James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)
Essays and Soliloquies
In terms of plot Hamlet is Shakespeare's least original play. He lifted the story from a now lost revenge tragedy of the 1580s, also called Hamlet, which by the end of that decade was already feeling shopworn. In 1589, in an attack on Elizabethan tragedies that overindulged in Senecan rant, Thomas Nashe singled out Hamlet as a notable offender,
“English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as 'Blood is a beggar' and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches."
Nashe also hints that Thomas Kyd, author of the wildly popular revenge play The Spanish Tragedy, had written Hamlet as well.
This Hamlet was on the boards, then, when Shakespeare first arrived in London. He would get to know it intimately, for by the mid-1590s the play had entered the repertory of the newly formed Chamberlain's Men. On June 9, 1594, Shakespeare, Burbage, and Kemp were probably in the cast that performed it at Newington Butts, a theater located a mile south of London Bridge, which the Chamberlain's Men were temporarily sharing with their rivals, the Admiral's Men. If box-office receipts are any indication, the play continued to show its age: fewer customers paid to see Hamlet than did to see other old revenge plays staged the previous week, Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.
When the Chamberlain's Men moved to the Theatre, they brought the play with them. By now the Ghost's haunting cry for revenge had become a byword. Three years before Shakespeare sat down to write his own Hamlet, Thomas Lodge spoke familiarly of one who
"walks for the most part in black under the cover of gravity, and looks as pale as the vizard of the Ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre like an oyster wife, 'Hamlet, revenge!' "
Shakespeare would have had many years to reflect upon what he might do with the old play.
Long before this Hamlet was staged, the contours of the story were fixed, having been in place since the twelfth century when Saxo Grammaticus wrote of the legendary Danish revenger Amleth. His saga was printed in Latin in 1514. Little in it is new to those familiar with the plot of Shakespeare's play. His uncle kills Amleth's father (after he had defeated the King of Norway in solo combat) and then marries Amleth's mother. The murder is no secret and to avert suspicion about his plans to avenge his father's death, young Amleth acts mad and speaks nonsense. A beautiful young woman is sent to discover his intentions. Later, while
speaking with his mother in her chamber, Amleth is spied on by the king's adviser-- whom he kills and dismembers. His uncle then packs Amleth off to Britain to have him executed, accompanied by two retainers, but Amleth intercepts their instructions and substitutes their names for his own. He returns to Denmark and avenges his father's death by killing his uncle. In Saxo's version Amleth survives and is made king. The codes of honor and revenge are clear, and Amleth triumphs because of his patience, his intelligence, and his ability to act decisively when he sees his chance.
Standing between Saxo's story and the old play of Hamlet is a French retelling by Francois de Belleforest, the long-winded Histoires Tragiques, first published in 1570. Shakespeare may not have read Saxo, but he was familiar with Belleforest, who introduced a few new wrinkles. The most notable is the change in Hamlet's mother's part. In Belleforest, she has an adulterous affair with her brother-in-law before he murders her husband. And later, she is converted to Hamlet's cause, keeps his secret, and supports him in his efforts to regain the throne. Belleforest also speaks of the young revenger as melancholy. The Ghost, the play within a play, the feigned madness, and the hero's death-- familiar features of the revenge
drama of the late 1580s-- are all likely to have been introduced by the anonymous author of the lost Elizabethan Hamlet. Of all the characters, only Fortinbras, who threatens invasion at the outset and succeeds to the throne at the end, is probably Shakespeare's invention.
