It he must be satisfied over his father’s
It is reasonable to wonder what Shakespeare had in mind while writing Hamlet. After all, Shakespeare wasn’t a philosopher or historian, or even a literary critic. He was a playwright. He didn’t leave critical essays examining his work. It is left to us to examine his work and decide for ourselves, if we care to, what Shakespeare was thinking. Did he know that he was writing a drama of deep psychological significance, a play which would eventually be viewed and read the world over, produced many times over hundreds of years, taught in schools, and thought of as one of the world’s greatest plays? I, for one, imagine him crossing the “t” in the last word of the play, putting down his pen, and saying, “I hope it runs a year.”
Yet Hamlet is an extremely complex play. To appreciate the imagination which went into the creation of this tragedy, let’s first delve into what is putatively Shakespeare’s most complex tragedy, King Lear. Lear has three daughters: Cordelia, who is faithful and unappreciated by Lear, and Regan and Goneril who receive everything at his hands and betray him. These themes of misplaced love and filial betrayal are mirrored in the subplot of the play, the relationship between the Earl of Gloster and his two sons, Edmund, who is supported and approved by Gloster and betrays him, and Edgar, who unjustly becomes a fugitive from his father’s wrath. The mirror is whole. In it we view Cordelia’s reflection and see Edgar, while Regan’s and Goneril’s reflections, which are of one face, show us Edmund.
In the main plot of Hamlet, Hamlet’s father has been murdered. Hamlet swears revenge, but feign’s madness and delays. In the subplot, the chamberlain, Polonius, is murdered by Hamlet. One of Polonius’s children, Laertes, swears revenge, while the other, his daughter Ophelia, goes mad.
Here, the mirror is cracked. Hamlet’s reflection is splintered. We see one part of him, his revenge motive, in Laertes’ action, and we see his pretended madness in Ophelia’s piteous condition. More than this, Hamlet’s image is dimmed compared to those of his counterparts. Hamlet speaks of revenge, but procrastinates; Laertes instantly raises and army and attacks the kingdom, but he must be satisfied over his father’s murder. Hamlet only acts mad; Ophelia’s madness is too real.
Shakespeare presents us with a play dealing with striking human similarities and differences-and a protagonist who is more than a character, but is a compendium of the qualities of the minor characters. Hamlet’s unrealized potential throws the fully-realized actions of Laertes and Ophelia into relief. If the play were about Laertes and Ophelia, Hamlet would be the perfect foil. In Hamlet’s fibrillating performance we appreciate Laertes boldness. Viewed against Hamlet’s affected loss of wits, Ophelia’s true madness is the more pitiful.
But to consider Hamlet a foil for Laertes and Ophelia is to miss the point. After all, Hamlet is the hero. The play is, more than anyone, about him. Mirrors can be deceptive. One can lose sight of what is real and what is merely image.
Claudius is a case in point. We could never mistake Claudius for the protagonist of the play. Could we? He is Hamlet’s antagonist. But, In fact, Claudius has several characteristics common to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Using *A. C. Bradley’s definition, let’s examine Claudius’s qualifications to be the protagonist of Hamlet.
The tragic hero is a person of high degree or great importance. Claudius qualifies here. He is the king. As his fortunes go, so go those of all who surround him. As he is cheerful, the court is cheerful. As his brow is contracted in woe, so the Danish court suffers.
The tragic hero has a predisposition in some particular direction, accompanied by an inability to resist the force which drives him or her. Claudius is ambitious. His
ambition drives him to murder his brother, the former king.
Claudius is evil. But the tragic hero need not be good. Consider Macbeth and Richard III.
By their acts, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes hope to achieve intended outcomes. “But what they achieve is not what they intended; it is terribly unlike it.” Claudius’s murderous act brings him only short-lived happiness. As the play opens, Claudius’s situation is secure. He fears no upsets until Act 3 unfolds. From then on he knows no peace. He is threatened from within by pangs of conscience and from without by Hamlet’s knowledge of his crime. Finally, he pays for his crime with his life.
The play depicts also the troubled part of the hero’s life. Beginning with the death of Polonius, Claudius must plot to kill Hamlet. Moreover, he must deal with rejection by
Gertrude, the madness of Ophelia, and an insurrection brought by Laertes. At the end of Act 5, he dies.
In the end there is a sense of waste. Our reaction to the death of the protagonist can be expressed with the words “If only . . .”
All the foregoing characterize Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. What is missing in Claudius’s case is a tragic effect. There is no sense of waste in Claudius’s death, no sense that this death could have been avoided, no arousal of “pity and fear” as there is in Hamlet’s, Macbeth’s, Othello’s, and Lear’s deaths. If only Macbeth had been less ambitious, Hamlet more forceful, Othello less passionate, and Lear wiser, their untimely deaths need not have occurred. We feel sympathy for these tragic heroes. We react to their deaths with a sense of regret. No one regrets Claudius’s death enough to say “if only . . .” And so, Claudius’s reflection, while almost that of a protagonist, lacks the proper form.
Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is at once a cause of Hamlet’s pathos through her marriage to Hamlet’s uncle and a glass through which we view something of Hamlet’s family. We see the family together only once, the ghost appearing in order to remind Hamlet of his vow of vengeance, perhaps, also, to reunite the family. The moment in Act 3 that he appears, when Hamlet and his mother are together, suggests such a motive. Moreover, he appears in his night gown instead of in armor, as in his first appearance. Acting like a husband, he rescues his former wife from Hamlet’s anger. However, the ghost’s efforts at reunion fail. Gertrude’s guilt–marriage to a husband’s brother was considered incest–prevents her from seeing the ghost.
By reflection we see Polonius’s family, all members destroyed through involvement with Hamlet. We see them together, too, only once, early in the play, as Laertes is preparing to set sail. Ophelia is guiltless. Laertes is guilty only of seeking revenge for his father’s murder. Polonius is guilty of being a busybody, a dangerous involvement in Hamlet’s tragedy. The longer Hamlet procrastinates, the more bodies pile up, and the more the question of his procrastination takes on importance.
Why does Shakespeare make us, wait until the end of Act 5, for Hamlet finally to play his proper role and resolve all questions? This is Shakespeare’s genius. We view Hamlet’s procrastination as probable. After all, no matter what Hamlet does, the past cannot be undone. Running a sword through his uncle’s ribs will not bring Hamlet’s father back. We are willing spectators to the unfolding of this tragedy. And between the anticipation and the act fall some of the most beautiful lines in all of dramatic literature. Shakespeare achieves his goal. Hamlet has run a year, several hundred times over.
*A. C. Bradley, “The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy” Shakespearean Tragedy, MacMillan and Company Limited, 1904, pp. 1-29
**David Daiches, A Critical History of English Literature, Vol. 2.