Facing Eternity

A Sea Change: Many critics observe a transformation that takes place in Hamlet's behavior during his absence from Elsinore covering the period of the last five scenes of Act IV. For some, the change is merely the salubrious effects of a sea voyage, but for most, the transformation is understood in reference to the terms by which they understand the rest of the play. Thus, for example, Professor Linda Bamber(Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford University Press, 1982), who focuses on what she understands to be Hamlet's misogyny, sees him as more sure of his manhood and therefore more trusting of women after his return in Act V.  Elinore Prosser (Hamlet and Revenge, Stanford Univ. Press, 1971) who concentrates on the ethics of revenge, sees the Hamlet of the fifth act as one who is now willing to trust in God's justice. Those who concentrate on a fundamentally ethical or religious approach to the play see the transformation as a shift in the context of the action. Events that were seen within the context of a corrupt world are now cast against a backdrop of eternity.

Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not 'seems.' Throughout Hamlet, there is an interplay of truth and its representation. Thus, for example, Hamlet states his intention to play the antic, but it becomes evident that there is a thin line between wearing the mask of madness and actual madness. The same can be seen in the fencing match at the end of the play. Fencing is a ritual representation of combat. But at some point in the staging, what is intended as sport is transformed into violence. The representation becomes the thing it mimics. In this scene from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the players mime the fencing scene. Thus, they are presenting a representation of a representation.

Transformation is accompanied by recognition. Again, to use the example of the fencing match, the shift from play to battle comes in the company of the recognition of what is actually happening beneath the seeming play. The term "dramatic irony" describes a situation in which the audience know a vital piece of information which is withheld from the essential characters. This gap in knowledge charges the situation with dramatic and emotional consequence. In this case, both Hamlet and Gertrude do not know about the poison in the drink or on the tip of Laertes' weapon. In Franco Zeffirelli's staging, the growing recognition of the situation transforms the representation of combat (the fencing match) into actual combat. Once again, the line between the thing and its representation dissolves.

Thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature into eternity.  (I.ii.72-3)


David Warner as Hamlet
Royal Shakespeare Company
Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1965


It is no accident that the reversal of direction which appears to have come about in Hamlet's character is first made visible in a scene which takes place in a graveyard. The image of Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick has become an icon signifying man's inevitable contemplation of death. Some see this as defining the essential context within which the play should be held. "I said just now that the subject of the Merchant was metals. In the same sense, the subject of Hamlet is death," says C.S. Lewis. (C.S. Lewis, "Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?" Proceedings of the British Academy, XXVIII, London, 1942. p.10.) Eleanor Prosser quotes Montaigne's Essays in defining the nature of Hamlet's philosophizing. "To Philosophize is to learne how to die." (Eleanor Prosser, Hamlet and Revenge, Stanford Univ. Press. Stanford. 1971. p. 226.) The beginning scene of Act V offers us some dramatic reminders:

That the world of Hamlet is a Christian world.
That the parodies of legal manipulations are set against final judgment.
That all must come to death and some preparation is in order.
That our perspectives in the play have shifted from the temporal to the eternal.

Eugene Delacroix, 1839

Time and thy grave did first salute thy Nature...

Death is the drearie Dad, and dust the Dame
Of all flesh - frailtie, woe or majestie;
All sinkes to earth that surgeth from the same,
Nature and Fortune must together die:
Only faire Vertue skales eternitie
Above Earths, all-abating tyrannie.
  - Anthonie Copley, "A Fig for Fortune", Burt Franklin (Spenser Society #35) New York. 1967, p.55.

The first of these clips offers a brief glimpse of John Gielgud's 1944 performance as Hamlet.