The “Hamlet” Murder Mystery

1.  Old King Hamlet, sleeping in his orchard, was secretly murdered by Claudius, his brother and successor on the throne. His son, the Prince bearing his name, learns of this when he’s given a gruesome, detailed account of the crime from the Ghost of his father, the dead king returned from the grave. Prince Hamlet is disposed to accept what he’s told, as it ratifies his suspicions of his uncle’s deviousness. He comes to worry a bit that the Ghost might be an imposter, a demon intent on deceiving him, but is satisfied of the Ghost’s trustworthiness when he sees how his uncle reacts to a theatrical representation of a crime resembling the one that the Ghost had reported. Claudius undoubtedly murdered his brother. So Shakespeare would have us accept the Ghost’s story as fact, correct? Maybe not.

You see, there’s a problem with the Ghost’s testimony, even apart from the matter of his authenticity. A forensic incongruity, if you will. It doesn’t seem to get talked about much (so far as I know), but it hasn’t gone wholly unnoticed (as Ellen Tremper reminds me): James Joyce noticed it, and he slipped it into Ulysses. It’s in chapter 7 (“Aeolus”), during Stephen Dedalus’ visit to the newspaper office. (This takes place shortly before he is to give his lecture on Hamlet at the Dublin public library.) A phrase of the Ghost’s passes through Stephen’s mind, and he’s briefly struck by the difficulty. “How could he know that?” Stephen wonders. “He was asleep at the time.”

It’s a fair question. How can a man who was murdered in his sleep be so well informed of the means and the manner of his death?   Consider the story. The official explanation of what happened is that he was stung by a serpent during his daily nap in his orchard; this, the Ghost tells his son, was a lie, a fraud perpetrated upon the nation – “So the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forgèd process of my death rankly abused.” What really happened, as the Ghost tells it, was this:

         …Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour,
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
Thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.

The brother sneaked into the orchard while the king slept, and poured into his ears a horrendously swift-acting poison, which literally curdled the king’s blood and caused his formerly unblemished skin to erupt with a “vile and loathsome crust” all over his body. Sudden death. So how could the victim know all these details?

Grant that the Ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father, briefly back from the dead, and grant that the horrible tale he imparts to his son is offered ingenuously, free of intent to deceive. Still – where is this story coming from, if he died in his sleep? Ghosts are allowed to know many things, a literary critic in my acquaintance assures me. Allowed by whom?, I want to know. He’s come back to earth on his own private business – his craving for familial revenge surely being of no great concern to the angels and ministers of grace. So there’s no obvious reason to assume he’s speaking on behalf of Omniscience. (Stephen Dedalus would have understood this.) By the Ghost’s own account, he’s presently suffering purgative torments in the afterlife, the precise nature of which he’s not permitted to tell. Does it sound like he’d be entitled to the complete dossier on all the stuff he missed when he died?

Is this just a blunder on Shakespeare’s part? I think not. I prefer to think that it might be deliberate. For there’s a certain logic to the incongruity, though it isn’t the logic of external fact. Shakespeare affords us the means to make sense of the story, consistent with the character and his circumstances.

The Ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father; the story he tells is the truth of his murder so far as he knows and recalls it. He was, however, asleep at the time the event occurred. People do know and remember things when they sleep; it tends to happen in ways that our author found interesting. Poison poured in his ears? A method which just happens to correspond literally to the king’s own favored metaphor for credulous susceptibility to deceit? (Cf. “the whole ear of Denmark… rankly abused”) The king’s youthful unblemished skin turned loathsome and vile, by the dark arts of a man whom the queen inexplicably finds attractive? There’s every reason to credit this as vitally real to the man, true to his experience. But not because it’s how it actually happened, that afternoon in the orchard.

It’s how the king experienced it, asleep at the time – in a dream.

2.How it actually happened, we have no idea. We do know the king was in fact murdered, and by his brother. We in the audience can be sure of this, because later we overhear Claudius, alone, brooding over his guilt in the crime of fratricide (of which he’s ashamed, but for which he feels helpless to repent). But it doesn’t follow from this that the murder was done in the manner that Hamlet was told by the Ghost. We can’t be so sure that Claudius is the expert, efficient killer he is made out to be in the Ghost’s testimony. And nor can we be so sure whether he even recognizes his crime in the lightly-fictionalized version of the Ghost’s story – The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap – that his nephew arranges to have staged in his presence.

But surely – you protest – he must. Doesn’t Claudius’ reaction to what he’s shown in The Mousetrap bear out the accuracy of the Ghost’s information? Most readers have thought so. If you’ve ever seen Hamlet performed, on stage or on screen, that’s almost certainly how you remember it happening. Only it isn’t so clear from the text.

