Hamlet's failure

The mighty powers of Vincentio in Vienna are shared by most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Good examples are Macbeth and Lear, the dictator Caesar, and the two generals Coriolanus and Mark Antony. In a more limited sense this applies to Othello and Timon as well. The typical tragedy therefore comes to portray a world which is far from that of most of us, ordinary people lacking any such power.

Around the problems and frustrations of powerlessness questions arise that concern Hamlet. True, the prince of Denmark belongs to a royal family, but only as a subordinate member. His lack of political power and his background as a student in Wittenberg mark his position as special, almost that of a commoner. This turns out to be an important fact in his development.

Hamlet the hero

The next special point is Hamlet's outstanding gifts. Although not yet a king he has many of the qualities that characterise a marvellous leader. The prince is extremely quick in his perceptions and wide awake in answering. He grasps the stratagems of others while still in the making and plays with opponents as a cat does with frightened mice.

The prince sets the action going. He is, moreover, learned, has a wide horizon, understands theatre, and shows restraint in speech. A clear mind, he also knows the special situation of man. Human beings are the creatures that live in the tension between the narrow scope of the body and the endless freedom of the mind: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”. The prince holds a high opinion of our position and sees the contours of an existence filled with bounty and dignity. When two friends try to manipulate him, he demonstrates his demand for unrestrained freedom. — He is a human being related to ourselves.

From this sunny height the protagonist plunges towards the ground. Hamlet's fall seems to be determined by his splendid person. The Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe in his dissertation
Om det tragiske (‘On the tragic’) finds that Hamlet is felled precisely by the qualities that should have helped him to victory. Instead, the hero, with his demands for perfection, ends up in frightening, deep melancholy and succumbs to the evils that attack him from outside.

Our discussion will attempt to find out whether such a conclusion is warranted.

The story

Hamlet is about thirty years old and heir to the throne of Denmark. He is in a state because his father, the previous king, died a few months ago and his mother has in an indecently short time married her brother-in-law Claudius, who has then succeeded to the title. The ghost of the dead king tells Hamlet that he was actually murdered by his brother and charges his son with the duty of avenging him. The prince tries to re-establish justice; but when he attempts to kill his uncle, he instead stabs the country's old counsellor, the Lord Chamberlain Polonius. At the same time the prince has fallen out with his sweetheart Ophelia, Polonius' daughter. She is driven insane and drowns herself in despair over her loved one's desertion and other happenings beyond her understanding. Her brother Laertes returns from France to avenge Polonius but this purpose disappears as he is drawn into King Claudius' plots. In the final scene all members of the royal family are killed, as well as Laertes — whom the people wanted as king and who was the only possible ruler left. The country is taken over by a foreign intruder.

In other words, we witness two tragedies completed in one: Denmark's growing misfortune, and that of the prince when he attempts to redress the disturbed balance. The text concentrates mainly on the latter development, with the political situation and its repercussions providing a framework. The emphasis is therefore different from what it is in a play of ‘state history’ like
King Lear. Rather, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark seems to have as its theme a gifted youth against a contemptible world. With this interpretation we are, however, in the midst of the hero's own views of his life, and here we shall continue for a while yet.

Hamlet the innocent observer

The tone of the play is as melancholy as in
Measure for Measure. Hamlet feels let down by his mother and injured by his uncle. He experiences insidious attacks from Polonius, while his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern let themselves be used for the purpose of doing away with him in England. To top it all he is rejected by his beloved; the artless Ophelia dutifully lets herself be guided by her father and brother to hold off from Hamlet and is her father's docile tool in investigating the prince. Hamlet's only fixed points are his friend Horatio and the memory of faithful Yorick. Twenty-three years earlier Yorick the fool had carried the little prince upon his shoulders; now his decayed skull is thrown up by the grave-diggers who prepare Ophelia's funeral.

