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Hamlet viewed from three angles

by Julian Scutts

Shakespeare’s Hamlet remains an enigma to this day though great minds have contended with the questions it raises, not least among them “To be or not to be?” The following study treats the play from three viewpoints or perspectives: as a piece of writing in which certain words can be subjected to linguistic criteria, as  a historical document and as a practical guide to life in any age, including our own, full of warnings about the pitfalls lying in the path of life’s journey. In the first case outlined above we treat the pay just as we would normally do when studying a short work such as a sonnet where we take account of the position of words, their frequency and cumulative effects. As to the play’s place in history, I believe  that we today find ourselves at a juncture not at all dissimilar to that which faced Britain at the turn of the seventeenth century. Hamlet has been viewed in many lights, as a philosopher, as agonizing believer and even today as a crazy mixed-up kid.



A: Hamlet, Being and Doing


What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be made? They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous. When they occur in real life they are painful, not tragic; the representation of them in poetry is painful also. Matthew Arnold, 185




     This essay compares two passages in which the verb “to be” invites particular attention, in Act I, Sc. II and Act III Sc. I. In one of these the word “be” already enjoys no small measure of attention throughout the world. The appearance of the same word in Act 1, Scene II seems to have slipped critical attention. I will argue that both passages in question throw light on each other, and when viewed in their respective contexts prove to be centred on two contrasts inhering in Shakespeare’s use of the word “be,” that of being and seeming and that of being and not being. Together they reflect the fact that Hamlet is a drama rooted in questions of ontology, the nature of being, rather than in an interplay of actions. Verbs in literary texts receive relatively attention, perhaps because they tend to submerge themselves in the onward process of sentence construction, and “to be” is perhaps one of the least obtrusive and most inconspicuous verbs of all. When then should it deserve our special attention in Hamlet ?



 Disparaged but Undeniably Great

     Hamlet has certainly incurred its fair share of adverse criticism, notably from Voltaire, Bernard Shaw and T. S. Eliot, but in one regard the play marks an unchallengeable achievement. Few other literary works have enriched the English language with such succinct and proverbial phrases as Hamlet has done. Probably most people, when saying “You have to be cruel to be kind,” “there’s method in his or her madness,” “more in sorrow than in anger" or “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy” are not making any conscious allusion to passages in Hamlet, but in the case of one quotation they probably are, namely: “To be or not to be, that is the question.


  Being and doing

     Hamlet fails to do because of what he is. By contrast, in Shakespeare’s most recent literary source for Hamlet, Thomas Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet, a play we can only reconstruct on the basis of secondary evidence, the protagonist’s delay in taking decisive action is dictated by circumstances and tactics, not his own psychological inhibitions or moral misgivings. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the one pivotal and decisive action of the play, the killing of Polonius, is a gross and absurd blunder (indeed, there is the view that Hamlet anticipates the Theatre of the Absurd in significant ways). Polonius’s death marks Hamlet’s departure from his careful experimental mode of operation as typified by his staging “The Mousetrap,” an indication, perhaps, that the real world offers no laboratory conditions for the resolution of all human problems. Indeed, the incongruous relationship between the actions and the inward character of Hamlet provoked Eliot’s famous assertion that in Hamlet Shakespeare failed to establish an “objective correlative” revealing how Hamlet’s emotions might find their adequate and precise expression in actions and events. Endorsing the opinion of another critic (J. N. Robertson), Eliot argued in his essay “Hamlet and his Problems” in The Sacred Wood (1920) that Shakespeare’s alleged failure partly lay in the “intractable” nature of the material provided by his sources with its motif or revenge, its ghost and "its despicable intrigues." 35

    Perhaps Eliot did not take full account of one very important difference distinguishing Kid’s UrHamlet (and closely associated with it The Spanish Tragedy) from Shakespeare’s drama, for the Bard inverted the roles of father and son in making it Hamlet’s goal to avenge his father, while in Thomas Kyd’s play a father avenges his son. In fact, Shakespeare partially returned to the plot laid down by the original Danish story of Hamlet, likewise a son who avenges his father. This inversion or return to source entails an orientation to the future, the expectation of progress, if not a guarantee of its full achievement. At one level Hamlet revolves around the thwarting of a normal smooth transfer from one generation to the next. A reflection of England’s looming dynastic crisis? Be that as it may, in Hamlet we witness the interpenetration of two historical planes with one reflecting the transition from paganism (with its ethos of revenge) to Christianity (with its ethos of forgiveness) while the other reflects the transition from medieval society to modern secularism. Perhaps this density of associations offers the main reason why Hamlet has been seen so variously as the champion of conflicting beliefs and ideologies, whether as a Catholic, a Puritan or modern agnostic. In fact, all these elements intermingle in Hamlet’s character making him a prototype of the distraught Romantic hero and today’s “crazy mixed up kid.”




