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The Once and Future Kings:

Four Studies of Kingship in Hamlet

SARA M. DEATS

This microscopic "Mirror for Magistrates" reflects the images of four


types of kingship portrayed in Hamlet: the king that was, King Hamlet; the
king that is. King Gaudius; the king that might have been. Prince Hamlet; and
the king that will be. Prince Fortinbras. From these four images I have educed
a standard of kingship which, I believe, significantly illumines The Tragedy of
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,

THE KING THAT WAS


*A was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
-88)1
The first representation of kingship we encounter is the majestical figure
of the ghost, "armed at point exactly, cap-a-pe" (Iii.200). However, the
question immediately arises, is this apparition the ghost of King Hamlet as it
purports to be? This traditional assumption has received serious challenge in
Eleanor Prosser's erudite study, Hamlet and Revenge, and therefore requires
careful reconsideration.^ The objective existence of this spectral figure
cannot be questioned (this is clearly established by the ghost's five
appearances before four eyewitnesses) but its exact nature and mission
remain one of the central ambiguities of the play. Critics throughout the
decades have required this specter to assume many different aliases, ranging
from W. W. Greg's hallucination, to John Dover Wilson's orthodox Catholic
ghost from an orthodox Catholic purgatory, to Roy W. Battenhouse's pagan
^irit from a classical underworld, to Eleanor Prosser's devil in disguise.^
Prosser insists that the critics of Hamlet have not given the devil his due, and
if she is correct Old Nick has pulled off the cleverest imposture in the history
of literature, fooling not only Hamlet and the perceptive Horatio, but
generations of critics and playgoers as well.
Prosser reasons that the ghost could not be a spirit released from
purgatory by divine sanction because it advocates private revenge, an action
contrar>' to Christian law. Thus, she concludes, the ghost must be an evil

15
16 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

spirit. Other critics argue that the Christian prohibition against private
revenge is mitigable, suggesting that when an extreme crisis such as
usurpation rendered legal justice impossible, Christian canon allowed a
person of sufficient rank and authority to execute justice, even private
justice, by force. This issue has been hotly debated, v^th scholars of both
persuasions marshalling a plethora of historical evidence to support their
respective views."* But ultimately, the play's the thing, and the final answer to
our questions must be found in the court of Elsinore, not in the
commentaries of historians and morahsts.^ The entire movement of the
play-the doubting, testing, and justifying of the ghost, as well as the
ubiquitous imagery of disease, stressing the corruption of the
court^-validates the specter's authenticity and vindicates his admonition to
Hamlet to kill Claudius and to rid Denmark of the usurper's contamination.
Furthermore, although ethical questions of all kinds are examined within the
play, the right to revenge is never explicitly questioned.^ Hamlet assumes that
if Claudius is guilty of murder and regicide, he has the obligation to kill the
usurper and no one in the play disputes this claim. To impose upon the
tragedy a moral dilemma which has no textual support does not seem
justified. In conclusion, therefore, I would suggest that although the nature of
the apparition defies scientific proof, the ghost's honesty is as certain as
anything else in the enigmatic world of Elsinore.
Having tentatively established the identity and honesty of the ghost, let
us examine the elder Hamlet as an exemplar of kingship. Evidence for this
appraisal may be drawn from two sources: the image of the living king as
reflected in the dead, and the image of the living king as refiected in the
memories of those who knew him.
Our first introduction to Denmark presents it as a beleaguered state in
arms against a foreign invader. When the ghost of King Hamlet appears, he
comes as the Royal Dane, clad in all the panoply of a warrior monarch. Why
does the specter appear in full armor, "the very armour he had on/ When he
the ambitious Norway combated" (Li.60-61)? And why is his appearance so
carefully counterpoised with Horatio's account of two invasions: one, the
anticipated invasion of the younger Fortinbras against Denmark; the other,
the previous attack of the elder Fortinbras against King Hamlet? In the
context of the play as a whole, I draw these inferences: the shade of King
Hamlet is allowed to return from the middle state between heaven and hell
(the revenant clearly professes to come from purgatory [I.v.9-13]) because
his kingdom is threatened by foreign invasion without and corrupt usurpation
within, and he realizes that if his son is not awakened to the peril, his dynasty
will pass forever from the throne. Thus, the specter appears at a time of
national emergency to defend his nation and his dynasty from both internal
and external enemies. Appropriately, the perspicacious Horatio immediately
recognizes that this visitation "bodes some strange eruption to our state''
(Li.69), and Marcellus also properly intuits that "Something is rotten in the
state of Denmark'* (I.iv.9O, italics mine). The ghost himself further reinforces
these political nuances, lamenting that "the whole ear of Denmark'' is
"Rankly abus*d" (I.v.36-38), and commanding that the royal bed of Denmark
not remain a "couch for luxury and damned incest" (I.v.82-83, italics mine).^
KINGSHIP IN HAMLET 17

The implications seem clear: the spirit of Hamlet's tather exhorts his son not
only to private vengeance but to a complete purgation of the diseased state.
To tum from the spectral image to the image of memor>\ let us evaluate
King Hamlet not by his words as a spirit but by his deeds as a monarch.
Horatio's expository speech in Act 1 (i.80-95) establishes Hamlet Senior as a
forceful ruler who won for Denmark the respect, even the homage, of both
Norway and England. Yet, although an able, even tierce warrior (Li.60-63,
80-86), he was not belligerent. Horatio, a most reliable witness, discriminates
between the "valiant" King Hamlet, willing and capable of defending his
nation in time of need, and the pugnacious Fortinbras Senior, "prick'd on by
a most emulate pride" (l.i.80-86). This distinction is important in
constructing a positive standard of kingship against which not only the elder
Fortinbras but the younger also may be judged, tor the genetic affinities
between Fortinbras, father and son, are striking. There are further suggestions
that King Hamlet was not only a valiant warrior but also a just and popular
sovereign. Horatio describes him as a "goodly king" (I.ii. 186) and no
character in the play utters a derogatory- word about him. Furthermore, all
the evidence implies that King Hamlet possessed private as well as public
virtue. His tenderness toward his guilty queen, surviving even death and the
blaze of purgator>'. and Prince Hamlet's passionate devotion to his father
affirm that King Hamlet was a loving husband and fond parent. In
summation, therefore, I would posit the elder Hamlet as a standard of
kingship against which the incumbent and the pretenders to the throne of
Denmark may be evaluated. Yet so excellent a king was "by a brother's hand/
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd" (I.v.74-75).

