T. S. Eliot was a breathtakingly gifted writer and reader, but he totally missed what Hamlet was about. In his famous essay on the play, Eliot claims that it’s a dramatic failure because Hamlet’s delay is not properly motivated. But Hamlet’s delay is precisely the point.
This is Shakespeare’s most inward-looking play. In it, at the height of his powers, Shakespeare the intellectual confronts what was arguably, THE central issue of his time: Could a person be saved by works (by taking the sacraments, by obeying Divine Law, by acting the hero, by DOING), as the Catholics believed, or was salvation all, finally, a matter of grace? This momentous question, over which Europeans were, at the time, plotting against monarchs and hacking one another to death in prodigious numbers, was also, ofc, as personal a question as one can imagine, and in Hamlet, Shakespeare the genius (“Imagine having him in class,” Ken Robinson says. LOL) wrestles to ground, I think, the question most vexing him personally.
Hamlet is the paradigmatic neurotic, scholarly youth. (Those who play him as some sort of swashbuckling hero totally don’t get who this character is or what’s going on in this play. Derek Jacobi and Mel Gibson and so many others, I’m talking about you.) Yes, Shakespeare took the outlines of his tale from retellings of 12th-century histories of Denmark, but IT IS NO ACCIDENT that Hamlet has just returned from his studies at Wittenberg, which wasn’t founded until 1502 and was Martin Luther’s university. This anachronism is method, not madness. Hamlet is confronted by a problem that would, on the surface of it, require action–avenging his father. But he delays. He thinks and thinks and thinks about it and plays the fool and the madman. What motivates his delay? He is worried about his own immortal soul and doesn’t know the rules of this game into which he has been thrust. Reread that “To be or not to be” speech. This is quite clear.
Like many another idealistic young person, Hamlet seeks to take the highest possible course. Does one achieve the highest end through taking action–by taking arms against a sea of troubles? Is this really what gains you salvation after you have “shuffled off this mortal coil”? His answer comes at just the point in the play where the resolution typically comes in a five-act play in Shakespeare’s day. Like a master screenwriter of today, Willie had this technical/formulatic part of his craft down cold. In Act V, scene ii, in the conversation with Horatio, Hamlet/Shakespeare (not until The Tempest, wherein he confronts his retirement from the theatre and his own imminent death, would Shakespeare write, again, so personal a play), comes down firmly on the side of Luther and the Protestants: “the readiness is all.” No, you cannot bring about the highest ends through any action. The best that you can do is to make yourself into a vessel of the Divine Will. If you’ve done that, whatever happens here, thereafter, is of no ultimate consequence for you.
Copyright 2018, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.