David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

One Line from Hamlet

When Stephen spins an elaborate yarn in Ulysses about Hamlet, Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father and son, and all manner of other things, a yarn that has a little to do with Shakespeare and a lot to do with himself and everything going on around him, part of the joke is that Shakespeare is such an opaque author given over to interpretation that Stephen can easily produce a vaguely plausible theory eerily resonant with his own personal obsessions without straining much. My tentativeness toward Shakespeare stems from my own preference for authors with discernible or overpowering (albeit ambiguous and misleading) authorial personae behind their works: as far as canonical authors go, people like Goethe, Milton, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, and Proust. Shakespeare sometimes seems insufferably coy by being such a cipher, and his spawning of an industry of condescending would-be elucidators of his work grates on me, though I can’t quite blame him for that.

But I have been thinking lately about his sheer talent of ambiguity, and I’ve been particularly preoccupied with the one line from Hamlet that, in terms of word-to-chaos ratio, must be one of his best ever. It’s this line in III.2 in the middle of the Mousetrap play:

HAMLET: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.

[Quick crib note: this is the line that causes it to appear that the Mousetrap play is not representing Claudius killing the King, but Hamlet killing his uncle Claudius. I.e., Hamlet now makes it easy for the audience (including Claudius) to infer that his purpose in putting on the play is to threaten Claudius with murder. It also renders it far more difficult to ascertain what Hamlet and Claudius are thinking for the rest of the play, how genuinely convinced Hamlet is of Claudius’ guilt, and what Claudius thinks Hamlet knows.]

Hamlet botches his whole “conscience of the king” scheme so badly with this one line (and he is already in the midst of botching it badly enough) that it really drains a fair bit of my sympathy for him. (I do expect a modicum of basic competence from my heroes.) But besides that, Shakespeare’s ability to cause such havoc to any possible understanding of the play’s themes, characters, and plot with this sentence is impressive. And it comes from such an apparently innocuous line, coming right after the seemingly weightier “Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung” spiel, as if to make certain that for the next four hundred years, the line would make less of an impression than it should. And since most of the characters are already confused and only get more confused, it isn’t quite as obvious as it should be that there’s also great uncertainty as to exactly what they’re confused about.

So what gets me is not only that the line gives strength to the radical skepticism interpretation of the play, but that it does so in a rather non-showy way, as though to make it more difficult to believe that Shakespeare really intended such radical skepticism. So the clues that cause the most doubt over likely interpretations are themselves not particularly notable, so as to make the doubting itself look dubious and help guarantee that standard interpretations could take hold that wouldn’t include the full extent of the doubt. The surface-level ambiguities and filigrees would cover up the deeper problems. So, for example, while the Ghost’s provenance remains unknown, we still find out that multiple people see the Ghost, alleviating one uncertainty while exacerbating another. Claudius confesses to the audience, even though Hamlet still may have doubts. It’s a brilliant balancing act.

Any other picks for high word-to-chaos lines?


[As an example of how the radical-skepticism interpretation still doesn’t get enough purchase, take Richard Levin’s rather unconvincing attempt to wave away concerns about the Ghost’s intent:

Several critics have tried to prove, often by citing evidence from Elizabethan treatises on pneumatology, that he is not the ghost of Hamlet’s father but a devil pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in order to entrap Hamlet. This is a very serious charge because, if it were true, it would mean that he is like the deceptive villains in Shakespeare’s other plays, and so his statement to Hamlet would be completely unreliable. Shakespeare, however, eliminates this possibility by voicing it twice during the early part of the play and rejecting it both times. Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost because it may “assume some other horrible form” to drive him mad (I.iv.69–74), but this does not happen and Hamlet returns from his encounter to assure Horatio and Marcellus that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I.v.138). Then, near the end of the soliloquy that I just discussed, Hamlet himself wonders if the Ghost “May be a devil” who lied about Claudius’s crime in order to “damn me” (II.ii.598–603), but when he sees how Claudius reacts to The Murther of Gonzago, he tells Horatio, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286–287), which was a lot of money in those days; and after that we hear no more doubts about a demonic ghost. In terms of my basic assumption, therefore, we can be confident that the Ghost is not a devil because, if he were, Shakespeare would have been sure to satisfy his audience’s “need to know” this essential fact or “necessary question of the play” because he wanted them to understand this play.