There are many ways of being original. Inventing a plot from scratch is only one of them and never held much appeal for Shakespeare. Aside from the soliloquies, much of Shakespeare's creativity went into the play's verbal texture. In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare found himself using and inventing more words than he had ever done before. His vocabulary, even when compared to those of other great dramatists, was already exceptional. The roughly four thousand lines in the play ended up requiring nearly the same number of different words (for comparison's sake, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta each used only about half that number). Even the 14,000 or so different words or compounds that Shakespeare had already employed in his plays (by the end of his career that figure would reach about 18,000) proved insufficient. According to Alfred Hart, who painstakingly counted when and how
Shakespeare introduced each word into his work, Shakespeare introduced around 600 words in Hamlet that he had never used before, two-thirds of which he would never use again. This is an extraordinary number (King Lear, with 350, is the only one that comes close; in the spare Julius Caesar only 70 words appear that Shakespeare had not previously used). Hamlet, then, didn't sound like anything playgoers had ever heard before and must at times have been taxing to follow, for by Hart's count there are 170 words or phrases that Shakespeare coined or employed in new ways while writing the play.
It isn't just the words he chose but how he used them that make the language of Hamlet so challenging. Shakespeare clearly wanted audiences to work hard, and one of the ways he made them do so was by employing an odd verbal trick called hendiadys. Though the term may be strange, examples of it-- "law and order," "house and home," or the Shakespearean
"sound and fury"-- are familiar enough. Hendiadys literally means "one by means of two," a single idea conveyed through a pairing of nouns linked by "and." When conjoined in this way, the nouns begin to oscillate, seeming to qualify each other as much as the term each individually modifies. Whether he is exclaiming "Angels and ministers of grace defend us" (1.4.39), declaring that actors are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time" (2.2.524), speaking of "the book and volume of my brain" (1.5.103), or complaining of "a fantasy and trick of fame" (4-4.61), Hamlet often speaks in this way. The more you think about hendiadys, the more they induce a kind of mental vertigo. Take for example Hamlet's description of "the book and volume of my brain." It's easy to get the gist of what he's saying, and the phrase would pass unremarked in the course of a performance. But does he mean "book-like volume" of my mind? Or "big book of my mind"? Part of the problem here is that the words bleed into each other-"volume" of course is another word for "book" but also means "space." The destabilizing effect of how these words playoff each other is slightly and temporarily unnerving. It's only on reflection, which is of course Hamlet's problem, that we trip.
It's very hard to write in hendiadys; almost no other English writer did so very often before or after Shakespeare-- and neither did he much before 1599. Something happened in that year—beginning with Henry the Fifth and As You Like It and continuing for five years or so past Hamlet through the great run of plays that included Othello, Measure for Measure, Lear, and Macbeth, after which hendiadys pretty much disappear again-- that led Shakespeare to invoke this figure almost compulsively. But nowhere is its presence felt more than in Hamlet, where
there are sixty-six of them, or one every sixty lines-- and that's counting conservatively. Othello, with twenty-eight, has the next highest count. There's a kind of collective desperation to all the hendiadys in Hamlet-- a striving for meaning that both recedes and multiplies as well as an acknowledgment of how necessary and impossible it is to suture things together-- that suits the mood of the play perfectly.
WHAT THE CHAMBERLAIN'S MEN DID TO THE WOODEN FRAME OF THE Theatre, Shakespeare did to the old play of Hamlet: he tore it from its familiar moorings, salvaged its structure, and reassembled something new. By wrenching this increasingly outdated revenge play into the present, Shakespeare forced his contemporaries to experience what he felt and what his play registers so profoundly: the world had changed. Old certainties were gone, even if new ones had not yet taken hold. The most convincing way of showing this was to ask playgoers to keep both plays in mind at once, to experience a new Hamlet while memories of the old one, ghostlike, still lingered. Audiences at the Globe soon found themselves, like Hamlet, straddling worlds and struggling to reconcile past and present. There was an added benefit, having to do with the play's difficulty: familiarity with the plot allowed playgoers to lose themselves in the complexity of thought and the inwardness of the characters without losing track of the action.
