Friday, 14 May 2021

Rereading Hamlet

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play I read, when I was in the IB. After about 10 years, I suppose it’s high time I revisit the play. 

1/ Polonius is a shallow character, but he gives some good advice to his son Laertes, especially this part: 

“POLONIUS […] Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in, 

Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee. 

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment...” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

This is how William Hazlitt sees him:

“Polonius is a perfect character in its kind; nor is there any foundation for the objections which have been made to the consistency of this part. It is said that he acts very foolishly and talks very sensibly. There is no inconsistency in that. Again, that he talks wisely at one time and foolishly at another; that his advice to Laertes is very sensible, and his advice to the King and Queen on the subject of Hamlet's madness very ridiculous. But he gives the one as a father, and is sincere in it; he gives the other as a mere courtier, a busy-body, and is accordingly officious, garrulous, and impertinent. In short, Shakespeare has been accused of inconsistency in this and other characters, only because he has kept up the distinction which there is in nature, between the understandings and the moral habits of men, between the absurdity of their ideas and the absurdity of their motives. Polonius is not a fool, but he makes himself so. His folly, whether in his actions or speeches, comes under the head of impropriety of intention.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays

I note, however, in the same speech a line that is very often quoted on the internet: 

“POLONIUS […] This above all, to thine own self be true…” 


It’s funny that the line comes from him. Polonius doesn’t trust Laertes—he sends someone to spy on his son. He doesn’t let Ophelia be herself—first, he tells his daughter to break off with Hamlet and return everything, without much regard for her feeling and judgment; then uses her as bait, forces her to put on an act with Hamlet with other people watching and witnessing her humiliation. 

Now if you go back and read the entire speech, you can see that it’s all good and sensible, but Polonius doesn’t follow his own advice. 

2/ Look at this line: 

“HAMLET […] What a 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?” (Act 2 scene 2)

Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (Act 3 scene 1) is more meaningful to me now that I place it next to the line above. The soliloquy makes me think about Claudio’s “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where” speech in Measure for Measure (also Act 3 scene 1)—the 2 speeches are obviously different as Claudio wants to live whereas Hamlet finds life meaningless and intolerable, but both speeches are about the fear of death as the fear of the unknown. 

Ophelia’s speech after her talk with Hamlet is heartbreaking. 

“OPHELIA O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

[…] O, woe is me

T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” 

(Act 3 scene 1) 

Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git has a brilliant blog post analysing Hamlet and Ophelia, with this scene as the key to the drama: 

3/ I vaguely remember being puzzled about Ophelia and her madness in my first reading. On the surface, she seems passive and naïve, but I don’t think she is. First, look at her response to Laertes’s “lecture”: 

“OPHELIA I shall the effect of this good lesson keep 

As watchman to my heart, but, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, 

Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

That’s not the response of an airhead. She knows Hamlet, and she knows her brother. Later to Polonius, she does say “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, but it doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know what she thinks—I think she is a mild daughter who doesn’t want to appear presumptuous, but she does, in a soft way, defend Hamlet and their courtship. She is intelligent, just not witty and sharp-tongued like Beatrice or Rosaline. 

I think it’s because they have a romantic (and possibly sexual) relationship that it crushes Ophelia in Act 3 scene 1 when Hamlet says he doesn’t love her and humiliates her in front of others, and it also hurts Hamlet that Ophelia returns everything to him. Also in the scene, he asks “Where is your father?” and she says “At home, my lord”—there can be different ways of saying this line, but it’s likely that she wouldn’t be able to hide that she is lying, and he would know it.

Ophelia is crushed because nobody loves her, because all the men that she care about (her father, Laertes, Hamlet) have little regard for her feelings, because she is used and humiliated and then discarded. I think she is crushed also because she doesn’t have a sister or some kind of female friend, some confidante that she can turn to—Hero has Beatrice, Desdemona has Emilia, Adriana and Luciana have each other, Helena and Hermia are close friends, Juliet can turn to the nurse, and so on—Ophelia has nobody.  

4/ Hamlet is more interested and involved in theatre than Shakespeare’s other characters, if I remember correctly. He dislikes overacting (does Shakespeare too?). 

Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Hamlet has a play within the play, which is somewhere in the middle. The difference is that the plays in the other 2 are arranged by other characters whereas in Hamlet, it’s the central character who arranges, writes, and orchestrates the play, then sits in the audience to watch other spectators. 

