Losing the name of action: Hamlet reconsidered

Photograph by Lizzie Caswall Smith of Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet. Folger Shakespeare Library.

During this global pandemic, when the whole world is quarantined to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Hamlet seems like a character perfectly suited to our present moment. He’s also stuck at home, unable to return to school, despondent after suffering great loss, and so distraught by governmental change and the behavior of family members that he’s unable to accomplish simple basic tasks like killing his uncle.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet
A J. Arthur Rank Enterprise. Laurence Olivier presents Hamlet by William Shakespeare. 1948. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In his 1948 film, Laurence Olivier famously called Hamlet “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind,” which hilariously reduces Shakespeare decades before my actual theatre company did, and unfortunately expresses some of the prevailing critical thinking.

But in his foundational text Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, David Ball argues that such oversimplification of Hamlet as a character frozen by indecision “is a grave misreading” (pun presumably not intended) and that Hamlet is in fact an incredibly active character. “Generations of well-meaning commentators claim Hamlet is incapable of action,” Ball writes. “Yet examination of even the first two acts…reveals Hamlet initiating more direct action than most people manage in a year.”

If you’ve seen Hamlet multiple times, it can be hard to remember the impact a good production delivers the first time you see it (and if you’ve never seen Hamlet, consider this your 400-year-old SPOILER WARNING). Shakespeare establishes that Hamlet is despondent over the death of his father and his mother’s o’er-hasty marriage to his uncle. But once Hamlet is told that a ghost stalks the castle in the shape of his dead father, he shakes off his depression, peppers the sentries with questions like a Danish detective, and resolves to see this apparition for himself.

Watercolor scene from Hamlet
John Massey Wright. Watercolor scene from Hamlet. Folger Shakespeare Library.

When the Ghost claims he was killed by his brother (Hamlet’s uncle Claudius) and that Hamlet must “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” Hamlet’s mental wheels start turning. He swears Horatio and the sentries to silence about not only what they’ve seen, but what they might see if Hamlet should decide to “put an antic disposition on.” Hamlet is already thinking ahead and clearly has a plan, or at least the beginnings of one.

In subsequent scenes, Hamlet puts his astonishingly deep knowledge of theatre and playacting to excellent use. “Hamlet works hard, from the Ghost’s tale onward,” Ball writes, and adopts “a protective mask of madness” to discover whether his uncle Claudius is actually guilty of murder. He also knows he’s being spied upon, which means (according to Ball) that Hamlet’s “most famous of soliloquies is no soliloquy [emphasis added].” Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech is a performance designed to make anyone watching dismiss him as suicidal and not a threat to anyone but himself. In a speech he intends to be overheard, Hamlet describes death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” which is funny in context because we’ve actually seen Hamlet encounter a dead returning traveler. And Hamlet’s public declaration that “conscience does make cowards of us all” could be meant to mislead spies into thinking he won’t take any action, even while Hamlet could well be saying it to himself as a spur against inaction.

Hamlet plots and maneuvers around not only his friends and adversaries within the Danish court but also against the teachings of his church, which hold that suicide (“self-slaughter”) is forbidden, and that if he kills Claudius while he’s praying, his uncle will go straight to Heaven and thus not constitute, in Hamlet’s mind, sufficient revenge. Hamlet is constantly improvising, plotting, feigning madness, and even devising theatrical performances designed to reveal his uncle’s guilt. He’s anything but inactive.

John Howard Payne as Hamlet
John Howard Payne Esq. as Hamlet. 1813. Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Could Shakespeare have wanted his audience to spend hours watching a character do nothing?” Ball asks. Of course not. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark indeed if audiences are forced to endure four hours of mopey, waffling, static Shakespeare.

And just as generations of scholars have misread Hamlet, we may be misreading our present moment. We may feel like we too are in existential free-fall, but like Hamlet, we’re simply adjusting to new realities as best as we can. Most of us were in the middle of “enterprises of great pith and moment” when the shelter-in-place orders began, and now we are forced to “lose the name of action” by staying home. But staying home is not the same as inaction; flattening the curve is not doing nothing. We too are having to adjust to new realities, so maybe we shouldn’t lose the name of action, but simply redefine what action looks like in our current circumstances.

Part of Hamlet’s greatness, of course, is that he’s a character suited to many moments, not just this one. As Ben Jonson famously wrote about Shakespeare himself, Hamlet is “not of [any specific] age, but for all time.”