From Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet by Kenneth Chan
There are two mysteries in Hamlet , the mystery of the meaning of the play as Shakespeare intends, and the larger mystery – the ultimate mystery of life – that the play addresses. Let us look, here, at the first mystery: What is Shakespeare trying to say in Hamlet ?
This question has so perplexed critics over the last four hundred years that many finally concluded, after immense struggle, that there is no central message in Hamlet . The play seems to lack a cohesive theme and remains an enigma. It appears that Shakespeare merely created an astonishing piece of art that haunts us continually but lacks a binding philosophy. Nothing, in fact, is more wrong.
Part of the central message in Hamlet is so dramatically portrayed by Shakespeare that it is almost sublime. I refer to Act III, Scene 4, which virtually sets this theme on fire. The scene is also a source of dismay to the audience because Hamlet displays a callous lack of remorse after accidentally killing Polonius, the elderly Councilor of State. Hamlet even proceeds to ridicule the slain man:
Hamlet I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room.
Mother, good night indeed. This counsellor
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Someone who can react in this way hardly fits the image of an ideal hero. Surely Polonius deserves some measure of compassion. Why then does Shakespeare not spare Hamlet even a single word of kindness for Polonius? This would have greatly helped to redeem his hero and would have been simple for Shakespeare to implement. Shakespeare, instead, does the opposite. The next three scenes continue with Hamlet’s bizarre and disgusting antics over the body of Polonius, as though Shakespeare wants to assure us Hamlet’s lack of remorse is no oversight. It is deliberate. Why?
Let us return to Act III, Scene 4, and picture the drama. The scene opens with Polonius indulging in his petty court intrigues by concealing himself behind the curtains to spy on the coming encounter between Hamlet and his mother. Hamlet arrives, having already worked himself into a fearsome state of mind. We know his state of mind from the two preceding scenes. At the end of Act III, Scene 2, after confirming for himself that his uncle – the current king – had indeed murdered his father, as the ghost informs, Hamlet says:
Hamlet ‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
Hamlet thus prepares himself for revenge. So wild has he become that even the thought of killing his mother enters his mind, but he suppresses it:
Hamlet Oh heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever
The soul of Nero1 enter this firm bosom;
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
His state worsens in the next scene (Act III, Scene 3) when he stumbles on the King praying. He rejects this opportunity to kill the King because the act of praying may help redeem him. Hamlet’s motive for revenge has gone beyond merely the establishment of justice in this world. It is a darker motive of pure malice; he decides to postpone his revenge to a more “opportune” moment, so that he can unleash an eternity of suffering upon his victim:
Hamlet Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:2
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At game a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish3 of salvation in’t,
Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell, whereto it goes.
Thus, in this fearsome and malevolent state of mind, Hamlet now appears before his mother in Act III, Scene 4. His mother quickly perceives his mood after a short exchange of words and tries to end the meeting by leaving. Hamlet prevents her, causing her to cry for help. Polonius, behind the curtains, echoes her cry, and Hamlet summarily kills him by thrusting his sword through the arras, thinking he is the King. Now the real dramatic point begins.
Picture the scene. Polonius lies dead on the stage, newly slain by Hamlet. The Queen cries:
Queen Oh what a rash and bloody deed is this!
What is Hamlet’s response?
Hamlet A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
This response is a study of Hamlet’s mind in a nutshell. His initial reaction spares no compassionate thought over the death of Polonius. He is fixated on condemning his mother and his uncle.
Hamlet then appeals passionately to his mother to realize the error of her hasty remarriage. The anguished Queen eventually cries out for Hamlet to stop.
Queen Oh Hamlet, speak no more.
Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained4 spots
As will not leave their tinct.5
Yet Hamlet, in his passion, does not let go:
Hamlet Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed6 bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!
The Queen makes another anguished appeal:
Queen Oh speak to me no more.
These words like daggers enter in my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.
Yet Hamlet persists:
Hamlet A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe7
Of your precedent lord, a vice8 of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
And put it in his pocket –
All this is almost commendable, a measure of Hamlet’s intense mourning for his lost father, except for one glaring fact: The body of Polonius is lying on the stage in full view of the audience.
Now the ghost of Hamlet’s father enters, and Hamlet expresses his guilt at having delayed the revenge he promised.
Hamlet Do you not come your tardy son to chide
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
Th’important acting of your dread command?
Again, Hamlet’s expression of a deep filial bond with his late father is almost commendable – but the body of Polonius still lies in full view. This almost unbelievable scene reveals Shakespeare at his most sublime. What is Shakespeare trying to say?
We witness an impassioned, almost moral, appeal by Hamlet to his mother to realize the error of her hasty remarriage while he blatantly contravenes all sense of compassion to a fellow being, newly slain by his own hand. We also witness his filial guilt for the delay in avenging his father while he totally neglects and even mocks the death of another. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father arrives to remind him of his “almost blunted purpose,” we may wonder why the ghost of Polonius does not get up and reprimand the other ghost.
The whole episode is surreal, its dramatic impact nearly unbelievable. There is no doubt that Shakespeare deliberately set it up, for he neatly places the entire episode between two striking passages of Hamlet mocking the slain man. What is his purpose?
It is, in fact, a message of great profundity, a deeply spiritual one that touches on the ultimate mystery of life, and one not easy to come to terms with. So Shakespeare does not blatantly state it in written words. Instead, he crafts the entire play into an emotional and passionate appeal to the audience to see its truth. The result is an astounding piece of art. For Hamlet is one of the greatest pieces of literature we possess, great both in its poetic artistry and in its deep meaning.
Let us now begin a closer exploration of its mystery.
1 Nero Roman emperor who had his mother murdered
2 hent occasion, opportunity
3 relish trace
4 grained fast-dyed, indelible
5 tinct color
6 enseamed greasy
7 tithe tenth part
8 vice a character (often the buffoon) in morality plays