Thursday, August 9, 2007
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Analysis of Major Characters
Thomas Gradgrind is the first character we meet in Hard Times, and one of the central figures through whom Dickens weaves a web of intricately connected plotlines and characters. Dickens introduces us to this character with a description of his most central feature: his mechanized, monotone attitude and appearance. The opening scene in the novel describes Mr. Gradgrind’s speech to a group of young students, and it is appropriate that Gradgrind physically embodies the dry, hard facts that he crams into his students’ heads. The narrator calls attention to Gradgrind’s “square coat, square legs, square shoulders,” all of which suggest Gradgrind’s unrelenting rigidity.
In the first few chapters of the novel, Mr. Gradgrind expounds his philosophy of calculating, rational self-interest. He believes that human nature can be governed by completely rational rules, and he is “ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you what it comes to.” This philosophy has brought Mr. Gradgrind much financial and social success. He has made his fortune as a hardware merchant, a trade that, appropriately, deals in hard, material reality. Later, he becomes a Member of Parliament, a position that allows him to indulge his interest in tabulating data about the people of England. Although he is not a factory owner, Mr. Gradgrind evinces the spirit of the Industrial Revolution insofar as he treats people like machines that can be reduced to a number of scientific principles.
While the narrator’s tone toward him is initially mocking and ironic, Gradgrind undergoes a significant change in the course of the novel, thereby earning the narrator’s sympathy. When Louisa confesses that she feels something important is missing in her life and that she is desperately unhappy with her marriage, Gradgrind begins to realize that his system of education may not be perfect. This intuition is confirmed when he learns that Tom has robbed Bounderby’s bank. Faced with these failures of his system, Gradgrind admits, “The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.” His children’s problems teach him to feel love and sorrow, and Gradgrind becomes a wiser and humbler man, ultimately “making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.”
Although Louisa is the novel’s principal female character, she is distinctive from the novel’s other women, particularly her foils, Sissy and Rachael. While these other two embody the Victorian ideal of femininity—sensitivity, compassion, and gentleness—Louisa’s education has prevented her from developing such traits. Instead, Louisa is silent, cold, and seemingly unfeeling. However, Dickens may not be implying that Louisa is really unfeeling, but rather that she simply does not know how to recognize and express her emotions. For instance, when her father tries to convince her that it would be rational for her to marry Bounderby, Louisa looks out of the window at the factory chimneys and observes: “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out.” Unable to convey the tumultuous feelings that lie beneath her own languid and monotonous exterior, Louisa can only state a fact about her surroundings. Yet this fact, by analogy, also describes the emotions repressed within her.
Even though she does not conform to the Victorian ideals of femininity, Louisa does her best to be a model daughter, wife, and sister. Her decision to return to her father’s house rather than elope with Harthouse demonstrates that while she may be unfeeling, she does not lack virtue. Indeed, Louisa, though unemotional, still has the ability to recognize goodness and distinguish between right and wrong, even when it does not fall within the strict rubric of her father’s teachings. While at first Louisa lacks the ability to understand and function within the gray matter of emotions, she can at least recognize that they exist and are more powerful than her father or Bounderby believe, even without any factual basis. Moreover, under Sissy’s guidance, Louisa shows great promise in learning to express her feelings. Similarly, through her acquaintance with Rachael and Stephen, Louisa learns to respond charitably to suffering and to not view suffering simply as a temporary state that is easily overcome by effort, as her father and Bounderby do.
Although he is Mr. Gradgrind’s best friend, Josiah Bounderby is more interested in money and power than in facts. Indeed, he is himself a fiction, or a fraud. Bounderby’s inflated sense of pride is illustrated by his oft-repeated declaration, “I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.” This statement generally prefaces the story of Bounderby’s childhood poverty and suffering, a story designed to impress its listeners with a sense of the young Josiah Bounderby’s determination and self-discipline. However, Dickens explodes the myth of the self-made man when Bounderby’s mother, Mrs. Pegler, reveals that her son had a decent, loving childhood and a good education, and that he was not abandoned, after all.
Bounderby’s attitude represents the social changes created by industrialization and capitalism. Whereas birth or bloodline formerly determined the social hierarchy, in an industrialized, capitalist society, wealth determines who holds the most power. Thus, Bounderby takes great delight in the fact that Mrs. Sparsit, an aristocrat who has fallen on hard times, has become his servant, while his own ambition has enabled him to rise from humble beginnings to become the wealthy owner of a factory and a bank. However, in depicting Bounderby, the capitalist, as a coarse, vain, self-interested hypocrite, Dickens implies that Bounderby uses his wealth and power irresponsibly, contributing to the muddled relations between rich and poor, especially in his treatment of Stephen after the Hands cast Stephen out to form a union.
Stephen Blackpool is introduced after we have met the Gradgrind family and Bounderby, and Blackpool provides a stark contrast to these earlier characters. One of the Hands in Bounderby’s factory, Stephen lives a life of drudgery and poverty. In spite of the hardships of his daily toil, Stephen strives to maintain his honesty, integrity, faith, and compassion.
Stephen is an important character not only because his poverty and virtue contrast with Bounderby’s wealth and self-interest, but also because he finds himself in the midst of a labor dispute that illustrates the strained relations between rich and poor. Stephen is the only Hand who refuses to join a workers’ union: he believes that striking is not the best way to improve relations between factory owners and employees, and he also wants to earn an honest living. As a result, he is cast out of the workers’ group. However, he also refuses to spy on his fellow workers for Bounderby, who consequently sends him away. Both groups, rich and poor, respond in the same self-interested, backstabbing way. As Rachael explains, Stephen ends up with the “masters against him on one hand, the men against him on the other, he only wantin’ to work hard in peace, and do what he felt right.” Through Stephen, Dickens suggests that industrialization threatens to compromise both the employee’s and employer’s moral integrity, thereby creating a social muddle to which there is no easy solution.
Through his efforts to resist the moral corruption on all sides, Stephen becomes a martyr, or Christ figure, ultimately dying for Tom’s crime. When he falls into a mine shaft on his way back to Coketown to clear his name of the charge of robbing Bounderby’s bank, Stephen comforts himself by gazing at a particularly bright star that seems to shine on him in his “pain and trouble.” This star not only represents the ideals of virtue for which Stephen strives, but also the happiness and tranquility that is lacking in his troubled life. Moreover, his ability to find comfort in the star illustrates the importance of imagination, which enables him to escape the cold, hard facts of his miserable existence.
Thomas Gradgrind - A wealthy, retired merchant in Coketown, England; he later becomes a Member of Parliament. Mr. Gradgrind espouses a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and cold, hard fact. He describes himself as an “eminently practical” man, and he tries to raise his children—Louisa, Tom, Jane, Adam Smith, and Malthus—to be equally practical by forbidding the development of their imaginations and emotions.
Thomas Gradgrind (In-Depth Analysis)
Louisa - Gradgrind’s daughter, later Bounderby’s wife. Confused by her coldhearted upbringing, Louisa feels disconnected from her emotions and alienated from other people. While she vaguely recognizes that her father’s system of education has deprived her childhood of all joy, Louisa cannot actively invoke her emotions or connect with others. Thus she marries Bounderby to please her father, even though she does not love her husband. Indeed, the only person she loves completely is her brother Tom.
