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Hamlet's Hamartia

So—theoretically—if somebody whacked my beloved old man then proceeded to wed and bed my mom I'd resolutely be set on the path to complete, ultimate, and dare I venture—Biblical—revenge. The revenge story is almost always a gripping read. William Shakespeare, no slaggard at using whatever was lying around when no one was looking, employed this theme in many fashions, as in Romeo’s hot-blooded slaying of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Prospero’s agonizing treatment of his brother Antonio in The Tempest. However, nowhere in his esteemed canon does revenge figure so dramatically as in Hamlet.

But there's a twist: unlike many other revenge procedurals where we watch the protagonist embark on a nonstop program of retribution, our woefully incapable prince dithers and procrastinates, dragging out the patience of both his co-characters and his audience as he struggles with the issue of intellectualism versus politics.

Basically, Hamlet’s problem is his ceaseless attempts to rationalize what he has been taught at a very progressive, intellectually-centered university against what he has been raised with: a repressive Catholic ontology that has more eternal pitfalls that one can count. For any other characters whose near and dear were ruthlessly murdered it might be a simple choice to enact revenge (one need only look at Malcolm and Macduff), but for the troubled Prince of Denmark, it is a tortuous and soul-searching process. Neither Malcolm not Macduff (as far as we know) were the recipients of a newfangled Enlightenment education stressing thought and rationality over knee-jerk lethal retribution. I argue that, Hamlet's moral, ethical, and political confusion, is his scholastic training that renders the prince hamstrung and confused.

Shakespeare could have had Hamlet educated anywhere in western Europe, (for instance, Hamburg) but he deliberately puts him at Wittenberg. George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Hamlet as a prehistoric Dane is morally bound to kill his uncle, politically as rightful heir to the usurped throne, and filially as ‘the son of a dear father murdered’ and a mother seduced by an incestuous adulterer” (Wilson 79). Capping your Dad and doing your Mom seems like a pretty sound reason for revenge in many books. But because of the influence of Wittenberg’s neoclassical/Protestant training, Hamlet finds himself totally incapable of reconciling what he feels he must do to retain honor and salvage the future of Denmark—which is kill Claudius and avenge his father’s murder.

To wit: Wittenberg was the home of Martin Luther, whose teachings destroyed the homogenous rule of Roman Catholicism. As Luther reacted so angrily to the excess and corruption that he found in Rome, so also did his adherents attempt to prohibit similar faults in their own religious lives, and instead of bowing to numerous intermediaries between themselves and God, cut out the thousands of earthly middlemen between themselves and their deity.

Shakespeare mirrors this rejection of excess and rejection through Hamlet, who sees his uncle (named a regicide by a spirit in the shape of his deceased father, but we'll get to that in a minute) carrying on late into the night, drinking and carousing: “The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse/Keeps wassail and the swag’ring upscale reels/And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,/The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out/The triumph of his pledge” (Shakespeare I.iv.9). Hamlet plainly sees a direct corollary to what Luther railed against: the debauchment and moral diminishment of one who should have been respected and revered.

It is important to note that Hamlet only objects to his uncle’s (and now step-father’s) Bohemian habits and ignores—or is hampered in his ability to denigrate—Claudius’s abilities as king. In fact Claudius does indeed conduct himself quite ably as Denmark’s monarch, especially hammering out solutions to tricky situations such as hamstringing the impending attack of the Norwegian hothead Fortinbras in act II, scene ii, and later on when he handles Laertes deftly, both in act IV, scene v, when Laertes comes to Claudius looking for blood to match his father’s spilled blood (and incidentally finds his beloved sister Ophelia gone mad from Hamlet's coarse abandonment), and in act V, scene vii, when he puts the grief-stricken youth in a position to “accidentally” kill Hamlet through a rigged fencing match. Claudius' ability to judge and negotiate a difficult situation and sway others to his point of view makes him a man who should be in power. He's no dummy.

Although Claudius is utterly odious to Hamlet, the Prince is held back from killing him by his newfound Protestant religious beliefs which include both a more strict reading of the Bible and the elimination of church intermediaries between the supplicant and God, putting the supplicant face-to-face with the Almighty. Both of these practices effectively serve to keep Hamlet from enacting bloody revenge.

The Bible clearly states that “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and even though Hamlet ignores this in times of hot blood, causing the death of Polonius, he does, I believe, bear the weight of this commandment in mind throughout the play. It would be illogical for Hamlet, in times of sobering thought, to ignore what is possibly the best-known single line from the Bible, especially when he knows that being in a one-to-one relationship with The Almighty leaves absolutely no wiggle room. Hamlet has mused on the prohibition of wrongful death—in the form of suicide—before, when he bemoans “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (I.ii.135). This commandment effectively prohibits the one course that Hamlet could pursue to quell his moral outrage. (There's a reason why barbarians don't go to college.)