 Individual Words and the Light They Shed on the Works to which They Belong

     Amid all the debate and contrary opinions that surround Hamlet I wish to adopt a logocentric approach to this drama which involves a consideration of particular words in this literary text. I feel no better point of departure is offered by these words:


“To be or not to be, that is the question.”


     Do these words pose a memorable yet isolated expression, or do they point to something of essential importance to the dramatic work in which they found? The same underlying question concerns not only words found in Hamlet but those in all works of literature, a point made clearly by the Russian Formalist Yurij Tynjanov in an article bearing the translated title of “The Meaning of the Word in Verse”. (1) The very formulation of “the Word” arguably betrays the Russian linguist’s indebtedness to scriptural precedents such as those laid by the opening of St John’s Gospel or in rabbinic principles of biblical interpretation, for Tynjanov  arguments build on de Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole by contrasting the specific reference of a word in terms of its immediate context with its universal aspect as part of a totality created by all words of like meaning and appearance. A poet’s puns or play on words produce much more than the jocular effects of puns in nonliterary language but point to a connection between the specific context-related significance of a word and its universal aspect. For Tynjanov a word derives significance from more than the context supplied by the sentence or passage to which it belongs but also from other wider contexts, including that of the entire work of which it is a part, that of the author’s entire literary output, that of his or her historical situation and finally that of its being subsumed by “the word” as Tynjanov defined it in its widest, its universal sense. 36


  Reflections on the Verb “To Be”


     Can one consider “to be” in the light of Tynjanov’s theory of the word? As many a teacher of language will know, “to be” is in some ways the most problematic, irregular and infuriating of verbs. With other verbs, at least, the infinitive signals the formal unity of its various forms and manifestations irrespective of tense or declination. “Be” as a word occurs only in the infinitive, the imperative and subjunctive categories. Second, while verbs generally denote some form of action, “to be” denotes a state of existence with no necessary reference to any action at all. Some languages can apparently dispense with the verb altogether. In certain ways it poses an obvious antithesis of “to do” and it is only in the imperative that “be” is dependent on “do” . This contrast finds a parallel in the basic issue that confronts us in Hamlet.
     The very ubiquity to the verb “to be” in all its various forms renders it virtually featureless and inconspicuous in all but the most exceptional cases, the line “To be or not to be” posing one of them. Let us, however, consider another case where “to be” deserves attention. It occurs early in the play in a scene placed at a juncture before Hamlet meets his father’s ghost.


“If It be”


     The following reference to the text of the play in Act I, Scene II reveals Shakespeare’s interest in the verb “to be”, containing as it does a contrast between being and seeming, essence and appearance Act I, Scene II:


            Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die,
            Passing through life to eternity.
            Hamlet: Ay. Madam. It is common.
            Queen: If it be,
            Why seems it so particular with thee?
            Hamlet: Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’

     The appearance of the word “be” in the words of Gertrude quoted above has nothing of the resounding effect of “be” placed at the beginning of Hamlet’s famed soliloquy. Even so, in his reply to his mother Hamlet pounces on Gertrude’s choice of verbs changing the form of the verb “to be” from the diffident subjunctive to the bold indicative, which he then juxtaposes with “seems”. The use of quotation marks in this case draws attention to words as individual bits of language rather than to the information conveyed by words when assuming their usual subservient role. In treating “seems” as a noun and thus deviating from the rules of grammar, the author again makes us aware of the mechanics of language which we constantly use without reflecting on them. Hamlet proceeds to expatiate on the difference between what is and what seems – between Schein and Sein - in the lines quoted below:

            It is not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
            Not customary suits of solemn black,
            Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
            No, not the fruitful river in the eye,
            Nor the dejected ‘haviour of the visage,
            Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
            That can denote me truly. : these indeed seem.
            They are all actions that a man might play:
            But I have that within which passeth show.


     Hamlet in Act I scene II evinces all the main traits of character that later come to the fore and manifests his basic attitudes to the world. These will undergo little qualitative change, even after he has cause to wrestle with the possibility that Claudius has killed his father. We find in this scene anticipations of what will more fully emerge in great soliloquy in Act III, Sc. I. In Act I Sc. II he already contemplates suicide while expressing countervailing fears instilled by religious teaching when saying in the soliloquy that ends this scene:


Oh, that this too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew !
Oh that the Everlasting had not fix’t
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. ..

