Hamlet eventually takes revenge, but it is not the outcome of any planned or purposive action on his part. His killing of Claudius comes simply as a reflex, after everything that can be lost has been lost on his side of the equation. As he dispatches the King with the words ‘thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane’ (3807), we know that Hamlet himself is already ‘dead’ from the mortal blow of poison administered by Laertes (3817), while the Queen has accidentally fallen through the machinations of Claudius. Other losses – Ophelia, boyhood friends, his de facto position within the state’s ruling structure – have all accumulated relentlessly during the earlier scenes. It is clear that the maximum toll of failure has been exacted prior to this moment of reckoning which, as the play’s second half makes apparent, has been orchestrated by fate no matter what the incidental cost to its chosen instrument. Revenge comes about because the obscure operations of a providential power cannot fail to bring it about; but this power acknowledges no protection for its agent, nor any responsibility for his actions outside the specific one of vengeance.
That Hamlet acknowledges disaster rather than triumph at the play’s end is evident from his closing speeches to the onlookers and to Horatio. In particular, he alludes to a ‘story’, a true version of events without which his actions cannot be understood, but which the sudden and unexpected ‘arrest’ of death now makes impossible to relate. He engages in a grotesque struggle to prevent his friend from killing himself, in the hope that this narrative can survive with him (Horatio, we very shortly find out, will let him down in this ). And his dying recognition of the ‘harsh world’ in which this story has played out includes no sense of relief or reconciliation at the end. Some – taking as a keynote Horatio’s last words to Hamlet, ‘Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’ – see these final moments as filled with a sense of tenderness and even affirmation. Horatio’s words certainly carry an unintended irony, however. As will be argued here, not only are the catastrophic developments of the previous scenes fully realized at the play’s conclusion, but this final scene will add a still further one – what Hamlet will refer to at the end as his ‘wounded name’.
This final scene (5.2) picks up where the events surrounding Hamlet’s return to Elsinore left off (4.7). The graveyard scene has represented a detour that expanded on the implications of Ophelia’s loss (5.1), but otherwise had no bearing upon the plot . Hamlet is now back in the castle and providing Horatio with the details of his return to Denmark which proved so puzzling to the King. Instead of being put to death in England as Claudius has ordered, Hamlet never reached the country, escaping on board a pirate vessel after discovering the assassination plot and re-writing the letters to implicate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in place of himself. These are the bare essentials of the story. In Hamlet’s retelling of them, however, they are so ordered as to illustrate to Horatio the new insight that providence is the controlling power in his life. Thus his narrative begins not with the start of the journey, but with the in medias revelation that
…in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep (3503-4T).
Hamlet is more interested, it seems, in the implications of his subjective state at the time than in the strange events as they unfold. He is candid that his ensuing actions – the opening of the letters secretly carried by his two school-friends – are dictated by ‘rashness’ rather than reflection, and he rounds off a characteristically rapid process of inductive reasoning by inferring from this that
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how will – (3509-10)
Making these observations prior to giving the actual details of the story (3512-49) pointedly foregrounds Hamlet’s new confidence in providence. It is to its guiding power that he assigns the ‘rash’ impulse to seek out the letter. On the face of it irrational, the compulsion in fact indicates to Hamlet the promptings of a higher rationality. Human actions may fumble towards particular goals, but the intervention of a divine agency ensures that they can actually reach them. While Hamlet speaks of a reciprocity between human and divine agencies – the latter ‘shapes’ what the former ‘hews’ – his earlier experience of a ‘kind of fighting’ suggests nonetheless that this motive force lies outside himself. He cannot fully explain or account for such impulses, but nor does he seem very concerned to do so.
