Hamlet is a paragon of indecisiveness, but few productions — none I’ve seen or heard of, in fact — explain why. It’s deeper to leave it unexamined, which makes it more universal, if not metaphorical, but while watching a performance this can cause a bit of head scratching.
Dad’s dead, murdered by his own brother, who marries the widow, and dad’s ghost asks Hamlet to take revenge. Hamlet’s follow-through lacks, though, as even in Act III, Scene 2, he is still confirming the crime his father (in fact, his father’s ghost) revealed to him. This would seem one of those rare times confirmation is unnecessary, and it comes long after he’s urged the ghost to talk so “I, with wings as swift as meditation of the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge.”
It’s so long after swift revenge has been sworn that Shakespeare, as though realizing there’s been no revenge in his revenge play, has Hamlet concoct an elaborate plot to prove the guilt of his uncle because “the spirit that I have seen may be a devil.”
More like the spirits he drank may have bedeviled him. Hamlet’s a college guy and a Dane, no stranger to alcohol, and it would make sense for him to hit the bottle pretty hard when his father dies and, less than two months later, his mother remarries. He’s wandering around Elsinore depressed amid the new king’s “heavy-headed revels.” The Rhenish is flowing. Of course he’s soused. “They call us drunkards,” Hamlet says, and when his buddy Horatio shows up, he tells him “We’ll teach you to drink deep ere you depart.”
Hamlet’s sometime girlfriend, Ophelia, describes the prince’s interactions with her to her father, who interprets them as “the very ecstasy of love.” But he’s deluded when it comes to his daughter’s effect on Hamlet, and what she describes sounds very much like someone who’s both very depressed and so drunk as to be unable to focus:
He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so.
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turn’d
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes,
For out o’ doors he went without their help
And to the last bended their light on me.
This is Gertrude’s “too much changed son,” who notoriously acts insane for much of the play. I suspect or suggest that, in fact, he’s acting drunk, although he stops drinking — at the very earliest — back in Act III, Scene 2, as signaled by a revelation said to be common to remorseful drunks: “Why, what an ass am I!”
That brings us back to “the spirit that I have seen may be a devil.” It seems within the realm of directorial license that this is said by Hamlet, gazing into his last bottle of Gray Goose before going cold turkey, as “the spirits that I have seen may be a devil” — the demon rum, so to speak, not the demon dad. The problem is not just booze, but the predilection of drunks to see such things as their dead father’s ghost, and while others have seen it, Hamlet alone talks to it and gets the story that should prompt his revenge.
His inaction afterward makes sense if immediately after his occult experience he engages in another activity enjoyed by the drunk: blacking out. This would need a second bit of directorial license, meaning some minor rewriting of stage directions. Hamlet, as Shakespeare wrote it, speaks with his friends while they are offstage and coming on; in this version they should come onstage and revive their prince during the following dialogue:
Horatio: My lord, my lord!
Marcellus: Lord Hamlet!
Horatio: Heaven secure him!
Marcellus: So be it!
Horatio: Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
Hamlet: [awakening] Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come, bird, come.
Marcellus: How is’t, my noble lord?
From there, the play can run as written, with the continuing interpolation of glasses and bottles of this and that littering the stage and clogging Hamlet’s hands. When Hamlet finds his purpose, these would be mocktails — he continues to act drunk to disguise his deadly intent. As he mutters at the end of Act III, Scene 3, with some added meaning:
Now could I drink hot blood and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.
Since all of Elsinore thinks Hamlet’s constantly soused, imagine the surprise of Hamlet’s uncle when he tries to kill Hamlet with a poisoned drink (“Hamlet, this pearl is thine. Here’s to thy health”) — and his nephew turns down the drink to keep fighting a duel (“I’ll play this bout first; set it by awhile”).
It is odd that a play holds metaphorical power by dint of an essentially unjustifiable lack of action on the part of the hero. Anyone who delays a decision is vulnerable to be compared to Hamlet, but such comparisons are never positive because Hamlet’s reluctance to act isn’t even tragic, just bewildering, being really based on nothing. As much as I enjoy “Hamlet,” it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Shakespeare really didn’t have a rationale for the apathy — just a need to delay action long enough to get in a lot of other really cool stuff. The “devil spirit” theory seems tacked on, for instance, especially considering that Hamlet’s plot “to catch the conscience of the king” springs up from a coincidental visit to Elsinore by an acting troupe. No troupe, no play within a play, no plot, no revenge, right?
Shakespeare’s arguably the greatest writer in history, and he can get away with such sloppiness. It would even be nice to take the play as being about indecision, rather than about someone who happens to be indecisive, but it would be giving too much credit. I’ve never seen a production of “Hamlet” in which a director has made the inaction make sense.
The one transformation directorial tricks can’t accomplish is turning Hamlet into a bad guy, but he does seem a forerunner of the movie villains who engineer attacks or assassinations elaborate to the point of absurdity. He would be better served by being friends with Scott Evil than Horatio, who is ultimately an enabler, because Scott, as a son, clone and postmodern observer of movie villains, would have better advice. When Hamlet leaves his father’s ghost to go skulking about the castle, Scott would be there to insist on action: “I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I’ll get it, I’ll come back down here, BOOM, I’ll blow the king’s brains out!”
The play might last 20 minutes.
As it is, Shakespeare needs an excuse. And Hamlet needs a drink.