Hamlet's Thoughts and Antics
(draft version)

Margreta de Grazia


In 1904 a plaster cast of Rodin's Thinker was placed in front of the Pantheon, the burial place of the great French geniuses. A mere few weeks later, however: "a man scaled the fence in front of the plaster Thinker with a hatchet in hand and hacked the statue to bits. An approaching policeman heard the vandal cry: 'I avenge myself -- I come to avenge myself.' When the man was taken to the police station, he explained that he knew the statue was making fun of him, a poor man with only cabbages to eat. The Thinker's gesture -- shoving a big fist into his mouth -- seemed to mimic the way the man ate. [A friend] wrote to comfort Rodin: 'The accident with the Thinker is stupid. We can only feel sorry for the poor devil.''' Ruth Butler, The Shape of Genius (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 426.


    1. Imagine Shakespeare saying to himself:

     'In this tragedy I want a character who above all else THINKS. But can thinking possibly be staged? Now if tragedy is a representation of an action, what action might a man play to indicate to an audience that he is thinking? How can 'that within' be given show? What mirror can reflect 'the pale cast of thought'? Now I've inherited from the middle ages a whole roster of character types: avengers, clowns, courtiers, kings, lovers, madmen, malcontents, scholars, soldiers, villains . . . but no thinker. Nor are the ancients of my little-Latin-and-less-Greek of any help; they were interested only in outer conflict, not the inner affair of thought. Clearly something new is required -- an action by which to dramatize thinking, when there is no action for thinking. But that's it! I'll stage my thinker not in action but in inaction. I'll put him in a really tight spot, give him 'the cue for passion,' and then have him 'do nothing.' Instead of a tragedy of action, I'll have tragedy of inaction -- a tragedy of thought!

     'But will they get it? When they see my character not acting, will they say to themselves, 'Oh, he is not doing anything: therefore, he must be thinking.' Maybe I'd better give them a hint as to what's going on in his head. I'll have him on stage telling another character that he is thinking. But no, that's dialogue. I'll have him on stage telling the audience that he is thinking. But that's an aside. I'll put him on stage silent. But that's a dumbshow. But suppose he were on stage alone AND talking -- to no one but himself ? Giving voice to his thoughts? And if I have him thinking aloud early on and then again and again and again, they'll realize that thinking with him is an ongoing process. What he is doing when thinking aloud is what he is doing all the time, but silently. Maybe not everyone will get it at first, maybe only 'the wiser sort,' so it will be 'caviar to the general,' at first anyway. But in time -- they will get it. The performance of thought -- as inaction -- as DELAY.'

    2. And it did take time for even 'the wiser sort' to figure out that the play was about a man who thinks.1 In fact, it took over two hundred years before Coleridge famously connected Hamlet's disposition to think with his indisposition to act, or in his words, Hamlet's 'intellectual activity' to his 'aversion to action' (2.55). And that, for him, is the point of the play, the 'universal' it dramatizes: that a man prone to thinking is incapable of acting, and proportionally: the more the thinks, the less he acts. Here is how Coleridge imagined Shakespeare plotting out his play:

The poet places [Hamlet] in the most stimulating circumstances that a human being can be placed in. He is the heir-apparent of a throne: his father dies suspiciously; his mother excluded her son from his throne by marrying his uncle. This is not enough; but the Ghost of the murdered father is introduced to assure the son that he was put to death by his own brother. What is the effect upon the son? -- instant action and pursuit of revenge? No: endless reasoning and hesitating. . . . (54)

What Shakespeare did, then, is contrive the most insufferable plot imaginable just so his protagonist could then slight it. Coleridge also slights it: he never again mentions plot in his scattered but abundant comments on Hamlet. And why should he? What happens in the play has no bearing on Hamlet's character. His disposition to thought -- his 'ratiocinative meditativeness' (72)-- predates the play; indeed, it appears to be congenital, having issued from the 'germ' of his character (80). Programmed by that inborn germ to do what he does (or does not), he is entirely self-determining. No need to bother with acting, reacting, or interacting; possessing 'a world within' himself' (55, 62, 69; 'a man living in meditation,' 59), Hamlet is complete unto himself. It is around 1800 that the saying, 'Like Hamlet without the Prince' -- becomes current. Take away the character and precious little remains. The inverse, however, is not true: take away the play, and the prince remains perfectly intact. Hamlet has come to possess all the free-standing self-sufficiency of an icon. In any English-speaking context, the image of a young man looking at a skull evokes Hamlet thinking: thought thinking itself. Without ties to plot, Hamlet is a character [person] in his own right, ready to go anywhere and indeed he does turn up in unlikely places -- always delaying, that is -- thinking.

