Fathoming “Cliffs of Fall Frightful”: Hamlet’s Mapping of the Tragic Abyss

by Judith Stewart Shank

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief—
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. … (152)
Gerard Manley Hopkins

It could be said that these lines from one of Hopkins’ “Dark Sonnets” embody the experience of Hamlet—with one crucial exception. The evocative word “fathom” has two related meanings: first, to find the bottom or extent of something, to measure its depth and sound it; secondly, to reach or penetrate with the mind, to get to the bottom of something, to comprehend it thoroughly and master it. Hamlet is the exception to Hopkins’ vision of the frightful cliffs of fall, because Hamlet fathoms the tragic abyss in both senses of the word: he plummets to its depths, and he fully comprehends and masters its nature. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s mapping of the tragic abyss, and Hamlet is the mapmaker.

In the archetypal tragic pattern, the protagonist falls into sin, discovers his culpability, and chooses either to accept his guilt and its consequences or to deny his guilt and persist in that evil which leads to despair.3 Hamlet is unique among tragic protagonists in that the inevitable vision of his own fallenness and original sin occurs before the action by which he fears to bring guilt upon himself.4 Hamlet fathoms the nature of the tragic abyss, not in retrospect, but in prospect. From the time the Ghost issues his commandments, Hamlet explores with increasing horror the paradoxical contours of the tragic abyss and finds that, being a man, there is no way he can escape guilt through his own actions.

Hamlet’s “world-sorrow” is, of course, evident from the beginning of the play: “O God, God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.132–34). What apparently has not been evident to many is the cause of this sorrow and overwhelming disgust. Hamlet has been accused of being indecisive, excessively self-reflective, neurotic, genuinely insane, and suicidal, none of which diagnoses a close reading of the play bears out. Hamlet’s disgust rises from his ever-increasing vision of the depths of human fallenness—in other words, from coming face to face with the inescapable fact of original sin, that “age-old anvil” on which his cries “wince and sing” (to quote Hopkins once more): for, as Hamlet says to Ophelia, “virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it” (3.1.117–19). Hamlet’s disgust flows from his realization that man’s ontological dwelling is in the house of guilt.

Thus we find Hamlet in his first soliloquy, before he has seen the ghost of his murdered father, articulating his dawning awareness that something is terribly, terribly wrong with the postlapsarian world and those fallen men and women who inhabit it, with the “too too sullied flesh” of incarnate men:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah, fie, ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. (1.2.129–37)

What has precipitated this disgust is not only his mother’s “o’erhasty” marriage with his uncle but also his burgeoning doubt that appearances genuinely reflect reality. As he has said to Gertrude, “I know not ‘seems’” (1.2.76); yet, faced with the “dexterity” with which Gertrude has posted “to incestuous sheets,” Hamlet now doubts whether his mother’s love for his father had ever been what it seemed. In his youth, Hamlet saw Gertrude hang upon his father, “As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on,” and yet within a month after following King’s Hamlet’s dead body “like Niobe, all tears,” Gertrude married Claudius. How then, Hamlet questions, could Gertrude have truly loved his father, as she seemed to? Even a beast, he exclaims, would have mourned longer than one “little month,” before the tears dried in her eyes or her funeral shoes grew old. Nor can Hamlet console himself with the idea that Gertrude has merely sought an approximation to her lost husband, since Claudius, Hamlet says, is “no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (1.2.143–57). This discrepancy between appearance and reality—“seeming” and being, “acting” and acting—is one of the dominant themes of the play.

Worthy of notice also in Hamlet’s first soliloquy is his dismissal of suicide as a viable alternative for a disgusted and world-sorrowing man. Hamlet is a Christian. In his first soliloquy, the acceptance of suicide as a mortal sin and its consequent dismissal from the realm of possible actions is stated in all simplicity: “O that … the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon [law] ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.129–32). In his disgust with humankind and the world, does Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, cry that he wishes suicide were an option? Yes. Is it obvious that Hamlet, the Christian, accepts the fact that suicide is not an option? Yes. The cry of the tragic protagonist, from Job to Oedipus to Lear, has ever been “Cursed be the day that e’er I was born,” but it is one thing—and an altogether human thing—to voice one’s despair over living in a fallen world and entirely another thing to act upon that despair by committing suicide. It is mentioned and dismissed in his first soliloquy, and suicide is not the contemplated action of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, despite its being so played by many, though not all, Shakespearean actors.5

The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is about whether the contemplated action (Hamlet’s execution of Claudius) is “to be”; the question is whether Hamlet is to bring the action into being. That is why Hamlet refers, at the end of the soliloquy, to “enterprises of great pitch and moment”; it is high and momentous enterprises which “lose the name of action” because of the possibility of judgment and damnation after death, which is Hamlet’s theme in this soliloquy (3.1.86–88). The Christian Hamlet, who is so very noble and possesses, as do all the greatest Shakespearean characters, a fully developed imagination, would never speak of suicide as an “enterprise of great pitch and moment”; only the most vain and deluded of men could so regard themselves and their own ultimate act of despair, and Hamlet is not among them.

