Essay Procrastination of Revenge in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
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Procrastination of Revenge in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
In the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, the protagonist Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is deceived by many of his former allies, including his mother, Gertrude, and his lover, Ophelia. Perhaps the most deceptive of these former allies is Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. Not only does Claudius kill Hamlet’s father, the King, but he also proceeds to marry Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and to steal the crown from Hamlet, the rightful heir to his father. In Act III, scene III of “Hamlet,” Hamlet accidentally comes upon Claudius while he is alone and in prayer. Hamlet draws his sword and contemplates murdering Claudius. However, Hamlet neglects to perform this action. The…show more content…
“Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying, And now I’ll do’t.” (III, iii, 73-74)
However, Hamlet’s intellect provides him with a ready excuse to delay his revenge against
Claudius. Hamlet does not believe that killing a man in prayer constitutes an unfair deed. Rather, Hamlet reasons that, since Claudius has purged his soul through prayer, he would go to heaven. “And so ‘a goes to heaven; And so am I revenged.” (III, iii, 75)
Hamlet’s father, contrastingly, had not prepared his soul for death. He suffered purgatory as a ghost. Hamlet, unsatisfied with performing an act of corporeal justice, would prefer for his revenge to have eternal consequences. He wants to seek his revenge when Claudius’ sole lies in a state of unpreparedness. Hamlet puts away his sword while contemplating this future occasion. “Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in th’ incestuous pleasure of his bed; At game, a-swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t;” (III, iii, 88-92)
This procrastination shows Hamlet’s capabilities for intellectual reason, even in a situation involving extreme emotions. However, this decision presents Hamlet’s final opportunity to seek substantial revenge against Claudius. In this scene, Hamlet shows reasoning worthy of admiration. Although Claudius’ prayer may evoke sympathy from an
SOURCE: “I Know When One Is Dead, and When One Lives,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXV, 1981, pp. 171-89.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1979, Craik reviews the final scene in King Lear together with scenes in other plays where Shakespeare treats life and death with dramatic ambiguity.]
I am very grateful to the British Academy for inviting me to deliver this lecture. For my title I am indebted, obviously, to Shakespeare himself, but it was a colleague of mine at the University of Durham, Dr Derek Todd, who provided the stimulus. In his book I Am Not Prince Hamlet Dr Todd writes as follows:
‘I know when one is dead, and when one lives’, says Lear as he carries in Cordelia: a statement which turns out to be strangely false, for he alternates several times between believing her alive and believing her dead.1
Dr Todd's remark made me curious to examine this scene afresh, and also to examine other scenes in which death and life are, or may be, treated with dramatic equivocation. The more often I read Shakespeare's plays the more firmly I believe that they are thoroughly dramatic. The truism is intentional. It seems to me impossible to stress too strongly that the life of a Shakespeare play lies in the effect it makes on a spectator (or on a reader who reads as if he were a spectator) as it proceeds, act by act, scene by scene, speech by speech, line by line. It makes its effect equally in its structural design, which becomes clearer and clearer as the action unfolds, and in its minute particulars of language and gesture which catch our attention and are, so to speak, the nerve-endings of the whole dramatic system. In the present century perhaps no critic has shown himself more aware of this Shakespearean dramatic life, in all its grandeur and in all its finesse, than Harley Granville Barker, to whose memory (coupled with Shakespeare's) I should like to pay tribute today. His first volume of Prefaces to Shakespeare (1927) is my exact contemporary; I was lucky enough to encounter his writings when I was a schoolboy, and I have reread them frequently since then, marvelling at so robust a common sense wedded to so sensitive an imagination. The last word on Shakespeare will never be said. Granville Barker, like the good exploratory critic he was, never wrote as though he thought he was saying it. But later critics who ignore his views, and the aspects of Shakespeare's plays to which they were directed, do so at their peril.