Hamlet’s confident statements about the assistance of providence can be placed squarely within the tragic convention of hubris at this stage in the play. He has rediscovered himself as ‘Hamlet the Dane’, and identifies himself as one of two ‘mighty opposites’ (the other being Claudius) contending on a stage where only the higher orders can tread. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been caught up in this contest and crushed by it, intruders from a pettier sphere of action which has no place in the cosmic antagonism between Hamlet and his uncle. Hamlet’s ‘conscience’ – his sense of right and wrong choices within a particular domain of action – is untouched by their deaths. All such human cost takes second place to the abstract principles underpropping the requirements of revenge – including, he will shortly declare, his own life. “Does it not”, he asks Horatio rhetorically, “stand me now upon […] to quit him [i.e. Claudius] with this arm?” (3567-72). What Hamlet does not anticipate, despite his assertion that “the interim is mine” (3578) is that the plot to have him killed at Laertes’ hands is well underway and will rob him of the option of choosing the time and the circumstances of the final reckoning. He is thus, at the moment of his strongest sense of reconciliation with his task, also at his most vulnerable.
Hamlet seems to accept, then, that ‘heaven’ will be ‘ordinant’ in all his affairs, even to the extent of providing the crucial motivating impulse at the appropriate moment. If this sounds like an excuse for passivity, then we should reflect that – at least on the reading outlined here on Hamlet’s Cloud – this is the only option Hamlet has left to him. All the preceding events of the play have led him to the point where he has been made irreversibly destitute of soul – of the power of being ‘moved’ to any form of self-willed action. The complex of behaviours he demonstrates in the aftermath of this development add up to a man who can ratiocinate upon action but not perform it; who can recognize a moral imperative but not be compelled by it. It is a deficiency not of “cause” or “will” or “strength” or “means”, as he puts it in an earlier place, but of the inward animating principle itself. To be devoid of soul is to have one’s capacity for emotional response held in abeyance, for the causal link between the conception of an injury and the bodily passions that should flare up in reaction to it has been broken. At the same time, we can see in Hamlet’s dispassionate response to the harsh end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not the magisterial indifference which he presents to Horatio, but a callous attitude engendered by the same inward deficiency: he is unmoved by their fate just as he is unmoved by the list of reasons which should be spurring him on to take the life of Claudius:
He that hath killed my King and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage… (3568-71).
Hamlet must therefore remain stuck in this impasse during the crucial “interim”, even as Laertes’ revenge moves rapidly to overtake him.
Laertes occupies Hamlet’s thoughts for another reason, however, in his regret at what passed between them at Ophelia’s graveside. Hamlet claims that he “forgot” himself, and justifies his behavior as being “put […] into a towering passion” by the “bravery of [Laertes’] grief” (3580-4). This can only refer to the mockery of Laertes’ hyperbolic expressions of praise for the dead Ophelia, and not to the fight itself (for which Laertes alone was responsible). Hamlet here accepts the blame for an excess of rage which would, of course, imply the kind of facile emotional responsiveness which these pages have claimed has become impossible to him. But the assertion does not tally well with the events, where we see Hamlet himself, even as he is under attack from Laertes, maintain that he is not “splenative and rash”, but nonetheless has lurking within him “something dangerous” which may be aroused when he is provoked (3457-8). One way of looking at this is to see the act of physical assault as generating the affective response which Hamlet’s own agency cannot (we will see at the play’s climax how this same external factor of assault is necessary to lead him to kill the king). But the “towering passion” of which he speaks is nonetheless marked by an emotional hollowness – having less to do with any feelings for Ophelia than with a cruel parody of Laertes’ own bombastic style. Thus his contention that he had become enraged seems more like an artefact of his new self-presentation as ‘Hamlet the Dane’: a ‘mighty opposite’ whom others must “fear”, not least because he is being guarded and guided by fate.
Hamlet sees the direct parallel between his “cause’ – vengeance for a slain father – and Laertes’ own, but does not quite translate this into the expectation that Laertes must as a consequence be plotting his destruction. However, Hamlet is only making explicit what has been underlined in dramatic terms throughout acts 4 and 5 – that Laertes is modelling the kind of revenging attitude that he himself should be showing at this stage: so passionate and readily-disposed towards action that he requires restraining rather than urging on. This was, of course, the state of Hamlet at the beginning of the play, barely being held back by Horatio and his other companions from following the Ghost, and getting his way by means of threat. Between that moment, when his responses are identical to those of Laertes, and this there has been the whole process of debilitation caused by the ‘antic disposition’ and its unforeseen consequences in nullifying his own process of emotional responsiveness. Thus the contrast between the two young men has at its basis an implicit difference in the vitality of their souls – between one who can say, in response to the news of Hamlet’s return, “It warms the very sickness in my heart/That I shall live and tell him to his teeth/‘Thus didst thou’” (3065-7), and another who corresponds more closely to Claudius’ disparaging image of a “painting of a sorrow/A face without a heart” (3106-7). Indeed, Hamlet himself unwittingly supports such a contrast when he describes his own task as being the “image” or “portraiture” of Laertes’.
