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.

“King, Father, Royal Dane”? Hamlet’s Dubious Father

1.“Where  else in Shakespeare,” A.C. Bradley once asked, “is there anything like Hamlet’s adoration of his father? His words melt into music whenever he speaks of him.” Really?  t may be, as Bradley insists, that the prince waxes lyrical whenever he has occasion to speak of his father’s high qualities, but that doesn’t mean they were close.   When the Prince encounters his father’s Ghost, he greets him with a formulaic salutation – ‘King, father, royal Dane” – as if the Ghost’s status as father were itself but an honorific royal title.   Nothing that Hamlet ever says to the Ghost, or about him, gives any hint of any familiar rapport with his father, or shared personal history;  not once does he invoke any memories of his childhood or upbringing.  Consider how different is the response Hamlet has when met with another figure from out of his past – the king’s jester Yorick. “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” Hamlet says, upon being told that the disinterred skull in his hands had been Yorick’s. “He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is… Here hung the lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” The memory makes him uneasy – but that’s because it’s so vividly present to him, even now that the man is reduced to a fragment of bone. Nothing of the sort came to mind when he met with the Ghost of his father (even though the latter appeared to be in the flesh, fully clothed).

2. What sort of man had he been in his lifetime, this royal father whom Hamlet recalls so admiringly, though remotely?   The first (and nearly the only) information we’re given about the dead king is from a conversation in the opening scene between Horatio and the watchmen Marcellus and Bernardo. (This is just after the three have seen the king’s Ghost.) In response to a question about Denmark’s apparent state of preparation for war, Horatio tells of the late king’s slaying of Fortinbras, his Norwegian counterpart, when the two had arranged to fight one another in a contest of single combat. Horatio then goes on to explain that this Fortinbras, whom the elder Hamlet had slain, is survived by a son, also named Fortinbras; this son has lately been mustering men to invade, in the hope of recovering lands that his father had lost to Denmark in that contest. (From Horatio’s telling it isn’t yet clear that the younger Fortinbras is not Norway’s king, and nothing at all has been said at this point concerning the status of King Hamlet’s son. Only later does it emerge that in Norway and Denmark alike, the crown has somehow passed to the prior king’s brother.) In recounting the story of the late King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras père, Horatio speaks of the victor as “valiant Hamlet / For so this side of our known world esteemed him. The same epithet, “valiant,” is used by the current king, Claudius, when he makes passing mention of the same event in a speech to the royal court.

All of this creates the impression that this triumph must have been recent enough to be fresh in memory. So does our learning that the king had been buried in the same suit of armour he had worn in that fight – the very armour that his Ghost now appears to be wearing. The impression is responsible for the critical commonplace that Shakespeare would have us infer that prince Hamlet’s father had been the consummate warrior-king, his reign – unlike that of his brother – an epoch of martial glory for Denmark. But that is to miss the significance of a detail that Shakespeare doesn’t let drop until late in the play, in Act V: King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras had taken place in the same year as Prince Hamlet’s birth – which occurred thirty years prior to the time of the action of the play. As King Hamlet had died less than two months before the time of the play, that means he had lived, on the throne, some three decades past the sole martial act — indeed, the only event of his reign – that anyone seems to recall with any distinctness.

Critics who cleave to the commonplace view tend to make much of the contrast between the former king’s (supposed) warrior ethos and the present king’s penchant for drunken carousing – a “custom” his nephew the Prince roundly deplores (“More honoured in the breach than the observance,” he sniffs.). Yet Hamlet does not ever say that this “custom” was Claudius’ innovation; he implies just the opposite, in admitting that as a “native here,” he is himself “to the manner born.” True, nothing is said to link this particular custom with the prior king. But that is because there’s only one regular “custom” of the former king of which we’re apprized: his daily afternoon nap.

3. When Prince Hamlet first encounters the Ghost of his father, the recently-deceased king, the first thing he learns is his father’s   “Doomed 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 washed away.” What are those “foul crimes” for which the Ghost must now suffer fiery purgation?  In all all three of the modern critical editions that I’ve consulted, the editors are at pains to assure the reader that old King Hamlet’s sins can’t have been nearly so bad as all that; ’foul crimes’ is just an exaggerated way of referring to his everyday, venial sins. But in fact there’s zero evidence in the text, one way or another, regarding the gravity of the dead king’s sins. The only reason to think that those sins must have been fairly innocuous is that this seems to be the only way to make sense of how the Ghost can then go on to imply that his murderous brother is to blame not only for taking his life, but also for his horrible post-mortem suffering, by depriving him of the chance to receive the sacrament of absolution.