Indeed, it is nobility which Hamlet first ponders in this soliloquy, as a consequence of asking whether the action is to be or not. Is it nobler simply to suffer in the mind, or is it nobler “to take arms against a sea of troubles” and thus end them by active opposition? If he were to act, then what? Being mortal, he knows that at some point, probably as a consequence of acting, he will die. What then? What happens at death? Does death issue only in an eternal sleep? If, when we die, we do no more than sleep—“To die, to sleep— / No more” [than sleep]—and all the heartaches “and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to” are ended in that eternal sleep, then why not act? Why not take arms against the sea of troubles and end them? But, on the other hand, if “in that sleep of death” dreams perchance may come, we must pause before acting and reflect upon the consequences of our actions. The dreams which may come in the sleep of death are an image of divine judgment and its consequent damnation or salvation. These reflections about consequences—about the guilt we may incur for our actions—are why men bear calamity for so long without acting, why they “bear the whips and scorns of time.” It is the fear of judgment and damnation—“the dread of something after death”—which “puzzles the will” to action “And makes us rather bear those ills we have, / Than fly to others that we know not of.” Death is “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns.” Hamlet cannot be sure that his action will not result in his damnation after death. It is concern about the eternal fate of his soul which causes Hamlet’s “native hue of resolution” to be “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” It is the desire not to be damned for his action which “turns awry” the currents of the momentous enterprise of slaying Claudius and makes that enterprise “lose the name of action.” It is not insignificant that Hamlet’s greeting to the “fair Ophelia,” who enters at the end of this soliloquy, is a request that she remember all Hamlet’s sins in her prayers (3.1.56–89).

Bertram Joseph has observed that the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy should be regarded as a continuation of Hamlet’s previous soliloquy, in which Hamlet, goaded by the passion with which the Player has rendered Hecuba’s suffering, examines his own reasons for delay in fulfilling his promise to the Ghost (2.2.560–617). This soliloquy, which closes Act Two in most current editions of Hamlet, precedes the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy by no more than fifty-five lines, and Joseph further notes that, according to “the good Quarto and the First Folio,” there was no act division at this point in the manuscript. Thus, audiences of Shakespeare’s time would have heard, first, the soliloquy in which Hamlet questions his reasons for delay, confirms the necessity of ascertaining that a devil in the form of his father’s ghost is not ensnaring him, and plans to acquire “evidence” of Claudius’ iniquity, followed almost immediately by Hamlet’s further meditations in the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy on the possibility of being damned for slaying Claudius as the cause of his delay (Joseph 110–11). Thus, as has been said, Hamlet’s concern in this soliloquy is with the potential consequences of his action in slaying Claudius, not with the consequences of slaying himself.

But with his profound and contemplative soul, Hamlet sees in his own particular situation an instance of universal human experience. Were it not for reflections about guilt and damnation, who would bear “Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office … Who would fardels bear, / To grunt and sweat under a weary life…?” Any man who thus suffers, Hamlet sees, could take on himself the making of his own “quietus” “With a bare bodkin [dagger]”—that is, any man could be quit of all that oppresses him by thrusting a dagger into the agent of all which he suffers (3.1.71–73, 75–77). It is perhaps this passage in Hamlet’s soliloquy, especially when taken out of context with those “enterprises of great pitch and moment” toward which the soliloquy moves, which has led interpreters to think that Hamlet is contemplating his own suicide—contemplating ending his suffering through violent action against himself rather than violent action against the perpetrator of that suffering. This misinterpretation is facilitated, I think, by the misunderstanding of the words “bodkin” and “quietus.” Although literary critics and any reader who uses a footnoted edition surely know the meaning of the word “bodkin,” the general audience viewing Hamlet is extremely likely to interpret “bodkin” as meaning “breast,” since, first, actors such as Lawrence Olivier and Mel Gibson, as well as countless theatre actors, have portrayed the scene by holding the dagger pointed at their breast (and usually a naked or “bare” breast), and, secondly, because the word “bodkin” sounds like a diminutive of the word “body”; thus, a general audience may neglect investigating the definition of “bodkin” under the assumption that they have already grasped its meaning.

Furthermore, the word “quietus” does not mean the peace and “quiet”—through suicide—of no longer contending with the hardships of the world, although that meaning is often assumed because of the resemblance between “quietus” and “quiet.” “Quietus” is, in fact, a legal term which means a full discharge or release from debt, obligation, or office; “quietus est,” again in legal terminology, means “he is quit,” in the sense of being discharged from the debt, obligation, or office. This meaning of “quietus” is identical with the primary definition of “quittance,” as when we say, “He has received his quittance,” meaning he is no longer under any obligation, although “quittance” carries the additional connotation of recompense, repayment, and reprisal. When Hamlet says “he himself might his quietus make / With a bare bodkin,” he is saying that any man might be “quit” of debt, obligation, or office by violent action, by taking “arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end[ing] them.”6 In Hamlet’s case, he would be released from his obligation to his father’s ghost and the debt of his own promise to avenge his father’s murder by executing Claudius; he would be discharged from his heaven-appointed office of “scourge and minister” (3.4.174–76). But, as Hamlet sees his situation at this point in the play, he would thereby also put his soul in peril. For the Christian Hamlet, the possibility of damnation is his dilemma. How does one, as a Christian, and not in self-defense or war, kill another human being? More especially, how does a Christian prince kill his uncle, his mother’s husband, and his king? Hamlet, with all his excellence of forethought, can imagine the chaos that will afflict Denmark if Claudius is killed. The consequences of the death of kings—even evil kings—permeate Shakespearean drama with particular ominousness, and for all that Rosencrantz is a sycophant, his speech to Claudius on that subject rings true:

The cesse of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What’s near it with it; or it is a massy wheel
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous ruin. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but with a general groan. (3.3.15–23)

Hamlet, however, faces a still more profound question: how does he know by whom (or what) he has been charged to kill Claudius? He has nothing to act upon but the word of a ghost, and Hamlet has ample evidence that words do not always express the truth. No earthly court mandates him; he has no legal sanction, and—however disordered its current condition—Denmark presumably has its laws and trials to ascertain guilt and render judgment. In any case, Hamlet is prince of a state, not a state-appointed executioner. Thus the Christian Hamlet says:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. (2.2.610–15)

And again, as he lays the plot for the play and asks Horatio to observe Claudius “with the very comment of [his] soul,” Hamlet says:

If [Claudius’] occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damnèd ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy. (3.2.81–86)

Hamlet’s instinctive response when he first sees the Ghost is a prayer: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Is the apparition before his eyes a sanctified soul or a devil?

