The Attendant Prince

Hamlet’s Apparition, 1893
(Oil on canvas, 95 × 170 cm)
BY Pedro Américo
Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

There is comedy in Hamlet quite apart from the set-piece clowning of the gravediggers. We think of the play as tragedy, ignoring the absurd and ironic elements that propel the drama. Yorick the fool is dead, but his prince lives on. He has made of his life a perpetual existential dilemma. To the worldly-wise that is foolish, for it can end only in the way it is seen to end. The Prince asks the most absurd questions, knowing that every answer and every consequence shall dissatisfy his incessant questioning. The process becomes idiotic. He takes on the world and its wisdom.

Hamlet’s idiocy we are encouraged to see as a rare dignity. He may be foolish, but he is not witless. Wit is one of the sharper weapons in his armoury. With privileged access to the Prince’s mind, we who watch what is happening on stage may feel Hamlet’s nonsense makes sense — if only to Hamlet’s way of thinking.

Contrary to our expectations, Hamlet’s mind is exceptionally balanced. He carefully weighs the evidence, and considers all variety of possibilities before taking every action of his course. There is nothing silly about his decisions. Intelligent and articulate, he discusses within himself what he cannot say out loud. He is the only sane person in a mad world.

Everything has become meaningless. It is Hamlet’s task, his destiny even, to restore truth and justice. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not a tragedy of moral failings in a heroic figure. It is akin to a farce where everyone is crazy except one person, apparently the craziest, who is desperately trying to restore order.

Hamlet conducts himself in a comedic way. He acts a part. He plays tricks. He employs verbal wit in the most serious situations. He devises a play at the crucial moment when he seeks to stir the conscience of his enemies. To a modern audience Hamlet’s holding of Yorick’s skull in the graveyard may resemble Chaplin in The Great Dictator playing with his floating globe. Hamlet certainly carries the world on his shoulders, though he makes light of it.

In Prince Hamlet there lies something of the street-corner orator, the prophet without honour, the one alone who claims to know what must be done.

Where there is tragedy in the play of Hamlet it lies not in the Prince’s failure to see what must be done. He sees, and he is surely resolved to set matters right. The tragedy lies in his failure to communicate to others a rational defence of his actions. He speaks to a ghost. He speaks to himself. To the one person who, through love, seeks to understand the Prince advises silence and enclosure. Ophelia is rejected because she comes too close.

In Prince Hamlet there lies something of the street-corner orator, the prophet without honour, the one alone who claims to know what must be done. Of course his position at court gives him advantage, but he remains without authority, the solitary idealist transported by chance into a proximity to power. His one hope is to catch the conscience of the king. He is privileged to enact his dreams of revenge and power. But this privilege is frustrating. Hamlet can enact his dreams. He cannot act upon them. He has taken Yorick’s position as the licensed fool. Everyone hears. No one is prepared to listen.

Concerned as it is with spectres, fantasies and desires, the play has the quality of a dream. Yet it is a play voiced with clarity and reason. The soliloquies have insight and moral force. They are not the ramblings of a disordered mind. We do not need to unravel Hamlet’s complexities when he acts as his own analyst. He offers imaginative resolutions of his situation. Hamlet has the soul of a philosopher. He considers before he takes a course of action. Where Oedipus is hot with passion, Hamlet is cool with uncommon awareness and its handmaid, self-control, the principal of his virtues. Hamlet is one who while he sleeps is aware he is dreaming. The irony is the key to the play’s strength. Hamlet would have found in Freud a kindred spirit rather than a bringer of unbearable revelations.

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