The Mummers, The Deceivers, And The Prince: A Fool Who Was Not

The Latin poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid.

The scenery of 2.2 is riddled with so much ancient greek mythology for a play that takes place neither in ancient history, nor Greece, nor myth as to actually be quite unique. And, holy moly, it’s a lot of slaughter tied to just a handful of people. What Shakespeare seems to do here is take this revenge plot and make it a transcendent force; he ties it both to history (via Gesta Danorum) and myth via the Aeneid to posit it as an eternal thing that resonates throughout time. Hamlet, the avenger-prince, is an archetype of sorts, Laertes and Fortinbras, too. Something burned into the collective retina of human experience.

The Danish author, historian and theologian Saxo Grammaticus, author of Gesta Danorum, which was arguably the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I’m going to take scene 2.2, where Hamlet intellectually squares off with Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern as an example to prove the above, as well as showcase how alarmingly forceful Hamlet’s mind seems to be. 

In this scene, Polonius, Ophelia’s father, takes action and brings love letters that Hamlet previously gave to Ophelia to the King and Queen, claiming to have found the source of his madness. After persuading them, he conspires with Claudius to observe an exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia to prove that his love for her is at the source. The old man is not even remotely correct, but this process is fascinating nonetheless. 

After this, he tries and fails to coax something out of Hamlet that he might further use to prove his point, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two childhood friends of the prince, attempt to also do so at the behest of King Claudius. After a drawn-out encounter where Hamlet toys with the three of them, he relents and delivers his second soliloquy, “And to me what is this quintessence of dust?” which seems to give some insight into what he’s feeling. It’s nothing we don’t already know from the first soliloquy, in fact, there’s actually less substance with more wordplay. It looks an awful lot like a stratagem that connects to 3.1, given that the duo report this to the king, and that upcoming soliloquy is also observed by Claudius and Polonius. The gist of this theory is that he is attempting to leave the king and Polonius with a specific, abstruse impression they will be unable to parse through and this is supported by the deliberation with which he feeds them information, but I’ll go no further into that here. 

A depiction of the death of Priam at the hands of Pyrrhus.

It comes out that an actor troupe is coming to Elsinore. He knew these actors from some time in his past and incites one of them to recount a speech he heard the man speak once on the topic of Greek Mythology. In this case, it is Aeneas’ recounting to Dido (the pair are lovers) of the slaughter of Priam at the hand of Pyrrhus in front of Hecuba (Priam’s wife). At a later point in greek mythology, Pyhrrus will see the ghost of Achilles (slain by Paris, son of Hecuba) who demands the sacrifice of the princess of Troy, Polyxena (also a daughter of Hecuba). What’s more, the doomed relationship between Aeneas and Dido (Aeneas leaves her at the command of Jupiter, and she commits suicide) was actually orchestrated by Juno and Venus. 

The sacrifice of Polyxena, also at the hands of Pyrrhus.

This is an incredibly oblique intimidation tactic that Hamlet employs against Polonius in particular, invoking the dour fates of three separate women from mythology. This is quite chilling when one realizes that he might already have consigned himself to denouncing and abandoning (like Aeneas) Ophelia, or is at least seriously considering it, as the lords and ladies of Elsinore begin to draw their battle lines. Also, the grief of Hecuba foreshadows Ophelia’s fate after Hamlet makes a corpse of her father. More, Hamlet seems aware of the fact that it is the men in both Greek Mythology and this play that victimize women. Also, the First Player invokes “thou strumpet Fortune.”, when Hamlet himself also makes this claim, before he is even supposed to know that the actors were coming (2.2.228-229, In the secret parts of Fortune? Oh, most true, she is a strumpet. What news?”).

After the speech, Hamlet and the First Player come to an agreement about the memorization of lines that he intends to insert within a play called The Murder Of Gonzago. After the whole crowd departs we see, marvelously, how Hamlet really feels. Another legendary soliloquy follows, “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”, in which he rails on himself for not being better motivated to kill than he is. Something about the conviction with which the First Player is blessed with (he is so moved during his speech that the actor starts to weep) that really eats at him, “For Hecuba!/Who’s Hecuba to him or he to her/That he should weep for her?” I would also weigh the argument that this has something to do with the symbolism that speech is rife with, as mentioned before. After this, he voices his intention to use the upcoming play to feel out whether Claudius is guilty.

John Philip Kemble as Hamlet 1801 Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830 Presented by King William IV 1836

The overall transition is one from the anhedonic’s dilemma (feeling empty), to how he intends to proceed. More than anything, it drives home the fact that Hamlet is unwell, he hates himself, and he most definitely is playing at something.

