[p. 240]

Hamlet, A Successful Suicide

Burton R Pollin.
Reprinted by permission from
Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 240-60.

Hamlet’s leap into Ophelia’s grave after Laertes and his subsequent words, “Be buried quick with her, and so will I,” may be taken as symbolic of the hero’s tendency throughout the play.1 He speaks about suicide early in the first act and later presents it as an available alternative to the outwardly-directed action that the Elizabethan audience might expect. His efforts to end his own life will here be viewed as the integrative and dominant theme in the play. I intend to examine the causes for his ready acceptance of the fatal challenge in the light of contemporary writings which evaluated and linked suicide and melancholy, of the audience’s general orientation to plays with avenging and melancholic characters, and of the direction of the successive episodes. I believe Hamlet’s suicidal impulses to be fully adequate to explain his puzzling behavior and inconsistent speeches.2 His intellect, sensitivity, and moral and religious scruples caused him to seek the least reproachable means of terminating an intolerable burden of existence. His death would ultimately have the virtue of exposing the real sources of public corruption in Denmark.

It may be asserted that many tragic dramas are based on an action of self-sacrifice in which death is the hazard.3 If the chances for survival are foreseen as negative, devotion to the highest principles may then be deemed an indirect, yet justified self-destruction. We may thus consider martyrdom, in which only the miraculous intervention of the Deity may preserve life. As we shall see, John Donne, following early Christian doctrine, expressed an evolving Elizabethan heterodoxy about suicide when he viewed martyrdom in exactly this light. As for the representation of opinion on the Elizabethan stage--whatever the nature of the fatal crisis, there is a great difference between a mere risk deliberately taken by the hero in overcoming obstacles and a plunge into certain death, after frequently entertaining the idea of self-destruction. Hamlet’s allusions to suicide, his deteriorating state during the play, and his failure to achieve any of his purposes to the end--all stamp this drama as different from any conventional tragedy of noble self-sacrifice.

To gauge the real significance of suicide in this part of the Shakespearean canon, it is instructive to glance briefly at other plays of his into which it enters. Before Hamlet both Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar use the theme prominently; in the first, a play of Christian background, the theological and moral stigma is alleviated somewhat by the lovers’ desperate or “mad” state as viewed by Friar Lawrence, who says of Juliet, “And she, too desperate, would not go with me, / But, as it seems, did violence on herself” (V.iii.,263-264), and earlier of Romeo, “Hold thy [p. 241] desperate hand; / Thy wilde acts denote / The unreasonable fury of a beast” (III.iii.109-111). Romeo, at the moment of death, calls himself “desperate pilot” (V.iii.117). As is obviously true of Ophelia, madness, even temporary, might be used to exonerate the “self-murderer” as a Christian.

The pagan atmosphere of Julius Caesar, closest in style to Hamlet,4 suggests another factor in the question of suicide. We remember Horatio’s remark to the dying Hamlet, that he is more an “antique Roman than a Dane” (V.ii.328) and his comparison at the beginning between the “disjoint” state of Denmark and “the most high and palmy state of Rome” (I.i.113). To Shakespeare the Roman spirit was best exemplified in the refusal of a noble character to yield to ignominy. “Elevation ... invests the suicide of Brutus and Cassius” as it does that of Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, and Iras in Antony and Cleopatra, dating probably from 1606-1607.5 An effort to escape from disgrace as well as to inflict justice on himself prompts the suicide of the “pagan” Moor, Othello, but there is not a shred of Christian condemnation of the act in Cassio’s “This did I fear, but thought he had no weapon, / For he was great of heart” (V.ii.361-362). Earlier Iago had cynically dissuaded the love-maddened Roderigo from suicide, chiefly through promising him the joy of eventually deceiving Othello. Macbeth, close to Hamlet in date of composition, is equivocal on the subject, since Macbeth, relying on the supernatural, disdains such a death: “Why should I play the Roman fool, / And die on mine own sword?” (V.viii.1-2). In Lear the attempted suicide of the blinded Gloster (IV.vi) appears as an act of resignation, more in the spirit of Antony and Cleopatra since the entire atmosphere is pagan, with the characters regularly invoking the “great” or “gentle” gods (I.i.117; IV.vii.17; V.iii.23). Moreover Gloster is specifically “in despair” according to Edgar, and despair is held a state of melancholy in Shakespeare’s plays. The scene of ancient Britain in Cymbeline yields a last reference to suicide in Imogen’s request to Pisanio, who has been sent by the deluded husband to slay her, for “gainst self-slaughter / There is a prohibition so divine / That cravens my weak hand” (III.iv.79-81); this is an anachronistic echo of the Christian prohibition mentioned in Hamlet’s first soliloquy. Clearly in Shakespeare’s plays a suicide may occur only when a noble pagan faces defeat and shame or when a Christian is driven into a state of dementia by accumulated woes, as in Romeo and Juliet. The latter has particular significance for Hamlet.

The mounting disasters which afflict Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists might be termed forces of fate; in Hamlet, as has been said of Julius Caesar, there is a “climate of apprehension, of impending fatality ... of man foredoomed from the outset.”6 The acceptance of a predetermined death as a kind of unavoidable justice, self-inflicted in suicide, accords with the spirit of Roman stoicism and of Greek ritualistic drama. Francis Fergusson, in comparing the Greek and Elizabethan theatres, maintains that Hamlet is equivalent to Oedipus in that “his death was the only adequate expiation for the evil of Denmark. Hamlet, however darkly and uncertainly he worked, had discerned the way to be obedient to his deepest values and accomplished some sort of purgatorial progress for himself and Denmark.”7 Those who stress the motif of the inherited tragic flaw, following the lead of [p. 242] Hamlet’s “the stamp of one defect” (I.iv.31), can easily subscribe to this view. The hero’s fatalistic acceptance of doom, however, from the beginning would subordinate the dramatic element of will unreasonably for an Elizabethan audience which demanded firm action from a strong although humanly fallible protagonist. The final action which deliberately invites the doom, as I view Hamlet, fulfills the demands for developing and solving the complex dramatic and philosophic tensions of this ambitious play.

There is, of course, a question of the extent to which the theme of suicide occupied the minds of the audience and authors of the age. Elements that need to be discriminated are the dramatic and psychological patterns that pointed to such an act, a general view of the ethical stand on the subject, and the consonance of such a theme with the spirit of the age. Undoubtedly, much caution is needed in making any claim about the degree of pessimism or disillusionment of any one period. While the reign of Elizabeth as a whole has seemed to past historians to be fraught with high hopes and the spirit of expansionism, there is an increasing shift toward the view maintained by G. B. Harrison and others, that the turn of the century was marked by gloom and discouragement among thoughtful Elizabethans. As causes he itemizes the wars with France and Spain or the constant state of wariness like that described at the beginning of Hamlet; the nationwide fear of internecine conflict over the undecided successor to the moribund queen; the death of great statesmen such as Walsingham, Hatton, and William Cecil; the revolt and execution of the popular Essex; and virulent plagues in the city of London.8

These and other events contributed to the development of that general feeling which George Williamson has aptly called “the metaphysical shudder ... which ‘brought death into the world’ of early seventeenth century thought” and which Lawrence Babb calls “the despondency of the late English Renaissance.” Following Professor Williamson’s lead, Victor Harris has adduced many instances of the growing belief in the corruption and mortality of the universe, from the stars to man.9 So widespread were these advocates of doom that George Hakewell was moved to publish in 1627 his “long-preparing” work, An Apologie of the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World. Many were the sermons of despair, reflecting a fairly popular attitude; similarly, a large number of works intermingling ethics and psychology considered the causes and symptoms of melancholy, an evidence of increasing general interest. It may be granted at once that the Elizabethans held inconsistent and confused views in this area, as many commentators have cautioned.10 Reference will be limited to a few of those works which, according to internal evidence in Hamlet, may well have engaged Shakespeare’s interest. Even more pointedly, it must be limited to those writers who express opinions about the suicidal drives of melancholics: Montaigne, Cardanus, and Bright.

