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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: September ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1712  Monday, 13 September 2004

[1]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Saturday, 11 Sep 2004 21:59:52 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1699 The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Sunday, 12 Sep 2004 21:05:33 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1671 The Meaning of Hamlet

From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Saturday, 11 Sep 2004 21:59:52 +0800
Subject: 15.1699 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1699 The Meaning of Hamlet

R. A. Cantrell writes:

 >"And I can, perhaps, offer plenty of specific evidence that Shakespeare
 >meticulously crafted Hamlet to convey a different, contradictory
 >message, or a different message that is oblique to the message you
 >produce. This is one of the reasons Shakespeare critics have given over,
 >at least in the main, that general sort of endeavor. Though reading the
 >play from varying perspectives may be useful in many ways, proclaiming
 >one's own perspective paramount has not proven useful over the years."

Thank you, R. A. Cantrell, for your observation. It is valid, but only
up to a point. Please may I explain.

The question really boils down to this: How do we tell whether or not
Shakespeare actually crafted Hamlet for a particular message? Perhaps
there is simply no hard evidence for this. Nonetheless, it must surely
be considered highly plausible that he did craft the play with a
specific, intended meaning, if the following can be comprehensively

1. An interpretation can be found that explains by a single coherent
theme, almost everything he wrote in the play, including sections that
seem not to contribute to the main action.

2. This interpretation pays high tribute to Shakespeare having developed
his play in a far more cohesive form than previously acknowledged; one
that contrasts with other interpretations in that it does not render
large sections of his play irrelevant to the central theme or perhaps
even contradictory to it.

3. The interpretation is based on the script openly presented by
Shakespeare (which makes the argument even more compelling) and does not
rely on the need to read between the lines or to speculate on hidden

4. This interpretation reveals a message whose themes are continually
repeated, scene after scene, throughout the play -- with each theme
being repeated up to ten times or more.

It is extremely unlikely that such an interpretation can be found at all
if Shakespeare had not planned it. If there is an alternative
interpretation that would refute the course of reasoning I offer for
Shakespeare's intended meaning in Hamlet, certainly we should hear of it.

Please bear with me while I list here the parts or aspects of the play
that can be explained as artistic means to impart the central spiritual
message in Hamlet:

1) The reason for Hamlet's delay in exacting his revenge.

2) Why Hamlet himself is unsure why he delays.

3) The reason Julius Caesar is mentioned on three separate occasions in
the play.

4) Why the ghost's need to leave on the crowing of the cock is
repeatedly stressed.

5) The reason for the long dialogue on death and mourning in Act 1 Scene 2.

6) The meaning of Polonius's statement: "To thine own self be true / And
it must follow as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to
any man."

7) Why Hamlet discourses on "the dram of evil" that can ruin all the
noble substance in a man, just before encountering the ghost.

8) The meaning for the imagery Horatio provides with the passage on the
danger of madness while on a cliff that "looks so many fathoms to the
sea and hears it roar beneath."

9) Why the ghost repeatedly stresses that he is undergoing purgation.

10) Why Hamlet suddenly breaks in with the need to write down "one may
smile and smile, and be a villain" in the midst of his emotional
reaction to the encounter with the ghost.

11) The purpose of the long swearing ritual at the end of Act I.

12) The reason for Polonius's long dialogue with Reynaldo.

13) Why the status of Hamlet's madness is ambiguous.

14) Why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are indistinguishable and why there
are two of them when one character would have sufficed.

15) Why Polonius suddenly breaks in with his comment that "beautified is
a vile phrase" in the midst of showing Ophelia's letter to the King and

16) Why Hamlet continually talks (and taunts) about the inevitability
and nature of death.

17) The reason for the discussion concerning the "little eyases"
usurping the mature players.

18) The purpose of the long dramatic recitation on Pyrrhus.

19) Why Polonius and the King talks about artificial beautification just
before Hamlet's "To Be" soliloquy.

20) The meaning of the "To Be" soliloquy.

21) Why Hamlet launches into a diatribe on the nature of man after the

22) The reason for Hamlet's savage treatment of Ophelia.

23) The reason for Hamlet's advice (on acting) to the players.

24) Why the King does not react to the dumb show.

25) The reason for Rosencrantz's passage on how the "massy wheel" drags
all attached to it to a "boist'rous ruin" when it falls.

26) Why Hamlet lacks remorse after accidentally killing Polonius.

27) Why Hamlet rebukes his mother on the issue of bad judgement
regarding choice (between Old Hamlet and Claudius).

28) Why Shakespeare has Hamlet commit his atrocious antics in hiding
Polonius's body as well as make macabre jokes about it.

29) The meaning of Hamlet's statement that "The body is with the King,
but the King is not with the body."

30) The reason for the curious juxtaposition between the themes of
"death" and "a faithless lover" in Ophelia's songs.

31) The meaning behind the nature of Ophelia's madness and her
distribution of flowers.

32) What the manner of Ophelia's death is meant to convey.

33) Why Lamond's horse-riding skills are discussed by the King and Laertes.

34) The purpose of the long graveyard scene.