An Invested Father’s Fortune

Only a fool would think himself wise, because the wiseman knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare.

Polonius hard at work.

The decisions that Polonius makes at the beginning of the play seem to almost have him struggling with Hamlet over the role of protagonist of this story.  He is a wily courtier who trusts very few, including his own children, and is considerably less wise than he believes his talents make him. In fact, Polonius is compelling because he is wrong in nearly every decision he ever makes and makes these mistakes almost exclusively upon his own volition. What’s more, in spite of his jolly demeanor, the courtier is a rather underhanded man. One can sense this not just in his actions (like feeling the need to send men to spy on his extraordinary son) but simply in the way he conducts himself around his betters, how he can alter a situation to fit his needs. It’s easy to see why Claudius has kept him so close at hand.  

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” – King Lear’s terrible, terrible mistake.

In fact, he quite reminds me of King Lear, valuing appearances and honor and dignity over what’s real and in front of him. Not only does he believe that Hamlet can be understood, but also seems to believe that he has the answer to his madness through his daughter. He even goes so far as to offer himself up for execution if he ends up being wrong (a sequence of events that does come to pass, in a way). Upon the topic of Hamlet’s madness, he at first remarks, “What is it to be mad but be mad”, but later that very same scene changes his mind to “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”, never does the man come to doubt his approach. 

“How now, a rat?” – Hamlet before his murder of Polonius,

What’s more, he does not for a moment think that Hamlet’s love for her could ever be true (ironically using his own behavior as a young man for evidence, further supplanting his character) and strongarms Ophelia into rejecting the prince which brings about the precise chain of events he wished to avoid. In what looks like a last bid attempt to salvage the situation, he offers to eavesdrop on the conversation between Gertrude and Hamlet, claiming that “love makes them partial.” The fact that he dies in the process of attempting to be a second witness to what transpires within Gertrude’s closet is quite fascinating. Hamlet puts the old man down without hesitation; perhaps it was simply time for his games, his interventions, and his mistakes to come to an end. 

I consider Hamlet’s biting send off to him as a perfect encapsulation of his character: wiser and more serene in death than he ever was in life:

“I took you for better.” – Hamlet to Polonius.


“This counselor/Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,/Who was in life a most foolish prating knave.”

The Lovers, Inverse

The Mad Lovers

Of all the unusual romances within Shakespearian tragedies, that which exists between Hamlet and Ophelia is perhaps the most vitriolically uncertain of them all. Neither lover seems to be able to make an ultimate dedication to the other and each is paralyzed with ambivalence. It’s clear that Hamlet feels love for Ophelia and Ophelia feels love for Hamlet, but their own doubts and convictions seem to prevent this from occurring in earnest. In this way, they are the inverse of Lord and Lady Macbeth being taken to the same ultimate conclusion, one a reflection of the other. 

At the beginning of this play, it’s quite clear that Hamlet holds Ophelia in a dear place in his heart. He reaches out to her after seeing the Ghost, but something in her eyes seems to break him, “shatter all his bulk.” The next time they see each other is during the ploy arranged by Polonius to witness Hamlet interact with his daughter. There is a good deal more to this scene than meets the eye, however. The prince does seem to viciously denounce her, and yet if that’s the case, why can the two of them sit next to one another at the play (presumably later that night) with something that seems an awful lot like tenderness and affection and make no mention of their previous encounter? It seems that each knew the other’s motivations better than either was letting their audience in on. And it makes the next bit all the more tragic. 

“There’s a willow grows’ aslant the brook…”

After the death of her father at the hands of Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad and later dies, possibly due to suicide. This seems to echo Hamlet’s own prospective suicidal ideation in the beginning. What’s more, she can only seem to communicate what’s left of her mind through song. This is heartbreaking because one can almost see the smashed pieces of innocence and purity lying bleeding and broken on the ground. Broken by fortune. Broken by the games of men. These flowers and songs symbolize the way she (and we) are told things ought to be but aren’t. They symbolize the very many ways she has been failed by those around her. 

The fair Ophelia.

They symbolize the almost deliberate disregard this world has for mortal desires and reckonings alike. They epitomize the sheer scale of calamity that has come to pass over her being and the extent to which her humanity is degraded. What’s more, it drives home that no amount of her suffering was enough to evoke pity in those around her in time. She loved Hamlet, seems to have not only given herself to him but may have even colluded with him only for her life to come to ruin regardless. Her father is dead at the hands of her lover and her honor lies in the hands of the same man, a murderer whom the world seems to believe is mad. Every attempted exercise of independence over her own fate has turned against her.

