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(Contact the author, Ray Eston Smith Jr, at

(This article was written in response to a question from Kitty Purr.)

Hamlet's father had a serious flaw - he valued dirt over people (as in a graveyard). Hamlet, when he was himself, did not share that flaw, however Hamlet was metaphorically and psychologically possessed by his father's spirit. His fundamental dilemma was whether to be true to himself or "to be or not to be"... "so like the king that was and is the question of these wars."

Dirt Over People[]

I am thy father's spirit, Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away.....

Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd: Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd, No reckoning made, but sent to my account With all my imperfections on my head:

So Hamlet's father was doomed to "fast in fires" because he had had died without confessing his sin. What sin? What sin had he committed since his last routine confession and/or omitted in that last confession? What sin was he himself unaware of? What sin was he still committing, even after death? Here's a hint:

HORATIO (to the Ghost)
if thou hast uphoarded in thy life Extorted treasure in the womb of earth, For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death ..... And then it started like a guilty thing

King Hamlet's sin was that, even after death, he was unable to give up his kingdom, his land, his "extorted treasure in the womb of earth." "Extorted" because at least part of his land had been acquired by killing. He had killed King Fortinbras in a duel over land (to which young Hamlet fell heir). On that same day he hired a gravedigger, whose job was to dig "wombs of earth."

That sin of coveting land more than life or soul was one that ran in the family. His brother Claudius had murdered him to acquire that same blood-soaked land. Claudius knew he could save his own soul only by forfeiting his "extorted treasure" yet he was unable to do so.

...But, O, what form of prayer Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'? That cannot be; since I am still possess'd Of those effects for which I did the murder, My crown, mine own ambition and my queen. May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

I Could Be Bounded in a Nutshell[]

Something have you heard Of Hamlet's transformation; so call it, Sith nor the exterior nor the inward man Resembles that it was.

Before we investigate the cause of "Hamlet's transformation," let's delve into what Hamlet's "inner man" was before he was tranformed.

I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth

But before he lost all his mirth he viewed the world thusly:

"this goodly frame, the earth...this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire...What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like anangel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!"

"he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and god-like reason To fust in us unused"

"for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" [I believe Shakespeare made this line deliberately ambiguous. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would interpret it as moral relativism. But Hamlet, deep down, was saying that morality should be based on rational thought, rather than tradition or passion.]

"I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space"

HAMLET (to Horatio):
"...thee.. That no revenue hast but thy good spirits, .... Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice And could of men distinguish, her election Hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing, A man that fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled, That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee."

Notice that Hamlet had no praise for his father except that he was like Hyperion, the sun god, (but "the sun breeds maggots") and he was "loving to my mother" (that "imperial jointress to this warlike state," a "breeder of sinners" who helped him breed more maggots in his lineage of war-mongering kings). When he wasn't "from himself taken away," Hamlet's role model, in his "heart's core" was Horatio, who has "no revenue..but [his] good spirits."

Hamlet said of Osric, "tis a vice to know him." Shortly afterward he said, "to know a man well, were to know himself." So Hamlet believed that to know Osric was to be like him, and it was a vice to know Osric, therefore it was a vice to be like him. (Hamlet did know Osric, and was therefore like him, but only to the extent that he was still under the influence of his father).

So what was Osric like?

He hath much land, and fertile [fertile land - the womb of earth - the graveyard - "tomb enough and continent To hide the slain"] ... spacious in the possession of dirt.

HAMLET (commenting on a grave) The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

Hamlet was born on the day his father won land (of which Hamlet was the inheritor) by killing King Fortinbras. On the same day, King Hamlet hired a gravedigger.

O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet, when he was not "from himself taken away," was the scholar who only wanted to return to school in Wittenberg. He was a man who loved the world but felt no need to possess it. This was a man who exalted humanity and reason, who would not sacrifice human lives and his own soul to acquire a killing ground.

Hamlet From Himself Taken Away[]

What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,

What if it ...deprive your sovereignty of reason?

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason ... Blasted...

Act I, Scene 5
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--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason

Act I, Scene 5
HAMLET (speaking to his father's ghost)
Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!...

A pioneer was a military engineer, whose duties included burrowing under pales (walls) and forts to plant explosives to break them down. (To this day in the United States Army, combat engineers fresh out of training are still designated as "Pioneers.")

Act I, Scene 4
What if it .... ...deprive your sovereignty of reason

Hamlet's father was the mole of his nature (birth) who was breaking down the pales and forts of his reason to usurp the sovereignty of his reason - "if Hamlet from himself be taken away..."

And you, my sinews,grow not instant old, But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee! Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat In this distracted globe. Remember thee! Yea, from the table of my memory I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there; And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain,

Driven by love for his father and by filial duty, Hamlet has vowed to erase himself from the book of his brain and allow his father to usurp his sovereignty of reason.

Later, he is reading a book, which symbolizes the "book and volume" of his brain. That book contains "old men," like his father, who "have grey beards." ("His beard was grizzled--no?") and "most weak hams" (Hamlet had weakened himself and transformed himself into an old man, his father, with "sinews" grown instant old.) But he knows, at some level, that, by writing his father in the book of his brain, he was not being true to himself: "yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down."

Now that we've seen the cause of Hamlet's transformation, let's see the results.

Hamlet recognizes that his royal bloody heritage has the "pressures (impressions) that youth and experience had copied"..."for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock." When he was a scholar at Wittenberg he had written love letters to Ophelia. But know that he is doomed to fall heir to this bloody land, he does not want Ophelia to share his doom, becoming a "breeder of sinners," the mother of another generation of the "old stock" of warmongering kings.

When Hamlet is himself, he's honest. But now he's not himself - he's just a lunatic reflection of his sun-god father, with all his father's sins - pride, revenge, ambition.

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...

though I am not splenitive and rash, Yet have I something in me dangerous,

The something dangerous in him is his father written in the book and volume of his brain

Truly to speak, and with no addition, We go to gain a little patch of ground That hath in it no profit but the name

...Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw When honour's at the stake ... ...I see The imminent death of twenty thousand men, That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain? O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Hamlet was not speaking with his own voice. That wasn't Prince Hamlet, the humanist scholar. That was King Hamlet, the blood-thirsty warrior, speaking in the "terms of honor" of "elder masters."

At the end, Hamlet realized what he had happened to him and finally regained his sovereignty of self.

If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, And when he's not himself...

Internal Links[]

Motifs in Hamlet - essays on Hamlet

Where Truth Is Hid - A Speculative Biography of Shakespeare

External links[]

--Ray Eston Smith Jr 23:10, 4 July 2007 (UTC)