Hamlet reactions for AP

Hamlet notes   AP English 12


The contrast between Hamlet and the rest of the court is striking and stands as an outward symbol of moral contrasts which underline the entire scene

Opening address by Claudius is impressive as rhetoric….and Claudius establishes himself as an imposing figure… but even as his regality is presented it is also rendered suspicious.

His long and beautifully phrased opening sentence discloses two things, both of which would have shocked an Elizabethan audience

1. his recent marriage has followed with great speed upon the death of his brother

2. he has married his sister-in-law


Hamlet’s reactions are evidence of what Shakespeare could have expected from his original audience. There are 3 primary issues involved

1. the marriage of brother-in-law and sister-in-law, which was regarded as incest and treated with intense moral revulsion in Elizabethan times

2. the speedy remarriage of a widow, without observing the sanctions of decent mourning, which would have been regarded not only as a minor or ordinary social impropriety but as a major indecency, not only for the Queen but for the whole court

3. the union of a widow with the assassin of her deceased husband, compounded by the fact that the murdered spouse had been king and the widow was queen..


Notes on Issue 1   “Moral Indignity”

The marriage of brothers and sisters in law had been branded shameful over hundreds of years of moral teaching since the Old Testament and was prohibited both in England and on the Continent (law wasn’t repealed until 1907 by Parliament)

The marriage would have been classified in Tudor sermons as adultery and Shakespeare would have expected his audience to respond to the marriage with as much abhorrence as the Athenians felt for the union of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta in Sophocles. The audience would have felt and expressed revulsion and indignation toward such a union.

That is the context for the intense shame Hamlet and the Ghost express over Gertrude’s marriage. According to the Ghost, the royal bed has been made a “couch for luxury and damned incest,” while the once “seeming-virtuous Queen” has abandoned herself to “shameful lust” to “prey on garbage.”

If anything, the recent marriage may have made the whole business even more shameful, for it is a mere whitewash of corruption, evidencing hypocrisy.

Nothing can obliterate the son’s shame over those “incestuous sheets” and over the fact that Claudius has “whored my mother”--- nothing that is, except Gertrude’s repentance.


Notes on Issue 2   “Social Indignity”

“A beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourned longer.” Thus Hamlet assessed his mother’s animal-like dash from the grave of one husband into bed with another.

In the Renaissance, ceremonies were not regarded as merely superficial observances, but rather as contributing to and even in some sense insuring the good health of society. So here: properly observed forms and protocols of funeral and mourning were necessary to the health of surviving family and friends and, especially within the royal family, necessary to the wellbeing of society as a whole.

Claudius refers in general terms to the speed of these events but it is Hamlet in his first soliloquy who gives a specific accounting of the time: he consistently identifies the intervals so that we can scarcely fail to understand:

                                             “But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two.”

Then he tells us how long Gertrude waited after the death of her first husband before taking her second and conveys the intensity of the outrageous fact itself:

“within a month,” again “a little month,” and once more “within a month.”

Even the most inattentive member of the audience would have gotten the point of disgraceful haste. The more acute would have sensed that the marriage followed the funeral almost at once, because it was impossible to bury a king or queen in Renaissance England in less than a month after the death, or at least it was never done more promptly.

What Claudius had spoken in sweeping generalities about an “auspicious and a dropping eye,/ With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,” Hamlet put directly when he observed when the shoes in which his mother had followed his father’s body at the funeral were scarcely broken in before her wedding, and that

“the funeral baked meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”

When Horatio admitted that the marriage “followed hard upon” the funeral, he was using the words in the Elizabethan sense of an almost immediate sequence.

Hamlet views these developments not only as distasteful, but as obnoxious and obscene

Considering the social context of Shakespeare’s time, Hamlet’s social disgust at the haste will be as intelligible as his moral revulsion at the incest. Even had it not involved a posting “to incestuous sheets,” such precipitation from funeral to marriage would have impressed Shakespeare’s original audiences as what Hamlet called “most wicked speed.”

Death in the renaissance was not quickly dismissed or easily forgotten, but involved social as well as liturgical rituals devised over the centuries to dignify the ultimate rite de passage

The rituals would be observed for weeks and months…not a few hours or days.

Claudius, as brother of the deceased king, would have been expected to remain in black for several months at a minimum and for a widow mourning was supposed to last considerably longer than for a brother or sister.

