual’s chosen mode of behaviour works to affect, and to deface, the quality of his or her being.

Katharine Eisaman Maus has written well about the cultural phenomenon of hostility to externality and superficial display that developed in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and links it to the work of those (such as Gosson, Stubbes, Rankins, and Rainolds) opposed to stage drama and anything else that detracted from the serious-­minded introspection demanded of the godly. If not encumbered with this set of theological baggage, Hamlet certainly has a share in this hostility. It follows that although Maus nowhere subjects Hamlet to sustained analysis, she frames her study as an attempt to trace “Hamlet’s contrast between an authentic personal interior and [the] derivative or secondary superficies [of the exterior]” across the gamut of early modern drama and culture. Such an approach has much to recommend it, not least in pushing back against the ideologically interpellated subject that became an article of faith for an earlier critical generation. Just as blood circulated around the human body long before William Harvey drew attention to the fact in 1628, so various forms of interiority or selfhood may have existed before being theorized in the long eighteenth century. Certainly, the “experimental predestinarianism” associated with moderate Calvinists like William Perkins in the 1590s (the individual searched within for evidence of grace) can be seen to have demanded something like an interior self. Likewise, the later sixteenth century saw many critiques of Ciceronian-­humanist personhood, usually derived from Christianized versions of neo-­Stoicism: if public and political culture are corrupt, one must look to inner constancy in order to measure the integrity of one’s self. But from the perspective of one setting out to study Hamlet, the categories of inwardness and interiority are beset with an insuperable difficulty—albeit one that gives us occasion further to refine our understanding of individuality within the play. Despite Hamlet’s efforts to pretend otherwise, Hamlet offers no realm of inner integrity or authenticity against which to measure the trifles, contingency, or mendaciousness of the persona. Throughout, self-­observation and self-­examination are as untrustworthy and as dangerous as the public interactions that Hamlet so insistently disregards.

Such readings are not common currency within Hamlet criticism, and are unlikely to win universal assent; they will be more fully elaborated below. For now, I hope to have made it clear that the vexed critical question of Hamlet, Hamlet, and “character” can make for a rewarding topic of study. And, furthermore, that discussing it need not involve the retrojection of Romantic, Freudian, or any other kinds of individuality onto a period in which they would scarcely have been comprehensible. Instead, Hamlet’s struggles with himself can be viewed as a recognisably humanist attempt to get to know his ingenium—his disposition, talents, inclinations, habits of thought—in order to assume one or more of the public personae available to him.

Well, yes. Hamlet would nevertheless be among the dullest of plays if that were all. It is interesting because Hamlet is no better at knowing himself than the playworld of Shakespeare’s Denmark is at providing him with satisfactory parts to inhabit. Indeed, with the possible exceptions of Claudius and the Gravedigger, Polonius’s sententious urging that one should “to thine own self be true” (1.3.78) serves as an ironic commentary on all the residents of Elsinore. When scolding Ophe­lia for being taken in by Hamlet’s tenders of affection, Polonius discloses his textbook sense of how self-­knowledge should be attained: “You do not understand yourself so clearly / As it behoves my daughter and your honour” (1.3.96–97). Which is to say that in his view, one discovers one’s true self by accommodating oneself to and within socially sanctioned personae. In proposing that if one is true to oneself, one “canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.80), Polonius does not thus enjoin constantia, or even plain constancy of opinion. Rather, he adverts to the reassuring circularity, not to say complacency, of Ciceronian moral theory. If one’s true self is framed by the exercise of honestas and decorum, then its manifestations will be honourable and seemly. It is, Polonius believes, precisely the lack of this self-­knowledge that has led Ophe­lia to abandon the persona of the virtuous daughter, and to flirt with that of the lover in its place. Cicero and long experience make Polonius confident that he understands. As it happens, Shakespeare reveals that his certainties are far more than comically misplaced. Before the play is over, they undo him and his family alike.

In Act 5, Hamlet’s exchange with Osric underscores a cognate point:

Osric: You are not ignorant of what excellence Laertes is–

Hamlet: I dare not confess that, lest I should compare with

him in excellence; but to know a man well were to know himself. (5.2.135–38)

Hamlet is in the midst of belittling a creature who is unctuous, dim, and excessively eager to please; who is at court on account of his landed birth rather than his talents, and from whom Hamlet takes pleasure in distinguishing himself (thereby assuaging any anxieties he might have that, after returning unexpectedly from England, his own place in Denmark is anything but merited). In so doing, he toys with Ciceronianism and the semi-­courtly idea that to acknowledge Laertes’s excellence would be immodestly to impute to himself something of the same virtue: just as the study of other people—not least, one’s friends—allows one to know oneself, so knowing oneself allows one to understand other people. Just before Osric’s arrival on stage, Hamlet alludes to this humanist tradition in framing his intention to “court” Laertes: “by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (5.2.77–78). Now, his use of the commonplace quickly becomes starker. The real reason he cannot “compare with” Laertes’s purported excellence is that he, Hamlet, does not know who or what he himself might be said to be. If one only comes to know oneself by observing others and only comes to know others by appreciating oneself, how to begin? It is one of the play’s dark jokes that Hamlet only hits upon this crux incidentally, and that he disregards it in favour of indulging his desire to make a witless subordinate appear more ridiculous than he already does.

Against the grain of Ciceronian (and Stoic, and Socratic) wisdom, Ovid’s Tiresias warns that Narcissus will only reach the ripeness of maturity if he can contrive not to discover his true nature. Self-­knowledge leads to death. It can be tempting to see something of the sort dramatized in Hamlet, most particularly in Hamlet himself. But the problem for Hamlet and for those on stage alongside him is anything but an excess of self-­awareness. They think that they are following nature by taking on one role or another, but they are in reality playing parts in the drama of their mutual destruction. Claudius and Polonius are sometimes figured as presiding over a sort of surveillance state that corrupts those around them: Polonius dispatching Reynaldo to monitor Laertes; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern monitoring Hamlet at the court’s behest; Polonius and Claudius monitoring Hamlet and Ophe­lia; and so on. Perhaps, but this surveillance is a symptom, not a cause. It belongs to a cascade of inset plays, of which the Mousetrap is only the most obvious. Hamlet, for instance, observes those observing his antic disposition with the same attentiveness that he does those observing his adaptation of the Murder of Gonzago. In an earlier revenge drama like Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the spirits of Don Andrea and Revenge watch the play unfold from beginning to end; but in Hamlet, not even the Ghost (scuttling around in the cellarage before vanishing after the third act) can provide a stable framework for the action. In a world with no clear author and no clear audience, the personae endorsed by Ciceronian moral philosophy both represent and guarantee one’s self-­alienation. They confirm that one can only act, only fabricate, only pretend to be oneself.

Two comparisons may be helpful in locating this reading of the play more distinctly. First, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia—a work that Shakespeare certainly knew, and that may well have left traces in Hamlet. As the newly love-­struck Pyrocles evasively tries to explain away his distractedness to his friend ­Musidorus (and his reluctance to heed Musidorus’s solidly humanistic advice “to give yourself vehemently to the knowledge of those things which might better your mind, to seek the familiarity of excellent men in learning and soldiery, and lastly, to put all these things in practice by both continual wise proceeding and worthy enterprises”), he proposes that

the mind itself must like other things sometimes be unbent, or else it will be either weakened or broken; and these knowledges, as they are of good use, so are they not all the mind may stretch itself unto. Who knows whether I feed not my mind with higher thoughts? Truly, as I know not all the particularities, so yet I see the bounds of all these knowledges; but the workings of the mind I find much more infinite than can be led unto by the eye, or imagined by any that distract their thoughts without themselves. And in such contemplation, or (as I think) more excellent, I enjoy my solitarines, and my solitariness perchance is the nurse of these contemplations.

Musidorus looks on tolerantly enough, perceiving in Pyrocles a “store of thoughts rather stirred than digested”, and concludes that the thread of his friend’s speech was “not knit together to one constant end but rather dissolved in itself as the vehemency of the inward passion [for solitariness and self-­contemplation] prevailed”. Nevertheless, Musidorus will shortly unearth the (to him) unworthy truth that his friend is hopelessly in love, precisely the condition that Polonius more generously—if misguidedly—diagnoses in the distracted Prince of Hamlet’s first two acts. Hamlet is no better than Pyrocles at detached self-­assessment, and shares his willingness to flee from the particularities of his situation to the comfort of the putatively universal. But Arcadia is a romance, a genre in which the attempt to resolve the challenges of one’s inner life in pursuit of identity or self-­knowledge had long been a staple. Sidney plays with such generic norms in bringing the difficulties and self-­deceptions of Pyrocles and his cohort (along with an apparent regicide, a succession crisis, civil disorder, and an atmosphere of destructive sexual-­personal mistrust) to a kind of resolution—for all that is abrupt in the old Arcadia and unfinished in the new. By contrast, Shakespeare offers us nothing with which to mitigate Hamlet’s existential struggles and evasions, or their tragic corollaries: they are of a piece with the moral dissonance that engulfs Elsinore as a whole.

A second and equally instructive point of comparison is provided by a writer with whom Shakespeare is often said to have much in common—the French essayist Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne. For Montaigne, the self-­knowledge of Ciceronian humanism was fanciful. Human nature was too unstable and too varied to be categorised according to the personae of civic doctrine. Montaigne pursued what he took to be a more genuine form of self-­examination: “I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”. Truly to understand oneself was difficult, and was to understand the particularity and mutability of one’s affections, disposition, and talents—a state of being far removed from the disciplined publicity of humanist self-­knowledge. There is a rhetoric of self-­verifying interiority here, but Montaigne also insists that to arrive at such understanding depends on a form of self-­expression. For instance, in a well-­known passage of his essay “On Giving the Lie”, he claims that “By portraying myself for others, I have portrayed my own self within me in clearer colours than I possessed at first. I have not made my book any more than it has made me—a book of one substance with its author, proper to me and a limb of my life”. Essays are thus a medium through which Montaigne suggests we can better attain self-­knowledge, and within which we can catch sight of and comprehend our settled self—that elusive but ennobling entity within which our bewildering characteristics ultimately cohere. Digressive, experimental, and able to sustain a version of what Keats would call “negative capability” (that is, with the capacity simultaneously to represent the various and often contradictory facets of human nature), Montaigne’s essays also constitute a massive digest of ancient and early modern commonplace culture. But in assembling his text from the words of others, Montaigne is a self-­conscious bricoleur, not a collector of morally improving exemplars in the approved humanist fashion. With characteristically bold understatement, he maintains that “I only quote others the better to quote myself”. Reading and making what one has read one’s own are, for Montaigne, central to the processes of knowing oneself authentically.

If not entirely obvious, it is not hard to identify a congruity between Montaigne’s essay writing and Hamlet’s digressive and philosophically vaulting manner of talking to himself. As John Lee has suggested, “Hamlet’s repetitions, his soliloquies, are essays which share in Montaigne’s techniques”. Although it is uncertain and perhaps unknowable whether Shakespeare had read Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet (I suspect not, though his familiarity with Sir William Cornwallis’s Essayes is likely), Lee is surely correct. Hamlet’s eloquent and self-­consciously inward-­looking gestures at existential, moral, and personal understanding do have a great deal in common with Montaigne’s literary novelty—not least in their appropriations of sixteenth-­century commonplace learning. And yet my contention is that seeming, here as elsewhere, is exactly the point: Hamlet’s soliloquies are designed to look like they have some share in the Montaignian moment. The essayist is another persona that Hamlet attempts to put on, and that does not fit him. Where Montaigne bears with himself tolerantly and amusedly, secure in the belief that he makes sense (however obscurely) through his Essais and before his God, Hamlet is rash, angry, impatient, and reluctant to ask himself even the most elementary questions. If Polonius marks the destructive blindness of Ciceronian moral philosophy, then Hamlet’s example suggests that Montaigne’s optimistically circuitous individualism offers no viable alternative.

William Elton’s unsurpassed study of King Lear borrows an idiom from Cleanth Brooks in concluding that irony serves as that play’s structural principle. In particular, Elton foregrounds the providential irony that “with the safety of indirection” marks Shakespeare’s rejection of the consolations offered by and within patterns of divine justice. As far as this judgement goes, it also holds true for Hamlet: in Acts 4 and 5, Hamlet’s appropriation of providential language, and his attendant posturing as something between Savonarola and a late-­blooming Boethian sage, entails some magnificently black comedy. But in Hamlet, the structural irony also takes on moral, political, philosophical, and poetic casts. Its characters repeatedly mouth and act upon the commonplaces of sixteenth-­century humanism, yet both they and the wisdom they espouse are exposed as fraudulent by the action of the play.

Take Hamlet’s attack on Ophe­lia in the nunnery scene, hard on the heels of his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (which, as discussed in chapter 5, is itself performative in every aspect: extemporized to confirm Hamlet’s impression of his own philosophical depth, and unwittingly staged for Polonius, Claudius, and Ophe­lia—herself performing a likeness of contemplative solitude). Wounded by the apparent withdrawal of Ophe­lia’s affections for him, Hamlet reaches for the convenience of some off-­the-­peg Christian misogyny: “God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another” (3.1.144–46). Cosmetics misrepresent a woman’s appearance, and feminine virtue is assumed in order to disguise the fundamental wantonness of feminine nature. Così fan tutte: women are naturally adulterate, and should be banished from society. Such sentiments were conventional fare to any sixteenth-­century reader of pious or satirical literature, and yet they are here articulated by a character who exists within a moral economy that stresses the paramount importance of assuming an actor’s part, who guardedly but sincerely admires the player’s monstrous capacity to suit “his whole function . . . / With forms to his conceit”, who fixates on “faces” and “visages” (his own and other people’s), and who has himself taken on an antic disposition with a view to deceiving those around him about his true intentions. There is a double standard here, but it does not belong to Hamlet alone any more than it centres on the status of cosmetics or feminine virtue. As Claudius already observed, the “harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art” closely resembles the “most painted word” with which he disguises his deeds (3.1.51–53); he acknowledges that, for him and the world he dominates, integrity is pretence. Shakespeare asks us to infer that when confronted by Ophe­lia, Hamlet turns rebarbatively moralistic not because doing so expresses his thoughts, but precisely because doing so is a substitute for thought, and an affecting one at that—articulating his pain, upsetting ­Ophe­lia, and making a further show of his unruliness. As such, Hamlet reflects and re-­reflects the moral disingenuousness that governs human affairs in ­Elsinore. In a kind of twisted sprezzatura, virtue is being able to pretend to yourself and to others that you’re not pretending. Furthermore, by pre-­ironizing Hamlet’s sentiments through the mouth of Claudius, Shakespeare offers a glimpse of something that will loom large for the remainder of the play. The young prince, unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others.

“Nothing” and its cognates are a famously recurring motif in King Lear, and measure the progress of a work in which Shakespeare takes his audience to the edge of a moral void. The prospect of nothingness is not such a conspicuous feature of the dramatic landscape in Shakespeare’s Denmark, but it is inescapable nonetheless. Indeterminate entities proliferate: there are twenty-­eight occurrences of “thing” or “things”, and “something” occurs fifteen times. Things appear to exist, but as it is impossible to say what they are, their reality cannot be taken for granted. The Ghost, for instance, is for Horatio a “thing” whose status defies explanation (1.1.24, 1.1.153, 1.2.210), to which Hamlet counters that “there are more things in heaven and earth” than Horatio’s philosophy will allow (1.5.174). Maybe so, but neither Hamlet nor Hamlet can describe or define them. By the time the spirit of Old Hamlet reappears during the closet scene, its indeterminacy has shaded into annihilation—something questionable is now “nothing at all” (3.4.123). Likewise, after urging Horatio to “report me and my cause aright” (5.2.344), Hamlet can only comprehend these as “a wounded name” and “things standing thus unknown” (5.2.349–50). The rest is one of the play’s many instances of aposiopesis, the rhetorical figure in which something looks as if it is proceeding to a conclusion before breaking off in midcourse; time and again Shakespeare employs it to frustrate completion, closure, and meaning. If Horatio has a better idea than Hamlet of what this “cause” and these “things” might be, he isn’t letting on.

On this reckoning, Hamlet’s insistence that he has “that within which passes show” is but a short step from the tragically misplaced braggadocio of Lear’s “I will do such things— / What they are yet I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” Hamlet may or may not have a core of something inexpressible within him, but he has no notion of what this might be, or of how to go about finding it if doing so does not involve playing a role. When remarking on the Player’s ability to fabricate mourning for Hecuba, Hamlet observes “Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, / A broken voice” (2.2.549–50). Yet as the Player is only affecting these emotions—passionating, one might say—Hamlet concludes that their display is “all for nothing” (2.2.551). This view recalls his earlier assertion that the world “appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (2.2.302–303), just as it anticipates his later provocation that “The King is a thing . . . Of nothing” (4.2.27–29). As described to Gertrude, Ophe­lia’s slide into despairing insanity can be cast as the distillation of the play as a whole: she “speaks things in doubt / That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing” (4.5.6–7). Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance there.

Hamlet is not thus a model of nascent subjectivity, the first modern man, a dramatic laboratory for the invention of the human, or even a study of the frustrations attendant upon sixteenth-­century princely dispossession. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. At the play’s climax, Shakespeare (unlike Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest, for whom the Hamlet figure triumphs in the face of his uncle’s treachery) can offer us only the pastiche of the tragic resolution demanded by Aristotelian tradition. Fortinbras, his army behind him, seizes power and joins Horatio and Osric in asserting his composure through bromides of astonishment, grief, respect, self-­righteousness, and so forth. The scene is littered with corpses. Polonius and Ophe­lia are decomposing offstage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The underlying causes of these tragic effects are destined to remain hidden. Horatio’s remark that the play’s death toll was brought about by “cunning” is astute (and is considered further in chapter 2), but he can otherwise only label it the result of “accidental judgments, casual slaughters”, and “purposes mistook” (5.2.387–89). He would, in other words, have Fortinbras believe that Denmark’s calamity is the result of some tragically bad timing, not the time being out of joint. To some extent he is right: despite Hamlet’s gestures to providence, Denmark’s crisis has been conceived and engineered by the Danes themselves. And yet precisely because this version of events proves so acceptable to Fortinbras, it might arouse suspicion in us. Something else is wrong, and that something else implicates Fortinbras and his vanquished father—just as it does, say, the University of Wittenberg and the pliant king of England. Perhaps Horatio realises this, but in his speech he accommodates himself to Fortinbras’s expectations just as artfully as he had done to those of Hamlet before him. Deferential, politic, cautious, and rhetorically meticulous, he bears the hallmarks of a Polonius in the making.

Eric Mallin, James Shapiro, and many others have convincingly situated Hamlet within the unease that suffused British political life as the Elizabethan age—and the Tudor dynasty—came to its inexorable but uncertain end. Such approaches are illuminating, especially when they resist the temptation to sift the play for nuggets of political allegory. Their compass is nevertheless too narrow: Hamlet is engaged with much more than the exigencies of local politics, however climactic they must have seemed to many of those caught up in them. For one thing, the anxieties of the English 1590s and early 1600s were themselves heir to developments in sixteenth-­century culture—learned, vernacular, and popular—that cast thoroughgoing doubt on received notions of moral, religious, and political order. These included resistance theory, monarchomachism, and republicanism, along with claims for popular sovereignty and the redistribution of wealth. Without question, Shakespeare understood the scale of the challenge presented by such ideas (and by the problems to which they were themselves a response), but in attempting to make sense of Hamlet’s pervasive moral indeterminacy, perhaps the best reference point is the high regard in which late Elizabethan literary culture held the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus. Aside from the stamp of relative novelty (his Annales were unknown before the early sixteenth century; his complete works were only edited by Justus Lipsius in 1574), Tacitus was admired for his clear-­sighted powers of political and anthropological analysis, which were often commingled with aspects of Stoic and Machiavellian thought. In Philip Sidney’s opinion, Tacitus excelled in “the pithy opening [of] the venome of Wickednes”; in general, he was seen to portray civic life as an extended exercise in negotiating the close proximity of virtue and vice, in circumventing the threat of tyranny (if necessary and if possible, through resistance or rebellion), and in individuals disingenuously or deludedly translating pliancy and ambition into high-­minded virtuosity. Shakespeare seems to have encountered an English translation of Tacitus in 1598 or 1599, and though he is unlikely to have written Hamlet with copies of the Annales or Historiae at his elbow, the play’s Tacitean ethos is unmistakable: probing, sceptical, and flintily pessimistic. It is thus fitting that Hamlet should have become a source for the new Jacobean literature on statecraft, just as it provided one early-­seventeenth-­century author with an analogue for the internecine violence that convulsed the Russian monarchy after the death of Feodor I in 1598. Gabriel Harvey’s politic admiration for Hamlet is well known, but we should also note that Constantijn Huygens—the celebrated Dutch diplomat, poet, and polymath—read his personal copy of the text with care.

At times of political, cultural, moral, and intellectual flux, the poet or historian can better affirm the passing of the old order than identify, isolate, or endorse the characteristics of the new. Shakespeare understood this, and drew back from the vatic, programmatic, or celebratory just as determinedly as he disavowed the reactionary or didactic. He could see as clearly as someone like Hobbes that there was a problem, but unlike Hobbes or a poet like Milton, he did not think that he had the answer—and did not believe that it was his responsibility to provide one. What makes Hamlet so distinctive is not the typically Shakespearean insistence that vice and folly are an essential feature of being alive, but that it comprises Shakespeare’s first full attempt to use his dramatic art as a medium through which to represent the discord and elemental privation that arise from the failure, or stubborn refusal, to acknowledge the human condition as it really is. This is not to claim Hamlet as a sort of entropic tragedy in which all inevitably tends towards fractured disorder, or as a parable of proto-­Nietzschean disgust. Rather, and to adapt a line of Matthew Arnold, the design of the present work is to establish Hamlet as a play that depicts—with varying degrees of sympathy, impatience, and horror—the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews: one dead, the other powerless to be born. One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.

Chapter two

Hamlet, Hunting, and 
the Nature of Things

Sie streiten sich, so heißt’s, um Freiheitsrechte,

Genau besehn sind’s Knechte gegen Knechte.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust II

One of Hamlet’s most significant meta-­dramatic features is its depiction of the actor’s part as an unsatisfactory metaphor for civic life. If one grants that the world is a stage without an obvious playwright, director, or audience, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that everyone is acting parts defined by self-­interest and plausibility, not the honestas, decorum, or Christian virtue of the humanist tradition. In the course of this chapter, I hope to establish that in depicting the social and personal relations that prevail in Elsinore, Shakespeare’s imagination led him to draw from a very different inventive well: the vocabulary and assumptions of hunting, fowling, falconry, and fishing. Edward Berry’s Shakespeare and the Hunt argues convincingly that Shakespeare’s deployment of such imagery “is unique among dramatists of the period”, and that his “plays are exceptional not only in the frequency of their allusions to the hunt but in the impression of technical mastery and experiential knowledge that these allusions convey”. Berry’s scholarship is as careful as it is thorough, but his study has at least one remarkable omission: Hamlet. Although the play has no hunting scene, it is full of traps, nets, lures, bait, archery, falconry, the trail, and the chase. All are conspicuous from the beginning to the end of the action, and help to fashion a moral economy in which the inhabitants of his Denmark both perpetrate and find themselves unable to elude what Shakespeare will later imagine as the “world’s great snare”.

In another recent study, Catherine Bates has analysed hunting scenes in sixteenth-­century literature as a site in which the competing claims of masculine potency, anxiety, and failure are set against one another. As suggested in poems like Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” and Gascoigne’s “Woodmanship”, the hunter may set out suffused with optimism and a sense of his own dignity, but he often identifies the wrong target, misses the right one, is consumed by his intended prey, or exhausts himself by seeking to capture the wind in his nets. In Hamlet, hunting performs a related function. It collapses the distinctions that its dramatis personae would establish between themselves; the principal players unwittingly, and often simultaneously, serve as both hunter and prey. As we shall see, a hunter relies on cunning, duplicity, trickery, close observation, guileful anticipation, and (on many occasions) devastating force. At the same time, these are exactly the attributes that might enable the hunter’s intended victim to escape his attentions. There is clear bond between the two, but this bond is not predicated of the honestas or decorum championed by Ciceronian moral philosophy. Instead, the world of the hunt is held together by bonds that are intuitive, pre-­rational, and pre-­moral—in a word, animalistic.

Shakespeare had first-­hand experience of hunting (possibly also of poaching) from his Warwickshire youth, and knew well that the successful hunter needs to anticipate the behaviour of his animal adversary. Putting to one side the hunter’s frequent dependency on trained animals like dogs or falcons, he has to engage his prey through bodily attributes (like the external senses of sight, hearing, and smell) in which he does not have the edge, a state of affairs only marginally offset by his ability to prevail through the products of his ingenuity (nets, traps, snares, poison, slings, arrows, etc.). Such considerations are unfamiliar to twenty-­first-­century literary critics—and occasionally tax the canons of good taste—but are no less powerful on that account. Shakespeare enlists them to represent a vision of human existence in which appetite, expediency, and opportunism are all: when engaged in venatorial pursuits, the ontological distinctiveness of humankind becomes effaced, if not dissipated. Magritte’s surrealist masterpiece Les chasseurs au bord de la nuit depicts a pair of well-­fed and well-­equipped hunters, who have set out to assert themselves by subduing the landscape around them. Inexplicably, they find themselves trapped—sequestered from one another and from the world at large. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the hunt to similar ends. He transforms it into a paradox through which to emblematize fear and helpless disconnection.

The initial goal of this chapter is to reconstruct what, in Carlo Ginzburg’s phrase, can be thought of as Hamlet’s “cynegetic paradigm”. In so doing, it makes liberal use of early modern sporting handbooks. Shakespeare seems to have viewed this body of literature with the disdain of the initiate, and it is true that as a depiction of sixteenth-­century hunting, a text like George Gascoigne’s Noble Arte of Venerie differs only in degree from Robert Peake the Elder’s almost comically idealized depiction of the nine-­year-­old Prince Henry and eleven-­year-­old Sir John Harington ceremonially finishing off a hart (see figure 2). Such texts nonetheless afford far and away the best available entry into the worlds of sixteenth-­century hunting. As a rule, my contextualisations of Hamlet only involve texts or artefacts that were available before the end of the sixteenth century, and that may therefore have had some direct or reflected impact on Shakespeare’s writing. However, in reconstructing the language and practices of the hunt, this custom is as honoured in the breach as in the observance. Manuals like Gascoigne’s have little or nothing to say about socially undistinguished pursuits like snaring or trapping, or about utilitarian hunting more generally. Conversely, later works like Gervase Markham’s briskly practical Hungers Prevention (1621) provide these sorts of data in generous detail, and represent venatorial traditions with a long genealogy. I make use of them where necessary.

The discourse of the hunt thus established, the focus of this chapter turns to the ways in which this body of knowledge can be put to critical use. A key point of reference is the humanist debate on the suitability of hunting for the virtuous man; for Erasmus and More, hunting was bestial and thus a threat to human dignity. From here, I conclude by reading the cynegetic paradigm of Hamlet against the natura and fortuna of Senecan revenge tragedy, and propose that as the hunt governs the way in which the cast of Hamlet interact with one another, Shakespeare uses it to expose the dangerously illusory foundations on which humanist moral philosophy was constructed.

Establishing the Hunt

When Fortinbras enters at the end of Act 5, he is confronted by the corpses of Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet. He reacts by exclaiming that “This quarry cries on havoc”, and continues: “O proud Death, / What feast is toward in thine eternal cell, / That thou so many princes at a shot / So bloodily hast struck?” (5.2.369–72). Taking in the terrible scene before him, Fortinbras deploys the figure of erotesis—the “rhetorical question”—to conclude that Death must have been hungry.

The young Prince of Norway may not be much of a thinker, but his choice of language is revealing. “Quarry”, derived from the French curée, is straight from the lexicon of the huntsman, and has two pertinent meanings. First, it is a highly ritualised selection of parts from the deer, served to reward the hounds involved in the chase. Second, it came to signify any pile or collection of deer carcasses or remains gathered up after the hunt. It is the second sense that is foremost here, as it usually is for Shakespeare. Compare Macbeth, where a battlefield is overseen by “Fortune, on his damned quarry smiling”, and where Rosse later informs Macduff that

Your castle is surprised: your wife, and babes

Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner

Were on the quarry of these murdered deer

To add the death of you.

The savagery suggested by both of these descriptions has its echo in Fortinbras’s claim that the “quarry” in front of him “cries on havoc”. Originally a military term for the order licensing an army to spoil and pillage, “havoc” took on a secondary sense as a haphazard and senselessly destructive form of hunting, one beyond the bounds of either lawfulness or propriety—for instance, a poacher killing far more deer than he could take in order to vandalise the property, and challenge the authority, of an unpopular local landowner. The metaphor, with its charge of threatening hostility, was one to which Shakespeare was drawn frequently. In Julius Caesar, Antony envisages that Caesar’s spirit “Shall in these confines [i.e., in Italy] . . . Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. In reparation for the conspirators’ crime, Antony duly unleashes a mob that lays waste to everything that Brutus and his fellows hold dear. By the same token, when Menenius is challenged by another Roman mob, baying for the head of Coriolanus, he attempts to buy time by instructing them not to “cry havoc where you should but hunt / With modest warrant”. Although he does not mention havocking, it is telling that when dramatizing Laertes’s abortive rebellion in Hamlet, Shakespeare turns to the prospect of the unruly chase. As the “rabble” pronounces that “Laertes shall be King” and threatens to storm the palace, Gertrude exclaims “How cheerfully on the false trail they cry. / O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs” (4.5.108–9). They cry like hounds whose noses have led them away from the true object of their pursuit, and whose master has failed to put them back on track.

In pronouncing that “This quarry cries on havoc”, Fortinbras thus means to suggest that his apostrophised Death is a wantonly indiscriminate hunter who has abused his powers to strike down the Danish royal family in a single expedition with his bow or crossbow. (Fortinbras’s “a shot” does not refer to a single shot, but to what the OED defines as the “action of shooting with the bow, catapult, or firearms”, or what modern English usage, like the Folio text, calls a “shoot”.) Deferring for a moment the question of quite why Fortinbras makes this claim, the point to stress is that he veers into the stylistic vice of catachresis in the course of making it. He botches his hunting metaphor while striving for solemnly elevated rhetorical affect. Had Death been killing the Danish aristocracy for a feast, no matter how indulgent, he would not have been guilty of havocking them; if he is guilty of havocking them, he would have killed far more than he needed for his feast. This is not a matter of terminological or semantic nicety. Through it, Shakespeare illustrates that Fortinbras, like the noble Danes he is about to supplant, is delineated by his staginess. He is concerned only with the impact of his words and actions. Their resonance does not merit a second thought.

What of that impact? Most straightforwardly, Fortinbras’s personification of Death as a havoc-­wreaking archer or bowman serves to echo Hamlet’s claim that as his sufferings are “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (3.1.58), they are no responsibility of his own. But whereas Hamlet is doing all he can to spare himself the ordeal of self-­examination, Fortinbras has scented an opportunity. He does not know how or why things have come to pass as they have, and is unaware that Hamlet has nominated him for the election. It is, however, possible that he has heard something of the discord between Hamlet and Claudius, and he intuits that in the absence of any princely rivals, his plans to remove the Danish royal family and to install himself on the Danish throne may well be realised without further force or bluster. (Note that the first time we hear of him, Fortinbras is likened to one of the most alarming of Shakespearean predators, the shark [1.1.101]). Constrained by ambition into adopting an elevated and respectful mode of speech, Fortinbras strips human agency from the catastrophic spectacle before him. Doing so erects a buffer between its victims and the personal or political conflicts that may have brought it about. For all Fortinbras knows, the stories behind the deaths of Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes might implicate him or otherwise weaken his claim. Much better to keep people looking elsewhere. In addressing Death the supernatural hunter-­poacher, he tries to clear the space in which to advance his claim to the kingship without drawing undue attention to the fact. There is a double incongruity here: his rhetoric clunks, but is at the same time superfluous—or, rather, supererogatory. Horatio and the English Ambassador immediately reveal that Fortinbras has no cause for concern, and the next we hear from him, he boldly lays claim to the throne.

Fortinbras’s remarks have a further and deeper unsuitability than this. The fates that overtake the dramatis personae of Hamlet are demonstrably not the work of vexed gods, angels of death, or even theologically confounding ghosts. As he does in King Lear, Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that “evil” in Hamlet is not the result of some “divine thrusting on”. It is instead the product of individual actions—actions that are starkly indexed by the discourse of the hunt. Laertes’s “Do you see this, O God?” (4.5.198) rails against Ophe­lia’s final descent into madness. Unerringly labile though he may be, Laertes knows that his question is rhetorical. He already has his answer. The awareness of it makes him susceptible to involvement in Claudius’s plotting against Hamlet, and represents the moral sensibility of Elsinore in miniature. When they are not invoking absent deities, the play’s characters turn to venatorial language to assert the purposefulness of their existences.

The fixation with the language and assumptions of the hunt thus begins to resemble the discourses of ambition, honour, anger, fear, courtship, solicitousness, obedience, friendship, or pliancy that feature prominently elsewhere in the play: two parts palliative, two parts diversion, one part ruse. What makes hunting different is that Shakespeare uses it to suggest an underlying vision of nature untamed by moral order. Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and Laertes use the hunt to express what they take to be their agency, right, and ability to move others. Shakespeare’s ironic masterstroke is that such hunting language in itself explodes that which its exponents seek to defend, and thereby reveals the interdependent commonality of their situations. Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of hunting—one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey, and in which the rules laid down in apologetic works like Gascoigne’s Noble Arte are no more applicable than the civic pieties of Cicero’s De officiis. By failing to confront this state of affairs, Shakespeare’s Danes condemn themselves to moral delusion. Even as they move to hunt down their enemies, they ensure their own victimhood and destruction. To assume a persona in Shakespeare’s Denmark is not to body forth the rational virtues of honestas and decorum, as it is for Cicero and his humanist heirs; as only appetite and self-­interest are real, to assume the mask of any virtue is to play the hypocrite. Ulysses’s attack on the disjunction between the rhetoric and the debased reality of Greek culture provides a useful point of comparison. As “appetite” is “an universal wolf, / So doubly seconded with will and power, / [He] Must make perforce an universal prey / And last eat up himself”. He might just as easily be describing life at the mouth of the Baltic. One peculiar desolation of Hamlet is that while such self-­implicating words would not seem out of place in the mouths of Claudius (discredited) or the Gravedigger (self-­aggrandizing and socially marginalized), they would be as unthinkable to Hamlet as to Horatio, Fortinbras, Laertes, or Polonius.

After the English Ambassador has imparted his news about the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio responds to Fortinbras with the introduction to an oration that he does not get to complete before the action comes to a close, and in which he puts tragic agency back within the province of the human:

And let me speak to th’yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. (5.2.384–90)

Granted that Horatio is determined to keep his account of “How these things came about” as local and as unthreatening as possible, and that he therefore fails to describe the situation in its entirety. His comments are nevertheless a tactful correction to Fortinbras’s grandstanding: those lying dead at the end of Act 5 had been the authors of their own downfall.

Fifty lines earlier, the fatally wounded Laertes makes a cognate claim in cognate terms. Realising that his complicit scheming has led him to ruin, he offers Osric the retrospective assessment that “[I am] as a woodcock to mine own springe” and “justly kill’d with mine own treachery” (5.2.312–13): in setting a “springe” (i.e., a form of snare) with which to trap Hamlet, he has contrived to trap himself. Although Laertes’s metaphor is commonplace, when examined more closely it hints at the pervasive complexity of the play’s venatorial language. A spring was a basic of fowling device, fit for capturing the least demanding of birds—such as the proverbially unintelligent woodcock—in order to put food on the table. It is not something in which a hunter might become dangerously ensnared himself, or in which he might legitimately try to catch a beast of Hamlet’s size and stature. Of course, the reason that Shakespeare has Laertes adopt such an unlikely frame of reference is that it recalls a warning given by Polonius at the outset of the play. Hearing Ophe­lia’s protestations that Hamlet had countenanced his declarations of love to her with “all the holy vows of heaven”, Polonius pours cold water on her credulity: “Ay, springes to catch woodcocks” (1.3.114–15). Polonius thus reinforces Laertes’s warning that the favour shown by Hamlet to Ophe­lia is only “a toy in blood” (1.3.6). The appetites of an adolescent prince like Hamlet will lead him to say anything in the attempt to entrap, and to enjoy, the object of his desire—­before moving on to his next conquest. Polonius worries that when confronted with Hamlet’s apparently earnest stratagems, Ophe­lia has conducted herself like a defenceless and lesser form of prey, thereby putting at risk her virtue and her family’s honour. He instructs her to be “something scanter” of her “maiden presence” (1.4.121). Whatever her true feelings might be, she obeys as a daughter.

Returning to Laertes caught in his own spring, we can now better discern how and why his remarks matter. He realises that in becoming the willing “organ” (4.7.69) of Claudius’s devising, and in using the fencing match as a ruse through which to kill Hamlet (to say nothing of employing the unusually lethal poison that he had casually bought “of a mountebank” [4.7.140]), he is guilty of using Hamlet just as disreputably as Hamlet had seemed to use Ophe­lia. This, however, is not all. As with Fortinbras’s efforts to apostrophize Death, Laertes’s choice of language betrays the gap between his being and the ways in which he would like to be seen. It captures well the dishonour and inappropriateness of his attempted ambush, but even the most heedless fowler would be hard-­pressed to suffer more than an injured hand in a snare for a woodcock—unlike, say, a bomb maker “Hoist with his own petard” (3.4.209). The weakness of Laertes’s fowling metaphor may seem small beer, but it suggests the automatic quality of his remorse. He knows he has besmirched his name, and that he will be seen to have besmirched his name by his peers. He therefore goes through the motions of repentance in the Polonian idiom familiar to him. And yet few things die harder than the urge to cast one’s motives, causes, or sufferings in the most favourable light. Realising that he has failed to obtain vengeance for his father’s murder and that he has caused the extinction of his family line, Laertes’s nerve gives out. He clutches at expiation. How better than to point the finger elsewhere: “The King—the King’s to blame!” (5.2.326). Hamlet agrees, and takes it as his prompt for killing Claudius. With his dying breath, Laertes then proposes to Hamlet a mutual absolution which the fast-­waning prince is himself only too willing to accept: “Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me” (5.2.335–36). Nothing of Ophe­lia. It is fitting, and quite luminously unkind, that Laertes should fail to accept responsibility for his actions through the pastiche of his father’s already inadequate words. To thine own self be true? Not stylistically, and not even at the moment of death.

Such is the order of things as we take our leave of Shakespeare’s Denmark. Though it perhaps seems counter-­intuitive to have begun this chapter with the end of the play, I have done so for three reasons. The first is to offer a reminder that after the deaths of Claudius and Hamlet, the kingdom passes into the hands of a balefully imperceptive militarist, one who—full of passionate intensity—has successfully slouched his way towards his object of desire. The second is to emphasise that, even as his characters strive for magnanimity or redemption, Shakespeare does not allow them to assume moral responsibility for their motives or their actions. The third is to affirm the idea around which this chapter is arranged; namely, that paying close attention to the language of hunting is essential to an understanding of the play’s action.

Perhaps so, but Hamlet is manifestly cut from different and more finely woven cloth than his impetuous rivals, Fortinbras and Laertes. Does he have any part in the discourse of hunting? The immediate aftermath of his encounter with the Ghost is an excellent place to probe this question further. Once the likeness of his father has departed with the instruction to “Remember me” (1.5.91), Hamlet becomes fervent:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?

And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart,

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,

But bear me stiffly up. (1.5.92–95)

The revelation of Claudius’s crime, and the demand to avenge it, spur the prince into thoughts of passionate action. There is recognition that the Ghost is a potentially compromising ally here, to be sure, just as there is that physical infirmity can stand in the way of revenge. Even so, Hamlet is determined that neither bodily weakness nor religious scrupulosity will impede his pursuit of vengeance. Such an attitude fits well with his earlier disregard as to whether the Ghost brought “airs from heaven or blasts from hell” (1.4.41)—as the Ghost so much resembled his father, he would follow wherever it led.

In seeking to register his urgency, Hamlet uses a string of purposefully imperative verbs: “hold”, “grow”, and “bear”. But it is the verb that precedes these—“couple” (itself governed by the modal auxiliary “shall”)—over which we should pause. Most straightforwardly, “couple” is synonymous with “join”, and through it Hamlet means to suggest that even the prospect of being joined to hell will not deter him from the task at hand. But this sense of “couple” is a metaphorical one. Originally, it was a hunting term to denote the process of joining two hounds together (the “couple” was the brace or leash) preparatory to their being released, or uncoupled, once their prey had been identified. In coupling his hounds, the principal responsibility of the early modern huntsman was to pair them off carefully, placing inexperienced hounds with veterans, and ensuring that male dogs were not placed together (lest they should fight). In Gascoigne’s formulation, “if there be any yong houndes, it shalbe good to couple them with the olde bitches, to teache them to followe”. Shakespeare uses the verb in exactly this sense in The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the best yardstick for measuring Hamlet’s use of it comes from Julius Caesar. As Antony turns his attention to the “havoc” that he intends “Caesar’s spirit” to wreak on Brutus, he pictures his murdered friend “ranging for revenge, / With Ate by his side come hot from hell”. Which is to say, as a hound coupled to Atè, the Greek goddess of blind infatuation, whose single-­mindedness will ensure that Caesar’s spirit remains imperturbable in prosecution of its vengeance. They will range together until they locate the trace of their prey, then strike without mercy.

The image was fresh in Shakespeare’s mind when he came to script Hamlet’s reaction to the Ghost: Hamlet sees the necessity of coupling himself to hell—that is, to a hell-­hound—if he is to do as the Ghost has requested (1.5.93). His ordinary self is ill-­suited to the business of revenge by both temperament and training, and so he wills himself able to keep pace with a hunting partner who has more experience in bringing such pursuits to a satisfactory conclusion. The steadfast heart and stiffened sinews required for him to do so also recall the resoluteness with which he initially determined to follow the Ghost: “My fate cries out / And makes each petty artire in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve” (1.4.81–83). Manifestly, Hamlet knows how to talk the talk. (It is, I would submit, no coincidence that when Hamlet misremembers the description he would have Aeneas give Dido of Pyrrhus—primed for vengeance against those responsible for the death of his father, Achilles—he transfigures him into a determinedly ruthless predator: “th’Hyrcanian beast”, or tiger.) However, despite Hamlet’s familiarity with the rhetorical norms of revenge, he differs from Caesar’s spirit, from Antony, and from Pyrrhus in being singularly unqualified for this kind of activity. Indeed, the instant Hamlet considers the Ghost’s command to “Remember me”, his sense of purpose begins to exceed his grasp.

On the face of it, none of this should surprise us: Hamlet’s easy familiarity with the hunt is typical for one of his background. Although hunting was classed as one of the seven “mechanical arts” (the artisanal counterparts of the seven liberal arts of which the trivium and quadrivium of the university curriculum were composed), a sixteenth-­century member of the royalty, aristocracy, or gentry would have had to make a sustained effort not to spend most of his considerable leisure time chasing animals of various kinds. To take one prominently normative example, Thomas Elyot praised hunting on the grounds that

therein is the very imitation of batayle, for nat onely it dothe shew the courage and strength as well of the horse as of him that rydeth . . . but also it increaseth in them bothe agilitie and quickness, also sleight and policie to fynde suche passages and straytes, where they may prevent or intrappe their enemies.

If Elyot was not convinced that falconry could claim this much “utilitie”, he took the view that it was nonetheless “a right delectable solace” for those of the appropriately high social standing, and that it had the virtue of helping one to avoid idleness. As this ambivalence hints, Elyot’s prescriptions were tailored to the pastimes of those he sought to influence; he was committed to the project of humanist counsel and activity, so his advice had to reflect the realities of aristocratic life. The privileged social position enjoyed by hunting and falconry, along with the sheer amount of time spent engaging in them, has been amply supported by the researches of modern historians.

When Marcellus and Hamlet hail one another, they do so by playfully appropriating the call of the falconer to his hawk: “Hillo, ho, ho, my lord”, “Hillo ho, ho, boy. Come bird, come” (1.5.117–18). Similarly, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to re-­establish Hamlet’s trust after he has made them concede that they have come to Elsinore at the bidding of Claudius, they inform him that they encountered a company of players on the road, and that they directed them to Elsinore. In so doing, they adopt a metaphor from hare and deer coursing: “We coted them on the way” (2.2.316). “Coting” is the term of art to denote the act by which a dog, usually a greyhound working in a pair, is able to overtake the prey animal and cause it to change the direction of its running. When Rosencrantz imparts the same information to Gertrude—presumably not a courser—he does away with the hunting metaphor: “Madam, it so fell out that certain players / We o’erraught them on the way” (3.1.16–17). Finally, in describing the child players to Hamlet, Rosencrantz imagines them as “eyases” (2.2.337). That is, young hawks, taken from their nest or eyrie—easier to train than adult hawks taken in the wild, but less hardy and courageous.

A little later, Hamlet himself makes use of specialist language drawn from falconry. When informing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Claudius and Gertrude err in thinking him insane, he assures them that “I am but mad north-­north-­west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (2.2.374–75). These lines have vexed many commentators on the play, but their obscurity need not defy comprehension. To start with their most straightforward feature, “Handsaw” is a dialect form of “heronshaw”, “hernsew”, or “hernshaw”—a term cognate with the French heronceau and describing what we would now call a juvenile heron. Herons were a favourite form of avian prey throughout the medieval and early modern periods. They were hunted with falcons (long-­winged hawks, like peregrines and gyrfalcons, which, along with eagles, were the most socially prestigious birds of prey), and occasionally with hawks (short-­winged hawks such as the goshawk, generally used to take smaller and more miscellaneous prey). On account of the heron’s considerable size, smaller falcons or hawks would often pursue it in pairs, or “casts”; the situation is well described by Spenser. (See figure 3.) So, when speaking of the hawk and the handsaw, Hamlet’s most basic claim is that when the wind is not from the north-­north-­west, he is able to tell predator from prey. Which is to say that he is only limitedly “mad”, and that he is sane when the wind blows from one of the other thirty-­one points of the compass.

Further reference to falconry allows for his metaphor to be unpacked in more detail. Bear with me. The first thing to consider is that when being pursued by falcons or hawks, a heron ascends downwind in the attempt to escape; were the wind to be north-­north-­west, a heron would flee south-­south-­east. The second is that the season for hunting the heron comprised only the autumn and winter months; furthermore, and like all forms of falconry, early modern heron hunting generally took place during the morning. It is winter in Elsinore, and December when Hamlet meets his classmates. In central England on 11–12 December 1599—the date of the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar—the sun would have been in the south-­eastern quadrant of the sky for the duration of the morning, and would have been south-­south-­east at around 10:30 a.m. Knowing that his coevals will recently have been spending the first part of their days engaged in falconry, Hamlet’s suggestion that he cannot distinguish between a hawk and a heron when the wind is from the north-­north-­west makes good sense: it describes the situation in which a heron flees downwind into the low winter sun. Were the wind to be coming from any other direction, the falconer would be able to monitor the heron’s flight without difficulty. Hamlet thus only professes insanity to the extent that the falconer suffers from sun blindness—which is to say, only in particular circumstances. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern understand: as they inform Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet has adopted “a crafty madness” (3.1.7).

The hawk and handsaw also echo the terms in which Hamlet responds to the discovery that his fungible friends have sought him out at Claudius’s behest. Once Guildenstern concedes that he and Rosencrantz had been “sent for” (2.2.293), Hamlet assures them that he will keep his knowledge of the fact to himself: “your secrecy to the King and Queen [shall] moult no feather” (2.2.294–95). Raptors moult during the summer months, and the falconer must confine them while waiting for them to grow new feathers—whereupon they can be flown again, and a new season can begin. Envisioning them as a cast of hawks to his heron, Hamlet reassures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he will not take away the status they enjoy in virtue of continuing to be flown against him. This suits Hamlet’s purposes too: they have lost the advantage of surprise, and he believes himself to have their measure—so much so that he feels confident enough to inform them that he is only affecting insanity. Herons were, furthermore, a threat to their inexperienced or ill-­trained pursuers: Spenser has one kill a heedless falcon with a single blow from its bill. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should proceed with caution.

The most obvious instance of Hamlet’s interest in falconry occurs when he informs the Players he would be glad for them to perform any play they have to hand: “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers, fly at anything we see” (2.2.425–26). Obvious or not, this line is hard to gloss. It depends on the attitudes of early modern English falconers to their French equivalents, and on the disdain with which falconers (keepers of long-­winged hawks, trained and flown for noble sport) viewed austringers (keepers of short-­winged hawks, ideal for utilitarian forms of hunting). Admirable though the French were thought to be in matters of practical falconry, they were regarded as a nation of austringers, and appear to have been disdained accordingly; they allowed their hawks to hunt virtually any bird that crossed their paths, not just established prey like herons, cranes, ducks, partridges, and pigeons. Compare the Folio text of All’s Well That Ends Well, where at the beginning of Act 5, Helena is met by “a gentle Astringer” (TLN 2601), immediately recognised by her—and presumably recognisable to large portions of the audience—as a member of the French court. Hamlet makes no attempt to apportion praise or blame to the French falconers. Instead, prompted by the earlier talk of moulting, eyases, hawks, and handsaws, he uses them as an analogue for a certain promiscuity of taste.

Later in the action, Q1 extends Hamlet’s advice to the Players with the reflection that those who note down jokes with the intention of recycling them as their own (such as professional clowns), “cannot make a jest unless by chance—as the blind man catcheth a hare”. Hares were usually, though by no means always, hunted by coursing, and coursing relied on the huntsman’s vision—specifically on his being able to see his prey before loosing his hounds at it (unlike other forms of chase hunting, in which the prey animal was discovered and followed by its scent). The dogs of a blind hare courser would have run at whatever caught their attention, and he would require great good luck for them to catch his desired prey.

In short, and like most sixteenth-­century members of the socially elevated classes, Hamlet has spent as much time with his hounds and raptors as he has with either his books or his meditative thoughts. To take some other examples of his venatorial turn of phrase, he describes himself as a “dull and muddy-­mettled rascal” (2.2.562), envisions “enterprises of great pitch and moment” (3.1.86), and denounces the marital bed of Claudius and Gertrude as “enseamed” (3.4.92). In addition to one lacking social distinction (Hamlet worries that he is not acting like a prince), a rascal is an inferior member (often young or underdeveloped) of a herd of deer, and in the hunting literature is described as unworthy of the noble huntsman’s attentions. A falcon’s “pitch” is the instant at which it has climbed high enough in the air to dive on its intended prey. “Enseam” is the surplus fat that builds up in a falcon or hawk when it is kept indoors (and fed extensively) during the period of its summer moult, and as it grows its new coat of feathers; before the bird can be flown again, it needs to be “enseamed”, or purged of its “gresynes and foulnes” through a special diet and regimen. Hamlet’s attentions here are far removed from the minutiae of falconry, and although his sense is plain enough, his metaphor has defied explication. For instance, Jenkins’s note in the Arden 2 edition of the play dismisses falconry as “quite beside the point”, and asserts that “enseamed” emphasises the grossness of Claudius and Gertrude coming together. Such appraisals miss the Hamlet’s implication that the bed in question is not simply saturated in animal grease, but has “rank sweat” and “corruption” to call its own. This is because, along with his throne and his queen, Claudius has taken possession of his brother’s bed and bedchamber: recall that Hamlet has been tasked with preventing the “royal bed of Denmark” from remaining “a couch for luxury and damned incest” (1.5.82–83). In describing the bed as he does, Hamlet implies that Gertrude’s lovemaking with Claudius has served to enseam it—that is, to draw to its surface the grease and grime accumulated over the years of her first marriage. When Gertrude and Claudius have sex, their bodily fluids intermingle with those generated by Gertrude and Old Hamlet (by now “rank”), thereby confirming what, in Hamlet’s view, is the sordid nature of their union. The reading is nicely reinforced by Q1. When the Ghost returns to the stage shortly thereafter, he does so “in his night-­gown”, keeping the audience mindful that Old Hamlet’s former bedchamber is adjacent to Gertrude’s closet, notionally just offstage.


These instances establish beyond reasonable doubt that Hamlet and his peers were as involved with hunting and hawking as their sixteenth-­century upbringings would lead one to expect. They also help us to a more integrated understanding of the verbal and metaphorical economies that constitute Shakespeare’s dramatic art. It would nevertheless be hard to argue that any of them have the capacity decisively to change our comprehension of the play’s action or significance, for all that the sense of Shakespeare’s figurative language often exceeds its reference: it is good to know just how gross Hamlet’s enseaming metaphor is, but the fact of its grossness has never been in question. By contrast, although other aspects of the play’s venatorial language have been similarly overlooked or misunderstood, to appreciate them is to reconfigure what happens in Hamlet in the most fundamental ways.

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern catch up with Hamlet and Horatio in the aftermath of the Mousetrap, Guildenstern urges Hamlet to put his “discourse into some frame, and start not so wildly from my affair”. Hamlet replies that “I am tame, sir”, and that his interlocutors should feel free to continue with their pronouncements (3.2.300–302). The verb “start” is a term of art, denoting the process whereby the prey animal, usually a hare, is forced to flee from its resting place or cover so that the chase can begin. In countering that he is “tame”, Hamlet’s claim is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both should not, and have no need to, pursue him: he is domesticated, unafraid of humankind or dogs, disinclined to flee, and therefore unsuitable for the chase. As Gascoigne repeatedly emphasises, one of the worst things a hound could do was to take a “tame beast” rather than a wild one. Although Hamlet’s “tame” sits between the disingenuous and the ironic (witness the hoops through which he makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern jump before they can deliver Gertrude’s request to see him), he is momentarily as good as his word. Once the Players return to the stage with their recorders, something changes. Hamlet turns accusatory:

O, the recorders. Let me see one.—To withdraw with you, why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil? (3.2.336–38)

The summary of these lines offered in Jenkins’s footnote cannot be bettered: “To recover the wind is to get to windward. The quarry is allowed to scent the hunter, so that it will run in the opposite direction and into the net (toil)”. Hamlet’s metaphor is drawn from what is called “drive” or “bow and stable” hunting. Here, rather than being tracked by hounds, the deer would be driven towards a carefully arranged body of archers or crossbowmen (the “stable”), or towards nets in which they would be entangled before being finished with arrows, crossbow bolts, or occasionally spears; one of the best English accounts of what it involves is found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although less highly regarded than the chase as an exercise in cynegetic virtue (Gascoigne does not stoop to discuss it), drive hunting remained extremely popular throughout the sixteenth century; Shakespeare uses it as a framing device in 3 Henry VI and Love’s Labour’s Lost, as he may also have done in one of the poems contained in The Passionate Pilgrim. Further, it provided an efficient method of poaching. In sum, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have in Hamlet’s eyes been so blatant in their attempts to manipulate him that they are surely, at the behest of Claudius and Gertrude, attempting to provoke him into some instinctively fearful reaction that will weaken his position.

The arrival of an onstage audience in the form of those playing the recorders (most likely the players themselves, though quite possibly itinerant musicians working for them) is a neat meta-­theatrical joke. Moreover, in giving Hamlet a gallery to play to, their arrival gives him ample reason to discard the comparative tameness with which he has been handling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Why should he do so with further reference to the hunt? One burden of this chapter is to suggest that no further explanation is necessary: hunting language is simply one of the media through which Hamlet thinks. I would nonetheless like to suggest that sight of the recorders is a significant detail. This is because early modern recorders resemble the calls, pipes, or whistles used as a common lure for wildfowl and other game, perhaps most recognisable to modern audiences in the hands of Papageno, Mozart’s Vogelfänger. The majority of early modern English hunting literature is too high-­toned to dwell on these devices, but Markham is briskly pragmatic. For him, there were two kinds of fowling, “either by enchantment, or enticement, by winning or wooing the Fowle unto you with Pipe, Whistle, or Call: which either beguileth them with their own voyce, or amazeth them with the strangenesse of the sound: or else by Engine, which unawares surpriseth and entangleth them”. One would use the birdcall to entice the prey close by, and then surprise it with a net or else encourage it to land on a branch smeared in birdlime—a lethally glutinous substance considered towards the end of this chapter. In the words of Lyly’s Philautus, just as the end of love is marriage, “not wooing”, so the end “of birding [is] taking, not whistling”. Gascoigne also saw the merit of calls in hunting deer, and when in 1635 John Bate published the first full account of such devices in English, he included varieties to attract the stag, hare, fox, and hedgehog. I have not been able to locate visual representations of these calls that predate Bate’s Mysteries, but Bate’s illustrations suggest more than a passing likeness with the early modern recorders depicted in, for example, Michael Praetorius’s Organographia.

This reading is not susceptible to proof of any demonstrative sort, but is reinforced by a possible allusion to Plutarch’s Moralia—specifically, to the treatise within it on “Precepts of statecraft”. Although this text was not available in English until after Hamlet had been written, it was available in Latin and French translations in the second half of the sixteenth century, is quoted at the beginning of Erasmus’s frequently reprinted sourcebook, the Parabolae, and stands at the fountainhead of the large sixteenth-­century literature on the threat posed by flatterers. Furthermore, Shakespeare had kept Plutarch close to hand when writing Julius Caesar, and the Moralia had fresh cultural prominence in the late 1590s on account of Elizabeth I’s translation of its treatise “On curiosity”. In Philemon Holland’s 1603 rendition:

As for the flatterers that belong to Princes courts, they play by their lords and masters, as those fowlers do, who catch their birds by a pipe counterfeiting their voices; for even so they, to winde and insinuate themselves into the favour of kings and princes, doe resemble them for all the world, and by this devise entrap and deceive them.

Hamlet figures Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as courtiers who, though professing concern for him in a spirit of comradely friendship, are stereotypically self-­interested, insinuating, and dishonest. In expressing his suspicions so directly, and in insisting that only he is competent to govern himself or the recorder, Hamlet means to suggest to his former friends that they have no chance of taking him through either their guile or their force of will. He has seen them coming. Although, as he puts it to his mother a little later (having somehow learned that his university friends are to escort him to England with “letters seal’d”), he trusts them no more than “adders fang’d”, he is confident in his capacity to outwit them (3.4.211–12). Maybe so, but it is intriguing to speculate what the players make of his exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or of his exchange with Polonius on the shapes in clouds that follows it. After their aborted performance, they are perhaps keeping their heads down in the hope of being paid before continuing on their way; they must nevertheless be bewildered. Horatio also remains onstage for the duration of the exchanges between Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Polonius (as he has been for almost the entirety of the scene). He too elects to say nothing.

When first deciding to stage a version of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet pauses to explain himself:

I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have, by the very cunning of the scene,

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim’d their malefactions. (2.2.584–88)

Hamlet’s intentions, along with the poetic theories on which they rest, are the subject of chapter 4. Of most immediate relevance here is that in expounding his plans, he turns to the first of numerous hunting metaphors connected to the inset play: “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.600–601). “Catch” has the same etymological root as the French chasse, and originally denoted the act of chasing or driving prey; in English, this sense was obscure by the sixteenth century. Most pertinently, to catch is “To capture or lay hold of. . . . This may be done by superior speed and force, by surprise, by any snare or engine of capture”. This is the sense in which Shakespeare usually uses the verb. Hamlet aims to use his adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago as a device with which to surprise Claudius and to force his “malefactions” and “conscience” out into the open. He can then seize upon them and obtain the revenge demanded by the Ghost. This is unproblematic stuff, but before moving on, it is important to note that “catch” is not a neutral term. One might catch a woodcock with a well-­prepared spring, a rabbit with a snare, or a fish with a line or in a net—but one would never “catch” a hart or hare, at least if hunting licitly. In determining to catch Claudius’s conscience, Hamlet is making a point, though the nature of that point does not become clear until he gets the chance to confer with Horatio.

As the court begins to gather for the Players’ performance, Hamlet holds forth on his admiration for his well-­tempered friend. He then turns to the matter at hand: “There is a play tonight before the King: / One scene of it comes very near the circumstance / I have told you of my father’s death” (3.2.75–76). Urging Horatio to observe Claudius closely, Hamlet continues that

If his occulted guilt

Do not itself unkennel in one speech,

It is a damned ghost that we have seen,

And my imaginations are as foul

As Vulcan’s stithy. (3.2.80–84)

There is much to be said about these lines, but for the moment I want to focus on the verb “unkennel”. It is another venatorial term of art, denoting the act of dislodging a fox from its burrow prior to either pursuing or trapping it. As Gascoigne explains, the “terms used when you bring any Chace to his resting place, or rayse him from it” should differ from animal to animal: “We Herbor and Unherbor a Harte . . . we lodge & rowse a Bucke . . . we forme and starte a Hare . . . We couch & reare a Bore: we kennell and unkennell a Fox”. Unkennelling a fox could be undertaken either with terriers, by digging, or by filling up the tunnels of its burrow with smoke; on the evidence of All’s Well and King Lear, Shakespeare’s habit was to think of it in connection with smoking out (see the action in the lower right of figure 4). Once in the open, the fox would either be trapped in nets and killed without ceremony (often by clubbing) or run to its death by hounds.

It was rare for “unkennelling” to be employed outside the immediate context of the hunt, but by the time he came to write Hamlet, Shakespeare had already turned it to comic effect in the Merry Wives. That Falstaff is being unkennelled by the unhappy husbands of Windsor on account of his lechery sheds further light on Hamlet’s use of the term. Through it, Hamlet figures Claudius’s guilt, and by extension Claudius himself, as something base. Unlike the deer or the hare (which, with the boar, were categorised as beasts “of venery” or “of the chase”), early modern hunting literature envisages the fox as unsuitable for the hunt. Rather, it was vermin—a pest, something that harmed livestock and poultry, and whose low cunning was vouchsafed by its characteristic “stink”. It was thus to be exterminated without the rites extended to beasts of venery; only in the eighteenth century would the foxhunt assume its status as the socially pre-­eminent recreation of English rural life. (That said, chasing the fox was clearly an acceptable pastime for sixteenth-­century huntsmen and hounds deprived by season or happenstance of the chance to pursue deer, and its popularity seems comfortably to antedate its dignity. Writing in the 1580s, the historian William Harrison suggested that foxes would already have been eradicated but for being “preserved by gentlemen to hunt and have pastime withal”.)

The status of the fox as vermin is nicely confirmed by Jonson’s Volpone, where the eponymous protagonist is to be taken in a “fox-­trap”, rather than by more dignified means. More elaborately, compare Suffolk’s disparagement of Duke Humphrey in 2 Henry VI:

let him die in that he is a fox,

By nature proved an enemy to the flock . . .

And do not stand on quillets how to slay him;

Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,

Sleeping or waking, ’tis no matter how,

So he be dead.

In the case of Claudius (as, in Suffolk’s eyes, of Duke Humphrey), the fox carries a further charge of tyrannical illegitimacy: chapter 18 of Machiavelli’s Prince infamously exhorts the ruler to imitate vulpine dishonesty when the situation demands it. As excerpted in Francesco Sansovino’s popular compilation of political maxims (no complete English translation of Machiavelli’s text was published in print until 1640), princes ought to follow the examples of “the Fox and the Lyon: in respect that the Lyon dooth not defend him selfe from snares: nor the Fox dooth not defende himselfe from wolfes. Therfore it is necessary to be a Fox, to know how to discypher snares: and a Lyon, to make the wolfes afraid”.

Tacitus had made it plain that politics are the province of bait, traps, and snares, and if playing the fox sometimes involved simulating virtue or breaking a vow, such was the nature of prudent statecraft. But in England and further afield, it was precisely these fox-­like qualities—or, rather, the fear that they would extend to predation—that made Machiavelli seem so dangerous to the conservative, timid, squeamish, pious, or ideologically overcommitted. Oliver St John was none of these things. And yet, when necessary, he was quick to profess pious idealism and a reassuringly conservative frame of reference: addressing the House of Lords in April 1641, he sought to persuade it that Thomas Wentworth (first Earl of Strafford and principal instrument of Charles I’s personal rule) should be tried by bill of attainder, rather than with benefit of law. Wentworth’s record of unconstitutional tyranny was such an abomination that he had rendered himself unworthy of due process: “we give law to Hares and Deeres, because they be beasts of Chase; It was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock Foxes and Wolves on the head, as they can be found, because these be beasts of prey: The Warrener sets traps for Powlcats and other Vermine, for preservation of the Warren”. St John’s performance is one of which Hamlet might have been proud. Despite his case resting on the flimsiest of legal grounds, his artfully expressed insistence that Wentworth needed to die for the good of the state ensured Wentworth’s condemnation to the scaffold.

By proposing to “catch” Claudius’s conscience and “unkennel” his guilt, Hamlet shows that his mind is already made up: while professing to put his uncle to the test, he at once belittles him and underscores his unfitness to rule. Further, the notion that Claudius should be hunted and caught like vermin is one to which he soon returns. In response to Claudius’s query as to the name of the play he is about to stage, Hamlet announces that his adaptation of the Murder of Gonzago is called “The Mousetrap—marry, how tropically!” (3.2.232). The notion of a mouse hunt might seem parodic, but the trapping of mice and rats was as much a part of early modern hunting as the pursuit of larger vermin like foxes. The full title of Leonard Mascall’s 1590 handbook on how to construct and operate traps is instructive: A Booke of Engines and Traps to Take Polcats, Buzardes, Rattes, Mice, and all other Kindes of Vermine and Beasts Whatsoever, Most Profitable for all Warriners, and such as Delight in this Kinde of Sport and Pastime. Another good example is the magnificent woodcut frontispiece that is reproduced in figure 5: here, mouse trapping takes its place alongside almost every conceivable sort of early modern hunting, fishing, and fowling. Like this woodcut, Mascall makes clear that the commonest and most reliable mousetraps were those that captured the mouse in a box or other container, not dissimilar to the “humane” versions sold in the twenty-­first century (see figure 6). As Gascoigne imagines it, “the Mouse, once caught in crafty trap, / May bounce and beate, agaynst the boorden wall, / Till shee have brought hir head in such mishape, / That doune to death hir fainting lymbes must fall”. Hamlet may be trying to bring Claudius’s conscience and guilt out into the open, but in revealing Claudius’s true nature, he hopes to enclose him in a place from which he cannot escape. Although Hamlet’s depiction of his uncle as vermin will soon be supplanted by other hunting metaphors, he returns to it when he thinks he might be stabbing Claudius through the arras: “A rat! Dead for a ducat, dead” (3.4.23).

Viewing the play-­within-­the-­play, Claudius rises in distress or alarm once he has seen the character Hamlet announces as the “nephew” to the Player King (3.2.239) pour poison into the ear of his uncle. Polonius calls off the performance, and Hamlet begins to exult. He is convinced that he’s got his man. And yet Hamlet has a problem: Claudius has departed the scene and thereby escaped the trap that had been laid for him. By Gascoigne’s reckoning, Hamlet should be concerned: “The Mouse which once hath broken out of trappe, / Is seldome tysed with the trustlesse bayte: / But lieth aloofe, for feare of more mishappe, / And feedeth still in doubt of deepe disceipt”. As it happens, Hamlet is unperturbed. He responds to Claudius’s departure by changing the metaphor, just as he will do when discussing the clouds with Polonius some hundred lines later. He transforms Claudius from a fox or a mouse into a deer. Specifically, one attacked in a bow and stable hunt: “What, frighted with false fire?” (3.2.260). This “false fire” is ironic on two levels—one rudimentary, the other less so. Hamlet believes that Claudius could only have taken offence at the Mousetrap if he recognised in it an image of his crimes: the play could not thus touch those with “free souls” (3.2.236). Less clear, but of far greater consequence for this chapter, is that “false fire” also refers to the blank shots fired by hunters and poachers to drive deer towards carefully positioned toils, nets, and bowmen. The play may only be a form of make-­believe, but it has sufficed to “start” Claudius and to drive him into Hamlet’s trap.

