What Happened at Elsinore: a Diversion

in Eliot Slater. A Tribute, London, Gaskel Press, 1979

The following essay is offered as a tribute to all my friends who on other pages have brought their tributes to me. It is submitted to them in humility and gratitude, and with no ulterior wish than to entertain them. If in such a serious volume even such a frivolous piece as this must find its psychiatric justification, then let it point the moral of the inconclusiveness of all psychodynamic interpretation, however seemingly convincing.


Preliminary considerations

In recent years we have become confusedly aware that there is only a nebulous and shifting boundary between mythological and historical fact. We have had it explained to us that the founder of the Christian faith was a man only in the historico-mythological sense; mytho-historically, it was a sacred mushroom. Conversely, and to descend to a mundane level, it has been revealed that the picturesque personalities of Mr Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are more than merely fictional. Their life and times, under the intensive researches of Father Ronald Knox and his successors, have disclosed a core of hard facts that can be checked and counter-checked and inter-related down to the last detail. We must accept, without question, the mytho-historical reality of the ménage at 221b Baker Street. Visitors to London are regularly and very properly shown to the squares and streets frequented by Mr Pickwick and his circle. And who can seriously deny that life and reality belong to the personalities evoked for us by Marcel Proust in his researches into time past, rather than to their poor counterparts, whose pseudo-existence can still be traced in yellowing newspaper-files? In the year 1984, soon to be upon us, those of us who are then alive will be shown how historical reality is what you choose to make it. The past can indeed be abolished by deleting it from the records, and a new mytho-historical past can be written in.

    Is this what Saxo Grammaticus did with his story of Amleth? It seems to me that he did, that he turned history into myth; and that if we want to reverse the process, and recover the mytho‑historical reality, we must turn to the pages of Shakespeare. In the present context of Shakespearean research it would be absurd to suppose that Shakespeare was a mere man. He was, of course, not a man but a genius; which means that an immense range of learning was open to him without the need of education, and that he could command sources of factual knowledge by inspired divination. If we turn to Shakespeare, we can rely on him for the truth, the truth that is to say in an ideal sense, of everything he has reported. Let us for the moment abandon the trite and frustrating idea that in Shakespeare's Hamlet we are reading only the enactment of a play. Surely in our hearts we know that the castle and palace of Elsinore, whatever the Danes may say, was built on a lofty crag looking out over a grey and stormy sea; that in those chambers and antechambers, rooms and halls and corridors and narrow stairways, Hamlet and Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes moved as creatures of flesh and blood, and through the tangle of plot and counterplot, treason and murder, poison and the sword, came to their tragic ends.

    What is the truth that lies behind Shakespeare's complex narra­tion, so inconveniently broken up into acts and scenes? Everything he tells us we must assume was true. Everything happened as he describes, but of course he describes not everything that happened. To fill these gaps we must use imagination and logic; and remember that, while Shakespeare always tells us the truth, the people he is telling us about, like all human beings, are often mistaken, and sometimes tell lies.

    For example, Hamlet says things about Claudius which we cannot believe, things which clearly spring from his overmastering jealousy. Certainly, Claudius was no 'king of shreds and patches' (III.4). We know from the way in which he handles his court, how he deals with one emergency after another, how he copes with imminent danger of death at the hands of the insurgent Laertes, and how finally he does die, from all this we know that he was a man of resolution, endurance and fire. To captivate Gertrude we must think of him as a splendid figure of a man, regal in stature and bearing, handsome, courageous, passionate, for all his Borgia‑like qualities. Hamlet's denigrations underline by their dramatic irony the calibre of his opponent.

    Gertrude herself is such a woman as to inspire a passion that leads to adultery, fratricide and regicide. Hamlet tells us as much, per contra. 'At your age', he says to her, 'the hey‑day in the blood is tame, it's humble, and waits upon the judgment' (III.4), which is what he wants to believe, and cannot; and with his help we see her, beautiful and sensual, with the eager blood pulsing in her arteries. She is a queen worthy of her king. In her reception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (II.2) her tart reminder to Polonius (II.2), and her sardonic comment on the Player‑Queen, she shows herself capable of poker‑faced mockery and an ironic wit.