The change from funeral to marriage would create on the most obvious and visual level as massive a contrast as one could imagine. The electrifying contrast between the 2 roles Gertrude assumes, and the appalling rapidity with which his mother shifted from one to the other, deeply scarred Hamlet’s consciousness.

He deplores her behavior, questions whether there is any honesty or sincerity in her being, even thinks of her as a prostitute who has been “whored” by Claudius.

And when Gertrude, in the first line she speaks, appeals to Hamlet to forsake his mourning (“Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off”) she is urging him to endorse and join in the general indecency.

But to Elizabethan eye, Hamlet in his “customary” black would stand out against the gaudy dress of the rest of that court as the decorous and seemly figure.

When judged in 16th century terms, Gertrude’s behavior is utterly scandalous. Widows were held to an even more rigorous and prolonged mourning than were widowers.

Whatever costume Gertrude wore on stage to befit her new status as a recent bride, it would have contrasted starkly with what Elizabethans felt was appropriate to a recent widow.

Hamlet is costumed in what his mother calls “thy nighted color” and what the Prince himself refers to as “my inky cloak and customary suits of solemn black.”

It is important to understand that in this period such dress was customarily worn by those who wished to express a serious mind and spirit.

Polonious says, rather wisely (at least for once)  “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” And Hamlet’s suits of black would associate him with other Renaissance nobles.

Ophelia catches this Renaissance spirit with what she saw in Hamlet: “the courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword”

Such “customary suits of solemn black” were understood as expressing seriousness but NOT sickness of mind.

By enveloping Hamlet from head to toe in a mourning cloak, Shakespeare insured that Hamlet would be the principle focus of the audience’s attention from the first moment court enters, even thought he Prince doesn’t speak until 67 lines later. Hamlet is outweighed in power by Claudius, but it is equally true that Claudius is upstaged by Hamlet—which provides a fine calibrated introduction to the contest between these two mighty opponents.

By visual emphases and contrasts, Hamlet dominates the stage long before the conversation turns to him, and he never loses that theatrical control during the 5 acts in which he struggles to establish a comparable dominion in Denmark.


Notes on    “To Be Or Not To Be”

When Hamlet returns to the stage early in the third act, he at once launches into a soliloquy which is almost certainly the most famous and perhaps the most discussed passage in Shakespeare (3.1.56-88). He begins by posing the most basic of all antithesis:

“To be or not to be.” That is the question indeed, and it is a broader question than might at first appear, because it epitomizes a logical approach to discussing any issue.

1. Abraham Fraunce, in his popular manual The Lawyer’s Logic of 1588, wrote of “a disposition of one argument with another, whereby we judge a thing to be or not to be.”

2. In 1596, William Perkins made of functional definition of intelligence that it “simply conceives a thing to be or not to be.”

Hamlet’s question “to be or not to be” was assigned under a Latin version to students at the University of Edinburgh in 1607, 1612 and 1615, and presumably in other years as well.

What Hamlet poses thus appears to have been fairly standard formula for appraising alternate possibilities, at least among the better educated of the time. Beginning with a posing of existence against non-existence, he immediately shifts to a weighing of action against inaction. He later recurs to the desirability of death, which he still later repudiates because of “the dread of something after death” as a punishment for willful suicide. But throughout he shifts back and forth between considerations of whether existence or non-existence is to be preferred, and whether action or inaction is better. In terms of Hamlet’s analysis, the two issues are closely related, perhaps indissolubly so.

His first extensive analysis in this soliloquy weighs action against inaction: “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.”

That question could not have been raised in 1600 as though in some hermetically sealed philosophical isolation, because it was fundamental and divisive throughout western Europe in the latter third of the 16th century.

1. Prominent Jesuits recommended violent action when necessary to achieve virtuous ends, and prominent Calvinists in France, Holland, and Scotland not only advocated but actually did “take arms against a sea of troubles,” and by opposing did in sense end them, overturning regimes and replacing monarchs by their own combination of activism and faith.

2. On the other hand there was the opposite position, represented by the Elizabethan Homilies and by many Anglican spokesmen, that it was “nobler in mind to suffer” than to “take arms.” The official Tudor view had held, at least until the appearance of Bishop Bilson’s True Difference in 1585, that any taking of arms to change “the law’s delay,/The insolence of office” and all the other abuses, real or imagined, would merely lead to other and far worse ills, both in this world and in the hereafter.

The deliberation or weighing of these alternate views had to be handled with some tact on the London stage in 1600, but Shakespeare has managed it in a generalized context which the authorities would not find seditious, but which intellectual theatergoers would find exciting.