Hamlet’s estimation of his success with the Mousetrap does not stop here. After everyone other than Horatio has hurried off stage, he develops his theme by quoting from what appears to be an old ballad: “Why, let the strucken deer go weep, / The hart ungalled play” (3.2.265–66). A crucial feature of the formally conducted drive hunt was that it did not take either bucks (male fallow deer of more than five years’ age) or harts (male red deer, or stags, of more than five years’ age, generally with significant antler development—the noblest of all the animals hunted in medieval and early modern England). These were reserved for the chase, though the season for this elite form of hunting was restricted to the summer. A herd would be driven towards the stable of bowmen, and the larger males would be allowed to pass through, or would be released from any nets unharmed; by contrast, the female and juvenile deer (or “rascals”) would come under concerted attack. For the most part, the injuries sustained in this process would not result in instant death. Where nets had not been used, a deer would thus suffer greatly in striving to escape; the huntsman would use his dogs to follow the deer’s blood trail before finishing it off. This is the spectacle that incites Jaques’s mordant pity in As You Like It.

With such considerations in mind, two features of Hamlet’s lines on the deer and the hart need to be stressed. First, while Hamlet elevates Claudius within the venatorial order of things by imagining him as a deer rather than a fox or a mouse or a woodcock, he still views his uncle as a lesser sort of beast. Not a hart, and not fully regal. Second, Hamlet does not share Jaques’s sentiments. Not only is he pleased to have started or roused Claudius through the Mousetrap, but he believes that he has wounded him. Claudius may have fled, but he can be tracked without much further ado before being dispatched in the appropriate fashion. In boasting of what he takes to be his triumph, Hamlet’s suggestion that he might be worth “a fellowship in a cry of players” (3.2.271–72) is fitting. “Cry” was a standard collective noun for hunting dogs, and Hamlet implies his belief that in performing the Mousetrap, the Players had joined with him in hounding the guilty man. The seventeenth-­century editors and compositors responsible for the Second, Third, and Fourth Folio texts were clearly taken with the notion of Claudius as a prey animal. When Hamlet holds up to his mother the “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”, he compares Claudius to “a mildew’d ear [of corn] / Blasting [i.e., blighting] his wholesome brother” (3.4.34–35). In the Second Folio, “ear” is emended to “deare”, and in the Third and Fourth, to “Deer”.

A final manifestation of Hamlet’s hunt for Claudius is found in the First Folio text, at the end of Act 4 Scene 2. Here, Hamlet parts from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the words “hide Fox, and all after” (TLN 1659). Quite possibly, Hamlet is offering to play a form of hide-­and-­seek (just as he has hidden Polonius’s body, so he will now hide himself), and he is without doubt relishing the effects of his unpredictable and incongruous behaviour. All the same, his principal sense relates to Claudius. Hamlet submits to being brought before his uncle, but does so while asserting that as his uncle’s true nature is now out in the open, it is only a matter of time before he—Hamlet—will run him down.

As discussed above, Hamlet takes exception to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pursuing him like birds of prey or drive hunters with nets. His irritation at them is particularly intense because he infers that they are doing Claudius’s bidding; in the fishing metaphor that Hamlet shares with Horatio after his tumultuous voyage to England, Claudius has “Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (5.2.66). Claudius is thus made to resemble the Machiavellian stereotypes of the late-­sixteenth-­century stage. Compare Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, a play seemingly reread with care by Shakespeare in late 1598 or early 1599. Here, Lorenzo ruminates on the importance of scheming at one remove—and of being able to manipulate his confederate, Balthazar, into conducting dishonourable business on his behalf:

I lay the plot, he prosecutes the point;

I set the trap, he breaks the worthless twigs,

And sees not that wherewith the bird was limed.

Thus hopeful men, that mean to hold their own,

Must look like fowlers to their dearest friends.

He runs to kill whom I have holp to catch,

And no man knows it was my reaching fatch.

Claudius is never so crudely explicit in his strategizing, but he and Lorenzo have learned from the same master.

Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will become the unsuspecting agents of Claudius’s first attempt to kill Hamlet, their initial task is only to seek out the causes of Hamlet’s disaffection. In this regard, however, their efforts are overshadowed by those of a courtier who is older and pushier by far, and who becomes convinced that he can give Claudius and Gertrude the intelligence they desire.

Before turning his attentions to Hamlet, Polonius already regards himself as a master of the politic huntsman’s craft. His conviction that Hamlet was attempting to snare Ophe­lia’s “woodcock” is discussed above. A little later, he advises Reynaldo how best to gauge Laertes’s conduct in Paris: he should deploy the “bait of falsehood” to take “the carp of truth”. He then expands on his recommendation in typically sententious fashion: “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out” (2.1.63–66). The angling metaphor behind the “bait of falsehood” needs no further explication; a windlass is the oblique route taken by a hunter either to intercept his prey or to establish a more advantageous position from which to shoot at it; “bias” is not a hunting metaphor, but is the weight in a lawn bowl that enables the player to aim far to the left or the right of his target, and for the bowl to curve in towards it. Even so, “assays” is an importantly freighted term, and hints that Polonius might not be wholly complacent. It denotes an experiment, trial, or attempt and connotes his understanding that statecraft—like bowls, hunting, warfare, or monitoring the behaviour of one’s son and heir—is an inexact science.

This awareness foreshadows Polonius’s revised conclusion that Hamlet had not, after all, professed his love to Ophe­lia in bad faith: “I fear’d he did but trifle / And meant to wrack thee. But beshrew my jealousy!” Unable to resist the urge to moralize, Polonius continues that “it is as proper to our age / To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions / As it is common for the younger sort / To lack discretion” (2.1.111–17). This self-­criticism is courageous and humane—and remains so even if we suppose that his courage has its origins in the knowledge that a genuine match between Hamlet and Ophe­lia would be good for his family. Despite his theatrical origins in the Pantalone figure of the commedia dell’arte, to say nothing of the way he is often played, Polonius was not written as a caricature of flimsily moralistic expediency. He grants that he has been fussily overprotective of his daughter, acknowledges that this may have led him to miss the lovesick truth behind Hamlet’s disaffectedness, and wryly concludes that such errors are the lot of old men prone to distorting the present through the prism of their former experiences. In so doing, he imagines himself as a hunting dog that has exceeded the relevant terrain in seeking the scent of a deer or hare. A hound was trained to “cast about” by ranging in ever-­wider circuits or “compasses” around the hunting ground, until the intended prey’s trail was picked up. Edward Topsell elaborates in helpfully comparable terms. Discussing the intellectual attributes of dogs, he reports the opinion that they “have reason, & use logick in their hunting for they will cast about for the game, as a disputant doth for the truth, as if they should say either the Hare is gone on the left hand, or on the right hand, or straight forward, but not on the left or right hand and therefore straight forward”. Although generally efficient, this manner of proceeding was not always effective, especially if the prey had adopted the precaution of doubling back on itself to confuse its pursuers. On Gascoigne’s account, if the hunter “when he hath cast aboute, do not finde that the Hare is gone out beyonde the compasse that he casteth, then lette him call backe his houndes to the place where they first came at default”. The hounds would then try to locate the scent closer by. Hunting for the source of Hamlet’s transformation nearer to home is exactly what Polonius now proposes to do.

Having located Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius’s confidence in his new conclusions is clear:

I do think—or else this brain of mine

Hunts not the trail of policy so sure

As it hath us’d to do—that I have found

The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy. (2.2.46–49)

Slightly less than a hundred lines later, he comes to the point. It is Hamlet’s frustrated love for Ophe­lia that has driven him “Into the madness wherein now he raves” (2.2.150). Politically speaking, this claim leads Polonius into dangerous territory: he needs not to sound like he is conniving to advance his family’s interests. But his theory fits the known facts of Hamlet’s case well. Despite Gertrude’s earlier judgement that Hamlet’s woes were the result of “no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage” (2.2.56–57), she and Claudius are persuaded that it has merit. Polonius need only find and establish the proofs that would elevate his conjecture beyond mere plausibility. He is bullish:

If circumstances lead me, I will find

Where the truth is hid, though it were hid indeed

Within the centre. (2.2.157–59)

The medium through which he proposes to confirm the truth of his analysis is directly equivalent to that employed in Hamlet’s attempt to “unkennel” Claudius’s guilt through the Mousetrap: “I’ll loose my daughter to him”, before retiring with Claudius to “Mark the encounter” behind the discretion of an arras (2.2.162–64). To “loose” one’s hunting dogs is to uncouple them from their leashes and to set them at their prey. Polonius proposes to use Ophe­lia to flush Hamlet’s purportedly romantic agony into the open.

Unfortunately for Polonius, the encounter between Hamlet and Ophe­lia does not go as planned. Ahead of time, we see Polonius choreographing her movements (“Read on this book, / That show of such exercise may colour your loneliness” [3.1.44–46]), and it seems safe to assume that he also gives her the benefit of the rhetorical coaching that he offers to Reynaldo before sending him after Laertes. Either way, the manner in which she tries to take the initiative is singularly ill-­judged and has her father’s stamp all over it; although conceived as an exercise in pious coquetry, it soon becomes agonizingly pathetic. She begins, “My lord, I have remembrances of yours / That I have longed long to redeliver” (3.1.93–94), before working up to the culmination of her strategic theme: “Their perfume lost, / Take these again; for to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” (3.1.99–101). To deliver these lines as she does demands nerve: she gives every impression of believing that it was Hamlet who had suddenly refused to see her; that it has been she who has been suffering the pangs of unexplained rejection. This deliberate tactlessness is designed as an amatory provocation, but instead it generates rage—and could perhaps be counted on to tax the good graces of a lover who had not already fixated on feminine weakness and inconstancy. As it is, and whether or not Hamlet suspects Ophe­lia of betraying their former relationship by working for the court as a sort of honeytrap, he exploits his antic disposition to turn on her with a savagery that is at once retributive and ­calculating. Claudius’s assessment, offered after the event, is no less powerful 
for its litotic understatement: “Love? His affections do not that way tend” (3.1.164).

In a different play, Polonius’s thwarted hunt might be fashioned as a comic set-­piece: the insufferable in full pursuit of the wilfully inscrutable. But here there is no resolution, no witty payoff. The outcome, by any reckoning, is a disaster. Aside from the artlessness of the lines that he feeds to Ophe­lia (whose boldly executed acquiescence in her father’s scheming leaves her tragically out of her depth), Polonius fails to recognise or to suspect that Hamlet also thinks of himself as a hunter. Although Hamlet is unaware that Polonius and Claudius are witnessing their meeting, he does not hesitate to use Ophe­lia as a pawn, played with cruel disregard to ensure that the powers-­that-­be hear more of his antic disposition.

Polonius’s “circumstances” denote another important nexus of early modern hunting discourse, that of inventio, the first and most important of the five canons of classical rhetoric. Though often translated as “invention”, inventio is better thought of as a sort of discovery. For the well-­trained humanist orator, or even for the Elizabethan grammar-­school boy, it had two aspects: first, discovering the facts of the case; and second, discovering—or, rather, creatively re-­discovering—pertinent and persuasive arguments prearranged within the imaginary space of one’s “places”. Thomas Wilson’s summation is characteristically lucid: the “finding out of apt matter, called otherwise invention, is a searching out of things true or things likely, the which may reasonably set forth a matter and make it appear probable”. In another work, Wilson elaborates on this process of search and discovery through a metaphor common to many humanist educational handbooks. Explaining what “a place is”, he reminds his readers that

[t]hose that bee good hare finders will soone finde the hare by her fourme. For when thei see the ground beaten flatte round about, and faire to the sighte: thei have a narrow gesse by al likelihode that the hare was there a litle before. Likewise the Huntesman in huntyng the foxe, wil soone espie when he seeth a hole, whether it be a foxe borough, or not. So he that will take profite in this parte of Logique, must be like a hunter, and learne by labour to knowe the boroughes. For these places bee nothing elles, but covertes or boroughes, wherein if any one searche diligentlie, he maie finde game at pleasure.

Some of the most elementary places, or topics, of invention are what Cicero and Quintilian call the “circumstances”. These take the form of a set of questions through which to frame the attributes of the case before formulating arguments about it, and are usually (though by no means always) seven in number: who, what, where, with what help, why, how, and when. They were useful in three only tangentially related areas: in establishing proofs; in determining decorum, or the appropriate style and tone in which to address a particular audience; and in structuring and making vivid a rhetorical narration. As his emphasis on discovering the truth suggests, Polonius refers to the first of these, and thereby reprises his earlier confidence that Ophe­lia had explained Hamlet’s attempts to woo her “As they fell out by time, by means, and place” (2.2.126). His usage exactly echoes that of Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy: suspicious that the letter left for him by Bel-­Imperia may be intended to trap him, he resolves that “I therefore will by circumstances try / What I can gather to confirm this writ”. “What I can gather”: Hieronimo remains mindful of his limited competency to judge, of the need to collect as much evidence of possible, and of the need not to overexpose himself. By contrast, Polonius’s complacency drives his speech some distance ahead of his judgement. The wherewithal required to employ the circumstantiae—which is to say, pertinent contextual data—is what he lacks, and is what he seeks in observing Hamlet’s encounter with Ophe­lia. To put it differently, Polonius has a hypothesis that following the trail of the circumstances might enable him to prove right, but before they can do so, he needs to unearth more information. Hamlet, pursuing an agenda of his own, fails to oblige him with it. In Polonius’s eyes, this merely leaves the case unproven. He hopes to learn enough to stand up his hypothesis from observing another staged interview, this time between Hamlet and his mother (3.1.178–87). Although he does not yet have an explanatory theory of his own, Claudius knows better.

One final point on Polonius the avowedly politic huntsman. The simulation, dissimulation, and stealth that he commends to Reynaldo (“put on him / What forgeries you please” [2.1.19–20]) might be defensible in matters of state. Even for those who viewed fully articulated doctrines of ragion di stato (“reason of state”) as unconscionably Machiavellian, the arcana imperii of prudent statecraft had its uses; sometimes, the virtuous ruler has recourse to stratagems, and to moral considerations, that are best shielded from the common eye. In the words of the essayist William Cornwallis, as the prince is “conversant with multitudes, [he] must sometime go about & seek out by-­waies, which action in him may be vertuous though in the other it would be termed dishonest”. Unfortunately for Polonius, he does not confine his plotting to the political sphere, and allows it to contaminate the domains both of oeconomics (the way in which he attempts to manage his family’s affairs) and ethics (the way he conducts himself). As such, he typifies an order of moral turpitude that extends far beyond the complexities attendant on what, after Kantorowicz, might be thought of as the two bodies inhabited by Hamlet and the Danish royal family. Polonius imagines himself set apart by wiliness, experience, and commitment to the greater good. The reality is that in seeking to dominate and to manipulate his children through guile (Laertes) and force (Ophe­lia), he employs the theory of politic hunting in his own interests rather than those of the state. His narrowness of moral vision propagates a culture of suspicion and deceit that he is ill-­equipped to navigate, within which he—along with his luckless family—will shortly find himself consumed. To invert Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation, he is a study in the evil of banality.

Commerce of Cunning

Shakespeare thus crafts a play world in which hunter and prey are interchangeable, and in which the art of hunting carries little trace of the nobility claimed for it by Gascoigne. The members of the Danish court may be unexceptional in their preoccupation with hunting, falconry, fowling, and fishing, but in Shakespeare’s vision these everyday activities become the analogues of dishonour, dishonesty, and moral debasement.

It would be surprising if this comprehension of the hunt did not owe something to the experiences of Shakespeare’s upbringing in rural Warwickshire. On Aubrey’s account, Shakespeare’s father was a butcher, and when young William would help him kill a calf, “he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech”. The anecdote is biographically uncertain—and may simply reflect the tradition of Christmas mumming plays alluded to in Hamlet’s jibe about Polonius playing Julius Caesar—but it is not hard to extrapolate from it an imaginative intelligence that would, as Shakespeare’s writings of the 1590s constantly do, make a show of presenting things from the dual perspectives of hunter and animal prey. Jaques’s reflections on the “sobbing deer” in As You Like It are the pre-­eminent example. However, as Claus Uhlig established some time ago, these lines have an intellectual and cultural genealogy that goes far beyond the imponderables of Shakespearean biography. For one prominent if, in this respect, marginal group of moralizing humanists, the hunt pandered to the worst and most destructive instincts of humankind. Thomas More’s utopians famously amplify Cicero in disdaining hunting as an affront to their self-­image of compassionate civility. Like butchery, they delegate responsibility for it to their slaves, much as many non-­fictional societies have seen fit to delegate their killing (be it defensive, aggressive, or ideological) to professional soldiers, and ultimately to drones. But despite the prominence of More’s Utopia, it is Desiderius Erasmus who contributes the most penetrating and coherent voice to this anti-­hunting tradition, one to which Sidney would turn in the first book of his prose Arcadia. Erasmus’s personified Folly mocks the fastidious solemnity involved in ritually dismembering—“undoing”, “unmaking”, or “breaking up”—the captured deer, contending that it can only be enjoyed through her gift of stultitia, or foolishness:

For as touchyng the death of a deare, or other wilde beast, ye know your selves, what ceremonies they use about the same. Every poore man maie cutte out an oxe, or a shepe, wheras suche venaison maie not be dismembred but of a gentilman: who bareheadded, and set on knees, with a knife prepared proprely to that use, (for every kynde of knife is not allowable) also with certaine iestures, cuttes a sunder certaine partes of the wildbeast, in a certaine order verie circumstantly. Whiche duryng, the standers by, not speakyng a worde, behold it solemnly, as if it were some holy Misterie, havyng seen the like yet more than a hundred tymes before. . . . So therfore wheras these hunters through continuall chasyng and eatyng of theyr venerie, gaine nothyng, but in a maner dooe them selfes also degenerate into wilde and salvage propretees, ye maie see yet, how through this errour of mine, thei repute theyr lyves ledde in more than princely pleasure.

Hunting confers only the illusion of nobility, and those who participate in it become “wilde and salvage” themselves. Worse than bestial, in fact. Unlike creatures such as hunting dogs, human beings are not by nature wholly animal; they are born with the capacity for moral deliberation and decision-­making, and efface this when killing wantonly.

Like More, Erasmus thus has a share in the hostility to the wasteful, and corrupting, excesses of noble hunting adumbrated in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus. But Erasmus draws on two other intellectual traditions: the account of primitive brutality found in book five of Lucretius’s De rerum natura; and the comprehension of the animalistic qualities needed to succeed in the hunt derivable from the ancient Greeks, in particular the Cynegetica and Halieutica of the second-­ and third-­century poets going by the shared name of Oppian.

For Lucretius, the venatorial lifestyle was an expression of the human condition before the advent of domesticity, language, and civilisation: primitive, but very far from innocent. It was an all but feral community of appetitive violence, with human beings competing against one another and the animals on whom they preyed—whose flesh they ate for nutrition, whose skins they wore to ward off the cold, and whose superior vision allowed them to hunt their human predators by night. Only with the passage of time would humankind, by stages, assume the characteristics with which to distinguish itself from the rest of the animal world. Its appetites, variously hypostatised, remain. At the turn of the sixteenth century, the Lucretian vision was vividly adapted by the Florentine painter Piero di Cosimo, principally in his companion pieces The Hunt and Return from the Hunt. The first of these (see figure 7) shows a hunting landscape in which human and animal predation, and vulnerability, is indistinguishable. In the centre left, a man wearing a lion skin grapples with a bear attacking a lion attacking a bear; the look of helpless terror on his face suggests that he is set to join the corpse on the lower right hand side of the painting, replete with a slashed throat and defensive wounds to his arms.

By contrast to Lucretius, the stadial model of history in Ovid’s Metamorphoses relies on a version of “golden age” thinking in which nature has, since its creation, been in a state of perpetual decline. The killing of animals by hunting, trapping, and fishing nonetheless fares badly, especially when filtered through the Pythagorean philosophy of Ovid’s book 15: along with warfare, it is a marker of the degeneration into the final and most debased of the four ages, the “iron”. Others, following John of Salisbury, worked biblical variations on the theme. In Cornelius Agrippa’s typically forthright phrase­ology, “This Arte at the beginning of the worlde, was the chiefest exercise of moste wicked menne and sinners, for the holy Scripture declareth that Caine, Lamech, Nimbrot, Ismael, and Esawe were sturdy Hunters”. “Huntinge”, Agrippa proceeds, was thus “the beginninge of Tyrannye, because it findeth no Authoure more meete then him, whiche hathe learned to dispise God, and nature, in the slaughter and boocherie of wilde beastes”. Hunters are no better than heathens or those who actively reject the pastoral truths of the Judeo-­Christian God.

Although Oppian was untroubled by the moral or existential status of hunting, he viewed it in related terms. For him, it depended on μῆτις (mētis), the instinctive practical skill that when refined by habit enabled the likes of navigators to navigate, wrestlers to wrestle, and foxes successfully to evade their predators and entrap their prey. Mētis involves physical dexterity—the swift eye and nimble hand vital to all the mechanical arts—but for Oppian its most important characteristic was the quick-­witted propensity to disarm one’s opponents through either simulation (pretending to be what one is not) or dissimulation (pretending not to be what one is). Mētis is in many respects close to the Aristotelian φρόνησις (phronēsis), also glossed a form of “practical wisdom”, but lacks the ethical charge with which Aristotle invested his term; mētis is morally ambiguous, in that exercising it holds no intrinsic virtue and could conduce to good or ill. This distinction comes across well in Latin: mētis is equivalent to calliditas, astus/astutia, and sollertia (shrewd or apt quickness of mind, an ability possessed by many animals, including human beings), while phronēsis is equivalent to prudentia (the good sense to function within the morally established order of things, a virtue possessed by human beings alone). In early modern English, the attributes represented by mētis and calliditas are located in the semantic fields of slyness, craftiness, subtlety, or guile. Most frequently, however, they are translated as “cunning”, a term that in its early modern usage elides the ambiguous moral terrain between more and less decorous forms of practical wisdom. Bacon notes that “We take Cunning for a Sinister or Crooked Wisedome” (and later attributes related forms of “wisdome” to rats, foxes, and crocodiles), while for the OED, “cunning” denotes both “Knowledge how to do a thing; ability, skill, expertness, dexterity, cleverness”, and “Skill employed in a secret or underhand manner, or for purposes of deceit; skilful deceit, craft, artifice”. Although Gascoigne frequently evinces pity for the animals pursued in the hunt, such ambiguities do not suit his purpose. The Noble Arte avoids them accordingly. Other early modern hunting literature is less encumbered: precisely because prey animals are so imbued with “cunning”, “cunning” is the sine qua non of hunter and hound, falconer and hawk.

Shakespeare well understood this sense of “cunning”, along with the ambiguities to which it was heir. A hare seeks to evade “cunning hounds” in Venus and Adonis, and in King John, Salisbury attributes to Hubert the predatory slyness of the crocodile: “Trust not the cunning waters of his eyes, / For villainy is not without such rheum”. As this second example intimates, Shakespeare had a firm grasp on the centrality of cunning to the hunt, on both literal and metaphorical levels. For instance, as Bassanio opts for the lead casket in The Merchant of Venice, he explains why he is passing on the gold and silver versions: they remind him of that “seeming truth, which cunning times put on / To entrap the wisest”. Bassanio’s shrewdness is well rewarded. But compare Angelo and Troilus, who both turn to venatorial cunning in flattering themselves that they are set apart from the everyday appetites that drive their worlds. Faced by the magnitude of his desire for Isabella, Angelo’s self-­righteousness can only detect the devil’s handiwork: “O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint, / With saints dost bait thy hook”. The devil had long been figured as one who hunted or fished for human souls, and as the quintessence of cunning in its negative sense; Angelo uses him to conceal his lust from his devout self-­regard. Meanwhile Troilus, parting from Cressida, attempts to bind her to his ardent and professedly artless devotion: “Whiles others fish with craft for great opinion, / I with great truth catch mere simplicity; / Whilst some with cunning gild their copper crowns, / With truth and plainness I do wear mine bare”. By projecting the cunning of others, both Troilus and Angelo insulate themselves against the realities of their appetitive strategizing.

The use of “cunning” in Hamlet is analogous. Recalling the underappreciated work that he once saw performed by the visiting company of actors, Hamlet describes it as “an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning” (2.2.435–37). A little later in the scene, once he has resolved to stage an adaptation of the Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet pinpoints the “cunning of the scene” (2.2.585) as the quality that will strike Claudius and cause him to reveal or confirm his guilt. On the most basic level, “cunning” here denotes the art or craft necessary to write and to perform a work of drama; dramatic performance is a mechanical art whose successful realisation is in the gift of practical wisdom. But “cunning” also gestures towards Hamlet’s use of drama as a tool in another mechanical art—hunting, and specifically in Hamlet’s hunt for his uncle’s fratricidal guilt. Compare The Taming of the Shrew, where at the outset the Lord (just returned from a hunting trip) asks a visiting troupe of players to help him gull the drunken Sly: “I have some sport in hand / Wherein your cunning can assist me much”. As in Hamlet, the wordplay here is not particularly advanced, but the ease with which different significations of “cunning” can seep into one another is manifest. Another instance of “cunning” comes from the closet scene. Gertrude insists that the Ghost (with which Hamlet claims to converse, but which she cannot see, or hear) “is the very coinage of your brain. / This bodiless creation ecstasy / Is very cunning in” (3.4.139–41). Her syntax is tricky, but her meaning is plain: Hamlet thinks he has seen a ghost because madness (“ecstasy”) is exceptionally cunning in fabricating delusional visions in the minds of those affected by it. Once again, “cunning” is conceived of as an instrumental quality—one that can be exploited for good and ill alike.

Even so, the most decisive use of “cunning” in the play is Horatio’s catalogue “Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause, /And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads” (5.2.388–90). For Horatio, although the play’s protagonists all sought to exercise their cunning in hunting one another down, they ended up caught in their own springs, tangled in their own nets, hoist with their own petards—and so forth. As death comes accidentally or (in the cases of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Claudius) opportunistically, a further implication of Horatio’s lines is that the dead were far from competent hunters. Hamlet fails either to unkennel Claudius’s guilt or to confine his person in a mousetrap. When he strikes through the arras of his mother’s closet, he kills the wrong “rat”. In finding himself at the end of Hamlet’s blade, Polonius has followed the wrong trail. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sighted and outmanoeuvred by their prey, as in their different ways are Ophe­lia, Gertrude, and Laertes. Although hunting is a stochastic art in which a success can never be presumed, Shakespeare’s Danes show little sign of being equal to its demands.

With his usual perspicuity, Claudius is alert to the problem. But he is not in a position to do much about it. As a prudent Machiavellian, he has elected to reduce his exposure by hunting through others; he is therefore limited by the competence of his agents. For instance, in attempting to minimise the reputational damage that he might suffer as a result of Polonius’s death, Claudius hopes that his politicking will divert the “cannon” of rumour, causing it to “miss our name / And hit the woundless air” (4.1.41–44). His efforts at evasion and diversion seem to succeed: Laertes’s rebellion turns out to be a squib. Later, when explaining to Laertes that he could not directly pursue Hamlet without arousing popular outrage, Claudius suggests that were he to have done so, “my arrows, / Too slightly timber’d for so loud a wind, / Would have reverted to my bow again, / And not where I had aim’d them” (4.7.21–24). The weapons at his disposal are unfit for the task at hand. Using them would be to resemble an archer shooting into the wind with arrows that are not heavy enough to penetrate it: they would be blown off course and would fail to hit their intended mark. He has therefore turned to different weapons in seeking to give Hamlet his due.

Shakespeare recalls Claudius’s lines when, as Claudius disingenuously urges Hamlet and Laertes to reconcile, Hamlet disclaims responsibility for the murder of Polonius and his abuse of Ophe­lia: “What I have done / That might your nature, honour, and exception / Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness” (5.2.226–28). After describing this madness as “poor Hamlet’s enemy”, Hamlet returns to the first person by exhorting Laertes to “Let my disclaiming from a purpos’d evil / Free me so far in your most generous thoughts / That I have shot my arrow o’er the house / And hurt my brother” (5.2.235–39). In wronging Laertes while in the clutches of madness, he has resembled an archer who, while practising his craft at home, misses his target and inadvertently harms his sibling. Given Hamlet’s frequent punning, there is also a potential quibble on “house”. Hamlet had meant to move against the head of his own royal “house” when stabbing through the arras and forcing Ophe­lia to corroborate his antic disposition, but in each case failed to find his mark. Either way, something rings false in these lines, beyond even their self-­exculpatory flight from particularity: Hamlet in no sense registers the enormity of having killed Polonius or driven Ophe­lia to her death. So sorry. I wasn’t in my right mind when killing your father and fatally wounding your sister. And while I was doing so, offending you couldn’t have been further from my thoughts. Can’t we just move on? Unsatisfactory though Laertes must find this travesty of an apology, the fact that he is himself only feigning reconciliation in the lead up to their fencing match allows him to maintain his composure, matching dissimulation with dissimulation. Speaking personally (“in nature”), he assures Hamlet that he is happy enough to let bygones be bygones. But he also insists that “in terms of [his] honour” he must “stand aloof” a while longer, awaiting adjudication of his loss “by some elder masters of known honour” (5.2.240–44). Osric senior, perhaps. In reality, Laertes plans to kill Hamlet within minutes. If all goes well and Claudius does not feel the need for a scapegoat on whom to pin the blame for Hamlet’s sudden death, Laertes will be well-­placed to assume the position of his erstwhile “brother” as nominated heir to the throne.

In his Art of Rhetoric, Thomas Wilson lists numerous representative examples of social weakness and venality that the orator might relate in order to win the goodwill of his listeners by amusing them. Many of these originate in Cicero’s De oratore and have parallels in Castiglione’s Cortegiano. One relates to

a pleasant kind of dissembling when two meet together, and the one cannot well abide the other, and yet the both outwardly strive to use pleasant behavior, and to show much courtesy, yea, to contend on both parts which should pass other in using of fair words and making lively countenances, seeking by dissembling the one to deceive the other.

In telling of the encounter between Laertes and Hamlet, Shakespeare allows for no such pleasurably ironizing distance: their mutual dissembling succinctly encapsulates a world of moral decrepitude. However one might construe it, “honour” here really is just a word. It is, furthermore, one deployed with deft cunning, and ensures that Hamlet stays off his guard as Laertes prepares to murder him. The trap will nevertheless fail to accomplish its ends, and will fall back on the heads of Laertes and Claudius alike.

The emphasis of Hamlet on the self-­destructiveness of hunters is not in itself very remarkable. In the Geneva version, the first part of Ecclesiastes 10 treats of the “the difference of foolishness and wisdom”. Verse 8 has the Solomonic preacher warning against seditious folly with a trapping metaphor: “He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it”. The moral is repeated in Proverbs 26:27, and cognate forms of it appear in numerous biblical texts. In each case, conniving to harm one’s neighbours or to undermine the established order makes the offender equivalent to one who falls into the concealed pit with which he has tried to trap wild animals. Such language was understandably appealing to dramatists working in the revenge tragedy tradition, in which the act of vengeance more often than not gives the revenger a share in the crime he sets out to put right. When the eponymous anti-­hero of Henry Chettle’s Tragedy of Hoffman is about to suffer the fate that he has visited on numerous others, his opponent exclaims “Fox, you’ll be taken; hunter you are fallen / Into the pit you digged”. Christopher Marlowe, flamboyant as ever, had already vaulted ahead: rather than have his Barabas suffer the indignity of an execution seasoned with the show of Christian sanctimony, Marlowe punishes him for his treachery by having him literally fall into the “deepe pit past recovery”—in fact, a cauldron—that he has set up to trap Calymath. Shakespeare himself was drawn to the spirit if not the letter of these formulations, and has Lucrece attempt to console herself with the thought that time’s glories include the ability “To mock the subtle in themselves beguiled”. Why is Hamlet a better play than those by Chettle and Marlowe? The distillation of one answer is that in it, Shakespeare eschews the temptations of either cut-­price piety or gory retribution. Purposes mistook fallen on their inventors’ heads, like the vast majority of the topoi and traditions appropriated by Shakespeare, are only his starting point. In place of moralistic didacticism, he converts venatorial discourse into the emblem of a moral order that is disconnected from itself—one in which everyone is alienated from everyone else, and not just from the pantomime Machiavels amongst them.

Just as much as Erasmus, the Shakespeare of Hamlet sees hunting as an expression of the community and commerce of cunning—of interchangeably animalistic guile masquerading as virtue, of appetitive force disguising itself beneath the ceremonial brocade of nobility. Where Shakespeare differs from his great humanist predecessor is that he does not therefore condemn hunting as a deviation from a gold standard of morality. In his hands it is a metaphor through which to comprehend the way things are, however disagreeable these might seem to be. Consider Hamlet’s remarks after informing Claudius that Polonius’s corpse is providing dinner for a “convocation of politic worms”: “we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots” (4.3.20–23). Humankind eats animals to sustain itself, and yet the human body must ultimately serve as food for animals. Claudius seems thrown, and Hamlet continues with reference to angling: “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm” (4.3.27–28). As attested by Hamlet’s palpable lack of preparedness when confronted with the skull of Yorick (5.1.166–209), these comments are not born of deep meditations on the human condition. Nor are they intended to sound as if they are. Hamlet is making a statement about the relationship between himself, Claudius, and Claudius’s agents: if Claudius thinks that he and his courtly apparatus stand above Hamlet, he is wrong. A fisherman, hunter, falconer, or fowler might be exceptionally skilful in his art, but he cannot thereby efface either his animal nature or what this represents. If human beings inhabit a world in which everything feeds on everything else, then notions of their ontological distinctiveness or of a hierarchy of natural virtue begin to seem ridiculous. In the sphere of moral philosophy, cunning is more than an agent of consuming decay. It becomes a universal solvent.

Though the true identity of the “serpent” is undisclosed to anyone but Hamlet (and through him to Horatio), Shakespeare has Old Hamlet die suffering the effects of ophidian guile (1.5.35–40). Nor is the Ghost able to transcend the contours of Elsinore’s cynegetic landscape. Barnardo describes how “it stalks away” (1.1.53), while Marcellus recalls how “twice before . . . at this dead hour, / With martial stalk he hath gone by our watch” (1.1.68–69). Of course, their immediate sense is that the Ghost, despite his heavily armoured appearance, makes no noise as he passes them; but stalking is also the unobtrusive means of proceeding favoured by the stealthy predator or huntsman. The Ghost is in pursuit of something—be it revenge, Hamlet, or the Norwegians against whom Francisco, Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio are standing guard. Then, the coming of the dawn forces him to flee. In Horatio’s words, he “started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons” (1.1.153–54). Just as a criminal seeking to escape justice resembles a deer or hare that has been “started”—that is, flushed out from its hiding place so that the chase can begin—so Horatio converts the Ghost into a presence as vulnerable as it is mysterious.

Transforming Saxo Grammaticus

The hunting language in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has one indisputable point of origin: the scheming and counter-­scheming between the Hamlet and Claudius figures in Belleforest, and behind that in books 3 and 4 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. Here, we find frequent reference to the combat of traps, snares, pursuit, guile—and to the Hamlet figure’s feats of often unfathomable cunning. In Belleforest, Hamlet’s enemies attempt to capture him in a metaphorical “net” (filet) so that he might be constrained to reveal the nature of his apparent distractedness.

How might Shakespeare have come to transform this relatively minor feature of the story into the paradigm that governs social and interpersonal relations in his Hamlet? Discounting a diagnosis of “talent” on the grounds that it asserts the obvious while shirking the responsibility to explain it, the potential answers are several. Most of them must be filtered through an awareness that some of this transformation might have been the work the playwright responsible for the Ur-­Hamlet—be that Thomas Kyd, Shakespeare himself, or another.

That said, one intriguing prospect does not demand the mediation of the Ur-­Hamlet. As Louise Schleiner has proposed, Shakespeare may have drawn on a now lost two-­part production of Aeschylus’s Oresteia put on by Chettle and Dekker in early 1599; Aeschylus depicts Orestes’s revenge and its consequences through a vision of the hunt whose all-­encompassing destructiveness is not too distant from that of Hamlet. Less speculative explanations are also available. For instance, when writing As You Like It in late 1598 or early 1599, Shakespeare had occasion to digest the anti-­hunting literature produced by the likes of Erasmus, along with the conviction (whether taken from Erasmus, Lucretius, or Oppian) that successful hunting depended on the indulgence of humankind’s more animalistic qualities. Another possibility, vividly suggested by the pursuit of Falstaff—himself a shamelessly indiscriminate hunter—in the Merry Wives, is the cony-­catching, cozening, and rogue literatures of the 1590s and early 1600s. Within these, the trickster uses his wily cunning to entrap the innocent, and to relieve them of their purses. By “discovering” such practices to a broad audience, the narrative personae adopted by authors like Greene profess their intention to prevent the virtuous from falling prey to such threats by exposing them to the realities of criminal strategizing. And yet in voicing such “discoveries”, the qualitative distinctions between orderly virtue and quick-­witted chicanery start to erode: passing over the roguish charm of the cony-­catcher, to apprehend such a creature in law or on the page demands that one assume some of the cony-­catcher’s characteristics oneself.

The most compelling explanation for the hunting framework of Hamlet can be found in revenge tragedy, particularly in its Senecan inflection. Something of the sort is hinted at in the preceding references to Kyd, Marlowe, Chettle, and the two lost Aeschylus plays, but much literary excavation remains. One of Seneca’s great hunting moments comes in Thyestes, as Atreus explains his plans to avenge his twin brother for committing adultery with his wife, and for attempting to usurp his kingdom. I quote the text in Jasper Heywood’s thumping fourteeners:

Entrapp’d in train the beast is caught, and in the snare doth fall;

Both him, and eke of hated stock with him the offspring all

About the father’s side I see. And now in safety stands

And surest ground my wrathful hate. Now comes into my hands

At length Thyestes; yea, he comes, and all at once, to me!

I scant refrain myself, and scant may anger bridled be.

So when the bloodhound seeks the beast by step and quick of scent

Draws in the learn, and pace by pace to wind the ways he went

With nose to soil doth hunt, while he the boar aloof hath found

Far off by scent, he yet refrains and wanders through the ground

With silent mouth; but when at hand he once perceives the prey,

With all the strength he hath he strives, with voice and calls away

His ling’ring master, and from him by force out breaketh he.

When ire doth hope the present blood, it may not hidden be.

Yet let it hidden be. Behold, with ugly hair to sight

How irksomely deform’d with filth his foulest face is dight,

How loathsome lies his beard unkempt. But let us friendship feign.

Through a show of false friendship, he has lured his brother and his nephews back to Mycenae. Although Thyestes suspects a trap (3.1.69–86; ll. 473–90), he soon puts this out of his mind, leaving him just where Atreus wants him. In due course, Atreus accomplishes his revenge by serving the incomprehending Thyestes’s sons to him for supper. For Seneca, hunting is the perfect motif through which to capture the single-­minded hunger and duplicity on which successful acts of revenge depend: vengeance is an appetitive, insatiable, and pre-­moral force (note how Atreus’s bloodhound strains to drag along “his ling’ring master”) that achieves success through being harnessed to the techniques of venatorial art.

Early examples of English neo-­Senecanism, such as Sackville and Norton’s Gorboduc, do not make much of the hunt. But by the time this mode reached the zenith of its popularity (to the chagrin of commentators like Nashe) in the years around 1590, English playwrights had begun to exploit its dramaturgic potential. There is something disconcertingly mechanical about Shakespeare’s earliest contribution to this genre. And yet Titus Andronicus is remarkable, not least as an exercise in sensationalist guignol that largely avoids the descent into camp; it is an apprentice piece that announces its author’s craft in the same breath as his ability to transcend it. One prominent marker of these qualities is that Shakespeare far exceeds his rivals in the creative adaptation of the Senecan hunting motif. After the play’s politically fraught opening scene—marriage and the imperial purple are contested by the brothers Saturninus and Bassianus—some sort of resolution appears to have been reached in the double wedding of Saturninus to Tamora, captured queen of the Goths, and of Bassianus to Titus’s daughter Lavinia. But the well is already poisoned: encouraged by his sons, Titus has sanctioned the ritual slaughter of Tamora’s eldest son (1.1.124–29). Tamora and her two surviving sons have therefore vowed “sharp revenge” (1.1.140), and see their chance to effect it beneath the guise of the “solemn hunting” (1.1.612) laid on to celebrate the weddings. Aided by Tamora’s lover Aaron, her sons Chiron and Demetrius announce that they “hunt not . . . with horse nor hound, / But hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground” (2.1.25–26). That is, to capture and to rape Lavinia—both as an expression of their lust and as a means of wounding her father. Once they have done so, they lop off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue in a grotesque parody of the “unmaking” or “breaking up” at the end of a successful deer hunt. Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, later describes to Titus how he found her “straying in the park, / Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer / That hath received some unrecuring wound”. Titus responds that “It was my dear, and he that wounded her / Hath hurt me more than he had killed me dead” (3.9.89–93). Titus never does learn to empathise, but once he discovers from Lavinia the identity of her attackers, he hunts them to their symbolic deaths while assuming a disguise of “feigned ecstasies” (4.4.21). Revenge and counter-­revenge ensue, and Titus’s sole surviving child (one of those who urged the murder of Tamora’s eldest son) is finally proclaimed emperor. There is no sense here of a moral order being restored in the fashion, however imperfect, of The Spanish Tragedy: Shakespeare uses the hunt to suggest that they are all as bad as each other. Shakespeare’s second venture into revenge tragedy could hardly differ more than it does from his first; it nevertheless benefits from, and returns to, his experiments with hunting as a plotting device in Titus Andronicus.

Although Atreus is the template around which Claudius is fashioned, the work of Seneca’s that is most germane to Hamlet—indeed, the only play I know of that approaches Hamlet in the depth and complexity of its cynegetic patterning—is the Phaedra, or what the sixteenth century referred to as the Hippolytus. As one recent student of the play has summarized, “hunting” is “used to structurally pervasive and ironic effect” throughout it. Without question, Shakespeare knew the Phaedra well. He quotes from it on two occasions in Titus Andronicus, and uses it as the basis for the dawn hunting scene between the reunited Theseus and Hippolyta in Act 4 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hippolytus, son of King Theseus of Athens (absent on a mission to the underworld), is preparing to go out hunting one morning. He arouses the passionate desire of his stepmother, Phaedra, who determines to seduce him in a form of amatory hunt. Unfortunately for her, Hippolytus is a high-­mindedly committed misogynist whose low opinion of womankind is confirmed by his stepmother’s insistent though far from unquestioning (yes, it’s wrong, but what’s a wretchedly lonely victim of passion, rapidly losing the remnants of her youth, to do?) attentions. With animals to track and kill in honour of Diana, sex or other Venusian pursuits could not be further from his mind. An awkward exchange ensues, and Hippolytus flees. Theseus then returns from the underworld, and Phaedra (in pain and self-­protective panic) affirms that Hippolytus has raped her. Theseus immediately vows to kill Hippolytus in revenge or punishment, and constrains his father (Neptune) to hunt Hippolytus down. Once Hippolytus is dead and elaborately dismembered (ripped apart by his own hunting equipment and in the natural landscape he revered), Phaedra confesses her unbearable guilt and kills herself. Theseus is wracked with remorse.

The moral of the story? Humankind should be wary of attempting to exert potentia or potestas (power or forceful control) over the conditions of its existence (fortuna). That responsibility belongs to nature (natura), the entity that Hippolytus shapes at once to honour and to dominate through his hunting. As the tragedy unfolds, Seneca’s Chorus entreats natura to regulate fortuna with the same attention that it regulates the cosmos. Typically, the Chorus gets it wrong—and does so in revealing terms. In Studley’s version:

But thou that wealdes these thinges of massy might,

By whom the hugy world with egal payse [i.e. equal poise or measure]

Even Ballanced doth keepe in compasse right,

Each Spheare by measurd weight that justly swaie,

Alas why dost thou beare a retchless [i.e. reckless] brest

Toward mankind? Not casting any care

That wicked men with mischiefe be opprest,

And eake to see that goodmen wel do far

Dame Fortune topsieturvy turnes at wil

The world, and deales her dole with blinded hand,

And fosters vice mayntyning mischiefe ill.

What the Chorus overlooks is that natura itself is an appetitive hunter, both in the violence of the wild (qua Diana) and in love (qua Venus). In that humankind often errs on account of its passions, it may seem compromised—venal, one might say—when judged against transcendently virtuous constructions of morality. The Senecan irony is that nature itself, like its predominating deities, is no different. Human beings exist within this unsettled and un­settling vision of natura, and their fortuna is an expression of it; it is, as such, neither blind nor capricious. Hippolytus likes to think of himself as an apex hunter, but he belongs to a landscape that will in time consume him. Natura is the only truly potent exponent of the chase, and is as inscrutably deadly to Hippolytus as Hippolytus must seem to a deer or boar. In concluding, the Phaedra has Theseus echo the hunting instructions spoken by his son at its outset, this time in the vain attempt to restore order and control by tracking down the last of Hippolytus’s remains. The Chorus approves. Circumstances differ, but the delusional arrogance of humankind remains unsullied. No ­Aristotelian tragic resolution here.

It takes a special kind of credulity to discern the workings of providence, the gods, or a hypostasised nature through the interstices of the Danish court. Nevertheless, the lineaments of this Senecan design are manifest throughout Shakespeare’s play: fortuna is as perplexing to Hamlet (most of all, as I argue in chapter 5, when he appoints himself the agent of providence) as it is to Seneca’s Phaedra, Hippolytus, Theseus, or Chorus. The distinguishing feature of Hamlet is that Shakespeare makes fortuna the expression of human agency alone. Its ends, no matter how rough-­hewn, are not shaped by divinity or any other voice from above. Whatever Hamlet or Laertes or Fortinbras insist for their differently self-­interested reasons, it abides as a manifestation of the desire to hunt and of the mishaps that this desire occasions. Fate is other people, and its medium is their cunning: human slings; human arrows. Versions of Christianity are a prominent feature of the play, but they too fail to cohere. Like Horatio’s Stoicism, they are a moral-­natural paradigm through which Shakespeare has his characters try and fail to explain their existences to themselves. Those who prevail, such as Claudius and Fortinbras, do so because they consciously (Claudius) or unconsciously (Fortinbras) recognise and exploit the appetitive nature of the world and, in some measure, the reality of their place within it. Kingship (along with the entire apparatus of honour, order, and moral authority) exists in virtue of the violence and guile with which it is acquired and maintained. Those characters that take themselves to be hunting in the interests of some other cause, howsoever virtuous or heartfelt, fail to comprehend themselves or the world around them. They condemn themselves thereby. In time, this unrelentingly cynegetic vision of fortuna will, of course, consume Fortinbras just as surely it consumes Claudius. That is the nature of things.

Faking It: Huntsmen, Hypocrites, and Seeming Virtue

Whatever else might be said about this moral-­political vision, one thing is clear. It is the opposite of Cicero; the antithesis of the moral philosophy at the heart of the humanist project. Although the De officiis ranks hunting as an honourable pastime when pursued in careful moderation, Cicero is at pains to stress that the guileful qualities required in the hunt are inimical to the freely civic good, grounded as that is in reason and language. (In the Tusculan Disputations, 2.18.40–41, he compares venatores, or professional huntsmen, to gladiators and athletes.) In its turn, this notion reflects one of Cicero’s favourite conceits: human beings had lived in a condition of appetitive barbarity, barely separable from the animals, until orators emerged to civilize them. On the most fundamental level, Cicero distinguishes between wisdom (sapientia) and cunning, craftiness, guile, or trickery (calliditas), just as he writes of calliditas being punished for masquerading as the virtuous species of practical wisdom, prudentia. Calliditas, as he takes considerable pains to stress, is simply not the Roman way. And yet Cicero’s account of the relationship between wisdom, cunning, and civic virtue is more textured and more ambiguous than this preachiness might seem to allow.

For instance, Cicero notes that individuals have particular dispositions and talents of body and mind (ingenia): some can run quickly, some are cheerful, and some are earnest. Others have natural cunning. Hannibal was one such, and so was the Roman who defeated him, Quintus Maximus. A better example, however, was the Athenian ruler Solon—who as a young man found a way to thwart the letter of the misconceived law in urging the conquest of Salamis, an island that Athens had been contesting with Megara. In Grimald’s translation:

Annibal was craftie . . . of our capteins, Quintus Maximus, we have herd saye, had a marvailous conning in cloking, in keeping in, in dissembling, in making a stale, in preventing the devises of the enemie. In which kinde, the Greeks . . . chieflie [prefer] the suttle, & craftie deed of Solon: who that bothe his life should be the safer, and somewhat the more he might furder the commonweale, fained himself to bee madde.

There is no shortage of ambitious young leaders-­in-­waiting faking insanity or folly in order to put right some personal or political wrong, from King David (1 Samuel 21:13–15), to Saxo Grammaticus, to Brutus (the founding father of the Roman republic, and nephew to the last of the Tarquin dynasty) at the end of Shakespeare’s Lucrece. Even so, Solon is striking in so pertinently foreshadowing the “antic disposition” around which much of Hamlet revolves. Nor does Solon feature in the De officiis alone. He is also witnessed in Plutarch’s Lives, where Plutarch elaborates that during Solon’s feigned madness, he declaimed a poem in order to rouse his audience without seeming to challenge authority directly. In the version known to Shakespeare:

[H]e fayned him selfe to be out of his wittes, and caused it to be geven out that Solon was become a foole, and secretly he had made certaine lamentable verses, which he had cunned without booke, to singe abroade the cittie. So one daye he ranne sodainly out of his house with a garland on his head, and gotte him to the market place, where the people straight swarmed like bees about him: and getting him up upon the stone where all proclamations are usually made, out he singeth these Elegies he had made.

Only a parallel, but an intriguing one: Hamlet uses his cunning in a similar way (in assuming madness and in framing a work of poetic invention) and to similar ends (to make claims that would, if expressed openly, thwart authority and invite punishment). Solon is another figure who invites comparison with Hamlet, but whose example Hamlet is unable to match.

Returning to the De officiis, Cicero is explicit that no matter how impressive individual talents like cunning might seem, they threaten to undermine the foundations of the civic life: it is imperative that they be translated into a persona consonant with the public good. These personae depend on humankind’s universal participation in reason (ratio), the power of mind that ensures the “preeminence, whereby we surmounte beastes”. Not all kinds of natural talent—low cunning, to take the example closest to hand—are obviously compatible with the doctrine of upstanding civic personae, but Cicero is sure in his prescriptions. Different dispositions will translate into different personae, but the very fact of rational translation ensures that the stain of appetitive, and animalistic, calliditas is removed. The cunning man, as discussed, might exploit the qualities of his ingenium in becoming a military commander. Indeed, things could hardly be otherwise: honestas and decorum, the rationally derived qualities that define all personae, have equal claims to natural and to civic virtue. (The important exception to this universalism is the category of slaves. Cicero chooses not to explore why slaves are slaves; that is a matter of fortune. He is content to note that although they can be bought and sold, and must often be disciplined, they should be treated with justice. Aristotle’s Politics, by contrast, explains that slaves are slaves because they are deficient in reason and thereby unable to realise their true natures without bondage. Furthermore, Aristotle believes that potential slaves should be hunted like animals to ensure their efficient acquisition. This is not a metaphor.)

There is another and more anxious strain in the De officiis, one that acknowledges the potential for discord between the res of a naturally cunning disposition and the verba of virtuous public life. For instance, stipulating that there are two kinds of crime—those of violence and those of deceit—Cicero comes down hardest on the latter. Both reject the rational and distinctively human virtues, but deceit is the more insidious wrong: “gyle seemes as of the fox, force as of the lion: bothe in trouthe ar[e] verie unfitte for man, yet gyle deserveth the greater hatered . . . of all injustice none is more pestilent, than theirs: which when they begyle a man moste, yet so handle the mater, that they will seeme to be well meaning men”. Manifestly, Cicero is concerned at the scope for pretended virtue within his Rome. In book 3, he dwells at some length on cases of criminal deceit or bad faith (dolus malus)—instances in which “one thing is pretended and an other done”. All who “do one thing, and pretende an other” are, in Cicero’s view, “false, wicked and gylefull”. Accordingly, “out of all mannes life must false pretending, and dissembling be bannished”. Dissemblers call into question everything that is distinctive and valuable about civic virtue, and therefore cannot be tolerated. Despite the rhetoric of book 1, reason and the law here are anything but the culmination of a union between differing ingenia and the honour and decorousness of public personae. They are instead stationed deliberately to curb the natural human tendency to double-­dealing:

one waie the lawes condemne covine, an other waie the philosophers: the lawes, as farre as by open deede they can gather upon maters: the philosophers, as farre as by reason, and understanding they can comprehende. Reason therefore requireth this: yt nothing suttelly, nothing fainedly, nothing deceitfully be done.

In this instance, Grimald’s English is unhelpful, as his repeated use of “covine” elides an important distinction in Cicero’s Latin. “Covine” works well enough for the sharp practices that comprise dolus malus, but Cicero later opts for astutia, the close and perhaps even more pejoratively charged relation of calliditas. Cicero has law and philosophy regulating not particular acts of crafty dishonesty, but dishonest craftiness itself. The example he chooses next confirms the consanguinity of astutia, calliditas, and the cunning of the hunt: it is no less deceitful “to pitche the toile, although you go not aboute to rouse, nor chase the game”. That is to say, Cicero insists that it is wrong to simulate or dissimulate even if you do so without a particular victim or stratagem in mind—“for the verie game lights upon it oftentimes, when nobody folowes them”. As he sums up a little later, “covine [astutia] must be utterlie avoided: & wyliness [astutia], which will nedes have itself seme to be prudence, but is farr from it, & differs verie much”. Furthermore, no “greater destruction of mans life can be founde, than of a wylinesse [malitia], falsely to dissemble ones understanding”.

On the one hand, then, Cicero projects his blithely circular confidence that all manner of thing shall be well, and that ratio (as expressed through honestas and decorum) ensures that the personae taken on by Roman citizens are at once morally praiseworthy and their true, natural, selves. On the other hand, he worries about the realities of human nature in its non-­rational manifestations—greed, avarice, pride, the urge to one-­upmanship, and the seemingly natural proclivity to deceive in order to achieve one’s desired ends. It will already be apparent that Shakespeare was more alert to the tensions between these two positions than Cicero himself, and that Cicero’s arguments—however conventionally humanistic they had become—do not emerge from Hamlet in good health. The play only registers the force of Cicero’s second concern, elaborated by Shakespeare into the discourse of the hunt; within this, there is no place either for reason or for purportedly natural virtues like honestas and decorum. In brief, the cynegetic vision that governs the play serves utterly to discredit Cicero’s moral philosophy: the Ciceronian ideology demands that humankind misrepresent itself to itself at elaborate length, thereby conferring complacency and harmfully ignorant misprision. Shakespeare is again closer to writers like Tacitus and Machiavelli, for whom it is vital to acknowledge 
that cunning, delusion, and self-­interest are simply the currency of human affairs.

What of the persona in this appetitive world? Is it possible to develop a settled sense of self when human existence is shown to depend on mutual predation—when, depending on the perspective from which a scene is viewed, a character is likely to be hunter, prey, or a little of both? Shakespeare’s answers to these questions are central to the rest of this book.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Hamlet in this respect is that Shakespeare chooses not to employ the language of hunting in connection with Hamlet’s antic disposition. Compare As You Like It, where Duke Senior asserts that Touchstone “uses his folly like a stalking-­horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit”. Likewise, Titus Andronicus figures his “feigned ecstasies” as a hunting decoy with which to entrap Tamora and her sons. The stalking horse would be an extremely apt metaphor for Hamlet’s antic disposition, even if Hamlet had not already imagined his revenge on Claudius in venatorial terms. It was an effective means of observing and approaching one’s intended prey at very close quarters before shooting it, generally with a crossbow. (See figure 8, which shows a stalking cow but illustrates the principle clearly enough.) For the most part, it was used for forms of fowling but could also be used for larger mammalian prey, like deer; in the latter case, it was closely associated with poaching. However apt a metaphor the stalking horse might be, one might object that the image of it simply did not occur to Shakespeare when scripting Hamlet’s part, or that he had already left behind the language of Titus Andronicus and As You Like It. Perhaps so, but it seems to me more likely that the omission is deliberate, and that it has real significance: both in terms of Hamlet’s psychology, and of plotting the place of the individual within the moral economy of Shakespeare’s Denmark. Within the sixteenth-­century hunt, there was more to disguise and deceit than stalking horses. Whistles, calls, lures, and decoys have been discussed at various points above, and the huntsman would go to extraordinary (and sometimes slightly comic) lengths to pass undetected—from camouflaged clothing (greens and greys were most favoured) to dressing up as a tree so that birds might be tricked into approaching his traps (see figure 9). This is all well and good in the field, but in Cicero’s language, such acts of simulation and dissimulation are a form of activity in which “one thing is pretended and an other done”—in which the huntsman presents a persona specifically to mislead his prey before striking it down. There is another abstract noun with which to represent such kinds of behaviour, and a resonant one at that: hypocrisy, the attribute of one who “may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (1.5.108) just as it is of Cicero’s insidious fox. Hypocrite, like persona, is a term with its origins on the ancient stage: the Greek ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis) denotes the action of playing a part, feigning, or putting on an outward show.

As one might expect from one who defines himself against mere seeming, Hamlet summons hypocrisy only to disdain it. When attacking Gertrude for marrying Claudius so soon after the death of her first husband, he contends that doing so “Calls virtue hypocrite” (3.4.42)—that it hollows out the institution of marriage leaving behind only an exoskeleton of integrity, just as Claudius is only the vicious shell of a monarch like Old Hamlet. Like the different personae that Achilles and Patroclus put on to obscure their appetitive excesses from themselves, virtue is on this account used to plaster over the rotten core of Danish life. At the same time, Hamlet appears open about playing the hypocrite himself. When reflecting on how he plans to conduct himself towards his mother in the closet scene, he demands of himself that he be “cruel, not unnatural”. That he might “speak daggers to her, but use none”. Yet the fact of the matter is that he wants to use daggers on her, or thinks he does. Accordingly, he acknowledges that “My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites” (3.2.386–88)—as it would be unnatural of him to act differently, he has no choice. Hamlet condemns the vice, but stumbles over the paradox that hypocrisy can be a sort of virtue if one’s desires are unnatural. Rather than killing his mother, he seeks to enlighten her, or at least to make her change her ways. The dictates of nature and of sincerity collide.

Why then does Shakespeare not have Hamlet use the language of the hunt to describe his antic disposition? The answer to the question has three parts: because Hamlet wants to share the Ghost’s view that revenge is his naturally loving responsibility; because imagining his antic disposition as a disguise for the duplicitous and therefore ignoble hunt would be to imply his hypocrisy in adopting it; and because consciously behaving as a hypocrite would be to concede that he and his enemies at his uncle’s court are morally comparable. Though content to imagine himself as a Senecan hunting dog and opportunistically to trap Claudius within a dramatic mousetrap when the chance presents itself, Hamlet’s self-­image demands that he be able to consider himself above the fray. To put it more abstractly, Hamlet neglects stalking-­horse metaphors because he is too much of a Ciceronian to face the fact that in Elsinore, to adopt any persona is necessarily to play the hypocrite—one who dissembles either to hunt or to evade a hunter’s attentions. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that in Hamlet, hypocrisy is not the courtly tribute that La Rochefoucauld would have paid to virtue by vice. Rather, virtue is simply one mode of simulation and dissimulation at the disposal of hypocrite. Hypocrisy, in its turn, is how one stays alive.

There is a stark illustration of this reality in Hamlet’s description of 
how he had turned the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. After discovering from the contents of their sealed letter that he was “benetted round with villaines” (5.2.29), or caught in the net of Claudius’s condemnation to death at the hands of the English monarch, Hamlet tells Horatio that he resolved to devise “a new commission” (5.2.32). That is, to counterfeit a letter from Claudius condemning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his place, thereby removing the net in which he is trapped and enabling him to escape. Crucially, he informs Horatio that this plot was not the child of either his reason or his willpower. Rather, he asserts that “Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, / They had begun the play” (5.2.30–31). Before he understood what he was doing, he had engaged in an instinctive form of deception that was at once evasive and retributive; his brain, as an organ of his body, used its powers in the service of its naturally cynegetic appetite, not of rationality or moral deliberation. Again, Shakespeare exploits a dramatic metaphor to emphasise the point. In performing instinctively, his brains are like an actor taking to the stage without a script, and without a comprehension of the significance or scope of the part he must play. Such an actor is no more or less than “a beast that wants discourse of reason” (1.2.50), but that nevertheless performs nimbly in the field. Hamlet has no time for the implications of what he has said, and dwells instead on the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a divinely ordained punishment for low-­born meddlers presuming to intrude between “mighty opposites” like himself and Claudius (5.2.48, 60–62). In response, Horatio trims and shuffles with his usual tact until Osric enters to offer light relief.

Claudius is the only character in the play able to comprehend an approximation of this state of affairs. Take his chapel scene soliloquy. Beleaguered with a renewed sense of guilt after witnessing the Mousetrap, and almost certainly concerned that Hamlet suspects his secret (though giving no direct sign that this is the case, and not yet having resolved to order his nephew’s death), Claudius turns his attentions inwards and upwards:

May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?

In the corrupted currents of this world

Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,

And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself

Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above . . .

O wretched state! O bosom black as death!

O limed soul, that struggling to be free

Art more engag’d! Help, angels! Make assay. (3.3.56–69)

As Claudius’s display of masterly control in the first part of Act 3 Scene 3 affirms, he acknowledges and is therefore able to exploit the contingency that frames human law, morality, and custom. He can thus resemble earlier Shakespearean Machiavels like Richard III, whose astute political intelligence frees him to dismiss “Conscience” as “but a word that cowards use”, and who attaches himself to the efficacy of cunning, strength, and military force. Claudius is no less ambitious a usurper than Richard, but his soliloquy demonstrates greater moral and psychological complexity than anything Shakespeare gifted his charismatic hunchback. Despite his worldly successes in Elsinore, Claudius fears that things are different in the court of the almighty, where “the action lies / In his true nature” (3.3.61–62). And yet as answering to the dictates of an all-­seeing God would involve him giving up what he has won—giving up that which he now is—he cannot bring himself to countenance it. Instead, he proposes a boldly unusual prayer, or what he calls an “assay”, the term already used by Polonius to capture the uncertain outcomes of politic strategizing. In this instance, it represents an experiment or trial on grounds similar to Pascal’s wager. If God or his angels are willing to look mercifully on the double bind in which he finds himself, then “All may be well” (3.3.72); if not, then he will not be significantly worse off than he already is. The “assay” fails. With the benefit of hindsight, Claudius employs a couplet of Polonian sententiousness to shrug that it was doomed from the start: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (3.3.97–98). Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Much more might be said of this soliloquy. I want to focus on two of its most difficult lines: those concerning the “limed soul, that struggling to be free / Art more engaged”. They depend on a fowling metaphor of relative simplicity, and explore a notion of becoming trapped by one’s own appetite to which Shakespeare, in Ovidian mode, would return at the beginning of Twelfth Night. Birdlime was an adhesive substance that a fowler would produce from mistletoe berries or by boiling down the bark of holly trees. In addition to making it as glutinous as possible, the fowler aimed to make it transparent and thus undetectable when smeared on sticks (“lime-­rods”) or the branches of a bush. When a bird could be enticed to land on these sticks or branches (by the use of decoys, lures, or calls), it would attempt to escape, all the while covering more of its feathers in birdlime and more fixedly sealing its fate: see depiction in figure 9. Although this method of taking birds was manifestly very effective, its messiness and cruelty make it easy to see why descriptions of it are generally absent from early modern venatorial writings.

In employing this metaphor, Claudius channels something Augustinian about the fatal viscosity of sin; of the soul’s struggle to escape from the concupiscence and compromises of the body. Yet while Claudius clearly acknowledges his crime, his struggle is of a different kind and seeks a very different sort of freedom. He attempts to ameliorate his guilt by going through the motions of one who genuinely seeks repentance, but has no interest in forgoing his “crown”, “ambition”, or “queen” (3.3.55). His aim is not divine forgiveness, which he acknowledges as impossible in the circumstances, but a dispensation with which to salve his conscience while retaining both the cause (his ambition) and the fruits (his throne and wife) of his crime. His prayer, in other words, is just another form of acting—as much an exercise in bad faith as in clear-­sighted chutzpah. It is the embodiment of that species of hypocrisy to which Polonius has already drawn attention: “with devotion’s visage / And pious action we do sugar o’er / The devil himself” (3.1.47–49). As such, Claudius realises that he runs the risk of further embroiling himself in sin. In struggling for a special dispensation for his crimes, he knows that he is not fully penitent, and that he is further neglecting his duties towards God. It’s just that he sees no viable alternative. Having already lived with the guilt of killing his brother for several months, perdition—whether real or imagined—does not trouble him overmuch. For him, the real benefit of his prayer is that it offers a sort of catharsis. His psychological balance restored, he continues about his business with intelligent equanimity. The culminating irony is that this posture of penitence succeeds in furnishing Claudius with a form of deliverance, and an immediate one at that. As Hamlet worries that murdering a praying man might send him directly to heaven, the newfound flexibility of Claudius’s previously “stubborn” knees serves to avert the blade of his assassin. Perhaps Hamlet would have found an excuse to baulk in any circumstances. But as the chapel scene unfolds before us, we can be in no doubt that seeming virtue has its uses.

On this reckoning, the “soul” might be cast as the persona that one adopts when addressing requests to God and his angels. Something akin to the bravado with which Hamlet dismisses the concerns of Horatio and Marcellus about the nature of the Ghost: “And for my soul, what can it do to that, / Being a thing immortal as itself?” (1.4.6–67). Maybe so, but this strikes me as too neat a reading, flattening out something central about who and what Hamlet and the other inhabitants of Elsinore think they are. Throughout Hamlet, “soul” is used to connote the animating force and characteristics that make an individual who he or she is; a usage close to the ingenium of the Ciceronian tradition, albeit sometimes (not least in Claudius’s prayer) infused with further intellectual and religious attributes. Instances from the play’s first half include Hamlet’s “sit still, my soul” (1.2.257), Laertes’s “inward service of the mind and soul” (1.3.13), Polonius’s “grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel” (1.3.63), Hamlet’s “prophetic soul” (1.5.41), the Ghost’s “nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother” (1.5.85–86), Polonius’s “brevity is the soul of wit” (2.2.90), Hamlet on his “soul’s idol” (2.2.109), and Claudius remarking of Hamlet that “There’s something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (3.1.166–67). Other examples are not hard to come by, and the one of greatest moment in unpacking Claudius’s “limed soul” is Hamlet on the actor’s ability to counterfeit the anguish of a loss that he does not feel. Although the phenomenon is no more than “a fiction . . . a dream of passion” (2.2.546), it entails the actor being able to “force his soul . . . to his own conceit” (2.2.546–47)—that is, to adapt the “function” of his soul to make it look as if it expressed that of another. This, Hamlet asserts, is enough to “amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.559–60).

We recall that Hamlet strikes a different note earlier in the play. Here, he disdains “the fruitful river in the eye”, “the dejected haviour of the visage, / Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief”. As these are no more than “actions that a man might play”, Hamlet instead declares his attachment to “that within which passes show” (1.2.80–84). I proposed at the beginning of chapter 1 that Hamlet speaks these lines as a form of bluff, but it falls to Claudius’s chapel soliloquy decisively to give them the lie. Within the play’s Ciceronian field of reference, one’s soul or essential self is something that can only fully exist when performed through a persona. Accordingly, the actor’s ability to play the part of a soul or a self that is not his own gestures towards what might very well constitute the problem for Hamlet and Hamlet alike. When the governing metaphor of civic life is a stage play scripted by reason (through honestas and decorum) or the Christian God, it is possible to believe that assuming an appropriate persona is the way in which most fully to realise one’s humanity. If, however, the governing metaphor of existence is one of the hunt, the personae that one adopts are the products of appetite, fear, and suspicion. Far from expressing virtue, they are fashioned to mislead one’s predators (for self-­preservation), one’s prey (to gratify one’s appetites), or oneself (to maintain one’s delusional notions of the way things are). The significance of these personae could not be further removed than it is from the Maskenfreiheit, or freedom conferred by masks, imagined in the nineteenth century by Heine: it affirms a world in which hypocrisy and misrepresentation are not a choice one makes but an ineluctable state of being. Within this space, human affairs are incontestably bogus, but there are no resources with which to convert them to comedy, or even to satire; there is no neglected order against which to measure the mendacity of everyday life.

