Why do we read/watch/produce/talk about Hamlet? Mostly because of the titular character’s heroic attempts, not to exact revenge for his father’s death, but to stabilize and heal a wounded world. Hamlet is crafty, witty, insightful, poetic, and sensitive, all of which helps us to sympathize with him. But to empathize with Hamlet, we need to know what he’s trying to achieve.
Hamlet’s modus operandi is to minimize harm. Interestingly, I think this principle could potentially be applied to all the supporting characters in the play — to the Ghost, who advises Hamlet to leave his mother “to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” — and even to Claudius, Hamlet’s archrival, who in Act 4 devises a convoluted and surreptitious plan to eliminate Hamlet because he doesn’t want his wife to see her son suffer unnecessarily. None of these characters are psychopaths.
Steps 1-3 in Hamlet’s hero’s journey were the foretelling of Doom, the sense that Hamlet is a fairly normal person with a Heavy Burden, and the Prince’s desire to obey his father’s orders, and set his kingdom to rights, Without Bloodshed. It is that self-imposed prescription that sends Hamlet into the moral quagmire of Acts 3, 4, and 5. It might be what drives him insane, although I have my doubts. What happens next?
4) Blood Comes to Hamlet. Confronted with proof of Claudius’s guilt, and increasingly convinced that the King has turned all his allies against him, the Prince resolves to be bloodthirsty — then backs down. “Now could I drink hot blood,” (3.2.380) he says, then almost immediately, “I will speak daggers to her but use none” (3.2.386). His language is ambiguous (are we surprised?), but it seems to me like Hamlet wants to adopt the role of a revenger without actually performing acts of violence:
Translation: “No matter how abusive my words are to my mother, my soul will never consent to ratify them with violent actions.”
The same pattern seems to play out in the next scene: he raises his sword to dispatch Claudius, but even though his words are full of hatred and invective towards the King, he cannot bring himself to murder him. Hamlet keeps running up to the brink of bloodshed, then stepping away. Until, of course, he doesn’t: Polonius, that “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” gets stabbed. “Is it the King?” Asks Hamlet, hopefully. If, in his rashness, he has killed the original source of all this corruption and vice, then maybe his task is complete.
Disappointed in this, Hamlet switches tactics, and tries to cure his mother of her vices through words. And it seems to work, although I’ve already talked at length about Gertrude’s ambivalence. It’s also worth noting that Hamlet doesn’t seem regretful or grief-stricken over Polonius’s death. He still wants to minimize harm, but he has no time to look backwards. The same is true in Act 5, when he bloodlessly dispatches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet returns to the brink one more time: in 4.5, at the end of his final soliloquy, he issues this bracing challenge to himself:
But when we see him next, even though he has dealt with R&G in the meantime, we get no strong impression of bloody thoughts from the Dane. He is subtly changed in Act 5, but none of his words or deeds reflect this resolve, except perhaps for his long-delayed strike against Claudius:
Yet the last impressions that we get of Hamlet are not violent. He fights when cornered, but after Claudius is dead, we see him exchanging forgiveness with Laertes, protecting Horatio from suicidal thoughts, and begging his friend to tell his story. Whereas Macbeth and Coriolanus die like warriors, and Othello dies trying to re-invoke his fallen warrior status, it takes Fortinbras to posthumously declare Hamlet warlike:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
So, I think that Hamlet’s journey wraps up with the recognition that 5) You Can’t Change Who You Are.
It’s why so much of Hamlet’s Act 5 language invokes providence, fate, and destiny. It’s why, after three acts of frenzied role-playing, the Prince seems to have returned to the stance he first adopted, in 1.2: “it is; I know not ‘seems'” (1.2.76). He berates Laertes for what, from his perspective, appears to be hollow histrionics at Ophelia’s grave; and the last person to suffer his rapier wit is Osric, the sycophant, who changes to please others. He is sick to death of pretenders, and pretending.
Hamlet wants to save Denmark from corruption, but not at the cost of his soul. Or, if “soul” is too abstract, then his “identity.” He isn’t a killer. He kills, and doesn’t become anguished about it; but then he struggles not to kill again, until he thinks it’s necessary to lance the infected boil of Elsinore.
In this context, I think it’s pretty clear that Hamlet’s mission fails, in both respects. He can only save Denmark by obliterating it; Fortinbras has to plant a whole new garden. And Hamlet’s soul or identity cannot possibly die untarnished: “What a wounded name … shall I leave behind me!” (5.2.329) Even his dying phrase, “The rest is silence,” suggests a failure, coming from a man who loved to talk.
Yet Hamlet’s failure isn’t meant as an indictment of pacifism. In the classroom, it’s easy to bemoan the Prince’s lack of action — “Why doesn’t he just get on with it, already?” — but on stage, if Denmark is a fully realized and halfway recognizable world, then we still cheer for Hamlet — because, like him, we want to minimize harm in our own lives. We want to be brave enough to take the high road, even if it leads us past the gates of Hell.
What do you think? Did I miss anything crucial? Am I barking up the wrong tree?