II
THE KING THAT IS
T h a t o n e m a y s m i l e , a n d s m i l e , a n d b e a \-illain . . . .
(I.V.I 0 8 )
The usurping king occupies not only his brother's throne but his bed as
well. However, despite Claudius' sins of fratricide, regicide, and adultery,
many critics regard him with an auspicious rather than a dropping eye.
finding much to admire in this shrewd and impassive monarch. G. Wilson
Kniglit, perhaps the most eloquent of these apologists, exonerates Claudius as
a "good and gentle king, enmeshed by the chain of causality linking him with his
crime," arguing that Claudius' later actions are forced upon him and insisting
that Hamlet as monarch would have been a thousand times more dangerous
than Claudius.^ Althougli most audiences probably cannot share Kniglit's
excessive charity toward the usurper, our tlrst impression of Claudius is tar
from unfavorable. Urbane, politic, and dignified. Claudius performs his
ceremonial duties efficiently: he is courteous to his recalcitrant nephew
Hamlet, warm and generous to his counselor Polonius and that counselor's
son, Laertes. Furthermore, like his deceased brother. Claudius seems to be a
formidable ruler. He handles the Norwegian crisis with both decisiveness and
political acumen, employing diplomatic pressure before resorting to force
18 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

(Lii.27-38), and the events of Act II testify to the effectiveness of his


maneuvers (ii.60-79). The forcefulness of Claudius appears further
accentuated by an implicit contrast with the king of Norway (I.ii.27-31).
Strangely enough, both King Hamlet and King Fortinbras have been
succeeded by their brothers, not their sons. Why is this obvious parallel
introduced? Is it to show that this type of succession is not so unusual as
might be supposed? Or is its purpose to establish a contrast between two
uncles-Claudius, vigorous and able, Norway, impotent and inform-and thus,
by implication, between two nephews—the militant Fortinbras and the
melancholy Hamlet? If introduced for the latter purpose, the analogy
between the dynasties of Norway and Denmark contributes markedly to the
dramatic irony of the play, ostensibly accruing to the credit of Claudius,
while simultaneously undermining Hamlet. Later, we shall see that our first
impression is erroneous, and that the situation is far more complex than it
initially appears. As the drama unfolds, the Denmark-Norway parallel assumes
a very different perspective. Subsequent events show that the "impotent"
Norway is quite capable of controlling his choleric nephew Fortinbras,
whereas Claudius is never able to manage the refractory Hamlet and even with
a company of spies cannot discover his nephew's motivations or intentions.
Thus the foil relationship is reversed.^^ This is Shakespeare's method in
Hamlet. A master of mystery and surprise, Shakespeare often employs
deliberate ambiguity to achieve dramatic ironic reversals. Thus in the tragic
mirror of Hamlet, we often see through a glass darkly.
Events soon erode our favorable impression of Claudius. In Act I, Scene
V, the putative ghost of King Hamlet accuses Claudius of five of the most
heinous sins in the Elizabethan canon-fratricide, regicide, usurpation,
adultery and incest—as well as poisoning, a type of murder particularly
repeUent to the Elizabethan sensiblity, immediately associating the king with
the traditional Italianate villain.^ ^ Nevertheless, because Hamlet initially
doubts the authenticity of the phantom, we withhold our judgment.^ ^ The
opening scenes of Act II juxtapose two episodes of duplicity in which a father
(Polonius) and a stepfather (Claudius) spy on their son and stepson
respectively. Although Claudius purports to be trying to discover the cause of
Hamlet's "illness" for the good of both the state and his nephew, his use of
friends as informers renders his machinations even more despicable than those
of Polonius. In the first scene of Act III, the credibility gap widens as we
witness a third scene of spying in which Claudius and Polonius, using Ophelia
as a decoy, are united in a conspiracy behind the arras, a posture epitomizing
their activities throughout the play. Whatever admiration we have had for
Claudius becomes seriously impaired. All the King's actions tend to support
the judgment of the ghost, particularly Claudius' own fervent
self-denunciation before he joins Polonius behind the curtain (III.ii.49-54).
By the end of the play scene (Ill.ii), Claudius' guilt for his brother's murder
seems patent and we are willing with Horatio and Hamlet to "take the ghost's
word for a thousand pound" (III.ii.297-98). Nevertheless, Claudius still
retains a vestige of conscience and thus a remnant of our sympathy. The prayer
scene, while further validating Claudius' guilt, also arouses our compassion for
the conscience-lashed King striving for an impossible repentance. Only later
KINGSHIP IN HAMLt T 19

do we realize that at this time Gaudius was already planning not onh
Hamlet's banishment but also his death. Hamlet's veiled threat, "those that
are mankd aliead>% all but one. shall li\e'' (IIlj.153-55). first prompts
Qaudius' resolve to send Hamlet to England, ostensibt> for purposes ot
heaJth and sute business. Later (at the beginning of lILiii), ihe King
expresses his intention of altering the commission to LrK:lude Rosencrantz and
Guildensteni in his stratagem. It is highh unlikeh that Claudius could have
changed his instructions during the brief interval between Lhe death of
Folonius and the dispatch of Hamlet with his two schoolfellows: indeed, in
the closet scene Hamlet pronounces the letters already sealed «IM.iv.202-04).
It seems certain, therefore, that Oaudius has alread> planned the death of
Hamlet before his aboni\e repentance in Illiii. No wonder Gaudius' prayers
remain earth-bound, for ¥k-hile praying to be forgiven for a first murder, he is
pbnning a second.*^ The events of Acts IV and V further denigrate Gaudius
in our esteem. Behind his facade of graciousness. he [K)W emerges as a sl\.
unscrupulous intriguer, dedicated to self-ad\^ncement at all cost. In Act IV.
Scene iii (60-70), the King recounts his plan for Hamlei's execution in
England. Later (in IV.vii). his tlrst deep plot ha\ing palled, he enlists Laertes
in a second attempt to murder Hamlet, again demonstrating his "Italianate"
penchant for poisoning (1\ .viLl 50^3).
tltimatel>. Claudius is revealed as possessing both the abilities and the
faults of the stereot>7>ic Elizabethan'"stage Machiavel." particuiarh the skill in
manipulating others to his will. The ghost speaks ot" ihe "v^itchcrafi of his
wit" whereby he seduced the faithless Queen n.v.43-*6). We have already
noted his political dexterity in handling the Norwegian crisis: we can well
imagine the finesse wixh wiiich he cajoled Polonius to support his bid for the
crown.*"* He adroitl> coaxes Rosencrantz and Guildensiem to his purposes.
persuadir^ them that they are aiding their friend b\ spying on him
(UJLIO-IS). His manipulation of Laertes, using the bait of taisehood and
flattery to great effect, is masterly (IV.vii). Furthermore, although Gaudius ii
cenainl>' more the fox than the lion, he frequently shov^is considerable ner\e.
particularh iik-hen confronting Laertes and the mob (IV .v. 111-52 K
Despite ¥bit and wiU. however. Gaudius is not a successful monarch. The
ease with which Laertes raises the rabble against him and the people's great
k>¥e for Hamlet—the primar> reason the King does not bring Hamlet to trial
for Polonius' death (IV.vii. 16-24^-both demonstrate Gaudius' precarious
position with the populace. Claudius may be able to defend Denmark from
extemal enemies, but despite his effectiveness in confronting the irate mob.
he has difficulty in maintaining internal order. Like Bolingbroke. another
courageous yet conniving usurper. Gaudius b pbgued ^ith the internecine
strife vkiiich in Shakespeare is always the inevitable result of usurpation. Fur
in aU Shakespeare^s dramas—comedy. histor>. trageJy. and romance-uneas>
fies the crown upon a usurper's head.
Other factors combine to convince us that Cbudius is not only a source
of disorder, but a source of corruption in the state of Denmark. Wolfgang H.
Gemen observes that the ''corruption of bnii and people thruughout
Denmark is understood as an imperceptible and irresbtibie process of
poisoning." derivii^ from Cbudius' original unnatural and malignant act. the
20 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

