‘Hamlet’ is perhaps the most popular literary work ever put down on paper. This does not necessarily make it any easier to see clearly, or to come to terms with intellectually. This is especially so in a period when scholars say that there is no Hamlet, clear or not: there are only the incompatible early editions and the abundance of theatre productions ever since. I think myself that Hamlet exists; that Shakespeare’s first major tragedy has through all its forms a character so definite as to constitute something real and singular. Certainly, an event hit the English stage for the first time around 1600 that not only revolutionised revenge drama but made a difference to a powerful amount that has been written or staged since.

It’s an interesting fact that theatre people don’t speak about the ‘play’ they’re involved with, but the ‘show’: ‘Have you seen the show yet?’ Hamlet could seriously be said to be the greatest show on earth, a must for failing theatres and rising actors alike. In the 19th century in particular, its ghost, its court, its play scene and its duel scene, its mad adorable heroine and above all its sad soliloquising black-clad hero all took on iconic status, as symbols of theatre or even of the arts themselves, incessantly quoted from, happily alluded to (there is a character in Dickens mentioned as looking like Hamlet’s aunt, and this must have made sense to most of his readers).

We may therefore conclude that this is our culture’s leading night out: even in an electronic age, one of the best shows going. But it’s worth recalling that the word ‘show’ took on precisely this usage only late in the 19th century. When Shakespeare says of the universe, in Sonnet 15, ‘This huge stage presenteth naught but shows,’ he demonstrates the slight hint of adverse judgment in the word among Elizabethans – and we still call something ‘showy’. In the light of the intellectual Puritanism or Francophile classicism which gained new purchase not much more than forty years after Shakespeare’s death, minority but important voices declare that they don’t care for shows. In 1661 John Evelyn noted that ‘the old plays’ like Hamlet were starting ‘to disgust this refined age’, and a decade later Dryden felt that the play smelled ‘a little too strongly of the buskin’ – the archaic theatrical boot.

These are English Restoration views, patronising but less brutal than Voltaire’s furious repetition, a century later, of the words ‘vulgar’ and ‘barbarous’. Garrick was still arousing gasps of awe as the prince, and Samuel Johnson loved the play. But neoclassical principles generally demand clear form and order, and a self-evident morality, and these are choices that Hamlet has always been able to frustrate or violate. This restricted sense of the civilised re-emerged last century with Modernism, which looked for abstraction in works of art, emphasising openness to interpretation. The young T.S. Eliot called Hamlet ‘almost certainly an artistic failure’ on these grounds. And during the last sixty or seventy years, many literary academics, asked which was Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, would have answered King Lear.

Modernism played its part in the formation of academic studies in literature. It’s unsurprising, then, that a note of reservation still sounds among professionals who would state the warmest admiration for the play. This takes the form of the extraordinary recurrence of the word ‘problem’. Perhaps the best single introduction to Hamlet is the long essay that prefaces Harold Jenkins’s Arden edition. Jenkins opens his critical discussion with a sub-section entitled ‘Problems’, which begins: ‘Few, I imagine, would challenge the assertion that’ – here he quotes from Harry Levin – ‘“Hamlet is the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright.”’ And a similarly recommendable though much briefer introduction, Frank Kermode’s to his Riverside edition, confines itself to an elegant review of the play’s problems, chronological, textual and critical.

Kermode calls Hamlet ‘the first great tragedy Europe had produced for two thousand years’, but he declines the risky advance into explanation: ‘How Shakespeare came to write it is, of course, a mystery on which it is useless to speculate.’ His refusal to speculate may here be too implacable; there are a good number of relevant things that may be speculated about. For instance, there is a distance between Hamlet and the two very early tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, that is measurable and not mysterious. The first is a hugely promising melodrama, the second a lyrical myth of romantic pathos, but neither has achieved what might be anachronistically called its own symbolism. An anti-Modernist short story by Mary McCarthy tells of a creative-writing teacher in an American university who is informed happily by a pupil, as he finishes his fiction, ‘I’m just putting the symbols in’; there are moments in the two early tragedies (the arrows shot at the gods in Titus, the golden statues in Romeo) when we feel that the symbols are being put in.

Hamlet is something else again. It appears to contain and emanate symbolic power without ever having had its symbols put in. One explanation of this is the tension between ‘show’ and ‘problem’. The play is both, though individuals may respond to one more than the other: on the one side, the fiction, the whole rich and entertaining and sometimes apparently random tissue of events and roles; on the other, the prince who ‘enters reading’ and who must make sense of what he reads, as we must make sense of him. Shakespeare brings together the public world and the private psyche, the play and the poem, as never before. It is only with Hamlet that the playing time extends to that more-than-four-hours range common to almost all later Shakespearean play-texts, and that gets called, in Hamlet’s case, the ‘Eternity Version’. The sheer size and scale involve the willing reader like an enfolding new world, but have forced most theatres ever since to abbreviate: hence the severe textual problems that start with the three earliest versions of the play.

