…I have found that the senses deceive, and it is prudent never to trust completely those who have deceived us once.
‘Who’s there?’ Bernado asks—frightened, confused, unable to rely on his senses—and Hamlet begins with the very question that shall haunt its lines throughout. Who is there? Whether by who we mean ourselves, someone else, or even beyond mortality and into the metaphysical realm of ‘the undiscover’d country’. As conscious creatures, as things that think , we question our existence, our perceptions, our faculties, the meanings behind the events that occur and the very construction of our own ability to question; and we devise answers and question them too. This fascination with questioning—plumbing the depths of the mythology and ideology of what it is to be human—is one of the chief fascinations of both Hamlet, the play, and Hamlet, the man.
Hamlet has been described as ‘the Mona Lisa of literature’, implying that it is a masterpiece of a play with an enigmatic, riddle-ridden smile. Questions are posed by such a smile as this, and Hamlet himself is both riddle and riddler to all around him. But it is also to himself that many of his questions are posed. Thus, we have three levels of examination occurring: Hamlet being questioned by others, Hamlet asking questions of others (or other-ness), and Hamlet asking questions of himself.
Hamlet’s melancholy followed by his apparent madness are the prominent factors of concern for others in the play. Indeed, the first time he is addressed it is to ask how ‘the clouds still hang’ upon him. Hamlet’s answer to this and further questioning introduce us to him as a troubled and thoughtful character. His response to Gertrude, ‘Seems, madam! Nay it is; I know not seems. ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak…’ engages us in a classical philosophical question, that there is what seems and there is what is. The inky cloak that is his body-in-sadness does not exist by itself; it is accompanied by a mind or soul that is in at least equal torment; and, in classical terms, Hamlet places what is on the inside, and what seems on the outside. While this outside self can deceive, adopting trappings and suits, the inside self, that sees with a mind’s eye, is the true self. Such an argument harks back to Plato’s forms. In fact, to begin his first soliloquy, Hamlet calls upon his ‘too solid flesh’ to ‘resolve itself into a dew’ before he contemplates suicide, and the doctrinal law against it. He desires to only be his true self, to be free of the meat, to no longer remain a shadow on a wall, but to be what truly is. Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and study partner from Wittenberg, appears to share similar ideas with his first words: when asked if he ‘is there’ he responds that there is only a piece of him present.
Hamlet is the consummate inquisitor himself; in his own pursuit for truth he asks many questions, and divines many answers. He questions Polonius without mercy, feigning confusion between the matter of ‘words, words, words’ and the matter between people. Are people more than words? Words are perhaps our most unreliable manifestation of the ‘outer’ self, those things which are most simple in their representation and misrepresentation of self. When Hamlet asks why Horatio is in Elsinor, and is answered, ‘a truant disposition’ , he realises that Horatio is lying, and asks again to discover the truth, but Hamlet’s response to the lie (a lie of tact perhaps: Horatio did not want to discuss the funeral/wedding issue) is interesting. He equates untruth with violence to his senses. It is an act of violence then to misrepresent oneself; if a person lets what seems appear different to what is, then they have assaulted those they have addressed.
In light of what happens next, with Hamlet feigning madness in order to hunt out his ‘carp of truth’, and even in light of the very nature of theatre, the play and the play within the play, where what seems is never what is, we perhaps can see just how violently mad Hamlet’s world is. If what is is the nature of things, then it is the very nature of things against which Hamlet begins to react. ‘Assume a virtue, if you have it not’ he demands of his mother. This goes further than to say that the inner self is the true self and the outer the lie. Here, Hamlet is claiming there is a greater truth, an ideological truth, and if your inner self has not the power to live up to it, then you must adopt it outwardly; in this way you do violence upon yourself and not others. Hamlet suggests perhaps that this ideological response to ‘the viscous mole of nature’, the things that lie within that may be customary, may be natural, may be in this sense ‘truthful’, but lead to corruption, scandal and lies.
Hamlet is more akin to Pentheus than Oedipus, where something is rotten in the state of Thebes; but while Pentheus is king and tries to suppress passion, Hamlet is prince and only tries to catch our conscience. It is the corporal nature of life in the body that he reacts against; the carnival-grotesque reality that mocks us. Unlike Pentheus, Hamlet realises that the carnival must go on, it is folly to oppose it when opposing it simply becomes another carnival attraction. ‘All the categories of social existence, gender, rank, metier and so on, are relative and impermanent’ writes Michael Bristol, so where lies Hamlet’s, or for that matter, our own identity? How are we a self?