pouring of poison in the ear of his brother.^ ^ This gradual poisoning of the
state is revealed in both image and action. In Act II, Scene ii, we see Claudius
corrupting Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, appropriately enough, through the
ear; in Act IV, he pours venom into the ear of Laertes. Virtually the whole
court, with its omnipresent intrigues, its sycophantic courtiers, and its blatant
hypocrisy, is tainted and this contamination is further reflected in yet
another motif, the pervasive image of disease which Spurgeon has isolated as
the central imaginative symbol of the play.^^ Whatever might have been his
potentialities as a ruler, Claudius' wholesale surrender to the "Machiavellian"
ethic has rendered him an unworthy monarch, a cancer slowly spreading
throughout the state which must be extirpated if the body politic is to
survive. The scalpel has fallen to Hamlet who cannot carve where he would,
because, as Laertes points out regarding Hamlet's selection of a wife, "on his
choice depends/ The safety and health of this whole state" (I.iii.20-21).

Ill
THE KING THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
For he was likely, had he been put on.
To have prov'd most royal . . . .
(V.ii.408-09)

"I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu" (V.ii.344). This line


introducing Hamlet's valediction is spoken amid the carnage of the court.
Hamlet has at last fulfilled the command of the ghost, but in so doing has
helped to deliver the state into the hands of a foreign prince.
As I have earlier implied, if the ghost is the "spirit of health" Hamlet
fmally believes him to be, he could not escape from purgatory under his own
volition to influence affairs on earth. Bowers argues persuasively that since
divine permission alone could release a spirit from purgatory, the ghost's
demands must be not only a personal call for vengeance but a divine
injunction appointing Hamlet as God's minister to punish Claudius and to
purge Denmark of his polluting influence.^^ This commission would be
consonant with Hamlet's rank and with his responsibilities, both filial and
pohtical, for since Claudius had been elected under false pretenses, through
his regicide and fratricide forfeiting the legal right to be king, Hamlet, as son
of the murdered king, would surely have a moral right to the throne.^^
Hamlet's failure to fulfill his commission derives at least partially from his
inability to comprehend fully his duty to God and to the state. From the
beginning of the play, Hamlet's response is one of personal grief and rage; there
is no real recognition of his duty to the commonweal.^^ Hamlet's occasional
references to empty promises (III.ii.98-100), lack of advancement
(Ill.ii.350-59), etc., are merely baits to taunt Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and
the King; they play little part in Hamlet's actual motivations. Hamlet's
soliloquies all center around the perfidy of Claudius and the infideHty of the
Queen, but among his grievances he never until Act V includes Claudius'
usurpation of the throne. Although in Act III he does excoriate Claudius as
K\NGS\M?\S HAMLET 21

the "cutpurse of the empire." thief of the "precious diadem" (iv.99-101). he


makes no reference here to his own claim to the throne. Indeed, only after his
retum from England does Hamlet seem fully cognizant of his responsibility to
the state.
The comments on kingship uttered by the other characters in the play
highlight Hamlet's silence on this crucial issue. One of the most important of
these is Laertes' admonition to Ophelia (I.iii. 16-24), in which he stresses that
the prince
may not, as unvalued persons do.
Carve tor himself; tor on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state . . . .
(l.iii.19-21)

The image here of the prince as the surgeon whose careful incisions are vital
to the health of the body politic supports the disease motif perv ading the
play. Like Ulysses' "degree speech" in Troilus and Cressida and Malcolm's
portrait of the ideal king in Macbeth Laertes' speech is choral as well as
dramatic, enunciating a standard against which much of the action of the
drama may be evaluated. Dramatically. Laertes comments on Hamlet's lack of
freedom in selecting his marriage partner; chorally, he stresses Hamlet's
obligation to the state of Denmark. A similar choral comment, which might
stand as a motto for the entire tragedy, is Rosencrantz's description, in the de
casibus idiom, of the far-reaching reverberations of the fall of princes;
The sinde and pjeculiar life is bound.
With all the strength and armour of tlie mind.
To keep itself from noyance, but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many. The cess of majesty
Dies not alone; but. like a gulf, doth draw
What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel,
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount.
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis'd and ajoint'd; which, when it falls.
Each small annexment, petty consequence.
Attends the boist'rous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a cenera! iiroan.
dll.iii. 11-23)
How ironically prophetic is Rosencrantz's statement! In its immediate
dramatic context, this speech is, of course, merely a sycophantic panegyric to
Claudius, the actual king. But the statement is more appropriate to Prince
Hamlet, the man who should be king. For it is Hamlet's ver\' inability to keep
his mind from "noyance" that will lead eventually to his death and the
"boist'rous ruin" of all about him, including Rosencrantz. Only Horatio, the
man who is not "passion's slave," will escape.
But while others expound on the onus of kingship, Hamlei appears
politically indifferent. Hamlet is vividly aware of the pestilent congregation of
vapors polluting the court; he is repelled by fawning and hypocrisy: he
laments general social abuses-"the oppressor's wrong," "the law's delay,"
"the insolence of office" (lII.i.70-76); he realizes "the time is out of joint,"
and for one fleeting moment of anagnorisis recognizes himself as the
22 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

