Character of Life in Hamlet


Probably more has been written on Hamlet than any other literary work in history. Our purpose here is not to re-examine the area already well covered and add a further opinion to the enormous variety already expressed. Our primary concern is not with the character of Hamlet, the reasons for his delay, the morality of his action or other such topics. Rather it is to study the character of life as expressed in the circumstances and through the characters of the play. Nevertheless, it will be necessary to consider many of these questions in some detail for their bearing on our central pursuit.

There is a single broad movement of life connecting the entire story from beginning to end. It begins thirty years before the present action when Hamlet’s father, then King of Denmark, was challenged by Old Fortinbras, then King of Norway, to combat. Old Hamlet slew Fortinbras and won dominion over all his territory. On the day of their combat young Hamlet was born (V.i. 163). Thirty years later the King’s brother Claudius murders Old Hamlet, marries his wife the Queen and becomes his successor. Again there is a challenge of war from Norway, this time from young Fortinbras, the old King’s son, but it quickly subsides. Young Hamlet takes up revenge of his father’s murder and finally succeeds in killing Claudius though he is himself killed in the process. Young Fortinbras arrives to claim his right over the kingdom, ending a cycle begun with his father’s challenge.

In viewing the context in which the characters live and act, immediately certain interesting observations strike us. There appears to be a relationship between young Hamlet’s birth and the first war with Norway, Old Hamlet’s death and threat of war with Fortinbras’s son, young Hamlet’s death and Fortinbras’s rising to power. This relationship expresses the life forces active in Denmark during the course of the play and it is in this context that all the characters and events must be understood.

We may begin our study with a close examination of Old Hamlet’s character and the state of Denmark under his rule. Our first question will be, “Why did Old Hamlet die?” He is a heroic figure of strength and courage, a firm and powerful ruler beloved by his subjects and feared by his enemies. During his reign both Norway and England are subservient to Denmark. For thirty years after his conquest of Norway, there has been relative peace and stability in the land. Of his purity and righteousness we are less sure. When his ghost appears it mentions “foul crimes done in my days of nature” and “all my imperfections on my head.”

The Ghost reveals to Hamlet the adulterous affair between his wife the Queen and his brother Claudius which led to a break in his marriage--“a falling off”--and then to his murder by Claudius. His Queen is a weak character of low consciousness seduced by words and gifts, too ignorant to suspect Claudius of murder, unashamed of her hasty remarriage. The Ghost’s concern is for revenge against Claudius, but he warns Hamlet not to harm the Queen. The old King is a doting and uxorious husband fully attached to a weak impure woman even after her true character is fully revealed. He is not angry with his wife but infuriated because he is replaced by “a wretch whose natural gifts were poor to those of mine!” It is his vital pride which demands revenge, the same “most emulate pride” which pricked him to accept Old Fortinbras’s challenge thirty years earlier.

When he appears as a Ghost he had

A countenance more in sorrow than in anger. (I.iii.232)

He is more sorry for his wife’s betrayal than he is angry for being murdered.

Old Hamlet is poisoned by his brother. The immediate outer cause is Claudius’s ambition. The inner sanction is his attachment to his wife. Old Hamlet is a powerful warrior with this single vulnerable spot through which he is attacked and his kingdom taken away. While awaiting the Ghost’s appearance, Hamlet refers to this fault in general terms which apply equally well to himself:

So, oft it chances in particular men,

That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,

Since nature cannot choose his origin--

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,

Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens

The form of plausive manners, that these men,

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,--

Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,

As infinite as man may undergo--

Shall in the general censure take corruption

From that particular fault: the dram of eale

Doth all the noble substance of a doubt

To his own scandal. (I.iv.23-38)

Immediately following these words, the Ghost appears and it is apparent that the description fits Old Hamlet very well. He is a man respected by his subjects—

Hor: ...he was a goodly king.

Ham: He was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again-- (I.ii.186)

with “one defect”, a strong man with a weak attachment to a woman of low character. After listening to the Ghost’s story, Hamlet calls him “old mole”; referring at once to his movement underground and the “mole of nature” which led to his demise.

