In the first book of Homer's Iliad, Agamemnon, the Greek king and military leader, takes away the prize of one of his warriors, Achilles. The prize is a beautiful slave-girl called Briseis, and Agamemnon takes her because he has lost his own prize (another slave girl) and doesn't see why he should do without; but he also does it publicly to mortify Achilles, the army's greatest warrior, whom he thinks has been getting above himself: ‘as Phoebus Apollo takes from me the daughter of Chryses,’ Agamemnon tells Achilles, with the whole army watching, ‘I will myself come to your tent and take the fair-cheeked Briseis, your prize, so that you will understand how much mightier I am than you’. This infuriates Achilles, who draws his sword and rushes at the king to kill him. Then this happens:
Athene came from heaven. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. [Iliad, 1:194-200]There are two ways in which we might want to read this moment. On the one hand we could take it in terms of its in-text logic: in the Iliad gods and goddesses mingle promiscuously with mortal men and women, and this is just one more example of that. If Achilles hacks down Agamemnon in sight of the entire army, the repurcussions would be severe. Achilles would probably die. Athene, who loves Achilles, doesn't want to see that happen and so she intervenes. But there's an ‘on the other hand’ too, and it's this: Athene appearing and seizing Achilles' hair to pull him back from assaulting Agamemnon is how this poem represents Achilles changing his mind. His first instinct is revenge, but then he has second thoughts. In Homer, and indeed throughout Ancient Greek literature, mental processes of this sort, and which we tend nowadays to think of as interior dynamics, things that happen on the inside of our heads rather than out in the world, are consistently exteriorised. Instead of saying ‘Achilles drew his sword to kill Agamemnon, but then he thought better of it’ it came naturally to Homer to say: a goddess (that only Achilles could see) descended and grabbed him by his hair.
This speaks, we might think, to a larger logic. It has, for instance, to do with the shift from a shame to a guilt culture, from a world in which what torments us is out-there to one in which that which torments us is inside us. Were we ever (god forbid!) to kill our own mother, we would surely feel desperately guilty; but when Aeschylus' Orestes kills his own mother (to avenge the father she had in her turn murdered) he does not interiorize his guilt. Instead he is actually pursued across Greece by a troop of supernatural entities called Erinyes, or Furies. The Erinyes are both actual agents in the world of the Oresteia, and symbolic representation of the process of guilt and regret. We don't have to prioritize one over the other; it's fine to treat them as both at the same time.
Here are a trio of frankly odd contradictions in Shakespeare's Hamlet: death, ghosts and ears. First the ‘to be or not to be’ speech, surely the most famous bit of Shakespeare in the entire canon. Shall I kill myself, Hamlet asks himself, or not? Suicide would put an end to a whole series of miseries and torments, yes; but death might be worse:
Who would these Fardles beareBut doesn't it seem strange to you that this Hamlet, opening his heart to the audience via soliloquy in Act 3, should describe death as an undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns, when just a little earlier, in Act 1, this same Hamlet had met the actual ghost of his actual dead father, inarguably a traveller returning from the land of the dead? Maybe Shakespeare temporarily forgot, as he composed this peerless monologue, the larger context of the play in which it occurred (it's even conceivable he wrote this monologue for a completely different project and dropped it in here, figuring that it sort-of fitted, which is why it includes references to generic obnoxiousnesses like ‘the law's delay’ and ‘the insolence of office’ neither of which have any relevance to the situation in which princely Hamlet finds himself). But now we're slipping into the business of making excuses for Shakespeare, and that is surely beneath us.
To grunt and sweat vnder a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The vndiscouered Countrey, from whose Borne
No Traueller returnes, Puzels the will,
And makes vs rather beare those illes we haue,
Then flye to others that we know not of. [Hamlet, 3.1.78-84]
Take it another way. The appearance of the ghost, right at the start of the play, situates Hamlet in a medieval world of supernatural terrors, where this Act 3 speech situates it in the modern world of interiorised anxieties and fears. The truth of this drama is that it stands Janus-like facing both the archaic past and the bang up to date. We could put it this way: the appearance of the ghost embodies an aspect of death and grief to which any bereaved person will attest: the way the dead won't lie still, the way they return to us and trouble us, that we can't stop thinking about them, that they make us worry about what we have left undone; where the reference to the country from whose borne no traveller returns articulates a different facet of our experience of death: that it marks an absolute breach with life. The grievous truth that those we love who die are gone forever. The existential abyss we face when we contemplate our own inevitable mortality. Hamlet is a play capacious enough to encompass both of these.
