Hamlet is a tragedy: but what exactly is it that is tragic about it? What criteria does it fulfil – emotional, structural, literary – which allow it to be experienced as an artefact of this particular genre? The question is not necessarily a circular one (like Polonius’ definition of madness in 2.2), nor is the play’s status as tragedy necessarily a given. It seems clear that critical attitudes over the last three quarters of a century in particular have ‘eroded the tragic quality of Hamlet’ ; in part due to reactions against Romantic-era interpretations of its central character, in part due to agreement with views such as E.M Tillyard’s that the play itself lacks a rigorous type of causal logic. But has that tragic quality ever been entirely secure, from the moment it was presented to Shakespeare’s original audience? 
The huge body-count at the end would probably have answered a number of Elizabethan expectations about tragedy from plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus onwards, as would its depiction of the fall of a Prince to a miserable end . But a more promising criterion is perhaps offered by Philip Sidney’s commendation of tragedy in the Defense of Poesie, where he argues that the genre ‘showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue [and] maketh […] tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours’. Precisely such a tragic ‘pay-off’ is demonstrated in the scene which this page will look at in detail, when Hamlet’s ‘Murder of Gonzago’ play prompts from Claudius the recollection of his own crime of fratricide followed by a highly public outburst. But while Hamlet does from the outset show corruption in the Danish court (‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’) and the destructive consequences of a vicious kingship being brought to light, it remains less likely to be experienced as a political tragedy than King Lear, Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Rather, it comes closer to a play like Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, which is primarily philosophical in emphasis, and in which the disaster attends on a person of intellect rather than of political action.
The precise nature of that disaster will help determine the tragic quality of the play; but my question above focuses more especially on what kind of tragic process the play describes. This entails those aspects of narrative development by which powerful emotional responses are generated in the audience or reader. In dramatic-theory terms these were identified by Aristotle and his neoclassical followers in structural features such as irony and reversal, where characters are shown making choices or performing actions which have harmful consequences directly opposite to those intended. Such features could excite feelings which were painful but enjoyable (in Aristotle’s view these generally amounted to a combination of pity and fear), and it is the play’s ability to sustain and manipulate them which produces the effect of tragedy rather than just the scale of the concluding carnage (so to make use of Aristotle’s favoured example, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Jocasta is the sole, off-stage victim, while the protagonist remains alive at the end). While few writers in the Elizabethan commercial theatre felt much beholden to restrictive neoclassic ‘rules’ about tragedy, Aristotelian criticism’s provision of a variety of features geared towards the ‘architectonic’ end of arousing audience emotion had a much better uptake.
Hamlet certainly provides instances such as these: there is tragic irony, for example, in Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius at prayer, mistakenly believing him to be purging his soul, and reversal very shortly afterwards with the slaying of Polonius in Claudius’s place. These are both directly connected with the arc of the revenge plot; but there is a great deal in Hamlet that is tangential to or even unrelated to this plot, for example, most of the long scene at 2.2. How do scenes such as these contribute to the arousal of tragic emotion? Or is this not really their purpose? Is Hamlet a mixed theatrical experience, with broad stretches of comedy between the tragic highpoints? Is it a radical challenge to the form, even, anticipating modern drama in its daring inclusion of anti-tragic elements? How far, to take a case in point, does the play scene – which witnesses Hamlet’s triumph in getting Claudius to acknowledge his crime, forms no part of the Ghost’s commandment, and contains a great deal of levity on Hamlet’s part – contribute to the mood and momentum of tragedy?