Louisa Gradgrind (In-Depth Analysis)
Thomas Gradgrind, Jr - . Gradgrind’s eldest son and an apprentice at Bounderby’s bank, who is generally called Tom. Tom reacts to his strict upbringing by becoming a dissipated, hedonistic, hypocritical young man. Although he appreciates his sister’s affection, Tom cannot return it entirely—he loves money and gambling even more than he loves Louisa. These vices lead him to rob Bounderby’s bank and implicate Stephen as the robbery’s prime suspect.
Josiah Bounderby - Gradgrind’s friend and later Louisa’s husband. Bounderby claims to be a self-made man and boastfully describes being abandoned by his mother as a young boy. From his childhood poverty he has risen to become a banker and factory owner in Coketown, known by everyone for his wealth and power. His true upbringing, by caring and devoted parents, indicates that his social mobility is a hoax and calls into question the whole notion of social mobility in nineteenth-century England.
Josiah Bounderby (In-Depth Analysis)
Cecelia Jupe - The daughter of a clown in Sleary’s circus. Sissy is taken in by Gradgrind when her father disappears. Sissy serves as a foil, or contrast, to Louisa: while Sissy is imaginative and compassionate, Louisa is rational and, for the most part, unfeeling. Sissy embodies the Victorian femininity that counterbalances mechanization and industry. Through Sissy’s interaction with her, Louisa is able to explore her more sensitive, feminine sides.
Mrs. Sparsit - Bounderby’s housekeeper, who goes to live at the bank apartments when Bounderby marries Louisa. Once a member of the aristocratic elite, Mrs. Sparsit fell on hard times after the collapse of her marriage. A selfish, manipulative, dishonest woman, Mrs. Sparsit cherishes secret hopes of ruining Bounderby’s marriage so that she can marry him herself. Mrs. Sparsit’s aristocratic background is emphasized by the narrator’s frequent allusions to her “Roman” and “Coriolanian” appearance.
Stephen Blackpool - A Hand in Bounderby’s factory. Stephen loves Rachael but is unable to marry her because he is already married, albeit to a horrible, drunken woman. A man of great honesty, compassion, and integrity, Stephen maintains his moral ideals even when he is shunned by his fellow workers and fired by Bounderby. Stephen’s values are similar to those endorsed by the narrator.
Stephen Blackpool (In-Depth Analysis)
Rachael - A simple, honest Hand who loves Stephen Blackpool. To Stephen, she represents domestic happiness and moral purity.
James Harthouse - A sophisticated and manipulative young London gentleman who comes to Coketown to enter politics as a disciple of Gradgrind, simply because he thinks it might alleviate his boredom. In his constant search for a new form of amusement, Harthouse quickly becomes attracted to Louisa and resolves to seduce her.
Mr. Sleary - The lisping proprietor of the circus where Sissy’s father was an entertainer. Later, Mr. Sleary hides Tom Gradgrind and helps him flee the country. Mr. Sleary and his troop of entertainers value laughter and fantasy whereas Mr. Gradgrind values rationality and fact.
Bitzer - Bitzer is one of the successes produced by Gradgrind’s rationalistic system of education. Initially a bully at Gradgrind’s school, Bitzer later becomes an employee and a spy at Bounderby’s bank. An uncharacteristically pale character and unrelenting disciple of fact, Bitzer almost stops Tom from fleeing after it is discovered that Tom is the true bank robber.
Mr. McChoakumchild - The unpleasant teacher at Gradgrind’s school. As his name suggests, McChoakumchild is not overly fond of children, and stifles or chokes their imaginations and feelings.
Mrs. Pegler - Bounderby’s mother, unbeknownst as such to all except herself and Bounderby. Mrs. Pegler makes an annual visit to Coketown in order to admire her son’s prosperity from a safe distance. Mrs. Pegler’s appearance uncovers the hoax that her son Bounderby has been attesting throughout the story, which is that he is a self-made man who was abandoned as a child.
Mrs. Gradgrind - Gradgrind’s whiny, anemic wife, who constantly tells her children to study their “ologies” and complains that she’ll “never hear the end” of any complaint. Although Mrs. Gradgrind does not share her husband’s interest in facts, she lacks the energy and the imagination to oppose his system of education.
Slackbridge - The crooked orator who convinces the Hands to unionize and turns them against Stephen Blackpool when he refuses to join the union.
Jane Gradgrind - Gradgrind’s younger daughter; Louisa and Tom’s sister. Because Sissy largely raises her, Jane is a happier little girl than her sister, Louisa.
Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy, retired merchant in the industrial city of Coketown, England, devotes his life to a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and fact. He raises his oldest children, Louisa and Tom, according to this philosophy and never allows them to engage in fanciful or imaginative pursuits. He founds a school and charitably takes in one of the students, the kindly and imaginative Sissy Jupe, after the disappearance of her father, a circus entertainer.
As the Gradgrind children grow older, Tom becomes a dissipated, self-interested hedonist, and Louisa struggles with deep inner confusion, feeling as though she is missing something important in her life. Eventually Louisa marries Gradgrind’s friend Josiah Bounderby, a wealthy factory owner and banker more than twice her age. Bounderby continually trumpets his role as a self-made man who was abandoned in the gutter by his mother as an infant. Tom is apprenticed at the Bounderby bank, and Sissy remains at the Gradgrind home to care for the younger children.
In the meantime, an impoverished “Hand”—Dickens’s term for the lowest laborers in Coketown’s factories—named Stephen Blackpool struggles with his love for Rachael, another poor factory worker. He is unable to marry her because he is already married to a horrible, drunken woman who disappears for months and even years at a time. Stephen visits Bounderby to ask about a divorce but learns that only the wealthy can obtain them. Outside Bounderby’s home, he meets Mrs. Pegler, a strange old woman with an inexplicable devotion to Bounderby.
James Harthouse, a wealthy young sophisticate from London, arrives in Coketown to begin a political career as a disciple of Gradgrind, who is now a Member of Parliament. He immediately takes an interest in Louisa and decides to try to seduce her. With the unspoken aid of Mrs. Sparsit, a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and now works for Bounderby, he sets about trying to corrupt Louisa.
The Hands, exhorted by a crooked union spokesman named Slackbridge, try to form a union. Only Stephen refuses to join because he feels that a union strike would only increase tensions between employers and employees. He is cast out by the other Hands and fired by Bounderby when he refuses to spy on them. Louisa, impressed with Stephen’s integrity, visits him before he leaves Coketown and helps him with some money. Tom accompanies her and tells Stephen that if he waits outside the bank for several consecutive nights, help will come to him. Stephen does so, but no help arrives. Eventually he packs up and leaves Coketown, hoping to find agricultural work in the country. Not long after that, the bank is robbed, and the lone suspect is Stephen, the vanished Hand who was seen loitering outside the bank for several nights just before disappearing from the city.
Mrs. Sparsit witnesses Harthouse declaring his love for Louisa, and Louisa agrees to meet him in Coketown later that night. However, Louisa instead flees to her father’s house, where she miserably confides to Gradgrind that her upbringing has left her married to a man she does not love, disconnected from her feelings, deeply unhappy, and possibly in love with Harthouse. She collapses to the floor, and Gradgrind, struck dumb with self-reproach, begins to realize the imperfections in his philosophy of rational self-interest.
