I’m not really a Shakespeare scholar. I’m more of a fan of the great bard. I have been called upon to teach his plays in college classes, though, and it seems to get more challenging every year. I think that is because I so desire to see my recalcitrant students understand and appreciate the genius of Shakespeare as he unfolds an intricate and often illogical plot.
Maynard Mack, the great Shakespeare scholar and professor, often talked about Hamlet. He called the play “The Poisoned Kingdom” and described the work as three stories in one: a ghost story, a detective story and a revenge story.
Early in the masterpiece, the ghost of young Hamlet’s father appears to reveal that his brother, Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, had poisoned him to gain his crown and his queen. He tells his son that Claudius poured poison into his ear while he was napping in the garden. He explains that it is put out that a snake bit him but he tells Hamlet that the snake that bit him in the garden now wears his crown. This shocking revelation, coming as it does from a ghost, drives Hamlet to the very brink of insanity. From that point on in the play is sometimes indecisive, sometimes rash, sometimes jocular and sometimes melancholy.
What Mr. Mack called the detective story begins when the equivocating Hamlet doubts the identity of the ghost claiming to be his father. He knows the Devil can take on various forms. This may be the Evil One himself trying to trick him into killing an innocent man, thereby damning himself to sulfuric flames forever. So he tests it out to be sure of the veracity of the ghost: with Uncle Claudius in attendance, he has a group of touring actors play out the poisoning scene like the one the ghost described. Hamlet calls the little play within the play “The Mousetrap.” He and his good friend Horatio watch Claudius during the performance and when he reacts badly, he knows the ghost was truthful.
But Hamlet does not fly to his revenge. He has the opportunity to kill Claudius almost immediately after the mousetrap, but Claudius is in the chapel praying and Hamlet decides to put it off until he can catch him in the midst of a sin. So instead of killing his uncle when he had the chance, he equivocates and rashly kills the wrong man, The Lord Chamberlain Polonius, who was hidden behind a curtain. Polonius was his girlfriend, Ophelia’s, father and his death at the hand of her boyfriend drives her to insanity.
In the last moments of the play, Hamlet gives his uncle a dose of the same poison that had killed his father. This happens just before Hamlet himself died from, you guessed it, poison. Polonius’ son cuts Hamlet with a poisoned sword to avenge his own father’s death. Here ends the poisoned kingdom.
I so greatly admire Maynard Mack for his ability to simplify a very complex plot without sacrificing its marvelous intricacy. Professors faced with getting contemporary college students to understand and appreciate the play have a daunting task. Mr. Mack’s neat method of talking about the structure is certainly a way into the work.