"Hamlet" and Its Audiences


T. S. Eliot called Hamlet the Mona Lisa of drama (Selected Essays, 124), claiming that Shakespeare had overworked it without achieving a finished artifact, by which he seems to have meant one that neatly matched some formula such as only a Freudian could rationalize. In fact, structurally Hamlet matches one of the oldest and most effective plot lines in literary history, which we now see most often in the form of the detective story, as W. H. Auden has argued. A crime has been committed and some more or less well-meaning figure feels obliged to identify the criminal, prove guilt, and secure punishment. The pattern is at least as old as the Oedipus of Sophocles, which already involved the ironic twist of the investigator of a regicide discovering that he himself is the murderer he is pursuing. Hamlet has a similarly tortuous pattern: an intuition that the king his father was murdered by his usurping uncle encourages Hamlet to seek revenge, but he hesitates because the hallucination reinforcing his intuition does not present sufficient proof of his uncle's guilt. Hamlet defers justice while seeking to precipitate proof by increasingly provocative behavior, but accidentally kills his girlfriend's father in the mistaken belief that he has caught the king in a compromising position. At this point the pursuer of a murderer has himself become a homicide and in turn suffers the consequence of a diabolic revenge, which provides the proof he needs to justify the killing of his uncle. But in pursuing his own vengeance in response to the plot to kill him, he also kills his now-dead girlfriend's brother, and himself barely succeeds in executing his uncle before his own delayed death from poison. Like that of Oedipus, this story now looks like an orthodox Aristotelian tragedy of a gifted man falling to ruin through an error, in this case the mistaken killing of his potential father-in-law through excessive zeal. The high tally of resulting deaths (including the hero's mother, through another misdirected poisoning device of the uncle) leaves a shattering situation at the play's end, one depressing enough to ensure the negative feelings in the audience which Aristotle solicits from his ideal tragedy: empathy for the failed hero and fear of undergoing any similar experience. There seems little opportunity for the positive feelings evoked by the dual mode of tragedy preferred by Cinthio and Lope de Vega, that of tragedy with happy endings.

It is in this context that Eliot's complaint provides an avenue of escape from the rigorous Aristotelian formula. The play is indeed not tightly constructed and its digressions and variants tend to go off at so many tangents to the core story that the whole complex can be treated as a gigantic Rorschach test which can be interpreted any way one wants. This already achieves some of the audience involvement sought by Castelvetro, Cinthio, and Lope: the audience takes delight in achieving an interpretation transcending that allowed to the characters by the script. This satisfaction can be seen in the triumph of Ernest Jones and his followers in finding some ingenious kind of Freudian interpretation, or in the self-satisfaction of any other critic who believes he has found a definitive interpretation. In view of this consideration perhaps one might simply say that Shakespeare complicates his play deliberately to the point that almost any reasonable approach might seem to clarify the action somewhat, so that everyone, no matter what the assumptions, can achieve the pleasure of creating a plausible hypothesis. This would explain the multitude of conflicting interpretations historically accumulated by commentators, and might well be considered the terminating point for any critical discussion. In these terms no interpretation could ever be correct, since no possibility of solution was ever intended by the playwright; absolute impenetrability open to infinitely fascinating speculation was always his artistic aim.

The trap seems so well-designed for this purpose that avoidance of entrance is nearly impossible for an enthusiastic critic, though one may consider Cinthio and Lope as guides to its methods. For example, one may wonder why Purgatory and other Catholic terms are so frequent in the script while Hamlet is repeatedly identified as coming back to Denmark from the noted Reformation university of Wittenberg, where Luther established himself shortly after its foundation. In fact "Shakespeare and Catholicism" is the current fashionable topic among most Shakespeareans so there have been dozens of books published about Shakespeare's religion, which bear on the degree of Christianity registered in the world of Hamlet. Most agree religious implications are at least latent. One of the earlier of these studies, Eleanor Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge, suggests revenge is unchristian whatever one's denomination, and that the play establishes this as an issue in Hamlet's hesitation about killing the usurper. Michael Wood's BBC Shakespeare program is remarkably committed to the new view that Shakespeare was a covert Catholic as the play's allusions suggest. This issue was first broached by scholars like Peter Millward (The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays, etc.), and gains some reinforcement from E. A. J. Honigman, Shakespeare: the "Lost Years", and Roy Battenhouse, Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Christian Premises. One currently fashionable analyst of this issue is Stephen Greenblatt who has abandoned New Historicism for the religious bandwagon in focusing his book on the issue of Purgatory in Hamlet, but he is so personally hostile to Christianity that his work may be misleading for any deeper investigation.