Sissy, who loves Louisa deeply, visits Harthouse and convinces him to leave Coketown forever. Bounderby, furious that his wife has left him, redoubles his efforts to capture Stephen. When Stephen tries to return to clear his good name, he falls into a mining pit called Old Hell Shaft. Rachael and Louisa discover him, but he dies soon after an emotional farewell to Rachael. Gradgrind and Louisa realize that Tom is really responsible for robbing the bank, and they arrange to sneak him out of England with the help of the circus performers with whom Sissy spent her early childhood. They are nearly successful, but are stopped by Bitzer, a young man who went to Gradgrind’s school and who embodies all the qualities of the detached rationalism that Gradgrind once espoused, but who now sees its limits. Sleary, the lisping circus proprietor, arranges for Tom to slip out of Bitzer’s grasp, and the young robber escapes from England after all.
Mrs. Sparsit, anxious to help Bounderby find the robbers, drags Mrs. Pegler—a known associate of Stephen Blackpool—in to see Bounderby, thinking Mrs. Pegler is a potential witness. Bounderby recoils, and it is revealed that Mrs. Pegler is really his loving mother, whom he has forbidden to visit him: Bounderby is not a self-made man after all. Angrily, Bounderby fires Mrs. Sparsit and sends her away to her hostile relatives. Five years later, he will die alone in the streets of Coketown. Gradgrind gives up his philosophy of fact and devotes his political power to helping the poor. Tom realizes the error of his ways but dies without ever seeing his family again. While Sissy marries and has a large and loving family, Louisa never again marries and never has children. Nevertheless, Louisa is loved by Sissy’s family and learns at last how to feel sympathy for her fellow human beings.
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, and spent the first nine years of his life in Kent, a marshy region by the sea in the west of England. Dickens’s father, John, was a kind and likable man, but he was incompetent with money and piled up tremendous debts throughout his life. When Dickens was nine, his family moved to London, and later, when he was twelve, his father was arrested and taken to debtors’ prison. Dickens’s mother moved his seven brothers and sisters into prison with their father but arranged for Charles to live alone outside the prison, working with other children at a nightmarish job in a blacking warehouse, pasting labels on bottles. The three months he spent apart from his family were highly traumatic for Dickens, and his job was miserable—he considered himself too good for it, earning the contempt of the other children.
After his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school. He tried his hand professionally as a law clerk and then a court reporter before becoming a novelist. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, became a huge popular success when Dickens was only twenty-five; he was a literary celebrity throughout England for the remainder of his life. At about this time, he fell in love with Mary Beadnell, the daughter of a banker. In spite of his ambition and literary success, Dickens was considered her social inferior in terms of wealth and family background, and Mary’s father prohibited the marriage. Several years later, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Although they had ten children, Dickens was never completely happy in this marriage, and he and Catherine eventually separated.
Though the young blacking factory employee had considered himself too good for his job, the older novelist retained a deep interest in and concern for the plight of the poor, particularly poor children. The Victorian England in which Dickens lived was fraught with massive economic turmoil, as the Industrial Revolution sent shockwaves through the established order. The disparity between the rich and poor, or the middle and working classes, grew even greater as factory owners exploited their employees in order to increase their own profits. Workers, referred to as “the Hands” in Hard Times, were forced to work long hours for low pay in cramped, sooty, loud, and dangerous factories. Because they lacked education and job skills, these workers had few options for improving their terrible living and working conditions. With the empathy he gained through his own experience of poverty, Dickens became involved with a number of organizations that worked to alleviate the horrible living conditions of the London poor. For instance, he was a speaker for the Metropolitan Sanitary Organization, and, with his wealthy friend Angela Burdett-Coutts, he organized projects to clear up the slums and build clean, safe, cheap housing for the poor.
Though he was far too great a novelist to become a propagandist, Dickens several times used his art as a lens to focus attention on the plight of the poor and to attempt to awaken the conscience of the reader. Hard Times is just such a novel: set amid the industrial smokestacks and factories of Coketown, England, the novel uses its characters and stories to expose the massive gulf between the nation’s rich and poor and to criticize what Dickens perceived as the unfeeling self-interest of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England itself is turning into a factory machine: the middle class is concerned only with making a profit in the most efficient and practical way possible. Hard Times is not a delicate book: Dickens hammers home his point with vicious, often hilarious satire and sentimental melodrama. It is also not a difficult book: Dickens wanted all his readers to catch his point exactly, and the moral theme of the novel is very explicitly articulated time and again. There are no hidden meanings in Hard Times, and the book is an interesting case of a great writer subordinating his art to a moral and social purpose. Even if it is not Dickens’s most popular novel, it is still an important expression of the values he thought were fundamental to human existence.
“Dickens” redirects here. For other uses, see Dickens (disambiguation).
Charles John Huffam Dickens FRSA (IPA: [ˈtʃɑːlz ˈdɪkɪnz]; 7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870), pen-name "Boz", was the foremost English novelist of the Victorian era, as well as a vigorous social campaigner. Considered one of the English language's greatest writers, he was acclaimed for his rich storytelling and memorable characters, and achieved massive worldwide popularity in his lifetime.
Later critics, beginning with George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton, championed his mastery of prose, his endless invention of memorable characters and his powerful social sensibilities, yet writers such as George Henry Lewes, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf fault his work for sentimentality, implausible occurrence and grotesque characters.
The popularity of Dickens's novels and short stories has meant that none has ever gone out of print. Dickens wrote serialised novels, which was the usual format for fiction at the time, and each new part of his stories was eagerly anticipated by the reading public.
 Early years
Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth in Hampshire, the second of eight children to John Dickens (1786–1851), a clerk in the Navy Pay Office at Portsmouth, and his wife Elizabeth Dickens (née Barrow, 1789–1863) on February 7, 1812. When he was five, the family moved to Chatham, Kent. When he was ten, the family relocated to 16 Bayham Street, Camden Town in London.
Although his early years seem to have been an idyllic time, he thought himself then as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". He spent his time outdoors, reading voraciously with a particular fondness for the picaresque novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. He talked later in life of his extremely poignant memories of childhood and his continuing photographic memory of people and events that helped bring his fiction to life. His family was moderately wealthy, and he received some education at the private William Giles's school in Chatham. However, this time of prosperity came to an abrupt end when his father, after spending too much money entertaining and retaining his social position, was imprisoned at Marshalsea debtors' prison.
A 12-year-old Dickens began working 10 hour days in a Warren's boot-blacking factory, located near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on the jars of thick polish. This money paid for his lodging in Camden Town and helped support his family.
After a few months his family was able to leave Marshalsea but their financial situation did not improve until later, partly due to money inherited from his father's family. His mother did not immediately remove Charles from the boot-blacking factory, which was owned by a relation of hers. Dickens never forgave his mother for this, and resentment of his situation and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his works. As Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, judged to be his most clearly autobiographical novel, "I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!" Eventually he attended the Wellington House Academy in North London.
