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.

Moral 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                            

Doubting Truth

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?


  1. St. Augustine, Civitas Dei, John Healy translator.






16 responses to “The Ripeness is All: Hamlet and the Problem of Uncertainty”

  1. Bravo, EJ! Bravo!

  2. ejwinner

    It’s a nice essay. Like you I think it’s important to situate any text firmly within its own intellectual and cultural environment if you want to understand the nuances.

    I have trouble accepting your basic thesis that “three texts” announce the coming of Modernity, unless this is taken to mean three texts amongst many, many others. But you comment: “Surprisingly, given modern biases, none of them are works of science or philosophy.” Which suggests that the basic thesis means what it seems to mean. And, as I say, this claim seems on the face of it much too strong. It’s not my period, but my guess is that it would not be too hard to find other texts with at least equally plausible claims to “announce Modernity” as you put it.

    There is also the question of what modernity is – or means. I suspect you may be drawing on some late-20th century literature on modernity of which I am unaware, but naturally I know the various traditional ways the term has been been used, especially in relation to the arts. Postmodernism, as I think you noted recently, originally applied to architecture and had a fairly precise meaning, as – in architectural contexts – did ‘modernism’. Modernism as a late 19th-century movement within (especially French) Catholicism I know and understand. It had a very specific and clearly defined meaning at the time. My point is that the term has many possible meanings.

    I might perhaps also mention here a strong conviction of mine which is relevant not just to this but also to the previous thread (especially in relation to a comment made there about the great creators of Western culture). I won’t go on about it but I see the general culture as the creative force and individuals, even great thinkers and writers like Plato or Shakespeare, as drawing their power from the ambient culture. So I would be naturally inclined to deemphasize rather than emphasize the importance of specific authors or works in holding together the cultural matrix to which they give voice and within which they arise.

    The other (inchoate) thought that your piece raised in my mind relates to the religious culture upon which Shakespeare was drawing. You emphasize late medieval Christian elements. I see his spiritual world more in terms of neo-Platonism than in terms of orthodox Christianity – though of course the latter always included significant elements of the former.

  3. Dan,
    Thank you.

    Your point about Modernism is well taken; I am using the term in the rather loose sense – because history has no precise divisions – that is usually deployed in literary criticism.

    As to the ‘three texts’ issue, this is also problematic in much the same way. But my own sense is that literature – especially that which achieves popularity and influence in its day – reveals more of what people ‘on the street,’ so to speak, actually think about the world they live in than reasoned analysis. I quote Montaigne, but his audience was largely the literati of his era; Hamlet plays to the groundlings as much as to the aristocracy in the balcony. But I admit this is opinion derived from my professional training, and would require a larger discussion to defend..

  4. davidlduffy

    Most erudite! The collection of theological viewpoints different members of the audience might have had,
    makes me think of deliberate ambiguity as well as uncertainty.

  5. 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.

    Cusanus, writing more than a century before Hamlet had introduced the idea of an infinite Universe which had no centre and in which all movement is relative. Bruno had recently reintroduced and expanded on these ideas, (including the idea that each star was a Sun with a solar system) and was well known in England, so it is not unlikely that an English audience would be familiar with this.

    Doubting that the Sun moves wss not such a recent controversy, Oresme had earlier pointed out that the evidence available would support both a moving Sun but also a static Sun and revolving Earth.

    And doubting that the stars are fire goes back to the classical period. Aristotle doubted that the stars or the Sun were fire

    So it is difficult to know how an audience around 1600 in England would have been expected to take this.

  6. alandtapper1950

    EJ, thanks for this stimulating essay. Lots to think about in it.

    To my mind you take a very strange — but challenging — view of Hamlet’s moral situation. I guess most readers take the ghost of Hamlet’s father as speaking truly when he says he was murdered by Claudius. He also says he is in purgatory, not hell. Hamlet thereafter takes all that the ghost says as given; it commits him to his task of seeking vengeance. And I don’t see anything in the play that paints Hamlet’s father as not the innocent party. Nor do I see the play as in any way justifying Claudius. Quite the contrary: the play within the play really does catch the conscience of the king, and the attempt to kill Hamlet with poison confirms the king’s villainy.

