It is clear from the beginning of the play that we must not underestimate Hamlet. The studious Prince of Denmark is already in deep contemplation of the truths of life and our condition as humans, but the enormous wisdom he acquires as the play progresses is almost beyond human capacity to attain. At the end, he has nothing more to learn and hence knows it a good time to leave us.
Although in the beginning he is not at all in mood to direct jesting, he retains his biting wit combined with the cold and condescending humor in his replies to the questions of the King and the Queen and their little group of investigators, until Act V.
We first find Hamlet utterly disappointed and angry at his mother for her speedy marriage to the brother of recently dead King Hamlet. He is also seriously lacking purpose to live any longer. But this shameful behavior, although incestuous, is made to seem only like a breach in customs and rules of etiquette after the truths he soon finds out about his father’s traitorous murder. This is “Oh, wonderful news!” for Hamlet and gives him unstoppable determination to take revenge. Since Hamlet does not value his own life at a “pin’s fee” we cannon expect of him to care for that of his enemies. The consequences of his actions are beyond his concern. Once the truth is revealed to him, it seems as if Hamlet writes the rest of the play himself. Hamlet pledging revenge in the following lines marks the beginning of all chaos in the play:
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter.
(Act I Scene V 95-104)
In my mind, the massive drive to take revenge and extreme craftiness in Hamlet is rather excessive judging the qualifications of his opponents. When I consider the superiority of Hamlet in wisdom and skill, the characters opposing him become insignificant. For the purpose of further clarification, let us consider the competence of a particular group of characters: Claudius, Polonius, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I am not saying that these are completely unappealing characters since to some readers they may have redeeming qualities of their own; but they make the attentive reader become impatient with their attempts to trap and control Hamlet, for which they are inferior in skill. I do not indent this examination of the characters to seem like a selfish character assassination on my part, because it was only to clarify the inferiority of his opponents and the causes of their end. I know that in reading Shakespeare, we must be informed that his villains have neither mercy for our feelings, nor care about our moral standards. Let us first begin then with the merits of the chief opponent Claudius and his little investigators Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The seemingly cunning Claudius is of course at the head of this doomed operation. The royal office of this womanizer and all the duties that are customarily owed to him as a monarch by his servants, gives him the power to employ the other three characters in his persistent though futile schemes. His qualifications are as follows: he is a skilled seducer which was the means for him to get power—his original desire; his limited understanding of kingly duties do not exceed beyond the sending and receiving of the ambassadors for the sake of mere formality. He is not schooled in statecraft and the often deceitful practices of diplomacy and he is unsuspecting of his neighbor Norway, and does not even read Norway’s document pledging peace, because he has in mind the royal feast of the coming evening. He is neither brave nor tried in war. The forces of the young Fortinbras would aptly suffice to bring about his ruin. Yet he chooses to mess with Hamlet.
It is almost absurd to compare Claudius to Macbeth; but even the valiant Macbeth, who is already much renowned for strength and valor even before he slavishly succumbs to the temptations of a royal power, loses all sleep, driven to the point of madness by his fear and constant haunting of ghosts. Yet Claudius is never severely troubled by his conscience for his evil deed. Even his infrequent realizations of his sin and his attempt to repent for it—however genuine they may seem—are quickly forgotten by his resuming to plot the death of Hamlet. The over-confident king understands that there will be no “shuffling in heaven” but considers himself a master shuffler on earth. Some may ask: “If Claudius is so incapable, how does he last until the end of the play?” He only outlives Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because Hamlet allows it to be so. Otherwise, he would have died on his knees praying alone.
Lastly, Claudius is very well aware of what “afflicts” Hamlet thus, but shocks us with this ironic confession that he is oblivious as to the true cause:
What it should be,
More than his father’s death, that thus hath put him
So much from th’ understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of.
(Act II Scene II 6-10)
The King and the Queen are correct to assume that their hasty marriage is the cause of Hamlet sudden change attitude. This is only valid until Hamlet met the Ghost!
But what does Hamlet say of his uncle? We are not surprised to hear Hamlet calling him an “incestuous, [murd’rous] damned Dane.” He is also baffled, the immorality of her marriage set aside, that her mother—the seemingly virtuous Queen—would conspire to murder her renowned husband feared by his enemies, for Claudius. To make a logical plea for explanation, he first describes to the Queen what kind of a king his father was:
Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband.
Claudius shall never deserve such praise or elegy from anyone, let alone Hamlet. Hamlet is merciless in describing the union of the newly wed royal couple whose open intimacy he had to patiently endure:
Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this?
(Act III Scene IV 52-60) [Italics on my part]
Surely Claudius is a skilled-seducer. But unless misled by Devil, no woman who has a decent husband should choose to be with him! That is his worth to Hamlet!
Poor Polonius! He is wise in education and knows how to wisely consult; his advice to his parting son Laertes is tested and tried in reality and is admirably true! But alas, he is slavish and desperate to please and, forgets to apply his wise proverbs to examine his own actions. He at times seems far heavily involved in Claudius’s schemes to find out the cause of Hamlet’s sudden change of temperance, than the king himself. He is thoroughly convinced that his attempts are ingenious and “fetch of wit” but in reality that is a wishful thinking. He joyfully declares to the royal couple: “Your noble son is mad!” And he is eager to elaborate and does so, childishly building suspense to provoke the interest of his superiors:
Mad let us grant him then, and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains.