The parity between the two men in all other respects is underlined by Hamlet’s response to Horatio’s contention that he will “lose” the fencing wager against Laertes (3658). Hamlet is justifiably confident (he will indeed get the better of Laertes in the match), but at the same time continues to confirm what Claudius has said of him: that he is “remiss/Most generous and free from all contriving” when it comes to suspecting a trap (3124-5). Nonetheless, he admits to Horatio an inward sense of disquiet, which he does not specify or provide an explicit correlative for, but which his friend immediately interprets as suspicion. Hamlet expresses this disquiet rhetorically – “thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart” – and calls it a “gaingiving” which a more fearful nature (e.g. “a woman”) might be troubled by but which he should dismiss. It is at this critical moment, where Hamlet appears to show awareness of the danger to his life, that the ‘disconnect’ he experiences in the generation of affect – where soul responds to an inward or outward stimulus to arouse passion in the body – is again made apparent. The ‘disturbance’ he registers is located by him “about” the heart – that is to say, not in but around the seat of the emotions, and there are two ways of looking at the implications of this, both showing how ‘soul’ is elided in Hamlet’s own experience of emotional response.
The first way identifies the process – itself a tenet of orthodox Galenic theory – by which the brain sends ‘spirits’ (super-fine but material substances which mediate between soul and body) to the heart in order to communicate with the soul, which was frequently thought to reside in this organ . On this interpretation, Hamlet would be feeling the turbulence of the spirits surrounding his heart but, because the soul is no longer present, remain unresponsive to the message of foreboding they carry. It is noticeable that Horatio, elucidating to Hamlet the terms of his inward trouble, speaks not of his soul but of his “mind” disliking something – maintaining that separation we have noted elsewhere between mind and soul in the psychical lexis of the play. The ‘mind’ would thus begin the process of communicating a response which should then result via the soul’s moving power in bodily action: an option no longer available to Hamlet. A second way of reading this passage adopts the newly-recovered Stoic and/or Lucretian materialist models of mind-body interaction, whereby the mind itself is located in the ‘chest’ and again explicitly differentiated from soul. In the Lucretian model, in particular, ‘mind’ is the principle psychic component needed for both thought and life, where the soul by contrast is “scattered” throughout the body and is described as ‘obedient’ to being “[m]oved by the nod and motion of the mind” . It is precisely such advice for ‘obedience’ that Horatio gives to Hamlet when he expresses his own misgiving; but while Hamlet counters it with further appeals to the guidance of heaven – “…we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (3668-9) – we may see behind this stoic self-presentation a further indication of his innate powerlessness to take action given the soul’s absence as intermediary between mind and body.
Powerless as he is, then, Hamlet does not sleepwalk into danger in the play’s final scene. He senses that there is a threat and that it is grave enough to be mortal. But he dismisses it by expanding a specifically Christian argument (about God’s “special providence” in the life of one of his creatures) into a stoic one about the unavoidability of death:
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 leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. (3668-73)
At this precise moment in the play, when he is set to confront Laertes and the King and when his own intuition and Horatio’s concerns are united in warning him of danger, Hamlet shows he is reconciled to the possibility of his own death, however hypothetical it may be. What happens, then, between this moment and the end of the play, to shift him towards the desperation and frantic attempts at salvaging his ‘story’ which mark the very last moments of his life?
