Another Take on the “Problem Play”:

Hamlet Read Through the Lens of Greek Tragedy

by Jimmy Maher


Consumed by jealousy, the otherwise noble Claudius murders his older brother to take from him his kingdom and his wife.  Unable to undo the deed, he hopes to find a measure of solace through ruling both with wisdom, moderation, and love.  But his conscience will not even allow him the peace of prayer: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Hamlet 3.3.97-98).  Claudius’ sins will also not stay buried in the physical world.  The murdered king’s son, Hamlet, has somehow come to know what he has done, and Claudius must engage in more murderous plotting to keep his secret even as he watches his most trusted friend and advisor, Polonius, and Polonius’ innocent daughter Ophelia die as a result of his initial sin.  He can only lament as he watches events spin ever further out of control: “O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs / All from her father’s death” (4.5.75-76).  In the end, tragic justice demands that Claudius must die, undone by his own scheming and, like his lackeys Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Hoist with his own petar” (3.4.208).  All the good in him means nothing in the face of his treacherous action precipitated by his tragic flaw, Jealousy.  Thus ends William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Claudius, King of Denmark.


            But Shakespeare never wrote such a play, although he did tell Claudius’ story in a roundabout way. He chose to make his eponymous character the troublesome Prince Hamlet, and portrayed events largely from his point of view.  The result is a messy, sprawling “problem play” that generations of critics have struggled to come to terms with.  Perhaps more ink has been spilled on Hamlet than any other work of English literature.  T.S. Eliot’s criticisms are perhaps the most well-known: “Far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.  In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others” (47).  Yet surely it is valid to ask why a play that is “puzzling” and “disquieting” should necessarily be an “artistic failure.”  I believe that to understand the fallacy of these objections and to do justice to Hamlet we must look beyond the metaphysical Christian conception of tragedy out of which Eliot was writing.  We must try to understand tragedy in the way of ancient Greek playwrights such as Sophocles.  This is not to say that we can simply read Hamlet as we do Oedipus the King or Antigone, substituting Greek values where Eliot and others look for Christian metaphysics.   Hamlet’s meaning, if in the end it can be said to have one that exists outside of its reader, is like Heroclitus’ conception of nature; it “loves to hide” (Heroclitus 33).  Part of the problem is that Hamlet is such a rich work of literature.  Its characters are not the ciphers that we find in Sophocles, but are so richly drawn that we may have trouble looking past them on a first or second reading.  If we persevere, though we may find it possible to construct a reading of Hamlet that is more satisfying than that of Eliot, and that does owe a great deal to the Greek conception of tragedy.


            Perhaps we should first examine that traditional interpretation of Elizabethan tragedy that Hamlet so baffles.  It is a concept familiar to most schoolchildren, revolving around the notion of the “tragic flaw.”  In this narrative, a noble, virtuous, and capable man is utterly undone by a single failing in his character; perhaps Lust, perhaps Greed, perhaps Ambition, perhaps (as with Claudius) Jealousy.  The tragic hero must of course die for his failing, but in the process of doing so he may be redeemed and restored to at least a measure of his former greatness through self-discovery and acknowledgement of his sins.  Even if he fails again at this moment, his fall serves as a lesson to the audience on the wages of sin.  It is a conception of tragedy very well-suited to a Christian society, for the cycle forms a neat allegory of the central tale of Christianity; the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption in the after-life.  How appropriate then that the earliest great tragedy of the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, not only follows this outline perfectly but has its protagonist directly interacting with metaphysical specters of Christian good and evil.


Yet this framework tends to sit uncomfortably upon the work of Shakespeare, the master tragedian of the Elizabethan era.  Only Othello entirely works within it.  Romeo and Juliet; Macbeth; Antony and Cleopatra; even borderline juvenilia such as the almost comically bloody revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus can be forced into this mold only with a great deal of  prodding and hammering.  Doing so does them a great disservice, in the same sense that turning Oedipus the King into a story of sin, punishment, and redemption rather misses its point entirely.  Hamlet most of all resists the application of neat theories about the nature of “true” tragedy, and so confounds critics such as Eliot who come to it expecting it to be something it is not:


Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!  You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet you cannot make it speak.  ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?  Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me. (Hamlet 3.2.349-357).