This simply shows the extent to which even scholarly readers are disposed to treat Hamlet’s father with all the solemn reverence shown to him by his son. For there’s another, obvious way to account for what Shakespeare is doing, in having the Ghost blame his present condition on his murder. We’re being a given a clue to a character trait that it’s apparent throughout the Ghost’s colloquy with his son, though seldom remarked on: his egregious self-pity. There’s no way around this: it’s a shallow, and profoundly un-Christian idea to blame one’s failure to repent of one’s sins before death on the unexpected suddenness of one’s dying. (It won’t do to claim that Shakespeare would have taken on this notion as proper to the world of the play, on account of its medieval setting. In Henry V, probably written just a year or two before Hamlet, Shakespeare has another pre-Reformation king lucidly expose the fallacy in the notion.) It may or may not be the case that King Hamlet’s sins were but trivial; he’s the one who calls them foul crimes, and his impulse in doing so seems to be nothing more than the wish to elicit the pity of his son. (He’s forbidden from disclosing anything specific about the nature of his term in the purgatorial “prison-house,” so he wants at least to convey that he’s not getting cushy treatment.) It doesn’t occur to him that describing his sins in that way might implicate himself as responsible for what he’s now suffering; he seems not to see the connection.

The Ghost’s self-pity is part of his overall self-absorption. It’s for nobody’s sake but his own that he imposes on his son the duty of avenging his murder; the duty is demanded as the proof of the son’s love for him. He rages against his brother not only for taking his life, but also for (afterwards) stealing his crown (and his queen) – as if he hadn’t quite grasped that he couldn’t have remained king, now that he’s dead. Does it never occur to him that his son might have his own reasons for resenting the current occupant of the throne?

Or might it be that father and son are not speaking candidly, even then?

A Tainted Election? “Hamlet” & Politics

For roughly the first half of Hamlet, the audience is left in suspense as to whether or not Claudius, the present king, had in fact secretly murdered his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. Then the prince devises and executes a plan to find out, and deems his suspicions confirmed; we in the audience get to be privy to still more conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Mystery solved. Except that this isn’t the play’s only mystery, nor the most vexing one. For – despite what we’re tempted to think – the confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions doesn’t resolve the unanswered question looming over the play from the start: how is it that Claudius, the murdered king’s brother, got to be king after him?

Never mind how the former king died. Why did the crown not pass to Hamlet, that king’s son and namesake? Shakespeare supplies us with just enough information to allow the inference that the Denmark of the play (like the Denmark of Shakespeare’s own time) is an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. This doesn’t answer the question; it defines it. In the elective monarchies that Shakespeare’s audience knew, a king with a direct male heir would almost invariably be succeeded by him on the throne, barring exceptional circumstances. In Hamlet, the recently-deceased king is survived by an adult son, bearing his father’s name. Yet somehow the crown has passed not to the son but instead to the former king’s brother. We are told nothing about the procedure whereby he was elected, or who was involved. It seems to be connected somehow (whether as cause or consequence) with his having won the heart and the hand of Gertrude, the queen. Shakespeare withholds any definite information. He simply presents us with Claudius on the throne, his election a fait accompli.

This turn of affairs, however it happened, has left Hamlet in a state of incredulous, shocked disgust. He finds Claudius loathsome, a disgrace to the kingdom. He can barely contain his rage at his mother for having let herself be swayed to the side of a man so deplorable and disgusting. When he learns (from his father’s ghost) that his uncle had brought about his father’s death, he absorbs this disclosure as if it were something he might have known all along. As the son of the murdered king, he finds himself tasked with avenging the crime.

But make no mistake: what Hamlet seeks is not public justice, and his cause serves no useful political purpose.   The revenge he is tasked with is  merely a private affair, familial score-setting. For Claudius (we must assume) is Denmark’s legitimate king. He may be a treacherous, unscrupulous thug.  He might never have gotten his chance if he hadn’t committed a devious crime. But it wasn’t the crime that got Claudius his crown. He got elected.