Unlike Lear and Othello our student energetically seeks dependable information and avoids facile conclusions. He therefore recognises much of the deceit around him. To start with he is just disappointed in his mother's quick remarriage, being ignorant of the murder of his father; but he seeks out the ghost and is told about the crime. Even after their meeting in the night, however, he wants his uncle's guilt confirmed through further investigations.

The desire for certainty appears everywhere else in the play as well. A prominent theme throughout is the attempts of the king and queen to gauge Hamlet's state of mind and its cause. Polonius concurs with their judgement that observation of the prince is necessary in the interests of the state. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ordered to spy on the prince on the journey to England. Polonius sends a servant to investigate Laertes' behaviour in Paris and makes use of Ophelia to sound out her beloved. Hamlet seeks to turn all such enterprises directed against him back on their original sources, by acting demented and by letting a theatrical company recreate the murder of his father to have Claudius betray himself. Hamlet's counter-moves yield a new round of thoroughness in the investigation of people's behaviour. At the same time all his doubts create a marked hesitancy in the romantic hero.

For a long time Hamlet is curiously reluctant to take action against the murderer, although he shows great resoluteness towards his two false friends and towards the unsuspecting Polonius. He talks about his own cowardice and indecision; among other things he compares his own limp reaction to the brutal murder in the family to the very lively feelings expressed by the actors in "The Mouse-trap" regarding its make-believe crime. The passiveness of the hero also stands in clear contrast to the quick resoluteness of Laertes in the matter of avenging
his murdered father. Hamlet's behaviour is connected to a thirst for understanding which is equally great in every field.

The prince has, for instance, a clear picture of the limits of our independent existence. Seen in the widest possible frame the world is a seething mass in which the parts feed on each other. A man eats a fish caught with a worm which has itself perhaps fed on a dead king's body. Our emotions change equally fast with changing circumstances. That which feels unbearable one minute is forgotten the next day; and when we hold in our hands the empty skull of a dead friend, all everyday feelings disappear, good as well as hateful.

Clearly formulated is the fear which grips us when faced with the relentless conditions we have to accept as a basis for all life. The natural consequence of this realisation is a charity towards all living beings which, in the play, finds its most beautiful expression in the young Ophelia. But Hamlet has encountered similar viewpoints before, in his studies in Luther's new Wittenberg.

Some of the complexities of guilt and reckoning emerge when the prince passes his contrite uncle towards the end of the third act. The king is kneeling and his position affords Hamlet a favourable chance to kill him. Not satisfied simply with removing the murderer, however, but at least as much concerned with sorting out what constitutes a proper retaliation all things considered, Hamlet ponders the likely standing of his uncle with heaven if killed at prayer and decides to wait.

The penetrating, reflective observer who is ahead of others in his understanding and behaviour corresponds to Hamlet's picture of himself and his surroundings. This interpretation of him is conditional upon our accepting him as a hero and the others as unworthy. It is a tempting interpretation for directors and actors to choose; for theatre audiences like seeing an attractive hero faced with contemptible antagonists, especially when ever more exciting qualities are revealed in the hero's personality.

The first cracks in the glazing

So much for the qualities that make Hamlet a fascinating ideal. Our next task is to suggest where the prince fails.

His classical shortcoming is an over-confidence which makes our hero overlook important limitations on his own capabilities. Let us try and penetrate beneath the surface.

Our criticism starts with his relationship to Polonius. Hamlet goes under in a conflict with Laertes, after carelessly murdering Laertes' father. Hamlet makes Denmark's counsellor appear to be a silly nobody. The prince speaks of him as one of these “tedious old fools” and a “foolish prating knave”. But it is difficult to accept Hamlet's opinion, because Polonius pursues certainty just as Hamlet does. He checks on Hamlet as Hamlet the student checks on Polonius, Ophelia and Claudius, and is far more thorough in his investigation of his son Laertes than Hamlet is regarding Ophelia. Polonius' advice to his son speaks like one of the many textbooks on wise and honourable behaviour from mediaeval times and makes us think of prince Hamlet's own advice to his actors or King Henry the Fifth's conduct in general. Laertes is, for instance, enjoined to try to avoid letting quarrels arise but to be firm and courageous if clashes nevertheless occur.

