arrowAesthetic Realism Online Library > Essaysline



A Journal of Events and Aesthetic Realism


     Hamlet is a study in man's way of being for and against himself; for and against someone close to him—a father, for example; and for and against the world. Oneself, one's father, one's world act on each other. That is what they are doing now.

     We are for and against. According to Aesthetic Realism, for and against are two opposites which, like other opposites, have in them aesthetic oneness, and are looking for that oneness to be seen by mind.

     An artist, being pleased and discontented with something, sees that something as it is and changes it too: the honoring of a thing which is art comes from the oneness of being pleased and discontented.

      Hamlet was not just pleased or reverent about his father. He was displeased and irreverent, too. He had to make sense of this. Making sense of what he felt did not make for "sweeping" to "revenge."—Hamlet, seeing much he did not like in Ophelia, could not sweep to a declaration.

      America now consists of people for and against. They have to make sense of this. Aesthetic Realism can be useful.

NOTE. This is the first section of Shakespeare's Hamlet: Revisited, the drama of passage and comment.


Shakespeare's Hamlet: Revisited

By Eli Siegel




     It is a new Hamlet because it is a Hamlet who does not care for his father entirely. Insufficient care for a father has much to do with what happens in the play, and what doesn't; also with how the play goes on.

     It is Hamlet Revisited because we come to where he is, and you come to where he is, and look at him again, and hear him again. And we look and hear somewhat differently.

     Hamlet is thoughtful. What the world is like matters to him. He sees what is strange in the world. He thinks of himself in the world, this world. The world is in him hour after hour. He must say something of it.

     Hamlet is critical of his mother. So many sons have been.

     Hamlet's father knows something is not as it should be. With all his military doings, Hamlet's father is vexed. His son is something else to him, as he is something else to his son. We are all something else to each other.

      Hamlet's father comes to earth to be seen again. His brother and his wife have been against him. His life has been taken from him by his brother Claudius. Hamlet's father looks to his son to have things changed towards rightness. But his son is different from him too. Hamlet's scholarship is not his father's smiting "the sledded Polacks on the ice." Thoughtfulness is not being victorious over a lofty Norwegian in single combat.

     The Ghost is armed, "cap-a-pe." Hamlet can be "ungartered."

     It is necessary to find out how well Ophelia represented love.

     The unknown in us is a ghost. The unknown, in telling us about itself, is like a ghost. The ghost of Hamlet's father is about ourselves as unknown.

     We have armor. Hamlet's father has armor. It is portentous. It is grandly of laughter, though as sad as all time.

     We must be seen more completely. Anything, on earth, in heaven, in hell, can be used by a person if he wishes to be seen more completely.

     Man and Shakespeare have thought so.


                RELEVANT POEM

We may have a stern father,
As we look for a tender one.
Our father may be military,
As we ourselves are thoughtful.
Your name is many things.
Mine is Hamlet.
Yorick carried me on his back a thousand times.
My father never did.
He was majestic.
He was aloof.
He was concealed, maybe.
I may be concealed.
I do not want to be.


