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Five Classic Solutions of the Hamlet Problem

From The Modern Reader's Hamlet by Haven McClure. London: R.G. Badger.

The Hamlet Problem

The so-called Hamlet problem is presented in lines 29-31 of Act I, Scene 5:
Hamlet: "Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge."
But throughout the five acts of the play Hamlet completely fails to "sweep" to his revenge. This curious fact constitutes the crux of the plot, "the Hamlet Mystery."

Five Classic Solutions of the Hamlet Problem

Of the five classic attempts by eminent scholars and poets to solve the baffling problem of Hamlet's conduct, the first four are subjective (the fourth being purely pathological), and the fifth is objective, or based solely on external circumstances.

The first and most famous is the so-called "sentimental" theory of Goethe, leading poet of Germany, advanced in his Wilhelm Meister (1795). Coming from such an eminent source, every consideration is due this opinion. Following is a free translation from the German (IV, 3-13; V, 4-1 1):
"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite
That I was ever born to set it right!"
"In these words, I presume, is to be discovered the the key to Hamlet's entire course of action. To me it is clear that Shakespeare attempted to disclose, in the present instance, the effects of a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it. In this view the entire play seems composed, it appears to me. An oak-tree is planted in a costly vase, which should have borne only lovely flowers in its bosom; the roots spread, the vase is shattered. A supremely attractive, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which goes to constitute the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it neither can bear nor cast aside. All duties to him are holy, — this one too hard. That which is impossible is required of him, — not the inherently impossible, but the impossible to him. He twists and turns, and tortures himself; he advances and reacts; is ever reminded and self-reminding; and at the last all but does lose sight of his purpose, yet ever without restoring his peace of mind."

In view of Hamlet's ultimate triumph over Claudius, this theory cannot be sustained. Bradley, in his epoch-making Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), remarks acutely: "Consider the text. This shrinking, flower-like youth, — how could he possibly have done what we see Hamlet do? What likeness to him is there in the Hamlet who, summoned by the Ghost, bursts from his terrified companions with the cry:
'Unhand me, gentlemen!
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!'
the Hamlet who scarcely once speaks to the King without insult, or to Polonius without a gibe; the Hamlet who storms at Ophelia and speaks daggers to his mother; the Hamlet who, hearing a cry behind the arras, whips out his sword in an instant and runs the eavesdropper through; the Hamlet who sends his school-fellows to their death and never troubles his head about them more; the Hamlet who is the first man to board a pirate ship, and who fights with Laertes in the grave; the Hamlet of the catastrophe, an omnipotent fate, before whom all the court stands helpless, who, as the truth breaks upon him, rushes on the King, drives his foil right through his body, then seizes the poisoned cup and forces it violently between the wretched man's lips, and in the throes of death has force and fire enough to wrest the cup from Horatio's hand ('By heaven, I'll have it!') lest he should drink and die? This man, the Hamlet of the play, is a heroic, terrible figure. He would have been formidable to Othello or Macbeth. If the sentimental Hamlet had crossed him, he would have hurled him from his path with one sweep of his arm."

The second of the celebrated subjective theories as to Hamlet's course of action in delaying revenge is the alleged "weakness of will" theory, advanced almost synchronously by Coleridge in England (in his Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare) and by Schlegel in Germany (see Black's translation of Schlegel's Ueber dramatische Kunst und Litteratur) shortly after 1800. For convenience it is known either as the "weakness of will theory" or the Schlegel-Coleridge theory. Coleridge remarks in part: "In the healthy process of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect; for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action.... In Hamlet ... we see a great, an almost enormous intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it."

Schlegel finds the key to the play in an identical hypothesis and quotes the hero of the drama as evidence:
"And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry.
And lose the name of action."
Further Schlegel declares that Hamlet does not believe in himself or anything else. "He loses himself in labyrinths of thought." The fatal objection to the Schlegel-Coleridge theory is that it detaches Hamlet from the drama considered as a whole, and attributes to him a personal defect of nature which may neither be justifiable nor fair to him. It ts unsafe to assume, as does Coleridge, that Shakespeare creates a character with a "faculty in morbid excess, and places himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances," Dare we assume that Hamlet, the magnificent, is mentally "mutilated or diseased?"

A third theory seeking to account for Hamlet's delay is the "conscience" theory of Ulrici (see Morrison's translation of Ulrici's Shakespeare's dramatische Kunst). Hamlet, says Ulrici, is restrained by conscience from putting the King to death without a trial and without justice. This theory is exploded by the fact that it does not consider the historical background of the age, which permitted and even made obligatory retaliative revenge; and Hamlet bitterly reproaches himself more than once for his lack of promptness in its execution.

