Written by William Shakespeare and first performed in 1600-1601 then later published in 1603, Hamlet is a story of death and revenge set in the country of Denmark. As a young prince, Hamlet is devastated over the death of his father the king and the marriage between his mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius. But when he sees the ghost of his father and learns that his uncle has committed murder to usurp the throne, Hamlet’s despair turns into anger as he plots to enact revenge against Claudius. Scheming, madness, spying, and murder pervade the entire play until Hamlet finally proves his uncle’s treachery, but in the end, Hamlet’s vengeance takes not only Claudius’ life but the life of nearly everyone in the play, including Hamlet himself.
Within this report, I will first provide the historical context that led to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the themes within Hamlet focused on by scholars today, such as psychological, religious, and linguistics, the leading debate circulating among academics, and possible areas of future research.
Though one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet is actually largely derived from Scandinavian folklore. Around the the twelfth century, Saxo Grammaticus wrote, in Latin, the Gesto Danorum, otherwise known as the History of the Danes (Mabillard). This story, based on Scandinavian folklore, follows two brothers, Orvendil and Fengi (also spelled Horwendil and Feng), who are both appointed by King Rorik to rule Jutland, but Orvendil is blessed with marriage to the King’s beautiful daughter, Geruth. This leads to jealousy, and Fengi ultimately murders his brother to take Geruth and the Jutland for himself. Feigning insanity, Amleth, the son of Orvendil and Geruth, takes revenge against his uncle, becoming the ruler of Jutland. Evidently, Shakespeare’s Hamlet largely derives from the Scandinavian tale of Amleth; not only is the plot nearly identical but the names of the characters also sound incredibly similar. Though Grammaticus’ written account of this tale was not translated in English until 1608 – eight years after the first performance of Shakespeare’s play – it is still speculated that Shakespeare was heavily influenced by this folk tale (Mabillard).
Another source that is believed to have been a large influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Thomas Kyd’s (1558-1594) Ur-Hamlet; even the term “Ur” means original so there is some speculation that Kyd is the actual author of the play (Mabillard). It could also be believed that the two playwrights collaborated on the play since there has been research conducted showing that the two playwrights may have written Richard III collaboratively (Vickers). However, because there is no existing copy of Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, it cannot be determined whether Kyd is the real author or if he is at least a contributor to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Mabillard).
Nonetheless, Shakespeare is accredited with the production of Hamlet, and though it resembles other works, it is imbued with social commentary from the time that Shakespeare wrote. Since Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne only a year before Shakespeare’s birth (1564) and in effect radically changed the nation’s religion from Catholicism to Protestantism, Hamlet carries many religious undertones with the presence of the ghost, the taboo marriage of Gertrude and Claudius, as well as the suicide of Ophelia, and the allusion to the Eucharist. Furthermore, since the Hamlet is a student at Wittenberg, connections can be made to the Reformation started by Martin Luther.
Aside from the historical influences on Hamlet, the textual history of the play has also shaped the way audiences, then and now, read it. First published, or rather pirated, in 1603 in what is considered a “bad” Quarto (Q1), the play became available for widespread consumption, but its primary deficiency was the language, evident by its translation of the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy: “To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point. / To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: / No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes.” However, New Cambridge editor Kathleen Irace argues that the reason Q1 is not only translated poorly but also significantly shorter is because it is an abridged version meant for actors in traveling productions since Q1 contains detailed stage direction. A year later a second Quarto was published, and it is considered far superior. Finally, the version that has been used for translation and consequent adaptions was published in 1623 in the First Folio.
The Major Debate Within Current Scholarship
The Linguistic and Religious Ambiguity of the Ghost
Roberta Kwan in her article “Of Bread and Wine, and Ghosts: Eucharistic Controversy and Hamlet’s Epistemological Quest” provides readers with a thorough background of the religious atmosphere of the time in which Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. The Eucharist in particular was the cause of most religious controversy during that time, and in understanding this debate between Catholicism and Protestantism, Kwan argues that “the hermeneutic conditions that affect Hamlet’s pursuit of epistemological certainty” are made clear.