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. (1.4.39–44)

For it is unholy that a Christian soul, buried according to the sacraments of the church, should again walk the earth—that it should, as Horatio has already said, “usurp” the night and the form of the dead King Hamlet (1.1.46–49). Why, Hamlet cries, should his father’s “canonized bones” have “burst their cerements”? Why should the sepulcher in which King Hamlet was “quietly interred” have cast him up again? (1.4.47–51) Can such an aberration from all Christian doctrine and belief be anything but demonic?

After the Ghost charges Hamlet with revenging his murder by Claudius and vanishes, Hamlet vows, “thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (1.5.102–03). But now Hamlet is caught between two commandments: the Ghost’s “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5.25) and God’s “Thou shalt not kill.” Hamlet is in the situation we have come to call a “double-bind”; he has fallen into the crevasse of paradox—literally damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Hamlet’s delay in acting, so often attributed to neurotic indecision or some sort of Prufrockian hyper-consciousness, is due to neither of these but to his being caught in a situation in which he can see no way to act without incurring guilt.7

Indeed, the first image implanted in Hamlet’s mind by the Ghost is that of the tortures—the “sulf’rous and tormenting flames”—of, not yet even hell, but of purgatory (1.5.3). For King Hamlet, as he tells his son, was “Cut off even in the blossoms of [his] sin” and died unabsolved, “No reck’ning made, but sent to [his] account / With all [his] imperfections on [his] head” (1.5.76, 78–79). The Ghost’s term of purgation is finite, but its terrors are such that, were he not forbidden to communicate this revelation of eternity to the living, he could horrify Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand an end
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine. (1.5.15–20)

If such “fasting in fires,” such a “prison house,” is the temporal fate of the merely unabsolved, what images of the horror of eternal damnation must invade Hamlet’s mind?

And yet Hamlet has fallen even more deeply into the crevasse of paradox than has thus far been conveyed, for the Ghost issues, not one, but three commandments, saying, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love—,” then: 1) “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”; 2) “Let not thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught”; 3) “But howsomever thou pursues this act, / Taint not thy mind.…” (1.5.23, 25, 84–86). What a commandment is this last, that Hamlet must revenge his father’s murder without tainting his own mind! Not only must he not damn his soul, but he must find a way to revenge the murder that leaves his mind pure, unstained, untroubled, and at peace. And yet revenge, as Hamlet knows, is not a Christian act, even if commanded by a less dubious authority than a ghost.8 Hamlet’s task, then, is, not only to revenge his father’s murder, but to do it without damning his soul or tainting his mind. Paradox is the yawning gulf of the tragic abyss, and Hamlet is caught in its maws. The mark of his engulfment in the abyss is the profound suffering into which he is plunged by the paradoxical nature of his task.

However, paradox in tragedy is a teacher, just as Dionysus, in whose honor the great Greek tragedies were written, was a teacher to those who were willing to accept him as their god. What paradox teaches Hamlet is that there is no way, being human, that he can escape guilt through his own actions or, to put it another way, that he can know with certainty that he will not incur guilt by acting. As Hamlet looks within himself for that spiritual place from which he could act in innocence and purity of intention, without tainting his mind, he discovers progressively that, because he is human, there is no such place. Hamlet’s entrapment by paradox leads him to the insight that man’s ontological position in the universe is that of the guilty one—in other words, to the insight that the time has been out of joint ever since the Fall from the Garden. To ascend from the tragic abyss will demand of Hamlet a transformation: a face-to-face encounter with original sin as a reality within the souls of all men, including himself, despite deceptive appearances of virtue.

The themes of appearance-versus-reality and the fallenness of mankind are intertwined from the beginning of the play. Hamlet’s questioning of the reality of his mother’s love for his father is verified by the Ghost’s contemptuous description of Claudius and his liaison with Gertrude:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine.
But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage. (1.5.42–57)

With the Ghost’s use of the words “adulterate” and “seeming-virtuous”; his description of Gertrude’s having been won over to lust for Claudius; his distinction between the sacramental love of marriage and the “decline” to extra-marital lust, the Ghost simultaneously intensifies Hamlet’s distrust of appearances and his perception of the depths of human fallenness—so easily is mankind seduced to “prey on garbage.”

As Hamlet, hiding behind his “antic disposition” in the depths of the tragic darkness, struggles to ascertain the reality of the Ghost and to fulfill his commandments, he is further confounded by the “seeming” of Ophelia, who, obeying her shallow and devious father, has presented to Hamlet the appearance of not loving him. What, and whom, in this visible world, can he trust? To his childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he voices his world-disgust and ever-increasing awareness of human fallenness:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (2.2.303–17)

Yet these friends in whom he confides have answered Claudius’ and Gertrude’s summons, and they will attempt to play upon him as on a pipe, as Hamlet says, to lie to him, snare and sound him, and “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery” (3.2.372–74).

But it is in Hamlet’s well-known “nunnery” scene with Ophelia, which immediately follows the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the agony of Hamlet’s deepening vision of man’s—and his own—fallenness is most fully articulated (3.1.90–152). Hamlet’s behavior toward Ophelia in this scene has been much maligned. His attitude has been interpreted as misogynistic and abusive. But we must first remember that Ophelia, however pathetically, has placed herself among those whom Hamlet cannot trust. Much more importantly, however, we must see the essence of the scene as Hamlet’s expression of his disgust with the fallen condition of all humanity, including himself. Because he loves Ophelia, he expresses to her the depths of his despair, although she does not understand it and indeed goes beyond filial obedience into the realm of deception in their conversation. In this scene, we see that Hamlet has moved from an initial horror concerning the sins of others toward a profound awareness of his own potential for sin. He says to Ophelia:

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck that I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. (3.1.122–30).