Although Polonius is wrong in his belief that the throne pretender's madness is due to spurned love for his daughter, this mistake is forgivable since Polonius himself ordered Ophelia's refusal and since Hamlet certainly lives up to such an interpretation by pretending love in spite of Ophelia's rejection of him. Under any circumstance the advisor is right in diagnosing the prince's behaviour as in large measure due to turbulent feelings.

In practice, then, a comparison between Polonius and Hamlet reveals some striking parallels in laudable principles, but Polonius is clearly more balanced and mature than the young prince.

For all his analytical ability the prince is never able to see the statesman as a human being on equal terms. The killing of the counsellor happens under the most reprehensible of circumstances. The prince believes that the uncle has hidden behind a drape, pretends to think that some shouts coming from there stem from a rat, and sticks his sword quickly through the drape. The otherwise so thorough researcher makes no investigation before he kills and is disastrously wrong regarding his victim. When we consider that he has just passed the king, penitent and in prayer after the unsettling play put on by Hamlet, there might have been good reason to doubt whether the king had had time and inclination so soon afterwards to remove to the queen's bedroom and hide behind a curtain when she is about to talk to her son. — In any case the prince is quite off-hand about Polonius' death, is only concerned to lecture his mother about
her offences and those of her husband, shows no regret, speaks of the victim as a “rash, intruding fool”, and hides the body in the cellar, preventing a decent funeral.

Another aspect of this haughty attitude is expressed in the final confrontation. Hamlet, who has never done anything to lessen the hatred between himself and his uncle the king, is by now involved in a deadly struggle with him. He is also fully aware that King Claudius is an extremely insidious antagonist. Still he lets the king tempt him to enter into a dangerous duel with the fencing expert Laertes, apparently oblivious to the possibility that the king might have new perfidy up his sleeve. Hamlet's strange indifference, trusting to his own courage alone, contrasts with the careful forethought and plotting of the uncle, who sees to it that there are two different poisons available against the nephew if Laertes' fencing should prove insufficient.

At the very least such behaviour as Hamlet's must be characterised as shockingly careless. The actions of the prince at the end leave the impression of a human being who cares little about the issues he is trying to settle. Instead he is engrossed by the fighting, or is filled with a sense of listlessness so great that nothing matters.

Hamlet has expressed listlessness from the very first. When Polonius politely asks permission to take his leave of him, the prince answers that there is nothing he would rather part with except life itself. The remark is repeated three times, a habit he has fallen into after his meeting with the ghost. In the first act he plays with the idea of suicide. His anger and concern over the murder of his father and Claudius' succession to the throne seem all the more inconsistent if his attitude to life is so negative that he cannot leave it quickly enough.

With a ghost as his banner

Part of Hamlet's demoralisation stems from the influence of the ghost, which causes a split in the scholar's personality. For when the prince is told to avenge his father, he takes the task to be an unconditional command and reacts in two diametrically opposite ways:

On the one hand, he understands that the ghost is an uncertain source and that some kind of devilry may be involved. His directions for the theatrical performance aim at gaining certainty on this score. To that extent his encounter with the ghost prompts him to carry out an investigation, in harmony with the hero's scholarly side.

On the other hand, Hamlet never questions the ghost's absolute demand for relentless revenge for fratricide, having no reservations against an-eye-for-an-eye retaliation in spite of the many difficult issues this raises. At first glance such a demand for revenge may seem appropriate in a tragedy. Tragedies explore the disasters that follow when people transgress in the way of Hamlet's uncle, Hamlet's own action-taking to avenge his father being perfectly in accord with what a realistic view of human nature would lead us to expect.

