Teaching Hamlet: The Play’s the Thing

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Consider a famous question asked at dinner parties: If you were stranded on a desert island and had only one book, what book would that be?  The question is contrived, of course, but it can help people begin to seek out what is most meaningful in their lives and what most educates or inspires them when they read. It allows an easy search into the great works of the human tradition.  Of course, G. K. Chesterton’s line that he’d have a book that would help him build a ship (to get off the island) is perhaps the most amusing, but such a response only points to the fact that the question is a good conversation starter.

As a humanities teacher, I also find this question helpful: If you could teach only one work of literature, what would you teach? For me, the answer is Hamlet.  It is, hands down, the best text to teach to a class.  It combines an eminently relatable plot with the best poetry in the English language; it is often ranked as the best play ever written; and it has all the romance, action, intrigue, wit, and drama that make for good old-fashioned entertainment.

However, the two most significant reasons that Hamlet is the best play to teach are its capacity to pose great questions that are perennially challenging to answer and its ability to portray a universal vision of the human condition.

Note the key phrase “great questions.” In one sense, extolling a text’s evasion of interpretation sounds like a celebration of deconstruction idealism — hardly grounds for a proper liberation of the human person in the light of truth.  Nevertheless, Hamlet‘s ability to ask great questions trains the student to revere the difficult path to the truth while courageously finding and defending a position.  These questions speak to the hearts of men and women, forcing them to take a stand even if they do not see all aspects of the picture at a given moment of study.  Moreover, no real nihilism is possible when the question is whether or not you should kill the king.  And, even in the response of hesitation and doubt, this play alone has the capacity to force your hand — delayed revenge is Hamlet the Prince’s most conspicuous response to the problem.  Indecision is only one option among many.

To be sure, the success of a teacher’s encounter with Hamlet depends to a certain extent on how it is taught.  How, then, might the play generate engaging questions for discussion and insight?  An example might come as early as Act I.  There, the teacher can pose the problem: Would you kill Claudius with this new regicidal information from a ghost-Dad?  If a student answers in the affirmative, then the Socratic teacher can contrast this position with details regarding the immorality of regicide, patricide, or (perhaps) “uncle-cide.”  Killing Claudius does not cancel out this king’s own sin of king-killing; it perpetuates it. Moreover, pointing to the fact that only Hamlet hears the ghost speak (while the other witnesses never do), the instruction could reference the possibilities of the Prince’s hallucination, insanity, melancholy, and so forth.  These counterarguments all have significant textual supports which students should consider.

To those who object to the king-killing hypothesis, other views should be highlighted: the importance of justice, the testimony of the Prince’s own father, and, as the play unfolds, more evidence that Claudius is, in fact, guilty.  Hamlet may be the true king and, thus, has a legitimacy to enact the death penalty in the case of Claudius’ treachery.

Indecision is no way out, either.  To those who stay “on the fence,” the teacher points to the obvious thesis that no action is equal to support for Claudius, and, if the king is guilty, then the student supports an unjust kingdom.  Is that morally licit?

Inevitably, some students will double down on their position, refuting the objections; the teacher should demand logical clarity from them in doing so.  Others will waiver and have to reconsider.  Meanwhile, the class will likely have different views on the topic, and their own internal discussions are worth fostering as well.

Moreover, this basic opening repartee prepares the class for the big Hamlet question, once a few more pages have been read: Why has the Prince delayed in his revenge?  Again, allowing different views to surface is helpful, and here the teacher can offer some of the famous answers from the tradition of Hamlet criticism (without naming the sources): the play is Elizabethan, so it has to go five acts before revenge; the play is a failure; the play explores depression, indecision, Oedipal conflict, totalitarian oppression, political philosophy, generative anthropology, etc.  Each possible solution can be examined and (most likely) critiqued with examples and counterexamples from the text.

With more advanced high school or undergraduate classes, students can explore the great critical works on Hamlet that attempt to answer this very question.  My top three favorite are written by Eliot, Bradley, and Girard.  T.S. Eliot’s sheer boldness in declaring the play a failure is worth reading.  How can a critic take a stand so diametrically opposed to centuries of English literary established tradition?  And yet, his point about the failed objective correlative has merit.  Discussing his thesis in class only heightens the “drama” behind one’s search for an answer.

Writing at the start of the 20th century, A.C. Bradley’s take on the play has a helpful summary of the first two centuries of Hamlet criticism and then offers its own interpretation: Hamlet, the character, has melancholy.  This psychological reading, which is not entirely opposed to other arguments, sheds light on another aspect of Shakespeare’s thinking and provides one of several ways of seeing that the Bard was significantly ahead of his time.

