Paul Cantor

On one side are all the impulses which impel him towards revenge, the heroic ethos which demands that he repay violence with violence, an ethos associated in the play with the world of classical antiquity but also with the pagan past of Denmark. On the other side are all the factors which make him hesitate to take revenge, the factors which complicate his task by opening up a perspective on revenge unknown to the ancient or the pagan worlds. These forces are bound up in complex ways with Hamlet's Christianity, and above all with the fact that his horizons are not limited to this world. In some ways, the figure of the ghost encapsulates the polarities Hamlet faces. As the ghost of his father, dressed in military garb and crying for revenge, it conjures up the world of epic warfare and heroic combat. But as the ghost of his father, rising out of what appears to be purgatory, it shatters the narrow bounds of the pagan imagination and opens a window on the eternal vistas of Christianity. In short, the ghost at one and the same time a pagan and a Christian figure, and as such points to the heart of Hamlet's tragic dilemma as modern Christian charged with the ancient pagan task of revenge.

The opening of Hamlet is dominated by this ominous, mysterious, and profoundly ambiguous figure of the ghost. It stalks across the stage as a powerful reminder of the possibilities of the heroic life:
Such was the very armor he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated.
So frown'd he once when in an angry parle
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice. (I.i.60-3)
We learn that the elder Hamlet triumphed over Fortinbras of Norway in single combat, thereby winning territory for his country and glory for himself. This contest of hero against hero—'prick'd on by a most emulate pride' (I.i.83)—calls up images of the world of Norse saga, from which the story of Hamlet is in fact ultimately derived. The earliest written version of the legend dates from the second half of the twelfth century, recorded in the Historiae Danicae of Saxo Grammaticus (the story may have reached Shakespeare via a French reworking of Saxo, by Francois de Belleforest, published in 1576 in his Histoires Tragiques). In its original version, the Hamlet story is considerably more primitive than Shakespeare's, incorporating all the brutal and barbaric elements typical of the blood feuds portrayed in Norse saga. For example, in Saxo the Hamlet figure finally sets fire to his uncle's palace, burning all its occupants while they sleep. For all that Shakespeare did to modernise the story, something of this pagan aura survives in his version, in particular surrounding the elder Hamlet.

Although there is obviously something frightening about the ghost, there is something 'majestical' (I.i.143) about it as well. With its 'martial stalk' (I.i.66) and 'fair and warlike form' (I.i.47), it symbolises the heroic past of Denmark, an age when men settled their differences openly and courageously by hand-to-hand combat, following explicit and well-defined rules (I.i. 86-95). The story of the struggle between the elder Hamlet and the elder Fortinbras provides a context in which to view the events which occur in the play, a standard of heroic conduct by which to measure the sordidness and shabbiness of the intrigue, infighting and backstabbing which characterise the court of Claudius. The elder Hamlet is only a few weeks dead, and yet a gulf already seems to separate his world from that of the play. The elevated, epic diction with which characters describe his ghost has a distancing effect, conveying a sense of him as a figure out of the remote rather than the recent past. The appearance of the ghost makes Hamlet's friend, Horatio, think of ancient Roman history, of the omens which heralded the death of Julius Caesar (I.i. 113-16).

Thus memories of the heroic past of Denmark begin to fuse in Hamlet with broader memories of the classical heroic tradition. As Reuben Brower has shown in his book Hero and Saint, the language applied to the ghost is derived from the Elizabethan heroic idiom, developed in the process of translating Homer and Virgil into English. Brower points specifically to formulaic epithets like 'the ambitious Norway' and 'the sledded Polacks' as Homeric characteristics of the style of the speeches which describe the ghost. Hamlet himself, as a good Renaissance scholar, explicitly and repeatedly associates his father with the classical world:
See what a grace was seated on this brow:
Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury. (III.iv.55-8)

