Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet [A lecture prepared for English 200 and revised for English 366: Studies in Shakespeare, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-university College, Nanaimo, BC. It was last revised slightly on February 27, 2001. This entire text is in the public domain and may be used free of charge and without permission] For comments, questions, corrections, suggestions please contact Ian Johnston A. Introduction Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written around 1600, is one of the most problematic texts in all of literature.With the exception of certain Biblical texts, no other work has roduced such a continuing, lively, and contentious debate about how we are supposed to understand it. In fact, one could very easily construct a thorough and intriguing history of modern literary criticism based upon nothing other than various interpretative takes on Hamlet (a task which has already been carried out by at least one historian of ideas). Given this critical confusion, we might as well admit up front that we are not going to arrive at anything like a firm consensus on what the play is about and how we should understand it.
However, wrestling with this play is a very mportant and stimulating exercise, because it puts a lot of pressure on us to reach some final interpretation (that is, it generates in us a desire to make sense of all the elements in it, to find some closure), and, even if that goal eludes us, we can learn a great deal about reading poetic drama and interpreting literature from a serious attempt to grasp this most elusive work.If one of the really important functions of great literature is to stimulate thought-provoking conversations which force us to come to grips with many things about the text and about ourselves, then Hamlet is a articularly valuable work. I should also add that many of the difficulties we wrestle with (like the age of the characters, for example) can only be temporarily resolved by witnessing and responding toa production of the play.
Because there is so much ambiguity and uncertainly about many key elements, Hamlet offers a director a great deal of creative scope, and hence the variety in productions of this play is unmatched in all of Shakespeare, perhaps in all tragic drama.In this introductory lecture (and I stress the word introductory) I would like to discuss three things: (a) first, I would like o outline what the “problem” with this play is, the source key of the disagreement, (b) second, I would like to review some of the attempts to resolve this initial problem, and (c) third, I would like to outline three of the main issues raised by the play, matters which any coherent and reasonably complete interpretation has to deal with. If there is time, I might offer a few suggestions along the way about the approach which I personally find particularly persuasive.B. Hamlet: What’s the Problem? So what is the source of the difficulties with this play? Well, we can begin by cknowledging that Hamlet is a revenge play.
That is, the story is based upon the need to revenge a murder in the family. In a typical revenge plot, there are no autnorltles to appeal to, eltner Decause tne orlglnal crlmlnal Is too powerTul (e. g. , nas become king) or those in a position to act do not know about or believe in the criminality of the original villain.Thus, the central character has to act on his own, if any Justice is to occur. Hamlet clearly falls into this conventional genre. There is a victim (Hamlet Senior), a villain (Claudius), and an avenger (Hamlet).
Early in the play he details of the murder become known to Hamlet, he vows to carry out his revenge, and eventually he does so, bringing the action to a close. The major question which arises, and the main focus for much of the critical interpretation of Hamlet is this: Why does Hamlet delay so long? Why doesn’t he Just carry out the act?Now, revenge dramas, from the Oresteia to the latest Charles Bronson Death Wish film, are eternally popular, because, as playwrights from Aeschylus on have always known, revenge is something we all, deep down, understand and respond to imaginatively (even if we ourselves would never carry out such a personal vendetta). The issue engages some of our deepest and most powerful feelings, even if the basic outline of the story is already very familiar to us from seeing lots of revenge plots (for the basic story line doesn’t change much from one story to another).Typically, the avenger assumes the responsibility early on, spends much of the time overcoming various obstacles (like having to find the identity of the killer or dealing with the barriers between the avenger and the killer, a process which can involve a great deal of excitement and violence of all sorts), and concludes the drama by carrying out the ission, a culmination which requires a personal action (usually face to face).The revenge, that is, must be carried out in an appropriate manner Oust getting rid of the villain any old way or reporting the villain to the authorities is not satisfying).
