Originally published in the St. Austin Review (March/April 2016)
I have never really liked Hamlet, neither the character nor the play. The character I found too full of self-doubts, too wistfully desirous of death as a solution to his problems, too full of contradictions to engage much of my sympathy; the play contained too many unconnected moments, culminating in an accidental on-stage bloodbath befitting a caricatured opera. Like many, I found Hamlet’s words wonderful for their powerful expression of the burdens of life. But Hamlet’s death failed to move me.
Wanting to be moved, I happened upon George MacDonald’s edition and study of Hamlet (free on Kindle!). I was intrigued by the discovery — an accomplished story-teller telling the story of Hamlet was just what I wanted. I was not disappointed. MacDonald unashamedly championed Hamlet as one of the the noblest figures in literature, and considered the play “the grandest of all Shakespeare’s presentations”. He was convinced that most students of the play are misled by things they have already heard about the central character – that Hamlet’s problem is thinking too much. Richard Grant White, MacDonald’s contemporary, re-told the tragedy of Hamlet as the vacillations of an obsessively melancholic, emotionally self-indulgent, petty-souled man, who muddles a clear call to action by luxuriating in excessive reflection. White drew the natural conclusion from his line of interpretation:
…The lesson that it teaches…If a man have not strong, urgent, exclusive desire, which compels him to put his impulses and will into action, and seek one single object, if indeed he be not ballasted with principle and impelled by purpose, he will be blown about by every flaw of fortune, and be sucked down into the quicksand of irresolution….In the words of the wicked King, which gave the key of Shakespeare’s meaning, “That we would do, We should do when we would….”
White’s Hamlet could move no one. The thought, the expression remain great, Hamlet’s every word is precious, but under that sort of reading, the action of the play fails to evoke fear, pity, or anything but frustration. Appropriately, Grant thought that only the most superlative of actors can make Hamlet anything tolerable to watch. Yet, since Shakespeare’s plays were very popular in his day, shouldn’t the dramatic difficulty White admits be a prima facie reason to question his interpretation? Nor should any, especially lovers of moral reflection, readily acquiesce in the idea that thought hinders action. Should we think that the wicked king really expresses the lesson of Hamlet? Could the same Shakespeare who makes us shudder at Macbeth’s maxim, “The very firstlings of my heart shall be/The firstlings on my hand,” offer us “We should do when we would” as the lesson to take from Hamlet?
MacDonald rightly criticizes those like White, who “pounce upon [Hamlet] with vituperation, as if he were one of the vile, and they infinitely better.” By contrast, his admiration of the character offers us a much more likeable Hamlet and a much more moving play. Yet he wants so badly for Hamlet to be the great Christian hero that he explains away what I consider to be the central drama of the story – Hamlet’s near spiritual destruction and Providential rescue. At the heart of that drama is the problem of conscience.
The Problem of Conscience
In the terrible loneliness that he feels after the departure of the players and his disappointing friends (II.7 end), Hamlet vents against himself the frustration felt by White:
What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would he do if he had the motive and the cue for passion that I have?
Why, then, Hamlet asks himself, have I said nothing, done nothing? The question fills him with self-loathing and leads him to a terrible thought: “Am I a coward?” “I must be a coward,” he thinks, “I must be afraid to stand up to my father’s murderer and get the revenge that any red-blooded man would risk everything for. I don’t even feel the passion I ought to feel about it.” He cannot stand to face the thought, so he turns to think of a way to begin doing something – “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
But the question does not let go of Hamlet. In what might be a Shakespearean singularity, we next see Hamlet again in soliloquy, so intent that he does not realize he is not alone. The conclusion of his “To be or not to be soliloquy” suggests that he continues to dwell on his self-accusation. He has finally found a scapegoat –
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 pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (III.1)
Hamlet believes his entire audience knows the truth — Conscience makes all of us cowards, conscience prevents us from doing what we feel in the depths of our bones must be done, what our nature groans to do. Any person of conscience can no doubt sympathize with Hamlet here. In particular, Christians can sympathize. How bitter is it to “turn the other cheek”, to try to forgive our offensive brother from our heart? Does it make us feel like we are less than men?
