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A Modern Perspective: Hamlet

By Michael Neill

The great Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold used to maintain that “if all the plays ever written suddenly disappeared and only Hamlet miraculously survived, all the theaters in the world would be saved. They could all put on Hamlet and be successful.”1 Perhaps Meyerhold exaggerated because of his frustration—he was prevented from ever staging the tragedy by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who apparently thought it too dangerous to be performed—but Meyerhold’s sense of Hamlet’s extraordinary breadth of appeal is amply confirmed by its stage history. Praised by Shakespeare’s contemporaries for its power to “please all” as well as “to please the wiser sort,”2 it provided his company with an immediate and continuing success. It was equally admired by popular audiences at the Globe on the Bankside, by academic playgoers “in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford,” and at court—where it was still in request in 1637, nearly forty years after its first performance.

In the four centuries since it was first staged, Hamlet has never lost its theatrical appeal, remaining today the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies. At the same time, it has developed a reputation as the most intellectually puzzling of his plays, and it has already attracted more commentary than any other work in English except the Bible. Even today, when criticism stresses the importance of the reader’s role in “constructing” the texts of the past, there is something astonishing about Hamlet’s capacity to accommodate the most bafflingly different readings.3

In the early nineteenth century, for instance, Romantic critics read it as the psychological study of a prince too delicate and sensitive for his public mission; to later nineteenth-century European intellectuals, the hero’s anguish and self-reproach spoke so eloquently of the disillusionment of revolutionary failure that in czarist Russia “Hamletism” became the acknowledged term for political vacillation and disengagement. The twentieth century, not surprisingly, discovered a more violent and disturbing play: to the French poet Paul Valéry, the tragedy seemed to embody the European death wish revealed in the carnage and devastation of the First World War; in the mid-1960s the English director Peter Hall staged it as a work expressing the political despair of the nuclear age; for the Polish critic Jan Kott, as for the Russian filmmaker Gregori Kozintsev, the play became “a drama of a political crime” in a state not unlike Stalin’s Soviet empire;4 while the contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney found in it a metaphor for the murderous politics of revenge at that moment devouring his native Ulster:

I am Hamlet the Dane,

skull handler, parablist,

smeller of rot

in the state, infused

with its poisons,

pinioned by ghosts

and affections

murders and pieties5

Even the major “facts” of the play—the status of the Ghost, or the real nature of Hamlet’s “madness”—are seen very differently at different times. Samuel Johnson, for example, writing in the 1760s, had no doubt that the hero’s “madness,” a source of “much mirth” to eighteenth-century audiences, was merely “pretended,” but twentieth-century Hamlets onstage, even if they were not the full-fledged neurotics invented by Freud and his disciple Ernest Jones, were likely to show some signs of actual madness. Modern readings, too, while still fascinated by the hero’s intellectual and emotional complexities, are likely to emphasize those characteristics that are least compatible with the idealized “sweet prince” of the Victorians—the diseased suspicion of women, revealed in his obsession with his mother’s sexuality and his needless cruelty to Ophelia, his capacity for murderous violence (he dies with the blood of five people on his hands), and his callous indifference to the killing of such relative innocents as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern.

Hamlet’s ability to adapt itself to the preconceptions of almost any audience, allowing the viewers, in the play’s own sardonic phrase, to “botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (4.5.12), results partly from the boldness of its design. Over the sensationalism and rough energy of a conventional revenge plot is placed a sophisticated psychological drama whose most intense action belongs to the interior world of soliloquy: Hamlet agrees to revenge his father’s death at the urging of the Ghost, and thus steps into an old-fashioned revenge tragedy; but it is Hamlet’s inner world, revealed to us in his soliloquies (speeches addressed not to other characters but to the audience, as if the character were thinking aloud), that equally excites our attention. It is as if two plays are occurring simultaneously.

