THE BREAKDOWN in sympathy for Hamlet during the twentieth century seems to me a critical and cultural fact of some importance, and I believe it has inhibited a genuinely tragic response to the play. Yet although the criticism of our time has eroded the tragic quality of Hamlet, one can see latent within that criticism the possibilities of a renewal which might bring the play back to us as tragedy. The twentieth-century view of the play developed as an antithesis to the view which prevailed in the nineteenth century. The new view that one envisages emerges as a synthesis of the two earlier views. I shall argue that this emerging view, though necessarily a product of our own times, could restore to Hamlet something of the tragic quality that may have belonged to the play in its own day.
The nineteenth-century view, the thesis with which we begin, received its latest and greatest expression in Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. It is a vision of a noble and generous youth who for reasons quite mysterious to himself is unable to carry out the sacred duty, imposed by divine authority, of punishing an evil man by death. It is a vision of paralysis and disablement, of ultimate victory bought at a terrible cost.
Against this I would set, rather obviously, G. Wilson Knight's powerful essay of 1930, 'The Embassy of Death' from The Wheel of Fire. Knight had important predecessors, of course, and he himself radically revised his account of the play. Nevertheless, the essay is central. Knight portrayed the Denmark of Claudius and Gertrude as a healthy, contented, smoothly-running community. Claudius is clearly an efficient administrator, and he has sensible ideas about not letting memories of the past impede the promise of the future.
Hamlet, by contrast, is a figure of nihilism and death. He has communed with the dead, and been instructed never to let the past be forgotten. As a 'sick soul commanded to heal', he is in fact a poison in the veins of the community. Knight went so far as to say that 'Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark', 'a living death in the midst of life'. He is an alien at the court, 'inhuman - or superhuman ... a creature of another world'. Neither side can understand the other.
Claudius murdered his brother, and Hamlet's mission is the punishment of a murderer. Hamlet, Knight admitted, is in the right. And if he had been able to act quickly and cleanly, all might have been well. But which of the two, he asked, Claudius or Hamlet, 'is the embodiment of spiritual good, which of evil? The question of the relative morality of Hamlet and Claudius reflects the ultimate problem of this play.' He gave his own answer: 'A balanced judgement is forced to pronounce ultimately in favour of life as contrasted with death, for optimism and the healthily second-rate, rather than the nihilism of the superman; for [Hamlet] is not, as the plot shows, safe; and he is not safe, primarily because he is right.' So Hamlet is wrong to pursue that which is right. 'Had Hamlet forgotten both the Ghost's commands [that is, to remember the past and avenge the dead] it would have been well, since Claudius is a good king, and the Ghost but a minor spirit.'
Wilson Knight said 'The ghost may or may not have been a "goblin damned"; it certainly was no "spirit of health".' This sentence is the theme of much of the Hamlet criticism which followed. A great many critics have found an element of evil in the pact between the Ghost and Hamlet. Harold Goddard, in The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), said of his ideas about Hamlet that he had been expounding them to students since the days of the First World War. The Ghost is the spirit of war and a symbol of the devil, corrupting Hamlet with his 'thirst for vengeance' and his instruction to kill. To kill whom? Claudius, a man who could have been shown the error of his ways. 'The King ... is no villain.' Shakespeare tempted us in the audience to want Claudius's death in order that we should become ashamed of ourselves and realise with Shakespeare that killing was evil. Hamlet loses in the end because he gives in to the Ghost and 'descends to the level of Laertes'.
L. C. Knights's Approach to Hamlet of 1960 was uncompromising in its hostility to the Prince and his mission. Hamlet is an immature person lacking 'a ready responsiveness to life' who is pushed by the Ghost to concentrate on death and evil. Shakespeare himself disapproved of revenge. This latter view achieved its most thorough and scholarly expression in Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge of 1967. Here the Ghost's credentials are picked threadbare and Hamlet's identification with the bloodthirsty villains of revenge fiction is complete.
