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The Death of Hamnet and the Making of Hamlet

Thus play I in one person many people,

And none contented. Sometimes am I king;

Then treason makes me wish myself a beggar,

And so I am. Then crushing penury

Persuades me I was better when a king,

Then am I kinged again, and by and by

Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,

And straight am nothing. But whate’er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased

With being nothing.


Richard II characteristically rehearses the drama of his fall from kingship as a fall into nothingness and then fashions his experience of lost identity—“whate’er I be”—into an intricate poem of despair.

Written in 1595, Richard II marked a major advance in the playwright’s ability to represent inwardness, but Julius Caesar, written four years later, shows that, not content with what he has mastered, Shakespeare subtly experimented with new techniques. Alone, pacing in his orchard in the middle of night, Brutus begins to speak:

It must be by his death. And for my part

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,

And that craves wary walking. Crown him: that!


This soliloquy is far less fluid, less an elegant and self-conscious poetic meditation, than the prison soliloquy of Richard II. But it has something startlingly new: the unmistakable marks of actual thinking. Richard speaks of hammering it out, but the words he utters are already highly polished. Brutus’s words by contrast seem to flow immediately from the still inchoate toing-and-froing of his wavering mind, as he grapples with a set of momentous questions: How should he respond to the crowd’s desire to crown the ambitious Caesar? How can he balance his own personal friendship with Caesar against what he construes to be the general good? How might Caesar, who has thus far served that general good, change his nature and turn dangerous if he is crowned? “It must be by his death”: without prelude, the audience is launched into the midst of Brutus’s obsessive brooding. It is impossible to know if he is weighing a proposition, trying out a decision, reiterating words that someone else has spoken. He does not need to mention whose death he is contemplating, nor does he need to make clear—for it is already part of his thought—that it will be by assassination.

Brutus is speaking to himself, and his words have the peculiar shorthand of the brain at work. “Crown him: that!”—the exclamation is barely comprehensible, except as a burst of passionate anger provoked by a phantasmatic image passing at that instant through the speaker’s mind. The spectators are pulled in eerily close, watching firsthand the forming of a fatal resolution—a determination to assassinate Caesar—that will change the world. A few moments later Brutus, intensely self-aware, describes for himself the molten state of consciousness in which he finds himself:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.

The genius and the mortal instruments

Are then in counsel, and the state of man,

Like to a little kingdom, suffers then

The nature of an insurrection.


Was it at this moment, in 1599, that Shakespeare first conceived of the possibility of writing about a character suspended, for virtually the whole length of a play, in this strange interim? Brutus himself is not such a character: by the middle of Julius Caesar, he has done the dreadful thing, the killing of his mentor and friend—possibly his own father—and the remainder of the play teases out the fatal consequences of his act.

If Shakespeare did not grasp it at once, then certainly by the following year he understood perfectly that there was a character, already popular on the Elizabethan stage, whose life he could depict as one long phantasm or hideous dream. That character, the prince of the inward insurrection, was Hamlet.


Even in its earliest-known medieval telling, Hamlet’s saga was the story of the long interval between the first motion—the initial impulse or design—and the acting of the dreadful thing. In Saxo the Grammarian’s account, the murder of Amleth’s father Horwendil (the equivalent of Shakespeare’s old King Hamlet) by his envious brother Feng (the equivalent of Claudius) was not a secret. Glossing over “fratricide with a show of righteousness,” the assassin claimed that Horwendil had been cruelly abusing his gentle wife Gerutha. In reality, the ruthless Feng had simply seized both his brother’s kingdom and his wife. No one was prepared to challenge the usurper. The only potential challenger was Horwen- dil’s young son Amleth, for by the time-honored code of this pre-Christian society a son was strictly obliged to avenge his father’s murder.

Feng understood this code as well as anyone, so that it was reasonable to expect that he would quickly move to eliminate the future threat. If the boy did not instantly come up with a clever stratagem, his life would be exceedingly brief. In order to grow to adulthood—to survive long enough to be able to exact revenge—Amleth feigned madness, persuading his uncle that he could never pose a danger. Filthy and lethargic, he sat by the fire, aimlessly whittling away at small sticks and turning them into barbed hooks. Though the wary Feng repeatedly used intermediaries (the precursors of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern) to try to discern some hidden sparks of intelligence behind his nephew’s apparent idiocy, Amleth cunningly avoided detection. He bided his time, slipped out of traps, and made secret plans. Mocked as a fool, treated with contempt and derision, he eventually succeeded in burning to death Feng’s entire retinue and in running his uncle through with a sword. He summoned an assembly of nobles, explained why he had done what he had done, and was enthusiastically acclaimed as the new king. “Many could have been seen marvelling how he had concealed so subtle a plan over so long a space of time.”