Just how Claudius got elected, Shakespeare leaves unexplained. We’re given no information about the procedure, nor of the identities of the electors.   We’re not told whose support Claudius had relied upon for the election to go in his favor.  Maybe whoever it was  (Gertrude? Polonius? Osric? Others unmentioned?) would have chosen differently had they known of the candidate’s crimes in the run-up to his election.  Maybe; or maybe not. Maybe they were in a position to guess what he’d done; maybe they didn’t care. They might still have preferred him to the other available candidates, for reasons unknown to us.   In any event, it’s a moot hypothetical. A royal election can’t be revoked or retracted.

Hamlet generally seems to understand this.   He never speaks of his uncle as   a usurper, nor disputes the legitimacy of his title to rule. He accepts that Claudius is indeed Denmark’s king.  And yet his lucidity on the matter does seem to have limits. He cannot help himself from cruelly berating, and baiting, his mother, merely for having married the man. He rails at her pointlessly, wildly imagining he might shame her into abandoning him. It never occurs to him that she might have had her reasons for marrying, now that his father is dead. This is painful to watch.

There’s a reason why Hamlet so brutally and irrationally castigates his mother, as if she alone were responsible for Claudius’ ascendancy. It spares him the need to confront the hard truth – nowhere stated by anyone, but inscribed in the situation – that it isn’t his mother who bears the blame for enabling Claudius’ rise, but his father, the previous king. We tend not to notice this. But it’s true.

For consider: somehow the long-reigning King Hamlet had failed to ensure that the crown would pass to his son. Was his father a weaker, more pusillanimous king than Hamlet allows himself to remember? Was he merely negligent, and short-sighted? Might he not have cared for his son to succeed him, or cared to expend the political capital that would have been needed to assure his son’s success? Might it be that the father and son had been somehow estranged? Shakespeare withholds from us any basis for knowing, one way or another. The father is dead (though still haunting the place, now and then); the son is disappointed; the uncle is king. Later the uncle is dead, along with the son and the mother, and somebody else takes over. The rest is silence.

The Player Prince

1. My favorite line in  Hamlet is a casual remark of Hamlet’s to Horatio, late in the play. It occurs just after he agrees to take part in his fatal fencing match with Laertes.  Hamlet had just been telling Horatio of the devious means by which his uncle the king has tried to get him killed, when a  courtier enters to inform him of the king’s interest in arranging the match.   Laertes is known to be a champion fencer, his unsurpassed prowess begrudgingly acknowledged even by the French. Nonetheless, Hamlet agrees, returning the answer that he’s willing to take part immediately. When the courtier leaves with the message, Horatio says plainly what any first-time audience or reader must be thinking, “You will lose, my lord.”  Hamlet’s nonchalant answer: “I do not think so. Since he went into France;  I have been in continual practice. I will win, at the odds.”

For nonchalant revelations, that’s hard to beat. Continual practice – when might that have been?  So far as the audience has been in a position to see, Hamlet has spent the last several months doing little but brooding alone, unsociable and unkempt. The only time he seemed to take any lively interest in the world was when stimulated by the chance visit of a touring theater troupe, without which he’d never have been roused to act on his seemingly-forgotten pledge to avenge his father’s murder. And now Shakespeare has Hamlet let drop – in the play’s final scene – he’s been at practice fencing, all of this time? Apparently so, for  Hamlet’s cool self-assurance is borne out in the bout: he fences well enough in the first two rounds – winning both – to make the king doubt that Laertes can get in a single touch. (After this, it gets hard to judge – and bloody, on both sides.) 

When had Hamlet been practicing? Laertes, recall, is a champion fencer (and also Hamlet’s sworn enemy). Continual practice would have to mean regular sparring, and probably also (if Hamlet’s skill has lately improved, as he seems to imply) extensive drilling as well.  So far as we know, Hamlet has had no other friend at Elsinore over this period but Horatio, and Horatio seems to be no more apprized of this business than we are. With whom has Hamlet been practicing? Shakespeare supplies us with no information.