Although Hamlet is often thought of as the most personal of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Shakespeare did not invent the story of revenge that the play tells. The story was an ancient one, belonging originally to Norse saga. The barbaric narrative of murder and revenge—of a king killed by his brother, who then marries the dead king’s widow, of the young prince who must pretend to be mad in order to save his own life, who eludes a series of traps laid for him by his wicked uncle, and who finally revenges his father’s death by killing the uncle—had been elaborated in the twelfth-century Historiae Danicae of Saxo Grammaticus, and then polished up for sixteenth-century French readers in François de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques. It was first adapted for the English theater in the late 1580s in the form of the so-called Ur-Hamlet, a play attributed to Thomas Kyd (unfortunately now lost) that continued to hold the stage until at least 1596; and it may well be that when Shakespeare began work on Hamlet about 1599, he had no more lofty intention than to polish up this slightly tarnished popular favorite. But Shakespeare’s wholesale rewriting produced a Hamlet so utterly unlike Kyd’s work that its originality was unmistakable even to playgoers familiar with Kyd’s play.

The new tragedy preserved the outline of the old story, and took over Kyd’s most celebrated contributions—a ghost crying for revenge, and a play-within-the-play that sinisterly mirrors the main plot; but by focusing upon the perplexed interior life of the hero, Shakespeare gave a striking twist to what had been a brutally straightforward narrative. On the levels of both revenge play and psychological drama, the play develops a preoccupation with the hidden, the secret, and the mysterious that does much to account for its air of mystery. In Maynard Mack’s words, it is “a play in the interrogative mood” whose action deepens and complicates, rather than answers, the apparently casual question with which it begins, “Who’s there?”6

“The Cheer and Comfort of Our Eye”: Hamlet and Surveillance

The great subject of revenge drama, before Hamlet, was the moral problem raised by private, personal revenge: i.e., should the individual take revenge into his own hands or leave it to God? Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (and, one assumes, his lost play about Hamlet as well) captured on the stage the violent contradictions of the Elizabethan attitudes toward this form of “wild justice.” The surprising thing about Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that it barely glances at the ethical argument raised by a hero’s taking justice into his own hands—an argument central to The Spanish Tragedy. Of course, the controversy about the morality of private revenge must have provided an important context for the original performances of the play, giving an ominous force to Hamlet’s fear that the spirit he has seen “may be a devil” luring him to damnation (2.2.628). But Shakespeare simply takes this context for granted, and goes on to discover a quite different kind of political interest in his plot—one that may help to explain the paranoiac anxieties it was apparently capable of arousing in a dictator like Stalin.

Turning away from the framework of ethical debate, Shakespeare used Saxo’s story of Hamlet’s pretended madness and delayed revenge to explore the brutal facts about survival in an authoritarian state. Here too the play could speak to Elizabethan experience, for we should not forget that the glorified monarchy of Queen Elizabeth I was sustained by a vigorous network of spies and informers. Indeed, one portrait of Elizabeth shows her dressed in a costume allegorically embroidered with eyes and ears, partly to advertise that her watchers and listeners were everywhere. Shakespeare’s Elsinore, too—the castle governed by Claudius and home to Hamlet—is full of eyes and ears; and behind the public charade of warmth, magnanimity, and open government that King Claudius so carefully constructs, the lives of the King’s subjects are exposed to merciless inquisition.

It is symbolically appropriate that the play should begin with a group of anxious watchers on the battlemented walls of the castle, for nothing and no one in Claudius’s Denmark is allowed to go “unwatched”: every appearance must be “sifted” or “sounded,” and every secret “opened.” The King himself does not hesitate to eavesdrop on the heir apparent; and his chief minister, Polonius, will meet his death lurking behind a curtain in the same squalid occupation. But they are not alone in this: the wholesale corruption of social relationships, even the most intimate, is an essential part of Shakespeare’s chilling exposure of authoritarian politics. Denmark, Hamlet informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accurately enough, is “a prison” (2.2.262); and the treachery of these former school friends of Hamlet illustrates how much, behind the mask of uncle Claudius’s concern, his court is ruled by the prison-house customs of the stool pigeon and the informer. How readily first Ophelia and then Gertrude allow themselves to become passive instruments of Polonius’s and Claudius’s spying upon the Prince; how easily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are persuaded to put their friendship with Hamlet at the disposal of the state. Even Laertes’s affectionate relationship with his sister is tainted by a desire to install himself as a kind of censor, a “watchman” to the fortress of her heart (1.3.50). In this he is all too like his father, Polonius, who makes himself an interiorized Big Brother, engraving his cautious precepts on Laertes’s memory (1.3.65 ff.) and telling Ophelia precisely what she is permitted to think and feel:


