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A Range of Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet: Range of Interpretations

Comments on John Russell Brown’s Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet Though I am in almost complete agreement with John Russell Brown’s close reading of Hamlet’s dying words and with his contention that “Shakespeare chose, very positively, to provide a multiplicity of meanings at this crucial point” (30), I wonder whether his analysis, helpful as it is for an understanding of the text in the study, is equally valid in the theatre. If we were speaking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets I should find it much easier to believe in the co-existence of four or five distinct meanings, even if they “tend to cancel each other out” (27). In performance, however, we might find ourselves rather in the position of Jane Austen’s “inferior young man” Mr. Rushworth, who “hardly knew what to do with so much meaning.”1 It is true that each actor will have to choose between a range of possible interpretations, as John Russell Brown says–and no-one knows it better!–, but it is also worth paying closer attention to the textual problem involved.

Thinking about Hamlet’s last moments on the stage, I should like to make a plea for the Folio’s reading, “The rest is silence. O, o, o, o.”2 The four letters following “silence” are easily one of the most neglected utterances in the canon, surprising enough in a play in which hardly a single punctuation mark has been left unscrutinized and uncommented on.3 Most editions either ignore them completely or dismiss them as some actor’s invention. An honourable early exception is the edition of Nicolaus Delius where he explains the Folio reading as “Hamlets Todesgestöhn.”4 The only modern edition I know to take this reading seriously is The…

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…njustified derision” (352). Honigmann’s interesting article makes no direct reference to the Hamlet passage. [Back to text]

7. See, for instance, Mercutio’s “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.98-99; ed. Brian Gibbons, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1980]). [Back to text]

8. Troilus and Cressida 5.10.22 (ed. Kenneth Palmer, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1982]). [Back to text]

9. This is also emphasized in Marvin Rosenberg’s stimulating study The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992), who suggests a range of possible meanings even beyond John Russell Brown: “Os can be most eloquent. (Try them)” (924). It would be foolish to deny, though, that, for the actor at least, “the Os may indicate, apart from dying, something of the final mystery of Hamlet’s last perception” (923). [Back to text]

10. See Hawkes 22.

The Character of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Delving into the character of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, we find a character who is not totally evil but rather a blend of morally good and bad elements. Let’s explore the various dimensions of this many-sided character.

Peter Leithart in “The Serpent Now Wears the Crown: A Typological Reading of Hamlet,” considers the gravity of the main sin of offense of Claudius:

Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet, the act catalyzing the drama of the play, is presented as a sin of primordial character and cosmic implications. Claudius confesses that his fratricide parallels the murder of Abel:

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t,

A brother’s murder (3.3.36-38).

[. . .] Claudius has not only committed fratricide, but regicide. The king being peculiarly the image of God, regicide is a kind of deicide. At least, it is an act of rebellion against divine authority. Claudius is thus not only Cain but Adam.[7] Claudius’s sin has, for Hamlet at least, turned Denmark into a fallen Eden; thorns and thistles dominate the landscape. (n. pag.)

The drama opens after Hamlet has just returned from Wittenberg, England, where he has been a student. What brought him home was the news of his father’s death and his father’s brother’s quick accession to the throne of Denmark. Philip Burton in “Hamlet” discusses Claudius’ sudden rise to the Danish throne upon the death of King Hamlet I:

The fact that Claudius has become king is not really surprising. Only late in the play does Hamlet complain that his uncle had “popped in between the election and my hopes.” The country had been in a nervous state expecting an invasion by young Fortinbras, at the head of a lawless band of adventurers, in revenge for his father’s death at the hands of King Hamlet. A strong new king was immediately needed; the election of Claudius, particularly in the absence of Hamlet, was inevitable. What is more, it was immediately justified, because Claudius manages to dispel the threat of invasion by appealing to the King of Norway to curb his nephew, Fortinbras; the ambitious young soldier was the more ready to cancel the projected invasion because the object of his revenge, Hamlet’s father, was now dead, and in return he received free passage through Denmark to fight against Poland.

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