How did King Hamlet die?

We come now to profounder questions, and the first is: did Claudius actually kill King Hamlet? Let us take the testimony of the Ghost (I.5). It was given out, it says, that 'sleeping in my orchard, A serpent stung me', but in fact:

… sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man,
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood; so did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazar‑like with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body…

The confession of Claudius (III.3) runs:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven,
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder!

    Claudius certainly believed he had killed his brother; but the Ghost's story does not hold water. Hebona signifies henbane or hyoscyamus, of which the toxic principle is hyoscine. This is a sedative neurotropic drug, and is not a haemocoagulant, with effects such as those described in the Ghost's account of the symptoms. Moreover, it is an alkaloid, which can be assimilated into the body if swallowed, or injected, but cannot be absorbed through the skin, either of the external auditory meatus, or anywhere else. If Claudius actually killed King Hamlet, he must have used some other method. This does not seem likely. What seems more likely, in view of his reactions to the performance of The Mousetrap, is that Claudius attempted murder by the means described, and was a murderer in will and spirit; but that his murderous act was not the proximate cause of death. The symptoms described by the Ghost are in fact compatible with snakebite.

Whose ghost was it?

This brings us a stage further. Can anyone maintain that the Ghost is to be taken seriously? Does anyone believe that the ghosts of murdered kings, with their accoutrements of phantom armour, have ever been otherwise descried than by the strong eye of faith? Surely, in the events on the battlements, there is a suggestion of intervention by all‑too‑human agencies. This hypothesis explains many difficulties, including those that have been raised about Horatio. To quote Madariaga (1964, p 112):

Many are the critics who have rightly observed that Horatio does not tally with himself. In some ways he is a stranger to the land, about which he asks obvious questions; in others, he seems to be one of the trusted courtiers of the King and Queen. He had come to the King's funeral, but does not meet Hamlet till two months later; he is a scholar who has just come from Wittenberg and yet he is the only Dane of the three on the stage who can explain the cause of Denmark's military preparations.

All this is readily explicable if we think of him as Hamlet's under­cover man, having, among his many tasks that of egging the people on in disaffection to Claudius and in their love for Hamlet. His cover personality is, indeed, that of the trusted courtier of the King and Queen; but he disappears for weeks together, not to Wittenberg but into the Danish underground. He does know everything that is going on; and he asks obvious questions to see just how much the others know. He was present at the King's funeral, but, of course, carefully kept away from Hamlet. When they meet, though no doubt they have been in contact, and have been hatching their plans, they pretend to have been long parted (1.2).

    Let us try to reconstruct the sequence of events. With his hatred of his uncle, and his fury that the latter had 'popped in between th'election and my hopes' (V.2), Hamlet's suspicions that his father's death was other than accidental are quickly aroused. He draws Horatio to him in aid, and is soon thinking of using the highly troubled political and international situation to his advantage. So let his father's ghost walk the battlements, and start the rumours going! With his father's armour available to him, the masquerade comes easily to that freakish undergraduate mind. When in 1.4 he is himself watching on the battlements with Horatio and Marcellus, and Horatio cries 'Look, my lord, it comes!', Hamlet takes his cue, and with a powerful address to the Ghost drives home the suggestion to the semi‑hypnotized Marcellus. When his two companions try to restrain him, he runs‑how bravely!‑after the illusory ghost.

    Then happens something curious and interesting, but also very natural. Endowed with his own share of superstition, he seems to hear the Ghost speak to him‑and out come all the corrupting hates and fears and suspicions which he has been harbouring in his mind, some perhaps till now unconsciously. He is, momentarily but only momentarily, convinced of the veridical nature of the apparition.

    He is recalled to his senses by hearing his followers calling for him. At once his spirits rise to a peak of delight in the prank he has played. He can hardly help himself from laughter. 'Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come' he calls. 'It is an honest ghost', he tells them; and then there is a sudden change in his intentions. Instead of repeating the Ghost's accusations, as was probably part of the original plan, he swears his followers to silence.

