Hamlet’s Great Foe

An essay by grade 11 student Carmina Cornacchia.

If Hamlet were its one-hundred-and-eighty degree opposite—a comedy—the audience would swoon from joy when Ophelia and Hamlet were married at the end. Unfortunately Mr. Shakespeare did not have such joviality in mind. It is pitiful indeed, that their two aching hearts fall still before joining hands in holy matrimony, but for these purposes their tragedy illustrates a theme of utmost importance in the play: mortality. For some, the use of that word may be amemento mori, or “reminder of death” in the way that a skull might remind one of their eventual end, and of course mortality is literally present in Hamlet. However, its meaning expands to vast and decadent layers. In “The World of Hamlet” by Maynard Mack, he comments that the play emanates mortality in the sense of, “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, not simply death” (Mack 53). Mack comments that the play exemplifies this “heartache” through the idea that human intent is ephemeral (53-54), and through themes and imagery of infection (54), poison (54-55), and loss (55). Mortality is the harbinger for the great tragedy that is Hamlet.

Mack provides ample substantiation for his interpretation of mortality. He remarks that Hamlet first acknowledges mortality when he realizes that humans can end up at a crossroads of poor circumstance out of pure probability, not their own fault, and that this can be the end of their character (Mack 53). Hamlet says it precisely: “nature cannot choose his origin” (Shakespeare 1.5.26). Mack states that Claudius too has noticed a deeper mortality; to his taste, love “dies of its own too much” (53), and so does human will (53). Mack exemplifies this with an excerpt from the vicarious play that Hamlet commissions to “catch the conscience of the king” (Shakespeare 2.2.607). The play’s “king” takes the affection of the “queen” with a grain of salt, knowing that her love is at the mercy of her recollection, which is not a reliable engine of intent (Mack 54). The strongest of Mack’s examples seems to be Claudius’s thoughts on intent. For a human may be ardently intending to carry something out, but that intent is dependent on his fleeting recollection, and the limits of his mind (Mack 54). A perfect example of Claudius’s description is Hamlet: instead of taking revenge on Claudius as he intends, he procrastinates and puts on a play instead. One example that Mack omits is Hamlet’s discussion of his own mortality in the soliloquy that begins, “to be, or not to be, that is the question” (3.1.56). At first glance the soliloquy is about literal mortality, and Hamlet’s decision to either commit suicide or not. But the soliloquy is also about the deeper facets of mortality and the way human endeavours are ephemeral much like their lives. Mack so eloquently describes this as, “Human weakness, the instability of human purpose, the subjection of humanity to fortune—all that we might call the aspect of failure in a man” (Mack 53). Hamlet is contemplating suicide, but a form of the aforementioned “failure” in his mind leaves him paralyzed and immobile at the thought of it. Hamlet describes his current disposition thus: “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? 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, and enterprises of great pitch and moment…turn awry and lose the name of action” (Shakespeare 3.1.79). This soliloquy, especially the aforementioned excerpt, is deeply multi-faceted. On the one hand, Hamlet is toying with the thought of his literal mortality, or the thought of committing suicide, and on the other hand he is exploring a more complex interpretation of mortality because his mind’s inhibitions render him incapable of carrying out his actions. His very will to end his life is mortal in itself. It is in concepts such as these that the pure genius of Shakespeare is most striking.

Mack goes on to elaborate that mortality extends to the concept and imagery of what he calls “infection—the ulcer, the hidden abscess” (54). He credits Miss Spurgeon with this addition to the lengthy list of concepts presented in Hamlet. Her proposition entails that Hamlet’s responsibility to avenge his father is a product of pure misfortune (54). He has had it thrust onto his unstable shoulders, and they are crumbling beneath the gravity of the expectations (Mack 54). The idea of having responsibility thrown on Hamlet’s shoulders without his consent resembles an infection, for he with the flu did not request his contagion (Mack 54). Rather, it has spread to him by virtue of probability, and he happens to be the victim (Mack 54). Not only has Hamlet acquired this infection from chance, but also it will surely consume him as well as those around him, all of whom are innocent in the matter (Mack 54). In Miss Spurgeon’s opinion, Hamlet’s situation is “the chief tragic mystery of life” (Mack 54). Mack states that the first time Hamlet acknowledges that he was born into this responsibility is: “when he describes how from that single blemish, perhaps not even the victim’s fault, a man’s whole character may take corruption” (53). The idea of the “corruption” of “character” is provocative here, and it could not be more true to Hamlet. Because of Hamlet’s disease of obligation, he will plunge his sword through a tapestry in order to kill whom he believes to be a spying Claudius, but is in fact Polonius. For this action he seems to feel minimal guilt: a sign that he has become morally disengaged. In reply to his mother’s cry of disgust, he counters: “A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother” (Shakespeare 3.4.27). By this point in the play, the infection has irreversibly consumed Hamlet’s personality. It is of the essence to recollect that at the beginning of the play, Hamlet was a scholar from Wittenberg; he had no interest in revenge, despite his spurn for Claudius. The inadvertent donning of this particular responsibility is the “corruption” that Mack speaks of, and corruption has a way of becoming one with its victim.