I do not know, my lord, what I should think.


Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby. . . .


Polonius is the perfect inhabitant of this court: busily policing his children’s sexuality, he has no scruple about prostituting his daughter in the interests of state security, for beneath his air of senile wordiness and fatherly anxiousness lies an ingrained cynicism that allows him both to spy on his son’s imagined “drabbing” in Paris and to “loose” his daughter as a sexual decoy to entrap the Prince.

Hamlet’s role as hero at once sets him apart from this prison-house world and yet leads him to become increasingly entangled in its web of surveillance. To the admiring Ophelia, Hamlet remains “Th’ observed of all observers” (3.1.168), but his obvious alienation has resulted in his being “observed” in a much more sinister sense. He is introduced in Act 1, scene 2, as a mysteriously taciturn watcher and listener whose glowering silence calls into question the pomp and bustle of the King’s wordy show, just as his mourning blacks cast suspicion on the showy costumes of the court. Yet he himself, we are quickly made to realize, is the object of a dangerously inquisitive stare—what the King smoothly calls “the cheer and comfort of our eye” (1.2.120).

The full meaning of that silky phrase will be disclosed on Claudius’s next appearance, when, after Hamlet has met the Ghost and has begun to appear mad, Claudius engages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to probe his nephew’s threatening transformation (2.2.1–18). “Madness in great ones,” the King insists, “must not unwatched go” (3.1.203):

         There’s something in his soul

O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,

And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose

Will be some danger.                  (3.1.178–81)

But of course Hamlet’s madness is as much disguise as it is revelation; and while the Prince is the most ruthlessly observed character in the play, he is also its most unremitting observer. Forced to master his opponent’s craft of smiling villainy, he becomes not merely an actor but also a dramatist, ingeniously using a troupe of traveling players, with their “murder in jest,” to unmask the King’s own hypocritical “show.”

The scene in which the Players present The Murder of Gonzago, the play that Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap,” brings the drama of surveillance to its climax. We in the audience become participants in the drama’s claustrophobic economy of watching and listening, as our attention moves to and fro among the various groups on the stage, gauging the significance of every word, action, and reaction, sharing the obsessional gaze that Hamlet describes to Horatio:

Observe my uncle. . . . Give him heedful note,

For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,

And, after, we will both our judgments join

In censure of his seeming.             (3.2.85–92)

“The Mousetrap” twice reenacts Claudius’s murder of his brother—first in the dumb show and then in the play proper—drawing out the effect so exquisitely that the King’s enraged interruption produces an extraordinary discharge of tension. An audience caught up in Hamlet’s wild excitement is easily blinded to the fact that this seeming climax is, in terms of the revenge plot, at least, a violent anticlimax. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy had developed the play-within-the-play as a perfect vehicle for the ironies of revenge, allowing the hero to take his actual revenge in the very act of staging the villain’s original crime. Hamlet’s play, however, does not even make public Claudius’s forbidden story. Indeed, while it serves to confirm the truth of what the Ghost has said, the only practical effect of the Prince’s theatrical triumph is to hand the initiative decisively to Claudius. In the scenes that follow, Hamlet shows himself capable of both instinctive violence and of cold-blooded calculation, but his behavior is purely reactive. Otherwise he seems oddly paralyzed by his success—a condition displayed in the prayer scene (3.3.77–101) where he stands behind the kneeling Claudius with drawn sword, “neutral to his will and matter,” uncannily resembling the frozen revenger described in the First Player’s speech about Pyrrhus standing over old Priam (2.2.493 ff.). All Hamlet can do is attempt to duplicate the triumph of “The Mousetrap” in his confrontation with Gertrude by holding up to her yet another verbal mirror, in which she is forced to gaze in horror on her “inmost part” (3.4.25).