Granville Barker followed A. C. Bradley in believing that King Lear dies of joy, and I may as well say immediately that I share their opinion.2 Opinion, of course, it is and must remain. Shakespeare did not expound through Kent and Edgar (or rather, allow them to try to expound) Lear's final emotional state. This is not to say that he left it a mystery: on the contrary, in his theatre it must have been settled one way or the other, by Burbage's intonation and gesture, and had there been a continuous theatrical tradition from Burbage onwards it would be no mystery now. However, the theatres were closed in 1642, and when they reopened after the Commonwealth Tate rewrote King Lear as a tragi-comedy. When Shakespeare's tragedy returned to the stage it was for the actors to build a new tradition upon the foundation of the script. Whether any actor had made Lear die of joy between the restoration of Shakespeare's text and the publication of Bradley's study I do not know. If not, I am rather surprised that a critic discovered what lay more obviously in an actor's way. The crucial words are: ‘Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there!’ They seem to me to express excitement: the emotion, not of Laertes' exclamation ‘Do you see this, O God?’ but of Lear's ‘Look, look, a mouse!’ If it is agreed that Lear's tone here is not one of flat despondency, then it rests with those who maintain that he dies of grief to show what change in Cordelia has excited him, and to show why any change confirming her death should excite him, since he has just been exclaiming against the injustice of meaner creatures' having life while she has ‘no breath at all’. Breath has been Lear's continual theme in his attempts to find life in her body: looking-glass, feather, voice (Shakespeare frequently tells us that words are made of breath), all point in the same direction. Colour he never mentions at all (though it is mentioned, whether present or absent, in connection with Juliet and Desdemona), and therefore the argument that Cordelia's lips have lost their colour seems a weak one.3 The inference (drawn from Lear's long digression about his attempted rescue and Kent's attempt to make himself known) that Lear has abandoned all self-deception when he reaches his last speech is also considerably weakened by the fact that this last speech itself includes a digression, albeit a short one, the line in which Lear asks a bystander to ‘undo this button’. That break in continuity is important, for it allows Lear to look away from Cordelia and then to look back and become excited by what he thinks he sees.4
The objection to Lear's dying of joy is not, I am sure, based on dramatic principles but upon principles quite different, those of tragic propriety. Many readers feel that, in a tragedy so deeply concerned with the theme of understanding, Lear must not be allowed to die in error but must die confronting his tragic situation. This argument, I think, would have weight only if the counter-argument was that Lear never did believe that Cordelia was dead. The poignancy of his final joy, in my opinion, rather heightens than lowers the tragic tone established by his opening words. As for the mass of illustration that is sometimes advanced in support of the thematic argument, I can only say, firstly, that to me a dram of the dramatic is worth a pound of the thematic when plays are in question, and, secondly, that if Lear dies with a poignant joy, his death bears a striking thematic relation to Gloucester's, whoseflawed heart, Alack, too weak the conflict to support, 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.
Moreover, if Lear's last speech is to contain no such fluctuation as Bradley detected, what is the dramatic point of all his earlier fluctuations? They would seem to lead up to nothing.
In discussing the last scene of King Lear I have dwelt till now on Lear's emotions as they are dramatically presented. I turn, next, to their object, the body of Cordelia. We are so familiar with the play that it is worth asking whether, if we had been at the first performance, we should have known for certain that she was dead, and if so, when. To take the general aspects of the matter first, Shakespeare's is the first tragic treatment of a story which previously had ended with the king's restoration and might have been expected to end so again; but, on the other hand, the loss of the battle, the capture of Lear and Cordelia, and Edmund's significantly secret instructions to the Captain, are pretty clear indications of disaster to come; these are, however, followed by the exposure of Edmund and Goneril, the defeat of the former by Edgar, and the suicide of the latter, having previously poisoned her sister—events which, at the eleventh hour, seem to tip the scales back towards hope; at the same time, despite the interest of these events, we are subtly kept conscious (mainly by means of observations from Edmund) of the danger to the prisoners, so that when the reprieve is at last sent we feel little but apprehension. The entry of Lear carrying Cordelia's inert body realizes our fears, and his opening lines proclaim her death in tragic tones.5 This speaking picture of heroic bereavement is our immediate assurance that she is dead: were she now to revive, our humanity would be gratified but our exaltation would be diminished. Yet while Lear plies his futile attempts to find a spark of life in her, a glimmer of hope, almost as irrational as his, persists: like him, what we really want is a miracle—but, unlike him, we know this is what would be needed. This is what goes on in part of our minds, the part given over to sympathy. The other part, the part open to dramatic suggestion, observes that no one on stage—not even Kent—attempts to assist Lear in his repeated efforts.6 There is, accordingly, no real suspense as to whether Cordelia might revive, though there is a kind of false suspense, related to pity. Lear's own death, by contrast, is confirmed—after Kent's moving lines—by Edgar's simple ‘He is gone, indeed.’