Mack points out later on that the “infection” is not a disease per se in Hamlet, it is a substance, and by extension a specific person (54). This substance of great significance is poison, and Claudius is the root cause of the poison that seeps through every Danish family’s door until, “there is something rotten in all of Denmark” (Mack 54). Mack  continues to say that Hamlet, Gertrude, Laertes, Ophelia, and the nation at large suffer from this poisonous infection that spreads like a plague (54). According to him,

Hamlet tells us that his ‘wit’s diseased,’ the queen speaks of her ‘sick soul,’ the king is troubled by ‘the hectic’ in his blood, Laertes meditates revenge to warm ‘the sickness in my heart,’ the people of the kingdom grow ‘muddied, Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts’; and even Ophelia’s madness is said to be ‘the poison of deep grief’.(Mack 54).

One example that Mack omitted is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They too are infected by Claudius’s plague when they agree to comprehend through espionage, “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus” (Shakespeare 2.2.17) in regards to Hamlet’s state of mind. This spreading of evil to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are relatively innocent, through the imagery of poison brings to mind the concept of “the king’s two bodies”. This is the idea that the king has a “body proper” and a “body politic”, the former being his literal body, the latter including the entire country and its people. This is the idea that when the king is immoral, it affects the body politic, making the people “unwholesome”. The poison of Hamlet begins with a single drop in an elderly man’s ear, but by the end it has grown to an ocean that swallows up any character of importance, some even being killed by the poison they intended for others. Laertes is the supreme culprit for the play’s tragic finale, and by the end nearly every character has died because of his dripping green fingertips. That is what seems to be the case. However, despite poison being the primary source of maleficent diversification and ample death at the end of the play, it also causes a renaissance of sorts. As Hamlet is taking his last breaths on the floor of the castle, he bids Horatio “to tell my story” (Shakespeare 5.2.356). Thus, poison perpetuates the tragedy lest it be repeated. Poison acts similarly to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in a way; they both ensure that the errors made over the course of the play are not repeated, but one pertains to future generations in Hamlet, the other pertains to the audience. Regardless, both assign meaning to the suffering.

Mack’s final argument about mortality is that: “the chief form in which the theme of mortality reaches us, it seems to me, is as a profound consciousness of loss” (55). The late King Hamlet’s anguished position on Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius is a model for this loss (Mack 55), and he expresses his melancholy so: “So to seduce! — won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen” (Shakespeare 1.5.45). Hamlet’s father is in such disbelief of how quickly Gertrude’s love for him dissolved that he no longer sees her as “virtuous”.Ophelia evokes a similar reaction to Hamlet when he detonates with fury (Mack 55), telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare 3.1.121). Ophelia registers this outburst as nonsensical ramblings being emitted from the shell of a man with whom she was once affectionate (Mack 55). She comments, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (Mack 55), in other words, she has lost contact with his ephemeral “noble mind” to the infectious nature of Claudius (Mack 55). One example that Mack omitted is Horatio’s loss of Hamlet, which is perhaps the most stirring part of the play for an audience member, especially after hearing the heart-wrenching, “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (Shakespeare 5.2.365). That being said, Mack’s initial statement about loss being the “chief form in which the theme of mortality reaches us” (55) is slightly unstable, especially in the choice of the word “chief”. If there is to be a supreme representation of mortality over-arching the play, then that is to be found in the concept of ephemeral intent. This idea that our intent can fade, change, or be manipulated is essential to the philosophy of the play and is the manifestation that gives life to the minor concepts of mortality as infection, poison, and loss. In Mack’s work he cites Miss Spurgeon, who insists that the concept of infection is “the chief tragic mystery of life” (54), but it seems that the washing away of human intent is more impactful because it is the sweeping generality that encompasses infection, poison, loss, and yet also swallows all three of them up as examples ascribing to a higher meaning, which is this: human consciousness is mortal without having to die. Intention can die out like a fire ember in the wind, without anyone to mourn for it. If a human is a product of their intention, then this is the ultimate tragedy.

But wait: there is more to the story. For neither Hamlet nor Hamlet are mortal; they have both been conserved in their entirety, and they could not be more vivacious. For every time someone opens up the script another soul empathizes with Hamlet’s story, his intentions, and his suffering. So in the end, there may be sustenance for Hamlet. As Shakespeare so wisely affirmed in his Sonnet 18, “ So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” (13-14). “This” pertains to the play. As long as the universe is intact with all its stars in line and celestial bodies in order, man will never cease to acknowledge the tragedy of Hamlet.

1. Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet”. United States of America: The Yale Review, 1952. Print.
2. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. China: Cengage Learning, 2001. Print.
*Note: I assumed that The World of Hamlet was printed in the USA, because it did not say where it was printed in the handout.

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