Hamlet’s sudden loss of direction after the “Mousetrap” scene lasts through the fourth act of the play until he returns from his sea voyage in that mysteriously altered mood on which most commentators remark—a kind of fatalism that makes him the largely passive servant of a plot that he now does little to advance or impede. It is as if the springing of the “Mousetrap” leaves Hamlet with nowhere to go—primarily because it leaves him with nothing to say. But from the very beginning, his struggle with Claudius has been conceived as a struggle for the control of language—a battle to determine what can and cannot be uttered.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Hamlet and Memory

If surveillance is one prop of the authoritarian state, the other is its militant regulation of speech. As Claudius flatters the court into mute complicity with his theft of both the throne and his dead brother’s wife, he genially insists “You cannot speak of reason to the Dane / And lose your voice” (1.2.44–45); but an iron wall of silence encloses the inhabitants of his courtly prison. While the flow of royal eloquence muffles inconvenient truths, ears here are “fortified” against dangerous stories (1.1.38) and lips sealed against careless confession: “Give thy thoughts no tongue,” Polonius advises Laertes, “. . . Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice . . . reserve thy judgment” (1.3.65–75). Hamlet’s insistent warnings to his fellow watchers on the battlements “Never to speak of this that you have seen” (1.5.174) urge the same caution: “Let it be tenable in your silence still . . . Give it an understanding but no tongue” (1.2.269–71). What for them is merely common prudence, however, is for the hero an absolute prohibition and an intolerable burden: “. . . break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (1.2.164).

Hamlet has only two ways of rupturing this enforced silence. The “pregnant” wordplay of his “mad” satire, as Polonius uneasily recognizes (2.2.226–27), is one way, but it amounts to no more than inconclusive verbal fencing. Soliloquy is a more powerful resource because, since it is heard by no one (except the audience), its impenetrable privacy defines Hamlet’s independence from the corrupt public world. From his first big speech in the play, he has made such hiddenness the badge of his resistance to the King and Queen: “I have that within which passes show” (1.2.88), he announces. What is at issue here is not simply a contrast between hypocrisy and true grief over the loss of his king and father: rather, Hamlet grounds his very claim to integrity upon a notion that true feeling can never be expressed: it is only “that . . . which passes show” that can escape the taint of hypocrisy, of “acting.” It is as if, in this world of remorseless observation, the self can survive only as a ferociously defended secret, something treasured for the very fact of its hiddenness and impenetrability. Unlike Gertrude, unlike Ophelia, unlike those absorbent “sponges” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet must insist he is not made of “penetrable stuff.”

If Hamlet’s “antic disposition” is the guardian of his rebellious inwardness, soliloquy is where this inwardness lives, a domain which (if we except Claudius’s occasional flickers of conscience) no other character is allowed to inhabit. Hamlet’s soliloquies bulk so large in our response to the play because they not only guarantee the existence of the hero’s secret inner life; they also, by their relentless self-questioning, imply the presence of still more profoundly secret truths “hid . . . within the center” (2.2.170–71): “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” (4.4.46–49). The soliloquies are the focus of the play’s preoccupation with speaking and silence. Hamlet is set apart from those around him by his access to this region of private utterance: in it he can, as it were, “be bounded in a nutshell and count [himself] a king of infinite space” (2.2.273–74).

