Hamlet’s most enduring relationship is with the sense-making absurdist Yorick the Fool, dead 23 years. As a boy, Hamlet rode joyfully upon Yorick’s back, his young head raised heavenward. Now the wistful adult Hamlet, kneeling by Yorick’s unearthed grave, raises Yorick’s head upward, his skull in Hamlet’s hand. Yorick’s dismembered bones are small solace for the beleaguered prince, nor is there comfort for Hamlet in his remembered though wholly incorporeal murdered and usurped father, back from that bourn which Hamlet insists no one ever returns from. Hamlet and his father cross paths, and purposes, atop Elsinore’s airy ramparts where cloud meets earth. Yet, even before the ghost’s appearance, the prince is groping for solid ground, “Seems, madam! nay it is;” he declares to his mother, “I know not seems.” But Elsinore, home to ghosts, conspirators, actors, and the antically disposed, is steeped in seems.
Strong-armed Fortinbras knows not seems. The Norwegian prince takes no orders from a ghost and, as directed by a benign uncle, blunts his anger over his father’s death by invading a hapless Poland. Like Yorick, Fortinbras seems at first incidental to Hamlet—a few references at the beginning, a quick appearance and mention in the middle, a last-minute entrance at the end—but the claustrophobic, conspiratorial events transpiring inside Elsinore heighten, and play out, against the backdrop of impending doom as established first and last by the unstoppable Fortinbras. Life without and within Elsinore conspires against Hamlet, who finds no purchase in the law, social mores, friends, lover, family or, at last, God, who Himself is in danger of usurpation as the first rays of the Renaissance tinge the gloomy borders of Denmark. The broad dome of the world and its conquering Fortinbras will replicate itself beneath the dome of Elsinore and its plotting Claudius and, finally, within the distracted globe of Hamlet’s rage-filled head. There, Fortinbras’ earnest, realpolitik narrative will contend monstrously against Yorick’s theatrical, cream-pie commentary on human folly.
Nothing now goes on inside the stabilizing head of Yorick whose oblique sensibility is assumed briefly by Yorick’s stand-in, the madcap grave-digger (actually standing in Yorick’s grave), the only character in the play to match Hamlet wit for wit. His medieval title for a rustic, clown, conflates neatly with Yorick’s jester. He sings while knee-deep in the grave, indulges in literal gallows humor, and reunites, Lazarus-like, Hamlet with Yorick who, years before, baptized the gravedigger when he poured wine over the gravedigger’s head. Yorick’s freewheeling conviviality, his transfer of spirits—of things liquid and fluid and ungraspable—will, within the confines of Claudius’ cup, turn rank and deadly.
Hamlet, these long years, has cobbled together an order based on the examples of competing warlords, a superficial mother, sycophantic advisers and, finally, university books that hint at a bourn beyond the Bible’s or, at least, the Church’s. It is not happenstance that of all the universities in Europe, Shakespeare has placed Hamlet at Wittenberg where, just 47 years before the playwright-actor’s birth, Martin Luther launched his 95 missiles against the Church’s seemingly impenetrable walls and from where, a few years later, Georg Joachim Rheticus would help Copernicus drag the sun to the center of the universe. While the fictional action of the play likely takes place before the historical events at Wittenberg and before Henry VIII’s Anglican rupture, Shakespeare’s anxious post-Luther audience is, by the late 16th century, on visceral alert—for what was to stop the Son of God, recently plucked from those high, thick walls as Luther insisted, from simply wandering off altogether? Such unspoken foment undergirds the play, and Hamlet’s books, full of mathematics, philosophy, and natural history, only reinforce his native suspicion that there may be no borders at all other than what the human mind can perceive or define for itself. “There is,” says the prince, “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Fortinbras defines all for himself, but his definitions, Hamlet intuits, are of an antiquated order soon to be replaced by the university and a world in which knowledge might be built upon knowledge.