But finding a natural place for Hamlet's actions within the typical tragic development immediately shows us a major weakness in his character: He is brought into line with one of our most common human patterns, in company with, among others, the trouble-makers of the English civil wars, the mechanism of which was exactly that of endless retaliation for atrocities.

Shakespeare clearly finds such revenge very questionable; we need only think of
King Richard the Third, Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens. Our suspicions regarding revenge as a legitimate motive deepen when we realise that the command from the father's ghost is at odds not only with all those insights so frequently conveyed elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays but also with the independence which Hamlet shows in his dealings with others. He does not ordinarily take orders without question. When he does so from the ghost, it is likely to be because the command reflects a motive already present in himself. We find some support for this contention when we consider that Hamlet, directly after having heard what the ghost has to say, tells Horatio that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.”, which at this early stage is far more wishful thinking than proven fact.

The rational analysis that goes on in the play presents a contradiction to the activities associated with the ghost. This is deliberate on Shakespeare's part. Clear arguments from other plays reverberate in the text of
Hamlet. The prince characterises the ghost as an “old mole”. It has a trick of appearing three times, does three rounds of the castle battlements and disappears at cock-crow, like an allusion to the faithless disciple Peter on the night at Gethsemane. The picture receives still more detail: The supernatural knowledge supplied by the ghost is not treated like any other piece of information but given a special status, in that nobody, not even Horatio, is allowed to hear what the ghost said to Hamlet. Indeed Hamlet, insistently seconded by the ghost, now underground, as fits a proper underminer, demands that those present swear never to divulge what they have seen. Consequently the assignment from the ghost lives its life in Hamlet's thought alone, impervious to discussion or evaluation from outside, a situation reminiscent of Romeo's and Othello's.

The contradictory traits in Hamlet's behaviour also remind us of the schizophrenia of Macbeth, who accepts the wishful interpretation of the witches' visions. Hamlet pretends to be mad, at the same time showing a number of aberrations on the border of personality disturbance. The best example is his conduct when passing the praying king. Here Claudius through his attempt to ask God's forgiveness has suddenly placed himself in a different category from other great villains, regret being unknown to characters like Iago and Aaron. The little theatre performance put on by Hamlet has helped bring about a change in the king, surely the kind of change that Shakespeare would wish to convey from stage to audience through his plays. The king's new consciousness ought to have provided the foundation for working out a solution of the original conflict. But what happens is that while the king through progressive unravelling and insight is brought to realise the unacceptability of the murder he committed, his nephew lets himself be pulled into the increasingly rigid grip of a thirst for revenge urged by a ghost.

No thought of forgiveness even enters Hamlet's mind. Instead of accepting the possibility of a reasonable reconciliation like Alcibiades' in Athens, Hamlet avoids killing his uncle in circumstances which might send the remorseful sinner to paradise and postpones his revenge until such time as may leave the uncle as badly off with heaven as possible.

Hamlet's planned murder jars even with the story conveyed by the actors of "The Mouse-trap". The king in "The Mouse-trap" is old and feels death approaching for entirely natural reasons. He breathes his last on a bank of flowers, after a beautiful dialogue with his queen. The murderer pours a rapidly effective poison into his ears while he is asleep and death occurs quietly.

This portrayal of euthanasia seems a reasonable interpretation of the murder of Hamlet's father as well. The prince is about thirty so his father must have been between fifty and sixty years old. In the Denmark of the times this was a considerable age, placing him on the edge of the grave. Regardless of how we feel about the family's way of settling the succession, the previous king had become so old that none but Hamlet had any idea of poisoning. King Claudius is obviously well versed in matters of state and takes good care of Denmark's political affairs. He exhibits no further murderous proclivities before Hamlet unexpectedly starts delving into the question of the old king's death.

The family of Polonius

More questionable facts pile up.

Hamlet's lack of zest for life stems from his disgust for a despicable world. Ophelia is one of the many to let him down. But what is Hamlet's conduct towards her?