The king represents the central will governing the kingdom. His personal strength and the obedience given him by his subjects establish an order or equilibrium of forces in the kingdom. Old Hamlet’s “one defect” is not merely a character weakness. In the plane of life it is an opening for hostile forces to attack. What Norway failed to accomplish by war, Claudius achieved by intrigue. A man whose front is fully armoured has left open a chink at the back through which he is slain.

The murder of the king is a very powerful action releasing powerful currents of reaction. It creates a huge disturbance to the balance of life forces in the kingdom, a power vacuum. Had Claudius been a more powerful man than his brother, or one with greater support from the people, he might have been able to subdue these forces and reestablish the old equilibrium. But Claudius is no match either in strength or popularity for his dead brother. The result is that his action is quickly answered by reactions from life around him. When a king falls, he

Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw

What’s near it with it: it is a massy wheel,

Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,

To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things

Are mortised and adjoined: which, when it falls,

Each small annexment, petty consequence,

Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone

Did the king sigh, but with a general groan. (III,iii.16-23)

When the play opens Old Hamlet is dead and his brother is on the throne. There are numerous signs that the stability and health of the country is suffering. Francisco, a soldier on the watch, is “sick at heart”. When Bernardo asks, “What, is Horatio there?” Horatio responds, “A piece of him.” (I.i.19) The ghost’s appearance is said to indicate “some strange eruption to our state.” Reference is made to the super-natural events in Rome just before the murder of Julius Caesar. Marcellus sums up the impression:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. (I.iv.90)

At the same time we learn that Denmark is busy with war preparations in response to news that young Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to reconquer the lands lost by his father. Claudius’s first act as king is to deal with this foreign threat. It is not uncommon for a new king to be so challenged as a test to his capacity and the integrity of the country under his rule. Life immediately presents Claudius with a test of strength which he appears to handle successfully. But in fact the outer challenge from Fortinbras subsides only when young Hamlet decides in earnest to revenge his father’s death. As in Othello the threat of war with the Turks vanishes only to be replaced by Iago’s intrigues, so here Norway retracts her threat to Claudius’s rule only when Hamlet resolves to end it himself.

There is an imbalance of forces in Denmark resulting from the king’s murder, Claudius’s usurpation of the crown intended for Hamlet, and an incestuous and hasty marriage to the queen. Life forces react to the disequilibrium and move for a new order which is finally achieved with the death of Hamlet and Claudius and the rise of young Fortinbras to power.

The key figure in this movement from beginning to end is Hamlet and the movement can be understood only when Hamlet’s role in it is fully grasped. We have noted that Hamlet’s birth and the battle of his father with Old Fortinbras occurred on the same day. Though on the surface the two events appear completely independent, the laws of life reveal a deeper connection. Simultaneity in life is an expression of interrelationship. The vibration or consciousness of an event attracts other events which are similar or are in reaction to it. In the present case Hamlet’s birth is associated with a challenge to Denmark’s sovereignty and the outbreak of foreign war. He is born on the day of victory and throughout his life Denmark is master of its neighbors. At the moment of his death, the balance shifts and young Fortinbras rises to power uncontested. In some way which we need to discover, Hamlet represents a powerful force in Denmark whose birth coincides with conflict abroad and whose death is associated with conflict and destruction at home.

As we have seen, Old Hamlet is a powerful and able ruler in the traditional sense. He is the vital hero who commands by force and maintains his kingdom by his strength. Peter Alexander observes that “when father and son meet in the closing scenes of the act, not merely two types, but two ages confront one another.”1 Young Hamlet has some of his father’s courage and nobility but in other ways is a completely different man. He is predominantly a mental character. In Sri Aurobindo’s words, “Hamlet is a Mind, an intellectual, but like many intellectuals a mind that looks too much all around and sees too many sides to have an effective will for action. He plans ingeniously without coming to anything decisive. And when he does act, it is on a vital impulse. Shakespeare suggests but does not bring out the idealist in him, the man of bright illusions.”2