Of course, a sufficiently determined commentator can force even Hamlet into an appropriately Christian-tinged metaphysical box.  Many thus claim Hamlet’s tragic flaw to be a certain congenital indecisiveness that leaves him agonizing and frittering away opportunities for action as Denmark burns.  While there is a certain amount of truth to the accusation, which we will touch upon before the end of this essay, one cannot help but feel that wishy-washiness lacks a certain moral grandeur when set against the more serious moral failings at the heart of other tragic heroes.  Hamlet’s failing is more ironic than tragic.  (The two concepts bear a definite relation, but are certainly not synonymous.)  One can of course conclude, like Eliot, that Hamlet is a muddled work, a palimpsest of material from other plays and sources that never gels into coherence.  However, I believe that Hamlet is a phenomenological tragedy that is concerned with much more than a single man’s personal failings.  I submit that if the play is “puzzling” and “disquieting,” that is hardly a weakness but rather the source of much of its strength.


            We should consider somewhat skeptically this notion of the tragic flaw, which originates from Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle’s word that is generally translated as same is hamartia.  It is a term with its origins in archery, where it is used to refer to a “missing of the mark.”  It was removed from this context by Aristotle, and extended to mean any general mistake or failing.  Christian readers anachronistically inserted the concept into their own worldview, giving it a moral, even spiritual dimension it does not generally possess in Greek tragedy.  Thus for contemporaries of Sophocles Oedipus’ “tragic flaw” is not that he possessed a murderous heart that led to the killing of his father at the crossroads, but rather his simple mistake in failing to recognize his father’s identity.  There is no grand Christian narrative of guilt, punishment, and redemption to be found here, but rather a sort of cosmic joke and an illustration of the powerlessness of even the mightiest in the face of raging physis.


            I want to read Hamlet too as a chronicle of physis unbound, sweeping all of the designs of man away in its chaotic whirlwind.  Like Pandora, Claudius has unleashed forces beyond his understanding.  No one within the bounds of the play has any real control.  All is confusion, madness.  “The time is out of joint” (1.5.188), Hamlet tells us, correctly, early on.  Yet he still believes he has control over events, even as he bitterly laments the fact: “O cursèd spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.188-189).  Here we see a rich vein of irony which will run throughout the play as characters, including but not limited to Hamlet, continually believe they can control events totally beyond their kin, and continually say things utterly at odds with the chaotic action of the play.  Contrast the careful, moderate Polonius’ speech to his son Laertes on how to conduct oneself as a proper bourgeois gentleman with the situation that surrounds them:


Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,

Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy:

For the apparel oft proclaims the man;

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are most select and generous chief in that.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be:

For loan oft loses both itself and friend;

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all,--to thine own self be true;

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man (1.3.59-80).


Polonius believes he can control the chaos of physis and lead a happy life through such trite maxims, and perhaps at most times he is even correct.  At the kairos moment, though, they offer no protection.  Returning to Greek tragedy again, one is tempted to set a famous choral ode from Sophocles’ Antigone in jeering counterpoint to Polonious.  In reference to man and his delusions of control, Sophocles states:


            He has a way against everything,

            and he face nothing that is to come

            without contrivance.

            Only against death

            can he call on no means of escape ( Antigone 358-362).


Logos and techne can provide no protection against the mad power of physis.


The idea of madness recurs again and again in Hamlet, serving as a metaphor for the chaos that envelops everyone.  Even language is in flux.  The simplest words have their sound and sense confused, as when Hamlet’s reference to “country matters” (3.2.111) leads to ribald mention of that which lies “between maids’ legs” (3.2.113).


Shakespeare wrote Hamlet at the cusp of the modern age.  The Renaissance was in full flower, and Francis Bacon was completing his treatise The Advancement of Learning that would lay the groundwork for our system of modern science.  The Enlightenment was waiting impatiently in the wings to sweep away the last traces of medieval thought, and everywhere could be found a new belief in the power of man to understand and thereby control his world.  Hamlet may ostensibly be set in medieval Denmark, but the principal characters are all very much modern men, and the conflict of their logocentric worldview with the forces of physis lies at the heart of the play’s tragedy.  Hamlet is standing at the kairos moment, but unable to understand its phenomological power.  Like a good Renaissance man, convinced that man is indeed “the measure of all things,” he cannot get outside of himself, cannot understand that what is happening is not about him.  He struts about the stage, lamenting his destiny and considering the possibility of suicide as if his suicide would have any meaning beyond his own existence:


O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.  O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world! (1.2.129-134).


The most famous section of this very famous play, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech in Act 3, Scene 1, echoes the same theme.  He never understands that at the kairos moment his death or life is meaningless.