When I read it, I was wondering about the point of the dumb show at the beginning of the play The Mousetrap—we already see a character putting poison into another character’s ear and Claudius says nothing, why does he react strongly later? Then Himadri pointed out something I should have noticed: in The Mousetrap, the murderer is not the king’s brother as in real life, but his nephew—this is both a re-enactment of Claudius’s murder of the previous king, and a threat from Hamlet. This is why Claudius loses his temper and leaves the room. 

5/ Hamlet tells himself and Horatio that he sets up the play to watch the reaction of the king, but he also wants to see his mother’s reaction. He turns to Gertrude and asks: 

“HAMLET Madam, how like you this play?” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Before the play begins, he alludes twice to Gertrude’s hasty marriage in his replies to Ophelia. He is angrier at his mother than at Claudius—the anger is already there in the first soliloquy, and can be seen here and there in his talks (for example, “my uncle-father and aunt-mother” in Act 2 scene 2). Gertrude’s action bothers Hamlet because what’s the meaning of life if a man is so soon forgotten after his death? That his beloved wife quickly moves on with someone else? 

“HAMLET […] O God, God, 

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world! 

Fie on’t, ah, fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

But I don’t buy Freud’s (deranged?) interpretation that Hamlet has Oedipus complex (in fact, as I learnt from Contested Will, it was from his reading of Hamlet that Freud created the concept of Oedipus complex). For centuries, there have been different interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction, like conscience, consciousness (overthinking), or the Freudian reading, and there can be many things at the same time, but I think Himadri’s interpretation makes sense—that Hamlet’s inaction is because he feels a sense of duty to avenge his father’s death but he himself doesn’t love his father and cannot grieve for him.  

Here is Himadri’s blog post comparing Hamlet and Hal (and Anthony): 

Here’s his earlier blog post about Hamlet 

I think it makes sense to see Hamlet’s relationship with his father as mirroring Hal’s relationship with Henry IV, to recognise that Hamlet clashes with his father in values (he’s a scholar whereas his father’s a military man) and isn’t close to him, and to interpret his inaction along these lines. In his soliloquies, Hamlet castigates himself and talks about his hatred of his mother more than grieves for his father.   

6/ There can be another interpretation: what if Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius because the person he truly hates and wants to kill is Gertrude but he can’t kill her because she’s his mother?

He has to tell himself not to kill her. 

“HAMLET […] Soft, now to my mother. 

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever

The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;

I will speak daggers to her, but use none. 

My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites:

How in my words somever she be shent,

To give them seals never, my soul, consent!”

(Act 3 scene 2) 

However you interpret it, Hamlet is undeniably obsessed with the idea of his mother having sex with his uncle, and hates her more than Claudius.  

7/ You may not agree with the readings above, but some of the common interpretations of Hamlet’s delay/ inaction don’t seem sufficient or convincing.

Lack of opportunities? There are opportunities, such as the moment after the play, but Hamlet doesn’t do it—is it the real reason that Claudius is praying and Hamlet doesn’t want him to go to heaven, or is it his self-justification? 

Inability to kill? Hamlet can kill all right—he kills Polonius, and makes plans so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed in his place. 

(Christian) conscience? Fear that the deed would corrupt his soul? In his soliloquies, he doesn’t say that killing Claudius is morally wrong. His reaction upon finding the dying Polonius is neither horror nor remorse. 

“HAMLET […] Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! 

I took thee for thy better. Take thy fortune…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

Then he returns to Gertrude. 

Later Hamlet has no scruples about sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. 

Cowardice? On the surface, the word comes from Hamlet himself:  

“HAMLET […] Now, whether it be

Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple

Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—

A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom

And ever three parts coward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

However, is it not questionable if you examine it in context? This comes after Hamlet learns of Fortinbras of Norway invading Poland, for a worthless piece of land—it is hard to read the word “coward” straight in such a context. And why does Hamlet seem to admire Fortinbras, who he knows is a warmonger leading 20.000 men to a pointless death? It makes more sense to read it in light of Hamlet having a troubled relationship with his father, because they have different values, and he’s castigating himself because Fortinbras is someone his father wanted him to have become (like Henry IV wishes Hal were like Hotspur).   

8/ Shakespeare, as always, gives voices to everybody. Claudius’s guilt makes me think of Macbeth. Gertrude isn’t Lady Macbeth however—she isn’t part of the murder, though she does love Claudius.