Some point to the way Hamlet’s elevated behaviour and confrontational manner at the play are fundamentally counter-productive; that even as Hamlet is forcing to his own satisfaction the King’s admission of guilt, he makes his hostility and his suspicions towards Claudius so plain that he puts himself directly in danger from retaliation. Jan H. Blits sees in this problem a major facet of Hamlet’s tragic tendency to turn acting into play-acting – with the theatrical ‘event’ substituting for the deed he is required to perform – which will now lead directly to his own downfall. In terms of prompting Claudius’ aggression towards Hamlet, this is undoubtedly the play’s turning-point; but we can note that in itself it does not prevent the opportunity for Hamlet to take revenge, since circumstances place the King at his mercy directly after this scene, and Hamlet himself shows no qualms about the action required of him at that point. At the same time, we are continually made aware, during the play scene and its aftermath, of a curious helplessness in Hamlet to direct his own affairs. This impression of Hamlet as mastered by, not master of, events has particular force in this central play scene, which, I will argue, accumulates its power to terrify by showing Hamlet compromised in every aspect of his self-appointed task, and being released from the impasse only through the despised and mistrusted influence of Fortune.
We saw that the encounter with Ophelia in 3.1. had successfully renewed Hamlet’s intention to take revenge on Claudius, so that he now once more takes up his plan to test the King’s guilt. The material point for Hamlet here is the close observation of the King’s looks which will be required throughout the Gonzago play in order to judge his response to it (1634-8). This in itself will present a huge obstacle to Hamlet since he is likely to be moved to strong feelings of terror in the presence of both the King and Queen (whose presence is announced at 1897), which will directly interfere with his judgement. The exchange with Ophelia has already shown how Hamlet’s capacity for emotional arousal, dull to all others, still remain responsive to those upon whom the suspicion of incest may fall; and that a further source of terror has been found in the thought of marriage to someone who may have committed it. Hamlet accordingly shows his awareness of this problem by enlisting the assistance of Horatio as a witness during the play (1926-38). Although this scene is one of great complexity and length, with many intersecting lines of action, my focus will be restricted throughout to the specific problematic that arises out of this need for Horatio’s help and the framing of that problematic in terms of subjection to/autonomy from Fortune.
Once Hamlet has revealed to Horatio the importance of the scene about to be staged, he asks of his friend: ‘Even with the very comment of thy soul/Observe my uncle’ (1930-1). After that they will join together their ‘judgments’ of what they have seen. Hamlet can make this particular request partly because, as his initial praise of him suggests, Horatio is constitutionally ideal for the role of impartial witness, being numbered among those ‘Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled/That they are not a pipe for Fortunes finger’ (1920-1). In Horatio, in other words, the two contrasting poles of human psychological activity – reason and emotion – combine positively and in the right proportions to ensure that the latter never gains supremacy. As a consequence he will maintain a measure of personal autonomy in the face of events over which he has no control, allowing his reason to remain unclouded. This standpoint is sometimes associated with a stoic one: at any rate, it places Horatio as far as possible from the position Hamlet describes as ‘passion’s slave’ where emotion does predominate, and the judgment is continually affected by external influences (i.e., Fortune).
But we can also see that the terms of Hamlet’s request to Horatio are very precisely motivated. In asking him to exercise the ‘very comment of [his] soul’ Hamlet clearly requires from him an especially profound level of observation and assessment (perhaps recollecting the way his own ‘prophetic soul’ had earlier divined Claudius’s true nature, 728). The soul in the sense that it is being used here can be understood as assisting the act of observation, and the judgment that follows from it: not precisely identical to either of these things but rather enriching the capacity of both to perform their tasks. The underlying implication is that Hamlet is entrusting to his friend’s soul a task which his own cannot accomplish: the veridical, unprejudiced observation of the King. For even as Hamlet’s own soul strives to act as a sounding board for the exterior signs of the King’s behaviour, it will also be affected by all the fears he harbours of Claudius and the others at court, compelling it towards an emotional rather than rational response. Where his soul will unavoidably be at the mercy of whatever is happening around him, Horatio’s will be unhindered. Indeed, in his praise of Horatio he explicitly assigns to his own soul (in addition to more of the feminine lexical markers we encountered in earlier scenes) the task only of electing Horatio as his special intimate, to be seated in his ‘heart’s core’ from where he can be understood as deputizing for Hamlet’s own, highly compromised soul.