    What ensues is something that has never been adequately explained by the commentators. As he holds out his sword for them to swear on, the voice of the Ghost is heard from under, saying 'swear'. This is another piece of Hamlet's amateur theatricals, probably done impulsively, when it was not in the script at all. It is a neat act of ventriloquism. He is delighted with its success, and calls back to the 'Ghost'

     Ha, Ha, boy! say'st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?

and then to his followers:

    Come on, you hear this fellow in the cellarage,
    Consent to swear.

    And so to an encore and a second encore of the same ventriloquial act, finally dismissing his supernatural stooge with

    Well said, old mole! canst work i'th'earth so fast?
    A worthy pioneer!

    All this mummery leaves Hamlet in some real doubt whether by his own trickery he has not called up an actual spirit of the dead. He shows himself in two minds at later stages in the action; but in the closet scene, after the murder of Polonius, his unconscious breaks through again, and with hallucinatory vividness the dead father is seen and heard by him, but not, of course, by his mother.

The political crisis and the threat of war

We must now consider the political and international background at the time when Shakespeare's record opens. Marcellus (I.1) asks:

                   Tell me who knows
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week,
What might be toward that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint labourer with the day...?

    Horatio explains. A generation ago, at the time when Hamlet was born, Fortinbras of Norway had engaged in single combat with King Hamlet of Denmark, staking 'all those his lands/Which he stood seized of, 'Against the which a moiety competent/Was gaged by our king'. King Hamlet slew Fortinbras, and won his lands. It is not said so, but we must suppose that the land which Fortinbras lost was, not in the Norwegian but in the Danish peninsula, and that by the victory the territorial integrity of Denmark was established. Now, as the story opens, King Hamlet being dead, young Fortinbras, intent to avenge his father and recover the lost lands, has collected a volunteer army, and is threatening to invade Denmark. King Claudius himself confirms this (1I.2), informing us also that Fortinbras has actually been making demands for the return of the lost lands.

    Claudius writes to the King of Norway, who is old and bedridden and may not have appreciated what Fortinbras is purposing, to ask him to suppress his nephew's activities; and the Danish ambassadors depart charged with the delivery of this missive.

    The diplomatic démarche succeeds in its aim. In II.2 the ambassadors return, and Valtemand reports. The King of Norway had understood that the levies raised by Fortinbras were to be directed against the Poles; but when he found that the campaign was to be against Claudius, he had Fortinbras brought summarily before him. Fortinbras is rebuked, and

Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give th'assay of arms against your majesty:
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him threescore thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied, as before, against the Polack,
With an entreaty, herein further shown,
That it might please you to give quiet pass
Through your dominions for this enterprise,
On such regards of safety and allowance
As therein are set down.

Claudius replies 'It likes us well', and promises to think about it; permission laisserpa.sser is accorded in due course. So Fortinbras, in exchange for a paper promise (if indeed that was ever exacted) to proceed against Poland and not Claudius, receives his uncle's blessing, a plentiful exchequer, a royal commission, an official army‑and safe‑conduct into the heart of Denmark! It is an extraordinary affair. One feels inclined to suspect that the King of Norway, senile though he be, is not so witless as to perceive the chance of recovering, through the instrumentality of Fortinbras, lands that were previously Norway's. Is it possible that Fortinbras and his king have a secret understanding?

    But the most amazing aspect of the affair is the infatuated behaviour of Claudius who, for no quid pro quo or other visible cause, allows the armed intrusion of a foreign power, an army under the command of a soldier who has proclaimed his hostility and his intention of wresting Danish lands into his own possession. What­ever his political abilities, Claudius is totally unfitted to be his country's commander‑in‑chief. He seems to have no idea of the most ordinary security provisions. Not only does Fortinbras with his army arrive at the end suddenly and unheralded at the Danish court, but even before that Laertes, at the head of a civilian rabble, has been able to overpower the palace guards, and take the king's person into his hands.

    How was it that Claudius could agree to such a dangerous intrusion by Fortinbras? One suspects that he has been advised by his old counsellor and friend, Polonius, a statesman from whom one would expect a strategy of appeasement. But what of Hamlet? Has he any part in this? Claudius has the highest opinion of his abilities, as any thinking man would be bound to have, and calls him (I.2) 'Our chiefest courtier, cousin and our son', and wants, above all, to have him at his side. Is it possible that Hamlet has seconded Polonius in the policy of appeasement? And if so, what would his motive be? At this stage in the development of the situa­tion at Elsinore he seems to have had no concrete plan in mind, but, rather, to be tortured by the need to formulate a plan.