We are not meant to believe from this speech that Hamlet is a bad man. The point is that Hamlet is a man, and that he now knows that to be a man means to “relish” of original sin, not to be able to “escape calumny.” Having eaten from the tree of good and evil, man cannot undo his aboriginal choice for self over God, and all now bear in their hearts the knowledge of evil through participation in it, whatever particular sins they may or may not commit. All human beings since the Fall are of the “old stock”; virtue may be grafted upon the “old stock,” as one grafts young saplings to old trees, but man’s original unfallen state cannot be regained, and individual sins, in thought and in deed, will issue from the tainted stock (3.1.17–19). It is for this reason that Hamlet tells Ophelia, “get thee to a nunnery,” for why would anyone want to “be a breeder of sinners”? Every man and woman born into the world will bear the inescapable taint of original sin and its consequences. As Hamlet says to Ophelia, “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.… Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad” (3.1.137–38, 148–49). This is not the madness of insanity; this is the agony of a noble and honest mind which is looking directly into the depths of man’s fallenness and the darkness of the abyss.

Not for nothing do images of the original Fall dominate this play. “’Tis given out,” the Ghost says, “that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me.… But know, thou noble youth, / The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown” (1.5.35–39). With the Fall of Man comes the loss of the Garden in its health, purity, and innocence—the serpent is in the orchard, the weeds in the garden, the canker on the rose, the “leperous distilment” in the blood, the “vicious mole of nature” in mankind. Indeed, Hamlet is filled with images of weeds, thorns, and diseased flowers. Hamlet calls the world “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” in his first soliloquy, conveying the image of a self-propagating infestation. Ophelia dies while “Clamb’ring to hang” “on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds” and “down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook” (4.7.172–75). The Ghost has told Hamlet to leave his mother “to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (1.5.86–88). However, Hamlet is summoned by Gertrude and, when he confronts her, says:

Confess yourself to heaven,
Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come,
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker. (3.4.150–53)

The Ghost bemoans that he was “Cut off even in the blossoms” of his sin (1.5.76); Laertes uses the image of flower buds galled by cankerworms in his ill-advised speech to Ophelia concerning Hamlet’s affection for her (1.3.39–40). Not only the Ghost, but even Claudius sees King Hamlet’s murder as the repetition of the curse of Cain when Claudius so abortively tries to pray: “O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven; / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder” (3.3.36–38). And, coming full circle, Claudius’ use of the word “rank” again evokes Hamlet’s initial image of the world as an unweeded garden possessed by “Things rank and gross in nature,” smelling of weeds.

The fallen world is permeated by poison, spreading contagion, premature decay, and seeping corruption. While Hamlet waits with Horatio and Marcellus for the appearance of the Ghost, Horatio asks Hamlet whether King Claudius’ drunken revels are a Danish custom. Hamlet answers that, although it is indeed a custom, it would be “More honored in the breach than the observance,” since the “heavy-headed revel” soils Denmark’s reputation in the eyes of other nations, causing them to ignore genuine Danish achievement and see only drunken Danish orgies (1.4.13–22). As an analogy for the way in which this fault of excessive revelry poisons Denmark’s reputation in the eyes of other nations, Hamlet says:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty,
(Since nature cannot choose his origin)

that (these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star)
Their virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (1.4.23–36)

Thus Hamlet introduces the idea of the corruption that spreads from a single but vicious innate blemish of nature—an analogy of the effects of original sin.

The Ghost horridly intensifies this image of spreading corruption as he relates the manner of his poisoning by Claudius. While King Hamlet was sleeping within his orchard, his “custom always of the afternoon,” Claudius stole upon him with the juice of a poisonous plant in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distillment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about
Most lazarlike with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body. (1.5.60, 63–73)

In Hamlet, as Wolfgang Clemen (crediting Caroline Spurgeon) has written, “the idea of an ulcer dominates the imagery, infecting and fatally eating away the whole body; on every occasion repulsive images of sickness make their appearance” (113). The corpses “nowadays,” comments the grave-digging clown, “scarce hold the laying in” before they rot, because they are so infected with the pox (5.1.166-68). Hamlet tells Gertrude not to console herself with the idea that he is mad when he confronts her with her sins, lest that idea “skin and film the ulcerous place” in her soul while “rank corruption” spreads underneath the surface, infecting “unseen” and undermining “all within” (3.4.145-150). Spreading poison, Clemen writes,

becomes the leitmotif of the imagery: the individual occurrence [the poisoning of King Hamlet] is expanded into a symbol for the central problem of the play. The corruption of land and people throughout Denmark is understood as an imperceptible and irresistible process of poisoning. And, furthermore, this poisoning reappears as a leitmotif in the action as well—as a poisoning in the “dumb-show”, and finally, as the poisoning of all the major characters in the last act. (113)

A cancerous mole, a vicious innate blemish, a corruption in the blood, a spreading infection, a seeping poison—these are the images in which Hamlet embodies original sin and its consequence: the tendency of man to serve himself rather than God, to make those choices for self which Dante witnessed in the Inferno. Although the particular egregious sin in Hamlet is fratricide, Hamlet’s vision, as a tragic protagonist, is universal: given the fallenness of man, thus must it always be that the corruption of original sin issues in individual sins, be they great or small, actual or potential. The Greek image of the curse upon the house prefigures original sin as the curse upon the house of mankind.

But to return, then, to Hamlet’s dilemma. The journey of a tragic protagonist, as Aristotle pointed out, is one from ignorance to knowledge; more than that, however, the odyssey of a tragic protagonist demands a redefining of identity, a new knowledge and image of self. A successful tragic protagonist is one who chooses to accept that new identity. Thus, Hamlet’s vision of the depths of iniquity possible within the human soul moves rapidly from a focus on the sins of others to the real and potential sins within himself. Hamlet’s knowledge and definition of his identity have changed: he knows that, being a man, he is not free from sin, and he believes that he cannot act without incurring guilt and damnation. He has fathomed the depths of the tragic abyss and seen that, as a man, he stands in the condemned place, the abode of the guilty. How then to act? How to fulfill the commandments of the Ghost to avenge his father’s murder without tainting his mind? Because Hamlet is greater and nobler than Laertes, he cannot say, as Laertes does when he learns that Hamlet has mistakenly slain Polonius,

Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father. (4.5.132–36)

It is not until the events at sea, which he recounts to Horatio, that Hamlet can resolve the Ghost’s paradoxical commandments and act with a mind untainted.