Rene Girard’s hypothesis is, for me, the closest to the truth.  He is able to situate the play in its larger anthropological context so that we can understand the challenge of writing revenge tragedies in the Christian West: Shakespeare himself may have faced indecision in writing plays that feed an unexamined bloodlust in the audience.  Hamlet’s fictional indecision mirrors Shakespeare’s concern for reconciling traditional codes of revenge with the biblical call to forgiveness.  This thesis helps explain the central delayed (or “dull”) revenge and forces the reader to think about his own desire for revenge.  Encountering Girard at the moment of critical confusion can be very helpful and possibly spiritually transformative; indeed, my own interpretation of Hamlet is heavily influenced by Girard’s work.  As will be seen toward the end of this essay, Girard’s mimetic hermeneutic greatly assists our understanding of the universal scope of the play.

As the student’s mind considers these various solutions and attempts to sort them out, it draws nearer to the truth in conversation with peers, the teacher, and, in a sense, much of his/her inherited Western and world tradition of discussion of this topic.  Like any encounter with a great classical text, this entry into the timeless conversation itself opens the heart to its universal condition.  Solving the Hamlet problem is somehow related to being human.

Nevertheless, there is a need to consider more carefully the objection that teaching Hamlet (especially with a goal toward revealing the challenge of answering “The Hamlet Question”) runs the risk of introducing interpretative nihilism or “hermeneutic relativism,” a sense that there is an infinite set of possible interpretations to the play and, thus, no truth to access.  Such a conclusion, furthermore, also risks encouraging a general nihilism/relativism and, so the objection goes, should be avoided in teaching.

To be sure, nothing seems more important in education today than drawing students toward the realization that the absolute exists; truth – real objective truth – is there to know and serve.  The modern world produces empty theory after empty theory of non-truth hoping, in a sense, to prove once and for all the impossible proposition that “the only truth is that there is no truth.”  The teacher, thus, must strive heroically to make the study of literature sing to the truth.

In this sense, there is a risk in high school or undergraduate education that the open door to “private interpretation of the text” may end in exasperation for the student which can be so severe that he/she succumbs to despair.  In agony to find an elusive answer, the student – it is supposed – embraces nihilism.  How can the study of Hamlet in the classroom guard against this?

The first reason that studying Hamlet (at least in Socratic/seminar form) immunizes the student from nihilism is based on the key difference between the communal dimension of discussion in light of the tradition of interpretation of Hamlet, on the one hand, and the isolated and excessively individualistic project of thinkers such as Descartes or the German idealists, on the other hand.  In seminar discussion (and, in particular, in dialogue with the great essays), the student engages a question in community.  This means that he or she experiences his/her own journey toward the answer in symphony with others doing so.  Therefore, even if the actual answer does not appear immediately (or even over a long period of time), the communal dimension of the struggle allows the student to experience a very real and concrete “being-with” others that is part of truth itself.

How can we understand this?  Truth is the correspondence of the mind with reality.  When difficult questions about reality are engaged within collaborative dialogue, the objective fact of the existence of the neighbor and partner in philosophy remains an unquestionable dimension of one’s reality.  The pursuit of abstract truth is not divorced from the concrete presence of the other human being(s).  Thus, even when one encounters difficulties answering objections, finding solutions, or finishing the study, one feels even more and more a part of a venture that is real and concrete.  The truth is found in the common humanity that seeks to know but, at times, must accept with humility that one might not (ever) know.

For Descartes, however, we see a beginning of the journey away from society.  To be sure, he will write of his “meditations,” but they are meditations and not conversations.  Moreover, his meditations begin, in a sense, in the middle of a forest where he decides to jettison the work of all previous thinkers.  This is not a collegial project at all.  It is a rejection of human tradition, and it is no coincidence, perhaps, that his anthropology ends up being less than human.  For Descartes, man is simply a rational thinking thing trapped in extended reality.  He is no longer a rational animal, the substantial union of material and immaterial beings, and his embodied existence is abandoned for a thought-experiment that ends largely in unhappiness pointing toward nihilism.

To be sure, Descartes himself does not end in nihilism; however, the tradition of thought through Hume and the German idealists culminating, it seems, with Sartre or Derrida certainly does.  Once the journey outward toward the truth in trusting dialogue is replaced with the journey inward to an isolated, skeptical self, the path to truth is blinded and obscured; no path can be found. In contrast, the great seminars leave students challenged by questions that are not easily answered, but, when attempted, fuel an excitement for the truth.  Students in seminar are inspired to love the truth even when they do not see all of its infinite contours.