Hamlet and Fortinbras

Hamlet's first preoccupation is to fathom the mind of the king, and to convince himself of his guilt. He does indeed succeed in this; but he is packed off to England before he can take any further open step. There now occurs one of those incidents which could be sheer accident, but which bear the strong appearance of the deliberate and resourceful use of a coincidence. As Hamlet traverses Denmark, under the guard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern towards a suit­able port, he crosses the path of Fortinbras and his army. Hamlet knows, of course, of Fortinbras, and of his projected route; he has his mind on a rendezvous. He meets the foreign army and from one of the captains of Fortinbras learns how flimsy is the pretext, the official pretext that is, for the campaign. Hamlet sees deeper. He dismisses the captain, and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his retinue on ahead. In the soliloquy that follows (IV.4) he reflects on the absurdity of a campaign involving the 'imminent death of twenty thousand men', and resolves:

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

This is the last time he ruminates on his own vacillation. It is now, at last, that he begins to see his future clear ahead of him.

    Hamlet sails for England, but encounters the pirates. In a letter, delivered to Horatio by sailors, Hamlet relates (IV.6):

Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded them. On the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did. I am to do a good turn for them.

What, one wonders, did the pirates know? What was the bargain struck with them, and what good turn is Hamlet to do for them?

    As many people have noticed, there is something very fishy about this story. Madariaga, who discusses it in detail, of course adopts the hypothesis which we have discarded, namely that we are concerned with a piece of fiction; but on that leaky bottom, he cannot make the story float. He writes (p 109):

Events, as wild and unruly as a piratical attack is likely to occasion, are forced by the author to suit his plan so well that Hamlet and only Hamlet boarded the pirate ship and 'on the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner.' As if this story was not tall enough the pirates turn out to be 'thieves of mercy', so that the plot could go on unmolested. All this is puerile and would not be tolerated in a modern author.
   But there is worse still. Hamlet says to Horatio that this sea fight took place the very morning after he had skilfully stolen the King's despatch from the baggage of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and placed the changeling instead. It follows that Hamlet had acted thus in the expectation of arriving in England together with the two men he was sending 'to 't', since the pirates cannot have been so merciful as to have given him notice of their intentions. But what would have been the position then? The King of England would have received a 'command' from the King of Denmark to put to death two men in the suite of the Prince, heir of Denmark, who would do what?: profess to know nothing about it?‑know all about it? The episode simply does not work; and everything in it goes to show that Shakespeare did not trouble to give any likelihood to that branch of possibility because he‑though not Hamlet‑knew it would not 'happen', since he had in store a ship of pirates of mercy to bring Hamlet back. By way of consequence, the whole episode disintegrates.

    Of course, once one recognizes that Shakespeare is telling us mytho‑historical truth, Madariaga's argument breaks down. We can see why the pirates got away the instant Hamlet had boarded their ship, why they were thieves of mercy, why Hamlet knew he would never have to face the King of England with an unexplainable commission from his overlord of Denmark. We see how the plan was worked out.

    After sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ahead, as related in IV.4, Hamlet hurries after Fortinbras, and, in secret conclave, comes to an agreement with him by which Fortinbras will recover the lost lands in exchange for help in deposing Claudius, bringing him to trial and execution, and setting Hamlet on the throne of Denmark. Rejoining Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his retinue, Hamlet embarks. One of the ships of Fortinbras is detailed to follow Hamlet's, and when it is two days out to sea, to close with it, and rescue him. Hamlet is fully prepared for everything that follows, and for swift action in the emergency. He makes his dispositions for the welcome of his two attendants when they arrive in England; and is on the deck ready to leap abroad the pirate the instant the two ships close. After the rescue, when he is set again on Danish soil, he hurries to Elsinore, to meet an appointment with Fortinbras, and to prepare the final denouement. In the meantime Fortinbras, pro­ceeding towards Poland, never actually leaves Denmark, but makes an abrupt turn, and by forced marches arrives suddenly and unannounced at Elsinore only a few hours after Hamlet.