The court that is ‘show’ and the prince who is ‘problem’ are exceedingly original creations, and seem to have emerged at a long distance from their sources; but they did have sources. A revenge play now lost, though presumably of the same name, since it featured Hamlet, dated from a decade or more earlier; it seems to have taken its events from a French prose narrative of the 1570s, which itself translated and adapted a Norse legend embedded in Saxo Grammaticus’s 13th-century Danish History. The original Norse legend is very brutal and very bloody. The further source or impulse of Elizabethan revenge drama in general can be traced back earlier still, to the Latin closet-dramas of Seneca (so called because they were probably never acted), which in their turn perpetuated the ferocious noble myths of Greek tragedy; Seneca’s plays being translated into English in Shakespeare’s time as the Ten Tragedies.

Over the last fifty and more years, both revenge drama and revenge itself have been taken very seriously as a key to Hamlet. This may be a mistake. If the importance of Shakespeare’s play lies in its difference from the convention, and the difference it makes to it, then the chances are that the genre itself can tell us little. The permeation of revenge through the drama of the time, and indeed through Shakespeare’s own work, may be explained in terms of the usefulness, to the dramatic structure, of revenge at its simplest and most mechanistic. A dog-eat-dog pattern of violent reaction will give a play, if nothing else, a plot – a push-me-pull-you dualism of basic form. And this remains true even when the revenge code is treated as the more complex macho worship of honour in the aristocratic world. Beyond this, Shakespeare appears to be interested only in what revenge does to human beings. The revenge passion in those who seek to protect the loved and vulnerable – Titus with his ruined daughter beside him, Beatrice telling her honourable lover to ‘Kill Claudio,’ Kent’s beating of Oswald because Lear has been humiliated – endangers souls who are deeply sympathetic though unwise. Those whose rage is neurotic or vicious (Iago hating the Moor for failing to promote him, Cloten planning to rape Imogen for being already married) have little to be said for them.

Time spent wondering whether Hamlet is right or wrong in his role of elective revenger is probably time wasted. Dramaturgically and morally, revenge is a brutally simple reactive automatism that will give little fruit to scrutiny. But it is possible that some of the contextual conditions of revenge fiction interested Shakespeare a great deal. Seneca’s plays are on the whole terrible, violence frozen at the bloodiest point of crisis and transposed into elaborate, witty and static rhetoric. Yet these savage sketches had more effect on the 16th century than their Greek pseudo-sources could have done. Not many Elizabethans knew Greek drama at all well, and the plays were perhaps too archaic, and too grand in themselves, to be directly borrowed from or used. But Seneca’s apothegmatic wit was transportable; and, for a reader of the right genius, his plays’ naked structure of revenge had a point through its very sterility: it suggested the torturing issue of action in a world grown wholly corrupt.

Both Hamlet and Lear quote or adapt lines from Seneca’s Thyestes. Yet this kind of direct borrowing may be less important than something more indirect and diffuse: the sense of Seneca standing behind Hamlet’s world. Seneca remains a question to classicists, because his behaviour and principles reflected his always ambiguous position. Probably even more respected during the 16th century than his X-certificate plays were the philosophical essays he wrote from a Stoic or quietist standpoint, preaching abstemiousness, vegetarianism, the treatment of slaves as brothers, and an abhorrence of the cruelties of the arena; and yet he was himself a millionaire with great power in his hands. Until Nero at last enforced his suicide, he was the emperor’s tutor and ghost-writer, and, during Nero’s youth, half-ran the empire for him. He ran it well, though his situation was always self-contradictory. Indeed, it was this imperilled quality in his wisdom and probity that made him a figure who haunted later political periods that had some analogy to his own: the sick imbalance between the bloodthirsty action of his plays and the withdrawn and mild-minded decencies of his essays. The philosopher cannot be dissociated from political conditions at their most corrupt.

Hamlet was probably immediately preceded in the theatre by Julius Caesar, a masterly work of mixed form that might be called tragical political history – and Polonius strongly hints that he played Caesar in it. Republican conspirators carry out a mirror-image act of revenge – performed before the crime – on Caesar because of his feared imperial ambitions. By that act, and by a black historical irony, the Roman conspirators cleared the ground for the first of the Roman emperors, the Augustus Caesar who had been Octavius. His reign was, at least in legend, pacific and benign: but it led directly into the great sequence of nightmare presences – Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero – who made the first half-century of the Roman Empire famous for totalitarian cruelty and chaos. All later writers dealing with the perversions of authority knew and used the distinguished historians of the period of tyranny, Tacitus and Suetonius. Echoes from them, and from Seneca, recur in Tudor writers. Wyatt uses as one of his refrains circa regna tonat – ‘thunder lours around courts’ – from Seneca’s Phaedra. And issues of a heavy and dangerous power bring menace to his love poems: the diamond-collared and hunted deer says ‘Caesar’s I am,’ and when she or one like her is destroyed in the quest for dynastic power, Wyatt frames the harshly simple line, ‘These bloody days have broken my heart.’ The shadow of such a phrase falls across Ophelia.

