Mythological Approaches Hamlet


One of the first modern scholars to point out the similarities between Hamlet and Greek Tragedy was Professor Gilbert Murray. In his “Hamlet and Orestes,” delivered as a lecture in 1914 and subsequently published in The Classical Tradition in Poetry (Harvard, 1927), Murray indicated a number of significant parallels between the mythic elements of Shakespeare’s play and those in Oedipus and the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. The heroes of all three works derive from the “Golden Bough Kings”; they are all haunted, sacrificial figures. Furthermore, as with the Greek tragedies, the story of Hamlet was not the playwright’s invention but was drawn from n As literary historians tell us, the ancient Scandinavian legend of “Amlehtus” or “Amlet,” Prince of Jutland, was recorded as early as the twelfth century by Saxo Grammaticus in his History of the Danes (Murray cites an even earlier passing reference to the prototypic Hamlet in a Scandinavian poem composed about 980). It is therefore apparent that the core of Shakespeare’s play is mythic. In Professor Murray’s words,

The things that thrill and amaze us in Hamlet . . . are not any historical particulars about mediaeval Elsinore . . . but things belonging to the old stories and the old magic rites, which stirred and thrilled our forefathers five and six thousand years ago; set them dancing all night on the hills, tearing beasts and men in pieces, and giving up their own bodies to a ghastly death, in hope thereby to keep the green, world from dying and to be the saviours of their own people. (p. 236)

By the time Sophocles and Aeschylus were producing their tragedies for Athenian audiences, such sacrifices were no longer performed literally but were acted out symbolically in the arena; yet their mythic significance was the same. Indeed, their significance was very similar in the case of Shakespeare’s audiences. The Elizabethans were a myth-minded and symbol-receptive people. There was no need for Shakespeare to interpret for his audience: they felt the mythic content of his plays. And though myth may smolder only feebly in the present-day audience, we still respond, despite our intellectual sophistication, to the archetypes in Hamlet.

Such critics as Murray and, more recently, Francis Fergusson have provided us with clues to many of Hamlet’s archetypal mysteries. In The Idea of a Theater (Princeton, 1949), Fergus son discloses point by point how the scenes in Shakespeare’s play follow the same ritual pattern as those in Greek tragedy, specifically in Oedipus; he perceives that in both plays a royal sufferer is associated with pollution, in its very sources, of an entire social order. Both plays open with an invocation for the well-being of the endangered body politic. In both, the destiny of the individual and of society are closely intertwined; and in both the suffering of the royal victim seems to be necessary before purgation and renewal can be achieved. (p. 118)

To appreciate how closely the moral norms in Shakespeare’s play are related to those of ancient vegetation myths, we need only to note how often images of disease and corruption are used to symbolize the evil that has blighted Hamlet’s Denmark. The following statement from Philip Wheelwright’s The Burning Fountain (Indiana, 1954), explaining the organic source of good and evil, is directly relevant to the moral vision in Hamlet, particularly to the implications of Claudius’ crime and its disastrous consequences. From the natural or organic standpoint, Good is life, vitality, propagation, health; evil is death, impotence, disease. Of these several terms health and disease are the most important and comprehensive. Death is but an interim evil; it occurs periodically, but there is the assurance of new life ever springing up to take its place. The normal cycle of life and death is a healthy cycle, and the purpose of the major seasonal festivals [ example, the Festival of Dionysos] was at least as much to celebrate joyfully the turning wheel of great creative Nature as to achieve magical effects. Disease and blight, however, interrupt the cycle; they are the real destroyers; and health is the good most highly to be prized. (p. 197) 

Professor Wheelwright continues by pointing out that, be cause murder—not to be confused with ritual sacrifice—does violence to both the natural cycle of life and the social organism, the murderer is symbolically diseased.  furthermore, when the victim is a member of the murderer’s own family (an even more compact organism than the tribe or the political state), the disease is especially virulent.

We should mention one other myth that relates closely to the meaning of Hamlet: the “Myth of Divine Appointment.”

This was the belief, strongly fostered by such Tudor monarchs as Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I, that not only had the Tudor been divinely appointed to bring order and happiness out of civil strife but also any attempt to break this divine ordinance (for example, by insurrection or assassination) would result in catastrophe—that is, social, political, and natural chaos. We see this myth reflected in several of Shakespeare’s plays (for example, in Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear) where interference with the order of divine succession or appointment results in both political and natural chaos, and where a deformed, corrupt, or weak monarch epitomizes a diseased political state. This national myth is, quite obviously, central in Hamlet.

The relevance of myth to Hamlet should now be apparent. The play’s thematic heart is the ancient, archetypal mystery of the life cycle itself; its pulse is the same tragic rhythm that moved Sophocles’ audience at the Festival of Dionysos and still moves us today for reasons that transcend our conscious awareness.

Thanks to the insights provided us by the anthropological scholars, however, we may perceive the essential archetypal pattern of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Hamlet’s Denmark is a diseased and rotten state because Claudius’ “foul and most unnatural murder” of his King-brother has subverted the divinely ordained laws of nature and of kingly succession. The disruption is intensified by the blood kinship between victim and murderer.

