In Hester, a novel published in 1884, Mrs. Oliphant briefly sketches out what she considers to be “the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy.” The character who presents her analysis of Hamlet does so while describing what ensued after the disappointment in love of one Catherine Vernon.
Something however, occurred after, much worse than his preference for another woman. The man turned out to be an unworthy man. I should think for my part that there cannot be any such blow as that. Don’t you remember we agreed it was the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy? It is the tragedy of the world, my dear…Hamlet would never have discovered what traitors those young courtiers were, if his mother had not turned out a fraud, and his love a delusion–at least that is my opinion. The wonder is, he did not misdoubt Horatio too. That’s what I should have done if it had been me. But there is the good of genius Hester; the Master who knew everything knew better.
In an essay published in Blackwoods in 1879, Mrs. Oliphant fleshes out this idea at greater length. Her essay is exhilarating because–unlike so many other critical essays, which tend to focus on one or two interesting themes within the enigmatic play–it really attempts to join the apparently disparate elements of the plot and explain how they all fit together.
While she successfully ties together the Gertrude subplot, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot, and the Ophelia subplot, Mrs. Oliphant assigns relatively little weight to the revenge plot which most people consider to be the most important one in the play:
This horrible revelation of evil in the place where it should have been least suspected, this certainty which nothing can change or excuse or atone for, is the foundation of all that follows. The murder is less, not more than this. It may be proved, it may be revenged, and in any case it gives a feverish energy to the sufferer, an escape for the moment from a deeper bitterness still; but even were it disproved or were it avenged, it would change nothing.
To diehard Mrs. Oliphant enthusiasts like myself, this concession seems too easy. The moments in which Hamlet thinks about his own failure to carry out the revenge can actually be seen as those in which his most harrowing ruminations on the mutability of human love and loyalty occur. Hamlet is disappointed not just in his friends and in his relations, but also in himself. When he compares the Player’s compassion for Hecuba with his own failure to avenge his father’s murder, he exclaims
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause…
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words…
In a later scene, Laertes insists that if he, Laertes, fails to instantly avenge the death of his father, it would show an unnatural want of love and faithfulness towards that gentleman–
That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father…
These heated words pile an ironic condemnation of Hamlet on top of the many self-condemnations which Hamlet utters throughout the play, and most harshly characterize Hamlet’s behavior as unloving and disloyal. Just as Gertrude actively betrays her husband by marrying Claudius, Hamlet passively betrays his father by failing to instantly avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet’s carelessness towards one whom he has formerly loved is, of course, not limited to his treatment of his father. When he accidentally kills Polonius, he does not give a thought to the effect that his actions will have on Ophelia, who–putting the (perhaps justified) disdain of Mrs. Oliphant aside–continues to love Hamlet in her own weak way even after his poor treatment of her, and is actually driven mad by a manifestation of the same phenomenon which provokes the bitterness of Hamlet–who only pretends to be mad.
Horatio, the one true friend, the constant foil to half a dozen traitors, would have been a familiar character in a familiar situation to Shakespeare’s original audience. Boethius writes that bad fortune can be seen as a blessing in disguise:
Do you think it is of small account that this harsh and terrible misfortune has revealed those whose hearts are loyal to you? She has shown you the friends whose smiles were true smiles, and those whose smiles were false; in deserting you Fortune has taken her friends with her and left those who are truly yours.*
This idea is echoed in Hamlet’s speech to Horatio.
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
And could of men distinguish her election,
Sh’ath seal’s thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suff’ring all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks…
This sketch of Horatio’s character is, of course, contrasted almost immediately with the inconstancy of the Player Queen in “The Mousetrap,” which follows it. Almost the entire dialogue of the play within a play serves to further strengthen Mrs. Oliphant’s theory.
Even the less educated members of Shakespeare’s audience would have been well acquainted with the theme of fickle friendship in the face of adverse fortune, if not from translations of Boethius, then at least from earlier plays written by Shakespeare himself. Timon of Athens, a later play, is the overarching theme of which is most similar to that of Hamlet, according to Mrs. Oliphant’s reading. Although he is faced with similar circumstances, Hamlet, unlike Timon, does not finally allow his bitterness to overwhelm him completely; while Timon completely surrenders to misanthropy and despair, Hamlet, especially in the last act, displays sprightliness, hope, and even (in his dealings with Laertes) charity. Mrs. Oliphant struggles to fit the last act of the play into her theory.