Yet there is a paradox here: the isolation of soliloquy is at once his special strength and the source of peculiar anguish. It saves him from the fate of Ophelia, who becomes “Divided from herself and her fair judgment” (4.5.92) by her grief at Polonius’s death and hasty burial; accustomed to speak only in the voice that others allow her, dutifully resolved to “think nothing, my lord” (3.2.124), she is left with no language other than the disconnected fragments of her madness to express outrage at a murder which authority seems determined to conceal. Hamlet, by contrast, finds in soliloquy an arena where the unspeakable can be uttered. But the very fact that these are words that others do not hear also makes soliloquy a realm of noncommunication, of frustrating silence—a prison as well as a fortress in which the speaker beats his head unavailingly against the walls of his own cell. Thus the soliloquy that ends Act 2 reproaches itself for a kind of speechlessness—the mute ineffectuality of a “John-a-dreams,” who, unlike the Player, “can say nothing”—and at the same time mocks itself as a torrent of empty language, a mere unpacking of the heart with words (2.2.593–616). For all their eloquence, the soliloquies serve in the end only to increase the tension generated by the pressure of forbidden utterance.

It is from this pressure that the first three acts of the play derive most of their extraordinary energy; and the energy is given a concrete dramatic presence in the form of the Ghost. The appearance of a ghost demanding vengeance was a stock device borrowed from the Roman playwright Seneca; and the Ur-Hamlet had been notorious for its ghost, shrieking like an oysterwife, “Hamlet, revenge!” But the strikingly unconventional thing about Shakespeare’s Ghost is its melancholy preoccupation with the silenced past and its plangent cry of “Remember me” (1.5.98), which makes remembrance seem more important than revenge. “The struggle of humanity against power,” the Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written, “is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness”; and this Ghost, which stands for all that has been erased by the bland narratives of King Claudius, is consumed by the longing to speak that which power has rendered unspeakable. The effect of the Ghost’s narrative upon Hamlet is to infuse him with the same desire; indeed, once he has formally inscribed its watchword—“Remember me”—on the tables of his memory, he is as if possessed by the Ghost, seeming to mime its speechless torment when he appears to Ophelia, looking “As if he had been loosèd out of hell / To speak of horrors” (2.1.93–94).

For all its pathos of silenced longing, the Ghost remains profoundly ambivalent, and not just because Elizabethans held such contradictory beliefs about ghosts.7 The ambivalence is dramatized in a particularly disturbing detail: as the Ghost pours his story into Hamlet’s ear (the gesture highlighted by the Ghost’s incantatory repetition of “hear” and “ear”), we become aware of an uncanny parallel between the Ghost’s act of narration and the murder the Ghost tells about:

’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forgèd process of my death

Rankly abused. . . .

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole

With juice of cursèd hebona in a vial

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leprous distilment. . . .               (1.5.42–71)

If Claudius’s propaganda has abused “the whole ear of Denmark” like a second poisoning, the Ghost’s own story enters Hamlet’s “ears of flesh and blood” (line 28) like yet another corrosive. The fact that it is a story that demands telling, and that its narrator is “an honest ghost,” cannot alter the fact that it will work away in Hamlet’s being like secret venom until he in turn can vent it in revenge.

The “Mousetrap” play is at once a fulfillment and an escape from that compulsion. It gives, in a sense, a public voice to the Ghost’s silenced story. But it is only a metaphoric revenge. Speaking daggers and poison but using none, Hamlet turns out only to have written his own inability to bring matters to an end. It is no coincidence, then, that he should foresee the conclusion of his own tragedy as being the product of someone else’s script: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.11–12).

“To Tell My Story”: Unfinished Hamlet

In the last scene of the play, the sense that Hamlet’s story has been shaped by Providence—or by a playwright other than Hamlet—is very strong: the swordplay with Laertes is a theatrical imitation of dueling that becomes the real thing, sweetly knitting up the paralyzing disjunction between action and acting; at the same time, revenge is symmetrically perfected in the spectacle of Claudius choking on “a poison tempered by himself,” Laertes “justly killed with his own treachery,” and the Queen destroyed in the vicious pun that has her poisoned by Claudius’s “union.” Yet Hamlet’s consoling fatalism does not survive the final slaughter. Instead, he faces his end tormented by a sense of incompleteness, of a story still remaining to be told:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,

That are but mutes or audience to this act,

Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death,

Is strict in his arrest), O, I could tell you—

But let it be.                                     (5.2.366–70)

Within a few lines Hamlet’s distinctive voice, which has dominated his own tragedy like that of no other Shakespearean hero, will be cut off in midsentence by the arrest of death—and “the rest is silence” (5.2.395).

