Polonian Misadventures

The hiding of Polonius’ body after the closet scene is often taken to be an attempt by Hamlet to ‘make the murder seem like the act of a madman’ [1]. Behind this, of course, lies a question about why Hamlet wishes to continue appearing mad in the first place. In the closet scene he has pointedly charged his mother with the task of upholding the fiction of his madness – and the Queen has duly obliged when relaying the events of the slaying to Claudius (2593-8) – but he has not spelt out to her why she must do so. There is, as usual, no shortage of precedent for this feature of the narrative. In the original story by Saxo the spy who eavesdrops on their conversation is discovered and deliberately slain by Amleth, who uses his disguise of madness to uncover the trap [2]. The spy is then chopped up and thrown to the swine, an act which the pose of lunacy again functions to conceal. But in Shakespeare’s play, the guise of lunacy cannot conceal anything, as the murder is now public knowledge. Are we to understand its reappearance here as the result of simple habit on Hamlet’s part, or does it remain in some way functional to him?


A straightforward case could be made that the pose of madness functions to relieve (or at least alleviate) Hamlet of culpability for the slaying, after the fashion of the defence of insanity which we recognise today. However, there does not seem to be much in the play-text itself to support such a stance. In his discussion with ‘two or three’ courtiers at the beginning of 4.3. Claudius cautions that he ‘must not put the strong law on’ Hamlet; but this is only due to Hamlet’s popularity with the ‘distracted multitude’ (2665-6), and not because diminished responsibility makes him any less of an ‘offender’. As with the earlier instances of Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, we are obliged to look beyond external, narrative reasons for its resumption in favour of internal or psychological ones. And it does indeed seem, from the graphic and often shocking language Hamlet now adopts in reference to death and decay, that, as Dover Wilson puts it, ‘the corpse’ has somehow ‘infected his imagination’ [3]. This might well hint at further need for a verbal outlet or safeguard against this ‘infection’; but we still need to account for why hiding of the body forms a part of it.

I have suggested on another page that the primary emotion Hamlet exhibits toward the dead Polonius is that of guilt: he expressly states in the closet scene that he ‘repents’ of the killing, and we have no reason to doubt the Queen’s subsequent description of him as weeping for the deed, as it forms no part of his commandment to her to lie on his behalf. His determination to ‘bestow’ Polonius’ corpse is included under this expression of remorse (2252), and so can be regarded as a further manifestation of it – shame and guilt prompting the concealment as much as anything else. It is only once Hamlet begins to drag the corpse out of the room that his jocular treatment of it begins – a series of ‘antic’ utterances employed to master this guilt, just as it served earlier, these pages have argued, to master his horror of incest. Dover Wilson again identifies the parallels between the two underlying affective conditions when he writes: ‘just as his mother’s incest seems to turn the whole world into “an unweeded garden that grows to seed” [so] the dead body of Polonius fills the atmosphere with the odour of decomposition’. In tension with Hamlet’s otherwise palpable remorse, his recourse to grotesque caricature provides the scene’s complex, emotionally dissonant conclusion.


What the hiding of the corpse supplies, then, is a kind of dramatic index of Hamlet’s inward sense of shame. With this comes the inevitable corollary that the concealment of the body will last only as long as that shame does. Retrieving the body is the task of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern over the course of 4.2., but they find themselves continually frustrated by Hamlet’s responses to their questions. For although the body may be ‘out of sight’, their every enquiry serves to bring the image of the dead man into Hamlet’s mind, forcing him back onto the expedient of transforming the corpse into a grotesque object:

ROSENCRANTZ:  What have you done my lord with the dead body?

