Hamlet is often regarded as the ultimate Shakespeare play, and has been treated with a reverential awe that has probably done more to erode readers’ enjoyment of the play than the admittedly prodigious labors of critics and English teachers combined. People who have never read or seen it will readily claim that it’s the greatest play ever written; some will argue that nobody over the age of twenty has any business playing the part, and others that nobody under the age of sixty has the capacity or maturity for it; when the culture is afire for psychosexual complexes, everyone seems to have a theory about Hamlet rooted in psychosexual complexes; if the order of the day is Jungian or Socialist or deconstructive, they can just as readily formulate a theory explaining Hamlet wholly in those terms. It is unclear whether the universality and greatness of Hamlet is to be sought in what it contains so much as in what it can absorb from the culture of the critic and percipient.
Not everyone agrees that it’s a great play: T. S. Eliot pronounced it a failure, claiming that while it hypothesizes psychological depths almost unimagined in drama before or since, it fails outright in conveying them for want of an “objective correlative”. Thus by defining the goal of the work as something quite different from anything Shakespeare himself could have envisioned, he can then dismiss the work for not hitting this ex post facto definition. To me that seems either unwittingly subjective or deliberately disingenuous.
I personally would argue that Hamlet is every bit as great as it’s thought to be, but that it’s also simpler in its central impulse than most of the critical structures that have been built willy-nilly on its foundations. It is, both in historical origins (Saxo Grammaticus and Robert Belleforest) and in intention a permutation of the ripe Renaissance genre of the revenge story. Anyone who believes that such things would be beneath Shakespeare should be forced to read Titus Andronicus (or better, to see it). (Unsurprisingly, Eliot didn’t like that either.) One of the most sensible readings of Hamlet I have ever encountered (but one that nevertheless leaves scope for vastly more) is that of David Ball in Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays.
I suppose, however, that I must add my voice to the clamor on Hamlet, if only to clarify my own biases. I would argue that the ground from which Hamlet springs is in fact more spiritual than psychological. Whether one reads it as a person of faith today or not makes little difference: one needs to understand that Shakespeare knew nothing of Freudian psychology or any of its various successors, and there’s no reason to think that those categories would have held much interest to him. The realities Hamlet confronts, and the contexts in which he confronts them, are all hemmed around with the religious thought of the sixteenth century.
There are a few points worth considering:
1. In the terms of his culture, Hamlet has a genuine moral obligation to avenge his father. In this respect he is more like Orestes than he is like anyone in the twentieth century or even the sixteenth. Some of this has to do with the underlying assumptions about justice; some of it is circumstantial. There is no law to which he can appeal in any case. The culprit — guilty of murder, usurpation, and incest (as defined there) — is the head of state. No law in the land can call him to account. He has established himself there by usurpation.
2. Contrary to popular belief and Laurence Olivier’s assurance, Hamlet never has a problem making up his mind. He understands his duty from the outset, and pursues it. He does, on the other hand, take the time to find out to his own satisfaction whether the spirit that has been speaking to him has been the genuine ghost of his father or some other entity whose purpose is to lure him to his own damnation. This is only responsible, if the certainty about the facts is going to oblige him to kill someone.
3. The state of one’s immortal soul at death is not an airy concern voiced by various characters to add verisimilitude and a sixteenth-century (or tenth-century) coloring to the story. To Hamlet, as to Shakespeare and to his audience, it is a reality of immediate and colossal importance. The play fastidiously catalogues the states of the souls of virtually everyone who dies: Old Hamlet, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself. In every case it has significant consequences. Modern audiences may not share Shakespeare’s assumptions, but they cannot be lightly dismissed. As Hamlet himself says just prior to the final conflict, “the readiness is all”.
4. Hamlet’s critical failure is not one of indecision. He is never undecided, once he has put the ghost to the test (the final piece being the play-within-a-play). His failing — which is not a character flaw but a positive transgression — is that he oversteps his moral authority, which is to avenge his father’s murder, not to redress an eternal imbalance or manipulate the affairs of God. He is obliged to kill Claudius, not to send his soul to Hell. In deferring his revenge to achieve something fundamentally beyond his authority, he brings doom down upon himself and everyone else who dies in the play. Of course, we soon learn that had he done what he ought to have done, killing Claudius at his prayers when he had the opportunity, Claudius would indeed have died unredeemed, and all the other people who die, beginning almost immediately after, beginning with Polonius and ending with Hamlet himself, would have survived. This cascade of violent deaths all spring from Hamlet’s initial and deliberate failure. Once he starts down this path, moreover, it worsens. He goes out of his way to ensure not just the death but the damnation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is not enough that they be put to death: he stipulates that they are to be put to death “not shriving time allowed”. They are to go to their eternal account with all their sins upon them. If there is any doubt as to what Shakespeare thought of this, there are at least two sources. One is what Old Hamlet says about how he himself was killed, but the most trenchant is to be sought in another play: in Measure for Measure, Duke Vincentio (in disguise as the friar), describes a prisoner scheduled for execution as, “A creature unprepared, unmeet for death; / And to transport [i.e., execute] him in the mind he is / Were damnable.” This is precisely what Hamlet has particularly set out to do, and he incurs a huge moral guilt thereby.
Accordingly, while one must have a certain sympathy for Hamlet, and especially for his predicament, it seems to me to be a mistake to present Hamlet as unequivocally good. He may be appealing or engaging; certainly he’s a character of enormous intelligence, power, and complexity, but he’s pursuing a distorted, fundamentally evil agenda, and it eventually destroys both him and many of those around him.