Only a few words need be said about Montaigne, long held a source for ideas in Shakespeare.11 The popular essays were translated by Sir William Cornwallis and by John Florio for two separate editions in 1600. Classical stoicism is the keynote of this work, written during the extraordinary political and religious strife of [p. 243] France under Catherine de Medici. Relevant to my theme is the third chapter of Book II, “A Custome of the Ile of Cea,” which surveys individuals and groups who have preferred suicide to a life in pain or shame. A citation notes that “Agis being demanded how a man might do to live free, answered: ‘Despising and contemning to die”‘ (p. 307). Christian prohibition is ignored in the stipulation, “So am I nothing tied unto lawes made against murtherers, if I deprive my selfe of mine owne life” (p. 309). The theme recurs in “Of Judging of Others Death” (II.xiii), which concludes with an extensive citation of the death of Socrates, the slow self-destruction of Marcellinus as recorded by Seneca, and the death of Cato (pp. 551-553).

The Comforte (of death) by Girolamo Cardanus, translated from the Italian by Thomas Bedingfeld (published 1573 and again 1576) was a probable source of specific passages in Hamlet. Hardin Craig and Lily Campbell fancifully propose it as the very book from which Hamlet was reading when accosted by Polonius (II.ii).12 Several of the pertinent sentences will give the flavor of this once popular work and show its relevance to the death-theme in Hamlet. Cardanus comments on man’s resemblance to a shadow (sig.A4) and remarks, “In this lyfe there is nothing found that may justly be called good or evyll ... all things consysted in opynion .... We are causes of oure own evill” (sig.B). On death he notes, “As in sleeping and waking, we feel it not when it comes” (sig.D). He elaborates, “from Socrates,” the comparison of death with “a sound sleape, a long journey, or destruction” (sig.D2) and speaks of the soul as “beinge let lose from prison of the bodye” so that we should not “eschew death” for “desyre of such heavenlye hapynesse.” Very close is the resemblance in “fore there is nothing that doth better or more truly prophecy the ende of lyfe than when a man dreameth that he doth travayle and wander into farre countries and ... in countries unknown without hope of retourne” (sig.D3); also close is “Death dooth take away more evylles then it bringeth and those more certayne” (sig.D3). He speaks of life as compact of “toyle ... labour, suspicions and peril” (sig.D4) and lists several of those who “have disdayned death and for lighte causes killed themselves,” including Portia, Cleopatra, Lucretia, and Leonidas (sig.D10). Finally he observes that by death we shall “not be subject to injuries, and calamity” (sig.F). Fifty years after the first printing Cardanus, himself a suicide, was still being read as an authority, if we may judge from over one hundred references to his works in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

Both Montaigne and Cardanus demonstrate the marked shift in the late sixteenth century from the medieval revulsion at the idea of self-murder to Donne’s enlightened tolerance in his Biathanatos, written in 1608 and circulated in manuscript before Donne’s accepting Holy Orders in 1614, although published by his son only in 1646. 1 shall cite it as a concrete embodiment of opinions current among the intellectuals of the age when Hamlet was being produced.13 The Biathanatos is well summarized in its subtitle: “A declaration / of that / Paradox / or / Thesis, that / Selfe-homicide is not so Naturally / Sinne, that it may never be otherwise / Wherein / the nature and the extent of all those Lawes / Which seem to be violated by this Act, / are diligently surveyed.” Initially he explains that it is no “sinfull concurrence” or “brave scorn” or “faint cowardliness” that makes him undertake the subject, but [p. 244] merely the reflection that “whensoever any affliction assails me, me thinks I have the keyes of my prison in mine own hand ...” (p. 19). First, he observes that it is condemned as (1) springing from “desperation,” (2) as making a return to God “in this life” impossible, and (3) as precluding repentance for its implicit sin. Donne has no wish to attack the traditional Catholic and Anglican view that “desperation” or madness exonerates the suicide by depriving him of freedom of will. He wishes to refute only the last two articles. For example, he asserts that sacrifice through martyrdom is equivalent to suicide (pp. 56-58) so that in the time of St. Cyprian it was deemed a deprivation of glory to die a natural death.14 He returns again to the theme in citing Christ as giving “his life for his sheepe” (p. 187), and he finds numerous “suicides” in the Old Testament, such as “Samson, Ionas, and Eleazar” (pp. 196-205). He cites the negative evidence that only two church councils spoke against self-slaughter (pp. 86-87) and attaches importance to the idea of man’s preferring “a publique good ... before his private life” (p. 141). The right to a sacrificial suicide is clear since “though we have not ‘dominum,’ we have ‘usum’ of our own existence, which we may ‘lose ... when we will”‘ (p. 112). In short, Donne earnestly endeavors to find a justification for those instances which correspond to the goal of tragedy, i.e., self-abnegation for the service of mankind or of God to the point of annihilation.

Donne was primarily concerned with the ethics of suicide because of a keener current interest in the causes. The instances of suicides may not have been notably increasing until well into the Jacobean period, although statistics for the period are markedly unreliable,l5 but there is no question of an increase in one of the major acknowledged causes, namely various types of depression or melancholy. If the larger number of cases did not proportionately swell the suicide list, there must have been at least a greater popular concern with what Babb aptly terms “the Elizabethan malady.” Many factors could have contributed to this in addition to the general despondency of mood mentioned above, one of the chief being the Italianate deportment of the young bloods, returning from the Continent and often finding their sources of advancement unresponsive despite their travel and education. Thus the “malcontent” type became a characteristic personality in the court and intellectual centers of London, as well as in the theatre.16 As Professor Stoll and others have shown, Marston’s The Malcontent reflected a major concern of the period and also antedated Hamlet in theme.17

The cynicism and generalized depression of the malcontent enlisted him in the large company of sufferers from the melancholy humors which afflicted the protagonists of the revenge tragedies in general. Critics have drawn a parallel between Hamlet and several of these, especially Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.l8 I should like to point out unnoted similarities: Hieronimo commits suicide at the end, indeed with a “bare bodkin,” after slaying the Duke, and Bel-Imperia takes her own life in a more definitive action than that of Ophelia. The prevalence of suicidal speeches and actions in the whole school of revenge tragedy clearly suggests Shakespeare’s awareness of the popular acceptance of the connection between madness and suicide, as well as of its dramatic usefulness. The inclusion [p. 245] of three types of aberration in so popular a play as Hamlet indicates how readily the audiences accepted it as a substantive force in their drama. Melancholia was a useful temperament to give to a hero, since, on the dubious authority of Aristotle, it was widely held that “melancholics were likely to be brave, witty, and thoughtful.”19

I should like to examine briefly a few treatises on melancholy for the light shed either directly on suicidal concepts in Hamlet or indirectly on the opinions of the theatre-goers of the age. Timothy Bright’s Of Melancholie (with two editions in 1586 and a third in 1613) has been suggested as a source of Shakespeare’s lore on madness.20 “Melancholy” was used by Bright and his coevals to indicate the disease itself and its symptoms, including depression, sadness, misery, hysteria, sullenness, hypochondria, morbidity, and frenzy (p. vi). We find a distinction between melancholy as despondency and madness as frenzy sometimes made in Hamlet: e.g., “make mad the guilty” (II.ii.537), “out of my weakness and my melancholy” (II.ii.577), and especially (from the king) “[His speech] was not like madness. There is something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood” (III.i.164-165), and “This something-settled matter in his heart, / Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus / From fashion of himself” (III.i.173-175). However, this distinction is not consistently preserved in Shakespeare, nor made in Bright, as his title indicates. There was often little distinction made between a melancholic temperament and action.