Hamlet is born into royalty and as such is destined to rule Denmark. He lives in an age where vital strength is the sole criterion for survival. The king must be first a warrior ready to discipline his people and fight his enemies. In this society the role of mind is to support vital strength, not to have free play in creating and acting out its own possibilities. In Hamlet, mind appears as a new development of consciousness. There is no integration of mind and emotion and vitality which is the case in individuals and societies where mental culture is of long standing. Hamlet’s is a nascent mentality in a vital society. All those around him are of the old strain and he stands out in opposition.

We see that the nature of Hamlet’s mind is to enquire into and question everything. His keen insight penetrates the surface appearances of people and events around him and threatens the conventional society with a greater self-consciousness than it can bear. He sees through the smiles of Claudius, the affectations of his mother, the platitudes of Polonius, the spying of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and everywhere he strips naked their underlying motives or makes folly of their pretense.

In addition to keen insight, his mental development has made possible a refinement of the emotions and sentiments which Bradley terms moral sensibility or moral intelligence. His affection for his parents and his friends is uncommonly deep and genuine. So is his disgust for anything ugly--his uncle’s drunkenness, his mother’s shallowness and sensuality, the courtiers’ lies and pretenses, etc. This characteristic of his intelligence makes the impact of life’s disillusionments not only a repulsion in his mind but also a severe blow to his heart’s emotions.

Knowledge and will are the two powers of mind. Observation is the first born which moves through stages from confusion to illusion to insight. Only when knowledge is established, mental will can become fully active. Hamlet’s mind is in the stage of observation. He sees through the illusions and false appearances but his vision ends there. It is a negative perception valid in its own right but incomplete. Hamlet ponders the nature of deceit, disease and death, but fails to grasp the positive values of life, love and truth. His understanding provides no basis for action, only for endless questioning and thoughts of suicidal escape. The mental will is undeveloped and ineffective. This explains why he is prone to constant mental agitation which does not translate into action. He acts only when mind is brushed aside and the vital is free to move unimpeded--that is, when the gap between mind and the vital is temporarily filled. It also explains why he finds it so difficult to revenge his father’s murder. Revenge is a vital motivation. It can activate mind only to the extent that mind is subservient to the vital. Left to itself mind finds no interest or satisfaction in it.

The situation in consciousness expresses literally in life. Hamlet has grown to manhood, his faculty of knowledge is developed, but he is excluded from the throne which is the true power for action. In this respect he is not merely an individual but a representative of a growth in the society as a whole. He is part of and represents the royal house of Denmark, the central will (“head”) of the state. Not only is his birth a new development in the society, but it threatens the existing social consciousness and evokes a response of fear and hostility from it. In other words, his birth marks the appearance of a greater possibility, a greater power of consciousness, to rule Denmark. Because it is a higher development it has a power over the existing society and also poses a threat to it. But because it is young and not yet integrated with the present achievements of the civilisation, it is awkward, unbalanced, weak and its appearance creates a temporary disequilibrium or gap in the consciousness of the society.

This gap is a weakness which invites a challenge. The challenge comes from Norway as war. But the vitality of Denmark embodied in Old Hamlet is strong and the result of the threat is an expansion of Denmark’s sovereignty over a far greater area. In life, a new emergence usually brings with it an upset, accident or temporary difficulty. But where the basis is firm and the new element positive, the net result is an expansion and progress. In this case Hamlet’s birth marks the rise of Denmark as a greater international power.

Now let us turn to the text and follow the movements of life. The appearance of the Ghost and the news of war are simultaneous. The violent act of murder, though unknown to the public, evokes a violent challenge from abroad.