In May 1827, Dickens began work in the office of Ellis and Blackmore as a law clerk, a junior office position with potential to become a lawyer, a profession for which he later showed his dislike in his many literary works. He later became a court stenographer at the age of 17. In 1830, Dickens met his first love, Maria Beadnell, who has been said to be the model for Dora in David Copperfield. Her parents disapproved of their courtship and they effectively ended the relationship when they sent her to school in Paris.
ournalism and early novels
In 1834, Dickens became a journalist, reporting parliamentary debate and travelling Britain by stagecoach to cover election campaigns for the Morning Chronicle. His journalism, in the form of sketches which appeared in periodicals from 1833, formed his first collection of pieces Sketches by Boz which were published in 1836 and led to the serialization of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers in March 1836. He continued to contribute to and edit journals throughout much of his subsequent literary career.
On 2 April 1836, he married Catherine Thompson Hogarth (1816–1879), the daughter of George Hogarth, editor of the Evening Chronicle. After a brief honeymoon in Chalk, Kent, they set up home in Bloomsbury where they produced ten children:
* Charles Culliford Boz Dickens (6 January 1837–1896).
* Mary Angela Dickens (6 March 1838–1896).
* Kate Macready Dickens (29 October 1839–1929).
* Walter Landor Dickens (8 February 1841–1863). Died in India.
* Francis Jeffrey Dickens (15 January 1844–1886).
* Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens (28 October 1845–1912).
* Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (18 April 1847–1872).
* (Sir) Henry Fielding Dickens (15 January 1849–1933).
o Henry Charles Dickens (1882–1966), barrister. (Grandson)
+ Monica Dickens (1915–1992). (Great-granddaughter)
* Dora Annie Dickens (16 August 1850–April 1851).
* Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (13 March 1852–23 January 1902). He migrated to Australia, and became a member of the New South Wales state parliament. He died in Moree, NSW.
In the same year, he accepted the job of editor of Bentley's Miscellany, a position he would hold until 1839 when he fell out with the owner. However, his success as a novelist continued, producing Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), then The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge as part of the Master Humphrey's Clock series (1840-41), all being published in monthly instalments before being made into books.
In 1842, he travelled with his wife to the United States and Canada, a journey which was successful despite his support for the abolition of slavery. The trip is described in the short travelogue American Notes for General Circulation and is also the basis of some of the episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit. Shortly thereafter, he began to show interest in Unitarian Christianity, although he remained an Anglican, at least nominally, for the rest of his life.  Dickens's work continued to be popular, especially A Christmas Carol written in 1843, the first of his Christmas books, which was reputedly written in a matter of weeks.
After living briefly abroad in Italy (1844) and Switzerland (1846), Dickens continued his success with Dombey and Son (1848); David Copperfield (1849-50); Bleak House (1852-53); Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens was also the publisher and editor of, and a major contributor to, the journals Household Words (1850–1859) and All the Year Round (1858-1870).
 Middle years
In 1856, his popularity had allowed him to buy Gad's Hill Place. This large house in Higham, Kent, had a particular meaning to Dickens as he had walked past it as a child and had dreamed of living in it. The area was also the scene of some of the events of Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1 and this literary connection pleased him.
In 1857, in preparation for public performances of The Frozen Deep, a play on which he and his protégé Wilkie Collins had collaborated, Dickens hired professional actresses to play the female parts. With one of these, Ellen Ternan, Dickens formed a bond which was to last the rest of his life. The exact nature of their relationship is unclear, as both Dickens and Ternan burned each other's letters, but it was clearly central to Dickens's personal and professional life. On his death, he settled an annuity on her which made her a financially independent woman. Claire Tomalin's book, The Invisible Woman, set out to prove that Ellen Ternan lived with Dickens secretly for the last 13 years of his life, and has subsequently been turned into a play by Simon Gray called Little Nell.
When Dickens separated from his wife in 1858, divorce was almost unthinkable, particularly for someone as famous as he was, and so he continued to maintain her in a house for the next 20 years until she died. Although they appeared to be initially happy together, Catherine did not seem to share quite the same boundless energy for life which Dickens had. Nevertheless, her job of looking after their ten children, and the pressure of living with a world-famous novelist and keeping house for him, certainly did not help.
Catherine had her sister Mary move in to help her, but there were rumours that Charles was romantically linked to his sister-in-law, possibly fuelled by the fact that she remained at Gadshill to look after the younger children when Catherine left. An indication of his marital dissatisfaction was when, in 1855, he went to meet his first love, Maria Beadnell. Maria was by this time married as well, but seemed to have fallen short of Dickens's romantic memory of her.
 Rail accident and last years
On 9 June 1865, while returning from France with the actress Ellen Ternan, Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash in which the first seven carriages of the train plunged off a bridge that was being repaired. The only first-class carriage to remain on the track was the one in which Dickens was travelling. Dickens spent some time tending the wounded and the dying before rescuers arrived. Before leaving, he remembered the unfinished manuscript for Our Mutual Friend, and he returned to his carriage to retrieve it. Typically, Dickens later used this experience as material for his short ghost story The Signal-Man in which the central character has a premonition of his own death in a rail crash. He based the story around several previous rail accidents, such as the Clayton Tunnel rail crash of 1861.
Dickens managed to avoid an appearance at the inquiry into the crash, as it would have become known that he was travelling that day with Ellen Ternan and her mother, which could have caused a scandal. Ellen had been Dickens's companion since the breakdown of his marriage, and, as he had met her in 1857, she was most likely the ultimate reason for that breakdown. She continued to be his companion, and likely mistress, until his death. The dimensions of the affair were unknown until the publication of Dickens and Daughter, a book about Dickens's relationship with his daughter Kate, in 1939. Kate Dickens worked with author Gladys Storey on the book prior to her death in 1929, and alleged that Dickens and Ternan had a son who died in infancy, though no contemporary evidence exists
Dickens, though unharmed, never really recovered from the Staplehurst crash, and his normally prolific writing shrank to completing Our Mutual Friend and starting the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood after a long interval. Much of his time was taken up with public readings from his best-loved novels. Dickens was fascinated by the theatre as an escape from the world, and theatres and theatrical people appear in Nicholas Nickleby. The traveling shows were extremely popular and, after three tours of British Isles, Dickens gave his first public reading in the United States at a New York City theatre on 2 December 1867.
The effort and passion he put into these readings with individual character voices is also thought to have contributed to his death. When he undertook another English tour of readings (1869–1870), he became ill and five years to the day after the Staplehurst crash, on 9 June 1870, he died at home at Gad's Hill Place after suffering a stroke.
Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, he was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads: "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world." Dickens's will stipulated that no memorial be erected to honour him. The only life-size bronze statue of Dickens, cast in 1891 by Francis Edwin Elwell, is located in Clark Park in the Spruce Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States of America.
 Literary style
Dickens's writing style is florid and poetic, with a strong comic touch. His satires of British aristocratic snobbery — he calls one character the "Noble Refrigerator" — are often popular. Comparing orphans to stocks and shares, people to tug boats, or dinner-party guests to furniture are just some of Dickens's acclaimed flights of fancy.