The fourth theory is a celebrated one from the standpoint of historical controversy. It assumes that Hamlet, at least at times, is insane. Melancholia, hysteria, psychic epilepsy, neurasthenia, madness or whatever you will, has been presented in turn to explain Hamlet's procrastination. Nearly all proponents of the madness hypothesis admit, however, that Hamlet had lucid intervals. As a matter of fact, the only defense of this theory that can be made is that pathological research has never yet been able to draw a sharp line of demarcation between sanity and insanity. Ibsen has demonstrated this dramatically in Hedda Gabler. Not all insane people are confined in madhouses any more than all criminals are now behind prison walls. But what is a criminal? If a man steals a trifle is he a criminal? Similarly, insanity may be a constant but slight and imperceptible over-tension of the nerves as well as the wild raving of a maniac. So declares Ibsen in Hedda Gabler. But ninety-five per cent of all scholars nevertheless reject the madness theory. Hamlet distinctly asserts in the first act that he is going "to put an antic disposition on." George Henry Miles, in 1870, declared with finality: "There is never a storm in Hamlet over which the 'noble and most sovereign reason' of the young prince is not as visibly dominant as the rainbow, the crowning grace and glory of the scene. ... The most salient phase of Hamlet's character is his superb intellectual superiority to all comers."

The fifth theory commonly advanced to account for Hamlet's delay differs from the four preceding in that it attributes the prince's hesitation to objective, external circumstances and to the environment in which Hamlet is placed and is therefore unable to control, rather than to internal, subjective causes. As early as 1803 the actor Ziegler wrote and published an analysis of the play on this basis. Ziegler said that Hamlet delayed because of external difficulties, — mainly "the quick, glittering swords of the (King's) bodyguard, or the cold array of judges condemning the slayer of the King." This theory, however, was made more widely known by L. Klein (see Cohn's translation of Klein's Berliner Modenspiegel, 1846, in Furness's Variorum Hamlet) and Karl Werder (Vorlesungen ueber Shakespeare's Hamlet, Berlin, 1875). It is commonly known as the Klein-Werder theory. Briefly, it is that Hamlet fails to act because of a desire publicly to unmask the King's guilt, and thus to prevent summary justice being executed against himself who had neither evidence nor reason to offer in support of cold-blooded murder. Professor Bradley, quoted once before, disposes of the Klein-Werder theory thus: "From beginning to end of the play, Hamlet never makes the slightest reference to any external difficulties. Not only does Hamlet fail to allude to such difficulties, but he always assumes that he can obey the Ghost, and he once asserts this in so many words ('Sith I have cause and will and strength and means To do't': IV-4-45)."

Since these five theories probably are inadequate to explain Hamlet's delay, it will be necessary to advance a sixth, which we shall call the ethical theory. This theory does not take the liberty of detaching Hamlet from the play. It considers him rather as a lens through which are focussed the universal realities lying behind the action of the drama.

The Ethical Hamlet

In solving the Hamlet problem it will now be apparent that deductive rather than inductive logic must be used. For inductive reasoning, — that of drawing a generalization from a specific instance — has led eighteenth and nineteenth century Hamlet criticism into pitfalls and blind-alleys. The general design of the play must be worked out and a specific conclusion drawn as to Hamlet's impelling motive in delaying his revenge. This is deductive reasoning. Assuming that Hamlet is abnormal in some phase of his being is manifestly unfair, as we have seen, because all evidence when assembled is overwhelmingly against such supposition.

We shall then assume that Hamlet is normal, intellectual, righteous, in full possession of his powers, and honor bound by the traditions and customs of his day, to "revenge his father's foul and most unnatural murder," Obviously the solution of the problem must rest on a perfectly normal basis.

Hear John Masefield, foremost of living English poets: "The powers outside life send a poor ghost to Hamlet to prompt him to an act of justice. After baffled hours, often interrupted by cock-crow, he gives his message. Hamlet is charged with the double task of executing judgment and showing mercy.... The task set by the dead is a simple one. All tasks are simple to the simple-minded. To the delicate and complex mind so much of life is bound up with every act that any violent act involves not only a large personal sacrifice of ideal, but a tearing-up by the roots of half the order of the world. ... Hamlet is neither 'weak' nor 'unpractical,' as so many call him. What he hesitates to do may be necessary, or even just, as the world goes, but it is a defilement of personal ideals, difficult for a wise mind to justify. It is so great a defilement, and a world so composed is so great a defilement that death seems preferable to action and existence alike." 1

In other words, a high ethical motive constantly restrains the Prince of Denmark from carrying into execution his promise to the Ghost. At the climax of the play, as the King kneels in prayer and Hamlet relinquishes his supreme opportunity to commit the act of murder, it is, says Masefield, because of "the knowledge that the sword will not reach the real man, since damnation comes from within, not from without."

