'Hamlet',II.ii-III.iv: Mirrors of Revenge

Anthony Miller


The great sequence of scenes that make up the central movement of Hamlet shows Hamlet the revenger mounting his first assault on the king. Characteristically, for this play and this hero, it is an indirect and unsuccessful assault. The movement begins with the arrival at Elsinore of the players. This event suggests to Hamlet the form of his assault-the performance of The Murder of Gonzago. More than that, the arrival of the players induces in Hamlet a surge of energy, and something in the histrionic atmosphere induces an enthusiasm for the role of revenger: hence Hamlet's readiness to embark, however indirectly, on his enterprise. At the centre of this central movement is the play scene. Shakespeare builds up to the play by bestowing much dramatic attention on Hamlet's plan to use it to convince himself, and (as he hopes) others, of the king's guilt. After the play, two highly charged scenes maintain much of the intensity of Hamlet's energy, though they also show it dispersing, its currents turning awry and losing the name of action. The engrossing sequence of play scene, prayer scene, and closet scene seems to be pressing toward a decisive crisis, but though it furnishes us, indeed, with a whole series of crises, it does not quite deliver on its own seeming promise. In the last scene of the sequence, Shakespeare does provide a climax of masterly, gruesome unexpectedness. But Hamlet's murder of Polonius ends the play's central movementpassing the dramatic initiative back to Claudius-in a way that does nothing to advance his cause. Hamlet's first decisive act as a bloody revenger falls blindly beside the mark; it is incidental to his purposes, its unjustifiable wildness can only discredit him in the eyes of others, and it sets in train the revenge of Laertes, in which Hamlet now figures as the guilty object.

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