William Shakespeare’s Hamlet reflects on the social and religious movements of the 16th and 17th centuries, a transitory time in England’s history. Society was slowly switching from a medieval mindset to a more modern one. Hamlet is a “Renaissance man,” the educated son of a medieval king. Interpretations of the play during Shakespeare’s day depended largely on the audience member’s affiliation with one of the following groups: Catholics, Protestants and Humanists. I will closely examine aspects of Hamlet that illustrate differences in interpretation between these three “modes of existence.” I will focus mainly on the “introductory ghost” of Hamlet’s father and explore the origin of the spirit according to each group. There are many questions concerning Hamlet’s madness and multiple ways of interpreting his actions. Three separate versions of the tragedy exist, which provide even more possibilities for alternate interpretations. Shakespeare became the genius that recognized both tragedy and comedy; borrowing from classic tragedies while adding new complexity to characters. The possibility for multiple interpretations allows the themes of Hamlet to accommodate the shifting perspectives of not only Shakespeare’s audience, but our own society.
Leslie Croxford calls Hamlet “the most problematic play ever written” (Croxford 225) due to its various medieval and Renaissance sources, multiple printed versions of the play as well as “a host of unresolved thematic and psychological problems” (Croxford 225-6). Chief among these concerns are: the question of Hamlet’s contemplation and the origin of the Ghost that charges him with the task of revenge:
The suggestion that the Ghost is from purgatory is thus considerably more than just a part of Shakespeare’s novel way of presenting him as less bombastic, less unequivocally evil, more integrated into the plot than such spirits tended to be in Elizabethan theatre. It is the means, precisely, of advancing the “pre-eminently interrogative mood,” launching thereby the Prince’s–and play’s–focus on the need to interpret (Croxford 100).
It is this “interrogative mood” that allows readers to find many plausible explanations for the Ghost as well as judging the mental state of the characters. Three prevailing “modes of existence” in Elizabethan society interpreted the Ghost very differently. Humanists, unlike the two factions of Christianity in play during the period, “were relatively unconcerned about the supernatural world and the eternal destiny of the soul” (Kreis). Hamlet and the others do not simply die and go to heaven in a Humanist’s interpretation. This is hinted at when Hamlet considers suicide but hesitates “not because of an absolute Christian belief in divine retribution but because he is afraid of an afterlife of which he cannot be sure” (Best). Hamlet ponders death throughout the play and in his most famous soliloquy brings his fears about death to light:
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from who bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards [of us all].
(III, i, 76-82)
Hamlet’s insistence on the fact that “no traveller returns” seems at odds with his decision to believe the Ghost is that of his father but this speech does come at a time where Hamlet may be acting for Claudius and Polonius. The possibility that Hamlet is acting during these lines doesn’t mean their content is insincere. I believe Shakespeare achieves a tone of uncertainty about death that was emerging at the time. This element would appeal to Humanists who were more concerned with the way man lives than what happens after he dies.
Steven Kreis defines Humanism as a “social philosophy” that reached its height between 1400 to 1650. This new philosophy favored “pagan classics,” “stimulated the philosophy of secularism, the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all intensified the assertion of personal independence and individual expression” (Kries). With the emergence of Humanism Shakespeare gained a large audience that was interested in the revival of traditional stories with contemporary commentary. The rapidly growing society and prosperous climate of Shakespeare’s time “generated interest in worldly pleasures, in spite of formal allegiance to ascetic Christian doctrine” (Kries). As a time of transition is was impossible to escape the theme of religion but innovative writers such as Shakespeare were able to layer multiple meanings within the same space. This supports the argument that Hamlet, as a “Renaissance man” was a figure that represented the gap between the two vastly different worlds:
The world of the medieval Christian matrix, in which the significance of every phenomenon was ultimately determined through uniform points of view, no longer existed for him. On the other hand, he had not yet found in a system of scientific concepts and social principles stability and security for his life. In other words, Renaissance man may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason (Kreis). Hamlet was educated at a Protestant university and while he still retained some of the theology of the medieval period he lived in a time when “the grip of medieval supernaturalism began to diminish, [and] secular and human interests became more prominent” (Kreis). This affected Hamlet’s view of the afterlife and complicated what would have been a simple case of a son seeking revenge that had been seen in many plays up until Hamlet’s creation.