Pulling from famous theologians – Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin – Kwan maps the religious viewpoints of the Eucharist, showing how complex the character of the Ghost is. Luther, keeping in mind Christ’s ubiquitous nature, argues that the bread would maintain its constitution throughout the Eucharistic ritual and that the body of Christ would be in it. However, Zwingli argues that one cannot deny true transubstantiation and have a literal reading of ‘hoc est corpus meum,’ which translates to “This is my body” as said by Jesus Christ. Calvin approaches ‘hoc est corpus meum’ differently in that he believes Christ’s spiritual presence manifests in the sacrament, not his physical presence.
Kwan then connects the religious/historical context surrounding Hamlet to the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, who, she argues, plays an integral role in understanding the hermeneutics as he is a representation of the Eucharistic controversy; the ghost is neither Catholic nor Protestant but somewhere in the middle cloaked in ambiguity. Brett E. Murphy makes a similar claim in his article “Sulphurous and Tormenting Flames: Understanding the Ghost in Hamlet.” To determine whether the Ghost is either good or bad, Catholic or Protestant, Murphy uses Lewes Lavater’s four-part guide explained in his Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking By Night, which is meant to determine a spirit’s disposition. The first component on the guide states that good spirits will initially instill fear, but the fear will eventually dissipate. Secondly, good spirits are associated with light whereas evil spirits are enshrouded in darkness. Moreover, an evil spirit will make requests that do not align with the dictates of the church. Lastly, good spirits speak humbly while evil ones use “undesirable language” (Murphy 119). The Ghost in Hamlet meets the first and last qualities of Lavater’s guide in being a good spirit as Hamlet’s fear does not last and his language towards Hamlet is not antagonistic. However, the Ghost does walk among the grounds of Elsinore at night, and he also asks Hamlet to kill Claudius, which is a sin in the eyes of the church, evident by Calvin’s argument that “all Christians are forbidden to desire revenge” since it goes against scripture (12). Ultimately, “the Ghost seems to fall in between Lavater’s good and evil spirit ‘profiles,’” which reinforces Kwan’s argument (Murphy 119).
Because of its status in the middle, the Ghost seems to represent both Catholicism and Protestantism – a reflection of the religious turmoil of the time of Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt in his Hamlet in Purgatory supports this claim, focusing on the Ghost’s duration of suffering. In Act 1 Scene 5, the Ghost says, “I am thy father’s spirit / Doomed for a certain term to walk the night” (1.5.9-10). “Certain term” are key words in this passage for Greenblatt as “the excruciating pains of Purgatory and of Hell were … identical; the only difference was that the former were only for a certain term” (Greenblatt 230). Murphy uses Lavater, who believes that spirits may leave Hell to visit the living for short term, to counter Greenblatt’s claim, regarding time. Murphy then adds another element to show how the Ghost is representative of Catholicism and Protestantism by comparing the Ghost’s “certain term” to his “eternal blazon” (1.5.22-23) said only a few lines later. Being bound by only a specified term and then damned for all eternity is a contradiction – a paradox evoking images of both Purgatory and Hell (Murphy 120).
Murphy’s example of the confounding nature of the Ghost’s language in identifying with both the Protestant and Catholic faith is further discussed by Kwan, regarding the Eucharist as previously mentioned. Though theologians disputed the meaning of ‘hoc est corpus meum,’ they did agree that “interpretations of the Eucharistic sign of bread and wine, and Christ’s words instituting it, which did not accord with their own, corrupt both it and the reality it signifies” (Kwan 10). One example of language that confuses or “corrupts” any singular meaning is when the Ghost aligns itself with Christ by saying, “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me” (1.5.91), which closely resembles Christ’s request – do this in remembrance of me (Kwan 9). Yet the remembrance that the Ghost requests from Hamlet is vengeance; the Ghost parallels Christ with his words, only for Hamlet to interpret these words as vengeance – as justice – which results in his confusion as he knows murder is sin. Like Christ, who connected the act of drinking and eating to the act of remembering his death, the Ghost connects vengeance with remembrance. So since theologians argue that there is a right and a wrong interpretation of the Eucharist, evident by Luther, who said, “One side must be of the devil, and God’s enemy. There is no middle ground,” is there also a right and wrong interpretation of vengeance (Lehman 25–26)? This ambiguity, resulting from the binary division that Luther alludes to, is also evident, as Kwan argues, when Hamlet encounters the Ghost and voices three binaries: “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned, / Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked or charitable” (1.4.40–42). Kwan argues that these binaries further substantiate Luther’s statement that there is no middle ground, which explains why Hamlet delays in carrying out the Ghost’s orders – to be wrong could not only take his life, but forfeit his soul.
