Hamlet: Masterpiece or Melodramatic Muddle?

The icy wind was working up to a squall when King Hamlet (Sr.), contentedly stretching after enjoying a sumptuous luncheon repast, sauntered outside to his garden — his favorite spot to lie down for a siesta.  Of course, such outdoor naps, even when bundled-up, were not always advisable on his remote, rocky Danish jutland of Elsinore Castle.  But he was a fresh-air fiend, and no foe to the rigors of damp, rheumatic conditions.  After all, he lived in a badly-heated castle — not much firewood available on that rocky promontory!

What happened next is uncertain.  Two hours later, he was found dead.  His chamberlain Polonius estimated that the king had been dead for 45 minutes, give-or-take 10 minutes or so.  Moreover, as the king’s most trusted advisor, he determined the cause of death as the lethal venom of a serpent’s bite.  Cursory examination of the body showed no fang-marks indicative of such a bite, but Polonius was confident in his conclusion.  After all, despite the inauspicious climate and absence of topsoil, various breeds of poisonous serpent were surprisingly present in the immediate environs of the castle.  Polonius also noticed some residue of liquid dripping from the king’s ear, which he quickly concluded was the snake’s venom.  Why the snake would have secreted its poisonous fluid directly in the king’s ear was a matter of little conjecture.

Now the queen had been restless for quite some time, and was not unreceptive to the flirtations emanating from her dear husband Hamlet’s hirsute brother, Claudius.  Claudius, sympathetic to her distress, resolved her perturbations with a vial of poisonous distillations.  In the absence of a forensic investigation, the old king’s corpse was expeditiously interred.  His brother, the jocular if shifty Claudius, quickly succeeded to the throne, and moreover, without undue delay, married the widow (expeditiously recovered from her grief).

Now the old king’s only son, Hamlet, found such connubial swiftness unseemly to the memory of his much esteemed, now-dead father, and he brooded over Gertrude’s hasty remarriage.  Despite his knowledge of the classics (for instance, the Roman Emperor Claudius’s fatal mushroom supper), the possibility of foul play never seemed to occur to him.  Evidently poisonous serpents were a deadly danger on the cold, rocky jutland of Elsinore.  But, in a remarkable, possibly unprecedented occurrence, the shade of his dead father did indeed return from that “undiscovered country” (from which, customarily, no one ever does), disclosing to Hamlet that his death was actually murder by his treacherous brother Claudius.

Furiously resolved and resolute in his unswerving intent to enact revenge on the murderer, Hamlet then proceeds to play practical jokes, display manic if pointless antics, talk to a disinterred skull, recklessly kill the innocent Polonius (and later his son Laertes), drive the lovesick Ophelia to suicide, and accomplish otherwise whimsical and paradoxical witticisms.  His own demise, ingeniously accomplished by means of a pointless duel with “envenomed” swords, is at least accompanied by the deaths of both his mother Gertrude and the villainous Claudius.

Perhaps the young Hamlet’s irresolute and baffling tactics to avenge his father’s murder did not necessitate the death of six additional people, including himself.  Such, however, was the fate of this “noble prince” of obscure if unquestionable virtue.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.