Several years ago I suggested to my daughter, who was in High School and reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that perhaps she should speculate on whether Claudius was actually the bad guy in the play. Did Claudius interpret Hamlet’s activities (especially the play-with-the-play) as evidence that his crime was known or perhaps that Hamlet was planning to kill the new king, Claudius himself? Should we trust the ghost on the parapets?
As I said, it was speculation and should have resulted in a lot of careful reading of the play looking for clues and interpretations to support this alternate hypothesis. When I was at university it was made clear to me that in the humanities, having the right answer was less important than clearly representing the supporting evidence.
Unfortunately my daughter’s English teacher did not appreciate the scholarship and the low grade was based on having the wrong answer.
While reading Nabokov’s Bend Sinister I enjoyed yet another interpretation of Hamlet and include it below (although this should not preclude reading Nabokov’s novel).
‘”Whatever Shakespeare’s or Kyd’s intentions were, there can be no doubt that the keynote, the impelling power of the action, is the corruption of civil and military life in Denmark. Imagine the morale of an army where a soldier, who must fear neither thunder nor silence, says that he is sick at heart! Consciously or unconsciously, the author of Hamlet has created the tragedy of the masses and thus has founded the sovereignty of society over the individual. This, however, does not mean that there is no tangible hero in the play. But he is not Hamlet. The real hero is of course Fortinbras, a blooming young knight, beautiful and sound to the core. With God’s sanction, this fine Nordic youth assumes the control of miserable Denmark which had been so criminally misruled by degenerate King Hamlet and Judeo-Latin Claudius.
‘”As with all decadent democracies, everybody in the Denmark of the play suffers from a plethora of words. If the state is to be saved, if the nation desires to be worthy of a new robust government, then everything must be changed; popular common sense must spit out the caviar of moonshine and poetry, and the simple word, verbum sine ornatu, intelligible to man and beast alike, and accompanied by fit action, must be restored to power. Young Fortinbras possesses an ancient claim and hereditary rights to the throne of Denmark. Some dark deed of violence or injustice, some base trick on the part of degenerate feudalism, some masonic manoeuvre engendered by the Shylocks of high finance, has dispossessed his family of their just claims, and the shadow of this crime keeps hanging in the dark background until, with the closing scene, the idea of mass justice impresses upon the whole play its seal of historical significance.
‘”Three thousand crowns and a week or so of available time would not have been sufficient to conquer Poland (at least in those days); but they proved amply sufficient for another purpose. Wine-besotted Claudius is completely deceived by young Fortinbras’ suggestion, that he, Fortinbras, pass through the dominion of Claudius on his (singularly roundabout) way to Poland with an army levied for quite a different purpose. No, the bestial Polacks need not tremble: that conquest will not take place; it is not their bogs and forests that our hero covets. Instead of proceeding to the port, Fortinbras, that soldier of genius, will be lying in waiting and the ‘go softly on’ (which he whispers to his troops after sending a captain to greet Claudius) can only mean one thing: go softly into hiding while the enemy (the Danish King) thinks you have embarked for Poland.
‘”The real plot of the play will be readily grasped if the following is realized: the Ghost on the battlements of Elsinore is not the ghost of King Hamlet. It is that of Fortinbras the Elder whom King Hamlet has slain. The ghost of the victim posing as the ghost of the murderer â€” what a wonderful bit of farseeing strategy, how deeply it excites our intense admiration! The glib and probably quite untrue account of old Hamlet’s death which this admirable impostor gives is intended solely to create innerliche Unruhe in the state and to soften the morale of the Danes. The poison poured into the sleeper’s ear is a symbol of the subtle injection of lethal rumours, a symbol which the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day could hardly have missed. Thus, old Fortinbras, disguised as his enemy’s ghost, prepares the peril of his enemy’s son and the triumph of his own offspring. No, the ‘judgments’ were not so accidental, the ‘slaughters’ not so casual as they seemed to Horatio the Recorder, and there is a note of deep satisfaction (which the audience cannot help sharing) in the young hero’s guttural exclamation â€” Ha-ha, this quarry cries on havoc (meaning: the foxes have devoured one another) â€” as he surveys the rich heap of dead bodies, all that is left of the rotten state of Denmark. We can easily imagine him adding in an outburst of rough filial gratitude: Yah, the old mole has done a good job!
‘”But to return to Osric. Garrulous Hamlet has just been speaking to the skull of a jester; now it is the skull of jesting death that speaks to Hamlet. Note the remarkable juxtaposition: the skull â€” the shell; ‘Runs away with a shell on his head.’ Osric and Yorick almost rhyme, except that the yolk of one has become the bone (os) of the other. Mixing as he does the language of the shop and the ship, this middleman, wearing the garb of a fantastic courtier, is in the act of selling death, the very death that Hamlet has just escaped at sea. The winged doublet and the aureate innuendoes mask a deep purpose, a bold and cunning mind. Who is this master of ceremonies? He is young Fortinbras’ most brilliant spy.”
And yes, the Olivier Hamlet is the worst of the lot. How dare he come right out at the beginning and tell us the right answer .. especially since it is the wrong answer!