Here is how one influential critic – John Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet – describes the behavior of Claudius on watching the poisoning scene of The Mousetrap:

His face grows livid, he clutches his arms to his seat, his eyes start from his head. He has forgotten everything, everyone, except the hideous spectacle before him. Yes, the murderer is pouring the poison into the ears of the sleeper. The secure hour, the kind of poison, thee flowery bank, the dozing king are the same. Just so, that is the way it should be done, that is how he poisoned is brother on that afternoon in the palace garden… The thing is clear. The plot of the interlude is his life’s history. Hamlet knows all! Claudius is not safe; anything may happen. He pulls himself to his feet, and squealing for light, he totters as fast as his trembling knees will carry him from the terrible, the threatening room.

And here is the corresponding passage of the text as we have it, inclusive of printed stage directions:

Ophelia: The king rises.

Hamlet: What, frighted with false fire?

Gertrude: How fare’s my lord?

Polonius: Give o’er the play.

Claudius: Give me some light. Away!

Polonius*: Lights, Lights, lights! [*Thus the Quarto; the Folio assigns this last line to “All”]

Exeunt all but Hamlet and Horatio

There’s not much there. “The king rises,” Ophelia says. (Contrast this with any number of times when Shakespeare conveys a sudden change in demeanor by how it registers to an observer.) Hamlet responds with sarcastic delight; Polonius sees the king rise, and calls for the play to be halted; the king calls for light (it’s dark, where he’s sitting), then roughly dismisses the company in attendance on him; all depart, leaving Hamlet alone with his friend. All of this is good enough for Hamlet, who’s giddy with excitement. And the king? Has he tottered, trembling at the uncanny replication of his deed? He is “marvelously distempered,” a courtier reports – disturbed, yes, but “with choler.” He’s angry.

Of course he’s angry. He has plenty of reason to be. His nephew’s behavior in mounting this play – and in commenting loudly through the performance – would be seen as outrageous insolence in any royal court of Shakespeare’s day, and quite possibly a seditious incitement, lèse majesté.   The Mousetrap‘s opening scene has the Player Queen swear to her husband that if she were to remarry after his death — as the actual queen now at Claudius’ side had recently done – would be tantamount to killing her husband twice over.   As if that weren’t blatant enough, Hamlet calls out to his mother, just then, “How like you the play, madam?” (It is in answer to this that Gertrude utters that much-quoted line, “The lady doth protest to much.”) That’s already enough to put Claudius on edge – it’s then he demands to know of Hamlet if he knows of anything offensive in what’s yet to come. Hamlet answers mockingly, “they do but jest, poison in jest, no offense in the world.” The Player King now sleeps on stage, stretched on a bank of flowers representing a garden – unmistakably like the circumstance in which, as is publicly known, an actual Danish king had been found dead just a few months before. When the stage-villain enters, the current king’s irksome nephew calls out again, with another familial reference: “This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.” Nephew. Only it doesn’t yet register to the king (there’s no reason it would) what sort of part the stage-nephew is given to play in this drama put on by his actual nephew. Then it suddenly, sickeningly, becomes all too clear. Is the king to put up with this? It’s for his wife’s sake that he’s kept Hamlet around; he knows they were formerly close, though Hamlet clearly resents his mother’s remarriage. Lucianus, onstage, does his murderous business. Hamlet, apparently thrilled, comments to all in attendance: “You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.” (Gets the love: what sort of love is unstated.) Enough is enough.

Hamlet’s behavior would surely suffice to give Claudius motive enough to cut short the performance, dismissing his court in a hurry – which is all that the text informs us he does. Does this mean that Hamlet has spoiled his whole purpose in staging the drama? Must we conclude that his confidence in the Ghost is ill-founded? Perhaps not. It depends on what those purposes were, and wherein that confidence lies.

Hamlet does not  ever actually say that the point of the play was to frighten the king by replicating the precise facts of the murder. We assume this only because the detail of poisoning-through-the-ear is so striking and unusual, and because we then see that detail in the play that Hamlet puts on. When we first hear him speak of his plan (in the soliloquy at the end of Act II), he describes it like this:

               …I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I’ll know my course.

The word ‘tent’ here means to test, to probe. We tend to assume, that the testing to which he refers is to involve nothing more than observing the king’s reaction, when shown a representation of the crime in its lurid details. Perhaps we might reconsider that, in light of how Hamlet conducts himself in the experiment. “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this,” he assures himself — more grounds for action against his uncle, that is, than the urging of a Ghost. By eliciting Claudius’ rage with The Mousetrap, he’s assured himself of those grounds – not in validating the Ghost’s story, but in gaining Claudius’ enmity. If that’s the purpose, the factual accuracy of the Ghost’s account may not matter. Might Hamlet be mindful of this?

For some must watch while some must sleep,
Thus runs the world away.

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