In fact, Hamlet's supreme characteristic is morality. He is constantly arrested in his impulses to do the deed by a superior code of ethics. Masfield advances the concept of idealism, which is to the point.

Hamlet is essentially a religious character, using that somewhat unctuous and oversentimentalized word in its broadest, best, and sanest sense. In this respect he is "humanity individualized," since religion is man's supremest characteristic, and man everywhere is the child of God if he so wills. This religious essence of Hamlet's nature is evidenced by two facts. The first is that the language of Hamlet parallels that of the Bible, and is almost as familiar by quotation in common speech. The second is that Hamlet everywhere weighs the Divine Will against human volition, as was anciently done in Gethsemane. This is particularly true in the long soliloquies:
"That the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter" (1.2.131-132)
is the consideration which restrains him from suicide in the First Act. In Act 1.2.298-303:
"What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason I how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?"
Compare with Hebrews 2:6-8 (a redaction of Psalm 8:4-6):
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honor, and didst set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet."
In Act 2.2.585-592 Hamlet cannot bring himself to trust the integrity of the Ghost on account of religious scruples:
"The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil; and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is potent with such spirits,
Abuses tne to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's
the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the
Again, the immortal, beautiful soliloquy of Act 3.1.ll.65-88, repeats the sentiment of that of Act 1, scene 2. Suicide is not a true solution for the ills of humanity because of
"the dread of something after death.
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."
The climactic soliloquy of Act 3, scene 3, whereby Hamlet misses his best chance to kill Claudius, we have noted before in the quotation of Masefield. In scene 4 Hamlet urges his mother:
"Confess yourself to heaven
Repent what's past, avoid what is to come."
At the grave of Ophelia Hamlet further meditates on the mystery of death. In the brawl with Laertes he offers to outvie Laertes in "drinking eisel", — to out-rival the agony of the Crucified One.

Finally, the Prince believes his deliverance into the hands of the pirates an act of Providence:
"Our indiscretion sometimes serves
us well
When our deep plots do pall; and
that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes
our ends.
Rough hew them how we will." (5.2.ll. 8-11)
In the last hours of Hamlet's life, when danger is instinctively felt to be impending, the following dialogue takes place:
Hamlet: "It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman."
Horatio: "If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit."
Hamlet: "Not a whit; we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." (
Hamlet's faith teaches him that Divine Providence circumscribes and controls in their final issues the affairs of men. Thus, just previous to the preceding dialogue, Hamlet has come to look at Claudius' deeds from the relative as well as the absolute standpoint:
" — is't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? and is't
not to be damn'd.
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil (5.2.ll.67-70.)
For "canker of our nature" read "cancer of humanity." That is Shakespeare's meaning. It is now a duty to slay Claudius for a broader reason than merely a personal reason. The social welfare demands it. The King must be brought to justice. If Hamlet is the instrument of Divine Justice, since God operates in this world through human agencies, he is satisfied. The chance occasion of a fencing-bout opens the way. As Masefield remarks:
"Revenge and chance together restore life to her course, by a destruction of the lives too beastly, and of the lives too hasty, and of the lives too foolish, and of the life too wise, to be altogether on earth at the same time."

1. John Masefield: Shakespeare (Henry Holt & Co., 1911), pp. 160-162. An exceedingly brilliant treatise in style and thought.

How to cite this article:
McClure, Haven. The Modern Reader's Hamlet. London: R.G. Badger, 1922. Shakespeare Online. 15 Sept. 2013. < >.


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"The moment he was about to do the work, up came a new speculation, a new refinement. He split the straw, but then there were two straws. He indulged in any pretext for the glorious power of doing nothing, thinking the matter over again, and gaining a conscientious-looking excuse for delay. He would rather the deed were put on him by accident than that he should essay to do it; and so he stands waiting until the fates float the King towards him to be killed instead of going to seek him; and all the while wondering and wishing, and now blaming himself that the work is still to do, and even wondering at the craven scruples of conscience or forecast which prevented its being done." George Dawson. Read on...


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