    3. Extricated from plot, Hamlet is free to move out of not only his dramatic fiction but his historical period as well. His autonomy qualifies him to step out of his own 1600 and into the present of 1800, then of 1900, and then of 2000. It is around 1800 that Hamlet starts to appear ahead of his time, more in keeping with the advancing present than with Shakespeare's own receding past. Hamlet in 1800 looks like Coleridge ('I have a smack of Hamlet myself'2), a resemblance Hazlitt extends, 'It is we who are Hamlet,' marveling at the 'prophetic truth' that enabled Shakespeare to see so far into the future (2.14). England's close counterparts in Germany are making similar claims, hailing Hamlet as 'epoch-making' (2.163), providing 'a mirror of our present state as if this work had first been written in our own day.'3 Emerson identifies his entire nineteenth century with Hamlet: 'its speculative genius is a sort of living Hamlet,' and his times ('the age of Introversion') cannot see beyond Hamlet's thought, 'His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.'4 At the turn of the century, George Brandes notes that Hamlet will always be at the vanishing point of our perception, 'Hamlet, in virtue of his creator's marvelous power of rising above his time . . . has a range of significance which we, on the threshold of the twentieth century, can foresee no limit.'

    4. What we have after 1800, then, is a long tradition of finding the most recent modern understanding of consciousness in the answer to the question 'Why does Hamlet delay?' The answer -- whether philosophical, psychological, or psychoanalytic -- provides Hamlet with the psychic processes that make him appear modern.5 New (and newer still) psychological explanations repeatedly emerge to account for the symptom of delay.6 Hamlet's epochal interiority, then, is produced in answer to the question of his delay. And it is constantly being reconfigured in light of more avant-garde understandings of subjectivity. It is the question, then, that makes the play modern, and that keeps it so; for the modern by definition must always look up-to-date, or better yet, just ahead of its time. Hamlet's psyche has proven phenomenally receptive to new theories, accommodating reams of them for 200 years now. In no small part the appeal of the approach lies in the simplicity of its hermeneutic format: its fill-in-the-blank structure. 'Why does Hamlet delay?' 'He delays because of _ _ _ _,' and -- eureka! -- you have the answer to Hamlet's character which is also the key to the entire play (for the play is his character), as well as a new way of constituting the emergence of the modern period that in turn guarantees its fresh relevance. High returns, to be sure, but it is still surprising to find even our most sophisticated current readings returning to the 'question of questions,' as if no reading could be valid unless it provided, however incidentally, an explanation for Hamlet's delay.7

    5. More surprising is that Hamlet's delay should continue to figure so pervasively outside of literary criticism, whenever the relation of thought to action (to engagement with world and others) is at issue. Hegel, contemporary with Coleridge, appears to be the first philosopher to invoke Hamlet, in his Aesthetics, Phenomenology of Mind, and History of Philosophy.8 In the former, he singles out the play as representative of modern tragedy because Shakespeare's Hamlet, unlike Sophocles's Orestes, is driven not by an external agent or principle (Apollo or Justice) but by his own inner prompting -- his 'prophetic soul,' 'the seed of ruin' contained within himself, the equivalent of Coleridge's simultaneously generative and destructive 'germ.' For Hegel, the play is an allegory of the dialectical movement of the spirit of consciousness toward self-realization. Hamlet's 'stops and starts' externalize the bumpy trajectory of the dialectic as it progresses toward its goal. The plot sets up a kind of obstacle course of 'colliding factors' through which Hamlet advances against his own irresolution until in the final scenes, he is 'bandied from pillar to post' and ends up 'sandbanked.' Hamlet falls short of dialectical self-realization, and necessarily so. In 1600, he exists only on the threshold of modern consciousness; before the philosophical advances of Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, and, of course, Hegel himself, Hamlet can only get so far. At the conclusion of his History of Philosophy, Hegel turns to Hamlet for a metaphor by which to describe its long, hard, 2500-year trajectory, and finds an unlikely one: 'Well said old mole. Cans't work in the earth so fast?' The old mole, like the spirit of consciousness, like Hamlet himself until the play's end, tunnels arduously through earth toward the light that is the freedom of absolute self-determination.9

    6. Nietzsche despises the Hegelian teleology that hubristically places modern man at the pinnacle of history, as if he were the be-all and end-all of time. But in both The Birth of Tragedy and in Untimely Meditations, he chooses the same Hamlet to represent the proper response to this absurd history: disgust and nausea. Hamlet's knowledge of the blindness and injustice of all historical action 'outweighs every motive for action' and leaves Hamlet enervated and withdrawn: 'Understanding kills action.'10