How home has not been seen through the years!
Writers who look carefully at texts will not see the domestic.
This is so now.
It was so in deep Victorian time.
There is F. J. Furnivall:
Keen enough, God wot, in other ways.
But this is Furnivall on the home of Hamlet,
In Furnivall's edition of the Shakespearean text of Delius
      (Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.)
"The description above of Hamlet's home at Elsinore,
His own account of his rides on the jester Yorick's back,
Of his noble father,
Of his mother's affection for him,
Show how happy the boy's home must have been,
      And how well he understood the beauty of this `brave
      o'er-hanging firmament,' and 'what a piece of work
      is man! how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty,
      in form and moving how express and admirable!'"
Furnivall, Furnivall, how thou dost not see!
And yet thou gettest Yorick the jester into the home.
Does Hamlet tell of how he rode on his father's back?
Could he ride on the back of him who combated Norway?
Is there any sweetness of feeling he shows to his father
      like the sweetness of feeling, the meditative tenderness
      he shows to Yorick as he looks at the skull?
And you say he is a noble father.
You yourself have edited texts with lines in which the
      father says he has sinned,
That he is not accepted in heaven.
And you have seen Hamlet call his father "old mole,"
And jovially call him "truepenny."
Does this mean Hamlet saw his father as noble only?
Furnivall, Furnivall, thou art like J. Dover Wilson,
Like so many of the bony contemporary commentators,
Even though thou art a hale and not bony Victorian.
And thou sayest: "his mother's affection,"
And yet thou hast questioned Gertrude.
When does a mother stop being a person?
When does the weakness of a mother come to be seen by a son
      always observing?
Furnivall, Furnivall,
Look at these lines of Shakespeare and of the elder
"I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd 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 purg'd away."
Crimes, crimes, sins, sins, Furnivall.
Is the father telling what is so,
Does he mean what he is telling,
Furnivall, Furnivall, Wilson, Wilson?
And what should a son think of these crimes, these sins?
Were there no facts in the time of Elizabeth?
Are the facts only in Strindberg, Ibsen?
And Furnivall, Furnivall,
This is what you say of the lady with the "mother's
"His mother's lust"; "he despises his mother."
When did all this, Oh Furnivall, begin?
When did Gertrude begin to be Gertrude?
When did Hamlet begin?




1.  Every son sees his father in a certain way, and it has been presumed for many years that the way Hamlet saw his father was affectionate, respectful, loving. It has been thought, too, that Shakespeare saw Hamlet's father as a right father, right as fathers should be. So we look at the play and present the play to see how Hamlet and Shakespeare thought.

     The Ghost of Hamlet's father has come to Elsinore, Denmark.

     We have early in the play Horatio, Bernardo, Marcellus, saying this:

Horatio. What, has this thing appear'd again tonight?
Bernardo. I have seen nothing.
Marcellus. Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
    And will not let belief take hold of him
    Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us.

     These lines are faint and early. We are at the beginning of something.

      Yet this can be seen: Shakespeare chooses to present Hamlet's father as stern, not tender. Hamlet's father is described as a thing; he is termed a dreaded sight. Ah, we know that this is not conclusive, but there are so many ways of presenting a ghost other than (1) to soldiers; (2) in armor. Were Shakespeare trying to accent a father's affection to a son, paternal tenderness, he certainly might have had the Ghost come otherwise.

    But Shakespeare knew and he chose.

2. The King is a father and the father is a King. It is the King that is accented in the early lines of the play. To have Hamlet's father be felt as King first may very well be the reason why he shows himself not to his son first, but to others. Anyway, it is not the King that a son is close to.

Enter Ghost

     Marcellus. Peace, break thee off! Look, where it comes again!
     Bernardo. In the same figure, like the King that's dead.

      A King, so far, has come from the other world, not a father.

3. And Horatio says the Ghost has a "fair and warlike form."

Marcellus. Question it, Horatio.
Horatio. What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
      Together with that fair and warlike form
      In which the majesty of buried Denmark
      Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee, speak!
Marcellus. It is offended.

      In these lines the Ghost marches sternly and with dignity. It has "the majesty of buried Denmark." And it is offended, because it is questioned.

     So let us think of fathers. Fathers can be stern. Sometimes they walk with upright dignity. And they can be offended. A son has a feeling when his father's offended.

4. As the scene goes on, the father of Hamlet is further depicted as martial; as impressive; as redoubtable; as an object of fear. He seems, as Ghost, like the man who "ambitious Norway combated," and who "smote the sledded Polacks on the ice." Not all fathers have done this.

     Twice before he has walked by with this "martial stalk."

Marcellus. Is it not like the King?
Horatio. As thou art to thyself.
      Such was the very armour he had on
      When he the ambitious Norway combated.
      So frown'd he once, when, in an angry parle,
      He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.
      'Tis strange.
Marcellus. Thus twice before, and jump at this dead hour,
With martial stalk hath he gone by our watch.