Hamlet unequivocally poses the question, equivocally appraises the major responses, and reaches no conclusion. We have here what is surely the greatest debate about an issue and the weighing of its sides in Shakespeare. The terms of its proposal would have intrigued Elizabethan audiences, and its inconclusiveness increases the suspense of the play.

After first debating the issue of passivity and action, Hamlet’s mind returns to the underlying issue of life and death. Suicide would release one from having to decide upon whether and how to act, because death would end all possibility of action and of suffering through action-but not the eventual possibility of passive suffering. Because the Everlasting has “fixed/ His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” as hamlet recognized in his first soliloquy, there is still the fear of bad dreams, so that suicide offers no sure and attractive release. Recognizing that retribution may be expected by those who commit murder upon themselves, Hamlet deduces that “conscience does make cowards of us all.” Immediately thereafter, however, the Prince’s focus shifts from the life/death alternative back to the active/passive alternative, or perhaps the two merge into a single question again.

At all events, the conscience which forestalls the particular action of suicide broadens out to forestall unspecified “enterprises of great pitch and moment” and so all “lose the name of action.”

The immense popularity of this soliloquy lies in the brilliance of its poetic arguments, but theatrically its ambiguity is equally significant.  Here the Latin meanings of certain root words are pertinent: ambigo means not only to be uncertain, but also to debate or argue about something, to consider arguments for or against. Ambiguous means not only uncertain and doubtful but a “going about,” showing equal predilections to all sides.”

These sense are applicable to the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. But its importance to the tragedy arises just as much from the exciting clash of ideas stunningly expressed as from the increase of an audience’s suspense and uncertainty. Act 2 had closed with signals pointing forward to the play-within-a-play as a catalyst for resolving uncertainty about the alleged murder of Hamlet’s father. In this first soliloquy of act 3, the audience sees that the Prince is undecided about even more basic matters of his uncle’s guilt.

That Hamlet was undecided would not have inclined the Globe audience to dismiss him either as constitutionally weak or chronically indecisive. It was too early in the drama to reveal hamlet’s final resolution: to do so would destroy suspense as well as credibility. What counts here is to show the protagonist involved in great issues and attempting to solve them in terms of great patterns.  Hamlet’s soliloquy shows him in the throes of an examination of his conscience.

Shakespeare has Hamlet facing a perplexing decision: it might be necessary and one’s moral duty to strike down a crowned sovereign, but it was not morally easy, even when one already wore a crown oneself.

Claudius is the first character in the play to refer to his own conscience. As he and Polonius are about to set an eavesdropping trap for Hamlet, using a praying Ophelia as bait, Polonius comments that:

                   “We are oft to blame in this, ‘tis too

                     much proved, that with devotion’s

                     visage and pious action, we do

                      sugar o’er the devil himself.”

Those words trigger an immediate reaction from Claudius in an aside:

                   “O tis true. How smart a lash that speech

                     doth give my conscience!

                     The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plas’tring art,

                      Is not more ugly tot he thing that helps it

                      Than is my deed to my most painted word. O heavy burden!”

That provides our first hint from Claudius that he is guilty, a hint which whets our curiosity and sharpens suspense as we approach the Mousetrap playlet. But he tells us nothing specific about the nature of his guilt, which could be solely caused by his having posted with such dexterity to incestuous sheets and have no relevance to the Ghost’s charge of an even heavier guilt.

But just as Claudius is the first character to refer to his own conscience, so also the first reference to conscience in the play concerns him, as Hamlet in soliloquy deliberates on his own dilemmas and the king’s secret. Recognizing the ambiguities of the Ghost, and the uncertainty surrounding tis charges, Hamlet seeks “grounds more relative” -more relevant, that is- to solving the enigmas with which he has been challenged. He thus concludes: “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (2.2589-91).

Hamlet designs “The Murder of Gonzago” in direct reference to the King’s conscience. The play-within-the-play is no endeavor of art for art’s sake, but is devoted to an utterly empirical end: forcing Claudius to a clear manifestation of his guilt. Hamlet plans to inspire at least a tell-tale flinching from his uncle—“if ‘a do blench,/ I know my course”—and because that flinching is precisely what he gets, we have paid too little attention to two of his speeches which indicate that also hopes for a great deal more, even for goading his uncle into an immediate public confession that he has attained the throne by murdering the former king:

                    “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play

                      Have been by the very cunning of the scene

                      Been struck so to the soul that presently

                      They have proclaimed their malefactions.”

