The Ripeness is All: Hamlet and the Problem of Uncertainty
E. John Winner
Although the Italian Renaissance produced important works prefatory to the arrival of Modernity, three texts actually announce it. Surprisingly, given modern biases, none of them are works of science or philosophy. Instead, they are literary fictions, and notably, each had a profound effect on the very structures of the languages in which they were written. In Don Quixote, Cervantes gives us the first major work to present life in its entirety in an utterly realistic way. Rabelais’ Pantrugel and Gargantua rips and tears through both Scholastic knowledge, then current scientific knowledge, myth, legend and superstition, as if they were tissue paper. And Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents us with a continuing problem for Modernity, the need to live with uncertainty.
We tend to forget that Shakespeare’s popularity went into eclipse during the late 17th Century, a “moment” that has done some damage to the legacy of reading his plays. The tradition of reading and interpreting Shakespeare really only begins toward the end of the 18th Century and didn’t develop a formal scholarship until the later 19th. Certain knowledge that was available to Shakespeare’s audience and which he addressed has had to be recovered, since it never was properly passed on.
A common modern reading of Hamlet pivots on the question of whether Hamlet suffers from a hesitancy that is unsettling his mind or whether he is wisely choosing just the right moment in which to take his revenge against his uncle. Consider, for instance, the common discussion of Hamlet’s failure to kill his uncle while the latter is at prayer: Is Hamlet missing out on a great opportunity to exact revenge or, given all that he can know at that moment, is he wisely delaying the execution of Claudius, until the other’s soul has once again become besmirched, assuring his swift journey into Hell?
There’s some truth to both readings, but both lack what may be an important component of a richer understanding of the play. In the Christian universe of the late Middle Ages, by what right would Hamlet take his uncle’s life for the murder of his father? Only if Claudius could be brought before a court of law and specifically, an ecclesiastical court, since Claudius, as king, is the final judge in the secular courts of Denmark. (I’m aware — as was Shakespeare — that kings were murdering each other left and right around that time, but we’re discussing the matter of a moral right here, not actual practice.) And by what right may Hamlet choose the optimal moment for sending his uncle’s soul to Hell? By no right at all; that would be the prerogative of God and God alone.
We have to take this back to the beginning of the play, when Hamlet meets his father’s ghost. What gets lost in modern readings is that Hamlet’s father has become a ghost precisely because he is damned. As such he is necessarily evil. If he had any good in him, he would be the soul of Hamlet’s father, arising to Heaven, or enjoying a period of penitence in Purgatory. Instead, because he walks the night, we ought to know – as Shakespeare would have expected his audience to know – that the ghost is an emanation of the soul of Hamlet’s father, which is at that moment burning in Hell, probably, in part, because of his unforgiving nature. In essence, the ghost is playing the role of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Hamlet to enact another Fall and thus join him in the underworld. As for Hamlet’s mother, the ghost tells Hamlet to “leave her to Heaven,” because he knows she has not committed any mortal sin. (Her relationship to Claudius is not incestuous, despite Hamlet’s outrage. It is what is known as a Levirate marriage, sanctioned in the Old Testament, and practiced among the English royalty (Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was a Levirate marriage)). At worst, her soul would spend some time in Purgatory before passing on to Heaven. “Leave her to Heaven,” because that’s where she’s destined. The ghost of Hamlet’s father has no such hope, and like any wicked spirit, hope is what he acts against.
The ghost is attempting to seduce Hamlet into committing murder, a mortal sin, as well as to take pride in his family above moral obligation (the sin of arrogance), and to despair of Divine justice.
But, Hamlet is no fool. He has been well educated and has a conscience. Occasionally, we find him speaking exactly as the ghost might wish, and at other times we hear him complaining about the uncertainty of his position. Hamlet’s “hesitation” is simply the emotionally complex and complicated contemplation of a young man trying to square experience, desire and moral right. That Claudius really is the murderer of Hamlet’s father does not absolve Hamlet of any responsibility in whatever final choice he makes. Instead, the moral depravity of his father only underscores the difficulty of that choice, but also gives us a brief premonition of what Hamlet himself might become, were he to straight-away follow the ghost’s command to enact revenge; just another corrupt king of Denmark, ascending to the throne over the corpse of his murdered predecessor.
The fact that modern readers believe that Hamlet is in some way justified in seeking revenge against Claudius only indicates how differently we understand the nature of moral motivations. Private personal ethical codes, often predicated on self-interest, are well understood now. In popular culture, the cowboy, the private detective, and the superhero are all individualists. They adhere to rigid codes of ethics, but they largely determine these codes for themselves.
Hamlet appears at a moment in history, at the height of the Reformation, when the West is making the cultural transition from a world dominated by an institution overtly dedicated to determining societal morals and monitoring people’s behavior, to one in which an individual must find his or her own way and learn to live with other individuals finding their own, different ways.