For my own views about this tempting issue, I think that, like most Elizabethans, Shakespeare remained saturated in Catholic tradition whatever his formal commitment. He was surrounded by people who had been Catholics like his parents, and his mother's whole family the Ardens, not to mention the Earl of Southampton (see Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580). As for Wittenberg, it was a newly founded university associated closely with Luther and the play's references are therefore quite significant. I see Hamlet as the new Puritan crashing into corrupt "ancien régime" Denmark, which would be more or less Catholic in a decadent kind of way, just as Angelo is going to reform corrupt Catholic Vienna in Measure for Measure. However, there is a further complication in that Shakespeare likes to telescope cultural history. King Lear is an ancient, pre-Roman British king, but Edgar was one of the great Anglo-Saxon kings a millennium later (as are names like Edmund, Oswald, etc. discussed in the later chapter on this play). Old Hamlet appears to be largely a pre-Christian Scandinavian monarch, dressed like Beowulf and committed to primitive rituals such as trial by duel: despite his hints of impending Christianity, his call for revenge seems pagan, even diabolic, as his son senses. So in one way the play is also about the need for the coming of Christian pacifism to the old revenge-structured pagan culture of Scandinavia, reflected in the brutal saga which is its ultimate source. By this view, young Hamlet aspires to reform Denmark in two senses, first in rejecting the heroic pagan values of the old sagas, and secondly as a Reformation Puritan repudiating the degenerate morals of much late medieval society. I think the play works well in both terms. So Hamlet is a reformer against his father's revenge culture, and also against the increasingly Machiavellian culture of old Catholic Europe, as reflected by his ambivalent uncle, a Borgia-like figure.

Perhaps this confident analysis merely illustrates my own entrapment into happily "explaining" Hamlet, but it may serve somewhat to heighten a sense of the multilayered structure of the play and its potential resonances with the playwright's own circumstances and the religious conditions at the time. It may even have been expedient for Shakespeare to confuse any theological framework for his play, for references to religion on stage were forbidden by the government, as we can see in the dropping of all Christian allusions found in the first quarto of Richard III in later editions of it after the edict was promulgated in 1606. Nevertheless, the play affords a genuine challenge to the audience to evaluate the behavior and motivations of young Hamlet through considering such issues as whether he is really mad, or just acting provocatively under stress, an issue complicated by the example of a more involuntary madness in Ophelia. If registered accurately and fully, the script is not just about Hamlet's situation and options for revenge, but about what happens to several young people whose fathers are killed, for this includes no fewer than four characters: Hamlet, Fortibras, Ophelia, and Laertes. This multiple situation further entangles audiences in debates about moral interpretation of the plot. Such uncertainty has proved so irresistible that the UC Shakespeare Forum at one point held a trial of Hamlet, based on evidence cited from the play by the cast of a production of Hamlet at the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival, and presided over by Ninth Circuit Appeals Court Judge John Noonan (also an expert in canon law). The jury of about sixty UC Shakespeareans cleared Hamlet of the charges of treason and sexual harassment, but did find him guilty of homicide.