The characters are among the most memorable in English literature; certainly their names are. The likes of Ebenezer Scrooge, Fagin, Mrs Gamp, Charles Darnay, Oliver Twist, Micawber, Abel Magwitch, Samuel Pickwick, Miss Havisham, Wackford Squeers and many others are so well known and can be believed to be living a life outside the novels that their stories have been continued by other authors.
Dickens loved the style of 18th century gothic romance, though it had already become a target for parody — Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey being a well known example — and while some of his characters are grotesques, their eccentricities do not usually overshadow the stories. One 'character' most vividly drawn throughout his novels is London itself. From the coaching inns on the outskirts of the city to the lower reaches of the Thames, all aspects of the capital are described over the course of his corpus.
 Episodic writing
As noted above, most of Dickens's major novels were first written in monthly or weekly instalments in journals such as Master Humphrey's Clock and Household Words, later reprinted in book form. These instalments made the stories cheap, accessible and the series of regular cliff-hangers made each new episode widely anticipated. American fans even waited at the docks in New York, shouting out to the crew of an incoming ship, "Is Little Nell dead?" Part of Dickens's great talent was to incorporate this episodic writing style but still end up with a coherent novel at the end. The monthly numbers were illustrated by, amongst others, "Phiz" (a pseudonym for Hablot Browne). Among his best-known works are Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby, The Pickwick Papers, and A Christmas Carol.
Dickens's technique of writing in monthly or weekly instalments (depending on the work) can be understood by analysing his relationship with his illustrators. The several artists who filled this role were privy to the contents and intentions of Dickens's instalments before the general public. Thus, by reading these correspondences between author and illustrator, the intentions behind Dickens's work can be better understood. What was hidden in his art is made plain in these letters. These also reveal how the interests of the reader and author do not coincide. A great example of that appears in the monthly novel Oliver Twist. At one point in this work, Dickens had Oliver become embroiled in a robbery. That particular monthly instalment concludes with young Oliver being shot. Readers expected that they would be forced to wait only a month to find out the outcome of that gunshot. In fact, Dickens did not reveal what became of young Oliver in the succeeding number. Rather, the reading public was forced to wait two months to discover if the boy lived.
Another important impact of Dickens's episodic writing style was his exposure to the opinions of his readers. Since Dickens did not write the chapters very far ahead of their publication, he was allowed to witness the public reaction and alter the story depending on those public reactions. A fine example of this process can be seen in his weekly serial The Old Curiosity Shop, which is a chase story. In this novel, Little Nell and her Grandfather are fleeing the villain Quilp. The progress of the novel follows the gradual success of that pursuit. As Dickens wrote and published the weekly instalments, his friend John Forster pointed out: "You know you're going to have to kill her, don't you." Why this end was necessary can be explained by a brief analysis of the difference between the structure of a comedy versus a tragedy. In a comedy, the action covers a sequence "You think they're going to lose, you think they're going to lose, they win." In tragedy, it's: "You think they're going to win, you think they're going to win, they lose". The dramatic conclusion of the story is implicit throughout the novel. So, as Dickens wrote the novel in the form of a tragedy, the sad outcome of the novel was a foregone conclusion. If he had not caused his heroine to lose, he would not have completed his dramatic structure. Dickens admitted that his friend Forster was right and, in the end, Little Nell died. 
 Social commentary
Dickens's novels were, among other things, works of social commentary. He was a fierce critic of the poverty and social stratification of Victorian society. Dickens's second novel, Oliver Twist (1839), shocked readers with its images of poverty and crime and was responsible for the clearing of the actual London slum that was the basis of the story's Jacob's Island. In addition, with the character of the tragic prostitute, Nancy, Dickens "humanised" such women for the reading public; women who were regarded as "unfortunates," inherently immoral casualties of the Victorian class/economic system. Bleak House and Little Dorrit elaborated expansive critiques of the Victorian institutional apparatus: the interminable lawsuits of the Court of Chancery that destroyed people's lives in Bleak House and a dual attack in Little Dorrit on inefficient, corrupt patent offices and unregulated market speculation.
 Literary techniques
Dickens is often described as using 'idealised' characters and highly sentimental scenes to contrast with his caricatures and the ugly social truths he reveals. The extended death scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) was received as incredibly moving by contemporary readers but viewed as ludicrously sentimental by Oscar Wilde:"You would need to have a heart of stone," he declared in one of his famous witticisms, "not to laugh at the death of Little Nell." In 1903 Chesterton said, "It is not the death of Little Nell, but the life of Little Nell, that I object to." 
In Oliver Twist Dickens provides readers with an idealised portrait of a young boy so inherently and unrealistically 'good' that his values are never subverted by either brutal orphanages or coerced involvement in a gang of young pickpockets (similar to Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol). While later novels also centre on idealised characters (Esther Summerson in Bleak House and Amy Dorrit in Little Dorrit) this idealism serves only to highlight Dickens's goal of poignant social commentary. Many of his novels are concerned with social realism, focusing on mechanisms of social control that direct people's lives (for instance, factory networks in Hard Times and hypocritical exclusionary class codes in Our Mutual Friend).
Dickens also employs incredible coincidences (e.g. Oliver Twist turns out to be the lost nephew of the upper class family that randomly rescues him from the dangers of the pickpocket group). Such coincidences are a staple of eighteenth century picaresque novels such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones that Dickens enjoyed so much. But to Dickens these were not just plot devices but an index of the humanism that led him to believe that good wins out in the end and often in unexpected ways.
 Autobiographical elements
All authors might be said to incorporate autobiographical elements in their fiction, but with Dickens this is very noticeable, even though he took pains to cover up what he considered his shameful, lowly past. David Copperfield is one of the most clearly autobiographical but the scenes from Bleak House of interminable court cases and legal arguments are drawn from the author's brief career as a court reporter. Dickens's own family was sent to prison for poverty, a common theme in many of his books, and the detailed depiction of life in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit is due to Dickens's own experiences of the institution. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop is thought to represent Dickens's sister-in-law, Nicholas Nickleby's father and Wilkins Micawber are certainly Dickens's own father, just as Mrs. Nickleby and Mrs. Micawber are similar to his mother. The snobbish nature of Pip from Great Expectations also has some affinity to the author himself. The character of Fagin is believed to be based upon Ikey Solomon, a 19th century Jewish criminal of London and later Australia. It is reported that Dickens, during his time as a journalist, interviewed Solomon after a court appearance and that he was the inspiration for the gang leader in Oliver Twist. Dickens may have drawn on his childhood experiences, but he was also ashamed of them and would not reveal that this was where he got his realistic accounts of squalor. Very few knew the details of his early life until six years after his death when John Forster published a biography on which Dickens had collaborated. A shameful past in Victorian times could taint reputations, just as it did for some of his characters, and this may have been Dickens's own fear.
Charles Dickens was a well-known personality and his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime. His first full novel, The Pickwick Papers (1837), brought him immediate fame and this continued right through his career. Although rarely departing greatly from his typical "Dickensian" method of always attempting to write a great "story" in a somewhat conventional manner (the dual narrators of Bleak House are a notable exception), he experimented with varied themes, characterisations and genres. Some of these experiments have proved more popular than others and the public's taste and appreciation of his many works have varied over time. He was usually keen to give his readers what they wanted, and the monthly or weekly publication of his works in episodes meant that the books could change as the story proceeded at the whim of the public. A good example of this are the American episodes in Martin Chuzzlewit which were put in by Dickens in response to lower than normal sales of the earlier chapters. In Our Mutual Friend, the inclusion of the character of Riah was a positive portrayal of a Jewish character after he was criticised for the depiction of Fagin in Oliver Twist.