So yes, Claudius’s soul is trapped. But as a world of mutual predation and deceit means that it can only express itself through other hypocritical guises, it has no means of escape that do not further ensnare it. Claudius has self-­knowledge enough to concede the problem; to discern that although the personae are a sham (albeit one that he can manipulate with expert skill), there is no alternative to them in the universe he inhabits. The best that he can muster in response is a half-­heartedly experimental prayer to a God who, if he exists, does not appear to be listening. Conversely, Hamlet remains determined not to have to confront or acknowledge the binds into which he and his peers have been cast by the privation of moral order, and he evades them by seeking to adapt the personae bequeathed to him by late sixteenth-­century convention. In this, as we shall see over the course of the next three chapters, he is entirely successful—whether through his antic disposition, or by masquerading in the roles of the revenger, philosopher, moralist, poet, lover, wronged son, wounded friend, man of the stage, or agent of providence.

Far from having Hamlet express something of his true being through his urge to perform, Shakespeare has him employ the personae to guarantee his alienation from himself and the world around him. Because they are the work of artifice, expedience, and stunted vision, the personae obscure reality and thereby make understanding it all but impossible: Hamlet can no more fit himself to them than he can escape them or bring himself to understand their true nature. Ultimately, his lot is to endure a soul that is more painfully ensnared than even his uncle’s. One that for all its charisma, can never emerge as the singular self that he and many of his students seek to reveal. Instead, and like everyone in Shakespeare’s Denmark, he is compelled to take part in a cynegetic danse macabre. The rub is that in Shakespeare’s intuition, the participants are not led to their ends by the grimly reassuring personification of Death the hunter. Fate is other people. In whose sequence one always belongs.

Chapter three

Hamlet as Historian

People talk about you a bit: forget you. Don’t forget to pray for him. Remember him in your prayers. . . . Then they follow: dropping into a 
hole one after the other.

James Joyce, Ulysses

they are not memories no he has no memories no nothing to prove he was ever above no in the places he sees no but he may have been yes skulking somewhere yes hugging the walls yes by night yes he can’t affirm anything no deny anything no so one can’t speak of memories no but at the same time one can speak of them yes

Samuel Beckett, How It Is

From its first scene to its last, Hamlet is preoccupied with the attempt to make sense of the past. Few works of drama can have been as determined to interrogate the ways in which human beings mediate, and seek to relate themselves to, what Prospero will envisage as “the dark backward and abysm of time”. Its power, inaccessibility, and ambiguity are everywhere present—animating plot, motivating action, and occasioning headaches that are personal and political, evidential and existential. For the inhabitants of Shakespeare’s Elsinore, the ability to distinguish a clear image of events that have already taken place helps to demarcate the lines of individual or collective identity; it also has a role in determining the ways in which an individual or a family or a state should act. One of the more welcome developments in Hamlet studies over the past four decades has been an awareness of the play’s thoroughgoing engagement with the discourse and experience of memory and with the challenges of the historical past. In what follows, I want to steer this critical discussion in a new direction. Specifically, I want to explore the notion that Hamlet is concerned less with the claims of the past on the present than with exposing the perspectives from which the shifting present apprehends, appropriates, and frequently reshapes that which has gone before it.

To say that one is remembering something may be to give it the stamp of lived experience, inward authenticity, or naturalness. To say that something belongs to the historical record may be to endow it with cultural authority. What Hamlet takes pains to delineate is that in each case, the past can assert no identity of its own. Whether mediated in mnemonic or historical form, it can only exist through modes of representation that are as subject to partiality as they are to distortion. Although Hamlet and many others in the play invest considerable amounts of energy in pretending otherwise, the pasts to which they respond are a product of the imperatives and desires with which they, in the present, are inescapably absorbed; the past is revealed as another screen on which they can project the personae and pretence of their disconnected moral vision. In particular, this chapter seeks to establish that Hamlet’s need to play the part of a dutiful and loving son leads him to confect a memory of his father that is grounded in neither emotional nor historical reality. The young prince’s deliberations on his mnemonic capacities, like his reification of the Ghost’s injunction to “remember me”, are an elaborate attempt to evade the consciousness of this painful truth, and of the feelings for his father that underlie it.

I begin with the “rights of memory” that Fortinbras asserts as he seizes power at the end of the play, and suggest that they reveal the expedience with which Shakespeare’s Danes—who, to their disfavour, have much in common with the Danes found in sixteenth-­century literary and historiographical tradition—relate to their past(s). From there, I move to consider the vulnerability of memory, and the concomitant ease with which people forget. The interactions between Laertes, Polonius, Ophe­lia, and Hamlet are at the forefront of this. Next, I examine how Hamlet might have seen his father in his “mind’s eye”, and draw on the traditions of moral philosophy and Aristotelian psychology to explain how, throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare distinguishes memory (and imagination) from “discourse of reason”. For the remainder of the chapter, I turn to perhaps the most famous mnemonic lines in English literature: Hamlet’s response to his father’s ghost in his second soliloquy. I show that much of the dramatic charge carried by these lines depends on the Aristotelian distinction between remembering and recollecting, and on the ambiguous metaphors on which early modern mnemonic discourse depends. Both enable Hamlet to pursue a fantasy of mnemonic erasure in which his father’s commandment lives “all alone” within the “book and volume” of his brain.

Rights of Memory and the History of the Danes

Having just discovered that the Danish throne is his for the taking, Fortinbras begins to think of legitimation. A victorious army at his back, he declares that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom, / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” (5.2.394–95). In a deft touch, “Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” is the only time that Shakespeare has Fortinbras end a passage of speech with a (slightly more than) full pentameter. Although he is otherwise portrayed as a young man in a hurry—content with a half line before pushing on—we are left to infer that, as he contemplates the throne he has long coveted, he is on his best behaviour.

On one level, “rights of memory” connotes “rights that should not be forgotten”. But memory is also intended to imply something organic, or otherwise natural, about the invitation to rule Denmark conferred on Fortinbras by his military “vantage”. He would have it that his claim to royal power is not based on force of arms alone, but that it emerges from something stamped within the interior of the Danish body politic—or what, in a less poetic register, might be designated Denmark’s historical record. Horatio responds to his assertion of memory with the assurance that “Of that I shall have also cause to speak, / And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more” (5.2.396–97). He will relay Hamlet’s dying wish that Fortinbras be elected king, and will thereby generate the broader consensus required for the election to come to pass. Unlike Fortinbras’s suggestion that the corpses littering the stage were the victims of Death the hunter, his “rights of memory” thus stand unchallenged. This is understandable. Horatio finds himself with the ear of the incoming monarch; if he is to prosper in Denmark, he must establish his place within the new regime. Be that as it may, the claim advanced by Fortinbras is deeply problematic. Put as simply as possible, these memorial rights do not exist anywhere other than his own head. Hamlet’s final endorsement is itself ambiguous: “I do prophecy th’election lights / On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice. / So tell him, with th’occurents more and less / Which have solicited . . .” (5.2.360–63). The nature of these “occurents” is never revealed, and the suspicion must remain that Hamlet’s “prophecy” is little more than an acknowledgement of the fait accompli presented to Denmark by Fortinbras’s arms and ambition. No need for psephology to tell which way the wind is blowing.

The first we hear of Fortinbras, he is described by Horatio as “Of unimproved [i.e., unrestrained] mettle, hot and full”, and as one who had gathered up a force of “lawless resolutes” with a view to conquering “by strong hand / And terms compulsatory” the territory of Denmark (1.1.99–106). Likewise, Claudius takes it as read that Fortinbras is driven by “the dream of his advantage”, and that he has threatened invasion in the attempt to win the “surrender” of the Danish throne (1.2.21–23). Claudius opts for diplomacy to counter this aggression, and his decision appears to pay off. Newly returned from his embassy to Norway, Voltemand reveals that the Norwegian king (Fortinbras’s uncle) has made Fortinbras “vow . . . never more / To give th’assay of arms against your Majesty” (2.2.70–71). Fair enough, but as the Norwegian king has also sent a letter requesting that Fortinbras be given “quiet pass” (2.2.77) to march his professional and well-­equipped army over Danish lands to attack Poland (no mention of their conduct on the return journey), Claudius is unable to rest easy: the Baltic winter may be coming, but as Old Hamlet’s exploits illustrate (1.1.66), that need be no impediment to military aggression. “At our more consider’d time”, Claudius resolves, “we’ll read, / Answer, and think upon this business” (2.2.81–82). If such a moment arrives, Shakespeare does not allow us to see it.

When Fortinbras next appears, he is already on campaign. One of his captains confirms Horatio’s initial assessment of his character: he is off to kill, and to see his soldiers die, for the glory of possessing “a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (4.4.18–19). Hamlet, oppressed by thoughts of his inactivity in the matter of revenge, responds to these comments with the only remotely favourable verdict on Fortinbras in the play. He declares Fortinbras “a delicate and tender prince, / Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d, / Makes mouths at the invisible event, / Exposing what is mortal and unsure / To all that fortune, death, and danger dare, / Even for an eggshell” (4.4.48–53). “Delicate and tender” is probably just a circumlocution for “young”, and Hamlet’s main intention is to praise the transformative power of one attribute that Fortinbras, like his father before him (1.1.64), has in abundance: “ambition”, of the most headstrong sort. Claudius knows all about ambition, and recognises Fortinbras as a threat: a Scandinavian Hotspur, minus the impetuous charm. Polonius and Horatio agree, as does Fortinbras’s uncle the Norwegian king.

Hamlet, by contrast, affects to see no danger in Fortinbras’s self-­aggrandizement. The insignificance of the Polish outpost that the Norwegians plan to attack is a sign that Fortinbras’s ambition is divinely whole unto itself: a contra-­teleological something that is realised by the simple fact of being asserted, and to which a substantial desideratum is incidental. There is no need to labour the point, but Hamlet’s claim is absurd. It reveals more far about his own preoccupations than it does about the character of his Norwegian rival. Although Fortinbras’s ambition is in itself an expression of his pride, it serves goals that are clear and consistently maintained: military glory and a throne to call his own. Everything asserts his patrilineal identity against the feelings of indignity attendant on his father’s defeat by Old Hamlet and his uncle’s assumption of the Norwegian throne. That Hamlet thinks otherwise is explained by his remarks to Horatio just before the play’s culminating scene. As humankind in general defies augury, Hamlet (in particular) cannot be bound to accomplish predetermined ends at predetermined times: “The readiness is all” (5.2.215–19). When considering Hamlet’s account of Fortinbras, we should substitute unfixed “ambition” for unspecified “readiness”. Hamlet filters Fortinbras through the prism of his own anxieties and preoccupations, and Fortinbras emerges in the image of unlikeness. As Hamlet maintains that the accomplishment of particular ends is incidental to his own identity as a son and prince, so he maintains that it means nothing to a son and prince whose strutting conviction he admires. By suggesting that Fortinbras’s conquests are no more than pendants to his self-­validating ambition, Hamlet lays out the conceptual grammar through which he will advance his claim that his inability to pursue a determined course of action is, in fact, a virtue for which he should be praised.

What of the long-­standing “rights” to which Fortinbras lays claim at the end of Act 5? For these, we must consider Horatio’s exposition (for the benefit of Marcellus, Barnardo, and the audience alike) of the military tension between Denmark and Norway with which the play begins. “Prick’d on by a most emulate pride”, Old Fortinbras craved possession of Danish territory. In the attempt to win it as his own, he challenged Old Hamlet to single combat:

. . . in which our valiant Hamlet

(For so this side of our known world esteem’d him)

Did slay this Fortinbras, who by a seal’d compact

Well ratified by law and heraldry

Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands

Which he stood seiz’d of to the conqueror;

Against the while a moiety competent

Was gaged by our King, which had return’d

To the inheritance of Fortinbras,

Had he been vanquisher; as, by the same cov’nant

And carriage of the article design’d,

His fell to Hamlet. (1.1.86–98)

Old Fortinbras lost the combat, was slain, and forfeited his claims to Danish territory; had Old Hamlet lost the combat and been killed, the present Danish territories would have come under Norwegian dominion. It is this settlement that, with “strong hand / And terms compulsatory”, the younger Fortinbras and his army now propose to overturn.

One puzzle of the play is that Norway remains an independent kingdom at all, given that the loser of the combat between Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras was to give up “all those his lands / Which he stood seiz’d of” to the winner. “Seiz’d of” is a legal formulation that registers the two kings’ possession of their respective “lands”, and there is no reason to suppose that the territories wagered were anything other than Denmark and Norway in themselves. Nor does the play offer us any warrant for supposing that Old Hamlet’s original assumption of the kingship was contested or controversial. How then to make sense of the rivalry between Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras for the Danish throne? The best explanation is perhaps that Shakespeare inadvertently preserves the residue of the Hamlet legend in its earlier iterations, in which the Old Hamlet figure is an ambitious pirate rather than a monarch, but who is nevertheless challenged to combat by the King of Norway.

Of much the greatest importance here is something that is not often remarked on: the “seal’d compact / Well ratified by law and heraldry” is diplomatic window dressing, transparently intended to obscure and to dignify the reality of power politics. Might makes right. Old Hamlet prevails in combat and his claim is vindicated; Old Fortinbras is defeated and his claim is vanquished. All is determined by force of arms. Horatio offers no moralising gloss on these historical events, and even concedes that things could legitimately be viewed from other historical perspectives. The dead king was “our valiant Hamlet / (For so this side of our known world esteem’d him)”. What to the Danes is valour might elsewhere look like cruelty, malice, pride, tyranny, or impetuous ambition. The suggestion is reinforced by the ease with which Claudius, when discussing the combat between Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras, refers “our most valiant brother” (1.225). He is reading from the same received script as Horatio. The difference is that although Horatio’s lines are automatic, they are quite possibly sincere. For Claudius, by contrast, we know that valour is a dispensable virtue, emptied out and of significance only in retrospect; victory is its own reward and can be attained by any means. We do not learn precisely how Old Fortinbras and Old Hamlet fought one another, but—no more than it is possible to conclude that the “right” combatant won—there is no reason to imagine that it was a clean, honourable, or noble engagement. Old Hamlet triumphed over his rival through strength, cunning, or ruthlessness, and it was his triumph alone that marked his fitness to rule. (Note that Old Hamlet’s ghost confesses “foul crimes” [1.5.12] and “imperfections” [1.5.79], of which it is being forcibly and painfully cleansed in the afterlife.)

A related consideration is that for the duration of the sixteenth century, the historical Denmark was geopolitically dominant in the Nordic and Baltic regions. For those on the wrong end of this dominance, such as the influential Swedish historians Johannes and Olaus Magnus, appetitive thuggishness was simply the Danish way. Most pertinently, the writings of the Magnus brothers appropriate Saxo’s unedifying tale of Amleth, his father, and his uncle. They depict all three as would-­be tyrants who lived and died by the sword, and do so in order to illustrate just how degradedly violent the Danes could be. In due course, their accounts would be read with care by Belleforest. The anonymous history play Edmond Ironside (occasionally, and erroneously, attributed to Shakespeare) makes much of the “persicution of theis bloody Daines”, but the most deliberate English articulation of such anti-­Danish animus belongs to a passage of Nashe’s prose satire, Pierce Pennilesse, that is likely to have been in Shakespeare’s mind when having Hamlet remark that Denmark was “traduc’d and tax’d of other nations” for being populated by “drunkards” (1.4.18–19):

The most grosse and sencelesse proud dolts . . . are the Danes; who stand so much upon their unweldy burliboand souldiery, that they account of no man that hath not a battle Axe at his girdle to hough dogs with, or weares not a cockes feather in a redde thrumd hat like a cavalier: briefly, he is the best foole bragart under heaven. . . . Thus walkes he up and downe in his Majestie, taking a yard of ground at every step, and stamps on the earth so terrible, as if he ment to knocke uppe a spirite. . . . Therefore I am the more vehement against them, because they are an arrogant Asse-­headed people, that naturally hate learning, and all them that love it. . . . Nor Barbary it selfe is halfe so barbarous as they are.

It is tempting to suppose that the image of stamping “to knocke uppe a spirite” owes something to a performance of the Ur-­Hamlet. But the nub of the matter is that, for Nashe, the Danes’ bellicosity did not serve honour, desert, or right: they fought for self-­regarding pride, and while fuelled with drink. Denmark was a nation of uncouth and unreflective bullies. Whether or not Shakespeare was consciously aware of Nashe’s strictures when devising Horatio’s account of the combat between Old Hamlet and Old Fortinbras, such anti-­Danish sentiment speaks dead against the discourse of legitimacy on which Hamlet’s royal house rests its claim.

How should any of this affect our comprehension of the “rights of memory” to which Fortinbras lays claim and to which Horatio seems happy to accede? That they are illusory is not seriously open to question. But in another sense, Shakespeare marks them as delusional. To take illusion first, Fortinbras is remembered in Denmark not as a potential king over the water but as a wilful aggressor, spoiling for any opportunity to make a show of his martial strength—or what, with an onomastic eye, might be seen as his strong-­armed fortitude. He does not know that he has Hamlet’s dying voice, whatever that might connote. He is nonetheless able to ease his assumption of power with reference to a commonly held Danish “memory” that does not exist—just as he can conjure the improbable vision of Hamlet as a warrior prince, who, “had he been put on”, would likely “have prov’d most royal” (5.2.402–403).

Moving on to delusion, the deeper incongruity of Fortinbras’s “rights of memory” is the implied belief that in the moral universe of Hamlet, rights are conferred by anything other than victory—by overpowering one’s rivals or adversaries through guile or force of arms. Old Hamlet remained the legitimately elected Danish king in virtue of striking down his Norwegian challenger, only to be overthrown by his brother’s non-­confrontational but no less lethal form of violence. Now the son of Old Hamlet’s Norwegian challenger is about to take possession of the Danish throne because his appetite and military potency enable him to fill the vacuum left by the self-­destruction of the Danish ruling class. Memories—real, imagined, and distorted—are the media through which this reality is cloaked and made decorous. As such, they are unreliable and easily compromised. At the play’s outset, it is entirely typical that Marcellus has no notion why he and his peers are maintaining their “strict and most observant watch” while preparing for war (1.1.73–82). It falls to Horatio, an outsider reliant on what he has heard in a “whisper” (1.1.83) to explain. If the royal guard are not able to call the details of Old Hamlet’s legitimating triumph over Old Fortinbras to mind, the suggestion that the Danish populace at large will acknowledge the “rights of memory” claimed by Fortinbras fils starts to look ridiculous. Macbeth makes much of the notion that “wine and wassail [mulled cider]” can obliterate “memory”. Likewise, drunken oblivion—specifically, Cassio’s (“I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly. . . . O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths, to steal away their brains!”)—is the condition that enables Iago to hatch his plot in Othello. One might reasonably debate whether Shakespeare’s Danes drink to forget or are prone to forgetfulness because they drink, but if Hamlet’s description of their drinking habits is justified, it is no wonder that they have such an uncertain relationship to their pasts.

The Dozy Arithmetic of Memory

In impeding Osric’s rhetorically impoverished attempts to impart the news that Claudius would like Laertes and Hamlet to fence against one another, Hamlet gestures at something of cardinal importance in understanding the place of memory within the play. Laertes, Hamlet insists, is so variously excellent that “to divide him inventorily would dozy th’arithmetic of memory” (5.2.113–14). Memory was the fourth canon of classical rhetoric, and in remembering and calling to mind lengthy texts or large bodies of data, one technique recommended in the rhetorical handbooks was to adapt the order of numbers as a “fundamental schematic” with which to facilitate memorization. Larger strings of numbers would be “analyzed and ‘grouped’ into units that fit within the limits of memorial conspectus”—that is, within a single glance of the mind’s eye. When data thus disposed were in due course called to mind, rhetorical performance “became a kind of calculating play”. Hamlet alludes to this tradition to assert that for all Osric’s aspirational foppishness, such calculations are beyond him; as, indeed, mental arithmetic exceeded the capacity of most early moderns who were not merchants, sailors, or soldiers (including, on the evidence of his exchange with the Gravedigger and difficulties in determining how long ago his father died, Hamlet himself). Shortly afterwards, Horatio joins in with a variation on the theme: a diminutive of the treasure house metaphor (the Greek and Latin thesaurus) that had been a mnemonic staple since antiquity. As Osric’s memory is only a “purse”, it “is already empty, all’s golden words are spent” (5.2.129–30); he no more has the resources to describe Laertes than he does to keep up with Hamlet’s banter—or to notice that he is being mocked.

More of rhetorical memoria and the techniques devised to support it later in the chapter. The point to stress for now is that although Hamlet is chiefly concerned to ridicule Osric, his remarks imply the existence of a world in which human beings are unable to reconstruct things as they have experienced or observed them—one in which memories are partial or distorted or flattened out. To put it a little differently, Hamlet allows us to infer that Elsinore is a place in which the variegated temperaments and dispositions of individual human beings mean that the past is at once subjective and tractable.

Subjectivity is obvious enough: the way in which one remembers something is contingent on where one was, how one felt, and whether one understood what one was experiencing when initially experiencing it. Their inherent subjectivity also makes memories irrefutable, at least on one level. If an ­individual or group of individuals claim to remember something, or to remember something in a particular way, it might be possible to interrogate the content of a particular memory and to conclude that it is wholly or partially in error. But if they claim to remember something, or to remember one aspect of a situation rather than another, it is extremely difficult to conclude that they don’t. The subjectivity of memories renders them literally unknowable to others, and means that memories other than one’s own are accessible only through the signs through which others choose to represent them. But Shakespeare does not stop here. He probes the relationship between these mnemonic representations and the individual memories they are supposed to express: the act of recounting one’s memories, or of attempting to reconstruct or revivify the past, becomes one of contingency and artifice. The nature of all individual experience means not only that memories are subjective, but that they are called to mind through the emotional or political dictates of the moment—in a word, that they are tractable. This process of accommodation might be viewed as just another facet of embodied cognition in the human subject. In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare shows that such accommodations often slip over into fabrication, misrepresentation, elision, and deceit—sometimes as an act of volition, more generally without a character being conscious of the fact. Keen though Hamlet is to mock Osric’s mnemonic shortcomings, this is true of him above everyone else in the play.

Before moving on to the Prince himself, the examples of Laertes and Ophe­lia might help more clearly to define the place and status of my argument. For each sibling, the dictates of memory take second place to those of duty or inclination, leaving both of them with a ruptured sense of who they are and how they should behave.

When seeing Laertes off to Paris, Polonius finds the time to share with him a catalogue of sententious wisdom: “these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character” (1.3.58–59). Twenty-­two lines later, he is finished. It seems safe to assume that Laertes is not hearing these saws for the first time, but as he won’t have to do so again for some time, he hears his father out gracefully enough: “Most humbly do I take my leave of you, my lord” (1.3.82). Moreover, the notion of the memory as a repository of practical wisdom is one to which Laertes has himself been drawn. A little earlier, he had warned Ophe­lia that as Hamlet is a prince and thereby bound to a version of reason of state rather than to emotional attachment, he is likely to use her for his sexual gratification before casting her aside. She should therefore be wary of his attentions: the “best safety lies in fear” (1.3.43). Ophe­lia appears to take his point: “I shall th’effect of this good lesson keep / As watchman to my heart” (1.3.45–46). She is, however, careful not to commit herself to any course of action in acceding to it, and shifts the focal point of the discussion from her conduct to that of her brother. This change of emphasis is reinforced by the intrusion of Polonius’s “few precepts”. These tolerated, Laertes returns to his cautionary theme before departing: “Farewell, Ophe­lia, and remember well / What I have said to you” (1.3.84–85). Ophe­lia takes this in her stride, and again promises to keep mindful of his brotherly counsel without committing herself to heed it: “’Tis in my memory lock’d / And you yourself shall keep the key of it” (1.3.85–86). Read or performed one way, this is a beautifully comedic tableau of family life. Brother gives condescendingly imperative advice to sister in an attempt to assert (to himself as much as anyone else) his worldly authority before heading off on an overseas adventure; sister intuits what is happening, dodges, and fondly but firmly turns the tables; father arrives, and holds forth at ponderous length in attempt to assuage his anxieties of about the conduct of his soon-­to-­be-­departed son; son sees what is happening, dodges, and adapts his father’s language in assuming a quasi-­paternal (and therefore reassuringly mature) posture towards his sister; sister, safe in the knowledge that her brother is about to depart, artfully adapts the treasure-­house-­of-­memory metaphor to promise that she will not forget his advice unless he tells her she can; brother rushes off to catch boat.

But this is Elsinore, and Laertes’s exit is not the end of the scene. Polonius demands to know what Ophe­lia and Laertes have been discussing. What she tells him of her relationship with Hamlet affirms the gossip, prying if not prurient, that he has heard at court. Outraged, and not trusting to the discretion of anyone but himself, he insists that she break off all communication with Hamlet. One can imagine Shakespeare’s Hermia, Celia, Rosalind, or Olivia refusing to accept such parental intrusion in matters of the heart. Not so Ophe­lia. She has wit and learning enough to adapt a story about Hercules’s decision-­making in skirmishing with her brother, but she lacks the spirit or self-­conviction with which to challenge her father’s imperatives: “I shall obey, my lord” (1.4.136). Laertes’s brotherly counsel is superseded, and she undertakes to efface her memories of Hamlet—or at least to pay them no heed. Shakespeare’s depictions of the socio-­sexual dynamics of early modern oeconomic life seldom differ in their essentials, but he understands the force of the Tolstoyan insight that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

When Polonius changes his mind and decides to “loose” Ophe­lia on Hamlet in the attempt to bring them together after all, the opening lines that Shakespeare has him script for her are telling: “My lord, I have remembrances of yours / That I have longed long to redeliver. / I pray you now receive them” (3.1.93–95). To comprehend the appalled sympathy with which Shakespeare imagines this moment, we must take a couple of steps backwards. In the first place, we should note that within the grammar of sixteenth-­century epistolary and sexual relations, Ophe­lia’s willingness to receive letters from Hamlet suggests that they have established between themselves not so much a lovers’ understanding as a quasi-­contractual bond. In the second, by comparing Polonius to Jephthah (2.2.399–416), the Old Testament figure who sacrifices his daughter on account of his distrust, bravado, and misplaced piety, Hamlet has implied his suspicion that Ophe­lia has only forsaken him at her father’s bidding. He may be hurt, lonely, and frustrated, but he sees Ophe­lia as a fellow victim and not just as the immediate agent of his pain—a view that her report of his earlier “look so piteous in purport” (2.1.82) tends to confirm.

When he registers Ophe­lia’s presence towards the end of his fourth and most celebrated soliloquy, he thus regards her with self-­implicating intimacy: “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d” (3.1.88–90). We never learn what he thinks these sins are. What is clear is that, like Olivia in Twelfth Night and Helena in All’s Well, he has embarked on an affair of the heart while suffering, and perhaps to ameliorate, a bereavement. The Ghost’s revelations make this feel like a lapse in decorum, but seeing the virtuous Ophe­lia at prayer (or, rather, at appearance of prayer—she is only showing “devotion’s visage” to strategic ends) reminds him that he is in too far to back out. No matter. Ophe­lia instantly rebuffs him: “Good my lord / How does your honour for this many a day?” He tries again, following her shift from the familiar to the formal pronoun, and parodying the stiffness of her address (“I humbly thank you, well”) in the hope that she will recognise its absurdity, open up, and revisit their former propinquity. She cannot be deflected. Her gambit is that she has remembrances (letters or other trinkets, returned to her by Polonius) that she has longed to redeliver, and she is committed to play it in the hope that it will force Hamlet’s feelings for her out into the open, thereby winning both his love and her father’s approval for their relationship. But Hamlet is not driven into a renewed declaration of his affections. He is instead wounded by what looks to him like the frostily disingenuous confirmation of her earlier rejections, and a further denial of the bond they had shared. Ophe­lia now compounds this pain by reminding Hamlet of the warmth of his feelings for her, and concludes with a saw of spectacularly inappropriate sanctimoniousness: “to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” (3.1.100–101). Resentful and taken aback, Hamlet abandons the idea that Polonius was responsible for their separation. Ophe­lia’s affections have been meretricious: she has not been forgivably weak in the face of paternal interference, but is and has been toying with him. Seized by what he has just deemed the “pangs of dispriz’d love” (3.1.72), he turns retaliatory—denuding his “remembrances” of their value, denying that he ever loved her, and further projecting his antic disposition. Deprived of his shield, he does not hesitate to use his sword.

Ophe­lia’s only defence would be something like full disclosure. I love you, but as I had felt bound to obey my father, I pushed you away. I now see my error, and am sorry for it. Let’s elope to England or the forest as soon as we can. Her dilemma is that she knows her father is watching, and that he is doing so in the company of the king. If she were to say such things, they would without question intervene—exposing her to their displeasure, and most likely betraying her complicity in enabling them to spy on the man she loves. Although Ophe­lia has already made Hamlet’s “remembrances” public, she has kept the fact of their existence close; like Desdemona’s handkerchief, knowledge of them helps to fix an image of her beloved in her mind. Her problem is that through her obedience to her father she has allowed these tokens to become instruments of the court’s determination to hunt out the cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness. When she challenges Hamlet with them, his attacks damage not the “remembrances” themselves, but the memories to which they had been a key. She must then endure disparagement as an exemplar of all that is tainted, and corrupting, in womankind. In sum, her attempts to make Hamlet reveal the true nature of his feelings for her may tantalise students of the play (did they or didn’t they?) but are deprived of their force by their place within Polonius’s ill-­conceived plotting. Hamlet blasts them aside. She resists as best she can, asserting against the man with whom she is now confronted the memory of an ideal courtier, scholar, and soldier: “Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form” (3.1.152–55). One of the burdens of this study is to demonstrate that although Ophe­lia’s words have a certain tremulous integrity (the man before me now cannot be the one I have loved), they profoundly misrepresent Hamlet’s character and accomplishments. But even if we take her words at face value, they are born of a reality that has begun to fracture: “O woe is me / T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see” (3.1.162–63). Who in the nunnery scene is the more deceived? And by whom? It’s hard to say, but Ophe­lia’s sufferings are paramount. She has gambled and lost. She is broken. Memory is vulnerable and must be protected. On its own, it is not enough.

The point is underscored when Ophe­lia and Laertes are reunited after Hamlet has further devastated Ophe­lia’s world by murdering Polonius. Though distracted, Ophe­lia remains mindful of the last conversation she shared with her father and brother, focussed as that had been on questions of memorization, virtue, and obedience: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance—pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” (4.5.173–74). In response, Laertes sees his sister as “A document in madness: thoughts and remembrance fitted” (4.5.176–77): the disordered relationship between her thoughts and her memories has impaired her capacity for rational discourse. As her thoughts have become the province of her memory rather than her well-­governed cognitive faculties in the round, her thoughts—like her memories—have become an ungoverned mess. Their articulated forms are affecting but nonsensical. Further, if Ophe­lia’s “speech is nothing” (4.5.7), and if this pathetic incoherence is the result of her memories (of her father, of getting it so badly wrong with Hamlet) dominating her mental life, then the implication is that in the ordinary Elsinorian run of things, memory should not be allowed to predominate.

For Claudius, such sentiments are no more than commonplace. In lines whose deft transpositions are at once a source of power (by deliberately keeping just this side of paradox, he affirms his briskly confident good judgement) and suggestive of well-­concealed anxiety, he reflects the court’s collective decision to move on from the still-­green memory of Old Hamlet: “so far hath discretion fought with nature / That we with wisest sorrow think on him / Together with remembrance of ourselves” (1.2.5–7). Other than in the most unusual circumstances, the present (from which remembrance of one’s own interests is never far away) overwrites the past. Likewise, the retributive fires that burn beneath Laertes in Acts 4 and 5 need no memorial ignition. The very act of beholding his sister—and of seeing her beheld—in her pitiable condition spurs him on (4.5.156–57, 167–68), as does the awareness that Polonius’s funeral was dishonourably “obscure” (4.5.210–14). His memory and his sister’s sprigs of rosemary simply don’t come into it. His family’s honour has been damaged in the dramatic present, and vengeance is a way of assuaging his pride and patrilineal status. In a word, his self-­image: “That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard” (4.5.117). Claudius spots this fear of seeming weak or compromised, and quickly works it to his advantage.

More generally, Laertes’s memory seldom detains him. Polonius seems to understand this, and does not trust his son to keep in mind the precepts he has been taxed to “character” in his memory. Why else send Reynaldo to monitor his conduct in Paris? Other than that he impressed them with his swordsmanship (4.7.94–101), we are not told how Laertes got along with the French. But by the time he has rushed back to Denmark, his father’s advice has been discarded. Polonius’s first maxim is that Laertes should “Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion’d thought his act” (1.3.59–60), while his last and most important one is that he should “to thine own self be true” (1.3.78) by assuming a public role predicated of honestas and decorum. Between times, he urges that Laertes be wary “Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, / Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee” (1.3.66–67). All the more striking then that Laertes chooses to foment a rebellion from which Claudius easily dissuades him, to vow vengeance before he knows how and why his father has died, and to connive at Hamlet’s death by playing him false at fencing. That Laertes’s culminating role was scripted for him by his monarch is likewise revealing. Polonius would have been bound to disapprove of a plot to kill Hamlet framed by dishonour and dishonesty; and yet the willingness to engage in scheming for the good of the realm—the more so at the personal request of the king—is taken by Polonius to be part of the counsellor-­courtier’s stock-­in-­trade. Laertes not only abandons his father’s guiding principles, but helps to confirm their corrosive inadequacy. Honestas and decorum represent nothing but the approbation of the political hierarchy. Proper remembrance is not so much neglected as irrelevant.

Within an assumptive world that values the memory or preservation of past events less than the way in which the “memory” of past events can be accommodated to various emotional, political, familial, or appetitive stimuli, it is not surprising to encounter a great deal of what might be called forgetting. While holding forth to Reynaldo, Polonius loses the thread of his discourse (and switches to prose in struggling to reclaim it): “what was I about to say? By the mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave?” (2.1.50–52). In part, Shakespeare is identifying Polonius with the senex type of Roman comedy: he resembles the long-­windedly meddling old fools depicted by Plautus and Terence, and the audience should feel free to laugh at him. But Shakespeare makes a more serious point about the nature of delusion, of self-­deceit, and of mnemonic incapacity. If Polonius can’t remember his own script, how does he imagine that his son will be able to internalise it?

Elsewhere, laying it on thick and antic, Hamlet complains that his father has been insufficiently mourned: “O heavens, die two months ago and not forgotten yet!” (3.2.128–29). Gertrude, after being reminded by Hamlet towards the end of the closet scene that he was shortly to depart for England, laments that “Alack, I had forgot” (3.4.202–203). Laertes’s rebellion (still threatening, at this point) is described to the court as proceeding as if political life had begun anew, with “Antiquity forgot, custom not known” (4.5.104). Other examples are numerous, and the most striking of them belong to Hamlet himself. For instance, when he describes the circumstances of his encounter with the pirates, and of sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, at the beginning of Act 5 Scene 2, we learn that he forgot—or otherwise failed—to do so when he was reunited with his friend before the graveyard scene in Act 5 Scene 1. More obviously, his fourth soliloquy splices together a line from Marlowe with one from Seneca’s Phaedra in dwelling on “the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (3.1.78–80). Compelling stuff. The snag is that Hamlet has recently undergone a lengthy and intense interview with just such a traveller—the ghost of his father. In the course of this, he is informed of the “sulph’rous and tormenting flames” that his father must endure until the “foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (1.5.3, 12–13). The Ghost does not describe the geography of the afterlife in detail, but terra incognita it is not. Hamlet’s oversight crosses from the forgetful into the perplexingly amnesiac. He appears insensible to something that must have been one of the most singular occurrences in his short life. Later on, and despite asserting that he takes “the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (3.2.280–81), he claims only to be able to guess at the condition of his father’s soul: “how his audit stands who knows save heaven? / But in our circumstance and course of thought / ’Tis heavy with him” (3.3.82–84). Even more astonishingly, when Hamlet does finally kill Claudius, he forgets to mention that he is avenging Old Hamlet’s murder. Instead, he condemns his uncle as an “incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane” (5.2.330), terms that merely reflect his marriage and conduct in orchestrating the fencing match. Not a word of the crime whose revelation sets the revenge plot in motion, and seems to cost Hamlet such anguish. Hamlet may have disdained “oblivion” as “bestial” (4.4.40)—an idea that is less straightforward than it might seem, and that is considered further below—but he shows himself starkly oblivious to the motives that, on his own account, have fuelled his desire to dispose of his uncle.

In the attempt to elaborate these oddities and their function within the play, the rest of this chapter looks in much greater detail at Hamlet’s use of mnemonic language, and at the consequences of his meeting with the Ghost. Like so much else in Hamlet, the Prince’s relationship to his memory is presented in a fashion that is deliberately ambiguous and indeterminate. Viewed from one perspective, it is subjective, tractable, and subservient to the exigencies of the moment; from another, it is both beyond Hamlet’s control and unequal to the task that he, like the Ghost, demands of it.

Memory, Reason, and the Eyes of the Mind

Even before he learns of the Ghost from Horatio and the other members of Elsinore’s night watch, Hamlet would have it that he is haunted by memories of his father. After he has complained to Horatio that his father’s “funeral bak’d meats / Did coldly furnish forth” the “marriage tables” of Claudius and Gertrude, their conversation continues:

Hamlet: My father—methinks I see my father–

Horatio: Where, my lord?

Hamlet: In my mind’s eye, Horatio.

Horatio: I saw him once; a was a goodly king.

Hamlet: A was a man, take him for all in all:

I shall not look upon his like again. (1.2.183–87)

As Douglas Bruster has noticed, Hamlet’s “In my mind’s eye” illustrates the young prince’s “tendency to accrue ironic capital” at the expense of those around him—in this case, by making Horatio’s question sound over-­literal. But to Horatio and to any audience member even passingly familiar with either the Ur-­Hamlet or the conventions of Senecan revenge tragedy, it is Hamlet’s final lines that are most ironic: he assuredly will gaze again upon the likeness of his father, and soon. But the irony runs deeper than this and revolves around Hamlet’s claim that he can “see” his father in his “mind’s eye”. To look closely at the language in which Hamlet discusses his dead father is to realise that, at this early juncture, Old Hamlet has not found a prominent place within his son’s consciousness or thoughts, much less begun to dominate them.

In seeking to develop this reading, the concluding half of Hamlet’s first soliloquy is the place to begin: throughout it, Hamlet shows himself preoccupied with questions of mourning, memory, and the remembrance of the dead. Having dilated on the stale worthlessness of life as he sees it, Hamlet recalls that his father was “So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly” (1.2.139–42). In contrast to Claudius’s half-­man half-­goat hybrid, Old Hamlet was a Titan—the divine father of the sun (and moon, and dawn), and sibling of Saturn, Oceanus, Mnemosyne, and so on. Old Hamlet was not a god and could not control the wind, but such sentiments are easy enough to comprehend through the eulogistic hyperbole: Hamlet reveres his father and takes Claudius to be an unworthy possessor of either his throne or his wife. But the image of Claudius’s goatish disposition, generic though it might be, stirs up in Hamlet a more personal and painful response: “Heaven and earth, / Must I remember?” (1.2.42–43). He must, and the memory that now forces itself upon him has indelible potency: “Why, she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on” (1.2.143–45). That Gertrude would be unlikely to have done so without Old Hamlet’s encouragement, or at least compliance, suggests that Old Hamlet was interested in more than keeping the breeze out of her face, but let that pass. Hamlet’s concern is that despite his mother’s public attachment to his father, she has married his brother with such haste that his father has been dishonoured: “a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourn’d longer” (1.2.150–51).

He returns to related territory in describing his fear of “bestial oblivion” later in the play (4.4.40), but by suggesting that mourning and remembrance belong to “discourse of reason”, he raises at least two difficult questions. On the one hand, remembering and honouring the deceased is something instinctive and involuntary, something that comes to us naturally and unavoidably when someone we love dies. We might think of this as grief. On the other, doing so is presented as a duty, a form of behaviour in which humankind should engage if it is to reflect the faculty of discursive reason that elevates it above the animals—who, like the satyr, are moved by their appetites alone. This can better be thought of as mourning, or the public and often ritualized expression of grief. Hamlet thus takes us straight back to the dichotomy between “nature” and “discretion” which Claudius develops to commend thinking of Old Hamlet with “wisest sorrow” and “remembrance of ourselves”. If we are to have any hope of apprehending the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, these two categories of remembrance demand further examination.

Elsewhere, Shakespeare twice turns to variations on “discourse of reason”. As Desdemona struggles to understand how she could have aroused Othello’s displeasure, she informs Iago that she has done nothing, whether actively or passively, to have brought the situation about. “If e’er my will did trespass ’gainst his love / Either in discourse of thought or actual deed, / Or that mine ears, mine eyes or any sense / Delighted them in any other form . . . Comfort forswear me!”. Whatever “discourse of thought” might connote here, it is not the province of the senses. Furthermore, its meaning must be elementary: Desdemona expects Iago and Emilia to appreciate it without having to puzzle over her words. In Troilus and Cressida, Hector complains that Troilus dismisses Cassandra’s warnings because his “blood” is “So madly hot that no discourse of reason” is able to “qualify” it. Again, “discourse of reason” is distinct from bodily urges, and is elaborated as something with which one should seek to understand and to govern one’s passions. It is the inability of Troilus and Paris to comprehend themselves that leads Hector to dismiss them as “not much / Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy”. The “reasons” they advance for defending Helen’s honour against the Greeks “do more conduce / To the hot passion of distempered blood / Than to make up a free determination / ’Twixt right and wrong”.

Hector’s emphasis on the co-­dependency of moral philosophy and “discourse of reason” provides an important context for Hamlet’s use of the phrase. As La Primaudaye puts it near the beginning of his French Academie, “by the grace and helpe of God, the mind is able to confirme it selfe against any passion through the discourse of reason”. Furthermore, “although the passion be contrarie to reason, and have (for hir onely scope) pleasure, and the feare of griefe”, humankind can “maister and compell all passions in such sort . . . that whatsoever is rashly desired, shall be overcome by the discourse of prudent counsell”. Hector would certainly agree. But in considering Hamlet, the status of humankind as a rational and therefore moral animal is key. The locus classicus is Ciceronian:

bitween man, and beaste, this chiefly is the difference: that a beaste, so farre as he is mooved by sense, bendeth him self to that onely, which is present and at hande: verie smallie perceiving ought past, or to come: but man, who is partaker of reason, whereby he seeth sequels, beholdeth grounds, and causes of thinges, is not ignoraunt of their procedings, and as it were their foregoings: compareth semblaunces, & with thinges present joyneth, & knitteth thinges to come[.]

Reason is a natural part of the human condition, and confers the ability to reveal “the causes of thinges” by comparing and contrasting sensory data. On account of this, Cicero maintains that the principal human dignity is the “searching, & tracing oute of trouth”, one prominent feature of which is knowing how best to conduct ethical, oeconomic, and political forms of life. When Ophe­lia has gone mad, it is such Ciceronian beliefs that animate Claudius’s diagnosis: “poor Ophe­lia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts” (4.5.84–86). The eclipse of one’s reason, and with it the capacity for judicious self-­governance, leads to the loss of one’s status as a morally responsible human agent.

Vital though humanist moral philosophy is in piecing together Hamlet’s comprehension of the human condition, when trying to situate locutions like “discourse of reason” and the “mind’s eye” within sixteenth-­century notions of memory, we must look further afield—in particular, to early modern beliefs about the nature of cognition and of human psychology. Exploring them recasts Hamlet’s lines about the memory of his dead father in some extremely unfamiliar forms.

At the cusp of the seventeenth century, as for most of the preceding two thousand years, systematic discussion of human psychology took its lead from the writings of Aristotle—chiefly from book 3 of his treatise On the Soul. In the Aristotelian account, elaborated by an eclectic range of Scholastic logicians and practically minded humanist pedagogues in the centuries after the recovery of Aristotle’s writings in the Latin west, “discourse of reason” was the third and highest product of the human mind. Preceding it was, in the first place, the act of apprehension and, in the second, that of judgement (sometimes labelled composition or division). The art of logic was shaped to reflect these psychological realities, and was accordingly divided into three parts, corresponding to the foundational texts of Aristotle’s Organon. The first is based on the Categories (often taught in conjunction with Porphyry’s propaedeutic Isagoge) and is concerned with the acquisition of basic concepts or “apprehensions”; these are visual in nature and correspond to individual words. The second is based on the On Interpretation and is concerned with the proper combination of these words into sentences or propositions. The third is based on the remainder of the Organon (the Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and On Sophistical Refutations), and is concerned with the proper combination of these sentences into “discourse”, the rationally defined body of language that in its most valuable form (derived from the two books of Analytics) enabled the discovery of the demonstrable—and philosophical—truths that underpinned the immediately apprehensible order of things. Anyone might, for instance, apprehend a particular adult male human being (pale faced, say, and armed at point exactly, cap-­à-­pie). By contrast, only one trained to think in the appropriately logical way would be able to grasp the “universal” within which particular adult males should be comprehended: namely, the abstract category of “man”.

Now, it is true that logic was in the sixteenth century a university-­level subject, and that Shakespeare never attended university. But as there were a number of vernacular logic books modelled closely after Aristotelian convention, and as these were unquestionably popular, there is every reason to assume Shakespeare’s familiarity with the rudiments of the logical tradition. Ralph Lever, for instance, begins his Witcraft by remarking that “a reason standeth of certayn sayings, and a saying of wordes. . . . So that wordes are the firste and the leaste partes of a reason: and therfore first to be taught and learned”. He structures his manual accordingly, proceeding from “words” to “sayings” (i.e., sentences) to “reason”. Likewise Thomas Wilson. He summarises the first half of his Rule of Reason (the second is concerned with dialectical-­rhetorical invention) as an endeavour “to declare the nature of every woorde severallie, to set the same woordes in a perfeicte sentence, and to knitte them up in argument, so that hereby we might with ease espie, the right frame in matters how thei agree, being lapped up in ordre”.

Underpinning the tripartite progression from words to sentences to rational discourse were notions of psycho-­physiology—and of anthropology—that were at least as commonly received. According to another tradition that has its fountainhead in Aristotle, human life is animated by three souls: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the intellective. (“Soul” here translates ψυχή [psuchē], and denotes the principle in virtue of which any living thing is alive.) The vegetative soul enables body to grow, the blood to circulate, and the lungs to operate without conscious effort. Versions of it are common to all living beings, whether plants, animals, or human beings. The sensitive soul is common both to animal and human existence. It comprises two complementary parts: the external senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight, and the “internal senses” (sometimes called “wits”). The internal senses varied in kind and number, but their function did not significantly vary. They were usually three or five, and included the common sense, imagination, fantasy, cogitation (the ability rationally to compare and contrast sensory data, sometimes called “reason” and sometimes “estimation”), and memory. La Primaudaye’s summary has both plainness and patience to recommend it: “They which make five sortes, distinguish betweene the common sense, the imagination, and the fantasie, making them three: for the fourth they adde Reason, or the judging facultie: and for the fift, Memorie. They that make but three kinds differ not from the other, but onely in that they comprehend all the former three under the common sense, or under one of the other twaine, whether it be the imagination or the fantasie”. Taken together, the vegetative soul and the two parts of the sensitive soul were often categorized as the “organic” soul, defined in contradistinction to the third and final portion of Aristotle’s schema, the intellective soul. The intellective soul is unique to humankind, and is the power (immortal and immaterial in its Christian iteration) that enables both discursive knowledge and the ability to communicate through language.

If we are to make sense of Hamlet’s remarks about his father, it is to the organic soul—in particular, to the doctrine of the internal senses—that we must turn. The internal senses were theorized after Aristotle by Galen and by generations of Arabic physicians following Galen’s teachings, and were transmitted thereafter to the whole gamut of medieval and early modern thinkers; each was associated with a particular part, or “ventricle” of the brain. Perhaps the best way to understand them is to describe what was thought to happen in an act of apprehension, the first and simplest operation of the human mind. In brief, the internal senses receive data from the external senses, before sorting, digesting, and storing them in preparation for the higher operations of the understanding; if the sensory data are not provided by the sight, the internal senses transform them into the visual images that, according to Aristotelian tradition, are the medium of all thought. La Primaudaye again:

[F]irst there must bee some facultie and vertue that receiveth the images imprinted in the senses . . . this vertue is called Imagination . . . which is in the soule as the eye in the bodie, by beholding to receive the images that are offered unto it by the outward senses . . . Nowe after that the Imagination hath received the images of the senses, singly and particularly as they are offered unto it, then doeth as it were prepare and digest them, eyther by joyning them together, or by separating them according as their natures require. They that distinguish Imagination from Fantasie, attribute this office to Fantasie: others say it belongeth to the Common sense, under which they comprehend both the former faculties, because the office thereof is to receive the images that are offered unto it, and to discerne the things as they are presented by all the externall senses, and to distinguish them as they doe. Afterwarde it is requisite, that all these things thus heaped together, should bee distributed and compared with another, to consider howe they may be conjoyned or severed, how one followeth another, or how farre asunder they are, that so a man may judge what is to be retained and what to be refused. And this office belongeth to Reason[.]

This sort of thing might seem arcane, but there is no question that it was a part of Shakespeare’s creative palette, providing him with the starting point and terminology for his depictions of human psychological processes. For instance, he on several occasions discusses the “five wits”—incidentally showing the prudent good sense not to specify which five he had in mind.

Where does the memory fit in? Here, On the Soul is supplemented by the account in Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection. The memory stores data in the form of images (whether derived from the external senses or the higher operations of the mind) that are impressed or imprinted on the memory like a seal upon wax; these are in their turn translated into the stuff of thought by the imagination, just as it “receives” data from the external senses. Accordingly, La Primaudaye pictures the imagination as

the mouth of the vessell of memorie, which is the facultie and vertue that retaineth and keepeth whatsoever is committed to the custody therefore by the other senses, that it may be found and brought forth when neede requireth. Therefore Memorie is as it were their treasurer to keepe that which they committe unto it, and to bring it foorth in due time and season.

To remember something thus involves the eye of the mind locating and identifying a particular memory image. Later, La Primaudaye goes into more detail and draws attention to the belief that memory, like the remainder of the organic soul but unlike the intellective soul, is something that humankind shares with the animals:

[M]an by the discourse of reason that is in him, lifteth up himselfe above the outward senses, yea above Imagination and fantasie . . . so also hee useth the helpe of Memorie to keepe and retaine in his minde whatsoever hee hath knowen by any of the sense, eyther externall or internall. Therefore is the Memorie compared to a Picture. For as a Picture by the sight of the eyes giveth the knowledge of that which is painted therein, so is it with Memorie, by the sight of the minde endewed with understanding and knowledge: for it doeth not onely looke upon things simply as beasts doe, but considereth of them, an diligently enquireth into them, and having found them, it placeth them in the Memorie, and there keepeth them.

Memory is a pre-­rational and pre-­discursive power of thought akin to a sort of internal vision, but it can also be harnessed by the intellective powers of the human mind; the human capacity to remember therefore exceeds that of the animals. Another marker of the elevation of the human memory is its role in storing the products of the intellect in visual, and possibly graphic, form. That is to say, the words, sentences, and discourse of one’s reading and education—the body of learning that empowers good judgement and virtuous conduct, just as it guides individuals in understanding themselves and the world around them.

Elevated, but not radically distinct or superior: the operations of the human memory can be cultivated, but (like those of all the other senses, interior and exterior) they are liable to forms of misprision, especially if one is in the grip of a great or ardent passion—such as love, hate, anger, ambition, or mourning. Of especial prominence here is imagination, the importance of which to the operations of the mind was only matched by its vulnerability. La Primaudaye insists that there is “nothing” that the “fantasie will [not] imagine and counterfaite, if it have any matter or foundation to work upon”, and concludes that the “imaginative power of the soule, hath moreover such vertue, that oftentimes the imagination printeth in the body, the images of those things which it doeth vehemently thinke of and apprehend”. The act of remembering could not take place without the imagination actualizing the images stored in the memory, but the very receptiveness of the memory made it susceptible to the imaginative faculty impressing upon it images that had no experiential or discursive warrant.

The volatility of the imagination, memory, and internal senses could take relatively benign forms, as Shakespeare explores in Sonnets 29 and 30. When the speaker remembers his friend, all present and remembered woes are transmuted into piquant contentment. Sonnet 113 returns to the theme in a more anxious key, and probes the condition of cognitive impairment that comes about when one mind’s eye and memory are dominated by the image of a single object of desire. “Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind / And that which governs me to go about / Doth part his function, and is partly blind; / Seems seeing, but effectually is out [i.e., is removed from its usual place and function]”. The speaker is not suggesting that he inadvertently walks into doorframes. Rather, he insists to his friend that since they parted his mind has been able to see one thing, and one thing only: “the mountain, or the sea, the day, or night, / The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature”. The affection felt by the speaker for his friend, and the concomitant intensity with which he remembers him, prevents the speaker’s powers of memory and of apprehension from working as they should: “Incapable of more, replete with you, / My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue”.

Misapprehension, whether of experiences mediated immediately through the external senses or whether of images stored in the memory, could take place in circumstances other than those of being in love. For instance, the dying Henry IV offers Hal the Machiavellian counsel that he should “busy” the “giddy minds” of his subjects “With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days”. The intensity of warfare, as perhaps of conquest, will cause people to forget their former grievances. Later in the same play, Falstaff eagerly awaits the arrival of his old drinking companion, now Henry V. He hopes that his dishevelled and dirty appearance will speak to his earnest devotion and lead the king to believe that he, Falstaff, has been “thinking of nothing else, putting all affairs else in oblivion, as if there were nothing else to be done but to see him”. Falstaff’s psychologising is as acute as ever, but he is mistaken. He has allowed his excitement to overpower the properly ordered operations of his understanding, and has forgotten that a king must wear a regal persona; as the Lord Chief Justice exclaims with incredulous severity, “Have you your wits? Know you what ’tis you speak?” A similar sort of cognitive distraction could occur after an unusually striking or unexpected experience, such as seeing a ghost. Having encountered the spectral likeness—fair, martial, and vouchsafed by three acquaintances—of Hamlet’s father the king, Horatio describes it as “A mote . . . to trouble the mind’s eye” (1.1.115).

Though Hamlet’s “Must I remember?” has not often been read in conjunction with early modern theories of memory, doing so appears to confirm what has become the standard interpretation of its significance: even before Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, memories of his father beset his brooding brain. On this account, Hamlet resembles Macduff. Unable to overcome what he feels as a son, he “cannot but remember such things were / That were precious to me”; unlike Macduff, however, the potency with which Hamlet remembers his father means that he cannot “let grief / Convert to anger”. Perhaps so, but Hamlet’s mnemonic compulsion is far more complex than such a reading allows. In Peter Mercer’s perceptive observation, “‘Remember’ is exactly what he must do”, but “the subject [of his memory] is no longer his father but ‘she’ ”. That is to say, recalling his father as Hyperion or as “so excellent a king” does not cost Hamlet very much, even when contrasting him to his unworthy successor: such descriptions belong to the high style of the epideictic oration, poem, or history—works self-­consciously praising the virtuous memory of a deceased monarch, or of some other worthy. Employing them is nevertheless enough to trigger in Hamlet a memory that appals him and that he would rather avoid. That is, a manifestation of his mother’s sexual desire. A desire that is forceful, too too easily transferrable, and never adequately sated. His language is no longer now drawn from his commonplace book but from the intensely personal grotesque of the nightmare: “she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on”. The image is not to Hamlet’s taste, and he tries to moralize it away: “Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.146). He would have Gertrude illustrate the truth that women cannot aspire to constancy, and that their virtue dissolves as soon as their bodily appetites demand it. This does no good, and he is drawn instantly back to the particular—to the picture of his mother following his father’s cortège while wearing new shoes, presumably of funereal black. “Like Niobe”, she was “all tears” (1.2.149), but soon showed her weeping to have been “unrighteous”. Within a month, she was married to Claudius: “O most wicked speed! To post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good” (1.2.156–58).

One need not be a committed Freudian to suppose that a mother who lavishes her attention on her husband rather than her son, or whose son feels that she neglects him while lavishing her attention on his father, might arouse feelings of resentment in her child. The more so if the father were to die while the son was away from home, and the mother were to embrace the affections of another before the son’s return. If such an embrace were further to result in the son being overlooked for something that he considered to be his birthright, such as his father’s throne, it is hard to imagine the son feeling anything other than aggrieved. Though Niobe is a stock type for inconsolable womanhood, it might be recalled that her grief is of a very specific kind: she weeps not over a dead husband, but over her dead children, murdered by the gods in response to their mother’s arrogance, pride, and impiety.

For our purposes, the most decisive feature of these lines is that Hamlet seeks to connect mourning and public remembrance to “discourse of reason”, and to disassociate it from the involuntary (and in some measure animalistic) activities of grieving or personal remembrance. As discussed above, although the early moderns believed that “discourse of reason” could be exercised better to understand and to cultivate the operations of the memory, they took the act of remembering to be a definitively pre-­rational affair—one that belonged to inner sensation and the lower portions of the cognitive hierarchy. Crucially, Hamlet’s attack on his mother’s failure to observe the proprieties of mourning and public remembrance is not based on the claim that she has forgotten Old Hamlet. It is instead a reaction to her perceived failure to honour her memories of Old Hamlet in public—because she has made herself seem less than fully human by neglecting “discourse of reason” as a tool with which to govern her conduct. As a woman in thrall to her blood, Hamlet implies, she is like the young men whom Aristotle and Shakespeare’s Hector take to be incapable of moral philosophy, and who are a danger to the common good.

One might thus argue that Hamlet concentrates on discourse of reason because the memory belongs to the sensitive soul, shared by humankind with the animals; animals and human beings both remember, but as only human beings have the capacity rationally to govern their behaviour, only human beings mourn; ergo, he decides to leave memory well alone. If Gertrude’s memories were the only ones at issue in these lines, such an explanation would probably suffice. But they are not. Consider the idiom with which Hamlet taxes Gertrude in the closet scene (3.4.162), and to which we’ll return below: mourn, mother; assume a grief even if you have it not. In holding forth on sexual morality, Hamlet dwells on the gap between appearance and reality, and on the possibility of insincere but apparently virtuous behaviour. This is worlds away from what he permits himself in his first soliloquy, where memory and grief are pushed out of focus as a sort of given. Instead, he fixes on discourse of reason—and with it the dictates of moral philosophy—as the criterion against which to measure remembrance of the dead in general and of his dead father in particular. Furthermore, he does so despite the fact that doing otherwise would strengthen his censorious hand: at no point does he explicitly damn his mother for her lack of grief. (Her tears are only “unrighteous” because they are belied by her later conduct, not because they are simulated.) I submit that this is far from incidental, and that it is Hamlet’s direct response to the troubled relation in which he stands to his own memories of his father. Unlike the painfully vivid image of his mother’s still hungry concupiscence, no likeness of his father forces itself to his vision.

And yet it is just this sort of likeness that Hamlet suggests to Horatio with his “methinks I see my father”. Horatio responds tactfully (“I saw him once; a was a goodly king”), allowing his younger companion the space to delineate his private vision without further intrusion. Hamlet declines, and affirms that his father, unlike the “funeral bak’d meats”, “wedding tables”, or “incestuous sheets” of his mother and uncle, is not a prominent feature of his memory. He passes over the private, personal, and intimately felt and reaches instead for the most abstract and generalized product of Aristotelian logic, the furthest removed from the immediacy of experience. That is, for a universal, in this case “man”: “A was a man, take him for all in all”. It might be supposed that Hamlet is striving to make a point about his father as the model of transcendent masculinity and that he is using a cousin of the inexpressibility topos in so doing. Much as Antony praises Brutus at the end of Julius Caesar: “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him that nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’ ” Maybe, but to advance such a reading is to conflate politic magnanimity with the loss or grief of a son. Brutus is dead and his cause is vanquished; Antony and Octavius need support from certain members of his faction if they are to win the peace as they have prevailed in battle; best to keep the tribute safely general and to concentrate on what Brutus has been—“an honourable man”, as Antony earlier insists to very different ends—rather than on what he has done. No doubt Hamlet is trying to praise his father, but this should give us pause on two counts. First, the oddity of a son praising his dead father when his virtues are not in question and when something more intimate might have been expected. Second, that the praise he offers him is banal, denuded of any feeling or rhetorical force: the boilerplate of a thousand funerary orations. The sort of language with which, in due course, Fortinbras will seek to embalm Hamlet himself.

A more sensitive response to these challenges is provided by John Kerrigan, who suggests that Hamlet “fends off” Horatio’s “recollection of the public man”, and that his “words advertise a privacy which remains his throughout the play”. The problem here is that the first two scenes of Hamlet provide nothing with which to support the assertion that Hamlet is preoccupied with memories of his father, whether privately or otherwise. His first soliloquy reveals his inability to forget, or to overlook, his belief that the carnality of his mother’s attachment to his father opened the door for her disgraceful remarriage to Claudius. By contrast, when Hamlet mentions his father, it is as a publicly framed figure; idealized, drained of vitality, and hardly a father at all. A being, in other words, scripted by the demands of Hamlet’s discursive faculties, and not one impressed on Hamlet’s memory—much less a mnemonic vision of enough intensity to reconfigure the operations of Hamlet’s internal senses. At this stage of the play, Hamlet only sees his father through the language of more or less polished automaticity—through descriptions that are, quite literally, commonplace. So, while it must be agreed that Hamlet’s remarks to Horatio are a fending off of sorts, they first and foremost show Hamlet fending off the stirrings of self-awareness. Precisely because he is determined to censure Gertrude and Claudius for neglecting the dead king’s memory (and because he has made such a show of his own mourning, whether apparent or sincere), he would rather not have to consider the possibility that his father does not have a prominent place in his own thoughts.

This is a moment of typically Shakespearean difficulty, and affirms T.S. Eliot’s judgment that no “writer has ever exposed . . . the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare”. In seeking further to understand what Hamlet feels and why he is reluctant to acknowledge it, chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s Prince offers some important clues. After opining that rulers should be feared but should take care not to be hated, Machiavelli counsels that they should resist the urge to take their subjects’ possessions as their own: “because men more quickly forget the killing of their father than the loss of their inheritance”. It is and will most likely remain impossible to say whether Shakespeare had Machiavelli in mind when conceiving of his Hamlet, but the prospect is intriguing. As Margreta de Grazia has established with as much force as acuity, the most salient consequence for Hamlet of Claudius’s marriage to his mother is that it forecloses any possibility that he might be elected to the kingship that had belonged to his father. In the words of the Q1 Hamlet comparing himself to the actor who has just feigned Aeneas’s grief for Hecuba: “What would he do an if he had my loss— / His father murdered and a crown bereft him?” His father’s murder may be an abomination that he is bound to avenge, but he only speaks of being bereaved of his crown.

The point here is that although Hamlet’s succession might not have been guaranteed, his mother’s union with Claudius effectively rules it out. What is more, Gertrude has become “Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state” (1.2.9), a style and a status that she would not have enjoyed under King Hamlet II. In his essay “On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children”, Montaigne writes of the resentment felt by sons for their possessive and self-­possessed fathers, and on the inadvisability of allowing widowed mothers (whose rationality is weaker than their passions) to decide questions of succession and inheritance. We never learn what provision Old Hamlet made for his wife in the event of his death, but might Gertrude have impeded the claims of her son not only to indulge her sexual desire, but in order to advance her own well-­being? If the thought occurs to Hamlet, his rage against her instantly acquires the objective correlative for which Eliot sought in vain—especially if, as seems likely given Hamlet’s adolescence, Gertrude is still of child-­bearing age.

On the cusp of the play’s final movement, Hamlet informs Horatio that his uncle had “Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2.65). Everything suggests that these hopes had been real. Although the Danish constitution supported an elective monarchy and did not follow the laws of primogeniture, its clear convention was for princely sons to succeed their kingly fathers. Hamlet’s patronymic, and auspicious birth on the day of his father’s greatest victory, can only have reinforced the belief that he was heir presumptive. And yet Hamlet was absent (at university—or, more likely, making his way back there after the long vacation) when his father died in late summer. Claudius (who must have seen the merit in striking when Hamlet was away from Elsinore) was on hand to press his claim, winning the support of the court and of Hamlet’s mother the queen. Hamlet must therefore wait—and feels both degraded and upset. As to make such feelings public would be treasonous, they must remain hidden: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.159). Claudius and Gertrude urge him to give up the “obstinate condolement” (1.2.93) with which he seems to have fastened himself to the memory of his father, but they fail to discern that this obstinacy is a proxy through which he is able to express his profound dissatisfaction with his surviving family, with his lot, and with the court at large.

In seeking to understand this dissatisfaction, we might note that just as we never see Hamlet remembering Old Hamlet with the concentration that he fixes on his mother’s remarriage, Shakespeare never shows him mourning his father other than in the most stagily public fashion. Perhaps Hamlet grieved for his father on first learning of his death, as he will seem to do for Ophe­lia. Perhaps not. By the time Hamlet begins, Old Hamlet is only of value to him 
as a yardstick with which to measure Claudius’s imperfections. Absence of ­evidence is not evidence of absence, but the play offers nothing to suggest that, to his son, Old Hamlet is any more than a name—albeit a challenging and volatile name—with which to conjure. In himself, he is all but forgotten. It falls to Claudius to insinuate how this can have come to pass:

We pray you throw to earth

This unprevailing woe, and think of us

As of a father; for let the world take note

You are the most immediate to our throne,

And with no less nobility of love

Than that which dearest father bears his son

Do I impart toward you. (1.2.106–12)

Claudius is being generous, and designedly so. By nominating Hamlet as his heir apparent (“the most immediate to our throne”), he advertises his benign intentions towards the son of his dead predecessor, and his respect for the traditions of Danish royal lineage. He also differentiates himself from Old Hamlet. Not as a satyr to Hyperion, but as one who publicly gives his adoptive “son” that which is his due by virtue of paternal love: status as a dynast to be. Were Old Hamlet to have done the same, Claudius would be in no position to indulge his apparent generosity of spirit. The Danish monarchy is elective, but the word of the incumbent has decisive weight. Witness Hamlet, in the brief interlude between the death of Claudius and his own demise, giving his “dying voice” to Fortinbras. By contrast, Old Hamlet seems steadfastly to have ignored the succession, whether through disinclination or the lack of a suitable candidate. It is possible that he nominated Claudius, but as—on the Ghost’s testimony (1.5.47–52)—he viewed his brother as a defective copy of himself, and as nobody mentions the fact, this seems unlikely.

Whatever the truth of the matter, his father’s failure to nominate him as his heir means that Hamlet cannot lay the blame for his failure to ascend the throne at the feet of Claudius and Gertrude alone. Furthermore, this failure not only constrains Hamlet to limit his ambitions, but leaves him in a position of invidious personal ambiguity: the possessor of a proudly royal patronymic, but with no royal patrimony to accompany it. In making a show of designating Hamlet as his chosen successor, and of doing so because he would like Hamlet to consider himself his son, Claudius refuses to let Hamlet forget that this is the case. Hamlet is faced with a kindness that he finds it impossible to forgive.

None of this would trouble Machiavelli’s comprehension of the world. Of course children concern themselves more with what their fathers have bequeathed them than with remembering the dead: self-­interest works like that, and is sempiternal. But Hamlet, unlike Claudius, lacks the knowingly Machiavellian touch. He needs to be able to believe that he honours his father as a loving son should. Gentillet’s Anti-­Machiavel is good on the cultural and psychological dynamics at work here:

And as for that which Machiavell saith, That the children, of such as are unjustly caused to die, take no care, if [it] so bee their goods bee not taken from them: I beleeve few men will accord with him, in this point, for every one which hath a good mans hart, will sooner make account of honour and life, than of goods. But certaine it is, if the successor, his sonne or other kinsman, despise and make no account to pursue by lawfull meanes, that justice bee done, for the unjust death of the slaine men, whom hee succeedeth, that he leeseth his honour, and by the civile lawes is culpable and unworthie of the succession . . . such violent executions are without doubt more intollerable, than the losse of goods, and so much more stronglie wound the hearts of men, which are not destitute of naturall love towards their bloud, and such as have their honour in any recommendation, than all other losses and damages that they can suffer: and although the Machiavellists hold for a Maxime, That a dead man biteth not or makes no warre, yet the death of a 
man, oftentimes is the cause of many deaths, and of great effusion of blood[.]