Shakespearean deaths are, with few exceptions, as unequivocal as Lear's. Often—and by no means only in the earlier plays—they are given emphasis by a couplet, such as Arthur'sO me! my uncle's spirit is in these stones: Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!
or Richard'sMount, mount, my soul! thy seat is up on high; Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die.
or Brutus'Caesar, now be still; I kill'd not thee with half so good a will.
or Othello'sI kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee; no way but this; Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.
It would be interesting, though the present topic forbids it, to discuss why some of Shakespeare's characters die upon a couplet and others do not. Othello has not always been allowed his. When Edmund Kean reached the half-line ‘And smote him, thus’, he acted on the medical knowledge that ‘death by a heart wound is instantaneous’: an eye-witness reported of him:
He literally dies standing; it is the dead body only of Othello that falls, heavily and at once; there is no rebound which speaks of vitality and of living muscles. It is the dull weight of clay seeking its kindred earth.7
This was doubtless fine theatre, but the suppression of the couplet seems a great pity, since Othello's last thought, touchingly recalling the beginning of the scene, should not be of himself but of Desdemona, and the dying kiss, physiologically impossible though it may be, is his reconciliation.
The great liberty which Shakespeare takes in this scene is, of course, in connection not with Othello's death but with Desdemona's:
The revival of Desdemona from a state of suffocation, and her expiring without any fresh violence, we apprehend to be rather absurd; therefore, highly approve Othello's stabbing her with a dagger.8
This comment of a theatrical critic of 1770 shows both when and why this change in the stage business at ‘I would not have thee linger in thy pain’ was made. It became usual in the following century. But should realism be the arbiter of such matters? In Webster's Duchess of Malfi the heroine is strangled, suffers no fresh violence, is supposed quite dead, and yet recovers speech for a moment before she positively dies. It is probable that Webster is here imitating Desdemona's unexpected late utterances, as in The White Devil he had imitated Lear's pathetic hopes of Cordelia's recovery when portraying Cornelia hoping as vainly for Marcello's. If so, Webster may serve as a contemporary witness against the stabbing of Desdemona. But, as usual, the strongest evidence as to stage business is to be drawn from Shakespeare's lines. When Othello tells Gratiano, later in the scene,There lies your niece, Whose breath, indeed, these hands have newly stopp'd,
his statement is conclusive that he used no other means than suffocation. The extreme improbability of Desdemona's recovery of speech, to utter her noble lie testifying to her loyalty to her husband and sparking off a fine exchange between Othello and Emilia, is clearly justified by something more than theatrical surprise. Theatrical surprise is, however, an important element in Shakespeare's intention. Why else should he allow Othello to emphasize, just before Emilia's entrance, that he has put Desdemona out of her pain and that she lies ‘still as the grave’?
I have mentioned already Othello's ‘And smote him, thus’, a magnificent coup de théâtre. Incidentally, I believe it supplies further argument (if further argument were needed) against the notion that Othello uses a dagger to dispatch Desdemona, for if he did use one, what would he do with it afterwards? To sheathe it, ready for his own suicide, would ruin the surprise of that splendid climax. It should not only be Cassio, but the audience, who think he has no weapon, especially in view of the way Shakespeare has made him lose not one sword but two. The long explanations involving Ludovico, Cassio, and the rest, serve a useful purpose besides conveying information: they separate Othello's loss of his second sword from his suicide with the dagger, thus preventing our suspicion that Shakespeare has cheated by concealing this dagger's existence from us, and also, it would seem, from Othello, whose poignant line ‘For in my sense, 'tis happiness to die’ immediately follows his loss of the second sword in the unsuccessful attempt to kill Iago. During the explanatory dialogue just mentioned, one more fact comes out which relates to Shakespeare's interest (in this scene) in surprise and in the equivocal treatment of death: Cassio says,There is besides in Roderigo's letter, How he upbraids Iago, that he made him Brave me upon the watch; whereon it came That I was cast; and even but now he spake, After long seeming dead, Iago hurt him, Iago set him on.