    No wonder that it is a wholly transformed Hamlet that we meet in Shakespeare's Act V, one who is now calmly confident of finishing his business with the King. Horatio reminds him.

    It must be shortly known to him from England What is the issue of the business there.

And Hamlet replies:

    It will be short, the interim is mine,
    And a man's life's no more than to say 'One'

The tragedy of Ophelia

To come now to the key problem of the whole story‑what is the matter with Hamlet?‑we have first to ask, what is it ails Ophelia?

    There are those who think of Ophelia as a maiden pure and undefiled; but Ophelia's chastity is one of the moot points of Shakespeare's narrative. In I.3 Laertes, her brother, warns her of the danger that she might allow herself to be seduced by Hamlet:

Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.

Polonius, her father, loses no time in taking up the same issue:

'Tis told me he hath very oft of late 
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous
If it be so‑as so 'tis put on me,
And that in way of caution – I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.

The family are obviously alarmed by Ophelia's behaviour. Polonius goes on:

Do you believe his tenders as you call them? 

… think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus) you'll tender me a fool.

- That is, present me with a baby. He ends by saying:

I would not in plain terms from this time forth 
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to't I charge you, come your ways.

Ophelia says, compliantly 'I shall obey, my lord'. And the fact that she puts up no defence or objection suggests that she intends to 'go her ways', whatever the family says.

    The next event is that Ophelia has a very frightening scene with Hamlet, and comes running to her father to tell him about it. We shall have to return to this later. Then comes the 'nunnery' scene (III. 1). After the most famous of all his soliloquies, Hamlet looks up to see Ophelia, and to say:

Soft you now, 
The fair Ophelia‑Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

Is he not saying, almost in so many words, that his sins are her sins too? There follows a painful scene in which, from a very low and dejected state, Hamlet works himself up into an absolute rage. His sins, her sins, he cannot bear to think of them. Her beauty has betrayed him, 'for', he says, 'the power of beauty' (that's her) 'will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd, than the force of honesty' (that's him) 'can translate beauty into his likeness'. 'Get thee to a nunnery' (that is, a brothel), he says, 'go, farewell . . . Or if thou wilt need marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well what monsters' (that is, men with horns, cuckolds) 'you make of them: to a nunnery, go, and quickly too, farewell'. He rushes out, but dashes back again, to sling more insults:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you
one face and you make yourselves another, you jig, you amble, and
you lisp, you nickname God's creatures, and make your wantonness
your ignorance; go to, I'll no more on't, it hath made me mad.

He leaves, and Ophelia is left very cast down. She calls herself 'of ladies' (not 'of maidens', we notice) 'the most deject and wretched'. 'O, woe is me!' she says 'T'have seen what I have seen, see what I see'. The reversal of his passion from love to rage upsets her very much, but only for a short space, since it is but a little later that Hamlet is jesting with her in a very bawdy way at the play scene.

    This passage is an important one, since it shows that she is so much in love as to be prepared to forgive him practically anything. The conversation is going on sotto voce, and Ophelia seems to find amusement in Hamlet's smutty remarks, 'That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs', and the like. My own feeling, however, is that she is more delighted to be receiving notice again than tickled by the bawdry. However, there is no mistaking the mood of the follow­ing exchange:

Ophelia: You are as good as a chorus, my lord.
:  I could interpret between you and your love, if I could see the puppets dallying.
: You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
: It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge.

This unabashed allusion to the act of love delights Ophelia: 'Still better‑and worse', she says.

    After the play scene occur the events which deprive Ophelia of everything that life held for her. Hamlet has killed her father; and he, her lover, her one hope of support, is exiled to England. Her brother is in Paris; and she is left utterly alone. Some think that she is aware that she is pregnant; but even if she is spared this, her life is in ruins. Ophelia's so‑called madness is keenly observed and described by Shakespeare. It is what one would call a catastrophic depressive reaction, which becomes increasingly coloured by hysterical confusional and dissociative symptoms. Guilt lies heavily upon her soul‑guilt, we may note parenthetically, lies heavily on the souls of all the major characters with the exception of Polonius. Somehow she must confess. Here we see the irony of events, for it is her occulted guilt which is unkennelled in one speech, and not that of Claudius. She enters the queen's apartments, carrying a lute, to which she sings (IV.5):

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
   All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
   To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clo'es,
   And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
   Never departed more.