You may well say that, formidable though the battle-line of Wilson Knight, Goddard, Knights and Prosser may be, I am representing only one trend of mid-twentieth-century criticism. What of C. S. Lewis and Maynard Mack, and many others who cannot be said to share these views? It is more than a trend I am isolating; it is the common currency of Hamlet criticism to deplore, not Hamlet's failure to carry out his mission, but the mission itself. Although there are no beginnings in Hamlet criticism, I trace the movement back to the extraordinary lines of Mallarm, in his essay of 1896 on Hamlet and Fortinbras which Joyce brought to our attention in Ulysses, and his more extended view in Crayonn au thtre (1886). Hamlet is the solitary, 'tranger tous lieux o il poind'. He walks about, we remember, 'lisant au livre de lui-mme'; he denies others by looking at them, and even without willing it spreads death about him. 'The black presence of the doubter causes this poison.'
Many contemporary critics, unable to deny the damning evidence of Prosser but uneasy that the prevailing hostility towards Hamlet tends to make too little of Claudius's crime, have sought to restore a tragic balance to the play by stressing Hamlet's struggle to make a bad deed good. This is associated with the very widespread 'contamination' theory which we find in Maynard Mack. 'The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt.' A searching and sensitive expression of this view is in Nigel Alexander's Poison, Play, and Duel, (1967). The proof of the King's guilt does not solve Hamlet's problem. 'The question remains, how does one deal with such a man without becoming like him?' (p. 125).
The idea that Hamlet's problem is somehow to punish Claudius and yet transcend the sheer human violence and vindictiveness which such punishment entails goes back to 1839 and the once famous but now forgotten 'conscience' theory of Hermann Ulrici. 'It cannot,' he said, 'be an entirely innocent and heavenly spirit that would wander on earth to demand a son to avenge his death.' Hamlet has to try to convert the 'external action' of revenge 'into one that is internal, free, and truly moral'. The will to the deed must not be a matter of external pressure, it must become 'voluntarily his own'. Ideally this cannot be unless the 'moral necessity' of the deed can be seen to be 'the substance of the divine order of the universe'. Ulrici argues, very interestingly, that Hamlet actually forces the issue of the sympathy of divine power and arrogates to himself the role of providence. Here again he anticipates much modern criticism. I cannot think, however, that the neo-Ulricians have in fact rescued the play of Hamlet from being the rather dismal story of blight which it is in great danger of becoming.
At this point, I should like to summarise the four closely-related areas in which the mid twentieth century most strongly diverged from earlier opinion. The first is the authority of the Ghost; whether he is an authorised emissary of heaven, or just the spirit of an aggrieved king, or, at the extreme, a false spirit from hell. The second area is the morality of his injunction - namely, to exact vengeance for murder; the morality, therefore, of Hamlet's quest to kill Claudius. The third area is the moral and indeed material condition of Denmark and its court under Claudius. The fourth concerns Hamlet himself, how we judge his actions and behaviour generally; what we think of him as a man.
I personally cannot see a way forward in any discussion of Hamlet that does not take as a point of departure that it is a religious play. Bradley refused to call it this, but he acknowledged that the religious element in the play gave it a distinctive tone among Shakespeare's tragedies. Middleton Murry thought that Hamlet's fear of damnation was of tremendous and unrecognised potency in the play. I agree. What Keats said of King Lear would have fitted Hamlet better: 'the fierce dispute/Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay.' George Herbert spoke of himself as
A wonder tortur'd in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.
With characteristic reductiveness Hamlet asks 'What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?' The setting of a play which never moves from Elsinore is earth, heaven and hell.
0 all you host of heaven! 0 earth! what else?
And shall I cou le hell? (I.v.92-3) When Hamlet says he is prompted to his revenge by heaven and hell, he means he is involved in the whole supernatural world of good and evil and their eternal warfare.