His popularity has waned little since his death and he is still one of the best known and most read of English authors. At least 180 motion pictures and TV adaptations based on Dickens's works help confirm his success. Many of his works were adapted for the stage during his own lifetime and as early as 1913 a silent film of The Pickwick Papers was made. His characters were often so memorable that they took on a life of their own outside his books. Gamp became a slang expression for an umbrella from the character Mrs Gamp and Pickwickian, Pecksniffian and Gradgrind all entered dictionaries due to Dickens's original portraits of such characters who were quixotic, hypocritical or emotionlessly logical. Sam Weller, the carefree and irreverent valet of The Pickwick Papers, was an early superstar, perhaps better known than his author at first. It is likely that A Christmas Carol is his best-known story, with new adaptations almost every year. It is also the most-filmed of Dickens's stories, many versions dating from the early years of cinema. This simple morality tale with both pathos and its theme of redemption, for many, sums up the true meaning of Christmas and eclipses all other Yuletide stories in not only popularity, but in adding archetypal figures (Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the Christmas ghosts) to the Western cultural consciousness. Some historians consider this book to have played a major factor in redefining the holiday and its major sentiments. A Christmas Carol was written by Dickens in an attempt to forestall financial disaster as a result of flagging sales of his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Years later, Dickens shared that he was "deeply affected" in writing A Christmas Carol and the novel rejuvenated his career as a renowned author.
At a time when Britain was the major economic and political power of the world, Dickens highlighted the life of the forgotten poor and disadvantaged at the heart of empire. Through his journalism he campaigned on specific issues — such as sanitation and the workhouse — but his fiction was probably all the more powerful in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities. He often depicted the exploitation and repression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that allowed such abuses to exist. His most strident indictment of this condition is in Hard Times (1854), Dickens's only novel-length treatment of the industrial working class. In that work, he uses both vitriol and satire to illustrate how this marginalised social stratum was termed "Hands" by the factory owners, that is, not really "people" but rather only appendages of the machines that they operated. His writings inspired others, in particular journalists and political figures, to address such problems of class oppression. For example, the prison scenes in Little Dorrit and The Pickwick Papers were prime movers in having the Marshalsea and Fleet Prisons shut down. As Karl Marx said, Dickens, and the other novelists of Victorian England, "…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together…". The exceptional popularity of his novels, even those with socially oppositional themes (Bleak House, 1853; Little Dorrit, 1857; Our Mutual Friend, 1865) underscored not only his almost preternatural ability to create compelling storylines and unforgettable characters, but also insured that the Victorian public confronted issues of social justice that had commonly been ignored.
His fiction, with often vivid descriptions of life in nineteenth-century England, has inaccurately and anachronistically come to globally symbolise Victorian society (1837–1901) as uniformly "Dickensian," when in fact, his novels' time span is from the 1770s to the 1860s. In the decade following his death in 1870, a more intense degree of socially and philosophically pessimistic perspectives invested British fiction; such themes were in contrast to the religious faith that ultimately held together even the bleakest of Dickens's novels. Later Victorian novelists such as Thomas Hardy and George Gissing were influenced by Dickens, but their works display a greater willingness to confront and challenge the Victorian institution of religion. They also portray characters caught up by social forces (primarily via lower-class conditions) but which usually steer them to tragic ends beyond their control.
Novelists continue to be influenced by his books; for example, such disparate current writers as Anne Rice, Tom Wolfe and John Irving evidence direct Dickensian connections. Humorist James Finn Garner even wrote a tongue-in-cheek "politically correct" version of A Christmas Carol.
Although Dickens's life has been the subject of at least two TV miniseries and two famous one-man shows, he has never been the subject of a Hollywood "big screen" biography.
 Adaptations of readings
There have been several performances of Dickens readings by Emlyn Williams, Bransby Williams and also Simon Callow in the Mystery of Charles Dickens by Peter Ackroyd.
 Museums and festivals
There are museums and festivals celebrating Dickens's life and works in many of the towns with which he was associated.
* The Charles Dickens Museum, in Doughty Street, Holborn is the only one of Dickens's London homes to survive. He lived there only two years but in this time wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. It contains a major collection of manuscripts, original furniture and memorabilia.
* Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth is the house in which Dickens was born. It has been re-furnished in the likely style of 1812 and contains Dickens memorabilia.
* The Dickens House Museum in Broadstairs is the house of Miss Mary Pearson Strong, the basis for Miss Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. It is visible across the bay from the original Bleak House (also a museum until 2005) where David Copperfield was written. The museum contains memorabilia, general Victoriana and some of Dickens's letters. Broadstairs has held a Dickens Festival annually since 1937.
* The Charles Dickens Centre in Eastgate House, Rochester, closed in 2004, but the garden containing the author's Swiss chalet is still open. The 16th-Century house, which appeared as Westgate House in The Pickwick Papers and the Nun's House in Edwin Drood, will probably re-open under a related use. The city's annual Dickens Festival (summer) and Dickensian Christmas celebrations continue unaffected.
* The Dickens World themed attraction, covering 71 500 square feet, and including a cinema and restaurants, opened in Chatham on 25 May 2007. It stands on a small part of the site of the former naval dockyard where Dickens's father had once worked in the Navy Pay Office.
* Dickens Festival in Rochester, Kent. Summer Dickens is held at the end of May or in the first few days of June, it commences with an invitation only ball on the Thursday and then continues with street entertainment, and many costumed characters, on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday.Christmas Dickens is the first weekend in December- Saturday and Sunday only.
Dickens festivals are also held across the world.
Three notable ones in the United States are:
* The Riverside Dickens Festival in Riverside, California, includes literary studies as well as entertainments.
* The Great Dickens Christmas Fair (http://www.dickensfair.com/) has been held in San Francisco, California, since the 1970s. During the four or five weekends before Christmas, over 500 costumed performers mingle with and entertain thousands of visitors amidst the recreated full-scale blocks of Dickensian London in over 90,000 square feet of public area. This is the oldest, largest, and most successful of the modern Dickens festivals outside England. Many (including the Martin Harris who acts in the Rochester festival and flies out from London to play Scrooge every year in SF) say it is the most impressive in the world.
* Dickens on The Strand in Galveston, Texas, is a holiday festival held on the first weekend in December since 1974, where bobbies, Beefeaters and the "Queen" herself are on hand to recreate the Victorian London of Charles Dickens. Many festival volunteers and attendees dress in Victorian attire and bring the world of Dickens to life.
 Notable works by Charles Dickens
Main article: Bibliography of Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens published over a dozen major novels, a large number of short stories (including a number of Christmas-themed stories), a handful of plays, and several nonfiction books. Dickens's novels were initially serialized in weekly and monthly magazines, then reprinted in standard book formats.
