George Bernard Shaw once wrote that there have been “innumerable volumes of nonsense written about the meaning of Hamlet.” All these years later, the suspicion remains that we are no closer to making complete sense of this play. Even more remarkably, this analytical disease is directly related to Hamlet’s status as one of the greatest plays ever written, indeed one of the apogees of Western literature. Hamlet is the greatest play, it seems, because of how little sense it continues to make.
Put another way, Hamlet provides us with a glimpse of Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest writer in the English language, operating at the peak of his powers. And many of them, we sense, remain beyond our own limited cognitive understanding. In its seemingly infinite resources of linguistic and dramatic variety, its sprawling action, its endlessly changing flood of mixed registers, moods and dictions, the play remains the thing. It is an undiscovered country from which no director returns, its iconic soliloquies (including that dread audition piece, “To be or not to be”) a series of Everests that every actor dreams of scaling. To paraphrase Polonius, Hamlet is a “scene individable,” a “poem unlimited.” We will never stop coming back to the play, because we will never be finished trying to make sense of it.
From the textual evidence, it is likely that Shakespeare himself suffered from this same malady. Hamlet seems very much to have been a play that he couldn’t stop writing. There were three different versions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime and soon after his death, and it is impossible to say which was written first and whether any one was meant to be authoritative. The longest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet’s length remains an interpretive and logistical puzzle. Perhaps Shakespeare himself never revised it in a way that satisfied him.
Hamlet is also an odd type of play, a self-conscious throwback to a subgenre popularized in the 1580s, when Shakespeare was just starting his theatrical career: the revenge tragedy. Specific lines echo Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which is in turn indebted to a lost play treating the Hamlet story, the so-called Ur-Hamlet. Elsewhere, the Player-King’s Speech, with its fustian bombast and end-stopped lines, recalls Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido and Aeneas (c. 1586), a play practically archaic by 1602 standards. For some reason, while Shakespeare was writing and re-writing Hamlet, he found himself scurrying back twenty years to his own theatrical past, revisiting a ghostly genre, exhuming a decayed form of theater.
The most striking aspect Hamlet shares with The Spanish Tragedy is its use of framing devices, creating a series of concentric rings—like Chinese boxes or Russian nesting dolls—within the world of the play. In Kyd’s play, the Ghost of the murdered Don Andrea begins each Act with a soiloquy and remains present onstage throughout. Speaking as if from a purgatorial underworld, the Ghost thus distances us from the pitiful human action unfolding in the world above, which more and more resembles a deranged puppet play. From a technical perspective, Kyd transformed the classical tragedy of revenge into a kind of existentialist metatheater, one in which we are invited to regard all human actions seeking justice and revenge as mere performance above the eternal abyss, indeed as a kind of madness. At play’s end, the mad, Hamlet-esque Hieronimo stages a play-within-the-play that devolves into a lurid series of stabbings and suicides. Bodies litter the stage. The play is rarely performed nowadays because it tends to induce fits of hysterical laughter in the audience. But this might be just what Kyd intended. We are watching—and laughing—along with the Ghost.
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In Hamlet Shakespeare tweaks Kyd’s model, with startling results. The Ghost appears only a few times and his tale of murder is for Hamlet’s ears only. Rather than supplying an external frame to the action, then, Hamlet’s Ghost becomes something more, a psychological enigma for the melancholy Prince to wrestle with. It is Hamlet, not the Ghost, who interrupts each Act with philosophical soliloquies, serving as Chorus to his own tragedy. It is Hamlet, not the Ghost, who comments on his actions in the play with self-conscious irony, and who seems at times to be aware of the absurdity of them, like an actor who suddenly throws away the script and starts improvising.
By moving the metatheatrical frame of the Revenge Tragedy into Hamlet’s own mind (it is poured into his ears, like the poison poured into those of the sleeping King), Shakespeare makes questions regarding revenge and remembrance, in fact of all human action, into a process of literal soul-searching. Perhaps as a result, Hamlet is the first play ever written where the true turning-points of the action are determined, not by Aristotelian plot reversals, but rather by the evolution of the protagonist’s personality. We may not always understand Hamlet, but he always seems to be himself, just as he is always in the process of growth and change. Put another way, the play’s own refusal to make sense arises directly from Hamlet’s apprehension that the world itself refuses to make sense.
Though we never see the Ghost’s Senecan underworld, the play’s Denmark seems plenty purgatorial all by itself. It is a world of decay and distrust, where kings and beggars alike are food for worms, where politicians and fishmongers cannot be told apart. Hamlet compares it to a prison and it is indeed a swamp in need of draining. Sick with suicidal melancholy before he meets the Ghost, and forbidden to return to Wittenberg (the university home of that great believer, Martin Luther, as well as that great disbeliever, Doctor Faustus), Hamlet turns to the only possible source of escape: the theater itself. Donning an “antic disposition,” Hamlet’s performance of madness engenders a series of theatricalized encounters in the mousetrap world of Elsinore: the play-within-the-play, his “mad scenes” with Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his antic-romantic duets with Ophelia and Gertrude for the unseen audiences of Claudius and Polonius. In the closet scene, when Hamlet stabs the arras in a moment of extreme emotional frenzy, it has the effect of breaking the spell, much like a director yelling “cut!” on a crowded film set. If something is rotten in the state of Denmark, Shakespeare seems to be saying, the theater is a momentary way of staving off the nausea.
The play ends with the ultimate in courtly performance, a duel with audience onstage and Osric punctiliously narrating stage directions. By the conclusion, heroic action and ironic action have merged, become indistinguishable. Hamlet’s portrayal of seemingly stable political realities as perilous theatrical fictions has not gone unnoticed. In eastern European countries under Soviet occupation, when new and political plays were banned, innumerable directors turned to Hamlet, seeing in it an aesthetic language to address totalitarianism.
The most extraordinary scene in Hamlet, however, is also its least theatrical, or rather its most anti-theatrical. In Act 5, just as Hamlet is returning to Denmark, the trap doors of the stage are flung open, exposing the grave in which Ophelia will shortly be interred. In a profound reversal of the previous four acts, a Gravedigger starts throwing skulls out onto the stage, singing songs, cracking jokes, engaging Hamlet in unselfconscious banter about death and dying. Like Hamlet, we are asked to look into the abyss of the grave, the Chinese box we all will be put in some day, and confront dying, ceasing to be, no more. The hole in the ground is a presence but also an absence, a theatrical fiction and a physical reality, just as Denmark is simultaneously a court and a prison, and Hamlet a play that looks simultaneously both outward and inward, an infinite space that is bounded by a nutshell. This world that we are born into is also our grave. Try to make sense of that.