Sunday, May 30, 2010

Andrew Russ: "Social Speech in Hamlet"

Andrew Russ
University of Sydney

Four Diseases of Social Speech in “Hamlet”


A1> The vast multitudes of Hamlet studies almost predominantly concern themselves with the central figure of Hamlet himself. Outside of this figure, very little attention has been payed to the swirling political malefactions that surround the Danish Prince in the play. This article explores the effect that events occurring outside of Hamlet’s mammoth personality have on informing his selfhood, and conversely how his character sheds light upon those social ills that comprise his immediate environment. By running the gamut of major political disturbances, war (the threat of Fortinbras), revolution (the humanist learning of Hamlet and Horatio), civil disorder (the coup of Laertes) and social degeneration (the corruption of Claudius’ court), the play is not just a masterful drama but a sophisticated meditation on politics. These crises being concentrated around the figure of an uncommonly loquacious and anxious Prince, suggests that these crises are indeed social anxieties of speech.

A2> Hence, the speech philosophy of the German sociologist and linguist Eugen Roenstock-Huessy will be reviewed in the service of this task. Rosenstock recommended a dialogical theory of speech as a new foundation for the social sciences. His emphasis upon the dynamics of command and response helps to diagnose the major political crises as breakdowns of social speech. Applying such a speech philosophy to the most prolix play in the Western canon allows us to diagnose political ills as aberrations in the chain of social dialogue. Silence, misunderstanding, inarticulateness, disrespect and decadence within the social speech of the play inevitably bring about disastrous political fractures.


1> There is a famous difficulty when dealing with Hamlet for the stage. How does one connect the extraneous political dimensions of the written play to the tremendous personal family drama that seems to constitute its marrow? Invariably the first omission from many stage productions is the Fortinbras affair and any mention of nearby warlike Norway. Some productions, with the aim of lessening costly personnel, will also pass over the more violent political implications of Laertes’s attempted coup by having him arrive at the castle door alone with his rage, and not bolstered by a group of armed rebellious Danes. It seems the need to keep expenses down results in the cutting of the threats of external and civil war upon the court of Elsinore. Frequently, curious passages where Hamlet waxes philosophical upon aspects of societal degeneration and revolution are also absent or greatly reduced. While these retractions of a political nature obviously result in a loss of the sense of claustrophobia upon the court, it is generally accepted by directors that they do not overly detract from the theatrical power of the ‘family fillet’ disproportionately.[1]

2> Yet obviously Shakespeare is attempting to explore something on the tiered levels of the individual, the family, the national and the international in this most prolix play. In the Shakespearean oeuvre, no play is more verbose or overladen with speech than that of Hamlet. No wonder it is rarely played in its entirety, either in Shakespeare’s or our own time. It seems to need shearing before it can be realistically staged. Its word count towers over the other plays, as does Hamlet’s personal share of the verbiage exceed all other individual Shakespearean characters. Hamlet is true to himself when lamenting, “That I… must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2.586-588).[2] The play simultaneously celebrates speech while treating it as a suspicious faculty. Speech is the field where we play out both our glories and failures.

3> Apart from the obvious attraction of viewing the play as a peculiar revenge tragedy with a brilliant yet hamstrung individual at its heart, the fact that it runs the gamut of political malefactions, war, anarchy, degeneration and revolution, suggests that the play explores something larger, more societal than its singular protagonist can convey. In fact the turbulent political and generational fractures that abound in this play throw a complex doubt upon the heightened stature that Hamlet as an inspired individual has amassed over centuries of applause. In this paper I wish to show how an exploration of those major social disorders and detonations as they figure in the action of the play, even if they figure only obliquely, all serve to devastatingly reproach the idea of a powerful self positing individual, a concept perhaps better clarified by the more modern phrase of the ‘self-made-man’. The ironic fact that the most famous play of modern European history has also provided us with the very paradigm of such an individual, an embodied template for modern individualism, while also embedding in its fabric a critique of this personage, demonstrates also its profoundly prophetic nature.

4> The little known speech philosophy of the Christian sociologist Rosenstock-Huessy will be used to elucidate this approach to Hamlet. Rosenstock-Huessy speaks at length in his works of what he describes as the four diseases of speech; war, revolution, civil crisis (anarchy) and degeneration. The fact that all four of these social diseases are present in one of the most speech-laden and speech-centred plays conceived, suggests a common sympathy between such thinking and the play. Also, at the heart of Rosenstock’s thinking lies a concern about the power of the individual to dictate the terms and frames of its own life and purpose, a concern that also lies at the heart of the figure of Hamlet. In the play a maelstrom of social and emotional ailments assail an exposed protagonist who protects himself by turning inward towards a regeneration of the self. The use of Rosenstock-Huessy’s speech thought will help to map the stunning but crippled success of this self-contained approach to modern life.

The Terrible ‘Thou’ of a Monumental ‘I’

“For Hamlet, revisioning the self replaces the project of revenge. The only valid revenge in this play is what Nietzsche, the theorist of revision, called the will’s revenge against time.”[3]

“He lives only for himself. He is an egoist and as such can have no faith in himself, for no man can have faith save in that which is outside self and above self.”[4]

5> The beginning of Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy revolves around the historical status of the ‘I’ and the ‘You’. For him, to take the ‘I’ as the first person, as the philosophers and grammarians do, is the highest order of historical mistakes. Social reality, contrary to the mind’s pure activity as abstracted from reality, must take the ‘You’ as the historical first person. Neither man nor material is able to create itself from nothing, but must be issued forth from its response to an outside imperative. This is as true materially as it is in the realm of society and speech.

6> This is more than the simple proclamation of a Rosetta stone for a new social thinking, but is a response and critique to the accumulated weight of idealist philosophies and mechanical sciences. Rosenstock- Hussey was member of a tendency in his contemporaries, Rosenzweig, Buber and Ebner, who all took this position against the received beliefs of modern philosophy’s starting point in the self-contained human. Social and historical thinking is unable to consider things as egoistic monads severed from the forces that issue and shape them, and as such, this thinking must take the command of the ‘You’ as first point of any inquiry. The human or divine command is the birth of consciousness and selfhood, rather than the troublingly tautologous ‘self positing self’, or some idea of a self-expanding consciousness that harks all the way back to Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’, or even Socrates ‘Know Thyself’. Responses to calls from outside create new life, while entities that can respond to nothing but themselves remain trapped and frustrated. To sum this broad position up in the words of Franz Rosenzweig, ‘The I discovers itself at the moment when it asserts the existence of the Thou by inquiring into its Where’.[5]

7> And yet at first glance, the insight that the ‘I’ cuts a paltry figure when on its own and left to its own devices, cannot be further removed from the example of Hamlet. Hamlet seems to be the towering figure of the ‘I’, the expanding self, the embodiment of an inwardly perpetuating intellect, ‘a breaking wave of sensibility, of thought and feeling pulsating onwards’.[6] To Harold Bloom, Hamlet is the very pinnacle of consciousness, bearing the blessing of more life than most, of innate and unexplainable intellectual freedom, with a mental and spiritual spaciousness that allows his self to roam and soar, with no other purpose than the expression and expansion of itself and the delight or dumbfounding of others.