To push this discussion further, we can note that there are “taken-for-granted” aspects of this approach that also insulate the student from hermeneutic despair, for even the most basic investigation into the truth always entails a respect for some fundamental laws of the truth. In general, communal study necessitates a common sense set of principles of evaluation.  For example, Descartes can never really question his existence in a group.  The Cartesian hypothesis (“I am not certain that I exist”) is implicitly absurd for the conversation itself.  As one scholar pointed out, at the moment someone seriously pushes the Cartesian hypothesis, the other can bump him a little on the arm: “Your existence is not in doubt, my friend.”  Of course, the obstinate skeptic can continue down the road of doubt, but the norms of conversation and discussion look more and more ridiculous, as this person puts into question everything he has already assumed before entering the conversation.

Furthermore, as students wrestle with the Hamlet question, they invariably assume key principles of thought (noncontradiction, causality, etc.) in a way that allow each new hypothesis to be tested for veracity. When one student argues in defense of Eliot’s rejection of the play, he must bring up evidence that counters a claim to celebrate the play as first-rate; when another student champion’s Bradley’s melancholy thesis, she looks to justify the claim with passages from the text.  Here we see an acceptance of logical norms – basic syllogisms and inductive conclusions at work – accepted according to their truth-value in relation to reality.

To be sure, a student can offer the possibility that there is no answer.  But, this position usually emerges after significant attempts to solve it, and the teacher can simply ask: “How do you prove that there is no answer?”  It is precisely this reliance on proof that cements the discussion in truth.  To respect proof is to respect the fact that truth has laws which order it; we can go from one truth to another with certainty.  Even if we do not get to the last conclusion, we know that we can find many certainties along the way.

There is yet one more very important aspect of Hamlet that helps to insulate the student from a plunge into nihilism or hermeneutic despair: The play itself echoes this particular drama of the human soul.  If the reader is experiencing doubts and skepticism, he does not have to look much further than the main character himself to find a kindred spirit.

It is Hamlet who posits the question of being, proclaiming in the most famous speech of English theater: “To be, or not to be: that is the question” (III:1). It is Hamlet who, “thinking too precisely on the event” (IV:4), excoriates himself for indecision.  It is Hamlet who, caught between heaven and earth, wrestling with his identity and meaning, asks that this “too too solid flesh would melt, thaw,” and, finally, “resolve itself into a dew” (I:2).  The pathos of hermeneutic despair is not experienced more profoundly by any other character in world literature, it seems.  Hamlet is the figure of the drama of meaning.

Thus, at the moment of hermeneutic despair – if such a moment arises – the student of Hamlet has a striking recognition.  The character he cannot understand is precisely the same as himself — unable to understand himself.  This is the “mirror” held “up to nature” (III:2), and, in this mirror, the man of despair finds hope: there is someone else as lost as I; I am not alone.

And because the mind naturally knows the existence of cause from effect, the soul turns to Shakespeare.  Who is this man?  How could a man create such a character that can speak not simply to my own experience but also to the whole experience of man?  And this is the most famous text of all time!  It resonates through the centuries . . . “to be, or not to be.”  I am now a part of this drama; I will trust it and its author and seek to know more.

In sum, the study of Hamlet protects the student from nihilism not only in its method but also in its content.  To pose the Hamlet question is to enter into the play itself – a drama unfolding around the very question posed.  Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and all the court it seems are rapt in the Hamlet question; we, the audience are no less engaged in the problem only to find that Hamlet himself cannot figure out the answer.  Yet, in representing this very drama of interpretive dissonance, the play itself seems to know more than we.  The student tempted to nihilism suddenly finds a safety net: “the play’s the thing” (III:2).

Of course, it is not enough to defend the teaching of Hamlet from the lure of nihilism; one must push forward toward an evaluation of the positive intellectual content of the play if the thesis will stand that this is the best play to teach.

At the core of the Hamlet question is the fundamental question of human existence.  Moreover, Shakespeare roots this question not simply in metaphysical speculation but also in the central problem of human retaliation, the situation that ultimately grounds man’s physical life or destroys it. Finally, the Bard pushes the meditation toward an examination of the meaning of life no matter what particular issues a person faces.  All of these can be seen in one soliloquy alone.