Other Roman shadows enter Shakespeare’s play, the most obvious being the name of Hamlet’s stepfather, changed from all the sources. Claudius was Nero’s stepfather and predecessor on the imperial throne – a man with his own connection with Britain, which he had visited with his armies. Less decisively vicious than Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, he had a weakness for horrible women: his last wife, Agrippina, Nero’s mother, set about getting her son the throne by poisoning Claudius once he had adopted Nero. After Nero came to power he murdered Claudius’ son Britannicus; and then, before he was 16, Nero married Claudius’ daughter Octavia. Thus the pathetic Octavia was Nero’s sister, his cousin and his wife; Claudius became both father and father-in-law to Nero. Power politics in the worst years of the empire brought about its own intricate incests.

It is perhaps this general awareness of history that brought into Shakespeare’s mind Hamlet’s first words in the play, late in the council scene. Claudius names him as ‘my cousin, Hamlet, and my son’; the prince fights this off with ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ And, charged by Claudius with disrespectful melancholy, Hamlet objects that he is ‘too much in the sun’ – too much in the public gaze, and too complexly fathered. These first words are quibbling and equivocal, always a dangerous rebuke to dictatorial minds: power-wielders rarely stand much humour. It is interesting that both Tacitus and Suetonius are in their different ways grave comedians: some of Tacitus’ best-known sayings – such as ‘They make a solitude and call it peace’ – formulate the wit with which moral intelligence may contemplate political threat, and survive.

In mourning as he is, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s wittiest character. And Shakespeare is a historian: he may well have invented the genre of the history play, whose early success brought him the breakthrough he needed. The two history sequences plus King John were his most individual work before Hamlet. The cautious Tudor historian, wary of charges of sedition, came in his writing no closer to his queen than her grandfather Henry VII; Shakespeare’s first tetralogy moves from Henry VI through Richard III to the arrival of Henry Tudor, who would become Henry VII of England. These plays staged and applauded, Shakespeare turned to a prequel sequence, from Richard II through Henry IV to Henry V. From this a curious effect results, which cannot be called purposive but seems unignorable, too. When we have reached at last (in 1599, say) the triumphant close of Henry V, with its dynastic marriage to Katherine of France, the future is the past: we look back down a spiral to the first of the history plays, where the virtuous but weak Henry VI loses everything his father gained, and sees his country plunged into civil wars.

Fifty years ago, students were taught that Shakespeare as historian dramatised the ‘Tudor myth’: the strong Tudor will to believe that God had worked through history to bring about Elizabeth I, whose spiritual progenitor was the great and good Henry V. Perhaps he did, up to a point. But the plays say something rather different, with a full human meaning that goes well beyond political propaganda. The climax of the second sequence, Henry V, is more bitter than might be expected of a celebration. Its predecessors, the two parts of Henry IV, are superb history plays mostly set far from public history, and the second part in particular is profoundly melancholy: as the exhausted king laments, ‘O God, that one might read the book of fate,/And see the revolution of the times.’ There is a design written down in the book of fate. And, as the sequences spiral, slow down and deepen, that design is less like a Tudor myth of God’s own politics than a tragedy of history itself: ‘The happiest youth, viewing his progress through/. . ./Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.’

Moreover, if there is in these plays a latent tragedy of history, it is a tragedy of revenge. In the third part of Henry VI, the childlike and often solitary king, who longs for a life of pastoral peace and good order, sees as in a vision two emblematic figures, one on each side of his civil-war-torn country and stage: a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son. In Richard III, the chorus of suffering and remembering women repeatedly rehearse the story of history as they have witnessed it, and it is remarkably close to the plot of a revenge play: ‘Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward,/Thy other Edward dead, to quit my Edward.’ There is little moral distance between the kinds of bloodshed that fill Roman history, the English history play and the revenge play alike. In Hamlet, Claudius, trying to pray and failing, sees his murder of Hamlet’s father as the brother-killing at the root of history, Cain’s murder of Abel. The wily and dangerous Cardinal Pandulph in King John tells the dauphin: ‘How green you are and fresh in this old world!’ – and this ‘old world’ stretches back behind Shakespeare’s kings, as far as the first murder.

The revenge play before and outside Shakespeare can be a mechanical, shallow and violent form. If Hamlet is incomparably more than this, then the dramatist has taught himself a larger art through the long decade of histories. And more than the histories, too: Shakespeare writes from an integrity of awareness that draws in every genre he turns to, complete in itself as each new play is. The comedy Twelfth Night, staged not long after Hamlet, ends with Feste, the fool, snarling at the intolerably arrogant steward that ‘The whirligig of time brings in its revenges.’ This ‘whirligig’ is often glossed by editors as referring to a toy, a child’s paper windmill. But the term had another meaning: it was also an instrument of punishment and torture, a cage spun on a pivot so as to induce extreme sickness and vertigo in its captive. When Hamlet says that ‘Denmark is a prison,’ or calls his revenge play ‘The Mouse Trap’ (it works trapically and tropically, it does you in with words), he may be thinking in terms of the whirligig.