The play is full of such unfinished, untold, or perhaps even untellable tales, from Barnardo’s interrupted story of the Ghost’s first appearance to the Player’s unfinished rendition of “Aeneas’ tale to Dido” and the violently curtailed performance of The Murder of Gonzago. In the opening scene the Ghost itself is cut off, before it can speak, by the crowing of a cock; and when it returns and speaks to Hamlet, it speaks first about a story it cannot tell:

                 But that I am forbid

To tell the secrets of my prison house,

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word

Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy

 young blood . . .                   (1.5.18–21)

Even the tale it is permitted to unfold is, ironically, one of murderous interruption and terrible incompleteness:

Cut off, even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled,

No reck’ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.


Act 5 at last produces the formal reckoning of this imperfect account, yet it leaves Hamlet once again echoing the Ghost’s agony of frustrated utterance.

But what, we might ask, can there be left to tell, beyond what we have already seen and heard? It seems to be part of the point, a last reminder of Hamlet’s elusive “mystery,” that we shall never know. The Prince has, of course, insisted that Horatio remain behind “to tell my story”; but the inadequacy of Horatio’s response only intensifies the sense of incompleteness. All that his stolid imagination can offer is that bald plot summary of “accidental judgments [and] casual slaughters,” which, as Anne Barton protests, leaves out “everything that seems important” about the play and its protagonist.8 Nor is Fortinbras’s attempt to make “The soldier’s music and the rite of war / Speak loudly for [Hamlet]” (5.2.445–46) any more satisfactory, for the military strongman’s cannon are no better tuned to speak for Hamlet than the player’s pipe.

It would be a mistake, of course, to underestimate the dramatic significance of Horatio’s story or of the “music and the rite of war”—these last gestures of ritual consolation—especially in a play where, beginning with the obscene confusion of Claudius’s “mirth in funeral” and including Polonius’s “hugger-mugger” interment and Ophelia’s “maimed rites,” we have seen the dead repeatedly degraded by the slighting of their funeral pomps. In this context it matters profoundly that Hamlet alone is accorded the full dignity of obsequies suited to his rank, for it signals his triumph over the oblivion to which Claudius is fittingly consigned, and, in its gesture back toward Hamlet’s story as Shakespeare has told it (so much better than Horatio does), it brings Hamlet’s story to a heroic end.

“The Undiscovered Country”: Hamlet and the Secrets of Death

How we respond to the ending of Hamlet—both as revenge drama and as psychological study—depends in part on how we respond to yet a third level of the play—that is, to Hamlet as a prolonged meditation on death. The play is virtually framed by two encounters with the dead: at one end is the Ghost, at the other a pile of freshly excavated skulls. The skulls (all but one) are nameless and silent; the Ghost has an identity (though a “questionable” one) and a voice; yet they are more alike than might at first seem. For this ghost, though invulnerable “as the air,” is described as a “dead corse,” a “ghost . . . come from the grave,” its appearance suggesting a grotesque disinterment of the buried king (1.4.52–57; 1.5.139). The skulls for their part may be silent, but Hamlet plays upon each to draw out its own “excellent voice” (“That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once”; 5.1.77–78), just as he engineered that “miraculous organ” of the Ghost’s utterance, the “Mousetrap.”

