Here and there – Is Hamlet a tragedy?


At a recent course on Shakespeare at Madingley Hall, Cambridge – on All’s Well, Measure for Measure, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – the tutor in his introduction said that Hamlet was a victim of circumstances.  This led me to reflect that Hamlet was the only hero of the big four tragedies who did not morally collapse before his death.  Macbeth was the victim of ambition, and a young wife who could not go the distance.  Othello was made vulnerable to insult and suspicion by slapping the Venetian Establishment in the face by marrying above his station and outside his race.  (He is so obviously open to manipulation that I can no longer watch the play – or the opera.)  By no later than line 141 of Act 1 Scene 1 in King Lear, we know that the weakness and heat of this choleric old man will lead to his unmanning and betrayal and to death and disaster.  (‘Come not between the Dragon and his wrath.’  You might think that’s ripe, but it is just the start.)  But we see no such disintegration in Hamlet.  Is Hamlet then a tragic figure, the hero of a tragedy?

What does that word ‘tragedy’ mean?

Drama dealing with serious themes, ending in the suffering or death of one or more of the principal characters…The tragic hero should be of high worth or standing, but not perfect: a tragic flaw, weakness or transgression…or an excess of arrogant ambition…leads to downfall.  The effect of the inevitable disaster (catastrophe) on the spectators is the purgation or cleansing (catharsis) of the emotion of pity and terror through what they have seen.  (The Oxford Companion to the English Language.)

In the still magisterial Shakespearian Tragedy, A C Bradley said:

In the circumstances where we see the hero placed, his tragic trait…is fatal to him.  To meet these circumstances something is required which a smaller man might have given, but which the hero cannot give.  He errs, by action or omission; and his error, joining with other causes, brings on him ruin….In Hamlet, there is a painful consciousness that duty is being neglected….

We are, then, looking for a flaw in our hero that may prove to be fatal.  (‘Tragic trait’ does look a bit circular.)

What was Hamlet’s fatal flaw?  He is accused of delay and indecision.  Bradley turned this into a ‘neglect of duty’- the injunction by the ghost to revenge the murder of Hamlet’s father.  These allegations are frequently linked to the suggestion that Hamlet is rendered incapable of action because he thinks too much.  (This is a little curious.  When Caesar says Cassio spends too much time considering ‘the deeds of men’, he is giving the most withering assessment of the smiling assassin in our letters: Julius Caesar, 1,2, 198-213).

Is it fair to suggest such a flaw in Hamlet?  In my view, the suggestion is as unfounded as it is unfair.

First, it is wrong to say that Hamlet delayed.  The ghost could hardly have expected his son to race off to Gertrude and the alleged murderer writhing drunkenly and in flagrante in ‘the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed.’  (We may be forgiven for having difficulty seeing Derek Jacobi writhing with Julie Christie in any case at all.)  Even taking the ghost at face value, Hamlet had to seek corroboration and to count the numbers. This playwright was after all the most consummate political analyst the world has known. Sulky young Hamlet could not simply ask the court of Denmark to accept that a young son justifiably upset by his mother’s want of decorum was justified in killing the king – that adds the count of treason to that of murder – because he had the word of his father’s ghost that uncle had murdered dad.*

The second point is the more substantive.  To the extent that Hamlet hesitated to obey his father’s ghost, it was because the ghost was asking him to commit murder.  Murder is a crime both at law and morally.  It does not cease to be a crime simply because it is carried out to avenge a killing.  On the contrary, that motive makes the crime morally worse.

The first object of our law was to end the vicious cycle of revenge.  On the second and third pages of the biblical The Common Law of Oliver Wendell Holmes, we find:

It is commonly known that the early forms of legal procedure were grounded in vengeance.  Modern writers have thought that the Roman law started from the blood feud, and all the authorities agree that the German law began in that way.

(‘German law’ includes that brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons and therefore our law.)