Put to one side questions of diminishing one’s honour by failing to pursue justice or reparation for “the unjust death of the slaine men” that one succeeds, and of dead men having the capacity to bite the living. Hamlet, like any respectable student of humanist moral philosophy, wishes to see himself as one who will “sooner make account of honour and life, than of goods”. In particular, he resists envisioning himself as someone principally concerned with the loss—or, rather, absence—of his patrimony: to do so would be to admit that his heart is “destitute of naturall love” towards his “bloud”. This, I would suggest, is the wellspring of Hamlet’s crisis, a state of affairs made worse but not fundamentally transformed by his eventual meeting with the Ghost.

Act 1 of All’s Well provides a ready analogue of the situation in which Hamlet finds himself. Here, the Countess observes Helena’s lachrymose response to the enumeration of her dead father’s virtues:

’Tis the best brine a maiden can season her praise in. The remembrance of her father never approaches her heart but the tyranny of her sorrows takes all livelihood from her cheek.

The Countess cautions Helena not to make such a show of her tears, “lest it be thought you affect a sorrow”. In Lafew’s elaboration, “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief the enemy to the living”. Such counsel is the close relative of the “obstinate condolement” with which Claudius taxes Hamlet, but most revealing is what All’s Well shows us next. Helena’s tears were not shed in a spirit of filial bereavement at all:

I think not on my father,

And these great tears grace his remembrance more

Than those I shed for him. What was he like?

I have forgot him; my imagination

Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s.

Helena recognises that the Countess and Lafew interpret her tears as falling in memory of her father, and although she feels no need to correct their misapprehension, she is bound to admit to herself that, far from mourning her father, his memory has been thoroughly displaced. Whether in terms of her internal or external senses, she concedes that she only has eyes for Bertram—a condition that passes both show and the comprehension of those around her. This realisation momentarily discomfits her, but despite her prospects and position at court resting on her inheritance (in this case, her father’s medical know-­how), she soon returns to the compulsions of loving as she does: “The hind that would be mated by the lion / Must die for love”. If not a great deal healthier, Hamlet’s predicament is more complicated and far more dangerous: whatever lies behind his difficulty in calling to mind an image of his father, the overwhelming intensity of his affection for Ophe­lia can no more be held responsible for it than a yearning for masochistic abasement. Unlike Helena, however, Hamlet does not know himself well enough to recognise that he feels conflicted—much less to identify the competing impulses of which this conflict consists.

Hamlet’s suit of black can thus seem extremely well fitted to his needs. It enables him to act out his feelings of alienation, anger, and loss at being overlooked for the throne. It also serves as a form of displacement activity: by concentrating on the performance of mourning, he can avoid confronting his feelings towards a father who has deprived him of his expected inheritance, and can do so while looking like the very image of over-­assiduous filial devotion. The catch is that in remembering and mourning his father in this manner, Hamlet only inhabits the simulacrum of sincerity. He implies to Horatio that he is struggling with an inward vision of ineffable intensity; in reality, words are the only medium through which he is able to call the dead king to mind. His attempt to equate memory with discourse of reason is fine as far as public remembrance goes but, as far as his own memories of his father are concerned, is disingenuous: it is part of a young man’s desperate struggle to make his self-­image, family history, and infelicitous present cohere. Without the bonds of love and nature, Hamlet has no claim to inherit his father’s throne, and therefore no chance to realise—that is, to actualise—his true self through a fittingly regal persona. The problem is not simply that Old Hamlet does not seem to have felt the tug of these bonds in considering the succession, but that Hamlet himself does not do so. He expends a great deal of discursive vigour at once evading the fact and attempting to compensate for it.

Shakespeare thus sets the scene for his transformation of the Ur-­Hamlet into a fundamentally new sort of drama. He is about to give his Hamlet an even more potent vehicle through which to act out his disaffection and disgust for the Claudian court: that of the revenger. The ironies here are as pervasive as they are corrosive. Put the case that, like Hamlet, fortune has allotted you a part that demands you cleave to the memory—the vivid internal likeness—of your murdered father’s form. Despite being prompted to play the part by the most striking possible manifestation of your murdered father’s likeness, and despite wanting to do so, you find yourself unable to play it. How to proceed? Eventually, perhaps, with despair; but pretence comes first. Hamlet borrows a line from Plautus in instructing his mother to “Assume a virtue if you have it not”, claiming that to wear the “frock or livery” of custom can lead to “actions fair and good”—that, in time, it can even “change the stamp of nature” (3.4.162–70). Up to a point: recall the humanist notion that one only becomes fully human by learning to cultivate one’s character and talents for the public good. Hamlet’s burden, albeit one that he is in the process of shrugging off as he lectures his mother on assumed virtue, is that pretence is not enough to accomplish a successful act of vengeance, especially one of filial vengeance. In such circumstances, one must be transported beyond discourse of reason, and must be motivated by blood, love, or natural force. Learning one’s lines and brazening it out will not suffice.

Remember Me

Nothing like Shakespeare’s Ghost had previously been seen on the early modern stage. Elizabethan audience members were well used to the protagonists of revenge plays being ambushed by revenants or spectral grotesques, bombastically demanding reparation for the wrongs done to them before their untimely deaths. Shakespeare had himself evoked some conventionally agitated spirits in Richard III, and in so doing recalled plays like Hughes’s Misfortunes of Arthur, Peele’s Battle of Alcazar, and Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. As the induction to the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women puts it, the standard order of action was that after the discovery of some murder or other,

a filthie whining ghost

Lapt [i.e., wrapped] in some fowle sheete, or a leather pelch,

Comes skreaming like a pigge halfe stickt,

And cries Vindicta, revenge, revenge[.]

In the course of adapting Plutarch’s artfully spare account of Caesar’s spirit visiting Brutus in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare came to realise the virtues of a different approach, one that would culminate in the terrifyingly silent wraith of Macbeth. In Hamlet, his Ghost is taciturn, dignified in bearing and appearance, and—as Quentin Skinner has reconstructed with lucid precision—addresses Hamlet in the form of a judicial oration closely, though imperfectly, modelled on the principles of classical rhetoric. The effect is that when he makes his voice heard, we do not nod at a generic coup de théâtre that, far from having the power to shock, has become slightly camp. Like Hamlet, we are compelled to attend.

Having kept silent before the members of the night watch, the Ghost only speaks when it and Hamlet are alone. It outlines all it says it can of its purgatorial sufferings and announces that if Hamlet did ever his “dear father love”, then the tale it is about to tell will bind him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.23–25). Although Hamlet can only muster an indeterminate “O God!” to the mention of filial love, his attitude to the revelation of murder seems more directed: “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love / May sweep to my revenge” (1.5.29–31). He means to suggest that once he has heard the details of the crime committed against his father, he will pursue the business of revenge immediately—like a fast-­flying bird, or the proverbially speedy processes of cognition. That he mentions “thoughts of love”, rather than sticking to “thought” (or to “love”), should nevertheless give us pause, as should “may” (rather than the more purposeful “will”) as his modal auxiliary of choice. The suspicion is confirmed by his reference to “meditation”, a practice that is anything but instantaneous, and that comprises a deliberately ruminative form of prayer, analogous to a form of inward reading. Through it, as Shakespeare well knew, one cultivated one’s inner and outer senses to ensure that one’s energies were directed towards appropriately virtuous ends. In particular, towards God.

Why does Hamlet blurt out “meditation” as a simile for speed? Obviously, he is stunned by the experience of the Ghost, and is not wholly in control of himself. But perhaps he has in some sense grasped that his feelings for his father are not those of a typically loving son, and seeks to reassure himself of the sufficiency of cleaving to good moral habits. Just as a pious Christian believes that God is the way, the truth, and the light but may need to meditate in order to feel this reality, so thinking about filial love might have the power to cultivate within Hamlet the appropriate sentiments for his father. In meditating thus, Hamlet would use his discourse of reason much as he would have had his mother use hers to extend her period of mournful widowhood. As things stand, of course, the slow deliberate business of meditating on his father is the last thing on Hamlet’s mind. Instead, by promising to sweep to his vengeance with “wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love”, he inadvertently reveals that he does not possess a very large share of the unmediated, and “natural”, love with which the Ghost takes him to regard his father’s memory. Without straining the reading too much, we can further observe that if the aetiology of revenge outlined by the Ghost stands up, then Hamlet has all but conceded that vindictive action is not going to be his thing.

Even so, Hamlet has said enough to keep their dialogue going: once embarked on his oration, the Ghost, like many of the more conventionally human residents of Elsinore, does not trouble itself to listen. It has an axe to grind before the rising of the sun, and is content that Hamlet has made the right noises: “I find thee apt”. Further elaborating on the relationship between Hamlet’s natural memory of his father and the imperative to avenge his murder, the Ghost continues with the redundant but emphatic assertion that “duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed / That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf / Wouldst thou not stir in this” (1.5.31–34). No response is required, and the Ghost now narrates the circumstances of Old Hamlet’s murder. The revelation that Claudius was the killer occasions Hamlet’s final contribution to their exchange: “O my prophetic soul! My uncle!” (1.5.41). The details duly and vividly conveyed (quite how Old Hamlet’s spirit is in a position to convey them given that Old Hamlet was asleep when the poison was poured into his ear is a puzzle—one to which we will return towards the end of chapter 4), the Ghost makes two related pronouncements: “If thou has nature in thee, bear it not / Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (1.5.81–83). That is, if you feel the love for your father that should naturally be yours, do not stand for either your father’s horrible murder or its consequences in corrupting the Danish monarchy. The Ghost does not make it explicit that these acts of vengeance should involve the death of Claudius, and does not specify how he would like them to take place. It does, however, demand that Hamlet exclude his mother from the retribution of his devising: “howsomever though pursuest this act, / Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (1.5.84–86). Perhaps the Ghost has overheard parts of the first soliloquy, and noted Hamlet’s disgusted preoccupation with his mother’s conduct. As such feelings could be of no use in afforcing the desired act of vengeance on Claudius, Hamlet must let them go. The Ghost then concludes by echoing the “Mark me” with which it began, and by reinforcing the close connection it has worked to establish between memory and revenge. Though its words are caught somewhere between edict and adjuration, it means to compel: “Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me” (1.5.90). No awareness of Hamlet’s plight, no hint of remorse or regret at having failed to nominate Hamlet as heir apparent, no interest in the post-­Claudian succession. As far as the ghost of Hamlet’s father is concerned, it is all about him. Remember me; on no account forget my fate.

For some notion of how startling this performance must have been, consider Thomas Lodge’s jibe that an UrHamlet performed in or before 1596 was notable for “the ghost which cried so miserally at the Theator, like an oisterwife, Hamlet, revenge”. By the brilliantly simple device of having his Ghost instruct Hamlet not to revenge, but to remember and therefore revenge, Shakespeare bypasses this crudity and shifts the attention of his audience to the disposition of his Prince’s emotional life. (It is a ploy to which he would return when dramatizing Cressida’s internal conflict between her desire for Diomedes and her prior attachment to Troilus. When Diomedes asks her whether she will remember what she has just promised him, she responds that she will. Diomedes follows up promptly: “Nay, but do then, / And let your mind be coupled with your words”. Within a moment or two, Cressida gives way.) Up to Act 1 Scene 5, Hamlet’s earliest audiences could be forgiven for having assumed that they were in the theatre to view a conventional revenge play. Thereafter, they can have had little doubt that events in Shakespeare’s Elsinore would be taking an altogether novel course.

And yet, as Stephen Greenblatt has justly remarked, it would be “faintly ludicrous” to imagine that Hamlet could actually have forgotten either his father, his father’s Ghost, or what his father’s Ghost has revealed. Hamlet’s difficulty, and our need to make sense of the ways in which he relates to his memory, has a very different aspect. As the play begins, Hamlet has taken on the role of the black-­clad mourner in order to act out his alienation from a personal, familial, and political world that has turned against him; as I have argued, it may also be that this role has the further advantage of allowing him to hide from himself the ambivalence of his feelings towards his dead father. The task set for him by the Ghost changes everything. He can no longer occupy himself with the show of mourning or with courting Ophe­lia, and must become a revenger: the ties that bind royal sons to their regal fathers compel it. No small or insignificant matter, and one with numerous incentives not mentioned by Hamlet’s spectral prompter. For instance, it would furnish the young prince with the opportunity to do away with his loathed uncle, whether through death, exile, or imprisonment. In its turn, the removal of Claudius from the scene would leave the path clear for Hamlet to replace him on the Danish throne—the very office that Hamlet had hoped and expected to inherit after the death of his father. First, however, Hamlet must commit to the act of vengeance. To do so, as he and the Ghost agree, all he need do is to remember his virtuous father with the loving intensity that naturally belongs to a virtuous son.

Hamlet’s second soliloquy comprises his immediate response to this challenge. It is as frenzied as it is confusing:

O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?

And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart,

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,

But bear me swiftly up. Remember thee?

Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe. Remember thee?

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain,

Unmix’d with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!

O most pernicious woman!

O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!

My tables. Meet it is I set it down

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain–

At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.

It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’

I have sworn’t. (1.5.92–112)

For one entrusted with what looks to be the definitive act of what looks to be a revenge play, Hamlet opens promisingly enough. As discussed in chapter 2, he envisages himself as a relentlessly Senecan hunting dog, coupled to hell like Antony to Atè, and ranging determinedly to track down his prey. Only bodily frailty could impede him, and he wills himself to strength, recalling his earlier bravado in dismissing the cavils of Horatio and Marcellus before following the Ghost—“My fate cries out / And makes each petty artire in this body / As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve” (1.4.81–84).

The Senecan box duly ticked, Hamlet turns to the Ghost’s parting words: with a flourish of Erasmian eloquence, he affirms that he will remember his father’s spirit for as long as he retains his faculty of memory. Having done so, however, he shies away from beholding the mnemonic likeness (whether directly or through the mediation of the Ghost’s appearance) of his father with his mind’s eye. He just as determinedly avoids speaking directly of revenge. Instead, he embraces a mental product that he feels better able to control: words, and the discourse of reason. If he cannot bring himself to remember his father or his father’s ghost, he at least commits to remembering what the Ghost said to him, and promises to do so to the exclusion of all else. In his next breath, however, Hamlet gives this promise the lie—he dwells on his mother’s “pernicious” character and moves to jot down the observation, in connection with Claudius, that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. All but in­stantaneously, he has allowed the Ghost’s commandment to be contaminated “with baser matter”. (Critics, editors, and stage directors have disagreed as to whether or not Hamlet actually inscribes his “table” at this point, but it need not detain us here. Either he does so, or he is making the bitterly ironic assertion that such a commonplace piece of political wisdom could be in no danger of being forgotten. The point is that the Ghost’s commandment is denied the isolation that Hamlet has claimed for it.) Finally, Hamlet wraps up by complying with the letter of the Ghost’s injunction: he vows that he will remember to remember his father. Somehow, he has convinced himself that although the actual experience of his father’s ghost has not moved him to condign fury, remembering it at some unspecified point in the future will prove enough to spur his vengeance.

The obvious point of comparison is Laertes on the death of Polonius:

To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,

That both the worlds I give to negligence.

Let come what comes, only I’ll be reveng’d

Most thoroughly for my father. (4.5.131–36)

All is subsumed within the need to know of and to expiate Polonius’s apparently dishonourable demise. Memory, like patrilineal identity, is a given. It is true that Laertes is impulsive, unreflective, and easily manipulable, but the point about him—here as elsewhere—is that he is typical: the late-­Elizabethan stage revenger, like both Laertes and Hamlet, may elect to defer his vengeance to a more propitious moment, but he greets revelation with unequivocally vindictive, if often histrionic, passion. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is histrionic alone.

More on revenge in due course. Our focus must remain on Hamlet’s memory, and on its relationship to the interwoven histories from which his dramatic present is fashioned. From this perspective, Hamlet’s response to the Ghost is no less extraordinary. Compare Horatio’s incredulity when asked by Hamlet whether he remembers the contents of the letter that Hamlet had sent him after his encounter with the pirates and separation from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “Remember it, my lord!” (5.2.3). Yes, he implies, of course he does. He is not in the habit of forgetting things of such gravity or moment. In Sonnet 122, the speaker makes a similar point with yet greater applicability to Hamlet’s case: “To keep an adjunct to remember thee / Were to import forgetfulness in me”. The speaker’s friend is regarded with such love that he could not possibly be forgotten; for the friend to suggest otherwise with his “gift” is to denude this love; as an expression of his love’s vitality, and of the umbrage that he has taken at being presented with such an object, the speaker and his notebook have parted company. In Hamlet, the Ghost’s mnemonic “adjunct” is not an artefact like a notebook—or a skull or blood-­stained handkerchief—but is the spoken commandment to “remember me” in itself. Despite the content of what he has heard and the manner in which he has heard it, Hamlet does not seem to find it the least provocative that Ghost parts from him with a filial aide-­mémoire—with words, that is, that should strike a loving son as something between supererogatory and an affront.

Pushing back against the bloodthirstier readers of Hamlet, who would have it that after Act 1 Scene 5, Hamlet’s task is to get on with the revenge to which he has committed himself, Kerrigan has drawn attention to the fact that Hamlet only vows to remember his father (or, rather, to preserve the Ghost’s commandment to remember him) and not explicitly to revenge him. This is right. But Hamlet’s problem is not that an excess of remembrance impedes his ability to revenge. It is that he does not, and perhaps cannot, remember his father as he and the Ghost think he should. The paradox is a nice one. Hamlet owes his identity as a prince and a man (along with the origins of his grievance at Claudius becoming king) to his father, but his father’s likeness does not occupy a clearly identified place within his memory. Without such a memory, he can do no more than play at the role of the revenger. The terms in which the Ghost takes his leave are thus anything but supererogatory, and instantly expose the shortcoming that will prevent Hamlet from fulfilling the Ghost’s demands: he can only remember his father as an exercise in filial piety, not through the “stamp of nature”. That the Ghost no more grasps this than Polonius grasps the toxic complacency of his “to thine own self be true” is, I would submit, central to Shakespeare’s dramatic purpose. Irony, like ambiguity and self-­deceit, is in­escapable: hic et ubique.

It remains to explore in greater detail exactly how the second soliloquy develops. In particular, to examine Hamlet’s conviction that his memory is subject to his control, and that he is able to bring about mnemonic erasure should he so desire. Key to this is the Aristotelian distinction between the activities of remembering and recollecting—a distinction that Hamlet wilfully disregards. Viewed from here, Hamlet’s determination to preserve the Ghost’s commandment emerges not from the collision of his father’s mnemonic likeness with his representation in spectral form, but as an attempt to give himself an alibi. In the absence of the cordate intensity necessary for revenge, Hamlet’s second soliloquy is a beard for whatever it is that truly resides in his heart. 

Memory, Recollection, and the ars memoriae

Over the past two decades, the critical fascination with material culture has led to a surge of interest in Hamlet’s response to the Ghost. Most notably, scholars have explored the technologies to which Hamlet refers in discussing the “table” of his memory and the “book and volume” of his brain. They have also identified the tables for which Hamlet calls with the waxed, and therefore erasable, “table books” that were a fixture of early modern schoolrooms across Europe. The best of these studies is the article co-­authored by Stallybrass, Chartier, Mowery, and Wolfe. Their first and most powerful argument comes in the observation (amplified from Francis Goyet) that Hamlet’s shift from the “table of my memory” to the “book and volume of my brain” reflects the relationship between writing tablets and commonplace books: the sixteenth-­century student would have made a record of the things he had read or audited on the former, and then have transferred them to the latter as a site of more permanent and better organized data storage. On this reading, Hamlet wants to do away with the trifles that his conventional humanist education had exposed him to, and to remember his father’s commandment alone. The argument runs that this accounts for Hamlet’s intention to “set it down / That one may smile and smile be a villain”: writing tables are mutable and fit for ephemera relating to a hypocrite like Claudius, whereas the “book” of memory has a permanence consonant with the gravity of the Ghost’s injunction. Yet as Stallybrass and his collaborators go on to discuss, the situation is ripe with dramatic irony, for Hamlet’s memory is by no means trustworthy: once he has been chastised by the Ghost in the closet scene, his father vanishes into oblivion for the remainder of the play. Thus, as Hamlet progresses, the model of memory as a “book and volume” is supplanted by the memory as “table”. The memory becomes a site of erasure, forgetfulness, and telling impermanence.

There is much to admire in this reconstruction. Nevertheless, in failing to disentangle the metaphorical and conceptual thickets in which Shakespeare has Hamlet become ensnared, it leads us astray. First, although Hamlet’s response to the Ghost does try to exploit a hierarchy of information storage, moving from tabular to bibliographic metaphors of memory, his claim that his father’s “commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain / Unmixed with baser matter” is predicated of his mistaken notion that this “book and volume”, like the “tables,” can be subject to erasure at his decree. This instantly collapses the hierarchical relationship that Hamlet, and with him Stallybrass and his collaborators, would establish between the two. Second, it is vital to distinguish between the processes of forgetting and of erasure. The former is involuntary and accidental, whereas the latter is a deliberate act of mnemonic effacement, the conscious obliteration of what one has learned or experienced in the past. In this connection, we should also keep in mind a distinction between the metaphors through which we comprehend the memory: waxed table books are not very much like the memory-­as-­wax envisaged by Aristotle and later mnemonic theorists. The former are an inscribable and erasable form of graphic technology, designed only for short-­term information storage. The latter is “impressed” by everyday experience, leaving behind a trace that will—on account of the softness of wax—naturally come to fade over the course of time. From antiquity onwards, there is a good deal of anxiety at the mutability of these mnemonic impressions, but nowhere is it suggested that they might deliberately be erased.

By contrast, a large portion of Hamlet’s second soliloquy depends on his belief that a memory emptied out of everything but his father’s commandment need not be a fantasy. In trying to explain this, we are helped by the presence within Hamlet’s words of vocabulary and assumptions associated with mnemo­technique, or the ars memoriae—a mental technology developed over a millennium and a half in order to manage what Ann Blair has dubbed “information overload” without writing things down. Given that the Ghost by no means demands that Hamlet store large amounts of data and ensure that he can recall them with ease, this might seem incongruous. In a sense, it is. But Hamlet’s focus on mnemotechnic imagery becomes entirely explicable when we consider that the ars memoriae provides for a version of voluntary mnemonic erasure. Before examining this claim in detail, a little more conceptual and discursive background needs to be laid out.

Within the Aristotelian theory of memory, there is a fundamental distinction between the processes of remembering and recollecting. Although recollection (the two standard Latin terms for which are reminiscentia and recordatio) resembles memory in that it works through the medium of images, it entails the discovery or re-­discovery of an object, made possible through either the ordered arrangement of a data set or some sort of similitude or association between ideas. If you are able immediately to call the image of a friend or past event to mind, you are remembering. On the other hand, if you are put in mind of the friend or of a past event by encountering or thinking of something else—say, a skull in a graveyard, an old love-­token, or a tea-­soaked madeleine—then you have probably undertaken an act of recollection. Recollection is a distinctively human characteristic and, unlike remembering, depends upon reason working in tandem with the imagination and memory. It is a reconstructive and heuristic act, and enables one to call to mind things that would otherwise be forgotten; as such, recollecting is analogous to following a trail when hunting.

Due in the main to the vitality of the Aristotelian tradition in sixteenth-­ and seventeenth-­century education, the distinction was a staple of early modern writing. In La Primaudaye’s synopsis:

[S]ome Philosophers attribute unto man beside memorie both recordation and remembrance, which is one recordation upon another, whereby we call to mind that which was slipped out of it. For it commeth to passe oftentimes, that that which before we have seene, heard, and knowen, and even kept a while in our memory, is escaped us and so forgotten, that we thinke of it no more then if wee had never understoode or knowen it, neither should we ever remember it, unlesse some body did put us in minde of it, or some evident token made us to thinke of it. Some things also there are, which albeit they are not cleane gone from us, but are somewhat better registred in our memory, yet wee cannot readily remember them and bring them foorth, without great and long inquirie. Therefore must the minde turne over all the leaves of his Booke or Register of Memorie, or at leastwise a great part thereof to finde them out. . . . And wee see among our selves, what notes and observations wee use, that they might bee as it were a memoriall booke unto our memories. You see then why some have attributed to man both recordation and remembrance[.]

Another good exemplar comes from Spenser’s allegory of the well-­ordered human body in the Castle of Alma episode of the Faerie Queene. In the “turret” at its head, he locates “three rowmes” in which “did sondry dwell, / And counselled faire Alma, how to governe well”. These three rooms correspond to the three chief internal senses of imagination, cogitation/estimation/reason, and memory. When Alma leads Arthur and Guyon to “th’hindmost rowme of [the] three”, they encounter an old man (“Eumnestes”), whose task is to ensure that events “forgone through many ages” are preserved in “his immortal scrine, / Where they for ever incorrupted dweld”. However, due to the senescence of both Eumnestes and his archive, he was not always able to fetch details of these events as and when he wanted them, to which end he had a young helper, “Anamnestes”—“oft when thinges were lost, or laid amis, / That boy them sought, and unto him did lend”. Arthur and Guyon quickly get the picture, and it seems safe to assume that Spenser believed his earliest readers likely to have been able to do the same—even if their linguistic skills were not equal to the task of acknowledging Spenser’s art in naming the two inhabitants of this “hindmost rowme” after the Greek terms for memory and recollection.

For our purposes, the distinction between memory and recollection is important because it is in the second part of On Memory and Recollection, treating of recollection, that we find the earliest substantive account of what would become known as the ars memoriae. If recollection makes use of those things which we can remember in order to call to mind things that we might otherwise forget, then it stands to reason that it might be developed as a tool with which systematically to maximize the potential of the mind. Even so, Aristotle’s surviving descriptions of mnemotechnique are as obscure as they are laconic, and the richest sources with which to understand its precepts and practices are found in the rhetorical writings of Cicero, Quintilian, and—especially—the anonymous auctor ad Herennium. On their account, the first task is for an individual to establish a series of background places (loci) that are familiar to him, and to arrange these into a series or order that cannot become confused. These places are variously envisioned as cityscapes, buildings, wax tablets, and papyri—but always through spatial metaphors. The order in which they are arranged enables one to search at the beginning or end of the series, or at any point in between. The next task is carefully to imprint these loci with images (imagines). These are described in terms that reflect the associative principles of recollection; the best examples are a sort of punning picture, but they could be anything from alphabetic letters to emblems. Further, such images must be chosen for their personal significance if they are to have the requisite affective force: thinking of pretzels puts me in mind of my favourite bakery, but makes you think of Copernican orbital motion or your ill-starred first date at the local cinema. When the time comes to recall a particular datum, you should consider in what general place it is likely to be found, and search within that place for the datum (in the form of an image) that is required. Once appropriately located, the mnemotechnic image serves as a cue for the recovery of a mnemonic image that might otherwise prove inaccessible.

A series of places could be used to store many related imagines, but all authorities were at pains to stress that such series should not be overburdened; to avoid this danger, the easiest course of action was to devise and imprint a new series of places in the same way. Another option was actively to erase the images from a pre-­existing series, much as one might wipe clean the marks written on wax tablets or scrub the paint from a wall. Although doing so was considered to be extremely difficult (such images were, after all, designed to be vivid and robust), it meant that the places could be re-­inscribed as a sort of mnemotechnic palimpsest. Building on a suggestion in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, this possibility was a prominent feature of rhetorical and mnemotechnic works from the mid-­fifteenth century onwards. In Thomas Wilson’s estimation:

therefore, as we do reserve paper and yet change our writing, putting out words as occasion shall serve and setting others in their room, so may we do for the images invented, change our pictures oft and reserve the papers still.

As Lina Bolzoni has shown, other early moderns came up with mechanisms of erasure that were far more elaborate than those described here by Wilson. These included covering the images with cloths, burning them out, and engaging in acts of deliberately violent iconoclasm.

When assessing how such an ars oblivionalis (“art of forgetting”) was thought possible, it is vital to stress that the familiar notion of an “art of memory” is a misnomer, if not an outright solecism. In Mary Carruthers’s succinct judgement, “the ‘art of memory’ is actually the ‘art of recollection’ ”. And yet, within the rhetorical tradition through which mnemotechnique was amplified to posterity, one reads little or nothing of recollection, reminiscentia, or recordatio. For Cicero and his innumerable rhetorical heirs, memoria was the heading under which all activities relating to the retention of one’s learning should be comprehended: although the techniques of the ars memoriae could only relate to the natural processes of recollection, to dwell on the fact would be to complicate with terminological hair-­splitting an already demanding period in the young orator’s training. As many writers on mnemotechnique acknowledged across the long sixteenth century, to discuss the ars memoriae is thus to make use of a tacit metaphor. Or, rather, a synecdoche in which the whole is made to speak for the part. Seen in this light, what the auctor ad Herennium and the likes of Thomas Wilson deem “artificial memory” is not a form of mnemonic prosthesis; it does not stand to the natural memory as medieval and early modern technical innovations like spectacles, telescopes, and microscopes stand to the eyes, or even as medicine does to bodily ailments. Rather, it takes the pressure off the memory with a rationally constructed, and therefore less vulnerable, mnemonic adjunct based on a consciously regulated form of recollection. It follows that the erasure of mnemotechnic images does not involve the effacement or destruction of memories in themselves, but the removal of images that had been designed and positioned in the deliberate attempt to trigger, and thereby to regulate, the processes of recollection. (We find here a clue as to the status of graphic memory aids like commonplace books. They offered an external and therefore more stable form of technology with which to record and recollect one’s learning and experiences, one in which the arrangement of material according to principles of order and place was retained, but in which vivid mnemotechnic images—and the need to obliterate them—were abandoned.)

One final complicating factor in assessing the language of memory, recollection, and the ars memoriae: as the early moderns had no real notion of the mechanisms through which the psycho-­physiological phenomenon known as the memory could be said to function (beyond the assumption that it did so within the armature of the internal senses), those who wrote about it were constrained to metaphors in making their subject known. For the most part, and as we have already seen, these involved impression and inscription, wax tablets and paper, books and treasure houses, architecture and cityscapes—and so on. Although the existence and longevity of these metaphoric traditions hardly qualifies as news, they demand our attention for one very pertinent reason: in addition to being used to plot the virtual spaces of the ars memoriae, they were employed to discuss both memory and recollection. Suffice it to say that when reading early modern writing on the operations of the memory, one must take care to discern exactly what its common stock of metaphors is being used to represent.

While it is safe to assume that Shakespeare was familiar with the existence of the ars memoriae from exposure to the rhetorical handbooks of his schooldays, he nowhere—not even in Hamlet’s second soliloquy—evinces an interest in its workings. There is, however, ample evidence to confirm that he was on easy terms with the metaphors of traditional mnemonic writing, and with the force of the distinction between remembering and recollecting. In the Temple Garden scene of 1 Henry VI, for instance, the Duke of York (Richard Plantagenet, father to Edward IV and Richard III) responds to an attack on his father by informing the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk that “I’ll note you in my book of memory, / To scourge you for this apprehension”. York is not bluffing; neither he nor his faction will allow themselves to forget. At the beginning of 2 Henry VI, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, adapts the same bibliographical metaphor in objecting to the agreement that underwrote Henry VI’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou (within which the King of France had been gifted Anjou and Maine). Addressing the assembled nobles of England, he insists that this marriage would be responsible for “Blotting your names from books of memory, / Razing the characters of your renown, / . . . Undoing all, as all never had been!” The memory, itself only understood analogically, is here being deployed—just as it is by Spenser—as a usefully organic metaphor for a sense of historical identity: Duke Humphrey is suggesting that the wedding settlement brokered for his monarch is against the natural order. The possibility of mnemonic or historical erasure is also raised in Act 4 of 2 Henry IV, where Mowbray expresses his doubts that Henry IV would stick to the terms of any peace treaty with him and his fellow rebels. The Archbishop of York assures him that his anxieties are groundless, and that the King’s weakened condition means that he will “wipe his tables clean, / And keep no tell-­tale to his memory / That may repeat and history his loss / To new remembrance”. Persuasive though it may be, the Archbishop’s reasoning proves misguided. Henry cannot choose to overlook open rebellion against his rule, and although the rebels’ grievances are addressed, Mowbray, Hastings, and the Archbishop himself are executed for capital treason.

Turning to the distinction between memory and recollection, it is at the very least implied in Sonnet 122, just as it is in the Archbishop of York’s “tell-­tale to his memory”. Cymbeline points us further in the right direction: when Iachimo enters the sleeping Imogen’s bedchamber to “write all down” so that he will be equipped to convince Posthumus of her adultery, he notices a “mole cinque-­spotted” on her left breast. Immediately, he realises that he has all the incriminating evidence he needs, and puts away his notebook: “Why should I write this down, that’s riveted, / Screw’d to my memory?” The image is such an arresting one that there can be no danger of it fading from his natural memory; like Henry IV, he needs no recollective “tell-­tale” to help him remember it. For a more explicit example of the distinction, we can return to 2 Henry IV. Here, in the course of an exchange with her parents-­in-­law (the Earl and Countess of Northumberland), Lady Percy’s thoughts turn to the dead Hotspur. She laments that she

never shall have length of life enough

To rain upon remembrance with mine eyes,

That it may grow and sprout as high as heaven

For recordation to my noble husband.

This sentiment is complicated by hyperbole, but is in essence clear enough. She is sad that no matter how often she refreshes her memory of Hotspur with her tears, neither it nor her tears will be sufficient to remind others of his nobility; she cannot provoke acts of “recordation” (recordatio is one of the standard Latin terms for recollection) that are consonant with what she feels him to deserve. The reason for this is simple: however vivid her memories may be, they are private and incommunicable to those who share neither her store of experiences nor her opinion of Hotspur’s nobility. Another, and more readily comprehensible, case in point comes when Troilus responds to his discovery of Cressida’s duplicity. His angry incredulity leads him to distrust the evidence of his senses (stored in his memory), and he proposes to turn instead to a rational means of preserving what he has seen and heard. When asked by Ulysses why they are not leaving their dangerous spot in Greek territory, Troilus answers that he remains “To make a recordation to my soul / Of every syllable that here was spoke”. He is too upset to do anything of sort, but confirms the status of recollection as a less vulnerable way of fixing the past in one’s mind.

Metaphor and Misrepresentation

Returning now to Hamlet’s second soliloquy, we are equipped to arrive at some better-­informed conclusions as to how he feels able to state that he can erase all of his memories—bar one. The first point to make is that aides-­mémoire like the Ghost’s commandment to “remember me”, or like the material objects found in other sixteenth-­century revenge plays, only aid the memory by stimulating acts of recollection. By keeping mindful of the instruction or artefact related to x, and perhaps by making a note of it, we are enabled through recollection to call the mnemonic image of x to mind. The elementary force of this distinction makes it all the more difficult to account for Hamlet’s failure to seem as affronted as the speaker of Sonnet 122 by the Ghost’s suggestion that he might need recollective prompting. Might he simply be holding his peace in the face of the enormity of what he has learned from the Ghost? The play offers nothing to support such a reading, and I would like to propose that Hamlet takes no offence at the Ghost’s words because he finds in them a lifeline. They enable him to keep his relationship with his dead father safely discursive—abstract, and at several removes from the passionate images that may or may not be impressed upon his memory.

As discussed above, Hamlet first addresses the Ghost’s commandment by expressing his piety in the manner of one who has not outgrown his training in Erasmian copiousness. Orating by numbers, he buys himself the time and space to formulate a more considered response. He continues by declaring that he will remember his father for as long as memory “holds a seat / In this distracted globe”. “Distracted” suggests trouble, confusion, or disturbance, while Hamlet’s “globe” is simply his head (within which ventricular theory accords the memory, along with the other internal senses, a specific locality or “seat”): what he has heard from the Ghost has left him in a state of agitation, perhaps even of conflictedness. “Globe” might also be seen to imply that Hamlet’s head is the microcosm of an agitated and conflicted world. But despite the temptations to suppose otherwise, there is no critical warrant or contextual evidence to support the claim that it has anything to do with the Globe Theatre—which on some accounts may have had as its sign a likeness of Hercules (or Atlas) bearing the globe on his shoulders. Shakespeare gives us a young prince dwelling on the disposition of his thoughts and feelings after beholding, and after hearing out, his father’s ghost; to intrude a meta-­theatrical pun of the sort that makes good sense elsewhere in the play not only shatters the metaphorical economy of the lines, but undermines the intensity and the integrity of the dramatic moment. Either way, Hamlet next turns to the Ghost’s commandment anew: “Remember thee?” Rather than simply reasserting his determination to remember, he imagines his memory as a waxed writing tablet of the sort that he will brandish several lines later. Having conceived of his memory thus, he promises to strike out from it “all trivial fond records”. Triviality obviously connotes insignificance, but no doubt hints at a disregard for the trivium of the early modern academic curriculum. Likewise, his “saws of books” are maxims, probably of moral philosophy. They are wholly in keeping with the textual learning that the early moderns used regulated forms of recollection to master, whether in the form of the ars memoriae or commonplace books. Hamlet’s suggestion that the table of his memory is inscribed with “records” thus makes excellent sense. “Records” are prompts to recordation or recollection, and by banishing them he will allow himself to forget branches of learning that he now takes to be as foolish as they are insignificant.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it exudes the whiff of absurdity. Given the central importance that Hamlet assigns to the imbricated memories of his father and his father’s ghost, why is he concerned to make additional space for them by erasing the dull commonplaces of his academic life? As Benedick wonders to himself at his own moment of crisis, “Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?” No, he implies, obviously not. The scholars-­turned-­lovers of Love’s Labour’s Lost would no doubt agree. Hamlet sees things differently. The reason for this is striking, takes us to the heart of his mystery, and reduplicates the struggles with the memory of his father that mark his first soliloquy and subsequent exchange with Horatio. He is not concerned to free himself from the moral, legal, and religious doctrines that might throw obstacles in the path of vengeance; rather, he is preparing to obscure the image of his father as his memory might present it to his mind’s eye. In place of the paternal memory itself, he concentrates on preserving the Ghost’s recollective aide-­mémoire.

Although this undertaking will lead Hamlet to stretch the credibility and coherence of his second soliloquy some distance beyond breaking point, his thoughts on erasing the saws and records of his education have already led him into wishful thinking. Within the early modern ars oblivionalis, one could erase the visual prompts to memory stored in one’s notebooks (whether metaphorical or real) if one so desired. One could not erase the memories that one’s visual prompts were designed to key. So it proves for Hamlet. Despite his professed erasure of bookish trivialities, when he encounters the players, he is able with only a passing stumble to summon up an old-­fashioned verse dramatization of Aeneas relating to Dido the circumstances of Priam’s death. (As Sidney, Daniel, and many early modern authorities attest, one of the benefits of verse is that its prosodic form helps it to stick in the memory.) Likewise, when telling Horatio how he outwitted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he claims that “I once did hold it . . . / A baseness to write fair, and labour’d much / How to forget that learning, but, sir, now / It did me yeoman’s service” (5.2.33–36). His snobbery caused him to disdain the artisanal skills of the scribe, but he could not forget what he had learned of them.

In elaborating his fantasy of erasure, Hamlet pays this reality no heed. Instead, he ratchets up his conceit in the attempt to shout down the impossibility of what he is suggesting. Not content with the idea that he can instantly forget all that he has internalized through his lessons and reading, he now exploits the ambiguity of mnemonic and mnemotechnic metaphors, particularly of the graphic sort, to propose that he will wipe away every image or likeness that he had hitherto experienced, and that had become impressed on his memory: “all forms, all pressures past”. “Form”, in the superficial sense demanded by Hamlet’s table metaphor, is the quality of soundly sequential logical arrangement, and examples of it are just the sort of thing that a willing student would jot down; in Wilson’s definition, a form is the “maner of makyng” a proposition or argument, and involves “the just placyng or settyng of the partes or termes”. Claudius uses it in this sense after the nunnery scene (and after overhearing Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy), noting that what Hamlet “spake, though it lack’d form a little, / Was not like madness” (3.1.165–66). But in his second soliloquy, Hamlet also means to suggest “form” as image or likeness, as he does when later speaks of theatrical performances showing “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.23–24). At the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare unpacks this use of the term with helpful clarity. Urging Hermia to obey her ­father’s wishes, Theseus tells her that as she is “but as a form in wax / By him imprinted”, seeking to fashion her own destiny would be ill-­advised.

Hamlet’s “all pressures past” confirms what his “forms” only implies: he has journeyed far beyond the normal bounds of the ars oblivionalis. He is determined not simply to rub out the recollective saws inscribed on his waxed writing tablets, but to make a show of erasing the impressions that have been stamped on the metaphorical wax of his memory. Earlier in the play, Polonius prefaces the list of maxims he delivers to Laertes with the instruction that he should “character” them in his memory (1.3.59). This use of “character” reiterates one of Shakespeare’s favourite quibbles, and represents two distinct ways in which past events might be called to mind. To “character” something is simply to write or inscribe it, but the Greek term for the impression stamped on a coin or wax is χαρακτήρ (charaktēr); this sense of “character” also survives long into the early modern period. Polonius allows Laertes to infer that he should diligently copy his father’s advice into his internal commonplace book, but implies that he should also stamp it into his memory—and thereby into the fabric of his being. Hamlet’s “pressures past” is semantically adjacent, but allows for no such ambiguity. He maintains that the “table” of his memory is not simply inscribed with the flowers of his reading and education, but is imprinted with the entirety of his experience.

And yet, unlike the wax seal that he impresses with his father’s signet ring when counterfeiting the letter that sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, he cannot reconfigure the metaphorical wax of his memory as he would like to. Whatever path his memories have taken en route to the rear ventricle of his brain, they are beyond either his grasp or his control. Forgetting might be hastened by illness, drink, drugs, the passage of time, or a freshly consuming passion, but it cannot be induced by volition alone. As the unwillingly love-­struck Dumaine puts it in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “I would forget her, but a fever she / reigns in my blood and will remembered be”. Shakespeare has both Richard II—“that I could forget what I have been, / Or not remember what I must be now!”—and the tempted Queen Elizabeth—“Shall I forget myself to be myself?”—learn the gravity of this truth, and as Lady Macbeth’s case bleakly testifies, things could hardly be otherwise. It is in nobody’s power to “Raze out the written troubles” of their memories, for the very good reason that memories, for better or worse, define the core of an individual’s character: the stamp of nature.

In pretending otherwise, Hamlet’s rhetorical sleight of hand is simultaneously underscored and undermined by the assertion that these “pressures past” have been “copied there” by “youth and observation”. “Youth and observation” is a good example of hendiadys, one of Hamlet’s (and Laertes’s) favourite figures, and signifies “youthful observation”. But as Lorraine Daston has illustrated, to observe something is not straightforwardly to see or otherwise to experience it: observations arise from deliberately cultivated forms of perception. Active rather than passive, “observation” comprehends a set of practices in which the natural operations of the senses are harnessed to accomplish particular disciplinary ends—whether in the library or laboratory, on one’s travels, or in any number of differing artisanal contexts. Jaques’s account of Touchstone captures this sense of the term perfectly: his brain has “strange places crammed / With observation, the which he vents / In mangled forms”. Hamlet’s youthful observations are not the totality of his experiences as a young man, but are the matters that he has learned to take note of in the course of his studies and while engaged in pastimes like hunting. Book learning and specialist knowledge, not “all pressures past”.

Far from being deterred by this descriptive misprision, Hamlet takes it to have laid the groundwork for his culminating switch of focus: apostrophising the Ghost, he declares with apparently righteous ardour that “thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain”. His brain’s “book and volume” is his memory, the contents of which, unlike those of a waxed writing tablet, are presumably meant to be printed rather than handwritten. However we decide to gloss the detail of these lines, their import is manifest. Remember thee? You are or were my father, and this is an emotionally difficult time for both of us; let’s not get too caught up in particulars. What’s memory anyway? The lines of distinction between the “table of my memory” (qua aid to recollection) and the “book and volume of my brain” (qua faculty of memory) are blurry. So, I’m going to erase and re-­inscribe the latter as if it were the former. Surely the elimination of everything other than your commandment to “remember me” is an act befitting the singularly loving reverence with which I am bound to regard your memory? Surely it confirms the presence of that within me which empowers vengeance? Either way, Claudius deserves what’s coming to him.

In brief, these lines show Hamlet striving to invest his attention to the Ghost’s commandment with a semblance of the natural charge that would arise from actually remembering his father. He pretends that safeguarding an aide-­mémoire is the same as remembering something, and in so doing clings to the fantasy that remembrance—like the mourning that he takes his mother to have neglected—belongs to discourse of reason, not to the sensitive soul.

As it happens, to maintain even the simulacrum of mnemonic intensity proves too much for Hamlet. His attention is immediately drawn elsewhere. Specifically, to the mnemonic image (“must I remember?”) that he had been unable to avoid in his first soliloquy: that of his mother and uncle, whose actions occasioned the unhappy fate that was his before the encounter with the Ghost. Now, he can add the sufferings of his father to their charge sheet. Having dismissed Gertrude’s perfidy anew and noted a crushingly platitudinous sententia about his uncle’s smiling hypocrisy, Hamlet realises that his own feelings have intruded to push him from his designated purpose. He checks himself accordingly: “Now to my word. / It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’ / I have sworn’t”. Still nothing of remembering his father, much less any sign that an act of filial remembrance has taken place. All he can do is to reify a commandment that he is unable to obey, somehow hoping that transforming his determination to preserve it into an oath will make the fact of its preservation (now in the company of other inscriptions and impressions) sufficient in itself. Enough, that is, to embody the duty to remember that he considers his obligation in love and nature. In sum, Hamlet’s second soliloquy does not represent the agonies attendant on remembering his father, his father’s ghost, or what his father’s ghost has related to him. Instead, it shows Hamlet ducking the inner realities with which he has been confronted.

Susan Sontag writes that “a photograph is both a pseudo-­presence and a token of absence”—a substitute for the lived present in which individuals consent to become the voyeurs of their own existences, thereby furnishing themselves with the means to project whatever self-­image seems to them most agreeable, conformable, or likely to assuage their anxieties. Rather than serving as prompts to the recollection of past experiences, the photographic record stands in for memory itself. While apparently being revered, the past is thereby sanitized, moralized, misrepresented—ultimately, denied. Shakespeare never had to navigate his way through a family photo album (or the swamp of twenty-­first-­century social media), but he would have understood the force of Sontag’s critique. Hamlet turns to writing on his tables in order to memorialize the present into which the Ghost has thrust him, and does so precisely because he thereby distances himself from it. Further, he chooses the memorial inscription through which to record the moment not because it is representative, but because it conforms to that which his discourse of reason (working overtime to hold his self-­image together) will allow. No need to struggle with the memory of your father when you can fetishize his ghost’s instruction to “remember me” instead.

A Slave to What Memory?

Reflecting on his wife’s avowed determination not to remarry after his death, the Player King informs her that

I do believe you think what you now speak;

But what we do determine, oft we break.

Purpose is but the slave to memory,

Of violent birth but poor validity,

Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,

But fall unshaken when they mellow be. (3.2.181–86)

Although he is talking about issues of fidelity, his lines can with the smallest licence be read as a commentary on Hamlet’s own hesitancy as a revenger: just as the memory that Hamlet internalizes at the Ghost’s commandment begins to lose its edge, so does his vindictive ardency.

The reading is one that Hamlet himself is keen to support when encountering the Ghost for a second time, remarking that because he has “lapsed in time and passion”, he has neglected “Th’important acting of your dread command”. The Ghost seems content to swallow this version of events, and responds: “Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.108–111). From “Remember me” to “Do not forget”: the experience of the Elsinorian afterlife has reduced the Ghost from rhetorical certitude to the accommodations of litotes. Even so, the crucial terms here are Hamlet’s “lapsed” and the Ghost’s “blunted”. They reassert Hamlet’s conviction that he initially reacted to the Ghost’s disclosures with passionate intensity, only for his “native hue of resolution” to be “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.84–85). Students of the play have tended to agree, discovering in Hamlet all manner of pathologies and preoccupations sufficient to hinder his resolve. As Greenblatt remarks, their task has been to discover what might have “intervened to deflect a direct course of action and to blunt the sharp edge of remembrance”.

Something here sits askew, and would do so even without the mnemonic and mnemotechnic contortions of the first two soliloquies. Compare Troilus and Cressida, where Hector distances himself from Troilus’s opinionating with the observation that “pleasure and revenge / Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice / Of any true decision”. “Decision” signifies deliberation, or the action of deciding, and Hector’s point is that vengeance (like cupidity) is an irrational and injudicious appetite, impervious to the moral deliberations required of the general or prince. Once resolved to act, the revenger or lover is governed by his blood, and his blood alone. The pale cast of thought is for others. Certainly, it isn’t that Hamlet lacks the stomach for killing. When measured against either Hector’s words or the norms of 1590s revenge tragedy, Hamlet’s problem is that he does not hunger—and has never hungered—for vengeance. Those who would attempt to theorize Hamlet’s delay, like those who seek to explain his blunted memory or resolution, are looking in the wrong places and asking the wrong questions. It is not that he has forgotten his father, that his memory of him has changed in character, or that his vindictive ardour has in any sense diminished. The reason that Hamlet is unable to act as the Ghost demands is that Hamlet’s memory of his father is never the force that he works so very hard to make it seem for the greater part of his second soliloquy. As he acknowledges with apparent self-­disgust after his first encounter with the players, he is “unpregnant” of his “cause” (2.2.563): 
he does not have that within himself that can be nourished in pursuit of filial vengeance.

Coming back to the closet scene, Hamlet precipitates the Ghost’s return by confirming that he cannot remember, cannot therefore revenge, and in any case has other things on his mind. In short, he describes his father in terms that are all but identical with those he had employed in Act 1. Earlier in the play, these had spared him the discomfort that would come from confronting the memory of his father, or from confronting his inability to do any such thing. Here, they fail to move his mother as he wants them to.

Look here upon this picture, and on this,

The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.

See what a grace was seated on this brow,

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,

An eye like Mars to threaten and command,

A station like the herald Mercury

New-­lighted on a heaven-­kissing hill,

A combination and a form indeed

Where every god did seem to set his seal

To give the world assurance of a man. (3.4.53–62)

Whether the portraits of Old Hamlet and Claudius to which he directs Gertrude’s attention are paired miniatures or painted on a larger scale need not detain us. Hamlet’s presents his mother with an image of his father, the sight of which is intended to make her realise the intrinsically and ineradicably debased nature of her marriage to Claudius. It is impossible to say how exactly the portraitist depicted Old Hamlet and his brother, but Hamlet’s imagination has again been seized by the desire to body forth his father in the most discursive, most idealized, and least intimate manner. By Hamlet’s reckoning, his father’s characteristics were visibly divine, evoking Hyperion, Jove, Mars, and Mercury. Somewhat paradoxically, they thereby vouchsafed his status at the zenith of masculine humanity.

Contrast the seethingly vivid immediacy with which Hamlet then characterises Claudius: “Here is your husband, like a mildew’d ear / Blasting his wholesome brother” (3.4.64–65). His portrait resembles a diseased husk (i.e., ear) of wheat, barley or corn, infecting Old Hamlet’s portrait with its blight. Just as, we might presume, Claudius has debased his brother’s memory by marrying his wife and supplanting his son’s claim to the throne. But in expanding on his agricultural metaphor, Hamlet’s focus diffuses into a new generality, leavened as so often by a pun. He insists that his mother resembles a ruminant (a cow, perhaps) who has given up grazing on the pastures of “this fair mountain” in order to “batten on this moor” (3.4.66–67). In addition to a landscape lacking nourishment, “moor” intimates a blackness counterposed to Old Hamlet’s “fair” grace and beauty; Claudius’s dark heart and corrupting sexuality make him all but the “moor” of Elsinore. Briefly put, Hamlet takes the discrepancy between the two brothers to be so great that one would need to be out of one’s senses not to recognise it. He therefore speculates that as Gertrude is surely too old to be in love and that as even the ecstasies of “madness” reserve “some quantity of choice / To serve in such a difference” (3.4.75–76), she must be possessed by an unusually shameless devil.

Already, at the start of the play, Gertrude suspects that her “o’er-­hasty marriage” to Claudius has upset her son (2.2.57). Presumably, she also intuits something of why it has done so, and understands that the speed with which she remarried has much to do with her new husband’s presence on the throne—to say nothing of her own continued status as queen. Faced now with the pain and rage that her actions have occasioned in her son, along with his censure 
of her conduct, she questions her motives and finds within herself traces of 
the iniquity that Hamlet has imputed to Claudius: “O Hamlet, speak no more. / Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct” (4.3.88–91). She has, or seems to have, no notion that Claudius killed his brother to usurp his wife and throne, but acknowledges her culpability in provoking her son into such disenchanted turmoil. Unfortunately for Hamlet, this willingness to confront painful memories explains why his idealized images of his father fall flat: to one who actually remembers Old Hamlet as a husband and a man, depictions of him as a god or the embodiment of abstract virtues are either meaningless or a falsification. But as far as the dead king his father is concerned, idealizations are all that Hamlet has to offer.

Shakespeare amplifies the point by having Old Hamlet’s ghost return dressed not as a warrior, but in the most homely attire: Hyperion in a nightgown. Gertrude might well remember him dressed in such a fashion, perhaps beckoning her to the royal bed of Denmark. But she cannot now see him. Hamlet, who is less likely to have been familiar with his father’s nightwear, sees the Ghost “in his habit, as he liv’d” (3.4.137). Hamlet’s “as he liv’d” may be suppositional, but it is key. The Ghost realizes that the young man’s mnemonic imperative has become lost amid his other grievances, and that he holds up to his mother an idealised demigod in its place. It seeks to present Hamlet with an image of familial intimacy that will refresh his memory, in turn triggering vengeance. If the Ghost had been paying more attention in the course of its initial exchange with Hamlet, it would perhaps realise that Hamlet has not forgotten or lapsed in anything. He has never been able to remember his father as anything other than an obligation, and has never been possessed of the passion or will to vengeance. In any case, the Ghost’s second visitation fails, and it thereafter gives up on its yearning for vengeance. Hamlet resumes his attack on his mother’s marriage for the remainder of the closet scene, and never again mentions his father’s mnemonic or spectral likeness. He is about to be dispatched to England, and to struggle with honouring his father’s memory would impede his ability to contend with the stratagems of Claudius and his agents. Better to stop pretending.


The presence of Hamlet at the fulcrum of the mnemonic turn in early modern literary and cultural studies, so visible from the mid-­1990s to the present, is unavoidable. The centrality of the past as depicted in Hamlet is similarly hard to miss, but is a good deal harder to grasp. Shakespeare’s conclusions are as penetrating as they are disconcerting: memory, like history, is something that people appeal to in the attempt to dignify or justify their inclinations and impulses in the present. It is instrumental, and has no objective force of its own. Hamlet and Fortinbras proclaim their mnemonic integrity, but the pasts to which they cleave are selective, subjective, and divorced from the willingness to understand things as they might, in fact, have been. In other words, Hamlet depicts the past as a heuristic entity—something that only exists in virtue of the attention paid to it by those looking back upon it. As a result, and in the words of Sonnet 123, time’s “records, and what we see doth lie”: the past is distorted by worldviews and assumptive orders that are not its own, and can be discarded if it proves inconvenient or unpalatable. Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes all take themselves to be honouring the memories of their dead fathers, but are in reality remembering themselves and their own interests. Ophe­lia is the exception that proves the rule. After the calamities of her break with Hamlet and the murder of Polonius, she has no role left other than that of the remembrancer. Without a present through which to make her past intelligible—without her father there to make sense of it all, without an idealized image of Hamlet—the experience drives her mad.

How to make sense of this picture beyond its place in the dramaturgy of Hamlet? Through it, Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn. If, as Cicero’s De officiis urges, you use the record of the past better to know yourself (or if you turn to it for other sorts of moral philosophical guidance), you will come in time to remake the past in the image of the values or fears closest to your heart. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham. The origins of things are so defined by the mentalities and concerns of the shifting present that they can have no legitimating force. Would Fortinbras have behaved differently if he had not felt able to profess “rights of memory” within Denmark, or if Horatio had found it within himself to point out the fallacious nature of his claim? Of course not. He would have seized the throne because he wanted to and because the remnants of the Danish nobility, when confronted with his army and the demise of their governing dynasty, were prepared to acquiesce with his desire: because he could. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be. Time passes, and even the most blatant fictions assume the posture of truth. Not for Shakespeare the grandiose fictioneering of Spenser’s “immortal scrine” or the consolations of a Burkean contract between the past, the present, and those yet unborn. The living may nod to the dead with reverence and a sorrow that is wise or impetuous, sincere or feigned. But they see things their way. Always have, and always will.

Chapter four

Hamlet as Poet

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-­cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

Vladimir Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”

Although Hamlet’s engagements with his memory are extensive and exceptionally complex, he never sets himself up as a historian in the fashion of Horatio; it is the experience of the play that invites us to complete the difficult task of connecting Hamlet’s memory to that of his and Denmark’s history, and by extension to probe the interwoven relationship between mnemonic and historical forms of discourse in general. In considering Hamlet’s performances as a poet and philosopher, things are more straightforward. Hamlet directly fashions himself both as an imaginatively gifted poet (chiefly, though not exclusively, through his involvement with the players) and as a penetratingly rational philosopher (chiefly, though not exclusively, in his soliloquies). This chapter looks to Hamlet’s performances in assuming the personae of the poet and the poetic theorist; the next, to his performances as a philosopher. In each case, the picture that emerges closely resembles that of Hamlet the memorialist and historian. Shakespeare has his young prince embody an attachment to the letter of humanist convention in order to explode the notion that this convention might rest on any animating spirit worthy of the name.

The idea of poetry with which I work is borrowed from Philip Sidney and George Puttenham, and belongs to later-­sixteenth-­century commonplace. That is to say, it comprises all sorts of imaginative writing, including stage drama (“dramatic poetry”; conceptually distinct from the mechanical art of theatrics or stagecraft), verse, narrative prose, and various combinations of the three. Each of these stands in self-­consciously close relation to the techniques and aspirations of classical rhetoric. Thus armed, I begin with the love poetry that Hamlet writes for Ophe­lia. For the remainder of the chapter, I turn to consider the before, during, and after of Hamlet’s attempt to adapt The Murder of Gonzago with a view to catching Claudius’s conscience and unkennelling his guilt. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which Hamlet responds to the lead player’s speech in the person of Aeneas; to the advice offered by Hamlet to the players; to the central role of the imagination both in seeing ghosts and in creating works of poetic fiction; to the action of the play-­within-­the-­play and the dumb show that precedes it; to the language and assumptions through which Hamlet convinces himself that The Mousetrap has been a forensic success. As will become clear, Shakespeare allows Hamlet to delineate his beliefs about the nature of poetic endeavour at unusual length. Crucially, we are also allowed to judge the ways in which Hamlet applies these beliefs in practice; in so doing, a series of disjunctions emerge between the theoretical and practical discourses of humanist poetics.

My argument thus has two ambitions. The first is to establish that these disjunctions motivate much of that which makes Hamlet such a compellingly vertiginous piece of work, and that attention to them enables us to formulate some startlingly fresh readings of the play. I offer versions of Hamlet’s theatrical interactions with the players and with Polonius, of The Mousetrap, of what the action surrounding the play-­within-­the-­play suggests about the circumstances of Old Hamlet’s death, and of Hamlet’s continued inability to feel that which he considers bound to by the Ghost’s revelations that will, I hope, prove to be as persuasive as they are unfamiliar. My second goal is to establish the subsidiary claim that writing Hamlet was one way in which Shakespeare sought to lay bare the inadequacy of the doctrines around which the neoclassical poetics of his contemporaries were contrived. For Shakespeare, to claim that works of poetic imagination can in any straightforward sense “mirror” the human worlds of which they are a part is fundamentally to betray the nature both of artistic invention, and of the ways in which works of art are read, observed, or beheld. Further, although most early modern literary theorists steadfastly policed the boundary that kept dramatic poetry distinct from the mechanical arts of the theatre, I suggest that Shakespeare uses Hamlet to reveal that such distinctions are not only cosmetic, but that they actively hinder effective dramatic performance.


The play’s first illustration of Hamlet’s poetic—and versificatory—prowess can easily be overlooked: he writes Ophe­lia a love letter at some point before she is forbidden to share “words or talk” (1.4.134) with him. Ophe­lia passes the letter (presumably one of many) to her father, and he reads it aloud in support of his contention that Hamlet is lovesick. Polonius can be confident that doing so will strengthen his case. The letter contains lines of poetry that are a perfect specimen of amatory dross:

Doubt thou the stars are fire,

Doubt that the sun doth move,

Doubt truth to be a liar,

But never doubt I love. (2.2.115–18)

Hamlet’s trimeters appear end-­stopped, but strain to form a pair of alexandrines: the first, a putative rejection of physical certainties; the second, an appeal to the metaphysical constancy of his love. The second quibbles on “doubt”, and is the less successful of the two. In early modern English, to doubt something could be to question its veracity or actuality, but could also be to suspect (usually with fear or anxiety) that something is, in fact, the case. Claudius, for example, informs Polonius that he “doubt[s] the hatch and the disclose” of Hamlet’s surliness “Will be some danger” (3.1.168–69). Perhaps Hamlet’s use of antanaclasis (the figure of punning repetition, or what Puttenham calls the “rebound”) is intended to make Ophe­lia smile at his eloquent virtuosity. Perhaps it’s a nervous tic. Its unfortunate effect is to diffuse the impact of his words. They journey from the particular to the confusedly ambiguous. Suspect truth of being a liar, but never suspect I love? Oh. Damn. You know what I mean. Don’t you? No doubt Ophe­lia does: question the reality of physical and metaphysical truth, but always believe in my love for you. It is more fixed and more certain than the stars, the sun, and even the most elevated philosophical concepts.

Of course, the Ptolemaic cosmos imagined in Hamlet’s first two lines was vulnerable by the end of the sixteenth century, and as such offers up some alluring interpretative contexts. A universe in which the earth orbits around the sun may well be one in which truth is a liar. This allure should be resisted. Like all but a handful of English thinkers and writers at the end of the sixteenth century—Thomas Digges foremost among them—the significance of the Copernican revolution passed Shakespeare by; as there is no evidence to suggest that the new cosmology was familiar to him until the final part of his writing career, we should not infer that, in Hamlet, it calls truth or anything else into doubt. Hamlet simply draws from the well of formulaic ideas in order to convey to Ophe­lia the celestial incorruptibility of his attachment to her. His lines can usefully be likened to Orlando’s tortured contrivances when first besotted with Rosalind in As You Like It. Or, better, to the alexandrine sonnet that Berowne sends to Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost (subsequently reproduced in the Passionate Pilgrim). It begins:

If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?

Ah, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed.

Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll faithful prove.

Those thoughts to me were oaks, to thee like osiers bowed.

Berowne even addresses his letter with Hamlet’s compulsively breathless artifice: “To the snow-­white hand of the most beauteous Lady Rosaline”. Compare Hamlet’s “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophe­lia . . . these; in her excellent white bosom, these, &c.” (2.2.109–12).

All of this is to say that while Hamlet is not very accomplished at writing love poetry in his own cause, we should not interpret this as evidence of any more general poetic failing. For Shakespeare, nobody writes well when convulsed by love or sexual desire. As discussed in chapter 3, this is because the experience then throws the internal senses out of balance; the imagination impresses everything with the likeness of the beloved. Being in love temporarily impairs one’s discursive faculties, so that the linguistic and rhetorical arts cannot be employed with the flexibility, deftness, and discipline required by good writing or oratory. Shakespeare frequently mines the smitten lover’s writerly delinquency for comic effect. For instance, Benedick is all too aware of his predicament in having fallen for Beatrice. Neither Leander, Troilus, nor “a whole bookful of these quondam carpet-­mongers . . . were never so truly turned over and over as my poor self in love. Marry, I cannot show it in rhyme. I have tried . . . [but] I was not born under a rhyming planet nor can I woo in festival terms”. Maybe not, but such self-­awareness cannot prevent him from essaying “A halting sonnet of his own pure brain / Fashioned to Beatrice”.

Like Benedick, Hamlet has the insight to concede that his own love lyrics fall short of the mark. If he is to communicate to Ophe­lia the intensity of his feelings for her, he must gesture beyond his compositions: “O dear Ophe­lia. I am ill at these numbers. I have no art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee best, O most best, believe it” (2.2.119–20). Such sentiments are in themselves a far from artless adaptation of the inexpressibility topos. They also suggest that Hamlet has firm notions of what good poetry should be able to do, and of the metrical forms in which it should do it. More fundamentally, they affirm that for all Hamlet’s surly disaffection at the beginning of the play, he is in certain situations prepared to accept—and to embrace—that within himself that not only passes show, but that extends beyond his volition or control. Even without the knowledge that his correspondence with her has been betrayed, his disarray when Ophe­lia drops him is real.

A Passionate Speech

Whatever else might be true of Hamlet’s poetic and dramatic interests, they are not wholly current. He has been away from Wittenberg for at least the duration of the summer vacation, and has been unable to follow the fortunes of those he had been “wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city” (2.2.325–26). Rosencrantz explains to him that these tragedians had been prevented from playing at their home theatre by the “late innovation” (2.2.331), and that he and Guildenstern had instead directed them to Elsinore as a likely venue at which to perform. “Innovation” here denotes a disturbance, or even an insurrection. Perhaps Rosencrantz refers to the tension between Denmark and Norway, though it is hard to see how this might extend to Wittenberg—even taking account of Shakespeare’s occasional inattentiveness to matters of European geography. Either way, the proximate cause of the tragedians’ wanderings is not in question:

[T]here is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyranically clapped for’t. These are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages—so they call them—that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-­quills and dare scarce come thither. (2.2.337–42)

Most commentators gloss these lines as Shakespeare’s intervention in the so-­called Poetomachia, or Poets’ War, that took place between rival London playwrights and players’ companies around 1600. For Hamlet, however, Rosencrantz’s account of the child players and their popularity confirms the fickle nature of human affection, often praising that which it had earlier seen fit to disdain: “It is not very strange; for my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little” (2.2.359–62). Although Hamlet takes the view that Claudius has usurped the Danish throne just as the child players have usurped the Wittenberg stage, there cannot thus be any doubt of his uncle’s popularity at the start of his reign.

Before learning of the reasons behind the tragedians’ appearance in Elsinore, Hamlet anticipates the parts that they might perform, thereby emphasising (for the benefit of his on-­ and off-­stage audiences) his familiarity with the stock character-­types of sixteenth-­century drama:

He that plays the king shall be welcome—his Majesty shall have tribute on me, the adventurous knight shall use his foil and target, the lover shall not sigh gratis, the humorous man shall end his part in peace, the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickle a th’ sear, and the lady shall say her mind freely—or the blank verse shall halt for’t. (2.2.318–24)

The first role he imagines is framed with rather clunking irony. Once more, 
he measures Claudius against the criteria of authenticity and artifice, and finds him wanting. The presence in Denmark of one able to play the king would, Hamlet implies, be an agreeable novelty. And yet the joke must in some measure be on Hamlet. Within the dramatic world of which he is the most prominent part, adventurous knights are constrained by diplomacy to keep their swords sheathed; lovers do indeed sigh for nothing; those overcome by their humours find no means of purging them; clowns (poor Yorick) are dead, buried, and make nobody laugh; ladies barely get to speak their minds at all. The blank verse pentameters that comprise the majority of Hamlet pulse on in cadences that are rapid and almost entirely untroubled. Such considerations are clearly a long way from Hamlet’s thoughts, but to say so is to recognise something unthinking about his speech: he has not yet become interested in what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are telling him, and he keeps his distance from them while simultaneously making them work hard to impart their news. Formulaic pronouncements—what a later age would call clichés—­enable him to do so with ease.

If these words don’t reveal much of Hamlet’s attitudes to dramatic poetry or its performance, we learn a good deal more from what he has to say after the players arrive on stage. He has, for instance, spent time in and around the Wittenberg theatres in the company of actors and imagines himself as their peer. He acknowledges the lead player as his “old friend” (2.2.419), jocularly noting that he has grown a beard; likewise, he remarks that the boy player is inching nearer to puberty and a broken voice. Welcoming them to Denmark, he initially encourages them to perform any piece they have to hand. However, he soon changes tack and demands that they illustrate their skill in a manner of his choosing: “Come, give us a taste of your quality. Come, a passionate speech” (2.2.427–28). “Quality” here stands for “profession, occupation, business, esp. that of an actor”, but also connotes an actor’s ability to play his part with the requisite skill and conviction. Hamlet has a particular speech in mind: “it was never acted, or if it was, not above once—for the play, I remember, pleased not the million, ’twas caviare to the general” (2.2.430–33). For Hamlet and those who shared his opinion, this play was “excellent . . . well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning” (2.2.445–47).

In support of this judgement, Hamlet turns to a version of what early modern rhetoricians discussed as the topic of testimony—what we might think of as the opinion of another, perhaps an expert or someone with first-­hand knowledge, whose manifest authority will compel agreement from our listeners or readers.

I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrases that might indict the author of affection [i.e., affectation], but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine. (2.2.437–41)

Hamlet’s unnamed acquaintance nods to Quintilian with his “sallets”, and is presumably one of his Wittenberg peers. Whoever he may be, the tenor of his praise confirms that Hamlet is more concerned with establishing his character as a critic than he is with describing the play he claims to admire. He sets himself apart from the common theatregoer, and from the players whose livelihood depends on being able to anticipate the demands of their audiences. And yet, what Hamlet professes is a notion of imaginative writing that was wholly commonplace to the rhetorical poetics of late sixteenth-­century England. One that attaches itself to the canons of stylistic and dispositional propriety that Polonius avows when instructing Laertes to avoid “unproportion’d” figures of speech (1.3.60). One derived from the Horatian doctrines that the poet should seek to confer profit and pleasure (prodesse et delectare), and that a poem should be sweet as well as useful (dulce et utile)—doctrines that the early moderns filtered through their conviction, drawn from Cicero and Quintilian, that the orator should seek to instruct (docere), delight (delectare), and move (movere) his audience. In a summative judgement that Hamlet would surely have endorsed, Sidney affirms that the best poetry “imitate[s] both to delight and teach; and delight, to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger”.

Some questions remain. Why does Hamlet bother to commend this play to someone who must already have recalled the work he has in mind, and who will have his own professional opinion of its virtues? And why does he bother to employ the topic of testimony in so doing? The least complicated answer is that he talks over the first player’s head, and that the true audience for his comments comprises Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Polonius has already tried to assert his affinity with the players (and his authority in matters of dramatic performance) by flattering them as

[t]he best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-­comical, historical-­pastoral, tragical-­historical, tragical-­comical, historical-­pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ, and the liberty, these are the only men. (2.2.392–98)

Although Polonius shows himself cognizant of developments in contemporary Italian drama (beyond innovations of genre, he appreciates the distinction between scripted five-­act plays that follow the rules of dramatic poetry [“the writ”] and improvised three-­act performances [“the liberty”] that was a staple of the Cinquecento stage, and of the Cinquecento stage on tour), we quite properly laugh at this. He means to rehearse a catalogue of the players’ repertory virtuosity equal to the multifaceted reality of the stage as he has come to know it, but he over-­elaborates while sinking into self-­parodic pedantry. For Hamlet, however, Polonius’s remarks intrude on territory that he thinks of as his own. Immediately, he attacks the older man as a Jephthah in an attempt to assert his control of their encounter with the players, and implicitly to register his suspicion that Ophe­lia has been avoiding him at her father’s bidding (2.2.399–416). When addressing the first player, Hamlet takes the chance to extend his claim of dramatic authority, both by invoking neoclassical ideas that rebut the (to Hamlet) promiscuously mixed genres of Polonius’s catalogue, and by employing a form of testimony that implies his intimacy with the critical cognoscenti. Hamlet and his unnamed friend understand what makes a good play. Polonius, whose university days are long gone and whose attempts to sound critically up-­to-­date have made him sound ridiculous, has lost the capacity for discernment. He is only good for arranging the players’ accommodation, and should keep his counsel. The joke is that Hamlet is the one whose critical ideas have expired: Polonius may be pompously verbose, but he at least grasps the sort of thing that one ought to say in order to assert one’s currency as a man of the theatre.

There is another aspect to Hamlet’s testimonial performance. He has been trained—or, rather, has become habituated—to devise his speech and writing in exactly this fashion: much though he might want to believe otherwise, his discourse is at once framed by and assembled from the words of others.

Before advancing this claim further, it may be helpful to take a couple of steps backwards. In the rhetorical tradition of the long sixteenth century, one of the most compelling ways in which to confirm your own arguments or counter-­arguments was to embed within them the recognisably authoritative flowers of your reading and broader experience. These flowers might take the form of a quotation, a document (like a letter), or an allusion to a commonly known text or set of ideas; in a legal context, they might even be articulated by a witness in the dock. Hence the power and pervasiveness of sententiae, proverbs, saws, commonplaces, and appeals to any sort of received authority, all of which overlap closely with the topic of testimony. Thomas Wilson sums things up with his usual transparency:

[T]estimonies maie be called, sentences of the sage, whiche are brought to confirme any thing, either taken out of olde aucthors, or els soche as have bene used in this common life. As the sentences of noble men, the lawes in any realme, quicke saiynges, proverbs, that either have been used heretofore, or bee nowe used. Histories of wise Philosophers, the judgementes of learned men, the common opinion of the multitude, olde custome, auncient fashions, or any suche like.

A further consideration in understanding the charge and pervasiveness of testimony and its cognates is that they were categorized as forms of “inartificial” proof. These forms of evidence helped to establish that something was the case in and of themselves, and did not tax the inventive ingenuity of the rhetorician or his audience. Such inartificial proofs were defined in distinction to the reasoned arguments that constituted the class of “artificial” proofs. Inartificial proofs gave the orator less chance to make a show of his virtuosity than their artificial cousins, but as they often carried the most forensic heft, their appeal was widespread and undiminished.

This is why Polonius speaks as he does. He knows that sententious utterances make one sound more convincing, and he has internalized testimonial patterns of speech to the degree that he finds it all but impossible to speak without them. Though perhaps less apparent, the same is true of Hamlet. It’s simply that his ear and his timing are better attuned to those around him. We have already seen Hamlet attempting to think with commonplace notions and metaphors of mnemonic discourse, and in chapter 5 I’ll suggest that much of his philosophizing relies on the passionately garbled recapitulation of his sixteenth-­century education. But to stick for the moment to his first encounter with the players, one parallel is obvious. As Hamlet appropriates a theory of drama that is at once tired and unequal to the variegated reality of contemporary stage practice, so Polonius recycles what he has heard about their players’ avant-­garde accomplishments without either knowing when to stop or grasping the significance of his words. Neither character fully knows what he is talking about, though both are determined to conduct themselves as if they do. In short, by making such a shift to attack Polonius’s competence in dramatic poetry and performance, Hamlet succumbs to the narcissism of minor difference. Precisely because both he and Polonius are micro-­managing embodiments of what Nabokov calls poshlost—because they are high-­born philistines whose pushiness and culturally deep pockets compel the professional artists to hear them out—Hamlet needs to exaggerate their differences, pretending they are of kind when they are only of degree. Just as Hamlet’s account of the stock roles that the players might perform has the whiff of reflexive automaticity, so he shows no interest in connecting his praise of the unnamed drama from which he would like the first player to deliver a “passionate speech” to the nature of that drama itself.

How does the speech that Hamlet has in mind measure up to his descriptions of the play to which it belongs? The question is not a flippant one, and centres on the translation from literary theory to practice. The lines that Hamlet wishes to hear involve “Aeneas’ tale to Dido—and thereabout of it when he speaks of Priam’s slaughter” (2.2.442–43). They thus reprise book 2 of the Aeneid, where Aeneas relates to Dido the sorrowful story of his life, in particular the bloody sack of Troy as he saw it unfold. The subject is a promising one. Although Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage had rendered the more than 800 lines of Virgil’s book 2 in 163 gorily energetic pentameters (compressing Virgil, but making space to imagine “Yong infant[s] swimming in their parents bloud”), Sidney follows earlier authorities like Philipp Melanchthon in describing this Aeneas as the very model of the “lofty image” that enabled imaginative literature to inflame “the mind with desire to be worthy”. Furthermore, dramatic speeches of this sort were, on Erasmus’s account, the sort of example to which sixteenth-­century schoolboys should look when learning to invest their orations with the qualities of ενἀργεια (enargeia): the “vivid immediacy” or “evidentness” without which the orator could not hope to persuade, or to prevail in his suits. Hecuba’s grief as described and ventriloquised by Aeneas was particularly important here. When composing a speech that needed to be impassioned in order to accomplish its goals, students were taught that they could do no better than to imagine themselves in Hecuba’s position as Troy and her family were destroyed before her. By making themselves feel as she felt, their speeches could deploy the resources of emotional immediacy. Other potential sources and analogues for the scene to which Hamlet is attracted are numerous. In addition to Virgil and Marlowe, scholars have discovered behind it the presence of Seneca, Ovid, Lucan, Plutarch, and Euripides. However, such source-­hunting misses the dramatic point just as surely as it misconstrues the nature of Shakespeare’s assimilative, and in this case polyvocal, genius. Hamlet has settled upon a text that, far from illustrating his breadth of reference or unusual powers of critical discernment, could not have been more conventional if he had tried—one informed by all of its literary and rhetorical precursors, and by none of them.

Not content with having provided the first player with such an extensive range of cues, Hamlet attempts to begin the speech himself. Doing so no doubt helps him further to distinguish himself as a better man of the theatre than Polonius, Rosencrantz, or Guildenstern. As Hamlet uses his mind’s eye to search for the right words with which to begin (“let me see, let me see”), he confirms that his brain remains populated with far more than the Ghost’s commandment: “If it live in your memory, / begin at this line . . . / The rugged Pyrrhus, like th’Hyrcanian beast” (2.2.444–46). A false start. His rush to characterize Pyrrhus as a revenger leads him to transpose an epithet from elsewhere in the Aeneid, used by Dido to denounce Aeneas after he has ­forsaken her. Hyrcania was famous for its tigers, animals that were seen 
as ruthlessly appetitive hunters and were thus an analogue for vindictive single-­mindedness. Immediately, he realizes his error and recovers himself: “ ’Tis not so. It begins with Pyrrhus— / The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms, / Black as his purpose . . .”. Thirteen lines later, he hands over. But before the player can continue Aeneas’s speech, Hamlet is presented with a small though significantly double-­edged victory. Polonius acclaims him for his skills as an actor: “my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion” (2.2.462–63). Such praise might seem welcome but is also compromising: to acknowledge it would be for Hamlet to acknowledge Polonius as one with the authority and expertise to pass judgement. Hamlet affects not to notice.

Once the player is under way, Polonius intervenes again, suggesting that the passionate oration might not match Hamlet’s high estimation of it: “This is too long” (2.2.494). With a flourish of dramatic irony, Polonius criticizes Hamlet’s chosen text for the stylistic vices of macrologia and perissologia. That is, for going on at superfluous length while striving for rhetorical grandeur—stylistic excesses that were often associated with Hecuba and the Trojan past via the centrality of the Virgilian and Ovidian texts to the humanist curriculum. Does Polonius’s criticism have any claim to justice? In answering this question, Hamlet’s immediate response is unhelpful. He has championed the unnamed play as an example of decorously unaffected plainness, and cannot let the older man’s remarks stand. But rather than engaging in debate, he adapts a gibe against a would-­be sage from Horace’s Satires to mock the length of Polonius’s beard. He then instructs the player to resume. The player does so for fourteen more lines, only to be interrupted once more by Polonius, now in apparent sympathy. As the player has “tears in’s eyes”, Polonius worries that the emotion of the role has overcome him. This time, Hamlet agrees that the player should stop while reminding both Polonius and the acting company of his authority: “ ’Tis well. I’ll have thee speak out the rest of this soon” (2.2.515–18).

Despite Hamlet’s admiration for it, the critical verdict on the speech in the person of Aeneas is all but unanimous. Polonius has it right. The lines are melodramatic, sensationalistic, and bombastic; a deliberately outdated pastiche measured by what Dryden diagnosed, in the essay prefacing his adaptation of Troilus and Cressida, as a “blown puffy stile” smelling “a little too strongly of the buskin”. The player delivers a turgid script demonstrably out of keeping with the notions of proportion, modesty, and decorum that Hamlet has claimed for it. A London theatre audience circa 1600 would surely have heard this and pulled up short: the play so outspokenly commended by Hamlet is old-­fashioned at best, and self-­indulgently crude at worst. To claim that such a work was “caviare to the general”, or otherwise too mandarin for the common palate, must therefore have seemed absurd. Shakespeare has his young prince imply that his critical capacities are of an extremely low order. There is no reason to doubt that he is enthusiastic and committed to the cause, but he seems callow and apparently confused.

Even so, we do not roll our eyes at the effect of one cast out of his literary depth—Shakespeare instead invites us to explore how Hamlet becomes invested in the performance of such a play. No doubt the obscure grandiloquence of phrases like “mobbled queen” (2.2.498), commended by Hamlet and Polonius alike, has something to do with it. Perhaps Hamlet also sees an image of himself as he would like to be in the figure of Pyrrhus: an angry son remorselessly hunting down those responsible for the death of his father. (Who, far from incidentally, was the embodiment of appetitive thuggishness, and who was only dispatched by cunning stratagem: Achilles.) Certainly, the comparability of Hamlet and Pyrrhus occasions the only recognisably Shakespearean lines amid the Virgilian-­Marlovian-­Senecan-­Ovidian pastiche—lines, furthermore, with no warrant in Virgil’s original. As Pyrrhus prepares to murder the old Trojan king, he is taken aback by the noise of Priam collapsing to the ground: “lo, his sword, / Which was declining on the milky head / Of reverend Priam, seem’d i’th’ air to stick; / So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood, / And like a neutral to his will and matter, / Did nothing” (2.2.473–78). This description can easily be transposed onto Hamlet observing Claudius in the chapel scene, albeit that Pyrrhus’s sword does not stick for long. Many critics have thus seen in Hamlet’s attraction to Aeneas’s speech his determination to fashion himself a vindictive persona in the image and likeness of Pyrrhus.

Colin Burrow provides us with a useful way forwards, emphasising that the most remarkable feature of the player’s passionate speech is neither its style nor its revenge paradigm, but the unexpected point at which it stops. For Burrow, Shakespeare plays on the “context of the speech in Virgil . . . with great canniness”: in “the Aeneid Aeneas is goaded into vengeful fury by the sight of Priam’s death. In Hamlet the pedantic Polonius ensures that the ghost of revenge remains buried”. The events surrounding the player’s speech thus constitute another instance of play’s structural attachment to the figure of aposiopesis—to things that look as if they are about to happen but that break off before they can arrive at completion. The point is importantly observed. It nonetheless abrades the texture of Shakespeare’s Virgilian palimpsest just as surely as it misrepresents Hamlet’s continued inability to nurture within himself the will to vengeance. Shakespeare only has his Aeneas narrate the brutal death of Priam. Forced to witness the brutal deaths of Priam and his son Polites, Virgil’s Aeneas discovers in the horror of the scene, and of Hecuba’s anguished response to it, the resemblance of his own father and family. The deep pietas aroused by this experience drives him to a species of vindictive anger against Helen, the root of the Trojans’ conflict with the Greeks. However, Aeneas swiftly allows his ire, and his pietas, to transmute into an acceptance that he must make safe his family (his father Anchises remains very much alive at this point), and that he must strive to fulfil his destiny in founding a new civilisation.

The nub of the matter is that the early moderns did not associate the story of Aeneas in the last days of Troy with provocations to anger or revenge. Quite the contrary:

as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Aeneas be worn in the tablet of your memory, how he governeth himself in the ruin of his country; in the preserving his old father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies[.]

How to make sense of this in connection with Hamlet? Let’s take it as read that Polonius’s solicitousness about the player’s well-­being is another of his politic indirections: as he must be aware, a good actor positively should have tears in his eyes while delivering such a speech. The player is a master of his craft. In his effort to move both the fictional Dido and the members of his real-­world audience, welling up is to be expected. What Sidney’s account of ­Aeneas helps us to appreciate is that neither pedantry nor the fear of Hamlet’s vengeful thoughts motivate Polonius’s decision to cut short the player’s performance. Rather, he begins to suspect that Aeneas’s continued narration will trigger in Hamlet thoughts of pietas and patrilineality. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem. Yet at this point in the history of Claudian Elsinore, Polonius worries that if the already troubled nephew of the king (heir presumptive and son of the previous king) were to start down this line, trouble would like as not follow. Better to tidy Aeneas away before the young man becomes further distracted. Concern for the actor’s tears is his conveniently tactful pretext.

Polonius might have saved both his anxiety and his art. The difficult virtues of pietas as embodied by Aeneas are no more on Hamlet’s mind than revenge as emblematized in the figure of Pyrrhus. He fixates instead on the practical business of acting, and on the actor’s ability to counterfeit the display of emotion—the more elaborate, the better. David Scott Kastan puts it well: “Oddly, Hamlet wishes to imitate the player rather than Pyrrhus”. Rather than focus on the nature of his “cause” (or how it might resemble those of Aeneas, Pyrrhus, and Hecuba), Hamlet’s attention is given over to the mechanics of the player’s performance, along with its theoretically “monstrous” affects. In other words, the speech leaves him neither appalled, confounded, maddened, nor in any way amazed. He is simply agog at the skill with which the actor is able to inhabit his role so compellingly, whereas he “can say nothing” (2.2.563)—cannot even say anything—despite professing to have so many weightily provocative things within him. The further irony is that the language in which Hamlet voices these thoughts closely resembles that of Seneca’s Atreus stirring himself to prosecute vengeance against his brother with renewed determination. Hamlet again tries on a vindictive persona without being able make it his own.

One hundred and sixty lines before we hear Hamlet react to the passionate speech he has demanded, he reveals his immersion in theatrical history by referring to the most famous of ancient actors: “My lord, I have news to tell you. When Roscius was an actor in Rome . . .” (2.2.386–87). Roscius was ­Cicero’s contemporary and was often held up by him as an example of what the would-­be orator should imitate in his manner of delivery. In due course, he became a byword for histrionic accomplishment and, on some accounts, was also responsible for devising the personae worn by Roman actors to make their characters known on stage. Although Quintilian does not mention Roscius by name, he too holds the techniques of dramatic performance up as something that the orator might profitably seek to make his own. Plainly, by mentioning Roscius when he does, Hamlet succeeds in the twin tasks of frustrating Polonius’s attempts to inform him of the itinerant players’ imminent arrival and of vaunting his own dramatic expertise. But I would like to suggest that by having Hamlet do so in these particular terms, Shakespeare provides us with the wherewithal further to unravel the heart of his prince’s apparent mystery; more tentatively, that Shakespeare may in so doing offer us a rare glimpse of his own self-­image as a dramatic poet.

Writing in 1590, Robert Greene attacked a generation of unlettered upstarts—a group of writers who had not enjoyed the benefits of a university education, but who were threatening the livelihood of truly learned poets such as Greene himself. Greene had in mind members of the acting companies, and he enjoined them to remember their subsidiary place as exponents of a mechanical art, and no more than the face (if in many cases also the financial engine) of dramatic production. One of the most popular stories about Roscius was that he and Cicero would compete admiringly with one another for expressiveness: Cicero using his reserves of eloquence; Roscius, his facility with gesture and comportment. Greene twists the tale in an unfamiliar direction. Roscius had grown “so prowde . . . by the daylie applause of people” that one evening he

dared to make comparison [of himself] with Tully: which insolencie made the learned Orator to growe into these termes; why Roscius, art thou proud with Esops Crow, being pranct with the glorie of others feathers, of thy selfe thou canst say nothing, and if the Cobler hath taught thee to say, Ave Caesar, disdain not thy tutor, because thou pratest in a Kings chamber: what sentence thou utterest on the stage, flowes from the censure of our wittes; and what sentence or conceipte of the invention the people applaud for excellent, that comes from the secrets of our knowledge.

In his haste to assert the dignity of wits like himself, Greene stumbles. He transposes onto Cicero and Roscius the humanist commonplace, derived from Horace’s elaboration of Aesop, of the crow or jackdaw as emblem of failed or slavish imitation; a corvid may have the opportunistic gumption to steal the feathers of other birds, but it cannot thereby hope to obscure its own drab plumage. In addition to the misplaced Horatian topos, Greene intrudes another account, also derived from Macrobius, of a crow that had been taught to vocalise and that had impressed the Roman emperor Augustus. Although Greene thus attributes to Cicero sentiments that are as anachronistic as they are unwarranted, his meaning is clear. A mere actor, no matter how gifted at forcing his soul to take the forms dictated by his conceit, is proficient only in the mechanical arts of stagecraft, not in dramatic poetry as a whole. Even when seduced by the most tyrannical applause, he should not therefore be deluded into the belief that he can equal or surpass the playwright. Given his disdain for actors pandering to the approval of the million, one can easily imagine Hamlet sharing Greene’s views. And yet Hamlet’s exclusive emphasis on the player’s delivery—the ease with which he is able to counterfeit the emotions of Aeneas narrating the fall of Troy—pays no heed at all to the role of the playwright-­poet. It is, Hamlet insists, the players themselves who are the “abstract and brief chronicles of the time” (2.2.520), not the works of drama that they perform.

In probing this curiosity, we can turn again to Greene, and to the most famous lines printed about Shakespeare in his lifetime—composed in some form while Greene suffered his miserably slow and undignified death, and possibly ghosted by Henry Chettle in the form in which they have survived. Addressing himself to the cohort of learned dramatists, Greene laments the arrogant ingratitude of the actor-­playwrights who have driven him into impecunious torment. He singles out one such for special treatment:

[T]here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the only Shake-­scene in the country.

Building on another iteration of Horace’s crow, Greene parodies a line from 3 Henry VI in which York attacks Margaret as having “a tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”. Manifestly, Greene expected his audience to recognise the actor-­playwright responsible for these lines, the more so because he may also have been the actor who was responsible for speaking them on stage: this man of the theatre takes himself to be dramatically omni-­competent. In case anyone was in any doubt as to who this model of indecorum and dishonesty might have been, Greene concludes with the jibe that his all-­purpose actor and playwright considers himself “the only Shake-­scene in the country”. On this not very thinly veiled account, Shakespeare is a Roscius whose ambitious vanity has led him to forget his station, his limited abilities, and his debts. After winning fame and acclaim by performing scripts written by the learned few, Greene takes it to be improper of Shakespeare to have tried his own hand at dramatic verse while he, Greene, has been most in need of work.

Shakespeare had too much commercial, political, and artistic sense to get ensnared in pamphlet controversies. When necessary, he got others to neutralize his critics for him. Even so, in Hamlet’s exclusive focus on the technical aspects of the first player’s delivery, we can discern the lineaments of an answer, and perhaps a reproof, to Greene’s attack. And by the same token, a muffled round aimed at such ostentatiously classicizing playwrights as Ben Jonson. Along with Polonius, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Hamlet is a university man. That is to say, an intellectually cultivated figure like Greene or Nashe or Lodge, not a provincial newcomer of questionable educational accomplishments, dependent on the profession of acting to make his living. But far from the disdain for actors evinced by Greene—and far from his own disdain for “actions that a man might play”—we see Hamlet fetishizing the players’ capacity to move an audience, while overlooking the dramatic contributions of playwrights and others. He is thus cast as a figure no more discerning than Greene. Someone with little sense of the complicated negotiations that make drama work.

In elaborating this claim, the first point to make is that the origins and coordinates of the histrionic fixation in Hamlet’s third soliloquy are not found on the stage itself. Rather, and as Lynn Enterline has shown quite brilliantly, they manifest his inability to escape the practicalities of rhetorical performance as inculcated in sixteenth-­century classrooms. Consider the culminating portion of a well-­known passage from Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria—noted in connection with the player’s tears above, and discussed at greater length below. Here, Quintilian dilates on the need for the orator to feel, if only momentarily, that which he would have his audience experience while hearing him speak:

I have often seen actors and also comic players, on putting aside their masks after some weighty scene, leave [the stage] still in tears. And if the mere delivery of words written by another can so enflame emotions that are feigned, what will we be able to do, we who are bound to think on the facts so that we can be moved to feel the emotions of those who are on trial?

There can be no question that these words sit behind Hamlet’s response to the lead player’s affecting Aeneas. In alluding to them, Shakespeare’s purpose is deft. Whereas Quintilian takes actorly tears as a model for the emotional self-­cultivation demanded by effective oratory, Hamlet can only clutch at the affective nature of dramatic performance in itself.

In distilling the relevant portions of Cicero and Quintilian, Thomas Wilson helps us better to understand this portion of the third soliloquy. In it, Hamlet grapples with the knowledge that no good can “be done at all when we have said all that ever we can, except we bring the same affections in our own heart, the which we would the judges should bear towards our own matter”. The “matter” that Hamlet has been passed by the Ghost appears worthy, providing him with an ample “motive and cue for passion”. Quintilian would certainly have agreed. For him, although the orator might have to labour to prove certain subjects invidious, those like “patricide, murder, [or] poisoning” are so naturally baleful that they will move an orator or audience with little or no inventive art. It’s just that the matter of fratricide, murder, and poisoning imparted to Hamlet by the Ghost does not move him in this fashion. Appalled though Hamlet is to learn of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, the likeness of them is not impressed on his heart with the intensity that he and the Ghost think they deserve. One potential solution comes from the humanist classroom. As we have seen, the would-­be orator was taught to assimilate or simulate the affections required to move an audience by reflecting on choice passages of his poetic education. But in encountering the images of Pyrrhus, Hecuba, and Aeneas, Hamlet derives no benefit from the lesson. They are no more effective than his father’s shade at kindling the flames of vindictive ardour. Rather than confront this state of affairs, Hamlet’s third soliloquy repeats the evasive trick of his second: he dilates on the topic of dramatic and rhetorical performance deliberately to hide from himself the realities of his emotional disposition. His problem is not that he lacks the histrionic virtuosity demonstrated by the player. It remains his inability to feel the injustice of the case he has agreed to prosecute with a simulacrum of the passion demanded by a successful act of dramatic or rhetorical performance, let alone one of revenge.

Such a reading fits well with Hamlet’s showily conventional notions of poetic decorum. He can theorize with energy and even flair, especially when motivated by his dislike of Polonius. But he is uninterested in either the form or content of the plays he admires. Uninterested in the way they have been written, and able to believe that bombast qualifies as decorous verse. Uninterested in staging, casting, or the dynamics of an acting company. Uninterested in the opinions of audience members who do not agree with him. Hamlet’s theatrical enthusiasm is that of a bookishly imperceptive spectator, and is uninformed by an appreciation of stagecraft in anything approaching the round. In Empsonian terms, we might think of it as a version of pastoral. Through his discursive complacency, Hamlet allows his self-­absorption and social status to insulate him from, and ultimately to distort his view of, the theatrical world he purports to admire.

Returning to Greene’s attack on Shakespeare, three points seem to me most salient. Not only does Hamlet voice the (to Greene) objectionable claim that the talents of a Roscius are the all of drama, but he does so after mistakenly channelling the Hyrcanian spirit of the vengeful Queen Margaret from 3 Henry VI, that which Greene had identified as a typically execrable instance of pseudo-­poetic bombast. Further, the speech in the person of Aeneas by which Hamlet sets such store is itself an extended exercise in just the sort of bombastic crudity that Greene (and Nashe, and Lodge) troubled themselves to condemn in the name of decorum. We would not, I think, be stretching a point to conclude that Shakespeare is having some fun here. Hamlet is a university man who champions humanist poetics without the ability to apply them critically; who hymns the virtues and virtuosity of the players without any awareness that their actorly skills are immaterial without someone competent to write their scripts. Only someone content with the idealized forms of acting given by the rhetoricians—who is content to think with Roscius and who has not troubled himself to understand the immediacies of contemporary stagecraft—could say such things. Only a university trained humanist, infused with a sense of his own cultural entitlement, could get the business of drama and dramatic poetry so radically wrong. Particular players may or may not have the literary wherewithal to double up as playwrights, but unlike their better-­educated critics, they grasp the component parts that must cohere to form a successful theatrical production. Not the least of these is the ability of acting companies to accommodate themselves to the demands of their paying audiences. Just as importantly, such companies must be able to tolerate with good grace the intrusions of their wealthy patrons. Especially if their patrons are determined to exceed their own areas of dramatic competence.

The Mirror Up to Nature

Towards the end of his third soliloquy, Hamlet revisits his decision to have the players perform The Murder of Gonzago with the addition of “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines” (2.2.535):

About, my brains. Hum—I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have, by the very cunning of the scene,

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim’d their malefactions.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ. I’ll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks;

I’ll tent him to the quick. If a do blench,

I know my course. (2.2.584–93)

After nodding at the prospect, already voiced by Horatio, that the Ghost might be a diabolical illusion (a prospect considered further below), Hamlet concludes with the declaration that “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.600–601).

This is another iteration of the rhetorical poetics of sixteenth-­century commonplace. Leaving behind his preoccupation with the technicalities of acting, Hamlet turns to the mimetic force of drama—as a mode of expression able to represent “something like the murder of my father”. Just as a properly executed piece of affective rhetoric has the capacity to compel assent from those subjected to it, so a theatrical audience is unable to resist the revelatory force of well-­conceived drama; Thomas Heywood dutifully records instances of dramatic performances revealing the occluded guilt of criminals. This is all the more important when drama can expose the wrongdoing of those who protect themselves by abusing their political power. Thomas Elyot concludes that “redyng tragoedies” helps to “execrate and abhore the intollerable life of tyrantes”, while Sidney’s Defence insists that tragedy “openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours”. North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives likewise gives an account of the despot Alexander of Pherae, who abruptly left a performance of Euripides’s Troades “bicause he was ashamed that people shoulde see him weepe, to see the miseries of Hecuba and Andromacha played, and that they never saw him pity the death of any one man, of so many of his citizens as he had caused to be slaine”.

On this variously humanist account, drama is well equipped to do the work of forensics that Hamlet demands of it. Quintilian concludes that drama can be an effective form of artificial argumentation, and in this case Hamlet employs it to provoke in Claudius an involuntary expression of shame, fear, or alarm—a sign that would serve to confirm his conjectured guilt. In Thomas Wilson’s judgement, when forcing a suspect to confront his misdeeds, one should note whether he “trembled, or staggered, or was contrary in telling of his tale, and how he kept his countenance”. And as La Primaudaye opines in a Christianized reworking of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, such physical manifestations of wrongdoing were no accident. Rather,

there is in Shame not onely a feare of villanie, but indignation also, after the committing of some fault. For hee that is faulty, chafest, and is angry with himselfe, because of the dishonour hee receiveth through his offence. And this kind of Shame is the simplest and lightest, and may be called Blushing. . . . Therefore is this colour rightly called the colour of vertue. For God hath placed this affection of shame in the nature of men, to the end it should be unto them as a bridge to stay them from committing vile things, and as a Judge and Revenger to punish them after they have done such things.

For all but the irremediably criminal, physical signs—a blench, a blush, a sudden change in countenance or behaviour—were God’s way of exposing misdeeds to the world. Granted that such physical signs are subject to interpretation and potential misinterpretation, Hamlet’s goal to make “murder . . . speak with most miraculous organ” makes excellent sense. It also echoes the sententious flourish that he ventured before his chance to confer with the Ghost, itself an expression of a common revenge play topos: “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (1.2.247–58). In brief, the plan that Hamlet has hatched to test Claudius has a fine humanist pedigree.

When Hamlet next addresses the players, he underscores the vitality of his plan while simultaneously asserting himself as il miglior fabbro. In staging the Murder of Gonzago, they should take care not to “out-­Herod Herod”, the archetypally glamorous tyrant of the medieval mystery cycles; what he has in mind is powerful enough without being hammed up. Hamlet thus discards his former high opinion of the playing company, and adopts in its place the hostility to the common player that was a feature of much late Elizabethan dramatic writing: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-­crier spoke my lines” (3.2.1–3). Hamlet’s concern to see that the dozen or sixteen lines of his devising are done theatrical justice may seem reasonable enough given the high stakes for which he proposes to play. But his sudden conviction that the Wittenberg tragedians might be prone to overact would demand our notice even without his earlier attack on critical capriciousness. He continues in a similar vein until dismissing them to prepare for their show forty-­five lines later. The core of his urging is that they must “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (3.2.17–19). Immodest or otherwise excessive forms of “action”, or rhetorical-­dramatic actio, might appeal to the undiscerning masses—“groundings”, “the unskilful”, “barren spectators” (3.2.11, 25–26, 41)—but were bound to “make the judicious grieve” (3.2.26–27). Some actors he has seen have been so struttingly showy that they scarcely seemed human at all: as if “some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably” (3.2.33–35). Clowns, perhaps. Such travesties will likewise preoccupy Shakespeare’s Ulysses when he complains to Agamemnon of the idle mockeries indulged in by Patroclus for the amusement of Achilles: “with ridiculous and awkward action— / Which, slanderer, he imitation calls— / He pageants us”.

Hamlet thus declaims a series of widely received doctrines on rhetorical and dramatic delivery—those rules concerned with the appropriately kinaesthetic use of voice and gesture—derived from Cicero, Quintilian, and their innumerable humanist interpreters. Nothing he mentions would provoke the least disagreement from any early modern playwright, actor, or poetic theorist. Such imaginary interlocutors might disagree on where propriety should reside in differing situations, but as Hamlet resolutely avoids the specifics of performance, the question does not arise. The feeling of superfluity, like that of platitudinousness, is compounded by his mode of expression. He slips not only into prose, but into various forms of stylistic redundancy. Consider litotes, the figure of speech through which something is affirmed by denying its contrary. On the standard accounts, litotes invests one’s pronouncements with the aura of calmly disinterested authority; it also enables one to give instructions while avoiding the impression of arrogance. Throughout the play, it is a favourite of Hamlet and Claudius alike. Claudius asserts that “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (2.2.190), “Nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range” (3.3.1–2), and “When sorrows come, they come not single spies” (4.5.78); Hamlet assures his friends that they “shall not lack” in his love for them (1.5.194) and that he is “not splenative and rash” (5.1.254). No doubt Hamlet hopes to vouchsafe both his authority and his rhetorical tact when addressing the players: “Nor do not saw the air too much” (3.2.4), “Be not too tame” (3.2.16), and “o’erstep not the modesty of nature”. But in this instance, litotes heralds not control but slackness of thought. Similarly, what elsewhere appears as hendiadys and copia here becomes tautology and pleonasm: “the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion” (3.2.4–6), suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action” (3.2.17–18). Not enough matter. Not enough art.

Polonius has adjudged that Hamlet delivers his portion of Aeneas’s speech to Dido with “good accent and good discretion”, and Hamlet clearly shares this sense of his own theatrical accomplishment. Depleted after his catastrophic interview with Ophe­lia, he thus finds a form of reassurance in returning to this actorly self-­image and in impressing it upon the players: though I cannot prove a lover or revenger, I can at least play the player. The irony is that in speaking as he does, Hamlet comprehensively oversteps the well-­governed moderation that he asserts while denying the professional players the agency with which they might interpret their roles for themselves—that which Polonius’s “liberty” so conspicuously grants them. Hamlet’s estimation of acting, in other words, is every bit as idealized and as limited as his appreciation of dramatic poetry as a whole. Unlike us, the itinerant players have no need to guess at the identity of the dozen or sixteen lines that Hamlet would add to the Murder of Gonzago. But other than the pronouncement that they should be spoken “trippingly on the tongue”, Hamlet’s disquisition on the niceties of playing at no point makes it plain how he would like to see them delivered. Instead, he uses his position as the players’ patron to strike a series of theoretical postures; rather than imparting instruction, he is concerned to position himself as their dramatic equal or superior. He fails, and lunges into a series of meta-­histrionic missteps. Fittingly, one of the few things known about the earliest productions of Hamlet is the antic indecorousness of its title character’s performance. For the author of Daiphantus, probably Anthony Scoloker, the complement of Hamlet’s “wild and whirling words” is that he “runne[s] mad” about the stage. Jonson, Chapman, and Marston seized upon the same characteristics, including in their collaborative Eastward Ho! a character named Hamlet, footman to one Lady Gertrude: “’Sfoot Hamlet, are you mad? Whither run you now?”

Be all this as it may, the central and most famous portion of Hamlet’s address to the players relates to the theory of dramatic and poetic mimesis. Having reminded the players that they should take care to respect “the modesty of nature”, he continues that

anything so o’erdone is [removed] from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (3.2.19–24)

As this description suggests, sixteenth-­century dramatic mirrors (or looking-­glasses) resemble the reflective devices used in the pursuit of humanist self-­knowledge: they are not naturalistic, but exemplary and morally didactic. As many theorists of dramatic and non-­dramatic poetry attested, works of creative imagination could reveal things as they really were, and not as they seemed to be on the surface. The origins of this speculative metaphor lie in some lines attributed to Cicero on the nature of comedy (deployed by Jonson to burnish his classical bona fides in Every Man Out), but by the end of the sixteenth century, it had long been subsumed into the generality of literary-­theoretical commonplace. The version of reality imitated or reflected by poetry was not that perceptible to the eye alone.

For Puttenham, this was possible because in the poetic imagination “as by a glass or mirror, are represented unto the soul all manner of beautiful visions, whereby the inventive part of the mind is so much helped, as without it no man could devise any new or rare thing”. It follows that “the fantastical part of man (if it be not disordered)” serves to represent “the best, most comely, and beautiful images or appearances of things to the soul and according to their very truth”. Even Holofernes understands that the task of the early modern poet was not simply to reflect the world naturalistically, but to transform it into inventive and therefore more truthful likeness: “Imitari is nothing”. In Sidney’s more winning formulation, the poet “goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit”. Elsewhere, mirrors of one sort or another were an emblem of the imagination more on account of their distortions and unreliability than of their ability to reflect things as they really are; Puttenham mentions those that “show things otherwise than they be indeed”. Paradoxically, and although such concerns seldom trouble sixteenth-­century poetic or artistic theory, the most naturalistic mirror images are no less artificial than the most naturalistic works of poetry or painting. The difference is that the artifice of mirrors was very much a work-­in-­progress over the course of Shakespeare’s life.

Before moving on from the question of reflective distortions, it might be helpful to note that imagination and fantasy (phantasia or fantasia) were sometimes categorized as separate internal senses, and that the distance between them had a significant part to play in early modern aesthetic theory. The imagination is passive and receptive, but can be used to combine images into the likenesses of things that have no place in nature; the fantasy is not so readily governable, but has the capacity to transform individual sensory apprehensions into an all but infinite number of different impressions before the mind’s eye. The fantasy thus drives everyday misapprehensions of the sort we might expect to find in the lover or madman, but also opens the door to the semi-­divine furor of the ideally Neoplatonic poet. Although the distinction is relatively unimportant to the eclectic psychology of the Aristotelian tradition (La Primaudaye—like, it must be said, Shakespeare—has no time for it and uses the two terms interchangeably), its presence in the literature speaks to the early modern belief that, depending on the kind of work it was being asked to do, the imagination took on very different aspects. Likewise, that it needed to be managed with care: the imaginative faculty enabled the poet to penetrate the natures of things as they really are, but was concomitantly prone to disfigure one’s experience of the world.

More below on the capacity of the imagination to reflect, create, transform, and distort. More also on the two-­way nature of reflection: reverse the perspective and the mirror of drama reveals the image of an audience’s character—be that judicious, unskilful, barren, creative, or too easily amused. The point to stress for now is that in talking of holding “the mirror up to nature”, Hamlet embarks on a journey into the most elementary critical misprision. Once more, he leads himself astray by concentrating on the technicalities of dramatic performance, and not on the attributes of successful drama in the round. He refers to “the purpose of playing”, not the purpose of plays, of playwriting, or even of dramatic production. Just as he allows himself to assert that actors are themselves the “abstract and brief chronicle” of their times in his third soliloquy, he now holds that it is the province of acting to show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”. We might wish to write off the confusions of the third soliloquy: anyone in Hamlet’s position would be upset by the implications of the player’s performance as Aeneas, and therefore find it hard to think straight. Here, however, there is no such mitigation. His undercooked theorizing not only pays little heed to the place and status of his dozen or sixteen lines, but reveals him to have precious little idea of how drama might be said to function. In his determination to regulate the players’ “action” in keeping with the “cunning of the scene” as he has conceived it, he appears to believe that this action will on its own suffice to compel Claudius to reveal his malefactions.

The opening lines of Bacon’s essay “Of Boldnesse” provides a clear illustration of what is at stake:

It is a triviall Grammar Schoole Text, but yet worthy a wise Mans Consideration. Question was asked of Demosthenes; What was the Chiefe Part of an Oratour? He answered, Action; what next? Action; what next again? Action. He said it, that knew it best; And had by nature, himselfe, no Advantage, in that he commended. A strange thing, that the Part of an Oratour, which is but superficiall, and rather the vertue of a Player; should be placed so high, above those other Noble Parts, of Invention, Elocution, and the rest: Nay almost alone, as if it were All in All. But the Reason is plaine. There is in Humane Nature, generally, more of the Foole, then of the Wise; And therfore those faculties, by which the Foolish part of Mens Mindes is taken, are most potent.

Bacon goes on to propose that as action is to oratory, so boldness is to a career in civic affairs: necessary, but by no means sufficient. Through playing on the weakness of the common judgement, action and boldness are often disproportionately effective in accomplishing one’s immediate goals. But something more than effrontery or impressive delivery is required to succeed either with the judicious or in the long run. Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric, dwelling on actio in connection with the same anecdote about Demosthenes, makes a cognate point: “art without utterance can do nothing, utterance without art can do right much”. And yet, while the “tongue giveth a certain grace to every matter and beautifieth the cause”, it could only do so to the extent that “a sweet-­sounding lute” could improve “a mean-­devised ballad”. Reliably effective forms of oratorical performance paid respect to, and were therefore able to harness, each of the five canons of rhetoric in their turn; all must be attended to if a work of practical rhetoric or poetics is to succeed in influencing the course of human affairs. By taking the “superficiall” role of the player to stand for the all of drama, Hamlet neglects the inventive, dispositional, and stylistic responsibilities of the playwright.

It need hardly be added that a preoccupation with the vita activa—with being able to make the right things happen—is a key facet of all humanist thought and writing. Championing the dignity of the poet against that of the historian and philosopher, Sidney sounds a familiar tune. The knowledge of the philosopher “standeth so upon the abstract and general, that happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy than can apply what he doth understand”. The historian, by contrast, is tied to undigested particulars, “not to what should be but to what is, to the particular truth of things and not to the general reason of things”. Both therefore fall short of the utilitarian mark. Both are surpassed by the poet: “for whatsoever the philosopher saith should be done, he giveth a perfect picture of it in someone by whom he presupposeth it was done, so as he coupleth the general notion with the particular example”. The perfection of this picture inheres in the poet’s ability to present “to the powers of the mind an image of that whereof the philosopher bestoweth by a wordish description, which doth neither strike, pierce, nor possess the sight of the soul so much as that other doth”. Sidney thus echoes the Aristotelian-­Horatian doctrine that the dramatist should imagine as vividly as possible the situations and characters of which he writes; if he fails to do so, his works will seem implausible and fail to move his audiences. As we have already seen and will discuss further below, it is just this vivid immediacy—discussed in the rhetorical tradition as enargeia—that Hamlet hopes to exploit in order to catch the conscience of the king. But as Sidney stresses when considering the examples of Heliodorus, Aeschylus, Ariosto, Xenophon, and Virgil, “any understanding” of their achievements “knoweth [that] the skill of each artificer standeth in that idea or fore-­conceit of the work, and not in the work itself”. The same idea underpins his conviction that “it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet”. Rather, “it is that feigning notable image of virtues, vices, or what else”.

We can be sure that Shakespeare knew and understood these ideas, and that his audience will have done the same: with the success of Every Man Out, Jonson had established the existence of an audience for dramatizations of humanist poetics. It matters not only that Hamlet disregards them in addressing the players, but that he seems not to be the least cognizant of their centrality to any exercise in early modern dramatic poetry. Shakespeare expects his audiences—be they theatrical or bookish—to take note of the discrepancy between the declamatory certainty with which Hamlet voices his dramatic theories and the powers of discrimination on which they rest. Imperceptive of the poet-­playwright’s role in general, unconcerned that he has not taken the trouble to represent the most arresting likeness of Claudius’s crime, and content to adapt instead a roughly comparable play called The Murder of Gonzago. It is as if Hamlet concentrates on dramatic action to the exclusion of all else because he intuits that if he were to look to the canons of poetic or rhetorical invention, he would expose a void in precisely the place that the irresistible likeness of his father is supposed to have been impressed.

Foul Imaginations

The players having stepped off stage to digest the advice they have been given, Hamlet has a brief exchange with Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. Once this is over, he is met by the ever-­accommodating Horatio: “Here, sweet lord, at your service” (3.2.53). After a digression praising his friend as one in whom “blood and judgment are so well commeddled” that he is beyond the reach of “Fortune’s finger” (3.2.69–70), Hamlet outlines his plan:

There is a play tonight before the King:

One scene of it comes near the circumstance

Which I have told thee of my father’s death.

I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,

Even with the very comment of thy soul

Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt

Do not itself unkennel in one speech,

It is a damned ghost that we have seen,

And my imaginations are as foul

As Vulcan’s stithy. (3.2.75–84)

We now learn that in thinking of a play that shows “something like the murder of my father”, Hamlet envisages nothing more elaborate than a single scene that will represent some of the circumstances of Old Hamlet’s death as narrated in the Ghost’s testimony. Say, an act of murder (regicide, through the simple addition of a prop like a crown), with a clear indication of how (poison, poured in the ear), where (an arboreal setting), and with what help (none) it was committed. Such a scene would, however, be hard pressed to affirm a particular murderer’s guilt, or to represent when or why the murder in question had taken place. Although Hamlet can only therefore hope to stage a diminished likeness of Claudius’s crime, he is untroubled. This is because he has added a speech of a dozen or sixteen lines to the play with a view to catching Claudius’s conscience more effectively, and it seems reasonable to assume that he has done so to this scene. If so, and bearing in mind that the Ghost makes no mention of Claudius speaking during the murder of Old Hamlet, the additional lines probably comprise an address to the audience in the—by 1600, slightly outmoded—manner of Marlowe’s Barabas or Shakespeare’s Richard III. In it, the murderer would reveal his grossly Machiavellian character and motives, and thereby intimate telling similarities between himself and Claudius. Taken with the staged display of a murder committed by the dispatch of poison into a sleeping victim’s ear, surely enough to make a guilty man blench.

Hamlet now offers two motives for putting his plan into operation. First, he hopes that by forcing Claudius’s guilt out into the light, Horatio will be able to confirm it for himself; quite possibly, he also intends for the court at large to experience a similar moment of revelation. Second, he hopes to test the true nature of the Ghost: if the Murder of Gonzago does not trigger an expression of Claudius’s guilt “in one speech” (presumably the one that Hamlet has added to it), the only explanation can be that the Ghost is a demon that has distorted his imaginative faculty.

A clue that something is awry here can be found in the fact that the criterion against which Hamlet will test the “honesty” of the Ghost is the ability of the adapted Murder of Gonzago to confirm Claudius’s guilt for the benefit of Horatio and, perhaps, the remainder of the royal court. What if the players do a bad job with the lines that Hamlet has written for them and Claudius fails to react? What if Claudius is eating or drinking at the crucial moment and Horatio takes a wince or a blench from him to be a sign of indigestion? Such questions fail to trouble Hamlet for the very good reason that he is not, himself, in any doubt about his uncle’s guilt. Claudius’s fratricide is only “occluded”, and Hamlet therefore proposes to “unkennel” it as if it were a fox concealing itself from its pursuers underground; the fact of it is beyond conjecture, and waits to be driven from its hiding place by the force of Hamlet’s ingenuity. In other words, Hamlet already believes Claudius to have committed the crimes described by the Ghost, and does not seek corroborative evidence in the fashion of Kyd’s Hieronimo—once again, his resemblance to the protagonist of earlier revenge tragedies is no more than superficial.

Hamlet’s course of action can, nevertheless, easily be squared with his desire to have Horatio see Claudius’s guilt for himself: Quintilian and common sense agree that supernatural testimony carries little probative value, and if Hamlet is going successfully to prosecute a case against the king, he will need to build it on something more substantial than “I heard it from my father’s ghost; he/it spoke very well on the topic”. By contrast, Hamlet’s belief in the veracity of the Ghost’s testimony is much harder to align with his attempt to discount the possibility of his demonic possession: if he is as convinced of Claudius’s guilt as he seems to be, how could his success or failure in persuading Horatio to share his view of the subject have any bearing on the way in which he regards the Ghost? And if he needs no further proof of the Ghost’s honesty, why does he pretend otherwise to his friend? The play’s responses to these questions are anything but unambiguous, and before turning to them we must pause to examine the series of beliefs and doctrines that make possible Hamlet’s proposed investigation into the nature of his father’s spectral form. My claim is that the language through which Hamlet discusses the Ghost prompts us not simply to reconsider the disposition of Hamlet’s imagination, or to reflect on what Hamlet’s real purpose might be in having the players perform as he does. It also reveals something about the suitability of his imagination for poetic invention, and about the capacity of poetry—specifically, of dramatic poetry—to represent human affairs in a world afflicted with competing visions of the truth.

Let’s start with the changing pronouns of Hamlet’s address to Horatio. We have seen the Ghost, but as only I have had discourse with it, any discrepancies in its testimony must reflect badly on my powers of apprehension. The notion of vision with which Hamlet thus wrestles is difficult, and incidentally makes the attempt to define the true nature or confessional identity of the Ghost seem one of the least felicitous preoccupations of Hamlet criticism. The problem is that spiritual beings were held to be substance without body, and therefore invisible; what Shakespeare would have Lady Macbeth capture as “sightless substances”. Such spirits instigated visions of themselves in human beings by acting on their internal senses. Principally, they acted on their imaginations—or, for those who drew a distinction between imagination and fantasia, on their fantasies. Once again, La Primaudaye is conveniently summative. Just as the nature of human communication is lost on “beastes”, so “spiritual natures” have modes of non-­linguistic and presumably unmediated interaction that they exploit to “moove our fantasie divers wayes”. These spiritual natures, La Primaudaye continues, exist in both positive and negative manifestations: “as the Angelles have meanes to represent to our mindes the images of good . . . both waking and sleeping: so can evill spirites greatly trouble them by divers illusions”. Given the fragility and fecundity of the human imagination, one must be particularly wary of diabolism: “it is very needefull that men should recommend themselves to God, to the end these evil spirites may have no such power over them, and that their judgements may be sound to discerne the images of those things, which hee representeth to their mindes, from all Diabolicall illusions”.

It will be apparent that La Primaudaye—as much of a Calvinist as his Huguenot background would lead one to expect—does not mention ghosts in his discussion of spirits: Protestantism identified ghosts as the province of Purgatory, a Roman Catholic abomination intruded into true religion for the purpose of arrogating to the church, and the priesthood, the power to influence salvation. For godly Protestants, spiritual visions might have angelic (arguably) or demonic (more often than not) aspects, but could not arise from shades of the dead revisiting their former haunts. And yet to dwell on such doctrinal differences between Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and variously Reformed versions of Christianity can obscure as much as it reveals. When considering Hamlet’s potentially “foul” imaginations, the more important consideration is the commonality of attitudes to spectral phenomena across the long sixteenth century. As Stuart Clark has so carefully demonstrated, what one saw depended on the system of religious belief to which one subscribed (one man’s sympathetic ghost is another man’s demonic illusion), but the way in which one saw it (through a spiritual being somehow or other interfering with one’s internal senses) was all but uncontested. The criteria through which most early moderns assessed ghostly apparitions were thus moral, not natural or philosophical.

By the same token, for Reginald Scot, it was the explicitly and divergently moral nature of ghosts, demons, and angels that gave their physical manifestations the lie. If spirits exist, they are entirely incorporeal and are therefore entirely imperceptible to humankind. For Scot, apparitions therefore have two explanations. They are natural phenomena caused by the ill effects of conditions like melancholy, or they are artificial ones measured by the imposture of priests and the conjuring tricks of those determined to create a market for their apotropaic tat. The potent instability of the human imagination means that there is simply no need to posit the existence of supernatural or otherwise enchanted forces behind pseudo-­spiritual “visions”. Religions only did so because the existence of demons or angels or ghosts could so easily be turned to buttress their pre-­existent theological dogmas. Scot’s work differed from anything that had gone before it, but related kinds of subversion were only slightly younger than the purgatorial doctrines that first brought ghostly apparitions into the Christian fold. Scot quotes Chaucer with approval, while a text as prominent as Erasmus’s colloquy “The Exorcism” (of which, more below) makes hay by mocking the spiritualist pretentions of clergy and laity alike. Behind all such viewpoints sit Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, in which ghosts and the life of the underworld are dismissed as absurd superstitions, made worse by the exaggerations of the poets.

One way in which to respond to the ambiguities of the Ghost might be to emphasise its status as dramatic artefact. Neo-­Senecan revengers have no need of obsidian mirrors or pneumatological nicety to commune with, or relate themselves to, the spirit world; their own senses, internal and external, are more than equal to the task. Furthermore, it might with justice be argued that religious language, like the discourses of philosophy or politics or poetics or history, is simply one of the threads to which Shakespeare gave new meaning in the course of weaving them into his dramatic fabric. Old Hamlet’s ghost is a dramatic-­poetic reality like the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Andrea in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the witches in Macbeth, or the fact that the residents of medieval Denmark speak, in Hamlet, some distinguished late Elizabethan English. One might as well debate the reality of Moby Dick on the grounds that such a cetacean, like Ahab’s obsession with it, would have seemed unrealistic to all but the most superstitious nineteenth-­century whalers: like Melville’s whale, Shakespeare’s Ghost is a deliberate fiction, going some distance beyond the more and less historical seeds of its creation.

Such considerations are far from unhelpful. Given the indefatigably narcoleptic determination to expose the confessional identity of the Ghost, or to use it as a window on Shakespeare’s condition as the Protestant son of a Roman Catholic father, they also bear repeating. They are, however, unduly limiting. Like Melville’s preternatural sea beast, the Ghost is a fiction with a point. The hard question is to determine what, for Shakespeare and within Hamlet, that point might be. Peter McCullough addresses the question with welcome refinement: “the impulse to define the play as either broadly Catholic or broadly Protestant flies in the face of its own relentless effort to assert both possibilities in a dramaturgical process that cancels the signifying power of each”. Hamlet is a work in which Shakespeare deliberately and sustainedly subverts the “promised conventional meaning” of ghosts, prayer, providential sparrows, and any number of other religious topoi.

To stick with the Ghost a while longer, one thing not in question is that spiritual apparitions are a “mote . . . to trouble the mind’s eye” (1.1.115). On this point, Horatio, Hamlet, Gertrude, and the generality of sixteenth-­century pneumatologists agree. Initially, this mote is dismissed by Horatio as a mere “fantasy” of Barnardo, Francisco, and Marcellus (1.1.26). Having been witnessed by Horatio himself, it becomes a portent, boding “some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.72) like the storm and related prodigies in Julius Caesar. What Horatio has seen puts him in mind of “the sheeted dead” who “Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” before the downfall of Caesar (1.1.118–19). Next, Horatio and the night watch tell Hamlet what they have observed, and thereby introduce a note of confusion: despite having previously noted the Ghost’s martial “frown” at 1.1.65, Horatio informs Hamlet that it had “A countenance more in sorrow than in anger”, and that it did not look “frowningly” (1.2.230–31). Probably only an accommodation to Hamlet’s presumed feelings, but even so. After hearing his friends’ testimony, Hamlet worries that the apparition has “assumed my noble father’s person” (1.2.244), but then declares that it is “My father’s spirit—in arms!” as soon as he is alone on stage (1.2.255). On the battlements of the Kronborg the following night, he beholds his father’s shade for the first time, at once distilling and dismissing some of the controversies of early modern ghost doctrine: “Be thou a spirit of health [i.e., an angel] or a Goblin damn’d [i.e., a demon], / Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / . . . Thou com’st in such questionable shape / That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet, / King, father, royal Dane” (1.4.40–45). No mention of Purgatory. Nor is there one from Horatio, who worries that the Ghost is trying to lure Hamlet to a grisly death by playing on his “imagination” (1.4.87). Hamlet professes no such fears, and after his interview with the Ghost, assures Horatio that “Touching this vision here, / It is an honest Ghost, that let me tell you” (1.5.143–45). Furthermore, if Hamlet’s reference to St Patrick is anything to go by, he now agrees with the Ghost’s assertion that it hales from Purgatory. In a different play, that might have been an end of the matter; after some atmospheric throat-­clearing, the revenge plot could have begun. But in Hamlet what we get is a metatheatrical nod to the traditions of staging Purgatory (and Hell) in the medieval mystery plays, in which the Ghost is reduced to a farcically subterranean voice, “old mole” (1.5.170).

This perplexity is compounded by the doubts that Hamlet introduces, apropos no new evidence or spiritual encounter, at the end of his third soliloquy: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil, and the devil hath power / T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / As he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me” (2.2.594–99). A textbook exposition. As we have seen, he repeats a version of it to Horatio when speculating on the potentially “damned ghost” and his potentially “foul” imaginations. The problem is that he never seriously entertains the prospect that what he’s saying might be true: “perhaps”, or perhaps not. In speaking thus, Hamlet goes through the motions. (We might note in passing that the deeply unconventional nature of the Ghost makes it less likely to be a projection of Hamlet’s possessed or diseased imagination: Hamlet has not encountered its likeness before, whether on the page or the stage.) As we saw at the beginning of chapter 1, the indeterminacy of sixteenth-­century ghost doctrine, and the ambiguously hybrid appearance of his father’s likeness, is useful to Hamlet because it allows him to protect himself from his inability to feel the “motive” and “cue” to vengeance with which he has been presented. Although I’m perfectly happy to take the Ghost’s word for it, surely I’m bound to experience naturally vindictive passion if I can confirm the truth of its testimony with my own eyes? This is why Hamlet can allow his own ability to “unkennel” Claudius’s already-­established guilt to be a test of the Ghost’s true nature: he does not care what he is saying as long as saying it protects him from having to confront the condign emptiness within. Interrogating the actual status or nature of the Ghost is of no more interest or concern to him than hearing Horatio’s verdict. Even after the apparent success of the play now renamed The Mousetrap, he only declares that he will “take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (3.2.280–81; emphasis mine). Nothing of angels, demons, or purgatorial wandering, and nothing more from either him or Horatio as to what kind of spiritual presence Old Hamlet’s apparition might be said to be.

When the Ghost reappears in the course of the closet scene, Hamlet has just accused his mother of being demonically possessed (3.4.76–77) in response to her inability to discern the significance of his claims about the “counterfeit presentment” of his father and uncle. Spirits of any sort could choose to make themselves visible by acting on the internal senses of one individual while remaining undetectable to others in the same room, and as the Ghost’s stated purpose is only to “whet” Hamlet’s “almost blunted purpose” (3.4.111), it isn’t in itself remarkable that Gertrude does not recognise her first husband’s bodiless substance. The terms in which Gertrude interrogates and responds to Hamlet are, however, telling: “how is’t with you, / That you do bend your eye on vacancy, / And with th’incorporeal air do hold discourse?” (3.4.116–18); “Nothing at all; yet all that is I see” (3.4.133); “This is the very coinage of your brain. / This bodiless creation ecstasy / Is very cunning in” (3.4.139–41). Having had to endure her son’s claim that she is possessed and conscious that his distempered rage may be driven by her marriage to Claudius, she now beholds him conversing with imaginary entities. Faced with what seems to be hallucinatory madness, her response could easily have been spoken by Reginald Scot—but also recalls Horatio’s initial dismissal of that which the night watch claim to have seen. Then, just like that, the Ghost is gone. Having briefly protested his sanity, Hamlet returns to the “matter” at hand: trying to talk his mother out of her marital bed. He does not assert the reality of what he has just experienced in Gertrude’s company, and at no point in the remaining nine scenes of the play does he or anyone else refer to the apparition around which the revenge plot, and so much of the early action, revolve. Hamlet tips his hat at the prospect of demonic possession, but reveals himself to be as unconcerned by the ambiguous nature of his father’s ghost as he is by the effect such a spirit might be having on his imagination.

Although Shakespeare seems to have been sceptical about the existence of ghosts, we will never know what he actually thought about them. What we can say with confidence is that, in and beyond Hamlet, he found them theatrically and dramatically valuable. When considering how to represent a world framed by the Ciceronian pieties of humanist moral philosophy, in which both honour and one’s true self were defined by the assumption of the appropriate personae and places within the stage-­play of public life, what better than to fix on an entity whose illusory presence means that it can only reliably be apprehended in the theatre? Ghosts may or may not be real, but as phenomena whose natures are determined by the moral and personal imperatives of those beholding them, they are the perfect emblem for a universe that does not cohere. Within the world of the play, a spirit exists in the imaginations of playwright, actors, and audience alike—prompted and framed by its staged simulacrum. Outside it, spirits would be seen differently depending on one’s religious beliefs, or would be dismissed as the projections of internal senses that are febrile or otherwise disordered. In other words, by placing a spectral vision like Old Hamlet’s ghost on stage, Shakespeare does not simply dramatize the doctrinal and epistemological contradictions of sixteenth-­century pneumatology. He also holds a mirror up to the world as he sees it. The truest poetry is the most feigning.

It is thus doubly satisfying that by raising the prospect of demonic possession to Horatio, Hamlet succeeds in doing more than distracting himself from his lack of feeling, and exploits one kind of imaginative illusion to protect the dignity of another. Should his exercise in forensic drama fail to provoke the desired response, it would be better to have to hand an explanation with which to save both his own blushes and those of the humanistic theory of drama to which he professes himself attached. To this end, there could be nothing more apt than a body of doctrine through which, on account of the instrumentality of even the most teeming imagination, we see whatever we need to see.

As a coda to this discussion of the spiritual imagination, I’d like to revisit Gabriel Harvey’s famous judgement that something in Hamlet “please[d] the wiser sort”, which he inscribed (along with a number of other reflections on the contemporary literary scene) at the back of his copy of Chaucer’s complete works. Dover Wilson long ago suggested that it might have been the Ghost that appealed to Harvey, and although my account of the Ghost’s significance could not differ from What Happens in Hamlet much more than it does, I tend to agree. Consider a line from Pierces Supererogation, Harvey’s penultimate contribution to his feud with Thomas Nashe. Cataloguing the worthies of modern English letters, Harvey commended “Scottes discoovery of Witchcraft”. In his judgement, it unmasked “sundry egregious impostures, and in certaine principall Chapters, & speciall passages, hitteth the nayle on the head with a witnesse: howsoever I could have wished, he had either dealt somewhat more curteously with Monsieur Bodine, or confuted him somewhat more effectually”. While approving of Scot in print during the 1590s must count as one of Harvey’s more foolhardy sallies, the astutely unstuffy intelligence evinced here must have found much to enjoy in Shakespeare’s Ghost.

In seeking further to understand Harvey’s fondness for Hamlet, we might further note that although he has long been the victim of others’ snobbery and his own lack of tact, his literary interests were anything but those of dull or pedantic conventionality. Praising the works of Chaucer (a particular favourite) and Lydgate, he noted that others admire “their witt, pleasant veine, varietie of poetical discourse, & all humanitie: I specially note their Astronomie, philosophie, & other parts of profound or cunning art. Wherein few of their time were more exactly learned. It is not sufficient for poets to be superficial humanists: but they must be exquisite artists, & curious universal schollers”. Taking such sentiments into account, Harvey’s long-­standing friendships with Sidney and Spenser make far better sense. When also keeping in mind Harvey’s commitment to Tacitus, Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and the currency of sixteenth-­century debates on the nature of political governance, the appeal to him of a play like Hamlet begins to seem obvious. Perhaps so, but none of this amounts to more than well-­informed speculation. More certain is that Shakespeare’s adaptations of Seneca, Virgil, and Ovid cannot be held responsible for attracting Harvey’s attention to Hamlet and holding it there. For Harvey and his friends, the ability to recognise and assimilate the resources of the classical canon comprised “superficial” learning. If not quite schoolroom stuff, still a form of basic literacy: insipid, and unworthy of praise or note. And yet, as this chapter has sought to establish, such laboured but superficial humanism is exactly what Shakespeare has the loquacious Prince Hamlet make his stock-­in-­trade. At the beginning of the twenty-­first century, it is no easy matter to think one’s way back into the assumptive world within which such a dramatic character could exist, cohere, or appeal; but as it was one inhabited by Shakespeare himself, think our way back into it we must.


Although the motives behind Hamlet’s adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago are confused, the plan as outlined to Horatio has a clear line of forensic intent. First, stage a dramatic likeness of Claudius’s alleged crime that is both plausible and arresting. Second, watch Claudius closely for blushing or other physiological signs of guilt. Third, in the event that such signs become apparent, strike. And yet, however elementary it may seem when put in this theoretical frame, my aim for the remainder of this chapter is to show that only the most tendentious reading of the mise-­en-­abîme could see it as progressing straightforwardly. Instead, Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s lack of engagement with the substance of what he says to explore the distance that humanist poetics unwittingly puts between res and verba. Precisely because Hamlet is on some level unconcerned with the outcome of the play-­within-­the-­play—or, rather, because he has predetermined it—Hamlet enables us to look more closely at the efficacy of drama as an instrument of forensic enquiry.

Before going any further, a summary of the action that takes place in and around the Murder of Gonzago/Mousetrap might be helpful; this passage of the play is so familiar that distortion is hard to avoid. As the players enter, Hamlet enjoys (i) further taunting Claudius with his pregnant inscrutabilities, (ii) reminding Polonius that he, Hamlet, is the up-­to-­date participant in university drama, and (iii) scoring further points off a woman who has betrayed what she had previously led him to believe they shared—Ophe­lia. The trumpets sound, and the players act out a dumb show. Hamlet feigns to expound the dumb show while further insulting Ophe­lia, in the course of which he is interrupted by the inset play’s surprisingly brief Prologue. The play begins with a scene in which King (or Duke) Gonzago and his Queen (or Duchess) discourse on the nature and responsibilities of a widow’s love for her deceased husband. Hamlet intervenes to ask Gertrude what she makes of this, informs Claudius that the play is called The Mousetrap and that the character from whom they are about to hear is called Lucianus, further abuses Ophe­lia, and concludes by telling the acting company to hurry their performance along. The Lucianus character begins a speech in which he reveals himself to be a dark-­hearted murderer, and pours poison into the ear of the sleeping Gonzago. Hamlet again intrudes to explain the import of the action. Claudius rises, Polonius calls off the performance, and everyone other than Hamlet and Horatio hurries into the wings.

The unravelling starts with the dumb show. These were ordinarily treated as a species of emblem, and were frequently glossed in a prologue or pre-­prologue. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the show put on before the main business of Pyramus and Thisbe—narrated by Quince as the Prologue—is a fine, if parodic, case in point. And yet as the mechanicals suggest, and as Hamlet confirms when dismissing the groundlings’ lack of discernment, some dumb shows were simply “inexplicable” (3.2.12). Knowing what we know of the Ghost’s testimony, the dumb show to The Murder of Gonzago is far from obscure. But this benefit is not extended to anyone on stage other than Hamlet and, in some measure, Horatio. Having witnessed it, Ophe­lia is puzzled. Hamlet explains that it “means mischief”, and turns to the entering Prologue for further explication: “We shall know by this fellow” (3.2.134–36). The Prologue, however, has nothing to say beyond entreating the goodwill of his audience. “Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?” wonders Hamlet (3.2.147), suggesting that he has not seen this company perform the Murder of Gonzago before. In the absence of a mediator to make plain the significance of its dumb show, the opening movements of their production hint at the limitations of theatrical performance as a “mirror” of vices or virtues. They also open up an interpretative space that Hamlet himself will shortly, and disastrously, set himself to fill.

In the midst of the inset play’s opening scene, set off from the rest of Hamlet by its end-­stopped rhyming couplets, Hamlet’s notice is caught by the Player Queen’s mildly histrionic assertion of the commonplace that she would never marry again if the Player King were to die: “Such love must be treason in my breast. / In second husband let me be accurst; / None wed the second but who kill’d the first”. Hamlet assures himself and the off-­stage audience that this is “wormwood”—bitter and therefore arresting (3.2.173–76). The scene complete, Hamlet challenges Gertrude. She is nonplussed, and shows no sign of recognising the likeness of herself in the Player Queen. Before Hamlet can examine her further, Claudius intervenes, having apparently registered the import of neither the dumb show nor the initial action of the play. Hamlet responds that the players “do but jest—poison in jest” (3.2.229), presumably referring back to the dumb show on the grounds that The Murder of Gonzago has not yet ventured into the realm of toxicology. After informing Claudius that the play is called The Mousetrap, he continues that it “is the image of a murder done in Vienna”. He then concedes that the play may seem like “a knavish piece of work”, before concluding with some transparently insincere reassurance: “we that have free souls”—that is, Claudius, Hamlet, and those like them—need not feel touched by it (3.2.231–36). Heavy-­handed stuff, but no more loaded than most of Hamlet’s intercourse with his uncle. In the unlikely event that Claudius and his courtiers have not noticed that Hamlet has settled on The Mousetrap with particular and likely offensive purposes in mind, Hamlet saves them the trouble of figuring it out for themselves.

