Souls in the Balance


The entries on this site are all one way or another oriented toward reading Hamlet as a tragedy in which a catastrophe befalls the protagonist’s soul. In this general respect Hamlet has parallels with another drama centring on a Wittenbergian scholar, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which the play’s central figure sells his soul to Lucifer for ‘the vain pleasure of four and twenty years’ [1]. The foregrounding of Faustus’ soul in Marlowe’s play, however, has an exclusively spiritual emphasis: the soul’s immortality is a given, so that Faustus is shown first choosing, and then despairing of, eternal damnation. In Hamlet the soul is more fully conceptualised in both its natural and spiritual capacities, allowing for greater ontological breadth about its properties. When Hamlet cries out in front of the Ghost ‘And for my soul, what can it do to that/Being a thing immortal as itself?’, his assertion seems calculated to embed the very doubt it seeks to remove [2]. For the disaster which occurs to Hamlet’s soul, these pages argue, is in the first place of a specifically natural order. The soul is represented as an entity which, due to the protagonist’s own course of action, is allowed to undergo deterioration; and this deterioration is shown as affecting one capacity of Hamlet’s in particular – the capacity for being moved to passion (and hence action). Inevitably, however, the spiritual and the natural spheres interpenetrate and influence one another: so that, for example, Hamlet’s ailing soul is revived by the forces of Hell at the end of 3.2. precisely in order to reverse this development.

While any natural deficit in the soul’s function is shown in the play chiefly through its dramatic and theatrical effects, questions about the soul’s spiritual status are raised more overtly (if less regularly) in dialogues and soliloquies. This is especially the case in the two scenes which follow rapidly on the play scene, where Hamlet first spares the King at prayer, and then upbraids Gertrude in her closet following his slaying of Polonius (3.3., 3.4.). In both cases there is an explicit addressing of the spiritual condition of the other’s soul by Hamlet; and in both cases these addresses carry a reflexive application to the condition of his own soul considered from every standpoint: spiritual, ethical and natural. Thus, while there is a great deal of tragic material arising from the play’s focus on four individual souls over the course of these two scenes – Claudius’, Old Hamlet’s, Gertrude’s and young Hamlet’s – only Hamlet’s is shown to be under an existential, rather than simply a spiritual, threat. It may be no coincidence that this is the only point in the play after the first act that sees the reappearance of the Ghost: so long as Hamlet’s soul is in vitality and strength, the Ghost deigns to appear – perhaps can only appear – to communicate with his son.

We saw how the re-invigoration of Hamlet’s soul at the close of 3.2 indicated the supremacy of Fortune at this juncture of the play. This is not the only instance of its controlling power, however, for it now puts in his path the King, vulnerable as at no other time to revenge (2350-71). The King’s confession of guilt and failure to repent made during the soliloquy which precedes Hamlet’s entrance (2312-48) clearly mark this moment out as the one in which to take his life. His guilt has already been betrayed, of course, in the previous scene, although it is apparent only to Hamlet and (arguably) Horatio. To the rest of the court, the King’s disturbance can easily be accounted for by the implicit threat in Hamlet’s designation of the play’s murderer-figure as ‘one Lucianus, nephew to the King’ (2112). There are a number of other details surrounding the Gonzago play’s success in ‘catching’ the King’s conscience which bear further scrutiny. It is certainly the case that Hamlet’s declared intention at the end of 2.2. is to play before the King a dramatic representation of his father’s murder, at which ‘by the very cunning of the scene’ he will be ‘struck so to the soul’ that he will betray his guilt. But it is also true that when we come to the play scene this does not immediately happen, since the Gonzago play is preceded by a dumb show in which the murder is fully represented, but which draws no response from the King [3]. Discounting for the moment any suggestions that this shows the King to be innocent of the crime, does this have any bearing on the nature of the guilt which he shows in the prayer scene?


One could begin by pointing out that in Hamlet’s comments to Horatio immediately after the play he places the King’s response ‘upon the talk of the poisoning’ (2161). Since the King rises not during the speech of Lucianus but immediately after Hamlet’s lines at (2132-5), it seems clear that it is Hamlet’s commentary on the play as much as the play itself that is responsible for the King’s reaction. It would appear from this that throughout Hamlet’s pointed comments of 2097-2110 it has been gradually dawning on the King that Hamlet knows of his crime. It does not seem too much to infer from this that he does not react at its first representation (which one would think the more shocking for being unexpected) since as a practised hypocrite he can ignore the fact of his guilt for as long as he imagines it a secret. It is only when confronted with another’s knowledge of his crime and he is compelled to see his guilt through their eyes that Claudius is made fully aware of the nature of the blemish on his soul. The play has already furnished an example of this relativistic aspect to the acknowledgment of guilt in the King’s aside at 1702-6, just prior to the overheard encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia. Here, Polonius’ generalisation that