The resolution of Hamlet’s dilemma, begun at sea, is composed of two elements. First, Hamlet has gained positive proof that Claudius has ordered his execution by England’s rulers through the agency of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet, through his substitution of the execution order, has sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Hamlet’s reaction to the fact of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s presumed execution manifests the first shift in Hamlet’s conscience. When Horatio comments, “So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t,” Hamlet says, “Why, man, they did make love to this employment. / They are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow” (5.2.56–59). Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s deaths do not impinge on his conscience; insomuch as Hamlet has acted as the agent in bringing about their deaths, he has done so without tainting his mind.

But more important is the freeing of Hamlet’s conscience regarding the execution of Claudius. At Horatio’s exclamation, “Why, what a king is this!” Hamlet replies:

Does it not, think thee, stand me now upon—
He that hath killed my king, and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such coz’nage—is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.63–70)

In this speech we see the ultimate shift in Hamlet’s conscience: from fearing damnation for killing Claudius to expecting damnation for not killing him. To let such a “canker of our nature” go on living to commit further evil would indeed, Hamlet says, condemn him to damnation for his inaction. And if he can act without fear of damnation, he has made a major step toward acting without tainting his mind.

There is, however, more to the freeing of Hamlet’s conscience than the empirical proof of Claudius’ treachery, and this second element has fully changed Hamlet and brought him to his final redefinition of self. Hamlet has surrendered himself into the hands of a divinity and fully accepted the shaping of who he is by that divinity. Further recounting the shipboard events to Horatio, Hamlet reveals how he has renounced his self-will and entrusted himself to God:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep. Methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly
(And praised be rashness for it) let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will. (5.2.4-11)

How the divinity will use him, Hamlet does not know, but he no longer bewails that heaven has chosen him to be a “scourge and minister” and to set the time right. His role, he now knows, is to wait, to be ready for action, to be guided as heaven dictates, to let his end and his very self be shaped by God. Hamlet has found, to borrow an image from T. S. Eliot, the “still point” of his soul, from which action may flow without tainting his mind.

Nonetheless, like all great tragic protagonists, Hamlet remains human until the end. As the Oedipus of Oedipus at Colonus retains the irritability of a humbled and suffering old man, as Lear howls at Cordelia’s death, so Hamlet is visited by trepidation. After Hamlet hears of the fencing match arranged by Claudius between Laertes and himself, he has a presentiment—an “augury”—of his imminent death: “thou wouldst not think,” he says to Horatio, “how ill all’s here about my heart” (5.2.213–14).9 But, encouraged by Horatio to decline the match, Hamlet says: “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all” (5.2.220–24). Hamlet’s “prophetic soul” may retain the human quality of misgiving, but he knows himself to be in the hands of that providence which embraces even the fall of a sparrow.

From this point on in the play, Hamlet is courteous and courtly. More importantly, he acts with a free and untainted mind. In order to act without tainting his mind, he had to learn to act without evil intention—without “a purposed evil”—and leave the rest to God. Thus, immediately following the “readiness” speech, he asks Laertes’ pardon and acknowledges that he has wronged him by slaying Polonius but says also that he did not intend the evil:

Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o’er the house
And hurt my brother. (5.2.241–44)

Hamlet’s “disclaiming from a purposed evil” in his apology to Laertes may strike some as sophistical. But Hamlet would never have taken it on himself to slay Polonius intentionally, reprehensible as the old man’s behavior was. Obviously, he did not intend the “evil” of killing Polonius, although he later seems to see the event as mysteriously woven into the designs of providence:

For this same lord,
I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him and will answer well
The death I gave him. (3.4.173–78)

A possible further question, however, is how Hamlet can disclaim a “purposed evil” in general when his intention was to slay Claudius. In his speech to Laertes, Hamlet says that his “madness,” his “sore distraction,” was the cause of his killing Polonius:

What I have done
That might your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy. (5.2.234–40)

He was not himself but caught in the darkness of the abyss. Speaking in the presence of Claudius and the court, Hamlet both dissembles and tells the truth in this passage. The fiction of “madness” as insanity must be maintained in front of Claudius. However, it is quite true that, when Hamlet mistakenly slew Polonius, he had not yet come to that “still center” of surrender into the hands of God. Hamlet was, at that point, still in the throes of his agony over being chosen as Denmark’s “scourge and minister”; he was “mad”—not in the sense of insanity—but with the fear of damnation. His intention was not to do evil—in fact, he wanted above all things not to do evil and be therefore damned—but to fulfill the role appointed him by heaven through the agency of his father’s ghost. In his speech to Laertes, Hamlet speaks from his current vantage-point, which is that of a purged and surrendered soul.

In the final scene, Hamlet fully manifests his surrender to God and His providence. His actions and his end are indeed shaped by God; he neither intends evil nor contrives; he becomes God’s instrument. In this denouement of “purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads,” Laertes is, as he admits, caught in his own snare and “justly killed with [his] own treachery” (5.2.385–86, 308). Claudius cannot forestall Gertrude from drinking of the cup he has poisoned for Hamlet. When Gertrude proclaims her poisoning and Hamlet cries that the source of this villainy and treachery be sought out, Laertes answers:

It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain; No med’cine in the world can do thee good. In thee there is not half an hour’s life. The treacherous instrument is in thy hand, Unbated and envenomed. The foul practice Hath turned itself on me. Lo, here I lie, Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poisoned. I can no more. The King, the King’s to blame. (5.2.314–21)

Hamlet did not engage in the fencing match with the intention of killing Claudius, although he believes that he would court damnation by letting Claudius live. Hamlet has not manipulated the time and events to this moment; it has come, as he prophesied, of its own accord. Claudius’ treachery is now a matter of public record. Hamlet is ready to act with an untainted mind, without contrivance or “a purposed evil,” and with the knowledge that he cannot, through his own efforts as a man, free himself from whatever guilt adheres to his actions.