Ophelia is warned by her father and her brother against an entanglement with Hamlet. While she takes all his professions of love seriously, Polonius and Laertes know that Hamlet's marriage will inevitably be a matter of state and want to protect Ophelia against hurt and abuse. When Ophelia breaks off with Hamlet on the assumption that he is not in earnest, he comes to see her in a state of some excitement; but his feelings seem less those of wounded love than of wounded prestige. Instead of asking Ophelia about the reasons for the breach, he scrutinises her sternly, as if to penetrate her mind, nods his head three times and leaves, looking at her accusingly. He has already written a letter full of hollow and pompous phrases. The epistle may actually have been a move against Polonius and the king but could equally express increasing mental disturbance.

Later, when Ophelia humbly tries to return his love-letters, he speaks to her brutally, accusing her of duplicity in having enticed him by her beauty, while in fact he is obviously the false one — first claiming to have loved her, then saying he never loved her at all. He coldly dismisses Ophelia and recommends her to get herself into a convent instead of breeding human beings, who are one and all sinful, “arrant knaves” who ought not to populate the world.

Such is his treatment of his sweetheart who loves him unreservedly. If Ophelia is part of the prince's difficulties, then surely most of the blame must fall on him.

Hamlet's next complaint is directed against the queen. A thirty year old son, he is inconsolable because his mother has remarried, not settling for his filial love and indifferent to his own unattached bachelor's desire for female company. Though no-one else has seen the marriage of the queen to her brother-in-law in those terms at all, Hamlet several times describes it as incest and is at one stage very concerned that his mother should no longer share her husband's bed.

We observe that the way he lets Ophelia down as a lover is considerably less natural than his mother's behaviour towards him.

Hamlet's third and most serious charge is that his uncle committed an atrocious act in killing his blameless brother. If we examine the prince's own conduct, we curiously enough find a careful parallel to the uncle's case: Hamlet kills Polonius with no provocation on the part of the old man. All that Hamlet could possibly resent are Polonius' advice to his daughter not to wish for a marriage clearly above her station and his investigation of the prince's mental condition. In committing murder the king showed no concern either for his old brother or for his nephew. Hamlet is equally brazen about the murder of Ophelia's white-haired father, feels no conscience about Ophelia and her brother but treats them with indifference, although Laertes' relationship to Polonius is no different from Hamlet's to his own father, while the very young Ophelia is dependent on both her father and Hamlet, as was Hamlet on his father and his father's murderer.

Hamlet, then, behaves as irresponsibly towards Polonius and his family as does Claudius towards him. Hamlet kills, exactly like his uncle and for an equally despicable reason: The uncle is driven by ambition, Hamlet by lust for revenge. The only material differences are in the uncle's favour: Claudius shows loving concern for his wife, Hamlet none for Ophelia. Claudius has care for the fate of the kingdom, while Hamlet never devotes one thought to its safety. Only right before the end does Hamlet express a degree of regret to Laertes, practically at the same time that the king regrets his own act of violence.

Hamlet's conduct towards Polonius and his children shows him to be inconsistent. The overt manifestation is the discrepancy between words and deeds — as in Timon's case. On a deeper level we see in Hamlet a character transitional between two historical periods. He conveys the values of a new era: doubt, insight and change. But under the surface he succumbs to pressure from the ghost to lapse uncritically into one of the most hard-boiled tendencies of the past: the desire for unbridled revenge.

How can the peculiar contradictions of the hero be explained?

The ambitious intellectual

The prince is proud. He is arrogant both as an aristocrat and as a learned man. His conversations with other people as well as his monologues bristle with condescension.

This pride is partly responsible for his lack of thorough effort in many conflicts and for his reluctance to fight in others. The hero refuses to reveal himself by descending to open struggle, feels above having to prove his worth. He will win without having to fight. Being adept in analysing others, largely with contempt for them as a result, he will not have these despicable creatures figuring him out, and cleverly hides behind a show of madness.