* The Pickwick Papers (Monthly serial, April 1836 to November 1837)
* The Adventures of Oliver Twist (Monthly serial in Bentley's Miscellany, February 1837 to April 1839)
* The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (Monthly serial, April 1838 to October 1839)
* The Old Curiosity Shop (Weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, April 25, 1840, to February 6, 1841)
* Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty (Weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, February 13, 184l, to November 27, 1841)
* The Christmas books:
o A Christmas Carol (1843)
o The Chimes (1844)
o The Cricket on the Hearth (1845)
o The Battle of Life (1846)
o The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848)
* The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (Monthly serial, January 1843 to July 1844)
* Dombey and Son (Monthly serial, October 1846 to April 1848)
* David Copperfield (Monthly serial, May 1849 to November 1850)
* Bleak House (Monthly serial, March 1852 to September 1853)
* Hard Times: For These Times (Weekly serial in Household Words, April 1, 1854, to August 12, 1854)
* Little Dorrit (Monthly serial, December 1855 to June 1857)
* A Tale of Two Cities (Weekly serial in All the Year Round, April 30, 1859, to November 26, 1859)
* Great Expectations (Weekly serial in All the Year Round, December 1, 1860 to August 3, 1861)
* Our Mutual Friend (Monthly serial, May 1864 to November 1865)
* No Thoroughfare (1867) (with Wilkie Collins)
* The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Monthly serial, April 1870 to September 1870. Only six of twelve planned numbers completed)
* The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (1890)
 Short story collections
* Sketches by Boz (1836)
* Boots at the Holly-tree Inn: And Other Stories (1858)
* Reprinted Pieces (1861)
* The Haunted House (1862) (with Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Adelaide Proctor, George Sala and Hesba Setton)
* The Mudfog Papers (1880) aka Mudfog and Other Sketches
* To Be Read At Dusk (1898)
 Selected nonfiction, poetry, and plays
* The Village Coquettes (Plays, 1836)
* The Fine Old English Gentleman (poetry, 1841)
* American Notes: For General Circulation (1842)
* Pictures from Italy (1846)
* The Life of Our Lord: As written for his children (1849)
* A Child's History of England (1853)
* The Frozen Deep (play, 1857)
* Speeches, Letters and Sayings (1870)
 Dickens as a Character in Fiction
* The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942). Morton Lowry portrays Dickens.
* Dickens of London (1976) is a miniseries about Dickens. He is played as an adult by Roy Dotrice.
* Portrayed by Simon Callow in the 2005 Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead.
1. ^ Henry James, "Our Mutual Friend", The Nation, 21 December 1865- a scathing review
2. ^ John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Book 1, Chapter 1
3. ^ Dickens, Charles (1987). Dickens' working notes for his novels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226145905.
4. ^ In conversation with Ada Leverson. Quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), p. 469.
5. ^ G. K. Chesterton, Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, Chapter 6: Curiosity Shop
6. ^ Marx, Karl (August 1, 1954). The English Middle Classes. New York Tribune. Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved on 2007-06-10.
7. ^ Hart, Christopher (May 20, 2007). What, the Dickens World?. The Sunday Times. Times Online. Retrieved on 2007-06-02.
8. ^ Serial publication dates from Chronology of Novels by E. D. H. Johnson, Holmes Professor of Belles Lettres, Princeton University. Accessed June 11, 2007
Saturday, August 4, 2007
Act IV, scenes i–ii
Summary: Act IV, scene i
Frantic after her confrontation with Hamlet, Gertrude hurries to Claudius, who is conferring with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She asks to speak to the king alone. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exit, she tells Claudius about her encounter with Hamlet. She says that he is as mad as the sea during a violent storm; she also tells Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Aghast, the king notes that had he been concealed behind the arras, Hamlet would have killed him. Claudius wonders aloud how he will be able to handle this public crisis without damaging his hold on Denmark. He tells Gertrude that they must ship Hamlet to England at once and find a way to explain Hamlet’s misdeed to the court and to the people. He calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tells them about the murder, and sends them to find Hamlet.
Summary: Act IV, scene ii
Elsewhere in Elsinore, Hamlet has just finished disposing of Polonius’s body, commenting that the corpse has been “safely stowed” (IV.ii.1). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear and ask what he has done with the body. Hamlet refuses to give them a straight answer, instead saying, “The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body” (IV.ii.25–26). Feigning offense at being questioned, he accuses them of being spies in the service of Claudius. He calls Rosencrantz a “sponge . . . that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities,” and warns him that “when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again” (IV.ii.11–19). At last he agrees to allow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort him to Claudius.
Analysis: Act IV, scenes i–ii
The short first scene of Act IV centers around Gertrude’s betrayal of her son, turning him in to the king after having promised to help him. While she does keep her promise not to reveal that Hamlet was only pretending to be insane, the immediate and frank way in which she tells Claudius about Hamlet’s behavior and his murder of Polonius implies that she sees herself as allied to the king rather than to her son. Whether Gertrude really believes Hamlet to be mad, or has simply recognized that her best interest lies in allying herself with Claudius regardless of what she believes, is impossible to determine from this scene and is largely a matter of one’s personal interpretation of the events. Whatever the case, it is Gertrude’s speech to Claudius that cements the king’s secret plan to have Hamlet executed in England.
As brief as it is, Act IV, scene i is a magnificent example of Shakespeare’s skill at developing characters, illustrated by the subtle development of Claudius. Where most of the other male characters in the play, including Hamlet, King Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, are obsessed with themes of honor, moral balance, and retributive justice, Claudius is a selfish, ambitious king who is more concerned with maintaining his own power and averting political danger than achieving justice through his rule. His response to Gertrude’s revelation that Hamlet has killed Polonius is extremely telling. Rather than considering that Gertrude might have been in danger, he immediately remarks that had he been in the room, he would have been in danger. Hamlet must be sent away from Denmark, he thinks, not as punishment for committing murder but because he represents a danger to Claudius. And as soon as he hears of the murder, Claudius’s mind begins working to find a way to characterize the killing so that it does not seem like a political crisis to his court and to the people of Denmark. To do this, he says, will require all his “majesty and skill” (IV.i.30). In this scene and the scenes to follow, Shakespeare creates in Claudius a convincing depiction of a conniving, ambitious politician. In this way, Claudius emerges as a figure of powerful contrast to the more forthright men in the play, including Laertes, Fortinbras, and Horatio, and the far more morally conscious Prince Hamlet.
Hamlet’s murder of Polonius at the end of Act III is one of the most disturbing moments in the play. If it was previously possible to consider Hamlet a “hero” or an idealized version of a human being, it is no longer possible after he kills Polonius. His sensitive, reflective nature—the trait that constantly interfered with his ability to take revenge on Claudius—now disappears in the wake of its violent opposite: a rash, murderous explosion of activity. Hamlet leaps to the conclusion that Claudius is behind the arras, or else he simply lashes out thoughtlessly. In any case, Hamlet’s moral superiority to Claudius is now thrown into question. He has killed Polonius just as Claudius killed Hamlet’s father, the only differences being that Hamlet’s murder was not premeditated and was not committed out of jealousy or ambition. Hamlet also eases his conscience with the fact that Polonius was dishonestly spying on Hamlet at the moment when he was killed. But the result of Hamlet’s deed is very similar to that of Claudius’s: Laertes and Ophelia have lost a father, just as Hamlet himself did.