Hamlet when we first meet him is in a state of despair. He longs for death, and would take his own life if suicide were not forbidden by divine decree. It is at this moment that Horatio and Marcellus burst in on him with news of an apparition, seemingly a visitant from beyond the grave in the likeness of his dead father. C. S. Lewis said 'The appearance of the spectre means a breaking down of the walls of the world.' Of this equivocal figure, in the 'questionable shape' of his father, Hamlet passionately demands, 'What should we do?', a question which expands from the specific to become a general appeal for guidance, for a direction and a purpose in one's life. The Ghost's response indicates that the doings of a corrupt mortal world are integrated within an eternal world. What Gertrude has done will be taken care of: 'Leave her to heaven.' But Claudius for his crime is not to be permitted to continue among men and enjoy his booty of crown and queen: 'Bear it not.' What is unendurable to heaven is not to be endured by men. Evil is not ineradicable, and heaven may appoint an agent of its justice to pluck it out - Hamlet. Hamlet's reaction to this communication is like a conversion or a baptism. He ostentatiously wipes away all previous values, and dedicates himself as a new man.
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.
'As a stranger give it welcome', he says to Horatio about the visitation. He identifies himself with the stranger. He becomes a stranger by adopting the garb of madness. Like Bunyan's Christian, he considers himself a pilgrim and a stranger in his own city of Vanity Fair or Elsinore.
The French Marxist critic Lucien Goldmann scarcely mentioned Shakespeare in his 1955 study of Racine and Pascal, The Hidden God. But I found in it much food for thought about Hamlet. His theory of tragedy, for which he gives credit to the early work of Lukacs, is based on the notion of Pascal that man has to wager that God exists, for he is a hidden God whose presence is not indisputably known and whose voice is not unequivocally heard. The tragic hero longs for clear directives to govern his action; he longs for absolutes, for an existence which he can value as authentic and uncompromising.
But the God to whom he looks, in whose existence he dares to believe, whom he longs to obey, is shrouded and hidden; his voice distorted and scarcely audible, his guidance and his requirement never clearly discernible. The world in which the hero lives, which he would contract out of if he could, is our own accustomed world with our ordinary values. Conspicuously, it is a world never ruled by absolutes, but by perpetual compromise, adjustment and expediency. In this world the hero demands justice, honesty, truth. In his vain efforts to live out what he perceives as the ideals of a higher order in a world which finds his conduct scandalous, offensive, and insane, lies tragedy.
The critical element in this tragic structure is the notion that God is neither absent nor obviously present. If God is dead, or if God is clearly known, the tragedy (Goldmann says) cannot exist. The special irony of the tragic hero's position is that the difficulty of trying to live out what God wants is compounded by the difficulty of knowing what God wants, or even whether He exists.
Hamlet seems to be precisely in the position which Goldmann postulates for the tragic hero. From the very first he insists on absolutes - 'I know not seems'. The voice he hears gives him his mission, which he rapidly expands into a cleansing of the world, a setting right of disjointed time. As the scourge and minister of heaven, he wilfully seeks his own salvation by flailing others with his tongue for their moral inadequacies and redirecting their lives as he moves forward to a killing which will re-baptise the state of Denmark.
What the scholarship of this century has taught us is that the status of the voice which Hamlet hears is from first to last uncertain. The ambiguity of the Ghost is of fundamental importance. Shakespeare uses the great perplexity of his age about the origin and status of ghosts to indicate the treacherousness of a sense of communion with a higher world. Hamlet's own sense of this treacherousness seems nearly always underestimated. It is at the very end of Act II, at the conclusion of the 'rogue and peasant slave' soliloquy, that Hamlet openly expresses his fear that 'the spirit that I have seen may be a devil'. But it is on his next appearance, in, 'To be or not to be', that he most fully and profoundly expresses a much wider scepticism. He is once again in the despair of Act I, again longing for the oblivion of death. Since that time he has been given a mission, which he eagerly seized as being heaven-sent, to renovate the world by a single act. Now he rejects such a possibility. The alternative courses which Hamlet sets before himself in the first five lines of the soliloquy, asking himself which of them is the greater nobleness, are: to continue to endure the antagonisms of existence, or to escape from them in the only possible way, by the act of suicide. The only opposition which the individual can make against the mischances of existence is to take his life. No other act can end the sea of troubles. No other act can improve the condition of the world or the condition of its victims. By implication, the deed of revenge, as a creative act bringing earth nearer to heaven, is of no avail. Whether Hamlet kills the King or not, Denmark will continue to be as it is, a place of suffering ruled by fortune. If there is a nobleness in continuing to live, it is a nobleness of suffering, not a nobleness of reforming and transforming the world. This is exactly the view on the alternative o living or taking one's life put by Schopenhauer in his essay 'On Suicide'. Since no human act can improve the world and all acts contribute to its continued beastliness, Schopenhauer said that the only argument against suicide as a praiseworthy course must be that continued suffering is praiseworthy in itself.