“Consciousness is his salient characteristic; he is the most aware and knowing figure ever conceived.”[7]

“Inwardness as a mode of freedom is the mature Hamlet’s finest endowment.”[8]

8> It is an attractive benediction; freedom self-granted, self-consciousness and self-knowledge expanding. But it can only be sustained by blind hagiographers, and not by critical minds. The gift of more life in Hamlet turns his head to death obsessing. Bloom himself acknowledges that Hamlet ‘bears the blessing as if it were a curse’.[9] The heroic crowning of the self that Hamlet seems to engage in, is always made suspect by his villainous attributes, which Bloom is also careful to acknowledge. Cold, murderous, selfish, nihilistic, vain and manipulative, are all words we can aptly use to describe the Dane, but as Bloom points out, they seem to describe the evil Iago more than we can recognise the noble Prince in their composite. One should not forget that Hamlet’s rightfully famous soliloquies serve to at the same time convince us of the nobility of his mind and of his overriding solipsistic outlook on life. Both soliloquy and solipsism take their meaning from the Greek solis, meaning alone. Hamlet is a lonely but monumental ‘I’.

“The soliloquy supposed that what a man says to himself may be of extreme importance and that he may thereby be submitting his case to a higher court than presides over the conversations he may have with others.”[10]

9> And so there is something troublingly arrogant in Hamlet’s deployment to himself when arbitrating his own dilemmas. One need only observe how Hamlet uses Horatio as a compliant sounding board, rather than a concerned friend. While someone like Bloom can recognise and respect these troubling allusions to Hamlet’s crippling solipsism, he is all too sympathetic with Hamlet’s all conquering mind and consciousness. His love of Hamlet’s redoubling irony and his ‘overhearing’ of himself, makes its impossible for him to accept the appraisal of someone like W H. Auden, who most disliked the famous Dane for his egotistical inclinations. Bloom dismisses the troubling aspects of Hamlet’s character; unable to see that such a monumental ‘I’ remains floundering and fickle without a strong anchor of a motive outside him. Hamlet may be able to ‘overhear’ himself speaking, but he does not hear others or outside commands at all well. His loneliness as an ‘I’ is a troubled choice to remove himself from, constantly throw doubt upon, or absentmindedly give short shrift to those commands and directives from others. He is as Turgenev describes him, a faithless character because he misunderstands and is unable to act on the power of anything outside his own capacities. But the fault lies not entirely with him alone, for how could something as poor and denigrated as the court of Elsinore command his devotion? We will see how almost all commands given in the play are corrupted in some way, and hence the overwhelming feeling one gets is a sense of hesitancy before their beckoning presence. This is not just in the person of Hamlet, but everywhere throughout, and most telling in the inauspicious opening scene. When writing on the subject of drawing people into a vital form of life, and summoning them above the low dreary hum of trivial everyday existence, Rosenstock-Huessy uses a dramatical metaphor and talks of a background and foreground existence, that mimics interestingly the opening scene of Hamlet.

“One thing is certain: The background has a foreground whenever an actor has the courage to come out of the wings, to overcome his stage-fright, and to call another man’s name. For recreating a foreground, a man articulates somebody’s name. He does the only thing that nature does not do. He calls some body into life.”[11]

10> Consider now the opening scene of Hamlet.

“Enter Bernardo.

Bernardo: Who’s there?

Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

Bernardo: Long live the King!

Francisco: Bernardo?

Bernardo: He.

Francisco: You come most carefully upon your hour” (1.1.1-4)

It is a hesitant, almost comic start to a play; guards fumbling in the dark for identity. The actor on stage does not wish to be there, and the actor arriving doesn’t wish to do so. Shakespeare is almost directly writing stage fright into the action. There is an ominous uncertain atmosphere to the exchange, which is quickly followed by a further volley of tentative, slightly fearful questioning for recognition when Horatio and Marcellus arrive from the wings. The ‘rotten’ state of Denmark is brilliantly stated from the outset, as people cautiously go about their business, unable to call other’s names, let alone their own in signs of acknowledgment. People know not where they stand and wish to remain concealed, in the background, out of harms way from the coming ‘strange eruption’ (1.1.68). Amongst the servants there is an element of hiding and fear, but Horatio, whose learning partially eliminates such trepidation, instead grasps for some guidance from the woe that is engrossing the state. He seeks the premonition with curiosity and courage. When the Ghost ‘erupts’ on the stage, Horatio calls for him to speak no less than nine times. For those who have not cowered into the anonymity of the background and who wish to create a foreground, there is a beseeching for someone to call them into the action and give direction, call their name and receive their ‘I’ in a commanding ‘You’. Horatio’s nine calls are however met with a resounding silence.

11> After this discouraging yet telling beginning, the next scenes are centred on two mammoth yet troubling commands from Hamlet’s blood relations. There is a disturbed spirit released by these two commands, founded upon the nature of the command itself and the nature of those issuing them. Neither of the two commands are given for the benefit of the grieving Hamlet, and all blood relations are in some way stained and fallen. The blood is thick and unwholesome, and the commands are selfish and hence have no force behind them. No wonder that Hamlet dejectedly acquiesces to the first from Claudius and inexplicably remains true to his doleful word, while wholeheartedly agreeing to the second from the Ghost but floundering tragically in his response. The commands are unable to inspire right action in their hearer. Let us examine the first.

12> We first meet Hamlet being admonished for his grief by a dubious couple, coaxing him out of the natural inclinations of his heart. His mother introduces the theme; death is ‘common’ (1.2.103). The uncle and new king elaborates; ‘your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his’ (1.2.89-90). In other words, it is a fact of nature; fathers die. The fact that it can be predicted with such certainty makes the earnest griever a mere gratuitous poser. He berates Hamlet for being ‘simple and unschooled’ (1.2.97), yet his attack on him is based upon the most simple and unschooled of axioms, ‘what we know must be’ (1.2.98). Nature’s ‘common theme is death of fathers’, and hence Hamlet’s grief is ‘a fault against the dead’ (1.2.102) This most preposterous reasoning highlights how schooled this man is in the breaking of the right order of the world.