There can be no doubt that Shakespeare intended Hamlet to attract the sympathy of audiences substantially. This effect is the inevitable outcome of his numerous soliloquies, which tend to involve any audience in his point of view. Many years ago I saw a very youthful Hamlet at UC Irvine (directed by Robert Cohen) actually sit down on the edge of the stage and talk directly to the audience about his problems—the effect was staggeringly intimate and cathartic, though totally against both neoclassical decorum and Coleridgean suspension of disbelief. However, it made absolutely clear that the play was not a problem itself, but about problems: the nature of proof of guilt, the authority to impose justice, the validity of recourse to violence, not to mention the extent of children's dutifulness. Curiously enough, while Getrude is another of Shakespeare's obsessive mothers, like Constance and Volumnia, the issue of perverse mother-son relations hardly arises until the age of Freud. Hamlet's attack on his mother's sexuality appears more a part of his campaign to discredit and discomfort Claudius than an expression of personal possessiveness. At no point is there the least indication of physical exploitation in Hamlet's concern for his mother. In the sixteenth century, the issue of a man's marriage to his deceased brother's wife was not a morbid preoccupation of stage character, but the issue which decided the fate of England, for it was the occasion of Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, a specific which Shakespeare was to take up in due course in All Is True.

Another crucial aspect of the play's complexity is the play within the play, a favorite device of Shakespeare in Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, not to mention the innumerable artificial events like Lear's mock trial of his daughters and the misleading dialogue which Iago stages with Cassio to confuse Othello. Why is Shakespeare so concerned with such demonstrations of artifice if not to distance his audiences from the emotions on stage, just as he makes Macbeth and Cleopatra at their moments of crisis allude directly to actors misplaying their roles? By using such alienation effects, Shakespeare must want a poised and thinking audience pleased by its intellectual and emotional superiority to the characters on stage, not an agonizing empathic one such as postulated by Aristotle. If this seems an imposition on this text, one has only to look at the behavior of Shakespeare's on-stage audiences to get clues about how he may expect the offstage audience to react. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the court audience on stage openly evaluates the inadequacy of the players of Pyramus and Thisbe to the point of direct discussion with them about whether their acting procedures are acceptable. The same open disruption of stage reality appears in the court's treatment of the Pageant of The Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost. Shakespeare's choruses, prologues and epilogues to scripts like Henry IV, Part 2, Henry V, As You Like It, Pericles and Henry VIII all establish a similar open mutual awareness between casts and audiences for the full plays themselves.

These examples invite similar exploration of the handling of the two prominent performances staged within Hamlet: the speech of Pyrrhus from a supposedly neglected and unsuccessful Trojan play (analogous thus to Troilus and Cressida), and The Murder of Gonzago. These enactments are set in a context of sustained discussions of the theatre profession and acting techniques which elaborately remind every audience that they are watching a demonstration of professional skills, not surrendering credulously to self-projection into the action. The technical discussion invites us to compare the performance of the stage actors within the play to acts performed in "real life" on- or off-stage in terms of the play's world: staged re-enactments are obviously always remediable, the others are terrifyingly definitive. The Murder of Gonzago is treated by Hamlet as a purely artificial event in which he can directly intervene, just like courtiers with the performances in other Shakespearean plays within plays. Nevertheless, Claudius reacts physically to the enactment, since he leaves. Is this because we are to think that he believes he is seeing a real murder on stage? Surely not. He has supposedly applied the issue raised by the staged murder to his own previous experience, as we see in his later soliloquy exploring his life-circumstances (3.3). The relationship to his personal actions is exact, as his subsequent analytic soliloquy illustrates: in terms of the play's world, Claudius has become more aware of his own situation via the recreated one. So the point of such a play's relation to its audience may be to arouse awareness of an issue, leading to analysis and discussion of how to deal with related specific (not archetypal) experiences. Mere random emotional thrills are for horror movies and literal pot-boilers like Titus Andronicus or Disney World rides.

This rational outcome may be confirmed by examination of the effect of the Pyrrhus speech, which at first seems one of those needless digressions from the essential plot line that make the play overlong. On the contrary, it is another of these multiple analogues to the play's main story line that enrich and diversify the discussions it is designed to arouse. One of the issues most discussed about the whole play is Hamlet's long delay in effective action that has invited eager speculation about what identifiable cause for it was intended by Shakespeare. In fact Hamlet frequently expresses doubts about the moral authority of his father's ghost:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a dev'l, and the dev'l hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy.
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this.

