Hamlet's novel ways of being


Brother Anthony (¾È¼±Àç)


             When Shakespeare made Hamlet say, ¡°Now, Mother, what¡¯s the matter?¡± (3.4.8) as he comes storming into her ¡°closet,¡± and follow that up with ¡°What¡¯s the matter now?¡± only six lines later, he could hardly have realized how extremely ¡°modern¡± and ¡°colloquial¡± he would still sound more than 400 years later. In contrast, Gertrude¡¯s response ¡°Why, how now Hamlet,¡± (3.4.13) sounds archaic and rather silly, although probably she is simply imitating Juliet¡¯s Mother¡¯s impatient ¡°Why, how now, Juliet?¡¯ (3.5.68) when Juliet lingers on her balcony after saying farewell to Romeo. Neither Mother likes to be kept waiting by their child. ¡°What¡¯s the matter¡± is probably as common an expression today, in Britain at least, as it was in Shakespeare¡¯s time. That is presumably why it stands out so strongly in Hamlet, where the general style of speech is as ¡°uncolloquial¡± as we expect of Shakespeare. But what makes that phrase so strikingly modern is more than just the colloquial feel of ¡°what¡¯s the matter?¡± It has at least as much to do with the way Hamlet addresses his Mother as ¡°Mother.¡±


             That is still today a confrontational mode of address, stressing the hierarchical and conventional nature of the child-mother relationship as a way of potentially challenging and resisting it. By addressing his mother as ¡°Mother¡± in this tone at this point, Hamlet joins the serried ranks of the world¡¯s unhappy, mum-pecked sons. He has come to her Closet because his mother has sent for him, and while she clearly expects him to obey her, Hamlet reckons he is no longer her little boy, it is not so obvious that a grown-up son should come running every time his ageing and domineering mother sends for him, even if she is his Queen too. The ultimate modern echo of Hamlet¡¯s outraged, frustrated use of ¡°Mother¡± is the same word in the mouth of Norman, the scary young man at the motel in Hitchcock¡¯s ¡°Psycho,¡± and we all know how much conflict obeying his mother¡¯s voice meant for him!


             It is easy to understand at least part of Hamlet¡¯s very modern irritation at this point in the play as a response to the fact he has been informed, repeatedly, by his least favorite people, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then by Polonius, that his mother wants to see him. The events during the performance of the play-within-the-play make it quite clear that he is being called to a scolding for having been a naughty boy and upset his new step-father. Today. at least, men of Hamlet¡¯s age who address their mother as ¡°Mother¡± are usually affirming a resistance. It is a word that often indicates a wish by the young to establish a zone of freedom from a perceived threat of domination by the old and out-of-date. Nobody in my English-speaking world ever addresses their Mother as ¡°Mother¡± when they are feeling happy and affectionate.


             In many of Shakespeare¡¯s plays, the younger characters are clearly vested with strong symbolic value as ¡°bearers of fresh, bright future promise¡± in contrast to the weariness and hopelessness of the parents¡¯ generation. It is no secret that Shakespeare frequently explores at the end of a play the essentially optimistic theme of a ¡°passing of power¡± from the stale, worn-out old generation of parents to a fresh, young newly-wed couple. This motif finds its final, most obvious representation in The Tempest. Hamlet has ample reason to be exasperated by the plot of his play; he must be wondering what theatregrams or narremes Shakespeare has been using. After all, Hamlet is almost the only major adult male character in a Shakespearean play to have a mother still alive and in a position to scold him. And where almost all the other characters of his generation are given a chance to form a romantic couple, here it is his mother who is the blushing newly-wed, while Ophelia and Hamlet never have a snowflake¡¯s chance of getting their romantic act together at all.


Hamlet is often considered to have a very low estimation of himself, because of the way he seems to compare himself so negatively with his Father. Many commentators have made much of Hamlet¡¯s words in the First Soliloquy: ¡°My father's brother, but no more like my father Than I to Hercules (1.2.152-3).¡± This, they claim, is strongly ironic, for everyone knows that the new king is quite unlike the old one, and that Prince Hamlet the Hesitant is a far cry from Hercules the Heroic, who in Hamlet¡¯s eyes seems to be identified with his father. Wrongly, probably, on all counts. On closer inspection the old king and the new king look very similar indeed, virtual twins in fact, both effective monarchs, both of them men of action and skilled in diplomacy, and both of them devoted to and loved by their wife, too. We ought not to believe Hamlet so readily, perhaps. And it would be even more serious if he were believed unquestioningly when he seems to be saying that he cannot possibly be compared to Hercules, for as a renaissance humanist scholar he knows very well that he can be and should be compared to Hercules, without having to have strangled serpents in his cradle as a baby.