     These lines together with inferences we can draw from the great emphasis ][aced on  the special permission required for Ophelia’s burial suggest that Shakespeare was somewhat preoccupied with the issue of suicide at the time of writing Hamlet. Speculations about the author apart, Hamlet questions, even before his encounter with the ghost, whether life has any true meaning. The profundity of his underlying pessimism is temporarily occluded by his situation as a son mourning his father’s death, but Claudius and his mother shrewdly note that he exceeds the limits of filial piety normally demanded by decorum. Claudius’s objection that even mourning a parent’s death can become obsessive and eventually exceed a socially acceptable limit comes over as sagacious and temperate advice, should we disregard his vested interest in raising it. As his exclamation …”Frailty, thy name is woman !…..makes abundantly clear, Hamlet has already developed a strong antipathy to womankind, which augurs ill for any future relationship with a member of the opposite sex. The reason is clear. What most galls him at this stage, as later, is the unseemly haste in which his mother has entered into marriage with Claudius, his father’s brother, a marriage he decries as “incestuous,” the same word the ghost will also employ in due course. His invective seems to combine his own sense of disgust with a defence of the Church’s laws on marriage. Talk of “incest” immediately recalls the Freudian and Jungian theories concerning  the “Oedipus complex.”

     Hamlet’s killing of Polonius occurs, significantly enough, in his mother’s bedchamber and a reference he makes to Nero points to his fear of becoming an unwilling matricide. This reference finds an odd parallel on the occasion when Hamlet hails Polonius as Jephthah, the biblical judge who slays his own daughter to fulfill a rashly made vow. Few other plays outside Hamlet show how people advertently or inadvertently bring death and harm to their nearest and dearest, whether son, mother, sweetheart, uncle, niece or prospective brother-in-law, a fact which seems to symbolize the interdependence and inextricability of human relationships and hence the impossibility of surgically clean assassinations. One of the more laudable motives that inhibits Hamlet from killing Claudius stems from this recognition. On the philosophical level Hamlet fears committing himself to action because the consequences of deeds are unpredictable and may well become the agents of evil. It will also be interesting to take some account of C. G. Jung’s variant understanding of the Oedipus complex, which he, more emphatically than Freud, uncovered in that stage in cultural development when great heroes like Ulysses and Hercules were identified as human embodiments of the sun on its course through day and night. According to Jung the male libido seeks its source and future goal in embodiments of the female anima, which in line with the logic of Jung’s main argument conflates mother and bride. Jung saw art as a possibility of evading the logic implied by this dread of incest, a possibility afforded by the artist’s exercise of boundless creativity in the media of sound, word and physical substances and in imaginative powers of sublimation. Hamlet’s prevarications stave off death until the play’s cataclysmic end with a commensurate extension of the scope given to the development and articulation of words. As we know from The Thousand and One Nights verbalizing can be a very effective way of stalling. Besides, deferred action heightens interest in psychological and mental tensions. Hamlet is a psycho-drama, a fact which Eliot and others seem to have disregarded.




What a Difference a Ghost Makes

    The entrance of the ghost occurring at a juncture set between the passages under consideration does not induce a fundamentally new attitude in Hamlet but at most serves as a catalyst effecting an acceleration of already existing trends. The ghost makes Hamlet aware of the possibility that his father was killed by his own brother, but is a supernatural agent necessary as the only way of pointing to such a possibility? On the strength of circumstantial evidence alone Hamlet has reason enough to suspect his uncle of being responsible for his father’s death. The evidence provided by a ghost was in any case suspect according to the tenets of Christian doctrine. The question as to whether the Devil could assume the appearance of innocent mortals was a contentious issue that was still being hotly debated at the time of the notorious witch trials in Salem Massachusetts. Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost leads to no resolution of Hamlet’s malaise. It intensifies already extant emotions and tensions to the point of making him even less capable of reasoned action. The experience of encountering a supernatural being serves only to produce feelings of headiness and frenzy of the kind that has induced many a disoriented and distracted young person to commit extra-judicial executions in the name of a higher authority. Making decisions is difficult enough when one has this world’s parameters to contend with without having to worry about otherworldly dimensions. Hamlet’s fear that the ghost might pose a malign influence, a centre of contagion, is not to be dismissed lightly in view of subsequent events culminating in the play’s final massacre.