Hamlet’s verdict nonetheless remains the crucial one; and so in order that he may rivet his eyes to the King’s face and try to keep his emotions from influencing his judgment he once more elects to put on the antic disposition (‘I must be idle’, 1946). Although always necessitated in the presence of the King and Queen, its more specific purpose throughout the Gonzago play is to allow Hamlet to keep himself unmoved by those around him, and so (at least in principle) judge clearly the responses that play will produce in the King. When the audience for the play enters, of course, it includes not only the King and Queen but also Polonius and Ophelia. Thus where Hamlet had previously needed to cope only with individuals he is now confronted with four incentives for the action, and this is acknowledged by his putting a satiric construction on each of them in turn, beginning with the King. We may assume that the court emerges from another bout of feasting, since Hamlet ridicules the King by making of his question ‘How fares our cousin Hamlet?’ an enquiry about his eating habits:
Excellent, i’faith, of the chameleon’s dish.
I eat the air, promise-crammed. (1949-50)
He then turns to Polonius (1953-4) whom he mocks through his role as Caesar, as murdered by Brutus, in a performance of his youth:
It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there. (1960-1)
To his mother’s invitation to take a seat by her (1963), his retort is to find in Ophelia ‘metal more attractive’ (1964) – as by comparison with Gertrude, whose sins are more conspicuous, she is bound to appear. The function of these brief exchanges with the principal antagonists is to have King, Queen and Polonius dealt with in order that the emphasis may rest on Ophelia, toward whom the action is now almost exclusively directed. The reason for this is two-fold: in the first place, Ophelia’s position in the audience happens to be the best from which to observe the King, and so Hamlet must seek proximity with her in order to have the best chance of judging him. Secondly, the recourse to the antic disposition which this closeness entails will continue the symbolic action of the previous scene, in which Hamlet may be understood to be spurning his soul while performing the action. In this way the action’s terrible consequences are emphasised even as its immediate necessity is acknowledged.
It may be seen that nowhere during the course of his ‘antic’ diatribes does Hamlet make any specific references to Ophelia, or indeed anyone else, as being guilty of incest. This is to be expected, since the purpose of the Gonzago play is to test the Ghost’s word, and it is therefore better to keep in suspense any definite references to incest, adultery or murder – all of which Hamlet derived from it – until that word is proven beyond doubt. Instead the source of offence has shifted for Hamlet toward an abhorrence of marriage which had its origin in the previous scene; and since his fears toward Ophelia now centre on the thought that her chastity, and therefore eligibility, is only a pretence, this will be the basis of the grotesque figure he is now obliged to make of her. This emerges from their very first exchange (1966-89) in which by his every comment to Ophelia, Hamlet intends to make a mockery of mock innocence: ‘Lady, shall I lie in your lap…I mean my head upon your lap…Do you think I meant country matters?’ From then on, each exchange is initiated by Ophelia (2003; 2010; 2113), where the effect is in each case to draw Hamlet’s attention away from the King to her, and force him back on to his antic defence. In every instance her most innocent remarks are deliberately given a lewd interpretation by Hamlet, and in turn developed into a joke:
Ophelia: Will ‘a tell us what this show meant?
Hamlet: Ay, or any show that you will show him.
Ophelia: You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
Hamlet: It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.
None of these jokes, it may be contended, are purposely intended to distress Ophelia or humiliate her publicly, but are made by Hamlet for the benefit of his task at hand only and are entirely necessary if he is to remain unmoved by her (hence her remark at 1975 about his being ‘merry’). Nonetheless, for an audience Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia will be something painful to behold, and this painfulness will heighten the sense of disaster over the damage he is inflicting on his soul.