If Hamlet rejects, at least as a means of saving mankind, the killing of the King, he refuses the alternative course through fear of damnation. The soliloquy which begins as a debate on nobleness ends in a contest of cowardliness. What is one most afraid of, the possibility of damnation for taking one's life, or the certainty of suffering on earth? It is conscience, the implanted sense of right and wrong, which makes us too cowardly to embrace a course which reason tells us is noble. And it is this same conscience, this worrying about the consequences of things and the way they look in the eye of eternity, which inhibits other 'enterprises of great pitch and moment' so that they 'lose the name of action'.
Although it is only by inference and by implication, the killing of the King is twice referred to in this great soliloquy. In the later reference we gather that Hamlet has not proceeded with revenge because his conscience cannot convince him that the act is good; in the earlier that, whether the act is good or bad, it cannot change the world. To call Hamlet's mood in 'To be or not to be' a pocket of pessimism, or to speak of his doubts about the Ghost as transient, is to mistake the man whom Shakespeare has drawn. As the play progresses, different surfaces of this many-faceted character catch the light, but the make-up of the whole remains much the same; there is much less 'development' in Hamlet than is often supposed.
Doubts or no doubts, he takes his revenge. Buoyed up by the success of the ruse of the play and determined on action, he decides to spare the King as he prays, but moments later, finding him in the ignominious position of eavesdropper in Gertrude's closet, he kills him, and discovers it is Polonius he has struck. By this misdeed, he triggers off a new cycle of vengeance. By unwittingly killing Polonius Hamlet unwittingly takes his own life.
The progress from this point to the final chance-medley is complex and intricate. I argued in a lecture in 1980 that the less complex version of the latter part of the play in the Folio may well represent Shakespeare's own decision to replace both the defiance of the 'hoist with his own petar' speech and the self-recrimination of 'How all occasions do inform against me' with a silence as regards Hamlet's inner thoughts which is as challenging and mysterious as the silence that lies between Acts I and II. If I am right, tremendous weight is thrown forward on to the account of what has been going on in his mind which he gives to Horatio on his return from the sea-voyage; an account most significantly expanded in the Folio.
In recognising 'a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will', Hamlet recognises, with a clear and conscious modification of his earlier sense of his own freedom and power, that he is subject to the control of a higher power which redirects him when his own blunders have impeded his progress. The recognition is Hamlet's; not necessarily Shakespeare's; not necessarily ours. He continues with an all-important speech, the full version of which is found only in the Folio.
Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon -
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th' election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage - is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is't not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
(V.ii.63-70) To have this demand for assurance coming from Hamlet at this point in the play is extraordinary. Such anxiety can only be a measure of much.perplexity. Once again, the theme is conscience and damnation. Conscience formerly made great enterprises lose the name of action; now it is conscience to raise one's arm against Claudius. Damnation formerly lay in wait for Hamlet if he took his own life, or killed the king at the behest of a devil-ghost. Now it would be his meed if he failed to stop a cancerous growth in human nature by allowing Claudius to go on living.