The thing is, this isn't the only discontinuity in the play. Consider the ghost of Hamlet's father, with which the play starts. This spectre dominates Act 1, first observed by Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco, who report it to Hamlet, and then by all four of them together. This is, in other words, a well-attested phenomenon; there are many witnesses to confirm to the existence of this apparition as, we might say, a real ghost. But later in the play the ghost appears again: towards the end of Act 3, as Hamlet is rebuking his mother in her bedroom, and after he has killed Polonius (believing him to be Claudius). I mean, I say the ghost appears, but, like the Athene who grabs Achilles' hair, this manifestation is visible only to one person.
Enter Ghost.By this stage on the play Hamlet has been pretending to be mad for some time, and we, the audience, are beginning to suspect that the mask has become the face and that he has actually become mad (or else, perhaps, that he's been mad all along). Which is to say: we're less likely to take this appearance of the ghost as an ‘actual’ ghost, and more likely to take it as a hallucination.
Hamlet. A King of shreds and patches.
Saue me; and houer o're me with your wings
You heauenly Guards. What would you gracious figure?
Queen. Alas he's mad ...
Alas, how is't with you?
That you bend your eye on vacancie,
And with their corporall ayre do hold discourse.
To who do you speake this?
Hamlet. Do you see nothing there?
Queen. Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Hamlet. Nor did you nothing heare?
Queen. No, nothing but our selues.
Hamlet. Why look you there: looke how it steals away:
My Father in his habite, as he liued,
Looke where he goes euen now out at the Portall. Exit.
Queen. This is the very coynage of your Braine,
This bodilesse Creation extasie is very cunning in. [Hamlet, 3.4.93-129]
This in effect restates the example from the Iliad in an Elizabethan context. For Homer, the goddess Athene is both an actual being in the world of the poem and an externalisation or symbolisation of Achilles' thought processes. For Aeschylus the Furies are actual divine beings and the emblematisation of Orestes' guilty conscience. So here: the ghost is a ‘real’ entity in the world of the play and an externalised representation of the state of Hamlet's griefstruck mind and his guilty and anguished will-to-revenge. Indeed, and strikingly, Shakespeare takes pains to style it in the poem as first the one and then the other. And this brings me to ears.
The crime to which the whole of Hamlet is a response is Claudius' murder of Old Hamlet. How does he kill him? You know, of course. He creeps into the old king's garden, where Old Hamlet is lying flat out after a boozy lunch, and pours poison into his ear.
So now I'm going to ask a really obvious question. Is it possible to kill somebody by pouring poison into their ear? And, having asked, I can supply the obvious answer: no, it isn't possible. Common sense, really. If you want to poison someone you pour the poison in their mouth, whence it goes to their stomach and is absorbed into the whole body. Unless you have serious lacerations inside the ear pouring poison in isn't going to do any good, or bad, at all.
Of course, I'm missing the point. That's not what Shakespeare is getting at. Claudius ‘pouring poison into Old Hamlet’s ears’ actually invokes the ancient trope of the Bad Advisor—the monarch’s councillor who offers bad advice, of the sort that might well prove fatal to the King and, through him, to his kingdom. This character, the Bad Advisor pouring metaphorical, verbal ‘poison’ in a King’s ear is something that retains its potency in modern times. Think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and the damage wrought by the evil advisor Wormtongue. Think of the anxiety generated in the popular press by contemporary political advisors, the shadowy unelected, unaccountable goons who surround (let's say) a President notoriously gullible and none too intelligent. How can we be sure whether the advice these people are giving our leaders is good or bad? We can't. There's nothing we can do. That's an anxiety-producing thought.
Hamlet is about many things: the situation in the Court at Elsinore is ‘about’ politics and the protocols of social interaction; the scenes with the ghost are ‘about’ the relations between the living and the dead. The main character, somebody who isn’t necessarily quite sure what he should do, is surrounded by people happy to offer him all sorts of, usually conflicting, advice. Indeed, we could make the case that it is advice in the broadest sense that is the heart of this play: the role of official political ‘advisors’; the advice offered to people in more general senses; by the ghost to the living Hamlet; by Hamlet to the players; by Laertes to Ophelia; by Polonius to anybody prepared to listen. Advice is a strange thing. If you are in an undoubted position of authority you can command; but if you are not—and that’s most of us—then the best you can do is advise, and people can choose to follow your advice or not. Unsolicited advice is particularly problematic (Polonius has become a byword for offering tedious and unwanted advice for example), as is advice from those who don’t really know what they’re talking about offered to those who do (and what right has Hamlet—not, after all a professional actor—to advise the players, who are, on performance?). How often do we regard the advice we receive in our day-to-day as helpful, and act upon it? How often do we think of those who offer us advice as meddlesome, tiresome, intrusive and worse? How coercive is advice? How pertinent? These are the things that, in a deep way, Hamlet is ‘about’.