Moreover, as befits the actions of a Christian prince, Hamlet’s slaying of Claudius at this point is not so much a matter of private revenge as it is a public execution before the forum of the court, in which Hamlet’s attitude has the character of God’s righteous wrath and his action that of nemesis. Justice, not revenge, is the theme in the death of Claudius. Laertes has already declared his own death to be just because of his treachery. After Hamlet forces Claudius to drink from the cup by which Gertrude was poisoned, Laertes again evokes the dictates of justice, saying that Claudius “is justly served. / It is a poison tempered by himself” (5.2.328–29). Indeed, it is a poison that Claudius first tempered when he poured the “leperous distillment” of “cursed hebona” into King Hamlet’s ears (1.5.61–64). Because he has not repented, Claudius is caught in the net of a strictly retributive justice. As he murdered his brother by poison, so is he slain by poison.

The dying Hamlet and Laertes pray to free each other from guilt. Laertes says, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. / Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, / nor thine on me!” And Hamlet replies, “Heaven make thee free of it!” (5.2.330–33). Hamlet knows that only Heaven, the “divinity that shapes our ends,” has the power to free man from guilt. Hamlet’s faith in that divinity remains true faith, which is, by its nature, blind to things not yet seen. Death is still the “undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns,” but Hamlet’s surrender to the divinity has been complete. Augury is no longer his province. Indeed, augury is not a human concern under the grace of that providence which encompasses even the fall of a sparrow. “The rest is silence” is not an expression of nihilism but an avowal of Hamlet’s faith and a testament of his surrender to the providence and purposes of God (5.2.359).

Although there is to be no augury—no words to reveal truly the “undiscovered country” of death and eternity—there will be words from Horatio that express the truth of the events which have corrupted Denmark:

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. (5.2.382–86)

In the world of this play, where words have not expressed the truth of human thoughts and deeds, Horatio’s words at the last will truly reflect reality, as Hamlet’s would have if that “fell sergeant, Death,” had not been so “strict in his arrest” (5.2.335–38).

As Horatio’s words articulate reality in the final scene and beyond, Hamlet’s journey of insight has embodied the deepest reality of all: the truth of that darkness into which tragic protagonists are called. Hamlet has fathomed the tragic abyss and seen man’s inescapable guilt in its depths. He has seen that the tragic abyss is man’s place because it is the home of the guilty—that place where finite fallen man, “this quintessence of dust,” meets the “divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will.” In fathoming the tragic abyss, Hamlet has answered the question which permeates all tragedy: “What place is this?”—a question given explicit voice by Oedipus after he has discovered his true identity and his guilt, found Jocasta hanged, and blinded himself within the dynastic house. When Oedipus emerges, his face covered with blood, and the Chorus begins their dirge, Oedipus says:

I—I
This voice of agony
I am what place am I
where? Not here, nowhere I know!
(Oedipus the King ll. 1694–97)

The same question dominates the opening of Oedipus at Colonus, which begins with Oedipus’ inquiry to Antigone, “Where, I wonder, have we come to now? / What place is this, Antigone?” (ll. 2–3). Oedipus is exigent in his insistence to obtain an answer to this question and thereby fathom the nature of the place in which he finds himself. One might say that the entire play of Oedipus at Colonus is the answer to his question, with its image of the fertile grove, sacred to the Eumenides, in which Oedipus is caught “up—or down— / Into a space unseen” by “something invisible and strange” (1681–83). No death—or is it an ascension?—could be more paradoxical in its imagery than Oedipus’, and no backgrounds or “backdrops” could be more paradoxical than the two images which dominate the action of Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus: in the first, the great dynastic house, doomed to fall; and, in the second, the lush, perennially green grove of the Eumenides. Relating the manner of Oedipus’ death—which no one but Theseus may witness—the Messenger tells how blind and crippled Oedipus himself led them into the Sacred Grove, stopped at the Earth’s “Doorsill of Brass,” cleansed himself and his garments, made libations to the dead, embraced his daughters and wept, then sent them away after they heard the voice of the god calling to Oedipus again and again to come. Then, says the Messenger, a little while after they had all withdrawn except King Theseus, they turned around

—and nowhere saw that man
But only the king, his hands before his face,
Shading his eyes as if from something awful,
Fearful and unendurable to see.
Then very quickly we saw him do reverence
To Earth and to the powers of the air,
With one address to both.
But in what manner
Oedipus perished, no one of mortal men
Could tell but Theseus. It was not lightning,
Bearing its fire from God, that took him off;
No hurricane was blowing.
But some attendant from the train of Heaven
Came for him; or else the underworld
Opened in love the unlit door of earth. (1587–1662)

As in Oedipus at Colonus, the answer to the tragic protagonist’s question, “What place is this?” is consistently embodied throughout tragedies in paradoxical images and specifically in images of the place where earth meets sky: the binding of Prometheus at the horizon; the confrontation of the Furies and Apollo in the Oresteia; the mysterious end of Oedipus, who seems simultaneously to ascend into the sky and descend into the earth, doing so, moreover, by crossing the earth’s “doorsill.” That the tragic abyss is the place where man meets God is embodied in such images of the meeting of earth and sky. The tragic abyss is that metaphysical place where finite man, composed of dust, meets an infinite God, whose purposes man’s reason cannot fully comprehend. This is the meaning of God’s theophany at the end of the Book of Job, in which God speaks from the whirlwind in the sky and gives Job, not concepts, but images of Himself as Creator, thus conveying His answer to Job’s questioning: “I am God and you are only a man, formed of earth; My ways are not your ways, and your finite reason cannot encompass My infinite purpose.” Job’s choice is to surrender to this divine revelation or to reject it and still insist on knowing God’s “reasons.” Job and Hamlet are alike in their choice to surrender completely to the “divinity that shapes our ends” without a conceptual understanding of the mystery of God’s intentions. As Oedipus says, shortly before his ascension/descension, “These things are mysteries, not to be explained,” and as Theseus says, “These things are in the hands of God” (1526, 1779).