But while his supercilious attitude leads to concealment, the prince's species of pride also has a strong need for display. It finds its outlet in part through outbursts of pent-up, would-be moral, fury, in part through physical violence in situations where this can be exercised just as a demonstration of superiority without the appearance of serious commitment. The murder of Polonius in mistake for Claudius is such a case. The duel with Laertes serves the purpose even better; here the violence is presented as a game.

Ophelia's brother is critical of Hamlet and with good reason. When the two clash by her grave we meet Hamlet at his worst. Polonius' daughter is buried in consecrated ground due to the family's elevated position, but the priest has to omit the usual rituals at her funeral because there is reason to believe that her death may have been a suicide. Laertes wishes to make up for the priest's niggardliness; and when the coffin has been lowered, he jumps down into the grave to show his feeling. Hamlet takes Laertes' expression of sorrow as a challenge and in front of the mourners jumps in after Laertes, loudly claiming to have loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers. Here, in the meek Ophelia's grave, develops an unseemly argument and a regular fight between the two men about who loved her most.

The same vanity makes the hero accept a challenge to oppose Laertes in a fencing match, this ‘play’ having been arranged by the treacherous king. Hamlet expects to win hands down practically without preparation. It is left to the queen to observe that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath”.

Hamlet's pride is our best pointer to the basic force behind his hatred of his uncle. There are after all at least three possible explanations of his fury against his father's brother:

First, it may be a revolt on a moral basis. But if so, this makes Hamlet completely superficial, since he behaves similarly towards Polonius.

Second, the son may be attached to his mother through a kind of late Oedipus complex. Then, however, his handsome words about his father and his concern to avenge him are a screen for totally different feelings directed against the man who has supplanted him in his mother's favour. The theme of the play would then be Hamlet as the man of words and no action, insufficiently liberated from parental ties and immature in other respects. But this interpretation is at least incomplete. It is not altogether in harmony with Hamlet's verbal attack on his mother and the way the argument proceeds between mother and son on the occasion of Polonius' death, and does not explain the bouts of violent action he in fact engages in.

The third possibility is that the royal bookworm is intensely concerned about his claims to the throne after all. The way the conflict with his uncle develops, we receive increasing signals that its motive is political ambition. The hero is more than of age and would have been his father's successor if Claudius had not married his mother.

The text supports this last explanation as the most satisfactory. On such a basis it is natural that Hamlet should feel upset when uncle runs off with the booty, thwarting his desires. His resentment about the mismanaged succession explains his disgust with his mother, the trust put in the ghost, the indifference towards Ophelia, the furious hate for his father's brother, and the many other seemingly disparate aspects of his conduct — on a par with Coriolanus.

Hamlet's special characteristic, that which sets him apart from other politically ambitious men, is his extraordinary indecision in important situations, even falling into a brown study over his own slowness. Part of this is, as just stated, attributable to his pride. But there is another important contributing factor: the prince's propensity for reading and studying, which is repeatedly pointed out in the play. It is of course a fact that thorough intellectual analysis of problems tends to bring us up against the complex consequences of any line of action we might choose to take, so that instead of thinking leading to a solution of the problem it may lead to frozen inaction or nourish an ambivalence which can trigger bursts of violence, as in the case of Troilus (cf chapter 5 "The origin of aggressiveness"). It is also a fact that a concentration on studying may lead to words being substituted for action, words which increasingly take leave of practical life and circle around the thought process itself.

If the prince's vacillations are indeed due to his studies, we have here one more sign of a deep conflict between knowledge as the admired foundation for power in modern times and the power-basis of the past: inheritance and weapons.

There is no complete unravelling in the text. The closest we get is Hamlet's moral deliberations, which are full of holes from start to finish. King Claudius and Polonius have weighty political arguments; but since the king is in Hamlet's eyes a villain and the advisor a fool, neither is accepted by the prince. Instead he chooses to be an heir who studies at university, presumably theology or philosophy, but without learning morality, and to be a claimant to the throne who would govern the kingdom of Denmark without listening to the experience of others. The vitally central concern of every ruler of the time, viz military preparedness and willingness to go to war — both clearly necessary to preserve Denmark — is completely absent from his thoughts.