    7. Hamlet also appears in Benjamin's counter-Hegelian genealogy of tragedy -- of baroque Germany, rather than of ancient Greece. In The Origins of German Tragic Drama, Hamlet like the Melencolia of Durer's engraving, is 'the sorrowful Contemplator,' world-weary, mourning in the aftermath of the Reformation the loss of meaningful action to a Lutheran theology of solafideism, 'the philosophy of Wittenberg.' With the renunciation of good works, 'Human actions were deprived of all value,' and a numbing acedia or taedium vitae set in.11

    8. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to include Derrida's Spectres of Marx in this line-up. For here, too, Hamlet is conjured up, this time around the pressing question of justice which the spectres of both Marx and Hamlet at once promise and enjoin. But the justice Hamlet must perform has nothing to do with the retributive justice of the revenge tragedy. If it did, Hamlet would not hesitate to execute it -- and automatically -- for the logic of tit-for-tat requires no deliberation, unlike the harder calculation of an incommensurate justice of a future-yet-to-come that leaves Hamlet in a position of 'indecidability' or 'messianic hesitation.'12


    9. Hegel's dialectical set-backs, Nietzsche's nauseous recoiling, Benjamin's melancholic acedia, Derrida's messianic waiting: all find their presiding genius in Hamlet, a delaying Hamlet. It is astounding that Shakespeare's performance of thought as inaction should have such a grip not only over critical readings of the play but over so many forms of philosophical writing as well This is more astounding still when one realizes that for the play's first two hundred years -- about half of its entire history -- Hamlet's delay was not an issue. There is no evidence that an introspective and inactive Hamlet appeared on the seventeenth or eighteenth-century stage. The lines of Hamlet most frequently quoted derive from his lunatic rant rather than his intellectual musings; there is record of Hamlet in madman's undress, none in his melancholic inky cloak. The soliloquies appear to have been mainly dispensable in the play's early acting tradition. They were either halved, gutted, or omitted in performance, except for the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy which appears to have been celebrated (and parodied) from the start.13 Rather than his inaccessible interiority, it was his flashy role as antic that audiences apparently loved. One author in 1604 would like to have had Hamlet's capacity to 'please all, but since it would entail his having to 'runne mad,' he would prefer to 'displease all,' and keep his wits.14 When a character named Hamlet appears in Eastward Ho! (1605), he enters quite literally 'running mad': 'Enter Hamlet a footeman in haste,' reads the stage direction, and so he does, as indicated by an attendant's response, 'Sfoote Hamlet: are you madde? Whither run you now . . . .?' That so many of the few early references we have to Hamlet refer to his running mad suggest that this may have been something of a signature stage stunt. Dekker twice alludes to Hamlet in frantic motion: 'break[ing] loose like a Beare from the stake' and rushing in furiously ('by violence') to disperse a crowd (1.8)15 And the famous Hamlets are remembered for their physical not intellectual bravura:16 Burbage for his acrobatic leap into Ophelia's grave (1.9); Betterton for playing the part, 'with great expectation, vivacity and enterprise,' even at age 74, (33); Wilks for his skittishness, even in soliloquies, ' It was said of him . . .that he could never stand still' (96). As late as 1839, complaints bear witness to a long tradition of a hyperactive Hamlet, 'overflowing with bustle, starts, and rant, and entirely destitute of that meditative and philosophical repose, which Shakespeare has made the leading feature of the character' (3.14).

    10. Nor did the 'question of questions' come up in the long series of eighteenth-century editions. No editor from Rowe in 1709 to Malone in 1790 mentions Hamlet's procrastination as a problem. This is not to say that no one noticed that there was delay in Hamlet.17 Clearly there was a long lag between Hamlet's breathless resolution to swoop to his revenge at the play's start and his eventual killing of Claudius at its end. (Hamlet himself draws attention to this delay; so does the ghost.) This lag was noted, and criticized, but as one of the many 'faults,' 'absurdities,' or 'irregularities' that came of Shakespeare's not having modeled his tragedies on the ancients.

    11. In the first critical work on Hamlet, Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince to Denmark (1736), for example, the critic George Stubbes writes: 'To speak the truth, our poet, has fallen into an absurdity: there appears no reason at all in nature why this young Prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible.' But the problem at this point is not with the character Hamlet, but rather with the plot of Hamlet.18 Shakespeare turned to an 'old wretched Chronicler' (Saxo Grammaticus) rather than one of 'the noble Originals of Antiquity' and 'followed the plan so closely as to produce an Absurdity in the Plot.' In Saxo's Danish History and Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques, Hamlet's counterpart must wait for years -- until he has grown up -- before he can exact revenge, and he bides his time for this long span by feigning idiocy. Having chosen to follow his source, Shakespeare was left with the problem that, 'Had [Hamlet] gone naturally to work . . . there would have been an End of our Play.' He, therefore, 'was obliged to delay his Hero's Revenge'; and he did so through the same expedient of the 'antic disposition.' Acknowledging the problem, Stubbes criticizes Shakespeare's solution: he should 'have found some good reason' of his own to explain the lag, for as we shall see, his adoption of Saxo's solution compromised the very dignity of the tragedy. Thus on the rare occasion when delay IS noted before the end of the eighteenth century, the problem is attributed to plot not character and it was resolved, albeit unsuccessfully, by introducing the device of the 'antic disposition.'19