35) Why Hamlet grapples in fury with Laertes at the gravesite.

36) The meaning of Hamlet's statement: "The cat will mew, and dog will
have his day."

37) Why Hamlet suddenly digresses with a discourse on "writing fair"
while relating the events of his journey to Horatio.

38) The purpose of the prolonged dialogue with Osric.

39) The meaning behind the final duel scene.

40) Why each of the characters died in the particular way they did in
the play -- there is a reason behind this.

All the above can be shown to be artistic means for imparting the
central message in Hamlet. (There is actually more but it is hard to
list everything.) I would certainly be interested to learn of any
alternative explanation that can also account cohesively for most (if
not all) of the above aspects of the play.

Even if we do not wish to accept that Shakespeare had conceptualized a
message when he wrote Hamlet, surely we would acknowledge that it is
entirely plausible. Could Shakespeare not have actually tried to convey
a message? I have tried to delineate so; and ask that we should consider
the argument and evidence presented for it.

The evidence is actually greater than what is contained in Hamlet. There
is good evidence that all of Shakespeare's plays are, in fact,
meticulously crafted to convey specific spiritual messages. These
messages reflect distinct aspects of the spiritual path and form a
cohesive whole. It appears to me that Shakespeare practically went
through a list of points he wanted to make - with one play for each
point - until he completed the list and then stopped writing. There is a
pattern to it ... but I guess that may have to be a topic of discussion
for another time.

I had hoped, here, for a more fruitful, detailed examination on the
meaning of Hamlet focused on the text of the play itself. This,
unfortunately, did not really materialize, as most comments were
instead, focused on questioning the validity of assuming that
Shakespeare planned any message at all. Also, many remarks were based on
current general opinion or practice adopted by many Shakespearean
scholars. I well realize that I do not reflect current opinion. However,
I try to present cogent reasoning to support my thesis.

I apologize for my tone of certitude in many of the posts on this
thread. Perhaps I had been too eager to make my case. Ultimately,
though, I am irrelevant in the broader scheme of things. Dear members of
this forum, let us transcend personal perspectives. For the sake of
scholarship and humanity, keep an open mind and seriously consider the
point I have been trying to make:

Shakespeare was a highly advanced spiritual being who has left us with a
priceless legacy of plays aimed at imparting spiritual truths for the
betterment of humanity; it would therefore be a tragedy if we continue
to ignore this.

With best wishes to all,
Kenneth Chan

From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Sunday, 12 Sep 2004 21:05:33 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1671 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1671 The Meaning of Hamlet

Hurricane Frances here in Florida left me bereft of the ability to
respond, and in the *spirit* of Hardy's wishes, with the return of
electricity after a week without it, here is my wrap up:

Jay Feldman writes, "Speaking of which, I wonder where Fortinbras would
figure in Bill Arnold's white hat - black hat dichotomy of ghostly

Cheryl Newton writes,  "The bubble in the logic would be the assumption
that 'mad' is a static state.  It is rarely so...We sometimes see Hamlet
as 'sane,' especially in his reactions with Horatio...Hamlet is complex,
not a cardboard figure.  He can sanely see the Ghost with Horatio et al,
and can insanely 'see' a nonexistence Ghost later in his mother's chamber."

D Bloom writes, "What do you (any of you) mean by the word 'mad'?

Or insane, crazy, lunatic, etc.  These words get bandied about...  I
don't want to sound like some sophomore debate-team member ("Let's
define your terms"), but in a discussion of Hamlet's possible
madness...If you cannot define your term in a sentence or two, do you
really know what you're talking about?"

Larry Weiss writes,  "I cannot imagine a contemporary audience
concluding that this time the ghost is a figment of Hamlet's imagination."

David Cohen writes, "I (with a colleague) have written the book on  this
and other conditions-Willerman & Cohen, Psychopathology, 1990), a
graduate level  textbook-and so ought to know at least a little
something about psychosis...In any case, as I see it, Hamlet is never
'mad' and never hallucinated at any time."

Kenneth Chan writes, "While there are some very clear cases of madness
in the world, there is nonetheless a very large grey area between what
we call 'sanity' and 'madness'."

Cheryl Newton writes, "In general, I see the average population of
'sane' people as having very little understanding of that continuum.
All of us nuts are nuts all the time, so to speak...Hamlet is not
chronically insane."

Well, in summary, it seems to me that *The Meaning of Hamlet* is wrapped
up in the question of whether or not Prince Hamlet is *insane* or *sane*?

Sanity is difficult to define, no doubt.  But insanity is not.  Society
is explicit in judgment that a court can "render a person unfit to
maintain a contractual or other legal relationship" and in the worst
case scenario, that person can be committed to an asylum.  Surely, times
change, and Shakespearean England was not today.  However, Prince Hamlet
does not fit the world of those who should have been committed nor
ceased from functioning as a normal citizen, prince or no prince,
usurper king Claudius the ulitmate judge or not.  It seems to me that
Shakespeare's audience would not have judged Prince Hamlet insane, nor
should we from a distance of four hundred years.  Therefore, directors
should not, and plays should not be staged as such.

Bill Arnold

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