The image of the great dynastic house which forms the backdrop for the first stage of tragedy, in which the protagonist discovers his guilt and chooses either to accept or reject it, recurs consistently throughout tragedies, be they Greek, Shakespearian, or Faulknerian. The dynastic house is, of course, an image of the house of mankind, doomed to fall because of original sin. As was said above, no image, when combined with the symbol of the great dynastic house, could be more paradoxical than the image of the Sacred Grove of the Eumenides, which dominates and forms the backdrop of Oedipus at Colonus. Only a successful tragic protagonist, one who has chosen to accept his guilt, surrender himself into the hands of God, die to his old self and be reborn comes to this third stage of tragedy, in which he is fully reconciled with God. The Sacred Grove of the Eumenides is the image for this full reconciliation between the protagonist and God; it is the telos of the tragic protagonist’s life and of his journey. But what is it? What is this Sacred Grove? First, it must be noted that it is man’s (Oedipus’) true home, as the Chorus says: “He shall not seek another home, / For this, in all the earth and air, / Is most secure and loveliest” (670–72). The Sacred Grove is of an unending fruitfulness and fertility; it is untouched by storms. It is full of music and it is the birthplace of all the arts:

In the god’s untrodden vale
Where leaves and berries throng,
And wine-dark ivy climbs the bough,
The sweet, sojourning nightingale
Murmurs all day long.

And here the choiring Muses come,
And the divinity of love
With the gold reins in her hand. (671–80, 693–95)

“Heaven’s dews” drop onto the flowers of the Sacred Grove “At daybreak all the year.” The Grove is a source of ever-living water: “The river’s fountains are awake, / And his nomadic streams that run / Unthinned forever, and never stay; / But like perpetual lovers move / On the maternal land.” And, like the ever-flowing, life-giving water, the “fruit” of the Grove never dies and it regenerates itself:

The olive, fertile and self-sown,
The terror of our enemies
That no hand tames nor tears away—
The blessed tree that never dies!—
But it will mock the swordsman in his rage.

Ah, how it flourishes in every field,
Most beautifully here!
The gray-leafed tree, the children’s nourisher!
No young man nor one partnered by his age
Knows how to root it out nor make
Barren its yield;
For Zeus the Father smiles on it with sage
Eyes that forever are awake,
And Pallas watches with her sea-pale eyes.
(681–82, 688–92, 698–706)

And then there is the fact that this is the Sacred Grove of the Eumenides, those entities who, as the Furies, dogged the steps of mankind as curses, who withered the land and made women barren, but who, in the Oresteia, were transformed into the Eumenides, now showering blessings on mankind, making the land fertile and marriages fruitful. From curses into blessings, from barrenness into fertility, from sterility into regeneration—that is the movement of spirit, the action of the soul, which underlies the life of the successful tragic protagonist. The Sacred Grove of the Eumenides is an image of the telos of the tragic protagonist because it is an image of the curse upon mankind (original sin) transformed into a blessing upon mankind (acceptance of guilt, penance, and suffering; surrender into the hands of God; death of the old self and birth of a new self). To become a successful tragic protagonist—that is, a tragic hero—is to reside in a place of endless fertility, fruitfulness, and regeneration, and to know that one has been in the hands of God all along. What fruits may come from the person who has wholly surrendered to God, died to self, and been reborn? We have only to look at the Saints for the answer to this question.

But however deeply profound and illuminating the image of the Sacred Grove is, it is still to Hamlet that we turn for the explicit mapping of tragic place. Hamlet’s fathoming of the tragic abyss enables him to map the geography of man’s paradoxical ontological situation: that there is no way, being human, to escape guilt through one’s own actions. But in his encounter with the paradox of original sin and unavoidable human guilt, Hamlet has also seen that Heaven can make him free of it, if he will allow God to shape his end, to lead him to a new identity, and to remake him into a new self. All tragic protagonists encounter this mystery at the depths of the tragic abyss. After Oedipus’ true identity has been disclosed in Oedipus the King, the Chorus says, “I see your life finally revealed / your life fused with the god” (1518–19). Whether a particular tragic protagonist’s god has been Apollo, as in the case of Oedipus and Orestes, or the Christian God, as in the case of Hamlet, there is a sense in which all tragic protagonists encounter Dionysus, the paradoxical god of tragedy, in the depths of the abyss. As Dionysus was yearly dismembered and reborn, so the successful tragic protagonist must choose to let his old identity, his idea of who he is, be torn apart in order that a new self be born—not that self which he thought he was but the person whom the gods intend him to be. The successful tragic protagonist must answer the call of Dionysus to yield and move beyond his old self (ecstasis) and join in the mysterious ecstasy of death and rebirth. Thus the self-blinded Oedipus, after he has discovered who he really is and his own unspeakable guilt, proclaims, “Now / I am / Oedipus!” (1768–70). Lear, after Cordelia rescues him from his metaphorical descent into infernal regions and the grave, redefines himself as “a very foolish fond old man … old and foolish” (4.6.60, 84), and we are reminded that the fallen Adam is the “Old Man,” whom Christ redeems as the “New Man,” but only at the cost of suffering, crucifixion, and death. It is only after Hamlet has surrendered himself into the hands of the “divinity that shapes our ends” and consented to that dismemberment of his old identity requisite for the birth of a new self that he can declare “This is I / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.258–59).