To take this an inch further: what is the role of a critic? It is not, surely, to compel agreement with a reader, but to offer interpretations and analysis that is much more akin to advice. The reader can take or leave it. It used to be axiomatic that the best literature helps us live; it offers us advice on how to navigate our own existences.
The status of the royal adviser was, we can assume, peculiarly acute in 1599 and 1600 when, in all likelihood, Hamlet was being written. Of course Shakespeare, like his contemporaries, would have expressed love and reverence for their Queen (the alternative was execution); but at the same time they would have experienced anxieties in being ruled by a female monarch. Only a few decades earlier John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment [ie Rule] of Women (1558), had declared that that monarchs ‘oght to be constant, stable, prudent and doing euerie thing with discretion and reason, whiche vertues women can not haue in equalitie with men … Nature doth paint [women] furthe to be weake, fraile, impacient, feble, foolishe: and experience hath declared them to be vnconstant, variable, cruell and lacking the spirit of counsell and regiment’. Women, the 16th-century believed, were not made for governance; and for a Queen to refuse to take a husband left the sacred authority of the throne ambiguous and fearful. Shakespeare might have agreed that God had anointed Elizabeth as Queen whilst also worrying that actual governance was being performed by her advisors, those in the shadows behind the throne, men he knew not, nor were they appointed to their role by divine grace. Hamlet, in this context, becomes a work that (among other things) expresses these anxieties, that works through the subtle channels of advice and the way that advisors operate in the social and political world.
But all this is to elaborate on the more basic point: when it comes to the event that kicks-off the whole drama of Hamlet, Claudius's murder of Old Hamlet, Shakespeare very deliberately elides a metaphor and an in-text actuality. And this is the key. Hamlet is a play about states of mind, really before it is anything else. If we want to be more particular we could say: it is a play about what happens to and in our minds when they are put under certain extraordinary strains: pressures of grief, and anger, and the impulse to revenge (for instance) as well as, of love and desire, of the anxieties as well as the exhilarations of adopting a public role. The question then becomes: how does a writer body-forth a state of mind in his/her art.
In a novel we might utilise the convention of textualised interiority, and have our narrator describe what was going on inside a character's thoughts and feelings; but Shakespeare is centuries before the novel and writing for a very different mode, theatre. He has, really, two strategies at his disposal. One is the venerable one that Homer and Aeschylus used, of externalising states of minds as agents within the logic of the text: gods, ghosts, furies and so on. Two is one of the great Shakespearian innovations: the monologue (I mean he didn't strictly speaking invent this component of the theatrical text, but it was his use that established the variety and suppleness of it as a dramatic possibility). The conceit with a monologue is that we—audience, readers but pointedly not the other characters with whom s/he happens to be sharing the stage—are being gifted a glimpse into the speaker's mind. It is no mere coincidence, I think, that the ghost of Hamlet's father occurs in the arena of the first of these logics of representation, the external action of the play, and that Hamlet's anxiety about death being the undiscovered country from whose borne no traveller returns occurs in the second, the monologue. But they're both, in their different ways—under, that is, the differing logics of their mutual representative modes—saying the same thing. They are both saying: death is scary, mysterious, destabilising; death is repugnant to comprehension and yet won't leave us alone, keeps preying on our minds; the dead will never come back to us and yet won't ever leave us alone. That death, and the dead, are somehow both hidden behing a cloud of unknowing and glaringly, terrifyingly obvious. And that's probably enough about Hamlet obviousnesses for now.
A coda, which has nothing to do with Hamlet. One thing that sometimes surprises me about that congeries of fandom-communities of which I am, in my way, a part—I mean science fiction and fantasy fandom—is how wedded fans are to the in-text reading of their favourite works, and the inertia of their resistance to the idea that these might be logics of representation rather than actual things in the world, or even in the Jonathan-Franzen-air-quotes ‘world’. That Harry Potter and his friends don't literally have magical powers, even in the context of the Harry Potter novels (that these magical talents are how Rowling articulates the potency, specialness and vitality of young people as such). That MCU superhero texts are saying things about non-superheroic aspects of life, and not pretending that the Homeric gods have returned to the world in spandex. But there we are. Representation is a slippery logic, and we think we're on solider ground with brass tacks. We're not, of course; but we often think we are.