      Horatio says that the way the Ghost frowns is the way he frowned when he "the ambitious Norway combated." A Ghost, then, is frowning; and that is something to think about. And he was in an "angry parle" when he frowned; so anger is given to this king and to this father. And the armor the Ghost is wearing is the armor he wore when he "smote the sledded Polacks."

      Lines and words in a play have associations. The associations Shakespeare means to arise in our minds should be considered.

      Here is a ghost, a king, a father, who frowns, shows anger, is remembered as smiting.

      The person who tells us this is the Horatio who later seems to say he saw the King only once. This is when Horatio, speaking to Hamlet, says:

      I saw him once; he was a goodly King. [I, 2, 186]

     Horatio is not the only person, or the only thing, that appears inconsistent.

5. Some lines after, the Ghost is described by Bernardo as "this portentous figure." We must remember that the portentous figure is Hamlet's father. It is right to ask how a son feels having a portentous figure as a father, or having, if one pleases, a father who can be seen as a portentous figure. There were filial sensibilities—were there not?—in the Denmark of long ago and in the England of Elizabeth and of James. The lines, the lines.

Bernardo. I think it be no other but e'en so.
    Well may it sort that this portentous figure
    Comes armed through our watch, so like the King
    That was and is the question of these wars.

      There has been talk of the meaning of the Ghost's coming, and there is surmise that the presence of the apparition presages big changes in the state. Horatio compares the Ghost's coming to supernatural signs in Rome just before Julius Caesar fell. Horatio is not gainsaid by Bernardo and Marcellus in his surmise that the presence of the Ghost imports a large political change, an alteration in the state.

      In this, Horatio has been followed by commentators: some. Be that as it may, when the Ghost talks to Hamlet, he talks more of domestic things.

     There is a relation of large matters of state to what goes on in a home. Shakespeare knew of this.

      The foregoing considerations matter, yet the significance of the lines to Hamlet as son, as person in a family, is that his father could seem portentous.

      Portentous father, you are in the same room as I.

6.  A while later, Horatio utters some lines which, if looked at closely and taken at their prose value—and poetic value—show more clearly that Shakespeare does not regard the elder Hamlet as entire in goodness, whole in virtue, worthy of nothing but reverence as a father. The Ghost has acted a bit uncertainly. Horatio has asked some rather discourteous questions of him, including one about whether he had put "extorted treasure in the womb of earth." As Marcellus, Bernardo, Horatio do what they can to have the Ghost speak, the Ghost leaves. And—

Bernardo. It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
Horatio. And then it started like a guilty thing
    Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
    The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
    Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
    Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
    Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
    The extravagant and erring spirit hies
    To his confine; and of the truth herein
    This present object made probation.

      It is Shakespeare who has Horatio say of the Ghost that "it started like a guilty thing." It is right to think of the Shakespearean intention. Certainly, if the Elizabethan author had wished to build up the elder Hamlet as strictly noble, he would not have made the father of Hamlet appear guilty. There was no necessity for it—if, that is, Shakespeare saw the late King of Denmark as just good.—and then the Ghost is likened to—at least associated with—an extravagant and erring spirit. We know that "extravagant and erring" do not mean, these days, evil, wicked in the firmest sense: still, extravagant and erring are not complimentary.

      And from a poetic point of view it is most taking to see the "portentous figure" that "comes armed through our watch" with "martial stalk" now seen as an "extravagant and erring spirit." The change from the stiffness and dignity of marching to the uncertainty of extravagant and erring is of Shakespeare's purpose. He wishes to show the King as military; but also as frail.

     Shakespeare is also engagingly prosaic in this passage. One of the least excited lines he ever wrote is the last one of Horatio—

     This present object made probation.

     "This present object" is certainly a restrained, quotidian way of describing an apparition from another world. The Shakespearean humor is busy, if it is not the Shakespearean relaxation.


7. Often sons have been different from their fathers. Often sons have disagreed with their fathers. This was long before the Oedipus complex. There is so much more for sons and fathers to disagree about than the Oedipus of Sophocles talks of, let alone the Oedipus of Freud and Jones.

