If the citizens of Denmark in the late middle ages were in a position to make their opinions known today, I believe they would be grateful to King Claudius for poisoning King Hamlet, the late King of Denmark.
This is a bold claim, of course, for two reasons. Not only are we removed from them by four to five hundred years, give or take, but neither am I talking about an identifiable group of people that could have said to have existed at any time, because by the citizens of Denmark, I mean fictional characters in a play who never appear onstage. They are, however, referred to by King Claudius, when he explains that publicly executing Hamlet for the murder of Polonius would be impossible, because of how beloved he is among the people:
“the great love the general gender bear him,
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Work like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to gyres, so that my arrows,
Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again
But not where I have aimed them.”
I was puzzled by these lines and it made me wonder what it was about Hamlet as an individual in a social and political milieu that people would find appealing. True, he is sensitive, intelligent and eloquent, but also criminally self-obsessed and standoffish. Though his cruelty to Ophelia and his killing of Polonius would not have been public knowledge, it remains difficult for me to comprehend this in the context of the play.
Perhaps Hamlet is popular because by virtue of his father’s murder and his uncle’s ascent to the throne means that he has been partially usurped. One should be aware that being in the place of the opposition in a time of turmoil is in some ways a privileged position. One is free to castigate those in power at every opportunity and assimilating public cynicism by making exactly the kind of pointless criticisms that one will endure in turn when in power. One can see Hamlet occupying this role rather well, having a talent for insulting turns of phrase:
Osric. I commend my duty to your lordship.
Hamlet. Yours. ‘A does well to commend it himself.
There are no tongues else for’s turn.
Critical commentary around Hamlet’s character has focused on how conflicted he is. His soliloquies bear witness to how conflicted he is and his thoughts, feelings and actions are entangled in a complex palimpsest of self-contradiction. However, I would contend perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, that Hamlet is too identical with himself.
He marks himself as an outsider from the start of the play and confesses to being unable to participate in the kind of drunken revelry that is culturally ubiquitous among his fellow Danes:
“But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honoured in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-handed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and taxed of other nations.”
One is reminded of the fact that politicians of today make the decision to live a contradictory life. Regardless of how they may really feel, they must be acutely aware of their audience at all times, particularly at a time when everyone carries at least one recording device on them at any given time. Furthermore, they must watch their words for fear of either destabilising financial markets or a 24-hour Twitter outrage machine with a disproportionate share of media focus. King Claudius would make an effective politician, not only because of his mercenary attitude in deposing his brother but because of his ability to maintain a public façade to mask his true feelings.
One thinks of the scene in which Hamlet is riddled by guilt, unable to murder him while he prays. Hamlet represents his angst in an extended monologue, rich in rhetorical devices and allusion before departing the stage.
“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.”
While Hamlet self-verbalises, he is totally unaware that King Claudius is just as tortured as he, but simply able to hold his emotions in check for the benefit of the office that he holds:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Hamlet is, to his detriment, only himself. He is honest in his rejection of Ophelia, and makes clear the extent to which his self-loathing would make a relationship between them impossible. He does not disguise his scorn for Polonius or Osric, it is only their own guilelessness that leads them to either declaring Hamlet to be insane, or not noticing at all. In short, he would make a terrible politician.
If Hamlet takes after his father, the Danes would probably thank King Claudius for poisoning him.