The literary tradition places us at the foot of the “Great Soliloquy,” the “to be, or not to be” speech (III:1) that remains easily the most famous in all of English literature, if not world literature.  And this is no coincidence.  The speech is not famous for its blank verse or clever use of the words, “bodkin,” “quietus,” and “native hue.”  Rather, it is famous because of the core content of the problems it poses continue to haunt us from generation to generation.

First, “to be, or not  to be: that is the question.”  Shakespeare grounds the play in the core principle of all realist philosophies; we start with being as the foundation of all things.  As if echoing the great efforts of the tradition of metaphysics from Ancient Greece to the present, Hamlet posits the ontological question as primary.

Next, the speech asks about human existence in particular: “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them.”  This is the moral question of the would-be-vigilante.  Should the man who has suffered “slings and arrows” respond with his own violence (“take arms”), or should he “suffer” even when his luck or “fortune” is “outrageous?”  In particular, if you believe your father has been murdered by the current king, should you kill him or forgive him?  And, in general, if slighted by anyone, should you retaliate or forgive?  The drama of uncertainty, caught between revenge and forgiveness, is expressed elsewhere in the play with the anguished words: “O! What a rogue and peasant slave am I!” (II:2).

And from this drama comes Shakespeare’s boldest claim: all human suffering contains this indecision. “For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes, / When he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin?”  Any difficulty in life presents the challenge of endurance or violence to other or self; this is the human condition.  And, as Hamlet consistently thinks from the beginning soliloquy through this one: conscience does “make cowards of us all” (III:1. Cf. I:2).  Man’s urge to respond to the violence or suffering with his own violence is met with the voice of conscience prohibiting killing.

Not simply echoing the universal human condition, Hamlet‘s conceptual reach is also expansive.  The teacher wishing to connect students to religious themes finds an ally in this play’s multiple biblical references; the discussion of Hamlet’s indecision leads easily to political philosophy and every political system in human history; the conversation with the gravedigger allows basic economic and social problems to surface and orients discussion in any of these directions; and, finally, the play itself explores theater and, thus, art as a whole.

The play is at once a great exploration of Elizabethan drama but easily the drama of every human person.  It is historical and transcendent of history.  Perhaps the mathematician or scientist finds himself at a loss for connecting to the play, but, even here, the references to Renaissance ideals, the life of the university student, and the various “business doubling” (III:3) or calculations open the door to a discussion of any field engaging the life of the mind.  In short, every field of the humanities is opened by this play which situates man at the crossroads of heaven and earth, between revenge and forgiveness, between Eden and eternal beatitude, redeemed but bearing the wounds of sin.

An excellent example of the play’s universalizing tendencies is Claudius’ soliloquy.  He laments, “O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (III:3). Having already preached of the universality of the death of fathers in Act I, Scene 2, Claudius opens the door to situate his act of murder in the universal narrative of mankind, born from the beginning of murder and death.   Hamlet himself will echo this link to Cain in Act V, Scene 1 when a skull from the grave is likened to “Cain’s jawbone.” Linking the narrative to Cain and Abel, Shakespeare forces us to consider that the drama unfolding in the play represents something beyond the confines of Medieval Denmark or even Elizabethan England.  This is the story of mankind, who lives with the guilt of a murderous origin and finds himself perpetually returning to the questions of kill or not to kill.  Indeed, that is the question.

Meanwhile, the contemplation of man’s murderous history allows for a universalizing meditation on death itself in what has to be one of the most famous images of the play: the skull of Yorick grasped in the hand of the Prince.  In the midst of moribund humor from the gravediggers, Hamlet finds himself face to face with the ultimate questions of human life and death, as he ponders the way of all flesh, now withered from these bones.  The meditation is profound:

There’s another: why may not that be the skull of a

lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets,

his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?  . . .

Hum! This fellow might be

in’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes,

his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers,

his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and

the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine

pate full of fine dirt?  (V:1)

Every human path is summed up in its harrowing littleness in comparison to the material existence and nonexistence after death.  And it is in this scene that the absent tenderness that the boy Hamlet once knew from his court jester Yorick is epitomized in the empty skull of the same, now observed in the Prince’s hand.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow

of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how

abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know

not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your

gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,

that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one

now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (V:1)

Death universally circumscribes the human experience in every profession and in the lives of those closest to us; Hamlet is always capable of leading our discussion to these universals.