Claudius, whom the Ghost identifies as “The Serpent,” bears the primal blood-curse of Cain. And, because the state is identified with its ruler, Denmark shares and suffers also from his blood guilt. Its natural cycle interrupted, the nation is threatened by chaos: civil strife within and war without. As Hamlet exclaims,

* “The time is out of joint; 0 cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”*

Hamlet’s role in the drama is that of the Prince-Hero who, to deliver his nation from the blight that has fallen upon it, must not only avenge his father’s murder but also offer himself up as a royal scapegoat. As a member of the royal family, Hamlet is infected with the regicidal virus even though he is personally innocent. We might say, using a pathological metaphor, that Claudius’ murderous cancer has metastasized so that the royal court and even the nation itself is threatened with fatal deterioration. Hamlet’s task is to seek out the source of this malady and to eliminate it. Only after a thorough purgation can Denmark be restored to a state of wholesome balance. Hamlet’s reluctance to accept the role of cathartic agent is a principal reason for his procrastination in killing Claudius, an act which may well involve his own self-destruction. He is a reluctant but dutiful scapegoat, and he realizes ultimately that there can be no substitute victim in this sacrificial rite—hence his decision to accept Laertes’ challenge to a dueling match that he suspects has been “fixed” by Claudius. The bloody climax of the tragedy is therefore not merely spectacular melodrama but an essential element in the archetypal pattern of sacrifice-atonement-catharsis. Not only must all those die who have been infected by the evil contagion (Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern— even Ophelia and Laertes), but the Prince-Hero himself must suffer “crucifixion” before Denmark can be purged and reborn under the healthy new regime of Fortinbras.

Enhancing the motif of the Sacrificial Scapegoat is Hamlet’s long and difficult spiritual journey—his initiation, as it were— from innocent, carefree youth (he has been a college student) through a series of painful ordeals to sadder, but wiser, maturity. His is a long night journey of the soul, and Shakespeare employs archetypal imagery to convey this thematic motif: Hamlet is an autumnal, nighttime play dominated by images of darkness and blood, and the hero appropriately wears black, the archetypal color of melancholy. The superficial object of his dark quest is to solve the riddle of his father’s death. On a deeper level, his quest leads him down the labyrinthine ways of the human mystery, the mystery of man’s life and destiny (observe how consistently his soliloquies turn toward the puzzles of life and of self). And, as with the riddle of the Sphinx, the enigmatic answer is “Man,” the clue to which is given in Polonius’ glib admonition, “To thine own self be true.” In this sense, then, Hamlet’s quest is the quest undertaken by all of us who would gain that rare and elusive philosopher’s stone, self-knowledge.

Finally, if we wish to use the table of archetypal genres provided by Northrop Frye, we may see that in its dramatic progression Hamlet epitomizes the life cycle itself, containing elements of all the seasonal changes of nature. First, the summer phase is ironically travestied in the unsacred marriage and specious triumph of the new King, Claudius. Hamlet and his companions on the cold midnight watch are quick to perceive that the drunken revels of Claudius’ court are but a sham and a mockery of the truly happy political state; Denmark is a fool’s Paradise and, like Hamlet himself, is too much in the false sun of a counterfeit King-father. Second, the dominant seasonal phase is, of course, autumn (the archetype of tragedy itself). Here, as already seen, are the motifs of “the dying god, of violent death and sacrifice and of the isolation of the hero.” We might note that such subordinate characters as Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern function in various ways as traitors—also, that the King and Polonius conspire to use Ophelia as an unwitting siren. We note, too, the elegiac tone of the play’s conclusion, specifically in the speeches of Horatio and Fortinbras. Third, Hamlet is strongly imbued with the characteristics of the “dark ness, winter, and dissolution phase,” powers that threaten to overwhelm the land and plunge Denmark into chaos. The hero, haunted by the specter of defeat throughout the play, ultimately triumphs only in his death. As Gilbert Murray observes in The Classical Tradition in Poetry (Harvard, 1927), “Hamlet is no joyous and triumphant slayer. He is clad in black, he rages alone, he is the Bitter Fool who must slay the King” (p. 235)—in short, he is wrapped in the vestments of winter rather than summer. 

Though Hamlet is not a satire, it is rich in the elements of satire, particularly in the hero’s own mordant irony (for example, his sarcastic remarks to Claudius and to the King’s “stool pigeons,” Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern—also, the satiric jibes at the contemporary theater in his instructions to the players). Last, the conclusion of the tragedy is brightened by the promise of dawn, spring, and rebirth following Hamlet’s defeat of the forces of darkness and winter by means of his sacrificial death.

From these examples we see that, archetypally speaking, Hamlet is one of the most richly orchestrated works in our literature. It is a veritable symphony of myth, and its music continues to haunt modern audiences because its central motifs elicit responses as old as mankind itself.

 (Excerpted from A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, Harper and Row, 1966.