So it is his intellectuality that ultimately stops him from killing Claudius outright, and here lies another paradox that tortures the prince. Wittenberg, considered a radical university for its time, taught neoclassicism. It is this neoclassicism that fills Hamlet with florid tales of antiquity, many of them overflowing with murder and revenge. If Hamlet was not confused before, he receives no help here. These sanguinely gushing tales seal the fate of the prince, who was (by his tendency to lean away from bloodshed in the first place) obviously of a nonviolent nature to begin with, by allowing him to avoid the realm of physical action and dwell solely in the realm of the intellect.

Neoclassicism, like Lutheranism, lays down strict rules. Accented are structure, reasoning, and a focus on humankind; art should be a mirror to the image of man. Shakespeare clearly illustrates this through Hamlet’s exhortations to the players:

“For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii.20-26).

In modern terms...don't ham it up.

Hamlet’s classical training would have instilled in him the idea that literature was an art perfected by the Greeks and Romans and could only be achieved by prolonged study—a philosophical indoctrination. Hamlet’s adherence to this mode of thought further crippled his ability to “think on his feet”, or be able to act with relative quickness and surety. His slowness to action exacerbates the already tense situation, driving everyone around him nuts, and when he hamfistedly does break into quick action, people drop like flies, as evidenced by the impassioned slaying of Polonius and the “brilliant idea" of forging the letter that get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed.

As mentioned above, the other side of the Classical paradox is the subject material to which Hamlet would have been exposed, one that Shakespeare himself mined throughout his career for all it was worth. Many are the tales of murder and revenge that Hamlet would have encountered, especially those of ancients such as Homer and Seneca. Seneca figures importantly in Hamlet because Shakespeare modeled Hamlet—directly or indirectly—on Senecan tragedy, emphasizing melodrama, bloodshed and revenge. Particularly Senecan is the use of a wronged ghost to introduce the vengeance theme. It is obvious that Hamlet has absorbed the writings of the ancients because at nearly every instance he invokes their literature and mythologies. By my count, there are no less than 38 instances of conjuring up the worlds of the Greeks and Romans—most notably in the speech about Pyhrrus and Priam. He also frequently invokes the Christian god, seemingly without any more intent than dramatic effect. This attests to the prince’s confusion between reality and theory; if he cannot separate the two theologies in thought or speech, how much weight does he give to either?

Hamlet’s hamartia is his inability to decide between his duty and his philosophy. C.J. Sisson writes that Hamlet is “a man of urbane intellectuality and immune from...crude passions” (Sisson 53). In the 1948 Laurence Olivier-directed movie of Hamlet, Olivier subtitles the film “The Prince Who Couldn’t Make Up His Mind.” Both are correct. Hamlet is a man of the mind; thus neither kingship nor any other physical, ruthless vocation is for him.

And as if all this weren’t confusing enough for the poor kid, Shakespeare further turns up the paradox theme by introducing the father-ghost. Given the doctrine of Protestantism, which denies Purgatory and effectively closes out any transportation to or from either Heaven or Hell, it is therefore impossible that the ghost should be able to appear at all. Hamlet himself acknowledges this when he admits that death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Shakespeare III.i.87). So how can the ghost of his father appear to him when liturgical teachings absolutely forswear this phenomenon? The only other possibility is that the apparition is a demon sent by the devil to bring wrack and ruin to Hamlet and Denmark. The ghost is real, remember: Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus have also witnessed it.

But this is Shakespeare again messing with not only Hamlet’s, but the audience’s minds as well (which is ultimately the playwright’s job). It is not ultimately important whether the ghost is the real thing because the play deals not with the ghost's legitimacy but Hamlet’s subsequent journey to decision. In any event, the ghost’s accusation is eventually proven correct by Claudius’s own confession in the chapel, thereby validating at least the original impetus for Hamlet’s troubles.

In the end, Hamlet never really does decide what to do. He constantly waffles among laying traps, playing insane, spreading disinformation, and blustering through ragings promising blood. At one point he asks himself, “Am I a coward?”, and at another he claims to be “Heaven’s scourge and minister.” What it takes to make Hamlet act is a series of events that push him along towards an inevitable conclusion. Shaw writes:

“He finds to his bewilderment that he cannot kill his uncle deliberately. In a sudden flash of rage he can and does stab at him through the arras, only to find that he has killed poor old Polonius by mistake. In a later transport, when the unlucky uncle poisons not only Hamlet’s mother, but his own accomplice and Hamlet himself, Hamlet actually does at last kill his enemy on the spur of the moment” (Wilson 80).

Shaw then goes on to add that “This is no solution to the problem: it cuts the Gordian knot instead of untying it” (80). Shakespeare knew his audiences and their taste for action and shed blood, so ending the play this way was most likely more satisfying than just offing Claudius (especially after five whole acts). The Bard's instincts were wholly on target, creating possibly the most famous work for stage until, say, oh...Hamilton?

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Pocket Books. 1992. New York

Sisson, C.J. Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice. Metheun and Co. Ltd. London, England.

Wilson, Edwin. Shaw on Shakespeare: An Anthology of Bernard Shaw’s Writings on the Plays and Production of Shakespeare. E.P. Dutton and Co. Ed. Edwin Wilson. 1961. New York.

Young, Karl. The Shakespeare Skeptics. The Century Co. 1925. New York

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