 “To Be or Not To Be”

     Hamlet’s irresolute state of mind that follows his encounter with the ghost is mirrored in the second passage in which the verb “to be” is foregrounded. The celebrated soliloquy confirms what we have been able to infer from Hamlet’s previous utterances in Act 1, Scene II. He is not an assured believer in the promise of eternal life according to the Christian creed though he nurtures lingering fears about the possible suffering of a departed soul in purgatory or hell. But is the soliloquy exclusively concerned with the question of the soul’s survival after death? The words “To be or not to be” cannot be adequately paraphrased by “to live on or not to live on.” The initial prompt for the soliloquy is instigated by Hamlet’s act of contemplating suicide, but beyond this point the soliloquy makes little reference to Hamlet’s personal situation but rather expands into a general philosophical discussion of the ills attending the human condition. Viewed in a linguistic or grammatical light, “To be or not to be” poses a striking use of the infinitive which in subsequent lines recurs in “to die,” “to sleep,” and “to dream,” creating the effect of an algebraic formula devised to discover the unknown in terms of the known. However, as Hamlet himself admits, his linguistic-analytical approach to comprehending non-existence must ultimately prove inconclusive as a human being can never directly confront death in his or her mind without dying in the process, only the thought of death or images for death derived from the mind of a living person. Thus Hamlet tests the very limits of thought and its principal vehicle, language, particularly language that relies on the use of metaphors. Here the verb “to be” plays a central role, for in the processing of creating a metaphor we elucidate the nature of the object of comparison by associating it with something other than itself. Put simply, a metaphor arises when you say that something is what it is not. Rational metaphors such as similes state that one thing, person or entity is like another. However, absolute or mystical metaphors state that one such thing, person, etc is the other without further qualification.
    The issues raised by Hamlet’s famed soliloquy are all-pervasive in this play and possibly others written by Shakespeare, being rooted in the spirit of an age in transition, an age when leading minds were increasingly concerned with the nature of metaphors and language. What after all posed the central point of contention between Protestants and Catholics in Shakespeare’s age if not the metaphor contained in the words “This is my body”? The flowering of the theatre in Elizabethan England could be seen as a reaction to the vacuum left by the cessation of medieval church ritual after the introduction of the Reformation. The final scene seems to derive much of its imagery by ironically inverting aspects the Eucharist with the icons of the table and the cup of wine and by Hamlet’s ironic use of the word “union” when ending Claudius’s life.
     Hamlet and other persons surrounding him question not only the validity of words and their ability to represent truth but all signifiers in the domain of semiotics, of which language is only a part. Perception and memory as representations of reality are not always be assumed to be reliable, a point already intimated in the first scene when Horatio and Marcellus discuss the sight of the ghost.

            Before my God, I might not this believe
            Without the sensible and true avouch
            Of my own eyes
                                   Horatio to Marcellus, Act 1 Sc. 1


     The unsettling implications of the Copernican revolution are apparent in Hamlet’s protestation of love written on a note to Ophelia:

            Doubt thou the stars are fire;
            Doubt that the sun doth move;
            Doubt truth to be a liar;
            But never doubt I love

                                    Letter read to Gertrude by Polonius, Act ll Sc. Il

     Indeed the spirit of doubt conjured up in these points anticipates the pose of absolute skepticism adopted by Descartes towards outside reality which found definitive expression in the dictum cogito ergo sum. Shakespeare gave voice to what has become a central postmodern attitude to the arbitrariness of the sign, most notably in Juliet’s words “What’s in a name?” A corollary to the arbitrariness of the sign on the philosophical level is the manipulation of the sign on the moral and aesthetic planes. The case of The Mousetrap demonstrates the relevance of drama to politics, leading some to conclude that this play within a play recalled the uproar caused by the performance of Richard II at the time of the Essex rebellion. The motif of the jester in Hamlet epitomized by Hamlet’s meditation on  Yorick’s skull belies the prince’s declaration that he rejects all actions “that a man might play”. In this light we may interpret the deaths of Hamlet and Laertes as a reflection of an inseparable connection between sportive play and the reality it imitates and is normally supposed to harmlessly replace.



To Thine Own Self Be True

This above all ; to thine own self be true.
And it Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Must follow, as the night the day.

