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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1761  Friday, 13 July 2001

From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Thursday, 12 Jul 2001 19:03:38 -0400
Subject: 12.1735 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1735 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

The present discussion of the ghost's instructions to Hamlet seems
uniformly to assume that its demand for revenge must be understood to
constitute an instruction that Hamlet kill Claudius.  The word "revenge"
had a broader and more variable and less negative sense than it does
today, and it is anachronistic for us to read current usage into
Elizabethan texts.  As I had occasion to point out some time ago on this
list, "revenge" could be and was often used as a synonym for "justice,"
especially in the particular context of the archetypal brother-slaying,
Abel by Cain, which Claudius himself specifically invokes more than once
as an analog to his own situation.  Shakespeare uses the two words as
apparent equivalents in two passages that also invoke the Cain-Abel
story, specifically the aspect of it that describes the blood-soaked
earth itself as accusing the slayer of his crime in a way that surely
suggests Hamlet's own description of the murder in question "Foul deeds
must rise, though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."

for "revenge"
Pem. The earth hath not a hole to hide this deed
Sal.    Murder as hating what himself hath done
           Doth lay it open to urge on revenge
(King John, 4.3.36-8)

and, for "justice"
Which blood like sacrificing Abel's cries
(Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth)
Tome for justice and rough chastisement
(Richard II, 1.1.104-6)

Given this protean duality of meaning, it is entirely plausible that
Hamlet could avoid tainting his mind while accomplishing revenge/justice
for the regicide-fratricide of his father, and that the purgatorially
experienced ghost would warn him to seek out the more virtuous path.
And, if one accepts this reading, then it also remains plausible, if not
likely or even inevitable, that such instructions from the ghost would
make a distinction between the mental challenge involved in achieving
the task of revenge/justice (which, if achieved, would automatically
preserve Hamlet's soul from risk by arriving at a "just" disposition of
Claudius) and the entirely independent issue of forestalling any
incidental chastisement Hamlet may feel inclined to direct at Gertrude,
something which the ghost doesn't ask for (setting aside for the purpose
of this comment the seemingly inflammatory quality of his imprecise
assertion that the relation between Claudius and Gertrude constituted
incest), since the ghost was looking for justice for his murder, not his
wife's possible incest; surely,  Hamlet's attempt to judge and punish
Gertrude for that offense would undo the prophylactic condition "taint
not thy mind" attached to the instruction for Hamlet to respond to the
concealed murder by an act of justice.

As to the possibility of an untainted, "pure" act of revenge, it is by
no means as implausible as David Bishop assumes.  We need not look to
other Shakespearean texts, like Prospero's famous argument for patience
as the best kind of vengeance because, without leaving "Hamlet" the text
itself provides clear evidence to the thoughtful reader that Hamlet's
own intention was indeed to avoid damnation. His first positive action
in pursuit of revenge was to commission the play within the play  (which
would have the effect of following the ghost's advice whether Hamlet
means it that way or not) so as to stage a re-enactment of his father's
murder in the expectation, based on then-accepted psychological theory,
that doing so would make the true murderer confess himself when
confronted with the performance of his crime (and, consistent with that
antique psychology, as Claudius actually does, but in the solitude of
his prayer scene and not before a convenient-to-Hamlet audience of
courtiers).   Hamlet's own conclusion from the dubious evidence of
Claudius's behavior, that it constituted a clear admission of guilt and
Horatio's uncertain non-confirmation of Hamlet's opinion do not militate
against the central thesis, that "just revenge" was all along the
intended purpose of both the ghost and Hamlet.  So, nothing stands in
the way of taking "nor" in its full force, as a word that separates and
distinguishes the potentially tainted mind of the revenge mandate from
the potentially contriving soul of the leave Gertrude to heaven mandate.

Tony B.

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