The desire to mark the end of one kind of drama and the beginning of another carried over into the internal dynamics of Shakespeare's playing company. Spectators at this Hamlet wouldn't be distracted by a clown. Tellingly, when "the tragedians of the city" (2.2.328) arrive at Elsinore they are without a clown; even after his departure from the company Kemp was still on Shakespeare's mind. And Hamlet cannot resist a gratuitous attack on improvisational clowning:
Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set
down for them; for there be of them that will themselves
laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh
too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the
play then to be considered. That's villainous, and shows a
most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. (2.2.328)
While these are Hamlet's words, judging by the company's recent history, Shakespeare's own view was probably not much different. Shakespeare made sure that in Hamlet the last laugh would be on the Kemp-like clown-- and he did so by dividing up his role between the new,
clownish fool (Robert Armin, who played the Gravedigger), and, surprisingly, the tragic protagonist himself, played by Richard Burbage. In his verbal sparring, his intimate relationship to the audience, his distracting and obscene behavior at the performance of The Mousetrap (where he cracks sexual jokes at Ophelia's expense and calls himself her "only jigmaker"),
and his antic performance for much of the play, Hamlet appropriates much of the traditional comic part.
Only after Hamlet has stopped clowning does Shakespeare introduce Armin, creating for him a role that made much of his singing (he breaks into song four times) as well as his celebrated repartee. And in the Gravedigger's recollection of Yorick-- this "same skull, sir, was, sir, Yorick's skull, the King's jester" (S.I.I8o-8I)-Shakespeare also allows Armin a private tribute to Richard Tarlton, the first of the great Elizabethan clowns, who had reputedly chosen the young Armin as his successor. Armin understood what was expected of him. As Gravedigger, he never competes with Hamlet for our affection.
The eighteenth-century biographer Nicholas Rowe reported that the only role he was able to learn that Shakespeare played was "the Ghost in his own Hamlet." So that when the Ghost tells Hamlet, "Remember me," it was likely to have been Shakespeare himself who spoke these words to Richard Burbage. Burbage would remember. His success was closely tied to Shakespeare's. At the beginning of the I590’s he had not yet come into his own and was still being cast in messenger parts. Within a few years, Shakespeare would fashion breakthrough roles for him in Richard III and Romeo, but it was Hamlet that defined Burbage's greatness for
contemporaries. An anonymous eulogist, recalling Burbage shortly after his death in 1619, remembers his finest roles (Hamlet foremost) and speaks with particular fondness of the scene in which Burbage, as Hamlet, leaped into Ophelia's grave (unless, that is, the passage describes Burbage's Romeo):
young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,
Kind Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside
That lived in him have now for ever died.
Oft have I seen him leap into the grave,
Suiting the person which he seemed to have
Of a sad lover with so true an eye
That there, I would have sworn, he meant to die.
The eulogist's description of Burbage's style closely corresponds to what Burbage-- as Hamlet--himself recommends to the Players: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action," and "you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness" (3.2.7-8, 17-18):
How did his speech become him, and his pace,
Suit with his speech, and every action grace
Them both alike, whilst not a word did fall
Without just weight, to ballast it withal.
Shakespeare also wrote Burbage's response to "Remember me," lines that double as a private reflection on what the two men hoped to create together at the new playhouse: "Remember thee, / Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe" (1.5.95-97).
Shakespeare's break with the past was tempered by the ambivalence that had characterized his responses to the death of chivalry, the loss of Arden, and the fading of Catholicism. Even as he was rendering the old style of revenge play obsolete, Shakespeare found room in the play for a last nostalgic glance at it in the dramatic speech that Hamlet "chiefly loved" (2.2.446). The old-fashioned speech describes how Achilles' son Pyrrhus kills a king and unhesitatingly avenges his father's death. Hamlet knows the lines by heart and recites them excitedly:
The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in th' ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smeared
With heraldy more dismal. Head to foot
N ow is he total gules, horridly tricked
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
To their lord's murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'ersized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.