                                                       Act I Sc. III


     Polonius’s parting words to Laertes betoken more that a piece of well-meant paternal advice. They are predicated on the age-old philosophical viewpoint that a person’s knowledge of the world and all acts stemming from it are profoundly affected by the extent and character of that person’s self-knowledge. In philosophical terms, this means steering a middle course between the Scylla of solipsistic isolation and the Charybdis of a belief in the possibility of achieving absolute objectivity detached from morality and self-interest.

     In Hamlet such an insight evidently arrives too late to be of much practical assistance to the main players at the end of the drama. On the other hand, approaching death has a remarkable way of concentrating the mind and sharpening awareness of what essentially matters. In Hamlet and more obviously in Romeo and Juliet it proves not only to be the dreaded universal destroyer but also the reconciler of what cannot be united on this imperfect earth. Romeo and Juliet at least points to a beneficial result of death for the surviving society. Hamlet and Laertes are reconciled at the point of death not simply because they realize that they have fallen victim to Claudius’s evil machinations. They acknowledge their mutual affinity as brothers in death. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine despite Claudius’s warning not to do so, which makes her dying act a token of a desire to expiate her guilt and declare solidarity with her son, thus, in the terms of Jung’s theory of the unconscious, symbolizing the union of the male libido and the female anima. Horatio volunteers to kill himself too, but Hamlet lays upon him the charge of reporting to others the tragic events he has witnessed, doubtless for the sake of posterity. Someone has to live on to report the tale, as Shakespeare himself well knew. Fortinbras’s commentary of “The sight is dismal” on surveying the corpses of members of Denmark’s royal house might be taken as evidence of Shakespeare’s descent to banality at so solemn a moment in the play, but perhaps Fortinbras is reminding us that death is a banality that in the end overtakes all, the good and the evil, the wise and ignorant, nor can society and even the physical universe itself defer death’s triumph indefinitely, be this the work of Doomsday or the second law of thermo-dynamics, whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper. At least, in a certain regard, the mind’s recognition of the Eternal Now renders it indestructible, leaving it to each individual to decide whether the thought of death degrades or elevates the human spirit.

Though we now mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth the Second  prudence bids us consider the state of our nation after her reign. Whether soon or late, a king shall reign whose mother, adored by many, despised by some, died under tragic circumstances. There are urgent questions regarding England’s ties with Scotland and Ireland, now enjoying a quiet respite after a sequence of great troubles. A continental power is in contention with the realm. “Is England ruled by madmen?” some may venture to  ask. Gloom and despondency reign. Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?


B: Can we decipher cryptic references to contemporary events in Hamlet?


Who would doubt that Shakespeare’s Hamlet will always make good reading at any time and under any circumstances, so profound and essential are the issues that it raises? There are, however, special reasons for exploring the drama’s relevance to our present situation. The first portfolio of Hamlet was composed at the turn of the 17th century when the political climate of England coincided with the lull before a tempest to be expected to rage on the possibly imminent death of Queen Elizabeth and the likely accession of James VI of Scotland, then becoming James I of England, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded at the behest of her cousin and supposed asylum-giving host, Queen Elizabeth. Only a short time afterwards in 1601 a historical drama by Shakespeare, Richard the Second, made thinly veiled allusions to a political crisis that threatened to topple the queen, a crisis that arose during the military expedition to Ulster led by Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex, which, though undertaken officially to crush a Roman Catholic uprising, afforded a chance to stir up unrest even in the streets of London. Henry Wriothesley 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, was involved in this conspiracy, a fact which could have cast suspicions on Shakespeare.

Is Hamlet, albeit in a more covert and subtle manner, likewise pervaded by political concerns? I happened to read recently a page on The Guardian website which enjoined readers to make comments or state opinions in answer to a significant question, this being in the present case: “Why didn’t Hamlet become King?” 1 The discussion begins with a point of elucidation concerning the laws determining who was next in line to accede to the Danish throne in the sixteenth century. In the usual way the deceased king’s son claimed the right of primogeniture, as in England, but some alternative leeway was granted to the Danish parliament (Thing) if it decided to elect another candidate. Hamlet was aggrieved on being cheated of his royal title by a dirty trick that paved the way for his mother Gertrude to be Queen Regent and her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle, to be the royal consort and de facto ruler of Denmark. A contributor added this thought-provoking conjecture:

 Gertrude may have been queen regnant (making her husband king consort). Power would then remain with her after her husband's death. There is a lot of Mary Queen of Scots about Gertrude (husband killed in a garden in dubious circumstances, hasty remarriage, disaffected son); Shakespeare was likely reflecting contemporary politics.

