Whirr2008-10-08
Blast from the

Hah! In celebration of Google's ten year anniversary, they have a page where you can search their 2001 index. Of course I search for myself, and not only came across whis darling photo of me, circa 1998:


But also an essay I wrote about Hamlet. And just so I don't have to rely on the vaguries of the wayback machine to preserve this essential piece of writing (and it doesn't read too bad, ten years on, if I say so myself) here it is:

Hamlet: Weakness or Justice?

"Hamlet: The tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind". So begins the Olivier version of Shakespeare’s classic story, and many others follow suit. From Elliott to Zeffirelli Hamlet is portrayed as a weak-minded individual, whose lack of purpose leads to seven unnecessary deaths. This is certainly a valid interpretation, but to my mind it isn't a very interesting one.

Hamlet is billed as a tragedy, but it is also quite similar to a modern-day murder mystery. As such the most crucial plot element is Claudius’ guilt, or, rather, the extent of Hamlet’s knowledge of this guilt. Is the ghost the doomed spirit of Hamlet’s father, or a vision sent from Hell? How much does Hamlet know, how much can he guess, and how much is he deluding himself?

Hamlet is almost always performed as a tragedy, and Hamlet’s "indecision" is universally accepted as the flaw. "If he had only made up his mind", people argue, "eight deaths could have been avoided." I maintain that this is a very easy position for the audience to take, because we already know that Claudius is guilty. Typical productions leave no doubt as to his guilt, either by the way he is played or (as in Brannaugh’s excellent production) by actually showing the deed. It would be a much more interesting piece if the audience could be left uncertain of the true facts. If the fact that Claudius is guilty is taken for granted, and so it seems unfortunate that Hamlet cannot act sooner, but without this knowledge acting too quickly would be a mistake.

In the text, however, there is no clear evidence of wrongdoing until Claudius confesses his sins to God, his nephew, and the theater at large. Up until that point we (and, more importantly, Hamlet) are weighing the Ghost’s story against the king’s. The ghost accuses in Act I, but Hamlet is perceptive enough not to accept the being at its word. One thing that he realizes is that the Ghost is playing directly to his own emotions.

It may be a physical being from Hell sent to tempt him, but it may also be a projection of the prince’s negative feelings onto his uncle. Hamlet has never liked him, and has also always had a strong love for his father. Also, no matter what Hamlet may say about ambition, he was in line for the throne. Hamlet recognizes the voice of the Devil (or his subconscious) telling him: "You’re absolutely right. King Hamlet was a perfect man, flawless in all respects, and your uncle betrayed and murdered your father. You should be king, and you are right to hate him."

When compared to this revelation, Claudius has a pretty reasonable story. His brother, a war hero, died tragically in his own garden. People die from snake bite all the time, but this was not a convenient time for King Hamlet to die. He was a hero to his country, defeating the King of Norway in single combat and winning a great deal of land, but he made enemies in his life. One of these enemies was young Fortinbras, prince of Norway. He publicly swore to avenge his father, invented some claim against Denmark, and began building up his armies. With Hamlet’s strong leadership the country would be in little danger, but if word got out that the country was under the command of a boy, recently returned from college, perhaps Norway would not be alone in attacking. For this reason, the laborers work day and night in preparation for war. To demonstrate the security of the nation, Claudius assumes the kingship, assuring the world that Denmark is once again under strong leadership.

Hamlet is probably right not to like Claudius. Incest may have been necessary to save the country, but he showed little reluctance. He is also lacking in charisma: the citizens prefer Hamlet Sr., then Hamlet Jr., and finally will settle for Laertes in his place. Claudius is also a drunkard, re-establishing the ancient tradition of "carousing" and holding drinking orgies while his people work the night away.

However, despite his many faults, there is nothing to show that he is a murderer until Hamlet unnerves him with the Players’ aid. This is still pretty slim evidence, but in the confessional all is revealed. When viewed in this light, Hamlet's "indecision" is admirable, he combines the best qualities as his two foils: the nobility of Laertes’ cause, and the execution of Fortinbras’ coup. Fortinbras attacks without justice - his father died honorably in a fair fight, on the battlefield. Laertes has a larger grievance than Hamlet, but must stoop to treachery to complete his vengeance. Hamlet, however, remains true throughout, resisting his impulses until he can not only perform Vengeance, but Justice as well.

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