13> The great common chain of being between son and father is purposely being split apart by the political subterfuge of this false king. Having killed your father, I proclaim he does not want your mourning and remembrance for it offends his new resting place… heaven. In the social fabric no relationship carries the force of the ‘I’ and ‘You’ more than father/son, parent/child, and a purposeful attempt has been made by mother and uncle to denigrate it as common and not worthy of further thought. The molecule of generational linkage, the prime and personal site of I/You transference suffers a material and philosophical death at the hands of Claudius. Perhaps one of the most powerful relations in human affairs has been subjected to a spiritual, and in the case of the court of Elsinore, historical and political severance.[12] If the new king and queen and the new political state of affairs view the connection between father and son, and the momentousness of the death of a father as unimportant, no wonder the severed son transfers the denied momentousness of that death into himself, and correspondingly flirts with his flesh melting into the dew. The death wish and the inflated self are born in the same moment of a dead father denied.

14> After this sophistic tirade against the power of fatherhood, not forgetting to mention the sly and underhanded physical murder of the father himself, Claudius incredibly proclaims to Hamlet, ‘think of us as of a father’ (1.2.107-108). Embrace the father-killer, my adopted son. The argumentation is baffling, as he seems almost to be inviting his own demise. Think not of your father for it is dangerous to me, yet think of me as a father as this will hopefully placate you. An invective against the father and pleading for the devotion that a father deserves are two sophistic commands that Claudius issues to the hapless Hamlet. Based upon the selfish motive of keeping your enemies close, Claudius’s mangled reasoning combines into a dangerous command for Hamlet to remain in Elsinore. Hamlet obeys without objection, unless you consider an objection voiced only to yourself as any sort of real objection. By this command to remain in Elsinore, Claudius denigrates the I/Thou relationship, creates a monstrous, flawed, unstable and brilliant ‘I’ in Hamlet, and tightly packages the explosive possibilities of this psychological and metaphysical struggle within the fatal boundaries of his myopic court. It remains only for another flawed father figure to give an equally poisonous command to set the court onto its doomed path.

15> The scene in which Hamlet comes into contact with his disinterred father is notable for its uncertainty. In fact the whole shadowy figure of the ghost is mired in doubt. The scene begins with Hamlet’s long pleading for the Ghost to reveal itself as a good or evil spirit, with a telling remark on the apparition’s ‘questionable shape’ (1.4.24). It turns out that Hamlet’s father is,

“Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.” (1.5.10-13)

It is too straightforward to simply see the figure of the ghost as the causal agent of the revenge story. There is a considered back-story that Shakespeare gives to the old Hamlet in the first scene with Horatio and the soldiers. As he stalks away from Horatio he is described as starting, ‘like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons’ (1.1.129-130). He is described as an ‘extravagant and erring spirit’ (1.1.135), in other words, a wandering and troubled apparition whose confine is the darkness of night, and who evaporates with the coming dawn back to the infernal courtroom of his penance. Surely there is something more here than the superstitions of soldiers, but a kind of spiritual/political foreboding. There is a certain sensitivity to the past impacting upon the present, as the attendance of the dead king is intimately tied to the marshalling of military strength in the kingdom. The memory of past battles looms over anticipated violence. When Marcellus prompts Horatio, ‘Is it not like the king?’ (1.1.57) Horatio answers that it is the visage of the king who combated Norway and smote the Pollack. Why the immediate remembrance of the martial king? Why does his appearance also prompt a history lesson on the former king’s glories against the old Fortinbras? This will all be discussed in detail further, but for now it suffices to conclude that the figure of the ghost does not fill us with confidence that his appearance or word is for the betterment of Hamlet or the state. One must doubt his intentions and the spirit in which he arrives. He cannot leave hell until his crimes are purged, and it is obvious that he has come clothed in the warlike attire of his crimes. He obviously has no intention of rectifying his worldly offences.

16> We can almost certainly confirm that the ghost is doing some kind of afterlife reparation for his crimes. We can thus conclude that Hamlet is correct to suspect that what visits him ‘may be the devil’ (2.2.601), and that it is assuming a pleasing shape. But this later doubt has no accord with his initial familiarity and informality before the ghost. He jokes with the ghost, describing him as that ‘fellow in the cellarage’, while also harking him with the casual moniker ‘true-penny’ in contradistinction to the true quality of anyone that dwells in the divine cellar. The coinage of the underworld is rarely ‘true’, and must be spent cautiously in the real world, not casually in a chummy fashion. There is a certain flirtation on Hamlet’s part with the danger that the figure of the ghost represents, even though he cautiously tests the currency of hell in the play within the play. But what Hamlet tests in that episode is the wrong thing. Rather than test the guilt of Claudius, Hamlet would be better off testing the motive and reasoning behind the revenge itself. Where Hamlet is mistaken is in believing that this is a devil that has assumed the pleasing shape of the father, as if the father and devil are separate entities, the devil cloaking himself in the father’s apparel. Hamlet should not doubt that this is indeed his father, and not some counterfeit, and that it is precisely the father’s spirit that is out to harm him with its mantra of revenge. The devil does not exist as a distinguishable article, but resides in the deeds of men. If Hamlet smells the devil underneath his father, he should seek that source of malice in the actions of his father’s past, which have been so conveniently given to us in the very first scene by Horatio.[13]

17> Horatio tells us that the deeds of the old Hamlet in life (particularly his rivalry with old Fortinbras) were ‘pricked on by a most emulate pride’ (1.1.82). The whole warring affair with Norway is depicted by Horatio as a conceited rivalry between two swollen sovereigns. One need only look upon Hamlet’s musings upon the younger Fortinbras’s skirmish against the Poles to understand how needless war is generally considered in this play, as nothing more than ‘a fantasy and trick of fame’ (4.4.52, additional passages). But what is particularly unusual about the Ghost is his continued interest with this worldly trick of fame. The old idea of a ghost as a perturbed spirit unable to let go of its various attachments to a world it should no longer be concerned with, is perfectly encapsulated in the ghost of old Hamlet. He arrives when the son of a vanquished foe threatens an erstwhile kingdom no longer his to govern. His emulate pride pricked, he goes about the revenge of his defamed self by incorporating his son into the demise of his former kingdom. He speaks not of the son claiming his stolen birthright, but enlists him in a selfish campaign to reclaim a worldly importance that is totally irrelevant to him now he is dead. The command to revenge his death is asked for not to benefit the already demoralised son, but to poison his days on earth with a hatred not his to house, commandeer or carry beyond its natural course. For someone who is condemned to purge his sins away in hell, it seems so destructive that he still concerns himself with the bitter legacy of his fames and crimes on earth. He is lethally regurgitating the bile of his own self-imposed hell back into the world. The fault is amply demonstrated by his last words to the son whose destroyed course he is paving. ‘Remember me’ (1.5.91); and with those words he infects the present with the misery of his past.

18> Under the theatrical pretext of a riveting ghost story, Shakespeare is subtly making a calculated point about the chaos a dishonourable past can wreak upon subsequent generations. Impoverished legacies, fatally sightless forebears and situations of scandalous birth all conspire to create the monstrous ‘I’ of Hamlet, left to his own heightened but disordered instruction and adrift without guidance. What we are confronted with in the character of Hamlet and his relations with disgraced father figures is the potent liability that a badly, even maliciously directed command can inflict upon its hearer. All social diseases of speech stem from this sour chalice of selfish, bankrupt, broken or derelict commands, and all such bad instructions destroy the ‘I/Thou’ relationship and engender the flawed ‘I’. The inflamed ‘I’ is in many instances the response to the lacking ‘Thou’. No wonder Hamlet can both represent the ‘will’s revenge against time’ and the faithless egoist.