So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr...
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. (I.ii.139-40, 152-3)
Similarly, when Hamlet feels the need to summon up an image of heroic resolve, he asks one of the actors who has come to the Danish court for a speech about the slaughter of Priam, a speech which in both style and subject matter calls to mind Homer and Virgil, and above all the Iliad. Appropriately in a scene depicting Achilles's son avenging his father's death, Pyrrhus presents a powerful image of the hypertrophy of the classical revenge ethic:
A roused vengeance 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. (II.ii.488-92)
It is important to realise that, as bookish as Hamlet may seem at times to be, the classical world is not a literary abstraction for him. He has a genuine sense of what it is to be heroic in the classical mould. The various theories about his mild or reflective nature have tended to obscure the hard edge in Shakespeare's portrait. This aspect comes out, for example, in the prince's interest in fencing, a dramatic detail which is obviously required for Shakespeare's ending, but which also does a great deal to develop our sense of Hamlet as a heroic type. When trying to entrap him, Claudius knows that he can rely on his rivalry with Laertes, since the prince has obviously become jealous of his fellow countryman's reputation as a swordsman (IV.vii.102-5). As his final confrontation with Laertes approaches, Hamlet gives an astute analysis of his situation in the face of Horatio's friendly doubts:
Horatio You will lose this wager, my lord.
Hamlet I do not think so; since he went into France I have been
in continual practice. I shall win at the odds.
This is a revealing detail: with all that is on his mind. Hamlet has somehow found time in between soliloquies to work on his parries and his fleche attacks. He evidently cannot stand the thought that another young man at court should be regarded as a better fencer than he. Moreover, he has the good athlete's sense of precisely where he stands vis-a-vis the competition. He does not idly boast to Horatio of annihilating an inferior opponent, but carefully calculates that his handicap is just enough to give him the victory.

The final duelling scene of Hamlet balances the first, as the original talk of the elder Hamlet's combat with the elder Fortinbras finds its distant and diminished echo in the fencing match of the younger Hamlet and Laertes. The forthrightness and fair play of the first contest only serve to highlight the duplicity involved in the second, a contest rigged on so many levels that a just outcome becomes impossible. Indeed, considering the first and last scenes of Hamlet together gives some sense of the historical distance travelled in the course of the play. The original Hamlet-Fortinbras combat begins to appear at least faintly archaic, if not anachronistic in the Denmark we have come to know in the intervening acts. There is something medieval or feudal about the Hamlet-Fortinbras encounter, almost as if it were a chivalric trial by combat.

The concluding Hamlet-Laertes duel, by contrast, strikes us as fully modern, with plots, counterplots and counter-counterplots, and layers of meaning concealing still deeper layers of meaning. A fencing match with poisoned rapiers, in which Laertes serves as proxy for Claudius in the king's struggle with Hamlet and a poisoned drink stands ready to finish off the prince, is clearly a more subtle and sophisticated event than the simple confrontation between the elder Hamlet and the elder Fortinbras. The duel conjures up images of Machiavelli and scheming Renaissance princes like the Borgias rather than of Homer and Achilles. Thus what makes the Hamlet-Laertes combat seem more modern is precisely what makes it also seem less noble and less heroic. Unlike the elder Hamlet and the elder Fortinbras, Hamlet and Laertes are not openly fighting on behalf of their nations, and, though their combat turns out to be mortal, it was supposed to be mere sport. Only treachery produces the fatal results and gives the duel a larger, political significance.

Still, the fact that the would-be heroic impulses of Hamlet and Laertes are channelled into such devious and indirect paths does not mean that heroism has become wholly a thing of the past in their world. What we must trace in Hamlet is precisely the complication and distortion of ancient heroism as it is transposed into a distinctly modern setting. However different the terms and outcome, Hamlet and Laertes are 'prick'd on' to their combat by the same 'emulate pride' which motivated the elder Hamlet and the elder Fortinbras. One reason Shakespeare paired Laertes with Hamlet is to bring out the prince's spiritedness by giving him someone with whom to compare himself. Once Laertes finds himself in the same situation as Hamlet—called upon to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius—this comparison becomes unavoidable, as the prince himself notes (V.ii.77-8). In particular, Laertes functions as a model of the absoluteness of the revenge ethic, the way it seeks to reject all competing values and loyalties:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I'll be reveng'd
Most thoroughly for my father. (IV.v.132-7)
In a pointed exchange with Claudius, Laertes vehemently expresses the Renaissance avenger's conflict between what Tourneur's Charlemont called the passion of his blood and the religion of his soul:
King What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father's son
More than in words?
Laertes To cut his throat i' th' church.
King No place indeed should murder sanctuarize,
Revenge should have no bounds. (IV.vii. 124-8)
In the very act of rejecting them, Laertes reveals the forces which stand opposed to the swift and singleminded accomplishment of revenge in the world of Hamlet. Hamlet would have to be a much simpler character than he is to thrust aside all religious scruples about the morality of revenge, as Laertes claims to do (and even he has a fit of conscience in the final scene, V.ii.296).