There’s more to be said about Hamlet’s fencing, but I’ll have to save that for another occasion. (A topic for another post, I promise.) I mention all this just to frame a more general question, or cluster of questions, concerning the limits of what we can know about Hamlet, and Hamlet’s doings. What else might Hamlet have been up to, of which the audience is unaware? What else was he practicing, in all of the time he had seen merely passive and withdrawn, or else over-excitable and impulsive?  Hamlet’s psychology (his self-understanding) is famously elusive. But Hamlet’s activities are generally thought to be fully accounted for — enough so, at least, to make us construe his elusiveness in psychological terms. The  seeming haphazardness in what we’re shown of his doings, over the course of the play, we ascribe to his being distracted, or skittish, or merely impulsive. But might it be, instead, that Shakespeare has seen no need to inform us of his full agenda?

The word “practice,” in Shakespeare, can sometimes mean to dissimulate, or deceive. This is not unrelated to ‘practicing’ fencing, for fencing in Shakespeare’s time was known especially for techniques of feinting, deceptive evasive manoeuvres. In general, too, fencing was practice for handling weapons in actual duels; it looks like real fighting, but only in play.  When Hamlet and Laertes have their abortive bout, the stage direction reads: “They play.” (It turns out this ‘playing’ is the real thing, in that end up mortally wounded.) That’s not the only playing within the play Hamlet, of course. My concern in the following is the other kind – theatrical play-acting, as performed by the troupe of professional actors – or “players” — that shows up in Elsinore in Act II.  With the questions I’ve just posed in mind, I’d like to examine some details in Hamlet’s behavior in the scene when the players arrive.

2. The first we hear of the players is when Hamlet is told of their imminent arrival by his former schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had passed them on the road to Elsinoire. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom I’ll call R. and G. from now on) had themselves just shown up, unexpectedly, and were studiously vague to Hamlet about what they were doing in Elsinore. When they say they have come merely to pay him a visit, Hamlet is instantly suspicious, and presses them to know their real business: “Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal justly with me.” He gets them to admit they were sent for, then pre-empts their further deceit by informing them he knows that it must have been the king and queen who had done so, for the purpose of humoring him (and also, it goes without saying, for the purpose of spying on him). They are momentarily out of their depth; then one of them gets the idea to divert Hamlet’s attention by bringing up the players with him.   “What players are they?” Hamlet asks.  “Those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city,” Rosencrantz replies. “How chances it that they travel?,” comes Hamlet’s next question – at which point the conversation drifts into general talk about the theater business in the (unnamed) city where this company is usually based. The players arrive soon after,  and Hamlet welcomes them heartily.

Run through that again. Moments before, Hamlet has had his suspicions confirmed that R. & G. have been specially summoned to the Court by the king, who hasn’t scrupled to recruit his old friends to deceive him. His suspicions had been aroused merely by the fact of  his schoolmates’ otherwise unexplained appearance at the court. Why are his suspicions not similarly aroused when this company of players just happens to arrive at Elsinore on the same day? He has just obtained confirmation (if any were needed) that these two perfidious flatterers are well informed of his special liking for this particular company. R. & G. are inept, easily seen through. But this next batch of old acquaintances – well, they’re professional actors. They’re expert dissimulators, and they do it for hire.  Somehow Hamlet is fully at ease with them, nonetheless. He never inquires what they’re doing in Elsinore.   

Might it be that Hamlet has no need to inquire, already knowing the answer?Might it be that he knows very well that the players had been specially sent for – having sent for them himself? There is admittedly no positive indication of this. But nor does he say or do anything then or later that indicates the contrary. They are well known to him; he is capable of posting letters. He presumably would have the means to induce them to come, he being a prince, and they being players of uncertain financial standing. The queries he first puts to R. & G. when they tell him of their coming – “What players are they?” and “How chances it that they travel?” – tend to create the impression of his having no foreknowledge of the players’ coming. But mightn’t he want to create that impression, to them? It would be as easy as lying – easier, requiring no definite lies. Having just found out that R. & G. have been co-opted for the purpose of deceiving him, and are sure to be reporting back to the king, it would be simple prudence for him to withhold certain information. Or he might simply find it amusing to play dumb, privately mocking their knowing presumption of his ignorance.