With time, Hamlet hones himself to his murderous purpose, the burning image of his father present in mind all the while.

One cannot make much sense of what Ophelia meant to Hamlet without considering the manner in which he kills Polonius. Hamlet is trying to bring his mother to heel and is being quite harsh with her. She calls for help, and from behind the arras Polonius echoes this plea. The Prince hears him yell, and acts like he doesn’t know who it is. That said, Hamlet’s a damn keen fellow, and I think that, quite terrifyingly, he makes a dedication to win over his mother, to come out of this on top, and is willing to kill an intruding old windbag to make it a reality. Perhaps he was tired of letting people play games with him, with delaying, with letting time blunt his purpose. And thus he put the man down; it was time for him to get serious. And he echoes this sentiment in his 4.1 soliloquy. In so doing, however, he obviously makes a dedication regarding the man’s children. Laertes will obviously come howling for revenge, and Ophelia… well, who could say, but she wouldn’t have much to do with him after anyhow. In the end, he seems to hone himself to his purpose more and more with time, and in so doing, resigns her as a means to an end. The beckonings of heaven and hell call too loudly.

The Labyrinth Between Heaven And Hell


“What is it you would see?” – Horatio to Fortinbras.

More so than anything, Hamlet is a play about revenge, it features not one but three revenge plots throughout its course. Hamlet seeks revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father, and in the process kills Polonius. This arouses the vengeful fury of Laertes that comes to bring about Hamlet’s end in addition to his own. Finally, Fortinbras, whose own father was defeated by King Hamlet, storms the castle with his men and the ambassadors from England just in time to see the calamity that has passed over. He inherits the entire kingdom of Denmark, too. 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Cci/Shutterstock (6044582fg)
Hamlet with Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet, play by William Shakespeare (Act I). Illustration by Otto Printz in: Shakespeare Album, special issue dedicated to William Shakespeare of the newspaper: Pesti Naplo, Hungary, ca 1900.
Art – various
Location: Private Collection

What is there to be made of this unusual scenario? Why so much murderous intent? Why does one avenger seem to be favored over the others despite not appearing overtly more virtuous than them? Of course, answers to these questions can only be speculated. One striking aspect I find within is how unrelenting Shakespeare is in his portrayal of villainy in the sense that it’s hard, nearly impossible even, to pin down an exact and final perpetrator of the tragedy. 

Claudius is likely the worst of them as he commits the first and arguably greatest sin, but it’s the interplay of all other factors that coalesce into disaster. We see him lie and manipulate and steal and murder, but he also regrets this to at least some degree, and therefore cannot classify him as we do Lord Macbeth and Richard of Gloucester. Hamlet’s actions are harsh, but he’s also acting on orders from what appears to be the ghost of his father and it becomes clear that not just his identity but his entire concept of self depends on his ability to make good on his oath. Laertes is quick to turn to violence and treachery in pursuit of his revenge, but two of his immediate family members have fallen dead due to Hamlet’s actions and he grieves them dearly. Fortinbras of Norway looks to be a soft, impulsive and bloodthirsty young adventurer but also conducts himself regally and affords the dead, even Hamlet, the honors they deserve.

The angels of heaven, or the tyrants of God?

Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes all have strange relationships between the divine and the infernal. The prince claims that he feels he is spurred on to his revenge by both heaven and hell. Claudius seems to believe he is hellbound for his sins and therefore questions what good praying could possibly do him. Laertes, in his grief, eschews both heaven and hell, claiming that he will have his revenge and make peace on whatever terms he feels are just. What emerges from these conflations is a story woven so complex that the will of God and that of Satan can no longer be parsed out soundly to any capacity.

A union that has wrought a union’s end.

Symbolically, Shakespeare seems to suggest that the will-to-revenge is in itself a thing that brings about tragic happenings, no matter the motivation involved, nor who it’s perpetrated by. Hamlet and Laertes alike suffer almost precisely the same fate, tempted to revenge by the same man. Claudius’ sin brings about a litany of other sins and the deaths of largely innocent people by tempting once-good people to bad things, an entirely self-perpetuating machine. After all, it’s Laertes’ poison, not the actions of Hamlet, that drive home the catastrophe. 