The language, used by the Ghost – “remember me” – in addition to the competing interpretations that plague Hamlet, cannot be written as postulated by Erich Freiberger in his article “Reason and Death of Fathers: The Tragic Structure of Representation in Hamlet”; the invisible cannot be made visible because no one would believe Hamlet’s accusation of Claudius without proof (51). Words are not enough so Hamlet, Friedberger argues, “can only grasp them for himself by thinking. In this sense, both the ghost and Claudius’ guilt are only there to be grasped by the mind; they cannot be rendered in words without paradox or indirection” (54).
The Ghost’s ambiguous language and Hamlet’s subsequent crises discussed by both Kwan and Freidberger are also of interest to deconstruction theorists, such as Johann Gregory, author of “Wordplay in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Accusation of Derrida’s ‘Logical Phallusies.’” In this article, Gregory uses Derrida’s neologism “differánce” – a multiplicity of meanings as words both differ and defer – to explain how the Ghost’s words could be interpreted in a number of ways as everyone has their own “horizon of expectation,” which Kwan mentions when she quotes Thiselton: “Every reader brings a horizon of expectation to the text … which characterizes the reader’s finite viewpoint amidst his or her situatedness in time and history” (Kwan 13). Not only are the Ghost’s words subject to differánce, but his appearance is as well. Gregory uses the description of the Ghost’s “questionable shape” (1.4.24) as evidence for this argument. He references Molly Mahood, who says “[q]uestionable means not only ‘that I may question’ but also ‘doubtful, uncertain’, and shape, besides being the essential form of something, has commonly in Shakespeare the meaning of a theatrical costume or disguise” (Gregory 322). In addition, Gregory makes reference to Warren Montag when he discusses how the Ghost’s armor is merely a veil upon a veil – “inside the body of the armor is only another body, the inside of the outside is only another outside” (322). Essentially, Gregory claims that, much like the incoherent writings of Derrida, the Ghost is unreadable, and therefore, a singular, or a right or wrong, interpretation cannot be made.
So in the end, Kwan, Greenblatt, Murphy, Freidberger, and Gregory all come to a similar conclusion. The Ghost is visible and invisible, good and evil, Catholic and Protestant; it exists everywhere and nowhere causing Hamlet’s to doubt himself.
The Theme of Procrastination: What’s Stopping them?
A. S. Topchyan begins her article, titled “Once Again on Hamlet’s Procrastination,” by saying, “So much has been written on Hamlet’s delay that any new discussion of the issue may seem superfluous and even unacceptable” – an idea that she derived from Philip Brockbank in 1977 (281). However, Topchyan claims that her addition to this drawn-out conversation is important. She wants to focus on psychological effects of killing on behalf of someone else when the person is not by nature a killer (Topchyan 281-282). To back up her claim, Topchyan references moments in the text when Hamlet would exude passion and determination for his vengeance yet do nothing to see his plans to fruition. She also cites William Richardson to show that Hamlet is gentle and virtuous, and she quotes Philip Edwards, who argues that Hamlet’s boast of “drink[ing] hot blood” (3.2.381) is merely him “awkwardly trying out the role of the avenger in fiction” (Edwards 52). However, several argue, including Eleanor Prosser, author of Hamlet and Revenge, Samuel Johnson, and Harley Granville-Barker, that Hamlet’s savage wish to kill Claudius and send him to Hell (3.3.73–95) is proof that Hamlet has been corrupted by the Ghost (Topchyan 284). Richardson, contrarily, posits that Hamlet’s savagery is an act because “he was at that instant irresolute. This irresolution arose from the inherent principles of his constitution, and is to be accounted natural” (129). Topchyan presents the counter to Richardson by quoting Edwards, Harold Jenkins, and George Hibbons, who all believe that Richardson’s argument is baseless, considering the fact that Hamlet almost immediately kills Polonius believing him to be Claudius.