This formula, which is very old, popular, and, if done well, a smash at the box office, was a staple of Greek theatre (not Just in Aeschylus), common in Elizabethan drama before Shakespeare, and characterizes an enormous number of Western movies and detective fictions, among other genres. So there’s nothing new about that in this play.The puzzle here is why Hamlet Just does not go ahead a carry out the revenge. He vows to do so as soon as he hears the news of his father’s murder in Act I and repeatedly urges himself on to the deed. But it takes him many weeks (perhaps months) before the revenge is carried out.
What’s the problem? The attempts to deal with this question have sparked a huge volume of criticism. C. Why the Delay? A Survey of Answers Some critics attempt to resolve the difficulty by magically waving it away.They maintain, for example, that there is no delay, that Hamlet carries out the murder as soon as he can conveniently do so (e. . , Dover Wilson). Others (e. g.
, E. E. Stoll) argue that the delay is simply a convention, something we are not supposed to get hung up on, because if there’s no delay, there’s no play (obviously the carrying out of the revenge is going to be the final action of the story, so if that occurs very quickly, the play will last only a few minutes). Whatever plausibility one might find in such interpretations is seriously undercut by many parts of the play.Hamlet himself is constantly calling attention to the delay; he worries about it all the time. The ghost has to remind him of it. In other words, the delay is not a concept of our imagination, something we impose on the play; it is, by contrast, an issue repeatedly raised by the play itself. So it cannot so simply be conjured out of existence.
In addition, although we 00 not Know tne exact time Trame 0T tne play, It does seem tnat a long time goes by between the opening act and the conclusion.There is always a lot happening; that’s one of the most theatrically appealing aspects of the play (Dr Johnson call it Shakespeare’s most “amusing” play, by which he meant, not that it was funny, but that it always held our attention with its speed and variety). At the same time we get unequivocal signals that time is passing: the envoys have gone to Norway and come back, Hamlet has sailed away and returned, we are told at the start that it is two months since the funeral of Hamlet Senior and in the play within the play that it is now twice two months since the funeral, and so on.Given these details (and there are others), I would conclude that these first two approaches to the problem are unacceptable. In this connection, we should note that the play has two other revengers: Fortinbras and Laertes, both of whom have to avenge insults to or murder done on their fathers. They act immediately, with effective resolution and courage. Given that they are about the same age as Hamlet, it would seem that we are invited to see in Hamlet’s response to his father’s murder something quite different from what a normal prince with a sense of honour might do.
Hence the play itself puts a lot of pressure on us to recognize in Hamlet’s conduct an unusual problem. Others maintain that, as in many conventional revenge dramas, Hamlet has external obstacles to overcome in order to carry out the revenge. There is a delay, but only because Hamlet is not in a situation where he can easily carry it out. He has to wait for an opportune moment. This position, too, is hard to sustain, given the facts of the play.Hamlet has ready access to Claudius, he even meets him in an unguarded moment (at prayer), and there is no suggestion from Hamlet himself that there are any such external difficulties.
In his fretting about his delay, Hamlet never mentions the existence of such external obstacles. And, as if to underscore the point, when Laertes returns to avenge his father, he has no trouble in confronting Claudius instantly in a situation where he might easily have killed him. If Laertes can so quickly ut Claudius’s life in Jeopardy, why cannot Hamlet do the same?So this line of inquiry does not seem all that helpful. The vast majority of critics on this play have agreed with the analysis on this point, and have thus argued that, in the absence of any serious external obstacles, Hamlet’s troubles must be internal, and the major debates about the play thus turn into a character analysis of the young prince. What is going on inside of him to make the carrying out of this revenge so difficult? There are many suggestions concerning what this internal condition might be.
And the possibilities range from the silly to the intriguing.I would like to review some of these, beginning with some fairly implausible suggestions and moving at the end to some serious possibilities. Some have maintained that Hamlet is a coward and that his delay is a manifestation of his fear of getting hurt. This seems inherently unlikely. He’s capable of very decisive action when necessary (as in the killing of Polonius, the confrontation with the ghost, or the duel scene). So I think we can safely lay that suggestion to rest. There are too many occasions when Hamlet reveals a spontaneous and active courage, even, in the eyes of his companions, a foolhardy valour.Certain medically minded interpreters have suggested that Hamlet’s problem is physical, perhaps an excess of adipose tissue around the heart (hence his reference to having trouble breathing) or that he is Just mad.