    12. Stubbes's Remarks suggest an approach to delay in Hamlet that is dramaturgical rather than psychological, inherent in the plot rather than symptomatic of the character. A plot that begins with the command to revenge ('Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,' 1.5.25) and ends with the satisfaction of the command ('Here . . . thou damned Dane,/ Drink of this potion,' 5.2.330-1),20 creates a gap in between that needs somehow to be filled up. This structure is repeated within the play itself around other acts of revenge. When Laertes hastens from France to avenge his father's death, there is a long interim between his impetuous vow in the middle of Act IV ('I'll be reveng'd/ Most throughly for my father,' 4.5.135-6) and its performance in the final duel. He gets off to a roaring start when he storms the royal palace, but is then checked by the king ('forbeare a while,' Q1). He renews his vow ('But my revenge will come,' 4.7.29); but first he has to hear out Claudius's elaborate scheme, so long in the telling (over sixty lines) that a few maxims admonishing against the waning of passion with time must be introduced (two in F, six in Q2; 4.7.109-24); these themselves take up time while warning against the 'abatements and delays' that come between what we intend ('would do') and what we in deed do. And then when the moment itself does come, the impetuous Laertes uncharacteristically avers.. About to wound Hamlet with the unbaited and poisoned sword, he hesitates, 'And yet 'tis almost against my conscience' (5.2.300) -- and his hesitation is visible -- that is staged-- so that Hamlet notes it and eggs him on, 'You do but dally' (301).

    13. So, too, in the Player's speech, between the raising of Pyrrhus's avenging sword and its falling on Priam, a long rhetorical pause occurs. 'The slaughter of Priam,' as Hamlet terms it, occurs in the speech Hamlet 'chiefly loved' -- that is, 'Aeneas' tale to Dido' describing the Fall of Troy. Hamlet may be right in claiming that this speech 'was never acted, or if it was, not above once' (2.2.430-31); in textual form, however, it was reiterated -- and copiously. Throughout the 16th century, Aeneas's long narration of the Fall of Troy, extending through all of Book Two of the Aeneid, was the primary set-piece from which students learned the rhetorical skill of copia -- of dilation or expansive embellishment through the generation of text. Erasmus, in his massively influential De Copia recommends that the fall of Troy be used in order to teach both brevity and copiousness, and himself illustrates how the event can be both reduced to a mere six words ('And the fields where Troy was') or expanded indefinitely; in Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare expands it to 1200 when Lucrece fills up the time between her dispatching of a messenger and his return, with a long meditation on the picture of the Fall of Troy hanging in her quarters).21 It is from this tale that Hamlet selects one detail: Priam's slaughter. The bloody avenger Pyrrhus wends his way through the burning streets of Troy, locates his prey, strikes wide with a blow that manages with its mere 'whiff and wind' to fell '[t]h'unnerved father' (470). Pyrrhus then raises his sword as if to finish off the old king, but it remains suspended, 'seem'd i'th'air to stick' (475): 'So as a painted tyrant Pyrhhus stood/ And like a neutral to his will and matter/ Did nothing'(477-78). The uplifted sword does not fall until thirteen verse lines after it has been raised, at the end of a long periodic sentence that delays the fatal fall of the sword until the final line of the description, 'Now falls on Priam' (488). It took Pyrrhus sword as long to fall on Priam as it takes to pronounce (or read) those thirteen dilated lines. We have then a dilated passage within a famously dilated account marking the pause -- 'Pyrrhus's pause' (483) -- between the raising and the falling of the sword. 'This is too long' (494), complains Polonius with some justification (though he grows impatient even in Q1's truncated version in which the slaughter is reduced to a mere two lines), and Hamlet orders it sent to the barber, along with Polonius's beard -- to be cut.