We can try to address this question by looking at what may be thought of as the last truly purposive ‘act’ of Hamlet’s life: his apology to Laertes. He has already twice indicated his willingness to make peace with Laertes when he recognises the parallels between their revenge quests, and when he responds positively to a message from the Queen that he “use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before [they] fall to play” (3657: 12-13). On the arrival of the whole court he now accepts the King’s offer to do the same: “Come, Hamlet, come and take this hand from me”. But what precisely is he to apologise for? Both the context and his earlier expressions of sympathy for Laertes’s “cause” (the latter ending in his determination to “court his favours”) show that it is specifically the slaying of Polonius, and not his behavior at Ophelia’s grave, that is his topos. This deed, as we have argued elsewhere, was a dreadful mistake brought about entirely by his violent emotional excitement and for which he supposed the King to have been the victim. It had nothing to do with insanity, no more than any of his words or deeds have been the result of genuine madness. Nonetheless, in order to excuse his folly his mother has described it as an act of pure madness (2612-14); and Hamlet will now find it expedient to maintain the fiction so that both she and Laertes may be satisfied. In short, as a result of everything that has gone before Hamlet now chooses deliberately to give himself the reputation of madness.
The means by which Hamlet does this constitutes a kind of action, contained within his apology to Laertes (3678-96). He begins by openly supporting the view which others have generally held of him; namely, that his behaviour is the result of a mental disturbance, which he here refers to as “a sore distraction” (3681). The thrust of his apology will therefore be to “proclaim” that madness was the cause of the wrong done Laertes (3684). Quickly sensing the double-meaning within the term “proclaim” – to announce, but also to identify by name – Hamlet wittily shifts his register into that of a public proclamation, personifying “madness” as the doer of the wrong .
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes
Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy. (3685-91)
Hamlet devotes several lines to this elaborate personification, arguing that if he wrongs Laertes “when he’s not himself” – i.e. when his reason is taken from him – then he is not “Hamlet” when he does so, thus ‘proving’ that it is his madness “Who does it” . While his apology is thus rhetorically structured, a further important effect of the use of this ‘naming’ figure is to supply an addition to Hamlet’s own name. Just as he had earlier given himself the addition of “the Dane”, we may surmise he is now taking on the addition of madness, voluntarily bearing this unenviable reputation as a generous concession to his mother and to Laertes. That reputation is necessarily false, since as we know Hamlet has been in possession of his reason throughout the play, and as it such it will amount to doing his name a deliberate wrong (as he himself perhaps recognizes when he speaks of having “shot my arrow o’er the house/And hurt my brother”, 3695-6).
It may be argued that Hamlet has had this reputation of madness for most of the play, and that to restate it in this way is making no difference. But the period in which the ‘antic disposition’ was employed is, we have argued, over – its function as a strategy for self-control no longer required. While other characters have maintained the point of view that Hamlet is mad (for example in the graveyard scene), Hamlet himself never adopts this as a pose after his return to Denmark, and from his perspective this moment of the apology will be a reprisal of the reputation of madness in a new form. Indeed, the parallels with the ‘antic disposition’ are manifested in the linguistic structure that begins the apology, the “sore distraction” echoing Hamlet’s earlier formulation for the appearance of madness to a degree that allows us to describe the higher-order action of his speech to Laertes as putting a sore distraction on. Not exactly a continuation of the earlier action, nor a full departure from it, his apology thus provides a kind of dramatic hendiadys – an uncanny double – to the first action of ‘madness’.
If we follow the scene to its conclusion, we can see how far this assumption of ‘madness’ in a new form supplies a counterpart to the first, above all in wreaking disastrous consequences for Hamlet. The crux of the problem is that for Hamlet his ‘name’, or reputation, is now the one immortal thing remaining to him, his soul already destroyed within him and all prospect of a life beyond this one ended. In essence, he has gone from the position occupied by the Christian tragic hero (like Doctor Faustus) to that of the classical tragic hero (like Achilles), where immortality is only achieved via earthly renown after the person’s death. Now he has damaged that name for the expedient of reconciling himself with Laertes, unaware of his opponents’ imminent plot to kill him and that he has therefore only moments left to live. Death, as we know, holds no fears for him, but the value he has placed on his good name suggests that he has no expectation of an assassination attempt during the fencing match itself, or he would not now be hazarding his reputation where there will be no time to retract the falsehood. Once the series of fatal accidents gets underway, Laertes – himself mortally wounded – repents of his treachery and reveals to Hamlet his poisoning; and it is now, with the blood already up from the physical combat, both in sport and in earnest, that Hamlet is at last able to kill the King – the act of running him through and forcing him to drink the potion mere extensions of a state of arousal generated from outside rather than from within.