Hamlet says 'the interim is mine', in which to carry out what he sees as a holy resolve. But of course it isn't. The interim belongs to Claudius and Laertes. It is too late for Hamlet to act on his conviction. The first time, too much in fancied control of the world's destiny, he killed the wrong man; the second time he kills the King indeed, but not until he has his own death-wound.
There can be no question about the extent of Hamlet's failure. Quite apart from his responsibility for the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia and his schoolfellows, there is the simple, inescapable fact that the attempt to rid Denmark of its villain-king has left the country in a worse state than it was at the outset. The foreigner Fortinbras, whose threat to the kingdom opens the play, takes it over at the end without firing a single shot. Fortinbras is success as Hamlet is failure. Nor should we take much comfort from Hamlet's own development. Even if we think of his persistent cruelty to Ophelia and his overbearing self-righteousness towards Gertrude as passing stages in his emotional history, we yet face some awkward moments towards the end of the play. Any suggestion that the Hamlet who returns from the voyage is in some state of sanctity has to be resisted. Here again, there is a victory for the criticism of the twentieth century. There has been an anti-Hamlet lobby in every generation but it has become so strong that it is impossible for anyone who to any degree 'believes in' Hamlet to sentimentalise him. There can be no question about the extent of Hamlet's failure. But tragedy must surely ask about the extent of his success. I have been looking at Hamlet as a somewhat fitfully inspired missionary. It is time to turn to the problem which has so engaged the criticism of the twentieth century, the quality of the mission itself. What do we say about the moral standing of the 'court party'? About the values which Hamlet seeks to reimpose on Denmark? And above all about the ethics of wishing to kill Claudius?
'There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.' What is Denmark like? If we don't see sin and crime at Elsinore we are not likely to feel that Hamlet's despair is anything but an illness, or his mission to cleanse the world other than obsession and delusion. I should like to quote a typical modern attempt to abstain from black-and-white answers to this question, by Michael Long, in The Unnatural Scene (1976). In portraying Denmark, says Dr Long, Shakespeare shows 'no ruthless desire to track down viciousness'.
No, it is 'a lucid presentation of very ordinary human failings as they prove catastrophically inept in the face of difficult moral demand...
The real "crime" in which all these characters are involved is that of participating without protest in a social normality which is hostile to the most essential needs of consciousness' (p. 140). We see the strong influence here of both Wilson Knight and L. C. Knights. I should also like to cite John Bayley's praise for Gertrude in Shakespeare and Tragedy (1981); he speaks of the 'innocence' in the play, which extends to Gertrude's marriage to Claudius, and his relations with her' (pp. 173-4).
This levelling of the score, as regards moral judgement, between Hamlet and those to whom he is opposed is characteristic of our century and our eagerness to see both sides of the question. We know too much to believe in villains and heroes. And even if we feel uneasy with this moral levelling as applied to the play of Hamlet, it is very hard not to feel more uneasy at the severity and sharpness of Hamlet's moral distinctions, at the stridency of his insistence on the beauty of his father's life and the ugliness of his uncle's. Everyone feels something excessive in his disgust at his mother's remarriage, in his charge of incest, and in his savage denunciation of his uncle as a usurper.
The question of the moral distinctions in the play seems to me of the very first importance in considering how far the criticism of our day may have blurred the tragic issue as it was presented to Shakespeare's audience. I agree entirely with Wilson Knight's words:
'The question of the relative morality of Hamlet and Claudius reflects the ultimate problem of this play.' Three times during the course of the play Shakespeare brings the story of Cain and Abel to our minds. There is the mention of 'the first corse' in II.ii; 'the primal eldest curse ... A brother's murder' in III.iii; and 'Cain's jawbone, that did the first murder' in V.i. Hamlet is the story of two royal brothers, a kingdom and a queen, given to us as a reflection of the primordial disintegration of the human family in that first murder which resulted from and betokened man's separa- tion from God. In his book Violence and the Sacred, Ren Girard describes how the dissolution of cultural order comes about from the blurring of recognised distinctions and differences, and argues that the basic mythical presentation of this cultural dissolution is in terms of the rivalry of brothers, in fratricidal conflict over something they cannot share - a throne, a woman. The result of cultural dissolution, the 'sacrificial crisis' as Girard terms it, is that violence can no longer be contained, and overflows in the unending cycle of the vendetta. The obliteration of differences and distinctions is what chiefly worries Hamlet; that Gertrude cannot distinguish between the two brothers, between Cain and Abel. 'Look here upon this picture, and on this!'