By the end of the seventeenth century, admirers of Shakespeare no longer understood what he was doing here and decided that he was either writing quite badly or lazily recycling old material. The dramatist John Dryden's verdict was harsh: "Would not a man have thought that the poet had been bound prentice to a wheelwright for his first rant?" A generation or so later, Alexander Pope floated the idea that Hamlet "seems to commend this play to expose the bombast of it"-- but even he wasn't convinced that Shakespeare had written the speech. Not until the late eighteenth century did Edmond Malone first suggest that Shakespeare was trying to sound old-fashioned. You can feel in these lines the hold that this kind of revenge drama once had on Shakespeare as well as his appreciation of a moral clarity that was no longer credible. It's one of the keys to understanding what makes Hamlet so distinctive: even as he paints over an earlier work of art, Shakespeare allows traces of what's been whitewashed to remain visible.
In the closing years of Elizabeth' s reign, as in the play, heroic action had become increasingly hard to believe in. And things probably seemed worse than they actually were when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet in the autumn of 1599. Londoners, barely recovered from the murky armada threat and Essex's ill-fated expedition, felt this plainly enough by mid-November, as noted earlier, when the preacher who had dared to speak "of the
mis-government in Ireland" in "open pulpit" before thousands of spectators at St. Paul's was silenced. Many thousands more saw it at Whitehall's tilt yard later that week, where the exclusion of Essex and his Irish knights made this celebration of martial valor seem more artificial than the pasteboard shields the knights carried to the tilt. Shakespeare and others in the capital would have found the degree to which politics was being played out in public
unprecedented. So "many scandalous libels" began circulating in "the court, city and country" this autumn that the government felt forced to counter by publicly embarrassing Essex in open hearings of the Star Chamber. Francis Woodward couldn't believe it and went to see for himself He writes to Robert Sidney of "throng and press" of Londoners who elbowed him at these proceedings, a crowd "so mighty that I was driven so far back that I could not hear what they said." Henry Wotton, who followed Essex to Ireland and served as his secretary, wrote to his friend John Donne in London that while it was true that Ireland suffered from "ill affections
and ill corruptions," the English court was suffering from "a stronger disease." "Courts," he bitterly concluded, "are upon earth the vainest places." That's as much as Wotton dared put on paper: "I will say no more, and yet peradventure I have said a great deal unto you." Shakespeare, like many others unsettled by the political climate this autumn, probably shared
Rowland Whyte's sense that "it is a world to be, to see the humors of the time." It was one thing for Shakespeare to have reflected upon the limits of heroic action and the culture of honor in Henry the Fifth and Julius Caesar earlier in the year-- plays that couldn't and wouldn't be chosen to be performed at court this Christmas for that very reason. It was all the more
striking that he would choose such a moment to update a story of a corrupt court (before whom a seditious play is performed), problematic succession, the threat of invasion, and the dangers of a coup.
"NOW I AM ALONE," HAMLET SAYS WITH RELIEF, AFTER ROSENCRANTZ AND Guildenstern, the Players, and Polonius leave him in act 2. But he's not: we are still there to hear him "unpack" his "heart with words" (2.2.586) in a way that no character in literature had done before. One of the mysteries of Hamlet is how Shakespeare, who a half year earlier couldn't quite
manage it in Julius Caesar, discovered how to write such compelling soliloquies:
O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. 0 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.
The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet wrestle with his thoughts is something that no dramatist had yet achieved. He had written memorable soliloquies from early on in his career, but as powerful as these were, even they fall far short of the intense self-awareness we find in Hamlet's. The
breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it was given tremendous impetus at the time that he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form, the essay.
