The Philosophy of Action in Hamlet

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‘Words, words, words’: Hamlet’s philosophy of action

Central to any drama is action. What distinguishes drama from other literary forms is the very fact that it is acted upon a stage, that voice is given to the words and that movement creates meaning. It is, therefore, puzzling that the most seminal dramatic work in the English language contains, arguably, precious little of what many might describe as dramatic action. Nevertheless it has moved, enthralled and, what is more, entertained generations of theatre goers across the centuries and is still regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most popular play. It has divided critics: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe regards as central to the play Hamlet’s inability to act[1] whereas T.S. Eliot reduces the work to ‘an artistic failure’.[2] If Tom Stoppard is to be believed, even the characters are at odds with this apparent lack of drama as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz asks ‘is it too much to expect a little sustained action?!’[3]

If then, we are to acknowledge that action is central to drama, it is important to remember that such action is usually derived from conflict. When regarding Hamlet through this basic philosophy, the play is in every way dramatic. The play is concerned with conflict. We have international conflict, familial conflict and internal conflict and it is these conflicts that drive the play. This is confirmed within the opening line ‘Who’s there?’(I.i.1)[4] Immediately we are plunged into the state of paranoia that envelops Elsinore, the question is confrontational and, furthermore, directs us towards the international conflict between Denmark and Norway. The drama of the play, however, is not as simple as this. For instance, we must also consider the dramatic structure of a play and apply this to Hamlet; a structure that goes from equilibrium to conflict and then on to a new equilibrium. It is impossible to relate this to the play; for who would agree that the Elsinore, at the start of Hamlet, is in a state of equilibrium? Indeed, as Stephen Ratcliffe points out, the catalyst for all action in the play does not occur within the play[5]. The murder of Hamlet’s father has already happened when Barnardo delivers that famous first line, a line which itself suggests a response to something that has happened offstage. Ratcliffe goes on to discuss that the line could almost be a response to a ‘knock knock’ joke but more seriously that it:

begin[s] the play in response not only to some implicit, unspoken physical action- some motion or noise in the dark, […] but to an implicit action not performed on stage – some motion of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father which Bernardo, who speaks this line, must imagine he has seen and/or heard.[6]

Ratcliffe also suggests that the action not performed on stage does not happen at all. Alarmingly, he refutes Claudius’s confession of fratricide in Act III, arguing unconvincingly that Old Hamlet’s murder had never taken place.[7] In spite of this he does raise an interesting issue that is concerned with the question as to why - when in Western literature dramatic narrative is defined by cause and effect – does Shakespeare place the primary cause off stage and beyond the gaze of his audience? We are left to imagine the dramatic possibilities of opening the play with the alarming and visually striking image of a brother’s murder.

If Shakespeare’s decision to leave this exciting and sinister event in the wings confounds us, what, then, are we to make of the climax of the play? If we are to return to the classic dramatic structure of a play, we expect to see rising action leading to a climax that, in turn, leads on to the falling action culminated by the denouement. Hamlet gives us no such structure. There is no climax in the classic sense or if there is it appears in the final scene, not where one would expect. There is, nevertheless, one possibility that the climax may appear earlier in the play and that would be, in the traditional...
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