Hamlet blames his conscience for his inaction. Why? Is this Hamlet thinking excessively? What scruple does he see setting itself in his way? In his previous soliloquy (II.7 end), Hamlet determined that before doing anything he must know whether the King really murdered his father. But that is a question of fact, not of conscience. So why blame conscience? Because even should his Mousetrap confirm the Ghost’s charge, the question will remain, “Should I seek revenge?” His conscience tells him, “No.” Why? Because the one who seeks vengeance, when he dies, must face eternal judgment. Hamlet tells himself that he is not afraid to die; why should he be when life is full of heartache and a “thousand natural shocks”? Death should be a blessed sleep. Yet he must fear death, because to die in the act of revenge will make him liable to the fires of Gehenna.
But isn’t Hamlet only seeking justice? Shouldn’t Claudius pay for his crime? Who can do it, if not Hamlet? Yet what is The Iliad but a long grand warning against the horrific evils of a justified anger? And has not the wisdom of ages always taken the sword from the hand of the one to be avenged and placed it in the hands of those who have not been personally affected, like the jury that brings a happy close to the Oresteian tragedies of Aeschylus?
Revenge is a much more prominent theme in Hamlet than justice. The words “revenge” and “vengeance” are used at least 16 times in the play, words related to justice a mere five times. The Ghost gave the great commission in terms of vengeance: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” (I.5) The Ghost approves of Hamlet’s natural, impulsive response, “Haste me to know it…that I may sweep to my revenge.” In telling his story, the Ghost does all he can to rouse Hamlet to a rage. He lingers on the physical pains of the sufferings that Claudius caused him, using nine lines to describe the effects of the poison, and another five lines to express his current torments – “Oh horrible, O horrible, most horrible!” He speaks of Claudius as a “serpent”, “beast”, a user of “witchcraft”, “garbage”. He invokes not Hamlet’s sense of justice, but his love for his father. He relies, not on Hamlet’s reason, his virtue, his concern for the common good, but nature at work in him, responding viscerally to the Ghost’s images:
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
In fact, other than “the secrets of his prison house”, there is nothing remarkably supernatural in what the Ghost says to Hamlet. Any man who had suffered betrayal by brother and wife could express similar disbelief, repugnance and anger. Had the poison failed to kill him but left him an invalid in a secret prison, Hamlet the king might have said just the same to his son. The Ghost had been violated; the memory of the wrong will not have ceased to pain him until he has had his revenge. In the Rhetoric, a work that Shakespeare knew well, Aristotle tells us that anger desires revenge: “Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one’s friends.” (Book II, Chapter 2, 1378a) Anger arises, not just because another has caused us pain, but because the other person has slighted us, treated us as of little worth, as persons unable to do anything about a personal injury. Anger seeks “conspicuous revenge”. The offender’s suffering will show him and the world that “I am not so low account that you can injure me without fear.” Until vengeance is exacted, a man’s own sense of self-worth is undermined.
So it is deeply natural that Hamlet castigates himself for failing to seek revenge and feels himself a coward. In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he identifies himself with all those who have been slighted:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes….
Nature drives us to settle our accounts (make our “quietus”) with violence. Only conscience, with the accompanying dread of judgment after death, would prevent a young man of spirit from settling his scores in this way. For a Christian especially, conscience presents an obstacle to revenge. How many pious mothers could answer their son’s questions: “’Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?’ Our Lord who meekly bore all the insolence of the scourging and the crown? ‘Who would these fardels bear?’ Our Sweet Savior who bore with His Cross all the sins and sufferings of the fallen world?” Their answers might refrain their sons, but, whether righteous or not, they will struggle with the womanly feeling that all cowards know.
Laertes shows us what we really would want to do, what we might wish Hamlet had done. Laertes, whose cause is so like Hamlet’s, will have nothing of calming thought. Pausing for thought would make him feel like a bastard with no natural feelings for his murdered father. No human structures, no warnings of conscience, or promptings of grace will stop the natural anger that overwhelms him.
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. (IV.1)
Claudius eggs Laertes on — no holy place, no treacherous deed should hold him back from vengeance, or else his pretended love for his father is merely a painting of sorrow, “A face without a heart”. (IV.3)
Hamlet himself experiences the same emotions. When the play has exposed the conscience of the King (III.2), he exults in the expectation that makes anger, as Achilles said (Iliad XVIII, 109) “Sweeter…by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetness.” Yet Hamlet knows that Christian vengeance must be more spiritual. When he comes across the kneeling King, he has the perfect opportunity to satisfy his earthly passion, but he refrains. (III.3) The King is praying, and so death will bring him to heavenly reward. “O This is hire and salary, not revenge!” Achilles’s rage could not be satisfied except by never-ending humiliation of Hector’s mortal remains (Iliad XXIV, 1ff), so Hamlet will wait until he can make sure his foe’s “soul may be as damn’d and black As hell, whereto it goes.” Earlier he had feared the devil might be abusing him in order to damn him; now Hamlet himself has assumed the devil’s role in order to damn his uncle.