While Shakespeare’s religious affiliations are not known “Hamlet’s thinking is saturated with religious references” and yet he is unable to “accept the guidance of the Church, the Bible, or direct revelation” (Croxford 108). However, by differentiating the distinctive “modes of existence” at the time of the plays creation it is possible to imaginatively interpret Hamlet as a character who is playing the part of a madman while having several genuine moments of melancholic “madness” due to the loss of his father and the betrayals of his uncle and mother. Hamlet’s “melancholic consciousness” is “strangely freed by the motivating command to revenge” (Croxford 116). It is interesting that the very meaning of the word “madness” has changed over time. The word also has multiple possible meanings within the play, depending on who is being called “mad” and who is assessing the “madness.”
One question that is often debated by critics of the play is the true nature of Hamlet’s “madness.” Harold R. Walley describes Hamlet as “a sensitive gentleman scholar disillusioned in his social contacts and oppressed with the villainy and futility of life.” (Walley 778). It is no wonder that he questions himself and his impending revenge; I identified with this description of Hamlet and feel Shakespeare must have had a great deal of insight into the psychology of one his characters. Walley asserts that Hamlet uses his “madness” only in certain circumstances and in the view of certain characters “for the purpose of facilitating his revenge” (Walley 778). This madness is not the same as Ophelia’s because he can clearly choose to whom he discloses it and yet remain sane when talking with Horatio, the only character he feels he can fully trust. While religious readings of his odd behavior would point directly to madness a Humanist view would point out that Hamlet’s ravings, no matter how crazy they seem to the characters within the play make perfect sense in Hamlet’s mind. Shakespeare is regarded so highly in part because his characters are so deep and memorable, especially when compared to other plays of the time. It is Shakespeare’s characters that give typical tragedies their human motivation which allows them to resonate with so many generations.
Differences in the interpretations of the Ghost and Hamlet’s madness are partially due to the existence of three distinct versions of the text: Q1, Q2 and F1. Hamlet was most likely based off of an earlier play and then was expanded and given stronger character motivation and intricate under and over plots. My analysis depends on the more complicated and interpretable versions that were printed after Q1 which contains mostly action and a simplified the cast. This would have been what Elizabethan audiences would have viewed; its reliance on action and emotion make it the most conducive of the tragedy genre and the least “artificial.” This version evades many physiological issues by leaving out lengthy soliloquies and using less intellectual language. The Q2 and F1 versions are much more drawn out; Q2 is the version that was published in Shakespeare’s lifetime and F1 is a later version, the most “perfect” and scholarly of the three. It is important to note the differences between these primary texts because they each produce a different picture of Hamlet’s madness. Everything we know about Hamlet is drawn from one or all of these texts and it is our own interpretation of Shakespeare’s words that creates their meaning. It is important to imagine the physical production in order to develop a theatrical imagination which can, “can teach one to look at a script and imagine what the rendition would be like. Shakespeare’s plays, though they have meant so many things to so many men, are primarily scripts” (Levin 15). I have read many opinions and critiques of Hamlet but even the most well established ideas of history are simply abstractions that are communicated overtime through physical documents. This remains true even when the history in question is that of an imaginary person, a character inhibited by many actors over time.
