Denial, Delusion, Conspiracy, Paranoia and Betrayal—Horatio, pass the Prozac!
Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Samuel Johnson—Well, this list is really
endless. Everyone who is anyone has something to say about Hamlet, and no literary critic worth his
or her salt has failed to write extensively about Shakespeare’s most captivating play. Let’s consider a
Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy (1873)
(Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geist der Musik)
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) reasoned that Christianity’s emphasis on the afterlife
makes believers less able to cope with mortal existence. He argued that the ideal human being, the
Ubermensch, would be able to channel passions creatively instead of expressing them. For the most
part, The Birth of Tragedy does what Aristotle’s Poetica does: It points to literature as an allegorical
tool to illustrate the philosopher’s teachings about life. The Birth of Tragedy mainly looks to the ritual
of Dionysian song and dance that began theater in ancient Greece, but makes strong connections to the
character of Hamlet.
For the rapture of the Dionysian state with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of
existence contains, while it lasts, a lethargic element in which all personal experiences of the past
become immersed. This chasm of oblivion separates the worlds of everyday reality and of Dionysian
reality. But as soon as this everyday reality re-enters consciousness, it is experienced as such, with
nausea: an ascetic, will-negating mood is the fruit of these states. In this sense the Dionysian man
resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge,
and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things;
they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of
joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not
that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of
possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no – true knowledge, an insight into the
horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and the Dionysian man.
What we can find words for must be already dead in our hearts and that only what cannot be said is
worth the saying.
The Dionysian dithyrambs portray the spontaneous passion in humans that is muted by the
Apollonian side of humanity. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche describes the Apollonian man, as
representing civilization and order. Both sides of humanity have their compromises. The Apollonian
man loses sense of self and purpose, due to hypocrisy of will, lack of rapturous spiritual life, and a
generalized vapid outlook, much like the society the Beat generation opposed. Sal Paradise is a good
example of a Dionysian hero in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, or
Wilky Adler in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, are literary examples of men who live in an Apollonian
state. The Ubermensche, in Nietzsche’s view, is able to exist without the angst of either the Apollonian
or Dionysian state.
Nietzsche also wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra (Also sprach Zarathustra- This was later rendered as a
memorable symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, to whom he includes a dedication in The Birth of
Tragedy. This music today is famous from Stanley Kubrick’s memorable film, 2001, A Space
Odyssey.) Notably, Nietzsche later denounced the Birth of Tragedy as “an impossible book…badly
written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point
of effeminacy, uneven in tempo…without the will to logical cleanliness.” Yet, he defended the
“arrogant and rhapsodic book” for luring people onto “new secret paths and dancing places.”
Harold Bloom: Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human (1998) and Hamlet, Poem Unlimited
The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist. Hamlet, certainly an ironist,
does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other.
Harold Bloom counters T.S. Eliot’s famous essay, Hamlet and His Problems, on many levels,
first and foremost, by speaking only to Hamlet the character, and not to Hamlet, the work of art—
almost to the point of distraction for the readers, for Bloom seems to have an intimate, personal
relationship with Hamlet as a human being. In Hamlet, Poem Unlimited, he calls Shakespeare “my
model and my mortal god,” and describes the play Hamlet, as Shakespeare’s most personal.
That said, in Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, Bloom draws the play in terms of
father-son rather than mother-son issues, and also notes the paradigm change in outlook between the
generation of Hamlet’s father (Icelandic/Archaic/Heroic Age) and that of Hamlet, the son
(Christian/Renaissance). In essence, the son is the wrong one to choose to enact a revenge tragedy,
which the older Hamlet plays essentially were. In his later book, (Poem Unlimited) Bloom revises this
view, and sees Hamlet particularly suited to the task, though through is own devices.
Revenge tragedies were common in the Renaissance, mostly for the blood-and-guts passion
they evoke, and Shakespeare wrote his due of them, Titus Andronicus being perhaps the most pure of
the form, with Richard III, perhaps, tailing not far behind.