History appears vast and delta-like, a great socio-political complex extending backwards behind every moment’s birth. But a wiser eye might see ‘the revolution of the times’ not as past but as a perpetually recurring present, like the ghost of the king coming every night as the clock strikes one; or a spiral, like the father killing the son and the son the father; or a whirligig, its narrow cage of individual consciousness sickening as it spins. Throughout Hamlet, Shakespeare was working as a poet, not as a chronicler, his need being to deepen and enlarge the connotations of revenge as much as he could while not losing the hard grip of its irony.

It may have been this decision to enlarge the field of the stranglehold of revenge, towards a more humane tragedy, that produced the peculiar fullness and variety of the Hamlet ‘show’: that sense, commented on by Johnson, of a lifelike near-randomness. Every critic since Coleridge, whose account is best of all, responds to the play’s first scene with a shock of surprise. What is startling is a largeness, a naturalness and a liberty not to be expected from (of all things) a court revenge drama: the high battlemented midnight space, the cold air and silence, the intimate tense talk of the men on guard; and, gradually extending all round them, the whole of Europe and its Roman-Christian past, the ghosts ‘A little ere the mightiest Julius fell’, and the Christian ceremonies that sweeten the betraying echo of cockcrow.

The spacious naturalism here (‘Not a mouse stirring’) works partly to make extreme the contrast with the airless court that follows. But it also establishes the ‘show’ of Hamlet, its scale and variety and changeable confusion. Everywhere in the play, Shakespeare adds to and multiplies or fragments his narrative sources. The prince is not on stage through the long first scene, and is mentioned only at its close; through much of the second he is marginal and silent. Given that these scenes are busy and absorbing, it is uncertain who and where the hero is, and what the play is actually about. The dependable men on the battlements don’t know what has raised the ghost, and guess wrongly at a martial and national explanation. A more technical way of putting this is that the single revenge-hero of the source has been multiplied or disjointed into three very different kinds of man. Initially, Fortinbras (in the first scene) and Laertes (in the second) take centre stage, by report or in person; both at first seem more actively important – both are more likely revenge-heroes. Claudius is far more of a genial father to Laertes than to Hamlet, and their bonding at the end of the play seems likely; as does Fortinbras’s calm climb to the throne.

The triple heroes make us wonder what exactly a revenge-hero might be, and the very different paths of the three men seem to widen, producing bewilderments of choice. Johnson speaks of the way ‘new characters appear from time to time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and particular modes of conversation’ – and though this doesn’t sound like luminous criticism, the odd blankness of style matches the way people and things simply turn up in Hamlet. Multiplied by two or even three (two royal fathers, three revengeful sons, three members of the guard, two Danish ambassadors, two politic friends of Hamlet, two gravediggers), human types here move away from character towards anonymity of function, a court serviceability. There is no plot; there are only the confusing impressions we experience in a crowded social or political world whose meanings are hidden or unclear.

The play’s two women are a striking case of this, phenomena without underlying explanations. They seem to me quite different from Shakespeare’s other leading women in any genre, because he has withheld from them a vivifying sympathy. Recent feminist criticism tries to bring them into the limelight, but this may be mistaken. Elaine Showalter, for instance, writes well on Ophelia, but more than once insists on putting her (presumably to argue her virginal innocence) in a white dress nowhere visible in Shakespeare’s play. But a political – or gender-operated – motive, which in real social existence might be benign or protective, won’t work when dealing with fictive characters more ambiguous than seems compatible with plot function. The political motive or argument is further undermined by a significant difficulty. These women are political women themselves, or rather politicians’ women, court women quite deliberately observed as by an outsider. They are like the exquisite animal that tells Wyatt: ‘Caesar’s I am.’

Compared with Desdemona or Cordelia or Marina – each possessed of a different kind of strength – Ophelia and Gertrude are weak, and more than weak: they have a fluttering clumsiness or ineptitude. They are women whose only life is to be seen (or unseen) by men. The play’s court is a world that cannot let them be. All that is left is gesture and surface: Ophelia turns ‘all to favour and to prettiness’. She cannot stand against the men, evade them or discover how to help them, can only answer with the same sweet court manners: ‘I was the more deceived.’ She is betrayed by the defensive assumptions of her father and brother, but trapped, too, by her lover’s furious objection to being what they frame him for. At once cornered and abandoned, still holding on to her flowers, she disintegrates into madness and half-accidental suicide. She is, in Gertrude’s phrase, ‘incapable of her own distress’. Viola, Imogen and Hermione are all capable of their own distress: they can carry it, even cure it; Ophelia cannot.