A few references to Bright’s treatise--several not previously noted--will show interesting parallels between the melancholy man in Bright and in Hamlet and underscore his suicidal tendencies. He asserts that “the causes of all diseases are either breaches of dutie ... or such accidentes as befall us in this life against our will, and unlooked for. From the same also do arise the works of melancholie” (p. 242). Perhaps persons most conscious of their duty and sensitive in general are most liable, such as scholars, for “of the labours of the mind, studies have good force to procure melancholie” (pp. 242-243). Hence it is not surprising that such persons sometimes “are found verie wittie, and quick [to] discern.” They seem to have “that quality of a natural readiness which custom of exercise, and use hath found in them” (p. 130). We remember that Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has lost all his “mirth, forgone all custom of exercises” and lost delight in “this goodly frame, the earth” (II.ii.289-290). May not Hamlet’s “custom of exercises” refer merely to the sallies of wit and the logic-chopping that keep the mind limber, as he had demonstrated earlier in the same scene, especially since the entire passage concerns his change of attitude, not of physical habits? The symptoms of Bright’s melancholic and of Hamlet have much in common: e.g., “Their dreames are fearfull” (p. 131) as Hamlet peripherally notes about the would-be suicide; they are “more exact and curious in pondering the very moments of things” and also “diligent and painefull, warie, and circumspect .... Their resolution riseth of long deliberation because of doubt and distrust” (pp. 130-131). He later elaborates on the theme which has become standard in Hamlet criticism, i.e., dilatoriness: “Thowe contemplations are more familiar with melancholic [p. 246] persons then with others, by reason they are not so apt for action ,..” (p. 200). We are reminded of Hamlet’s witticisms and hysterical outbursts anent Ophelia and spies set upon him when we read about “the sudden and capricious mirth” of the melancholic (pp. 163-164) as well as his “sighing, sobbing, lamentation, countenance, demisse, and lowring” (p. 135). Compare Hamlet’s list of the qualities of the grief-stricken melancholic (I.ii.76-81).21 The “flat despaire” into which the melancholic falls makes him especially aware of “the calamities of this life, not inferior to the pain of transgression of civill lawes” (p. 185). He “distasteth much wholesome meate of consolation, and loatheth many plesaunt and fragraunt cuppes of comfort and counsell” (p. 223), says the clergyman-writer. It is no wonder that in this condition, as Hamlet notes upon seeing the ghost, the melancholic is subject to “certaine blasphemies suggested of the Devill and laying of violent hands of themselves, or upon other neither moved therto by hate or malice or any occasion of revenge” (p. 228). Much of Hamlet’s cautiousness in action and suicidal impulse match this “textbook” of Elizabethan psychology.

It would be tedious and unnecessary to show in how many respects Robert Burton followed the lead of Timothy Bright in his great work, definitive for the period, The Anatomy of Melancholy, of 1621.22 A few items will substantiate the view that Hamlet could have been readily accepted by Shakespeare’s audience as a suicidal melancholic. May not this statement of Burton’s stand as a motto for the entire play: “If they hear, or read, or see, any tragical object, it sticks by them; they are afraid of death, and yet weary of their lives; in their discontented humours they quarrel with all the world, bitterly inveigh, tax satirically, and because they cannot otherwise vent their passions, or redress what is amiss, as they mean, they will by violent death at last be revenged on themselves” (p. 353)? Burton learnedly presents the many authorities who hold that “spirits, bad Angels, or Devils” can “cause Melancholy” (pp. 157-176). He gives the many physical causes of the disease, including even bad air (pp. 206-210), a factor which reminds one of Hamlet’s “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.360-361). This hearkens back also to Bright’s “The ayre meet for melancholie folke ought to be thinne, pure and subtile, open and patent to all winds; in respect of their temper, especially to the South and Southeast” (p. 257). The subsections of Burton, dealing with the “Passions and Perturbations of the mind” (pp. 217-282), include “Sorrow,” “Shame and Disgrace,” “Envy, Malice, Hatred,” “Desire of Revenge,” “Anger,” “Discontents,” “Concupiscible Appetite, as Desires, Ambition,” and “Love of Learning, or overmuch Study.” There is material of relevance also in his “Prognosticks of Melancholy” (pp. 366-374), which section indicates the high incidence of melancholic suicide: “Seldom this malady procures death, except (which is the greatest, most grievous calamity, and the misery of all miseries) they make away themselves, which is a frequent thing, and familiar amongst them” (p. 367). After citing most of the familiar instances from Biblical and classical literature, including examples of martyrdom, he adds a plea that suicides who, “deprived of reason, judgement, all, as a ship that is void of a pilot must needs impinge upon the next rock or sands and suffer [p. 247] shipwrack,” should not be censured (p. 373). Many are the suicides of those suffering from Love Melancholy, a section which comprises almost the entire “Third Partition” of Burton’s work (pp. 611-866). Finally he discusses types of “Religious Melancholy,” as does Bright in his last section, and pleads that “we must make the best construction” of the act of a man who puts “desperate hands upon himself, by occasion of madness or melancholy, if he have given testimony before of his Regeneration, in regard he doth this not so much out of his will, as from the violence of his malady” (p. 949). We are thereby reminded of Horatio’s statement--be it pious hope or assertion of belief: “Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (V.ii.346-347).23

Keeping in mind a few of the factors which the “psycho-pathologists” of Shakespeare’s day thought sufficient causes of melancholia, let us briefly examine in Hamlet seriatim the indications that Shakespeare intended him indeed to appear to the audience from the outset as a bona fide, grief-stricken melancholic. It should first be noted that although the malady may strengthen the tendency toward suicide, such an action by no means derives solely from it. There are several types of evidence: Hamlet’s self-conviction in soliloquies and asides or in speeches to Horatio and others in those rare moments when he is not on guard; his words to others at times when they are subject to several interpretations, as to Polonius; statements made about him by other characters; actions which appear to spring solely from a state of desperation or hysteria; and those which appear to be so contrary to discretion and caution as to imply irrationality. At the outset, consider the instances of the first and second types which seem least equivocal as indications of his rooted melancholy.

Our first view is of a man “of nighted colour” with “vailed lids” (in the words of Gertrude), who implies for himself an even greater extremity of grief: “Dejected haviour of the visage, fruitful river in the eye,” etc. (I.ii.81-83). This “haviour” plus his dress led Anthony Scoloker, in his Daiphantus of 1604, to say: “Puts off his clothes / His shirt he only wears, / Much like mad Hamlet.”24 The speech leads directly into Hamlet’s first soliloquy, opening on the theme of a frustrated tendency toward suicide and closing with the overwrought sentence, “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!” (I.ii.159). Later, upon his confronting the ghost, Horatio suggests that it might deprive his perhaps over-sensitive friend of reason and “draw [him] into madness” (I.iv.74-75), a suggestion which Hamlet adopts later. Somewhat ambiguously the ghost itself suggests it: “But, howsoever thou pursuest this act, / Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (I.v.84-86). A “taint” of the mind need have no reference at all to matricide, but specifically to a type of deterioration into frenzy that the ghost witnessed on his second appearance to Hamlet.25 Surely the spirit who was enjoining upon his son the soul-damning action of murder could not here be concerned with the infection of mere sin.26 Next, in Hamlet’s wild, soliloquizing response, with its almost hysterical jottings on the tablet concerning his uncle, he designates his head as “this distracted globe,” the adjective being reserved throughout the play for “mad,” as in “She is importunate, indeed distract” (IV.v.2). Horatio finds his words to be [p. 248] “wild and whirling” even before his declared intention to assume “an antic disposition” (I.v.). In Act 11 Ophelia describes a man in “the very ecstasy of love,” as Polonius reports him (II.i.102), whose antic disposition would have to encompass more skill than that of any of the players to be falsely so convincing: “Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other; / And with a look so piteous in purport” (II.i.81-84).27

Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude give abundant evidence that Hamlet is “changed”; a mother’s concern and scrutiny might well penetrate a mere deception carried on for weeks. Hamlet’s letter, sent to Ophelia and read by Polonius (II.ii.115-119), while perhaps demonstrating as he says a sincere passion awkwardly expressed by one “ill at these numbers,” might also be an instance of “wild words,” especially if one believes that he had previously been taking leave of the girl and was heart-brokenly determined to turn her love aside for the sake of her safety.28 Ambiguous are his statements to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about “inability to reason” (II.ii.259) and being “mad-north-northwest” (II.ii.360), but in the soliloquy concluding the scene both the language and the intemperate passion charge him with madness; e.g., “I ... peak / Like John-a-dreams” and “out of my weakness and my melancholy,/ as he is very potent with such spirits, / Abuses me to damn me” (II.ii.541-542 and 577-579).