  1. Source:


 Could one go on to suggest yet further parallels between Mary Queen of Scots and Gertrude? I refer to a very strange and unexpected turn of fate. Mary Queen of Scots married Francis, the son of Queen Catherine de Medici in a teenage wedding that was intended to prolong and strengthen the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland and lead the way to the England’s return to the Roman Catholic fold. Catherine’s part in the war against Admiral Coligny and the Huguenots is well known. The reign of Francis II of France, Mary’s husband, was short indeed as the result of a fatal ear infection, possibly an abscess. In an age riddled by conspiracies and resultant fears and suspicions a rumour arose that foul play was the true cause of the king’s death. It could be a pure incidence that Gertrude’s first husband was killed by poison injected through an ear in such a way that no trace of it could be found. Such a devious method of causing death presupposes some knowledge of the human anatomy, and it was during the seventeenth century that major discoveries in the medical field were made, such being Harvey’s investigation into blood circulation.

1560, the year in which this misfortune occurred, saw Mary’s return to Scotland, the advent of the Scottish Reformation under the unwavering hand of John Knox and the termination of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland. Mary’s subsequent marital path, her marriage to Lord Darnley, a playboy-bully who probably arranged the murder of David Rizzio, allegedly a pope’s son and Mary’s lover, Darnley’s gun-powder boosted demise, with or without Mary’s connivance, and much else gave Mary a bad name in Protestant circles as a woman of easy virtue, to say the least: in this respect she and Gertrude held something in common. If, in 1600, the question of King James’s accession to the monarch of a dual English-Scottish union was not done and dusted, by the time the second portfolio was printed in 1603, no doubts on this question remained and evidence points to the probability that the later versions of Hamlet had factored in the certainty of James’s accession to the throne of England. Both Protestant and Catholics hoped that James would favour their side against the other or at least display evenhanded neutrality. The more radical parties on the Catholic side vented their anger at James’s failure to advance their cause with sufficient vigour by laying a plot to blow up the Parliament in Westminster during a session at which James would preside, though the notion that the Gunpowder Plot was a false flag operation has also been mooted. Whatever one’s reading of events, terrorism has had a long history down to this day.

Is Hamlet, albeit in a more covert and subtle and convert way, likewise pervaded by yet further political concerns? In view of Poland now being in the vanguard of the effort to support Ukraine, one is struck that the name of Polonius poses a subliminal allusion to Poland and that Fortinbras is on his way to Poland on a military mission. I recently noted the expression of an opinion that such apparently coincidental references are grounded in the author’s knowledge of contemporary events in Europe. At this time the rulers of Poland complained that a naval blockade by England interrupted the free flow of trade between Poland and Spain. See the contribution of Symon Pryzalski located at: https://www.quora/Why-does-Fortinbras-invadePoland-inShakespeares-Hamlet

Shakespeare, we must assume, was in no position to foresee Poland’s tragic involvement in the wars and carnage of more recent days. All the same the whole play is open to interpretation as little less than an apocalyptic vision of a world stricken by confusion and annihilating violence.


C: Let’s Not Make a Tragedy out of this: Advice to Hamlet


A man in a smart business suit is perusing a newspaper and makes the following comments:


Poor old Polonius!

Fancy that happening to him.

What’s the world coming to?

Eavesdropping is a risky business of course.

What was the blighter doing behind the arras anyway?

Poking his nose into other people’s affairs, I suppose.

He had the rather annoying habit of always getting in the way.

Even so, a bit stiff.

Hard on Ophelia, of course.

Still, young people these days are remarkably resilient.

Some call it ‘callous.’

Hamlet will have a lot of explaining to do.

If I were him I’d lie doggo for a bit-

Till the dust settles, if you know what I mean.

For the time being he should avoid Laertes.

All this will mess up his love life though.

There’s no real damage done if he plays his cards right.

El Cid managed it with a much greater handicap.

After all, he can always plead ignorance.

Still, an altogether unhappy affair.

You can overdo all this ‘gloom and doom’ talk though.

Once corpse doesn’t make a mortuary.

Hamlet will just have to be a little more circumspect next time, won’t he

He’ll have to cut out this stab-first-then ask-questions-later approach next time he’s in a similar situation.

He’ll mature.

He should settle down and have kids.

So one old man met a tragic end.

Is that supposed to bring the end of the world.


The reader turns to another page:

Hmm. Fortinbras looks like causing trouble on the Polish border I see.


See video clip:

Book: Reflection on the Important Things