Hamlet’s many books still weigh less than the Bible and its certainty of an afterlife. When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet’s response, “Words, words, words,” meant to mock Polonius, is also a self-indictment of his own ultimately feckless book-learning, the university but one more flimsy human construct, laughable in a ghost-haunted world where time is out of joint. In the meantime, words remain Hamlet’s natural default and temporary stay against a silence he fears. Even upon his father’s otherworldly revelations of murder and betrayal, Hamlet seeks succor not from friend Horatio or girlfriend Ophelia (certainly not from the Church), but instead, first and foremost, demands his writing tablet—“My tables. Meet it is I set it down”—where he can commit in ink on paper, the words of a ghost, granting those words greater substance than is available to the ghost himself. As always for Hamlet, word is made flesh. The prince’s wry pun that the jawless skull of Yorick, is “chap fallen,” (i.e., “down in the mouth,” i.e., “sad,”) is not merely a rumination on death, but is commentary on everyone’s impending speechlessness, including his own. Yorick’s skull, says Hamlet, “had a tongue in it and could sing once.” (Sadly, in just a few lines, Hamlet will discover that the same observation applies to the singing Ophelia). Singing, acting, performing, those brief imperfect mirrors of an imperfect world are for Hamlet the world itself. Nonplussed before the specter of a ghost from another realm (who somehow still speaks), the prince’s supposed madness inside the castle is conscious performance, supreme caricature, and grotesque impersonation of what passes for rational human intercourse in a society comprised of plotters, schemers, and betrayers. Playwrights Shakespeare and Hamlet understand—as does their Yorick—that, just as the visiting players might get at the truth through the false construct of a play, some truths are best had through storytelling, art, and artifice. A raised stage beneath Hamlet’s feet is the one steady platform by which the prince can survey the newly ordered and shifting heavens. Acting, for Hamlet, is action.
Of Hamlet’s many words, his forceful instructions to the visiting troupe of players in shaping his Mouse-trap are not only intended to elicit the truth from and indict his murderous, scheming uncle, but his words are a temporary anodyne against God’s more mysterious and oppressive Word, which nonetheless gave shape to a messy void. Nowhere else in Hamlet is the clever prince—now with a mission at hand—more alive, happy, and at ease: “do not saw the air too much with your hands…[b]e not too tame neither….” Sense here can be had, punishment meted out, and a just world re-established all within the perimeters of a mousetrap’s tiny dome. The actors should “neither hav[e] th’ accent of Christian…pagan, nor man,” instructs Hamlet. This trifurcation to “man” in what had clearly been a bifurcated Christian/pagan world is Hamlet’s dilemma. The actors, those who only mimic reality and pretend, should “fit word to action and action to word,” the very instructions by which an honest man comports himself in an honest world. Such a code is unavailable to Hamlet himself who must assume an antic disposition. Like Claudius, he, too, relies on subterfuge—rewriting the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern letter, rewriting the Mouse-trap play (the murderer in Hamlet’s interpolated version is, after all, a nephew)—but Claudius eyes a short-term future and plots while Hamlet looks to eternity and reacts.
The very proscription of the Mouse-trap’s dome is a refutation of that Supreme Being who is everywhere and therefore nowhere and who, consequently, makes a poor target. Hamlet, in turn, points his sword everywhere and therefore nowhere. Six of his seven victims are killed at a remove from the angry prince. His promiscuous thrashing takes down Polonius—not face to face but through a curtain. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched by dispatch. Ophelia, ground between boyfriend and father (whom she readily obeys) commits suicide. Gertrude sips the wrong cup. Laertes tips the wrong sword. All have wronged Hamlet not just by their acts, but by their being, each an insistent reminder that the far-away university student upon attending his father’s unexpected funeral and his mother’s o’er hasty marriage to his own uncle must now turn his attentions to more pressing, baffling issues—or so says a ghost who may be from a Catholic Purgatory and, if not, is straight from a Protestant Hell.
Yet, Hamlet’s problem is not that he must identify where the ghost came from, but that a fraught universe may now serve up two after-worlds from which to choose. Hamlet’s invocation of St. Patrick, patron saint of Purgatory, after speaking with his between-worlds father, only reiterates and magnifies his own between-worlds predicament. King Hamlet’s wraithful, wrathful insistence that the living Hamlet take vengeance on Claudius and yet leave Gertrude to heaven, this self-elected winnowing of chaff from wheat, this prideful over-reaching by a probationary ghost, goes beyond simple murder and in its way hideously out-Claudiuses Claudius’s original sin. Hamlet’s description of the sky over this now corrupted earth, “a foul convergence of vapors,” is, of course, the very words that now describe his father.