At the beginning of Act III the “good friends” speak of his admitting to being “distracted” and recognize his “crafty madness” (III.i.5-8), a condition which, to the audience, might appear the feints of real madness as well as a deliberate deception. In “To be or not to be” the language itself might reveal one type of melancholy, according to Bright; thus: “the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III.i.84-85), thought being Hamlet’s self-confessed flaw. There is every reason to assume this to be a piece of self-analysis, as I shall show. We have already noted the king’s reference to his “melancholy” as distinct from his dubious “madness.” Later I shall consider the implications of such actions as his wild response to Horatio concerning the “Murder of Gonzago” (III.ii) and to the over-solicitous spying pair, as well as the implications of his self-inflammatory speech about speaking “daggers” to Gertrude. In his abusive speech then, he makes the interesting observation that “madness would not err, / Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d / But it reserv’d some quantity of choice, / To serve in such a difference” (III.iv.73-76). Is this perhaps a hint that even a melancholy hero can exercise judgment, show discretion at times, and execute a plan only as a victim?29 Later, after the queen has been perplexed and alarmed by his dialogue with the ghost, he bids her conceal “That I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft” (III.iv.187-188). This does not disprove his melancholy, simply his present condition of frenzy, especially because of the possible qualification in the word “essentially.” Gertrude certainly is not convinced that he is sane, to judge from her statements to Claudius (IV.i), nor does she show any signs of distrust of the king and compliance with Hamlet’s plan until the moment of drinking the poisoned cup. The single, trifling exception is “He weeps for what is done” (IV.i.27), which might easily be spoken out of a motherly [p. 249] protection of a beloved madman who will need this extenuating circumstance.

In the final act, in addition to actions which spring from a disordered intelligence or frenzy, such as his outshouting Laertes at the grave, we note his long apology to Ophelia’s brother, disavowing any culpability because of his madness (V.ii.216-231), a passage which obviously represents “the gentle entertainment to Laertes” previously requested by the queen (V.ii.194-195). There is a kind of sincerity in its self-abasement--“His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”--which convinces the reader and auditor rather than the implacably vengeful Laertes.30 Hamlet’s last utterance, indeed, continues his own feeling of abuse, so to speak, in his reference to “this harsh world,” which has thrust him, helpless although forewarned, into a fatal “springe” baited by the brother of that other innocent victim. (Two scenes--V.ii.293 and I.iii.115--show father and son using the same image.)

Hamlet’s melancholy or strong discontent with the private and public aspects of the world is a cantus firmus which determines the direction of his thoughts and actions, even toward suicide as one of his options. Robert Burton reviewed the several causes of melancholy in the belief that each of them can turn the wits awry (pp. 113-366); in Hamlet we find an imposing array of sources of keen distress, all of which enmesh the hero’s life and reason. Consider briefly his total condition. Recalled by the sudden death of his father from the quiet, academic atmosphere of Wittenberg, he is shocked by his mother’s incestuous marriage31 to his uncle, “the bloat king” (III.iv.182 and III.ii.91-92),32 who soon proves to be his father’s murderer. The morally corrupt court33 has connived in the usurpation of the Prince’s throne34 and his two school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, lend themselves like Polonius, to insidious probing and “knavery” (III.iv.205); the beloved Ophelia becomes an obedient lure at the disposal of his enemy,35 even as does his mother in her chamber.36 Is there any wonder that he feels corrupted in his own inner being, especially when torn between the obligations to his Christian ideals and to his father’s spirit?37

To requite the murder of his father he is commanded or encouraged to slay his uncle according to the lex talionis which is so repugnant to his humanity and religion that he is still, in Act V, after proof of the king’s deadly intentions toward himself, questioning Horatio about the justice of killing Claudius (V.ii.67-68). Surely it is proper to surmise that blood revenge was a cause in which he could not believe, despite his assurance to the ghost and occasionally to himself and Horatio.38 Significantly, Horatio’s “entreatment” to the ghost asks him to speak “if there be any good thing to be done, / That may to thee do ease and grace to me” (I.i.130-131). Obviously the ease of mind that the revenge will accomplish for the ghost will also destroy the hope of salvation for Hamlet’s soul; we know how much his father’s lack of absolution weighed upon Hamlet’s mind. I conclude that Shakespeare intended his deep sense of religion to prevent him from deliberately ending the life either of his uncle or of himself.39 Even his casual phrases are saturated with a religious stream of references. Since it is basic to major passages and to the entire question of suicide, the religious element in the play needs to be further explored.[p. 250]

Bradley moderately declares that while the play cannot be termed a religious drama, it makes a freer use of “popular religious ideas” than any other Shakespearian tragedy; Goddard insists that Hamlet was “made for” religion. Father Blackmore asserts that the delay in revenge stems from “a failure to transgress Christian principles of justice” and that the religious tone of resignation deepens with the progress of the action, a resignation which Bradley is more inclined to call fatalism. In Schücking’s opinion Hamlet justifiably dwells upon his father’s lack of time for repentance and Hankins sees most of Hamlet’s endeavor as concerned with drawing his mother into a readiness for sincere contrition.40 Hamlet sounds the religious note when first he speaks of the “canon” against self-slaughter, which is eventually underscored in the “maimed rites” tendered Ophelia and in the antecedent debate of the gravediggers on the degree of will involved in the suicide.41 From the language of Hamlet it is possible to cull an impressive number of religious allusions, some of course directly suggested by the ghost but many uttered as gratuitous expressions of emotion or belief; even the interjections based on holy names have a special relevance at times. They are much more frequent proportionately in Hamlet’s utterance than in Horatio’s, for example. An almost random survey yields the following: in Act 1, nine; in Act II, five; in Act III, thirteen; in Act IV, three; in Act V, seven.42

It may be argued that the third soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” in its final form eliminates the religious element. In the 1603 Quarto, it continues the argument of the first soliloquy in “For in that dreame of death, when wee awake, / And borne before an everlasting Judge .,..” The broad theme here of Hamlet’s preoccupation is clear, but more questionable is the specific emphasis, that is, whether upon his own self-destruction or the elimination of Claudius.43 Despite the mixed metaphors of the soliloquy it is easy to follow the argument and apply it to Hamlet himself. Continued existence entails enduring “outrageous fortune” whereas opposition to the “slings and arrows” can only mean invoking forces that will lead to the extirpation of one’s troubles, probably together with life. “To take arms” might also mean, in a sense, taking up “a bare bodkin” for one’s own death; the end is the same, whatever the meaning of the metaphor. As for the puzzling “conscience,” it should be noted that in its common Elizabethan meaning of “clear knowledge” or “inward apprehension,” devoid of any moral tone, it validates the non-action of staying alive, here regarded as cowardly by comparison with self-destruction. We must remember the purely neutral attitudes toward suicide seen in Montaigne, Donne, and Cardanus, in accepting this definition. It is rendered more likely by the referent of the preceding line: “than fly to others that we know not of” (III.i.82).44 In short, our knowledge of present evils is more valid than our incomplete knowledge or mere suspicion of future evils, and therefore we resolve but fail to act. Significantly, the action may be that of suicide as is remotely intimated by his last remark--a request to Ophelia to pray for his sins. The manner of a suicide’s advent to that “undiscovered country” might intensify the evils, as Ophelia’s burial will indicate. Note also that the burdens of life enumerated by Hamlet may all be considered as relating directly to himself: the “dispriz’d” (or [p. 251] “despis’d” of Quarto Two) love--of Ophelia; the law’s delay in placing him on the throne; the “wrong,” “contumely,” “insolence,” and “spurns,” that he must “take” from the “unworthy” king. It is significant, surely, to find Hamlet on the day of the “mousetrap” presentation, reviewing the advantages of annihilation.45

The theme is always attractive to him, in his rational moods and in his deepest melancholy. Having secured the pledge from the two witnesses of the ghost, he regrets his very existence that requires him to set right the disjointed limb of the times. In his letter to Ophelia, shown to Claudius, he closes with “Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him”--a suggestion that his bodily being was unlikely to survive long. Polonius is struck by the trenchant reply, “Into my grave?” but fails to observe how much more apt is his thrice repeated “except my life.” After slaying the garrulous old lord, he voices a series of macabre jests on the dissolution of corpses, and pursues the topic further upon his return from England when he takes up the skull of Yorick. Finally, there is the insistence of Hamlet, while his “prophetic soul” bodes ill, that “the readiness is all” (V.ii.210). Even this prophetic mood might appear melancholic to the Elizabethans.46 Of this portion of the play I must say more in discussing the many risks taken by Hamlet in his course.

