Death and Revenge in Hamlet

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly on grief and vengeance in Hamlet and beyond.

Painting of Shakespeare's Hamlet and his father's ghost by Henry Fuseli.

Painting of Hamlet and his father's ghost by Henry Fuseli.

Hamlet returns from Wittenberg to honor his father’s death, and is suddenly confronted with his father’s ghost. Immediately, it seems, he is roused (or provoked) to an act of honorable revenge; and thereafter there transpires all the mix of rage and scrupulousness that drives us inward—along with young Hamlet—to the maddeningly fascinating heart of Shakespeare’s play.

There is, indisputably, this sword of honorable revenge that helps drive us inward with Hamlet; but I would like to call attention also to the meaning of simple grief. Many in the audience know all-too-well what is to suffer the death of a family member—because we are human, and because death is one of those few things (apart from our birth) that remain, quite simply, beyond our direct control. Now think of Hamlet, returning from Wittenberg, with his father long-buried and his mother remarried to his uncle.“Heaven and earth! Must I remember?” Hamlet says. His very second line in the play is, “I am too much in the sun.” Hamlet is, from the very start of the play, cast in a vale of tears, and his new “parents” are determined and resolved to live in the sun. Hamlet tells his mother that he wants to set her up a glass: to see what? To take her out of the sun and into the darkness where he resides?

Hamlet Before King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia by Christian August Printz.

Hamlet Before King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia by Christian August Printz.

I suggest that Hamlet’s inward spiral begins before he ever meets the ghost. It is the fact of death itself that has sent him scurrying inwards—the fact of death itself that has raised up, for him, his own inward glass. Much has been written about the ghost provoking young Hamlet’s inner struggles of “to do or not to do,” “to be or not to be”—but I wonder whether Shakespeare isn’t alluding to the very fact of death itself—its ineluctability, the fact that we cannot un-make death, the fact that we can never have again that person, nor replay the day he died and do the day differently—that resides at the very root of Hamlet’s inaction. Death was a different commodity in Shakespeare’s time (much more common) and kings and princes were different commodities as well. But, even for a king, even for a prince, there is still the very fact of mortality, what it means and how we can possibly cope with it. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, has responded to her husband’s death by doing the first best thing—she papers over the hole that her husband left with a new king and a new husband so that things run along as they always have. This doesn’t mean she does not suffer—it possibly means that she is not prepared, internally, to live with the hole that’s opened up by death if she doesn’t have to. In telling her that he will be her glass, Hamlet is not just saying “Look into yourself and see that you have betrayed the memory of your dead husband by marrying his brother,” but “Look into MYself and see the pain that lives there. I am outraged when I see you pretending that that pain is not there—because I have chosen to live with it.”

I suggest, then, that ideas of loyalty and honorable revenge are—even in Shakespeare’s day—not just codes of internal structuring and mechanics for this, possibly his most famous play. Shakespeare was so devilishly psychologically astute, these codes are something else as well: They are masks for the real, elemental emotions of mortality that strike at the heart of all humans in all times and circumstances.

Liesl Tommy’s production of Hamlet  graces our stage September 19–October 14, 2012.

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