(Montaigne and William Cornwallis)
English writers did not discover Montaigne until the late 1590s. In his late thirties, Montaigne had withdrawn from a world torn by religious wars to read, reflect, and write-- and had taken the unprecedented step of making himself the subject in a new literary form, the personal essay. The first two volumes of Montaigne's Essays were published in France in 1580. Shakespeare could easily have turned to the essay at earlier points in his career-- his French was good enough to read Montaigne in the original-- but he didn't. Only at the end of the century, a cultural moment marked by a high degree of skepticism and a deepening interest in how subjective experience could be expressed, did Montaigne begin to speak to Shakespeare and other English writers with great immediacy. The experience of William Cornwallis, the first Englishman to follow closely in Montaigne's footsteps, suggests not only why conditions were ripe but also what attracted Shakespeare to the essay and how it helped trigger such a change in his soliloquies. At the age of twenty-one, Cornwallis volunteered to fight under Essex in Ireland. He was knighted during the campaign and returned home in the autumn of 1599 world
weary and broke. He turned to writing. A few years earlier he might have found an outlet composing sonnets. Even a year earlier, before the Bishops' Ban, Cornwallis might have gravitated to satire. Instead, by late I599, he began writing essays. It's hard now to imagine a time when essays, like diaries, didn't exist, when the self was not explored in these ways. But in I600, when a collection of Cornwallis's first twenty-five essays appeared in print (another twenty-four came out a year later), even the word "essay" was unfamiliar. Cornwallis freely acknowledged his debt to Montaigne's Essays, though he admits that his French was so poor he relied on an unnamed translator. He had several to choose from. It might have been John Florio, whose unsurpassed translation, published in I603, was already under way by I598. More likely, it was a competitor, one of the "seven or eight of great wit" who Florio claims tried
(and failed) to complete a translation. Florio's assertion-- and there is no reason to doubt it-- suggests that there was a rush to translate Montaigne at this time.
As it turned out, the English reading public wasn't quite ready for the personal essay. With the exception of a half dozen or so other essay collections published in the early seventeenth century, the experiment fizzled and essay writing was not to be taken up again in any significant way until the eighteenth century. Because Cornwallis's Essays remain virtually unread today, a few examples are worth sharing. If his words sound like something Hamlet might have said, it's because they share with the soliloquies a sense of a mind overwhelmed by conflicts that cannot be resolved. Again and again Cornwallis identifies these obstacles
and just as often speaks of his frustration that he cannot reconcile competing claims:
Anger is the mother of injustice, and yet justice must lackey
on her errands, fight battles, and give her the victory. I cannot
reconcile these together, but even in the behalf of truth and
mercy, I will combat against a received tradition. I think nothing
but murder should be punished.
(from "Of Patience")
About nothing do I suffer greater conflicts in myself than
about enduring wrongs.
(from "Of Patience")
There have been great contentions about my mind and my
body about this argument of life. They are both very obstinate
in their desires, and I cannot blame them, for which soever
prevails deprives the other of the greatest authority.
My soul extols contemplation and persuades me that way;
my body understands not that language but is all for action.
He tells me that it is unproper, being of the world not to love
so, and that I am born to my country, to whom, embracing
this contemplative life, I am unprofitable. The other wants
not reasons forcible and celestial. It hath been my continual
labor to work a reconciliation between them, for I could not
perfect any course by reason of this division. Earth and
Heaven cannot be made one; therefore, impossible to join
(from "Of Life")
He that says of me only, "He lives well," speaks too sparingly
of me, for I live to better my mind and cure my body of
his innate diseases. I must choose the active course; my birth
commands me to that.
(from "Of Life and the Fashions of Life")
It is the mind that can distil the whole world, all ages, all
acts, all human knowledges within the little, little compass of
a brain; and yet with the force of that little treasure command,
dispose, censure, and determine states, actions, kingdoms,
war, overthrows, and all the acts and actors busied upon our
(from "Of Advice")
Copies of his essays were passed from hand to hand, and Cornwallis probably read his work aloud to admirers, much as Shakespeare had shared his sonnets with his "private friends." Most of Cornwallis's essays are under two thousand words long, an ideal length to recite. The 1600 edition of Cornwallis's Essays was small enough to fit in a palm or slip into a pocket so that readers could carry the essays around and reflect on their ideas. Cornwallis likened his essays to a kind of sketch, akin to "a scrivener trying his pen before he ingrosseth his work"-- the kind of essay writing that Dr. Johnson would later define as "a loose sally of the mind, an irregular
indigested piece." In this respect, his essays mark a leap forward from the ten essays Francis Bacon published in 1597, the first in English. Though Bacon borrowed Montaigne's title (he had probably been introduced to the Frenchman's work through his brother Anthony Bacon, who had corresponded with Montaigne), his early essays are typically impersonal and aphoristic. While they are sharply drawn, Bacon's early essays aren't especially personal nor do they exhibit the play of mind or the improvisational qualities of Cornwallis, let alone Montaigne, and
wouldn't, until, over the next several decades, Bacon radically changed his approach and overhauled them. Until that point, if he hadn't called them essays, we probably wouldn't either.