Although “presently” in modern parlance has an indefinite time reference, it more often meant “at the present moment” in Shakespearean and Elizabethan usage. The verb “proclaim” is even more important, and its significance in Shakespeare is consistent. If it does not mean “to make known to the public by criers or advertisements,” which it cannot mean here because the King is expected to speak for himself, then it means “to declare or announce openly, either by words or in another way;…to make one’s declaration openly and publicly.” What hamlet plans to achieve by catching the conscience of the King is an unequivocal public confession of his crimes. Such a “proclaiming” by the King before the court would vastly simplify Hamlet’s task of setting right what is out of joint in Denmark.

The possibility of a immediate public confession is broached once again just before the play begins, when Hamlet expresses to Horatio the hope that his uncle’s “occulted guilt” will “itself unkennel in one speech” (3.2.77-78).

These words have often been read as meaning that Claudius will react to that “speech of some dozen or sixteen lines” written by Hamlet for insertion in the play (2.2.525-27), but the syntax does not support that interpretation. If that is what Hamlet meant, he should have predicted that Claudius’ guilt would unkennel itself at one speech, or in response to it. To say that guilt reveals itself “in one speech,” – just as in Hamlet’s earlier reference to “guilty creatures sitting at a play” who “have proclaimed their malefactions.” Hamlet expects a very great deal indeed from the theatre, even more than many Shakespeareans have recognized.

To achieve such conclusive results depends, however, upon the “very cunning of the scene.” It must be entirely convincing- not a melodramatic tearing of passion to tatters or “o’erdoing Termagent.” To “split the ears of the groundlings” may induce applause in a public theatre, but on this occasion Hamlet would focus everything upon exposing his uncle, or more precisely upon leading him to expose himself. Like Herod, Claudius had broken the ban against incest by marrying his brother’s wife and the commandment against murder by assassination within his own family, but according to Hamlet’s dramatic principles a person who has repeated Herod’s sins would not recognize himself in an actor on stage who “out Herod’s Herod” as though a town crier spoke the lines. Conviction on one level, in other words, must precede conviction on the other, which accounts for Hamlet’s careful tutelage of the players.

The players do not live up to his instructions, and their performance of   the Gonzago murder falls short of the utter credibility by which Hamlet hoped to impel Claudius to proclaim his guilt before the whole court. First comes the dumb show, indirect contradiction of Hamlet’s direction, and as the play itself reaches its crisis, Hamlet has to  break in to curb the out-Heroding of Herod:

                        “Begin, murtherer. Leave thy damnable faces and begin.” (3.2.243-244).

*the “th” in murtherer” morhed into the d in modern English, thus this is the word “murderer”.


This acting scarcely displays the discretion and modesty of nature which Hamlet required, and so the public admission of guilt is not elicited. Even so, the King is moved – not to a full and open revelation of his guilt but quite sufficiently to convince Hamlet.

But Hamlet is not the only one to learn from the Mousetrap. Until now he and Claudius have each been probing the mystery of the other, and trying to devise effective strategies of response. If the Prince now knows the King to be an actual regicide, the King in turn now sees in the Prince a regicide in the making. Morally the advantage is more than ever in Hamlet’s favor, but strategically the score is even.

How the actor of Claudius in Shakespeare’s original production responded to the Mousetrap we do not know, but Claudius is a typically cool operator and it is possible that he saw the dumb show miming his crime and that he was still able to contain himself-thereby increasing the suspense as to whether he was guiltless of regicide.

But the re-enactment of the same scene in the playlet itself, accompanied by Hamlet’s running commentary, broke down his reserve.

“Frighted with false fire,” he starts to his feet, cries “Give me some light! Away!” and rushes from the stage, as Polonius calls for  “Lights, lights, lights” (3.2.244-60). This incident has great theatrical power: at first Claudius responds in a way which seems to falsify the Ghost’s allegation, but cannot twice maintain such steely control, and his response tells Hamlet and Horatio what they need to know.

But it is a response which would not necessarily seem excessive to the court on stage, because he merely behaved as a monarch would be expected to do when offended by a play.

Thus on one occasion when Queen Elizabeth was infuriated by a performance before her, she rushed from the room taking all the lights with her as a sign of passionate disapproval, and leaving the indoor stage in darkness. In her case, the disapproval was one of religious irreverence, whereas the Danish court would have assumed Claudius to be offended by the lese majesty [the crime of violating majesty or the dignity of majesty] of the players and the Prince.