If Hamlet knew in advance of  the players’ visit, the natural inference would be that he had keenly anticipated their coming, and might well have been in prior contact with them. Nothing he says in this scene could be taken as positive grounds for ascribing foreknowledge to him – but then again, if there were, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would perceive this as well. Conversely, we in the audience, witnessing this, are in no position then they, to know Hamlet’s mind. It’s the first that we’ve seen of him since his encounter with his father’s Ghost, some weeks or months earlier. Suppose Shakespeare intended to leave us in that position – to give us no inside knowledge of Hamlet’s designs beyond what would be available to R. & G.  Perhaps he deemed it sufficient to allow us only this one advantage over them: the opportunity to perceive the groundlessness of their knowing presumptions.

We may be no better positioned than R. & G. are to tell whether Hamlet might merely be feigning his seeming ignorance, when they tell him of the players’ arrival.   And yet we are in a position to see that such feigning is something that Hamlet is capable of, and that he’d think clever – and funny – to do. And, remarkably, R. & G. are in a position to see this of him as well. For Hamlet proceeds to demonstrate this, right in front of them, moments later – when Polonius comes in, bringing his news of the players’ visit. 

As Polonius enters, Hamlet sees fit to murmur a jibe about him to R. and G., aside, as if inviting them to conspire with him against the newcomer. He sets them up to join in a private joke against Polonius, the (nominal) point of which is to mock him for being so tiresomely predictable. “I will prophesy: he comes to tell me of the players, mark it” (355). To set up the joke, Hamlet then pretends – as Polonius comes within earshot – that the three are absorbed in discussing some past event, so that Polonius will assume that they haven’t yet gotten word of the latest. (“You say right sir, a Monday morning, ’twas then indeed,” Hamlet improvises.) When Polonius excitedly interrupts – “My Lord, I have news for you -” Hamlet then cuts him off by parroting back those same exact words – then continuing, nonsensically – “When Roscius was an actor in Rome…” – as if to imply, obscurely, that there’s not much to choose between the latest news and ancient history.  (Roscius was a famous actor of Roman antiquity.)  At which point Polonius impatiently cuts him off, with the very announcement that Hamlet had predicted. Hamlet must find this hilarious, if he’s willing to put so much energy into the joke. The other two must be delighted, too, to have been taken into his confidence, sharing the private joke. But they must be a bit befuddled as well, for why should Hamlet find this so hilarious, when Polonius’ news had been news to him just moments before?  Needless to say, they’d never think to consider the joke might perhaps be on them.

3.  Whether or not Hamlet knew of the players’ itinerary in advance, he shows every sign of knowing just what he wants of them, once they arrive. Immediately after greeting the company – with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with Polonius, still present – he requests an impromptu declamation.  He asks the First Player to recite “a passionate speech” — it turns out, he has one particular speech in mind, from a play he especially likes. Here’s how he explains his request:

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million: ’twas caviary for the general. But it was, as I received it, and others whose judgements in such matters cried in the top of mine, an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make it savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation, but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet and by very much more handsome than fine. One speech in’t I chiefly loved, ’twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. 

After all that, he then specifies more precisely what part of the speech he is most keen to hear, by reciting the first dozen lines himself –  directing the First Player to continue from there. 

Now this is curious. Hamlet begins by identifying the speech as one that he has heard the player recite once before. Then he gets carried off into happy reminiscences about his own and (unnamed) others’ opinions concerning the play to which the speech belongs. When he turns back from the play to the speech, he is very specific in identifying where in the play it occurs. The detail to notice: amid all this talk, Hamlet never actually names the play, nor identifies it by its contents or author. Yet somehow he counts on the person whom he’s addressing – the First Player – to understand what play he’s talking about. For he evidently expects him to know what he’s referring to, when he goes on to indicate a particular episode within it. (His manner of mentioning the episode cannot plausibly be taken as a way of specifying the play – as in ’You know, that play, the one with Aeneas telling a story to Dido.’ On the contrary, it presumes prior familiarity with the play’s contents.) Hamlet must assume that  his ostentatiously oblique comments about the play’s merits and reception conveys all the information required for the Player to recognize what play he’s referring to. That is to say, there must be some private allusion involved in his cryptic mention of the “others whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of” his own, and the “one” who praised it so floridly. He may be alluding to persons known to the players, recognizable from these opinions. Alternatively, he may be reminding the players, perhaps teasingly, of statements that they’d made themselves. Either way – it seems to be some sort of private joke.