Once the King and the rest of the court abandon the Gonzago play (2142), which has successfully produced in him the response which confirms the Ghost’s accusations, the ‘antic’ action can cease. Hamlet now compares his own judgement with that of Horatio’s, who confirms what he saw (2158-62), giving him at last certain knowledge of the King’s guilt. However, instead of acting on this knowledge, Hamlet does no more than call for some music (2167). For him, it is too late to be stirred to revenge: the intensified use of the antic disposition throughout the Gonzago play has, we may surmise, left his soul at the very point of annihilation within him, undermining almost all remaining capacity for self-motivation. The play’s underlining of tragic ironies is here at its starkest. The very moment that the Ghost’s word is revealed to be reliable, all possibility of obeying its command vanishes. Hamlet’s exclamations of triumph at his strategy coincide with the point of his greatest incapacity as a revenging agent. It is a state of affairs now reinforced in the dialogue which ensues with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which, like the conversation in 2.2., follows directly on a performance of the antic action and indicates its consequences through the two men’s inability to get a desired response from Hamlet.
Finding that reports either of the King’s ‘marvellous distemper’ (2172) or of his mother’s ‘amazement and admiration’ (2197) leave Hamlet utterly unmoved, Rosencrantz eschews previously indirect attempts to get a confession by making a frank appeal to former friendship: ‘My lord, you once did love me…what is the cause of your distemper?’ (2207). The ‘advancement’ Hamlet now claims he lacks recalls the suggestions of his schoolfriends in 2.2. about ambition, where in trying to prompt the truth by making false accusations they were attempting to ‘recover the wind’ of Hamlet and so ‘drive’ him ‘into a toil’ (2216-8). These references to their earlier devious methods lead on to the illustration of the pipe (2221-2242). Like the pipe, Hamlet is an instrument in their hands; but also like the pipe, they are unable to make him ‘speak’. The music they would wish to hear would be made by him yielding up ‘the heart of [his] mystery’, that is, the true state of his soul; but as Hamlet all too correctly confirms, ‘though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me’. He then goes on to demonstrate the results of any attempt to manipulate him in the exchange with Polonius over the cloud (2247-54). Hamlet claims the cloud to be shaped in turn like a camel, like a weasel, and like a whale; and by this method of making contradictory statements which should eventually invite disagreement, he parodies those earlier attempts by his schoolfriends to force him to disagree with them. The difference here, however, is that Hamlet has Polonius agreeing with each of his claims in turn (as in humouring him he is bound to do) thereby illustrating through Polonius’ responses how Hamlet himself will respond to his friends: that is, by bland agreement with any assertion they care to make.
Thus, in addition to seeing Hamlet doing nothing about his revenge once he is certain of Claudius’ guilt, we also see him reiterating to his friends that he will not, cannot open his soul to them. With the play poised at this moment of seemingly insuperable impasse, a reversal in the form of an instance of supernatural intervention now occurs, for once Hamlet is left alone his ailing soul is abruptly revived by the powers of hell (2259-70). The first three lines of this brief soliloquy indicate the evil forces that Hamlet is now exposed to at ‘the witching time of night’. As he has acknowledged in an earlier scene, both heaven and hell contrive to prompt him to his revenge (1625), and this is the moment at which hell’s influence holds sway in the prosecution of his task. The next three lines confirm the effect which these forces have had on his soul, for Hamlet now feels he is capable of performing
…such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
The transformation in his capacity for action is sudden and absolute; yet its effect is to lead him directly, and without a moment’s reflection, to make for his mother. She has of course sent for him (2245), and he has confirmed that he will obey; but this course is nonetheless unavoidable for him. For it is she even more than Claudius who moves a desire for vengeance in Hamlet, so long as he remains under the illusion that her desires for the King are incestuous. The sheer ferocity of his feelings towards her is recognized by him (2264-6), as is the potential for his own violation of nature in the temptation to murder her. The cautionary analogy he reaches for – ‘Let not ever/The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom’ – resonates particularly strongly in this context. Not only does the allusion to the matricide Nero intimate the very real threat posed to his mother by a soul now rejuvenated in its powers and violently prejudiced against her, but his choice of words suggests that that soul is being experienced by Hamlet as something adventitious to himself – a thing generated and infused by outside forces. He acknowledges the need to limit himself to a verbal and not physical vengeance upon her (2267), but it is clear nonetheless that Hamlet is unable to resist this desire to confront her, or he would not now be violating the Ghost’s commandment to
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. (770-1)
This terrifying disconnect between the Ghost’s command and the actual motivated behaviour of Hamlet has been reinforced by 3.2’s rich use of the tropes and structural apparatus of tragedy. While the reversal in the condition of Hamlet’s soul has restored to him the possibility of exacting revenge, his predicament is still the opposite to what he had intended by everything he has said and done in this scene. For it is Fortune (albeit here under the controlling hand of Providence) and not any initiative of his own that is responsible for the revival of his soul, making him little more than an ‘instrument’ in its hands; and as a result he is condemned to remain ‘passion’s slave’ (1923), led on now not by the judgment which he had done so much to preserve, but by an overwhelming hatred for his mother.