physician ordained to "set it right" (I.v.l 89-90). But it is his personal wrongs
tliat overwhelm him and upon which he dwells with stultifying regularity, and
these are of a familial rather than of a political nature. This lack of
commitment to his position as a prince renders Hamlet initially incapable of
being God's minister. He indulges in a personal grief so extreme that it not
only taints his mind, a danger against which the ghost warns (I.v.85), but
actually unbalances his reason as Horatio fears (I.iv.73-74). King Claudius
speaks truer than he knows when he admonishes Hamlet:
but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubborness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven . . . .
(l.ii.92-95)

But the situation is, of course, more complex and ambiguous than I
have indicated. In Hamlet, as in so many of Shakespeare's protagonists,
nobility and fallibility are so intertwined that they can hardly be severed.
Thus, as an audience we admire Hamlet's filial devotion and nostalgically
empathize with his former enthusiasm for that "paragon of animals,"
mankind. We also sympathize with the wrenching grief and vitriolic
disillusionment that result when his devotion and idealism are wounded by
the harsh realities of the disjointed times. Yet, I suggest, this capacity for
feeling both elevates and deflates Hamlet: on the one hand, it contributes to the
sensitized awareness that endears the bitter young Prince to disillusioned
modern audiences; on the other hand, it results in the incapacitating passion
that prevents Hamlet's resolute fulfillment of his mission. In the mysterious
world of Hamlet, both internal and external forces appear to co-operate in
the tragic denouement. But whether Hamlet's final tragedy is the result of
nature's mole, fortune's star, providential shaping, or a combination of all
three, the Prince's own wild whirling between the extremes of melancholy
and choler certainly contributes to the bloody conclusion. Because of our
ambivalence, therefore, it is particularly important to remember that Hamlet
is a prince, "upon whose weal depend and rest/ The lives of many." And
whatever our overwhelming sympathy for Hamlet, the man, we must also be
concerned with evaluating his actions as a prince.
Hamlet's moment of crucial moral choice occurs after the play scene.
While hurrying to his mother's closet, Hamlet happens upon his uncle at
prayer and rcali/es, "Now might I do it pat" (III.iii.73). In failing to avail
liimself of this fortuitous opportunity for action, Hamlet commits his first
serious error in judgment, an error contributing to the death of seven persons,
excluding Claudius. But again, Shakespeare shrouds the situation in ethical
ambiguity. No audience (Elizabethan or modern) would applaud stabbing an
unarmed, praying man in the back, thereby violating the spirit if not the
letter of sanctuary, in a sense, cutting Claudius' throat in a church, as the
fiery Laertes would gladly have done (IV.vii. 127). Yet clearly some action
sliould be taken lest Hamlet irrevocably lose the initiative. But whatever the
audience's response to Hamlet's decision not to act at this time—and that
response may well be ambivalent-tlie reason he gives for his tailure to exploit
KINGSHIP IN

this opportunity, an explanation otTered in soliloquy and thus surely valid, is


not his craven scruple but his consuming desire t'or personal vengeance.
Hamlet is not willing simply to execute judgment upon Claudius and remove
his contaminating infiuence tor the good of the state. In fact, he never even
mentions the state. Instead, he pursues a vengeance beyond God's
appointment: he wishes to damn Claudius' soul. In pursuing eternal vengeance
mther than political justice-in failing to leave Claudius' soul to
heaven-Hamlet usurps tlie prerogative of God and therefore sins. The
prince's desire for immortal vengeance would further identify him with the
stereotypic stage Machiavel who traditionally sought vengeance beyond
death. In assuming this Machiavellian perspective, Hamlet also distorts his role
as physician, using "physic" to prolong rather than cure the sickness of the
state (lll.iii.96).^^
Hamlet's first error in judgment leads to a second fatal mistake. This
second tragic blunder, the skewering of Polonius behind the arras, offers a
paradigm for the passion-blinded action of Hamlet throughout much of the
play. I would not interpret Hamlet as a tragedy of inaction, as Coleridge
would have us believe: rather, I see the play as a tragedy of misdirected
action, epitomized by the Prince's blind slashing at an unknown figure behind
the arras, a rash and bloody deed that transforms Hamlet into a murderer
rather than an executioner.-^^ Ironically, as he descends spiritually. Hamlet
begins more and more to resemble his arch-adversar> Claudius. The opening
scene presents Hamlet, who knows not "seems," and Claudius, the
arch-dissembler, as polar opposites. But in order to survive in a world of
shifting, deceptive appearances, Hamlet must assume the mask of "seeming."
scheming and intriguing like his detested Machiavellian uncle. His desire for
immortal vengeance expressed in the prayer scene, which associates Hamlet
closely with the stage Machiavel, also associates him, by imphcation. with
Gaudius, his Machiavellian antagonist. Finally, in the closet scene, Hamlet's
reckless passion leads him to become a murderer like the man he hates.
This view of Hamlet as the prisoner of rampaging passion rather than the
victim of ennen'ating thought is supported by his mood immediateK before
encountering Claudius-"now could I drink hot blood" (III.ii.408)-and by
his later admission to the chiding spirit that "laps'd in time and passion" (that
is, as Dover Wilson explains, arrested or taken prisoner by circumstances and
passion-'^) he has failed in the important acting of the ghost's dread
command (Ill.iv, 107-09). Still later, he ofTers "bestial oblivion" as one
possible cause for his blunted purpose (IV.iv.39-46). Since at this period,
"Oblivion" denoted "heedlessness" as well as "forgetfulness," I interpret this
phrase as describing the eclipsing of godlike reason by animal passion,--'
although other interpretations are certainly possible. In his final apology to
Laertes, Hamlet further attributes his careless carving to his "madness" (which
1 interpret in the Flbabethan sense of "uncontrolled by reason").-"* The
frequent references to passion, will, and reason, or judgment (I.ii. 1 50-51:
I.iv.27-28: III.ii.73-79: III.iv.68-76, 82-88: IV.v.84-86), and the ubiquiU)us
temperance refrain (l.iv.29-30: III.ii.4-8. 18-24: lll.ii.77-80, 204-07: IN.vii.
113-19) lend credence to this reading.
It is only after Hamlet's return from England that we sec an ima«:e o\ the
24 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