Depending on a person’s religious and class affiliations they might view the play entirely differently. Even when considering the version that most people would have known in Shakespeare’s day there were other factors in an individual’s interpretation. The most common view during the period was Protestantism. However, Queen Elizabeth was known for being religiously tolerant of Catholics which accounts for the two conflicting viewpoints existing in society simultaneously. Shakespeare clearly had enough knowledge of the religious world to use it in his plays; this is evident in his references to Purgatory. Shakespeare was likely an early Renaissance Humanist, someone interested in the quality of life and the conflicting views of the major religions at the time. Protestants and Catholics would have been concerned with the origin of the Ghost (which would have been from Hell or Purgatory respectively) but Humanists were concerned with the reactions of the audience and the elements of theatre within the play. I view Hamlet in a Humanistic way as someone who is interested in madness as a mask. The Q1 version of Hamlet is more geared towards the religious groups of the period as well as modern audiences who are unable or unwilling to think about multiple layers at the same time. Humanists would prefer the more complex Q2 or F1 versions because they suggest that Hamlet decided to pretend to be insane. I believe Hamlet is a character caught between two different worlds and that at times he may be acting genuinely on his emotions as the tragedy genre would suggest but that he is able to play a part in order to manipulate those who oppose him.
The cultures at play during Shakespeare’s life influenced him as a writer and therefore his plays. Society was changing from a medieval state to a modern one. There are characters who represent each stage within the play and Hamlet rests in the middle, a character who represents the Reformation and Renaissance, the stepping stones to modernity. The Ghost represents the passing medieval world. King Hamlet was a ruler only as long as he was able to overpower his adversaries. It is essential to the revenge plot that the “King of the hill” is killed in a moment of weakness, during sleep while he is still “full of this world.” This causes a disruption in the natural order of things and allows a vengeful spirit to remain in a state of uncertainty while he pays for his transgressions in life. It is up to Hamlet to decide whether or not the spirit is truly his father. Hamlet is ultimately stuck between two worlds and so he obeys the Ghost but drags his feet a bit. Hamlet eventually avenges his father, a common belief and practice in the medieval age. Claudius as the most modern character has no reservations about poisoning his own brother to gain a more favorable position for himself. Hamlet is a conflicted character because he doesn’t fit easily into either category. He wants to avenge his father and eventually decides to do so but thinks about it carefully spending much of the play in limbo. At first Hamlet fears the spirit and thinks it may be a demon and later he refuses to kill Claudius in a moment in which he appears to be absolving himself from his sins. This is where Hamlet and Claudius differ the most in my eyes and this decision ultimately leads to Hamlet’s downfall and serves as the climax of the tragedy. The Renaissance was a restoration of classical Greek culture which highly valued the tragic genre and revered its heroes in spite of their fatal flaws. Hamlet’s fatal flaw is his inaction which is caused by his “excessive” thinking, this is illustrated in the Q1 and F1 versions with extended soliloquies. Hamlet is also representative of the Renaissance as an avid fan of plays and actors, this also lends to the interpretation that Hamlet himself is acting. The Globe Theatre was a product of the Renaissance and Shakespeare was the greatest author of tragedy which was viewed as the most profound art form. Hamlet is a play that embodies the Renaissance in its content and scope and illustrates the uncertain climate of Shakespeare’s society:
The humanism of the Renaissance, with its consciousness of historic renewal, its revivals of the classics and the fine arts, its confidence in the mind, and its embellishment of its material surroundings, was a flowering of plentitude, to be sure; but it was likewise a crisis of uncertainty. It balanced the immediacies of this world against otherworldly values; its enjoyment of the senses quickened the lively spirits of comedy; but its fullness of life was deeply grounded in the inevitability of death, which is the precondition of tragedy. (Levin 7)
The inevitability of death is a fact cited by most first time readers of the play. I have experienced this firsthand when I read Hamlet for the first time in high school and most of my classmates wondered why everyone died in the end and my teacher wisely (but simply) said that “everyone dies in a tragedy.” If Hamlet is the model for tragedy then that is not too far from the truth.
