Two posts ago, I explored the implication that a successful Shakespeare production (especially one that advertises itself as an “adaptation”) had damn well better have a firm grip on “the truth” of the text. Absolute truth is a heresy in postmodernism, and while it’s fine and dandy to assert, like Hamlet, that “I’ll have grounds more relative than this” before you put on a play, the unavoidable fact is, everything is relative once you hit the boards. (And that’s “relative” in the modern sense, not in Hamlet’s sense — he meant the opposite, of course, because Shakespeare).
None the less, I feel I owe it to myself to step back and take stock before I move forward with my own work. I plan to make some revisions to my “draft” of Hamlet soon, and it would help to be able to point to a single, guiding principle when I’m deciding what to keep and what to cut. So, relativity be damned: what is the Truth of Hamlet? Why do we, as a culture, keep coming back to the play? What’s the point?
It’s worth emphasizing before I start that “what’s the point?” is not the same as “what’s the lesson?” There might be lessons in Hamlet, but I’m convinced that part of the play’s appeal is its lack of preachiness, so I’m going to try not to dwell on what the play might be trying to teach us. In any case, a didactic moral depends upon the audience feeling akin to the protagonist, and one thing Hamlet isn’t is an Everyman. His circumstances (prince of the realm, cheated of the throne) and his mission (avenge the death of his murdered father) are too distinct from our own; even if you render them into broad analogical terms (he feels he deserves something … he’s lost his father-figure…), there’s still too much that doesn’t fit with our own lives to arrive at an easy moral (“If the metaphorical spectre of your past is haunting you, don’t delay in striking out against those you perceive to have wronged you”?!?).
Besides, we don’t want to be preached to. We don’t necessarily even want to see ourselves reflected onstage (although some common ground does help, as we’ll see). What do we want from Hamlet?
We want a hero’s journey. This may or may not be the writ-large Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell fame. It might just be a story about a heroic person that happens to hit a few of the points along that road. But I think the reason Hamlet and Hamlet are synonymous (besides the fact that the Prince never stops talking) is because we imagine him to be a hero. He has a hero’s challenge, and he reacts to it heroically.
Revenge isn’t heroic. That’s the first obstacle. I believe it was true in Shakespeare’s time, and it’s true today: heroes sometimes perform acts of vengeance, and there is something undeniably satisfying in the closure that revenge implies. But acting out of mere vengeance is not inherently heroic.
In Act One, the Ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius. He begs for revenge, and Hamlet promises as much. And then the scholars and pundits circle like vultures as Hamlet fails to live up to his promise for four acts. And yet, consider what the story would look like if Hamlet immediately walked right up to Claudius and stabbed him through the heart? When it’s reduced to its basic broth, revenge isn’t heroic, it’s merely reactive.
Heroism is overcoming incredible odds. When I first started adapting the text, I thought the key was to make Claudius seem untouchable — constantly surrounded by guards, for example, or always adjacent to Gertrude — so that Hamlet had some obstacles to overcome. But Shakespeare deliberately puts the two of them alone in a room (in 3.3), and Hamlet still doesn’t kill Claudius. Instead, he refines or redefines the parameters of revenge. He’s realizing just how difficult the concept of revenge becomes, in practice.
But that’s a bit too abstract and a bit too boring to hold our interest. Real obstacles and real stakes are required to make a hero’s journey feel substantial; if all Hamlet really does is think himself into, and then out of, his own corners, then we’re not watching a journey at all. He’s just spinning his wheels.
Step back, then, and simplify. What else makes a hero?
Heroism is altruism. Hamlet is an appealing latter-day anti-hero because he frequently acts like a jerk. Even when he seems to be speaking or acting in someone else’s interests (eg. “Get thee to a nunnery”), he still finds a way to poison the exchange. The Ghost asks him not to let his “soul contrive / Against [his] mother aught” (1.5.85-86), but any compassion Hamlet might feel towards his mother is poisoned by his disgust at her mature sexuality. He is not a very altruistic hero on the page.
And yet, I would argue there is a bigger-picture altruism at work — one that also supersedes (though it intersects with) the revenge plot. Hamlet is a jerk to his family and his loved ones, yes, but I think he’s trying to save the world.
Here are the steps of Hamlet’s hero’s journey:
1) Doom comes to Denmark. The status quo of Elsinore may have been disrupted two months earlier, when Claudius murdered Hamlet, Sr., but the first anyone (but Hamlet) knows of it is when the Ghost shows up. Horatio is a scholar, so he recognizes that this apparition, while not necessarily dangerous unto itself, represents or presages great danger. “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.68) he says, using a metaphor that works on both the macro (volcanic disaster) and the micro (dermatological infection).
