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Hamlet as National Hero

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

There is no doubt that Hamlet from the first understood his task as more than taking the life of the king. With the rebellion of Fortinbras threatening, and on the "background of general corruption" which the rule of Claudius had induced, he saw his task to be a gigantic national undertaking. He was not called merely to the physical labor of the hangman, but to the moral task of the restorer of righteousness. To take the life of the murderer needed only the nerve of the common assassin, but to "revenge" the death of the late king called for wisdom and tact of the highest order. He well knew that he could not purge his country with an assassin's dagger, nor purify it by the king's blood. Unlike Fortinbras and Laertes, his passion was not vindictiveness, and could not be satisfied by avenging a guilty king on an innocent nation.

An immediate attack upon the king, then, might have been courageous, but it would have been foolhardy, and would have frustrated Hamlet's larger designs. The king was beginning to have a wholesome fear of Hamlet, and seemed to live in dread lest he should raise up an open rebellion against him. He thought himself of bringing the issue with Hamlet to public accounting, but he was afraid of Hamlet's popularity, as he later admits to Laertes,

"Why to a public count I might not go.
Is the great love the general gender bear him.
(IV. vii. 17-18.)
Nothing would have been easier than for Hamlet to make it a public issue. If it was easy for Laertes at a later time to raise up a band against the king whom he thought had killed his father, it would have been doubly easy now for Hamlet, who according to Claudius himself was "loved of the distracted multitude." But this was the very thing Hamlet wished to avoid. He sees his nation already preparing to resist the threatened attack from Norway, and with heroic self-restraint and true patriotism he refrains from anything that might encourage the enemy. He is commissioned rather to, save his country, as well from foreign aggression, as from the internal corruption that threatens its very existence. The case is desperate and the task difficult, and he would gladly pursue a more tranquil career. But he rises to the necessity, howsoever reluctantly, and steadfastly pursues his appointed task.

In all this Hamlet remembers the warning of the ghost not to taint his mind. He obeys the injunction to keep a clear conscience, and not make himself a worse criminal in revenging the crime of his uncle. This marks the higher purpose and superior nobleness of character that Shakespeare has put into his Hamlet, thereby raising the tone of his play above all other versions of the story. The spirit of some other versions of the Hamlet story is very different, as may be gathered from the German play, Fratricide Punished, where we find in the Prologue the following injunction to the prince: "Therefore be ready to sow the seeds of disunion, mingle passion with their marriage, and put jealousy in their hearts. Kindle a fire of revenge, let the sparks fly over the whole realm; entangle kinsmen in the net of crime, and give joy to hell, so that those who swim in the sea of murder may soon drown." 1

This, however, was the very thing that Hamlet made every effort to avoid. As in the version of Belleforest, Hamlet was a deliverer of his people. He tried to save his beloved country from the unjust and corrupt rule of the king, and, as Shakespeare has added to his story, he had also to ward off the threatened attack of Fortinbras. Shakespeare has, therefore, made his task doubly difficult. He must revenge his father, which means he must deliver Denmark from the corrupting rule of Claudius. And he must do this without laying the country open to an attack from Fortinbras. The dramatist has made his task more complicated and hence more difficult than in any other version of the story. But in carrying him through without complete failure in either of his purposes, he has depicted in him a true national hero.


FOOTNOTE 1: Furness's translation. Variorum Hamlet, 11. p. 123.

How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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Sources for Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
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