The End of "Hamlet"

In Shakespeare’s major tragedies, there are two kinds of movements. The stages of a plot are symmetrical in that an initial situation, such as Hamlet coming home to the wedding of his mother so soon after the death of his father, is complicated by developments that reach some kind of climax in Act III, and then what follows is the unraveling of those events, which usually means that a person who has risen high, such as a Hamlet welcomed home with much pomp, is brought low, thought a madman, before he is done in because he is now disposable, in a duel arranged for that purpose. The same thing happens to Macbeth, who is amazed at his good fortune until he comes to bear the weight of his deeds and so sees a ghost and so drives forward to what he must know is his inevitable fate. Anthony arrives in Egypt as king of the world and ends as the tool of the queen.

On the other hand, the stages of language in Shakespeare’s great tragedies are successive rather than peaked. In each of the great tragedies, language proceeds from its "lower" to its "higher" forms. Macbeth, Othello, Lear especially, and even Hamlet, move from the language of politics in the first sections of each play, where the characters are concerned with the calculation and balancing of the interests of the political players, a type of language Shakespeare had perfected in “Julius Caesar”, to the language of the great soliloquies, in which the central characters consider the confrontation of mankind with the forces of nature, including the elemental passions. Lear on the heath, Macbeth transformed by his guilt and his understanding of his own nature and nation, Othello confronted with the possibility of his own jealousy, an uncontrollable force which surprises a man whose passions had previously been so in concert with his social position, the protagonist now agonized into eloquence, and so speaking poetry.

Poetry then gives way in the resolution of each of the tragedies to a third kind of language which might be called, following Lear, the language of the birds, the music which allows perfect communication of love and the kind of serenity provided by the survival of tragedy and the appreciation of tragedy. This is very short for Othello, who turns his grief into a ritualistic killing of the one he loves, a sacrifice to the gods performed by him, perhaps for the first time, as an act from which his consciousness is removed. For Macbeth, this period is somewhat more extended, as he resolves to be what he has become, and moves ever deeper into blood.

The removal from one language to the next brings a quickening of the pace of the narrative in each tragedy because each level of language operates at its own speed. Events in the political world seem to move quickly only because there is so much talk and analysis of what people mean by each action they take. There are so many implications in any possible action that any action once taken seems a surprise, an intrusion on the never satisfied pace of deliberations. Any action is taken too soon for the significance of the last prior action to have been properly analyzed, and so there is certainly insufficient time left over for the contemplation of an impending event. Politics moves too quickly in real time to allow time for its analysis, and so seems always rushed. Henry V remarks that what seem to be the tedious deliberations concerning the legitimacy of his attacking France must seem rushed and arbitrary given that the war, once unleashed, will lead to the deaths of many. Barack Obama seemed particularly taken with the wisdom of this general insight when he advised his people, in a deliberately inelegant way, ”Don’t do stupid shit.”

The language of poetry, for its part, which succeeds political discourse, seems slow even if dramatic and pointed because it can go on to explore the meaning of nature for a new level of insight for an indefinite period of time. Reflecting on nature can take up all of the time that is allocated to it, and maybe that is why Shakespeare has Lear indulge in such speech on the moors, where the old king can extend his remarks now that he has no other responsibilities, and why Hamlet always has time for a soliloquy to step between the moments of action. Nature, whether that is the nature of the outdoors or of the human soul, comes to mean whatever is eternal because it means what repays infinite contemplation. Nature is not rushed, nor is the plenitude of poetry that it stimulates, but there is no completion of that relationship, because it is timeless, and is altered only when the metaphysical and natural landscape which sparks the poetry is eliminated. Lear could have stayed on the heath forever, or at least until he died, just as Hamlet could have wondered around Elsinore, forever contemplating the psychological dynamics of kinship and love, if he had not been moved by his thoughts to actions that had consequences. To alter the environment is to take away the object of contemplation, the seat of reverberations.

The final language of music is the quickest paced, because action is unhurried since action and language move at the same pace, the language now a direct expression of action, fully integrated as an action. Characters, like Lear, need speak very little, and Hamlet can become terse, for actions seem decisive, decisions quickly made, events unfolding with a will of their own as the protagonists adopt the Shakespearean understanding of stoicism: they appreciate that their own engagement in the world is part of the action of the world rather than merely a cause or a contemplation of actions in the world. They thereby succeed, for a moment, in achieving a kind of simultaneous distance from and acceptance of action.

Hamlet enters into a foolish duel with Laertes, and the final set of gratuitous deaths, as if he is beyond caring about who lives and who dies. He is already dead to himself because he could not resolve the problems of Elsinore without already having brought about a murder of the innocents, Polonius and Ophelia, and caused profound pain to his mother. The hubris he brought with him from Wittenberg, the belief that he could speak true and thereby rearrange the world to his liking, manages to bring only misery, and makes of him the prisoner of a ghost now known to have been a devil rather than the true shade of his father, which is something he must have suspected all along.

It is important to realize that most authors do not adopt the Shakespearean strategy of changing the nature of the language they use as they proceed with the unfolding of their dramas, Jane Austen is perhaps the most important of the exceptions, an author who changes from the politics of courtship to the contemplation of romance and of one’s circumstances, as when Ann Wentworth begins to think of whether her lost romance can be, despite all the odds, become reconstructed, and then to the music of Austen’s denouements, as when Fanny Price recognizes that her silence, her long despised character trait, is also her most powerful weapon. Rather, authors use the uniformity of language throughout their work to help tie the entire work together. That way, the style of language helps to create the fictional world that one enters into knowing that the reader or viewer will be greeted with something familiar as well as particular to that author and his or her sense of the world. It is also the case that few authors are so gifted as writers that they could alter their tones, though Dickens is an example of an author who had the talent to do so but chose not to, while George Eliot and Henry James could not choose to be other than who they were, each a personality that had crafted a style singularly their own. It is hard enough to craft one style, much less two or three.

It is also important to realize that whether there is or is not a change in language, the novel emerges out of its subservience to poetry by becoming a vehicle of language, the novelist mixing up dialogue and description, events and reflection, in the way the author sees fit, and so the novel is no longer merely a diverting story but a full fledged art work capable of doing anything that is demanded of it so as to make an impression, and so not simply a way to get a story across, the story the important thing, as in a news report, rather than a work of art because of the way in which the story is told. We have become so used to thinking of novels as works of art that it is easy to forget how ungainly a form it is, none of the unities of the drama or the elegant form of a Grecian urn, but only a narrative held together by its stability of language, never mind the ability of some exceptional novelists to go beyond that. Mark Twain, after all, who was as gifted a stylist as America has ever produced, did change his authorial style between novels but not within them except when he wanted to make his characters sound different from one another, which he was always able to do.

I go back to Hamlet who, literary fellow that he is, performs the critical function of commenting on his own adventures. He notices that Danes are rowdy, that there is a different way to talk to prostitutes than to respectable women, and so he insults his girlfriend by the coarseness of his language in dealing with her when he is angry or merely taking out on her what he cannot take out on his mother, and greeting his erstwhile friends Rosencrantz and Guilderstein with the politeness that only an assassin might muster.  He knows that the power of drama is such that it will lead Claudius to flinch even if he would rather not do so and so give himself away. Our fate is in the language we use and one of Hamlet’s troubles is that he is so good at language that we nor he know what is his true language.