[…] with devotion’s visage

And pious action we do sugar o’er

The devil himself (1698-1700)

causes the King momentarily to view his own deceitful behaviour from the standpoint of Polonius’ moralizing observation. This response anticipates the larger effect of the play scene, where having habitually refused to see his guilt through his own eyes, the King is made to see it through Hamlet’s. Hence, and Hamlet’s stated strategy at 1628-45 notwithstanding, it is not at the image of his crime that the King is ‘struck so to the soul’, but at Hamlet’s knowledge of that soul’s guilt.

Bringing Claudius round to a recognition of the moral state of his soul has two effects. Firstly, it causes him to see his crime as a fratricide (and hence a crime against nature) rather than simply as a regicide (and hence a political crime). Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will characteristically attempt to focus on the political consequences of any threat to a King’s person, once Claudius is in private he is concerned only with a deed which has ‘the primal eldest curse upon’t’ – a brother’s murder after the pattern of the biblical Cain (2313). Secondly, and as the first lines of the King’s soliloquy show, while he has been brought to a full recognition of the vileness of this crime (2312-4), he finds that on attempting to pray he still cannot move his soul to repent. That which prevents his soul from doing so is the strength of his guilt (2314-6) which is perpetuated so long as he retains those worldly ‘effects’ for which he did the murder (2327-31). Indeed, the deft enjambment in those lines which portray him as ‘still possessed/Of those effects for which I did the murder’ has the uncanny irony of suggesting that those effects now possess him, and from which it is impossible to free his soul (2329-30). Claudius’ own, harrowing image for his state is that of a ‘limed soul that, struggling to be free/Art more engaged’ (2344-5). Realising that he cannot be pardoned without being free from these worldly possessions (2332-40), that soul must remain trapped and forestall all attempts at making a repentance.

On finding the King alone, Hamlet’s initial, unequivocal desire to kill him is checked by the memory of his father’s own fate at death (2353-62). Again, the moment pivots around a consideration of the moral state of the soul, but in this instance the weighing up of alternatives rests on an argument correct in premise but false in practice. Since Hamlet cannot know of the King’s inability to purge his soul, he makes the reasonable assumption that he must send that soul to heaven if he kills him in the act of prayer. This is an intolerable outcome in comparison with the fate of King Hamlet, where his unpreparedness for death sent his soul to purgatory and an indefinite term of suffering (2358-60). The logic of this argument is backed up by the overpowering hatred which Hamlet presently feels toward Claudius, a hatred which in part comes courtesy of a soul being presided over by the forces of Hell. Thus the urge which would have led him to cut the King down instantly is mastered by a countervailing wish to inflict on his soul an evil comparable to that suffered by his father’s (2363-70). Taken in the context of all that has gone on in the play prior to this, therefore, it seems that it is the very sensitivity of Hamlet’s soul to the memory of his father, hitherto so absent in the events which followed the first encounter with the Ghost, that leads him to put off a revenge which, given the wretchedness of the King’s state (2372-3), he would in fact have achieved.


There is a marked difference between the self-control which Hamlet exhibits before Claudius and his loss of composure when he comes face-to-face with his mother in the next scene. The Queen expresses her anxiety at Hamlet’s dangerous mood when she asks her son ‘Have you forgot me?’, to which he retorts by addressing her as ‘your husband’s brother’s wife’ – a barbed concatenation of genitives which hints darkly at the burden of what he now intends to confront her about [4]. For whereas in the aftermath of the Ghost’s revelations the illusion of ‘incest’ between Claudius and Gertrude was sufficient to incapacitate Hamlet with terror, with the intervention of the forces of hell and their effect on his soul at the close of 3.2. it seems clear that same illusion moves him with equal power to violent hatred. This hatred finally gets the better of Hamlet when, in preventing the Queen from leaving so that he can show her ‘the inmost part’ of herself, his actions become so threatening that she fears for her life (2401). While his purpose is evidently to arraign her on the state of her soul, the Queen’s ears pick up a visceral tenor to the threat, and her cries for help are taken up by Polonius who is hidden behind the arras (2403).

