Hamlet in a Nutshell

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is arguably the greatest play ever written. It is, however, also one of the most misread and misunderstood. One could write a book, or perhaps a whole shelf-full of books, on the way in which the play is misconstrued by critics, or the manner in which it is sacrificed to the latest literary fads. To give but one example of such Hamlet-abuse, a recent production of the play in England cast Hamlet primarily as the abusive boyfriend of the hapless Ophelia.   

In the face of this latest provocative and slanderous assault on the Bard’s most sublime and elusive hero, let’s put the man and the play in perspective. 

Before we get to the troubled relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, let’s begin by insisting that we need to place the play within the context of the political cauldron in which it was written. Doing so enables us to engage with the tragedy on a level of profundity which is simply not possible if we insist on reading it from the perspective of our twenty-first century ignorance and arrogance, judging it with the superciliousness of what C.S. Lewis would call our chronological snobbery. 

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We will not understand the man who is Hamlet unless we endeavor to empathize, nay sympathize, with the rage he feels upon discovering that his beloved father has been murdered in cold blood by Claudius, the latter of whom is a loathsome and manipulative Machiavel who commits fratricide and regicide, presumably after having already committed adultery with his brother’s wife, Hamlet’s mother. 

Furthermore, on the subtextual level, we will not understand Hamlet’s rage against spies, such as Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and yes even Ophelia, unless we understand Shakespeare’s own rage against Elizabeth’s spy network and its role in the arrest of Catholic priests, such as St. Robert Southwell, and Catholic laity, such as St. Anne Line, whom Shakespeare almost certainly knew well. With respect to Southwell, Shakespeare pays allusive tribute to the Jesuit poet in the famous graveyard scene (“Alas, poor Yorick!”), which plays upon lines from Southwell’s poem “Upon the Image of Death.” It is this subtext which illumines the inner heart and allegorical depths of the play, exposing the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” as “something rotten” in the state of England.

Nor will it do to demonize Hamlet with claims that he is guilt-ridden and suspicious in every scene, that he indulges in misanthropy, and that he continually mopes in self-indulgent acedia. He has every right to be suspicious, considering the network of espionage which surrounds him and which threatens to enmesh him; and his righteous anger against his murderous uncle and his disdain for the treacherous spies, posing as friends, is not synonymous with misanthropy. Even if he does hate these particular men, he doesn’t hate mankind and is quite clearly a loyal friend to the honest Horatio.

So what about his “abusive” relationship with Ophelia? Isn’t this worthy of our contempt?

The accusation of abuse springs, of course, from Hamlet’s tirade against his beloved in the famous “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Let us put ourselves in Hamlet’s shoes. He knows that his uncle, King Claudius, has murdered his father. He knows that Ophelia’s father is King Claudius’ spymaster. He is understandably outraged when he discovers that two of his trusted friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are in the employment of this treacherous spy network. How do we think that Hamlet will feel when he discovers that the woman he loves has also betrayed him, especially if he is aware that his meeting with her is a setup? His anger might be shocking, but it simply will not do to reduce it to the rantings of a male chauvinist abusing his girlfriend. 

As for the old chestnut that Hamlet is a hopeless and self-indulgent procrastinator, it would be much fairer to see him as one who does not act rashly but with prudence and temperance. He refuses to act upon impulse, seeking to discover whether the apparition is an “honest Ghost;” nor does he succumb to the temptation to suicide, soliloquizing himself into a God-fearing rejection of the sin of self-slaughter. He does not act until he has come to an acceptance and embrace of Divine Providence, quoting the Gospel and declaring that “the readiness is all.”

In the end, he lays down his own life so that the “something rotten” in Denmark can be purged. Well might we agree with the noble Horatio, as he holds his dead friend in his arms, that flights of angels are singing Hamlet to his rest. Horatio’s words are a translation, with only a minor alteration, from the Latin of the In paradisum, the antiphon of the burial service following the traditional Requiem Mass. Thus, Shakespeare ends possibly his greatest play by offering a Mass for the repose of the “noble heart” of his hero, giving his heroic prince the Catholic burial service that was now illegal in the “rotten” state of England.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifteenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: A watercolor of Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv: Hamlet makes a pass through the arras, by Coke Smyth]

  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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