The Ouroboros of Hamlet

M.E. Rolle & James Soderholm

JS:  I have always wondered why Shakespeare’s longest and most difficult play has also been his most popular.  Apparently, Hamlet is ‘on the boards’ every single night somewhere on the planet.  Our globe—like the original Globe—enjoys being ‘distracted’ by Hamlet and by Hamlet.  What is it about this play and this prince that has so beguiled four hundred years of theatre-goers and readers?  Any thoughts?  In what ways has the play beguiled  you, if it has?  Do you have any favourite lines?   One of mine is:  ‘In my heart there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep’.  That line, fittingly enough, has kept me awake many nights.  Hamlet’s vigilance saves his life.  That same wakefulness and battling heart has vexed my life but also, so far, kept me ticking.

MER:  I think in a way, you've answered your own initial question. Although a huge fan, I was always a bit put off by the bloodier of Shakespeare's plays, (despite them being among his most popular works). It would be too easy to say that the masses simply enjoy the bloodshed. I find that part of the answer, and where Hamlet in particular raises a morbid curiosity for me (not quite beguiling), lies in several of my favourite lines. "What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure He that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, have us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unused. Now whether it be bestial oblivion or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th' event (a thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward), I do not know why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do,' sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do't."

As Hamlet is gifted with great intelligence and ability to reason, he endures great suffering as the result of too much thought, too much humanity – particularly when confronted with an unthinkable reality. Were he simply a man of action, and not a great thinker, the play would have ended abruptly, and with far fewer deaths. Your favourite line is fittingly similar to my own, and it does not surprise me to hear that it's kept you up at night.

A battle with your thoughts over Hamlet's battle with his thoughts; it's the quintessential literary Ouboros. If I remember correctly, that tail-swallowing snake is considered a symbol of resurrection. That which destroys it sustains it, in a perpetual circle. I have often wondered that more great minds have not self-destructed as two conflicting thoughts perpetually swallowed one another, battling to produce an answer.

JS:  I do think both the prince and the play stage the battle between ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’, where being is also ‘acting’. Hamlet cannot help carving up this own thoughts into sections—obsessively scanning himself—to determine if he has the courage to be the good, avenging son or if in fact he is three-parts coward. I think all thoughtful people carve themselves up to varying degrees. It’s what makes them so interesting to observe or talk to and what makes them so torn apart by the inevitability of ‘not to be’. What other work of literature makes us so nakedly contemplate our mortal condition?  You might even say that Hamlet is inventing a new form of action:  mental action. That form of action necessarily gets around to pondering its own annihilation and your snake begins to turn on itself. Does that circularity prevent Hamlet from having the ‘will’ to kill Claudius? Is he simply—and understandably—too wrapped up in his mind to have the strength to do something violent in the outside world? Isn’t Hamlet’s inner violence (of thoughts) so diverting to him that nothing else really matters, including poor Ophelia? 

MER:  I think you’re right, and nothing else matters. It’s one of the things I dislike about Hamlet. I want to run to the stage, shake him, and yell, “Be, already!” Obviously, though, he does eventually snap out of it. I do wonder what flaw in him draws it out so long. I suppose that to answer that, you need to get into his head a little more, rather than skimming the surface and assuming that he’s simply struggling with the question of offing himself. Do you think he believes that the only alternative to killing Claudius is killing himself? If that is the case, do you think that charge came from his father’s actual ghost, or from himself, having imagined the apparition? 

JS: The apparition is real enough given that two guards and Horatio have seen it more than once, but the more subtle point you are intimating suggests that Hamlet is one of those self-haunting creatures who can dream up trouble for himself—his own worst enemy—and that his mind itself is a kind of traitor. He tries to cudgel his brains into action (to be) but his mind is also bent on contemplating self-destruction (not to be). Nietzsche thought that Hamlet’s problem was not dreaminess or thinking too much but simply knowing too much, and what he knows is the life is absurd because Caesar and Alexander end up as dirty and clay stopping up beer barrels or patching a hole in a wall. ‘Knowledge kills action,’ observes Nietzsche.  Why kill Claudius? Why do anything when are merely going to return to [star]dust? Hamlet is the first Absurdist, according to this analysis. You cannot shake up such people because the meaningless of existence has already made them profoundly inactive. The graveyard scene lends plausibility to this reading. But then in the next scene Hamlet manages to get his action together and kill both Laertes and Claudius. He has no time to think about absurdity. Sometimes the force of circumstances crush the coal of thinking into the diamond of doing. But Hamlet is not interesting as a murderer, not to me, at least. As the Prince of Procrastination, or the Absurdist haunted by skulls, Hamlet is a one-man ‘distracted globe’ who offers worlds of intellectual delight precisely because of his fascinating obsession with ‘not to be.’ I wonder if I have projected a bit of my own self-destructive tendencies on him? 