    14. The speech of Priam's slaughter is obviously intended for the elite in the audience, for it is taken from a play which, according to Hamlet, 'pleased not the million,'twas caviare to the general' (432-33). The player's next performance, 'The Murder of Gonzago,' however, would have pleased the multitude,'who according to Hamlet, 'for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb-shows and noise'(11-12). So would have the moment just before the climax of the play proper. The assassin, Lucianus, pauses before poisoning Gonzago. Hamlet's expression of impatience indicates that Lucianus, or rather the actor playing Lucianus, is drawing out the preliminaries: 'Leave thy damnable faces and begin/Come. The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.' Between the stage direction 'Enter Lucianus' and his first speech, he is on stage (or rather on the stage-within-the-stage) for nine lines (F) during which Hamlet banters bawdily with Ophelia. For this duration, Lucianus has the stage to himself, all court eyes upon him, and he takes the opportunity to ham it up, apparently by making grotesque faces, to the obvious displeasure of Hamlet, but to the delight, one imagines, of the 'barren spectators.'

    15. Like Hamlet, Lucianus bides his time through dilatory antics. And his grimacing 'damnable faces' may resemble Hamlet's mad countenance when he looks 'As if he had been loosed out of hell.' His exaggerated villainy is surely in violation of the instructions Hamlet has just given to the players not to overdo it: 'o'erstep not the modesty of nature'(19). But it also violates Hamlet's advice that the 'clowns speak no more than is set down for them' when 'in the meantime some necessary point of the play [is] then to be observed' [italics added]. There is no clown in this itinerant acting troupe, but Lucianus, the 'antic Vice' of the Mousetrap play is surely his closest kin.22 Though gestural rather than verbal, Lucianus's interpolation holds up an especially climactic action, the pouring of the poison in the king's ear that is intended to 'unkennel' Claudius's 'occulted guilt' (3.2.80-1).

    16. The acts of Laertes, Pyrrhus, and Lucianus are all characterized by a delay that occurs in the interval between the avenger's 'will' or resolution and 'matter' or execution. Laertes's 'dallying', 'Pyrrhus's pause', and Lucianus 'damnable faces' fill out the time between those two points. And the play at large also follows the same structure, with Hamlet's antic disposition filling up the 'meantime' between the two termini of the Ghost's command to revenge and Hamlet's performance of it. His 'antic disposition' functions like the interlude or ludic entr'acte designed to occupy the time between the acts of the medieval mystery and morality plays, filling the time in between with farce or stuffing.23

    17. Stubbes's Remarks enable us to imagine the play before its radical reorganization around Hamlet's interiorized character from 1800 on. It becomes possible to shift the problem from the inner complexities of a unique character to the outer exigencies of a plot structured around revenge. There is more to be learned from this early (pre-1800) critical discussion. Stubbes points out that while the 'antic disposition' takes care of the gap in the plot, it introduces an absurd implausibility: the madness Hamlet feigns to ward off suspicion ends up only attracting it. More important, as Stubbes notes throughout his Remarks, the 'antic disposition' repeatedly degrades the tragedy by introducing levity proper only to comedy. In terms of the generic considerations at the heart of his criticism, the device is a terrible 'injudicious' mistake: 'The whole Conduct of Hamlet's Madness, is, in my Opinion, too ludicrous.' Throughout his evaluation of the play's 'Beauties and Faults,' he censures the prince's 'Levity of Behaviour,' beginning with 'his light and even ludicrous Expressions' to his companions after his solemn encounter with the ghost, expressions which he finds poorly 'correspondent to the Dignity and Majesty of the preceding scene.' He attributes Hamlet's 'satirical Reflections on Women' to the same cause and complains 'that it wants Dignity,' just as Hamlet's exchanges with Ophelia 'want Decency.' Hamlet's jokey puns are particularly censured for their indecorum: his pun on 'pipe' (the badge, along with the tabor, of the clown) 'is a great Fault, for it is too low and mean for a Tragedy'; so, too, his pun on Brutus's 'brute part' is 'intolerable,' conjoining noble Roman republican with wild beast. Hamlet's 'pleasantry' upon establishing the guilt of his uncle 'is not a-propos,' nor is his reflection on his killing of Polonius, nor 'his tugging him away into another Room.' Finally, while admitting its popularity on stage, he finds the jocularity of the grave-digger's scene 'unbecoming' to tragedy. By censuring all manifestations of Hamlet's antics, Stubbes 'refines' his character from the 'barbarisms' of the prior age, purging away the coarse, low, base, and mean. Having stigmatized all eruptions of Hamlet's 'idleness,' Stubbes leaves the reader with a Hamlet worthy of a tragedy -- princely, dignified, heroic and virtuous.