The analogue of the evil effects of the weird sisters in Macbeth is surely relevant grounds for accepting the validity of Hamlet's doubts. Even the exact meaning of the departure of Claudius from Hamlet's play also remains subject to interpretation: a director can make the behavior so extravagant that it becomes fair evidence of guilt, but the script remains ambiguous, despite Hamlet's initial confidence about it as solid proof. Soon thereafter (3.3.73-96), whatever his momentary rationalization for it, Hamlet again hesitates to kill Claudius.

What is startling about the Pyrrhus speech is how its compressed action mirrors Hamlet hesitating to kill the king. Pyrrhus also seeks to kill his enemy Priam, King of Troy:

Unequal match'd
Pyrrhus at Priam drives, in rage strikes wide,
But with the wiff and wind of his fell sword
Th'unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium.
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear; for low his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverent Priam, seem'd i'th'air to stick.
So like a painted tyrant Pyrrhus stood
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.
But as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless, and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region; so after Pyrrhus' pause
A roused vegeance sets him new a-work.
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armor forg'd for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.

One cannot but be struck by the short line, "Did nothing," that leaves a metrical gap matching the pause in the action. Even the obsessed Pyrrhus hesitates before this last, fatal stoke, in which he matches Hamlet's own delay before an irrevocable act, which comparably gives Denmark over to the rule of its enemy. By contrast, the Norwegian Fortinbras has been forced to take his time over revenge and thereby secures retribution without even striking a blow. Inaction leads to success. The allusion to the Cyclops in the Pyrrhus speech subtly reinforces this crucial point, because at first sight his hammer blow is what counts, but in fact the revolt of the Titans against the gods failed, as we are reminded by the word "eterne" applied to Mars' armor, which cannot be shattered by such mere force. Inaction in uncertain matters appears to be the best initial response, as Hamlet initially intuits and finally consciously decides, though too late to extinguish the powder-train of violence he has fired by mistakenly killing Polonius. Even the Trojan implications of the Pyrrhus speech reinforce this conclusion, because every educated Elizabethan knew, if only from Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, that from the fall of Troy came the flight of Aeneas to Carthage and thence to Italy, which led to the founding of Rome. And the grandson of Aeneas was the Brutus who supposedly created and gave his name to ancient Britain. So the blow of Pyrrhus was ultimately not the end of Troy, but the initiation of the triumph of Trojan influence throughout the western world. Resort to violence may prove counterproductive to one's goals. Awareness of this startling implication throughout the play gives the perceptive spectator a rewarding sense of positive discovery transcending issues of mere pity and fear.

Once a spectator seizes on the possibility of such an interpretation a whole flood of parallels is detectable in the script: by failing to hesitate before verifying his victim's identity, Hamlet kills Polonius instead of Claudius. Mistakenly suspecting Claudius was his father's murderer, Laertes hastily leads a rebellion to punish the wrong man. However, by the end of the play Hamlet himself has ceased to be obsessive about action and no longer feels pressed to resolve situations prematurely:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is't to leave betimes, let be.

It is surely not fortuitous that this allusion to the fall of a sparrow is taken from St. Matthew's Gospel, 10:29 when Jesus warns his hearers against usurping God's will. Any member of the Hamlet audience with an alert biblical sense (which probably meant most of them, in a Protestant nation) would recognize that by this point Hamlet is relaxed, pacific, even perhaps in a state of grace, since he quotes the New Testament with such conviction. Recognition of this moral advance from the surly, raging youth at the start of the play would be a pleasant experience for any spectator, as indeed would be Hamlet's increasing recovery of a sense of humor from the earlier point when he teases Polonius, or ridicules Rosencranz and Guildenstern, to his easy manners with the gravedigger. Such passages from Act Two onwards provide the audience with a welcome variety of pace, and relief from stress, which neither Aristotle nor rigorous neoclassicists like Voltaire would tolerate. These merry moments occur in scenes that Olivier played faultlessly in his film of Hamlet in comparison with the labored Freudianism of too many other serious parts of that film, which I got into trouble over with my high-school English teacher for insolently considering to be failures of insight. Kozintsev's film of Hamlet by contrast perpetually lightens the tone through such episodes, and he also heightens the pace and vividness of the action throughout in a way which keeps one's attention alert.