Gertrude and Ophelia are both tragic figures. Hamlet is a tragic character, but there are deeply unpleasant sides to his character and behaviour. 

I wish I could have seen Daniel Day-Lewis as Hamlet and Judi Dench as Gertrude. 

9/ Hamlet and Hal are probably Shakespeare’s most intelligent male characters: they both can see through everybody, and mimic them, but if Hal changes his language and adapts himself to the environment and to the people he’s with, Hamlet mimics people’s language in order to mock them. Hal’s insults are usually banter (though there are a few exceptions), Hamlet’s sense of humour can be more sardonic and his insults meaner, though subtle. 

Both can be ruthless. Hamlet is more unstable, more neurotic, and obsessed with death. I can’t imagine Hal talking to a skull. 

Both are impenetrable, for different reasons—whereas we don’t have access to Hal’s thoughts, Shakespeare allows us to enter Hamlet’s mind often but we still can’t fully understand him. His mind, like his language, is hidden behind several layers. 

Both Tony Tanner in his introduction and Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language note the doublings and repetitions in the language of Hamlet, which is interesting, but what does it mean? 

10/ Hamlet seems changed upon his return. He seems less agonised, seems not to torture himself, and I’ve noted that he talks more about the divinity: 

“HAMLET […] 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.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

Later, when Horatio tries to stop him fighting Laertes: 

“HAMLET Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; it it be not to come, it will be now; it it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.” 


Hamlet is now fatalistic—he has let go, and stops questioning himself. And in the end, it looks like divine interference: Laertes and Claudius get killed by their own devices.   

This is a magnificent play. 


  1. Interesting theory about Hamlet not being able to grieve over his father's death, thus his inability to avenge him.
    I had noticed he was more moved by an actor's pathetic story than by his own father death's, and how he reproached himself over his lack of emotion for his father in comparison.
    But at the same time, doesn't Hamlet incessantly compare his father and his uncle, and talks very favourably of the former at the expense of the latter ?
    But maybe admiration and love are two separate things, and this comparison is less a proof of his love for his father than his bitter disapproval of his mother's choice.

    1. Yeah Hamlet does compare the 2, but the actual meeting with the father's ghost is still rather cold, don't you think so?
      Also I think troubled family relationships are complicated, you may have a difficult relationship and still love them because that's your family (of course I don't mean estranged family members, that's different).

    2. Yeah, there were no words of affection or whatsoever between the 2, so strange.
      The Ghost talks more about duty and less about love in their encounter.
      What bothers me the most with the Ghost is why he insists Gertrud to be spared despite her betrayal/cheating, but this is another debate lol. You have a theory on it?

    3. I don't have a theory, but Tony Tanner raises the same question and says that in a way the ghost already paralyses Hamlet, giving him conflicting tasks, telling him to be both an avenger and a Protestant, etc.
      But maybe a simple answer is that the ghost still loves Gertrude in spite of her betrayal? Like the jealous wives who beat up the mistresses but do nothing to the husbands? No idea.

    4. Ah, I still haven't read Tanner's essay on the play, cool that he broods on it too.
      Yeah, I also think the Ghost still loves Gertrude despite what she's done to him, and she probably hasn't taken part in the murder of her husband therefore.
      Claudius too seems to genuinely love her despite all his flaws, she sure knows how to inspire love to her lovers.
      Perhaps it means she is particularly good in bed, but that's another topic lol.

    5. HAHAHAHHAA you're sex-obsessed.

    6. Anyway, to get back to it seriously: Gertrude isn't part of the murder so it's not that bizarre that the ghost tells Hamlet to spare her. Claudius is the murderer as well as usurper.
      Gertrude's only fault is presumably infidelity.

  2. Wow. I really need to reread Hamlet. I was in high school last time I spent some time with it, and clearly it went way over my head. Your thoughts on Ophelia are really good--how Shakespeare's other heroines have another female to talk things over with and turn to for support, but Ophelia is all alone.

    1. Oh you should reread it. I didn't get much out of it in my first reading either.
      Thanks for the compliment. As I've been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately, it's easy to notice that Ophelia doesn't have a female friend (or a mother) like many other female characters in the plays.


Oh don't be shy, lovely readers. Comment! Discuss! Argue!
(Make sure to save your text before hitting publish in case your comment gets swallowed & disappears forever).