Such suggestions do nothing to resolve our aeslre to unaerstana tnls cnaracter. I T ne Is cllnlcally aonormal, tnen so Tar as I am concerned he is of little interest to me, except as a clinical specimen. To paste a convenient abnormal label over Hamlet is to explain nothing, it is to beg the question which we are seeking to answer.If one of the chief attractions of this play is the uality of Hamlet’s intelligence, which comes through in many of his soliloquies and in his verbal dexterity and so on, then simply writing him off as a bit of a mental freak is inherently unsatisfactory. If we are tempted to see, as many are, that there is something strange or significant about Hamlet’s emotional state, then we need to explore that further, rather than Just writing him off as crazy. The task is to find some emotional coherence in his thoughts and actions, some illuminating insight into his behaviour.Casual medical terms which close off such an explorations are of no nalytical use.
If we stray into the realm of off-the-wall suggestions about Hamlet, we might want to consider the idea that Hamlet is really a woman raised as a man. Her troubles stem from the fact that she is in love with Horatio. We probably wouldn’t pay any attention to this interpretation if there was not a film based upon it, an early silent movie. In the concluding scene, as Horatio grasps the dying Hamlet in his arms, he inadvertently clutches her secondary sexual characteristics.At that point the written script reads something to the effect “Ah, Hamlet, I have discovered your tragic ecret. ” If you find that suggestion interesting you might want to investigate the suggestions that the key people in the play are Horatio’s wife or girl friend Felicity (“If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,] Absent thee from felicity a while” the dying Hamlet urges Horatio) or Hamlet’s invisible Irish companion, Pat (to whom Hamlet is clearly speaking when he sees Claudius at prayer, “Now might I do it pat…
” ??? And so on.In my view the realm of serious possibilities begins with the claim that Hamlet has great trouble in carrying out this revenge because he is too good for this world, e is too sensitive, too poetical, too finely attuned to a difficulties of life, too philosophically speculative or too finely poetical. This line of criticism has often been offered by people who feel themselves rather too finely gifted to fit the rough and tumble of the modern world (like Coleridge, for example). A particularly famous example of this line of interpretation comes from Goethe: Shakespeare meant …
o represent the effects of great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of . A lovely, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve it. hich forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are too holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.
This view has a good deal to commend it. After all, Hamlet is much given to moody poetical reflections on the meaning of life, he is a tudent (and therefore by definition too good for this world), and he seems to spend a great deal of time alone wandering about Elsinore talking to himself or reading books. He has a tendency to want to explore large universal generalizations about life, love, politics, and the nature of human beings. From his first appearance on stage, it is quite clear that he doesn’t much like the political world of Elsinore; he is displaced from it.
Again and again he talks about how he dislikes the dishonesty of tne world , tne nypocrlsy 0T polltlcs ana sexuallty ana so on. so tnere Is a case to De ade that Hamlet is Just too sensitive and idealistic for the corrupt double dealing of the court and that his delay stems from his distaste at descending to their level. Against this view, of course, is the very clear evidence that Hamlet is quite capable of swift decisive action should the need arise. He kills Polonius without a qualm and proceeds to lecture his mother very roughly over the dead body.He can dispatch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, without a scruple. He is very gifted at dissembling, at playing the Machiavelli-like fgure. And he has no hesitation in taking Laertes on in a duel. In addition, there is a violent streak in Hamlet (especially where women are concerned).
So on the basis of the evidence there is a good deal to suggest that the vision of Hamlet as a soul too good for this world might be problematic. However, that is one you might like to consider.Allied to this view of Hamlet as too poetical is the idea that he is Just too weak willed to make the decision to undertake the revenge. Again the evidence does not seem to bear out the contention that Hamlet is, by his very nature, incapable of making decisions. Once he sets his mind to the play within the play or tricking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or ndertaking the duel or facing the ghost he can act quickly and decisively. Then, too, there is the ever popular notion that Hamlet has to delay because he’s not sure whether or not the ghost is from heaven or hell.That is, he must confirm the validity of the ghost’s information and his mission, and his delay is therefore a necessary part of the revenge plan.