She takes a breath, summons up her resolution, and says 'I'll make an end on't':

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
   Alack and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't,
   By Cock they are to blame.
Quoth she, Before you tumbled me,
   You promised me to wed.
He answers:
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
   An thou hadst not come to my bed.

Now it is all out. 'I hope all will be well', she says and, in a moment or two, takes her leave: 'Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night' on her way to the night that has no ending.

    What were the causes of Ophelia's ruin? What kind of childhood can she have had, what adolescence? She has lost her mother, about whose character we can only learn by implication, and, perhaps, lost her at an early age. What sort of a family was it, in which she grew up? Her brother, the noble Laertes, combines a quite remarkable number of detestable characteristics: he is a villain, a fool, a braggart, a libertine and a prig. In 1.3 he takes it upon himself to preach a sermon to his sister, on the theme of 'ware Hamlet, and more generally,

The chariest maid is prodigal enough
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.

Ophelia knows just how much this is worth, and tells him:

But good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles like a puffed arid reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

After that he is off to Paris; and his father knows what kind of life he can be expected to live there, namely gaming, drinking, fencing, swearing, drabbing and the frequentation of brothels.

   We next meet him breaking in on King Claudius at the head of a rabble. He has the king in his power, and needs only the will and the hardihood to depose Claudius and ascend the throne. Instead of that he is promptly disarmed and set at naught; his furious enquiries are deflected by sophistries; in the space of a few minutes Claudius has converted him into his tool. The grave scene, which follows, is an abomination, with Hamlet behaving no better than Laertes; both of them have a fit of hysterics. In the last scene of all, of course, Laertes unmasks himself as a cold‑blooded murderer.

    Such was Ophelia's brother. And what of her father? In I.3 he discharges a load of wise saws on his departing son, lectures Ophelia on her chastity, and forbids her to see Hamlet again in private. In II.1 he is sending his agent Reynaldo to Paris to spy upon his son; it seems he has no strong objection to dissolute ways, but will want to know all about them. Later we see him pompous, garrulous and verging on senility, servilely swallowing every kind of insult Hamlet chooses to confer on him, but full of cunning, suggesting sly plans, hiding behind the an‑as to spy. No pedantry is too threadbare for him, no servility too slimy, no chicanery too pettifogging.

    Hamlet, of course, loathes him and abuses him unmercifully. Moreover he makes a specific accusation. In II.2 Polonius unfolds to the king and queen his little ruse to trap Hamlet:

Polonius:  You know sometimes he walks four hours together here in the lobby.
Queen: So he does indeed.
:  At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him.
Be you and I behind an arras then...

What kind of a father is it, who 'looses' his daughter to the suspect?Hamlet comes in soon after, and very likely has overheard Polonius's little plan. The following conversation takes place:

Polonius:  How does my good Lord Hamlet?
:  Well, God‑a‑mercy.
:  Doyouknow me, my lord?
:  Excellent well, you are a fishmonger.
:  Not I, my lord.
:   Then I would you were so honest a man.
:  Honest my lord?
:  Ay, sir, to be honest as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.
:  That's very true, my lord.
:  For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion... have you a daughter?
:  I have, my lord.
:  Let her not walk i'th'sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend look to't.

    Fishmonger signifies bawd, and fishmonger's daughter means prostitute. Although Polonius is too thick to catch his drift, Hamlet is telling him that he, Hamlet, is aware of his game, aware that he is a proposing to use his daughter as a decoy and a catspaw. More, he is telling him that his daughter is a loose woman, a trollop, who may be pregnant in no time at all. Still more, he seems to be accusing Polonius of being a pander who has prostituted his daughter.

    Has he? It is not unthinkable that this greasy old man, for the hope of advantage, could have done no less; such practices were a commonplace in the courts of Europe of the time. However, there are reasons for thinking that this is not what is in Hamlet's mind; this is not the low and vulgar intrigue that actually occurred.