      We know, from Shakespeare, that Hamlet's father was military, and that Hamlet went to college—to that renowned, vague university, Wittenberg.—Wittenberg, Elsinore; Elsinore, Wittenberg.—Not only did Hamlet go to Wittenberg, but he was meditative. It is hard to think of anyone more meditative in the world.

      Hamlet's father is somewhat meditative as a Ghost. It doesn't seem he was meditative the way Hamlet is—as a general and father.

      There is a war between the meditative and not so meditative.

      Well, Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio have seen the Ghost in the first scene. The scene changes to a "room of state in the castle."

      Claudius tells likable Voltemand and Cornelius to bear a message to Norway. The King of Norway, uncle of Fortinbras, is to restrain young Fortinbras. The whole play is streaked with Fortinbras.

      And then Claudius inquires into whether Laertes has been justly respectful of his father Polonius in Laertes' desire to leave Denmark and go to France. It seems Laertes has been adequately respectful. Laertes is permitted to go to France.

     Voltemand and Cornelius are, so far, the most stable persons in the play.

      Then Claudius gives his attention to Hamlet. He tells him how to mourn. Follows a matter of educational significance. Claudius and Hamlet's mother make a request of Hamlet, in reference to the continuance of Hamlet's studies elsewhere. This matter of college and home sounds so of today.

King.                                For your intent
   In going back to school in Wittenberg,
   It is most retrograde to our desire;
   And we beseech you, bend you to remain
   Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
   Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Queen. Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
   I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.
Hamlet. I shall in all my best obey you, madam.
King. Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply.
   Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
   This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
   Sits smiling to my heart; in grace whereof,
   No jocund health that Denmark drinks today,
   But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
   And the King's rouse the heavens shall bruit again,
   Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.      Exeunt.
                                        Manet Hamlet.

     All this is about education. The "great cannon" shall sound towards the clouds because, for a while, home has won out over study away from home. It is the first time in a play such a to-do was made about domestic life and university life.

      Still, in all this Shakespeare meant something.

      It appears that while Hamlet's father was in the wars or ruling at Elsinore, Hamlet was studying, and not in Denmark.

      This was not the way it was in most kingdoms.

      And so there is a difference between Hamlet's mind and his father's. The difference pertains to thought, culture, education. The difference has sometimes been stated by Shakespearean writers and spectators.

      We can mention five persons—different among themselves—who in the last hundred years or so have stated this difference or pointed to this difference between Hamlet, father; Hamlet, son.

      These persons are Edward Dowden, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Bingham Walkley, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Goddard.

      Edward Dowden wrote in 1874, in his Shakspere: A Study of his Mind and Art:

During the reign of the strong-willed elder Hamlet there was no call to action for his meditative son. He has slipped on into years of full manhood still a haunter of the university, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art, a ponderer on the things of life and death, who has never formed a resolution or executed a deed.

      Here is a son other than his father. He is other, also, in his thoughtfulness, than his mother and uncle. A reason Hamlet finds it hard to obey is that he is other or different. This is reason sufficient.

      When the cannon get into these lines about studies, it seems Shakespeare wanted to get the martial and the intellectual together. He also shows how different they are. As dramatist, he is saying, through the intermediary of the noisily jocose, the obstreperously wassailing Claudius, that the main interests of Hamlet and his father contrasted.

      Shakespeare can be indirect. Drama—and poetry as drama—need the indirect.

      Well, Hamlet in the matter of education and thought, in the matter of ethics and subtlety, differed from his father, his uncle, and his mother. Hamlet had a right to differ from three people at once, if not more.

      What the difference was about we shall use Oscar Wilde, A. B. Walkley, Bertolt Brecht, and Harold Goddard later on to tell of.

      We should use anything and anybody to find how Hamlet thought. It is worth it.

      And in the stage directions of the Folio we have Exeunt for others; Hamlet Manet. Others leave; Hamlet stays. There is no snobbishness in this. It is just a happening.



Copyright © 1962 by Definition Press


Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Definition Press Books

Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Terrain Gallery of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Events   |  About Us  |  Classes  |  Resources
Teaching Method
  |  Contact

Copyright © 2006 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation
A not-for-profit educational foundation