Ironic, self-critical, conversational, Cornwallis's essays have a strongly autobiographical tilt, even when they rely on generalizations to render heartfelt feelings. The disillusioning Irish campaign and the dark politics at court that autumn hang like a cloud over his thoughts. He may have sailed for Ireland with great assurance, but, like John Harington and other veterans of the campaign, upon his return a healthy skepticism was in order. I dwell at such length on this largely forgotten writer to emphasize that Shakespeare didn't invent a new sensibility in Hamlet; rather, he gave voice to what he and others saw and felt around them-which is
why Hamlet resonated so powerfully with audiences from the moment it was first staged.
Cornwallis's loss of bearings is painfully realized in moments like the conclusion to the essay "Of Resolution," where he writes: "I am myself still, though the world were turned with the wrong side out." Observations like this suggest the strength of the affinity between the new
sensibility that Cornwallis struggles to articulate and the kind that Shakespeare fully realizes in Hamlet's soliloquies. These soliloquies, which are not even hinted at in Shakespeare's sources, aren't needed to advance the story. If anything, like the Choruses to Henry the Fifth, they compete with and retard the action. But they define the play. As tempting as it is to imagine that Shakespeare came across Cornwallis's essays before writing Hamlet, it's unlikely; they were writing at the same time. At best, Shakespeare might have heard about them or seen a few that were in circulation.
If a newcomer like Cornwallis had access to Montaigne in 1599, even in translation, Shakespeare, who seems to have been able to get his hands on all kinds of work in manuscript, could easily have come across essays by Montaigne or his imitators. He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet-- the intuition of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted-- but he didn't need to paraphrase him or pillage his essays for ideas. Nor did he need to read that "the taste of goods or evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them" in order to write that "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Folio, 2.2.250). There was more than enough skepticism and
uncertainty to go around in England in the final years of Elizabeth' s reign and in 1599 in particular; it did not have to be imported from France. Shakespeare cared less about appropriating Montaigne's language or philosophy than in exploring how essays-- with their assertions, contradictions, reversals, and abrupt shifts in subject matter and even confidence--
captured a mind at work ("It is myself I portray," Montaigne had famously declared). Other dramatists, including John Webster and John Marston, soon turned their attention to the essay as well. The extent of Montaigne's influence in the early years of the seventeenth century was so great that Ben Jonson has a character in Volpone joke that English writers were stealing from a popular poet "almost as much as from Montaigne"
Like sonnets and plays, essays straddled the spoken and the written, existing somewhere between private meditations and performance scripts. In redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered. Except, perhaps, the soliloquy.
Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk. But there is nobody in whom he can confide. When Marlowe and Jonson were confronted with this problem each provided straight men with whom their heroes can banter (Marlowe's Barabas has his Ithamore and Faustus his Mephostophiles, while Jonson's Volpone has his Mosca, Subtle his Face, and so on). In contrast, be it Brutus or Henry V, Shakespeare's heroes are loners. Hamlet is an extreme case. His old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spies and viewed with suspicion. Horatio is deeply loyal but likes the sound of his own words a bit too much and never seems to understand him (you can sense Hamlet's exasperation with his friend when he tells him that there "are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"(1.5.I66-67). Given Gertrude's dependence on Claudius, she cannot be trusted either. And there's no hope of un-burdening himself to his terrifying father, back from Purgatory.
Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia is more complicated. There was a time before the action of the play begins when he had confided in her; his bundle of love letters to her testifies to that. But Shakespeare undermines this trust by almost cruelly introducing one of these intimate letters into the play-- with its hyperbolic address to "the celestial and my soul's idol,
the most beautified Ophelia"-- and, to make matters worse, has Polonius read it aloud:
Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
It's mortifying to hear this lame verse recited and it underscores the dangers of baring one's soul, because Ophelia, in "duty and obedience" (2.2.107), has betrayed Hamlet by turning these letters over to her father. As John Harington, sensitive to surveillance, wrote at the time: "Who will write, when his letters shall be opened by the way and construed at
pleasure, or rather displeasure?"
The scene returns us to the world of As You Like It, where an immature Orlando first found an outlet in wretched poetry. Like Orlando, "young Hamlet" (1.1.170), as he's called early on in the play, grows out of it. We're offered a brief and uncomfortable glimpse of a Hamlet who has not yet been shocked into complexity-- and the soliloquy that shortly follows confirms that a chasm has opened up between the Hamlet who loved Ophelia and the one we now see. The Ptolemaic science on which Hamlet's protestations are grounded, as Shakespeare knew, was already discredited by the Copernican revolution: the stars aren't fire, the sun doesn't revolve around the earth. In such a universe, truth may well turn out to be a liar. Ophelia really does have good grounds to doubt-- that is, suspect-- that Hamlet never loved her. We can see why Hamlet doesn't want his love letters back-- and why he can no longer unburden himself
to Ophelia. We are all that's left. Maybe the great secret of the soliloquies is not their inwardness so much as their outwardness, their essay like capacity to draw us into an intimate relationship with the speaker and see the world through his eyes.
When the dying Hamlet insists that Horatio live on to "tell my story" (5.2.348), Horatio's words underscore much he has failed to grasp about his friend, relative to what we now know:
So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and for no cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on th' inventors' heads. All this can I
The same could as easily be said of Titus Andronicus. Horatio can be excused for how much he has missed; unlike us, he has not been privy to Hamlet's soliloquies, the part of the play-- rather than the carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts one finds in any number of contemporary revenge plays-- that has kept it on the boards without interruption for more than four hundred years.
The resemblances between the essay and the soliloquy extend beyond the world-weariness or depth of self-revelation found in each. Shakespeare had been struggling for much of the previous decade to find his way into tragedy. Very early on in his career he had grasped how both comedy and history worked; the nine comedies and nine history plays he had written or collaborated on by late 1599 feel like brilliant variations played by a master who deeply understood these forms and was intent on extending the range of possibilities inherent in them. In comparison, tragedy had largely resisted Shakespeare. His sporadic attempts in this
vein-- the early and melodramatic revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus and the love tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, though both extraordinarily popular-- had not led him much closer to the heart of tragedy.