Bloom also takes issue with Eliot on the lack of psychological realism in Hamlet’s “acting
out.” While Eliot assumes Hamlet is too old for this, and if he isn’t really mad, than Shakespeare gets
it wrong, Bloom is comfortable with Hamlet’s rather anti-social personality flaws, and points to the
mysterious ten years missing between Act IV and Act V, claiming that Shakespeare left the play that
way to allude to Hamlet’s maturation of philosophy in Act V. That which is superfluous, and leftover
from previous Hamlets, Bloom claims, Shakespeare left simply because he liked those bits.
In Hamlet, Poem Unlimited, Bloom feels more convinced that Shakespeare actually authored
the Ur-Hamlet that was based on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Bloom brilliantly draws an argument
for the amazing popularity of what is often considered an extremely flawed play: Hamlet doesn’t die
as much as he achieves apotheosis, and as effectively as Jesus, was the author of his own demise. If
Hamlet fails as tragedy, it fails because Hamlet does not behave himself, not as the hero of revenge
tragedy, nor as the tragic hero of a Renaissance tragedy! (We’ll see how this plays out.) Rather, he
behaves as a psychologically full and complex human being, who thumbs his nose at structure and
convention—and defies Shakespeare’s ability to control him in the context of the tragic elements of
the play. He effectively becomes human, with a magnificent, unspeakable philosophy that he can only
show us in the passion-play he has constructed.
In the end, everyone seems to want to claim a bit of Hamlet. Hamlet has been described as an
existentialist, a Buddhist, a Christian. He’s been psychoanalyzed, by Freud himself, and others, as
being Oedipal. Lately, he’s been described as schizophrenic, or a comic. And as Bloom points out,
someone who is reactionary, paranoid, angry, brooding, abusive and suicidal—really is NOT a very
nice person! So why do Horatio—and the rest of us—forgive him? Why is he so bewilderingly
seductive and sympathetic?
Denial, Delusion, Conspiracy, Paranoia and Betrayal—Horatio, pass the Prozac! Someone who is reactionary,
paranoid, angry, brooding, abusive and suicidal, really is NOT a very nice person! Why does Horatio—and
the rest of us—forgive him? Why is he so bewilderingly sympathetic?
1. Write a character analysis for Hamlet as he is portrayed in Act One. You must cite at least four
passages from Act I to support your analysis. How does he feel about himself? His mother?
Revenge? About life, women, and people in general? How does he view his kingdom? How
good is he at expressing his feelings? What’s his conflict? His goal?
1. This is supposed to be Rising Action… Here, the protagonist is supposed to move towards his
goal, and deflect antagonistic forces…. Well? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist?
What is the agon, or central question? (Answer this plus either A or B)
A) Is Claudius the antagonist? Does he think that he is? What does he think is Hamlet’s goal? What
makes him think this? What action does he take, based on what he perceives to be Hamlet’s goal?
How does Hamlet react to his actions? At the end of Act II, who is winning? Why?
B) Or, consider Hamlet is his own antagonist, or perhaps, the ghost is the antagonist. What is
Hamlet’s goal? Is he closer to it? Think about his comments about Denmark, his “ambition”, his
opinion of life, love, himself, the world, and people in general. How has Hamlet – or Hamlet
Ghost – gotten in the way of Hamlet Prince? At the end of Act II, who is winning? Why?
2. How is Ophelia the unfortunate pawn in the mind game between Claudius and Hamlet? Why does
Claudius let Polonius “loose” his daughter on Hamlet? What’s Polonius’ motive? (See note on
Jephthah and his daughter) How does Ophelia unwittingly provoke Hamlet’s “madness”? Does
Hamlet believe that she is actively a co-conspirator? What are her motives to help her father “spy”
on Hamlet? Is she a good daughter? Does she have her own reasons?