MER: While I’m sure that’s true, I don’t think we should go there too soon, or we'll have come full circle, and then what’s the point of continuing? Of course, I’m teetering on the edge of hyperbole to talk about the discussion running round in circles, like Hamlet’s mind (and yours). To speak directly to the topic that fascinates you so, during my first attempt at college (sadly, there were several before I got into a groove and completed my first degree), I had a close friend named Steve, with whom I shared a major in Russian area studies. It was a compelling time in Eastern Europe, in the final years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So much was happening, and there was a great deal of fodder for contemplation. At the time, Steve was sharing an apartment with another guy, who wanted to major in Russian area studies as well, but struggled terribly with the readings. Steve and I would have deep philosophical discussions about Trotsky and Lenin, and Stalin’s pact with Hitler, and his roommate would quietly nod his head, appearing confused. He wanted to join the conversation, but wasn't up to it.

When he wasn’t around, we had this running commentary about how much easier it would be to stay oblivious to what was going on in the world. “Oh, to be as simple as him....” was the tagline (yes, we were kind of assholes), because we thought it might be easier not to understand what a scary place the world can be. Yet, we didn’t really want to be like the roommate. We knew we were fortunate to be intelligent. Hamlet is gifted in this way, as well (and you, sir, are off the charts).

Perhaps the real difficulty in Hamlet lies in the absurdity of his perceived options, and thus, the impossibility of deciding. Perhaps the flaw is in the fact that Hamlet sees no other avenues. Could he not have shone a light on what had happened? Was there no law in Denmark that could have been applied to punish Claudius, without turning to mass bloodshed? (Yes, I get that it’s a revenge tragedy, and that’s the whole point, but why is no other option ever considered?) Further, he struggles with the religious implications of suicide, yet doesn’t seem philosophically to have as much of a problem with taking vengeance, despite God having claimed that as His own. It seems strange to me that to Hamlet, suicide would put a proverbial log in his eye, but murder wouldn’t be as damning. It might be too easy to suggest that Hamlet is simply a coward, although he defends himself somewhat on this front by noting that, “conscience does make cowards of us all.” For argument’s sake, though, do you think he’s particularly brave?

JS: The line you quote from the great soliloquy about conscience is one of the least Christian lines in the play, since our conscience is supposed to be tied up with our virtue (not of the Roman kind, but just the opposite), an ability to back off from the vengeance the ghost demands and stand around making soliloquies. But there is another ‘conscience’ that Hamlet is meant to have tied precisely to his dead father’s commandment to ‘avenge [his] foul and most unnatural murder.’  Where is that pagan, revengeful conscience in Hamlet?  Thus the play presents what Hegel calls a ‘tragedy of two goods’. The Christian good: to be forgiving, so slack, and not kill Claudius. The pagan good: to avenge the ghost and kill Claudius. Trapped between the pagan and Christian code of ethics, Hamlet is stuck in indecision and ambivalence. Here is Hamlet giving vent to his pagan conscience, that one that is meant to stir him to his revenge. He is speaking to Horatio very late in the play, once again exasperated by his lack of action, his delay, his capacity not to be (act).

Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon--
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

What do we make of that use of ‘conscience’? It seems to be the opposite to the one that ‘makes cowards of us all.’ Is Hamlet saddled with two goods, two consciences warring with each other? One of the many reasons I find Hamlet so congenial is that I often find myself impaled on the horns of a dilemma and unable to move. In fact, at this late date, I am pitched about from one bull to the next, more like an arena of mental conflict than an atomic, purposeful individual. I cannot, therefore, in ‘good conscience’ prefer one course of action to another.  There are too many codes and all of them make sense in their own terms. In his self-flagellations, Hamlet is all over the map and perhaps Shakespeare intended to depict him as a modern mind torn apart by equivocation, ambiguity, relativism, ambivalence and absurdity. I think it’s brave of Shakespeare to show us that.

MER:  I'm not sure that I can agree with the application of Hegel's theory here, to say that Hamlet's struggle is between two goods. Were it as simple as Hamlet struggling with the ghost's demand that he avenge his father's death (or not), I might agree. But since his struggle seems to be more divided between whether to live - and murder - or to kill himself, it seems that Hamlet is rather contemplating the lesser of two evils. While I understand, as you point out, that there are competing ethical codes here, some level of that conflict also exists within each separate dictate. For example, in the Old Testament, Leviticus directs that justice be served in the form of "an eye for an eye," and conversely, Pagans believe in karma, and struggle with the idea of revenge, partaking primarily out of fear that the actor will injure another person in the revenge-seeker's life. So it isn't very clear-cut, in the end, what are the edicts. Perhaps it is this failure of either ethical standard to be perfectly clear that causes so much struggle for our hero, and he is bouncing between the bull's horns himself, for fear that he will get it wrong? (This struggle is not so far from your own, perhaps)?

JS: I have long ceased trying to fathom where Hamlet and Hamlet end and I begin. I think Hamlet is in a muddle and gets himself even further into it by thinking and saying all sorts of contradictory things. He is so internally inconsistent—one moment a blood-thirsty pagan, another moment a vague Christian, another moment a wistful nihilist, another moment a proper revenge-tragedy hero—that one gives up looking for his being an advocate for any one idea or code.  That irreducible complexity and plasticity assures his renascence humanity, the kind that makes Montaigne’s Essais so plausibly moving and modern. ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds’ Emerson tells us. Does that go for self-consistency as well? Is Hamlet’s comprehensive mind and flexible soul the register of the largest possible mind, an index of Shakespeare’s mental capaciousness? Hamlet feels bedevilled by his own complexity and sometimes calls himself a coward. But he never stops thinking ‘too precisely on the event’ and his mind must ‘scan’ everything it touches. Do you recall the scene in the graveyard where he muses upon the skull of a possible lawyer?