Words, words, words, and then the rest is silence. Hamlet plays with words, fondles them, fashions whips from them, but still is slave to them. Words: the shadows from which we form ourselves, communicate with others; they are our chief tools and not necessarily reliable ones. Hamlet is often guilty of subliming ‘the logic of our language’ as Wittgenstein once put it. When he is asked to explain how Denmark is a prison, we begin to understand more. The prison of this world, life itself, can be goodly enough, but it remains a prison. Is the world then too narrow for Hamlet’s mind as Rosencrantz suggests? Hamlet seems not to think so, he could be held within a nutshell, if only his mind was not so troubled. Is his body a prison for his mind or his mind a prison for his body? Here again we find more shadows, more images of real objects upon the wall, but now we have shadows of shadows; the images themselves are casting shadows, such is what Rosencrantz suggests regarding ambition. Hamlet answers with a further question: ‘Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs, and outstretched heroes, the beggars’ shadows’?
Hamlet may be playing with his friends, who are also spying on him, but are we shadows of shadows, or simply shadows? ‘We are actors. We are the opposite of people. We need an audience’ the Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. An actor in a play could certainly be considered thusly, but so might the roles real people we take up in society, through ambition and other motivations, making of us further shadows that remove us further from the true self.
Are people then the opposite of people?
As Harold Bloom has noted, Hamlet can be read as appearing to be the only ‘real’ person in Hamlet, a man haunted by the solipsistic nature of being unable to ever know truly what other is. He is therefore left with self, and turns often to self to pose his most serious and thoughtful questions. What is a man, what piece of work is a man. In such self addressed questions, Hamlet attempts to grapple with a fundamental existential issue. How can we be all these bodily things, require all such bodily needs and desires like a simple beast, and yet be like a god? Conscious of self? The absurdity of these conflicting features of our existence touches on ideas presented by such recent philosophers as Albert Camus, particularly in light of the most famous of Hamlet’s lines: ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’, which Camus echoes as: ‘Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.’ While Hamlet initially settles for cowardice as a reason to live, he eventually comes round to a more Sisyphus-like response, and though it smacks of fatalism, it is perhaps in defiance and not acceptance that it should be read.
…there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘t is 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 has aught of what he leaves, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.
It is perhaps an existential version of ‘lay on Macduff; and damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, Enough!”’ —delivered by a more thoughtful character but with equal venom in is teeth. It is a resignation to the conditions of existence. ‘Thus Hamlet denies his own nature, declining to act out the part that life purposes for him.’ The suggestion may be that the world is mad, it is mad to be a beast that thinks like a god and must die. If this is what is natural, then it is also madness; as Harry Levin concludes, ‘Hamlet stands apart as, a solitary sane individual in…A Mad World…’
If these are the features of real life, then what do we, the real people who read the text, or who sit and watch the play, make of Hamlet, the player, the fiction? He seems to ask us the question: ‘Is it not monstrous, that this player here, But in a fiction, in a dream of passion…’ is able to become so impassioned? ‘What would he do if he had the motive and the cue for passion that I have?’ We are the ones that should have such cue for passion, we are really the real people, so Hamlet mocks us. He will live again, Horatio shall place him high upon a stage and life shall return to the fiction, the outward show, the seems, while the real and the inner and the is makes its way to the truth of the grave.
'Hamlet is so much a part of our lives that it encourages us to expect its people to behave as they would in the real world.’
The believability of Hamlet in Hamlet has been made an important question by some critics, to the point that doubt is thrown on how Hamlet could have practiced with the foil when his melancholy had driven him to forgo his exercises.
One can imagine Hamlet answering such questions by comparing a hawk to a handsaw, or seeing shapes in the clouds. ‘Hamlet himself seems always to be asking questions much bigger and more searching than those we ask of him.’ The true fascination of the play lies in the questions it asks of us, not in the ones we ask of it; by placing shadows and even shadows upon shadows, Shakespeare writes a play, puts lies on a stage, and attempts to ‘by indirections find directions out’. We feign madness to avoid madness, so now we must watch fiction to gain fact? To each king out there, each queen, sitting in the audience, he dangles the real world before us, made false, a player, and tells us: ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’