With revenge accomplished and forgiveness exchanged with Laertes, Hamlet’s last thoughts turn to the disaster which has, by his own hand, been inflicted on his name:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest), Oh, I could tell you – (3818-21)
His frantic attempt to prevent Horatio from taking his own life is made with the awareness that his friend alone knows the truth of his “story”, and must be relied on to preserve it for him; for with death approaching there is no time for Hamlet to retract the false reputation of madness which he has given himself:
O God Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown shall I leave behind me! (3830-1)
When Hamlet dies, therefore, it is in the knowledge that he has destroyed forever the “name” that he would have wished, had he but time, to hand down to prosperity; and this last action can be seen as completing the process of self-extinction that he began with the annihilation of his soul. Hamlet’s awareness of the plenitude of this outcome – the extent to which all aspects of his self are now rendered mortal – is never made explicit, although it would be commensurate with the course of his self-destructive activity throughout the play that he should never fully perceive it. Nonetheless, dark presentiments that the end when it comes will be the end of everything for him seem to emerge in the final words he breathes to Horatio: “The rest is silence” (3847). If this is a moment of death-bed clarity about the afterlife (or lack of one) as it pertains to himself, then it is in keeping with the tradition of ‘prophetic’ insights undergone by the tragic hero on death. By the same token, Horatio’s tender farewell – “Goodnight sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (3849-50) – works as savage irony spoken to a man now going beyond the reach of all spiritual influence.
For Hamlet, the fate of immortal name follows the fate of immortal soul, each the tragic outcome of the safeguard – the shield, refuge and ultimately corrosive artifice – of his feigned ‘madness’. For this, as for so much else in the play, Hamlet himself has provided the epitaph: “His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”.
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on th’ inventors heads… (3876-80)
it is already evident that the story Hamlet would have wanted told is being replaced by one which fits the standard model of sensational and moralistic story-telling.
 Hamlet will, of course, allude to the graveside fight with Laertes later in this scene, but this does not have any important consequence for the play’s conclusion (e.g. his apology to Laertes concerns the killing of Polonius only).
 See for example the physician Timothie Bright’s description of the perturbations in A Treatise of Melancholie (1586): the mind “giveth knowledge [of an object, etc.] to the hart by the spirits, which either embraceth the same, impelled by the minds willing, or rejecteth it with mislike and hatred, according to her nilling” (ch.15).
 Lucretius, The Way Things Are (Start Publishing LLC, 2012), book 3. In the same passage, Lucretius gives an extended illustration of how mind, soul and body interact in the production of emotion which compares in many respects to the process Hamlet describes taking place within the Player in his ‘passionate’ speech on Hecuba:
But when the mind is moved by shock more fierce,
We mark the whole soul suffering all at once
Along man’s members: sweats and pallors spread
Over the body, and the tongue is broken,
And fails the voice away, and ring the ears,
Mists blind the eyeballs, and the joints collapse,—
Aye, men drop dead from terror of the mind.
Hence, whoso will can readily remark
That soul conjoined is with mind, and, when
‘Tis strook by influence of the mind, forthwith
In turn it hits and drives the body too.
Both Lucretian and Stoic models of the soul saw it as something which died with the body. While Lucretian philosophy understood the soul’s mortality as part of a universe governed by chance, Stoicism placed it within a providential ordering of nature (see Paul S. Macdonald, History of the Concept of Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume, vol.1 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp.71-6). This emphasis on providence inevitably made classical Stoicism more compatible with Christianity, and it finds an especially strong articulation in this final scene.
 Jan H. Blits sees the form of the speech as that of a classical concessio – a confession and a shifting of blame – containing reasons and proofs, although this makes the ordering of premises and conclusions highly unconventional (Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), pp.368-71).
All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).