This was your husband. Look you now what follows,
Here is your husband.... Have you eyes?
(III.iv.53, 63-5) It is abundantly clear that Claudius seduced Gertrude in the old king's lifetime. It is the thought that this complaisant woman was accustomed to sleep with either of two brothers which gives special force to the idea of 'incest'. The fierce refusal to accept the undiscriminating hospitality of Gertrude's loins is where the tragedy begins. Centuries later, the need to accept the undiscriminating hospitality of Molly Bloom's loins is where Joyce's Ulysses ends. In between lies the Romantic revolution during which Byron presented Cain as a much misunderstood figure.
'He that hath killed my king and whored my mother.' Here is plain speaking!
A murderer and a villain
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
And put it in his pocket -
Here is a forthright recognition of distinctions!
The sense of distinction which Hamlet apprehends to be weakening has now disappeared, as I think my quotations from Wilson Knight, Michael Long, and John Bayley show. I could adduce many, many more, including those at the edges which tell what a poor fish the old king was, probably an alcoholic and possibly impotent. But, as I say, we are all in this. We can't possibly share Hamlet's sense of values. Hyperion to a satyr? A man's a man for a' that. But nor could Shakespeare necessarily or unequivocally share Hamlet's sense of values. It is in the moment of the weakening and questioning of distinctions that he writes his play. What Shakespeare could not do was to repudiate Hamlet's sense of values. We, having gone right down the road that Shakespeare was on, have turned the corner, and can't see the place where the play happened, the place where blurring has just begun, and might perhaps be stopped.
To restore to his mother her sense of difference, to eliminate the man who obliterates distinctions and dares, by murder, to claim the protection of the divinity that hedges a king, to restore to Denmark its beauteous majesty - this is the mission of Hamlet, who, in doing this, can see himself as the scourge and minister of heaven itself. In a scheme of things in which the distinctions between persons are ratified by heaven, the killing of Claudius is as far removed from the brutal poisoning of the former king as can be. It would belong in an area of sacredness which is totally foreign to us. An act of cleansing and not one of pollution, it would have the sanctity of a sacrificial offering.
That there can be a distinction between a violence which purifies, and is acceptable, and all other forms of violence, which are out- lawed, must seem to us the most dangerous concept possible. Only among terrorist circles are differences of kind among acts of violence accepted. We don't accept capital punishment if only because as Saul Bellow's hero put it, 'Nobody's hands are clean enough to throw the switch'. But, difficult though it is for us, unless we can see some sense in an idea of authorised violence, there can be little hope of recapturing the tragic sense of the play Hamlet. Oddly enough, the nineteenth century, which had its own scruples about capital punish- ment, seems to have had too little doubt about divinely-sanctioned violence in Hamlet (apart from Ulrici and his followers of course) and to that extent they diminished the tragic balance of the play. Claudius ought to be killed, they felt: it was some terrible paralysis which prevented Hamlet from doing the deed. G. K. Chesterton saw the way things were going and in an essay of 1923 leapt to the defence of the older view. We could no longer apprehend the play, he claimed, because we had ceased to believe in punishment, and had substituted pity in its stead. 'The sort of duty that Hamlet shirked is exactly the sort of duty that we are all shirking; that of dethroning injustice and vindicating truth.'
This disarming simplicity has as little to do with what we find in the play of Hamlet as has the opposing view that the execution of Claudius is too horrid even to contemplate. The only person who holds a simple view about punishing Claudius is the Ghost. 'How- somever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind.' This revenge he asks for is a straightforward business, demanding courage and will, like meeting the challenge of old Fortinbras, all those years ago.
