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
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.