Gertrude, too, depends on show, and is lost when the status quo in the court begins to collapse. In her major scene, in the intimacy of her ‘closet’ or private room, she fails to see her former husband, and is unable to help her near hysterical child other than by saying: ‘What have I done?’ She can hardly bear to meet the embarrassingly mad Ophelia, except by addressing her sentimentally in her grave as a lost potential daughter-in-law. Her second husband she drifts away from. In the duel scene she can do nothing for Hamlet but salute him with poisoned wine, and inform the court defensively, and with utmost humiliation for Hamlet himself, that her son shouldn’t be fighting because he is fat and out of breath.

Significantly, and it is another of the problems that commentators return to, the play never makes it possible to say exactly what, or how much, Gertrude (or even Ophelia) knows. It is presumably the women’s political object to make sure that this is unclear. The men, led of course by the king himself, can be even more difficult to read, perhaps more fully masked by their dense court activities. Purpose or motive is central to revenge, and a revenge play requires an egregious intention on both sides (‘Paid on Both Sides’, as Auden’s revenge play has it). Elizabethan culture being intensely moral in overt emphasis, the form demanded villains. The lost earlier Hamlet may well have been written by Kyd, who endowed his Spanish Tragedy – a work of finesse and depth, clearly remembered in this play – with a thoroughly bad man as villain, Lorenzo. By contrast, the court of Shakespeare’s play is so ambiguous a place that G. Wilson Knight, elsewhere a brilliantly sensitive critic, once notoriously argued that Claudius is a ‘good and gentle king’, whereas Hamlet is an ambassador of death invading the happy calm of the court. Wilson Knight went wrong by not allowing the great originality of Shakespeare’s political court – a place where a man may be a gentleman but not ‘gentle’, an efficient king but not ‘good’.

Claudius, however, is not a villain: hence our uncertainty about the murder at first, and Hamlet’s frustration and rage. The king is a far more mundane and everyday figure, one that recurs (in both genders) in all society’s groups and assemblies, departments and institutions, clubs and gangs, and of course in families and pairs of lovers, too: he is a man of power, a politician and bureaucrat, an ambitious opportunist who has made his way to great standing. He takes the high ground of moral indeterminacy: what he calls, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ‘The need we have to use you’. In this ‘need to use’ he is also located in a central position in all pragmatic government. Hence his many forebears in Shakespeare’s earlier plays, in particular the histories, and the presence of similar though much more virtuous characters in the problem comedies – the duke in Measure for Measure, the king in All’s Well. But these men struggle decently through to some kind of happy ending. Claudius sinks always deeper and deeper in the course of the action. His aides, slowly dragged under his wheels, are politic, too, history men, ‘indifferent children of the earth’, whose readiness to ascend socially – what the Victorians called ‘getting on’ – has so polished their manners as to make them believe that they represent a superior civilisation.

Shakespeare’s creation, throughout his career, of the politic man was a remarkable achievement, and Claudius is at the apex of it. History itself made its contribution. If Shakespeare changed his king’s name, and chose a Roman ancestry for it, the reason was not that the two men are meant to resemble each other: Shakespeare’s murderer has a suavity, a vigour, a courage and even a developing conscience not apparent in the charmless and clumsy Roman emperor. But the Roman Claudius stumbled unexpectedly into power at the precise stage of history most likely to interest a playwright (as well, of course, as the many professional historians and political thinkers debating the issues of tyranny in the 16th century). The Roman Claudius’ moment is that of the perversion of authority into a degenerate and dirty politics and an arbitrary civil war. The year after Nero’s death, and more than a decade after Claudius’, the empire did collapse into civil wars (‘The Year of the Four Emperors’), from which emerged at last a good ruler, Vespasian – a provincial soldier, not too unlike Fortinbras.

In the second half of Hamlet, as the court moves from the expedient to the on-stage viciousness of planned murder, there is some echo of this arbitrariness; and the action includes an attempt at political rebellion. The deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude and the king, and of Hamlet himself, all contain an element of the random. They are not senseless: Hamlet’s dismissal of two sometime friends – ‘Why, man, they did make love to this employment’ – is culpably brutal but passably true; this is a tragedy, not a massacre of the innocents.

This effect of randomness in the action, certainly not diminished by Hamlet’s own removal to fight with pirates, is a part of the whole problem of show I began with, a problem that still afflicts editors. We relish the invisible pirates, the all too visible gravediggers, the ridiculous and menacing Osric – but what are they doing here? The ineradicable sense of the problem of meaning in Hamlet tends to crop up in critical accounts as a problem of form, even a feeling that the play has no form at all. Kermode puts this with grace in saying that the play ‘is of no clear shape, oblique, dubitant, duplicate’. Philip Edwards’s New Cambridge introduction goes further, almost into resentment, in speaking of ‘the strange lavishness, for a practical man of the theatre, with which Shakespeare produced additional characters, especially late in the play, who have little or nothing to say or do’.

