Hamlet and the motif of thought

Hamlet’s self-description in his apology to Laertes, delivered in the appropriately distanced and divided third-person, explicitly fingers the greatest antagonist of the playconsciousness. The obligatory cultural baggage that comes along with Hamlet heeds little attention to the incestuous Claudius while focusing entirely on the gloomy Dane’s legendary melancholia and his resulting revenge delays. As Laurence Olivier introduced his 1948 film version, “This is the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind. By tracking the leitmotif of “thought” throughout the play, I will examine the conflicts that preclude Hamlet from unified decisions that lead to action. Shakespeare is not content, however, with the simple notion of thought as a mere signifier of the battle between the mind and the body. The real clash is a conflict of consciousness, of Hamlet’s oscillations between infinite abstraction and shackled solipsism, between recognition of the heroic ideal and of his limited means, between the methodical mishmash of sanity and the total chaos of insanity.

I repeat “between” not only for anaphoric effect, but to suggest Shakespeare’s conception of thought; that is, a set of perspectivally-splintered realities which can be resolutely conflated, for better or worse, only by the mediating hand of action. Any discussion of Hamlet, a work steeped in contradictions and doubles, necessitates inquiry into passages concerning opposition to thought, namely those of the corporeal. And, as Shakespeare engages the imagination of his audience primarily through metaphor, I will use “thought” as a catapult to critique sections that are relevant to my argument.

The chief definition of “thought” revolves around the basic concept of the mental process: “The action or process of thinking; mental action or activity in general, esp. that of the intellect; exercise of the mental faculty; formation and arrangement of ideas in the mind” (OED, 1a). A further subset of definitions can be catalogued into a Manichean vision of positives and negatives and which equally apply to Hamlet’s central consideration of consciousness as a blessing or a curse. There is a stress on thought’s potentiality which fits with Hamlet’s obsession with the infinitude of man: “Conception, imagination, fancy” (OED, 4c).

But following this comes the negative view of thought as quasi-action, a direct link to Hamlet’s stall tactics: “The entertaining of some project in the mind; the idea or notion of doing something, as contemplated or entertained in the mind; hence, intention, purpose, design; esp. an imperfect or half-formed intention; with negative expressed or implied = not the least intention or notion of doing something” (OED, 4d). Similarly, the past neutral sense of “Remembrance, mind'” (OED, 5e) is countered by the negative anticipatory connotation of: “Anxiety or distress of mind; solicitude; grief, sorrow, trouble, care, vexation” (OED, 5a).

This current of duality is important to keep in mind as we explore its ramifications in Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous texts. Hamlet’s troubles lie within the gulf that separates God from Man, or at least in what is godly from what is beastly in man. His distaste for the “swinish” (I. iv. 19) disposition of man is obvious in his denunciation of all things corporeal and elevation of the divine. His self-destructive impulses are verbalized in the first lines of his first soliloquy: “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (I. i. 129-130).

Harold Jenkins, in the Arden Hamlet, proposes that “to become dew is to die” (187), but dew, with its seemingly magical overnight birth and lack of history, embodies the negation of the past for which Hamlet is so desperate. While some editors choose “solid” over “sullied,” either word is applicable, emphasizing Hamlet’s debasement of the palpable or dirty body with the Elizabethan convention of the reduplication of “too,” which here suggests the many doubles of the bodylimbs, eyes, etc. nd prefigures the duality to come in the next two lines: “Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon gainst self-slaughter. O God! God! ” (I. iv. 132)

While Hamlet invokes the name of God here as a cry for Providential reason, the juxtaposition with the human body sets the stage for later elaboration on man’s obligation to utilize his potentiality: “What is a man / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. / Sure he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and godlike reason to fust in us unus’d” (IV. v. 35-39). The word “discourse” is not idly chosen; the notion of flowing is what runs Hamlet’s mind and dams his action. This nearly perfectly echoes his lament in his first soliloquy over his mother’s speedy remarriage: “O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason / Would have mourn’d longer” (I. ii. 150-151).

The roots of this bipolar vision can be traced to Hamlet’s paternal doubles, his Sun-god (the Sun also being the Royal emblem) biological father and animalistic stepfather: “So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr” (I. i. 139-140). Hamlet creates metaphors of infinitude to further his God/man separation, but Shakespeare plants them as subtle hints at Hamlet’s own efforts to attain abstraction but ending up in solipsism. Witness Hamlet’s string of laudatory phrases: “What a piece of work is a man, / How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties” (II. ii. 303-304); “His virtues else, be they as pure as grace, / As infinite as man may undergo” (I. iv. 33-34); “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a king of infinite space” (II. ii. 254-255).

The final quote, alluding to the cosmos, also brings Hamlet into the scientific realm. When the play was written at the turn of the 17th-century, the relatively new Copernican heliocentric system from De Revolutionibus was still contested (Harvard continued teaching the obsolete Ptolemaic geocentric system for several years after it opened in 1638) by intellectuals and laymen alike. The theory seized the imagination of the metaphysical poets, namely John Donne, who added the poetic layer of macrocosm to the preexisting microcosm and geocosm.

Marjorie Nicolson, in “The Breaking of the Circle,” argues that the new cosmology failed to win over the Elizabethans, and she cites King Lear as an example of Shakespeare’s fascination with astrology over astronomy. However, I believe that there is ample evidence in Hamlet that indicates Shakespeare’s admission of the possibility of a heliocentric universe, and that one could, in fact, make a claim that the entire play is an extended metaphor for the spatial confusion that afflicted the Western world between De Revolutionibus and Galileo’s visual proofs in Sidereus Nuncius.