HAMLET: Compounded it with dust, whereto ‘tis kin’. (2635-6)

The mention of the dead Polonius is not the only motive of guilt in Hamlet, however. In a gesture toward the theme of hypersensitivity of conscience already broached via Claudius’ confessional aside in 3.1., and which will appear again later in the Queen’s refusal to speak to the mad Ophelia (2745-65), the play shows how this sensation can be aroused merely on encountering another guilty creature. So as soon as Hamlet is confronted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – who have their own guilty secret in the form of their agency to the King – he is obliged to acknowledge the fact that he has now joined the company of those keeping something hidden: ‘Do not believe […] that I can keep your counsel and not mine own’ (2639-42). It follows that, in addition to Polonius, Hamlet must now also resort to antic caricatures of either of his schoolfriends, and this he does when he takes Rosencrantz for ‘a sponge’:

[One] that soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end […] When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again! (2645-50)

The language is that of sharp political satire, but it is directed at the relationship with the King that his friends will not and cannot admit to: ‘I understand you not, my lord’ (2651). Hamlet’s final, riddling construction in response to Rosencrantz’s impatient request to tell us where the body is, and go with us to the King’ mocks both the corpse, and by implication, the King on whom the two men place so much value:

The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing […] of nothing. (2656-9)

A number of commentators hear in these lines an allusion to the nothingness of Claudius’ kingship as measured against the doctrine of the King’s Two Bodies: a kingship occupied by a body ‘natural’ only, and devoid of the ‘soul’ of kingly legitimacy.


What is true of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in 4.2 is equally true of the King in the next scene, who as well as repeatedly attempting to get from Hamlet the whereabouts of the body, thus forcing the image of corpse into his mind, constitutes another guilty figure on whom he is obliged to use the antic disposition. Developing from the keynote struck by Hamlet’s last lines about kings and bodies in 4.2., we now find the grotesque images of both King and corpse merging into a single series:

Your worm is your only emperor for diet…

Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table…

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm… (2686-91)

There can, of course, be only one outcome of this continuous, intensified use of the ‘antic’ action upon so many different pretexts. Allowing for the dramatic compression of time necessary to illustrate cause and consequence, we can see by the close of the scene that this action has by now already had its debilitating effect on Hamlet’s soul; for when he at last consents to reveal the location of the corpse he demonstrates that he is no longer moved to guilt at the thought of it (2697-8).


Before leaving for England, Hamlet encounters the army of Fortinbras about to go into action against the Poles, and as with his observation of the Player in 2.2. he is forcefully put in mind of his neglected revenge. The later episode seems to parallel this earlier one quite deliberately, as Hamlet reprises in soliloquy his expressions of self-criticism (‘How all occasions do inform against me’), bewilderment at his own inaction (‘I do not know/Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do’), and unfavourable comparison between himself and another, more successful example of human agency (‘Witness this army of such mass and charge/Led by a delicate and tender prince’, 2743+26-60). These apparent repetitions of theme are all possible reasons for the non-inclusion of this speech in the First Folio. Despite the similarities, however, there are important developments in the way Hamlet argues for a basis for action which differentiate this encounter from the earlier one. In particular, we perceive a shift in his thinking away from emotional towards rational grounds for activity. But ‘rationality’ is understood in a specialised sense here, referring less to a logical and proportionate mode of action than to one which develops from a uniquely human faculty.

The key fact that impresses itself on Hamlet in this scene, just as it does in the Player incident, is the very slightness of the motive which has stirred the army into fighting. Hamlet’s searching enquiries to the Captain about the constitution and objectives of the force going into Poland receive this blunt confession:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,

We go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath in it no profit but the name. (2743+10-12)

A vast army has assembled not for a full-scale invasion but for a minor and valueless piece of territory. At first sight this seems the very opposite of rational behaviour; but on closer inspection it transpires that it is not the ‘ground’ itself which provides the motive for battle but rather the ‘name’ or reputation which will come by attainment of it. The point is subtly reinforced by the Captain’s use of the word ‘addition’, playing upon the senses both of exaggeration and of a ‘title’ added to a person’s name. Hence it is the prospect of honour in the manifest absence of any prospect of material gain – although there remains every possibility of dying in the pursuit of it – which has been sufficient to move Fortinbras and, by implication, the soldiers to action: a show of the pursuit of glory for its own sake. It is an instinctively shocking realisation for Hamlet, who is under no illusions about the origin of the mindset in a malaise bred by idleness and prosperity, and who adds to the play’s prevalent use of metaphors about internal disease to express his opinion:

This is th’impostume of much wealth and peace

That inward breaks and shows no cause without

Why the man dies. (2743+20-22).