This last detail comes as a surprise, and a gratuitous one, for the letters ‘found in the pocket of the slain Roderigo’ have already convicted Iago of setting him on to murder Cassio, and as for stabbing him, Iago made no secret of that at the time. The point does seem to be being made in this tragedy that murder is not only impossible to hide but also remarkably difficult to effect. Perhaps Iago's failure to dispatch Roderigo neatly makes Othello look less like a bungler, supposing we had thought him one. In any case, this reported revival of Roderigo raises a question of performance in the scene where Cassio wounds him (mortally, to judge from his exclamation ‘O, I am slain!’) and Iago finishes him off. Was Kean right, when he played Iago in 1814, to ‘throw his eye perpetually towards the prostrate body’, having already ‘given and repeated the atrocious thrust, till it may be supposed no life remains’, instead of, as was usual, stabbing Roderigo once and then walking away ‘with perfect ease and satisfaction’?9 Is the dramatic effect at the time the all-important thing, or will the memory of the scene so played persist to the detriment of the report of Roderigo's brief revival in the last act? This is, I think, an open question.
Having begun my examination of Shakespeare's equivocal death scenes with King Lear and Othello, and brought in Webster for purposes of analogy, I may seem to be suggesting that such treatment of death particularly belongs to the Jacobean Shakespeare. There is, I think, something to be said for that view, and I shall be returning to it later. But equivocal death scenes are not confined to his Jacobean plays. In one of his earliest, the Third Part of Henry VI, Clifford enters mortally wounded at the battle of Towton:Here burns my candle out; ay, here it dies, Which, while it lasted, gave King Henry light. O Lancaster, I fear thy overthrow More than my body's parting with my soul!
In a long speech he laments Henry's weakness and foresees his ruin, ending as follows:The air hath got into my deadly wounds, And much effuse of blood doth make me faint. Come, York and Richard, Warwick and the rest; I stabb'd your fathers' bosoms, split my breast.
With that he faints, and upon their cue his victorious enemies enter. They speculate on Clifford's whereabouts, Warwick affirming confidently that ‘whereso'er he is, he's surely dead’. As he speaks this, ‘Clifford groans and then dies’; but his death, though attested for a reader by the Quarto's stage direction, is deliberately kept in doubt for an audience:Rich. Whose soul is that which takes her heavy leave? A deadly groan, like life and death's departing. See who it is. Edw. And now the battle's ended, If friend or foe, let him be gently used. Rich. Revoke that doom of mercy, for 'tis Clifford; Who not contented that he lopp'd the branch In hewing Rutland when his leaves put forth, But set his murd'ring knife unto the root From whence that tender spray did sweetly spring— I mean our princely father, Duke of York. War. From off the gates of York fetch down the head, Your father's head, which Clifford placed there; Instead whereof let this supply the room. Measure for measure must be answered. Edw. Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house, That nothing sung but death to us and ours. Now death shall stop his dismal threat'ning sound, And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak. War. I think his understanding is bereft. Speak, Clifford, dost thou know who speaks to thee? Dark cloudy death o'ershades his beams of life, And he nor sees nor hears us what we say. Rich. O, would he did! and so, perhaps, he doth. 'Tis but his policy to counterfeit, Because he would avoid such bitter taunts Which in the time of death he gave our father. Geo. If so thou think'st, vex him with eager words. Rich. Clifford, ask mercy and obtain no grace. Edw. Clifford, repent in bootless penitence. War. Clifford, devise excuses for thy faults. Geo. While we devise fell tortures for thy faults. Rich. Thou didst love York, and I am son to York. Edw. Thou pitied'st Rutland, I will pity thee. Geo. Where's Captain Margaret, to fence you now? War. They mock thee, Clifford; swear as thou wast wont. Rich. What, not an oath? Nay, then the world goes...