From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan
Part of the artistry in Shakespeare’s plays lies in the placement of the scenes and the way one scene influences the emotional impact of the next. This effect is important now as we shift from the bleak battlements of the castle wall to the royal court of Denmark, where, in the presence of Hamlet, the King and Queen are at council. While the ghost of Hamlet’s father lingers in our minds, we witness his brother’s response to his death.
King Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death
The memory be green; and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe;
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our1 sometime sister,2 now our queen,
Th’imperial jointress3 of this warlike state,
Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife.
Thus we learn that Hamlet’s uncle has married his recently widowed mother and is now the king of Denmark. Knowing that the ghost of Hamlet’s father is still stalking the battlements at night, we feel the uncle’s lack of sincere sorrow, and its effect is certainly not lost on Hamlet.
The King next turns his attention to the threat of Fortinbras who has demanded the surrender of the lands his father had lost to the former king of Denmark. We learn that Fortinbras’s uncle, the King of Norway, being bedridden, is apparently unaware of Fortinbras’s activities. In an attempt to restrain Fortinbras, the King now dispatches Cornelius and Voltemand as envoys to alert the King of Norway to his nephew’s plans.
The King then greets Laertes, the son of Polonius, the elderly Councilor of State. Laertes requests the King’s permission to return to France, and this is granted on the agreement of Polonius.
Finally, the King speaks to Hamlet:
King But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son –
Hamlet A little more than kin, and less than kind.
Hamlet’s famous opening line immediately reveals his resentment at the incestuous relationship between his uncle and his mother. It also reveals a very noticeable facet of Hamlet’s character – his ability to unleash sharp witty comments even in the depths of despair.
We can interpret Hamlet’s first remark in a number of ways. “A little more than kin” probably refers to the unnatural way by which Hamlet has become the son of his uncle while “less than kind” may refer both to the difference Hamlet perceives between himself and his uncle and to the lack of kindliness in his uncle, particularly in his hurried marriage to his mother. Full of double meanings and innuendoes, Hamlet’s lines have intrigued literary critics for centuries.
King How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’sun.
Hamlet’s response reverberates with double meanings. Is his sorrow insufficient to meet the circumstances? Or, considering the pun between the words “sun” and “son,” is he too much of a true son not to be in a state of grief? Or is it “too much” that he is now the son of his uncle? Hamlet’s bitterness continually manifests itself in his sharp wit. Now the Queen pleads with him:
Queen Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed4 lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ’tis common: all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
Hamlet Ay, madam, it is common.
Queen If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
This question brings up a crucial point in the play. What the Queen and, later, the King suggests is that since death is common, we should not be too concerned about it. But such an attitude is totally illogical. Not only is death common, it is also inevitable. And if death is inevitable, it follows that we should indeed be very concerned about it.
Here is our first encounter with the question that Shakespeare poses for us repeatedly throughout the play: How do we respond to this inevitability of death? Do we simply do nothing other than distract ourselves from the truth with futile and petty actions? Unfortunately, distraction is the common response, our usual method of coping with death, which is to say, we do not cope at all; we hide from reality.
This tendency of ours to hide from the profound is exactly what Shakespeare wants to focus our attention on. Why? What is his purpose? To answer this question, we need to realize that Shakespeare is actually a highly advanced being, a person with a profound understanding of the spiritual path. We find evidence of his spiritual nature in the deep spiritual messages he conveys to us in all his plays.5
In Hamlet, Shakespeare is trying to get us to ask this question: Might there not be a better way of responding to the inevitability of death other than hiding from the truth? Might we not, instead, take heed of the words of Plato when he says: “Of some things I am not sure, but I am sure of one thing: that it is better and more manly to think that we ought to investigate what we do not know than idly assume that we cannot, or ought not to, investigate. For this I would fight to the limit of my power in word and deed.”
Indeed, how do we know there is no solution unless we investigate? Might we not find the courage to venture into the heart of the ultimate mystery? Why do we meekly succumb to despair without even taking a single step and proceed to bury ourselves in the petty distractions of the mundane? Will not the futile attempt to hide from the inevitable merely enhance the fearful certainty? What do we have to lose by trying to penetrate the veil?
Attempting to penetrate the veil essentially means taking the spiritual path. This in no way means surrendering ourselves to a blind faith. Blind faith in dogma is not a solution, since we may end up believing in something that is incorrect. The true spiritual path is a path of verification. We find our way through a process of knowing, a process of verifying the truths as they unfold before us.
Shakespeare knows that all of us have within us an inner light that will illuminate the darkness. We must find this inner light; it will allow us to experience the truths for ourselves and find a passage through the darkness. We will know because we will experience the truths directly. There is, however, only one way to verify that this process works – we have to make the journey ourselves.
This, in the end, is what Shakespeare wants us to do. But first, we must find the courage to face the inevitability of death, to admit to the truth, and to confront the profound. For only by doing so will we discover the powerful motivation to embark on the spiritual quest, and only then will we have the deep strength to transform our lives in accordance with the truth.