    Your view seems to be that Hamlet suffered delusions, caused by his acceptance of the ghost’s speech. Your other claim that he faced the problem of how to act in a situation where the moral universe was shifting is more plausible — but I think not compatible with Hamlet being deluded.


  7. Alan,
    If I gave the impression I think Hamlet was deluded, then I missed a beat; there’s a real ghost there, he just isn’t doing what Hamlet would wish him to do. But Hamlet senses this is the case (as I read him), so he is really struggling to avoid delusion, and to find solutions other than the easy choices his father’s ghost seems to offer him.

    I’m aware that the ghost claims to be purging his sins. suggesting purgatory; however, if he is evil, then of course he would lie. (And how could Hamlet know which really is the case?) In any event, his attempted intervention in Hamlet’s life is seriously suspect. The fact remains that he is demanding of Hamlet what is not Hamlet’s moral prerogative to do. And I find it difficult to believe Hamlet’s father was innocent, given the politics of the day and the recent conflicts between Denmark and Norway. I think it notable that the play resolves itself to the ascendency of Fortinbras, whose father Hamlet’s father had killed, leaving Fortinbras’ uncle on the throne (sound familiar?). Fortinbras is not the hero of our play, but in some real sense he is Hamlet’s hero, the man of his own generation Hamlet most admires.

    I said nothing about justifying Claudius; what I said is that Claudius’ guilt does not relieve Hamlet of the responsibility for his own moral choices. (And neither does the Ghost’s injunctions.) That is the whole point – Hamlet must make his own moral choices, in a situation where the moral consequences of his choices are uncertain, and the responsibility unavoidable – as he learns with the death of Polonius, enacted impulsively, even rashly. Even an act of seeming self-defense on the spur of the moment can weigh heavily. How much more heavily an act that needs to be thought through, with uncertain advice, in a dangerous political situation.

    I suggest that by the time he returns from England, Hamlet is aware that the real game in play is not one of revenge, but of political intrigue. The real prize is not his uncle’s punishment, but the throne of Denmark. I think that’s partly what he learns in his brief passage through Norway, and the deadly trick he must play on Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. What is at stake is not a family, but a nation. That’s why the tone changes after the trip to England (and notably the Ghost receives little mention after this).

    If it be now,
    ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
    now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
    readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
    leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

    This is not the Hamlet we met in Act One, who wished his “too solid flesh would melt
    Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” I suggest my reading accounts more for the changes in Hamlet’s character than the more traditional reading you offer.

    I’m aware of the historical background you discuss; I have a sense that you missed the point I was making. And your final remark is irrelevant to any historical study of past texts, since understanding how contemporary readers received those texts is precisely what the study of history is all about. Of course we’ll never get this perfect, it’s a matter of interpretation, as the discussion between Alan and myself indicates. But, after all, what we are seeking is a reasonable story of how we got to where we are to day and the legacy we are left to interpret accordingly.

  8. Alan,
    A thought occurred after posting my last comment. That “play within a play” – isn’t it notable that Hamlet does *not* take the Ghost’s accusation on face value but designs a means of getting some kind of empirical confirmation of his own? If The Ghost had been entirely trustworthy, or. more [precisely, if Hamlet really thought he was, the ‘play within the play’ would not have been necessary, since it proves nothing to anyone but Hamlet and his confidante, Horatio.

    Again, Claudius’ guilt is not at issue here, but rather how to respond to problems with difficult grounds of justification. My case is simply that Hamlet responds much in the ways Moderns would expect, rather than as the Medievals might.

    I also wanted to make explicit a question implicit in my remark on Levirate marriage, Shakespeare has the Ghost and Hamlet implicitly accusing Henry VIII, the father of the then Queen Elizabeth, of incest in his first marriage. I raise that point, not because I have a completed theory or interpretation of it. but rather because I don’t. Shakespeare’s politics within his historical context are difficult to pin down, but fascinating to think about.

  9. Hamlet is the most complicated and deepest play in the English language, but perhaps in any language.

    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 cannot
    you 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, yet you
    cannot play upon me.