Without derailing too much from our train of thought, I will simply bring up two examples of this cosmological crisis. The first is in Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia, which requires little explication: “Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move” (II. ii. 115-116). The second instance relies on a triple pun as Hamlet bids adieu to the Ghost: “Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe” (I. . 95-97). The globe as head, earth, and theater merges Hamlet’s chaos of microcosm, geocosm, and macrocosm (the theater as an imaginative universe) and his inability to seat his thoughts in only one realm. But while Hamlet’s position is unclear, there remains a schism between his illimitable thought and earthbound soul, prompted by the Ghost’s visit which “shake[s] our disposition / With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls” (I. iv. 55-56).

Hamlet’s thoughts are never in concert with any other part of his being; what he prizes most about man, his mental range, not only outshines the mundaneness of the body, but is elevated beyond even the height of the soul, supposedly the only infinite and eternal vestige of man in Platonic philosophy. In plainer terms, Hamlet is too smart for his own good. But even with his vast reserves of lyricism, intellectuality, and curiosity, he is hampered by his princely duties and the rigid mindset they dictate.

If I Henry IV is a play about the making of a king, as Marjorie Garber asserts, then Hamlet is about the unmaking of a prince, the exposure of Hamlet’s vulnerabilities which stifle his kingship. Indeed, there is no mention of the political process which allowed Claudius to take over the throne in favor of the prince; we are to assume Hamlet’s impotence in the matter. The name of Hamlet’s double, Fortinbras (French for “strength-in-arm”), reverberates in Claudius’s remonstrations with Hamlet to end his melancholia: “It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, / A heart unfortified…

And we beseech you bend you to remain / Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye… / This gentle and unforc’d accord of Hamlet / Sits smiling to my heart” (I. ii. 95-6, 115-116, 123-124) (italics mine). It is this lack of strength and will, the “unforc’d accord,” that plagues Hamlet, and Claudius does not hesitate to pinpoint the problem: “… to persever / In obstinate condolement… / … ’tis unmanly grief” (I. ii. 92, 94). Without labeling Hamlet womanly, the suave politician humiliates the prince with the negation of castration, and it is this gender gap that crushes Hamlet’s self-esteem and spirals him into his soliloquies.

The ingredients of Hamlet’s “thinking too precisely on th’event” (IV. iv. 41) are described as follows: “A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom / And ever three parts coward” (IV. iv. 42-43). Aside from the idea of particularizationmirrored in Hamlet’s own compartmentalization of the modes of thought”quarter’d” takes on various meanings which confirm Hamlet’s views of Claudius as a double-crosser”the body of a person, esp. f a traitor or criminal” (OED, 1b)and as a royal rapist: “To place or bear (charges or coats of arms) quarterly upon a shield; to add (another’s coat) to one’s hereditary arms; to place in alternate quarters with” (OED, 3a). The soldierly implications, especially those of lodging, presage Hamlet’s “shame” at seeing “The imminent death of twenty thousand men” who “Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot / Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause” (IV. iv. 59-60, 62-63).

Despite his problems, Hamlet can still return to his warm castleand he invariably does, in his thoughts. A soliloquy that begins with the intensely solipsistic “How all occasions do inform against me” (IV. iv. 32) and quickly moves to the abstract meditations on thought, then to his reflections on the soldiersbut only insofar as it affords him another opportunity to bemoan his own fate. This is the general trope of his soliloquies, from an outright bitter lament to philosophical musings and back to an irresolute conclusion.

What seems like an ending of conviction in this monologue is yet another of Shakespeare’s clever uses of “thought”: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (IV. iv. 65-66). Thoughts, bloody as they are, are still only thoughts”and” is more appropriate here than “or. ” The double placement of “be” also continues the motif of the passive verb tense, most famously used (again, doubly so, and with the conjunctive “or”) in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, which concerns itself less with the benefits and drawbacks of existence than the smashing of the heroic ideal.

Hamlet prefaces the question with “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer” (III. i. 56-57), pairing his twin obsessions of nobility and mentality with his Buddhistic “life is suffering” beliefs (I do not, for a moment, claim that Hamlet carries any hidden Buddhist message, especially since Hamlet finally triumphs through vengeance, not detachment). As Jenkins points out, the following oft-quoted lines are just as often misinterpreted: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (III. i. 58-60).

Jenkins states that the utter impossibility of defeating the awesome natural power of the sea calls into question Hamlet’s motives: “The absurd futility of the contest is what Shakespeare’s much-abused metaphor of taking arms against a sea very vividly suggests… It is precisely because the heroic gesture is necessarily disastrous that argument becomes possible about whether it is noble” (490-491). My only amendment to Jenkins’s comments is that he bases much of his reading on the debated word “slings,” which he admits could have originally been “stings” (278).

In this case, “stings” turns the reading of “To be or not to be” into an apian pun and furthers the thread of passivity through the image of being beaten, whether by stingers, slings, or arrows. Hamlet concludes, as he usually does, with an iteration of his original idea: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, / And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (III. i. 83-85). Shakespeare tweaks the meaning of “thought” beyond colorlessness to representation as a half-formed intent via the shape-making sense of “cast”: “Casting metal, etc. ; mould; model” (OED, 1. IX).

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