But what does it mean for Fontinbras to ascend to the throne entirely unopposed while trying to redeem the defeat that King Hamlet inflicted on his father? Perhaps it’s not really his doing at all other than walking in at the appropriate time, since the “events which have solicited” left Denmark in such a sorry state as to be helpless. Or, perhaps Claudius was simply wrong about Fortinbras’ hubris from the outset, and the Nord was indeed able to know impending weakness when he saw it. 

The Adulterate Union And What It Came To Mean

“Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” – Claudius, a few moments before being duped at the Mousetrap.

The nature of Hamlet’s and the Ghost’s accusations of incest have been long debated throughout the past four centuries. It’s quite regular for people to accuse Hamlet of overreacting or to assume that some defect within him causes him to respond so bizarrely. I would argue that Hamlet accuses Claudius of such due to the fact that his uncle would have had to lust for Gertrude before the premeditated murder of King Hamlet when she was still his lawful sister. What’s more, by pretending they were never siblings via King Hamlet, they invalidate prince Hamlet’s existence, as he was birthed from a union with Claudius’ brother, who now believes he ought to treat the prince as a son. Hamlet, perhaps not unreasonably, feels that the sanctity of his family has been violated. Hamlet’s very existence is the living, breathing proof that they were at one point siblings and cannot reconcile this with their newfound love (or perhaps lust, it’s never definitively established) for one another.

On the topic of incest, this conversation cannot happen without mention of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother. The Prince seems to have been so incredibly disappointed by her behavior as to lose all faith in women. In more recent times psychoanalytic critics have taken his aggressive behavior as being indicative of an unresolved Oedipus complex, and I’ll admit, I find this pretty silly. By the line of reasoning, I can as convincingly compare him to the archetype of Orestes (the cursed son of the House of Atreus who must kill his traitorous mother and the man who usurped his father’s throne to lift said curse) as Oedipus. In fact, Orestes is referred to loosely via the First Player’s speech in 2.2 through Pyrrhus who is slain by Orestes later in the story.

In reality, if there is a psychoanalytic concept within which Hamlet fits, it is that of the Shadow coined by C.G Jung: the shame, self-hate, regret, and all other negative self- perceptions that reside inside human beings.

This doesn’t simply apply doesn’t apply to Hamlet’s relationship with himself, but also nearly every other character in the play. His incredible capacity for understanding others and himself alike puts him at odds with nearly every other person in the play. He manages to be not only his shadow but theirs as well. He is unfailingly the thing they fear within, no matter what it is. One might even go so far as to claim that this terrible, unbearable self-knowledge is that thing within him for which he cannot find words. After all, we see him try to articulate those things on no fewer than three occasions but he can never find the words, can never find a limit to the terrible things to discover about himself (or others).

In any case, the brutal, disgustingly honest treatment of his mother proves that he understands her so well as to almost render her infantile before him until the Ghost’s timely intervention.  Symbolically, it seems to me that her inability to see the Ghost is representative of her refusal to see what she did as wrong, that she neglected her responsibilities to at least some extent, that a woman of her rank, station, and experience didn’t have many valid excuses to do what she did. Unless, of course, the Ghost was real and Gertrude simply couldn’t bring herself to see the paragon of her negligence.

Matriculate Echoes; A Madness Rising

In scene 1.2, Polonius claims that the love Hamlet professes for Ophelia and the promises he made her as “Springes to catch woodcocks.” Much later, in 5.2, after being poisoned with his own envenomed sword, he observes “Like a woodcock to mine own springe.” Laertes, son of Polonius has become the vengeful deceiver that his father once accused the Prince of Denmark of being.  

Ophelia, and her noble brother Laertes.

This tragedy is absolutely riddled with this kind of microscopic foreshadowing, and it’s done with such deliberation that one cannot be sure if Shakespeare was leaving clues to the incumbent reader or unconsciously repeating himself. Horatio’s warning to Hamlet in 1.4 about how the Ghost may drive him mad. Ophelia’s claim that Hamlet seemed like a thing loosed out of hell in 2.1. Hamlet referring to Fortune as a strumpet in 2.2 only for the First Player’s speech to contain the same claim. It all ties back into itself wondrously, and yet cannot be much better used to make coherent sense of what comes to pass, can it?

“Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfallen?” – Hamlet, taunting the skull of Yorick the jester.

It highlights that the characters within this story have a striking tendency to interpret Hamlet’s madness through the lens of their own insecurities. For Polonius, it’s his daughter, Claudius his murder, Gertrude her marriage, Ophelia her ambivalent love towards him. He is, in this sense, their reckoning, deserved and otherwise. A consequence of this fact is that every character fundamentally misunderstands not only how their actions contribute to his behavior but act with a fevered recklessness because he terrifies them and seems to know precisely what they fear. In this respect, one might view their label of “madness” as one applied to invalidate his words and actions and otherwise make sense of the fact that they cannot make sense of him.

“Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.
Speak to her, Hamlet.”

Consider that no other character is treated in the same way throughout the play when they go mad. Nobody accuses Ophelia of overreacting, and nobody even so much as accuses Laertes of being mad when he jumps into his sister’s grave. In fact, in that same scene, they accuse Hamlet instead. Upon close examination, the question becomes not one of  “Is Hamlet mad or sane?” but rather, “What is madness?” We can try all we want to accuse Hamlet of being mad because his decisions do not make immediate sense to us; they look like madness, so he must obviously be mad. But this reasoning is circular. What is it that drives him there? What can we find that definitively proves he is such? How exactly is it that we know that he doesn’t know what he’s doing?

This is largely epitomized in the conversation between himself and his mother when he offers to prove himself sane in any way she can devise, “Bring me to the test/And I the matter will reword, which madness/Would gambol from.

What test is there that could do such a thing?

The Honest Man And What Became Of Him

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord/or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,/
And there assume some other horrible form/
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness?” – Horatio, pleading with Hamlet in 1.4.

Horatio, the honest, prudent, upright, God-fearing best friend of Hamlet is perhaps the most decent character in this play. It is clear that he cares for Hamlet deeply and it says something important that no character ever tries to involve him in their deceptions. At the start of the play, he brings the Ghost to Hamlet’s attention, yet also tries to prevent him from departing alone with it into the darkness beyond, fearing for his safety, fearing for the prince’s sanity (the first character to do so). After the Prince ignores their entreaties, he stonily observes of Hamlet “He waxes desperate with imagination.” Later, he even offers to lie for Hamlet, to claim that he’s unwell, in an attempt to save his life from the vengeful Laertes at the end, but the prince even now chooses to keep him out of the machinations and opts to duel Laertes on the decided terms. 

By the end, he is the last of the nine major characters to be left standing and wishes for a death he cannot have. In a way, Hamlet’s pain becomes his pain as he is the one, the only one, to live to tell this story. He bears the weight of their sins, each and all after the prince frantically begs him to “Absent thee from felicity awhile/And draw thy breath in pain.” There is something truly awful about the prospect of the best man among them all suffering the worst fate, for their sake and at his own expense, alone. His dialogue with Fontinbras says it all, who asks “What is this sight?” to which he responds “What is it you would see?” The weight his words carry is immense. A weight he now lives with.

“Good night, sweet prince. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” – Horatio’s final farewell to Hamlet.

Perhaps the only redeeming quality to his continued existence apart from being the orator of his namesake is that the implications of every other death seem to suggest he may be the only one with a chance of escaping the fires of hell. It harkens back to the theme of suicide revisited at several points throughout the play, how those who yearn for death, for release, must suffer through life or risk even greater torment in the afterlife. This exact point Hamlet himself makes, “For in that sleep what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil/must give us pause. There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life[…]But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns, puzzles the will/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others we know not of?”

In this sense, Horatio is the biblical scapegoat, wearing the blood of his kin and kind, he does not eat their sins, nor absolve them, but rather carries them upon his back into the unknown. Such was his love.

The King Of Shreds And Patches


“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,/With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts—/Oh, wicked wit and gifts that have the power/So to seduce!” – Ghost of King Hamlet

Claudius, like essentially any character in a Shakespearian tragedy, is a villain I can appreciate. He comes off as a relatively shallow man, without all too much inside him, as he murdered his brother and usurped his throne, married his wife, and (tried) to adopt the man’s son. Claudius seems to have wanted everything, everything that King Hamlet had. He reminds me of The Coward Robert Ford, in more ways than one. And while he isn’t exactly a man of particular convictions nor morals nor rulership ability, he isn’t entirely without humanity or legerdemain. He seems to be utterly terrified of Hamlet and the fact that he might possess information that he has no right to know. Everything that might suggest his crime has been wiped away from the earth… but not from the places above and below, it would seem. 

“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. My mother stays. This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.”

We see him pray in earnest and his internal plight about how he might repent for his crimes and misdemeanors (not simply a regicide but a fratricide as well) while still possessing all the fruits of that particular labor. It seems possible that Claudius only begins to regret his decisions when he realizes he might be doomed. In this way, his arc echoes that of Macbeth by usurping the throne via foul deeds and being unable to make peace with it. In fact, one can almost taste his claustrophobia and desperation in certain scenes. His brittle reign has only just begun. Hamlet seems to be incredibly popular, not simply with the electorate but with the Danes as a whole. The prince has him by the balls, and it looks like both of them know it as things develop. 

“Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother.” – Prince Hamlet, taking his revenge.

And yet he’s not helpless, nor stupid– not by half. In fact, he’s quite keen, like a hawk with all hunter’s instincts and not much else. Once he has the throne it seems like he doesn’t know quite what to do with himself. He appears to be a decent king, yet he also fills many of his hours with boozing and tumbling his newfound wife, and it’s unclear if he finds purpose in these gestures or not. Of course, Claudius is also manipulative and rather arrogant. By all sense and purpose, he should have let Hamlet return to Wittenburg and be content to live his new life without him, but it was not so. Claudius seemed to believe that Hamlet wasn’t a noteworthy, existential threat to his reign when kept close at hand. He seemed to believe that he can control, manipulate and seduce the prince in the way that he can everyone else in Elsinore. And indeed, given the skill he reframes situations throughout the play (take 3.3.232 as an example), perhaps it was a reasonable guess. And indeed, we all know how well that worked for him when the day was out.

What separates him from Macbeth is that Macbeth’s own crimes seemed to drive him insane and brought about his own reckoning, whereas Claudius’ crimes awakened something in the young Hamlet so powerful and all-consuming that the prince took care of most of it for him. 

The Sins Of A Father

Before Hamlet ever hears of the Ghost, he sees his father in his mind in the moments before Horatio tells him of the apparition. Horatio is put off by this and asks him to clarify, but it never comes up again in the wake of events this will give rise to. Even more interesting is that he sees his father after making mention of his “dearest enemy,” and that’s likely not a coincidence. His father, or at least the memory of him, becomes a greater adversary than any other in this play.

“Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand/Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched”.

Hamlet’s first encounter with the Ghost is peculiar; it seethes with anguish and seems to convince him utterly of its plight within a matter of moments. His associates, after they catch-up, claim that he’s acting strangely and seems maniacal (he did see a ghost, to be fair), and yet he is still prudent and lucid enough to swear them all to secrecy upon his sword, here and everywhere. Importantly, the Ghost assists him in this endeavor. Hamlet sees the Ghost a total of two times. The other three men involved see it a total of five times if this instance is counted with the one before Hamlet split from the group. The Ghost even physically touches Horatio and uncrosses his arms, which actively undermines the theory that it’s not real. 

The above, to me, is enough to prove the Ghost is a sort of demonic manipulator pulling strings. The only thing that serves to counteract this theory is the fact that it doesn’t seem visible to Gertrude in 3.4, and I will admit this to be perplexing. However: it’s a ghost. Why would we assume that to be beyond its power? It seems more likely that there is something special about Gertrude that leaves her exempt from this sojourn. Consider how King Hamlet’s apparition explicitly tells Hamlet not to hurt his mother in any capacity, to leave her to heaven and her own guilt. 

“Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.
Speak to her, Hamlet.” – King Hamlet.

The Ghost’s entry into this scene is remarkably vital for no fewer than two reasons: 1) Hamlet seems to have been getting through to his mother before it arrives, and 2) Hamlet does not appear overtly insane under entirely confounding circumstances in any scene other than this one (as he sees the Ghost, she doesn’t, and we have no explanation we can default to save for his alleged madness). The Ghost seems to appear at this disastrous time under a pretense to undermine Hamlet’s goals and little else. Gertrude laments, “Alas, he’s mad.” and any attempt he makes from this point forth to persuade her otherwise seems, ultimately, to fail.  

Now, how can this be? The Ghost either actively conducts this orchestra of destruction or is a creation of his ailing mind the second time around. The audience cannot draw definite conclusions because they are fixed in an awkward perspective in this show: we cannot see inside Gertrude’s mind, sometimes we can see what Hamlet’s thinking when he tells us things (for all the good it does us), and we can see the Ghost. This blurs perspectives because if the Ghost isn’t real, then we are inside Hamlet’s head, but under an exceptional circumstance of some kind. See the issue? The resolution of this dilemma is not possible because the outcomes are mutually exclusive. It appears to Hamlet alone, not Gertrude, and he’s not insane. Or, it appears to Hamlet and him alone because he is mad. It all ties back to a single piece of evidence.

“He waxes desperate with imagination.” -Horatio, remarking upon Hamlet in 1.4.