  10. My quoting Hamlet’s lines to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern is merely to acknowledge how difficult a play Hamlet is to interpret. That is part of its power, and many different interpretations can viably be made of it.

  11. EJ,

    One note. The ghost does seem to come from purgatory. See:

    I am thy father’s spirit,
    Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
    And for the day confined to fast in fires,
    Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
    Are burnt and purged away.

    A place where your soul stays “for a certain term” until its “foul crimes…[a]re burnt and purged away” could only be purgatory, but the deliberate use of the word “purged” seems to be present to remove all doubt. There has been a lot of discussion of this over the years because purgatory is a distinctively Catholic notion and Shakespeare is writing for a very anti-Catholic crowd. (Hamlet has also been a student at uber-protestant Wittenberg.) It could be this another sign of S’s sympathy with Catholics (which has always been suspected) or it may be a sign that the ghost is actually demonic, an idea explicitly discussed in the play and never, to my mind, fully exorcised.

  12. 1970scholar

    However influenced I may be by some of the New Criticisms’s text based autonomous view of art, there is simply no substitute for knowing the context that informs the poetry as well. All works of art have ideas in them, certainly those with a bare minimum of value, and some of those ideas are ideas unique to the time of the creation. Very good essay.

  13. alandtapper1950

    EJ, your view is that Hamlet’s moral situation is full of uncertainty. You make it well.

    Mine is that the morality is certain. The case for that view is that the son of a king whose place has been usurped must restore moral order to the kingdom. Only he can do what is needed, and he must do it. But he must have some grounds other than the ghost’s message, hence the need to find evidence, even if it is evidence convincing only to him and Horatio. Once he has that evidence he believes he has no choice but to act.

    You say: “Claudius’ guilt does not relieve Hamlet of the responsibility for his own moral choices. (And neither does the Ghost’s injunctions.) That is the whole point – Hamlet must make his own moral choices”. Between what and what? What alternative did he have? To go into exile? Quietly accept Claudius’s rule?

    Someone observed recently that we should see Hamlet as a very young man, say about 18 years old. He has had an appalling situation forced upon him at an age when uncertainty is normal. He’s having to grow up fast. That is one explanation of why he finds it so difficult. It is not the picture of Hamlet we would get from the great actors who have played him as a mature man.

  14. davidlduffy

    Kalendorf [1998, as abstracted on the above website]: Reginald Scot’s The Discouerie of Witchcraft and King James I’s Daemonologie…support the notion that many…viewed melancholy as “actually caused by demons”…Gertrude describes Hamlet’s visual appearance “using the language of the exorcists to describe demoniacs”…the Ghost, particularly in its first appearance, “is also illuminated by these two treatises”

    James I writes:
    “these Spirites..when they appeare in the shaddow of a person newlie dead…they are called Wraithes in our language. Amongst the Gentiles the Deuill vsed that much, to make them beleeue that it was some good spirite that appeared to them then, ether to forewarne them of the death of their friend; or else to discouer vnto them, the will of the defunct, or what was the way of his slauchter, as is written in the booke of the histories Prodigious. And this way hee easelie deceiued the Gentiles, because they knew not God”. He points out that Catholics and other ignorant Christians are also much more prone to being tricked this way.

    So several authors have suggested Shakespeare is deliberately allowing three possible readings catholic, protestant, platonic humanist

  15. alandtapper1950.
    I fear we’ll have to agree to disagree here (and so with David Ottlinger).
    But as I also noted, part of the power of the play is its openness to variant interpretations. Reaching into Hamlet is something like the Fox reaching into the Tar Baby. And I think that’s a good thing. What use is a work of literature that resolves into a single point of view?

  16. hamlet is the richest play in the English language, exactly because it does not yield itself to easy interpretation – not even mine.

    I did want to add a memorandum before this discussion closed. I owe a lot of my interpretation here to a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut, delivered at the University of Kansas in 1985. He therein demonstrated that the emotional responses of fairly tales were easily diagrammed. That of Hamlet not so much. This essay is thus dedicated to the memory of Kurt Vonnegut/