    18. Stubbes's critical principle is quite simple: the tragic and comic should never converge. 'All Comick Circumstances, all things tending to raise a Laugh, are highly offensive in Tragedies to good Judges . . . such Things degrade the Majesty and Dignity of Tragedy.' By such a principle, the hybridized tragedies of Shakespeare ('tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,' F) and of most of his contemporaries would have been ruled off the public stage. The distinctions of genre were commonly honored more in the breach than in the keeping. And yet there is something instructive about Stubbes's criticism of Hamlet along generic lines. Quite simply the prince belongs to tragedy and the antic to comedy; the words of the former are dignified, delicate, and elevate while those of the latter are buffoonish, coarse, and rude. For Stubbes, the purpose of differentiating between the tragic and the comic is to differentiate between high taste and low taste in the accomplishment of the critic's task: 'to settle, if possible, a right Taste among those of the Age in which he lives.' His class biases, the basis for his division of the audience into the 'better' and the 'meaner sort,' are not unlike those reflected in Hamlet's instructions to the players (of which Stubbes predictably approves) in which he sets 'the judicious' against 'the unskillful,' and insists that the censure of one of the former must 'o'erweigh a whole theatre of others.' This is the Hamlet who likes caviar, who knows the religious controversies at Wittenberg, who can 'write fair,' with 'a hand of little employment,' and who incorporates into his speech allusions to the likes of Montaigne, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, Luther, and St. Paul.

    19. But this Hamlet is quite separate from the antic, the clown who plays up to 'the millions' (the estimated 1000-1500 'groundlings' in the yard at the Globe) with his gritty, bawdy, and insolent 'wild and whirling words' to make 'the barren spectators laugh.' As Robert Weimann has been arguing most persuasively for decades, Hamlet when playing the antic draws on the clown's or fool's privilege of directly addressing the audience, establishing a verbal rapport with the low members of the audience through direct address, puns, proverbs, obscenities, and scurrilities.24 He suspects, too, that this verbal engagement 'would have almost certainly been reinforced' spatially by Hamlet's frequenting of the downstage platea closest to the yard where the groundlings would have stood. Thus while the role alienates him from the court within the play it connects him with the groundlings outside of it. At the same time, however, Hamlet can revert back to his princely register and position -- in his soliloquies, in his exchanges with the players, and with Horatio -- so that he is alternately engaging the better and the meaner, addressing a socially and spatially divided audience. He speaks up to the gentlemen in the galleries and down to the groundlings in the yard, pitching sententious considerations up to the high and scurrilous jests down to the low, shifting from general and abstract truths about the nature of man, mortality, cowardice, suffering, action, or mutability to material particulars like moles, camels, weasels, pickers and stealers, hawks and handsaws, rats, and guts, pleasing the elite with his rhetorically skilled dilations and the commoners with his vulgar improvisations.

    21. What Stubbes's criticism foregrounds is the composite structure of Hamlet's character. It is an outrageous generic cross of prince and antic, 'as if we were to dress a Monarch in all his Robes, and then put a Fool's Cap upon him.' This is the same character that prompted what Coleridge termed his first 'turn for philosophical criticism.' Hume's phenomenalism and Kant's transcendentalism no doubt informed this turn, though Coleridge believed Shakespeare possessed a comparable 'deep and accurate science in mental philosophy.' According to this new criticism, in order to understand Hamlet, the critic had to 'reflect on the constitution of our own minds.' With true prescience, Coleridge coined the term 'psycho-analytic' to describe his critical technique of probing into dramatic character. In such a practice, genre disappears. Coleridge rarely comments on Hamlet's 'antic disposition,' and when he does it blurs into his 'disposition to excessive thought.' He does, however, note the abrupt shift in Hamlet's behavior before and after he has seen the ghost, discussing the contrast in terms not of generic violations but of mental functions. It is Hamlet's perception that changes rather than the genre, and from 'terrible' to 'ludicrous' rather than from 'tragedy' to 'comedy.' The explanation lies not in the rules of decorum but rather in 'a law of the human mind': when the mind perceives something irregular ('out of the common order of things') it responds first with terror; but once abstracted from danger, 'the uncommonness alone will remain, and the sense of the ridiculous be excited.' Coleridge's psychological explanation thus conflates the two roles of Hamlet which genre had kept discrete. After Coleridge, criticism will increasingly look for psychological explanations for Hamlet's 'strange and odd behavior,'attributing it to various kinds of psychic disturbances, disorders, pathologies, neuroses.


    22. It is quite common to find in scholarly accounts of Hamlet that its criticism did not begin until the Romantics, that is, until critics concluded that the play, centered on delay, was about thinking. In such accounts, Shakespearean commentators like Schlegel and Coleridge are seen as great emancipators who freed criticism from the dogmatic bondage of neo-classical theory. Before the liberation, Hamlet was misunderstood or not understood at all (though undeniably it was appreciated). In other words, the play had to wait for history to catch up. What has driven contemporary histories to such an odd conclusion is an inability to imagine any other way of understanding the play. And yet, in the allusions and scraps of commentary that we have of the play from before 1800 there is evidence of an approach that is not focused on Hamlet's inner workings -- that looks at plot rather than character, at genre rather than mind. Psychological readings have blown plot and genre out of the critical waters. Or, rather, internalized them as character, so that delay is not a plot device but a symptom of psychic conflict and the conjunction of tragic and comic heightens not social division but -- again as always -- psychic conflict.