Does Hamlet kill the fool?

Alarming developments are never kept in check, because the intelligent hero lacks the critical side-light otherwise provided in clear form by Shakespeare's fools. Hamlet's most immediate counterbalance is the steady Horatio. He warns Hamlet against following the beckoning ghost and tries to hold him back but is dismissed and threatened. Later he warns him against fighting Laertes, again to no effect. The two women in the play are good but too innocently in the hands of the men to perform the fool's critical function. The play is without a regular, well-disposed fool, since old Yorick has already lain in his grave for all of twenty-three years.

About twenty-three years before the appearance of
Hamlet, the teenage William Shakespeare studied English history at the grammar school in Stratford on Avon. A character in his play King Richard the Second from the time of the civil wars is the sober Duke of York, who is a sturdy support for the viable regime of Henry the Fourth, while his son engages in an unrealistic treasonable plot. — Does Hamlet provide any live York/Yorick in the old role of Lear's wise fool?

The closest approximation in the text is Polonius, especially if we pay attention to the prince's opinion of him as a moron. Lear's fool, too, was wise but let himself be treated as stupid. Polonius fulfils both requirements: Hamlet laughs at him and calls him straight out a fool, but on reflection he is far more the opposite. An example is his afore-mentioned advice to his son. Polonius' investigations into Hamlet's doings and motives are conducted impartially, from a sense of responsibility for the affairs of state. His conduct all through underscores that he is a ‘wise fool’, who proceeds with common-sense poise, whereas the hero does the reverse.

It is food for thought, then, that the intelligent but arrogant prince actually kills the play's carefully draped fool. With the murder of Polonius the splendid Hamlet has gone a step further than the simple soul Lear. All his follies notwithstanding, the old man never went to the extreme of killing his own fool!

This difference between Lear and Hamlet is related to the difference between Mediaeval times and the Renaissance. Lear's England had powerful kings who needed fools who spoke their minds freely. With modern times, however, power is transferred from kings to knowledge, skills and technology. The knowledgeable are the new centres of influence in society, but without the power of command that the kings of the past were entitled to, and without new heirs to the critical function they themselves had exercised as the clowns of the Middle Ages.

We witness the result in the prince of Denmark. The student is superior to his fellows and develops an overweening pride. He pushes ahead uncritically. Having no old-fashioned fool to fall back on, he finds a substitute in Ophelia's venerable father. On a deeper level, abstracted from all particular circumstances, the hero's clownish killing of criticism is one of the most plausible explanations for the tragic end to the story.

Human and political collapse

The prince has failed. The hero never managed to eradicate evil in the resolute way shown by Laertes. Nor did he improve the world like Ophelia — Ophelia who in her simple way seemed to grasp that in an imperfect world we all have need of flowers on our graves. Finally, he has not succeeded in checkmating the king, either by force or by insight, be his methods ever so elaborate. The task was impossible, the roots were buried deep within himself.

His fencing-skills actually stand up well to those of Laertes, and he also admits his culpability. But it is too little too late, neither skill nor admission is enough to save the kingdom. For his opponent is a king whose first, frail attempt to atone for his errors has been frustrated, and who from that point on reverts to the bloody course of the past. Claudius' poison strikes down the queen, Laertes, Hamlet and the king himself.

And so the hero is killed, leaving his story to be interpreted by a nondescript Horatio in the last scene, which is given over to politics.