There are many more examples of this universalizing phenomenon in the play.  Suffice it to say that any teacher seeking to find ground for a discussion of any facet of the human person will always have at least some food for fodder in teaching the play, Hamlet.  Nevertheless, there is one last point to make in this respect, one last phenomenon of the universal: “the play’s the thing.”  The final proof of Hamlet‘s singular role in literary education is its own self-reflection on tragedy and literature in general (and, thus, the world of the humanities).

The play within a play is only the beginning of this meditation.  To be sure, watching the characters themselves watch The Murder of Gonzago helps the audience think about its own role in watching Hamlet. Since “the play’s the thing” wherein we’ll “catch the conscience of the king” (II:2), perhaps we are being asked to examine our own conscience.  Are we king-killers?  Or, in a more mundane sense, are we an audience looking for the satisfaction of having the king be killed?  Have we come to grips with our own fallen desires for vengeance?

But this is only the first level of self-reflection.  More provocative is Hamlet’s own lesson in theater.  His speech is striking in its summary of neoclassical principles.  He directs the visiting actors thus:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to

you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,

as many of your players do, I had as lief the

town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air

too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;

for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,

the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget

a temperance that may give it smoothness. . . .

Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion

be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the

word to the action; with this special o’erstep not

the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is

from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the

first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the

mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,

scorn her own image, and the very age and body of

the time his form and pressure.  . . . O, there be

players that I have seen play . . . have so

strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of

nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them

well, they imitated humanity so abominably (III:2).

The speech dictates a radical definition of theater as “imitated humanity.” Word and gesture must have a “temperance” which “suit” each other, and, in the final analysis, befit “the modesty of nature.” Art imitates life and “holds as it were a mirror up to nature.” This is the classical principle from Aristotle’s preliminary remarks in the “Poetics” where the philosopher situates mimesis (imitation) as a positive good rooted in human nature that gives delight to the human act of poetry (or tragedy more specifically in that work).  Hamlet, the character and the play, are both fully aware of this stated law of mimesis.  We are forced to ask if this is not related to the problem of revenge at the core of the play.  Indeed, revenge is mimetic to the core: mimetic violence and hatred; it is the principle of sin that tempts man to fall from the Kingdom of God with its limitless ocean of mercy.

The problem of Aristotelian mimesis (“imitating humanity”) sits with us then as we ponder Hamlet’s original interaction with the actors visiting Elsinore.  We may pause and think back on the previous scene with these actors in which one of them rehearses the slaying of Priam.  Does mimesis underscore this interaction?

Watching the passion of the revenge hero, Pyrrhus, Hamlet cannot find any for himself.

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so to his own conceit

That from her working all his visage wann’d,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,

A broken voice, and his whole function suiting

With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!

For Hecuba!

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

That he should weep for her? What would he do,

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have? He would drown the stage with tears (II:2).

Revenge is the space of mimetic passion (or, as Girard would say in his essay Hamlet’s Dull Revenge, “mimetic desire”) — a passion which overrides reason and is rendered unheroic and sterile by the biblical tradition.  Although apparently justified in countless  works of literature, Hamlet cannot bring himself to justify mimetic violence (at least until he encounters Laertes in Act V, but, by then, “the cat is out of the bag”).

Thus, when the Hamlet fragments are spun together, the play takes the wind out of every epic battle, revenge comedy or tragedy, or good guy defeating bad guy.  There is no justification for the passion itself.  Who can enter into it in good conscience?  An artistic representation of the passion must always have a sense of sin within it for the Christian universe. . .  “But that the dread of something after death . . .”

Imitating violence in light of the Gospel which demands renunciation of revenge means that the literature of mimetic passion comes to an end with Hamlet. This play exists everywhere, commenting on the epics and sagas and serials of every age; Hamlet simultaneously exists nowhere.  There is no place for it in traditional literature which works for satisfaction or relief or “catharsis” from the passions.  If a new literature of critiqued desire has opened up, then Hamlet is its true archetype.  Either way, it is the play of plays, for it is the teaching play par excellence and rises above even its own incarnation.  Thus, it is the perfect work to teach.  The teacher who lets the text challenge students, drawing them in to draw them out of their unknowing, is the teacher who will be thankful for every opportunity to teach Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.

E. Tyler Graham

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Tyler Graham graduated from Stanford University in 1995 with a degree in humanities, and he went to complete an MA in religious studies from Syracuse University in 1998 as well as an MTS from Ave Maria University in 2010. He has published essays on Augustine, Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Durkheim, and Girard as well as multiple pieces related to pedagogy. He lives with his wife and six children in Ave Maria, Florida, where he teaches high school humanities at Donahue Academy.