(From the Morality Play to Psychological Drama)
When he returned to the genre for the third time in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare found himself on the verge of the kind of drama that would preoccupy him for the next six years. He had glimpsed it in the great pair of soliloquies he had written for Brutus, both the one in which he reflects on how "between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / Like a phantasma or a hideous dream" (2.1.63-64) and the one that begins "It must be by his death. And for my part / I know no personal cause to spurn at him, / But for the general. He would be crowned" (2.1.10-12). These soliloquies not only allow us to observe a character
thinking aloud, but also and crucially enable us to overhear a great moral struggle-- precisely what we never heard when Juliet, Richard III, or even Falstaff had addressed us directly. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had discovered the potential of writing tragedy constructed on the fault line of irresolvable ethical conflict. But after Brutus's early soliloquies he retreated from embodying this conflict within the consciousness of a single protagonist, allowing it instead to play out in the tragic collision of Brutus and Caesar-- and in the second half of the play subsumes their conflict within the larger design of a revenge plot in which the conspirators turn against themselves the very swords they had used to kill Caesar. Elizabethan drama had its roots in a morality tradition in which the struggle between the forces of good and evil had been externalized, literally played out by opposing characters onstage. Vestiges of this homiletic tradition were still visible in the appearance of the good and bad angels
who vie for the protagonist's soul in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. It's more or less the same structure, though drained of its theological content, that informs plays as diverse as The Third Part of Henry the Sixth (with its warring houses of York and Lancaster), Titus Andronicus (which can't quite decide if the externalized struggle is between Goths and Romans or warring factions within Rome), and Romeo and Juliet (where Montagues and Capulets clash tragically). The plays that Shakespeare worked on in 1599 all show signs of a struggle to move beyond this dynamic, to forge a new kind of drama by resisting the tendency to handle conflict in conventional ways. In Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare had broken with the model of his dramatic sources-- as well as his own earlier histories-- by making the alternation of the Chorus and the action rather than the rivalry of King Henry and the French Dauphin the main source of conflict.
And in As You Like It he had refused to resort to comedy's traditional blocking figures, locating the obstacle to the love of Orlando and Rosalind not in a parent or rival lover, but in Orlando's need to learn what love is. With Hamlet, a play poised midway between a religious past and a
secular future, Shakespeare finally found a dramatically compelling way to internalize contesting forces: the essay like soliloquy proved to be the perfect vehicle for Hamlet's efforts to confront issues that, like Brutus's, defied easy resolution. And he further complicated Hamlet's struggle by placing it in a larger world of unresolved post-Reformation social, religious, and political conflicts, which is why the play is so often taken as the ultimate expression of its age. As puzzled readers of the play have long acknowledged, we're denied information crucial to understanding whether or how Hamlet should act: Is he or his uncle the rightful heir to the Danish throne? Is Gertrude's remarriage too hasty-- and is she committing incest by marrying her dead husband's brother? Is Ophelia's death a suicide?
Within this maze, Shakespeare forces Hamlet to wrestle with a series of ethical problems that he must resolve before he can act-- and it is this, more than over intellectualizing (as Coleridge had it), an Oedipal complex (as Freud urged) that accounts for Hamlet's delay. The soliloquies restlessly return to these conflicts, which climax in, "To be or not to be": in a world that feels
so "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable," is it better to live or die? And is the fear of what awaits him in the next world enough to offset the urge to commit suicide? Is the Ghost come from purgatory to warn him or should he see this visitation in a Protestant light (for Protestants
didn't believe in purgatory) as a devil who will exploit his melancholy and "abuses me to damn me"? (2.2.603). Is revenge a human or a divine prerogative? Is it right to kill Claudius at his prayers, even if this means sending his shriven soul to heaven? When, if ever, is killing a tyrant justified-- and does the failure to do so invite damnation? In locating the conflict of the play within his protagonist, Shakespeare transformed forever the traditional revenge play in which that conflict had until now been externalized, fought out between the hero and powerful adversaries, and in which a hero (like the Amleth of Shakespeare's sources) had to delay for practical, self-protective reasons. This was one of the great breakthroughs in his career. Yet in revising his first draft of Hamlet-- as we shall see in the chapter that follows-Shakespeare
discovered that he had pressed his experiment too far and belatedly recognized that there were unforeseen dangers in locating too much of the conflict in Hamlet's consciousness. The lesson learned, Shakespeare revised until he got the balance right. He had at last found a path into tragedy, one that soon led him into the divided souls of Othello and Macbeth. The innovation inspired by the essay like soliloquy opened the way as well into the world of his dark and brilliant Jacobean problem comedies Measure for Measure and All's Well That End's Well, which turn not on comedy's familiar obstacles but rather on the wrenching internalized struggle of characters like Isabella and Bertram.