English Literature A2: Hamlet Essay

This essay was written in the first term of my A2 year, and this shows. It is overly long, lacking in relevancy to the question, and has a poor, undefined structure with a lack of argument. Despite this, I still think it’s worth including on this blog, as it contains relevant analysis, context and intertextual links that bring up its grade according to the mark scheme. Likewise, I think the counter argument points (about Laertes and Horatio), are good and could be utilised in future essays. I received 23/25 for this essay, which, in my opinion, is too kind, but demonstrates the development of my ideas and where it can take me in the future.

“Hamlet is more the detective figure than he is the avenging murderer.”                                                To what extent do you agree with this view?

Detective fiction in the English-speaking world is considered to have begun in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring the first eccentric and brilliant fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Allusion to Biblical and classical stories, however, have witnessed the evolution of the detective figure centuries before this landmark text. Hamlet features a protagonist infamous for his procrastination of avenging the death of his father, but it could instead be interpreted that he plays the role of a detective figure, Shakespeare using dramatic setting in a conflicted society to detect the death of not only Hamlet’s father, but the death of his state, Denmark. Similarly, the binary opposition between the terms ‘detective’ and ‘murderer’ imply that Hamlet cannot transcend both concepts, as well as the archetypes being demonstrated by other significant characters within the play. Hamlet detects the crime and thus becomes the avenging murderer, Shakespeare’s dramatic methods nevertheless validating his role as a tragic hero.

Hamlet’s role as a detective is defined through him seeking out to prove the crime before committing revenge. From his introduction to the play, the protagonist suspects that a crime has been disguised, but even when the Ghost has revealed the secret of his death, he does not immediately embark upon action. The figure of the detective was not a new caricature, but a rapidly evolving character in literature and theatre, with some scholars suggesting that ancient texts bear similarities to what would later be called detective fiction. Oedipus Rex by Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles features similar thematic ideas based on supernatural methods, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past. Likewise, Hamlet uses ‘The Mousetrap’ to expose Claudius’ guilt through enlisting travelling actors to perform a play about regicide: “the play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”. Claudius rises in discomfort and calls for “some light”, Shakespeare using irony to display his own crimes to the court and the detective himself. Typical of the genre, Hamlet procrastinates his exposure of the criminal as his confrontation with the detective does not occur until the final scene where Hamlet openly accuses him of being an “incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane”. Plosive sounds and sibilance emphasise Hamlet’s accusation and Shakespeare accordingly produces a cathartic and pathos-filled scene to fulfil the audience’s desires.

Hamlet’s “antic disposition” can also be seen in terms of his role as investigator. He feigns madness to use means of detection without being noticed, something that would have aroused the suspicion of others if Hamlet had retained his own self. The twelfth century legend of Amleth which is recorded in Saxo Grammaticus’s Historie Tragiques and which probably is the source of Hamlet, clearly presents Amleth as an avenger who feigns madness to detect the secret of his father’s murder. Additionally, Hamlet’s reasoning is clear even though he acts like a madman, calling Polonius a “fishmonger”. This is a phrase which sees Shakespeare maintain Hamlet’s pretence of insanity whilst also using play on words for a double meaning, “fishmonger” also having connotations of a brothel and hence insulting the unknowing Polonius and his innocent daughter, Ophelia. Like a professional investigator of modern crime fiction, Hamlet tries to remain emotionally detached from his suspects, and exploits them emotionally in his search for the truth.

Hamlet establishes its genre as a detective story through its influence on later adaptations. Arthur Conan Doyle borrows heavily from Hamlet when Sherlock Holmes feigns madness to enter the house of Mr Cunningham. Dr Watson even quotes from Hamlet by saying that there is a method in Holmes’s madness (Shakespeare uses the literary technique of an aside when Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” in Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet, too, is obsessed by the crime that has been committed and discusses how he means to investigate and ultimately achieve his revenge. This has much in common with the common pride of the detective’s commentary that is often present in crime writing, where the detective’s thought processes and deductive reasoning are shared with the reader, such as Sherlock Holmes’ verbally articulated thought. Hamlet tells his audiences his plans to catch the king’s conscience, his reasons for not killing Claudius at prayer, his purpose in putting on his antic disposition and his determination to finally avenge himself on his uncle (told, on his return from England, in the exchange with Horatio who, in effect, becomes his side-kick). He does this all through Shakespeare’s dramatic method of Soliloquy, to reinforce both the tragic and crime genre of the play.

Laertes demonstrates the active role of vengeance that Hamlet lacks, whilst replicating Hamlet’s qualities as a foil of the protagonist. Where Hamlet is verbal, Laertes is physical. Laertes’ love and duty for his family drive him to passionate action, while Hamlet’s love and duty for this mother and true father drive him to passionate inaction. He is thus presented as the detective figure and the avenging murderer, identifying the injustices in court and not only declaring, but acting out, revenge: “I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the world, I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I’ll be reveng’d/.” (Act 4 Scene 5). Laertes could instead be interpreted as a tragic character with more heroic qualities than Hamlet: Shakespeare often presents anti-heroes besting more traditional, Greek heroes (such as Henry IV) and an opposing story could be constructed around Laertes as a tragic hero, with Hamlet as the conniving villain. Hamlet is, after all, responsible for the death of his sister, father and Laertes himself. How can he avenge a murderer when he is one himself?