The Promise Crammed Air of Revolution

19> Revolution is commonly understood as a defiant societal bursting out which stems from the frustration with old customs, ways, traditions and attitudes which are seen to be cloaking what increasing becomes seen as a criminal and debased society. This defines it as young energy wrongfully constrained, and it is a force evident in Hamlet’s demeanour towards his country. Hamlet is youthful spirit insultingly constrained in a court rotting from the inside, held together only by its slavish and uncritical acquiescence to customs and traditions. This is alluded to early when Horatio and Hamlet, while waiting for the ghost, hear a flourish of trumpets and canon to congratulate the king on his prodigious drinking ability.

“…it is a custom
More honoured in the breach than the observance.” (1.4.17-18)

20> A revolution to Rosenstock-Huessy is the first break in social speech and creates a break with the language of the past. It is a political malefaction that concerns the breaking of humanity’s temporal stability through loud and violent declarations of the future. All throughout Hamlet there is evidence of a new voice emerging from the old feudal order. It has often amazed critics that part of the genius of Shakespeare is to have taken a twelfth century semi-legendary revenge story by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, thrust its setting towards the cusp of the feudal and renaissance world orders, and populate his story with rambunctious, impatient players and students, and soaked-in-tradition kings and lords. Not content with a simple revenge story he adds an added layer of tension, a temporal disjunction between the young and old. It may very well be said that this is the play’s prime site of time being “out of joint” (1.4.189).

21> The opening scenes again set up this tension magnificently. We firstly meet the sceptical, learned, philosophy-steeped Horatio on the battlements communing with ghosts of the old order.

“Horatio says ‘tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him.” (1.1.21-22)

We are next treated to a court scene that repeats the theme of generational separation another three times, all at Claudius’s expense. We are introduced to warlike “young Fortinbras, holding a weak supposal of our worth” (1.2.17-18/. Next comes Laertes, desperate to return to France after having “show(n) my duty in your coronation” (1.2.53). After giving his assent to the request only after checking to see if Laertes’ father Polonius also agrees, the king then unconsciously explains what is at stake, “Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine, and thy best graces spend it at your will” (1.2.62-63) This is an invitation to take hold of time and seize the day that Laertes will take up later in the play. Lastly we find a despondent Hamlet being corralled into remaining at the court so as not to return to his studies in Wittenberg. Youth questioning the commonplaces of old, seeing their hour to charge the weakened old guard, wishing to escape the confines of claustrophobic elders, uncomfortable with the strictures of court and longing for new knowledge. A generational lack of respect for the old order abounds, and revolutionary fracture is imminent. Time is certainly theirs. But the definition of revolution being ‘young’ new language carries with it a certain indefiniteness.

“But a revolution is inarticulate at first… In a revolution the revolutionary language is not yet in existence. Revolutionaries are called young for this very reason. Their language must be grown in the process of revolution. We might even call a revolution the birth of a new language.”[14]

22> The calls of burgeoning revolution are veiled, inarticulate, evasive because they are as yet unsure of themselves. They however are stark, and pointed to those they are directed towards. The accused can see the accusers point acutely, and their only response to it is that it is ill-mannered. They seem as shouts, uncouth and unschooled protestations in bad taste, but they prick at the conscience of those crimes that made the protestation necessary. This is precisely the status of Hamlet’s staging of the play within the play. Despite being in the form of a play, it is evasive and hence inarticulate, because the need for it expresses an inability to come up with the proper formulation of accusation. The revolution, the awareness of the past’s inadequate orientating power, is as yet a mere ‘dumbshow’. Despite its obscure and indirect indictment of the times, the King fearfully sees it for what it is. But at once the court closes rank around this figure of degeneration, claiming the performance is impolite and dishonourable.

“The conflict lies between an over-articulate but dead old language and an inarticulate new life.”[15]

23> The new life knows the truth only hazily and cannot communicate it effectively, the old life is unwilling to listen to the truth and shields themselves from it with their old formulas and partylines. Two languages are clashing on the frontier of the past and future, one a loud, faltering and petulant language of truth in its emergence; the other a subtle, well-rehearsed and clichéd language of truth in its eclipse. Despite the well-noted pun on ‘air’ and ‘heir’ when Hamlet responds to Claudius’s casual greeting at the play within the play, Hamlet does indeed sup upon the promise crammed air, an air of rebellious and innovative anticipation.[16] One who gains their sustenance from such an atmosphere is no neutered, fattened hen (capon), but is a lean and poised hawk (eyas) ready to soar.

24> But Hamlet is no unthinking member of a revolutionary class, a mindless foot soldier for the coming age. While most definitely in the company of the emerging new world, he is able to look at any revolutionary emergence with a critical eye and notice that all surfacing revolutions are innately inarticulate and intemperate. In a passage that is most often cut from performances, Hamlet discusses with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the theatrical state of affairs in the city that prompted the coming of the players to the court. It seems that they have been run out of town by an ‘aery of children’ actors.

“…little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for ‘t, these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages, - so they call them, - that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills, and dare scarce come thither.” (2.2.340-345)

Here we have an account of the young and boisterous asserting their unclear and ranting voice. The ‘new’ domineers the day while the powers that be, the ‘rapiers’, cower from their unschooled but strident influence. But Hamlet worries that the ‘goose-quills’ do wrong in their desire to abuse the nobility. He states of these hawkish young actors, “their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own succession”(2.2.351-352). All demands of the future must realise that they must eventually commune with the past. In order to secure its truth the ‘new’ must of course defeat an outmoded approach to life, but its temptation is to exclaim too loudly, too forcefully and for too long, so that it will never be able re-enter the stream of social speech. The danger of revolution is to go too far and isolate themselves from the listeners. A revolution buoyant with its newness, and believing itself the only way, will ‘exclaim against its succession’, and hinder the future rather than secure it.

The Brassed Heart of Degeneration

25> The second communal disease of speech that Rosenstock-Huessy identifies is what he variously labels tyranny, degeneracy or counterrevolution. It is the state of the past attacking the future, yesterday stifling tomorrow.