In assessing this idea you have to be prepared to sort out the complex issue of whether what Hamlet says on the point is sincere or whether it is Just one more excuse for delay. For the fact is that Hamlet entertains absolutely no oubts about the ghost’s honesty when he first encounters it, and the idea of testing it more or less pops into his head when he is wrestling with his own failure to carry out the deed.Moreover, even after he has confirmed the truth of the ghost with the play within the play he does not carry out the murder, although immediately after the play and the confirmation of the ghost’s story he has a supreme opportunity to do so. In addition, of course, if the motive of checking out the ghost’s credentials is the major motive for the delay, then how do we account for the anguish that Hamlet seems to go through in thinking about the delay? Why isn’t that reason more in evidence? This, in fact, is a crucial point and one that makes Hamlet so very interesting.Why is he himself so insistently guilty about not being able to go through with it? Any interpretation of the play which suggests either that there is no delay or that there is a perfectly Justified reason for it comes crashing on one overwhelming fact of this play, which we have to confront again and again, especially in the soliloquies: Hamlet himself agonizes over his inability to carry out the deed and is constantly searching for reasons why he is behaving the way he is. He doesn’t himself understand why he cannot carry out the revenge.That point, I would suggest, is one of the main reasons we are interested in the prince–he is in the grip of something that he cannot fully understand, no matter how much he rationalizes the matter.
And in this connection I really want to repeat a critical question that you are going to have to wrestle with in order to sort out where you stand with the prince. When Hamlet says something, does he really mean it or is he deliberately inventing another reason for the delay? Is, for example, his concern about the validity of the nost a real concern or Just a convenlent ratlonallzatlon Tor nls strong emotional reluctance to carry out the deed?Similarly, is his excuse for not killing Claudius at prayer a convincing reason or Just one more excuse? Such questions are crucial to an understanding of Hamlet’s character, yet they are not easy to answer on the basis of the text itself. I mention this point here in order to stress that one has to be very careful before accepting whatever Hamlet says as an up front truth–it may be an evasion or evidence that he very poorly understands himself and the world around im. All of these suggestions (and I’m cutting a long story short) drive one toa tempting conclusion put forward most famously by Ernest Jones, the famous disciple of Freud.Jones argues that Hamlet has no doubts about the ghost, is perfectly capable of acting decisively, and yet delays and delays and agonizes over the delay. Why? If he has motive, opportunity, the ability to act decisively, and a strong desire to carry out the action, then why doesn’t he? Jones’s conclusion is that there’s something about this particular task which makes it impossible for Hamlet to carry out. It’s not that he is by nature irresolute, too poetical or philosophical, or suffers from medical problems or a weakness of will.
It is, by contrast, that this particular assignment is impossible for him.That leads Jones to posit the very famous and very persuasive suggestion that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius because of his relationship with his mother. He has (now wait for it) a classical Oedipus Complex: he is incapable of killing the man who sleeps with his mother because that would mean that he would have to admit to himself his own feelings about her, something which overwhelms him and disgusts him. Jones’s argument in the book Hamlet and Oedipus (especially in the first half) is a very skillful piece of criticism, always in very close contact with the text, and it is Justly hailed as the great masterpiece of Freudian criticism.
Just to point out one salient fact: Jones indicates, quite correctly, that Hamlet can kill Claudius only after he knows that his mother is dead and that he is going to die. Hence, his deep sexual confusion is resolved; only then can he act. Up to that point, he constantly finds ways to evade facing up to the task he cannot perform, because to do so would be to confront feelings within himself that he cannot cknowledge (by killing Claudius he would make his mother available and be attacking the ideal nobility of his real father).I’m not going to put forward a defense of the Jones’s thesis, except to suggest that the initial logic of his argument seems quite persuasive: Hamlet does have a very particular inability to carry out this action and that this inability is not a constitutional incapacity for action but stems from some very particular feelings within Hamlet, feelings which he himself has trouble fguring out and which he often thinks about in explicitly sexual terms (whether we ollow Jones in identifying these feelings with an Oedipus Complex is another matter), terms which insist upon a pattern of disgust with female sexuality.