It is no surprise, then, that when Hamlet at last attacks Claudius, it is not the result of a completed moral theory, but a swift response to an immediate outrage, discovering his mother dying at his uncle’s hands, and himself mortally wounded. It is action, not speech, that realizes Hamlet’s real ethical commitments, precisely what we moderns have come to expect of the ethical individual.
A man must design nothing that will require so much time to the finishing, or, at least, with no such passionate desire to see it brought to perfection. We are born to action. –Montaigne
Suppose we were to put a lawyer on retainer and she said to us: “Everything I do will be in your best legal interest; unfortunately, for this reason, I may find it occasionally necessary to lie to you.” Do we make such a contract? Can we trust that the lawyer will do everything in our interest, once contracted? Do we not now know that any correspondence from her may be false? This is no paradox, but it is certainly a dilemma. Do we trust the lawyer’s expressed intentions? If we do, can we live thenceforth with the uncertainty concerning what she has to say?
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has Polonius, that banal literalist, read an odd note sent by the melancholy Dane to Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, the woman he supposedly loves:
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
What’s odd about this verse is that the first two lines require a knowledge of the then-recent debates in astronomy, in order to be properly comprehended. We all recognize the reference to the sun’s movement, a remnant from the geocentric model of the universe. But it may be missed that the first line depends on the assumption of the knowledge of the heliocentric model of the universe that displaced the geocentric one. On the older model, the sun was not a star, so stars needn’t be composed of the same stuff as the sun, and were frequently thought to be of some unknown substance in the “firmament.” It was only with the coming of the heliocentric view that it was recognized that the other objects in the sky were also suns or planets, like our Earth. And if the stars were suns, they also burned. So, Shakespeare has Hamlet asking Ophelia to doubt both models, which effectively would leave her clueless as to what justifiably to believe about the heavens.
His audience would have had good reason to think he was correct to do this. The geocentric model of the universe had been falling apart for some time; errors in seasonal predictions, star-charting, and naval navigation dependent on astronomy were accumulating. But although it produced fewer such practical errors (which is not to say none), the heliocentric model of the universe itself had a number of logical problems. For one, if the stars are also suns to other planets, then our own sun cannot be at the center of the universe. If our sun is the center of the universe, then the other stars cannot be suns to other planets. If the stars are not suns, then there’s no reason to assume they are composed of the same stuff as our sun; hence “doubt the stars are fire.”
Of course, the solution is clear to us now, and forms the foundation of modern cosmology. The universe has no center, so the sun can be a star, and other stars can be suns to other planets, and we can all be one big happy family of stuff. But Shakespeare’s audience wouldn’t know that. As far as they were concerned, the “natural philosophers” of their day were busily demonstrating the probability that nothing could be known about earth, sun, stars, or universe.
This may be why Hamlet begins his fateful turn towards passion by reminding Ophelia that she is at liberty to suspect that everything false may yet be true:
Doubt truth to be a liar
Or is it the other way around? The grammar here seems somewhat unclear. Shakespeare may be playing on the classic Liar’s paradox, according to which the statement “I always lie” has an indeterminate truth-value (if true, it’s false, and if false, it’s true). The paradox is in fact resolvable contextually. Why is this person saying this, to whom, and in what situation?
Where’s that five bucks you promised?
Oh, I always lie.
So, we’re not going to the ball game like you said we would?
There’s always an exception.
Implication: Please forget that promise I didn’t want to make, but let’s go to the ball game anyway. In other words, one has to read it neither grammatically nor logically, but rhetorically. And the rhetorical usage here is clear. Obviously, Hamlet wants Ophelia to surrender logical judgments on what could be known. Even his grammar is a convolution, making meaning difficult to read.
But Hamlet’s reassurance, expressed presumably from the heart, certainly reads as clear, direct, final:
But never doubt I love.
Why not? What assurance can Hamlet give Ophelia here? In the remainder of the letter, he says he is rather poor at verse (“number,” as he calls it, in reference to traditional metrics, but also perhaps as oblique admission that he does not himself fully trust the developments of the mathematically based new sciences), but his logic is keen, and from that, Ophelia ought to have recognized the need for caution. The line is clear and final, but it is not unambiguous in its application; one need not doubt Hamlet is capable of love without wondering about the object, the extent, the depth of it. It sounds deep, coming after the sweeping skepticism concerning metaphysics and truth itself, but that’s just set up. Taken by itself, it should lead to questions.
Instead, we later find this exchange, when Ophelia is sent by her father to ascertain Hamlet’s mental state:
Hamlet: I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.