. Philip Edwards, ‘Tragic Balance in Hamlet‘, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, ed.by Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), p.19. Edwards’ thesis that the tragic quality of Hamlet derives from its framework as ‘a religious play’ (p.22) can be favourably compared to a similar approach taken by H.D.F. Kitto in Form and Meaning in Drama (1956).
. A naive but telling observation points to the strikingly high incidence of major characters carrying epithets such as ‘sweet’, ‘kind’, ‘gentle’, ‘noble’, which might seem to vitiate the force of full-blown tragedy. Even the central antagonist is often found to be unusually sympathetic for a villain by the standards of the genre.
. The problem with such a ‘death-count’ criterion is that it is equally applicable to a play like Richard III which, while described by its Quarto versions as a tragedy, is classed by the First Folio as a History play (which is how it tends to be understood by modern audiences as well). Hamlet also fits the late mediaeval definition of tragedy in showing one born high falling to a miserable end; but this criterion, again, applies just as readily to another tragedy-cum-history play such as Richard II, where the outcome is as much the result of historical process as of the workings of a hostile fate. Even the fact that Hamlet ends with the extinction of a whole royal house is not quite enough to distinguish it from similar content in these other, more quasi-tragic plays.
. Which is not of course to say that political readings do not now predominate in criticism of the play, even if things have moved well on from the New Historicist critical moment. Just to take one of countless examples (because it specifically addresses the play scene) Leonard Tennenhouse argues that the ‘play within the play is Hamlet’s attempt to re-enact his uncle’s assault on the sovereign body and thus establish the truth of regicide which would authorise Hamlet’s claim to the throne’, Power on Display: the Politics of Shakespeare’s Genres (London, 1986), p.91. Criticism can be selective, however, and in the joined-up experience of theatre the play scene will be much more likely to be read as a testing strategy for the Ghost’s word rather than as Hamlet’s covert bid for power. For the mixed fortunes of Hamlet in production as direct political commentary, see the helpful summary in Hamlet, Arden 3, pp. 115-22.
. Jan H. Blits, Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), pp.212-3.
. His discovery of the King at prayer for example is made entirely by accident, since he is not at this moment seeking Claudius out.
. The Gonzago play itself, although not discussed in this post, emphasises this relationship, most particularly in the Player King’s long speech about the subjection of all human intents to the influence of Fortune and the inevitability that ‘our wills and fates do so contrary run’ (2079).
. This, together with the assertion that Horatio has nothing and cares nothing for the gifts of Fortune (1908-19) encourage the association the classical ethical standpoint of stoicism (and indeed he describes himself at the play’s climax as ‘more an antique Roman than a Dane’, 3826).
. The issue of the King’s responding to the play but not to the dumb show will be discussed in a subsequent post.
. For some valuable commentary on the role of Fortune in Hamlet, and on contemporary ideas about the relationship between it and Providence, see John Holloway, ‘Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, A Casebook, ed.by John Jump (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1968), pp.169-72.
All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).