There is a difference, however: Hamlet’s dressing up the skulls with shreds of narrative (“as if ’twere Cain’s jawbone . . . This might be the pate of a politician . . . or of a courtier . . . Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer”; 5.1.78–101) only serves to emphasize their mocking anonymity, until the Gravedigger offers to endow one with a precise historical identity: “This same skull . . . was . . . Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester” (5.1.186–87). Hamlet is delighted: now memory can begin its work of loving resurrection. But how does the Gravedigger know? The answer is that of course he cannot; and try as Hamlet may to cover this bare bone with the flesh of nostalgic recollection, he cannot escape the wickedly punning reminder of “this same skull” that all skulls indeed look frightfully the same. Ironically, even Yorick’s distinctive trademark, his grin, has become indistinguishable from the mocking leer of that grand jester of the Danse Macabre, Death the Antic: “Where be your gibes now? . . . Not one now to mock your own grinning?”; so that even as he holds it, the skull’s identity appears to drain away into the anonymous memento mori sent to adorn “my lady’s” dressing table. It might as well be Alexander the Great’s; or Caesar’s; or anyone’s. It might as well be what it will one day become—a handful of clay, fit to stop a beer barrel.

It is significant that (with the trivial exception of 4.4) the graveyard scene is the only one to take place outside the confines of Claudius’s castle-prison. As the “common” place to which all stories lead, the graveyard both invites narrative and silences it. Each blank skull at once poses and confounds the question with which the tragedy itself began, “Who’s there?,” subsuming all human differences in awful likeness: “As you are now,” goes the tombstone verse, “so once was I / As I am now, so shall you be.” In the graveyard all stories collapse into one reductive history (“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust”; 5.1.216–17). In this sense the Gravedigger is the mocking counterpart of the Player: and the houses of oblivion that gravediggers make challenge the players’ memorial art by lasting “till doomsday” (5.1.61). Hamlet shares with the Gravedigger the same easy good-fellowship he extends to the play’s other great outsider, the First Player; but the Gravedigger asserts a more sinister kind of intimacy with his claim to have begun his work “that very day that young Hamlet was born” (5.1.152–53). In this moment he identifies himself as the Prince’s mortal double, the Sexton Death from the Danse Macabre who has been preparing him a grave from the moment of birth.

If there is a final secret to be revealed, then, about that “undiscovered country” on which Hamlet’s imagination broods, it is perhaps only the Gravedigger’s spade that can uncover it. For his digging lays bare the one thing we can say for certain lies hidden “within” the mortal show of the flesh—the emblems of Death himself, that Doppelgänger who shadows each of us as the mysterious Lamord (La Mort) shadows Laertes. If there is a better story, one that would confer on the rough matter of life the consolations of form and significance, it is, the play tells us, one that cannot finally be told; for it exists on the other side of language, to be tantalizingly glimpsed only at the point when Hamlet is about to enter the domain of the inexpressible. The great and frustrating achievement of this play, its most ingenious and tormenting trick, the source of its endlessly belabored mystery, is to persuade us that such a story might exist, while demonstrating its irreducible hiddenness. The only story Hamlet is given is that of a hoary old revenge tragedy, which he persuades himself (and us) can never denote him truly; but it is a narrative frame that nothing (not even inaction) will allow him to escape. The story of our lives, the play wryly acknowledges, is always the wrong story; but the rest, after all, is silence.

  1. Dmitri Shostakovich, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkow, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Faber, 1981), p. 84.
  2. See F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion, 1564–1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), pp. 435, 209; see also pp. 262 and 403.
  3. The most lucid guide to this critical labyrinth, though he deals with no work later than 1960, is probably still Morris Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism (London: Faber, 1964).
  4. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London: Methuen, 1964).
  5. Excerpt from “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces” from Poems, 1965–1975 by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1975, 1980 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc. Permission for use of these lines from North by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber Limited, is also acknowledged.
  6. See Mack’s classic essay, “The World of Hamlet,” Yale Review 41 (1952): 502–23; Mack’s approach is significantly extended in Harry Levin’s The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).
  7. The most balanced treatment of this and other contentious historical issues in the play is in Roland M. Frye, The Renaissance Hamlet (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
  8. Introduction to T. J. B. Spencer, ed., Hamlet (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), p. 52. See also James L. Calderwood’s To Be and Not To Be: Negation and Meta-drama in “Hamlet” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).