Indeed Hamlet is more complex than Laertes and thus does not rush into the first opportunity for revenge that presents itself to him. Nevertheless, though Hamlet's soul embraces many elements that are lacking in Laertes's, he does share the element of spiritedness with his companion. Laertes seems to be the character most capable of bringing out Hamlet's competitiveness, perhaps because they are fellow citizens and grew up together. Their rivalry reaches a fever pitch when they confront each other at Ophelia's grave, and Hamlet feels compelled to prove that he loved her more than her brother did:
'Swounds, show me what thou't do.
Woo't weep, woo't fight, woo't fast, woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel, eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dos't thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I.
And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, and thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou. (V.i.274-84)
There is something of the almost childish contentiousness of the classical hero in Hamlet's outburst, above all, in the self-centred quality that makes him imagine that Laertes's genuine expression of grief for Ophelia is merely an attempt to prove his superiority to the prince. Characteristically, the hyperbolic rhetoric which reflects Hamlet's spirited impulse to excel drives him to a classical example. In citing Mount Ossa, the emblem of titanic ambition, he is answering—and out-doing—Laertes's earlier reference to Mount Pelion (V.i.253). When Hamlet's spiritedness is aroused, classical references tend to come easily to his lips:
My fate cries out
And makes each petty artere in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve. (I.iv.81-3)
Such passages do not show that Hamlet is properly understood as a Hercules or an Achilles. But they do suggest that, contrary to many interpretations, there is an Achillean side to his character. Within the remarkably wide compass of his soul, he has room for many of the elements of the classical hero: the pride, the aggressiveness, the capacity for anger and indignation, the ambition, all the character traits the Greeks referred to as thumos. Hamlet says as much to Ophelia: 'I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious' (III.i. 123-4). He worries about the dangers of giving vent to his spiritedness:
Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother.
0 heart, lose not thy nature! let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom,
Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites—
How in my words somever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent! (III.ii.390-9)
As he vows to drink hot blood, Hamlet comes closer than ever before to the conventional role of the avenger, taking on a pagan fierceness. But as he begins to foresee the consequences of unleashing his spiritedness, he draws back from the prospect. As usual, he thinks of a classical precedent, but this time it is a cautionary example. He refers, not to a classical hero, but to the Roman emperor Nero, a case study in the deformation of thumos, of ambition perverted into madness and destructiveness.

Thus just when Hamlet is beginning to sound as aggressive and bloodthirsty as any epic warrior, he appeals to the soft, gentle side of his soul, in order to moderate his fury against his mother. This speech gives some sense of the forces contending within his soul, forces set in motion by the contradictory terms of the ghost's original command. By instructing Hamlet to pursue his vengeance singlemindedly but under no circumstances to harm his mother, the ghost in fact prevents him from making an absolute commitment to revenge. Faced with the possibility of harming his mother, he cannot afford to unleash violence with the blind fury of Achilles. The savagery of classical heroism must be transformed into something more civilised; Hamlet searches for a metaphorical form of violence ('I will speak daggers to her but use none'). As his talk of hypocrisy suggests, the inhibition of his ability to act opens up the gap between words and deeds which is characteristic of his existence and gives him his distinctive psychological complexity. Thus Hamlet acquires depth as a character precisely because he cannot play the straight-forward classical role of the aggressive hero.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.