The players are now about to get under way with the second scene of The Mousetrap. A character emerges, most likely the anonymous “Man” in the dumb show who covets Gonzago’s throne and wife, and who kills the sleeping Gonzago by pouring poison in his ear. Before this character can make himself known, Hamlet declares that he “is one Lucianus, nephew to the King” (3.2.239). Ophe­lia expresses her gratitude for the illumination. There may have been no Prologue able adequately to expound the dumb show or to signpost the action of the play, but that need not now prove a problem: “You are as good as a chorus, my lord” (3.2.240). Ophe­lia’s approbation returns Hamlet to the pain and attendant anger that she has aroused in him. After taking some time to vent it, he fastens on the actor playing Lucianus, and urges that he speed things up: “Begin, murderer. Leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge” (3.2.246–48). Pass over in silence the fact that the player has had to resort to face-­pulling improvisations to fill the time while Hamlet has been holding forth. The peculiarity here is that Hamlet quotes from a slightly primitive Elizabethan revenge tragedy in order to introduce the prospect of revenge to a play that, on the evidence of its titles and dumb show, has no act of vengeance in it.

Hamlet’s impatient diegesis recalls the shambles of Snout explaining his place and status as a Wall in the mechanicals’ production of Pyramus and Thisbe, but it has an impact far beyond the further elaboration of the student prince’s dramatic and dramaturgic shortcomings. By informing the court that Lucianus is nephew rather than brother to the murdered king, Hamlet at a stroke destroys any probative force that the Mousetrap might have had in testing Claudius’s guilt. This destruction has its origins in the inscrutable dumb show, where we do not learn whether the “Man” who pours poison in Gonzago’s ear is his brother, nephew, or someone else altogether. One explanation might thus be that Gonzago’s murderer is his nephew, and that Hamlet has chosen his morally reflective drama unwisely. This seems unlikely. The more plausible scenario is suggested by the “croaking raven”. In the absence of a Pyrrhus figure with which Hamlet can identify himself, and after the dumb show and first scene of the play have failed to provoke either Claudius or Gertrude into exposing their respective misdeeds, Hamlet’s impetuosity leads him to intrude himself into the play by making the murderer Gonzago’s nephew rather than his brother.

The court can only interpret the staged spectacle of a nephew poisoning and killing his uncle the king with malice aforethought as a transgression: the disaffected Hamlet has commissioned an indefensibly extreme display of ­lèse-­majesté. It is far from inconceivable that the courtiers also view Hamlet, covetous of the throne denied to him by his uncle’s succession, as having had the players stage a thinly allegorized threat against their legitimately elected monarch. Recall that when Hamlet does finally kill Claudius in Act 5, they immediately respond with cries of “Treason! Treason!” (5.2.328). Further, Hamlet’s transformation of Lucianus into Gonzago’s nephew provides Claudius with a pretext for leaving the performance before he can betray himself with a blench, blush, or other physical sign of his culpability: he can plausibly feign outrage and hurt at his nephew’s petulant ingratitude, before departing the scene unimpeded and with his good character unimpeached. Indeed, having been insulted by his designated heir, sitting patiently by and doing nothing is not, for Claudius, an option. Most crucially, however, Hamlet has betrayed himself and his intentions to Claudius, so that his chances of further corroborating the Ghost’s testimony, or of making its revelations compelling to others, all but vanish. Claudius now knows that Hamlet suspects him of murder, and that this suspicion is likely to fire an erratic and dangerous pursuit. Claudius is accordingly on his guard, and resolves to dispatch Hamlet to England—though not, yet, to have him killed there.

If Hamlet is cognizant of what has happened, he hides it well. In this he is helped by the status of Claudius’s departure as an ambiguous sign—one that can be interpreted differently depending on one’s viewpoint. Only Hamlet views it as indicative of guilt. Ophe­lia, Gertrude, and Polonius instead voice their concern for their king’s state of mind; by extension, perhaps also for Hamlet’s wellbeing after so blatantly and discourteously provoking Claudius’s ire. Even Horatio, who has been taken into Hamlet’s confidence, is dryly evasive. To Hamlet’s “Would not this, sir . . . get me a fellowship in a cry of players?” he counters, “Half a share”; far from seeming reasonable, Hamlet’s comprehension of what has happened doesn’t even rhyme. To Hamlet’s “Didst perceive?” he answers, “Very well, my lord”, adding no more than that “Upon the talk of the poisoning”, he “did very well note of him” (3.2.269–84). As Horatio understands well, all talk of poisoning took place while Lucianus was in the person of Gonzago’s nephew. But if Hamlet pays his friend’s noncommittal responses any heed, they do nothing to dampen his sense of pseudo-­forensic euphoria. This is protected, as it has been nurtured, by the cartwheeling freedom with which he transfigures the metaphors through which he seeks to hunt his uncle down. First, Claudius is a fox—to be unkennelled, or forced out into the open, before being done unceremoniously to death with clubs, bullets, or overwhelming canine force. Second, he is a mouse—to be trapped and killed within a space from which he cannot escape. Third, he is a juvenile or female deer—to be trapped in nets, shot at with crossbow bolts, and finished off by dogs, spears, or the huntsman’s knife. Hamlet takes his control over the pursuit of Claudius to be so complete that although Claudius may do all he can to escape, he, Hamlet, can transform the nature of that pursuit at will.

On one level, this linguistic wilfulness should not surprise us: a certain humpty-­dumptyism is a feature of Hamlet’s discourse throughout the play, and neatly indexes his impatience with coherence of one sort or another. From his haste to chop and change the metaphors through which the early moderns discussed memory and recollection, to his jousting as to whether or not Denmark qualifies as a “prison” (2.2.240–51), to his briskly contemptuous treatment of Osric at 5.2.92–104—for Hamlet, especially when talking to himself or to those whose lower social standing prevents them from challenging him, words mean what he wants them to. Referentiality is for little people. Nonetheless, the changing metaphors with which Hamlet conceptualizes his adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago are different, and perhaps even differ in kind. To understand this fully, we must turn to another instance of his determination to vaunt his semantic autonomy, one that follows immediately after the termination of The Mousetrap. Namely, his exchange with Polonius on the shapes in the clouds. It casts Hamlet’s disregard of theatrical mimesis into far sharper relief, and calls further into question the poetic theories that, although traduced in Hamlet’s representation of them, underpin his ambition in some way or other to assail the conscience or person of his uncle the king.

Very Like a Poet

After Hamlet has skirmished with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about playing the recorder, Polonius enters to confirm the message that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been charged with delivering: Queen Gertrude would like to see her son. Although they are apparently indoors at some point in the late evening (circumstances in some measure offset by the likelihood that the play was first performed in open-­air theatres), Hamlet responds by looking up:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass and ’tis—like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale.

Polonius: Very like a whale.

Hamlet: Then I will come to my mother, by and by. (3.2.367–74)

On the one hand, Hamlet enjoys exploiting Polonius’s willingness to jump through hoops; on the other, Polonius considers himself to be placating a prince who may be threateningly unhinged, but who is no less royal on account of it. This much is clear. But Hamlet also alludes to a text that we have already encountered in discussing the possibility of spectral delusion: Erasmus’s colloquy on “The Exorcism”, in which seeing ghosts is compared to seeing images in the clouds. Both are presented as markers of credulousness or childishly underdeveloped wits.

In “The Exorcism”, Erasmus’s two discussants consider the strategies through which Polus (a clever young man known to them who relishes drawing attention to the absurdities of quotidian life) had been able to make Faunus (his father-­in-­law—a priest who is fond of hunting and who thinks himself “uncommonly wise”) the unwitting protagonist of a “play” he had arranged to expose the juvenility of most religious controversy. The centrepiece of this play had been Polus’s ability to convince the populace that a local bridge was haunted by the “woeful howlings” of a spectre, a presence that was in due course “exorcised” by Faunus. In explaining how Polus brought this about, the point of comparison is the ease with which Polus had been able to convince the populace that they could see a “huge dragon” in the clouds. Despite their inability to see any such thing, his audience were so “anxious not to seem unobservant”, that they “finally declared that [they] saw it too”. Erasmus makes the willingness to see images in the clouds emblematic of the vanity and credulousness that underpin a certain kind of faux-­worldly posturing.

The Colloquies were almost universally read within the grammar-­school curriculum of the sixteenth century, and have elsewhere left their trace in Hamlet. To recognise the allusion to “The Exorcism” enables us further to appreciate Polonius’s ridiculousness: he thinks he is humouring Hamlet, but fails to spot an allusion to this most elementary of texts. More materially, Hamlet’s clouds are a tacit reaffirmation that his encounter with the Ghost was not, as he had speculated before staging The Mousetrap, the product of his “foul imaginations”. Basking in the afterglow of what he takes to be his victory over Claudius, Hamlet asserts that—like Erasmus’s Polus—he is in charge of himself and the events unfolding around him. One who only apprehends images in the clouds because he enjoys exercising his powers of invention, whose imagination is concomitantly under his control, and who only apprehends ghosts because they are actually there.

Behind the mutable shapes in the clouds imagined by Erasmus and Hamlet lies a body of aesthetic doctrine centred on what the art historian H.W. Janson dubbed the “image made by chance”. Janson’s chance images consist of the shapes or forms discovered in rock formations, trees, clouds, or blots of paint thrown at random onto a wall that have been a staple of writing on creativity and human perception since antiquity. They are attested in a range of ancient sources, of which Aristotle’s On Dreams is probably the most influential: here, dreaming is compared to the experience of “seeing” centaurs in the clouds. To different ends, cloud images are also discussed by Cicero, Lucretius, Pliny, and Philostratus the Athenian. In due course, they became a topos for renaissance and early modern writers and painters. Sometimes, they were taken to be an example of lusus naturae, or what Paula Findlen has called the “jokes of nature”—such as the likenesses of shellfish elaborately preserved in rocks far from the sea—that humanist natural historians delighted in finding within the created world. Generally, however, they were not interpreted as expressions of either natural chance or the Creator’s sense of humour. They were instead seen to arise from individual acts of perception and imaginative projection. As Erasmus’s example suggests, such images could therefore resemble spiritual apparitions. But within the aesthetic tradition, the ability to discern images in the natural world—and in particular in the clouds—was taken to be consonant with the elevated mental powers demanded by those exercises in poetry and the visual arts that go beyond the mere appearances of things.

In this connection, the indispensable reference point is Philostratus the Athenian’s Vita Apollonii, a life of the wandering Pythagorean sage, Apollonius of Tyana. In the course of Apollonius’s dialogue with Damis on the nature of painting, Philostratus turns the discussion to “those things which are used to appear upon the separating of Clouds, as Centaurs, and Hirco-­cervi [i.e., goat-­stags], nay even Wolves and Horses”. He concludes that these likenesses are not the creations of the deity, but projections of the observer’s imagination. Furthermore, and as Apollonius asserts in a later portion of the dialogue, it is this natural power of imagination (rather than the attempt slavishly to imitate the physical manifestations of nature) that allows great artists to represent the world in its complexity. This idea, and its association with the image made by chance, would have a lasting impact on aesthetic theory in and beyond the Italian Renaissance; as the disguised Polixenes relatedly insists to the unwitting Perdita, the “art itself is Nature”. (See figure 10, a detail from the first of the three St Sebastian paintings completed by Andrea Mantegna.) However, Philostratus differs from his later readers on one important point. Unlike the skills practised by the draughtsman, he grants that the imaginative faculty is available to everyone; the Renaissance, by contrast, insisted that the ability imaginatively to transfigure the world belonged to the artist or poet alone, a figure often infused with a version of the Neoplatonic furor poeticus. Only he could have the vision to see what is in the clouds or the uncut block of stone, and only he could use this insight to produce works of art that represent the true aspect of nature. Indeed, and as Mantegna’s example might suggest, one consequence of these doctrines was that renaissance artists devised their works precisely to ensure the display of their inventive virtuosity.

Before continuing, I want to address the pertinence of discussing Philostratus in connection with Shakespeare. His Vita Apollonii may have been a pagan cause célèbre in the more learned parts of continental Europe, but it may seem unlikely to have crossed the path of a grammar school boy and sometime actor from sixteenth-­century Warwickshire. Maybe, but the fact is that Shakespeare was familiar with other works attributed to Philostratus. For instance, in Lucrece the elaborate ekphrasis of a painting depicting the fall of Troy (a far better correlative for Lucrece’s grief than Aeneas or Pyrrhus prove to be for Hamlet) shows Shakespeare following the advice of Erasmus’s De copia in drawing on a collection of Imagines then assumed to be the work of the same author as the Vita Apollonii. There is another distinctly Philostratean moment in Antony and Cleopatra. Although written sometime after Hamlet, Shakespeare here uses images in the clouds in exactly the sense that they appear in the Vita Apollonii—something the landscape painter Alexander Cozens noticed as long ago as the 1780s. In the aftermath of his defeat at Actium and apparent betrayal by Cleopatra, Antony feels his identity dissolving. He figures this loss through clouds that seem “dragonish”, and that resemble “a bear or lion, / A forked mountain, or blue promontory”: “That which is not a horse, even with a thought / The rack dislimns and makes it instinct / As water is in water”. With audacious simplicity, Shakespeare has Antony forsake his Roman identity, and ultimately his life, by assuming the projective imagination associated with Cleopatra and her Egyptian world—a world that is itself about to be consumed by the imperium of Augustan Rome. Be this as it may, we cannot say exactly how Shakespeare encountered the works of the Philostrati. One clue is provided by Baldwin’s indefatigable labours. Thomas Jenkins, principal schoolmaster in 1570s Stratford, had been educated at St John’s College, Oxford; St John’s was only founded in 1555, and Philostratus was one of the set authors laid down in its original statutes. Perhaps Jenkins shared features of his university reading with his pupils? We might also note that as the Philostrati were well known to the likes of Puttenham, Nashe, and Harvey, Shakespeare could easily have encountered them—or been prompted to explore them—later in life.

Although critics have occasionally noted the clouds with which Hamlet taunts Polonius in connection with the image made by chance, only Yves Peyré has invested the topic with any significance, remarking that “the Polonius-­Hamlet episode raises the issue of the connection between symbolism and realism, mimesis and imagination”. He is exactly right: these Philostratean clouds are a commonplace through which the audience infers the self-­satisfied limitations of the imagination that conceives of The Mousetrap, that interrupts its less-­than-­arresting progress, and that subsequently takes it to have been a forensic masterpiece. In understanding this, the key nexus of enquiry relates to enargeia (in Latin, variously translated as evidentia, illustratio, demonstratio, repraesentatio, imaginatio, and sub oculos subjectio), the quality of visually evocative intensity that the rhetorical theorists describe as a characteristic of the best poetry, visual art, and drama—and that they advise the orator to make his own if his oratory is to have the requisite persuasive or probative force. Although the events you narrate may be truthful, if your account of them lacks the ability to make your audience “see” the things, events, persons, or places you are describing as if they were directly before them, they will want for credibility. Your oration will therefore struggle to achieve its goals. The same ideas resonate through the rhetoric manuals of the sixteenth century. Above all, it is enargeia with which Hamlet must invest his adaptation of The Murder of Gonzago if it is to succeed in catching Claudius unawares. If it fails to put a compellingly verisimilar likeness of Claudius’s alleged crime before him, it will have no capacity to measure his innocence or guilt.

In assessing Hamlet’s poetic imagination, Quintilian again provides the most illuminating point of comparison. Not in his most sustained account of enargeia in book 8 of the Institutio, but in the discussion of the orator’s need to feel the emotions that he would arouse in his audience that appears in book 6. Specifically, in the portion of this that occurs immediately before the passage to which Shakespeare alludes in having Hamlet fixate on the lachrymose delivery, rather than the affective underpinnings, of the lead player’s Aeneas. I would normally paraphrase a prose excerpt of such length, particularly if written in Latin; but this passage of Quintilian is important enough to be quoted in full.

Given that one cannot force oneself to feel what one does not, how is the orator to proceed? We have already seen rhetorical teachers following Aphthonius in advising their students to recall affecting moments of poetry at such moments, and the frequency with which Quintilian turns to Virgil in illustrating enargeia suggests that he would agree. But Quintilian has an additional answer to the question: one can feel the emotions one wishes to arouse by using one’s imagination. Translating the Greek φαντασίας (phantasias) as “visions”, he notes that they comprise

the images through which absent things are represented to the mind so distinctly that we seem to see them with our eyes and to have them actually before us: the man who can best conceive such images will have the greatest power in moving the emotions. Some use the term euphantasiōtos of one with such powers of imagination, being one who can clearly conceive of things, voices, or actions with the exactitude of reality. And we may easily acquire this faculty as we desire it. When the mind is unoccupied or we entertain whimsical hopes and daydreams, the images of which I am speaking haunt us so that we seem to be on a journey, on a voyage, in a battle, addressing the masses, disposing of wealth which we do not possess—and not just thinking about these things, but actually doing them. Can we not turn this defect of our minds to our advantage? When I complain that a man has been murdered, am I not to bring before my eyes every plausible event that might have occurred as the murder took place? Will not the murderer suddenly burst forward, and the victim tremble, cry out, and beg for mercy or run away? Shall I not behold the one striking the blow, and the victim falling? Will not the blood, the paleness, the groans, and the final breath of the dying man be impressed on my mind? The result [of the orator imagining the murder with vivid clarity] will be enargeia, what Cicero terms illustratio and evidentia. This seems not so much to narrate something as to show it; our emotions will be stirred up no less powerfully than if we were present at the event itself.

This power to formulate and reformulate images of reality that have little or no relation to one’s lived experience is exactly that which Hamlet exhibits in his Philostratean apprehensions of cloud formations in differing animal forms—just he has implied it in his capacity for changing the metaphors through which he beholds and describes the world around him.

Valuable though this passage of Quintilian is in excavating the origins and coordinates of the nephological exchange between Hamlet and Polonius, how does it help us to make sense of the exchange as it functions in 3.2? In the first instance, Shakespeare uses it to show that Hamlet does have the mental wherewithal to invest an oration or poem or play with the visual qualities required for it to succeed. Second, Shakespeare uses it to emphasise that rather than employ his imagination to make The Mousetrap something that might convincingly have dramatized Claudius’s crime, Hamlet has been content: (i) to add a short speech to the play that only approximates the circumstances of Old Hamlet’s death as narrated by the Ghost; (ii) to fixate on the misguided notion that acting can on its own serve as a mirror of nature; (iii) to use his powers of imaginative transformation to hide from himself the truth not only that his plan is a bad one, but that it fails. Third, Shakespeare uses it to underscore that Hamlet still cannot feel the horror of his father’s murder as narrated by the Ghost. Just as hearing Aeneas’s speech to Dido fails to generate in Hamlet a compelling likeness of pietas and patrilineality, so in adapting The Murder of Gonzago he cannot bring himself to imagine the emotions that ought naturally to be his in virtue of his name—because to imagine them would be to concede that they are not already there. Without such emotions or the ability to fabricate them, his attempts at rhetorical and dramatic forms of enargeia are non-­starters.

Such shortcomings are all the starker in the face of rhetorical skills at the disposal of his older family members. Witness the brilliance with which his mother evokes the “muddy death” of Ophe­lia (4.7.165–82)—a description that would provide occasion for innumerable ekphrases, of which Millais’s painting is only the most famous. Or consider his uncle’s shrewd flattery of Laertes’s fencing, employing the topic of testimony to help manoeuvre the headstrong young man into line with a plan for killing off their mutual enemy. Claudius begins by evoking the likeness of a visiting Norman knight, and does so by drawing on the Aristotelian topos of the projectively imagined centaur:

Here was a gentleman of Normandy–

I have seen myself, and serv’d against, the French,

And they can well on horseback, but this gallant

Had witchcraft in’t. He grew unto his seat,

And to such wondrous doing brought his horse

As had he been incorps’d and demi-­natur’d

With the brave beast. So far he topp’d my thought

That I in forgery of shapes and tricks

Come short of what he did. (4.7.81–89)

Like Cleopatra’s Antony, Claudius figures this distinguished equestrian as nature’s piece against fancy. Immediately, Laertes recognises him as Lamord, “the brooch indeed / And gem of all the nation” (4.7.90–92). The identity and authority of his witness established along with his own ethos as a reporter, Claudius delivers his testimonial of Laertes’s superior swordsmanship. He further claims (truthfully, for all we know) that Hamlet could only hear this praise with agitated envy. Claudius has Laertes exactly where he wants him.

An even better example of a narration appropriately infused with enargeia is the one in which the Ghost describes Old Hamlet’s murder. As discussed in chapter 3, the Ghost structures his account according to the principles of judicial oratory, and closely follows the strictures of Quintilian and Erasmus in forcing Hamlet to behold both the circumstances of his father’s death and the sufferings endured by his father’s spirit in the afterlife. The Ghost reveals that Claudius is responsible for Old Hamlet’s death, along with how, where, when, why, and with what help he killed him. It also employs a wealth of circumstantial detail so that Hamlet can imagine a compellingly pictorial image of events: “thy uncle stole / With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial”, poured it in “the porches of my ears”, where upon “swift as quicksilver it courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body, / And with a sudden vigour it doth posset / And curd, like eager droppings into milk”. Old Hamlet’s blood having literally curdled, his skin “a most instant tetter bark’d about, / Most lazar-­like, with vile and loathsome crust / All my smooth body” (1.5.59–73). The image is expertly turned, and is intensified by the Ghost’s post-­mortem trip to Purgatory: “Cut off in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d, / No reck’ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head. / O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!” (1.5.75–80). Surely Hamlet can “see” Claudius’s crime taking place before him; the presence alongside him of his father’s spectre affirms the powerfully personal nature of the vision.

Examined more closely, the Ghost’s words show him working hard for his enargeia. Could his sin really have blossomed while he slept? No, but we license the hyperbole with minimal difficulty. Likewise, although it is possible to imagine Old Hamlet’s spirit looking down with horror on the “vile and loathsome crust” covering the body that it had until recently called home, it cannot possibly have seen the poison course around Old Hamlet’s veins or seen his blood inwardly thicken like spoiled milk. Even if the Ghost has made toxicological enquiries after Old Hamlet’s death and now understands how hebenon attacks its victims, this description is an imaginative fiction. It as such closely follows the advice laid out in the passage of Quintilian quoted above. Delivering it to Hamlet’s ears, the Ghost intends his description to stir Hamlet’s inner senses and thence his vindictive emotions. A fair and artful enough way to proceed, making the best of a potentially difficult assignment.

The real challenge to the integrity of the Ghost’s verba—that is, to the proximity of the res they represent in such startling form—is that on his own account, Old Hamlet was asleep when he was murdered. He then died immediately, and his still embodied spirit cannot therefore have witnessed what happened to him. Perhaps the afterlife has afforded the Ghost the opportunity to unearth the rudiments of Old Hamlet’s demise by seeking the testimony of his purgatorial brethren. Perhaps he has been able to learn no more than that Claudius was responsible (after, say, overhearing one of the new king’s self-­implicating asides) and that poison was his weapon of choice. Realizing that he will not have long to converse with Hamlet and that he will need to grab the young man’s attention quickly if he is to be credible, he must nevertheless push such uncertainties from his mind. Hamlet needs to hear a coherent, plausible, clearly articulated, and affecting version of events—exactly what the techniques of humanist rhetoric offer to provide.

Beyond making use of his well-­honed imagination, might not the Ghost also have followed the advice of the handbooks in turning to poetry and drama when making his narration as visually expressive as possible? In particular, knowing that Old Hamlet was poisoned by Claudius but not knowing exactly how this happened, might not the Ghost have attempted to vivify the event by leaning on an arresting dramatic poisoning, such as that of a sleeping Duke having a fatal substance poured into his ear during the Murder of Gonzago? The more so as the poisoner soon wins the fickle heart of the widowed Duchess? Another speculation, and an outlandish one at that—for one thing, nobody at court appears to recognise the Murder of Gonzago as familiar from either its dumb show or opening action—but read alongside the Ghost’s wider discourse of enargeia, it serves several purposes.

Most immediately, it helps to offer a way out of the Greg versus Dover Wilson debate (resuscitated more recently by Stanley Cavell) that respects the dramatic integrity of the Ghost’s narration, of the action surrounding the Murder of Gonzago, and of Claudius’s chapel scene confession: no, the Ghost’s testimony is not wholly accurate; no, the Mousetrap does not yield certain knowledge of Claudius’s guilt; no, we never learn exactly how Old Hamlet dies; yes, Claudius kills him with poison in his orchard. The details of Old Hamlet’s murder as passed on to Hamlet by the Ghost are designed to be realistic and to enflame Hamlet’s passions at the wrong done to his father, not to offer a historically defensible account of things as they actually happened. When Hamlet confronts Claudius with this image of his crime through the mediation of the adapted Murder of Gonzago, his reliance on the Ghost’s testimony means that the device wants both for captivating immediacy and pertinent circumstantial detail. Claudius does not recognise, or is able to affect not recognising, what he has seen in the dumb show, before rising in apparent distress once Hamlet deviates from the script by making Lucianus the Player King’s nephew. Hamlet’s willingness to take the Ghost’s word for it—not to interrogate his testimony, not to consider the emotional and evidential underpinnings on which it depends—enables him to frame the Mousetrap as a triumph, but also ensures that it fails to attain the ambitions he has for it. We might also recall that although the Mousetrap provokes Claudius into banishing Hamlet, he only resolves to have him killed after the murder of Polonius. No doubt to protect himself from meeting the same fate as his chief counsellor: “It had been so with us had we been there” (4.1.13). If Claudius recognises the image of his fratricide in the players’ action—if he sees that his nephew not only suspects him of murder, but that he knows its every detail—the clemency of his initial response would jar; for such a ruthlessly political animal, prudence would dictate that Hamlet should die as soon as possible. The conclusion is obvious. Claudius does not feel threatened by what he has seen.

If the Ghost thus muddies the waters of actuality in describing Old Hamlet’s demise, the rhetorical tradition would be unconcerned: the task of investing an oration with enargeia belongs to the business of elocutio rather than that of inventio, and is as such indifferent to truth or falsehood. Like the figures and tropes, enargeia adorns, enlivens, and makes more credible one’s compositions with victory alone in mind. It does so with a view to playing on the emotions of one’s audience so that they might more effectually be persuaded to do something—be that to convict or acquit a criminal, to commission a war, to grant a favour, to weep, to rejoice, to confess their guilt, or to resolve vengeance for a murdered family member. It must have claims to realism, but is no more bound to factual veracity than a daydream. And yet sixteenth-­century rhetorical theory ventures into unstable territory here. Erasmus, for instance, echoes the standard line that enargeia has no relation to questions of truth and falsity, but then proceeds to discuss it in the second book of his De copia—that is, the one concerned with the amplification of res, not of verba. If the substance of one’s compositions can be altered in the interests of affective power, and if such alternations can be admitted irrespective of their truth value, how to maintain the integrity and reliability of the rhetorical art? How to prevent it from becoming wholly instrumentalised, and from undoing the blithe confidence that only the virtuous man could aspire to true eloquence?

Circling back to Hamlet, we can see that although the Ghost may be working with solid rhetorical precedent when embroidering his account of Old Hamlet’s murder as fully as he can, his embroidery is of no use in Hamlet’s quest to hunt out Claudius’s innocence or guilt. There is a further and deeper strain of irony here: like the reconstruction of his father’s murder with which Hamlet has to work, Hamlet’s attempts to investigate Claudius’s involvement in his father’s death are themselves a pretence. He only pretends to treat as a conjecture (subject to confirmation by proofs) that which is, for him, a presumption: his uncle is guilty, and the conviction of it shapes the way in which he frames and interprets the action surrounding the play-­within-­the-­play. By giving the readers and spectators of Hamlet direct knowledge of Claudius’s guilt through his aside at 3.1.48–54 (“Oh heavy burden!”) and lengthier enumeration of his vices in the chapel scene, Shakespeare accentuates how little Hamlet actually knows. And, unlike Kyd’s Hieronimo, how little difference it would make if Hamlet were to have come by the evidence that he affects to pursue. We see and hear all that Hamlet sees and hears of Claudius and the Ghost, but cannot be sure that Hamlet hasn’t got Claudius wrong until Claudius himself tells us so. We worry. Unconcerned with questions of Claudius’s innocence or guilt, Hamlet carries on regardless. Or, rather, doesn’t. But his vindictive foot-­dragging does not stem from evidential doubts: as we saw in chapter 3, as soon as Hamlet hears of Claudius’s guilt, he believes it. It’s just that he does not feel anything like condign intensity when envisioning Claudius killing his father, and cannot therefore revenge.

Here, the Mousetrap comes into its own. It furnishes Hamlet with the opportunity to put such anxieties to bed by acquiring externally verifiable proof of the Ghost’s truthfulness, and by acquiring this in virtue of his skills as a forensic huntsman. Rather than struggling to find the words or deeds or opportunity to express that within which should be there but isn’t, he enjoys the sensation of outwitting Claudius in Old Hamlet’s name, before filing what he takes to be the public confirmation of his uncle’s guilt away in the appropriate part of the book and volume of his brain—to be recollected as and when necessary. His inner burden lifted, he is free to concern himself with the things that actually occupy his emotions: the presence of Claudius on the throne, and Gertrude’s act of maternal betrayal in putting him there. No matter that Hamlet’s forensics are as abject as his misconceived notions of dramatic poetry. He has no interest in how others might perceive events, and conducts his uncle’s trial as both prosecutor and judge. He is himself the only audience that matters. This is not simply a point of rhetorical or metatheatrical nicety. To grasp it fundamentally reshapes our understanding of what happens in Hamlet. Through the Mousetrap and Claudius’s response to it, the Ghost’s rhetorically embellished “word” is confirmed in the same breath that the things it represents—or, rather, misrepresents in what the Ghost takes to be a good cause—are consigned to oblivion.

So much for the Ghost’s deployment of enargeia and its unhappy consequences when transposed onto Hamlet’s putatively forensic field of enquiry. Before moving on, however, it’s worth pausing to emphasise something implicit in the preceding two paragraphs: this transposition would not have happened if the Ghost’s narration had actually succeeded in its goals. For all the formal mastery of the Ghost’s words, they fail to impress on Hamlet the vivid likeness of his father, his murder, or his ghost. Hamlet clings instead to the parting “remember me”. He has had the experience but missed the meaning. There will be no sudden illumination. Shortly after the Ghost addresses Hamlet a second time in the closet scene, Shakespeare underlines the point. Imagining his father’s spirit as a second Amphion—incidentally, the husband of Niobe and one of two brothers who regarded each other with some fractiousness—Hamlet praises it to Gertrude as a model orator: “Look you how pale he glares. / His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones, / Would make them capable” (3.4.125–26). If Old Hamlet’s ghost could move stones to feel and respond to its plight, what reactions might it bring about in Old Hamlet’s son and wife? None to speak of. Gertrude cannot see or hear the apparition, and although the Ghost tells Hamlet that its “visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.111), Hamlet admonishes it “not [to] look upon me, / Lest with this piteous action you convert / My stern effects”, so that “what I have to do / Will want true colour—tears perchance for blood” (3.4.127–30). As it happens, there are neither tears nor blood. Only another oddly misplaced idealization.

Hamlet’s responses to the Ghost thus reinforce the play’s suggestion that rhetoric can prove strangely redundant in the face of the world. Compare Barnardo’s artfully evocative scene-­setting as he prepares to describe the spectral presence seen around the Kronborg by the members of the night watch:

Last night of all,

When yond same start that’s westward from the pole,

Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven

Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,

The bell then beating one— (1.1.38–42)

Enargeia aplenty. But before either we or Horatio can hear any more, the apparition in the likeness of the dead King Hamlet looms forward in a spectacularly mute coup de théâtre. Even the best chosen words are overwhelmed by dramatic reality. Of course, dramatic realities do not always take such visible form: they can also arise from the inner disposition, emotions, and pre­occupations of a particular character. Or, to put it another way, although a vivid oration seeks to captivate and compel its audience with a visual image of what is being described, the member or members of that audience will generate that image in different ways. Hence the premium placed by classical and early modern rhetoric on decorum. That is, on understanding the dispositions of those you seek to move, the way these dispositions relate to you, and the way you relate to them; and then on finding ways of accommodating style of expression to subject matter. We might therefore say that Claudius is a better rhetorician than is the spirit of his deceased brother. He knows exactly how to tailor his words to suit his ambitions to Laertes’s state of mind, whereas the Ghost—caught up in the gravity of its own fate—takes no trouble to imagine what Hamlet might feel while hearing him speak.

Keeping questions of rhetorical decorum in mind, Hamlet’s failure or inability to react as the Ghost expects him to reveals something else about the nature of audience response to works of oratory, poetry, or (arguably) any expression of artistic endeavour that eschews homily or didacticism: namely, that the members of an audience are not neutral matter, waiting for their impressions to be shaped by the ingenuity and persuasive force of an orator, playwright, or poet. They are instead the possessors of interpretative and heuristic agency. The successful artist must be able to acknowledge and work with this state of affairs, even as he seeks to move his listeners, viewers, or readers in directions that would not otherwise be their own.

Shakespeare’s most forthright account of the issues at stake is found in the choric material that begins each act of Henry V. Here, the speakers enjoin the audience to employ “imaginary forces”, to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, to “Play with your fancies”, to “sit and see / Minding true things by what their mockeries be”, and “to behold in the quick forge and working-­house of thought” the places and events that sit behind the action of the play. Shakespeare reminds his audience of their duty imaginatively to reconfigure the action presented to them and thereby seeks to guide them in it—not least in discarding the superficialities of a London stage that can by no means resemble the field of Agincourt. Lucrece offers an equally illuminating case study. Looking up at the “skilful painting” of the fall of Troy hanging on the walls of the Collatine mansion, Lucrece reflects on how its creator had achieved such captivating immediacy:

For much imaginary work was there:

Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,

That for achilles’ image stood his spear,

Griped in an armed hand; himself behind

Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind:

A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head,

Stood for the whole to be imagined.

They key to this “imaginary work” is the synecdoche through which the painter achieves not only a winning economy of expression, but through which he implants an image of Achilles in “the eye of [the] mind”. For Achilles as for Agincourt, this works brilliantly well: an audience will be familiar enough with their conventional representation in words or through visual media to form a mental image of them that corresponds closely enough to that which the artist has in mind. If my Achilles has blue eyes and yours brown, no great matter; we all agree that he looks a bit like Brad Pitt. Subjective variety is incidental.

The problem for one using a work of art (a play, a drama, a narrative poem, even an enargetic oration) in order to test the truth of something is that without a framework of assumed cultural familiarity, the subjectivity of an individual’s response takes on radically more significance. One man’s prison is another man’s perfectly unexceptionable place to live. As Hamlet observes when wondering at the lead player’s stagecraft, a single dramatic performance might serve to “make mad the guilty and appal the free, / Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” (2.2.558–60). What price a mirror of universal virtue, vice, or actuality? If not instructed otherwise, different people will behold the same work of art in different ways. And how is an observer to discern the differences between an audience response of madness versus one that is appalled, confounded, or simply amazed? If drama and other forms of creative arts are a heuristic affair, then their appearance and affect will in large measure be determined by their audiences. To observe a dramatic performance thus resembles encountering a ghost: what one sees depends on the ideological and personal prismatics of one’s imaginative vision. No neoclassical speculum mundi here. As the Mousetrap itself makes abundantly clear, meaning is perspectival: Hamlet may find the confirmation he seeks, but Claudius and his court interpret things very differently. One might just as well conclude that those observing the action of a play, like those observing its observers, are predisposed to “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (4.5.10).


In concluding, it seems important to stress that although Shakespeare takes pains to establish and extend his depiction of Hamlet’s limitations as a poet, dramatist, and rhetorician, this depiction is not in itself his objective. Hamlet is no more a Snout or Bottom than he is a Holofernes or Armado. Instead, Shakespeare figures him as a character who represents—indeed, who satirizes—much of what is missing from late sixteenth-­century literary theory, and in the broader discursive world to which this literary theory belongs. A character who repeats received critical wisdom on decorum, imitation, mirrors, and the images of virtue and vice, but who can only repeat these things on account of his abstraction from the world of dramatic writing and performance. A character who, in the act of repeating and fetishizing the received critical wisdom, ultimately reveals its poverty. Yes, Hamlet slips in proposing that actors rather than plays in the round hold up the mirror to nature. But the slip indexes Shakespeare’s claim—advanced against Lodge, against Nashe, against Greene, against Jonson—that such doctrines depend on ignorance or partiality. They demand that one shut one’s eyes to what theatrical performance actually entails.

Shakespeare’s disavowal of the neoclassical poetics trumpeted in the theoretical literature might thus seem to share some unlikely common ground with the Puritan anti-­theatricalist Stephen Gosson. For Gosson, the notion that drama could hold up a morally instructive reflection of virtue or vice was undercut by realities of the theatrical experience: “At Stage Plaies . . . the worste sorte of people have the hearing of it, which in respect of their ignorance, of their fickleness, and of their furie, are not to bee admitted in place of judgement”. On this account, the morally improving theory of drama is spurious: watching a play is entirely alien to the rational deliberation demanded of moral or legal judgement. As far as Gosson goes, Shakespeare would not perhaps disagree. It’s just that he also disavows the pious certainties on which Gosson’s censure depends. Neither Hamlet nor its centrally located inset play is concerned to offer up the illusion of reality, be that illusion naturalistic or moralized. Instead, Hamlet’s adaptation of the Murder of Gonzago is at the heart of Hamlet’s determination to capture—and to represent—the experience of a world used to comprehending itself through different sorts of fiction.


As a coda to the main body of this chapter, we should note that Shakespeare’s audacity in using Hamlet comprehensively to upend the humanist order of poetics did not go unnoticed. It was, for example, held up to ridicule by the author or authors of the third and final Parnassus play, produced at St John’s College, Cambridge (the alma mater of Greene and Nashe) in 1601 or 1602; namely, The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, printed in 1606 as The Returne from Pernassus; Or, the Scourge of Simony.

Towards the end of this play, the audience encounter fictionalized versions of the two most famous actors on the contemporary London stage: the tragedian Richard Burbage and the clown William Kempe, both of whom were prominently associated with Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The professional actors are about to audition two down-­at-­heel university men in Studioso and Philomusus, but before doing so they reflect on the respective conditions of drama as practised in London and Cambridge. Observing that “these scholars . . . oftentimes have a good conceite in a parte”, Burbage and Kemp nonetheless agree that their technical accomplishments are limited: university actors find it very hard to walk and talk at the same time, and thus “never speak but at a stile, a gate, or a ditch, where a man can go no further”. Presumably, these lines were delivered by students moving as energetically as possible around the theatrical space available to them.

The Burbage figure reflects that these shortcomings could be corrected by instruction, and adds that “it may bee besides [that] they will be able to pen a part”. Kempe is unconvinced, and in the most famous passage of the play, asserts that university men can no more write for the stage than they can act:

Few of the university pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphoses, and talke too much of Proserpina & Jupitter. Why heres our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, I and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the Poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him beray his credit.

This Kempe believes that both Ovid and the Metamorphoses are authors, and is thereby portrayed as arrogantly presumptuous—suffering from the delusion that he is in a position to judge the compositions of his humanistically educated betters. His St John’s College audience will no doubt have laughed its appreciation. For their part, literary historians have long tried to recover the detail that sits behind the humour, cudgelling their brains in the attempt to determine the identity of the “purge” reportedly given to Jonson by Shakespeare. The two leading candidates are the characters of Ajax in Troilus and Cressida and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. On a different tack, J.B. Leishman proposed that the “purge” was Dekker’s Satiromastix, which was performed at the Globe Theatre by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men; Leishman calls them “Shakespeare’s Theatre” and “Shakespeare’s Men”, so much so that any of their productions would be in some sense Shakespearean. All are plausible theories. To them can now be added the character of Hamlet the haplessly humanistic man of the theatre, as played—if Scoloker and the authors of Eastward Ho! are to be believed—with manic dynamism by Burbage. This Hamlet is a figure who is made to cleave to, and thereby to expose the inadequacy of, the self-­satisfied poetics trumpeted in Every Man Out.

But the greatest import of these lines has less to do with Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Poetomachia than it does with the self-­image of the university men in relation to the professional players of the metropolitan stage. In Hamlet—which, if the Q1 title page is to be believed, was performed at both Oxford and Cambridge in the period from 1600 to 1603—the guardians of learned drama were confronted with the opinions, and skills, of one whose post–grammar school education seems to have taken place in and around the theatre. One, furthermore, who made artfully dramatic capital out of their ideas about dramatic poetry, and of the cultural conceit with which these ideas were maintained. One whose Hamlet is a university man given to talking “too much of Proserpina & Jupitter” (and Hyperion, Hercules, Mars, Mercury, etc.), and who arrogates to himself competence not only in playwriting, but in acting and stage direction—who gets the class of things dramatic repeatedly, if sonorously, wrong. Such affronts could not go unanswered, and in having their Will Kempe outspokenly champion Shakespeare against their own sort, the St John’s men got to enjoy the fruits of their own wit while exposing the impoverishment of Shakespeare’s dramatic aspirations: only a semi-­literate clown best known for his jig could rank the writings of Shakespeare above those of the elite.

Except the joke would turn out to be on them. Those responsible for the Parnassus plays would surely bemoan the fact that their work has endured not on account of its vindication of university life, but because it witnesses Shakespeare and the dynamics of the literary and dramatic scene in late Eliza­bethan London. Indeed, it has sometimes been read straight, as a perhaps grudging tribute to Shakespeare’s genius from the upper portions of the social and cultural hierarchy. By contrast, Shakespeare would have understood—no doubt amusedly. As he has Hamlet illustrate through his failures with the Mousetrap, works of drama should not be taken to function as straightforwardly didactic or forensic tools. The responses of their audiences cannot be taken for granted. In the attempt of the final Parnassus play to belittle the Shakespearean project, Shakespeare’s critique of humanist poetics finds the unlikeliest of affirmations.

Chapter five

Hamlet as Philosopher

Fingunt simul creduntque.

Tacitus, Annales

Whatever else has been said about Hamlet’s performances as a historian, a poet, a revenger, a friend, or a son, his status as a thinker has been affirmed as all but an article of faith. He is Shakespeare’s intellectual, whose philosophical depth militates against vengeance, who sees through the manifest corruption of personal and political life in Elsinore, and whose penetrating vision yokes together optimism about the potential of the human condition with a sort of existential nausea. There is a certain self-­verifying circularity here: because Hamlet’s philosophical nature is a given, he is frequently cast as a canvas on which a given critic can sketch what she takes a philosopher to be; the more vivid or unusual the sketch, the more compelling the affirmation of the philosophical nature with which Shakespeare has invested his character. In this chapter, I present a different case. When considered alongside the theories and practices of early modern philosophy, Hamlet emerges as a thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-­deceit. He feints at profundity but is unwilling and unable to journey beyond his own fears, hopes, blind spots, and preoccupations. But given the world in which Hamlet is confined, I also want to suggest that this could not be other than it is. We are invited by the play not so much to judge Hamlet as to look beyond such judgements to the shortcomings of philosophy as the early moderns understood, taught, and occasionally sought to reform it. For Shakespeare, dramatic poetry has the capacity to represent something of the human condition as it really is, replete with its illusions, delusions, and frustrated desire to understand; philosophy, whatever its humanist (or, in some cases, anti-­humanist) proponents might assert, can do no such thing.

The design of this chapter is thus threefold. First, to sketch out the rudiments of philosophy as the early moderns understood it. Second, to establish a dialogue between these models of philosophy and the text of Hamlet. Third, to argue that in and through the figure of Hamlet, Shakespeare exposes not only the limitations of humanist philosophy but the inadequacy of most attempts to supplant it at the cusp of the seventeenth century. After offering a brief overview of the categories into which early modern philosophy was divided, I examine Hamlet’s efforts to understand the nature of the universe to which he belongs, the status of humankind within it, and the nature of being. The key passages are his lengthy first exchange with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his fourth soliloquy (“To be, or not to be”). From here, this chapter moves to consider the principles according to which Hamlet believes that human beings should regulate their behaviour, and looks afresh at how he applies these principles in practice. After probing Hamlet’s deliberations on vengeance—the most direct expression of which comes as late in the play as the chapel scene—it follows his turn towards questions of religion and of theology, and especially towards those of providence. One of the many remarkable features of Hamlet’s attachment to providence is that he takes it not to be the harmonious but largely inscrutable force through which the universe was created and now operates, but as something to be invoked and appropriated in service of his moral deliberations. Like that other famous Wittenberger of the late Elizabethan stage, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Hamlet nurses a self-­image of overweening intellectual prowess, but cannot escape either his egoism or the triviality of his learning in seeking to proclaim it. On the one hand, Shakespeare’s dramaturgy indicts early modern models of philosophy; on the other, it reveals Hamlet’s inability to make meaningful the part of the philosopher in either its humanistic or non-­humanistic forms.


Following Aristotle’s lead, the early moderns arranged philosophy under two principal headings: first, speculative or contemplative philosophy (that is, theory); second, practical or moral philosophy. We have already met the practical or moral variant in the form of the ethics, oeconomics, and politics ­discussed in chapter 1, and it was this that most captured the imagination and attention of humanist teachers and writers, committed as they were to versions of the active life in which learning should have immediate and obvious utility. For example, when explaining that a full humanist education should include instruction in philosophy, Elyot and Ascham dilate on moral philosophy at length but make no mention at all of speculative philosophy. Of course, and like everyone else in Elsinore, Hamlet both inhabits and is a product of this humanist culture. But he is also a critic of it, professing himself concerned with the way things are rather than the way they appear to be, and addressing questions of the utmost theoretical abstraction in an attempt to discern the truth about the composition of “heaven and earth”.

Hamlet thus does a more than passable impersonation of one concerned with speculative philosophy. Like philosophy as a whole, this was divided in two: natural philosophy and metaphysics. Natural philosophy was concerned with understanding the created world, including the place of humankind (and of the human soul) within it. Although for the most part a non-­experimental enterprise, it is the parent of what we now think about as “science”. Metaphysics had three chief aspects. First, it was a science of being; second, it was “first philosophy”, the grounding on which the principles and axioms of all other learning depend; third, it was a divine science. As its third aspect suggests, metaphysics was readily assimilated to versions of the Christian worldview—chiefly as the study of how things had been created in their essential forms by God, and of what those essences could in themselves be said to consist. Even so, most writers and thinkers in later sixteenth-­century England were content to cede divinity (and with it the science of being) to religious belief—a domain in which faith, scripture, and questions of individual salvation took precedence over a rational understanding of the creator or his attributes. If their vigorous attachment to the active life left any energy for the study of speculative philosophy, it was directed towards natural philosophical enquiry.

What early modern moral and speculative philosophy had in common was that they were at root textual enterprises. Just as moral philosophers turned to the De officiis and Nicomachean Ethics for their starting point and conceptual framework, so practitioners of natural philosophy turned to authorities including Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, Pliny, and Plato, but most of all to the commentary accumulated in and around the Aristotelian corpus; by the same token, Aristotle continued to provide the framework and terminology of metaphysics well into the seventeenth century. Early modern natural philosophers and metaphysicians worked with traditional learning in mind. Further, they did so with their commonplace books to hand. As I hope to make clear below, Shakespeare held that the textual nature of early modern speculative philosophy marked it out as indistinguishable from the expedient fictions of Ciceronian moral philosophy; both modes of proceeding underscored the indifference of the humanist project to things as they really are.

Having briefly outlined the fundamentals of early modern philosophy, I should acknowledge a difficulty in writing about the interpenetrative relationship between Hamlet and the humanist philosophical discourse of the long sixteenth century. Put simply, Shakespeare did not attend university and was not as familiar with metaphysics and natural philosophy as he was with moral philosophy or the linguistic arts of the trivium. For us as for Shakespeare himself, the compendious La Primaudaye makes up much of the shortfall. But I want to suggest that the philosophical character of Hamlet and Hamlet can most revealingly be comprehended alongside a text that, to the best of my knowledge, has never sustainedly been read in this connection: Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae. I also hope to establish that the De consolatione is crucial to an appreciation of the dramatic and philosophical dynamics of Hamlet as a whole—that Shakespeare engages with its elegant Latin complexities as creatively and as critically as he does with Virgil, Seneca, Ovid, or Marlowe; further, that he engages just as closely with the local detail of its language as he does with its animating doctrines of fortune, pretence, providence, and philosophy. The De consolatione attempts to synthesize the vicissitudes of fortune and history within the order of divine providence, and to offer a framework through which to understand both temporal and eternal living. It is as such a counterweight to the exclusively providentialist claims of Augustinian—and, in time, Calvinist—orthodoxy, where divine ordinance governs everything directly. But I argue that for the Shakespeare of Hamlet, even the Boethian account presumes too much. Fortune alone has claims to reality; providence is the child of wishful or deluded thinking.

Be all this as it may, can we show that Shakespeare was actually either exposed to or familiar with the De consolatione? There are no easy answers here, and there is no external evidence to suggest Shakespeare’s engagement with Boethius. Then again, the same is true of Virgil, Seneca, Ovid, Marlowe, Cicero, Quintilian, and the rest: Shakespeare left no guiding scholia in the fashion of a Ben Jonson. In each case, we are reliant on what our scholarship equips us to discern from Hamlet itself. To take one obvious but far from conclusive example, the wheel of fortune—that most Boethian of literary and visual topoi—is invoked both by Hamlet and by the visiting player in the person of Aeneas. What can be ventured with quantifiable certainty is that although the De consolatione was in many senses the text of the English Middle Ages, it remained a grammar school staple (like the De officiis, it had the virtue of inculcating good moral habits along with excellent Latin style) well into the sixteenth century; as such, Shakespeare is likely to have been exposed to it in the course of his education. Although my best guess is that Shakespeare read Boethius’s text in its original Latin, there were two English renderings of it before the famous translation by Elizabeth I, while Chaucer’s Boece appeared in every edition of his works from 1532 onwards. Writing in the 1580s, Sidney could feel confident that the form and content of the De consolatione would be understood widely enough to support one of his arguments in defence of imaginative writing. He had a good ear, and there is no reason to suppose that his confidence was misplaced.

The Good, the Bad, and the Boethian

In the course of his first meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet joins them in ironically masculine banter about their inability to dominate the proverbially fickle, and feminine, figure of “Fortune”. Rather than placing themselves on her “cap” or the “soles of her shoe”, they reside “in the middle of her favours”. As they wink at one another, “Faith, her privates we” (2.2.224–34). Masquerading as men of the world, the three university friends toy with the commonplace that she is a “strumpet” (2.2.236), and the audience smiles along with them: unless, as seems unlikely, they have been allowed to precede Laertes to Paris, strumpets are to them a matter of book learning and eager supposition. Next, Hamlet wonders of his friends how they have managed to offend Fortune such that “she sends you to prison hither”. Answering their incredulity, he explains that the “prison” he has in mind is Denmark itself. When Rosencrantz counters that “We think not so, my lord”, Hamlet is unperturbed. He continues “Why, then ’tis none for you; for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison” (2.2.240–51). These words invert Richard II’s attempt to “compare / This prison where I live unto the world”. They have also attracted a good deal of attention as the embodiment of relativism (the view that everything is equally true or valid) or scepticism (the view that everything is equally unknowable), both of which are in some sense expressive of Hamlet’s status as the herald of subjective individualism.

With his robust suspicion of the obscure or philosophically vaulting, Harold Jenkins pours cold water on such ideas—perhaps unexpectedly, by emphasising their congruity with Montaigne. In Florio’s translation, one of his essays is titled “That the taste of goods or evilles doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them”, and Jenkins uses this to propose that Hamlet’s point is merely that many experiences are de gustibus: that what tastes good to one person tastes bad to another. In this instance, Jenkins’s commonsensicality leads him astray. Unlike Montaigne, Hamlet does not mention the taste of good or bad, but questions the existence of good and bad in themselves as anything more than a state of mind. Jenkins is right that versions of the thought are commonplace, but for the Stoic or for many streams of Christian moral philosophy from Boethius onwards, to cultivate the right disposition and habits of mind was to free oneself from the shackles of one’s worldly, and corporeal, existence. As the essayist William Cornwallis puts it, “the making things good or ill [is] equally in our choise as the being good or ill . . . the order of our life [is] disordered by giving way to the qualities of our affections; & as we loose ground in the right managing of our selves, the other gets”. To take the preeminent Boethian example of what such beliefs might mean in practice, properly to understand the nature of providence and the strumpet Fortuna is to understand that imprisonment is neither a constraint nor a privation, but something that should be welcomed as a prompt to the full realization of one’s inner virtue. In Elizabeth I’s faithful but occasionally clumsy translation of the De consolatione, Lady Philosophy wonders of the prisoner (bemoaning his incarceration and loss of status in the world) “How many be there, supposest thou, that would think them nearest heaven, if scraps of thy fortune hap to their share? This place which thou thy banishment callest, is the inhabitants’ country. So, nothing is Wretched but when it is thought so; and blessed is all luck that haps with sufferer’s ease”.

In refining our sense of what is philosophically and dramatically at stake between Hamlet and his university coevals, the final portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene serves as an excellent guide. Here, the kindly old shepherd, Meliboe, expounds to Calidore the wisdom by which he conducts his affairs:

It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,

That maketh wretch or happie, rich or poore:

For some, that hath abundance at his will,

Hath not enough, but wants in greatest store;

And other, that hath litle, askes no more,

But that litle is both rich and wise.

For wisedome is most riches; fooles therefore

They are, which fortunes doe by vowes devise,

Sith each unto himself his life may fortunize.

This has claims to a certain sententious eloquence. But Spenser soon clarifies that it is too pat—too far removed from the moral and natural landscapes that Meliboe inhabits. Calidore hears it out less for its own qualities than because he is smitten with Meliboe’s foster daughter, Pastorella. Shortly thereafter, Meliboe and all those he values are captured by brigands against whom they are defenceless without the martial prowess of Calidore—absent hunting, fittingly enough. For all the piety of the conviction to which Meliboe gives voice, the brigands kill him before Calidore can come to the rescue.

Like The Faerie Queene, the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet turns received contemptus mundi wisdom on its head. By invoking Boethian philosophical detachment, Hamlet implies that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lesser sorts of beings—not because they are deaf to the virtuous teaching of Lady Philosophy and her disciples, but because they cannot comprehend his reasons for discarding Boethian moral doctrine. That is, for believing his homeland to be a prison and feeling cast down by this state of affairs. For the student of Hamlet, the question is now whether this dissonance simply belongs to Hamlet’s antic disposition or whether it should be understood as part of a more substantial point about Hamlet’s philosophical acumen. One clue is found in the fact that Hamlet not only inverts an argument with a long genealogy in moral philosophy, but that he applies it to the realm of speculative philosophy. He purports to describe Denmark’s state of being—what it “is”, or at least what it “is” to him—rather than how it seems to him and might seem different to others. We might, with Boethius and the Stoics, reasonably discuss whether being imprisoned should be understood as a good, bad, or indifferent thing. But it is an altogether different matter to ­assert that whether or not something is, in fact, a prison depends on one’s opinion of the matter. Of course, Denmark-­the-­prison is on one level just another example of Hamlet’s determination to make his subordinates accede to the metaphors through which he represents, and perhaps apprehends, the world. If a cloud can be a camel, a weasel or a whale, then Claudian Denmark can be a prison—the more so as Hamlet, even before the Ghost’s revelations, finds it such a disagreeable place. True enough, but far too limiting. I would like to propose that Hamlet suggests something more fundamental about his attitude to the world: for him, and despite his professed commitment to the way things really are, the nature of things is defined by the ways in which he imagines them. Further, that Hamlet’s association of fortune and imprisonment suggests something irreducibly derivative about many of these imaginations: they have their origins in his schoolroom reading. In their turn, these imaginations are governed by little more substantial than whim; here, as so often throughout the play, by Hamlet’s urge to one-­upmanship.

Rosencrantz’s response is typically Boethian. If Hamlet feels that Denmark is a prison, it must be on account of his vanity and worldly desires overcoming his better, and more virtuous, judgement: “Why, then your ambition makes it one”. No doubt realising that he might have gone too far in prodding the disaffected son of Denmark’s previous king and the current monarch’s nominated heir, Rosencrantz hastens to qualify his assertion, explaining that what he really means to say is that Denmark is “too narrow for your mind”. Hamlet’s response shows a full comprehension of what “ambition”, for him, might comprise: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams” (2.2.252–56). It is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, because it is thus Hamlet rather than his prospective interrogators who introduces the subject of kingship to the conversation. Second, because Hamlet begins to say something of what he truly feels: he desires sovereignty over his country and his mental life—one way or another, the ability to count himself a king. What is more, in writing these lines, Shakespeare has Hamlet continue to riff the vocabulary and assumptions of Boethius’s De consolatione—specifically, of book 2, in which the prisoner first has to confront his vanity and self-­regard. For Lady Philosophy, one starting point of wisdom is to acknowledge that the earth is but a pinprick (punctum) when set against the vastness of the cosmos, just as temporality (and with it even the most abiding sorts of renown) is as nothing when compared to the infinite spaces of eternity (aeternitatis infinita spatia). Fully to comprehend the insignificance of one’s worldly existence not only enables one to see that imprisonment is no more confining than everyday life, but also frees the mind to soar across the entire province of moral and natural-­speculative learning—the province, that is, of the true philosopher.

In the centuries after Boethius wrote, an attachment to the capacity of the human mind to transcend the circumstances of its embodiment animated both the monastic ideal and the optimistic anthropology associated with the Neoplatonism of Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and—in accentuated form—Giordano Bruno. As summed up in Cornwallis’s essay “Of Knowledge”, the “ample territories” of the properly administered mind “stretcheth even to the heavens”. Hamlet yearns for this form of freedom and of self-­control, for the ability at once to regulate and to go beyond the feelings of which he is a prisoner: of consuming anger and frustration that he is not king of Denmark, and of shame that his feelings are not what he believes they should be after his encounter with the Ghost. By having Hamlet desire to be “a king of infinite space” (emphasis mine) Shakespeare simply and brilliantly indexes why this cannot come to pass. The Boethian philosopher attains enlightenment through self-­abnegation and the renunciation of worldly desires. Likewise, the Neoplatonic magus welcomes with humility the insight that only an eternal, infinite, immutable, incorporeal, and all-­powerful being like God could conceive of or encompass the created universe in its entirety. Philosophy gives you wings, not a throne. And yet Hamlet is so preoccupied with the question of kingship that he can only imagine himself regnant: ruling over his notional universe as its monarch. His resemblance to Marlowe’s Tamburlaine—for whom the climb “after knowledge infinite” can only end in “The sweet fruition of an earthly crowne”—is surely not accidental.

Even as he speaks, Hamlet realises that he has gone too far. He immediately reverts to the camouflage of his antic disposition: he could feel confident in his capacity to rule over a universe in a nutshell but for the fact that, like any melancholic, he has “bad dreams” that impair the operations of his discursive faculties (2.2.256). But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not to be diverted, and continue to probe Hamlet’s “ambition” while simultaneously trying to look as if they are engaging him in disinterested conversation. Bad dreams, Guildenstern responds, “indeed are ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream” (2.2.257–59). Ambition, for Lady Philosophy, is an insubstantial diversion from reality and the pursuit of virtue. Perhaps saying so will be enough to goad Hamlet into making explicit why his ambitions are different, and thereby disclose what they are. Not an unreasonable assumption, but having just ventured close to revealing himself, Hamlet has none of it. He puts the oneiric ball firmly back in his inquisitors’ court, proposing that “A dream itself is but a shadow”—that is, a delusion or misconceived likeness of something (2.2.260).

Insensible that Hamlet has put his guard back up, Rosencrantz tries further to draw him out with the contention that he “hold[s] ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow” (2.2.261–62). Hamlet chooses this moment to quibble on the sense of “ambition”, and to reduce Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stratagems to logic-­chopping absurdity: “Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows” (2.2.263–64). As beggars and the impoverished must by definition want for ambition (qua things to covet or flaunt), they are the only truly substantial beings; as kings and heroes are by definition ambitious (arguably, in all senses of the term) and as ambition is but the shadow of reality, so kings and heroes must be the shadows of beggars. There is more than a hint of ironized snobbery here. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ambitious commoners, and must accommodate themselves to others in service of their ambition; Hamlet, a prince fashioning himself as a “Beggar” (2.2.272), emphatically does not consider himself their shadow. Either way, Hamlet’s sophistry is well executed. Game over, he suggests that they all move on: “Shall we to th’court? For by my fay [i.e. credit], I cannot reason” (2.2.264–65). Perhaps not, but even if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were duller and less perceptive than they are, they would be hard-­pressed to miss Hamlet’s implication that they are out of their depth. Although the three young men belong to the same university cohort, the prince is likewise determined to remind his friends that he numbers them amongst his “servants” (2.2.268).

One need not go the full Tom Stoppard to discern something unappealing in Hamlet’s behaviour. Yes, he is irritated at himself for giving too much away before beginning to suspect that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s discourse on ambition is of neither an amicable nor a disinterested cast. Yes, he has to endure the questioning of low-­born classmates whom he takes to be less bright than himself. But his response to them, like his thoughts on whether or not Denmark qualifies as a prison, reveals a sense of cultural and intellectual entitlement that cannot permit him to be seen debating his inferiors. Just as Rosencrantz’s opportunistic extemporization of ambition as “a shadow’s shadow” should not be read as the manifestation of some deep-­seated Boethianism, so Hamlet’s on-­the-­hoof ruminations on Denmark’s status as a prison display no interest at all in the pursuit of truth. Rather, the question for all concerned is what one can get away with in pursuit of one’s desires and goals. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the attempt to win intelligence that they can relay to Claudius. For Hamlet, the attempt to mislead while winning applause or affirmation: from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, through bullying and sophistry; from himself, by seeing himself at once outwitting and being applauded by others. They differ in that while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are would-­be courtiers trying to get a job done, Hamlet continues his to perform his dissatisfaction with the social virtues of humanist moral philosophy (honestas, decorum, and the rest): “I know not seems”, what Denmark really “is”, and so forth.

Boethius’s Lady Philosophy offers a potent commentary on Hamlet’s conduct here. In attacking the virtuous pretentions of the prisoner, she turns to his philosophical self-­image. Discarding his conscience and the knowledge of his inner virtue, he has allowed himself to be guided by rumour, popularity, and by “the rewards of other people’s everyday chatter”. In a word, by arrogantia—or misplaced self-­regard. Accordingly, he can only imitate profundity. She relates a story with which to confirm her point, in which a critical observer scorns

a man who falsely assumed the title of philosopher not on account of a commitment to true virtue, but from vanity and to burnish his own reputation. The critical observer added that he would know that the other really was a philosopher if he could withstand attacks upon himself with calmness and patience. For a short while, the self-­styled philosopher bore these insults and injuries patiently, before sneering at his critic: “Now do you recognise that I am a philosopher?” To which came the withering response: “I would have, if you had kept quiet”.

In these terms, Hamlet’s curse is that sulking and death are the only forms of silence available to him. Despite the raw processing power of his intellect, his characteristically humanist approach to problems is invariably to be seen talking at them, loudly if needs be; first, to prevent himself from having fully to confront them; second, as a means through which to confound others, in the hope that he will be able to discern in their perplexity a likeness of the philosophical integrity that he is unable to find within himself. In other words, he talks precisely because doing so saves him the trouble of considered thought; the philosopher concentrates on res, but Hamlet is ensnared within the verba of the moral and intellectual world within which he has been cast. He is concerned not with what he says, but the ways in which what he says make him seem to himself and to others. Even as he lies dying, he needs to believe that he will be regarded favourably. “Report me and my cause aright” (5.2.344), he urges Horatio; “in this harsh world . . . tell my story” (5.2.353–54).

In seeking to make sense of Hamlet’s philosophical utterances, I would like to introduce another—and designedly metaleptic, not to say jarring—point of reference. That is, the distinction between bullshit and lies sketched by Harry Frankfurt:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the fact at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

The peculiar characteristic of bullshit is not thus that it is false—it can often be true, howsoever incidentally—but that it is bogus, a phony attempt to represent some aspect or other of the world as it really is without any serious attempt to discern the veracity of that representation. The most vivid and plausible performance is all. The liar attempts to direct us away from things as he knows them to be; the bullshitter attempts to direct our attention away from the fact that he has no interest in—and, often, no capacity to assess—the truth value of what he chooses to say.

Although they are perfectly capable exponents of the bogus, let us discard for the moment Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. They pick things out to suit their purposes, whereas the most obviously gifted bullshitter in Elsinore has the powers of imagination required to make things up to suit his. But what most distinguishes King Claudius in this respect is his demonstrable capacity to lie: to recognise the truth of a situation and to do or say something deliberately at odds with this recognition. For instance, by disguising the act of fratricide through which he grasped the throne. This ability to apprehend something of things as they are, I would suggest, marks Claudius’s bullshit out as qualitatively different from that of a figure like Polonius. When Polonius holds forth before Laertes leaves for Paris, he can’t help himself: bumptious pseudo-­profundity is simply how he copes with the world around him. When Claudius counsels Hamlet on the need to leave behind his “obstinate condolement”, his words are no less facile, even if they are more authoritatively woven together. It’s just that he has chosen both the style and the substance of his speech to match the expectations of his courtly audience, and thereby hopes to reinforce what he takes to be the good of himself and his realm.

For the remainder of this chapter, one of the theses that I want to test is that for all Claudius’s dishonesty—and for all Polonius’s self-­serving lucubration—the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him. One corollary of this is that he finds it hard to lie: he has neither the nose nor the stomach to discover or digest what the truth might be. Here again, Frankfurt is instructive, emphasising that one who “cease[d] to believe” in the distinction between truth and falsehood can either “desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive”, or can embrace bullshit. For Hamlet, as we have seen, silence is not an option. The only inapposite feature of Frankfurt’s analysis is the thought that Hamlet might have ceased to believe in anything. Although he voices a certain philosophical and existential nostalgia, we are never given any evidence from which to conclude that he was once better acquainted with the true natures of things, and that something took this away from him by the time he confirms that he cannot penetrate the surface of human life: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.133–34; emphasis mine). Just as he fails fully to assume the personae of the historian and the poet, so he tries to wear that of the philosopher without being able to inhabit the demands of the part.

Shakespeare’s point, I take it, is not that Hamlet is or has been an especially refractory student. Rather, his mental resources have been shaped by a discursive culture that has lost touch with the world it represents, and that it is supposed to illuminate. To put it more starkly, Shakespeare uses Hamlet and Hamlet to explore the notion that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick; that, like humanist historiography and poetics, it is bullshit. Something expounded by actors who, despite their commitment to maintaining the illusions of their craft, are constrained to perform scripts that misrepresent both themselves and the worlds—moral and natural—around them. As so often, Claudius emerges as the exception that proves the rule: a pretzel in a land of sponge cakes, most of which have failed fully to rise. Devoid of the piety that underwrites the worldview of humanist philosophy, he sees things as clearly as the most Machiavellian prince. And yet that vision cannot penetrate the darkness it apprehends. Existing in a moral world bound together by various forms of textual and moral authority—by plausibility, and not by the effort to observe or comprehend human affairs in themselves—Claudius cannot articulate the appetitive truth as he sees it and hope to retain his position or status. Thus, in killing his brother and taking on the persona of Denmark’s legitimately elected king, he becomes a figure of fatal duplicity; one prepared to do or say anything to sate his appetites or assuage his anxieties, and whose powers of discernment come to atrophy through neglect. Claudius and Hamlet both affect to understand, and thereby to distinguish themselves from, the quotidian truths of 
life in Elsinore. Both die on account of the fact. Life in Elsinore continues unabated.