            I have mentioned the concept of kairos several times now, and it deserves more explanation in the context of Hamlet.  As opposed to chronos time, which is linear and quantitative, kairos time is flexible and qualitative.  The kairos moment refers to that point where physus wells up to bring great change.  To Christians, kairos time is Godly time, and the kairos moment an expression of his ineffable will; to the Greek philosophical tradition, kairos time represents something even less explainable but no less terrible.  Hamlet is the story of a kingdom teetering on a long kairos moment which begins with the rightful king’s murder and does not end until his death is avenged and justice is done.  The characters involved can only grope toward an understanding of what is actually happening.  They know something is wrong, that their reality is being shaken to its foundations, but cannot or will not face the true implications of events.  “The time is out of joint” indeed.


            Among other things, Greek tragedy is characterized by a meeting of past, present, and future in a sort of kairos moment within the kairos moment of the play as a whole that will dictate the course of everything to come.  So in Oedipus the King, Oedipus kills his father at the crossroads that symbolize the collision of past and futurity.  The action of Hamlet begins with the visit of a literal ghost from the past in the form of Hamlet’s murdered father.  He refers to events past and present:


‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me.  So the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused.  But know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown (1.5.35-40).


And he makes a simple statement about the future that could equally serve as injunction or prediction: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25).


            Here, however, we have a glimmering of an element in Hamlet that would be completely foreign to a Greek tragedian: this idea of revenge as justice.  The text seems quite clear on this point, that a restoration of the balance of physis demands that Hamlet – or, presumably, someone else – enact revenge upon on Claudius.  The concept of revenge comes up again and again, and not just in that context.  Certainly Claudius uses it to manipulate Laertes to suit his ends: “And where th’ offense is, let the great axe fall” (4.5.216).  Hamlet most of all, though, is obsessed with revenge, and filled with shame by his inability to spring into action to effect it.  “How all occasions do inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!” (4.4.32-33), he tells us upon weighing his own fortitude against that of the brave warrior Fortinbras of Norway.  Most telling of all is Act 3, Scene 3, when an enraged Hamlet comes upon a repentant Claudius in the act of begging God for forgiveness.  Claudius kneels alone, unarmed and with his back to Hamlet.  The opportunity to strike is perfect, yet Hamlet stays his hand, declaring that he will not take his life when Claudius is in the midst of prayer for fear that his soul will thereby be given passage to heaven.  Hamlet feels it is just not only that Claudius die, but that he suffer the torments of the Christian hell afterward. 


When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed,

At game-a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t –

Then trip him, that his heals may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damned and black

As hell, whereto it goes (3.3.89-95).


Clearly the justice Hamlet contemplates requires more than a restoration of the rightful line of succession.


            One might be tempted to wonder whether statements like this are just another example of characters misunderstanding the reality that surrounds them, but I do not believe this was Shakespeare’s intent.  Hamlet was written out of an already lengthy tradition of revenge tragedies in British drama, a tradition that would reach its peak slightly after Shakespeare in plays like John Webster’s The White Devil.  (Webster is the playwright that Eliot in his poem “Whispers of Immortality” memorably characterized as always seeing “the skull beneath the skin,” a description that could be applied to much revenge tragedy).  Shakespeare’s Hamlet was in fact a remake of an earlier revenge tragedy now lost to us, and Shakespeare had himself already written at least one example of the form, Titus Andronicus, before Hamlet.  Like everyone of his time (and ours), Shakespeare would have been steeped in the Christian metaphysical tradition of good and evil as almost palpable forces, as well as the tradition -- rather less prevalent today -- of a jealous, vengeful God who punishes transgressors against His laws horribly.  Like most Greek tragedy, Hamlet is a tale of chaotic physis unleashed, but there is a moral dimension, and an element of human agency, to Hamlet that is lacking in a Greek tragedy such as Oedipus the King.  The imbalance in Hamlet has a cause in a treacherous act bigger than any of the principles of the play; in Oedipus, there is no cause, or at least no cause that can be understood by humans.  Oedipus must bear with the whims of physis without even the comfort of understanding why he has been selected to suffer so. 