king that might have been. Traditional symbols of maturation herald this
transformation. We need not, as do some critics, view Hamlet's "sea-change"
as a symbol of baptism, but traversing a gulf between opposite shores
("crossing the Rubicon") traditionally emblemizes a decisive action.
Furthermore, arriving psychologically "naked" on Denmark's shores, Hamlet
has at last shed his inky cloak (his melancholy), put off his antic disposition,
and donned new clothes, an archetypal symbol of rebirth.^^ Yet although
something of the new Hamlet's equipoise is adumbrated in his memento mori
musings over the skull of Yorick, the mature Hamlet does not emerge until
his passionate quarrel with Laertes in Ophelia's grave. During this frenetic
scene, Hamlet makes two significant announcements: before leaping into the
grave, he employs for the first time his sovereign title, "This is 1/ Hamlet the
Dane" (V.i.280-81). As far as I am aware, the significance of this resounding
line has escaped critical attention. The title "Dane" or "the Dane" occurs five
times in the play and in every instance it serves as a synonym for king.^^
Thus Hamlet's first use of his sovereign title reverberates with thematic
implications. Hamlet now has substantial evidence—first, the incriminating
play, second, the damning letter—that his uncle is a cozener and a murderer.
Doubly convinced of his uncle's perfidy and unworthiness to rule, he at last
asserts his own claim to the crown, accepting the burden of kingship he had
previously ignored. Furthermore, a few lines later, enraged by Laertes'
bravura "unpacking his heart with words," Hamlet for the first time in the
drama confesses his own love for Ophelia. Purged and resigned, he is now
prepared to perform his duty as protector of the state efficiently. Rising from
the grave thus symbolizes Hamlet's reintegration.
In the final scene of the tragedy, Hamlet seems to have fully accepted his
kingly role, displaying the steadiness of purpose and resolute detachment
necessary to the successful monarch. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been
dispatched with an indifference that would be criminal callousness in an
ordinary subject but that is often necessary policy in a king. For what
monarch hesitates to execute spies?^^ Hamlet's diction has also altered; now
for the first time he speaks of himself in terms appropriate to a ruler,
characterizing Claudius and himself, the two contenders for the crown, as the
"fell incensed points of mighty opposites" (V.ii.60-62). Now also, Hamlet
lists his displacement from the throne among his central grievances, although
he still gives Claudius' usurpation a low priority in his inventory of injustices
to be avenged (V.ii.64-68). In this last scene, Hamlet finally accepts his role as
physician of the state and minister of God, dutybound to carve from the
body politic the canker infecting its nature (V.ii.67-70), and his first use of
the royal plural underscores this acceptance and resolve.^^ Dedicated to his
task, Hamlet no longer desires to usurp the prerogative of a shaping Divinity
(as he did earlier when he sought to damn Claudius' soul), but faces his
destiny with Christian resignation, kingly resolution, and stoic fortitude,
defying augury despite the ill feelings about his heart (V.ii.6-11, 222-23,
230-35). Throughout the final scene he achieves a courtesy (note his gracious
apology to Laertes) and an authority which mirror the "courteous" and
"majestical" ghost of Act I. He has conquered his mutineering passions; he
has the discipline and control of a soldier. He dominates the duel with
KINGSHIP IN HAMLET 25

Laertes, recalling another valiant Hamlet who fought a winning duel to


defend Denmark from violent usurpation by an ambitious overreacher.-^
Hamlet's dying speech further demonstrates the care for the commonweal
that he so egregiously lacked in the earlier scenes of the play, for although
that "fell sergeant. Death,/ Is strict in his arrest" (V.ii.46-47), he tarries long
enough to allow the dying heir to cast a vote for his successor, and thus help
to prevent the strife and insurrection so often the result of a contested
succession.^^ But with Hamlefs own dynasty destroyed and the house of
Polonius exterminated, it seems certain that the throne wOl be relinquished to
a foreign prince. Here at last then is the exemplar of "godlike reason"
controlling passion, the potential king who can rule others because he has
leamed to rule himself. But, alas, this glimpse of Hamlet, the warrior king
that might have been, is brief. For he achieves his majority on the eve of his
death; the prologue to the king is the epilogue to the man.
In the final scene, therefore, we do at last see Hamlet, the king who "was
likely, had he been put on,/ To have prov'd most royal" (V.ii.408-09), and we
realize that the genetic affinities visible in the House for Fortinbras are also
saliently manifested in the House of Hamlet. We recall the people's love for
Hamlet and Ophelia's encomium to the courtier, soldier, and scholar Hamlet
had been before terrible grief and disillusionment had overthrown his noble
reason (Ill.i.158-62). When we watch the body of the young
philosopher-prince borne from the stage like a soldier's and instinctively
compare him to the ambition-puffed soldier who will ascend the throne of
Denmark, we feel the terrible waste, the pity, and the terror appropriate to
tragedy. We further realize that Hamlet would have been a much greater king
than Fortinbras, and that the tragedy is therefore not Hamlet's alone but the
whole kingdom's. But we are reminded also of the "accidental judgments,"
casual slaughters," the "deaths put on by cunning and forced cause"
(V.ii.393-94), that might have been avoided had Hamlet accepted his duties as
a prince and sublimated his private passions to his public duty. Thus,
whatever Hamlet's personal triumph in the moment of catastrophe, it is a
Pyrrhic victory, for the destruction of his court and the abandonment of his
throne are indices of his tragic failure as a prince. Because of this failure, all
the dying Hamlet can do is to cast his vote for his candidate for King of
Denmark (V.ii.366-67).