The problem of form is inextricably a problem of meaning. It includes what Jenkins’s New Arden introduction quotes, half ironically, as ‘the problem of problems . . . Why does Hamlet delay his revenge?’: to which very early commentators on the play would retort with an arbitrary answer – that if he hadn’t, there would have been no play. But in such an answer there is a contempt for the art. More recent audiences may find the work problematic without thinking it factitious. It holds us, it moves us, it fascinates us. There is merely some difficulty in saying what it is about.

But to establish the shape or form of the work is at least halfway to answering the more substantial questions. Jenkins proposes a formal design that seems to me wholly right. It depends on recognising a central point in the action, a pivot on which everything else turns: a crucial if absurd death. Everything that involves the players and the play scene leads slowly up to the mistaken excitement of that death; it holds within itself the foiled energies of Hamlet’s inability to kill a king apparently at prayer (which is in itself a questioning of revenge as a form of justice); and the death that he does manage takes place accidentally, privately, in the queen’s closet, brought about not by purpose or duty but by distraught filial feeling and an old politician’s bungling. With the wild comedy that fills the tragedy, the revenger kills the wrong man. But the instant the blade goes into the hidden Polonius, Hamlet changes from revenger to revengee. His threat now declared, he becomes the prey of Claudius, who absorbs Laertes into his design, a son possessed of a furious will to revenge his father. The pair of them begin a counter-movement in the play, succeeding in killing Hamlet but themselves dying in the process, and drawing most of the leading courtiers with them, as well as letting Fortinbras into the kingdom.

This is a formally brilliant invention, and it profoundly interlocks ideas of what it is to succeed and to fail. Sometimes critics who ask why Hamlet so delays omit to remark that he does, in his own way and in his own time, carry out the revenge imposed on him. The second half of the play, with its random new events, locales and characters, turns out to be a special kind of reconciliation with the hard trap of revenge itself. It might even be said to repeat the form of the spiral or whirligig, a device of playful and half-comic horror: the further outwards Hamlet moves, the more he comes home. In the graveyard, using his father’s title and speaking as it were for the now forgotten ghost, he says: ‘It is I, Hamlet the Dane.’ Everything that follows is at once a true and yet ironic finale (and the presence in it of such various fools as the gravediggers, Osric, even Yorick’s skull, underlines the irony); in which one may hear a distant echo, however anachronistic, of Henry James’s light insistence that certain kinds of failure are perhaps more valuable than certain kinds of success.

The play’s design crystallises the questions of what it is to move, and what it is to stand still. Prompted by Hamlet, already plotting ‘The Mouse Trap’, the leading player gives a passage from the fall of Troy, in which, for an instant before killing Priam, ‘Pyrrhus stood,/And like a neutral to his will and matter,/Did nothing.’ This whole powerful and yet distant speech is in marked contrast to what it probably echoes, the Marlovian Trojan War narrative from Dido, which is pure action. Shakespeare’s writing here is like a dark photograph. And in it Pyrrhus’ raised and unmoving sword is the fulcrum, one might say, on which the whirligig spins. Somewhere inside Shakespeare’s vision of action is the belief that everything changes, everything reverses, but everything is the same. When, after the play scene and then his failure with the praying king, Hamlet enters his mother’s anteroom and kills Polonius, the play has at last begun, and is beginning to be over.

The formal spiral of Hamlet is perhaps a way of saying that conventional revenge plots are a system of doing nothing, acting to no purpose, like the frozen yet murderous Pyrrhus. Revenge is in any case not action but reaction; and a fully conscious ‘delaying’ reaction may accomplish more in terms of human awareness. Original as the design is here, the insight has been potentially present in the plays since the deathly civil-war fathers and sons of Henry VI, where the suffering is the king’s. The guilt is steady and reciprocal, never simple; the royal ghost of Hamlet senior, with all his military glamour and honour, loads onto his son a duty that will destroy him; and the second father, King Claudius, finishes off the job. Contrariwise, both Hamlet and Laertes play their parts in the deaths of the two ‘fathers’, Polonius and Claudius.

Especially given the shared name of the Hamlets, the tragedy acts out the static lament from Richard III: ‘Thy . . . Edward dead, to quit my Edward.’ Hamlet haunts us so much partly because there is this quality of shining and static mirroring in the work: it is, in short, a poem. A number of the plays of nominally different genres that surround Hamlet in this middle period suspend action and stop clocks in this way, interrupting or replacing mere plot or action with poetic devices of insight and sympathy. In Henry IV, the best of the histories, history ceases as we follow Falstaff into the Boar’s Head tavern or a Gloucestershire orchard; As You Like It leaves court, plot and time behind while Rosalind sorts out love in Arden; Troilus and Cressida vow eternal fidelity while looking out into a future that knows better. In the first scene of Hamlet, the men talk of what happened yesterday; the striking clock turns itself into an echo, and yesterday enters like a ghost. Hamlet himself sounds like a last, distant after-echo of this clock striking one when he says near the end that ‘a man’s life’s no more than to say "one".’