            Consider the pattern of deaths in Hamlet.  Most are accidental.  Polonius is a victim of mistaken identity, stabbed while in hiding behind a screen; Ophelia throws herself into a river in an emotional fit; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are put to death by the king of England in another case of mistaken identity, this time engineered by Hamlet; Gertrude drinks a cup of poisoned wine intended by Claudius for Hamlet; and Laertes and Hamlet himself manage to kill one another with the same poisoned rapier in a confused scuffle.  This is more the stuff of high farce than high tragedy.  Only two deaths have intention behind them: Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father that precipitates all of the events that follow, and Hamlet’s killing of Claudius that finally brings the chaos to a close.  When Hamlet’s father has his revenge upon his killer, balance is restored and calm returns to a Denmark now ruled by a deserving king, the brave and noble young Fortinbras.  The progression is similar to that of Antigone, in which balance must be restored by giving Poluneices a proper burial, but the causes behind the progression are very different.  Revenge in Hamlet is a metaphysical and moral necessity.


            If the chaos in Hamlet is somewhat more explainable than that of Antigone or Oedipus, it nevertheless seems small comfort to those guiltless parties swept up and destroyed by it.  The bloody revenge its cosmology deems necessary can be hard to stomach, perhaps doubly so for us in the modern world who fancy ourselves somewhat removed from the violence of Elizabethan England.  It seems all too easy, particularly for us today, to take a nihilistic message from Hamlet, and Hamlet himself flirts with the idea all too frequently amidst his paroxysms of anger and despair.  (One should again remember here that Hamlet is very much a modern man.)  Upon meeting the two gravediggers tossing about the bones of the dead, he bemoans the pointlessness of it all:


Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer?  Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?  Why does he suffer this made knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?  Hum!  This fellow might be in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries.  Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of dirt?  Will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures?  The very conveyances of his lands will scarcely lie in this box, and must th’inheritor himself have no more, ha? (5.1.91-104).


And yet we should know better by this point than to take any character’s words in this “puzzling,” “disquieting” play at face value.  There is redemption to be found in Hamlet, just as there is within Greek tragedy.  The remedy for the sorrow and pain of life is, paradoxically, to live.  Existing fully, riding the wave of physis, has its own meaning and joy contained within itself.  In one of his more lucid moments, Hamlet himself touches upon this concept while witnessing the army of Fortinbras marching past him full of the joy of life even as, or because, they:


go to gain a little patch of ground

That hath in it no profit but the name.

To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it,

Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole

A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee (4.4.18-22).


Hamlet chides himself for refusing to truly engage with life by avenging his father, even though he has much better reasons for fighting than does the army before him.  We are fully alive only when we place ourselves at risk.


            Martin Heidegger claimed that the talent for living fully rests in the ability to allow oneself to be appropriated by the phenomenological world.  Herein lies Hamlet’s principle failing, a failing he shares with most modern men.  Hamlet is so caught up in his rational and pseudo-rational analysis of the situation that he cannot allow events to appropriate him.  In a sense, then, those critics who attribute to Hamlet the “tragic flaw” of wishy-washiness are correct, although they are incorrect to place Hamlet’s failings as the central issue of the play.  He cannot bring himself to accept Claudius’ guilt based upon the word of his father’s ghost, but develops the elaborate stratagem of the murder’s reenactment by the team of traveling players, hoping thereby to prove Claudius guilty in a rational, legalistic sense:


I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play,

Have by the very cunning of the scene

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaimed their malefactions.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ (2.2.575-580).


Only after five long acts of plotting, second-guessing, and hang-wringing does Hamlet finally restore the balance of physis, and in the process embrace his own existence as a being in time at last, by killing Claudius even as Claudius’ poison freezes his own blood.


            Perhaps the two most important scenes in Hamlet are performances.  We have the play within the play in which Hamlet’s father’s murder is reenacted, and then we have another kind of performance at the climax; the rapier duel between Hamlet and Laertes which, unknown to Hamlet and the crowd, is actually in deadly earnest.  I do not believe this is accidental.  The metaphor of performance as life occurs again and again in Shakespeare’s canon.  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more” (Macbeth 5.5.24-26), Macbeth famously tells us.  Yet the metaphor can also be a joyous one, as in the play within the play that concludes the joyously featherweight comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Friedrich Nietzsche and the tradition that followed him would take up this theme centuries later.  Living well is a fundamentally a performative, rather than a contemplative, exercise.  The only way to self-actualization is engagement, and the highest form of engagement is through the creation of art.  The fact that Hamlet is a play, rather than a novel or poem, matters.  Perhaps tragedy is itself a strictly performative phenomenon.  There may be no easy answers to be found within the murky depths of Hamlet, but there is affirmation of life in the enactment of its mysteries, for Hamlet should always be thought of as a living performance rather than a dead, dry text.  Or, rather, as millions of performances, each with an artistry, and thus a life, all its own. 



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