Richard Levin, “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido”

Well, I’ll take Hamlet’s word for a thousand pound, which is still a lot of money in these days!]


  1. A coupla more things:

    1) Not only does Hamlet not hear the confession (which one could argue is there b/c Shakespeare thinks the audience can’t yet know Claudius is guilty), but (I’ve argued) the confession isn’t decisive: after all the Player Queen says, “A second time I kill my husband dead / When second husband kisses me in bed.” Claudius may be responding to the sharp lash that gives his conscience.

    2) He can see the play as a warning: the nephew will kill the king = Claudius.

    3) Hamlet may be trying to press away his fear that he’s not Claudius’s nephew but his son.

    Overdetermination, ftw.

  2. David Auerbach

    24 January 2011 at 07:11

    1) My own thinking was that Claudius couldn’t be too cryptic in his speech or the ambiguity would become too apparent, and so I had more or less come to see Claudius as guilty, even if no one else knows. But the Player Queen line is pretty great.

    > That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
    > Of those effects for which I did the murder,
    > My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.

    The causal flow here is pretty strange under the kiss-as-murder interpretation, though in turn it would give *more* evidence to indicate that Claudius doesn’t particularly love Gertrude, since gaining her as queen is left until last as the results of his romantic involvement with her.

    Regarding audience: here I’m drawing from Graham Bradshaw, who insists that S. would have expected audiences to have been familiar with the Ur-Hamlet and therefore to have known that Claudius was guilty, thus raising the question of why S. spends so long before (seemingly) revealing that fact. What’s your opinion?

    2) Is this different from what I said above?

    3) Ah, good one. I hadn’t thought of this. It would fit so well that I sort of want it to be true.

  3. 1) Empson has a good account of Hamlet vs. the Ur-Hamlet. I think that maybe it’s a little bit like the Daniel Craig Casino Royale — you think you know but you don’t. The movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, iirc, had a different surprise from the play.

    2) No — somehow I just missed your parenthetical remark. My bad. I think it was late at night.

    3) You prolly know form the trackback but I just posted on this at Arcade.

  4. Steve Pantani

    14 May 2011 at 14:59

    There’s a nice dantesque tie-in here too to the whole “Hamlet in Purgatory”/Greenblatt thing –

    if Hamlet, Sr. is indeed a purgatorial soul, serving his penitential time before moving on to better things, then he is still “connected to” earth, properly in his need for prayers to hasten his purgation, but also (in far less “orthodox” fashion) in his need to have revenge taken on his behalf back on earth. But if Purgatory is just a Papist, money-making fantasy which doesn’ t exist at all, and the old King’s “blister of combustion” is from Hell itself, then all the ghost’s “testimony” would be diabolical and therefore not to be taken at face value by Hamlet (nothwithstanding that even a demon can sometimes tell the truth – in the “Gospel of Mark” demons always do – so that audiences perhaps do not make a mistake when they believe Claudius’s confession). Sure, a la Greenblatt (and Stephen, ha!) this is just a backdoor way of getting a phantom biographical Shakespeare (still haunted by the old faith??) into the picture – but anyway it seems “ben trovato” as a possible reading, even if it’s not true. I do enjoy the Shostakovitch-esque view of S. that suggests he had to hide his doubts and resentments in a time and place such that expressing them might well have gotten him “purged” (couldn’t resist). Again, who knows if it’s true ??. . . . maybe S. was just a frustrated Elizabethan equivalent of a Hollywood screenwriter who has to plant some zingers in the script (where a few might survive the focus groups) for his own self-respect; maybe his real ambition was to write the English epic, which sadly was just not going to pay the rent, was it? (or buy the coat of arms for matter)

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