IV
THE KING THAT WILL BE
. . . a delicate and tender prince.
UTiose spirit with divine ambition puff d
Makes mouths at the invisible event . . . .
(IV.iv.48-50)

After the death of Hamlet, a foreign prince dominates the court of


Denmark. As in the case of Claudius, some critics have found much to praise
in the stalwart Norwegian prince. Uly B. Campbell, a forceful defender of
Fortinbras, interprets the play as the story of "three young men-Hamlet,
26 ESSAYS IN LITKRATURE

Fortinbras, Laertes-," eacli called to Fiiourn and revenge a father. She argues
that "the grief of Fortinbras is presented as a grief dominated by reason,"
whereas ''the grief of Hamlet and Laertes is excessive grief leading to
destruction."-^* In support of her position, Campbell cites Hamlet's obvious
admiration for Prince Fortinbras (IV.iv.48-56), noting that the Polish
expedition and the invasion of Denmark have both been undertaken for
"honor's sake," whereas Hamlet fails to satisfy the demands of honor. She
further observes that although Fortinbras had undertaken to revenge his
father in what she considers to be an honorable fashion, his passion had
yielded to reason upon the intervention of his uncle.^-
I would protest that instead of an exemplar of reason, Fortinbras is a
symbol of rashness and bellicosity. His affinities with Hotspur and Troilus,
two other young warriors dangerously "pricked on" by honor, are too
obvious to be ignored. Fortinbras is discussed three times in the play, each
time from a different perspective, and each description varies to conform to
the character of the critic.
Fortinbras is first presented through the relatively undistorted vision of
reason's freedman, Horatio. Hamlet's melancholy myopia may present
Fortinbras as a "delicate and tender prince," but Horatio's keener sight
detects a rash, young man of "unimproved mettle" (I.i.95-96). Furthermore,
as Horatio emphasizes, the elder Fortinbras had forfeited his lands to
Hamlet's father by a compact "Well ratified by law and heraldry" (I.i.86-89),
a compact moreover of liis own making, and now young Fortinbras has rashly
collected a band of mercenaries and seeks to regain the forfeited lands by
force (l.i.95-104). In spite of his natural militance, however, Fortinbras does
show prudence in obeying liis uncle's command—a prudence of which
Hotspur would have been incapable—and as a reward for his obedience, his
uncle allows him to vent his aggression upon the unfortunate Poles. But this
compliance can hardly be equated with reason; it is the typical reaction of the
bully venting liis spleen upon the available scapegoat, rather than the
judicious wisdom of the ideal prince.
Appropriately, it is the "Machiavellian" aspect of Fortinbras which
Claudius chooses to stress in his portrait of the Norwegian prince:
. . . young I ortinbras.
Holding a weak supposal of our worth.
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagucd with the dream of his advantage.
He hath not fail'd to pester us with message.
Importing tJie surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bands of law.
To our most valiant brother.
(I.ii. 17-25)
If this is in fact Fortinbras' appraisal of the political situation, he is both
sagacious and prophetic. For the state of Denmark is "disjoint and out of
frame" and this dislocation, because not promptly reset by the chosen
physician, will eventually redound to Fortinbras' advantage and restore him
his forfeited lands and the entire kingdom of Denmark as well. If Claudius'
assessment is accurate, therefore, Fortinbras is something of the shrewd fox
KINGSHIP IN/yn//./-7' 27

as well as the fearless lion.


By far the most favorable portrait of Fortinbras is offered by his Danish
counterpart Prince Hamlet, but Hamlet's many errors in judgment throughout
the play render his evaluation suspect. Furthermore, even Hamlet's praise of
Fortinbras is largely annulled by the irony underKing his diction and
imagery, although the degree to which Hamlet's irony is deliberate and
conscious is unclear. Hamlet's association of the PoHsh campaign with an
"impostume" (IV.iv.27), recalling the recurrent iniager> of diseases which eat
away and destroy the organism from within (cankers, ulcers), metaphorically
relates Fortinbras' invasion to the pervasive corruption eroding Denmark.
These pejorative implications are reinforced b> the later reference to
"Examples gross as earth" (IV.iv.46). Echoing Hamlet's earlier image of an
unkempt garden overgrown vvith '"rank," "gross" weeds (I.ii. 135-37). this
simile links Fortinbras' excess with that infecting the Danish court. The
diction of the entire speech-"straw," "egg-shell," "fantasy," "trick of
fame,"—accentuates the vacuity of the bloody confiict (IV.iv.26, 53, 55. 61).
Hamlet's description of Fortinbras' spirit with "divine ambition pufTd"
(lV.iv.49) further recalls Horatio's picture of the elder Fortinbras "Prick'd on
by a most emulate pride" (I.i.83), and one is reminded that a
seventeenth-century audience would probably consider ambition, the
archetypal sin of Satan, the flaw of Icarus and Phaeton, of infernal rather
than of celestial origin. The irony of die phrase is further underscored b> the
juxtaposition of the honorific adjective "divine" with the deflative modifier
"puffd," and the incongruity of the entire passage is compounded by
Hamlet's description of the militant Fortinbras as a "delicate and tender
prince" (lV.iv.48). Surely ambitious Fortinbras, willing to sacrifice twenty
thousand human lives for personal glory, cannot be the representative of
"god-like reason," nor can he be the ideal king upon whose choice depends
the safety and health of the whole state.
Eventually, of course. Fortinbras will certainly achieve the sovereignty of
Denmark, but I see no exaltation in his ascent to the throne. Order will be
purchased, but at an inflated price. Fortinbras' accession is not a triumph
but a tragedy, the inevitable tragic result of Hamlet's own failure to accept
the responsibilities of kingship.
Two invasions are described in Hamlet. The first, initiated by Fortinbras
Senior, is repulsed by the vigorous and commanding King Hamlei. The
second, instigated by tlie vouniier Fortinbras who inherits his father's
mihtance, suffers an initial repulse, but we feel certain that it will be
ultimately successful, and that the Prince of Norway will achieve the throne
of Denmark. The entrance of the martial Fortinbras into the court of
Denmark in Act V recalls the intrusion of that other armed figure into the
beseiged land in .Act I, and we realize that the ghost has at least partially
failed in his mission. For Hamlet, like histur>. reveals that the antidote to
corruption (Claudius) and vacillation (Hamlet) will all too often be a
Fortinbras on a white horse.