Amleth thus spends years in the interim state that Brutus can barely endure for a few days. Shakespeare had developed the means to represent the psychological experience of such a condition—something that neither Saxo nor his followers even dreamed of being able to do. He saw that the Hamlet story, ripe for revision, would enable him to make a play about what it is like to live inwardly in the queasy interval between a murderous design and its fulfillment. The problem, however, is that the theater is not particularly tolerant of long gestation periods: to represent the child Hamlet feigning idiocy for years in order to reach the age in which he could act would be exceedingly difficult to render dramatically exciting. The obvious solution, probably already reached in the lost play, is to start the action at the point in which Hamlet has come of age and is ready to undertake his act of revenge.

In Saxo the Grammarian’s Hamlet, as in the popular tale by Belleforest, no ghost appeared. There was no need for a ghost, for the murder was public knowledge, as was the son’s obligation to take revenge. But when he set out to write his version of the Hamlet story, either following Kyd’s lead or on his own, Shakespeare made the murder a secret. Everyone in Denmark believes that old Hamlet was fatally stung by a serpent. The ghost appears in order to tell the terrible truth: “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/Now wears his crown” (I.5.39–40).

Shakespeare’s play begins just before the ghost reveals the murder to Hamlet and ends just after Hamlet exacts his revenge. Hence the decisive changes in the plot—from a public killing known to everyone to a secret murder revealed to Hamlet alone by the ghost of the murdered man—enabled the playwright to focus almost the entire tragedy on the consciousness of the hero suspended between his “first motion” and “the acting of a dreadful thing.” But something in the plot has to account for this suspension. After all, Hamlet is no longer, in this revised version, a child who needs to play for time, and the murderer has no reason to suspect that Hamlet has or can ever acquire any inkling of his crime. Far from keeping his distance from his nephew (or setting subtle tests for him), Claudius refuses to let Hamlet return to university, genially calls him “our chiefest courtier, cousin, and son,” and declares that he is next in succession to the throne. Once the ghost of his father has disclosed the actual cause of death—“Murder most foul, as in the best it is,/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural”—Hamlet, who has full access to the unguarded Claudius, is in the perfect position to act immediately. And such instantaneous response is precisely what Hamlet himself anticipates:

Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift

As meditation or the thought of love

May sweep to my revenge.


The play should be over then by the end of the first act. But Hamlet emphatically does not sweep to his revenge. As soon as the ghost vanishes, he tells the sentries and his friend Horatio that he intends “to put an antic disposition on”—that is, to pretend to be mad. The behavior made perfect sense in the old version of the story, where it was a ruse to deflect suspicion and to buy time. The emblem of that time, and the proof of the avenger’s brilliant, long-term planning, were the wooden hooks that the boy Amleth, apparently deranged, endlessly whittled away on with his little knife. These were the means that, at the tale’s climax, Amleth used to secure a net over the sleeping courtiers, before he set the hall on fire. What had looked like mindless distraction turned out to be brilliantly strategic. But in Shakespeare Hamlet’s feigned madness is no longer coherently tactical. Shakespeare in effect wrecked the powerful and coherent plot that his sources conveniently provided him. And out of the wreckage he constructed what most modern audiences would regard as the best play that he had ever written.

Far from offering a cover, the antic disposition leads the murderer to set close watch upon Hamlet, to turn to his counselor Polonius for advice, to discuss the problem with Gertrude, to observe Ophelia carefully, to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy upon their friend. Instead of leading the court to ignore him, Hamlet’s madness becomes the object of everyone’s endless speculation. And, strangely enough, the speculation sweeps Hamlet along with it: “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.” “But wherefore I know not”—Hamlet, entirely aware that he is speaking to court spies, does not breathe a word of his father’s ghost, but then it is not at all clear that the ghost is actually responsible for his profound depression. Already in the first scene in which he appears, before he has encountered the ghost, he is voicing to himself, as the innermost secret of his heart, virtually the identical disillusionment he discloses to the oily Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

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