Conscience intensely afflicts one other character in the play — Claudius. The first reference to conscience occurs in the last line of Act 2. Hamlet intends to “Catch the conscience of the King.” The King’s conscience is hiding; Claudius has been hiding his guilt. Hamlet prepares the play to expose it. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that the King’s conscience has already begun to show itself. In an aside as he and Polonius prepare Ophelia as a test for Hamlet (III.1), Claudius reveals that he has been bearing the “heavy burthen” of conscience for some time. It has made him so sensitive that Polonius’s gentle lament over the necessity of hypocrisy feels like a lash to him. What a torment the open performance of his seduction and murder must be! The play exposes his conscience to all, but also gets it working interiorly in ways that Hamlet never dreams. Conscience proclaims Claudius guilty, spurs him to prayer, but also prevents him from praying. Grave sinners might find the King’s cry the most pitiable lines in any drama: “Oh bosom, black as death: Oh limed soul that struggling to be free art more engaged.” (III.3) When he bends hopelessly into the posture of prayer, he begs for angelic help and, in a plea that would have shaken St. Augustine, he commands what he can in no way bring about himself, “…Heart with strings of steel, Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!”
So conscience is a real problem in the play – frustrating Hamlet, lashing Claudius, rejected by Laertes.
But conscience returns in Act V as a friend to Hamlet. Hamlet accepts the judgment of conscience, which clears him of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildensterne (V.2). Conscience now approves of him “quitting” the one who has “killed my King”, “whored my Mother”, stolen the crown, and attempted to murder him. Conscience will even damn him should he “let this Canker of our nature come in further evil.” (V.2)
How is this change brought about? Much has rightly been made of Hamlet’s new-found sense of Providence in Act V, which amazes, comforts, calms and strengthens him. He recounts to Horatio the providential accidents that brought him back alive to Denmark, and entrusts his life to its care. Perhaps this has an important role in reconciling Hamlet to his conscience. But before he can embrace Providence, he must put aside his demonic desire for revenge. Hamlet’s conversion happened in the Queen’s bedroom. (III.4) When Hamlet heads to meet his mother, his anger against her is as strong as that against his uncle. He is tempted to murder her, but recoils at an act too unnatural, too Nero-esque. But he intends to shame her, even to torment her, by bringing up her awful crime and flinging it in her face.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
He will need all his will power to make himself be satisfied with mere verbal lashings.
In using her conscience as a tool of torment, Hamlet is following the Ghost’s lead. The Ghost had no doubt that his “seeming virtuous queen” had succumbed to her lust before his death. (I.5) Her betrayal was more of a torment to him than his brother’s violence. He lost track of the time as he wondered how she could have left his celestial bed to “prey on garbage”. He knew that his natural rage would infect Hamlet, so he warned him to let Heaven sting her:
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her.
Even before hearing the Ghost’s accusations, her evident joy at marrying his uncle had poisoned Hamlet’s view of the whole world. (I.2) After the Ghost’s departure, Hamlet lamented his mother even before accusing his uncle, “O most pernicious woman. O villain, villain, smiling damned villain.” Now, in her bedroom, (III.4) he vents his shame that she is his mother. He blames her not only for her sin, but for the ruin of all his hopes in virtue, in love, in religion.
Such an act That…Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers’ oaths…and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven’s face doth glow:
His accusations have their effect; Hamlet makes his mother look into her soul and see how black it is. But he is not done. She begs him to stop, but he goes on to portray love-making in such disgusting terms as would make Iago proud. Hamlet, finally having reached her conscience, uses it not just to prick her and sting her, but to bludgeon and bludgeon her.
At this moment, the Ghost appears. He has come to chide his son for inaction, but he sees his unfaithful wife in her torment. In Act I, he desired her to be pricked by guilt. But now that he sees her, his natural tenderness for her comes back to him, and he tells Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul”. He knows she cannot bear direct contact with the world beyond nature. His look of tenderness is so full of pity that it leads Hamlet to lose that thirst for “hot blood” that he so desperately need as the fuel for his actions.
Do not look upon me, Lest with this piteous action you convert My stern effects. Then what I have to do Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.