More Things in Heaven and Earth

After hearing Hamlet’s account of his encounter with his father’s ghost, Horatio remains wary: “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange” (1.5.172). Given that the Ghost has just been booming from the cellarage in a parody of the medieval mystery plays, it doesn’t seem implausible that some of Hamlet’s first audience members would have laughed at this point—and taken the opportunity to review the scene they had just witnessed. Strange indeed. But Hamlet has no share in his friend’s circumspection. If the Ghost is strange, “therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (1.5.173–75). Q2 has “your philosophy” while the Folio (TLN 864) has “our”. Whatever pronoun one settles on, Hamlet’s point is substantively identical: there are phenomena for which the commonly received theories of things are unable to give a convincing account. Hamlet doesn’t venture to say what these phenomena might be, and he contents himself with another of the play’s indeterminate “things”.

We do not have to wait long to discover how Hamlet views both the physical universe and the beings with which it is populated. Telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has “lost all [his] mirth”, Hamlet opines that “this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (2.2.298–303). For all the vividness—indeed, the enargeia—with which it is expressed, this vision of the cosmos is a staple of ancient and medieval thought. It rests on the model of the celestial spheres. Take Hamlet’s “firmament”. Within the expressly finite model of traditional cosmology, the firmament was the eighth concentric sphere—or orb—of the cosmos. It was populated by the stars and was located beyond the spheres that supported the sun, the moon, and the other planets; although in most cases it was treated as the outermost portion of the cosmos, in some models it was superseded by the empyrean sphere, otherwise known as the heavens. In La Primaudaye’s estimation, “The firmament, which is the eight[h] heaven” is “the highest and greatest of all the rest, and . . . the uttermost ornament and beawtie of all the world”. (See figure 11, in which Robert Fludd marries the traditional model of the cosmos to ideals of celestial hierarchy. The personification of philosophical wisdom mediates between the divine and the human, with humankind represented as the “ape” of nature. All are connected by the chain of being.)

Along with the other spheres, the firmament, as its etymology would suggest, was envisioned as both solid and fixed—realities that underpin Hamlet’s imagination of the night sky as a “majestical roof fretted with fire”, and his antithetical impression that this point of physical constancy should seem “a foul and pestilential congregation of vapours”. Imagining the stars as “pestilential” is not far from the self-­exculpations of those “sick in fortune” disdained by Edmund in Lear—of those who believe themselves “fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence”. The germ of this thought is one to which, later in the play, Hamlet will return. Of greatest moment for now is that in speaking of the firmament, Hamlet sketches an entirely traditional understanding of natural philosophy; one akin to the fiery stars and unmoving sun with which he attempted to woo Ophe­lia (2.2.115–23). Although Hamlet’s dissatisfaction with the universe serves as an ironic counterpoint to the sort of easily confident anthropocentrism with which La Primaudaye’s French Academie begins (the closeness of some verbal echoes suggests the possibility of pastiche), the natural philosophy on which Hamlet’s universe is based never strays far from convention. Granted that Hamlet’s desire to be a rather than the “king of infinite space” might suggest a plurality of cosmic monarchs and thus perhaps also of possible worlds, his commitment to the fixity of the firmament also gives the lie to the suggestion that he voices Brunian ideas of cosmic infinity. In sum, whatever we might conclude about the ways in which Hamlet’s comprehension of the world makes him feel, that comprehension is in itself unremarkable. The same cannot be said of that which Hamlet next expounds to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet moves from the nature of cosmos to that of human existence:

What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (2.2.303–08)

The beginning is conventional enough: humankind exemplifies the magnificence of divine handiwork. If Hamlet’s invocation of God-­the-­artisan sits uneasily with the claim of Genesis 1:26 that human beings exist in God’s image, then it can draw on the competing vision of Isaiah (29:16, 45:9, 64:8) that the creator stands to humankind as a potter does to his clay. Likewise, his claim that rationality is ennobling would meet with widespread early modern assent—with the proviso that the nature of that reason and the extent of that nobility are subject to debate.

However, from this point forward, his overview of the human condition veers off the rails. In the first place, Hamlet’s claim that human faculties are “infinite” cannot be taken seriously. Put to one side his struggles to erase images from his memory as if they were prompts to forms of recollection, and his unhappy acknowledgement of subjectivity in the way things “seem” or “appear” to him. His “infinite in faculties” is presumably meant to channel something of the optimistic anthropology championed by Pico and his Neoplatonic heirs: as the human mind has the capacity to comprehend universal knowledge, its faculties must therefore be infinite. The problem is that although Hamlet successfully reproduces the Neoplatonic noise, he distorts its signal. As we saw in discussing Hamlet’s thoughts on becoming “a king of infinite space”, the Piconian sage can only raise himself towards perfect knowledge by choosing to recognise the manifest imperfections of his mortal lot, and by committing himself with humility to divinely sanctioned truth.

To dwell on the “express and admirable” nature of the human body and its movements is unexceptionable, but in asserting that human “action” is “like” that of the angels, Hamlet slips anew. Angels are spiritual beings and do not share the material bodies of human beings; their actions do not therefore have to engage the corporeal—and animalistic—passions that saturate human existence. Although it was a commonplace to assert that the intellective portions of the human soul were in some measure angelic (angels were often described as pure intellect), the comparison of angelic and human action is meaningless: angels simply occupy a station within the hierarchy of nature that is too refined for their physical motions to be compared with those of humankind. Hence, of course, the dramaturgical fun that Shakespeare has with the ghosts elsewhere in Hamlet—with spiritual beings that, according to the most expert early modern opinion, must accommodate themselves to the internal and external senses on which embodied human cognition depends. But Hamlet’s confusions on angels are as nothing when set against what he says next: “in apprehension how like a god”. Given that neither Hamlet nor anyone else in the play professes themselves attached to Greek, Roman, or Norse forms of polytheism, the indefinite article might on its own give us pause, particularly as this apprehensive “god” is mentioned in such close proximity to the angels of Judeo-­Christian tradition. Then again, as Hamlet elsewhere refers to Hyperion, Jove, Mars, Mercury, and other members of the pantheon without theological difficulty, we probably should not pause for long. More arresting by far is Hamlet’s implication that human apprehension can be thought of as divine. Apprehension, as we saw when discussing Hamlet’s memory in chapter 3, is the first and simplest act of the understanding; it involves the acquisition and digestion of sensory data prior to their comprehension through the higher operations of the understanding, the highest of which generates discourse of reason. In other words, apprehension is an aspect of embodied cognition—of humankind’s status as a rational animal—and no more has a part in the divine than in the angelic.

Describing human beings as the “beauty of the world” is another commonplace of the anthropocentric worldview. The suggestion that humankind is the “paragon of animals” only sounds like one, but it clears the path to Hamlet’s culminating denigration of the human condition. As so often, the reading hinges on a quibble: “paragon” on one level signifies the perfect form or model on which something is based; on another (closer to its etymological root in the Italian paragone—a touchstone or point of comparison) it signifies something against which the identity or nature of something else can be measured. Shakespeare elsewhere uses the term in both senses. In scripting Hamlet’s “paragon of animals”, he exploits this semantic duality to usher in a searingly ironic indictment of humanity. Human beings, on account of being rational, are a touchstone against which to measure other forms of animal life; if an animal cannot equal the human faculty of reason, then it is bestial. For Hamlet, it is exactly this comparability that marks the unbridgeable distance between human reason and angelic (or divine) purity of intellection, and that reveals the status of humankind as the paragon (qua existential template) of animal life. Renaissance champions of human dignity and of human dominion over the natural world imagined humankind as radically distinct from non-­human forms of animal life, but Hamlet finds the force of such distinctions inadequate to the work of ontological exceptionalism that they assert. It is here that Hamlet’s solecisms about the angelic and divine qualities of human nature coalesce with his misanthropy.

Hamlet’s words can usefully be juxtaposed with those of Cornwallis’s “Of Knowledge”. Cornwallis argues that in order to understand the universe, one must be able to “see man” as he truly is:

beeing a compendium of the world, and having in himselfe what is in every other thing, the thing onely excepted that is above all things, He hath a beeing with stones; he hath life with trees; he hath sense with beasts; hee hath understanding with Angels, which understanding is the crowne whereby his principalitie over stones, trees, and beasts is knowne. What should man then looke upon but himself, since in himselfe is all and more then all other creatures or substances have; to beholde which, the true glasse is naturall Philosophie, in which he must redresse, morrall, and adorne his life. For morrall Philosophy is the grace of life. Weave this together and it will proove a stuffe outlasting time: naturall Philosophy shewing us what we have; morrall, how to use rightly what wee have.

As humankind is a microcosm of the divinely ordered universe, so that universe can best be known by turning one’s gaze inwards: “understanding” enables humankind to look both up and down the scala naturae, and to discern within itself the nature of both lower (material) and higher (spiritual) creation. In due course, this natural philosophical knowledge provides a frame for the principles that govern moral philosophy.

Contrast this vision to that outlined by Hamlet: infinite faculties, angelic action, divine apprehension. Crucially, Hamlet fails to credit that which Cornwallis sees as central to human comprehension of the cosmos in its totality: within human life can be found “all and more then all other creatures or substances have”, including those “stones, trees, and beasts” over which humankind enjoys “principalitie”. Hamlet can only imagine the nobility of the human condition by denying the blood, bodily urges, and fundamental animality of a being possessed of vegetative and sensitive souls. As humanity must partake of spiritual and intellectual purity, to describe something as animal is to confirm that it cannot also be human. Taking his crudely Manichean dualism to its logical end point, he then concludes that anything spiritually and intellectually impure is simply material. It is therefore devoid of any meaning—“the quintessence of dust”. But this formulation straddles the space between paradox and oxymoron, and hints at a deep conflict in Hamlet’s thinking: a quintessence implies something metaphysical or distilled, something essential and capable of comprehension in the abstract. If the animal nature of human beings means that they are no more than dust in its most essential form, how can any human individual hope to comprehend or pass judgement on the human condition? The question does not detain Hamlet for long. In attempting to understand the natural world of which he is a part, coherence simply does not matter; his learning may be derivative, but his arguments are very much his own.

Versions of his conflicted Manichaeism recur throughout the play. Trying one last time to urge himself unto the breach, Hamlet wonders

What is a man

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capability and godlike reason

To fust in us unus’d. (4.4.34–39)

He thus claims that his inability to accomplish an act of revenge against his uncle is a failing of his rational faculties to move his passions, and not one of his passions themselves. Hamlet’s divine reason—so unlike the “divine ambition” with which Fortinbras is “puff’d” (4.4.49)—does not have sovereignty enough to generate the feelings that, he takes it, should already have moved him to revenge; in response, he adopts the counter-­intuitive view that this makes him more rather than less animalistic. As he has exclaimed to Ophe­lia in a moment of perhaps unintentional candour, “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” (3.1.128–29). Crawling, note: a motion of infants, invalids, and four-­legged creatures, not of angels or nobly upstanding bipeds. This assertion of equivalence between human and other animal forms of life is underscored in Hamlet’s disobliging remarks to Claudius over the hidden corpse of Polonius. Amphibologia again:

Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all

creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for

maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but

variable service—two dishes, but to one table. (4.3.21–24)

Animals exist to fatten up human beings, human beings to fatten up animals—and so on. Hamlet’s emphasis on fatness also suggests something about the superfluity of all mortal life; as it cannot attain spiritual perfection, its very existence is testament to appetitive excess. Thus it is, as Hamlet insists to Horatio over the skull of Yorick, that even those as accomplished as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are no more than dust and clay (5.1.191–209); stuff of no inherent value. Rather than attempting to comprehend human nature as it confronts him in himself and in other people, Hamlet opts to dismiss it as fatally compromised. Human beings must either be perfect or the embodiment of chaotic materiality. Infinity or dust.

If seeking to rescue Hamlet’s philosophy of humankind from this toxic dualism, one might argue that his remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern issue from beneath his antic disposition; that they are deliberately confused in order to be confusing. Perhaps so, but the attitudes he outlines while arriving at the “quintessence of dust” suffuse his speech from the first to the last. On a different tack, it might be possible to construct an interpretation of Hamlet’s lines in which he asserts the animality of God and his angels, somewhat on the model of the Greek and Roman deities: if humankind is deiform, then the higher beings of the cosmos must be recognisably anthropoid. Again, maybe. In the godless space of life in Shakespeare’s Elsinore, it is a version of divinity at least as compelling as any other. Such a reading would nevertheless be at odds with the point that Hamlet labours to make for the benefit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—that although humankind has a limited share in the dignity of the most elevated spiritual beings, Hamlet delights in it not. Just as the firmament needs to be majestical, spiritual beings need to be elevated for Hamlet’s disaffection to have the requisite force. The challenge remains. According the criteria through which the early moderns comprehended humanity—criteria that Hamlet’s choice of language appears to vindicate—Hamlet fails to take pleasure in human beings because he understands so very little about them.

In drawing this section to a close, I turn once more to Boethius, who offers a yardstick with which to measure some of the most elusive aspects of the play. One of these is the likelihood that Hamlet’s estimation of his own bestial nature, despite its histrionic excess, would have rung true to many of those encountering him in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. After the prisoner has enumerated the wrongs done to him by fortuna (and the personified Fortuna), Lady Philosophy demands of him that he tell her what a man is. The prisoner responds that man is a rational animal, that he is mortal, and that he—the prisoner—is one such himself. Lady Philosophy counters that she now understands the cause of the prisoner’s miserable plight. The answer he has given is incomplete: “[you] have left to know what thou art”. Only later does she fully elaborate her criticism:

For this is the state of human nature, that then it exceeds all other when itself it knows, but is made baser than very beasts, if to know itself it leave. For natural it is for other beasts not to know themselves; in man it is a vice.

What the prisoner has forgotten is that he has an immortal soul. This is the attribute which, by bestowing the gifts of discursive reason and philosophical understanding, enables him to be one of those to whom governance of the created world has been entrusted; it is that which, once released from the prison of the body at the moment of death, has the capacity to enjoy an eternal life with God. Cast aside or neglect the immortal soul and the responsibilities it confers, and humankind is a singularly unimpressive physical specimen: “What can be weaker than man? He can often be killed by a tiny fly—a mosquito—biting him, or by creeping into his inner organs”. Much more might be said about Boethius’s text and its proximity to Hamlet’s efforts at making sense of the world of which he is a part. Suffice it for now to say that, like the prisoner chastised by Lady Philosophy for the first portion of the De consolatione, Hamlet does not understand either himself within the world, or the world within himself. As such, the philosophical confusions that he evinces to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show him failing to realise his full humanity, and—like the huntsmen condemned by Erasmus for conducting themselves as if they were animals—condemning himself to a life of appetitive bestiality. Not in virtue of his bodily or animal nature, but on account of the choices he has made.

As we have seen, the root of these perplexities is Hamlet’s inability to grasp the two interacting facets of human nature: one animal, one rational. The explanation for this, I submit, relates to the difficulties with which Hamlet has wrestled in his second soliloquy—and that he will shortly attempt to ameliorate through the passionate examples of Aeneas, Hecuba, and Pyrrhus. Hamlet would rather be dust rather than an animal because if he were to acknowledge himself as an animal, replete with passions and sensations, he would have to confront the lack of vindictive-­venatorial intensity that he feels after his encounter with the Ghost. He can imagine himself as a Senecan hunting dog, coupled to a hellhound, easily enough; likewise, and like any rhetorically trained early modern schoolboy, he can imagine himself enduring the last days of Troy. But such acts only serve to paper over the absence of an overwhelming urge to avenge the wrong done to his father by his uncle. Faced with difficult truths about his own disposition and the compromises to which it constrains him, he writes off the entirety of human life as a loss. For one with appetites of his own—principally, his desire for the Danish throne—this position is extremely difficult to sustain. So it is that although Hamlet retains his distorted view of the body and of animal life throughout the play, once he has failed to stir himself with the examples of Aeneas and others, he redefines the problem, moving it further and further away from the dynamics of his emotional life. It is not that the proximity of the rational soul to the animal body corrupts it and leaves it unable to influence that body as it should. Instead, he now has it that his “native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (3.1.84–85), and that he is guilty of “some craven scruple / Of thinking too precisely on the th’event” (4.4.41–42). With remarkable effrontery, he maintains that the son in him is and has been all set for vengeance, but that his moral deliberations have hitherto been unable to square the vindictive act with the dictates of reason and conscience. His rational faculties are thus found wanting not because they cannot compel his bodily faculties to impassioned action, but because they scruple at the nature of that action in itself.

Boethius draws our attention to another oddity in Hamlet and Hamlet that might easily be overlooked—and that, to the best of my knowledge, hitherto has been: for a purportedly Christian world, there is complete lack of conviction with respect to the immortality of the soul. As discussed in previous chapters, the sense in which “soul” is most frequently used within the play is akin to that of Cicero’s ingenium and Aristotle’s psuchē—the animating force and characteristic that make an individual what he or she is (Cicero), or the principle in virtue of which something is alive (Aristotle). The point is not just one of lexical curiosity. In one breath, Hamlet envisages death as nothing more than a bodily phenomenon equivalent to a sort of “sleep”, and as a means in which to terminate “The heart-­ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to”. It is a “consummation / Devoutly to be wished” rather than a staging post towards eternal life of one sort or another (3.1.61–63), a turn of phrase that encompasses both a spectacularly inappropriate adaptation of the mortal Christ’s final words in John 19:30, and a nod to the audacity of Marlowe’s Faustus. Later on, Hamlet imagines thousands “go[ing] to their graves like beds” (4.4.62) so that Fortinbras can realise his military ambitions. Throughout, his null hypothesis is that death is the end.

The implications of these views are nicely brought out by another passage whose presence can be felt behind Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man”. La Primaudaye attacks those natural philosophers who fixate on the study of physical phenomena without regard to the place of God within themselves and creation at large:

For what will it profite a man to take so great paines as to measure the whole world, and to compasse on every side all the elementarie region, to know the things that are contained in them, and their nature, and yet in the meane time hee can not measure or knowe himselfe being but a little handfull of earth?

To know oneself is to know that one is not just a “little handful of earth”, and to remember “the substance, nature and immortalitie of the soul”. For La Primaudaye, Hamlet’s natural philosophical shortcomings could not be clearer, and are of a piece with his irreligiosity.

We have already encountered the first and starkest demonstration of the play’s inconclusive attitude to the immortality of the soul: Hamlet’s bravado in declaring that his soul “Being a thing immortal as itself” cannot be harmed by the Ghost (1.4.6–7). He is determined to resist the urging of Horatio and Marcellus that he should treat the Ghost with circumspection, and grabs at the first thing he can think of to help. The Ghost may be able to kill my mortal body (by, for example, tempting me on the cliffs below), but cannot kill my soul, which is by definition immortal. The problem, of course, is that if the Ghost were a malicious demon, it would not be seeking to kill Hamlet’s immortal soul, but to damn it by inducing the mortal Hamlet into some act or other of a sinful nature, such as suicide. Hamlet tries to clothe his impulsiveness in the garb of religious respectability, but succeeds only in revealing how little he understands of what these vestments represent.

Hamlet’s other mentions of the soul’s immortality are similarly inconclusive. For instance, while elaborating on his reluctance to kill the kneeling Claudius in the chapel scene (3.3.84–95), he frets over his uncle’s ostensibly penitent soul going to heaven. These words comprise a post-­factum justification for failing to do that which he, on some level, already knows to be beyond him. Consider also his boasts to Horatio about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: their “sudden death” was executed with “no shriving time allow’d” (5.2.46–47). On the surface of it, he takes cruel pleasure in having denied them the chance of absolution, thereby helping their souls to an eternity of hellfire. Perhaps so, but as his instruction is so manifestly a retaliation for Claudius’s initial command that Hamlet’s own head be “struck off” with “no leisure bated” (5.2.23–25), it feels a lot like an empty signifier—representing little other than his affronted outrage. Just as his “brains” engineered their deaths before he understood what he was doing (5.2.30–31), Hamlet shows no sign of comprehending the gravity of what he has done, dismissing the dead courtiers as “not near my conscience” (5.2.58). It is enough that they will not attempt to cross him again.

In only paying lip service to the immortality of the soul at moments of mortal crisis, Hamlet is by no means unusual in Shakespeare’s Denmark. Throughout the play, the prospect of a Christian afterlife has no more than vestigial significance in a moral and physical universe where competing human appetites are the one form of reality that is not a matter of opinion. Five apparent exceptions amply illustrate the rule.

First, we have the boilerplate of Gertrude’s attempts to reason Hamlet out of his disaffection, apparently on account of his father’s death, at the start of the play. She assures him: “Thou know’st ’tis common: all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity” (1.2.72– 73). Common, to be sure, but to acknowledge this says nothing about the truth of her words. Nor does Gertrude care about it: she simply wants her son to behave himself, and says what she feels she needs to in order to accomplish that end. Second, there is the indeterminate figure of the Ghost: despite its grandeur as a coup de théâtre, its status as an emissary of the spiritual world is never satisfactorily established. Is it an angel, a demon, a wandering spirit, or an imaginative projection? As discussed in chapter 4, we never find out, and have no means of doing so. Like the afterlife it purports to represent, it is a thing unknown—quite possibly no more than a delusion or a piece of metatheatrical legerdemain. Even after his encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet’s anger is not directed at his father’s apparent condemnation to purgatory, but at the brevity with which he has been mourned. Third, we should consider the substance of Claudius’s chapel scene prayer. Here, for the only time in Hamlet, there is a genuine consciousness of what it might mean to be a mortal sinner with an immortal soul. And yet after working his way through the soteriological implications of his predicament, Claudius opts to disregard them. Fourth, we have the words of the priest after the death of Ophe­lia. Mindful of her “doubtful” (i.e., suspicious and likely suicidal) death but constrained to give her some form of Christian burial by her high social status, the priest refuses her full funeral rites: “We should profane the service of the dead / To sing sage requiem and such rest to her / As to peace-­parted souls” (5.1.229–31). The principal sense of “peace-­parted” concerns souls that have departed to peace, but it can just as easily be taken to connote souls that have departed in peace. Either way, his concern is with the propriety of the burial rites—and with visibly upholding the letter of the canon law—in this world, over and above the impact of such rites on the immortal souls of those who inhabit the next. In response, Laertes imagines the dead Ophe­lia as a “minist’ring angel”, overseeing the tortures of the “churlish priest” as he “liest howling” in hell (5.1.233–34). Decent invective, but an expression of idiomatic anger rather than doctrinal dissent. Just like the “The devil take thy soul!” he later hurls at Hamlet (5.1.251), or Hamlet’s disingenuous assertion that as Polonius is now in “heaven”, Claudius should “Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’th’other place yourself” (4.3.33–35). As the earthily deadpan contortions of the Gravedigger on the letter of the coroner’s law tend to confirm (5.1.1–31), in Shakespeare’s Denmark the souls of the dead are not a matter of eschatology, but something on which to sharpen one’s wits and worldly grievances.

Laertes’s “minist’ring angel” presages the fifth and final moment of the play in which the immortal soul threatens to make an appearance. Horatio, on the death of Hamlet: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (5.2.364–65). Horatio reaches for the optative consolation of the pre-­Reformation funeral liturgy, the In paradisum, but—like the liturgy itself—affects not to remember that angels take care of the souls of the dead, not the dead in their ante-­mortem entirety. As long as it makes everyone feel better, no matter that it be inaccurate or untrue. Likewise, Horatio does not specify exactly where he thinks Hamlet will rest. In heaven, hell, or purgatory? Or simply in the graveyard already occupied by Yorick, Polonius, Ophe­lia—and perhaps the “marble jaws” (1.4.50) of Old Hamlet’s “sepulchre”? Compare the text of Q1. Here, Horatio offers no valedictory benediction, and Hamlet dies with the words “Farewell Horatio. Heaven receive my soul”. The dramaturgic charge of Q2 and the Folio could not be more thoroughly reversed than this. In Horatio’s benediction, Shakespeare prompts us to infer the journey of the immortal soul (taking Hamlet’s whole being to be a synecdoche for the part of him that will transcend death) to heaven, but simultaneously reveals this inference to be unjustified.

Although Horatio’s words are theologically unsound, it seems reasonable to cut him some slack: he speaks in the middle of an episode that is as difficult as it is traumatic. Quite aside from his feelings at the death of Hamlet, the end of the royal dynasty around which he has fashioned his identity forces him to cast around for a new persona through which to retain a sense of who and what he is. He first tries on that of the “antique Roman” (5.2.346), but abandons it at Hamlet’s command. Then he grabs at the part of a breathlessly Christian simpleton, warding off both silence and the threat of anyone else filling it (Osric?) with whatever comes to mind. Finally, Fortinbras makes his heavily armed entrance, and Horatio solves his problem by pushing himself into the perfect role for his talents: that of neo-­Polonius to the incoming monarch. Like suicide, success is imitation. Hamlet’s dead body is incongruously triumphalized as that of a warrior prince, and there is no more talk of angels or the afterlife.

There may be more things in heaven and earth than early modern natural philosophy as Hamlet and Horatio understand it allows for, or there may be fewer. Neither of them know or have any way of knowing the truth of the matter, and neither gives the impression of caring much either way. Any unease generated by this lacking is lost within their more pressing concerns; questions of the afterlife or of divine justice are as superfluous to them as they are to moral economy of the play as a whole.

Being, Nothingness, and Inconsequentiality

The lines with which Hamlet begins his fourth soliloquy are possibly the most famous in Western literature: “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (3.1.56). And yet as David Scott Kastan has recently reminded us, they are also among the least understood. Rather than meditating on the nature, sanctity, or desirability of being alive, Hamlet is most likely reading—as he was when last stepping onto the stage at 2.2.167–68. The point is unambiguous in Q1, where Claudius notes his nephew approach while “poring upon a book”. But at this point in the action, Hamlet is no longer immersed in the “satirical rogue” with whom he had taunted Polonius about the folly of the aged (2.2.196). We will examine the possible identity of this text in a moment, as doing so is central to appreciating how Hamlet’s soliloquy would have sounded, or read, to its earliest audiences.

For now, what can be said without fear of contradiction is that there has been little agreement as to what Hamlet’s soliloquy is actually about: numerous candidates have been proposed, including suicide, murder, mortality (general), mortality (Hamlet’s), and revenge. I take the view that this diversity of interpretations maps very closely onto the substance of Hamlet’s words themselves. They are confused, and are not under Hamlet’s control. In Hamlet’s previous soliloquy, we have seen him wrestle with rhetorical fictions in his unsuccessful attempt to make himself feel the pain of a Hecuba or an Aeneas, or the vindictive rage of a Pyrrhus. What of his deliberations on “To be, or not to be”? Are they any more organic—less mannered, less self-­consciously but falteringly humanistic—than the soliloquy that precedes them? They are not. Instead, they comprise another study in superficial humanism, made up of commonplaces and sententiae divorced from the contexts that make them meaningful; held together not by logic or rhetoric, but by a kind of negative whimsy. They are only rescued from total incoherence by the fact that Hamlet is talking to himself—that he may know what he is trying to say, even if he can neither articulate it clearly nor keep it firmly in mind.

Precisely because this speech is so well known, it might be useful to summarize its content afresh before going any further. Hamlet opens with a “question” of unusual abstraction. He proceeds to elaborate on it with a finely balanced and only slightly less abstract antithesis: whether it would be “nobler in the mind” to “suffer” his fortune or to “take up arms” against it. His focus then shifts to the question of what death might be expected to comprise. On the one hand, a “consummation” enabling an escape from the woes that “flesh is heir to”; on the other, a sleep afflicted with tormenting dreams. However bad life might be, the afterlife could be worse. This suspicion is the only thing that makes one able to endure the vicissitudes of earthly existence. From here, Hamlet returns—albeit implicitly—to his own status as one charged with the responsibility to revenge: as consciousness of the mysteries attendant on death make us bear the challenges of living with quietude, so reflecting on the uncertain nature, method, and outcome of any planned act militates against its accomplishment in a timely and effective manner. He thereby establishes a firm connection between his attitudes to fortune and to death (just as thinking about death leads to fear and a hybrid of acedia and apathy, so contemplating any attempt to shape one’s fortuna leads one to conclude that it is not worth the bother), but at the same time redefines the question with which he began, now wondering: “to do, or not to do?”, or “to be, or not to be active?”. Hamlet’s perplexity is that to spend time posing the question is to answer it in the negative, making it all but impossible for him to fashion himself as a man of vindictive action. Before he can say any more, he catches sight of Ophe­lia, by whom he has recently been dropped—a state of affairs that makes him paradoxically glad to see her. In place of confoundedness and the constraint to action, he can momentarily enjoy a lapse into passivity and rueful what-­might-­have-­beens. The stage is set for the disastrous violence of the nunnery scene.

If we are further to unpack the fourth soliloquy, Hamlet’s description of “To be, or not to be” as a “question” is key. A question or quaestio is the subject of contention in a rhetorical debate, and is that which the debate is intended to resolve. A student or aspiring orator would be trained to marshal his learning to support either side of a question; his virtuosity would be measured by his ability to argue in utramque partem quaestionis—with equal persuasiveness on each side of the matter at hand. Throughout Hamlet, the term frequently appears in this technical sense. Hamlet enters while reading and declares that “to be, or not to be” is a quaestio, or a formulation that can serve as the basis for a disputation; unmistakably, he primes his audience to hear the speech that follows as something akin to an academic exercise. Perhaps so, but does knowing such a thing actually matter to anyone other than the historian of logic, rhetoric, or dialectic? As we shall see, the answer is an emphatic yes— not least in explaining Hamlet’s detached and comparatively impersonal tone.

In bringing this claim into sharper focus, we can turn to a text that was as familiar to early modern university students as it is unfamiliar to us: the third chapter of the On Interpretation, Aristotle’s treatise on the fundamentals of language and logic. Aristotle makes the case that although the copula is implied in all verbs, it cannot signify by itself: “For not even ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’ [τὸ εἶναι ἢ μὴ εἶναι] is a sign of the thing (nor if you say simply ‘that which is’); for by itself it is nothing”. (In the Latin through which Aristotle was read and studied in the long sixteenth century, the key phrase is—always, as far as I can tell—rendered as esse aut non esse.) The point is made clearer by an observation offered a little earlier in On Interpretation. Here, Aristotle proposes that an imaginary creature like the hybrid of a goat and a stag may be a legitimate sign in that it represents something that can be thought, but that it cannot be “anything true or false—unless ‘is’ or ‘is not’ [τὸ εἶναι ἢ μὴ εἶναι; esse aut non esse] is added”. Fit for sport, but not the philosophical understanding. In framing a question for a disputation, Aristotle’s logic insists that “to be, or not to be” therefore be considered in relation to a particular set of circumstances—that is, “to be, or not to be” an entity like a sheep, a goat, an angel, or a human being; “to be, or not to be” in a given condition, such as dead or alive.

So, the logical tradition of the early modern universities teaches us that for Hamlet’s question to register as the quaestio it purports to be, it would need to be connected to a real-­world problem. The challenge for Hamlet, as for the student of the play, is that the nature of this connection is far from obvious. Indeed, rather than working from the assumption that such a connection lies waiting to be discovered by the ingenuity or industry of the critic, I want to keep open the possibility that although the beginning of the fourth soliloquy sounds terrific, it designedly does not make sense. Further, that in depicting such incoherence through some deftly wrought blank verse, Shakespeare is inviting us to reflect on the nature of rhetorical, dialectical, and poetic invention.

As it happens, Hamlet’s task—that is, framing his question with the requisite specificity—is one that the rhetorical handbooks address head on. For Cicero, Quintilian, and Aphthonius, the orator needs to keep in mind a distinction between quaestiones that are infinite and general, and those that are finite and particular; or, in Aphthonius’s terminology, between the abstract thesis and the more specific hypothesis. On the more abstract and general plane, the question might be whether one should marry; on the particular, whether Hamlet should marry Ophe­lia. At the same time, the orator—as Quintilian is particularly keen to stress—should not allow himself to forget that particulars always contain generals; in Wilson’s summary, “whosoever will talk of a particular matter must remember that within the same is also comprehended a general”. It is not possible to argue that Hamlet should or should not marry Ophe­lia without first deliberating on the desirability of marriage. One further feature of the general question bears emphasis: its subdivision into speculative and practical varieties. The practical considers worldly matters like marriage. The speculative or theoretical, like the speculative philosophy discussed at the beginning of this chapter, considers matters beyond the ken of human observation—for example, whether the universe is finite or infinite.

Viewed from here, Hamlet’s question may hint at speculative generality (“what is being?”), but is in fact practical: it seeks to determine whether a condition of being or non-­being should be given priority. And, just like Aristotle’s esse aut non esse, this is a general question that can only be articulated or assessed through hypotheses—that is, through particular circumstances. These circumstances are the province of rhetorical invention: of the arguments, examples, commonplaces, and sententiae that the humanist schoolboy was taught to identify, store, relocate, select, and creatively reassemble in order for his orations and written compositions to have the requisite persuasive force. On many occasions, they could be drawn from imaginative rather than historical writing. The rationale behind this theory is well expressed in one of Sidney’s defences of poetry: because the historian is bound by “saying such a thing was done”, he “only informs a conjectured likelihood” in guiding human conduct, whereas the poet “frame[s] his example to that which is most reasonable”. The poet or rhetorician cannot be bound by happenstance if he is to fashion the most persuasive moral or conjectural arguments, or if he is to aspire to the telling of universal truths.

So much for the theory. How, and how successfully, does Hamlet seek to instantiate, or to hypothesise, his question? As we saw in chapter 2, the “slings and arrows” of Fortuna the huntress are a topos—against which, according to Seneca, the philosophically fortified soul is well able to defend itself. The image of Fortune as a turbulent and unpredictable “sea” is no less conventional. This is a moment of deceptive simplicity: through the device of transposing a response to one standard Fortune-­metaphor (the ballistic huntress or assailant) onto another (the sea), Shakespeare has Hamlet imply something about the futility of attempting to shape one’s own destiny. What it does not do is to make the relationship between “to be, or not to be” and that which follows it any less oblique.

Hamlet’s attention is now caught by another commonplace—that of death as a kind of sleep. As T.W. Baldwin long ago confirmed, this shift has its origins in a famous passage from book 1 of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, where Cicero quotes Plato quoting Socrates facing down his persecutors. Although, following Baldwin, I am morally certain that Shakespeare worked from Cicero’s Latin rather than an English translation, I quote from John Dolman’s version of the text:

Wherefore, yf my sense shall be extyncte, and my death resemble sleepe, whyche often wythout anye trouble of dreames, doth brynge a man most quiete reste, (O Lorde) what pleasure shal deathe be to me? . . . But if those thynges be true whiche are wryten, namely that death is a departure into those regions, which all they inhabite, that are departed out of this life, then do I accoumpte my chaunce farre better, for that, after that I have escaped the handes of you, whiche syt here in place and name of judges, I shall then come to them whiche are the true judges, Minos, Rhadamanthus, Aecus, and Triptolemus, & shall there have the companye and communication of them whych have lived upryghtly in the faythe and feare of god. This oughte to seeme a sweete pilgrymage.

That Cicero lends the central portion of Hamlet’s speech both its starting point and the structure of its journey from death-­as-­sleep to the indeterminate landscape of the afterlife is plain enough. It is also the least interesting of the interconnections between the fourth soliloquy and book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations, the progress of which marks M. persuading A. that death should not be considered evil because the soul is immortal and will abide in disembodied virtue.

For instance, the Tusculan Disputations give us cause to reconsider Hamlet’s “question” in itself. At the start of the dialogue between M. and A., one of M.’s first undertakings is to dispense with A.’s assertion that being dead is wretched; in so doing, he refers directly to the passage of Aristotle’s On Interpretation discussed above. As, on A.’s account, the dead have ceased to be, M. insists that they cannot be wretched or anything else. To claim otherwise would be “as though whatsoever you do so pronounce must not either be or not be [esse aut non esse]. Are you nothing skilfull in Logicke? Emonges the verye principles of that arte, this is taught. That every proposition . . . is eyther true or false”. For Cicero’s M., as for the generality of his readers across the long sixteenth century, esse aut non esse is not a question but the logical precondition of any significant statement, or of any rhetorical or philosophical enquiry. On its own it is insignificant, but without it, one can say “nothing at all”. Hamlet proposes to treat this precondition of logical enquiry as if it were a question in its own right. By the standards of the academic context within which Hamlet situates his fourth soliloquy, “to be, or not to be” cannot serve as a question at all. Shakespeare’s student prince begins his most famous oration with a solecism.

Working from the conceit that if death is a sleep, one might expect to be afflicted by dreams, some of them bad, Hamlet contends—in a obscurely evocative formulation—that the fear of what might happen “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause”, and enables one to put up with the miseries of human existence. And yet it is not the fear of what might come after death that causes Hamlet to flinch from his commitment to death-­as-­consummation. Instead, it seems to be the difficulty of imagining himself as nothing: already resentful of his mortality and corporeality, he cannot countenance the prospect that once he is dead, there will be no Hamlet left to suffer or complain. Accordingly, he returns to his struggles with Boethian Fortuna—they offer indubitable proof that he is, in fact, at the centre of his world. Now, he envisions her caprice within the “whips and scorns of time” (3.1.70), a formulation that intelligently echoes his earlier “slings and arrows”. For Boethius, Fortune is temporal and historical; “time” is a precondition of her power. Providence, by contrast, belongs to the eternal order of things. It is that which the philosopher can approach only after he has seen through the insignificance of temporal living, and has embraced the immortality of his soul. Although unable to escape the letter of such teachings, Hamlet remains entirely unmoved by their spirit. Deftly reinforcing the point, Shakespeare has him continue with a pastiche of the self-­pitying lament sung by Boethius’s prisoner before Lady Philosophy has begun to open his eyes to philosophical truth: “Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely”, and so forth.

Having thus unburdened himself, Hamlet’s thoughts return to death, and to the possibility of suicide. Echoing one of Seneca’s epistles, he notes that he might easily end his miseries with a “bare bodkin” (that is, an unsheathed dagger), were it not for the possibility that death might not, in fact, be the end. He thereby reaffirms the grim probabilism outlined a few lines earlier: on balance, one might as well live. Not a word on the immortality of his soul, or of the religious considerations that frame the existential angst of his first soliloquy. Compare the Tusculan Disputations. M. attempts to persuade A. of the soul’s immortality with what he, like Cicero, takes to be the foremost of his arguments: “nature herself offers silent confirmation of the immortality of souls, because all people are worried—indeed, deeply worried—about what will happen after death”. The universality of the fear confirms its naturalness, and its naturalness confirms the reality of the soul’s afterlife. Hamlet, however, takes the fear of being dead to be enough in and of itself. Like many later champions of natural religion, Cicero maintains that there are few “so mad, that [they] would continually live in labour and danger [laboribus et periculis]” without the nourishment of a belief in the immortality of souls, or the possibility of their name or deeds enduring in posterity. And yet for the young prince of the fourth soliloquy, these arguments are of no value: in a parodic repudiation of Cicero, the trials of life are only tolerable because death might comprise something even worse.

These pronouncements stand in stark contrast to the attitudes to suicide voiced by Hamlet when he first finds himself alone on the stage. Here, he rejects it on the grounds that “the Everlasting” has “fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-­slaughter” (1.2.131–32)—a view that, as I discuss below, is far from unproblematic on its own terms. How to makes sense of two such contradictory positions on what, for want of a better locution, might be called the sanctity of life? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hamlet pays attention to suicide as a form of posturing; that he pretends to engage with prospect of self-­murder because he is attracted to the image of himself disdaining the world, and because he has no intention of following through on the deed. Certainly, he ignores the severity with which suicide was condemned in early modern England on both secular and religious grounds—as he does the certainty that one found to have killed himself in his right mind would have his corpse desecrated, and would forfeit to the crown his goods, lands, and titles. We might further observe that in posturing thus, Hamlet follows his usual habit in giving voice to whatever his powers of rhetorical invention call to mind, irrespective of their pertinence or coherence. Determined to reiterate his claim that the uncertainties attendant on dying mean that suicide cannot offer a reliable way out, he not only ignores his own words along with Ciceronian, Boethian, and Christian notions of the soul’s immortality, but contrives to forget his lengthy exchange with an apparition that pretends to detailed knowledge of an (in some sense Christian) afterlife. In describing the land of the dead is an “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (3.1.79–80), his phrase-­making remains fluently commonplace, but his moral deliberations have stalled. Nor need one side with La Primaudaye to agree that they remain rather crude. All Hamlet can do is to recapitulate the resolutely un-­Boethian and un-­Ciceronian idea that fortuna should be endured because death could be worse. He is no closer to exemplifying or resolving the “to be, or not to be” with which he began. It is little wonder that in their Scornful Lady, Beaumont and Fletcher count on their audience to recognise something specious in Hamlet’s pronouncements on sleep and death.

Unperturbed, Hamlet draws his speech towards what serves as its peroration:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action. (3.1.84–88)

The most revealing word here is the repeated adverb “thus”, doing the work of the Latin ergo (rather than sic). It is taken straight from Polonius’s rhetorical playbook, and indexes the superficiality of the exercise in which Hamlet is engaged. After advising Reynaldo on how best to spy on Laertes in Paris, Polonius defaults to sententiousness: “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach / . . . By directions find indirections out” (2.1.64–66). A little later, while desperately trying to regain control after losing the thread of the conjecture he is presenting to Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s purported lovesickness, Polonius tries to foster the illusion of consequentiality: “Thus it remains; and the remainder thus” (2.2.104). The reality of the situation is that however many times Polonius might say “thus” (or therefore or accordingly), the illusion is transparent. He has no notion what he has been saying, and therefore has no way of connecting it to what he would like to say next—much less of implying that what he plans to say is a logical consequence of that which has gone before it. We laugh at his stuffy attempts to pretend otherwise.

We are not supposed to laugh at Hamlet’s repeated use of “thus”, but it plays an identically cosmetic role. It strains to give the impression of discursive muscularity where none exists. Unless we define being alive as an affair of ontological passivity—as a condition of significance only because it involves one neither killing oneself nor being dead—it is not at all clear that choosing to live can only be seen as the equivalent of not doing something. This holds true even if one accounts suicide an act of great courage. For one thing, by Hamlet’s own reckoning, the very fact of being alive compels one actively to contemplate death, and actively to suffer the various injustices of fortune. For another, in the absence of a belief in the immortality of souls, death can only be seen as a form of non-­being. That is, of nothingness. Had Hamlet argued that suicide was not worth it because death is an annihilation, and because seeking it would therefore accomplish nothing, then his parallelism might have held up. But he does not. His “thus” is the only thing holding together his thoughts on mortality with those on either enduring Fortune or fighting back against her. His “to be, or not to be” has been wholly forgotten.

The time has come to take stock. What happens in the fourth soliloquy, and why—dramatically—does it matter? Having been summoned to attend on Claudius and the court, Hamlet enters with a book (probably but not necessarily the Tusculan Disputations), unaware either of Claudius and Polonius in hiding or of Ophe­lia in his peripheral vision. He proceeds to approach a line of his reading as a rhetorical quaestio: “to be, or not to be”. As a quaestio it is not well chosen and Hamlet cannot bring it into focus. This is because, having just resolved to test his uncle’s murderous guilt through a performance of The Murder of Gonzago, his mind is elsewhere. Specifically, on the question of what he might do if he were satisfactorily to establish Claudius’s criminality: “If a do blench, / I know my course” (2.2.593).

What is that course to be? Should he tackle the fortuna (represented but not encompassed by the figure of his uncle) that encircles him by feigning the passion required to revenge? He does not know, and would rather not acknowledge that this is the case. “To be, or not to be” does not thus detain him for long, and he instead allows himself to wonder whether acting, like living, is really worth the effort. He continues to draw on the language of the Tusculan Disputations, but as with “to be, or not to be”, discards its governing assumptions. He professes to consider both death and suicide, but can never get past the boundaries of his own resentment: at the world, at his uncle, and at his mother—perhaps even at his father, or at least at his father’s ghost—for putting him in such an invidious position; at himself, for failing to feel or to cultivate the condign intensity that should belong to the loving son of a murdered father. It is this continued failure to experience the heat of vengefulness that leads to Hamlet’s concluding remarks. Through them, he fashions himself a fig leaf through which to protect his self-­image when seeing himself reflected in the mirror of other people, be they the inhabitants of Virgil’s Aeneid or his own Denmark: an excess of thinking has overwhelmed his “native hue of resolution”. A cognate impulse leads him to fixate on the possibility that the Ghost is a “foul imagination” when explaining to Horatio his plan to have a play performed before Claudius. With something apparently substantive to worry about, he need not acknowledge the real challenges of the situation into which he has been cast.

From the perspective of this chapter, the most important point to stress is that although Hamlet clearly regards himself as a philosopher, the thoughts to which he gives voice are the ill-­arranged and ill-­digested harvest of his bookish education. Shakespeare places an ironic distance between what Hamlet wants to believe he is saying and what he actually says. In this, the obvious benchmark is Polonius. We are habituated to thinking of the superficiality of the proverbs, commonplaces, sententia, saws, and observations that litter his discourse, just as we are to identifying the complacencies that detach his words from the world they would at once represent and influence. Sententious or proverbial patterns of speech, after all, easily lend themselves to the figure (and occasional trope) of irony, in which one thing is said and another is understood; for Erasmus, such language is often used to satirize those who esteem themselves virtuous enough to correct the vices of others. What the critical tradition has hitherto been reluctant to recognise is that Hamlet, despite the huge differences in temperament and character that distinguish him from Polonius, speaks—and apparently thinks—in very much the same fashion. They both, in the cautionary words with which Erasmus begins his De copia, strive for a “godlike power of speech”, but actually assemble “a meaningless heap of words and expressions without any discrimination, and thus obscure the subject they are talking about”.

At this point, if not before, I can imagine varieties of impatience breaking out in my readers. Instead of surrendering the text to pedantry, one should surely admire Hamlet’s soliloquies as an expression of Hamlet’s (and Shakespeare’s) negative capability: his skill at keeping all sides of an argument, howsoever contradictory, in play at the same time. Or, to frame it in a different critical idiom, one should enjoy the awareness that the poetic form of Hamlet’s soliloquies does the same work as the music in the Wagnerian model of opera; rather than serving formally decorative purposes, it transcends the referentially verbal and makes known emotions and yearnings and states of being that would otherwise remain ineffable or collapse into incoherence. The many imponderables and discordances of Hamlet’s soliloquies echo the unanswered “Who’s there?” with which the play begins, and serve as a sort of Tristan chord—albeit one that, even as Hamlet dies, he can neither consummate nor resolve. Precisely because he has so little to do with the dictates of rhetoric or logic, Hamlet emerges as the archetype of the poet as philosopher.

There is the germ of something revealing here. Clearly, Shakespeare’s point is not that the focal character of his ultra-­modern tragedy should be conflated with his elaboration of a Pantalone without the commedia. But the distance between Hamlet and Polonius is not as great as Hamlet and his admirers like to think. It is true that Hamlet speaks in a combination of lithe prose and a verse that sounds by turns plangent, witty, and unaffectedly natural, but this is only to affirm the distinction between poetry and mere verse of which Sidney, Puttenham, and their peers made so much. For them, it is the power of judicious invention that makes a true poet, not a simple facility with words. Beyond the fumblings of the love poem to Ophe­lia and the callow showiness of The Mousetrap, Shakespeare offers a far more disturbing depiction of the humanistic world: both the noble student and the experienced captain of statecraft are victims of a culture that is unable to recognise truth, and that in any case cares nothing for it.

As discussed at various points above, humanist conceptions of poetics and rhetoric teach that invention involves the identification, elaboration, and recombination of the authoritative and eloquent sayings of others. If the embryo poet or rhetor can accomplish this successfully, he will prepare an inventive bricolage, the authority and eloquence of which will win him the argument—or perhaps just praise and popularity. The propriety of these verbal mosaics is not thus judged by philosophical veracity or fidelity to their original settings (whether textual or contextual), but by their capacity to accomplish that which the speaker or writer has in mind. Affective power is everything, even if the act of raiding one’s commonplace book or memory in furtherance of a particular composition does violence to the works from which one’s commonplace book was stocked. For an Erasmus or an Ascham, this was no great cause for concern: loquacious malice may be able to overcome mute virtue, but true eloquence can only be attained if one’s res corresponds to truthfulness and virtuosity. But for the Shakespeare of Hamlet, reason and rhetoric are alike instruments of partiality—through which one can seek victory or the accomplishment of one’s desires, whatever character those desires might have. Virtue is an illusion with which to mislead others and oneself. In its place, the discursive faculties are controlled by appetite alone. Beyond the capacity to project an image of oneself calculated to please one’s audience (be that a jury, a lover, a mob, a legislative body, an audience of theatregoers, or even oneself), getting what one wants is the only criterion of success. Truth is incidental. In this most allusive of plays, itself inscribed over literary strata of still-­unresolved complexity, Shakespeare invites those invested in the humanist project to think again about the referential dynamics to which they have committed themselves. Whether they appreciate it or not, they have abandoned discrimination and discernment for mere impact—for the expedience and indifference to truth that delineate the bullshit artist.

Dull Revenge

Even that which we are used to treating as the representation of Hamlet’s greatest moral dilemma comprises an exercise in pretence and bad faith: his engagement with the morality of revenge. Crucially, although Hamlet implies various things about the nature of these moral deliberations, we never get to hear them in themselves. For reasons that I hope to make clear over the next few pages, this could hardly be otherwise.

Before turning directly to Hamlet and the morality of revenge, some scene setting might be helpful. In chapter 3, we noted the obvious dramatic counterpoint to Hamlet the revenger: Laertes, who reacts to the killing of Polonius with an impetuous rage that could not be further removed from the meta-­mnemonic agitation of Hamlet’s second soliloquy. In his own estimation, “Let come what comes, only I’ll be reveng’d / Most thoroughly for my father” (4.5.135–36). Laertes’s vindictive persona is common to the revenge tragedy tradition, but as Hamlet presents him as a study in unreflective and frequently self-­regarding impulsiveness, he cannot be used to measure the moral cavils about revenge that Hamlet is often said to evince. As it happens, he resembles more than just the slightly hackneyed figure of the neo-­Senecan revenger, and he inhabits the part of the non-­dramatic revenger as Shakespeare’s earliest audiences can be taken to have understood it. For instance, Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholie details how “rage, revenge, and furie, possesse both hart and head, and the whole bodie is caried with that storm, contrarie to the persuasion of reason”. La Primaudaye, whose chapters treating the passion of revenge explore the mental turmoil of one considering vengeance with boldly imaginative sympathy, is another case in point. An “angry man thinks of nothing but of revenge, insomuch that he forgetteth himselfe, and careth not what he doeth, or what harme he will light upon himselfe in so doing, so that he may be avenged”. He continues that “revenge is a motion of the heart”, in which the heart is “not unlike to a Prince or Captaine that is desirous to marche forwarde in battell aray”, driving on “the blood and spirites, as his men of warre, to repell the enemie”. So far, so straightforward. La Primaudaye even says a word about Laertes having to defer his vengeance against Hamlet: “And when power to revenge is wanting, there are some that fall into outrageous speeches, into horrible and execrable cursings, crying out for vengeance eyther at gods hand, or of some other that can perfourme it”.

How should one react if, after being wronged, one finds oneself moved to revenge? Although La Primaudaye grants that the intensity of emotions involved make such questions difficult, the short answer is that one should turn one’s eyes towards God. To remember not only the biblical injunction to abjure earthly vengeance, but that the crimes done to us must in some measure be divinely ordained:

Thus let us alwayes looke to the first cause of our affliction, and to God who visiteth us justly (whatsoever the meanes are which hee useth) and not to second causes and to the next meanes, to the end that we do not as dogges doe, which runne after the stone throwne against them, that by byting it they may be revenged of it, not looking unto him that threwe it. For if we consider that the blowe given unto us commeth from God, we will let the stone goe, and not followe after it with anger and revenge, but turne unto God who threwe it, and not stirre up our selves to despite him, to bee avenged of him, but to crave for pardon and grace at his handes. And this is the right way which wee are to take for the quenching of our choler, that so wee may bridle our anger, and keepe our selves quiet.

La Primaudaye also offers some more prudential thoughts with which to help us calm our rage. Because the wrongs done to us are commissioned by the souls of wrongdoers, and because only God can punish souls (the mortal revenger can only injure a wrongdoer’s body), all acts of revenge are doomed to fail. To fail, furthermore, while not only incriminating their authors in the eyes of God by trespassing on his eternal prerogatives, but while seeking to bypass the writ of the kings and magistrates that have been ordained for the administration of temporal justice.

While all of this gels perfectly with Laertes and his eventual downfall, the fact is that these ideas have not the least pertinence for Hamlet the revenger as he appears before us. Having failed to react to the Ghost’s revelations with more than the simulacrum of animalistic urgency, he pretends to have reasoned with himself in the manner stipulated by La Primaudaye. The advantages of this are dual. First, he can again prevent himself from having to confront the absence of the retributive emotions that he believes should occupy his heart. Second, he can foster the illusion that he cannot push ahead with his vengeance as expeditiously as he would like because he wrestling with the gravity of the decisions that circumstance has thrust upon him; by the end of the play, providence replaces the agonies of moral deliberation as his self-­exculpation of choice.

As Hamlet directly addresses vengeance so infrequently, returning to his thoughts on suicide provides us with a good way forwards: they serve as a lens through which to examine his attitudes to killing in general, and revenge killing in particular. Take his assertion that that “the Everlasting” has “fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-­slaughter” (1.2.131–32). The fourth soliloquy casts these lines in a disingenuous light, but of greater moment by far is that Hamlet’s claim about sacred scripture is in fundamental error. The Bible has nothing to say in condemnation of suicide, and in the case of Razias, narrated in 2 Maccabees 14:37–46—as, arguably, in the case of Jesus himself—might even be said to glorify suicide in a virtuous cause. The nearest one gets to an injunction against suicide is the commandment “thou shalt not kill”. It is to this text that Augustine turned when formulating the doctrine that suicide is a sin, itself a corrective to the tendency of some early Christians to end their own lives in an excess of self-­abnegating piety or martyrological ambition. Although Hamlet’s biblical case resembles some of the contra-­suicidal rhetoric heard from sixteenth-­century English pulpits (both employ sleight of hand to attribute to God a doctrine that properly belongs to the post-­Augustinian church), he employs it for non-­doctrinal reasons: to license the complaints that make up the rest of his first soliloquy. No need to end it all when you can, with appropriately histrionic regret, establish a safe space in which to sulk until the weather improves.

The assertion that God has “fix’d / His canon ’gainst self-­slaughter” has a more revealing aspect when juxtaposed with Hamlet's attitudes to revenge. It may have taken an Augustine to codify the implication that the sixth commandment prohibits suicide, but no such critical ingenuity is required to grasp its primary sense—namely, that one should not kill other people. But as Hamlet appears to meditate on the rights and wrongs of vengeance against Claudius for his father’s murder, he at no point pauses to reflect that the pursuit of retributive justice—lex talionis, an eye for an eye—might entail an action on his part that is prohibited by the express injunction of “the Everlasting”. Further, as he kills Polonius (rashly and inadvertently) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (rashly and deliberately) without so much a second thought, the commandment against homicide cannot be said to feature prominently in his thoughts. We will likewise look in vain for any reference in Hamlet to scriptural topos that serves as a staple of revenge tragedies and the anti-­revenge literature alike. In the words of the Vulgate, mihi vindictam ego retribuam dicit Dominus; or, in the more familiar Authorized Version, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”. Kyd’s Hieronimo grapples with the implications of Paul’s words at length, before creatively misreading Seneca in the act of deciding that he cannot leave what has to be done to God—whatever the consequences for his own spiritual well-­being. To cast this a little differently, Hieronimo acknowledges that he should not pursue revenge as a virtuous man, but believes that—feeling as he does—he has to do so anyway. In Aristotle’s terms, he gives way to akrasia (“incontinence”, or “lack of mastery”) and allows his passions to drive him to behaviour that he knows to be wrong. He understands exactly what is happening, but cannot help himself. By contrast, precisely because Hamlet experiences no inner conflict, resolution continues to elude him.

What of those occasions on which Hamlet does address vengeance directly? His third soliloquy notes that he has been prompted to it by “heaven and hell”, and he later impresses on Ophe­lia the claim that he is “very proud, revengeful, ambitious” (3.1.124–225). In the course of the Mousetrap he intrudes the croaking raven that urges Gonzago’s nephew to get on with it, and after Claudius has left in guilt or calculated rage, he declares himself ready to “drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on” (3.2.381–83). Maybe so, but he first intends to have harsh words with his mother. On his way to her closet, events call his bluff: he comes across a defenceless and unsuspecting Claudius, appearing to pray in the chapel. Hamlet baulks. Of the sixth soliloquy’s many remarkable features, perhaps the most striking is that only here do we see Hamlet dwell on exactly what his vengeance might entail. He imagines it in thoroughly idealised terms, right down to the intrusion of an unproblematically Christian afterlife of the sort that he otherwise disregards. In its turn, this idealisation—completely lacking in moral scruple, as critics from Samuel Johnson onwards have struggled to explain—suggests that Hamlet is only free to speak in this fashion because he has decided to shirk the deed.

When Hamlet arrives at his mother’s quarters and kills an unseen man who may or may not be Claudius, he confirms that his desire to avenge is only skin deep. His verbose superficiality, if not his delinquent swordsmanship, in its turn recalls his earlier admiration for those in whom “blood and judgement are so well commeddled” that they are “not passion’s slave”. Such perfectly Boethian specimens “are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger / To sound what stop she please” (3.2.67–71). Hamlet gives out that he has been so sorely provoked by Claudius’s villainy that, unlike Horatio, he cannot govern his feelings or resist Fortune’s caprice. Of course, the reality is that he has not been able to heat up his blood in an ostensibly good cause: he wants to be a slave to his blood in general, and the revenger’s madness in particular, but does not have it within his power to make himself so. Hamlet is as such the mirror image of Brutus as Shakespeare conceived him. Fashion it thus: Brutus expends a lot of energy trying to justify doing something about which he has already made up his mind; Hamlet pretends to weigh up an act that he has no desire, and therefore no ability, to accomplish. Mention of Brutus the Stoic suggests a further irony in Hamlet’s case. He signally fails to inhabit the role of the well-­tempered revenger imagined in Seneca’s De ira; one who avenges his dead father’s killers not because he feels overwhelmingly condign rage, but because it is what, on balance and as a loving son, he ought to do. Seneca’s ethics prescribe that the virtuous man should pursue vengeance without anger, but Shakespeare suggests that Seneca has it wrong. Without anger, revenge is just talk.

Hamlet’s final soliloquy shows him, for the first time, fully acknowledging his deficiencies as a revenger. Having hitherto offered no more than the flickering concession that he was “unpregnant” of his “cause” (2.2.563), he now points the finger directly and sustainedly at himself: “How all occasions do inform against me, / And spur my dull revenge” (4.4.32–33). Fortinbras’s willingness to march to battle puts Hamlet’s inaction to shame, and that shame is compounded by the fact that it is still not enough to make him act. Briefly, Hamlet flinches before what he has said, retreating to his imperfectly digested commonplaces about human nature and the suggestion, repeated from the fourth soliloquy, that “thinking too precisely on th’event” (4.4.41) has somehow prevented his vengeance from taking its course. But he soon returns to his theme. He cannot understand why he is still able only “to say this thing’s to do, / Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (4.4.44–46; emphasis mine). The question is a nice one, all the more so for one who has just chosen not to kill his apparently praying uncle on the stated grounds that it would be too kind a death, and who has just murdered Polonius without the least show of sorrow at taking a life. He has no desire to answer it. Instead, he poses the question several times more, before proclaiming that “from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4.4.65–66).

Although he causes three more people to die (four, if one includes Laertes) before his mortal coil unwinds, Hamlet’s thoughts are hereafter no more incarnadine than those he expressed before or during his seventh soliloquy. As we see in his initial response to the Ghost (where he tries to compensate for the lack of the mnemonic image that should, he believes, naturally prompt him to revenge), in the third soliloquy (where he plays at stirring himself into condign intensity through the examples of Hecuba, Pyrrhus, and Aeneas), and even in the Ghost’s appearance in the closet scene (which he instantly disregards), Hamlet simply cannot force his thoughts or feelings into the requisite bloodthirstiness. In sum, without such thoughts or feelings to move him, revenge remains an impossibility. This is why we never get to hear him deliberate on the moral implications of vengeance, and why he is so keen to affect that these deliberations have paralyzed him. Hamlet’s final soliloquy shows him struggling with his refusal to consider why he continues to fall so far short of his desired mark. Introspection is exhausted, and we never hear him soliloquise again. The tragedy of his self-­delusion pulses on.

Rough-­Hewn Providence

Throughout the play, the language of providentialism is invoked when characters would rather not confront some aspect of themselves, or when they would seek to accommodate themselves to a world that would otherwise overwhelm them. For instance, when he and Marcellus are debating what to do once Hamlet has followed the Ghost, Horatio responds to the famous “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” by suggesting that as this decay is beyond human redemption, they had—after all—better leave Hamlet to fend for himself: “Heaven will direct it”. Marcellus is unconvinced, and admonishes Horatio “Nay, let’s follow him” (1.4.90–92). Horatio speaks of providence to conceal his fear of the “issue” (1.4.89), or outcome, if he and Marcellus choose to pursue Hamlet and his father’s apparition. Likewise, shortly after hitting on his plan to entrap Claudius with a production of The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet asserts that “murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ” (2.2.589–90). And yet when it comes, the inset play offers no hint of revelation—whether miraculous or forensic. When confronted by the unhinged Hamlet that her pious coquetry has helped to create, Ophe­lia conforms to Elsinorian type: “O help him, you sweet heavens”; “Heavenly powers, restore him” (3.1.135, 143). Just as Laertes’s “Do you see this, O God?” (4.5.198) is no more than a placeholder for the pain he feels at beholding Ophe­lia’s insanity, so Ophe­lia’s entreaties express her feelings of regret and shattered impotence in the face of her lover’s emotionally destructive violence.

Despite his comments on the Ghost and the Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet’s most sustained engagements with the doctrine of providence occur in the last half of the play. They matter to this chapter, and demand to be treated in detail, because Hamlet’s providentialism not only sees his putative revenge hypostatise into something that exceeds his responsibility, but comprises the apotheosis of his masquerade as a moral and speculative philosopher. The summa of his bullshit.

Once he has run Polonius through with his sword, Hamlet addresses himself to the dead man’s corpse: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. / I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune”. Polonius’s fortuna has handed him the hard lesson that “to be too busy is some danger” (3.4.31–33). Later, after he has railed at Gertrude and been confronted by the Ghost for a second time, Hamlet repeatedly tries to take his leave in authoritative fashion—only for something else to occur to him. After the second of his four attempts to say “good night”, he claims to “repent” of Polonius’s death, and does so in a very particular way. Polonius’s end is no longer unlucky. Instead,

heaven hath pleas’d it so,

To punish me with this and this with me,

That I must be their scourge and minister.

I will bestow him, and will answer well

The death I gave him. (3.4.175–79).

The pretty balance of Hamlet’s antimetabole (“me with this and this with me”) works to occlude his spite: the “this” in question is Polonius, at whose bleeding corpse Hamlet now gestures. It has, Hamlet contends, pleased heaven to punish both Hamlet and Polonius with Polonius’s killing: Polonius through being killed; Hamlet through the possibility of wrongdoing in having killed him. But Hamlet gives no indication of feeling troubled. As he did not intend to kill Polonius, he can only have done so as an instrument of divinity; and, as Augustine makes clear with reference to biblical figures like Samson, to kill by divine ordinance is not only an acceptable transgression of the sixth commandment, but a virtuous one. In another hendiadys, Hamlet transforms himself into the “scourge and minister” of heaven—an agent constrained to inflict corrective or retributive pain on heaven’s behalf, as if administering a flogging with a whip. Although anyone could in theory serve as flagellum dei, such scourges tended to be monarchs—that is, the anointed representatives of divinity on earth, with the capacity to punish as many sinners as a plague or famine.

Like Hamlet itself, let’s pass over in silence the possibility of demonic possession leading one to believe that one is an agent of providence. Better to concentrate on what Hamlet’s providentialism tells us about his state of mind. Indubitably, his decision to abandon fortune, chance, and contingency for providence—for a doctrine in which everything, be it quotidian or extraordinary, is ordained by God—chimes well with the Christianity of sixteenth-­century England, whose variously reformed manifestations sought to banish fate and the goddess Fortuna as corrupt and corrupting interpolations of the truth. All the more striking that Hamlet should turn providential immediately after that revenant of medieval Catholicism, the Ghost, finally departs the stage for good. But the significance of this moment is far from confessional—other, perhaps, than as a parody of puritan habits of speech. Instead, Hamlet seizes on providence as lending itself to a form of opportunistic delusion. As such, and not for the first time in the play, Hamlet invites comparison with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Once he has established his empire, Tamburlaine dignifies the insatiably aggressive appetites that have just led him to murder his son:

these terrours and these tyrannies

(If tyrannies wars justice ye repute)

I execute, enjoin’d me from above,

To scourge the pride of such as heaven abhors:

Nor am I made Arch-­monark of the world,

Crown’d and invested by the hand of Jove,

For deeds of bounty or nobility:

But since I exercise a greater name,

The Scourge of God and terrour of the world,

I must apply my selfe to fit those tearmes,

In war, in blood, in death, in crueltie,

And plague such Pesants as resist in me

The power of heavens eternall majesty.

Like Tamburlaine, Hamlet has no interest in theological nicety but finds the absence, or extreme disengagement, of God or the gods to be of use in manufacturing the self-­dramatizations required to get through the day. As Hamlet would rather not admit that he could not care less about having inadvertently murdered Polonius, providence it is. If he gets to feel like a king by framing his actions in this manner, so much the better.

This exercise in glib expedience prefigures the artful way in which Claudius will face down Laertes’s rebellion: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king” that Laertes should tread carefully (4.5.123). Claudius the regicide knows that the providentially guarded nature of kingship rests on pretence, but he also grasps the place of such fictions within efficient statecraft. Claudius’s smoke and mirrors with divine right theory is neither sincere nor serious in its engagement with Christian doctrine, and thereby replicates Hamlet’s self-­appointment as the scourge and minister of God. As ever, the difference between them is that while Claudius knows his words to be bogus, Hamlet does not care what he says as long as it enables him to carry on in his preferred fashion. He waves at repentance in the middle distance, before concluding that as he did not intend to kill Polonius and as he could thus have killed him only through the intervention of providence, he has done nothing for which he need repent. The compromises and caprice of fortuna pushed to one side, he confidently declares that he can “answer well / The death I gave him”. Even Richmond, never short of self-­assurance and definitively on the right side of Shakespearean ­history (I can think of no other Shakespearean character whose appeals to providence are not made to seem ridiculous or transparently self-­serving), evinces more humility. Alone and readying himself for combat at Bosworth, he addresses God directly: “O Thou, whose captain I account myself, / . . . Make us Thy ministers of chastisement, / That we may praise Thee in the victory”. Hamlet has no need of such entreaties. Somehow or other, he knows. He returns his attentions to his mother. And, after a third abortive attempt at a “good night”, presents her with a sententious couplet that lurches from the invocation of providence to self-­styled theodicy: “I must be cruel only to be kind. / This bad begins, and worse remains behind” (3.4.180–81).

Belleforest’s Amleth provides another telling point of comparison. Towards the end of his revenge story, he informs the Danish court that in killing his uncle, he has been “le ministre et executeur de si juste vengeance”. His listeners approve his claim, and duly elect him to the throne in his uncle’s place. Directly or indirectly (the possibility of the Ur-­Hamlet again), this description is likely to have put Shakespeare in mind of the lines he gives to Hamlet, but the distance that Shakespeare puts between himself and his source is, as usual, what matters. To style oneself the minister and executioner of just vengeance, thereby emphasising both one’s commitment to a form of justice and one’s willingness to bear personal risk and responsibility, may be a touch self-­righteous—but makes good sense. As Linda Woodbridge has recently observed, one might even amplify Augustine’s notion of divinely ordained killing and comprehend a planned act of vengeance in providential terms. But to style oneself the “scourge and minister of God” after an impulsive stab at what might have been vengeance, and after accidentally killing the wrong man, goes beyond special pleading. It is an expression of hubristic nonsensicality—an attempt to diminish personal agency so as to evade responsibility for what one has done.

