Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet

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© Connotations 2.1 (1992): 16-33
N.B. For purposes of citation, page numbers of the printed version are inserted in square brackets. Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet
JOHN RUSSELL BROWN
Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies have had an even more durable life than comedies. Especially at the Globe Playhouse, a varied audience crowded to see the rise and fall of kings, or the working out of revenge and passion. They watched horrific stories concluding with an ultimate test in which the hero, and sometimes the heroine, faced violence and disaster. Death came in many forms, but always brought with it a revaluation of the hero's life as means of support were taken away: the individual was separated from his or her fellows, endured loss and escalation of pain, and was exposed to intense scrutiny. The audience was invited to judge the hero's response and ultimate resource. Perhaps these tragedies were so popular because they offered audiences an opportunity to assume the role of God, the all-knowing assessor who had long been the exclusive possession of remote and authoritative clerics: they could watch as man suffers, and so judge his ultimate worth. In the words of John Webster, writing his first tragedy in 1612 (partly in imitation of Shakespeare): . . . affliction

Expresseth virtue, fully, whether true,
Or else adulterate. (The White Devil I.i.49-51)1
Death brought a final truth-telling. In his second tragedy, a couple of years later, Webster's heroine is told in the very first scene: . . . believe't
Your darkest actions--nay, your privat'st thoughts--
Will come to light. (The Duchess of Malfi I.i.314-16)2
The coming to light of a man's "privat'st thoughts" is what Shakespeare implied as he explored the possibilities of tragedy in Julius Caesar, [page 17] a chronicle play concluding in numerous deaths, and gave his most thoughtful character words which liken the protagonists to horses who are judged for resources of spirit in painful trial: There are no tricks in plain and simple faith;

But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests, and like deceitful jades
Sink in the trial. (IV.ii.22-27)3
So, later Hamlet moves through the tragedy with a secret within him, and defies his audience to guess at it. Yet he never seems able to name it, and very rarely lets "fall his crest." Towards the end of Hamlet, the hero tries to share his own sense that a bloody spur is about to probe to his very "heart": Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart; but it is no matter. . . . It is but foolery . . . . (V.ii.208-11)4 Earlier he had rounded on Guildenstern who had tried to "sound" him and "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery": "'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" (III.ii.356-57, 360-61). In his first encounter with his mother, he had warned that nothing external, neither words, nor clothes, nor breath, tears, facial expression, "Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief," were able to "denote" him truly: These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show--
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.77-86)
Perhaps the probing of a mystery as the hero confronts affliction and death--with a last rush towards understanding and judgment--accounts for the success of all these tragedies which have endured into our own days. We are interested in the hero's inner consciousness at least as keenly as we await the fulfilling of barbarous revenge, or the overthrow of a monarchical government grown tyrannical, or the disappointment [page 18] or satisfaction of love and lust. Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth remain the most performed and studied plays in the history of theatre despite the out-dated themes and narratives which are their ostensible subjects. Should we see them as offering an entrance to...
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