‘Rash’, ‘bloody’ and perpetrated under a ‘brainish apprehension’ as the Queen will later describe it – Hamlet’s killing of his man through the arras is ultimately more important for its effect than its cause. As lines 2407-9 show, in plunging with his rapier he is acting solely upon his imagination, thinking the concealed figure to be Claudius. When he discovers otherwise (2413), the shock is sufficient to break the powerful ascendancy which his imagination holds over him. That both Hamlet and those closest to him regard imagination to be his primary affliction is made evident from an early stage in the play, and not just from the trappings of melancholy which characterise his first appearance [5]. It is Horatio’s assessment on the battlements after Hamlet’s first encounter with the Ghost that he ‘waxes desperate with imagination’ (675); later on, again in discussion with Horatio, Hamlet fears the possibility that his ‘imaginations are as foul/As Vulcan’s stithy’ (1934-5); and in the brief lines of the Ghost later in this scene a construction is used of Gertrude which could just as easily apply to Hamlet: ‘Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works’ (2494) [6]. A morbid imagination, I have argued elsewhere, is the underlying cause of Hamlet’s attribution of true incest to those around him. In consequence, then, of the shock dealt to this faculty, we find that not once during any of the recriminations to his mother which follow does Hamlet make a single allusion to incest, or accuse her of having any desires of an unnatural kind. The poison which had until now infected his mind has been expelled with the slaying of Polonius, and Hamlet can once again see his mother – and by implication everyone else – in their true light [7].


The rest of Hamlet’s interview with his mother falls into two parts, divided by the appearance of his father’s Ghost in the closet. The first part (2416-82) shows Hamlet carrying out his intention to wring Gertrude’s heart, and so force her to see the guilt she bears for her adultery. He does this without making explicit accusations, referring only to ‘an act’ (2423) which will be enough to put her in mind of her guilt – a guilt which he deliberately exacerbates by showing her ‘a counterfeit presentment’ of her erstwhile and her current husbands (2437-2455). To underline Gertrude’s apparent obliviousness to the difference between the two men, he makes detailed use of the paradigms of contemporary physiological psychology, insisting (in passages which only occur in the Second Quarto) that some fundamental derangement at the sensory level must account for a lapse which no mere mental aberration could induce (2455ff.). His success in his task becomes evident at 2464-7, where the Queen reveals the effect of her son’s recriminations:

Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul

And there I see such black and grained spots

As will not leave their tinct.

After the Ghost’s appearance to Hamlet (during which both father and son agree that his deficiency in ‘passion’ hitherto has all but undermined his ‘purpose’ in revenge: 2488; 2491), Hamlet capitalizes on his mother’s acceptance of her guilt by attempting now to administer to it. The schematic language of psychological and physiological functions gives way to a direct appeal to better her soul’s condition. He begs her not to flatter her soul out of the harsh truths he has forced upon it (2527-35). He urges her to seek remedies of both a spiritual order (‘confess yourself to heaven’) and an ethical one, advising her (in the terminology of Aristotelian moral praxis) to avoid Claudius’ bed. For her soul, which bears the guilt of her act of adultery, will remain guilty so long as she continues her sexual activity with Claudius (just as Claudius’ must remain guilty for as long as he is still possessed of the worldly ‘effects’ of the murder); and it is only by refraining from this activity (which in itself constitutes a virtuous action) that her soul will be gradually purged of this guilt. Thus in persuading the Queen to practice abstinence, Hamlet has one aim in mind: to convert her soul from its current parlous moral state to a good one.

All the burden of Hamlet’s long speeches to his mother in this scene suggests that his primary concern is with her guilty soul, just as the King’s guilty soul had increasingly occupied him in the scenes prior to it. This shift in the play’s emphasis towards guilt has prepared for the fact that Hamlet himself is now guilty of Polonius’ death. There has been a terrible irony in Hamlet’s attempts to reform the state of his mother’s soul, for even as he does so the greater guilt which his own soul is now to bear lies on stage for all to see in the form of the slain Polonius. That Hamlet feels genuine remorse for his deed is shown by his admission that ‘for this same lord/I do repent’ (2548-9), as well as by Gertrude’s later remark to the King that her son ‘weeps for what is done’ (2614). However Hamlet may rationalise his act of manslaughter as the product of a benign providence, he also shows that he accepts full personal responsibility for it:

[…] heaven hath pleased it so

To punish me with this, and this with me

That I must be their scourge and minister (2549-51).