That is why, in Hamlet, Shakespeare repeatedly places this question before us: Are we able to accept the inevitability of death and to confront the profound? To emphasize the importance of this question, practically all the main characters in the play eventually die. All of them, like us, must ultimately face the profound whether or not we prepare ourselves for it.
How each of the characters avoids confronting the inevitability of death is dramatically portrayed in the play, providing a picture of the whole spectrum of man’s varied reactions to the truth of our mortality. Their behavior thus represents the wide range of distractions we employ in our futile attempts to hide from the inevitable.
Among the characters in the play, Hamlet is the only one courageous enough to confront the profound without flinching, but for him, unfortunately, something else goes very wrong. In the dramatic portrayal of how this error practically destroys him, Shakespeare hopes to impart the most important message of all.
But first, let us return to the ongoing dialogue between the Queen and Hamlet. The Queen has just asked Hamlet why the death of his father, being a common event, seems so particular with him.
Hamlet Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration6 of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
While this passage stresses the depth of Hamlet’s grief, it is also the first hint of a theme that will echo repeatedly through the play – the projection of false appearances.
King ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father,
But you must know your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow.
The King expresses the basic truth that everyone dies, but he believes that mourning is merely an obsequious duty. This is in complete contradiction to Hamlet’s statement that his appearance of sorrow is merely “the trappings and suits of woe,” and that what is real is within. The contrast between the King and Hamlet is evident. The King continues:
King But to persever
In obstinate condolement7 is a course
Of impious stubbornness, ’tis unmanly grief,
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled;
For what we know must be, and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd; whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried
From the first corse8 till he that died today,
‘This must be so.’
Shakespeare has the King reiterating the common reaction to death: Since death is common, why take it to heart? Yet the question answers itself. We should take it to heart for the very reason that it is common. Here lies an essential ingredient to spirituality. The spiritual person confronts reality, accepts the truth, and seeks out a resolution. The mundane person simply ignores the truth.
The message in Hamlet targets the average person, since the average person often fails to accept the inevitability of death. While we readily admit that “everyone dies,” we tend to behave as though we will live forever; we have not actually realized we will die. In the Indian epic The Mahabharata, one of the heroes, Yudhistira, was posed with the question: “What is the greatest wonder?” Yudhistira’s reply was: “Day after day and hour after hour, people die and corpses are carried along, yet the onlookers never realize that they are also to die one day, but think they will live forever. This is the greatest wonder of the world.”9
The failure to confront our own mortality is one reason why we have missed the meaning of Hamlet for so long. Most of us would actually accept the King’s words as being true and sensible: “Death cannot be helped – why concern ourselves with it?” That is how we often think. Even when Shakespeare emphasizes its absurdity with the King and Queen’s frivolous response (by their hasty marriage), we may merely condemn their marriage and still fail to recognize their denial of death. The play, however, reveals that it is Shakespeare’s intent to make the denial of mortality a key issue. No other Shakespearean play comes even remotely close to Hamlet in the number of references to death and its reality.
We can also now discern another reason why many often miss the meaning of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare aims his messages mainly at the average population while most other literary writers aim messages at those with weaker or less-than-average morals. The “more moral” majority readily grasps their meaning, partly because the message is actually not applicable to the majority – we do not require it, and hence there is no need for us to adjust our lives to conform.
Shakespeare’s messages, on the other hand, do apply to the average population, but we may miss them because they touch on issues we may not yet understand. Also, to accept the message probably requires us to change our perspective, and even our lifestyle, and change generates resistance. We may simply refuse to accept what Shakespeare wants us to feel.
In this scene, we can see that neither the King nor the Queen seriously accepts the truth of their personal mortality. They are the first two characters we encounter who portray the different methods used to hide from the profound.
Among them, the King, Claudius, is the most deluded of all. He completely gives way to his evil impulses in his quest for power, prestige, wealth, and all the mundane pleasures of life, as though any of these can help him in the end. He has deliberately barred the truth from himself. Without a total change to his lifestyle and motivation in life, he will be unable to accept the truth staring at him. In a sense, he lives almost in a state of drunken stupor, steadfastly refusing to see things as they are.
The Queen, Gertrude, exhibits a different way of hiding from the profound. As suggested by her hasty remarriage, she seeks refuge in the sensual pleasures and comforts of life. She shields herself from the knocks and trials of life by complying readily with whatever ensures her comfort and physical well-being. She, too, is deluded because there is no way she can avoid the profound in the end. But while she still can, she also steadfastly refuses to see things as they are.
Back at the royal court in Denmark, the King and Queen next request Hamlet to stay with them rather than return to the school at Wittenburg. Hamlet readily agrees.
King Why, ’tis a loving and a fair reply.
Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come.