In this middle period, and after it, Shakespeare’s plays move away from the conventionally plotted to slow into statements of poetic insight: they are for the reader as much as for an audience. Hamlet himself ‘enters reading’ (and Mallarmé topped this up by adding that he was reading ‘the book of himself’); and he is the reader and the text, the source of the play’s stillness. It seems a mistake to call this ‘delay’. The character endows his tragedy with a peculiar quality of intense solitariness, for all its courtly show, its amazing variety and bustle of social procedures. Despite his expertise in encounter and easy friendliness with those he likes, the prince’s in-built solitude, everything in him that is at first called ‘melancholy’ and robed in black, finally invades the world that he is placed in. Sudden lonelinesses take over the action, and they have been found problematic by criticism ever since. At the start of the second act, Ophelia recounts to her father the wordless arrival in her closet of a bedraggled strange Hamlet who takes her wrist, scans her face ‘As a would draw it’, sighs profoundly, and departs. The two quasi-lovers are together, but far apart, and the more so, given that Ophelia simply passes on this troubled moment of relationship to her intrusive politic father. That sense of loneliness goes further into real irreality when in the fourth act Gertrude narrates Ophelia’s own drowning. It is pointless to wonder why this or any other bystander didn’t intervene to save her: the hushed eyewitness report, like a dream or long-past memory, merely underlines what the earlier cameo of lovers suggested, the unbroken solitude of individuals within this crowded court.

It would be similarly mistaken to try to moralise the effect: to argue that aloneness is a punishment that comes to the court because the king has killed his own brother, or to suggest the reverse – that Hamlet at least induces in those around him something of his own autonomy, his ability to stand on the edge of things and watch. The power and freedom of the play is in Shakespeare’s refusal to draw such conclusions. Only the technical fact seems plain, that he is using the stage to deny the absolute value of action. This is not an art that is easy for the present highly politicising moment, when critical interest turns to such questions as whether the poet was a committed Catholic or Protestant. Hence what is felt to be the problem of the ghost, who appears to be both or neither. He was possibly made so not merely from fears of the penalties of sedition, but as a way of silencing or side-stepping such issues.

A description of Hamlet as mysterious is sympathetic, because the work commands intelligent attention while failing to display any clear symbolism or to be readily milked of substantial meaning. But any stress on mystery or problems will ignore the play’s high ambitions, its artistic supremacy. One aspect of this ambition might be called its ‘indifferentism’, a doctrine used by Erasmus to demarcate those matters on which Christian churches could wisely agree to differ: to be, as we might now say, apolitical. Hamlet sometimes seems to be making a claim for the stage and the book to be places where thought is free: where ‘there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ It seems curious that critics don’t more often mention Shakespeare’s firm decision to make his prince a student. By strengthening the inner life, education, or the will and aptitude for education, must often weaken dependency on social grouping, on power-politics: it must, in a word, alienate the individual from mere conventions and rituals. Immensely the most intelligent person in the early history play King John is the royal bastard, who – as Emrys Jones has pointed out – in some sense looks forward to Hamlet; Hamlet, in his turn, is ‘bastardised’ by his intelligence, set outside the whole familial and social group. He has to think for himself. Both Hamlet and the play are problems for this simple reason: they make us think. To write tragedy, the work seems to insist, it is necessary to go beyond the bounds of the conventional, of the comfortably committed or political, even of the plotted. We must neither believe in revenge nor disbelieve in it.

This extreme scepticism, which finds an ally in Montaigne, can make for genuinely difficult writing. Classicists are probably maddened by the fact that a play whose action can make it seem wildly, romantically and popularly easy turns out not to be easy. The occasional entry on Hamlet in some Companion to English Literature that contents itself with narrating the plot in painful detail will produce an effect that seems to have little to do with the play. Another example of this difficulty is the immense editorial and critical debate as to what Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy might mean. The passage beginning ‘To be or not to be’ has also perturbed scholars in its plot-defying Q2 placement, just after ‘The play’s the thing’. Jenkins is surely right in arguing, against many other critics, that the soliloquy is not centrally focused on suicide (a confusion, in my view, that derives from failing to give proper attention to the word ‘nobler’; it means that Hamlet is a prince and an aristocrat who cannot cease to take responsibility for his world, but does not know how to ‘be’ when that world is entirely corrupt).

