That’s the Question: Hamlet, Our Hero

Hamlet_ECardA summary of my last post, before we move along:

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.

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

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?

Bizarro4) 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:

How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

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:

 O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

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:

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

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.

rscs-version-of-hamletIt’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?

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One thought on “That’s the Question: Hamlet, Our Hero

  1. Laura says:

    Finally caught up to the present here. First, I want to thank you for this blog. It’s been a fascinating read and I genuinely hope you get back to the line-by-line analysis of the play, even if it doesn’t end up informing your production all that immediately.

    Something in your past couple of posts crystallized something for me about Hamlet in a way I’d never seen before. First of all, the Spiderman thing, which rolled around in my head with your desire to have a Hamlet who is relatable for your young audiences. One of the lessons of Spiderman is the power and responsibility thing, of course, but I also think an important element of his core myth is the part where the hero sometimes has to grow up before he’s ready to and before he wants to. Growing up is part of his heroism, and that’s the struggle we see Peter Parker go through in every reboot.

    So maybe this is part of Hamlet’s journey as a hero and part of the thing that makes him waffle around so. He has to grow up now, and thanks to the Ghost, he has to grow up fast and in ways that he never expected he’d have to. It isn’t just that he lost his father and is grieving, I think, although that is a passage that defines growing up in a particular way – finally being an orphan, really. Which Hamlet isn’t, but maybe he feels like he is, because Gertrude has abandoned him for Claudius. And if she is the evil Gertrude you’re thinking about, perhaps he never really felt like her son. Perhaps his only real parent was his father. Who knows.

    At any rate, your thoughts about his role as a hero in saving the world made me think about Buffy – much more of a generational touchstone for me than Harry Potter. She alone of all the girls in the world yadda yadda yadda – she had to grow up all the time, over and over, in painful and isolating ways that resulted in her death and resurrection and death and resurrection. She became a whiny self-pitying prig along the way at times and complicated her hero-ness by being so annoying, but in the end she was a hero because she sacrificed herself and because she did what she had to do for the greater good. And along the way she found out who she really was and that being the Slayer wasn’t what she thought and it wasn’t what she had been told. It was something unique to her because she was Buffy before she was the Slayer. But being the Slayer made her Buffy in a way that nothing else could – that hero’s journey of growing up.

    Interesting to me to think about Buffy and Hamlet side by side* – how are they both constrained by the way they are perceived by others and expected to behave? How are they used by others to their own ends and how do they take their own agency back? It’s interesting to me, and crucial, that Hamlet comes back to Denmark in the end, when he could have skipped town for good. Maybe becoming persistent is part of being a grown-up, too. So Hamlet becomes a hero who is trying to save the world and in doing so becomes Hamlet in a way that couldn’t happen any other way. And maybe that’s part of why, in the end there’s nothing but silence. He’s said everything he needs to say about who he is and his actions are his final identity.

    Now I’m babbling. But you get the idea. Thanks for everything you’ve written. It’s given me a lot to think about.

    *Does this make Spike Ophelia?

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