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart; in grace whereof
No jocund health that Denmark drinks today
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the King’s rouse10 the heavens shall bruit11 again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
The King is certainly far removed from any sense of bereavement; he is, in fact, in a celebratory mood. This brings into stark contrast the first soliloquy of Hamlet (after the King and Queen leave), which reemphasizes how readily the King and Queen distance themselves and hide from the reality of death.
Hamlet Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. Oh God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two –
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion12 to a satyr;13 so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem14 the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet within a month –
Let me not think on’t! Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe,15 all tears – why she, even she –
Oh God! A beast that wants discourse of reason16
Would have mourned longer – married with my uncle,
My father’s brother – but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. Oh most wicked speed! To post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
Hamlet has the courage to face reality without flinching; he fully accepts the pain of bereavement and the reality of death. This, as we have noted, is an important requirement on the spiritual path. Yet we already sense that something has gone wrong, for Hamlet’s despair has reached suicidal proportions. What has interfered with his process of spiritual development is quite evident: Hamlet is condemning his mother for her hasty remarriage.
We may feel that he is justified in doing so, for a remarriage with such haste is usually deemed an unworthy act. Yet it is exactly Shakespeare’s intention to show that the act of condemning another, regardless of how justified it is, wrecks our spiritual development. This is typical of Shakespeare. To make us realize the error of a certain action, he will provide the most justifiable reason for it, and then proceed nonetheless to make us feel that it is wrong, and, more importantly, to show us why it is wrong.
While we should certainly be mindful of the moral correctness of any action and try to guide others to what is right, the act of condemning another goes beyond that, becoming a hostile act of separation that demarcates “others” from the “self.” This separation harms our spiritual development, for it runs counter to the spiritual path, which is a path of the heart, a path of compassion that leads to a sense of unity and the realization of the oneness17 of all.
Hamlet ends his soliloquy as Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo arrive. After a warm greeting, especially with Horatio who is a friend from Wittenburg, Hamlet asks why he is in Elsinore.
Horatio My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.
Hamlet I prithee do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.
Horatio Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
Hamlet Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
We experience again Hamlet’s propensity for sharp, witty remarks that is almost a form of bitter self-mockery at his own tormented state of mind. The conversation then focuses on Hamlet’s late father:
Horatio I saw him once; he was a goodly king.
Hamlet He was a man, take him for all in all;
I shall not look upon his like again.
Horatio My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
Hamlet Saw? Who?
Horatio My lord, the king your father.
Hamlet The king my father?
Horatio Season your admiration18 for a while
With an attent ear till I may deliver
Upon the witness of these gentlemen
This marvel to you.
Hamlet For God’s love, let me hear!
Horatio relates the events of the previous night, and Hamlet thus learns of the appearance of his father’s ghost. He questions Horatio closely about the event:
Hamlet Did you not speak to it?
Horatio My lord, I did,
But answer made it none. Yet once methought
It lifted up its head and did address
Itself to motion like as it would speak.
But even then the morning cock crew loud,
And at the sound it shrunk in haste away
And vanished from our sight.
We are reminded once again of the nature of the ghost – that it is no enlightened being and that we must treat its advice accordingly. After obtaining further details from Horatio about the encounter, Hamlet resolves to meet the ghost of his father:
Hamlet I will watch tonight.
Perchance ’twill walk again.
Horatio I warrant it will.
Hamlet If it assume my noble father’s person,
I’ll speak to it though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace.
As well as an indication of his willingness to confront the profound in whatever form, we also have a glimpse of Hamlet’s bold and impetuous nature. He hardly seems prone to delaying his actions. We must remember this when the question of his delay in taking revenge comes up.
The scene closes with Hamlet, now alone, revealing his premonition that something evil had transpired:
Hamlet My father’s spirit – in arms! All is not well.
I doubt19 some foul play. Would the night were come.
Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.
1 our the royal “we”
2 sometime sister former sister-in-law
3 jointress partner
4 vailed downcast
5 These messages provide evidence for Shakespeare’s spiritual nature because they are not derived from a mere intellectual interpretation of any particular religion’s scriptural doctrine. The nature of the messages strongly suggests that they are the direct realizations of an advanced mystic who has actually undertaken the arduous task of transforming his life and personality towards the spiritual ideal. True aspirants of the spiritual path – the saints and the bodhisattvas – attain their realizations from direct experience.
6 suspiration sighing
7 condolement grief
8 corse corpse (in the Bible, “the first corse” would be Abel, murdered by his brother, Cain)
9 Excerpt is from The Mahabhrata (A Shortened Modern Prose Version) by R. K. Narayan (William Heinemann Ltd, 1978).
10 rouse drink
11 bruit proclaim noisily
12 Hyperion the sun god
13 satyr half man half goat
14 beteem allow
15 Niobe mythical mother who wept endlessly for her slain children
16 wants discourse of reason lacks reasoning power
17 “Oneness” here does not mean that we all become, and function as, a single homogeneous entity. The term is more to be taken in the sense of a transcendent realization of nonseparation.
18 season your admiration control your wonder
19 doubt suspect