Obviously, the question as to whether Hamlet actually did love Ophelia or not has been batted about (perhaps to death) by literary critics for more than a hundred years. We will not pursue it. What concerns us here is the condition of truth as Hamlet presents it to Ophelia and which he draws from the science, logic, grammar and rhetoric of his era. In his letter, he insists that his love is more certain than truth itself. Yet, when he suspects she is being used by her father, he renounces this previous assurance, dismissing Ophelia’s earlier acceptance of it as the one truth she could be certain of, as no more than deluded belief. Another belief shattered, in a world filled with uncertainties.
Understandably, her confrontation with such mobile manipulations of the truth contributes to her eventual madness. Hamlet has learned how to live in a world of uncertainties, how to suspend belief when presented with new knowledge, tentative and contingent discoveries in science, and unstable social conditions. Not completely (or there would not have been any play at all), but enough to learn how to survive and to respond to possible threats and disappointments. Of course, that will not protect him from the poisoned sword-point at the end, but no one lives forever.
Ophelia, on the other hand, still lives in the house of later Medieval Scholasticism and early Renaissance poetry; where knowledge was certain; love was her purpose in life; and eternity supposedly guaranteed.
Hamlet, despite his pretentions, remains sane, because he can distinguish between the rhetoric of what is said as separate from the logic that one knows or even the intuitions that may “surpasseth show.” For Ophelia, her trust that this is all one, prepares her to be broken into madness when confronted with the diversity and uncertainty of the world in which she lives and of the personality of the man she has come to love.
Where do we find ourselves today, as the audience to Shakespeare’s play? Four hundred years later, in a world still more uncertain, still more complicated, its contingencies ever more tentative. Whose position do we find ourselves in, with respect to this play, in responding to it or learning from it, when we return to our own world? Are we in Hamlet’s situation? Or Ophelia’s?
We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe, we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn. —Montaigne
To Be or What?
“To be or not to be” begins Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, and I suppose one could make the case that all this speech evinces, in its suicidal ideation, is Hamlet’s extreme neurosis. But of course, it’s much more than that. Historically, it is one of the first major instances, since the classical era, when a character in a fictional work expresses both a fear of a possible afterlife and no hope for one. This is not the cynical despair of Chaucer’s Pardoner, who clearly thinks himself destined for Hell, but neither is it the battered but undefeated optimism of Piers Plowman’s Will. It’s a result of the skepticism engendered by the many conflicting interpretations of salvation swarming around Western Europe during the Reformation.
What a ridiculous thing it is to trouble ourselves about taking the only step that is to deliver us from all trouble! As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so in our death is the death of all things included. —Montaigne
The certainty concerning the afterlife that Thomas Aquinas codified so brilliantly and Dante described so beautifully, together with the sure pathways leading to its morally determined divisions, is completely gone. The afterlife is now but “the undiscovered country.” There is no map of it and lacking that, no completely trustworthy map leading to it. This is an easy point to score, concerning the soliloquy – it’s probably available in some Cliff Notes redaction. But its real importance is easy to miss. Augustine wrote that there were two histories, that of “the city of man” and that of “the city of God.”
Two loves therefore have given origin to these two cities, self-love in contempt of God unto the earthly, love of God in contempt of one’s self to the heavenly. The first seeks the glory of man, and the latter desires God only as the testimony of the conscience, the greatest glory. (1) ().
Clearly, the history of the earthly city is little more than a waste of time. It only has meaning – and a negative one at that – when set against the city of God, the history of the human effort to achieve salvation, finally realized on Judgment Day. But to deny the certainty of Heaven is as much as to deny this comparison. Earthly history is the only history we’ve got. It is not surprising that we Moderns (with the exception, perhaps, of religious fundamentalists) have wearied of waiting for Judgment Day. Here and now seems problematic enough for us.
Throughout this essay, I have dropped quotes from Montaigne. The reason should be evident, but I’ll make it clear: Throughout Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet asks troubling questions, most for which he never finds answers. This is because he exists in an era when accepted answers to those questions are being debunked, and newer answers are not yet fully formed. But some possible answers were available in Shakespeare’s day, in the skepticism and stoicism of Montaigne, and the strangely jaded wonder at the world his essays express. These were not the final answers, and for some of Hamlet’s questions, there can be no final answers. But Shakespeare, who, we have good reason to believe read Montaigne, would have known of them and perhaps found solace in them himself. Hamlet’s real tragedy is that born of the Middle Ages and yet, a child of what would become Modernity, he did not have them available.
So, respecting Fortinbras, his successor to the Danish throne (for every history must have its future), Hamlet finally says:
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
Can we hear that silence now, in the buzzing of the Modern era? Do we have any idea what it means? Or have we learned to live with it, simply because we must?
- St. Augustine, Civitas Dei, John Healy translator.