1. Rewrite and explain the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy in your own words. What IS the
question? How does this speech fit in with Hamlet's goal? Note: If Hamlet is moved by Christian
tenets, what is wrong with his desire to die as expressed in this speech? What is “heaven” for
Hamlet? What does he fear will come of him, instead? Is he simply contemplating suicide? Pay
attention to: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…and lose the name of action.” How
willing is he to do his father’s bidding? What does he want?
2. The disturbing truth is that Claudius murdered his own brother, Hamlet Ghost, stole his wife
Gertrude, and took his kingdom away from Hamlet Prince. But clearly, Hamlet Ghost and Hamlet
Prince have very different approaches to conflict resolution! Citing evidence from the play,
describe Hamlet Ghost’s approach. Citing evidence, explain why Hamlet Prince seems to be
struggling, and how he avoids doing what his father wants. How does he seems to want to “right
this wrong” at the end of Act III. What does Hamlet admire most in Horatio? (3.2.70-78)
3. Where is the turning point? Defend your position. Remember, in tragedy rising action is where
the protagonist has moved closer to his goal, fending off the antagonist’s attempts to foil him. At
the turning point, his goal is almost reached, but then is shot down completely antagonistic forces
and bad luck, or a bad choice, or both. Define Hamlet’s dilemma, or the central argument of the
play, and explain who are the protagonist and antagonist in the play.
4. Hamlet. Claudius. Gertrude. (You could add on Ophelia and Polonius for extra credit.) Which
one has his or her head deepest in the sand? (Who has a weaker grasp on reality, who is crazier…)
Rate them and provide evidence to support their placement in this contest.
5. Hamlet and Gertrude. Comment on this scene. (Do you agree with T.S. Eliot? Explain.)
ACTS IV AND V:
1. Compare Laertes to Hamlet. How are they true “foils” for each other? Use ample evidence from
Acts IV and V to support your claim.
2. Does Hamlet commit cold-blooded murder in killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? How is he
able to plan and implement this, but not the murder of Claudius?
3. Act IV is supposed to be falling action… Who is winning? Why? Are antagonistic forces
defeating the protagonist? Explain. (Define the protagonist and antagonist…)
4. Analyze Hamlet’s philosophical outlook on life in Acts IV and V. At the beginning of Act V
(5.1.185-216) he seems somewhat accepting of death. If so, explain his reaction to Ophelia’s
burial. Is he a hypocrite? How does his philosophy develop in Act V? Examine his speeches at
5.2.1-79 and 5.2.203-241. Paraphrase what you think is the meaning of life, according to Hamlet,
and support it with text. (Note: Are the questions at 5.2.65-70 rhetorical ones?)
5. What is the story Horatio will tell about this “sweet prince”? How would it be different from the
story Hamlet might tell, had he the opportunity? What is ironic about the way the play ends?
How is Hamlet’s untold story appealing, and more meaningful for its wordlessness?
HAMLET PAPER: This should be one of your best efforts.
4-5 typed pages long
evidence is cited with Act, Scene and Lines
Works Cited Pages at the end
well-developed thesis statement
introduction paragraph that clearly states the ideas you will discuss in developing your thesis;
clear topic sentences for each paragraph; a conclusion paragraph that shows how ideas help to
prove your thesis
SUGGESTED TOPICS FOR PAPER
1. Problems in dramatic structure: Why Hamlet is not your quintessential tragedy.
2. Psychologically true characters in Hamlet: the gross burden of internal dilemma.
3. Paranoia and betrayal. The spoken and the unspoken. What causes the tragedy?
4. Hamlet’s philosophy. Archaic v. Renaissance man. Man of action v. man of thought. Apollonian
v. Dionysian man. The Role of Horatio. (Nietzsche, Bloom, et. al.)
5. Use of character foil.
6. Use of parallel plots.
7. Filial responsibilities in the play Hamlet. Family relationships in Hamlet.
8. Reality/Illusion or Madness/Rationality. The nature of the Ghost. Conscious/Subconscious.
Crazy Hamlet versions in Scottish ditty:
This one's truly amazing:
To be or not to be: that is the question, whether tis nobler in the
mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
And the Anagram:
"In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life