Hamlet maps the depths of the tragic abyss and the parameters of the ascent from it. Although the tragic fall plunges the protagonist into groundlessness, this “yawning into the indeterminate” is, as Glenn Arbery writes, something “out of which ground itself stabilizes, an exposure of depths mysteriously astir with terror and healing, a revelation of the blackness-to-us of the divine” (vi). For a successful tragic protagonist—a tragic hero—the ground indeed stabilizes in such a way that an ascent from the abyss is possible and a destination is revealed. To become a tragic hero, the protagonist must make the right choice in the bowels of the abyss. Confronted with original sin and man’s ontological paradox of inescapable guilt, the protagonist must choose to surrender himself into the hands of God, whose purposes the mind of man cannot encompass, and experience that healing which emerges from the terror. The destination of a tragic hero is the mystery of a life beyond the vision of mortal men, in which the old self has died and a new self been born. Hamlet, most noble of Christian princes, makes the map with unflinching integrity, and anyone who, having experienced the abyss, chooses to accept, surrender, be reborn, and thus ascend will find Hamlet at the destination of the journey.

Works Cited

Find out more about Judith Stewart Shank on her Author Page

Dr. Shank received her PhD and MA in philosophy and literature from The International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, after receiving a MA in Human Relations and a BA in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma. In addition to the essay published herein, Dr. Shank is the author of “Perilous and Beautiful: Form and Restraint in John Crowe Ransom’s Vision of Community,” The Political Science Reviewer, XXX, 2001; Country Boy Odyssey, with Roy P. Stewart, the inaugural volume of the Oklahoma Voices Series, Oklahoma Heritage Association, 2000; “Von Hildebrand’s Theory of the Affective Value Response and Our Knowledge of God,” Aletheia: An International Yearbook of Philosophy, V, Peter Lang, 1992; and numerous articles on literature as a mode of knowledge and the nature and criteria of the literary work of art. She is also working on two books, tentatively entitled Experience Fulfilled and Redeemed in Knowledge: Defining the Literary Work of Art and A Violent Love, a series of essays on tragedy.


  1. An earlier incarnation of this essay originally appeared in The Tragic Abyss, published by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture in 2003 and edited by Glenn Arbery. It is reprinted in the Spring 2013 issue of The Lost Country with the author’s permission. 

  2. Dr. Judith Stewart Shank has taught literature and philosophy for twenty-seven years. She was one of the founders of the College of Saint Thomas More, designed its undergraduate literature curriculum, and served as Academic Dean of the College from 1998-2000. Dr. Shank is a frequent participant in Liberty Fund colloquia and directed a colloquium on “Freedom in the Works of Gabriel Marcel, Martin Buber, and Gerard Manley Hopkins” in 1998. She is currently Senior Professor in Literature and Philosophy at the College of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More. 

  3. Of course, “sin” is not the concept usually applied to the fall of Greek (or pagan) tragic protagonists. The Oedipus cycle, for instance, speaks of Oedipus and his actions as inexpressibly impious, a pollution and curse upon his house and kingdom. Consequently, one might say the word “sin” is applied only analogically to Greek tragic protagonists, and yet this depends on one’s view of creative intuition and the existence of eternal patterns which constitute the very fabric of reality and are Christian. This viewpoint is obviously not a Christian apologetic but rather an insight which, as Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, springs from the foundation of faith. This insight is too intricate to be unfolded fully here, but the basic idea (again from the standpoint of a faith which enables one to see) is that the Christian pattern of man’s sin and fallenness, redemption, and salvation is the very fabric of reality from its beginning and that the Greek tragedians intuited and embodied this pattern in their plays, calling the components of the pattern (e.g., “sin”) by the closest approximation they had prior to Revelation. (See von Balthasar 419–20 and 500–03.) 

  4. Although the analogy between Orestes and Hamlet is apparent, I think the assertion of Hamlet’s uniqueness is still valid. Orestes understands the commandment of Apollo to revenge Agamemnon’s murder and the consequences he will suffer if he does not, but it seems to me he does not clearly anticipate the consequences of following Apollo’s commandment. Orestes seems to be shocked by the appearance and pursuit of the Furies roused by Clytemnestra’s slaying. Hamlet, on the other hand, foresees the whole dimension of his paradoxical situation, as will be discussed. 

  5. In my opinion, Kenneth Branagh is the only actor in the filmed versions of Hamlet which I have seen who has interpreted the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy correctly, perceiving the action in question to be the slaying of Claudius, not of himself. Unfortunately, the precedent for portraying Hamlet’s intention during the soliloquy as suicide seems to have been set by Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet in the earliest film version of the play. 

  6. See also Hamlet’s use of the word “quit” in his speech to Horatio (5.2.63–68), quoted on above. 

  7. In point of fact, Hamlet’s heightened self-awareness is commendable and manifests his nobility, wisdom, and depth of soul. Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s fore-mentioned insights into the devil’s use of human melancholy and weakness to further his own demonic ends and the devil’s power to cloak evil in the appearance of good. In such insights, Hamlet displays self-knowledge and wisdom about the nature of the universe far beyond his years; Dante had to pay the price of a harrowing journey through hell to see such truths with clarity. 

  8. Cf. Hamlet’s listing of revenge as a sin when he speaks to Ophelia, quoted below (3.1.125). 

  9. This presentiment of his imminent death is not the first time in the play that Hamlet has revealed a capacity for augury. He has, of course, suspected Claudius of murdering King Hamlet since his father’s death and Claudius’ marriage to Gertrude, which is why he cries, “O my prophetic soul!” after the Ghost says he was slain by Claudius (1.5.40).