Long severed from his kissable Yorick, an over-burdened Hamlet divests himself one by one of civics/law (Polonius), romantic love (Ophelia), familial love (Gertrude), old friendships (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern), and tradition (Laertes)—all those props which give life definition and support but which, apparently, are no more solid than a vaporous, shape-shifting cloud, one moment a water-bearing camel, the next a water-borne whale. As Claudius once poured a deadly potion into the ear of Hamlet’s father, Hamlet will pour a deadly potion into Claudius’ throat (throat the seat of Hamlet’s own power). At last, he’ll kill that king who, even feloniously, still rules by a residual divine right, perhaps allowing Hamlet to inch that much closer to the cloudy, shape-shifting agent of those slings and arrows lately directed against him.
But Claudius is an insubstantial bridge. “What,” Hamlet asks Ophelia, “should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?” Hamlet, indeed, leaves his mother to the Old Testament God and even spares the praying Claudius who, already on his knees, might too easily crawl heavenward (or so a refraining Hamlet tells himself). While Hamlet places his father’s murder and usurpation at the top of his grievances, the heir apparent prince is little bothered by the more obvious and personal offense of his own usurpation. Besides muddled moral qualms, his reluctance to kill Claudius is immediate and practical: if Claudius dies, Hamlet will have to assume the reign and reins of a medieval kingdom whose intrigues and responsibilities he long ago left behind. In the meantime, the merciful New Testament Jesus (who obeys His father and demands no retribution when returning from the dead) is nowhere to be seen along Elsinore’s airy ramparts. The unmentioned savior, like the little regarded crown, is a burden that will not be assumed. Hamlet’s ultimate dilemma is not only that he doubts the authority of, or even the existence of the Old Testament God, but that there may be no New Testament God to forgive him for doing so. By play’s end, he is bathed in blood, but not necessarily the blood of the lamb.
Should he be or not be? The soliloquy, a meditation on suicide, to be sure, is, at its core, more troubling. Beneath Hamlet’s contemplation of killing himself lurks the suspicion that the same unknown results could very well ensue for a dead Claudius. What is the value of either act—suicide or murder—if the fate of one’s own soul is given the same weight as a villain’s? Subsequently, how know the worth of any action large or small? Suicide, regicide, or what to eat for lunch are all sapped of meaning. Hamlet suffers not from a failure of the will, but from a failure of the will in a life—and perhaps an afterlife—in which thought, like a ghostly father, can appear suddenly and unbidden from beyond one’s dome demanding actions whose outcomes can no longer be assured. Like Odysseus, Hamlet is clever, resourceful, and brave—as witnessed in his enthusiastic duels with the pirates and later with Laertes—but there is no Ithaca to reach for Hamlet, no faithful Penelope to lie beside, and no bed rooted in the earth on which to dream pleasant dreams.
By Act II, Hamlet’s earlier “seems” has coalesced into the somewhat more substantial “the play’s the thing.” Hamlet’s invocation of “thing” not only points to his longing for the solid, but hearkens specifically to the medieval law-giving Thing, the Scandinavian assemblies founded in part to stop revenge murders amongst Norse clans, convened to settle civil discords and levy punishments. Yet, a play, unlike a sword-fight against a pirate is, in the end, only a vivacious meditation—a sufficient mode of inquiry back at Wittenberg but inadequate inside a castle populated with conspiring kings, living and dead. Like Hamlet’s slaying of Polonius through the medium of a curtain, a play, Hamlet increasingly realizes, is only a simulacrum of real action and, while the prince is invested in the Mouse-trap’s proceedings, he is ultimately a member of an audience—and Hamlet won’t be an audience. Nor will his mind’s 20,000 ambiguities be marshaled as easily as Fortinbras’ 20,000 soldiers who, unlike Hamlet’s thoughts, move like one merely to crack an eggshell’s dome, and are willing to “go to their graves like beds” where sleep, no doubt, is untroubled.