I put my money on the manipulative Ghost theory because it seems to make more cohesive sense than Hamlet seeing a Ghost that is real, and then going insane and seeing a Ghost that isn’t real, without otherwise undergoing discernible changes in personality. I am not convinced the pre-Ghost Hamlet and post-Ghost Hamlet are distinct personalities. He makes the same claims and flaunts the same doubts that he always has until at least Act V, at which point he actually seems to resolve some of what ailed him.

It gets yet even stranger when learning that Shakespeare allegedly played the part of the Ghost himself (according to oral tradition). This tempting and manipulation reminds me of the relationship that the Bard had with his audience in general, as well as the strained relationship that the theatre had with the Church due to the exhilaration that playgoing was said to arouse, connecting it, by some arguments, with the carnal senses. And indeed, with pieces like As You Like It, and A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, both of which exhort commoners to explore their interests and desires, it’s not hard to see the connection the Ghost has with this mentality. By the end, nearly every character has been tempted to sin of some form or another by King Hamlet, Master of the Danes. 

Fuseli, Henry; Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches ; National Trust, Petworth House;

But what it really reminds me of, and what I’ll leave you with, is the words spoken by Banquo in conference with Lord Macbeth about how to deal with the Witches:

And oftentimes to win us to our harm,/The instruments of darkness tell us truths,/Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s/In deepest consequence.

Prince Hamlet, Lord Enigma

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” – Aeschylus

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and the scholar of Wittenburg is the perhaps the most immortal of Shakespeare’s undying creations. He is one of the very few characters to successfully be constructed around an internal mystery and yet still arc and develop in an apparently cohesive manner as a standard character does. Hamlet is, quite honestly, the Petrine Cross, the antichrist of character development, the thing your literature teacher tells you explicitly not to do. 

The Petrine Cross is a symbol within Christendom, particularly the Catholic Church, that references the crucifixion of Saint Peter in which he was nailed to the cross upside down. It often symbolizes a sense of unworthiness relative to God.

He is the reckoning of the misdeeds committed by those around him, the recourse of the universe itself manifested in how they have hurt him. The prince may even embody the Shadow, the forcible and painful introspection that people come to fear so much, the accruement of all the things people dislike about themselves. With Polonius, with Claudius, with Gertrude, and even his lover Ophelia, he brings forth that within them they fear and are hurt by. He seems to see it all within them. 

John Milton was notably influenced by Shakespeare and remains one of the foremost poets in the English language. He’s known best for his 10,000-line biblical epic poem, Paradise Lost.

Perhaps more so than anything, he is the progenitor of the Red Right Hand. It’s hard not to see the connections between John Milton’s inspiration within Hamlet as Hamlet himself, “Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell” the prince claims, as a situation so profoundly complex arises that those influences can no longer be meaningfully differentiated. Whether his actions come as divinely vindicated or infernally manipulated, we cannot with certainty say. The reality appears to be at once a combination of both and neither.

We see the man first just after the death of his father. In the events preceding this, something so profoundly terrible has happened to him as for him to be unable to articulate it in the slightest. He warns people of it regularly, too: his mother in 1.2, Laertes in 5.1, and many others, albeit in more oblique ways. This thing within him seems to be on the most fundamental level, pain, even anguish. Hamlet is a trauma victim; his old life is gone, and he cannot go back home again. The actions of his mother and uncle-turned-father only stoke this fire within him. He cannot go back to school in Wittenberg. Even the way he grieves the loss of his father is wrong to them. They go so far as to accuse him of putting it on, like a costume to eschew his responsibilities. “But I have that within me which passes show/These but the trappings and the suits of woe.” is Hamlet’s ponderous, abysmal response. From this perspective, it’s relatively easy to see why he grows to resent those two so very much. What he wants, what he needs, and what he feels all seem to have become a nonfactor within their obliviousness, willful or otherwise.

This failure to communicate and understand runs rampant throughout the text. Everyone who claims to fathom Hamlet’s madness is at some point proven wrong (except for perhaps Claudius, who doesn’t ever really seem to believe he’s mad). This street is not two way, however, as Hamlet himself apppears to understand people extraordinarily well and correctly predicts motivations in nearly every scene, even underhanded attempts to know him better by his detractors (and prey, eventually).

“Is Hamlet’s madness feigned or true, a strategy masquerading as a reality or a reality masquerading as a strategy?” – Stephen Greenblatt

The anatomy of Hamlet’s alleged madness is one of the great debates of world literature, and nothing about him can be definitively established. That said, the concept of him being mad is notoriously challenging to support, given that there isn’t a definition of madness we can contrive that would soundly contain him.