“While the young revolutionary group shouts because it is still inarticulate, any reactionary counterrevolution is so hyperarticulate as to become hypocritical.”[17]

We have already seen the mangled, hypocritical and fatal logic used by Claudius when haranguing Hamlet. We will later see the inverted hypocritical logic and behaviour that Polonius exhibits to his son Laertes. Tyranny, insincerity and pretence are the signs of old life ways quashing future calls for acknowledgement, but they are also the natural response of speech that knows it has had its day. Rosenstock-Huessy describes this state of affairs as lip service and cliché so clogging the arteries of new life and new speech that degeneration and decay set in. It is a peculiar state where a serious deficiency conceals itself with fluff and finery. It is an interesting image of a hyper-articulate and ornate web of speech, customs and mores covering over or concealing a decomposing and vanishing heart, very similar to the ‘brassed heart’ that Hamlet accuses his mother of having.

“And let me wring your heart; for so I shall,
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damned custom have not brass'd it so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense.” (3.4.34-37)

26> Critics have often noted the prevalence of disease as an image theme in Hamlet, and its intimate connection with the corruption of the court of Elsinore. What is less observed is the nature of many of these diseased images concerns an unwholesome covering upon something, or some contaminated growth rising out of something. In other words, many of the images of disease are careful not just to depict the disintegration of a body, but the outgrowths that denote the sickness. Sickness is always portrayed as having some disturbing fecundity inherent to it. Hamlet’s first major speech, while not directly about disease, is something of a critique upon this productive power of pain.

“Tis not my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful visage of the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, modes, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly; these indeed seem,
For they are the actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show” (1.2.77-85)

27> The loss of something seems always to set in train a series of attempts to cover or decorate it, poorly conceal or more wantonly express the deficit. Here Hamlet talks of the showiness of grief never being able to denote the truth of the malaise. It is most interesting that he makes this declaration in the middle of court proceedings and when we are first introduced to the politics of Elsinore. Hamlet is setting himself in opposition to the needless ornaments of court life. His grief is honest, truthful, unembellished and authentic. His experience of pain goes beyond the outward showy signs that are granted to mere observers. At the heart of this personal reflection is a more general criticism that anything that flirts with the cosmetic is either exacerbating something not worthy, or hiding a serious lack. This is a very pointed comment on the inauthentic life of the corrupted court. I am nude in my honesty, while you are showy in your diminution.

28> Hamlet's thoughts on the unseemly productiveness of grief are a mild prelude to the images of productive unseemliness we will see accrue upon a heart that is not sincere. The court of Elsinore, its main protagonists and their actions, are mired in images of lush fertile disease, as if the death of their honesty, veracity and honour produces an unhealthy by-product. Their social disease is not just a wastage or a lack of authentic speech, but an overflow of meaningless and malicious speech. The more noticeable film of scum and froth on a surface gives the stew of corruption away. The nineteenth century French poet Baudelaire, so attuned to society’s degradation, also understood the industrious, creative nature of something that is perishing, and expressed the idea best with in his poem, ‘A Carcass’.

“And it rose and it fell, and it pulsed like a wave,
Rushing and bubbling with health,
One could say that this carcass, blown with vague breath,
lived in increasing itself”[18]

29> Shakespeare so utilises this idea that only a catalogue of his use of this double image can suffice to demonstrate how singularly he is hammering home his point about degeneracy and tyranny being recognised by its diseased expressiveness. Along with damned custom brassing over a heart we can add;

“The drossy age, and yeasty collection. (5.2.150-152)

This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace. (4.4.18, additional passages)

Here is your husband like a mildewed ear. (3.4.63)

The rank sweat of an en’seamed bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love, over the nasty sty. (3.4.83-84)

Do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker. (3.4.142)

In the fatness of these pursy times. (3.4.144)

The bloat king and his reechy kisses. (3.4.166-168)

Beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd. (3.1.113-114)

And curd, like eager droppings into milk. (1.5.69)

And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazer-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body. (1.5.71-73)

By the overgrowth of some complexion… or by some habit that too much o’erleavens.” (1.4.11-13 additional passages)

Over-leavened, overgrowth, bark’d, encrusted, lazer-like, curdled, bawdy, fat, pursy, bloated, reechy, composted, en’seamed, stewed, drossy, yeasty, imposthumed, mildewed. The theme is obvious and repeated. The use of the image of disease to describe something that is on the verge of expiring is nothing especially new, and it is apparent that Shakespeare’s use of it in relation to the court serves the purpose of showing the court to be near death. Their once vibrant truth and expression of it is aged beyond resuscitation, as it no longer speaks to a generation that the elders expect to carry it on. Their example falls on deaf ears.

30> But worse than this, seeing that their ascendancy is waning, and seeing the wellsprings of new life around them, they stifle and clog its emergence by multiplying their dilapidated customs. They demand service to outmoded institutions, and employ convoluted speech and logic that makes them deaf to anything not as baroque and ornate as them. It is sophistry gone to seed, strangling the hesitant but frank and honest voice of the new. This is where Shakespeare’s acuity lies, in coupling the images of death and corruption with overgrowths and cultures of the most disgusting and distracting kind. Old, over-articulate speech is the surface film that seeks to hide from view an eroding society.

The Deafness & Immunity of War

31> Rosenstock-Huessy states that the next two political malefactions of speech concern not the axis of time, or the swaying of the past and future, but concern the axis of space, and hence revolve around how speech tugs at the borders between the outside and the inside.

“War, then limits speech to the fighting group on one side. War draws a geographical line between two idioms.”[19]

Often the inside and outside between tribes and nations exists already, but its natural state is one of indifference. But a boundary’s unyielding severity is most often felt when those of either side are desperate to convey a message of truth to one another, but there is no common speech accessible to them. War then, according to Rosenstock-Huessy, is not simply caused by a silence or indifference between peoples, but is the forced attempt to rectify an active animosity that makes the lack of speech unbearable. War is the countering of the unbearable silence of a wordless relationship with the speechless but awful loudness of arms. This unfortunate path creates a palpable sense of an inside and an outside. An indifferent lack of speech denotes no desire to make a relation, but war is the sign of a desperate need for a speaking relationship. When a speaking dialogue is replaced by the clatter and boom of arms, then does the feeling of a boundary between ‘our’ inside and ‘their’ outside become painfully acute. Secrecy, embargos, spying, blockades, propaganda and outright violence are the signs that people have given up allowing speech to traverse freely across borders, and purposeful insularity reigns. War is deafness and immunity against words from the outside. This immunity from speakers outside the fighting group is coupled with a heightened sensitivity to any speech within the borders, from within the inside. Rumour is given credence; propaganda is on everyone’s lips, fearful accusations are set loose, and people give in to unifying platitudes. A peace will only be reinstated when the two parties learn to speak again, or one is forced into listening, and then the highly charged, hyperbolic language within the nation will calm.

32> War understood as a blockage of speech helps to make sense of the usually misunderstood inclusion of Fortinbras in Shakespeare’s play. What seems a superfluous inclusion (and hence usually omitted from productions) is in fact a dramatic structure that orders and explains the mayhem that is occurring inside Elsinore. The play opens with the court of Elsinore preparing for the menace of possible war.