This paper is an expanded and modified version of my contribution to a collaborative paper, 'Hamlet as Intellectual,' given with Peter Stallybrass at the Republic of Letters 2000 Conference at Oxford University (Sept. 2000) and to the Renaissance seminar at Princeton University (Nov. 2000).



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1 In his copy of Speght's edition of Chaucer, Gabriel Harvey notes that both Lucrece and Hamlet 'have it in them to please the wiser sort.' Unless otherwise indicated, citations to seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century comments on the play will follow the same three-volume compendium: Critical Responses to Hamlet 1600-1900, ed. David Farley-Hills, 3 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1996-99). Citations will appear by volume and page number parenthetically in text.

2 Quoted from his Table-Talk by Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfelt & Nicolson, 1989), 102. Coleridge's contemporaries also noted the resemblance: Hamlet is both a 'satire' and 'an elegy' on Coleridge himself [2.54].

3 G.G. Gervinus, Shakespeare Commentaries (1849, trans. 1863), ii, 126, cited in A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: 'Hamlet', ed. H.H. Furness, 2 (New York: Dover Publications, 1963), 301.

4 'Our age is bewailed as the age of Introversion. Must that needs be evil? We, it seems, are critical. We are embarrassed with second thoughts. We cannot enjoy any thing . . . We are lined with eyes. We see with our feet. The time is infected with Hamlet's unhappiness, 'Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' (1837). Representative Men: Seven Lectures (201-2).

5 To be more precise, Coleridge inaugurates the tradition in England. The question arises concurrently in Germany as well in Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Literature (1810, trans. 1815) which Coleridge may have known. It is central, too, in the remarks of three Scottish critics writing in late eighteenth century: Mackenzie, Robertson, and Richardson, though ethical questions still loom large.

6 See Richard Halpern on the imperative in twentieth-century performances and readings of Hamlet to produce an innovative Hamlet, Shakespeare Among the Moderns (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 227-88.

7 Janet Adelman attributes the paralysis of Hamlet's will to 'the psychic domination of the mother' (Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays [Routledge: New York and London, 1992], 30); Jonathan Goldberg sees the delaying tactics as 'the result of [Hamlet's] identification with his father's words' (Voice Terminal Echo [Methuen: New York and London, 1986], 99); Marjorie Garber argues that Hamlet's inability to forget the paternal command is what impedes action, 'For action is inextricably bound with forgetting' (Ghost Writers, 156); Richard Halpern reconstrues Hamlet's 'dilatory tactics' or 'internal entropy' as resistance to Oedipal law which in turn opens a clearing space for new productivities (Shakespeare Among the Moderns [Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997], 284, 287-8); and Stephen Greenblatt (with Catherine Gallagher) ascribes Hamlet's difficulty to 'the entanglements of the flesh' in a materiality 'that stubbornly persists and resists and blocks the realization of the ghostly father's wishes' (Practicising New Historicism [Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press, 1999], 158).

8 See The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F.P. B. Osmaston, (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1975), IV, 334-36, 342; Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford, New York etc.: Oxford U. Press, 1977), 201; ; Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Medieval and Modern Philosophy trans. E.S. Haldane and Frances H. Simson (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) vol. 3, 546-47, 553.

9 For further discussion of the mole's importance to Marx's materialism as well as Hegel's idealism, see Peter Stallybrass, 'Well Grubbed, Old Mole': Marx, Hamlet, and the (Un)Fixing of Representation,' Cultural Studies 12, 1 (1998), 3-14; and de Grazia, 'Teleology, Delay, and the Old Mole,' Shakespeare Quarterly, 50 (Fall, 1999), 3, 251-67.

10 The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Shaun Whiteside (Penguin: London, New York, etc., 1993), 39-40. Although Hamlet is not mentioned by name, his resemblance to Nietzsche's 'suprahistorical' man is quite evident in 'On the uses and disadvantage of history for life,' in Untimely Meditations, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 65. For another account of Hamlet's relevance to this essay, see Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (Methuen: New York and London, 1987, esp. 154-57.

11 The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (Verso: London and New York, 1977), 138-39.

12 Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Routledge: New York and London), 169.