Shakespeare didn’t invent tragedy but many believe he perfected it. Hamlet was only possible because of the tragedies that came before it, like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy “with its father avenging a son, its play within the plat, its introductory ghost, and its heroine’s madness” (Levin 19). The play begins with the ghost of Hamlet’s father; Hamlet decides he must discover the spirits true nature, “If it assume my noble father’s person, / I’ll speak to it though hell itself should gape” (I, ii, 243-4). Hamlet at first suspects that the spirit is evil when he voices his concerns out loud to himself: “My father’s spirit—in arms! All is not well, / I doubt some foul play” (I, ii, 254-5). Hamlet further illustrates the juxtaposition of the two main views during the period when he asks: “Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d, / Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell, / Be thy intents wicked, or charitable, / Thou com’st in such a questionable shape” (I, iv, 40-3). The spirit discloses himself as Hamlet’s father but also tells his son, “My hour is almost come when I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames / Must render up myself” (I, v, 3). This would point to an evil spirit from hell but he goes on to explain he is “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confin’d to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purg’d away” (I, v, 10-3). There is “proof” for each interpretation of Hamlet’s father that would satisfy both Protestant and Catholic viewpoints but another interpretation exists and that is that the spirit isn’t real and that Hamlet (and the others) are just imagining it. This interpretation was favored among Humanists who were more interested in the way that Hamlet reacts to and interacts with the ghost (which is a figment of his imagination or possibly a contrivance for his artificial madness.) The “proof” for this interpretation comes later when Hamlet confronts Gertrude about Claudius’ misdeeds. The spirit enters and is visible only to him; Hamlet “listens” and talks to the spirit who convinces him to be gentler with his mother. The Queen is alarmed by Hamlet’s actions and after calling him mad asks him how he is feeling: “Alas, how isn’t with you, / That you do bend your eye on vacancy, / And with th’ incorporal air do hold discourse” (III, iv, 116-8). There are many additional instances in the play that render themselves useful for these contrasting interpretations. Shakespeare played with the idea of multiplicity in much of his work and constructed complicated multi-layered plots and foil characters to emphasize this point.
Shakespeare was able to create multiple layers in his dramas because he lived in a time of transition and his plays had to appeal to a large and varied audience. This makes his plays withstand the test of time and remain intriguing to modern minds. Modern audiences read their own “complexities” into Shakespeare’s characters, especially Hamlet. Hamlet could be seen as simply “mad,” but it is much more interesting to consider that he is an actor playing a character who decides to play a “mad” character. Madness is only one aspect of society that has changed since Shakespeare’s time. Hamlet was written at the height of Shakespeare’s “tragic period” and was ultimately produced by the culture of that time. Hamlet’s inaction is caused by internal conflicts and a feeling of uneasiness about the rapidly shifting world. Shakespeare has become more than a writer, his life and his characters’ “lives” have interwoven themselves into literary history. Just as Hamlet has become almost “real” through his various representations, the biography of William Shakespeare requires as much interpretation as his plays. Shakespeare himself is one of the most known and yet elusive “characters” in history. In order to interpret his multi-dimensional approach to a classic revenge story modern readers must understand much about Elizabethan culture. It is possible to interpret these “stories” from long ago if the zeitgeist of pre-modern England is preserved and supported with sufficient textual and imaginative evidence but we can never know the full meaning behind one of the most enduring tragedies of all time.
Written by blastedgoat for Dr. Swan’s Shakespeare Class
Best, Michael. “Death: the undiscovered country.” Shakespeare’s Life and Times. Internet Shakespeare Editions, University of Victoria: Victoria, BC, 2001-2005. . 25 March 2009.
Croxford, Leslie. “The Uses of Interpretation in Hamlet.” Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 24, Archeology of Literature: Tracing the Old in the New. American University in Cairo Press, 2004. pp. 93-120 . 20 February 2009.
Kreis, Steven. “Renaissance Humanism.” 07 November 2008. The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. . 20 April 2009.
Levin, Harry. “General Introduction.” The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Walley, Harold R. “Shakespeare’s Conception of Hamlet.” PMLA, 48.3. Modern Language Association, 1933. pp. 777-798 . 19 February 2009.