Take his “To be or not to be.” soliloquy, for example. There is ambiguity as to whether or not he knows he’s being watched by no fewer than two, perhaps three people. The content of this monologue is incredibly different from his past or future ones, which are incredibly emotional, and one can almost taste the bitterness within his words. This one is downright cerebral, reptilian, almost. He isn’t telling us how he feels; he tells us how it is. He’s lecturing an empty room that isn’t empty. The prince even goes so far as to clarify what he meant by specific terms (“and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache and thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to”). 

The Mad Lovers, Hamlet and Ophelia.

But it doesn’t stop there. When Ophelia enters the room and attempts to return him all the tokens of affection he has given her in the past, stating “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” he seems to reject her in earnest. There is a caveat to his performance here, however. Hamlet is acting precisely in the manner that the men in Ophelia’s life, Polonius and Laertes, accuse him of being. He seems to cater precisely to Polonius’ fears, who asserts, “That hath made him mad,” referring to a previous rejection Ophelia had made towards him when Hamlet now claims, “It hath made me mad.” And yet we know that this cannot be so, as Ophelia is almost definitely not the cause of his manifest instability. In fact, Hamlet reaches out to her twice and seems to be twice spurned before he treats her in the way he does here. But there is yet another layer added when the prince asks Ophelia that fateful question, “Where’s your father?”, strongly suggesting that the jig is up, and it may have never been sprung on him in the first place. He murders Polonius (presumably later that night) when eavesdropping on the private exchange with his mother. This decision, too, is either chillingly calculated or made to suit his purposes in one manner or another. 

Hamlet is an unusual character due to his two most significant developments occurring where we cannot observe. One comes before we ever meet him and the other when he is away at sea in Act 4. He later sees the burial of Ophelia and wrestles with Laertes atop her grave. One might argue both of them were driven to a spell of madness by the sight of the young lady. The reality is that only one of them, Laertes, seems to be distraught in this scene. We see Hamlet making yet another calculated decision when he chooses to antagonize the brother. Hamlet may have once loved Ophelia, but never does he grieve her beyond this scene; she is, at this point, a means to an end in his eyes. Hamlet is jealous of Laertes because the noble youth is everything the prince is not; Laertes becomes the mad avenger that Hamlet once was, better in every capacity except perhaps cunning, and cannot bear it. It’s easy to believe that Claudius was lying when he claimed Hamlet was envious of Laertes, but I’d like to open the possibility that he was telling the truth, if albeit not the whole truth.

In the next and final scene, Hamlet has what seems to be a frank conversation with Horatio. He opens up about the nature of his decision making this far and posits that the only reason he survived his death sentence in England was due to the spontaneity with which his madness led him into God’s providence.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Onetime school friends of Hamlet’s who are put to death via the deceptions of the prince for their betrayal.


It’s not altogether clear if providence is manifesting through Hamlet’s madness itself, or if he claims that even a raving madman is not out of the reach of God’s grace. He develops this logic to the ultimate conclusion of “Let be,” a clear capstone to his “To be or not to be.” dilemma. I suspect that this has more to do with Hamlet accepting things as they come, Amor fati, than an actual spiritual awakening.


Though, one might interpret even this as deliberate strafing. “To be” seems to have been a stratagem to at least some extent, and the woman he loved previously he mistreats in that scene, and really ought to be grieving her in this one.

“Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered,” –  Hamlet.


If this is the case, and Hamlet is performing his crazed dance of pretend around everyone, it begins to show the sheer extent of the game that he’s been playing with us this whole time. 

After the fateful duel is done, he realizes that he’s got what he wanted. The people he’s grown to resent are now dead, all dead, and soon he too will be gone. His tragic reckoning comes not in the form of death, but rather that which comes after. His story will never be told, not by him nor anyone. History will know him as Hamlet, the Mad Prince. The final tragedy comes not from without but within, from his unarticulated internal motivations, from the influences of heaven and hell, from whatever his desired outcome was. He is noticeably bitter over these revelations but remains true to his previous epiphany, “Oh I could tell you, but let it be.” It’s only in the arms of Horatio that the ultimate truth of his story comes forth: “The rest is silence.”

Muller, Victor; ‘Hamlet’, Act V, Scene 2, Hamlet and Horatio; Royal Shakespeare Company Collection;

Like Iago, like Edgar, like Lady Macbeth, we see that we don’t know, and we cannot know what brought this tragedy to bear. The explanation we feverishly yearn for within them remains forever out of reach.