13 For more evidence of hyperactive rather than introspective performances of Hamlet in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see John A. Mills, Hamlet on Stage, the Great Tradition, 4-5. John Downes, in Roscius Anglicanus (1708), claimed that there was an unbroken tradition in acting of Hamlet from time of Shakespeare to end of century: Betterton had been taught the part by Davenant who had seen Joseph Taylor act Hamlet in Blackfriars who had been instructed by Shakespeare himself. See Farley-Hills, 1.29, 278.

14 Daiphanthus, or The Passion of Loue (London, 1604), A2.

15 On the popularity of Hamlet's antics in the seventeenth century, see Paul S. Conklin, A History of Hamlet Criticism 1601-1821 (Frank Cass & Co.: 1968), 16-20. Running puts at risk the stable vertical axis that is the basis of the body's dignity. The assumption of an 'antic disposition' requires that the body as well as discourse be 'wild and whirling' or 'out of frame' ('suit the action to the word').

16 In the1676 Player's Quarto ( used in theatres until 1709, at least): 'Too sullied flesh' is halved, and 'O what a rogue and peasant slave' completely gutted , and 'How all occasions do inform against me' (in F only) completely gone. So Hamlet can not be 'hamletizing' on stage until the nineteenth century. For early criticism of the soliloquies as being too frequent, long, dispassionate, independent of plot, and in the case of 'To be or not to be,' irrelevant, see Charles Gildon, 1. 46. For early appropriation of the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, see Paul S. Conklin, A History of Hamlet Criticism, 1601-1821 (Frank Cass & Co.: n.p., 1968), 20.

17 Not until 1821 does an editor mention delay, when James Boswell junior refers to Hamlet's 'incurable habits of procrastination' and 'that irresolution which forms so marked a part of his character' (535). At this point, Boswell had read Schlegel, whose Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature had been translated in 1815, and extracts from Goethe's William Meister's Apprenticeship provided 'by my friend Mr. Talbot,' 539), though he makes no mention of Coleridge. The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (F.C., J. Rivington, etc., 1821), vii, 539.

18 Some Remarks on the 'The Tragedy of Hamlet' was published anonymously in 1736 and recently attributed to George Stubbes. References are from the reprint by AMS Press (New York, 1975) and page numbers will henceforth appear in text. Malone in 1790 and Boswell/Malone in 1821 reproduce much of the essay at the end of their editions of Hamlet. If Stubbes is the first to comment on delay in Hamlet, it may because he was the first to use Theobald's edition ('In the Course of these Remarks, I shall make use of the Edition of this Poet, given us by mr. Theobald,' 3), the first to conflate the Folio and Quarto Hamlets. The Player's Quarto cuts 800 lines from the Quarto version; a full conflated version was not performed on stage until 1899 (See Hamlet, ed. G. R. Hibbard (Oxford and N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1994), 23. As many have noted, the problem of delay is less likely to have been noted in the highly truncated Q1 version. In Fratricide Punished, Hamlet gives an entirely circumstantial explanation for delay: 'I cannot attain my revenge because the fratricide is surrounded all the time by so many people.' See Variorum 'Hamlet', 2, 139.

19 Later in the century (1771-72), the editor George Steevens also criticized the play for drawing out the action through Hamlet's antics : Revenge is 'stagnated, and [Hamet] goes on from Act to Act playing the Fool.' The delay for him, too, is not a problem with the character but with the plot; the marvel is that Shakespeare 'could make [the play] interesting without Progress in the Fable' (1.220-21).

20 Quotations throughout follow Harold Jenkins's Arden Hamlet (London and N.Y.: Methuen, 1982) and citations will appear in text.

21 This stretch is much indebted to Patricia Parker's account of the rhetorical tradition of textual generation and dilated middles. See especially 'Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text,' in Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), esp. 13-17.

22 David Wiles notes the absence of the clown in the itinerant acting company in Shakespeare's Clown (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Hamlet calls Lucianus's violation 'villainous' (44) or typical of a villein, reminding us of the rustic identity of stage clowns, (like the two in the graveyard scene, called clowns in all three early texts) as well as of the traditional kinship between the clown and the Vice. On the connection between villains and clowns, see Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 223.

23 Patricia Parker at several points relates 'farce' to material to be 'stuffed,' 'crammed,' or 'forced' between two endpoints, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 76, 216, 223.

24 See Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), esp. 230-35 and, particularly in relation to Q1, 'Playing with a Difference: Revisiting 'Pen' and 'Voice' in Shakespeare's Theater,' Shakespeare Quarterly, 50 (1999), 4, 428-31. At the same time, however, that Weimann has so brilliantly established connections between Hamlet and the ritual, popular antic tradition, he also makes a special case for his modernity. 'Hamlet is a more poetically unified individuality' reflecting Shakespeare's 'larger artistic synthesis.'



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