Duty-bound to one father, hating the other, he is locked between them by the action of revenge. If he is free to ‘delay’, to attempt to see his position, this is because he is ‘Young Hamlet’. Elizabethans maintained that responsibility should be withheld from those either too young or too old for it; and a student is likely to be under the age then taken to mean male adulthood. But it is not only youth that gives Hamlet the stance of a man on the edge. Hannah Arendt once wrote to Karl Jaspers: ‘I’m more than ever of the opinion that a decent human existence is possible today only on the fringes of society.’ Hamlet lives in that ‘today’. Revenge makes of the revenger not an active man but a reactive one; Hamlet is a reaction to some profound distortion in power-politics itself.

This quasi-political, quasi-philosophical function, in a work otherwise uninterested in the philosophical and the political, prevents Hamlet from being anything as simple as a surrogate for the writer or reader (indeed, he probably isn’t an artist of any kind, given the love poem that Polonius, prying as ever, reads to the court). The prince stands as much at a distance from the players he loves as he stands against the courtiers. But his glittering raillery never has the security of a role like the Jonsonian commentator. The source plot merely gave Shakespeare a perfect analogue: Hamlet is the heir to a Renaissance court, haunted by a father calling aloud for revenge. That civilised, artificial, necessarily disingenuous, often crooked Renaissance power-world – caught up in diplomacies and spies and ceremonial behaviours – gave Shakespeare both the show and the problem of the prince: supremely and marvellously articulate, in a world never capable of complete disclosure. Hamlet renders his life into his awareness of it, whether alone in soliloquy or talking with, or at, others. Hence what is perhaps the play’s primary quality, its incessantly wonderful rhetoric, always abundant, always shining, and always fashioned in the witty habit (now often remarked on) of a generous yet somehow perplexing doubling, a refusal to make us choose.

But while Hamlet is talking like an angel and stabbing the wrong man, the trap of the action turns itself round, and those whom he has left dangerously free hunt him down. This sense of mirroring counter-movement, of the court’s narrowing predominance, is established by Hamlet’s removal from the stage of action. His abortive journey to England sees pirates save him from the plotted death, and he calls them ‘thieves of mercy’ to express the distinction between their function and the kindness they have done him. The odd phrase perhaps hints at a new mood, a defeated sense of compromise, that brings him back to court life. Some critics see this changed Hamlet as more aware of God’s purpose for him. What seems clearer is that he has simply aged, and is no longer ‘Young Hamlet’.

His speech-mode has altered. There has always been plenty of latent violence in Hamlet – tormenting Ophelia, shouting at his mother, wanting a worse death for Claudius than the moment offers him. But now the actual tone of his voice is different, more patient or more callous. What sound like courtly lies or half-lies are told; it’s not entirely easy to believe that his dead friends are not on his conscience; it may or may not be true that he once ‘loved Ophelia’; the apology to Laertes is strained and unconvincing in what it says about his ‘madness’. Shakespeare probably intended the prince’s madness earlier as an isolating and unsocial factor, whether or not assumed, like a bird beating against bars; though it is true, too, that passions in the past can easily seem mad. What is important is that Hamlet now has a past, something he wants to turn away from, tired, elliptic and terse. After the graveyard scene, the clock seems to have started ticking again, and a heavy shadow, as of evening, covers the close of the play. Hamlet’s talk to Horatio always seems to me extraordinarily touching, in its slangy weariness: ‘I shall win at the odds . . . Let be.’

That ‘at the odds’ (the best of three) manages to reflect everything generous and random in Hamlet’s world, and in a history that brings him to life while charting his ruin. If we call Hamlet the first great European tragedy, indeed a very English first great tragedy, what we are stressing is a peculiar many-dimensional quality, an art of plethora whose language and forms are both humorous and doubling, ironic and unimprovable. The play is by no means a tragicomedy, though it has been called that. But its extreme and generic virtues mutate into that Shakespearian tragicomedy that is even more individual, perhaps wilder, as a form. Meanwhile, Hamlet stands as a centre to Shakespeare’s work.

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Vol. 26 No. 18 · 23 September 2004

Barbara Everett suggests that the key word in ‘To be or not to be’ is ‘nobler’ (LRB, 2 September). Earlier she drew attention to Hamlet’s status as a student, and I think that is relevant here, too. University students were accustomed to debate ‘questions’ as exercises in rhetoric and logic, and a case can be made that this speech is a performance, in the style of a student, perhaps put on for the benefit of Claudius and Polonius. The speech would not, then, be performed introspectively, but with relish at its formal but improvised cleverness, a presentation designed to demonstrate persuasiveness and logic and leading to a conclusion: ‘Enterprises of great pitch and moment … turn awry.’ He could thereby signal to the hidden listeners that he has no immediate plan against the king, perhaps to lull them into a false sense of security.

The conclusion ‘Soft you now,/The fair Ophelia’ has never struck me as being easily spoken to himself alone. A nod in the direction of the listeners – you knew she was here all along and so did I – would be a more interesting way of rounding it off than the usual sort of ‘well well, what have we here?’

Julian Rathbone
Thorney Hill, Dorset

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