“And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week” (1.1.72-75)

We are even provided with a short history of the causes of the warring peril from Horatio. Apparently Fortinbras’ father engaged in single combat with Hamlet’s father and lost parts of Norway’s lands, presumably considered by Fortinbras to be his birthright. But most interestingly for our purposes is the fact that Denmark obviously feels this man enough threat to institute a martial readiness and a vast construction of means for war. And yet when we are introduced to the court for the first time, we are met with a monarch who dismisses the threat of his adversary, and is unwilling to send emissaries to his foe.

“Thus much the business is, we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew’s purpose” (1.2.27-30)

33> Evading and dismissing the immediate threat from Fortinbras, Claudius turns to his “impotent and bed-rid” uncle. While he may be the actual monarch of Norway, Claudius’ own words reveal that he is a poor avenue of recourse to avoid the threat of war. And while this withered old man is able to divert his nephew’s designs away from Denmark and towards Poland temporarily, the simple fact is that in the heart of the play a foreign army marches through Denmark on their way to a useless and distracting combat. As Hamlet perplexingly remarks upon;

“The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds” (4.4.51-53, additional passages)

Such tricks of fame will not keep at bay the determined for long. Denmark is from its outset haunted by a foe that it purposefully refused to speak to, and whose demands it did not recognise. Claudius feels so foolishly entitled to the lands won by his murdered and usurped brother’s own hands, that he deliberately is deaf to the demands from Fortinbras. And his sense of immunity extends to not even speaking in direct terms to the cause of the future calamity, but instead equivocating to a decrepit puppet. This is the very definition of war as an obstruction of speech. Claudius has done nothing other than postpone the war. A pause bought by indirectness is war deferred.

34> The other aspect of speech during wartime is that while the outside cannot be heard, the inside is oversensitive to any and all speech within its borders. Propaganda and rumour are its normal pitch. Claudius’s boastful tone when discussing the threat of young Fortinbras, his brazen confidence in his and the state’s power, gives us the introduction to this atmosphere. But the atmosphere in Elsinore is different. Its sensitivity to rumour is of a different stripe. Our last section dealt with the nature of speech within the court, and in every respect it bears resemblance to this phenomenon. The words of the court are ‘thick and unwholesome’ (4.5.80), troubled by intrigues and undercover agents. Everyone is listening to one another surreptitiously, peeling back their responses for the true motives behind their words and deeds. Even the gravediggers speak freely and lewdly of the affairs of state. The tragedy for the state of Denmark is that rather than the inside sensitivity of speech helping to affirm their commonality and unity in the face of threat and keep them in a state of readiness, it has the exact opposite character. It is distracting, beside the point and ultimately deadly. This is doubtless caused by the fact that Elsinore is not only beset by war, but by all the other dilemmas of social speech, so that it is simply impossible for them to give war the preparation and unity of speech that is required. Certainly they are sensitive to words from the inside, but not to their benefit.

35> A war ends when the parties can speak again, when they are willing to listen to one another. Amongst the first words that we hear Fortinbras say is in response to Horatio wishing to pass on the story of the nation’s downfall, “Let us haste to hear it” (5.2.340). Horatio’s call to be listened to is met with open ears. But perhaps the English ambassador staring over the scene of bloodshed has the best of lines.

“The ears are senseless that should give us hearing.” (5.2.323)

This is as true of their living as in death.

The Hugger Mugger of Crisis

36> Just as one miscarriage of speech concerns the failure to speak to those outside a given geographical circumference, there is also a social disease centred on the inability to speak to members on the inside of one’s social group. Rosenstock-Huessy variously calls this either civil war, social crisis, or anarchy. Rosenstock-Huessy diagnoses this particular speech disease as the companion to war’s lack of speech; war is deafness to the foe while crisis is muteness to the friend.

“The inner crisis of a disintegrating society is constituted by the fact that too many people inside this society are not told what to do.”[20]

This situation is a state of silence between friends. But friends must keep in communication, and when one deigns to become uncommunicative for whatever reason, the muted society becomes unbearable. Either rash action will be instituted in order to receive word from the silent party, or the person will fall catatonically silent and flounder uselessly. And again Shakespeare gives us a very complex look at this social malady with the example of Polonius’s unfortunate children. These are doomed brethren that we are first introduced to as a loving family giving each other gentle advice, and who have the friendly ear of their King. But these channels of friendly speech soon become strangled, and their happy association is shattered by a tragic muteness at critical times when a desperate need for information and direction is calling out. Let us look firstly at Laertes, for his case is in fact a compound of two diseases.

37> Laertes suffers at the hands of both the past and the friend, a victim of both an old degenerating way of life, and a mute state in crisis. A mere few scenes after the touching picture of Polonius giving his son genuine and fatherly advice before he sets off into the world, we are treated to Polonius giving instructions to a spy to inquire on his son’s behaviour (again a scene often cut from the performed play). He directs this mole to seek out Laertes’ friends and insinuate amongst them his son’s undisciplined and wild attributes in order to sound out the truth of his behaviour. This mistrustful secrecy firstly introduces the speaking malady; Polonius is no longer speaking plainly to his son, and he is mute about his purposes. Secondly, the logic Polonius uses to defend this course of action displays all the over-articulate hypocrisy that denotes any degenerating and aging truth. Laertes is beleaguered by those he considers social insiders and by the petrifying past.

“Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth:
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
With windlasses and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out:” (2.1.62-65)

38> The general logic of this approach runs that by falsehood and deception we come to truth. While certainly not denying that this is not the case in certain circumstances, it is obvious that coming from the mouth of a man whose last piece of reasoning stated “to thine own self be true” (1.3.78), that Polonius has an extraordinarily devious idea of the truth. His mangled logic is the sure sign of corruption, while entangling his son in his rational mess simply deepens our appreciation of his intellectual fraud. While not strictly a muteness or silence to the friend, the covert behavior of Polonius sets up the way the court will behave towards Laertes when he comes to need their solid word. Things clandestine and cloaked are Laertes lot in Elsinore.

39> Laertes has every reason for believing he is a friend of the court. His father is ‘instrumental’ (1.2.48) to the court, and he has been given the king’s express blessing. However, his father’s death at Hamlet’s hands set in train a fatal crisis for the court, brought about by the initial silence of the court to this momentous event. With great comic irony, Polonius dies liked he lived, concealing his true designs and behind a literal and intellectual arras. He is even buried like he lived; ‘in hugger mugger’ (4.5.82). And rather than learn from this foolish man the King mimics his example, and keeps concealed his death and secret interment from his son. This is the incurable moment of muteness to the friend for the state of Denmark.

40> But there is of course the difficulty of adequately explaining the forcefulness and impulsiveness of Laertes’ attempted civil war with the comparatively mild reason that someone would not speak to him. The action does not match the cause. Indeed, this scene with Laertes has often perplexed commentators with its rashness, and the usual grounds given, that Laertes is overcome with grief for his father, simply does not add up. Yet recent work on inheritance law and its place in Shakespeare’s works can help to redress this imbalance.