When we first meet Hamlet he is sunk in deep melancholy. When his black attire is being noticed, he tells the queen:

But I have that within which passeth show;

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.85)

Once alone he reveals the nature and depth of his suffering. His mother’s behaviour has sickened and disheartened him. She, who clung to the king like a vine and whom Old Hamlet treated so lovingly, has proved most venal:

Let me not think on’t--Frailty, thy name is woman!--

A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,

Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--

O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,

Would have mourn’d longer--married with my uncle. (I.ii.145-151)

Hamlet is in a profound vital depression. His mind is paralysed and morbid. All he can do is contemplate the horror of his Mother’s incestuous wedlock. He had seen the lowness of her character and his mind generalises it as a truth of life and the world:

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. (I.ii.133-137)

But essentially his response is vital, not mental. He feels identified with his mother. As J. Dover Wilson writes, “For his blood is tainted, his very flesh corrupted, by what his mother has done, since he is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh....Hamlet felt himself involved in his mother’s lust; he was conscious of sharing her nature in all its rankness and grossness; the stock from which he sprang was rotten.”3 As he later tells Ophelia in the nunnery scene:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. (III.i.123)

It is this feeling of his own defilement and impurity which causes his melancholy, paralyses his will, and brings the constant thought of death and suicide.

When Horatio seeks out Hamlet to tell him of the Ghost, there is an interesting example of a type of subtle perception quite common in life which we usually dismiss as coincidence.

Ham: My father!--methinks I see my father.

Hor: Where, my lord?

Ham: In my mind’s eye, Horatio.

Hor: I saw him once; he was a goodly king.

Ham: He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.

Hor: My Lord, I think I saw him yesternight.

Ham: Saw? who?

Hor: My lord, the king your father. (I.ii.184-91)

Before Horatio can speak a word of seeing Hamlet’s father, Hamlet says he saw him and when later the Ghost tells Hamlet of the murder, he replies, “O my prophetic soul!” indicating the nature of his earlier vision.

When the Ghost appears, Hamlet shows both courage and a reckless abandon born of despair:

Why, what should be the fear?

I do not set my life at a pin’s fee. (I.iv.64)

The Ghost relates how Claudius wooed his queen to adultery with wit and gifts, then poisoned the sleeping king and robbed him of his life, his crown and his queen. The Ghost commands him to

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (I.V.25)

and

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be

A couch for luxury and damn’d incest. (I.V.82)

On top of the already crippling weight of his mother’s incestuous marriage comes knowledge of her adulterous infidelity and his father’s murder. There is no anger in Hamlet’s response, no furious resolution to revenge. Rather he feels himself collapsing and his mind fainting away from the knowledge.

O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,

But bear me stiffly up. (I.v.93)

He responds to the Ghost’s words--to remember and avenge him--with a decision of the mind and attempts to impress on his memory the command:

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: (I.v.98-108)

The implication is that if he does not write it down he may forget. How to forget unless from utter horror and despair? Hamlet’s mind and heart and body rebel against the knowledge. His emerging power of mental consciousness is oppressed by an enormous burden which threatens to destroy it.

Yet almost immediately we see the strength and adeptness of his mind reassert themselves. He knows exactly how to handle his companions, refuses to reveal anything, and elicits an oath of secrecy from them. At the same time he decides on his course of action, “To put an antic disposition on” (V.v.172), and prepares them for a change in his behaviour. We agree with the critics who have argued that Hamlet’s madness is only half feigned and that he chooses the guise of an antic disposition to conceal his failing personality strength. But the madness is not merely a secondary result of his mother’s and his uncle’s acts. Rather from a wider viewpoint it can be seen that the existing social forces are covertly working through subconscious life channels to weaken or destroy the nascent mental consciousness in Hamlet by presenting it in its weak condition with an intolerable burden. It is the same movement that overtly confronted Socrates, Copernicus, Jesus and innumerable others who represented in themselves some new manifestation. Hamlet is not a symbol or a metaphorical image of an allegory. He is a living example of the process by which human life evolves and the dynamics of that evolution. We have stated earlier that his mind achieves primarily a negative power of insight rather than a positive will to action or abol oprepe/p> <0.1ptt herofitable,.:fst, fy" >O m7al"> nsize: 1.:fouth anustyle="

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