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Hamlet's Silence

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

A great many students of the play have expressed surprise that nowhere does Hamlet give distinct utterance to his conception of the nature of the task assigned him by the ghost. He nowhere explains clearly his own motives, not even in his private talks with his friend, Horatio, nor yet in his soliloquies. This may be due in part to the fact that Hamlet is not the play. As we have seen, the problem of the play cannot be solved by reference only to the prince. The situation of the play is developed before he comes on the stage, and as we shall see later the full solution is reached only after his death. Moreover, the character of his troubles and his task of revenge are of such a personal nature that he cannot reveal them even to Horatio. The fact that his troubles are only suspicions, that cannot be verified at present, forbids a declaration even to his bosom friend.

Hamlet very properly has the habit of silence. There is about him, as has been said "an habitual secrecy" that resists all our prying inquisitiveness. He scarcely deigns even to mention his suspicions to himself, and his soliloquies do not disclose fully his inner thoughts.

In his first soliloquy, which occurs in his first appearance on the stage, Hamlet denounces his mother's "o'erhasty marriage," as if this were all that troubled him. His great grief almost breaks his heart, yet he concludes by reminding himself that he must not speak out, saying,
"But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!"
(I. ii. 159.)

In all his associations with his friends, moreover, he enjoins them to the strictest secrecy regarding any revelations made to them. When Horatio and the others tell Hamlet of the appearance of the ghost, he draws from them all the information he can, and then pledges them to the utmost secrecy, saying, "Give it an understanding, but no tongue." (I. ii. 249) After he has himself seen the ghost they ask him, "What news, my lord.?" But he denies them, saying, "No; you will reveal it." He then seems to think of telling them, first pledging them to secrecy, and begins by saying, "There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark," and then changing his mind for fear they will disclose it, he adds indifferently, "But he's an arrant knave." A few moments later, after assuring them, "It is an honest ghost," he makes them swear solemnly upon the cross of his sword, "Never make known what you have seen to-night."

Hamlet finds it impossible even to make a confidant of Horatio, for not only is his trouble only a suspicion, but it is of the most intimate personal kind, involving as it does the honor of his mother. Fortunately, the friendship between the two is so genuine and strong that Horatio remains his trusty friend without a knowledge of all that is in Hamlet's mind and heart. It is clear, however, that Horatio knows much more than the others, and more than Hamlet is reported as telling him. At the end of the play, when he is dying, Hamlet solemnly charges Horatio after his death to
"report me and my cause aright
To the misatisfied." (V. ii. 326-7.)
Then after giving his voice for the election of Fortinbras as the next king of Denmark, he dies with these words on his lips, "the rest is silence." (V. ii. 345)

No words of Hamlet, then, fully disclose his thoughts and his motives, nor is it necessary that they should. All his words are naturally spoken with the closest reference to the entire situation and the conditions about him. These conditions must, therefore, interpret for us his words and his motives, and if properly understood will make his words clear. Shakespeare does not find it necessary to have Hamlet openly and explicitly declare his thoughts. But he does take particular pains to explain very fully the dramatic situation and all the surroundings of Hamlet, and these give the requisite meaning to his words. It is the supreme art of Shakespeare to delineate his characters in the most intimate relation to the situation and movement of his dramas, and never in isolation or apart from the action of his plays. In the case of Hamlet, there are fewer explicit words than usual in his plays, and probably for the reason that he has more carefully elaborated the situation that should give the words and actions the meaning required. It is only in these dramatic surroundings that we can find the clue to the character and motive of Hamlet, and these the critics have not been able to understand.

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. < >.


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