University of South Florida


28 ESSAYS IN LITKRATURE

NOTES
^ All quotations from Shakespeare are from Vie Complete Works of Shakespeare.
cd. llardin Craig and David Bevin^ton (1951; rpt. Glenview, 111.: Scott, I oresman, 1973).
All references will be included in the text.
" Kleanor Prosscr, Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press,
1967).
-^W. W. (ire-:, "Hamlet's Hallucinations," Modern Ixini^iagc Review. 12(1917),
393-421; John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (1935; rpt. Cambridge, Eng.:
Giinbridue Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 54-86; Roy W. Battenhouse, "The Ghost in Hamlet: A
(jtlu)lic^'Linchpin'?", Studies in Philology. 48 (1951), 161-92; Prosser, Hamlet and
Revenge. I or a survey of the debate on the ambi«uous nature of the ghost, sec also: I. J.
Semper, "The Ghost in Hamlet: Pagun or Christian?" The Month, N.S. 9 (1953), 222-34;
Robert 11. West, "King Hamlet's Ambiguous Ghost," PMLA. 70 (1955), 1107-17; Sister
Miriam Joseph, "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet." PMLA, 76 (1961) 493-502; Paul N.
Sieuel, "Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet." PMLA, 78 (1963), 148-49; John Jump,
"Shakespeare's Ghosts," Critical Quarterly, 12 (1970), 339-51; Nigel Alexander,/'o/so//.
Plav and Duel: A Study in Hamlet (Lincoln, Nebr.: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971);
Michael C. Andrews, "Professor Prosser and the Ghost," Renaissance Papers (1974),
19-31.
Leading exponents of the view that private vengeance (as opposed to public
justice) was always forbidden by Christian law include, in addition to Prosser: Lily Bess
Campbell, "Theories of Revenge in Renaissance England," Modern Philology. 28 (1931),
281-96; I redson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy. 1587-1642 (1940; rpt.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971); Paul N. S\Q^C\, Shakespearean Tragedy and
the Elizabethan Compromise (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 1(J1-O3.
Some commentators insist that Claudius' position as Je facto king further complicates
the dilemma, arguing that "it was a Tudor political axiom that regicide, even of a wicked
sovereign, was rebellion against God's wishes" (Siegel, p. 102; see also Campbell,
Shakespeare's Histories |San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library Press, 1958), pp.
156-57). R'rsuasive counter arguments are presented by John E. Hankins, The Character
of Hamlet and Other Essays (Chapel Hill, N.C: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1941), p.
I l l , n. 24, who contends that Hamlet does not warrant the conclusion that regicide
under any circumstances was considered a mortal sin, and Sister Miriam Joseph,
"Discerning the Ghost in Hamlet," pp. 493-502, who asserts that Hamlet, as rightful
ruler of Denmark, is invested with God's authority to execute punishment upon the evil
doer. G. R. HWott, Scourge and Minister (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1951), p. 29,
while never minimizing the ElizabetJian horror at regicide and private revenge, concurs
with Hankins that revenge upon a wicked ruler, when executed in a mood of justice and
not of personal rage, was sometimes justified. Paul Gottschalk, "Hamlet and the
Scanning of Revenge," Shakespeare Quarterly. 24 (1973), 166, n. 24, also focuses on the
importance of acting not only in public but for the public good, concluding that political
revenge in a good cause often transcended the strict antinomy of Christianity and private
vengeance. In sliort, there is no general consensus among critics concerning the
inclusivcncss of the revenge taboo.
^ One of the most convincing refutations of Prosser is offered by Michael C.
Andrews (pp. 19-31) who supports my view that the ghost's validity is verified not by
theological logic but by "dramatic conviction." See also Robert H. West, Shakespeare
and the Outer Mysteries (Lexington, Ky.: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1968), p. 67.
" Caroline Spurgeon in Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (Cambridge,
I ng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1935), p. 316, observes the numerous images of sickness,
disease, and blemish of the body in Hamlet, concluding that the idea of an ulcer or
tumor is "descriptive of the unwholesome condition of Denmark morally."
' Tliis conclusion would be disputed by at least two critics, Prosser (pp. 160-73)
and D. G. James, The Dream oj Learning (Oxford: Garendon Press, 1951), pp. 36-48,
both of whom interpret H;»mlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy as an examination of
tlie right to personal vengeance as well as a consideration of suicide, a readinti I reject as
imposed upon the text, not derived from it. Hamlet does not until V.ii.63-70 even
obliquely question his duty to revenge ("is't not perfect conscience/ To quit him with
tliis arm?"), and even this exchange with Horatio is a justification rather than an inquiry.
Tlie failure of anyone in the play to voice the traditional Cliristian caveat-leave
vengeance to heaven and the law-is highlighted by the recurrent debate of this issue in
KINGSHIP IN HAMLET 29

contemporary revenge tragedies {Tlie Spanish Tragedy. Titus Andronicus. The Atheist's
Tragedy, and The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois. among others).
° One of the few critics to note the political implications of these lines is David L.
Miller, '"Hamlet: the Lie as an Image of the Fall," Renaissance Papers. 1979 (Southeast
Renaissance Conference, 1980), p. 3. Miller obsenes that the reference to the poisoned
"ear of Denmark" makes "use of a venerable myth to suggest that Oaudius has in fact
poisoned both of 'the King's two bodies,' the body politic as well as the body natural."
^ G. WQson Knight, The Wheel of Eire (London: Methuen, 1959), pp. 33-37.
^^ The significance of this foil relationship was first pointed out to me in
discussions with Helen Popovich of Winona State College.
See Bowers' discussion of the Elizabethan xenophobic association of poisoning
with Italy, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, p. 53.
^^ Hamlet vacillates between accepting the ghost as his father's spirit (I.ii.255-56;
Lv.95-104; I.V.I37-38) and rejecting it as a "goblin damned" (I.ii.24446; I.iv.40-45;
ILii.627-32). Dramatically, Hamlet's ambivalence increases our own uncertainty.
^^ Eor further development of this line of argument, see Bowers, "Hamlet as
\finister and Scourge," PMLA, 70 (1955), 742.
^ In his opening speech (I.ii. 14-16), Claudius affirms that his counselors and court
had supported his election. This statement, coupled with the gracious favor the King
displays toward Polonius and Laertes, particularly in 11. 47-50, implies that Polonius had
been quite instrumental in Qaudius' ascension to the throne.
^^ Wolfeang H. Qemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge,
Mass.: Har\ard Univ. Press, 1951), p. 113.
^" SpuTgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery, pp. 316-17.
^ ' Bowers, "Hamlet as Minister and Scourge," pp. 74445.
18
An analogous situation occurs in .Macbeth. Macbeth, like Qaudius, is a regicide
and kin-slayer, elected to kingship under false pretenses. Certainly, few critics question
Malcolm's moral right to the throne of Scotland, nor his duty to purge the kingdom of
Macbeth's contaminating influence.
^^ Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, pp. 114-25, exaggerates Hamlet's political
aspirations.
^ The various critical reactions to Hamlet's failure to kill the King at prayer are
too numerous to cite. Primarily, however, critics have focused on two aspects of the
situation: first, Hamlet's decision not to kill the King at this time, and secondly, the
proper audience response to this decision. Unlike many critics, I see no reason to doubt
Hamlet's own explanation, communicated in soliloquy. The question of how we should
evalute Hamlet's action is, however, more complex. The argument has been advanced
that Hamlet's action is consonant v.ith the traditional revenge code, that since King
Hamlet had been cut off in the "blossoms" of his sin. and thus sent to sutTer in
purgatory, to slay Qaudius in a moment of contrition, thus presumably sending his soul
to heaven, would be a failure of revenge. I would respond with Prosser that the
vengeance Hamlet desires would never have 5een approved by an Elizabethan audience as
it transcends the ghost's commission and violates all (Thristian canons. This reading is
reinforced by Bowers' identification of the desire for immortal vengeance with the
Machiavellian villain (Revenge Tragedy, p. 52) and Prosser's catalogue of the fictional
and dramatic villains vindictively seeking to damn the souls of their \ictims (pp. 265-79).
Elliott, Scourge and Minister: C^ottschalk, "Scanning of Revenge"; and Harold Skulsky,
"Revenge, Honor, and Conscience in Hamlet," P.\fLA. 85 (1970), 79 all isolate this
moment as a low point in Hamlet's spiritual descent.
^^ Eredson Bowers contrasts the terms "scourge" and "minister," arguing that
Hamlet through his use of the term "scourge" reveals his ovm recognition that he has
made himself a sinful instrument of God by his mistaken murder ("Scourge and
\finister," p. 747). Eor a persuasive contrary interpretation of the terms "scourge" and
"minister," see R. W. Dent, "Hamlet: Scourge and Wimsier,'" Shakespeare Quarterly, 29
(1978), 82-84.
^ See The Tragedy of Hamlet. Prince of Denmark, ed. John Dover Wilson
(Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1957), p. 214, n. 213. Wilson defends his gloss
of this passage as follows: "Hitherto unexplained, because it has been forgotten that
30 ESSAYS IN LITERATURE