So for me the question of Hamlet’s delay boils itself down to trying to answer the following question: What is it about this situation that turns an intelligent, active, and often decisive person into some emotional paralytic? Where are we to locate the source of the difficulties Hamlet is constantly acknowledging? In order to answer this question, we have to take into account some important facts of the play, that is, first of all, we ave to acknowledge the particular evidence we have to work with. In this play, that is not always easy.But the test of any interpretation of the key question is going to aepena upon Its ty to cooralnate In a plauslDle way wnat we are given. so at t point, let me review three of the more salient facts. However you interpret this play, you are going to have to take into account these issues. Please note that I am not suggesting that these are the only important facts one has to account for.
However, they are of central importance and, it seems to me, present the major challenges to ny interpretation. D.The Facts of the Case Hamlet’s Language One of the most obvious features of Hamlet is that the hero is a compulsive talker, who processes experience and wrestles with his feelings and copes with other people primarily through language. In the context of that earlier lecture about Richard II, Hamlet has many of the characteristics of a chatterer, a person who uses words to protect himself from coming to grips with the reality of his situation and the need for action. Hamlet, among some critics, has acquired a reputation as something of a philosopher, a profound thinker.But how profound are Hamlet’s inner speculations? He tackles big issues, to be sure, but where do his thoughts take him? Does the philosophical content of his speculations ever move very far beyond the platitudinous? Might it be the case that he is merely talking in order not to have to act (rather like Richard II)? I raise this as a question because one’s response to Hamlet’s soliloquies (and he has more than any other Shakespearean character) will shape our understanding of him more than any other factor in the play.Hamlet’s use of language, in fact, is obviously a crucial key to his character.
Having introduced a comparison with Richard II (and one could include Jaques from As You Like It in any list of Shakespearean chatterers), one needs to remain alert to the distinctions as well as the similarities. For Hamlet’s language reveals that he is constantly wrestling with something inside, something which torments him, something at times he clearly would not like to think about but which he cannot dispel from his thoughts.This quality sets him apart from Richard and Jaques, both of whom use language very complacently to close themselves off from external complexities, to impose upon the orld their own given sense of what it all means or of what really matters and what does not (and to drown out any competing understanding which might come to them from outside).
Hamlet’s language, in that sense, does not reassure him or calm him down: it is an expression of and a contribution to his suffering. That’s the reason the emotional quality of his language commands so much more attention than does the emotional quality of anything Richard or Jaques say.For Hamlet is not quite like these two in how his language registers. If, like them, Hamlet shows little inclination o listen to other people sensitively and to learn from their conversations with him and if there is a sense that he frequently uses language as a shield to protect himself from interacting with the world (as he clearly does with his often nonsensical patter), Hamlet is also at times trying to find some way of expressing what he feels and is constantly frustrated by his inability to formulate exactly what it is that is troubling him.In that sense, his habit, for example, of summing up issues with sweeping reductive generalizations about the world (and women in particular) is linked to erious inner turmoil and registers as, in some sense, a desperate way to hold in check the pressures of his inner contradictions (rather than as some fixed and firmly held opinion).That point helps to explain the curious and significant pattern of Hamlet’s sollloqules, wnlcn are marked Dy suaaen cnanges 0T suDJect, selT-urglng to put something out of his mind accompanied by an inability to do so, attacks on himself for all his verbalizing, and a sense of despair that all this talk is getting him no closer to any sort of answer which will clarify the world sufficiently to enable him o act.It may also account for his habit of lashing out verbally (and sometimes physically) when the world presses against him too closely (and for the fact that such lashing out characteristically occurs in the face of those who love him most or who are most concerned about him, e.
g. , Gertrude and Ophelia). In addition to these characteristic rhythms in Hamlet’s language (especially in his soliloquies) there is the matter of the images he fixes upon to express his inner turmoil.