But for Hamlet nothing is simple or straightforward. His rage to re- establish the world of distinctions and sanctions which he fears is disappearing never quite certainly finds either its divine justification or its true way of proceeding. Throughout the play, to everyone, his language is teasing, riddling, punning, looking two ways at once, never directly serious or directly jesting. In almost everything he says, he reveals his incapacity for or refusal of single vision and single valuation. Hamlet's commitment to killing the king wavers constantly; he tries out the avenger's script, he clearly prefers to chasten his mother, and (for me most significantly) at the second visitation actually fears that the Ghost's presence may convert his 'stern effects' and substitute tears for blood. Because of the impossibility of total conviction, great enterprises lose the name of action. But "tis not so above. There is no shuffling.' Is there a line of communication from that higher region where uncertainty doesn't reign, authorising conduct which, though it seems terrible, brings the values of heaven into a corrupt Denmark? The play of Hamlet takes place within the possibility that there is - in the symbol of the Ghost. Neither positive that there is, nor positive that there is not.
I have for several years suggested to my students that the central dilemma in Hamlet is that which Kierkegaard describes, concerning Abraham and the intended sacrifice of Isaac, in his work Fear and Trembling. Abraham believed that he had heard God and in obedience was prepared to murder his beloved son. This indeed is faith. It is the idea of the wager again - betting that there is a God - and that trusting in what we hear enables us to fulfil a demand of the absolute, although we outgo the laws of worldly ethics.
Kierkegaard tries out many scenarios for the intense but skeletal drama provided in Genesis. What would Isaac say when he heard Abraham's explanation of his extraordinary conduct towards him? 'So you were prepared to kill me because a voice told you to?' And so on. There can be no certainty. Isaac was not killed, but Abraham was ready and willing to kill him. Either he was a murderer, or he was an obedient child of God. Faith, says Kierkegaard, is 'a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God'. But, he asks, 'If the individual had misunderstood the deity - what can save him?'
The mistaken conviction of the individual that he can be above the universally accepted ethics of society, Kierkegaard calls the 'demoniacal'. He speaks of 'the knight of faith who in the solitude of the universe never hears any human voice, but walks alone with his dreadful responsibility'. Dreadful, because he may be eternally lost, for following the demoniac and not the divine. Either way, he seems mad to the world; at the very least, the world 'denounces as presumption his wanting to play providence by his actions'.
The literary criticism of the past fifty years, with its challenge to the conduct of Hamlet and the authority of the Ghost, has unintentionally moved the play right into the point of terrible balance described by Kierkegaard. Is Hamlet's sense of mission divine or demoniac? A former pupil of mine objected to my use of Kierkegaard concerning a play written when theology was dominated by Luther.
It was Wittenberg Hamlet was studying at. William Tyndale, who visited Luther at Wittenberg, will do just as well.
FAITH, is the believing of God's promises, and a sure trust in
goodness and truth of GOD; which faith justified Abraham, and
the mother of all his good works which he afterwards did.
works are works of God's commandment, wrought in faith ...
robbed Laban his uncle; Moses robbed the Egyptians; and Abraham
about to slay and burn his own son; and all are holy works,
they are wrought in faith at God's commandment. To steal, rob,
murder, are no holy works before worldly people; but unto them
have their trust in God they are holy, when God commandeth
Holy works of man's imaginations receive their reward here, as
testifieth, Matt. vi.
'Holy works of man's imaginations' are what Kierkegaard would call 'demoniac' activity. Stephen Greenblatt, whose Renaissance Self- Fashioning directed me towards Tyndale, stresses the violence with which, in the Reformation debates, each side accused the other of creating God in their imaginations. I quote from Tyndale again.