The last act of “Hamlet” remains to ourselves a mystery… Death indeed cuts the thread artificially both in real life and poetry; but it is an artificial ending, however it comes about, and, so far as we are concerned, solves no problem, though we make bold to believe that it explains everything to the person chiefly concerned. In the fifth act all is changed. That former world has rolled away with all its passions and pains. Hamlet, having delivered himself by the promptest energetic action, in an emergency which is straightforward and without complications, comes back with a languor and exhaustion about him which contrasts strangely with the intensity of all his previous emotions. Contemplative as ever, there is no longer any strain of mystic anguish in his musings. Unaccountably, yet most evidently, the greatness of his suffering has dissolved away…What is the secret of the subdued dead hush and calm with which he comes before us in the end? Is it mere weariness, exhaustion of all possibility of action, the sense that nothing more remains worth struggling for — for even his revenge, the one object which had kept the channels of life clear, has disappeared in the last chapter? …So far as our theory goes, the last act is in fact the return of the poet to his real theme. His hero has been wrecked throughout by treachery. The higher betrayals that affected his heart and soul wrung Hamlet’s being, and transformed the world to him: but the meaner tricks that assailed his life were too low for his suspicion. How was he, so noble, so unfortunate, measuring his soul against the horrible forces of falsehood, the spiritual wickedness in high places, to come down from that impassioned and despairing contest, to think of poison, or take precautions against it? Thus the traitor got the better of him, and death triumphed at the last.
The problem with this final point is that it is contradicted by the text. After he is informed of the conditions of the duel, Hamlet tells Horatio that “all’s ill here about my heart…it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman.” When Horatio suggests postponing the duel, Hamlet refuses, and consciously chooses to face danger, accepting whatever fate Providence assigns him.
Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of the sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leave, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
In order to determine why it is that Hamlet, who has been steering in the same general direction chosen by Timon, suddenly swerves in the fifth act, it might be worthwhile to examine the end of the fourth act more closely. Hamlet’s rebuke of Gertrude in her bedroom (together with his general unhappiness regarding Gertrude’s remarriage) is understood by many twentieth century critics as a barely concealed sublimation of his Oedipal instincts. This interpretation is not supported by the text of the play. Hamlet’s concern for the chastity of his close female relative is normal, just as Polonius’s and Laertes’s concern for the chastity of their close female relative is normal. In fact, the two scenes in which the ladies are warned by their male relatives to be more careful of their chastity can be seen as parallel but contrasting bookends to the main body of the play. When the young girl is chastised by her father and brother it is natural and proper; when the middle aged woman is chastised by her grown son it is sad and strange. In modern performances of Hamlet, the sense of the words in this scene are always swallowed up by the amorous gestures. In the play Shakespeare wrote, Hamlet enjoins Gertrude to refuse Claudius’s embraces and to falsely inform him that he, Hamlet, is actually mad. Gertrude promises to comply with both of these instructions. In the next scene, we witness her lying to Claudius, just as Hamlet had told her to do. Later, in an aside, she confesses that
To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is),
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
This aside indicates that the repentance of which Gertrude has previously assured Hamlet is genuine. Although she does intervene to save Claudius from being murdered by Laertes, there is no indication in the text of the play that Gertrude ever accepts Claudius’s affections after the bedroom scene with Hamlet. It seems reasonable that, if his mother’s wantonness was the original cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness, her sincere repentance would make him happy again. Part of this has, no doubt, something to do with a personal reassurance that she is loyal to him. Another factor which may contribute to the lifting of Hamlet’s pall is the general reassurance about human nature that witnessing repentance may give. Many of Hamlet’s speculations focus on the tension between the animal and the ethereal in man, and are characterized by grief over the all too common dominance of the animal over the ethereal. Seeing the ethereal conquer the animal is balm to the soul of a philosopher like Hamlet.
Hamlet and Timon are alike in their fortunes, but they are unlike in their ways of coping with fortune. Hamlet remains introspective and wittily humorous throughout the time of his adversity, finding fault in himself as well as in others; Timon blames all of his unhappiness on those around him. Once Hamlet has witnessed his mother’s repentance, his faith is strengthened–he comes back to Elsinore confidently, and confronts a dangerous situation trustfully. While he is dying, he forgives Laertes for murdering him and receives Laertes’s forgiveness for killing Polonius. Both Timon and Hamlet are tragedies, but while the former is a thoroughly sad tragedy, the latter isn’t an entirely unhappy one, since Hamlet, unlike Timon, dies with dignity and goodwill. In other words, though he lives and dies bounded in a nutshell, Hamlet can indeed be counted a king of infinite space.
*Penguin Classics edition, Victor Watts translation