The Ghost does convert Hamlet’s “stern effects”. He begins to preach to his mother. He urges her to desire grace, confess herself, repent of her past, and begin the long and difficult road to virtue. He offers her Aristotelian advice on the benefit of good actions chosen with difficulty. And he promises he’ll ask her forgiveness when she admits she needs his.
In the Tragedy of Hamlet, instead of rising to greatness and then plunging to disaster, the central character plunges down into the moral abyss and then dramatically is lifted out of it. Hamlet’s rise begins right here, in the middle of the scene with his mother. Hamlet had become satanic, determined to use the conscience of his enemies to trap them, damn them and torment them. But the Ghost’s expression of natural pity “converts” Hamlet, who then uses his mother’s conscience to correct her, inspire her and direct her to prayer. He awakens her sense of conscience and encourages her to accept its condemnation so that she can embrace the possibility of repentance that it offers:
_Qu._ Oh Hamlet, Thou hast cleft my heart in twaine.
_Ham._ O throw away the worser part of it, And Live the purer with the other halfe.
Hamlet finally recognizes that even the heart of his adulterous, incestuous mother has a purer part. He no longer condemns nature as “a foule and pestilent congregation of vapours” nor see man simply as “This Quintessence of dust.”
Hamlet’s intense experience with his mother immediately opens him to his own conscience as he faces the body of Polonius. It also seems to make him aware of the action of Providence in his life.
For this same Lord, I do repent: but heaven hath pleas’d it so, To punish me with this, and this with me, That I must be their Scourge and Minister.
Perhaps the reconciliation between natural feeling and conscience has opened him up to the Lord of both Nature and Mind.
In the bedroom scene, at the heart of the play, we see Hamlet’s turn toward conscience and Providence. When he returns from his trip toward England, he is a new man – ready to trust his life and death to a Providence which he sees at work in his life, ready to be judged and directed by conscience, ready to repent and amend for the wrong he had done to Laertes in Ophelia’s grave. He is no longer filled with rage nor does he need to be in a rage to act. He soberly judges that his right and duty lies in an attempt to challenge the king; he is ready to act though he is scared; he believes that Providence will provide the right opportunity.
In the final, disastrous duel (V.2), Hamlet shows his true character. He makes a moving apology to Laertes which quenches the rage of “Nature, Whose motive in this case should stirre me most to my Revenge.” Hamlet so touches the better angel of Laertes’ nature that it wakens his conscience, which nearly prevents him from carrying through with the duel. Having been poisoned by his own blade, he admits that his death is just, defends Hamlet’s slaying of the King and dies begging forgiveness:
Exchange forgivenesse with me, Noble _Hamlet; Mine and my Father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me.
Hamlet readily responds: “Heaven make thee free of it, I follow thee.”
The Tragedy of Hamlet is not a typical tragedy for Hamlet. He suffers from the beginning a trial that shakes his seemingly happy life from its foundation. The fabric of natural loves that has nurtured his life has been torn to shreds. Without this natural context, he feels within himself, when he can feel at all, only the base, angry part of nature, which makes the demands of Christian conscience seem external fiats enforced by eternal intimidation. Yet the other side of nature, the natural pity arising from love, lies latent even in the betrayed Ghost. The Ghost to his own surprise is overwhelmed by it, and awakens it in Hamlet, teaching him to hope that his mother’s heart has a “purer part” that can be reached by grace. Hamlet thus begins his rise from demonic manipulation of conscience to embracing Christian conscience as the guide to just action. Perhaps his father is finally able to let go as well; he is seen no more on earth.
The really tragic figure in the play is Claudius. Brought by Hamlet’s Mousetrap to the brink of repentance, he has not the strength in himself to soften his heart and let go of his unjust gains. Instead, like Macbeth, he confirms himself in evil, corrupts Laertes, and becomes the instrument of death for his queen, Laertes, Hamlet, and even himself. Little doubt that his soul ends “as damned and black as Hell whereto it goes.” Had he not led Laertes into treachery, into poisoning the blade, Hamlet would have lived to tell his own story. Yet this was not Providence abandoning Hamlet. Rather, It allowed him to suffer justly for his role in the tragedy. For when Claudius cried out, “Help, angels!”, Hamlet appeared, not as an angel of mercy, but as the angel of condemnation. What might have happened had Hamlet shown himself to Claudius at that moment, and accused him as he later did his mother? Would that have melted those “strings of steel”? We will never know.