41> Anthony Burton, in a series of articles dedicated to exploring inheritance law during Shakespearean times (and likely well understood by large swathes of Shakespeare’s contemporary audience), has shown how this perceived knowledge helps explain certain opaque passages and some of the ‘dark’ meaning behind the action of the play. Firstly, Laertes would only have been able to conscript a band of armed rebels had he been able to convince them that Claudius was breaking a covenant that the rest of the nation depended upon for security. The case of Hamlet’s stolen inheritance would have been keen in their memories, and Laertes could have used this to summon the masses. Secondly, inheritance law of the time demanded that death had to be proved in order for a claimant to gain the inheritance. There are many examples from the time of inheritance fraud based upon the concealing of bodies and coercion of witnesses. Documentary proof was often scarce, and so live perjuring witnesses made inheritance law a site of serious scams and swindles. And if any claimant could not prove the claimed death, all properties and funds stayed in the hands of the crown. Burton shows that this was a major anxiety of the day, well known by all classes.[21]

42> Laertes’ extreme actions are ably explained by this knowledge, which also helps makes the silence of Polonius’s ‘hugger mugger’ burial a matter not only of personal pride, but a matter of state also. Laertes arrives at the door to the kingdom barely knowing his father has died. The King has buried his father secretly. Laertes first words are “Where is my father?” and Claudius replies bluntly, “Dead” (4.5.125-126). Laertes is then somewhat placated. The sudden reversal of Laertes from coup leader to willing conspirator in the murder of Hamlet within this short scene is better explained by this fear of a loss of inheritance than of simple revenge (although this is definitely an aspect). It is certain that Laertes’ initial response to rumours of his father’s death is the fear that what happened to Hamlet is now happening to him. This is the only grounds that explains resorting to civil war. This makes the concealing of a dead father a very serious silence, a veritable invitation to demand that the master of the cover up speak. Claudius’s blunt response “Dead” to a situation that needs his gentle tact is also explained as him giving directly to Laertes the confirmation he seeks. Laertes even gives an excuse for his actions based around the shady circumstances of his father’s death.

“His means of death, his obscure burial,
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones,
No noble rite, nor formal ostentation,
Cry to be heard, as twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call ‘t in question.” (4.5.211-214)

This catalogue of things that announce a death, and their absence in the case of his father is the cause for Laertes extreme anxiety and anger. The cause of his attempted civil war as a malady of social speech is made manifest by his statement “that I must call”, and that it “cry(s) to be heard”. The court is mired in silence, and seeming friends yell for instruction.

43> The case of Ophelia is somewhat different in that rather than respond with fierce rebuke and noisy disturbance to the failure to attend to her needs, she collapses in madness like a marionette cut from its moorings. The first such scene occurs after she has just received her infamous verbal mauling from Hamlet, one prepared for her by her father and Claudius’s scheming. Distraught after the viciousness of the attack, and in some productions lying devastated on the floor, Polonius and Claudius return to her to discuss and scheme further about Hamlet, leaving her without a word of comfort, mute to her distress. This theme of not speaking to those who need guidance is amplified horribly when she descends into madness and the Queen, Gertrude, opens scene five, act four with the blunt words, “I will not speak with her” (4.5.1). Only after Horatio convinces her, “Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5.14-15), that she reluctantly agrees. The situations of Ophelia and Laertes both demonstrate an escalating fearful refusal to speak to them. The inside of the court is unable to even communicate actively and hence healthily to its members, and thus civil war and anarchy are their designated lot.

A Coming World of Suspect Paragons?

44> Rebecca West, in her work ‘The Court and the Castle’, seems to be acutely aware of the psychological and philosophical conflict that will beset the epitome of men. Hamlet is not only the embodiment of that epitome, but is also the conscious self-awareness of this creature. Add to this that the author, Shakespeare, can himself mount a considerable claim to such a position, then with Hamlet we have a work that is constantly redoubling the pleasures and doubts that we have about this ‘paragon of animals’.

“For it was his luck to see the human race at one of the moments, in one of the places, of its blossoming into an exceptional state of glory, and he moved among men and women who were beautiful, intelligent, learned, and fearless beyond the habit of our kind…It happened that the Renaissance man was observed by Shakespeare.”[22]

And it is this observation of humanity clawing at its ever receding maximum that inspires the justifiably famous ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech. And this distrustful celebration of human worth is played out in all its tragic potential by Hamlet himself.

“He could write this description and make the whole character of Hamlet as shown from scene to scene bear out what he said about man.”[23]

45> Like this paper, Rebecca West sought to understand how it was that Hamlet could inspire both gushing admiration and infuriating horror over his personality, thought and action. As stated from the outset of this paper, Hamlet is both the selfish egoist and the life-blessed towering intellect, both noble and murderous within the hair’s breadth. West explains this best by observing that while Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe has his Dr Faustus summon Mephistopheles as his mortal servant and companion, Shakespeare goes one better and has Hamlet constantly summoning the devil of himself. The gifted man always attentive to the demands of self-consciousness will invariably come to recognise himself as his own tempter and equivocator. What Rebecca West is able to see so clearly in psychological and existential terms, Rosenstock-Huessy’s insights can help us diagnose as a grammatical disorder in the healthy flow of speech.

“We have to be spoken to lest we go mad or fall ill. The first condition of health is that somebody speaks to us with singleness of purpose, as though we were the only one.”[24]

46> Why does Hamlet speak in soliloquies? Not just for dramatic affect, but because there is no one speaking to him with the intent, direction and purpose that his mighty personality deserves and needs. Why is this hero surrounded by breakdowns of social speech that convene all of humanity’s political evils onto Elsinore, war, anarchy, revolution and tyranny converging to dismantle their hopes for survival? Because Shakespeare was attentive enough to see that all social breakdowns of speech stem from the one source of an ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ communicative failure; Hamlet is the characterised nucleus of such failure. Why does Hamlet bewilderingly view Laertes and Fortinbras as his analogues, as portraitures of his own predicament, even though their ability for action suggests otherwise? Because Hamlet understands that in their own cases, someone has simply failed to speak the right and proper words to them, and in order to restore the continuity of speech they have taken drastic action. The case for Hamlet is particularly severe in that rather than resort to outward action to rectify the situation and reconnect the broken paths of speech, his own brilliance convinces him that his mind is capable of doing the job without forcing a ‘Thou’ to listen to him. Hamlet resembles in grammatical form the man stuck in quicksand pulling out his legs with his arms, and then his arms with his teeth. The constant resorting to the ‘I’ to illuminate and save the ‘I’ is fascinatingly grotesque to watch, but ultimately a doomed process.