But once again, an instance with an initially negative set of associations is instantly re-valued by Hamlet in the light of his own circumstance. Abstracted from its moral and social implications, the example of Fortinbras’ war points towards an attribute special to humanity:

Sure he that made us with such large discourse

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capability and god-like reason

To fust in us unused. (2743+30-3)

The ability to look ‘before and after’ the present moment – to see beyond the mere imperative to ‘sleep and feed’ – allows for the existence of commodities which can confer no immediate benefit. As long as honour remains a prospect the soldiers are being motivated by something which is perceived only in the future, and which the use of ‘godlike reason’ can alone provide. Seen from that perspective, it is irrelevant whether or not the motive is worthwhile: fighting for glory is admirable inasmuch as it exercises a uniquely human capacity for foresight.

Not only is this motive a particular product of discursive reason, however, but it is hardly a motive at all: for since the ‘patch of ground’ is in itself worthless, the honour which it will add to the soldiers reputations can only be minimal, or illusory: a ‘fantasy and trick of fame’. Nonetheless, it is clear that for the soldiers – and in particular Fortinbras, described by Hamlet as being by ‘divine ambition puff’d’ – the prospect of even the smallest honour being conferred upon them is sufficient to stir them into action, and to hazard ‘what is mortal and unsure’ in pursuit of their goal. Hamlet’s case, however, is exactly the opposite in that his own reputation – at least in his own estimation – has already suffered the huge dishonours of

…a father killed, a mother stained,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

and yet he remains unmoved. In any estimation of the two motives – and in precisely the kind of asymmetrical relation found in the Player encounter – Hamlet’s appears by far the greater, which to him makes his own inaction all the more baffling. Indeed, he freely admits that his ‘cause, and will, and strength, and means’ to take revenge remain as strong as ever, his own best prosecuting counsel against any arguments that opportunity and ability are now removed from him (2743+39). As a result of such considerations, therefore, Hamlet henceforth adopts as his chief motive the injuries done to his sense of honour – a recognition that he must ‘find quarrel […] When honour’s at the stake’ (2743+49-50) [4]. It is a motive more pressing and more personal than any other, since these injuries can only multiply to his detriment as his revenge goes unfulfilled:

…to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men

…Oh, from this time forth

My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth. ((2743+53-5; 59-60)

In a few short scenes, then, Hamlet has moved from the crippling sense of shame he experienced following Polonius’ killing to a realisation that the threat of dishonour can provide a powerful motive force. It was a motive consonant with the Renaissance recovery of the classical ideal of earthly glory as the supreme basis for action: a contentious ideal in a Christian period which still valorised the abandonment of worldly pursuits and advocated an emphasis on spiritual immortality as humanity’s only proper goal. Even a comparative free-thinker like Montaigne could express his disapproval of the newly-revived emphasis on personal glory:

Our soul must act her part not when on parade but at home within us where no eyes but our own can penetrate […] Such profit is more grander and more worthy to be wished for and hoped for than honour and glory, which are no more than the favourable judgement men make of us [5].

But for many classical thinkers as well as their Renaissance followers, an enduring fame was immortality in the only certain sense, and care of one’s good name after death took on a proportionate degree of importance. As we will see, it is an ideal to which Hamlet will now increasingly subscribe over the remainder of the play, and which unbeknownst to him will take on even more importance than he can here conceive, since the immortality provided by the soul’s continued survival is fast being denied him. At the same time, it has been made equally obvious that since his resumption of the antic disposition in the aftermath of Polonius’ death, the power to act on this or any other motive is once more being eroded, as it continues to ‘fust unused’ within him.


[1] See Arden 3 Hamlet, notes for 4.2.1.

[2] See William F. Hansen, Saxo Grammaticus and The Life of Hamlet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), pp.101-2.

[3] John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959, repr. 1986), p.260.

[4] Jan H. Blits sees in this speech the declaration of ‘a new beginning. Honour and greatness seem to be his standard’. See Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), p.276.

[5] Michel de Montaigne, ‘On Glory’ in The Complete Essays, trans. M.A Screech (1987, repr.1991), p.709.

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).