Hamlet is a modern man -- of his author¡¯s times, at least -- a reader of books and thinker of thoughts. When he expresses the First Soliloquy, he is just beginning to sense that his father has joined the long string of examples begun by Boccaccio in his De Casibus, adapted by Chaucer as the Monk¡¯s Tale, rewritten by Lydgate in his Fall of Princes, and expanded in the various editions of the Mirror for Magistrates, of victims of the arbitrary turning of Fortune¡¯s wheel. He too, like so many, was a king cut off in a flash at the height of prosperity with no warning and for no apparent reason. He has yet to hear the Ghost¡¯s tale of murder but when he hears it, it makes no real difference to the fact of the matter, since his poisoning uncle was at best an unwitting agent of whatever power the shifts of Fortune answer to. The stress that the Ghost lays on his complete lack of ¡°readiness¡± for death, ¡°Unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled, No reckoning made¡± (1.5.77-8), only shows that King Hamlet had not cultivated the wisdom that comes with any awareness of Boethius¡¯s Lady Philosophy¡¯s indications that Fortune¡¯s wheel is ever turning, her slings and arrows are ever at the ready, and prosperity never lasts long. Everyone should be ready to die at any moment.


So far as Philosophy is concerned, the Ghost¡¯s reported sufferings in Purgatory are entirely his own fault, the inevitable result of his manifest lack of wisdom. Hamlet has read Boethius¡¯ Consolation of Philosophy, of course, but he might also be familiar with Petrarch¡¯s most popular and often-translated treatise, De remediis utriusque fortunae, where he could learn that ¡°human virtue and reason can withstand fortune¡¯s relentless claims¡± (CHRP 645). His mention of Hercules suggests another, related theme derived from his readings. Coluccio Salutati (1331 – 1406) was Chancellor of Florence when he composed his long but incomplete De laboribus Herculis and this unpublished, almost unread work is only one of a series of humanist works that take Hercules as a significant symbol of Man in his most fulfilled mode.


The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy tells us that Petrarch launched and Salutati pursued ¡°the cult of human freedom and activity, articulated through the acquisition of a sapientia (wisdom) closely linked to eloquentia (eloquence), because beyond individual moral growth and the contemplative ideal, each man is a citizen who must work for the common good of his city or state . . . Though full of admiration for the moral heroism of the Stoics, Salutati is mindful that we are neither ruled by fate nor blindly led by natural forces. It is through our commitment to overcoming the adversities of fortune and historical circumstances that we become virtuous: ¡®virtuosi non natura sed operibus efficimur¡¯ (the virtuous are made not by nature but by works).¡± The myth of Hercules recurs in many humanist celebrations of man¡¯s constructive capacities, of the virtuous dignity which raises him to the level of the stars, that is, to the level of a divinity.


We all know how important the question of what it means to be a ¡°Man¡± is in Hamlet. Harold Bloom has published a huge volume devoted to ¡°the Invention of the Human¡± with Hamlet at its heart. But renaissance Humanism begins with Petrarch, and as Nicholas Mann writes (http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/submissions/Mann.pdf ), ¡°Petrarch seems to have played a significant role in the transmission to posterity of the image of ¡®Hercules at the Crossroads¡¯.¡± Petrarch drew upon Cicero¡¯s De officiis (I 32 118) when he placed this episode in the first book of his De vita solitaria, as an example of the advantages of solitude. The story is that ¡°when Hercules came to the age of puberty and thus entered upon the road of life, he was much tortured by his desires, and withdrew to a solitary place where he meditated upon the two paths that seemed open to him: that of voluptas (pleasure), and that of virtue. He finally chose Virtue. It appears that Petrarch is the first writer for some thousand years to revive the story. . . . Petrarch writes of young Hercules¡¯s anguish ¡°when, as if at a crossroads ('velut in bivio'), he hesitated long and hard¡±. Hercules's heroic choice of Virtue, the subject of endless iconographical explorations by Renaissance and other artists, enabled him, Petrarch says, not merely to reach the peak of human fame, but even, according to some, a god-like state.¡± Indeed, there are many renaissance paintings and drawings that show the young Hercules being solicited by female personifications of Pleasure and Virtue, the former often wearing far fewer clothes than the latter, and Hercules looking as if he is rather unwillingly choosing the more decorous of the two.


Hamlet did not have to have read Petrarch to know this story, though. Cicero¡¯s Offices had become a fixture in the Latin grammar school curriculum in England by the second half of the sixteenth century. The story would even have been known to pre-grammar school youngsters whose education was influenced by Francis Clement¡¯s The Petie Schole, published in 1587, for it included an English translation of Cicero¡¯s account of ¡®Hercules at the Crossroads.¡¯ And English language readers could have found it translated as early as 1533 in Whytinton¡¯s edition of Tullyes Offyces or in the one by Grimald in 1553. (From: Hercules in Emblem Books and Schools by Ayers Bagley)


Hamlet has no illusions about the value of mere ¡°Words, words, words (2.2.192).¡± His way of speaking at times may seem designed to drive his uncle up the wall and Polonius round the bend. Yet for Hamlet as for any humanist, eloquentia is only of value when preceded by sapientia; not words but wise being are what matters most to him. ¡°To be or not to be (3.1.56),¡± he suddenly announces for no apparent reason at a moment when the on-stage audience of Polonius and the King is expecting him to start talking to Ophelia, ¡°that is the question,¡± and the audience in the stalls all nod knowingly because this is the really famous bit, some have even memorized it. No need to wonder too much what it means, either; someone¡¯s teacher once said Hamlet is thinking of committing suicide, and surely that sounds right?