(Act II Scene II 100-105)
Tragically, the cause he presents is Ophelia. In order to show the King the proof of his genius observation, he sets up Ophelia in extremely vulnerable condition in the company of the violently agitated Hamlet. Consequently, her previously lover now frantic beyond relief leaves the pure-hearted girl confused, and with a shattered heart. Hamlet has him figured out and openly ridicules him upon their first encounter, though Polonius attributes such rudeness to Hamlet’s insanity, and in his rage openly tells Ophelia his true opinion of her father, while Polonius hiding on the side:
Hamlet: Where is your father?
Ophelia: At home, my lord.
Hamlet: Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in‘s own house. (Act III Scene II 129-132)
And finally, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ready to be commanded! Their favor will not be forgotten by the king! But, Hamlet trusts these fellows as much as he would an “adder fang’d.” The humble and naïve servants like Polonius, heavily engaged in flattery and never giving the matter a second-thought, especially as they are well-learned and better thinkers than the monarch, they inevitably share Polonius’ fate. They would perhaps have taken another course, had they known of the King’s murder.
Upon their first meeting with Hamlet, he as they expect ask them the cause for their visit. After lying a few times and attempting not to reveal the truth, Hamlet saves them the trouble for he already knows their purpose:
I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather. I have of late—but wherefore I know -not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises.
(Act II Scene II 293-297)
Nevertheless, the oblivious school-fellows persist in their efforts to evade Hamlet’s “crafty madness” and make him speak. By then, Hamlet has become impatient with them:
Do you think I am easier to be play’d on than the pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, [yet] you cannot play upon me.
(Act III Scene II 269-272)
These cunning schemes would perhaps have yielded the desired outcome in other plays. Even the wisest and King Solomon-like Lear is tragically deceived by his daughters’ false love. But Hamlet is not like any other Shakespearean character. If Iago were in the party of Claudius’s conspirators, only then, we would have to hold our breaths as they carried out the plots. Even then, had they succeeded in killing Hamlet, Iago would likely have the knavish Claudius follow him to the grave soon after. Otherwise, they are not a match for Hamlet. The most amazing proof that Hamlet is well aware of the King’s plots and grants them opportunities to try while remaining in complete control of how the course of events will progress, comes at the end of Act III; he knows of the seal’d letters and allows them to once more employ their knavish plot before sending them off to their death in England:
Let it work,
For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petar, an’t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon. O, ’tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
(Act III Scene IV 205-210)
It has been often argued that Hamlet’s fault or problem is that he is hesitant and lacks the courage to act. I believe such notions are taken from the readings of Hamlet’s soliloquy at the end of Act II, where we find him cursing himself for easing his heart’s distress with words rather than actions and thinking himself no worthier than a stallion, a male whore; or at the end of Act III, Scene II where he overcomes to the temptation to act during the “witching time of the night.” To accuse Hamlet thus, is to grossly misunderstand him. Hamlet knows when it is the right time to act and for him readiness is all. He is not mad but “mad in craft.” Hamlet is an intellectual and delights in reading and studying himself. He is not at all interested in speedy revenge.
He is not at all like Henry V who immediately captures the traitors Grey, Scroop and Cambridge “by interception which they dream not of,” and sends them to their imminent hanging, before he goes off to invade France. (Act II Scene II) It is tempting to fantasize Hamlet organizing a royal banquet with all the nobility attending and expose the murderous Claudius, order his immediate death, and go off to silence the bluffing Prince Fortinbras. But we cannot see Hamlet benevolently ruling Denmark with Ophelia as the Queen. Nor is Hamlet as passive as the poet-king Richard II to let fortune and his enemies do as they please without providing any resistance. We cannot picture Hamlet in Elsinore prison seconds before his death full of regret and crying “I wasted time and now time doth waste me.” (Act V Scene V) His mission is heavenly ordained and cannot indulge in such fruitless thoughts. Soon after meeting the Ghost, Hamlet acquires a frightening confidence and courage to act and we see him deliberately ridiculing his enemies, and by playing along in their plots, exposing himself to all kinds of danger throughout the whole play. Such fierce military style and cowardly submissiveness to one’s enemies and to fortune’s wheel, is contrary to Hamlet contemplative and melancholy nature.
Perhaps, Hamlet’s instructions to the players on who to best pronounce his self-penned speech, can give us a small clue for understanding his true temperance and in what fashion he will carry out his revenge:
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to
you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as live the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-Herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
Such important speech, in order to have the desired effect, cannot be recited with too much jest or with a trembling voice rendering it inaudible, like a fearful peasant summoned before a powerful court and unable to coherently speak. Nor must it be delivered with extravagant gestures accompanied by excessive unpersuasive noise and emotion, because Mouse-trap is not a badly written low farce. The intended effect, as Hamlet observes earlier, is for the truths in these lines to pierce through the hearts of the guilty among the audience:
I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.
(Act II Scene II 588-595)
Therefore, the speech must be said gently and smoothly without unnecessary exertion or rustic annunciation. Hence, it is not far-fetched to observe that Hamlet has acquired an astute temperament that gives a calculated nature and most assured success.