The concept of Hamlet as an avenging murderer is created as the protagonist isn’t the character who initially detects the crime, but the Ghost himself. Shakespearean England was highly suspicious due to religious significance and persecution of those rumoured to be witches: The Witchcraft Act was introduced in 1604, the year following James’ accession to the English throne in order to bring the penalty of death to anyone who invoked evil spirits, resulting in suspicions of the supernatural rising in the nation. The Ghost may not be seen as the Godly Presence Hamlet perceives it to have (he refers to his father’s words as “commandments”, a phrase with Biblical and perhaps blasphemous connotations) through the monarch’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings and correlation between religious and state law. The use of a framing device to create “The Mousetrap” is to test the validity of the Ghost’s claims, as many critics (such as W.W. Greg) held the opinion that the Ghost was a figment of Hamlet’s overwrought imagination, twisted and maddened over the death of his father and sudden remarriage of his mother. It could instead be interpreted that the Ghost’s presence enforces the idea that its purpose was to act as the first ‘clue’ for Hamlet’s detection, as the protagonist becomes the play’s investigative figure. As Paul N. Siegel states in his essay, Revenge, “another question… is that of how we are to regard the ghost itself. From the late eighteenth century on, it ceased being presented on the stage as a terrifying figure and becomes a majestic figure before whom Hamlet kneels in reverence.” The Ghost in Hamlet displaying diverse indications of what it was, was watched by the Elizabethan audience with doubt and uncertainty. Hamlet’s aim consequently isn’t to figure out the crime, but to find out whether to trust his source, a projection onto the Shakespearean audience’s own critique.

Hamlet doesn’t just want to avenge the death of his father, but also the death of his state. Hamlet is a judge of society and its morals, detecting not just the crime induced by Claudius, but also the moral and sexual disruption within the court, introduced through his uncle’s reign. Throughout the play, the idea of Denmark as a rotten state is enforced, with the concept being seen by Hamlet as a consequence of female sexuality and Dionysian deviancy: “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty…“(III.iv.92-95). Hamlet uses similar imagery to describe Ophelia and Gertrude, inscribed with anthropomorphism demeaning them to the role of animals. The death of the only two women in the play restores Hamlet and society’s view of the restoration of order, cleansing Denmark from such sin and debauchery – Gertrude drinks the very poison that she and her husband created in the state of Denmark through their “incestuous sheets”. Similarly, Hamlet is reversed out of his ‘antic disposition’ when he leaves Elsinore, only then able to detect the sinfulness of the state. Fortinbras wasn’t “poisoned” by Denmark, whereas all the other characters were affected by the moral toxicity caused by Claudius murdering the old King Hamlet. Fortinbras succeeded in his plans as he wasn’t affected, and Hamlet too, only succeeds in his mission when he returns from the pirate ship with a clearer vision of how to execute his plans: “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (IV.iv.65-6). Shakespeare’s concentration on Elsinore produces a claustrophobic and pressurised setting that the characters cannot escape from, and it is only when they escape can order be restored. Act I Scene i begins with the changing of the guard during the criminal night-time setting, mirroring the fragility of the political climate of Denmark. It starts during the night with supernatural forces at work, introducing a reality poisoned by the unnatural; Francisco is “sick at heart” (I.i.8), prefiguring the tension of the subsequent tragedy and similarly reflecting the idea of a monarch being representative of their country – the citizens of Denmark are as sick as their dead King, perhaps foreshadowing the tragedies to come for both King and country. They’re in a state of Purgatory and only Hamlet can free them, combining his detective power with that of a man of agency – a murderer.

Despite Hamlet’s depiction as a detective figure, he isn’t the only character who can be seen as such. Horatio is more the detective figure than the avenging murderer, as he is the first main character to witness the Ghost, and acts as a side-kick towards his friend, assisting Hamlet with his detection of the antagonist. He is introduced as a “scholar” in Act 1 Scene 1 by Marcellus, and he ends the play being able to act as the detectives’ sidekick, who detailed the events of the crime and will hence forth pay his duty to his friend by telling the story. Horatio is a faithful friend to Hamlet, following his elaborate wordplays, without engaging in conflict. He knows enough to value what ignorance he has that can protect him from political ruin, but neither ambition nor deceit determines his loyalties. He fits the description of a modern-day detective’s partner, evidenced and perhaps influencing such texts as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (Hamlet) and John Watson (Horatio) characters. Hamlet has another interesting detective foil, as while the protagonist tries to unravel the mystery of his father’s death, Polonius is trying to see through Hamlet’s “crafty madness”, and consequently Hamlet the detective paradoxically also becomes the object of an investigation.

The characters in Hamlet were not created as detectives in the same way that audiences call Sherlock Holmes a detective in modern day society. However, they contained within themselves many qualities that were to be manifested in the detective figure of the twentieth century, becoming landmark characters for the crime and detective genre. Hamlet himself detects the crimes of his family, country and self, fixing these wrongs by murdering his uncle, disposing of the characters that have produced such “debauchery” in the court (such as Gertrude), and allowing the death of his own character, ultimately detecting and avenging his own moral and religious aim. Hamlet detects the crime and thus becomes the avenging murderer, retaining the moral and ethical qualities that validate his role as a tragic hero in Shakespeare’s theatre.

23/25 (A3)

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