Topchyan, however, holds to Hamlet’s character as the “procrastinating avenger” by referencing Sigmund Freud to show that while Hamlet is a man of action, evident when he murders Polonius and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he only acts under specific circumstances. Because Hamlet is caught off guard by Polonius’ presence, he acts, but he does so impulsively, instinctively. Furthermore, Topchyan states that there is an arras separating Hamlet and Polonius so Hamlet never looks his victim in the eye (287). She expounds on this trait of Hamlet’s – not seeing those who he kills – by pointing out that Hamlet never actually physically kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but has them killed from a distance. Not deliberate action but reaction is what makes Hamlet an unconventional avenger and why Hamlet only kills Claudius in the end when he himself is dying (Topchyan 287). Therefore, Topchyan argues that making excuses not to kill someone, as Hamlet does, should not be “regarded as strange, morbid or unnatural, for delaying murder is human” (287).
Fredson Bowers in his “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge” offers another perspective as to why Hamlet continually puts off his mission. Bowers argues that Hamlet’s delays are like that of a “minister waiting on the expected opportunity [to kill Claudius] which should be provided him [by God], and not finding it” (745). Avenging the Ghost, Bowers argues, is an act of “public justice” – “of divine retribution” (745). However, once Hamlet incidentally murders Polonius, he goes from being the minister to being the scourge because “Hamlet’s emotional drive is too strong to permit him to wait upon what appears to him to be Heaven’s extraordinary delay” (Bowers 747). As a result, Hamlet must pay for Polonius’ murder under Heaven’s law.
Robert Cardullo in his “The Delay of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet” argues Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is the “deconstruction of the comic delayer,” who in this case is Polonius (30). Essentially, Polonius is the comic delayer, who procrastinates for the wrong reasons, to Hamlet’s role as the tragic delayer, who procrastinates for good reasons (Cardullo 30). Whereas Hamlet delays to pull away from society in order to wait for Heaven’s divine moment for him to act, Polonius delays to “reconcile him to his society” – to be an “assistant to the state” (2.2.167) (Cardullo 29). However, these roles are reversed upon Polonius’ murder. Before dying, Polonius impulsively acts not on his own account but for the protection of the queen while Hamlet subsumes Polonius’ old role as “an aggrangizer of self” (Cardullo 30). Cardullo furthers his deconstruction argument when he says,
The comic Polonius mocks his tragic counterpart by causing Hamlet, however inadvertently, to kill him and, in killing him, not only to reduce himself, like Polonius, to the level of self-aggrandizer, but also to reduce all his previous, worthwhile (“tragic”) delaying to nothing and thereby render it worthless. (31)
In the end, Polonius’ comic delaying is necessary in that it puts Hamlet’s tragic delay into perspective (Cardullo 31).
Conclusion and Future Research
Throughout my research, only two main arguments surfaced – the religious and linguistic ambiguity of the Ghost and Hamlet’s, as well as Polonius’, delay. Most of the focus was on the Ghost, Hamlet, Polonius, and sometimes Claudius. If I were to continue my research, I’d probably like to see if I can find any recent scholarship on the women in the play, specifically Ophelia. I’m not necessary sure which direction my research would go, but I found her character interesting in the play. The only time Ophelia appeared in my research was while reading the article by Cardullo when he said that “Polonius delays and when he is finished, he stands face to face with his daughter, who has just entered. His delay, so to speak, creates her” (28). A few lines later, he writes, “Polonius the delayer has thus spawned a kind of delayer in his own daughter” (Cardullo 28). Most of the interesting titles I found on Ophelia were books so researching would take time. I could maybe do a woman’s studies paper and include Gertrude as well, but most of what I read about Gertrude dealt primarily with Freud’s Oedipal Complex.
While the exclusion of the female characters in modern scholarship is a gap that should be filled, I would still love to do further research into the religious undertones within the play since there is so much that I haven’t read. Moreover, as there are so many angles to approach religion (like approaching it linguistically), I could still manage to find something new to add to the conversation. I’d probably focus on connection between Derrida’s writing and Shakespeare’s writing and how that affects one’s religious interpretations as I found that portion of my research the most fascinating. So for further research, I’d read more articles and books by theorists to expound on my knowledge. Ultimately, since I enjoy theology, this topic would seem less exhaustive.
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