From my point of view, Hamlet is as much devoted to endangering his own position and courting an honorable death as he is to promoting that of Claudius. From his first entrance he directs inappropriate insult and mockery at his unscrupulous, hypocritical adversary. Ernest Jones is one of the few who mention that this course “can lead to no other end than to his own ruin,” but he fails to follow up this aperçu.47 From the rejection of consolatory “son,” with its punning reference to his disinherited state (I.ii.67), to his last contemptuous pun on his uncle’s “union,” Hamlet scarcely ever speaks a wholly civil word to the king. But what is merely a sense of outrage and animosity before the appearance of the ghost becomes foolhardiness and self-defeat afterwards. He spares no opportunity to inform the king directly or through his agents of his antipathy, his ambitions for the throne, and his distress over the marriage. Many scenes of the play show this. Surmising almost at once that his two school-fellows have been suborned, he baits them with “Denmark’s a prison” and “our monarchs [are] ... the beggars’ shadows,” returning to the theme in “Beggar that I am ..” (II.ii.239ff). When the players enter, he initially and probably scornfully declares that the player king “shall have tribute of me” (II.ii.310); next he tells the pair about Claudius’s former detractors who now pay dearly for his miniature. In the prearranged encounter with Ophelia, almost certainly recognized as such by Hamlet, he abuses her father for intruding into other people’s affairs and pledges his opposition to the life of one married person.48 After the play-scene he puns abusively on the “fare” given by the king in the promise of succession (III.ii.88-89). His references to “poison in jest” (III.ii.224), “the galled jade” (III.ii.232-233), and the “croaking raven” which “doth bellow for revenge” (III.ii.241-242) are broad hints. Afterwards, he tells the two probers about the violence of the purgation he would offer the king, mentions his lack of “advancement,” and flings them off with the business of the recorders. [p. 252] After the death of Polonius, he plainly shows his disdain for them as “sponges” of the king, whom he then calumniates as “a thing--of nothing” (IV.ii.27-29). Directly he invites “your fat king” (cf. “the bloat king”) as well as “your lean beggar” to feed maggots which will feed fish for the table. (Cf. his being a “poor beggar” in II.ii.266. Is this a covert death wish?) Finally he consigns the king to the lower regions and leaves him with a broad, insulting allusion to his marriage (IV.iii).

In major episodes of the plot this inclination to alarm, warn, and menace the king is made clear. In the first, Hamlet presents “The Murder of Gonzago” after he has accepted the authenticity of the ghost for about two months. There was no need to insist upon so exact a dramatic parallel in murder in order to “tent him to the quick.” A guilty conscience could be expected to show a response to a much less faithful representation.49 Recognizing this, J. Dover Wilson has made an asset out of the enigma by insisting upon the primarily menacing nature of the whole sequence with the scornful interpolation by Hamlet. Yet, after a long exegesis, devoted to proving that Hamlet wishes to convince Claudius and the court of his homicidal mania, an aim counter to self-preservation, Wilson shuffles off the problem by submitting that “the mystery itself is an illusion” and the character of Hamlet “is a matter of ‘make-up.’”50 This is a tribute to Shakespeare’s legerdemain, but not to his dramaturgy.

The next major episode, Claudius’s prayer, demonstrates Hamlet’s inability deliberately to kill the man who will attempt to murder him, as he has every reason to believe. Shortly before, Hamlet had announced that his “purgation would plunge him into far more choler” (III.ii.292-293), a pun also on the issue of blood. In typical fashion, Shakespeare is here spinning the thread that will more naturally serve to introduce the king at his own purgation. Whatever the reasons that prevent Hamlet from taking revenge at this convenient moment, he expresses no belief in the sincerity or effectuation of the king’s repentance (III.ii.89-95). In the next scene Hamlet indicates his distrust of the commission that takes him to England, thus exposing the purely dilatory purpose of his previously expressed scruples. When Claudius rises to confirm Hamlet’s belief, having failed to pray wholeheartedly, our fears for the Prince’s safety increase abruptly. In Gertrude’s chamber we observe that he places himself in further jeopardy by thrice insisting upon the horror of marrying a murderer (III.iv.28-30, 64-65, 97-101). To be sure, by the end of the scene Hamlet seems convinced of his mother’s change of heart and intention to be secretive; yet, noting no estrangement between the king and queen in the last act, in the graveyard or at court, and with no interview held before the first meeting (as his ignorance of Ophelia’s death proves), he has no assurance that his warning too has not been conveyed to Claudius. Thus his real danger from the king’s fear-maddened thrust at his life is increased. It is reasonable to assume that basically this is a chance that he is more inclined to invite than to avoid.

One of the chief problems for criticism is the next episode, which carries a not unwilling Hamlet off to England in the company, or custody, of his “two school-fellows, / Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d” (III.iv.202-203; cf. their master [p. 253] as “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life,” etc., I.v.39). He obviously expects the worst “knavery” from their “mandate,” and yet he makes no plan or opposition against his danger as a friendless victim on the sea or in England. One of the putative sources of Hamlet finds this circumstance, derived from Saxo, too incredible and shows the Prince as refusing to embark upon the high seas.51 Nor does Hamlet later tell Horatio that he made a determined, purposeful investigation of the “mandate.”52 It was a whim, “rashness,” that led him to the fearful truth, while only the fortuitous arrival of the pirate ship enabled him to return.53 It may be claimed that assurance of execution would have been gratifying to his impulses toward self-extinction, but a craven’s or felon’s death could not fail to outrage his feelings of pride and honor. The discrepancy between Hamlet’s gnawing sense of duty toward his father and his compliance with Claudius’s plans for a “sea-change” is intensified by the soliloquy on the passage of the troops of Fortinbras, with its amazing conclusion, as Hamlet proceeds to the port: “Oh, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV.iv.65-66). These inappropriate sentiments may well have caused the dropping of the whole speech from the First Folio.

The next major event that illustrates the thesis that Hamlet continually courts death at the hands of Claudius has received much less critical examination than one would expect. Having been deposited on Danish soil by the pirates, perhaps a token of “the great love the general gender bear him” (IV.vii.18), Hamlet dispatches a curt letter to Claudius, to announce that he will on the morrow see those “kingly eyes” which were always offering a strange brand of “cheer and comfort” even in Act I. His first sentence offers the useful information that he is “set naked” on the shore and in a postscript he emphasizes “alone,” “naked” being a word which the Concordance shows to mean “weaponless, especially when menaced.”54 The use to be made of this information might very well be a further threat against his life, a possibility that seems all the more likely with Laertes thirsting for vengeance at the side of Claudius. Hamlet might have inferred that the son would return with a desire for just such a revenge as he himself had verbally undertaken. However, the indirections and furtive practices of a poisoner appeal to Claudius more than the acceptance of the invitation or the challenge of the letter (if we interpret Hamlet’s “alone” to mean, in Claudius’s mind, the Prince’s circumvention of the “mandate” plot), and so the end comes in the great hall where first we met the assembled family and court.

The final and most cogent example is Hamlet’s accepting the challenge while fully aware of the implicit plot against his life. The attempt of Laertes to choke him at the grave fully reveals the brother’s ill-will, and the enduring malevolence of Claudius is the subject of his discussion with Horatio just before the entrance of Osric. Consulting his friend about the justice of requiting his would-be murderer, he immediately shifts to the need for speed since a message from England will soon arrive. (In fact, this was chronologically possible only if we postulate an exceptionally slow return by the pirates.) Then, with complete disregard for this urgency of attack, he engages in scornful banter with Osric and accepts the [p. 254] challenge, which will delay further or else, and most significantly, play into the hands of his two opponents. Twice he refuses to postpone the match (V.ii.187-188 and 205-206) and yet confesses to Horatio, “Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart; But it is no matter” (V.ii.200-201).

If it be argued that he sees in the match an opportunity to turn the treachery upon the king, there is no sign of his plan. It is always overlooked that Hamlet exhibits great prescience even about the form of the final contest when he mitigates this treachery against Guildenstern and Rosencrantz by explaining to Horatio: “‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (V.ii.60-62). He envisions a last duel, surely the most honorable and frank way to meet an adversary; yet he carelessly takes the first rapier (and dagger too--V.ii.152) from Osric, the untrustworthy creature of the king, with a light query about the uniformity of blade lengths but without examining the tips. In a sense Hamlet chooses the instrument and Claudius through his henchman effects the release which Hamlet’s moral and religious scruples prevent him from grasping himself; the bare bodkin is Laertes’.

The leitmotive of the “king’s purpose” which has become Hamlet’s purpose is strong evidence which has not received critical attention. After the death of Polonius, Claudius has told Hamlet that he is bound for England. “Good,” says the Prince. “So is it, if thou knew’st our purposes,” says Claudius. Hamlet’s reply, “I see a cherub that sees them,” expresses merely his sensible inference as to the uncle’s animosity (IViii.47-49). On the same theme, after Hamlet’s unexpected return, is Claudius’s planning in concert with Laertes to poison him via the foil and the “chalice ... whereon but sipping, / If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck, / Our purpose may hold there” (IV.vii.161-163). Now, in discussing with Osric the forthcoming fencing match, Hamlet takes up the theme: “Let the foils be brought; the gentleman willing, and the king hold his purpose, I will win for him if I can” (V.ii.l69-171). A few lines later Hamlet tells the second emissary sent to him: “I am constant to my purposes; they follow the king’s pleasure. If his fitness speaks, mine is ready; now or whensoever, Provided I be so able as now” (V.ii.189-191). Indeed, it appears that in Hamlet “the readiness is all,” and it is a readiness to fulfill the unmistakably deadly purpose of the king. A last chiming of the note is provided by Shakespeare in Horatio’s penultimate statement about “purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads” (V.ii.371-372),

The “casual slaughters” to which Horatio refers are clearly linked to Hamlet’s final performance. The critical view that adverse circumstances overwhelmed the Prince fails to account for the self-destructive intent of his antic disposition, his play-scene, his slaying of Polonius, his gibes, his self-defeating judgments, and his acquiescence. It seems to me that from the beginning to the end, his desperate desire to escape from an intolerable burden of life has motivated Hamlet. While his nobility of mind and spirit maintains him as the hero, the depth of his tortured feelings and the scope of his frustrated longings mark him as the epitome of mankind--too often a willing victim for its own, self-inflicted destruction. [p. 255]


1 Hamlet, ed. Horace Howard Furness, New Variorum, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1877), reprint (New York, 1963), V.i.267. All references in the text are to this edition of Hamlet (Vol. I; commentaries in Vol. II), with spelling modernized. Only the First Quarto contains the stage direction for the leap into the grave.

2 Hamlet’s death-wish has long figured in criticism; e.g., see Caldecott, cited in Variorum, II, 205; Hartley Coleridge and Ludwig Tieck, cited in Augustus Ralli, A History of Shakespearian Criticism (London, 1932), I, 24 and 176; John Middleton Murry, Shakespeare (London, 1936), p. 247; and Ernest Jones, Hamlet and Oedipus (New York, 1949), p. 70. The motivating force of the suicidal impulse was suggested by Karl Polanyi in The Yale Review, XLIII (1954), 347, and Robert Speaight, Nature in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1955), p. 26. My brief preliminary study of the topic was published in The English Quarterly (Spring 1952), pp. 20-28.

3 This is the opinion of Richard Simpson, as represented by H. S. Bowden, The Religion of Shakespeare (London, 1899), pp. 310-311. See also G. Wilson Knight, Principles of Shakespearian Production (London, 1936), p. 222: “Each of Shakespeare’s heroes is a miniature Christ,” and J. A. Bryant, Jr., Hippolyta’s View (Lexington, 1961), p. 120: “Shakespeare in reworking the story of Hamlet imitated an action which in the life of Christ found perfect realization in history.” In his whole treatment of Hamlet, Bryant approaches my interpretation but avoids the idea that Hamlet willingly effects his own death (pp. 120-127).

4 M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare’s Roman Plays and Their Background (London, 1910), p. 75; see also James Alexander Kerr Thompson, Shakespeare and the Classics (London, 1952), p. 116.

5 James Holly Hanford, “Suicide in the Plays of Shakespeare,” PMLA, XXVII (1912), 390. He considers that suicide is held sinful only in Hamlet, a point made by John Hankins in The Character of Hamlet and Other Essays (Chapel Hill, 1941), p. 222.

6 J. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 246 and 248. See Francisco’s “I am sick at heart” (I.i.9) and Hunter’s comment thereon (Variorum, I, 4).

7 F. Fergusson, The Idea of a Theatre (Princeton, 1949), (reprint New York, 1953), pp. 144-145; see the whole of Chapter IV, pp. 109-154. No one has noted that Hamlet’s ranting challenge of Laertes at Ophelia’s grave, introduced by the interjection “Swounds” for “God’s wounds,” equates him with Christ: “Won’t drink up esill” (V.i.262 and 264). See Variorum, II, 408 for two allusions to Christ in citations; note also Florio’s use of wormwood for esill and Hamlet’s use of wormwood during the play scene (III.ii.171).

8 G. B. Harrison, essay prefacing his edition of Nicholas Breton’s Melancholie Humours (London, 1929), pp. 49-89, especially pp. 49-58. Similar is the view of Henri Fluchère, Shakespeare, trans. Guy Hamilton (London, 1953). He maintains that British drama was then “death-ridden” (p. 31) and that “the time is out of joint” is symbolic of the whole age (p. 198).

9 George Williamson, “Mutability, Decay and Seventeenth Century Melancholy,” ELH, II (Sept. 1935), 121-150; Victor Harris, All Coherence Gone (Chicago, 1949), pp. 93-120; and Lawrence Babb, The Elizabethan Malady (East Lansing, 1951), p. 110.

10 For the note of caution see Louise Forest, “A Caveat for Critics against Invoking Elizabethan Psychology,” PMLA, LXI (1946), 651-672. For their inconsistent views see Hardin Craig, The Enchanted Glass (New York, 1936), p. 233, and Lawrence Babb, “On [p. 256] the Nature of Elizabethan Psychological Literature,” in Joseph Quincy Adams (Washington, 1946), pp. 509-522.

11 For Shakespeare’s probable acquaintance with Florio’s translation, see a passage from “An Apologie of Raymond Sebond,” II.xi. in The Essays (New York, 1933), p. 396, and Hamlet’s praise of nature and man (II.ii.290-300). Further references are to this edition of Montaigne. Alice Harmon, “How Great Was Shakespeare’s Debt to Montaigne?” PMLA, LVII (1942), 988-1008, surveys studies which make the attribution and deprecates it herself, but she is cogently answered by George C. Taylor in PQ, XXII (1943), 330-337.

12 Girolamo Cardano, Comforte/ Translated into English and published by Commaundement of the right hon. the Earle of Oxenford (London, 1573), photofacsimile ed. (New York, n.d.). All references are to this edition. Francis Douce was apparently the first to note verbal parallels, in Illustrations of Shakespeare (London, 1839), II, 238. For more recent notice see Hardin Craig, “Hamlet’s Book,” Huntington Library Bulletin, VI (1934), 17-37, and Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes (New York, 1952), p. 133.

13 John Donne, Biathanatos (London, 1700), Facsimile Text Society, fac. of 2nd ed. (New York, 1930). All references are to this edition. For an extensive discussion of this work see S. E. Sprott, The English Debate on Suicide (La Salle, Illinois, 1961), pp. 22-26; he fully presents views on suicide later than 1600.

14 Gaston Garrison in Le Suicide dans 1’antiquité et dans les temps modernes (Paris, 1885), p. 5, gives the standard view--that of St. Thomas Aquinas, that only the insane may be forgiven. The clowns in Hamlet (V.i.1-27) discuss the Anglican view, for which see Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton, Links Between Shakespeare and the Law (London, 1929), pp. 51-54. See Louis I. Dublin, “The Christian Church and Suicide,” Suicide (New York, 1963), pp. 118-119, for additions to St. Cyprian.

15 Sprott, op. cit., pp. 32-33 and 159-160, adduces statistics for his claim that 1640-1660 produced more suicides in England than earlier or later periods. Richard W. B. Lewis, The Picaresque Saint (New York, 1959), p. 24, claims that only Reformation Germany and Elizabethan England could provide a parallel with today’s “wave of real and fictional suicides.”

16 E. E. Stoll, “Shakespeare, Marston and the Malcontent Type,” MP, III (1906), 281-303. See also Paul N. Siegel, “Studies in Elizabethan Melancholy,” Harvard University Summaries of Theses for 1941 (Cambridge, 1945), pp. 341-344; and Babb, op. cit., pp. 66-75.

17 For the wide range of melancholic “types” see Babb, op. cit., pp. 76-90, and the five categories given by Theodore Spencer in Joseph Quincy Adams, pp. 523-535.

18 See Ashley H. Thorndike, “The Relations of Hamlet to Contemporary Revenge Plays, PMLA, XVII (1902), 125-220, especially 143-151; Fredson T. Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy (Princeton, 1940), pp. 90-100; and Percy Simpson, Studies in Elizabethan Drama (Oxford, 1955), pp. 138-178. In “Hamlet’s Mad Soliloquy,” South Atlantic Quarterly, LXIV (1965), 60-71, Linwood E. Orange holds that the genre established the link between suicidal tendencies and madness for the audience.

19 For the association of melancholia with genius, wit, and scholarliness through Aristotle and Marsilio Ficino, see Babb, op. cit., pp. 59-60 and 74, and Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) (reprint, Princeton, 1955), pp. 165-171; the far-flung influence of Dürer’s “Melancholia I” throughout the century is worthy of note. Concerning the three types of aberration, one might tentatively label Hamlet’s “manic-depressiveness,” as does Dr. H. Sommerville, Madness in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, [p. 257] 1929), p. 39, that of Ophelia “schizophrenia,” and that of Polonius “senile dementia.” For the last, note Robert Burton’s subsection on “Old Age a Cause” in The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York, 1945), pp. 183-184.

20 Hardin Craig, in his preface to Timothy Bright’s Of Melancholie (1586) Facsimile Text Society, fac. ed. (New York, 1940), p. vii. All references will be to this edition. For verbal echoes of the work in Hamlet, see also Mary O’Sullivan, “Hamlet and Dr. Timothy Bright,” PMLA, XLI (1926), 667-679.

21 For an ingenious explanation of the “sighs” of melancholics see the widely circulated Discourse of ... Melancholick Diseases (1599), by André Du Laurens, trans. Richard Surphlet, Shakespeare Association Facsimiles, No. 15 (London, 1938), p. 94. See the entire discourse for many characteristics of Hamlet; note especially, p. 89: abhorrence of the sun (cf. I.ii.67); and pp. 72-73: man is “the modell of the whole world” and has “the sence or policy as the beasts; and understanding, as have the Angels; the chief and principall of Gods worke, and the most noble of all other creatures” (cf. II.ii.295-299).

22 Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith, eds., An Anatomy of Melancholy (New York, 1940), p. 121, point out the indebtedness of Burton to Bright. All references hereafter are to this edition.

23 Christopher Devlin, Hamlet’s Divinity (London, 1963), p. 26, derives this statement from the Catholic burial service, “In Paradisum deducant te Angeli”; see also pp. 30-32 for other parallels with the Latin liturgy. See also Bryant, op. cit., p. 133.

24 Given by J. D. Wilson in Hamlet (Cambridge, 1934), p. 170, and Variorum, II, 11.

25 The OED gives two corroborative meanings, with examples: a) to injure or cause detriment to, as “Sure the man is tainted in’s wits” (T.N., III.iv.13) and b) diseased (for tainted) as “I am a tainted wether of the flock. Meetest for death” (M.V., IV.i.114-115).

26 Robert H. West, “King Hamlet’s Ambiguous Ghost,” PMLA, LXX (1955), 1107-17, states that no other ghost in drama comes from purgatory to make such a demand, and argues that the ghost can be declared “accursed.” For this very “vexed” question see Roy Battenhouse, SP, XLVIII (1951), 161-192, who favors his being a pagan; as does Lily Campbell, MP, XXVIII (1931), 281-296; by contrast see I. J. Semper, The Month, N.S. IX (1953), 222-231, who argues that the ghost is merely carrying out divine judgment, as does Bowers in PMLA, LXX (1955), 740-749. Bowers chooses to ignore the ghost’s statement in Gertrude’s bedchamber about “This visitation” as intended “to whet thy almost blunted purpose,” since he is arguing that Hamlet is too precipitate rather than dilatory in his action.

27 See Burton, op. cit., p. 726, for the long “gazes” common to those mad for love. Dr. Sommerville, op. cit., pp. 24-25, n. 25, finds this episode to be Hamlet’s “worst attack of mental confusion.” For typical nineteenth century German criticism see L. Boerme, Gesämmelte Schriften, Dram. Blätter (Hamburg, 1829), II, 172, in Variorum, II, 291: “Does Hamlet feign himself mad? He is so. He thinks he is playing with his madness, and it is his madness that plays with him.” Bernard Grebanier, in The Heart of Hamlet (New York, 1960), pp. 65-72, offers a survey of critiques on his madness, while he denies their validity.

28 Patrick Cruttwell, in The Shakespearean Moment (London, 1954), p. 37, aptly calls the letter a “savage parody (sane or insane, it does not matter) of that early uncritical adoration.”

29 Hudson, Variorum, II, 226, aptly comments: “His sanity and madness shade off imperceptibly into each other, so as to admit of no clear dividing line between them.” [p. 258]

30 To my knowledge only G. W. Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London, 1949), p. 321, has commented on this passage as indicating Hamlet’s abnormality. Gilbert Highet, The Powers of Poetry (New York, 1960), pp. 286-290, regards the graveyard ranting as one of many signs of Hamlet’s “intermittent madness.”

31 See J. D. Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet? (New York, 1935), pp. 39-44. Rev. Gerard Bridge, Shakespeare’s Catholicity (Beatty, Penn., 1926), p. 26, cites the two medieval church councils which expressly forbade such marriages, as does the Biathanatos, pp. 86-87.

32 One wonders, so prominent is Hamlet’s antipathy to drink, at the protest of Brander Matthews, in Shakespeare as a Playwright (New York, 1913), p. 212, that Hamlet’s first objection (I.iv.8-20) does not elucidate the atmosphere or the characters.

33 Augustus Ralli summarizes many treatments of this theme in A History of Shakespearean Criticism; among the German critics alone, for provocative ideas we might single out Gustave Rümelin (I, 546), H. A. Werner (I, 523), Th. Gessner (II, 45), and Hermann Turck (II, 163). George Brandes, William Shakespeare (New York, 1898), p. xi, asserts: “[Hamlet] feels as if he must die because he cannot set [the disjoint state] right.” See also Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 79 ff.

34 Despite Blackstone’s research, “The elective throne is a mirage,” says J. D. Wilson, op. cit., p. 30. May we not also surmise that just as Claudius nominates Hamlet for the kingship (I.ii.108-112) and Hamlet, Fortinbras (V.ii.342-343), so the “son of a dear father” (II.ii.559) would have been nominated before the play began?

35 J. D. Wilson, op. cit., p. 128, reminds us that it is Ophelia who is “jilting” Hamlet, not he the girl.

36 To my knowledge, no one has noted that Hamlet accuses Claudius to his mother only after stabbing through the arras. If he is unsure of her loyalty, as he seems to be, why does he reveal this information, thereby chancing even greater enmity from the king? As yet, he has only surmised the evil intentions in the mission to England. Should not his disgust with Gertrude grow greater at the thought of her tolerating a spy in her chamber? Perhaps as a result, save for one reported letter to her, Hamlet ceases to attempt to communicate with his mother until the end of the fencing match.

37 J. D. Wilson, op. cit., pp. 40-42, strongly urges “sullied” for the customary “solid” of the first soliloquy. Kittredge, Five Plays of Shakespeare (Boston, 1939), p. 246, cites a verbal parallel for “weary,” “solid,” and “melt” in 2 Henry IV, III.i.47-49, to support “solid” as the reading. Perhaps the First Folio’s “foule” for the adjective of “his sole son” (III.iii.77) is more consistent with Hamlet’s self-disdain. Note the extreme position of Hankins, op. cit., p. 34. Allardyce Nicoll, Studies in Shakespeare (New York, 1927), p. 73, postulates a sense of distress even over his own ambition to rule, although for a prince this seems no unreasonable claim. For Hamlet’s uncalled-for confession of sinfulness see III.i.88-90 and III.i.l24.

38 G. B. Shaw asserts in A New Postscript (1944) to Back to Methusaleh, quoted in Roy Walker, The Time Is Out of Joint (London, 1948), p. 154, n. 13: “Born into the vindictive morality of Moses he has evolved into the Christian perception of the futility and wickedness of revenge and punishment,” Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1950), p. 370, also speaks of his antipathy to blood-revenge. Goddard (p. 349) and Hartley Coleridge, in Ralli, op. cit., I, 176, point out the oddity of the ghost’s urging murder after calling it “most foul, as in the best it is.” Sister Miriam Joseph in “Hamlet, A Christian Tragedy,” SP, LIX (1962), 119-140, stresses the religious nature of Hamlet’s [p. 259] dilemma, but tries to validate his revenge as just according to St. Thomas--a questionable attempt.

39 The apparently cold-blooded sending to death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern needs justification in this regard. Hamlet has told his mother his suspicions of their intentions (with confirmation told later to Horatio); his substitution of the mandate--now for their death--seems warranted, especially since their being allowed “shriving time” in England would have granted the pair an opportunity to tell the king of England about Claudius’s plan, as sealed in the commission. The affair took place before the rescue by the pirates; therefore the immediacy of their execution might have been Hamlet’s only manner of escape in England. The subsequent discussion of their fate (V.ii.56-72) is, possibly, a salve for his conscience. Dramatically, of course, their death was intended to heighten the audience’s sense of the need for quick action against Claudius.

40 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1911), p. 174; H. C. Goddard, op. cit., p. 333, n. 41; Father Blackmore, quoted in Williamson, op. cit., pp. 372-374; Levin Schucking, The Meaning of Hamlet (London, 1937), p. 215. (This might also be said of Polonius and it was positively so ordered for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) J. E. Hankins, op. cit., pp. 207-213, n. 39. Hankins also makes much of Claudius’s achievement of the first two stages of repentance, forgetting that it leaves no lasting effect on his conduct.

41 For the suggestion that the Sixth Commandment must be the “canon” see Hankins, op. cit., pp. 223-224, and Variorum, I, 131-132. The sexton echoes the counsel’s argument in the famous case of Sir James Hales of 1554, which adumbrates Hamlet’s statements on action throughout the play in maintaining that suicide consists of three parts: “Imagination, which is Reflection or Meditation of the Mind, ... the resolution or determination of the mind, and third, the perfection or execution of the resolution” (given in Kittredge, op. cit., pp., 274-275, n. for V.i.11ff. and in Barton, n. 14, supra).

42 I.ii.182; I.ii.195; I.iv.39; I.iv.67; I.v.132; I.v.136; I.v.147; I.v.166; I.v.180; II.ii.112; II.ii.298; II.ii.505; II.ii.551; II.ii.574-576; III.ii.29-30; III.ii.122-125; III.ii.353; III.ii.371-373; III.iii.73-96; III.iv.14; III.iv.47-48; III.iv.126; III.iv.144-155; III.iv.161-162; III.iv.169; III.iv.173-175; IV.iii.34; IV.iii.47; IV.iv.36-39; V.i.74-76; V.i.247; V.ii.10; V.ii.48-49; V.ii.67-70; V.ii.312; V.ii.330. For the explication of a few of these references in terms of Holy Writ, see R. Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge (London, 1935), pp. 200-209. See also H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism (New York, 1952), pp. 363-365 for “proofs” of the Catholic ambience; also Bowden, op. cit., p. 313.

43 M. B. Allen, in “Hamlet’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ Soliloquy,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, XIII (1938), 195-207, examines a large sampling of Shakespeare criticism and concludes that the majority support the suicide theme as predominant. Cf. Adolphus A. Jack, Young Hamlet (Aberdeen, 1950), pp. 117-118.

44 Both Bradley, op. cit., p. 98, and G. W. Knight, op. cit., p. 306, are inclined to rely on the last soliloquy (IV.iv.40-41) for the interpretation of conscience, i.e., “reflection on the consequences of actions” as in “the craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event.” Therefore it seems inconceivable for Hamlet to imply by “enterprise” that of suicide, with so different a type of enterprise as that of Fortinbras brought into the reckoning. The OED also lists “reasonableness, understanding, sense” as possibilities, though rare.

45 Johnson, on the contrary, remarks that he “mentions many evils to which inferior stations only are exposed”--cited in Shakespeare Criticism, ed. D. Nicol Smith (London, [p. 260] 1936), p. 196. See also Variorum, I, 206 and 212, and W. J. Lawrence, Speeding up Shakespeare (London, 1937), pp. 57-60.

46 The “genius” view of melancholics in the period is confirmed by Du Laurens, op. cit., p. 98, who declares that their writings “have oftentimes foretolde what afterward hath come to passe.” Their being prone to “dreadfull dreames” (p. 82) is sometimes part of their prescience.

47 Ernest Jones, The Problem of Hamlet (London, 1947), pp. 28-29, and Hamlet and Oedipus, p. 91. Robert Speaight, op. cit., pp. 29-30, comments on his recklessness in shouting about the marriage to the hidden king, but despite his asserting that he is “mad at moments” (p. 22), he holds that Hamlet represents “a norm of sanity” (p. 31).

48 J. D. Wilson, op. cit., pp. 129-134, offers the best support for this widely accepted view, using many points such as the oddity of Ophelia’s chancing to have his gifts, the nature of her replies, and Hamlet’s words themselves as well as his exits and entrances from the lobby in the hope of surprising the emerging king. See also Coleridge’s agreement with the general view in Variorum, I, 216.

49 See Carl Rohrbach, Shakespeare’s Hamlet Explained (1859), cited in Ralli, op. cit., I, 411-412: “He lets the king know too much through the mouse-trap and his mother.”

50 J. D. Wilson, op. cit., pp. 137-197 and 229.

51 In Fratricide Punished in which Hamlet also manages to eliminate his “conductors” through the unlikely expedient of dodging their shots so that they kill each other and then journeys by land back to court (Variorum, II, 137). H. Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton, 1952), I, 112, finds the announcement of the departure for England to be “a complete and ironic triumph for Claudius” with Hamlet brought in “as a prisoner” by the pair and with other attendants, like a jury about to sentence a dangerous homicidal maniac. Now Hamlet is on the “defensive” he asserts (p. 114).

52 G. F. Bradby, Short Studies in Shakespeare (New York, 1929), pp. 188-189.

53 D. S. Savage, Hamlet and the Pirates (London, 1950), pp. 21-25, argues inconclusively that Hamlet had arranged the interception before he left Denmark--no mean feat before the use of radio and radar! He seems unaware that others have proposed this ingenious theory: S. A. Blackmore, The Riddles of Hamlet and the Newest Answers (Boston, 1917), pp. 391-393, D. J. Snider in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, January 1873, as cited in C. Williamson, op. cit., pp. 125-126, and Miles, cited in Variorum, I, 353.

54 See this use of the term in 3 Henry VI, V.iv.42; Henry VIII, III.ii.457; Caesar, IV.iii.101; Oth., V.ii.258; Cym., V.v.4. The simultaneous arrival of Horatio alone at the shore, summoned also by a letter, need not have precluded a murderous attack by the king’s henchmen, but would merely provide a witness for Hamlet. Concerning the larger frame of reference--his return from the toils of Claudius’s original plot--Walker in The Time Is Out of Joint, p. 145, aptly comments that Hamlet comes back “to the death he has chosen through the graveyard.” See Roland M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton, 1963), p. 138, for Hamlet’s readiness for death at the end.

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