In only the broadest terms can Hamlet be considered a play conforming to the Aristotelian mode of tragedy, in which a talented individual makes a specific mistake which leads to his death. At the same time that it has this negative element in its conclusion, the play also has the positive outcomes specified by Cinthio as part of a tragedy with a double plot: if Hamlet is dead so is the usurping murderer Claudius and his henchmen, including the erratic Laertes, who ultimately repents of his murderous trickery, like Edmund in Lear. Cinthio specifies such a conclusion as the mark of the double-plotted tragedy: "it gives extraordinary pleasure to the spectator when he sees the astute trapped and deceived at the end of the play, and the unjust and wicked finally overthrown" (Gilbert, 257). Moreover, in performance the play systematically breaks almost all the rules attached to the single-plot tragedy, in the interest of offering the spectator positive rewards. Ironically the script requires Hamlet to attack the irregularity of popular drama which "makes the unskillful laugh" as when the clowns pre-empt attention "to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be consider'd" ( 3.2.25, 41-2). This might well apply to the black humor of the gravediggers. While Hamlet at times can be this condescending academic, mocking his live audiences in the yard, they are also distanced from him to the extent that he conforms to Lope de Vega's specifications for a lover: "wretched, unhappy, foolish and inept" (Gilbert, 548). Simple empathy with the hero is not maintained. On the other hand, the often confusing speech and behavior of Hamlet, while indecorous, would seem to be exciting to audiences by Lope de Vega's estimate: "Equivocal speech and uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd" (Gilbert, 547). Guarini also has no hesitation in rejecting Aristotelian decorum in his heroes: "do princes always act majestically?" (Gilbert, 508). So Hamlet's frequent descents into incoherence, humor and even buffoonery illustrate another trait that the play shares with tragicomedy.

I would like to conclude this systematically positivist interpretation of Hamlet by pointing out how it may drastically alter our sense of the play's most famous lines, always seen as reflecting Hamlet's option of evading the obligation to revenge by suicide, at least to interpreters like Goethe:

To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

The choices are clearly between patient survival and death. But the form of the latter outcome, supposedly suicide, is less simply expressed than it seems at first sight: "take arms" suggests something more than "a bare bodkin." The phrase invariably means "prepare for battle" and this is reinforced by the word "opposing"—in other words, the choices are to endure frustrating adversity without physical action (as does Fortinbras somewhat involuntarily) or to resort to militant opposition to the challenges, which will precipitate death, as indeed it does for armed activists in the play who resort unwisely to violent action, as both Hamlet and Laertes do mistakenly at moments of crisis. Thus Hamlet intuits in this famous speech that his real choice is not simply between inaction or suicide, but between patience and hasty action, which is suicidal. The wrong choice of the latter course is also the one made by Romeo, Othello, Macbeth, and even Antony. So the evidence for this pacifist interpretation is not limited to the script of Hamlet. But the best confirmation of this reading is surely Hamlet's own ideal of how human excellence is to behave:

As one in suff'ring all; that suffers nothing.
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well co-meddled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts.

This poised and yet relaxed condition in the face of complex adversity is one that Hamlet himself also finally attains, even though mere self-defense ultimately justifies him in decisive action at last. In the face of all the previous calculated complexities of the play, the perceptive audience's intended assent to this pacific principle is the playwright's greatest reward for them in Hamlet, as Lily B. Campbell has argued in Shakespeare's Heroes: Slaves of Passion.


Eliot, T. S. 1951. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond