My friend Ashok asked that I provide a commentary on Hamlet.
As a student of Political Philosophy and American Studies I may not seem like the proper person to provide a commentary on William Shakespeare’s epic play Hamlet. However, this semester in pursuance of my Master of American Studies, I am taking a class on the playwright.
Hamlet begins with a question; more importantly, it is a challenge by a watchman. The question is returned with yet another question, or challenge, by a second watchman. The Kingdom of Denmark is on alert after the King’s untimely demise. Questions and challenges play an important role in Hamlet, some of the questions penetrate throughout the entire play. How did the King die? Is Claudius, the new king and the dead king’s brother, the cause of the king’s death? Is the dead king’s wife Gertrude guilty as her new husband, the new king? Is Hamlet, the son of the dead King, truly insane or is he simply putting on an antic-disposition? All of these questions riddle throughout the play, but there are even greater esoteric questions that one can ask.
In the second act of the play, Prince Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his dead father to kill his uncle. Thus presents our first question, is it right for a Christian to commit tyrannicide? Is it right for a Prince to commit tyrannicide? And if it is right, under what circumstances can a Christian or a Prince commit tyrannicide? Hamlet spends the play in contemplation, in fact he spends more time in contemplation than any other Shakespearean character. Yet he spends very little time contemplating the justice in his charge to commit tyrannicide. Instead, Hamlet spends his time contemplating the meaning of life. His time thinking causes him to delay in his charge, yet at other times (death of Polonius) Hamlet acts quickly and almost without any thought.
Before we can answer the key question of whether or not he has a right to commit tyrannicide, we have other questions that must be asked. Hamlet has to have a justification for tyrannicide, even in Protestant thought tyrannicide is only acceptable with a just cause. As it stands in the play only two people know for a fact that Claudius killed Hamlet the elder…Claudius and Hamlet. Hamlet the younger only knows this fact through a ghost, which he doesn’t know if the Ghost is a belligerent or not. As Hamlet himself admits only, “Heaven and Hell” know whether or not the Ghost can truly be trusted. And since no other character attests to having heard the Ghost, Hamlet is left alone to defend his actions based on the information of a Ghost. As a result, Hamlet does have legitimate cause to delay in his cause so that Claudius has a chance to incriminate himself. But before Hamlet can even consider killing Claudius, he must be prepared to take the throne once the deed is done. This brings us to our first problem of committing tyrannicide. Hamlet is considered by other characters in the play a competent leader. Ophelia in her sentiments supports the theory that Hamlet is capable of being king. He also appears to be capable in foreign policy, but he doesn’t appear thrilled to become King.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas Tyrannicide is acceptable in two situations, when there is a Tyrant by Usurpation or a Tyrant by Oppression. In this instance, is Claudius a Tyrant by Usurpation? Did he usurp the legitimate king and take his throne? In Denmark the monarchy is elected, albeit for life. The first time we see Claudius we find that he had the support of the people for his reign and in this instance Hamlet cannot legitimately commit Tyrannicide. But is Claudius a Tyrant by Oppression? Again, Claudius appears to have the support of the Danish people. He also doesn’t seem to be an oppressive ruler, and only resigns to become such towards Hamlet once it becomes clear Hamlet seeks to murder him. And so at least in the Catholic understanding, Hamlet does not have just cause to commit tyrannicide.
The first question of the play then, whether or not Hamlet is entitled and justified in committing Tyrannicide, is answered in the negative at every turn. Hamlet is not prepared to take the throne, and Claudius is neither a usurper nor an oppressive ruler.
The second major question then is found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies. Hamlet has more soliloquies than any other Shakespearean character with seven. The soliloquies are important, because throughout the play, with the exception of his first appearance, Hamlet is putting on his antic disposition. As a result, Hamlet’s true thoughts and feelings come through in his soliloquies. As such, to what extent is Hamlet’s concern with Fortune and Honor in contest with his charge to commit tyrannicide?
The first soliloquy is the most unique because it comes before Hamlet decides to put on an antic disposition and even before the Ghost appears to him. The first theme found in the soliloquies is suicide. Hamlet contemplates suicide so that the, “sullied flesh would melt away.” In this instance, flesh can mean either the actual physical human flesh that covers the body, or it could mean the passions. Flesh is another theme found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies and it seems that it is constantly connected to the theme of Fortune. Finally, in the first soliloquy Hamlet does what he does throughout, he generalizes. In this instance, Hamlet generalizes about life through the particulars of his own. He also generalizes about women through his mother Gertrude. In his generalizations about women he comes to feel that they are weak and fragile and this is something he ultimately generalizes about Ophelia.
The struggle for Hamlet about tyrannicide is deeper than it’s proper justice. Like in his thoughts of suicide, Hamlet is concerned with saving all from the flesh and in particular Claudius. He doesn’t want to send Claudius to Hell, he wants to save him from his passions or his flesh. Flesh and passions are connected to Fortune and as a result Reason is connected with God. Passion and Fortune govern the affairs of men, and neither Reason or God can rule over them and this upsets Hamlet to the point that he wants to be released and wants to release everyone else. Hamlet’s anger over the inability to govern the Passions and Fortune are expressed in the recitation of Aeneas’s story to Dido about the Fall of Troy. Hamlet sees himself as Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles who wants to murder Priam to avenge his father. But like Hamlet, Pyrrhus is unwilling to do what he must to avenge Achilles.
Hamlet contemplates this speech in his third soliloquy, where he is aware of his father’s death but cannot bring himself to perform the murder. As a result, instead of action Hamlet decides to catch Claudius in speech. He does this in part to find if the Ghost is from heaven or hell. Hamlet authors lines to insert into the play within the play to convince Claudius to admit the murder. What is odd about the lines is that Hamlet doesn’t create the lines to bring out Claudius’s guilt, but rather to torment his mother over her disgrace. Her frailty has been a point of contention for Hamlet throughout the play.
The typical reading of Hamlet’s fourth Soliloquy, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is that it is about suicide. Hamlet begins the soliloquy generalizing about life itself, “being or not being.” Again fortune and flesh play a key role in Hamlet’s thoughts. The passions are always in concert with fortune, and reason can never rule over them and so it makes life unbearable for Hamlet. He sees death as a passageway to Heaven, which is our native country; but like the famous Hotel California, once you check in you may never leave. It is also in this soliloquy where Hamlet admits clearly that the passions do not submit to reason.
The problem with reason for Hamlet is that he sees it as two functions: the faculty that has the ability to understand events and actions and the faculty which governs the passions.Hamlet strives to see them both as one but cannot; the play itself is about these two functions of reason. The ability to control the passions with the ability to understand. Hamlet must be able to rise above his passion to kill Claudius to avenge his father, and use the ability to understand to do it.
The final soliloquy before the end of the play concerns itself with one basic premise of the play. Hamlet’s deliberation always resolves down tot he futility of action, in particular political action. Yet Hamlet admits that he has, “cause, and will, and strength, and means to [kill Claudius.]” The final soliloquy focuses around the concept of honor, and like the first soliloquy it stands unique. The final soliloquy centers around Hamlet recovering himself and is no ready to do what his dead father charged him to do. What prompted this change is difficult, was it the encounter with Fortenbras’s men? Or was it Ophelia who saved him? If it was Fortenbras, does Hamlet want to be like him? Fortenbras seems to be the timocratic man to a fault.
Finally, Hamlet finally resolves to kill Claudius only after he himself has become Claudius. His murder of Polonius has caused the suicide of Ophelia, and now his unwillingness to take responsibility for the destruction of Polonius’s family will bring about the destruction of Laertes.
So to conclude, the play Hamlet is about the justice of tyrannicide, and overcoming the passions.