Nonsensical or not, the paradoxical freedoms offered by professing one’s submission to providence are ones that Hamlet will neither forgo nor forget. If the rhetoric of providence can account for an impulsive but accidental murder, then it can be made to account for other acts, be they impulsive or premeditated. Although the thought does not occur to Hamlet until after his final soliloquy, it can also offer explanations for things that one has not done but that one feels one should do. God must have something in mind, and we should wait patiently until his plans coincide with our desires. From Hamlet’s perspective in the closet scene, a further advantage of providence is that it belongs to the eternal order of things, not to the temporality and historicity: whatever the ghostly apparition of one’s father might urge, placing oneself at the disposal of forces outside time obviates the need to remember the past. It takes away the compulsion to will, trick, or cajole oneself into a mnemonic intensity to which, happily or unhappily, one would otherwise feel bound. However out of joint the time might be, why bother setting it right when you can do God’s work instead? The more so if God’s work also leads to worldly success of one kind or another. Perhaps even to the Danish throne, divinely anointed as all such royal accessions must be. The crowning irony, unknown to Hamlet and his audience alike, is that killing Polonius has inadvertently settled Hamlet’s fortune: notwithstanding any punishment issuing from Claudius or the Danish state, Laertes’s passionate counter-­revenge will see his end.

More immediately, Hamlet’s abandonment of fortune for providence turns out to be deadly for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—his vices less dangerous than his assumption of virtue. After describing his escape from the ship taking him to England through an encounter with pirates, Hamlet’s letter to Horatio promises that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he has “much to tell” (4.6.26). When he gets around to telling it after the extended interlude in the graveyard, his freshly burnished providentialism appears front and centre. Relating that he had been unable to sleep en route to England, he tells Horatio that he acted “rashly” (5.2.6). Before explaining himself, he launches into a lengthy parenthesis:

And prais’d be rashness for it: let us know

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well

When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-­hew them how we will— (5.2.7–11)

As the death of Polonius has already suggested, sometimes over-­hasty acts or ill-­conceived schemes are, in fact, all parts of the providential scheme. “That is most certain”, responds Horatio unimpeachably. Come what may, his lot is to hear out Hamlet’s tale.

The story that Hamlet recounts goes as follows. After giving up on the prospect of sleep, Hamlet dresses himself and goes to look for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He finds them asleep, discovers the “packet” they were conveying for Claudius, removes it, and returns to his room. Once there, he opens the packet and reads its contents: a letter from Claudius requesting that the English king decapitate Hamlet for the sake of Anglo-­Danish relations. Hamlet reacts by counterfeiting a new letter to replace the original. In this, he requests that the English king put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “to sudden death” (5.2.46), a spectacle that he presumably intends to witness. He then seals the letter with his father’s signet ring—which he happened to have in his “purse”, and which was “the model of that Danish seal” used by Claudius. No good luck, this, but something in “heaven ordinant” (5.2.48–50). He places the forged letter where there original had been, and leaves things to take their course: “the next day / Was our sea-­fight, and what to this was sequent / Thou knowest already” (5.2.53–55).

Once the conversation has moved on from the unhappy end to which Hamlet has consigned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (about which Horatio seems uneasy), Hamlet lists his reasons for wishing to see Claudius die: murdering Old Hamlet, marrying Gertrude, having “Popp’d in between the election [to the Danish throne] and my hopes”, and contriving Hamlet’s extra-­judicial execution (5.2.63–67). No mention of the injunction to revenge. Horatio neither agrees nor disagrees, but does venture the view that if Hamlet proposes to kill Claudius, he will need to be swift: the news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death will soon be delivered from England. Hamlet is unperturbed: “It will be short. The interim is mine” (5.2.73). “Interim” recalls the “phantasma or hideous dream” to which Brutus likened the space between decision and deed, and suggests that Hamlet’s assurance is misplaced. After all, he has sent Claudius a letter forewarning him of his return to Denmark. Given the terminal nature of the journey that Claudius had originally arranged for him, it would be reasonable for Hamlet to assume that plans will have been made for his arrival, even without the news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Add in Hamlet’s angry confrontation with Laertes in Ophe­lia’s grave, and the “interim” begins to look as contested and as disorienting as everything else in Elsinore.

Shakespeare makes us wait to learn why Hamlet takes such a different view. Horatio worries that once Hamlet has accepted the invitation to test his mettle—and his uncle’s wager—against Laertes’s swordsmanship, he will lose the fencing match. Perhaps on account of the generosity of the odds (Laertes needs not only to beat Hamlet, but to do so by three clear hits), Horatio also implies that the contest might have been rigged. In response, Hamlet is coolly self-­possessed. For one thing, he claims to “have been in continual practice” since Laertes departed for France, and is confident in his preparedness (5.2.206–7). But he also contends that as God—rather than Claudius or Laertes—will orchestrate the action ahead, he can have no reason to worry:

We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be. (5.2.212–20)

Gone is the conviction of Hamlet’s own super-­eminent status as an instrument of providence; lacking the foresight of the Everlasting, he cannot be certain what is going to happen next and has no idea whether the status he takes to have been bestowed upon him in killing Polonius and having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed is set to continue. If it is, then Hamlet may get to kill Claudius; if not, all manner of thing may still be well. And yet this circularity of argument fuels the suspicion that Hamlet continues to cherry-­pick arguments to suit his whims, and that his commitment to providence is a façade. More on this presently. Suffice it to say that he begins by talking about the pagan practice of avian divination, is prompted by this to invoke a specifically Christian form of providence, continues with some grammatically demanding pseudo-­profundities worthy of Yoda, nods to the moral and rhetorical concept of kairos (the most opportune moment at which to do something), and ends with the strikingly un-­Christian thought that as one has no way of knowing how the mortal existence one leaves behind at death would otherwise have played out, there can be no reason to fear dying sooner than one might expect.

In making sense of this, I turn again to Boethius’s De consolatione. At the beginning of its culminating fifth book, the prisoner challenges Lady Philosophy to explain the distinction between providence and chance (casus). As an example of chance she quotes Aristotle’s discussion of a farmer who, in the course of tilling his fields, happens upon a hoard of treasure that has been buried there by an unknown other. Neither the farmer nor the person who previously buried his treasure intended this outcome, but their two intentions collided and thereby generated an adventitious event, or accident. Or, rather, what usually goes by that name: for Boethius, such happenings are not as random (temerarius) as they might seem. Casus is akin to fortuna (after Aristotle, fortuna is the category of chance pertaining to human affairs), and as Lady Philosophy spells out towards the end of book 4, the caprice of fortuna is like the remainder of creation in being subservient to the eternal order of providence. Or, more precisely, to the temporal expression of providence—fate (fatum). Providence proposes; fate disposes; fortune and chance obey; philosophy helps humankind to understand. Lady Philosophy cites Aristotle’s Physics as the authority for her definition of casus, but although the Physics contains the disquisition on chance and luck that shapes her remarks, her attribution is in error. In fact, Aristotle’s illustration of chance through the inadvertent discovery of buried treasure occurs in the Metaphysics. Immediately after this, Aristotle’s text offers another example of a chance ­occurrence, one that demands the close attention of any Shakespearean: the sea traveller who ends up on unexpected shores after being captured by pirates, or having been carried there by a storm. We will never know whether or not Shakespeare was directly familiar with the Metaphysics, but it is certainly possible. Either way, it can be no accident that a playwright who has so decisively grasped the core of Boethius’s De consolatione, to say nothing of the allegorical relationship between fortuna and seafaring, has chosen to have his philosopher prince treat as providential an unexpected turn of events that matches so closely the textbook definition of chance or fortune. It remains to determine what the dramatic significance of this decision might be.

Elizabeth I’s translation of the De consolatione points us in the right direction. As her editors note, one of this text’s curiosities is that Elizabeth interprets Boethius’s temeritas and its cognates as connoting “rashness”. At one level, this is entirely comprehensible. For instance, when translating temeritas, temere, and temerarius, Thomas Cooper offers variations on “rashnesse”, “foolihardinesse”, “harebrained”, acting “without consideration, regard, or good grounde”, and being “more hardie than needeth & wisdom requireth”. The problem is that temeritas as Boethius uses it has a specific technical sense connoting randomness or haphazardness. This derives from Epicurean physics, where temeritas governs the motions of the atoms that have, in time, swerved together to form the physical universe. If not in Cooper’s league, Elizabeth was an extremely competent Latinist. Nonetheless, her humanistic training—committed to the useful learning of the vita activa—did not take in the speculative, and possibly abstruse, matters with which Boethius is here concerned; her translation distorts them accordingly.

So what? Well, the knowledge that Boethian temeritas was so readily misconstrued by a reader of the De consolatione equips us to glance again both at Hamlet’s claim to have acted “rashly” in the North Sea, and at his grander “And prais’d be rashness for it”. I do not know whether Shakespeare misread Boethius in the fashion of his monarch, or whether he wants his audience to infer that any misreading belongs to Hamlet. Probably the former. But at the very least, having “rashly” so closely followed by “rashness” shows Shakespeare’s understanding of the different kinds of work being asked of “rashness” in relation to Boethian fortuna. Hamlet has acted “without consideration, regard, or good grounde”, but has succeeded despite doing so, not in virtue of it; his saviour has in reality been the randomness of human events over which Fortuna presides. Precipitate luck, with no whit of providence to be deduced. Given Boethius’s emphasis on chance occurrences taking place when human intentions inadvertently collide, it is appropriate that Hamlet should prefigure his confrontation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he does: “O, ’tis most sweet / When in one line two crafts directly meet” (3.4.211–12). For all the heat with which Hamlet protests the providential integrity of his behaviour after the murder of Polonius, the vocabulary and assumptions with which he does so are incontestably the domain of Fortuna.

This conflicted approach to providence also colours Hamlet’s response to Horatio’s concern about the fencing match. Hamlet begins with the classical art of augury: before waging war, holding an election, passing a law, or getting married, the Romans would consult their gods by having an augur take the auspices. Augury did not thus predict the future, but offered guidance as to whether a proposed course of action was likely to proceed favourably; famously, Caesar ignores it when visiting the Senate on the Ides of March. In its original form, augury involved observing the flight and behaviour of birds, but it came to include a range of other practices—most prominently, reading the entrails of animals killed in votive sacrifice. If it were not for what Hamlet says next, we would have no way in which to determine what sort of augury he has in mind, or indeed whether he has any clear picture of augury at all. As it happens, thinking about augury puts him in mind of the flight of sparrows. Despite the use to which Homer’s Odysseus puts them, these were not birds to which the Roman augurs turned for premonitory signs. But as critics of the play have long been aware, Hamlet’s thoughts have shifted to another religious milieu. Roman augurs concentrated on birds like the eagle, but the very lowliness of the sparrow made it a fitting emblem through which Jesus, as recorded by his disciple Matthew, could illuminate the all-­encompassing nature of Christian providence. Likewise Jean Calvin, for whom sparrows were an example not only of providence in general, but of special providence in particular: God takes care of creation as an architectonic whole, but also regulates the most apparently trifling or accidental happenings within it.

How are we to regard this juxtaposition of Roman and Christian religion? Most obviously, Hamlet means to suggest that as his situation since returning to Denmark transcends even divination, then Horatio’s counsel can be of no use in shaping his conduct. He cannot say exactly what he will do, but he will do it because providence has determined that he will do it, and because he can therefore do no other. His argument appears to be girded with unfalsifiably bleak solidity. The revealed truth of sacred scripture tells us that things, as they must, lie in the path that God has set for them; human beings can neither influence nor understand what course this path might take, and can only accept their place on it graciously. And yet this forcefulness relies on stylised opacity—on the elision of clarity and coherence. Had Hamlet claimed that his predicament denies augury, his jump to providence would be easier to swallow. But he claims to defy it as if he were the embodiment of Machiavellian virtú on the field of battle. One cannot defy something that does not exist, and Christian providence makes it quite plain that the divinatory claims of pagan religion are an idolatrous sham. Either the Christian or the Roman view of the matter may be right; both views, likewise, might be wrong. But as the claims of Christian providence are exclusive, they cannot both be right. Habituated in the techniques of rhetorical bricolage, Hamlet will say anything that springs to mind, irrespective of its logical incoherence or indifference to truth.

However ill-­founded, Hamlet’s shift from augury to biblical sparrows leaves him feeling well set to deny his own agency and, by extension, Horatio’s ability to guide it. He moves to consolidate his position through fluent sophistry: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come”. Is he speaking of death? Revenge? Sleep? Love? The Danish throne? A blow, whether overwhelming or underhand, from Claudius or Laertes? We are never told, and the question is probably misconceived: the “it” is deliberately indefinite rather than indeterminate. Hamlet submits that everything is subject to providence as he describes it, and that everything will therefore come to pass in the season and manner that has been ordained for it. There is no need to discuss things further.

Hamlet now informs Horatio that “the readiness is all”. This is harder to parse. On the most basic level, he alludes to, and shapes to resolve, his earlier frustration that “all occasions inform against me” (4.4.32)—henceforth, he will be ready to do what needs to be done whenever the opportunity arises to do it. But this reading is more complicated than it might seem. As elsewhere in Hamlet, “occasion” signifies not simply a point in time, but the instant of opportunity or favourable circumstance; what in Latin is called occasio, and in Greek καιρός (kairos). The power to seize such opportunities was taken to be as vital to rhetorical performance as to statecraft, warfare, or seduction. In claiming readiness, Hamlet does not thus simply reiterate his confidence in his well-­practised swordsmanship. Echoing the indefinite “it” of his previous lines, he implies that he is primed to act in whatever way circumstances might demand of him; further, that whatever he does will be justified by its success in the moment at which he does it. Here, however, he leads himself into a confusion that dwarves his earlier juxtaposition of Roman and Christian religious beliefs: he cannot simultaneously serve providence and remain the gravitational centre, as he sees it, of events at his uncle’s court. That which makes providence appealing to Hamlet is that which means he cannot arrogate it to his own ends. Providential decision-­making does not belong to human beings and does not belong in time—much though its operations might alter the course of temporal events.

The problem comes into sharper focus if we consider the close early modern correlation of kairos and occasio with Fortuna; by the end of the sixteenth century, they even came to share an iconography. It follows that the ability to seize the moment requires the same masculine virtuosity that enables one to conquer the strumpet Fortune. Urging Cassius to march against their Caesarian foes as soon as possible, Brutus offers a fine illustration of what this might mean in practice:

Our legions are brimful, our cause is ripe.

The enemy increaseth every day;

We, at the height, are ready to decline.

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune:

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat,

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures.

If not now, when? Brutus is right. Shakespeare, moreover, makes him right in exemplary fashion: strong, brave, worldly, intelligent, clearly reasoned. But his urgings are ignored by Cassius, and he lacks the charisma or rhetorical art with which to impose his will. The currents of the drama to which Brutus belongs reduce his wisdom to futility.

Hamlet’s assertion that the “readiness is all” proves to be no more seasonable than Brutus’s sense of occasio. But in Hamlet’s case, this could hardly be otherwise. He pays no heed to the forms that such readiness would need to take in order to answer the challenges that are likely to face him. He refuses to contemplate the ends that Laertes and Claudius might seek, ignores the ways in which the pursuit of these ends might impede his own pursuit of Claudius’s life, and entirely neglects the means through which he and they might attempt to realise their conflicting goals. He instead shrouds himself in a doctrine whose obliviousness to temporal contingencies—whose place sub specie aeternitatis—means that it can only be appreciated by submitting oneself to its inscrutabilities with carefully cultivated philosophical humility. Somehow, this doctrine will ensure his success in the historical moment. To call Hamlet’s position a paradox would do it a disservice. It is fundamentally divided against itself. Simultaneously tangled and disjointed, his attempts to splice together fortuna and providence—engagement and detachment, agency and passivity—result in a union that is not even cosmetic. Just as Hamlet uses the language of fortuna to elaborate the providence that he feels to be his after authoring the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, so he refuses to see that although the providential order within which he now identifies himself may define all aspects of life in Elsinore, its design can only be discerned from the upper reaches of the ontological hierarchy. Well might Horatio keep his own counsel.

Untroubled by his failure to make any sort of sense, Hamlet concludes on a note of recapitulation and emotional force. In revisiting questions of death and the afterlife, he implies that the “it” for which he has just announced himself ready (or ready when providence decrees) is the business of dying. No doubt he delivers his lines with the spiritual heft of the preacher, but the tortured complexity of his syntax works to obscure an apprehension of death and of the afterlife that remains wholly bound within the material world, and that is Senecan rather than Christian in its assumptions. Any champion of providence might venture an erotesis like “what is’t to leave betimes?”, but it takes Hamlet to do so while fixating to the exclusion of all else on the conditions of mortal living. Not a word about eternal life in the bosom of God and his angels; nothing of redemption or punishment; living and dying on earth is all. Consistency, like comprehensibility, crumbles at the touch. Hamlet even excludes the possibility that he holds out the prospect of dying for something in the fashion of a Laertes (“Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father” [4.5.138–39]) or a Feeble (for the sake of his bravery and commitment to King Henry’s cause). He can only envisage himself as a part of the world to which he belongs, but that he disdains; he detaches himself from it by abdicating responsibility for his conduct to providence. That is, to an order of things that, on the evidence before us in the play, Hamlet takes to exist in virtue of its occasional coalescence with his own desires. Such an order, if it exists in the Boethian and Christian forms that Hamlet’s account of it traduces, is shaped by concerns that are entirely incommensurate with Hamlet’s own. It is grotesquely apt that when Hamlet encounters Laertes straight after holding forth to Horatio, he drops providence as his self-­exculpation of choice: “Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet. . . . Who does it then? His madness” (5.2.229–33). Anything will do.

Before the final scenes of King Lear, Edgar tries to keep his blind and disconsolate father on the straight and narrow: “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither. / Ripeness is all. Come on”. The weakened Gloucester concurs, and pulls himself together; at the same time, Shakespeare’s tragedy works to reveal Edgar’s impoverished sententiousness of vision. Cordelia’s mortality feels anything but ripe. She dies not on account of the gods, but through a series of mischances attendant on what Edmund rightly calls “the time”. Once Edmund has issued his secret order that she be hanged, any possibility of rescue is removed by Edgar’s determination to have his moment while unburdening himself of his obtusely self-­vindicating story. “The gods defend her”, entreats Albany, immediately before Lear enters with her corpse. To state my claim as baldly as possible, Hamlet’s providential “readiness” is no more meaningful than Edgar’s providential “ripeness”—which at least has the merit of dissuading Gloucester from suicide. Far from being “all”, it represents nothing other than Hamlet’s governing need to sound, and therefore to feel, in control.

One of the most bewildering features of Hamlet criticism is the ingenuity that has so often, and so variously, been expended in reading Hamlet’s providential language straight. His sea voyage, like Augustine’s crisis of the soul in his Milanese garden, is an episode of spiritual renewal through faith and the inner acknowledgement of the divine; one that enables him to realise his vengeance with bloody hands but a spotless soul. No doubt it helps that such readings sit so comfortably with the notions of περιπέτεια (peripeteia; a surprise reversal of the situation) and ἀναγνώρισις (anagnorisis; the recognition and self-­recognition attendant on peripeteia) that are important to the Aristotelian model of tragic plotting. Others, Roy Battenhouse chief amongst them, have noticed that Hamlet’s providentialism is a self-­contradictory mess, but argued from there that the dramaturgy of Hamlet vindicates the divine ordination of human affairs: Shakespeare sends Hamlet to hell for his crimes, and for his unrepentant attitude to them. More recently, it has been proposed that Hamlet and Hamlet alike show Shakespeare capturing a historical moment in which secularity (qua fortune and time) was comprehended under the aegis of religion (qua providence and eternity); on this account, to understand Hamlet’s status as an outrider of modernity, one must understand that modernity has religious origins.

It is frequently said that the experience of great literature enables us to discover aspects of ourselves that might otherwise have remained hidden from view; dwelling on Hamlet and providence has proved, for me, to be a case in point. I find myself in partial agreement with Harold Bloom: “Hamlet, toward the close, employs some Christian vocabulary, but he swerves from Christian comfort into a Dionysian consciousness, and his New Testament citations become strong misreadings of both Protestant and Catholic readings of the text”. Partial agreement because Bloom’s Nietzschean insistence on “Dio­nysian consciousness” defies the text just as much as the determination to construe its denouement as an—admittedly taxing—exercise in religious score-­settling. The same is true of those critics who have sought versions of Stoic rather than Christian coherence underpinning Hamlet’s conduct the end of the play. At risk of repeating the point once too often, Hamlet’s language in Act 5—like that in Acts 1 through 4—is designedly incoherent, and reveals a character whose philosophical reach exceeds his grasp. It goes without saying that Hamlet is many things, and that the way in which he has been characterized resists distillation. Without question, however, he serves as a representative embodiment both of humanism in its terminal phase and of the personal, familial, and political worlds that this humanistic culture distorts. As critics, our task is not to make Hamlet more decorous by squeezing his language into some sort of discursive corset, but to understand what the dramatic significance of his philosophical incoherence might be. All told, although it is true that we experience Hamlet differently after his return to Denmark, the explanation for this does not involve some transformation in his character or cast of mind on or after the voyage to England. (Recall that he turns to providence before setting sail.) It is simply that we no longer hear him soliloquise. He carries on switching back and forth between prose and verse, and the quality of his thought remains the same.

In any event, the action of the play soon shows up Hamlet’s assumption of philosophical and providential detachment for what it is. Just as the passionately angry way in which he kills Claudius gives the lie to the suggestion of his Stoic equanimity or Epicurean tranquility, so it becomes abundantly clear that providence has no discernible interest in the worlds of either Hamlet or Hamlet. And that the worlds of Hamlet and Hamlet—with the, in all respects, atypical exception of Claudius in the chapel scene—have no more substantive interest in providence than they do in the immortality of the soul. Consider Hamlet’s silence on the Christian afterlife as he prepares to breathe his last. He is desperate to ensure that he lives on as a “name” in history, and as a “name” in history alone: “in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story” (5.2.349–53). Some readiness; Hamlet sounds like nothing so much as Othello distracting himself from his impending damnation by entreating the Venetians to speak of him as he would like to be spoken of once he is dead. Or take the exquisite timing with which Shakespeare affirms and reaffirms something at which he has hitherto only hinted. Hamlet may be the scourge and minister of God, kings may be hedged with divinity, and there may be providence in the behaviours of any or all species of bird—but in Denmark, the throne is in the gift of worldly electors (5.2.65, 360). Of course it can be argued that, like the outcome of a trial-­by-­combat, the electors themselves are subject to providential ordinance. But the jolt is unmistakable and immediate, especially to an audience habituated to ideas of primogeniture and royal blood. The Everlasting is that little bit further away from the everyday, however much it might suit monarchs or would-­be monarchs to claim otherwise.

Granted that Fortinbras is unencumbered by religious belief or anything else that might moderate what he wants and what he thinks he can get, he vividly illustrates the point. Rather than invoking providence or thanking God for his accession to the Danish throne, his thoughts are temporal and historical. However specious his “rights of memory” might be, his “vantage” legitimises them in the moment. While on his way to Poland, Hamlet praised his achievements for defying “all that fortune, death, and danger dare” (4.4.52). Now, as he half-­serendipitously grabs the Danish throne, Fortinbras confirms this understanding of how things have, for him, come to pass: “I embrace my fortune” (5.2.393). He feels no need even to play at religiosity. Horatio gives every indication that he understands his new master’s godlessly appetitive mindset; at this point in time, probably better than Fortinbras does himself. Picking up on Gertrude’s intuition that the outcome of the fencing match depends on “fortune” (5.2.292), he no longer pretends that heaven directs anything: “So you shall hear / . . . Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / . . . And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads” (5.2.385–90).

Horatio’s words elaborate those of the Player King, who gently suggests that his wife’s avowals of unending love might be oversold: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown: / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own” (3.2.206–8). Here, for once, the worlds of Hamlet and its inset play can meaningfully be said to coalesce. They are governed by fortuna and by the effects of time; if there is a pattern to them, it comes not from the divine or from some other transcendent force, but from the often unforeseen and unavoidable consequences of human behaviour. Chance occurrences, in the strictest Aristotelian and Boethian sense. Although this curiosity reflects importantly on the moral and dramatic structures of 
the play (if human affairs are no more than one inconsequential happening after another, how to sustain the order demanded by tragic or comedic form?), it has too often passed unremarked. But it did not escape Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Hamlet “is almost the only play of Shakespeare in which mere accidents, independent of all will, form an essential part of the plot”. Regrettably, Coleridge’s preoccupation with Hamlet’s character did not allow him to pursue this insight very much further.

J.G.A. Pocock has written powerfully of the Greek tradition in historiography helping to define history writing as “an exercise in political ironies”, of telling “an intelligible story of how men’s actions produce results other than those they intended”. In what the title pages of Q1 and Q2 call The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Shakespeare sets himself a similar task—one in which the contingencies, caprice, and necessity of historical events are allowed to overwhelm and ultimately transform the philosophical, and frequently providential, plotting of humanist tragedy. Shakespeare thereby depicts a world akin to the Epicurean cosmos of Lucretius’s De rerum natura. Here, although the gods exist, it is as if they don’t; they are indifferent or idle, and take no part in the operations of natural or human life; providence is a delusion or wishful thinking. When considering the moral vision that animates Hamlet, the resemblance is real and significant. But Shakespeare, never content to regurgitate the ideas of others, pushes things further: he differs from the Epicureans in two crucial respects. First, for Shakespeare—that is, for the Shakespeare of Hamlet—the existence of God or the gods is not a given. Second, the Epicurean gospel of detachment, tranquility, and the pursuit of pleasure is every bit as much of a self-­serving falsehood as the belief in providence. Like humanist moral philosophy, it comprises a form of existential camouflage. Something with which to conceal oneself and one’s appetites from potential predators or prey—or from the mirror.

More on questions of genre and classification in the concluding chapter. How, given this final disavowal of providence, are we to interpret the quality of Hamlet’s philosophical persona? We have already seen Shakespeare figure Hamlet as the equivalent of the arrogantly misguided pseudo-­philosopher depicted in books 1 and 2 of Boethius’s De consolatione, but we can usefully probe this characterisation further. Take the prisoner’s self-­pitying lament at 1.met.5, to which Hamlet nods in his complaints about “Th’oppressor’s wrong” and 
“the proud man’s contumely”. As Seth Lerer has shown in illuminating and persuasive detail, this poem assimilates a Senecan poetic and philosophical persona: it derives from the lines spoken by the Chorus at the end of the Phaedra, entreating that natura regulate fortuna in the same way that it regulates the operations of the cosmos—lines that, as discussed in chapter 2, Seneca’s dramaturgy exposes as blind to the nature of natura and to the place of humankind (and of fortuna) within it. The prisoner’s philosophical shortcomings, and personal sufferings, are thereby shown to arise from his inclination to play the part of Roman philosopher while neglecting the harder truths of providence and the immortality of the soul. These harder truths are that to which Lady Philosophy stands by to open his mind.

Part of this enlightenment involves getting the prisoner to realise the limitations of the theatrical mode. Early on, for example, Lady Philosophy disparages the Muses of poetry as scenicas meretriculas, or what Elizabeth I translates as “harlots” of the stage. In the standard Platonic formulation, amplified in the Puritan anti-­theatrical literature, their adulterations are concerned with winning applause and fame, not with understanding things as they are. Even tragedies, she explains, are no more than pretending to profundity while depicting the caprice of Fortuna in raising men up and casting them down: “What does tragedy’s clamor more bewail than . . . turning happy reign by blind Fortune’s stroke?” Later still, Lady Philosophy adapts the theatrum mundi topos to illustrate the transience and insubstantiality of life at the feet of Fortuna. The truth lies with the divine playwright. Although this cannot fully be comprehended by mere mortals, the humbly reverent pursuit of philosophical wisdom can take them a good way towards it. Being a philosopher is thus its own uplift and reward; it is indifferent to the praise or blame of the ignorant, howsoever elevated they might be in the world.

Hamlet has no Lady Philosophy to steer his philosophising in pre-­approved directions. Without such guidance, the Boethian sage and Christian moralist are just two more of the roles through which he mediates his interactions with himself and with others, be they friends (Horatio) or enemies (Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, Laertes). These are roles, furthermore, that he does not play well, and whose declamatory force works to expose their own artificiality; an artificiality that Hamlet, like the prisoner at the start of the De consolatione, is unable to register. But Shakespeare’s target is not Hamlet, or not just Hamlet. Instead, he sets himself against Boethius, against Cicero, against the conventions of humanism in the philosophical and religious round. Yes, Boethius was concerned to penetrate and ultimately supplant the personae through which philosophical and civic discourse were habitually conducted. In the De consolatione, he nevertheless wrote a treatise that personifies Fortune and Philosophy, and that lays out an engaging model for new generations of would-­be philosophers to imitate in the attempt to ensure that they and their interests appear de profundis. In this, Boethius ends up being indistinguishable from La Primaudaye and the countless others who sought to teach the sixteenth century what it was to be philosophically virtuous. They claim nature and divinity to validate their doctrines, but their doctrines have nothing other than cultural authority to recommend them; a cultural authority that, in being concerned with its own propagation rather than with the pursuit or preservation of truth, can only hollow out the virtuous way of life that it strives to assert.

Shakespeare’s response is a boldly contrarian affirmation of dramatic poetry. The studied fictionality and artificiality of the form allows it to represent, and to encompass, the fictions and artifices through which humankind seeks to make sense of itself. For Shakespeare, fortune and fate are different manifestations of the same phenomenon: the human need to believe that the apparent randomness of things and events is shaped by some kind of pattern or meaning, and, concomitantly, the tendency to diminish or deny the function of human agency in making things the way they are. Providence is the belief that there is not only an order of meaning extrinsic to humankind, but that human beings can understand something of it. The brilliantly knowing paradox on which Hamlet rests is that it takes the self-­reflexive contrivances of a dramatic plot to reveal that there is no divine author scripting human affairs; no list of approved parts for humankind to play; no heavenly audience passing judgement on human performances. Human life is an end unto itself and not a performance to be undertaken before moving on to the next destination. There is, in brief, no theatrum mundi.


Shakespearean Tragedy and 
the Death of Humanism

A passage at the heart of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly provides the perfect vantage point from which to review the relationship between Hamlet and the orthodoxies of humanist tradition. Of the many apparent virtues that Erasmus has Folly claim as her own, prudentia is perhaps the most counter-­intuitive. For the humanist, prudence is the form of practical wisdom that enables one to conduct oneself virtuously—that is, both effectively and in line with the ethical, oeconomic, and political good. It is the polar opposite of all things foolish. Aware of this incongruity, Folly elaborates her claim by adducing the statuettes of Silenus described by Plato’s Alcibiades. These have “two faces myche unlyke and dissemblable”: outside, the appearance of carnal grotesquery; inside, the appearance of the divine. From here, Folly advances a series of larger observations about seeming and being. That which appears to be deathly is in fact vivacious; that which is beautiful is ugly; the wealthy are poverty stricken; the strong are weak; and so on. Needless to add, that which appears prudent is in fact foolish.

In developing the implications of her argument, Folly offers a parallel that takes us to the heart of humanist moral philosophy: the conditions and experience of stage drama, the success of which depends on the preservation of artifice. Viewing drama as if it were real may be erroneous, “Yet take awaie this errour, and as soone take awaie all togethers, in as muche as the feignyng and counterfaityng is it, that so delighteth the beholders”. It is this inclination to live in pretence that Folly identifies at the core of prudence, and that she offers as her gift to humankind. The journey from here to a parody of the notion that human affairs comprise a theatrum mundi is short:

[M]en come foorthe disguised one in one arraie, an other in an other, eche plaiyng his parte, till at last the maker of the plaie, or bokebearer causeth theim to avoyde the skaffolde [i.e., leave the stage], and yet sometyme maketh one man come in, two or three tymes, with sundrie partes and . . . as who before represented a kynge . . . havyng no more but shyfted hym selfe a little, shoulde shew hym selfe againe lyke an woobegon myser.

On this account, the personae commended by Cicero and by humanist moral philosophy are not only disconnected from one’s true self, but actively obscure the true nature of human existence. And yet it is only in virtue of this wilful obscurity, guaranteed by Folly rather than virtue, that civic existence can flourish: “all this is dooen under a certaine veile or shadow, whiche taken awaie ones, the plaie can no more be plaied”.

But Folly has not finished. She now moves to incriminate decorum, which in her hands becomes the art of good timing within the stage play of worldliness. Just as a drama can only work without audience members pointing out that its action is feigned, so daily life cannot bear much in the way of philosophical scrutiny:

Here nowe if one of these wisemen, come (I wene) from heaven, did sodeinly appeare, and saie, howe evin this great prince, whom all men honor as their god and soveraigne, deserveth skarce to be called man, seyng like the brute beastes, he is trained by affections, and is none other than a servaunt of the basest sort, seyng willyngly he obeith so many, and so vise vices his maisters. Or than againe, woulde bidde some other, who mourned for his fathers or friendes decease, rather to laughe, and he merie, because suche diyng to this worlde is the beginnyng of a better life, wheras this here, is but a maner death as it were. . . . And in suche lyke sorte woulde raile upon all the rest. I praie you, what shulde he prevaile therby, but make men take him for frantike & distraught? For surely as nothing can be more foolisshe than wisedome out of place, so is nothyng more fonde than prudence out of season.

The humanist moral order rests on the ability to pretend things are other than they are—through error or through the preparedness to dissemble. Folly’s gift is to be able to translate these shortcomings into the illusion of virtue that enables “the right plaiyng of the pageantes of this life”.

Circling back to Hamlet, the Praise of Folly furnishes us with much of value. In both texts, everyone is constrained to play a role. More fundamentally, in both texts these roles are not defined by the social and purportedly natural virtues championed in the De officiis, or by some divine voice from above. Instead, they are a reflection of a character’s appetites—in as much as such appetites can be pursued within the discursive and circumstantial spaces that they are allowed to inhabit. In the case of Hamlet, such appetitive forces include those of ambition, sexual desire, politics, dynastic chauvinism, attention-­seeking, murderousness (or other forms of violence), self-­gratification, fear, vainglory, or feeble imitation. Sometimes, these are coextensive with a particular persona (Fortinbras the man of war; Laertes the revenger), but the personae more generally resemble the exteriors of Erasmus’s Sileni: that which lies behind them bears no resemblance to their exterior appearance. None are more like these statuettes of Silenus than Hamlet himself.

Hamlet’s suit of black suggests deep mourning, but in fact it indexes his feelings of alienation, anger, and resentment. His appropriation of the conventions of Senecan revenge suggests one fired by condign passion and struggling with its implications, but masks the absence of the feelings that Hamlet feels he should be experiencing as the son of a murdered father. His declarations of mnemonic preoccupation suggest a commitment to preserve and revere the past, but are part of a sustained effort to remake his memory in response to the imperatives of his present. His assumption of poetic competence—both as a theoretician and practitioner—is prosecuted with vim and cultural conviction, but proves to be callow, outmoded, and ineffective; as we saw in chapter 4, it marks him as the very model of a university-­educated humanist. His professed philosophical detachment suggests one who has looked into the nature of things, and of things in Elsinore, and found them wanting. In fact, his philosophising is bound to superficiality, to seeming, and to the twin demands of his emotions and self-­image; he relies on the language and assumptions of early modern philosophy, but he is not even a philosopher as the early moderns understood the category, let alone an embodiment of philosophical transcendence. In brief, Shakespeare depicts Hamlet as one who attempts to see and describe things (be they human or natural) as they really are, who believes that he can do so, but whose vision depends on the learned order he affects to despise. Even philosophical truth-­telling becomes an exercise in pretence and concomitant self-­deceit.

None of this differs in kind from what Erasmus anatomises in the Praise of Folly. What makes the experience of Hamlet so distinctive is that Erasmus’s ironies are not nearly as dark. Instead, they are permitted by religious and ideological conviction—in particular, by an attachment to the spiritual piety and simplicity advocated in works like Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi. Here, one’s true self communes with God through modesty, prayer, and personal devotion. Relative to this, worldly performance and success—even the most brilliant displays of rhetorical showmanship—can offer but the façade of meaning or fulfilment. In Hamlet, by contrast, there is no supervalent structure of value or belief, no sense that the pretence and pretentions of the world can be treated as a subject for laughter, no personification of Folly to offer the paradoxical reassurance that things do, somehow or other, make sense. For Shakespeare’s Danes, as for the audiences who behold them on the stage or page, the pretence is all there is. Shakespeare shares the Erasmian vision that the humanist worldview is an illusion based on moral vanity, but he does not therefore configure it as a stage play that usurps time spent engaged in spiritual self-­cultivation, “in a little corner with a little book”. That too is a sham. The Shakespeare of Hamlet is able to disregard Erasmus’s condemnation of worldly pretence because he takes it that there is no natural virtue, whether inward or external, for human behaviour to corrupt; that there is no natural virtue, whether innate or external, in which humankind can find meaning or consolation; that if there is a “that within which passes show” (1.2.85), human beings have no way in which either to discern or to verify its existence. In Shakespeare’s hands, that which for Erasmus yields a tolerant and copiously witty plea for spiritual simplicity is put to anything other than comedic ends.

The moral economy of Hamlet does not thus resemble the well-­ordered drama of Christian humanism, in which the responsibility of all human beings is to be able to identify and assume the parts assigned to them by God and nature. As I argued at length in chapter 2, it is instead an appetitive free-­for-­all that can best be understood through the play’s pervasive language of hunting, fowling, falconry, and fishing. If life is a stage-­play, one can cleave to the sense that when things happen, they do so for a purpose. Plot, like character, is divinely authored: what the Roman and Christian traditions call providence. However, within the cynegetic paradigm of Hamlet, the divine playwright is only a cosmetic presence, invoked to plaster over bad faith, expediency, or desperation. Fortune, fate, and providence are practically indistinguishable, and are functions of an agency that is exclusively human; more precisely, the agency of human animals who interact not through the discourse of their ­reason, but through the commerce and frequent collision of the cunning that they employ to satisfy their appetites. The unintended consequences of these collisions are what are misconstrued as fortune, fate, and providence. They ensure that even an apex predator like Hamlet, Claudius, or Old Hamlet is never more than a single oversight or miscalculation away from destruction.

The civic personae of the De officiis are thereby transformed into hunting camouflage; disguises adopted in order to hide from one’s likely predators or intended prey, and that further serve to prevent one from having to confront one’s likeness as reflected in others. If one only acts under a persona, one need never acknowledge one’s actions as one’s own—much less examine the disposition and desires that underlie them. Self-­knowledge is a non-­starter, and without the detached perspective provided by understanding oneself, it is impossible to escape the world’s great snare. As Hamlet might as well be saying of himself and everyone else in Elsinore, “reason panders will” (4.3.88): rational intelligence is employed not in the pursuit of truth, moral virtue, or philosophical understanding, but to appease one’s appetites and to hide the nature of that appeasement from one’s better judgement.

In a lucid but brief aside, Adorno notes of Germany in the later 1930s that although most people took Nazi propaganda (such as the endlessly repeated mantra of “Blut und Boden”, or “blood and soil”) to be laughable, they were willing to repeat it anyway. This, he continues, was exactly the point of the propaganda, which aimed to denude rational discourse of its capacity to criticise and to undermine tyranny: the transparent but unavoidable artificiality of public language served to remind individuals that they could only play the roles scripted for them by the power of the state. When Fortinbras enters at the end of Hamlet and finds his spurious claims to “rights of memory” acknowledged by the rump of the Danish court, he reveals something relatedly stark about life in Shakespeare’s Denmark. It is confirmed by the acquiescence of Horatio and the others in the commemoration of Hamlet as an incarnation of martial virtue. They have grown so used to thinking and speaking through the cant and easy fabrications of humanist decorum that they have no capacity to judge either truth or authenticity; Fortinbras does not need to threaten or coerce his new subjects because they can do no other than accommodate themselves to the regnant, or otherwise prevailing, order. At the end of a twelve-­month period in which they have shaped their speech and expectations around two kings in Old Hamlet and Claudius, it is no great matter for them to do so for a third. If a little on the thuggish side, Fortinbras at least appears to be more in control of himself than ever their own Prince Hamlet had been. Force, weakness, and expediency are all. As anything other than martial prowess, virtue is no more than a useful fiction defined by whatever particular individuals (or groups) need it to be.

Perhaps Hamlet tries to pass beyond this, to exceed a mode of discourse whose foundations are the principles of authority, plausibility, and coercion. Perhaps he only acts out his rage at being passed over for the throne, rage that will be exacerbated and turned inwards by his inability to pass beyond emotional neutrality in the face of the Ghost’s revelations about his father’s death. Either way, he remains inescapably a part of the order he appears to disdain—and offers the most vivid possible illustration of this order’s shortcomings in attempting to make sense of one’s inner life. Likewise Claudius: after figuring out that neither virtue nor objective truth are anything more than words, he resolves to treat moral orthodoxy not as a constraint but as something to be remade in his own image. He succeeds with subtlety and wit, but fails to maintain his ascendancy because his quasi-­Machiavellian code is as unequal to the realities of existence as the pious conventions it at once parodies and supplants.

It might be objected that I am describing Hamlet as a work of nihilism, in which nothing signifies “but as ’tis valued”. Not so. Rather, this book has endeavoured to demonstrate the extraordinary pains that Shakespeare took to represent the cultural world of humanism as fundamentally indifferent to things as they really are, and as one in which the pursuit of truth is therefore all but an impossibility. All but: taken in the new directions that Hamlet lays out for it, dramatic poetry might be able to offer a likeness of this cultural world in all of its self-­deceit, illusion, and pretence. Humanist models of history, of poetry, and of philosophy cannot “show . . . the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (3.2.24–25), and are in large measure a part of the problem. By insisting on their own sufficiency, they impede the proper comprehension of the human lot. But precisely because Hamlet is a post-­humanist work of tragedy (one might call it anti-­humanist but for the fact that the fabric from which it is assembled is so consistently that of sixteenth-­century convention), it is not confined to the strictures that Shakespeare brings to bear on superficially imitative neo-­classicism. In place of preordained moral reflections that show the world as the playwright and his authorities think it should be, Hamlet—as most clearly articulated in chapter 5 above—provides its readerly and theatrical audiences with the prompt to examine themselves, their presuppositions, and their beliefs about the status of humankind within the moral and physical universes. The audacity of Hamlet is to demonstrate by example, rather than theoretical disquisition, that in the humanistic world of which Shakespeare and his work were a part, dramatic poetry—not history, not philosophy, and certainly not theology—is the medium best fitted to telling the truth. Best fitted to revealing that in its attachment to various forms of theatrum mundi, humankind not only propagates its own ignorance and self-­alienation, but ensures that it will remain unable to devise a better way in which to live. Kings, their challengers, and their impetuous heirs will come and go, but the nature of the masquerade will continue unchanged. Only by dramatizing this most self-­reflexive of truths alongside the evasions and authority with which it ordinarily eludes scrutiny can fulfilment or progress become a possibility. What that progress might look like, Shakespeare does not say; nor will he do so in Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. Instead, and to borrow a phrase from Lafew in All’s Well, his tragedies enjoin their audiences to “submit” themselves to “an unknown fear”—one that the canons of neither ancient nor modern wisdom can help them to allay.

To discuss Hamlet as a post-­humanist tragedy is to offer an explanation of the cultural and intellectual dynamics to which it responds, and against which it should be read if we are to offer a critically or historically sensitive account of it. But it does not say anything about the nature of Hamlet as a work of tragedy, and it is to Hamlet the tragedy that I would like to turn in drawing this book to a close. What do we mean when we follow the 1623 Folio in categorizing the play as one of Shakespeare’s tragic masterpieces? The question depends as much on Hamlet’s purpose as on its form, and is made yet more difficult by Shakespeare’s habitual capaciousness of mind. I do not have a definitive answer, but take the view that to shrug “poem unlimited” (2.2.395–96) will not do; nor will it suffice to fall back on biography and to note, with complete justice, that Hamlet is the work of an author confident in his creative powers, and who could at this point in his career afford to take risks. We can, for example, turn to the concept of “mannerism” as a heuristic with which to narrow our field of enquiry. Although traditionally associated with displays of highly wrought and sometimes perplexing formal brilliance—in the literary sphere, think of Lyly’s Euphues, or Donne’s Songs and Sonnets at their showiest—mannerism can be seen to reflect something more than the need of talented young artists and poets to escape the shackles of classicizing naturalism. Thus Arnold Hauser:

It would . . . be superficial to regard the conflicting elements that make up a work of mannerist art as mere play with form. The conflict expresses the conflict of life itself and the ambivalence of all human attitudes; in short, it expresses the dialectical principle that underlies the whole mannerist outlook. This is based, not merely on the conflicting nature of occasional experience, but on the permanent ambiguity of all things, great and small, and on the impossibility of attaining certainty about anything. All the products of the mind must therefore show that we live in a world of irreducible tensions and mutually exclusive yet inter-­connected opposites. For nothing in this world exists absolutely, the opposite of every reality is also real and true . . . adherence to truth and reality [therefore] involves the avoidance of all over-­simplification and comprehending things in their complexity.

This seems to me to describe the artistic impulse behind Hamlet perfectly: tragedy is a vehicle that Shakespeare adapts and refracts in order to represent the complex and conflicted world before him. However, aside from the heavily contested status of mannerism within its originary field of art history, referring to it leads us to the same problems as the notion of post-­humanism: it can only presuppose historical explanations for the status of Hamlet as a work of tragedy. In seeking better to understand its formal and generic aspects, we must look elsewhere.

Bearing in mind that both post-­humanist and mannerist tragedies define themselves in terms of what they are not, this might be the point to underscore those tragic paradigms that cannot be said to enclose Hamlet as it has been passed down to us. As discussed in chapter 4, it is not a Senecan or neo-­Senecan revenge tragedy, though it draws on these traditions in numerous important structural and local respects; it is not an Aristotelian tragedy, though it has certain things in common with plays that are; it is not a tragedy in the de casibus tradition, where sinners are punished and the virtuous rewarded, though—again—it flirts with the deep grammar of plays that are; it does not share the vigorously biblical didacticism of, for example, George Buchanan’s Latin tragedies, though traces of Buchanan’s writing can certainly be detected within it (not least in the play’s exposure of theatrical metaphors as a corrosive agent in moral life); it nods to Horatian notions of tragic decorum, but insistently disregards them. One might easily go on, and I put to one side the numerous other theatrical and literary traditions on which Hamlet draws as less germane to an appreciation of its status as a tragedy.

As Aristotelian tragic ideas are better known than any other, let’s take them as our yardstick. Despite the determination to fashion Hamlet’s sea voyage and the events that follow it as an instance of peripeteia leading to anagnorisis, most would agree that at the level of means, Shakespeare had little time for the six-­part model of tragedy prescribed in the Poetics. But there is a residual conviction that, in Hamlet as in the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare offers a searingly mimetic likeness of the human condition intended to generate that which Aristotle saw as the end of tragedy. That is, the experiences of fear and pity leading to the ethical work of catharsis; or in a less demanding key, of persuasion. It seems to me that this view is misguided: Shakespeare’s tragic vision is less Athenian than Roman. Consider Donatus, whose commentary on Terence’s comedies (taken by the early moderns to have been the work of Donatus alone, but in fact a collaboration between him and his fellow grammarian Evanthius) was responsible for the dictum that drama could serve as a mirror reflecting more than those phenomena visible to the eye, and who was a constant point of reference in defining dramatic genre throughout the middle ages and long sixteenth century:

Many things distinguish comedy from tragedy. In comedy, people are of mediocre fortune, perils trifling, actions have happy outcomes. In tragedy, all is inverted: persons are mighty, fears are great, outcomes lethally destructive. The first begins in turbulence, but concludes in tranquility; in tragedy things take place in the opposite order. Whereas tragedy presents the kind of life from which one seeks to flee, in comedy life is readily to be embraced. Finally, all comedies are based on fictional stories, whereas tragedy is often drawn from historical truth.

The action of Hamlet can hardly be said to begin in a pleasant or orderly fashion, but the suggestion that it depicts a kind of life that its characters wish to flee—and that its deals in a kind of historicity rather than the fantasies of a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream—is unexceptionable. What Donatus and Evanthius do not tell us is what either comedy or tragedy are for—what effects they should seek to accomplish. They offer nothing that even approaches the unifying boldness of Aristotelian catharsis.

Better to illuminate Shakespeare’s tragic motivations in writing Hamlet, to say nothing of the degree to which these exceed sixteenth-­century poetic and dramatic conventionality, we can turn to one of the most remarkable works of literary theory to have survived antiquity. Although Shakespeare is unlikely to have known it directly, it succinctly describes the model of tragedy evinced in Hamlet; furthermore, the later reception history of this work maps closely onto the elevation of Hamlet to its position of cultural centrality in the course of the eighteenth century. I have in mind the fragmentary treatise commonly known as On the Sublime by the Roman-­Greek author commonly known as Longinus—though as we do not know who actually wrote this text, I shall refer to its author as the Pseudo-­Longinus.

For our purposes, the most crucial feature of the Pseudo-­Longinus’s thought is that he took the goal of great writing—tragedy, being the most magniloquent of poetic forms, above all—to be not catharsis, but ekstasis (ἔκστασις). This connoted the condition of being transported beyond oneself, of experiencing an exalted level of feeling that captures one’s consciousness to the exclusion of rational thought. For Aristotle, tragedy should purge the emotions of pity and fear, whereas for the Pseudo-­Longinus, the task of the poet is actively to generate such heightened states of feeling. His audiences will thereby have their everyday assumptions raised to a loftier pitch, and the horizons of their consciousness expanded. How is this task to be accomplished? The grandeur of poetry depends on its effectiveness in conveying a particular subject to a particular audience or group of audiences; the ability to judge what will and will not prove effective is the gift of nature, but must be cultivated by art. For example, by the correct sort of imitation: one must not read Homer, Plato, Demosthenes, Herodotus, or Thucydides slavishly, but with a view to understanding how they went about writing, and to adapting their ways of proceeding as one’s own. One will thereby learn to access the sources of elevated language, and not just the language itself. Beyond this, however, the Pseudo-­Longinus has few prescriptions to offer; he is content to remind his readers of various stylistic vices, to list some of the more potent figures and tropes, and to urge the importance of word order and rhythm. For all his emphasis on the transporting effects of language, his governing principles are practical, not theoretical. Unlike the sanitized offerings of the mediocre, he insists that the greatest compositions are unbound by the rulebook. Whatever works, works.

Returning to Shakespeare after reading On the Sublime, the relevant points very nearly make themselves. Only through a version of ekstasis—by transporting those encountering Hamlet on the stage or the page beyond both their own selves and the conjoined realms of language and theatricality—was it possible for him to represent the world around him in its empty magnitude and essential self-­alienation. Like the languages of hunting and moral philosophy, Shakespeare thoroughly assimilated the techniques of theatrical, poetic, and rhetorical convention. It is just that he employed, and thereby transfigured, them in the service of a tragic design that was entirely his own. That such an approach should not have met with universal acclaim from his first audiences can hardly be counted surprising. Hamlet does not flinch in anatomizing and exploding the backward-­looking moral and discursive orthodoxies of the humanist worldview; it looks forwards in doing so through a dramatic form, and with a tragic purpose, that was unlike anything seen before on the English stage. The audience is deprived of either light or guidance, and must instead feel its way towards a comprehension of who or what is there. And of who and what it would like to be there. That Hamlet first attained critical favour in the course of the eighteenth century is fitting. It was then that notions of the sublime (derived from but exceeding those of the Pseudo-­Longinus) entered the aesthetic mainstream and began to reshape theories of poetic and artistic accomplishment. The irony is that its sublimity was held to inhere in the character of Hamlet, not in the totality of the play of which he is a part. I hope it is not too much to suggest that now, a little over a decade and a half into the twenty-­first century, the time of Hamlet has come.


How Old Is Hamlet?

The question that I have posed above is misleading. Hamlet does not tell us how old Hamlet is, or at least does not do so in neat calendar years of the sort that we, in the twenty-­first century, use to plot the course of our lives.

Hamlet is described on several occasions as “young”; he is roughly the same age as Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern; he seems to be a little younger than Horatio and Laertes; he is a student at Wittenberg; he thinks and speaks like one in the midst of a humanistic education. And yet his exchange with the Gravedigger at the beginning of Act 5 appears, anomalously but unambiguously, to suggest that he is thirty years old. The burden of this appendix is to show that the age given in the graveyard scene does not stand up to scrutiny: it emerges from a textual crux, is at variance with the manifest signs of Hamlet’s age given elsewhere in the play, and relies on an authority—the Gravedigger—whose arithmetical skills are very much open to question. In putting this case, I also hope to suggest that thinking about Hamlet’s age in terms of the number of years he might have been on the earth is misconceived.

After satisfying himself that the Ghost is not purely a figment of Marcellus’s and Barnardo’s imaginations, Horatio decrees that they should impart what they “have seen tonight / Unto young Hamlet” (1.1.174–75). “Young” here differentiates the son from his father: deutero-­Hamlet, Hamlet Junior, Hamlet the Younger. But it is also the adjective with which Shakespeare chooses to introduce his disaffected prince, and reveals something not only about his royal status but about his quality of being. Versions of it reappear frequently throughout the play. Claudius counsels Hamlet that his enduring display of grief for his father is “unmanly” (1.2.84), a term that is normative rather descriptive, but whose persuasive force depends on Hamlet aspiring to, rather than already having attained, the condition of manliness; Laertes thinks of Hamlet as “A violet in the youth of primy nature” (1.3.7); the Ghost tells Hamlet that if it were to describe the afterlife in detail, the effect would be to “freeze thy young blood” (1.5.16), and addresses him as a “noble youth” (1.5.38); Claudius turns to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because they are “of so young days brought up with him, / And with so neighbour’d to his youth and haviour” (2.2.11–12); the fencing match between Hamlet and “young Laertes” (4.5.101; cf. 5.1.217) is framed with some care as a contest of “youth” (4.7.72–80). One might go on, but the point is incontestable: although it is certainly possible to dispute what “young” is intended to signify in the dramatic context of Hamlet, it definitively connotes more than Hamlet’s status as the son of a father with the same name. Before he has taken on the part of the forensic huntsman, tracking and seeking to expose his uncle’s guilt, Hamlet himself acknowledges his resemblance to a “rascal”, or juvenile deer (2.2.562).

On the basis that Hamlet and Fortinbras are so obviously set in counterpoint to one another, to say nothing of the fact Fortinbras’s father was killed on the day Hamlet was born (5.1.139–40), we can surmise that Hamlet is about the same age as Fortinbras, either a little older or a little younger. If the former, then no more than nine months so. As the frustrated son of an overthrown monarch, Hamlet sees his own character illuminated by the bold example of his Norwegian peer—so much so that his final soliloquy projects his own likeness onto this would-­be conqueror of Denmark, envisaging him as “a delicate and tender prince” (4.4.48). Fortinbras will return the compliment by imagining the dead Hamlet as a soldier, but their tender years are all they have in common.

Hamlet’s status as a student further asserts his youthfulness. Lawrence Stone’s statistical labours give a clear picture of when it was that early modern Englishmen went to university. For instance, the median age of matriculation at Oxford for the years 1600–1602 was 17.1. Among the aristocracy and gentry it was substantially lower, at 15.9 years. Further, it was common for the well-­educated sons of socially elevated families to enter university as young as eleven or twelve. A good example is Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton and the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. Wriothesley went up to St John’s College, Cambridge in 1585 at the age of twelve; he graduated before he turned sixteen in 1589, at which point he had already been admitted to Gray’s Inn. In a word, Hamlet’s desire to return to his studies at Wittenberg tells us that he is a teenager. To an audience of theatregoers or readers in late Elizabethan or early Jacobean London, it would have been starkly irregular for an aristocrat, let alone a member of the royalty, to have remained at university beyond the age of about twenty.

After chapters 3, 4, and 5 above, I hope that it is by now plain enough that Hamlet’s ambitious but frequently confused and incoherent mode of discourse sounds like that of an early modern university student. But as Barbara Everett has proposed, it might well be that he also looks like a student, or at least that he did so to Shakespeare’s earliest audiences: in addition to its role in signifying mourning, black is the academic colour.

We come now to the encounter between Hamlet and the Gravedigger. Hamlet asks the Gravedigger when he began digging graves, and the following exchange ensues:

Gravedigger: Of all the days i’th’ year I cam to’t that day that our Last King Hamlet o’ercame Fortinbras.

Hamlet: How long is that since?

Gravedigger: Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that. It was that very day that young Hamlet was born—he that is mad and sent into England. (5.1.139–44)

From this we deduce that although the Gravedigger thinks that “every fool” knows when Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras and Hamlet was born, Hamlet himself is less sure. After several lines in which the Gravedigger works hard to evade the questions he has been asked by and about “young Hamlet”, he steers the conversation back to the ground beneath their feet:

Gravedigger: I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years.

Hamlet: How long will a man lie i’th’ earth ere he rot?

Gravedigger: Faith, if a be not rotten before a die . . . a will last you some eight year or nine year. (5.1.156–62).

On the face of it, this is open and shut. The gravedigger has been at his trade (i.e., a sexton) for thirty years. Hamlet is therefore thirty years old, however out of keeping that might seem with the rest of the play. There are, however, both textual and interpretative grounds to doubt this reading, and to stick with our inference that Hamlet the student is a teenager.

The textual crux first: only Q2 supports the reading given above. On the question of how long the Gravedigger had been at his work in Denmark, the Folio (TLN 3351–52) has him say “I have been sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares”. The reading is grammatically challenging, but offers a very different picture of Hamlet’s age. The Gravedigger has been “heere” (qua Denmark and/or his graveyard—he is being willfully ambiguous) for sixteen years, and has been “man and Boy thirty yeares”. On this account, it is the Gravedigger who is thirty years old, while Hamlet is only sixteen. Q2 has traditionally been preferred, on account both of its grammatical simplicity and of what the Gravedigger reveals about a disarticulated skull that has caught his attention: “Here’s a skull now hath lien you i’th’ earth three and twenty years” (5.1.166–68). On being pressed, the Gravedigger discloses that “This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester” (5.1.175–77). As Hamlet goes on to recall the joyful times he had spent with Yorick as a child and as Yorick died twenty-­three years ago, the textual logic runs smoothly: Hamlet must be thirty years old, and the Folio reading a corruption of Q2, which spells sexton “sexten”. The more so because the thirty years of Hamlet’s life echo the thirty years that the Player King and Queen have been married (3.2.150–55). Even “unedited” texts of Hamlet based on the Folio emend it.

If one sticks with the mortal remains of Yorick, things quickly become more complicated. Putting to one side the question of why the Gravedigger has unearthed his skull (has it been dug up accidentally or on purpose? Where is the rest of him? And how, with human remains apparently littered around him, can he be sure that the skull in question belonged to Yorick?), a twenty-­three-­year-­old corpse should on the Gravedigger’s own account long ago have become a skeleton: it has been in the ground for fourteen or fifteen years more than the eight or nine he specifies for complete decomposition. And yet, Yorick’s skull has the rankly sweet odour of human decay. “My gorge rises at it” (5.1.181–82) might just about be understood as an expression of metaphysical nausea at handling the skull beneath the skin of a loved one, but the gross physicality of the matter is soon beyond doubt:

Hamlet: Prithee, Horatio, tell me one thing.

Horatio: What’s that, my lord?

Hamlet: Dost thou think Alexander looked o’ this fashion i’th’ earth?

Horatio: E’en so.

Hamlet: And smelt so? Pah!

Horatio: E’en so, my lord. (5.1.189–95)

This is a graveyard, not a charnel house in which the stink of a newly decomposing corpse might taint even the most desiccated bones. Yorick’s soft tissue has not yet fully putrefied. His body has been in the ground for nothing like as long as twenty-­three years.

Before going any further, I want briefly to glance at Q1. By virtue of so straightforwardly making both numerical and dramatic sense, it hints at something integral about the puzzles of Hamlet’s age and Yorick’s subterranean years in Q2 and the Folio. In Q1, the Gravedigger brandishes a skull:

Look you, here’s a skull hath been here this dozen year—let me see, ay, ever since our last King Hamlet slew Fortenbrasse in combat—young Hamlet’s father, he that’s mad.

The Gravedigger subsequently reveals that the skull belonged to Yorick; Hamlet laments the dead clown and the transitoriness of life, then recoils from the skull’s smell. There is no mention of Hamlet’s age (the problem of which is thereby resolved), and granting that “dozen” need only be the reflexively imprecise unit of measurement of one brought up in the duodecimal thinking of English tradition, there is no difficulty with Yorick’s skull still reeking of putrefaction. As these remarks imply, I take it that the textual discrepancies of Q1 are, as usual, those of simplification. Whoever was responsible for Q1 and however he or they produced it, the text fails to grasp that numerical incoherence is the point of Hamlet’s exchange with the Gravedigger.

This incoherence has its root in Shakespeare’s awareness that the cultures of early modern England and Europe were not arithmetically advanced. Although arithmetic belonged to the quadrivium, facility in mental arithmetic (“reckoning”) was confined to merchants, sailors, soldiers, and other more or less artisanal trades. For the general populace, of high and low social status alike, the ability to compute more than the most elementary sums of addition and subtraction depended on the manipulation of physical counters on a board, and recording the results in Roman numerals. And yet at the same time, the impulse to exact measurement and quantification, and with it Arabic ­numerals, had already begun its transformation of Western intellectual life. The dramatic potential of this state of affairs had long since been exploited by Marlowe (who frequently has his characters grasp at numbers in the ineffectual effort to show themselves in control of a situation), and Shakespeare was not slow to turn it to his own ends. He did so sustainedly in Troilus and Cressida, as Edward Wilson-­Lee has shown, but perhaps the most obvious place to look in establishing this claim is The Winter’s Tale—where much is made of the discrepancy between the apparent precision of numeration and the vagueness with which numbers are, in reality, employed. A Clown enters, destined to be swindled by Autolycus. The Clown is attempting to figure out the value of the wool he has shorn from his 1,500 sheep, but has to give up: “I cannot do’t without counters”. Like any good cony-­catcher, Autolycus is as astute as he is opportunistic. He does not share the Clown’s difficulties, and sets to work on his mark.

The exchange between Hamlet and the Gravedigger is animated by exactly the same cultural dynamics. Both characters enjoy feeling like the cleverest person in any conversation; both will say anything to ensure that they get to feel like this; in the culminating skirmish of their wits, neither shows more than the most rudimentary notion of how to compute numbers in general, or of how to use numbers to compute time in particular.

Shakespeare quickly establishes that the Gravedigger, like Dogberry, is prone to detach verba from res for self-­aggrandising rhetorical effect. In describing the prospect of Ophe­lia having drowned herself in self-­defence, he asserts to his less loquacious partner that “It must be se offendendo” (5.1.9). He means the opposite (i.e., se defendendo), but the chance to accrue some Latinate cultural capital is too good to miss. A little later, he theorises that if a man goes to the water, “but the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life” (5.2.18–20). For “argal”, he means to say ergo; he again seeks to repeat a Latin word that he has heard others use to impressive effect, but that he does not himself understand.

Once Hamlet and Horatio arrive in the graveyard, Hamlet begins to speculate about the various disreputable parts that the people whose skulls are before them might formerly have played (“here’s fine revolution”). He and the Gravedigger then engage in some mutual chicanery about lying, lying down, and the business of digging graves. The Gravedigger considers answering direct questions to be dull or otherwise beneath him. Hamlet sees his answers as a sort of “equivocation”, and informs Horatio that “these three years I have took note of it, the age is grown so picked [i.e., pernickety, nit-­picking] that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier that he galls his kibe” (5.1.135–38); the sophistry of the lower orders is snapping at the heels of the nobility. Quite aside from the fact that Hamlet has spent most of the last year or two (or three) away from Elsinore as a student at Wittenberg, the most important aspect of this declaration is that his “three years” is meaningless as anything other than a placeholder for “of late” or “in recent history”. It operates on the same level as the “he walks for four hours together” (i.e., for long periods of time) that Polonius observes of Hamlet at 2.2.160, or Hamlet’s own assertion that not even “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats” (i.e., a vast accumulation of manpower and money) would be enough to “debate the question of this straw” between Fortinbras and “the Polack” (4.4.25–26). “Three years” nevertheless has the feel of considered observation, and leads Hamlet to ask the Gravedigger how long he has been about his business. The Gravedigger seems no keener to answer this question than those that preceded it, but his response is historically specific: since the day on which Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras and the younger Hamlet was born.

Remarkably, even for one who has trouble reckoning with numbers, Hamlet shows no sign of being able to quantify when his father’s famous victory took place. Furthermore, the Gravedigger asserts that “every fool” knows this event to have been synchronous with Hamlet’s birth, and it beggars belief to suppose that Hamlet has never heard of this synchroneity for himself—especially as it makes his royal birth, like his royal patronymic, seem distinctly auspicious. The conclusion? Hamlet does not know how old he is. He immediately changes the subject when the Gravedigger’s comments threaten to lay this reality bare. The Gravedigger may or may not suspect that his high-­born interlocutor is, in fact, the “young Hamlet” of whom he is now being pushed to speak, but must sense that the drift of their conversation towards matters of state puts him in danger. He needs to tread carefully, and once he guesses that his questioner has a limited facility with numbers, sees a gratifying way out. His gambit succeeds: unable to fathom what the Gravedigger says about his age and the duration of his career, Hamlet counter-­bluffs with a question about rates of bodily decay. From there, the Gravedigger—aided by the skull of Yorick (if, indeed, it is the skull of Yorick)—has no difficulty in redirecting their discussion to safer territory; in this case, to the conditions of mortality. In dwelling on Yorick and then discovering the death of Ophe­lia, Hamlet lets numbers go, but soon returns to them in belittling the “dozy arithmetic” of Osric’s memory. (As he does in claiming to understand the “odds” on his fencing match with Laertes.) The rub is that the Gravedigger is no better at the numerical computation of time than he is at Latin. His historical measurements of sixteen, thirty, and twenty-­three years are empty signifiers—no more than words. They are self-­contradictory, but he doesn’t care. This is because he gets to put one over on someone of a far higher social and educational status than himself, and who has presumed to question his work.

So, the numbers in the graveyard scene as recorded in Q2 and the Folio designedly do not compute. They represent the inability of Hamlet and of the Gravedigger to reckon with historical numbers in their heads, and the desire of both characters to look as if they can. Both “sexten/sexton” (Q2) and “sixeteene” (the Folio) lend themselves to the incongruity of what follows (the more so as “sexten heere” and “sixteene yeare” are likely to have been all but homophonic in early modern English), but “sixeteene” seems to me the better reading. In clashing so directly with the twenty-­three years that Yorick is supposed to have been in the ground, it allows the exchange to make even less sense, thereby capturing more of the Gravedigger’s pretentions and self-­regard, and of Hamlet’s inability to expose them. Folio “sixteene” as a corruption of Q2 “sexten” cannot be ruled out, but nor can the possibility that just as Q2 stumbles over the nonsensical se offendendo, so it sees that sixteen (howsoever spelled) is contradicted by the reported death of Yorick, and emends it to “sexten”. On one level, a far from unreasonable procedure. Unfortunately, to convey the impression of nonsense is precisely Shakespeare’s point: Hamlet and the Gravedigger only feign to know what they are talking about. Their attempts to speak the new language of numbers offer a comically macabre miniature of the pretence, and frequent bravado, that drives life in Elsinore as a whole. Ever the radical egalitarian, Shakespeare reminds us that bullshit does not belong to the socially elevated orders alone; Denmark’s afflictions cannot be explained by looking in isolation at the vices, or even the crimes, of those who rule it.

What does all of this tell us about Hamlet’s age? As his student status suggests, he is an adolescent. That is, he inhabits the intermediate category between boyhood and the assumption of adult masculinity; on the seven-­stage model of human life familiar to Shakespeare, the period between one’s fourteenth and twenty-­first birthdays. To venture anything more precise is guesswork or special pleading, and to maintain that he is thirty—perhaps with reference to the age of Richard Burbage when he played him for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or perhaps by suggesting another nod to the uncouth Danes evinced in Nashe’s Pierce Pennilesse—is unsustainable. In As You Like It, Jaques portrays adolescence as the age of “the lover, / Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”, and his depiction maps well onto Hamlet’s relationship with Ophe­lia—before and after she jilts him. But in most iterations, adolescence has a different aspect. It is an age of apprenticeship in the world, of preparation for the challenges ahead, and of fitting one’s understanding to one’s burgeoning physical and sexual potency; it is also marked by heat, impetuousness, and impatience. Ecce homo.