The “boding” nature of the Ghost is emphasized. “A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye” (1.1.111) says Horatio, meaning “this is a little thing, but it gets worse when we think about it.” Then he has a marvelous speech about all the grim, supernatural events that supposedly presaged Julius Caesar’s death: astrological portents, ghostly visitations, “disasters,” “harbingers,” and ultimately “doomsday” are mentioned. And has just finished waxing prophetic about a war between Denmark and Norway — a political cataclysm that serves as a nervous undercurrent throughout the whole play.
I think it’s very important that we leave 1.1 with no knowledge whatsoever of Claudius’s past deeds, but with a strong sense of foreboding about the future of Denmark. It means that Hamlet gets pre-cast as a saviour by association. There’s even a weirdly placed direct reference to Jesus’s birth at the end of 1.1 (Marcellus feels compelled to point out that spirits don’t walk abroad on Christmas Eve); the line “Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated” (1.1.158) comes 10 lines before Horatio says, “Let us impart what we have seen tonight / Unto young Hamlet” (1.1.168-169).
2) Hamlet bears a heavy load. Does this mean that we’re supposed to view Hamlet as a messiah-figure? I think not; in fact, we get frankly a bit embarrassed whenever he starts to see himself in those terms. I’ve seen many productions in which Hamlet’s corpse gets carried offstage with his arms stretched wide (both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh do it in their films), but it has never felt earned.
And that’s because Hamlet strikes us as a pretty average guy, despite being Prince of Denmark. In 1.2, we see him behaving in “common” ways, grieving for a lost father and snapping at those who try to console him. He explicitly rejects role-play (“Seems, madam? Nay, it is; I know not seems”), though that doesn’t last long. We deduce swiftly that Hamlet is a bright, sensitive man whose greatest strength is probably his own “mind’s eye.”
And, when Hamlet soliloquizes for the first time, we realize he has already felt a twinge of foreboding. “It is an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (1.2.135-136) — he is talking about the same “state” that Horatio envisions erupting with bad things — “Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.136-137). If we hadn’t already seen the Ghost-omen with our own eyes, we might think Hamlet is being melodramatic; but combined, the two scenes tell us that Hamlet’s insight and sensitivity make him the right man for the job.
What job? It’s not revenge. Hamlet is uniquely suited to rooting out the “something” that’s “rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90) — not so he can feel good about his relationship with his father, but so he can save the world (ie. the state) from the corruption that has taken over. Conveniently for him, the task dovetails with his revenge, since Claudius is at its root.
So, Hamlet reluctantly takes on the task of cleaning house in Elsinore: “The time [ie. the state of affairs] is out of joint; O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right” (1.5.186-187). I love these lines because they cast Hamlet as a doctor; the metaphor is setting a bone that has been broken “out of joint.” Still reeling from his interview with the Ghost, Hamlet has already turned a potentially violent mission (ie. revenge) into a mission of mercy (ie. fixing a broken state). Hamlet wants to do the job, but he wants to do it with minimal harm.
3) Revenge without bloodshed. This is the hero’s journey; it’s why Hamlet delays; and it’s why we root for him, even though he lashes out at nearly everyone who tries to get close to him. Hamlet wants to repair Denmark without shedding blood. When that proves impossible, he seeks an opportunity to root out corruption with as little collateral damage as possible.
What about the prayer scene, then — Hamlet alone with Claudius, yet still refusing to kill him? There are two ways to interpret it, I think. His rationale (“Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge”) could be an excuse, a reason to delay because, even in that isolated moment, he still can’t bring himself to shed blood. This makes Hamlet a true pacifist, undermining the “drink hot blood” talk of the previous scene (which has to be role-playing), but helping to explain his actions in the next scene, when he murders Polonius through a curtain — an act of violence conveniently concealed from the one committing it.
If we take Hamlet at his word when he says he wants the King’s soul to go to Hell, then perhaps the Prince is trying to find a balance. Remember, we’re talking about more than just eliminating one man; Hamlet is the “scourge and minister” responsible for stripping away all the sin in the land. Maybe, if he offers this one rotten soul to Hell, then the Devil will relinquish his claim on all the other sinners?
I’m reaching a bit now, I think, and these revelations are exhausting, so I’ll save my conclusion for another post. The Truth about Hamlet…To Be Continued.