    In her confession, Ophelia makes it quite clear that it was she who, out of her lovesickness, and knowing no better, went to Hamlet's room, and that there she lost her virginity under promise of marriage. Now both her father and her brother thought that a marriage to Hamlet was out of the question. Both of them show themselves anxious about her relations with Hamlet, both of them suspect her of entering on a liaison, and for both the prospect is a cause of great apprehension. So it wasn't Ophelia Hamlet had in mind.

    Why then should he call Polonius a fishmonger? If we consider the character of Polonius, particularly in the context of a small European court, we see that this pretentious wiseacre, this cunning fool, bears every mark of the cuckold. He was indeed born to wear the horns. Surely no woman could live with him, especially in such a court, without feeling compelled to make a fool of him. One conjectures that there have been stories circulating round the court for years. Hamlet has them in mind, and, making a glancing allusion to the misuse of his daughter, is reminding Polonius of having been a salesman of the favours of women professionally, as a part of his calling, having, in his time, bartered his own wife for advantage.

This surely is known to Laertes. In IV.5 he is making a great scene, but from beneath the braggadocio come up the thoughts festering in his mind to inflame to protest and denial. He shouts:

That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot,
Even here, between the chaste unsmirched brows
Of my true mother.

He too, like Ophelia, has a family skeleton to reveal, a confession to make, in his own way.

    Ophelia's family, then, was not one to inspire in her any respect. She was, no doubt, drilled in etiquette and courtly observances; but from that family she could not have gained any lofty standards of behaviour, nor that self‑respect and certainty of her own worth which gives the spirit fortitude when great troubles come. She falls for Hamlet hook, line and sinker; knows no better than to offer her­self to him; and then finds herself first betrayed, then bereaved, and finally abandoned. Ophelia's tragedy is that of the innocent but unguarded soul in a decadent and corrupt court. At the very beginning of Shakespeare's narrative we are told there is something rotten in the state of Denmark; and we can be sure that it has been rotten, not for a month or two but for many years, to reach the depths at which the queen herself enters into an adulterous affair with her brother‑in‑law.

The tragedy of Hamlet

If we accept this solution of the problem posed by Ophelia, we come better armed to elucidate the more fundamental problems which confront us in Hamlet himself. In all the earlier stages of the action we find him melancholic, cynical, full of distrust and contempt for all his fellow creatures. More than all that, he is obsessed by a sense of personal worthlessness, personal and, specifically, sexual sin:

O, that this too sullied flesh would melt, 
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew...                                                                         I.2

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!                                                                  II.2

A stallion! fle upon't! foh!                                                                                         II.2

I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me:  III.1

What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?                      III.1

   There is, indeed, something lying heavily on his conscience. Now, with regard to most of the seven deadly sins, his conscience is iron­clad. 'I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious' (III.1), he says, and clearly rather glories in these faults. He is apt for intrigue, ruthless and merciless. After the casual killing of Polonius, the father of the girl who loves him, he expresses no pang of regret. Dragging back the arras, he addresses the still twitching corpse (III.4):

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better, take thy fortune,
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger.

And later, he says, as if the dead man were so much carrion:

I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.

    Similarly (V.2) he confesses, without compunction, to having sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, apparently for a mere whim, since no serious purpose can be divined. 'Not shriving time allowed', he adds; that is, if he is not an atheist, as he well may be, condemning them, one time his intimate friends, court parasites, if you like, but ones who have never done him any harm‑condemn­ing them to eternal fires. 'Why, man,' he says to Horatio (V.2):

       they did make love to this employment,
They are not near my conscience.

Baldly stated, Hamlet is a triple murderer, in the end a five‑fold killer. As far as action goes, he out‑slays both Claudius and Laertes, and all without a qualm.

     But there are things that make his skin crawl, and these are all the human functions comprised under the general category of sex. Obscenities are constantly in his mouth. For Hamlet's puritanical soul, sex is filthy, degrading, sub‑human. But, being a man, he knows, all‑too‑personally, the prickings of the flesh.