First Clown
A pick-axe, and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet:
O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
Throws up another skull
There's another: why may not that be the skull of a
lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets,
his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he
suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the
sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of
his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be
in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes,
his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers,
his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and
the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him
no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than
the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The
very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in
this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
What do make of this little legalistic-mortal flourish?

MER:  It’s interesting that you focus on that particular passage, since you know that I’m lawyer. I’ve never been particularly fond of lawyer jokes, to be honest, but I believe that’s due to my resentment of the fact that I am by profession alone associated with so many individuals who care first and foremost about money. In reality, I know from association that many lawyers suffer from the same plight that you and Hamlet share. As I’ve pointed out, I believe that malady frequently stems from being saddled with intelligence. Interestingly, Hamlet mocks the skull in saying that - regardless of how the man who might have owned it made his living – it is now just a bony case full of dirt. As a side note, I think it’s interesting that Shakespeare made so many lawyer jokes. I am among those who believe he might have been a lawyer at some point in his life. This supposition allows me to enjoy these types of jokes, as for whatever reason, self-deprecating lawyer jokes do amuse me.

Shakespeare did have a great grasp of the law, which isn’t something that could be said for all of his contemporaries - although I do not know whether it was unusual that Shakespeare put so many of his plays on at the Inns of Court, which would explain his wanting to appeal to lawyers; or perhaps whether his father’s legal problems led him to pursue a better understanding of the law. Also interesting is the fact that Shakespeare used the law to his advantage, filing a number a suits over the years against those who he argued owed him some debt or another. All of this certainly suggests at the very least an interest in the law.

As someone who studied law, what I find so fascinating about the bard’s interest in legal matters is that, in order to really understand the law, one must first understand that there is no black and white. What makes someone a great lawyer is being able to look at any situation as being grey – and being able to argue black or white, depending on which side you represent. In a way, this is what Hamlet does (and, I suspect, what Shakespeare himself did). Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and there are good arguments to be made on both sides of almost any important matter. The problem, then, comes in not being able to pick a side and stick with it. Such indecision would lose an otherwise good lawyer his case, and would drive most men – Hamlet included – crazy with confusion over the question of whether or not to be.

JS: Maybe it’s just the sign of a good mind to be always of two minds, if not three or four? I think Hamlet’s real problem is not ‘to be or not to be’ but rather ‘to be and not to be’. His confusion is actually quantum. Nothing is simple. No thing is simple. Even the word ‘thing’ is complex etymologically. It refers to an assembly, a gathering. Why should the mind, that most complex of things, be anything other than irreducibly complex?

MER: Perhaps, then, you're championing mental masturbation, advocating that we should all get really dirty muddling in the morass? If so, to what end? There can be a sort of masochistic pleasure in indulging one's angst, but in the end, one must move on or remain stuck.  I believe Hamlet is similarly enjoying his dilemma beyond the point of a reasonable weighing of options. This is evidenced in Act III, scene 3:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.

I mean, seriously? Here, Hamlet is presented with the perfect opportunity to finally be, and he pauses to contemplate whether his timing will be the cause of his uncle ending up in heaven? Claudius has committed so many sins, it's almost unfathomable that he could be absolved sufficiently to avoid hell. But in creating a new concern: no longer whether to do it, but when, Hamlet is able to give himself permission to avoid acting once again and return to contemplation (of his newly invented temporal concerns).

JS: You say mental masturbation but I say moral complexity—in this instance. In the lines above I think Hamlet is both making excuses and plausibly making a case for waiting until Claudius is fornicating with mum to kill him. It is the most unchristian speech in the play and therefore I like it because it shows just how uneven and self-divided Hamlet really is. If he just got on with things—including revenge—he would be as one-dimensional and boring as Fortinbras and Laertes. As you long ago suggested, Hamlet’s mind—his soul?—is a snake keeping him wrapped and rapt in thought. The poor Prince does indeed go in circles. But such circles!

A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.
What dost you mean by this?
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.

MER: It's both fitting and ironic that we come back to the ouboros here, near the end (but never-ending, of course), because that symbol represents both introspection (particularly of the circular variety, from which Hamlet suffers), as well as the all-knowing whole. In Timaeus, Plato describes the ouboros as "an animal which was to comprehend all animals," and "which comprehends within itself all other figures." Moreover, he states that, "The living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard....for there was nothing beside him." One wonders whether the sightless, scentless snake lives his life silently contemplating the world he encompasses, or whether knowing all, he can simply exist in a perfectly enlightened state of zen. Regardless, overthinking is a common human trait. To return to the original question here, perhaps it's the honest portrayal of Hamlet's morality and vulnerability that continues to draw audiences.