But then he puzzles everyone by asking himself which of the sides of his mysterious choice is ¡°nobler,¡± an unexpected category since it implies that both being and not being have a essentially noble quality. After an extended deliberation evoking the ambiguities of death, he arrives at his conclusion: ¡°Thus conscience does make cowards of us all (3.1.83),¡± which seems to have nothing to do with suicide. What he seems to be saying now is ¡°Thinking too hard can be harmful to your revenge,¡± but Hamlet never seems to mean what he seems to mean. ¡°Conscience¡± usually refers to a moral ability to distinguish a right course of action from a wrong one. ¡°Coward¡± is an insult applied by the violent and warlike to any who do not agree with thoughtless slaughter. It might not be a bad thing to be called a coward, as Hamlet seems to discover when he applies it to himself occasionally elsewhere. As we have seen, Salutati considered that ¡®virtuosi non natura sed operibus efficimur.¡¯ Here Hamlet is obviously thinking that it is better to be virtuously inactive than to be mindlessly violent, and that discretion really can be the better, more virtuous part of valor.


             Hamlet¡¯s greatest novelty in his way of being is the manner in which he fights tooth and nail inside himself to find out what is the right thing to do and never accepts the obvious, immediate, emotionally gratifying answer; unlike his mother, or his uncle, or Laertes. There is no risk of conscience making cowards of them, they plunge ahead, guided by the uncertain light of desires, pleasure, and raw hatred. Or as Aristotle once wrote, in his Eudemian Ethics 3.1, ¡°A man . . . is not brave . . .if, knowing the magnitude of a danger, he faces it through passion – as the Celts take up arms to go to meet the waves¡±. We do not have to assume that Shakespeare / Hamlet knew this text; the story of the Celts challenging the sea is found in other classical works, as Harold Jenkins points out in his long note in the Arden edition. Still, themes from Aristotle¡¯s relatively little-known treatise (only published 55 times in the renaissance, compared with 300 editions for the later, more developed Nicomachean Ethics of which it contains a draft) seem to underlie not only the line about ¡°taking arms against a sea of troubles¡± but much of the Soliloquy. Its third chapter ends ¡°since all excellence implies choice, it makes a man choose everything for the sake of some end, and that end is the noble . . .¡± That is perhaps a key to why Hamlet¡¯s topic for debate (his ¡°question¡±) is a choice (that only he can make) as to which is the ¡°nobler¡± way of being or not being – here we have ¡°Hamlet at the crossroads.¡±


As a modern thinker, he knows that what raises man to nobility is not birth but virtue. So the question he is pondering is rather more subtle than the stereotyped version he might well have debated at school in Wittenberg: ¡°It is better to be alive but very unhappy than not to be alive at all.¡± He almost seems to be recalling a line near the start of that same text of Aristotle: ¡°a man was asking why one should choose to be born rather than not to be born and Anaxagoras answered by saying ¡®for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe.¡¯ Equally important for Hamlet is something Aristotle writes a little later: ¡°bravery consists in following reason, and reason bids one choose the noble. Therefore only the man who endures the frightening for the sake of the noble is fearless and brave.  . . . reason does not bid a man to endure what is very painful or destructive unless it is noble¡±


There Hamlet at the Crossroads finds the key allowing him to formulate his choice: ¡°Is it more noble to endure unhappiness alive without action, or to act although the inevitable result will be my death?¡± Hamlet has done his homework, he has some lines from St. Augustine at the back of his mind too: ¡°The reason I am unwilling to die is not because I would rather be unhappy than not be at all, but a fear that after death I may be still more unhappy¡± (De Libero Arbitrio, III. i. 17). Unlike his foolish Mother, or warmongering Father, he knows that virtuous being is a serious matter, deserving deep thought. The theme of Hercules at the Crossroads is notoriously ¡°Pelagian,¡± the Pagan¡¯s choice of Virtue being made within any apparent need of Prevenient Grace, but thanks to Boethius Hamlet knows that in the end it is all a matter of Providence, under whose guidance the noble choice of virtue has been made. Then Fortune has no power at all:


there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? (5.2.190)


Hamlet is a very wise young man. He realizes that he can never find his own, novel, unique way of being if he simply follows standardized stereotypes, Father¡¯s or Mother¡¯s. He has to make his own choices. Sapientia must take precedence over eloquentia. The only person in the play who knows the truth about Hamlet¡¯s novel way of being is Horatio. He alone recognizes the Virtue-choosing Hercules in him and at the end of the play announces his nobility and his apotheosis in a single breath:


Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (5.2.338)