While a messenger back at Elsinore is warning Claudius, that “[t]he ocean [is] overpreening,” Hamlet is undergoing a sort of sea change of his own. On Denmark’s coast, his witness of Fortinbras’ Polish invasion gives rise to the prince’s How All Occasions soliloquy – “I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’/Sith I have cause and will and strength and means/ To do’t…”—a revisiting of the perils of passivity considered in the To Be soliloquy. But Hamlet goes further here and, for the first time in the play, resolves to be resolute: if Fortinbras can kill thousands in an exercise of will, certainly I can kill one much-deserving scoundrel…. Atop that element that is sometimes a camel and sometimes a whale, that overwhelmed a living Ophelia (“drown’d, drown’d”), rotted a dead Yorick (“water is a sore decayer”), unnerved the wrought prince in Gertrude’s chamber with all its liquid sexual permutations (“sweat… enseaméd… stew’d… honeying” and a muddy “sty”), and was poured in his father’s ear, Hamlet battles the assailing pirates—and then, with equal aplomb, negotiates with those same pirates. Here, by both land and water, the divided prince weds action to word and speaks no more of flesh resolving into dew.
Yet, the capaciousness Hamlet feels on the broad ocean narrows as he draws closer to Elsinore—a fistfight outside the castle, a deadly duel inside its walls. Hamlet’s How All Occasions soliloquy: pretended passion results in real action upon the world’s stage is only his earlier What’s Hecuba To Him soliloquy turned inside out: pretended action results in real passion upon a stage representing the world. It is no surprise then that Hamlet, (a man reluctant to avenge his father’s death) in dueling with Laertes (a man eager to avenge his father’s death), will find the foils they fight with “all a length.” Hamlet and Laertes (each other’s foil throughout the play) will switch foils in the heat of their duel, equally poisoning each other and, then, equally exchanging gracious pardons. Neither Act I’s seems nor Act II’s thing, have proven themselves sufficient and Hamlet embraces what’s left to him, the more encompassing flexibility of Readiness is all. Upon Gertrude’s death and his own imminent death, a focused, furious, Hamlet before the seated audience of the court in the sincerest performance of his life orders, “the door be locked.” Both an Odysseus and a Telemachus now, both father and son, he at last kills the man who would lounge about his palace, marry the queen, and clutch the crown to his own perfidious head. This ready Hamlet now “drowns” Claudius and, a moment later, saves Horatio by wresting the poisoned liquid from Horatio’s grip.
Dying, Hamlet will revert to that sphere he knows best and within 28 lines he makes ten real or metaphoric references to the act of speaking/listening: “mutes,” “tell you,” “Report me” “tell my story” “o’er-crows,” “hear the news,” “I do prophesy,” “my dying voice,” “tell him,” and, appropriately, “silence.” Yet, Prince Hamlet, now for a few remaining minutes, King Hamlet, asserts himself interrupting his own dying words three times to inquire about broader affairs of state: 1) “what warlike noise is this,” 2) “I cannot live to hear the news from England,” 3) “But I do prophesy th’ election lights on Fortinbras, he has my dying voice.” This last, curious gesture functions textually and extra-textually. First, Hamlet, by his vote, installs in the kingdom those stabilizing forces that allow fellows such as him to crawl between earth and heaven; the Danes, after all, have made a botch of it. Second, now that Queen Elizabeth has “uncrowned” her rival cousin Mary, Shakespeare must publicly renounce all violent means of royal devolution as witnessed in Hamlet and like the prince, must cast his own vote for orderly, statute-bound transfers of power. Though, despite such disavowals, Shakespeare and his audience still understand—as the gravedigger made etymologically clear amidst Yorick’s freshly unearthed bones—the only real crowner in the kingdom is the coroner.
Such verbal overlapping cannot be applied to parallel princes, Hamlet and Fortinbras, however. Only after Hamlet dies, as the play draws to a close, do we at last see Fortinbras up close as if the two fatherless sons cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Taken aback by the carnage inside Elsinore, “This quarry cries of havoc,” the bloody, conquering Fortinbras in no time is tidying up rotten Denmark. “A tender prince,” Hamlet calls him in Act IV. Fortinbras alone beat a path to Hamlet’s door after Hamlet built his better mousetrap and it is Fortinbras who now honors both the action-Hamlet and actor-Hamlet. “Bear Hamlet,” he tells a captain, “like a soldier to the stage.” Hamlet, though stripped of the joy of riding high on Yorick’s back, is raised upward one last time. “Go,” says the Norwegian prince, now the newest King of Denmark, getting in the last word, “bid the soldiers shoot.” Fortinbras’ victory, ultimately a play—on words—is Yorick’s triumph.