“If one ‘individual’ could and would ‘react’ to his own experiences fully and get them ‘out of his system’ by himself, man would not be man.”[25]

47> Hamlet attempts this very procedure, and ultimately he fails. He must go out towards someone to break the disastrous self-perpetuating circular chain of being he has ensconced himself in. His hatred of mankind, this “quintessence of dust”, is simply the realisation that anyone trapped in this situation is hardly a human being at all, but just part of indifferent nature.

“Only because you are a listening ‘thou,’ listening as to a command, as much as you are a thinking Ego, can you be a person.”[26]

It remains only to speculate what Shakespeare was attempting to say with this disastrous story and its crippled hero. Is this a surreptitious critique of the emerging Renaissance man, a new human type that is still closer to us today than we care to recognise? At the heart of this play is an examination of the effect that the breaking of the chains of speaking continuity has upon those that will inherit the severance. What will the constant breaking of living words from the past and future, inside and out mean for those who have to live in that silence? It will be both a freeing of the human spirit, but also an imprisoning of that spirit in whatever happens to remain after one is severed from those ties of human speech. Often the only thing left is the free and wandering self itself. Are the centuries of applause for the wayward prince testament to the fact that we too are self-enclosed egos? After all, praise for such a flawed figure does suggest that his own faults and unsavoury features are ours.

“We forgive Hamlet precisely as we forgive ourselves.”[27]

48> People are most narcissistic and deluded when looking in the mirror. So is Hamlet a prophecy of modern man’s disintegration? Is he a poisoned chalice? Does Hamlet’s measured desire to send Claudius to his death when he is at his worst, drunk, in a rage, or in an incestuous bed, rather than at his prayers, suggest that Hamlet is the prophet of the malfunction of any future consummation with goodness? Does his cold-blooded dispatching of Rosencranz and Guilenstern ‘with no shriving time allowed’, suggest that he is not just willing to poison himself, but also the futures of others? Does this obsession with destroying other’s immortality mean that Shakespeare is giving us a resentful prophet, predicting our own inability to create lasting and meaningful chains of belonging in the future? If we recognise ourselves in Hamlet do we also recognise our own despoiling of our various future’s? Is Hamlet our Mephistopheles? Are we the suspect paragons that Rebecca West recognised Hamlet to be?

“But to this bad man Shakespeare ascribes one virtuous action…It is a political action. Hamlet gives his dying breath to thought for the future of his people; his last words choose a ruler for them.”[28]

49> So despite being mired in the worst examples of humanity’s political fear, frailty and ferocity, Hamlet with his dying breath is able to invest in our future by speaking to the ‘Thou’ he ignored throughout his short life. By coming out of himself he may not have been able to save himself in time, but he was able to continue the passage of time through speech, and in the final minute save his country from a ruinous future.


1. While writing this article, I was fortunate enough to run lines and discuss the play with actor Cameron Goodall who was preparing to play the role of Hamlet in a State Theatre Company of South Australia production in Adelaide, Australia. The production was conspicuous for its heavy exclusion of extraneous political concerns, leading Cameron to refer to it affectionately as the ‘family fillet’.

2. All references from Hamlet come from the Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor edited collected works, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988 edition.

3. Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, (Fourth Estate, London, 1999), pg 400.

4. Ivan Turgenev, Hamlet and Don Quixote, trans Robert Nichols (Hendersons, London, 1930)), pg 14.

5. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star Of Redemption, (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 2001), pg 175.

6. Harold Bloom, pg 405.

7. Ibid, pg 404.

8. Ibid, pg 401.

9. Ibid, pg 406.

10. Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle, (London, Macmillan &Co Ltd, 1958), pg 133.

11. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Rosenstock-Huessy Papers, Volume One, (Argo Books, 1981, Norwich, Vermont), (The Science Of Bodies and The Appeal To Somebody), pg 15.

12. It seems brilliantly appropriate that Shakespeare should set a drama about the destroyed relations and legacies between fathers and sons in the court of Denmark, one of the few kingdoms of Europe where the monarch was elected rather than transferred from father to son.

13. For an excellent look at how Shakespeare salted ‘malignancy’ into the figure of the Ghost, so as for him to seem a possible demon, see Eleanor Prosser’s chapter entitled ‘Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned?’ from Hamlet and Revenge, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1967), pg 118-143.

14. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Origin of Speech, (Argo Books, Norwich, Vermont, 1981), pg 12.

15. Ibid.

16. As Claudius greets Hamlet at the “Mousetrap”, by asking him how he fares, Hamlet responds, ‘Of the chameleon’s dish, I eat the air promise crammed, you cannot feed capon’s so.’ (3.2.91-92). Traditionally this is viewed as a directed pun complaining about the broken promise of his future kingship, and a reproach and warning that Hamlet is not a ‘capon’ and so cannot be treated so poorly. The pun involves ‘air’ and ‘heir’, chameleons being thought to have gained their sustenance from the air. While not denying the truth of this, I offer the added interpretation that Hamlet refers to himself as the chameleon, an animal known for its inconstancy, ability to change colour, and for its long projectile tongue. This metaphor speaks volumes about Hamlet’s character, and also explains his excitable nature during this scene. He does ‘eat the air promised crammed’, as Claudius’s impending demonstration of his guilt is in the air. Phillipa Berry makes a similar point about Hamlet’s shape-shifting Chameleon-like performance from the slightly more philosophical/linguistic perspective that Hamlet likes to feed on his own words, gaining sustenance from a verbal fecundity that is at once also empty as the air. Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings: Disfiguring death in the tragedies, (Routledge, London, 1999) pg 63.

17. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Origin of Speech, pg 13.

18. Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, (Oxford University Press, 1998), “A Carcass”, pg 61.

19. Rosenstock Huessy, Origin of Speech, pg 11.

20. Ibid, pg 14.

21. Anthony Burton, Laertes’s Rebellion as a Defence of his Inheritance: Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in 'Hamlet', published online,

22. Rebecca West, The Court and the Castle, (MacMillan and Co Ltd, London, 1958), pg 23.

23. Ibid, pg 23.

24. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Origin of Speech, (1981), Argo Books, Norwich, Vermont), pg 12.

25. Eugen Rosentsock-Huessy, I Am An Impure Thinker, (Argo Books Inc, Norwich, Vermont, 1970), (The Four Phases of Speech), pg 54.

26. Ibid, (Modern Man’s Disintegration and the Egyptian Ka), pg 36.

27. Harold Bloom, Opcit, pg 421.

28. Rebecca West, Opcit, pg 25.

Dr. Andrew Russ taught as a tutor and associate lecturer in European studies at the University of Adelaide for 5 years, teaching the literature, philosophy, visual art, politics and history of modern Europe. He is now teaching casually at the University of Sydney in International and Global Studies. Along with this teaching, Andrew has been active in experimental theatre as a founding member of The Border Project, and has also been employed as a music producer for bands, theatre and television.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume Three (2010): Digital Archives

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