Consider a few further details, and see if we might catch the joke, possibly. Hamlet begins by telling the First Player, “I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million.” The speech has been spoken in Hamlet’s presence.  (Note the suppressed preposition: was the speech spoken to Hamlet? For him?)    And yet he professes uncertainty as to whether the play had ever been performed, due to its unpopularity – notwithstanding the praise it received by the true cognoscenti. In what capacity had Hamlet heard the speech spoken? How came he to care so greatly for the play’s merits, in the face of its popular failure, as to cherish in memory what praise it received? How is it that Hamlet is so familiar with a speech from a play never acted (or acted not above once) that he’s able to recite a dozen lines at a stretch? One possible answer, consistent with all of these facts: he wrote it himself.

And why not? Somebody had to have written it.  If Hamlet himself were the author, the circumstances noted above would all be intelligible. It would explain how Hamlet is able to recite the first dozen lines without difficulty.  It would also account for the player’s ease in reciting a so long a speech (from a play performed no more than once): in that case, he might have bethought himself to rehearse it, prior to coming to Elsinore. (Hamlet, after all, is a prince.)  The joke in Hamlet’s long-winded deference to others’ esteem for the play’s merits would become legible, as an exercise in mock self-deprecation.  (Note the bit about “cunning and modesty.”)  He may be teasingly recalling this very actor’s flattering judgment of himself.

There is of course no way to prove that Hamlet is the author of the unnamed Aeneas play. My purpose in offering this as a hypothesis is largely heuristic, as one possible explanation for details otherwise easy to miss. The point is that Hamlet speaks of the play in a manner consistent with the hypothesis, and we’re in no position to know any further. We’re no more than half-comprehending observers  to Hamlet’s interactions with the players, not knowing anything of his prior dealings with them, and not being privy to whatever the inside allusions pass unstated in their exchanges. 

If this is our epistemic situation in relation to the unnamed Aeneas play, it is equally true of another play that Hamlet brings up, this time by name, later on in this same conversation. I refer to The Murder of Gonzago   otherwise known as The Mousetrap.

Toward a Theory of “Hamlet”: Six Theses

1.  It’s no accident that the Players arrive at Elsinore when they do.  Hamlet is just pretending to be surprised when Rosencrantz & Guildenstern  tell him of their arrival. He knows they’re coming, because it was he who had sent for them.  He’s been waiting for the players to arrive, so he can carry out his plan to stage The Murder of Gonzago (a.k.a. The Mousetrap)  in front of his uncle Claudius.

2.  When Hamlet summoned the Players to Elsinore, he also sent them the script of  the play The Murder of Gonzago of which he is the sole author.  He had started writing this play immediately after his encounter with the Ghost. (There is some reason to think he may even have been at work on it even before then.)  The notion that he has delayed taking action is therefore mistaken.

3. Although Hamlet speaks of his plan to put on the play as a device to test Claudius’ guilt, this is not his original, or primary purpose.   (It’s just an after-thought, a belated rationalization to cool his nerves.)  The real point is is just to insult and enrage his uncle, so as to provoke his hostility.

4.   The reason why Hamlet wants to provoke Claudius’ wrath is to get himself out of the moral impasse in which he finds himself.  Claudius is the legitimate king of Denmark, an elective monarchy. The fact he is also a murderer, the secret killer of the previous king (Hamlet’s father), does not detract in any way from the legitimacy of his election. Moreover, Claudius has designated Hamlet his intended heir to the Danish throne (as Hamlet’s own father had apparently failed or neglected to do).  This means that for Hamlet to kill Claudius unprovoked would be morally  on par with Claudius’ murder of his father, if not worse.

5. Hamlet’s essential difficulty, then, is that he must find a way to kill Claudius without ending up king himself. He succeeds.

6.  It’s no accident that Fortinbras shows up at Elsinore at the very end, just after the fatal debacle.  Hamlet had sent for him, too.