Lesson Plans: Goodnight, Sweet Skeptic
Most of us are familiar, at least tangentially, with Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. At the very least, we probably know that the eponymous Hamlet has some problems. We may also know (or think we know) that one of those problems is a tendency toward indecisiveness; readers/viewers declare him (and he indeed declares himself at times) a ditherer, a man who sees his purpose but cannot will himself to its execution.
I hate that reading. It’s almost as lazy and superficial as labeling Hamlet a “Christ figure.” (Heh.)
Here’s a question for students to consider: Why does Shakespeare write four adult children who all lose their fathers into this play, each of whom responds differently? As Gertrude and Claudius correctly (if somewhat crassly) point out, most children will lose their fathers. It is “common.” Why “seems it so particular,” then, to this play? Because these other characters allow us to compare Hamlet’s choices to theirs. Consider the reactions of the orphaned children: Laertes succumbs to blind rage; Ophelia goes mad; Fortinbras seeks political remedies. (More on Fortinbras below.) Hamlet grieves quietly until the ghost arrives, and then…he gathers evidence. He conducts experiments. He observes. Hamlet pretends to lose his mind while others actually do. Hamlet is not a weak-kneed ditherer; Hamlet is a skeptic with “method[ology]” to his madness. And a damned fine one, considering the emotional turmoil surrounding him as he pursues his answers. He hates Claudius even before he thinks he’s his father’s murderer. How convenient would it be to accept the ghost’s word and dispatch Claudius immediately? Hamlet embodies a character of such integrity, and such dedication to empirical truth, that he refuses that temptation. He must have proof, or at least really good evidence, before taking such drastic action, even against someone he despises.
This play doesn’t provide lessons in privileging action over inaction; if anything, Hamlet provides a handy exercise in the misleading power of dramatic irony. Namely, we know well before Hamlet does that Claudius is indeed his brother’s murderer. We cannot let that persuade us that characters should also know. If a ghost came to you and told you to murder your uncle, how would you react? Probably much as Hamlet does: He worries that he might be going mad, that the ghost’s visit might be a trick or a demon, that he will do something irrevocable for a false reason. When your students get all “OMG DUDE just DO IT ALREADY,” go ahead and ask them, “So you’re saying that’s what you would do? Run inside from the woods and murder someone? Because a GHOST told you?”
This play dramatizes a pervasive human fear that the universe is a vast, incomprehensible mess, in which you can’t rest sure of family, friends, lovers, or gods. Hamlet struggles to determine if he even has the right to kill Claudius, for if the cosmic order that used to demand blood for blood is null and void, and the world is indeed an “unweeded garden,” what has Claudius done wrong? What does “wrong” even mean? Ultimately, Hamlet finds evidence for a moral order in Horatio’s friendship and, perhaps, in the reassurance of his mother’s love (note that the play makes no mention of the other newly fatherless characters’ mothers). Thus, he can serve as a rebalancing force, making Claudius consume his own poison, absolving Laertes of his rash mindlessness, and replacing himself with the rational Fortinbras.
An analogy that may work with students today: Hamlet is like Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings. He knows that he cannot take up residence in The Shire like nothing happened; he is too tainted, too wounded by what he has endured. Frodo leaves stewardship over his book and The Shire to Sam while Frodo, essentially, is sung to his eternal rest by flights of elves. Hamlet also cannot reenter his community; he can only die. But his last efforts are to leave the “book” of his life and the authority to bestow the kingdom upon Fortinbras to Horatio:
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
If you want to incorporate skeptical ideas into your discussion of Hamlet, one way would be to read some Montaigne and Bacon alongside the play and ask students to characterize Hamlet’s skeptical choices. Does he practice induction? What is his view of human reason?
I love Hamlet and Hamlet; the character has flaws, but indecisiveness is not among them. Goodnight, sweet skeptic, and flights of
elves angels syllogisms sing thee to thy rest.
Image copyright The British Library Board