What the ghost was asking Hamlet to do was to commit the crime of murder and by so doing take Denmark back about one thousand years to the Dark Age and to another cycle of vengeance and endless civil unrest.  That is why, as Tony Tanner pointed out, Hamlet is so different from the Oresteia. The intervening two millennia had witnessed the birth and acceptance in Europe of Christianity. Hamlet pauses for a simple reason – he has a conscience, a word that keeps cropping up in this would-be revenge play.

That being so, the wonder is not that Hamlet hesitated, but that he even thought about murdering his uncle for revenge.  And, as we know, he never executed the command of the ghost.  He finally kills Claudius for killing his mother and himself.

Let us test our conclusion in three ways.

First, we know from his swift and merciless despatch of the very unlovely Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Hamlet has no trouble in killing people where the homicide is morally justifiable – which it is in self-defence. (‘Why, man, they did make love to this employment./ They are not near my conscience.’  5, 2, 56-57.)  Here was no neurotic intellectual incapable of decisive, lethal action.  (You may recall that that hypocritical young hot-head, Laertes, expressly renounces ‘conscience and grace’ and dares damnation: 4, 5, 132-136.  Whoever expected Hamlet to act like that?)  Nor was Hamlet slow to accept a duel with Laertes.

Next, look at the models that the author of the play offers his hero for those who act strongly to exact revenge. I might seek to summarize what I have said before on this.

Pyrrhus was the son of Achilles. He murdered the King of Troy, old Priam, to avenge the death of his father. Hamlet was so fond of this story that he knew a lot of it by heart. There was one speech from this play that Hamlet ‘chiefly loved’ (2.2.456). He recites about a dozen lines about ‘Priam’s slaughter’ and then hands over to the Player King. Achilles may or may not have been a homicidal maniac, but he was certainly a manic homicide. Hamlet had nothing – nothing at all – in common with either of them.  They are not just worlds apart, but millennia apart.

The second model available to Hamlet may have been slightly more appealing, and for us more threatening. Fortinbras (a derivative of ‘strong-arm’) leads a Norwegian army against the Poles over a worthless bit of dirt. This sends Hamlet into a whirl of romantic bulldust. He refers to this ‘delicate and tender prince … with divine ambition puffed’ (4.4.48-9). (‘Divine ambition’ is, I suggest, a contradiction in terms.) Hamlet then switches over to a sickening paean to war:

Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor’s at the stake … (4.4.53-6)

Men were being commanded to go to their death over a useless piece of earth because ‘honor’ was at stake. Hamlet steadies himself and then romances that twenty thousand men ‘face imminent death for … a fantasy and trick of fame’ (4.4.61). If that kind of thinking ever had any attraction – and it could never have had any place in the thinking of a true follower of the Sermon on the Mount – it went west at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, and in Vietnam, and in Iraq.

No, Hamlet could not get help from either of these two heroes to resolve his moral quandary.

Finally, let us look at the heroes of two tragedies, Macbeth and Othello.  Both are obviously flawed, and as a result both commit murder.  For that we condemn them. Are we to condemn Hamlet because he does the opposite and refuses to commit murder?  You will recall that Bradley spoke of ‘something [that] is required which a smaller man might have given, but which the hero cannot give’.  That is precisely the case with Hamlet – he is simply not able to commit murder to revenge his father’s death.  That incapacity is anything but a flaw – just as the incapacity of Lay Macbeth to extinguish her humanity is anything but a flaw.

Hamlet is not, then, a tragedy in the accepted sense.  I agree that he was not a victim of himself.  That is why, I think, Hamlet plays more like a spy thriller of John Le Carré than a tragedy of Euripides.

Does any of this matter?  Of course not.  Labels are the demons of pin-striped minds.  William Shakespeare made a good living out of entertaining people like you and me.  It’s just that he did it in ways that still leave us smitten with awe.  (Emerson said that when he read Shakespeare, he actually shaded his eyes.)  And it also just happens that Hamlet is I think the most popular play that he or anyone else has ever put on our stage.  And may God bless him for that!

*Going to bed with the man who murdered your husband was politically sensitive when Hamlet was first put on.  Protestants charged Mary Queen of Scots with doing just that, and, as ever, she was not her own best witness.

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