From his very first soliloquy in 1. 2, these images typically insist upon the wholesale corruption of the orld. As often as not, they carry with them a sense of powerful disgust with sexuality, especially women’s sexuality (a view which clearly issues from his feelings about his mother), a revulsion so powerful that it fills him with a desire for suicide in the face of the worthlessness a life which reduces all of us to an empty skull, dust, and a foul smell.Allied to this feature, of course, is Hamlet’s vocabulary, which characteristically features short colloquial words evocative of a mood of exhaustion, contempt, disgust–a range of feelings of extreme unpleasantness: “fardels,” “grunt,” sweat,” “nasty sty,” “vicious mole,” “rank and gross,” “slave’s offal,” and so on. How we determine what such a language has to reveal to us about Hamlet’s maturity, intelligence, emotional sensitivity (especially in relation to his situation) will play a major role in how we resolve some of the interpretative difficulties of the play.However we explore the details of Hamlet’s character and seek to find some ways of describing it, we need to account for these prominent features of his language, which are hard to reconcile with the idea of a settled, noble, philosophical frame of mind. And a central issue in our evaluation will almost certainly be trying to determine if the language indicates a morbid over-reaction to a set of harsh circumstances or is in some ways a worthy response which can be Justified without an appeal to serious deficiencies in the prince’s emotional make up.
The Politics of Machiavellianism Any assessment of the prince’s character, however, has to take into account his setting, the royal court of Elsinore, simply because Hamlet thinks of himself very much in relation to the political life around him. We can easily acknowledge that Elsinore is a very political place, in a very Machiavellian sense. In this court, we are in a political realm based on duplicity, power, and fear, and the outcome of the political actions is serious: the security of the kingdom.Everyone is constantly eavesdropping on everyone else (behind the arras, outside a door, on a battlement above). This spirit is best exemplified in the person of Polonius, the most important and successful courtier, who is a master spy, subordinating all the concerns of life to a quest for knowledge and the power which knowledge brings.
Polonius’s instinctive response to any problem is to spy out the solution. If that means running the risk of dishonoring is son or using his daughter as bait, that doesn’t bother him.If one has to spread lies abroad in order to gain the knowledge necessary for power, then that is quite acceptable, as he tells Reynaldo: See you now– Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth; And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, Wltn wln01asses ana wltn assays 0T Dias, By indirection find directions out. (2. 1) Polonius’s operating principle is fear. If one doesn’t attend to finding out what is going on, if one is not very careful, then trouble will come quickly.One needs to be constantly on guard, vigilant, and careful of any serious consequences of any action: This must be known; which, being kept close, might move More grief to hide than hate to utter love. (2.
1) This ethic of Polonius is prepared to ride roughshod over any emotional problems. When Ophelia confesses her love for Hamlet and his for her, Polonius dismisses the matter as rubbish: all Hamlet’s romantic declarations she must treat as simply tricks to get her into bed to satisfy his lust.Love, for Polonius, like everything else, can be understood in the lowest common denominator of human activity as a power struggle. Hence, Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet is potentially dangerous politically and must be stopped. He tells Ophelia she’s to stay away from Hamlet, because he’s not telling the truth. The implication is clear: in the power political world of Polonius, love has no place. That’s why he can simply manipulate her into trying to engage Hamlet in conversation while he and Claudius listen in while concealed.The fact that at the end of that conversation Ophelia is crying in great distress he hardly notices–his daughter’s emotional dismay is inconsequential; what really matters is the political implication of what he and Claudius have witnessed: “How now, Ophelia? ‘ You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said.
We heard it all” (3. 1 . 178). It’s significant, I think, that in sorting out what must be done about Ophelia’s confessions about Hamlet’s relationship to her, his immediate response is a military metaphor: Set your entreatments at a higher rate Than a command to parley. 1. 2) For Polonius all of life, including love, is a power struggle, and the operative principle is fear. Human beings are motivated only by self-interest; thus, Ophelia’s notion that Hamlet may be in love with her is simply the immature response of a foolish adolescent, unaware of the brutal competitiveness of a world in which the basic rules f human interaction are what’s in it for me and fear of what someone with power might do to you. Similarly in his famous speech to his son, there is a remarkable absence of a certain kind of advice.
Polonius’s words have acquired for some reason the reputation of being good moral advice, but the most remarkable thing about the speech is the absence of any moral exhortation. What he says is good hard-headed practical advice for success in a rough and dangerous public world: avoid trouble, conceal feelings and intentions, and control one’s environment through one’s appearance. The most frequently quoted part of the speech one needs to consider very carefully: This above all–to thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. 1.
3. 78) Think about this for a while. It is not a sound piece of moral advice–and Polonius’s conduct makes that clear throughout the play: in serving his own interests, in following his vision of being true to himself he is prepared to hurt anyone, even members of his own family. Polonius, I think, cares deeply about his family. That is not the issue here. It is the quality of the care, the characteristic manner in which he napes nls unaerstanalng 0T wnat are tne proDlems In IITe ana wnat must De cone about them.That is what seems curiously narrow. The fact that he does not believe that dealing with people in this way is not being false to them tells us a great deal about Polonius and about the world in which he functions with such apparent success.
In exploring this issue, we need to acknowledge that Polonius does not appear to be interested in his own personal power. He sees himself as a loyal servant of the royal family and as a loving parent. And he is both of those.But in serving both his royal masters and his family, Polonius interprets the world as a angerous place where one needs to have one’s wits about one and walk carefully, without taking any unnecessary chances of giving anything away. Many people are deceived by Polonius’s external pose as something of a doddering old fool.
After all, in many scenes, he plays the role of someone who is a bit silly. But we have to keep asking ourselves what’s going on underneath. And there we can sense a shrewd and hard-headed political imagination for whom the all important issue of life is political survival in a complex and deceptive world.
An essential part of that is a deceptively innocent external mask. Polonius, we should note, is an important political fgure, the executive arm of the king. And his position (and Claudius’s endorsement of Polonius in words of high praise) tell us clearly that Polonius’s tactics work in Elsinore; they bring success. Moreover, as I have mentioned, he is not an evil man. He has the best interests of his family and his monarch at heart and puts his talents to work on their behalf.He has no agenda to capture or wield more power than he has already. In a sense, he is a recognizably normal person, quite at home in the adult world of business and politics.
Claudius, too, is a very shrewd and successful political operator, who understands, like Polonius, that the political world requires deception and betrayal. He employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, agrees readily enough to Polonius’s various spying suggestions, and finally is prepared to deceive Hamlet into going to his own death.This Machiavellian quality in Polonius and Claudius makes them very effective political operators.
When Polonius challenges Claudius to name one occasion on which he has been wrong, Claudius concedes that Polonius is unmatched in his ability to find out the truth of a situation. Claudius, we know (especially from his superb performance in 1. 2, when we first meet him), is no fool, and this firm endorsement of Polonius should alert us to recognize that the frequently foolish pose is Just that, a pose.We should note, too, that Claudius has the full support of the court.
That is a mark that he is recognized as an effective, perhaps even a popular leader. No one in the play, except Hamlet, ever makes the suggestion that Claudius is not an effective monarch (and Shakespeare in other plays typically allows us to see growing discontent in quiet conversations between malcontents). In fact, during the course of the play we see his policies about the political problems with Norway work to the evident approval of those around him.In this connection, it’s important to pick up on the fact that the monarch in Elsinore has been elected by the council. So Claudius is king because he was chosen by the senior politicians in Elsinore.
And, equally important, as he makes clear very early on, there has been no political opposition to the marriage with Gertrude. If he had wanted to, Shakespeare could obviously have provided clear evidence that people in general think that this remarriage was immoral. The fact that there is no such