These are they which Jude in his epistle called dreamers, which
themselves with their own fantasies. For what other thing is
imagination, which they call faith, than a dreaming of the faith, and
opinion of their own imagination wrought without the grace
Both Horatio and Hamlet understood what Tyndale meant
'imagination'. 'He waxes desperate with imagination', says
that is, with self-created ideas of what the Ghost is. And Hamlet
that if he can't confirm the Ghost's story, 'my imaginations are
foul / As Vulcan's stithy', that is, that he has been building his
of heaven's decrees on a mental image and not on truth.
The practical effects of Hamlet's purifying violence are disastrous. Claudius sought to protect his kingdom and did it efficiently against the attacks of both Fortinbras and Laertes. Hamlet comes in, an alienated, savage, destructive force, and Denmark passes into foreign hands. Against the tangible misery which he causes have to be set the intangible values of salvation and damnation which govern his entire conduct - values which are not only intangible but unverifiable, and may belong in the end to men's imagination.
It has been my contention that the tragic value of the play Hamlet has become enfeebled through two successive, antithetical waves of criticism, and that the possibility of renewing that tragic value lies not in trying to refute or wipe away mid twentieth-century criticism but in acknowledging it, absorbing it and moving on from it with reinforcement from the nineteenth-century criticism it had tried to replace. I should make it clear that so far as I am concerned the twentieth-century critic (who, of course, like Yeats's Fisherman is 'a man who does not exist') has not only refused to follow the old-fashioned custom of identifying with Hamlet, he has positively rejected him.
In Nietzschean terms, the twentieth century has completely upset the equilibrium of Apollo and Dionysus by putting all the weight on the Apollonian side. The maintenance of social order takes precedence of all else, and Hamlet is a disturbing nuisance wrecking the social fabric by trying to bring back the past. 'Claudius is a good king, and the Ghost but a minor spirit.' The all-important question for me is, what kind of sympathy do we need to find for Hamlet in order to restore an equilibrium which I believe could have been Elizabethan, but which I think you will not easily find in nineteenth- or twentieth-century criticism?
Doubts about the Ghost, doubts about the ethics of revenge, doubts about the nastiness of Claudius, and doubts about the niceness of Hamlet, are a legacy of modern times which we need to hold fast to. But when the doubts become positive scepticism, we are as lost as we were when we supposed that the Ghost was guaranteed, that revenge was good, that Hamlet was noble and Claudius a rotter. Shakespeare, it may be said, looked at the past not only nostalgically but sentimentally. Yet those of his heroes who try to restore or even preserve the past, and oppose the future, Richard II, Brutus, Coriolanus, have an ineffectuality and a woodenness about them which betoken a grim historical realism on Shakespeare's part. It is in Hamlet above all of Shakespeare's plays that I find superbly and movingly presented an openness towards both past and future in which the possibility of restoration is balanced against the futility of trying. And this is not entirely because of the unbelievable interest of the mind which contemplates the task of bringing back the majesty of beauteous Denmark. It is also because of the great transcendental hypothesis which is the framework of the play, and the context in which past and future are seen. The sense of an order of distinction among people which is ratified in heaven, the sense that there is a communication between heaven and earth, the sense that there can be a cleansing act of violence which is both a punishment and a liberation, these are as powerfully present in the play as is the conviction that these things do not exist. Hamlet's groping attempt to make a higher truth active in a fallen world fails hopelessly. But just suppose we can entertain the possibility that he was within reach of a higher truth. 'What should we do?' he asks the Ghost. And of Horatio he asks, 'Is't not to be damned to let this canker of our nature come in further evil?' Wilson Knight, in that brilliant early essay of his, recognised the alien and inhuman prophet that Hamlet essentially is. And he repudiated him. Hamlet vexed and troubled the world and failed to change it for the better. But he continues, or he ought to continue, to vex and trouble us with the suspicion, and the fear, that although he never got there, he may have been after something worth having. It is not faith we need to understand Hamlet, but doubt about our own scepticism. We need just enough questioning to keep alive the openness of Hamlet's question to Horatio. 'Is't not to be damned to let this canker of our nature come n further evil?' And to be able to respond also to that other remark of his:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.