When all the royal family dies, the instruments of government fall so that the country is laid open to its enemies. Young Fortinbras of Norway moves in and takes over without having to lift a finger. He is the son of a king whom Hamlet's father defeated with far simpler means than Hamlet employs only to lose the kingdom. The stranger has flickered in the background earlier. He was an open threat at the time when the guard discovered the ghost of Hamlet's father. Then he is a brief reminder when Claudius sends Hamlet's two friends along to England to have him killed. On that occasion the Norwegian just passes through on his way to conquer land in Poland. Hamlet goes off into a reverie contemplating a struggle involving thousands of men about a piece of land as large as an egg-shell — or a grave — but finds that infinitely small causes can reasonably give rise to wars as long as they are to do with honour and fame — in other words with evaluations inside our own little heads.

King Lear is the tragedy of an old man who is mistaken, while Hamlet unfolds the story of a young man with an abundance of insight into much of what Lear lacks. On the other hand, the young modern is without an understanding of the community that is more important than all perspicacity. Individuals and groups are united by their most important values and ideals. For all his expanding knowledge the hero is without an appreciation of the simple unity which was taken for granted all through the previous centuries; hence he is condemned from the point of view of the author. Still the prince is destined to become an ideal to increasingly many in the time that follows, be the justification for this ever so scant.

The type Hamlet has received a fourfold placement from the poet. As prince of Denmark he belongs in a past on its way to the grave, one root in
responsibility and reciprocity and the another in retaliation. As a student in Wittenberg he exhibits the first signs of the demanding scholarship of the future, one foot in the part and one in the whole: The research going on at the universities ranges from intensive investigation into the tiniest detail to questions of tremendous importance regarding the totality of the universe. His preoccupation with important problems develops a feeling of power — the classical hubris of the tragedy — given extra impetus from being based on the brand new foundation of reason.

Hamlet's life is splintered between these four areas. While his learning grows through book-reading, the old insights of his ancestors — accumulated wisdom of generations — sink into oblivion. But his learning cannot replace the experience of previous generations, since it is never placed within any proper frame but is allowed to run riot. In actual fact, although Hamlet is learned and a quick wit, the grave-digger, a simple peasant, is a match for him. Among leaden lines our hero meets his bane. Shakespeare provides the wider frame as a world within which Hamlet's destiny is exhibited, without an explanatory textbook but just through its results.

Hamlet has been placed at a time when Gutenberg's modernisation of printing had led to revolutionary possibilities for the proliferation of knowledge and ideas through books. Book-learning, however, is an instrument; its possessor determines how to use it. If not shaped in the forge provided by reality it is just as potent for harm as for good. In particular we note how suitable it is as a basis for megalomania, since the studious individual all too readily proceeds from juggling with ideas to assuming that he can with equal ease and justification juggle with the world.

European literature contains several important variations on this theme. A prominent case is Goethe's
Faust. Faust's restless quest for knowledge entails an alliance with the Devil and is wholly destructive, for Gretchen and for himself. His hunt through life having turned him into a tool of historical forces, his personal life atrophies. The deal is that the Devil will serve Faust until Faust finds a moment of happiness, whereupon the situation will be reversed. When in old age Faust finally reaches a single happy moment, it is based on a delusion, but nevertheless delivers him into the Devil's hands. — We have another variant in the Don Quixote of Shakespeare's contemporary Cervantes. Here we meet a book-reading knight who has taken leave of reality, his ideal being to emulate the heroes of chivalric romances. Hamlet, a book-reading prince, is the same basic type; but the issues he tries to tackle and his political position make the consequences of his intellectual addiction far more serious. An obvious parallel from our own times is the so-called ‘1968 student generation’, with its propensity to let the intellect play freely while paying little attention to social, political, military, and even intellectual, reality.

Hamlet is an example of the personality of his time. Nature has endowed him with intelligence and alertness, but they are without foundation and direction. He is critical but not self-critical. His analytical abilities give rise to arrogance, not to a deeper insight. Hamlet's learning covers and obscures a glaring discrepancy between his words and his actions. Our protagonist therefore represents the contradictions of the intellectual as he makes quite different demands on others from those he makes on himself. The play about Hamlet reveals Shakespeare's deepest misgivings about the post-Renaissance age to come.