'time' in Sh. (sic) often means 'circumstance, the conditions of the moment' (cf. 4. 7.
110-13, Move is begun by time,' and 148, 'convenience both of time and means'),
further, 'lapsed,' in the only other place Sh. uses it (Twelfth flight 3.3.36), means
'arrested' or 'taken prisoner.' Tluis Hamlet describes himself as 'the prisoner of
circumstance and of passion,' repeating 'passion's slave' of 3.2.70, and referring to those
bits of morbid excitement which so often take possession of him."
A contrary gloss of this passage is offered by Samuel Johnson, "having suffered
time to slip and passion to cool" (cited by Craig-Bevington, Shakespeare's Complete
Works, p. 928, n. 107). An alternative reading suggested by Craig-Bevington (p. 928, n.
107), "engrossed in casual events and lapsed into mere fniitless passion, so that he no
longer entertains a rational purpose," supports Wilson's reading and my thesis.
^^ OED. p. 1351. It should be noted that Hamlet here olYers another possible
explanation for his procrastination-"some craven scruple/ Of thinking too precisely on
til' event," which can bo read as supporting the thesis of a too-retlective Hamlet. It seems
clear tliat Hamlet does not clearly understand why yet he lives to say "This thing's to
do"(IV.iv.39-46).
-"* OED. pp. 1183-84.
"^ A sampling of those who support the view of a transformed Hamlet includes S.
1. Johnson, "The Reizeneration of Hamlet," Shakespeare Quarterly, (1952), 187-207;
Maynard Mack, "Tlie^ World of Hamlet," The Yale Review, 41 (1952), 502-23; Jean
Calhoun, ""Hamlet and the Circumference of Action," Renaissance News. 15 (1962),
281-98; Michael Taylor, "The Conflict in Hamlet." Shakespeare Quarterly, 22(1971),
147-61; Martin Stevens, "Hamlet and the Pirates: A Critical Reconsideration,"
Shakespeare Quarterly. 26 (1975), 276-84. Although agreeing on Hamlet's maturation,
tliese commentators frequently interpret his anagnorisis very differently. None of these
critics, however, focuses on Hamlet's maturation in terms of his acceptance of kingly
responsibilities.
-^ Sec I.i.I5; I.ii.44; I.iv.45; V.i.28O; V.iL336. Eor a fuller examination of the
significance of this announccmenl see Sara M. Deats, "Hamlet," The Explicator, 39, No.
3 (Spring 1981), 31-32.
" Critics have frequently questioned Hamlet's morality in having Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern executed without "shriving time allow'd," and tlius dooming them to
purgatory, if not to hell. Tlie evidence of the play strongly suggests that the two
sycophants are innocent pawns and are not privy to the import of their murderous
mission (Skulsky, "Revenge, Honor, and Conscience," argues cogently for their
innocence). Hamlet, however, obviously suspects his schoolfellows of foul-play: he
compares them to "adders fang'd" (III.iv.2O3), and gloatingly envisions hoisting them
with their own petard and blowing them at the moon (lII.iv.5-9). If Hamlet's suspicions
concerning the complicity of his schoolfellows had been justified, it might have been
impolitic to allow them to confess, lest they reveal Qaudius' desire to have Hamlet
executed (and we must remember that when Hamlet alters the commission, he does not
yet know that he will be rescued by pirates).
^° In his catalogue of crimes to be revenged, Hamlet initially lists his OWTI personal
grievances, using the singular pronoun "my":
He that hath kill'd my king and whor'd my mother,
Popp'd in between tli' election and my hopes.
Thrown out his angle for my proper life.
And with such co/'naiie . . . .
(V.u.64-67)
Concluding his litany of grievances however, he employs the first person plural-"and is't
not to be damn'd/ To let tliis canker of our nature come/ In further evil?" (italics
mine) which I interpret as a shift to tJie royal plural whereby Hamlet identifies himself
with the body politic.
- The careful symmetry of the two duels framinu the play was first sugi:ested to
me by Robert I . Wilson of the University of Missour'^i during discussions at the 1978
Compiirative Literature Circle in Tallahassee, Morida.
Tliis was no negligible duty in the I ngland of 1601 with IJb-abeth's doubtlul
succes.sion filling the country with anxiety.
- Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes. Slaves of Passion (1930 m t New York:
B;irnes& Noble, 1959), pp. 109-19. - ' f •
^- Campbell, p. 147.

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