    Madariaga has justly commented that we cannot understand the action of Shakespeare's narrative without finding a key element in Hamlet's egocentricity (p 105): 'Hence his soliloquies. For, in fact, Hamlet soliloquises throughout the whole play. Whomsover he seems to be talking to, Hamlet only speaks to Hamlet'. This is very much the case when he is talking to his mother. When he is lashing at her, he is lashing himself. It is from the depths of his own carnal imaginations, his own carnal experiences, that he comes up with the obscenities with which to belabour her:

          Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed
Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love
Over the nasty sty‑                                                   III.4

His mother begs him to stop, but back he comes:

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers       III.4

Hamlet's obsession with his mother's sex life is an overflow from his obsession with his own. It is his own honeying and making love, his own paddlings and reechy kisses which make his stomach heave. We can see now what a terrible wound it was that Ophelia dealt his self­pride when she insinuated herself into his bed. Maybe that early morning it was not only she who lost her virginity, but he also.

    But this was a wrong that, one would suppose, could have been put right. Hamlet, the heir presumptive to the crown, could not have expected to pass his life in celibacy. Marriage would be an obligation, and he could have regularized his liaison with Ophelia, one would have imagined, with universal approval. To be sure she was not of royal rank; but she belonged to the nobility, and it would not have been an impossible misalliance. This was indeed the marriage which was hoped for by the queen his mother. At Ophelia's interment she says, scattering flowers:

Sweets to the sweet. Farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife:
I thought thy bride‑bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.

But there was a bar to the marriage, a secret bar, known, it seems, only to Ophelia's intimate family, though not to her herself. It was this that lay heavy on the minds of her father and her brother, and this it was that set Hamlet out of her star.

Now I must take you back to the very strange scene, which is the only evidence the commentators can claim that Hamlet was ever mad. We all accept, now, that Hamlet was mad in craft only, except for that one direction, north‑north‑west. This scene tells us what direction that was, how the compass points. Ophelia enters to Polonius (II.1):

Ophelia:          O my lord, my lord I have been so affrightened!
:         With what, i'th'name of God?
:          My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
                      Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced,
                      No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,
                      Ungart'red, and down gyved to his ankle,
                      Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other,
                      And with a look so piteous in purport
                      As if he had been loosed out of hell
                      To speak of horrors‑he comes before me...

                      He took me by the wrist, and held me hard,
                      Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
                      And with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
                      He falls to such perusal of my face

                      As a' would draw it. Long stayed he so,
                      At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
                      And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
                      He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
                      As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
                      And end his being; that done, he lets me go,
                      And with his head over his shoulder turned
                      He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
                      For out adoors he went without their helps,
                      And to the last bended their light on me.

     With all his disgust of sex, it is the thought of incest that, of all sins, most terrifies Hamlet. He cannot leave his mother's fault alone. Incest he calls it, again and again and again. But, observe he is the only one at court to miscall his mother's second marriage. The marriage of Claudius and Gertrude was officially solemnized by rites of Holy Church; and the state ceremony, which helped Claudius to the throne, was attended by the entire court. If, theologically, the union was incestuous, then there must have been ecclesiastical dispensation for it. Incest it was for Hamlet, for Hamlet only, and for his alter ego, the Ghost.

    Now you have the answer to Hamlet's appalling sense of guilt. Now we know what were the 'foul crimes' - sexual misdemeanours, of course - that condemned the Ghost to walk the night. We know who the royal libertine was to whom Polonius prostituted his wife, and who it was that branded the mother of Laertes a harlot; what the secret was that, rankling in the breasts of her father and brother, all unknown to her, poor girl, set Hamlet out of Ophelia's star; whence sprang the thousand demons that clamoured 'Incest! incest! incest!' in Hamlet's tortured soul ever since, on a sudden discovery, rummaging in his father's private papers perhaps, the dreadful suspicion rushed in on him; and he burst into Ophelia's presence, the presence of the girl who had so innocently seduced him, to search her face for lineaments of resemblance, and to see there, alas, alas, his father's daughter, and his own blood‑sister.


Madariaga, Salvador de (1964) On Hamlet, 2nd edn. London: Frank Cass.

Shakespeare, William (1968) The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Ed. John Dover Wilson) Cambridge University Press.