Hamlet: Discerning the Real Tragedy

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often considered the quintessential Elizabethan revenge tragedy, a victim’s quest for retribution against the villain who committed foul play, most popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. We typically expect the protagonist to go through obstacles in the planning and execution of revenge, securing the means and opportunity which develop as the plot thickens. However, Shakespeare does not dwell on this aspect as much as he does on Hamlet’s spiritual or existential crisis. The only planning Hamlet sees to fruition is the determination of his uncle’s guilt and that the Ghost (of his late father) is an honest one. With opportunities for action, Hamlet instead is immersed in his philosophy, including his own observation that he is delaying in revenge and he himself doesn’t know why – “I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’, since I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do ’t.” And it is my contention that, despite the deaths of eight characters during the course of the play (three of them offstage), the only true tragedy is Ophelia’s madness and her subsequent suicide (or a death she passively accepted due to an unhinged mind), described by Gertrude in detail:

Ophelia,
Sir John Everett Millais
(1829–1896)

There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
IV.vii.

Each of the other deaths, regardless of where on the spectrum one places the diabolical planning and violence, was a result that must include factors of the victim’s own conscience. It was karmic consequence; in other words their fates were their own doing. Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म ) means action, work, or deed. Poor Ophelia’s was oppressed by her father, slightly less by her brother, and spurned and emotionally abused (if not traumatized) by her lover, Hamlet. She knowingly allowed her father to spy on her and Hamlet, and lied about it to Hamlet; yet this was merely in obeyance of her father’s commands. Circumstances beyond her control took her brother away to France and then her father’s life. One could imagine the final straw being that her mad lover was the one that killed her father.

The play does end with what one could construe as act of revenge in Hamlet bringing about the death of the King, Claudius. Yet, I believe that between the time Hamlet was sent under guard to England (a trip interrupted by pirates) and his return, he reached a new level of awareness, a certain illumination that elevated his spirit beyond the existential crisis that was burgeoning since his father’s death. While he doesn’t speak of the Ghost again, there is one last vestige of the spirit of revenge which I contend is merely a rhetorical remark to Horatio:

“Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage—is ’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is ’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?”

While he seems no longer prompted to revenge, he does fear the King’s plans, that the fencing match against Laertes may be a trap.

HORATIO You will lose, my lord.
HAMLET I do not think so. Since he went into France, I have been in continual practice. I shall win at the odds; but thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart. But it is no matter.

But he will meet it to whatever end. And when Horatio offers to call off the bout, Hamlet says, “…we defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ’t to leave betimes? Let be. “

When Hamlet finds out from the dying Laertes that the anointed rapier and poisoned cup was the Kings idea, Hamlet rages against the king, effectively killing him twice”. He runs him through with the rapier so that he may feel “the venom,” and in addition pours the remains of the poisoned cup down his throat, saying “follow my mother.” It seems to say, “This is for me (stab) and this is for my mother (pour).” At no time at this point does he address the King’s crime of the murder of his father; it wasn’t on his mind. Thus, it is my contention that after all that was said and done, Hamlet did not ultimately avenge his father’s death, i.e. he did not fulfill the ghost’s request for vengeance in the spirit with which he was originally incited.

If Hamlet did not die, would his worldview have been like that of a nihilist, existence in a cosmos void of meaning? I truly believe we can never know from Shakespeare’s text. He accepts that there is “a certain providence in the fall of a sparrow” and “a divinity that shapes our ends rough hew them how we will.” However, this would not preclude him from assigning virtue or creating meaning to his own actions in the future. Alas, he did not live long enough for this second phase of the existential crisis.

From Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” we read,

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

Hamlet reveals his understanding of this, that his “action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things,” in his final private colloquy with Horatio at the start of the last scene in Act V, Scene ii. And had he survived, Nietzsche leaves us with a glimpse of a possible future for Hamlet if he had survived.

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.”

To consider Hamlet’s alternative future would be speculative. But for the author of this essay, art is indeed the saving sorceress, the sole possessor of alchemical secrets capable of transforming the horror and absurdity of human existence into a tolerable life.