The key question now is how Hamlet will manage that guilt: for it seems evident that where Polonius had previously moved terror in Hamlet (while purely imaginary fears had afflicted him) he now moves him to guilt; and that in killing the old man, he has only exchanged an illusory source of anguish for a real one. Only one course of action seems available. In the ‘antic disposition’ Hamlet already has to hand a tested remedy for dealing with incapacitating emotional afflictions, one that has been his recourse throughout the earlier events of the play, the immediate effects of which he can rely on, although its full disastrous impact remains obscured from him [8]. Hence, it is in order to relieve this new burden of guilt that Hamlet announces to the Queen at 2564 that he must continue to be ‘mad in craft’; and this begins to manifest itself at 2579 – ‘I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room’ – where in his humorous treatment of the dead Polonius Hamlet shows that he has begun to make an antic figure of his corpse:

[…] Indeed, this counsellor

Is now most still, most secret and most grave

Who was in life a foolish, prating knave (2580-2).


[1] Doctor Faustus, 5.2.68, in Christopher Marlowe, Complete Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969).

[2] It is an odd question for Hamlet to ask at this point, at least in the terms with which he expresses it. The more usual fear about what a ghost might do, if the soul’s immortality is a given, would be framed in terms of damnation or salvation (as indeed Hamlet does go on to frame it in his soliloquy in 2.2.), and not, as the phrasing implies, that the ghost may have power over the fact of immortality itself. This use of negation to instil a doubt is not unlike the Elizabethan physician Timothy Bright’s claim in his Treatise of Melancholy (1586) that the body’s ills cannot cause any ‘empairing of the nature [of the soul] or shortning of immortality’ (p.38). Christian doctrine had always struggled to reconcile its cardinal belief in the soul’s immortality with classical ideas of the soul as the principle of self-movement in creatures. Most famously, Pietro Pomponazzi’s On the Immortality of the Soul in 1516 declared the problem beyond the reach of human reasoning.

[3] This apparent discrepancy between the King’s reactions to two different representations of the same crime became a critical controversy during the first half of the twentieth-century, and it is fair to say it remains a consideration for actors and directors now. W.W. Greg first raised the issue in contention style by suggesting that since the King does not react to the only full representation of the crime, he cannot be guilty, and hence the entire content of Hamlet’s private encounter with the Ghost is an hallucination (See ‘Hamlet’s Hallucination’, in Modern Language Review, October 1917). This was answered by J. Dover Wilson, who argued that there was sufficient matter in Hamlet’s loud interjections and remarks to occupy the King and Gertrude’s attention while the dumb-show is playing, and that this part should be performed with them talking together rather than attending the stage (For a summary see ‘The Play scene restored’ in John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, 3rd edn. (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1951, repr.1986), pp.174-197. More recent criticism, demanding less in the way of authorial consistency, is correspondingly less exercised by the discrepancy.

[4] Jan H. Blits sees in Hamlet’s phrasing here an ‘implicit charge of incest’: see Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), p.232.

[5] Many writings of the period made a link between melancholy and a powerful (if often diseased) imagination. See for example, M. Andreas Laurentius, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight, trans. By Richard Surphulet (London, 1599), especially pages 96-100.

[6] Seeing Gertrude’s distress at Hamlet’s unfathomable behaviour, the Ghost urges him to reassure her: ‘Oh step between her and her fighting soul/Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works’. The lines seem to work like a reconfigured version of the model of the emotional arousal set out in Hamlet’s ‘Rogue and Peasant Slave’ soliloquy, although here it is arguably the conceit which works directly in the body (Arden 3 Hamlet reads the lines on the Player the same way, where ‘her working’ refers not to the soul but to the conceit). As the previous line about Gertrude’s ‘fighting soul’ suggests, however, the model retains a three-part structure, with the soul perhaps suffering in the task of mediating between tumultuous imaginings and their effects in the body.

[7] For the Ghost’s speech – outlining the murder, the ‘incest’ and, arguably, the adultery – as a mimetic ‘poisoning’ of Hamlet’s mind through his ear, see Marilyn French, ‘Chaste Constancy in Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, ed. by Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), p.103.

[8] It is noticeable that, as Hamlet elects a course which one again threatens natural disaster to his soul, the play’s use of disease imagery becomes particularly concentrated. Not only has Hamlet’s own advice to his mother made use of it (‘skin and film the ulcerous place’, ‘rank corruption, mining all within’, ‘compost on the weeds’, 2530-5), but the King’s words immediately after Hamlet’s exit are particularly apposite: ‘like the owner of a foul disease/To keep it from divulging, let it feed/Even on the pith of life’ (2608-10). For the use of disease imagery in general throughout Hamlet, see Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s imagery and what it tells us (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1966), pp.316ff.

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