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Hamlet’s first response upon learning from his father’s ghost that his father has been murdered by his own brother, by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, is visceral and direct. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” the Ghost instructs Hamlet, to which the loyal son replies, “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge.” The Ghost is gratified by this response: “I find thee apt,” he says, “And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed / That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, / Wouldst thou not stir in this” (1.5.26-35). Nothing seems clearer. The deed, “most foul, strange, and unnatural,” has been done. The fact that the murderer was brother to his victim makes it especially heinous, confirming what Hamlet has innately suspected. “Oh, my prophetic soul!” he cries. “My uncle!” We as audience share this certainty. In the theatre, in performance, nothing is surer to us than that the crime of fratricide has been committed and that it must be revenged in some way.
Yet the play is famous for its dramatization of Hamlet’s delay. Is his failure to act at once the result of a temperamental inclination to postpone and hesitate because the assignment is somehow too overwhelming to his sensitive and poetic soul? This is the reading urged by Goethe, Coleridge and more recently by Sigmund Freud and his disciple Ernest Jones, but in the theatre the play can suggest a very different interpretation: that action is sometimes extraordinarily difficult to carry out when uncertainties are real and knowledge of the truth is maddeningly evasive. This is strikingly true in Hamlet. The protagonist’s great adversary, Claudius, is unsurpassed in his mastery of the art of disguising his lies and treacheries as if they were the truth. Hamlet must find a way to confront an oppressor that misrepresents the truth as a means of gaining mastery and political control.
Take, for example, the way in which Claudius becomes King of Denmark. In the play, Denmark is an elective monarchy: that is, the process of “election” or choice is evidently determined by a group of “electors,” as was the case, for example, in the 16th century in the political affairs of the so called Holy Roman Empire. Charles I, son of Philip of Castile from 1516, had been elected Emperor in 1519, following the death of Maximilian, by a group of seven patrician electors that included the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony and the Margrave of Brandenburg. Similar elections by small oligarchical bodies can be seen even today, notably in the “election” of a Pope by the congregated College of Cardinals in Rome. We are not told who were the electors in Hamlet’s Denmark, but might wonder if Polonius was one of them.
To the Danish world, Claudius’ election as king appears to have been timely and appropriate. Claudius suavely explains in the play’s second scene how it came about. When the old King Hamlet died so suddenly and unexplainably, something needed to be done at once. Norway threatened an invasion, especially in the person of the ailing king’s nephew, Fortinbras. Hence the need for haste, not only in electing a successor to old Hamlet, but also in concluding the marriage of Claudius to his widowed sister-in-law, Gertrude. Such rush in remarriage would normally be considered an unseemly violation of the custom for a widowed woman to wait at least a year, perhaps two, before taking another husband. Yet Claudius offers an unassailable justification for his own haste in this matter: a national military crisis. Impending war nearly always boosts the ratings of incumbent leaders and can serve that purpose even if the impending crisis is cynically manufactured for the occasion, as arguably in the case of both Bush presidencies and many others not excluding that of King Henry IV as portrayed in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.
The election in Hamlet might have gone to young Hamlet as son and heir of the dead king; indeed, that would be customary even in elective monarchies of the era. Hamlet is in the prime of life, evidently 30 years of age. He, we learn, had expected to be designated heir as the son of old King Hamlet; late in the play, in conversation with Horatio, Hamlet accuses Claudius of having “killed my king and whored my mother, / Popped in between th’election and my hopes” (5.2.64-5). This is one of two times that Hamlet employs the key term “election.” The other is when the dying Hamlet announces to the courtiers prior to the arrival of Fortinbras, “I do prophesy th’election lights / On Fortinbras” (5.2.357-8). Shakespeare and Hamlet are both keenly conscious of what it means in the Renaissance to have an election for the post of kingship. Fortinbras enters at the very end of Hamlet in full expectation that he will be “elected” to the Danish throne; he immediately assumes the role. To be sure, few rival candidates are in view.
How then has Claudius managed to be elected monarch of Denmark, in lieu of his nephew, the dead king’s son and presumed heir? Claudius evidently planned his moves with great care and sagacity. He committed the murder when young Hamlet was studying at Wittenberg, considerably to the south of Berlin, at a distance of many days’ journey in the 16th century from Denmark. News of the old king’s death would take some time to reach Wittenberg and more time still for Hamlet to return to Elsinore in Denmark. Claudius attains his two most fervent wishes: to possess the Danish throne and to marry his sister-in-law. We can doubt that he ever hinted to her of his plan to murder her former husband, but we can hardly doubt that he knew he could persuade her to marry him in the wake of the old king’s sudden death. He could plead national emergency; he could also plead an intense desire for her that would brook no denial. He knew that he would find her weakly ready to surrender to male importunity. The point here is that, in erotic attachment as in desire for power, Claudius is presented in the play as extraordinarily cunning and successful. Hamlet has his hands full in dealing with such oppressive tyrannical power that is so able to conceal itself under the guise of concern for the public good.
Hamlet is wise enough to know that his senses are vulnerable to deception. Might the ghost he has seen be the Devil himself? Hamlet tests this question by observing how Claudius responds to a dramatization of a story about a murderer of his brother who gets the love of that brother’s wife. Even when he knows for certain that Claudius is a villain, a deceiver and a hypocrite, Hamlet hold back and puts his own destiny in the hands of divine Providence. He becomes the avenger of his father through no plan of his own. His caution in avoiding rash action has been vindicated.
We as audience are in the omniscient position of seeing clearly the lies that Claudius promulgates as the new truth in the kingdom of Denmark. The new monarch, though deeply cynical about women and ready to seize the object of his incestuous desire with ruthless violence, parades himself to public view as a devoted husband. The man who has seized the opportunity to rule Denmark by the most grave of moral crimes, the murder of his own brother, stands before his troubled nation as the one who has been chosen by constitutional mandate. Indeed, we can see that the electoral process has chosen him deliberately. Polonius is seemingly representative of those who have acceded willingly, even joyfully, to Claudius’s accession to power. Having no use for Hamlet, Polonius would presumably shudder at the prospect of his having been named king. Claudius has offered himself to a grateful people as the one individual who can solve the crisis of the hour. His suave way of staving off a Norwegian invasion headed by Fortinbras does indeed manage to postpone these troubles. No one in Denmark heretofore has seen Claudius for what he really is—except for Hamlet’s dear friend Horatio, and perhaps, belatedly, Queen Gertrude, whose tragic end is ironically brought about by a poison that Claudius and Laertes had intended for Hamlet. Does she finally realize, or guess, what Claudius has done? We know the truth, and the truth prevails at last. A great consolation at the end of this devastating play is that Claudius’ lies are known for what they are.
Written by David Bevington.
David Bevington has taught at the University of Chicago since 1967. He is a senior editor of the Revels Plays, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson and The Norton Anthology of Renaissance Drama.
Excerpted from the full essay in Guide to the Season 2017–2018, available for purchase on Kindle or Nook and at the STC Gift Shop. Subscribers receive a complimentary print copy of the Guide each season.
Hamlet is now playing through March 4 at Sidney Harman Hall. Click here for more info.