Now, Hamlet hides the body. But rather than being overwhelmed with contrition, as we might expect of a hero who has committed such a terrible mistake, he seems manic, desperate, and self-righteous, especially in his condemnation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Throughout Act IV, scene ii, as in the play-within-a-play scene (Act III, scene ii), Hamlet’s biting, ironic wit is combined with his rash, impulsive streak, and his feigned madness seems very close to the real thing. Though Hamlet has many admirable qualities, scenes such as this one serve as powerful reminders that we are not meant to take the prince as an unqualified hero.
Act III, scene iv
In Gertrude’s chamber, the queen and Polonius wait for Hamlet’s arrival. Polonius plans to hide in order to eavesdrop on Gertrude’s confrontation with her son, in the hope that doing so will enable him to determine the cause of Hamlet’s bizarre and threatening behavior. Polonius urges the queen to be harsh with Hamlet when he arrives, saying that she should chastise him for his recent behavior. Gertrude agrees, and Polonius hides behind an arras, or tapestry.
Hamlet storms into the room and asks his mother why she has sent for him. She says that he has offended his father, meaning his stepfather, Claudius. He interrupts her and says that she has offended his father, meaning the dead King Hamlet, by marrying Claudius. Hamlet accosts her with an almost violent intensity and declares his intention to make her fully aware of the profundity of her sin. Fearing for her life, Gertrude cries out. From behind the arras, Polonius calls out for help. Hamlet, realizing that someone is behind the arras and suspecting that it might be Claudius, cries, “How now! a rat?” (III.iv.22). He draws his sword and stabs it through the tapestry, killing the unseen Polonius. Gertrude asks what Hamlet has done, and he replies, “Nay, I know not: / Is it the king?” (III.iv.24). The queen says his action was a “rash and bloody” deed, and Hamlet replies that it was almost as rash and bloody as murdering a king and marrying his brother (III.iv.26–28). Disbelieving, the queen exclaims, “As kill a king!” and Hamlet replies that she heard him correctly (III.iv.29).
Hamlet lifts the arras and discovers Polonius’s body: he has not killed the king and achieved his revenge but has murdered the relatively innocent Polonius. He bids the old man farewell, calling him an “intruding fool” (III.iv.30). He turns to his mother, declaring that he will wring her heart. He shows her a picture of the dead king and a picture of the current king, bitterly comments on the superiority of his father to his uncle, and asks her furiously what has driven her to marry a rotten man such as Claudius. She pleads with him to stop, saying that he has turned her eyes onto her soul and that she does not like what she sees there. Hamlet continues to denounce her and rail against Claudius, until, suddenly, the ghost of his father again appears before him.
Hamlet speaks to the apparition, but Gertrude is unable to see it and believes him to be mad. The ghost intones that it has come to remind Hamlet of his purpose, that Hamlet has not yet killed Claudius and must achieve his revenge. Noting that Gertrude is amazed and unable to see him, the ghost asks Hamlet to intercede with her. Hamlet describes the ghost, but Gertrude sees nothing, and in a moment the ghost disappears. Hamlet tries desperately to convince Gertrude that he is not mad but has merely feigned madness all along, and he urges her to forsake Claudius and regain her good conscience. He urges her as well not to reveal to Claudius that his madness has been an act. Gertrude, still shaken from Hamlet’s furious condemnation of her, agrees to keep his secret. He bids her goodnight, but, before he leaves, he points to Polonius’s corpse and declares that heaven has “punished me with this, and this with me” (III.iv.158). Hamlet reminds his mother that he must sail to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he says he will regard with suspicion, as though they were poisonous snakes, since he assumes that their loyalties are with Claudius, not with him. Dragging Polonius’s body behind him, Hamlet leaves his mother’s room.
What is Hamlet trying to do in his confrontation with his mother? It is possible that he wants her to confirm her knowledge of Claudius’s crime, to provide further proof of his guilt. Or it may be that Hamlet wants to know whether she was complicit in the crime. Or he may feel that he needs her on his side if he is to achieve justice. While all of these are possibilities, what Hamlet actually does is urge his mother to repent choosing Claudius over his own father. More specifically, he repeatedly demands that she avoid Claudius’s bed. Actually, he’s much more specific: he tells her not to let Claudius arouse her by fondling her neck, not to stay within his semen-infested sheets, and other shockingly graphic details.
This is another point in the play where audiences and readers have felt that there is more going on in Hamlet’s brain than we can quite put our fingers on. Sigmund Freud wrote that Hamlet harbors an unconscious desire to sexually enjoy his mother. Freud maintained that all men unconsciously desire their mothers in this way, and he called this the “Oedipus Complex,” after the character in Sophocles’ play who unwittingly murders his father and has several children by his own mother. Whether or not Freud was right about this is as difficult to prove as any of the problems that Hamlet worries about, but his argument in regard to Hamlet is quite remarkable. He says that while Oedipus actually enacts this fantasy, Hamlet only betrays the unconscious desire to do so. Hamlet is thus a quintessentially modern person, because he has repressed desires.
Though Gertrude’s speech in this scene is largely limited to brief reactions to Hamlet’s lengthy denunciations of her, it is our most revealing look at her character. As the scene progresses, Gertrude goes through several states of feeling: she is haughty and accusatory at the beginning, then afraid that Hamlet will hurt her, shocked and upset when Hamlet kills Polonius, overwhelmed by fear and panic as Hamlet accosts her, and disbelieving when Hamlet sees the ghost. Finally, she is contrite toward her son and apparently willing to take his part and help him. For Gertrude, then, the scene progresses as a sequence of great shocks, each of which weakens her resistance to Hamlet’s condemnation of her behavior. Of course, Gertrude is convinced mainly by Hamlet’s insistence and power of feeling, illustrating what many readers have felt to be her central characteristic: her tendency to be dominated by powerful men and her need for men to show her what to think and how to feel.
This quality explains why Gertrude would have turned to Claudius so soon after her husband’s death, and it also explains why she so quickly adopts Hamlet’s point of view in this scene. Of course, the play does not specifically explain Gertrude’s behavior. It is possible that she was complicit with Claudius in the murder of her husband, though that seems unlikely given her surprised reaction to Hamlet’s accusation in this scene, and it is possible that she merely pretends to take Hamlet’s side to placate him, which would explain why she immediately reports his behavior to Claudius after promising not to do so. But another interpretation of Gertrude’s character seems to be that she has a powerful instinct for self-preservation and advancement that leads her to rely too deeply on men. Not only does this interpretation explain her behavior throughout much of the play; it also links her thematically to Ophelia, the play’s other important female character, who is also submissive and utterly dependent on men.
Hamlet’s rash, murderous action in stabbing Polonius is an important illustration of his inability to coordinate his thoughts and actions, which might be considered his tragic flaw. In his passive, thoughtful mode, Hamlet is too beset by moral considerations and uncertainties to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, even when the opportunity is before him. But when he does choose to act, he does so blindly, stabbing his anonymous “enemy” through a curtain. It is as if Hamlet is so distrustful of the possibility of acting rationally that he believes his revenge is more likely to come about as an accident than as a premeditated act.
When he sees Polonius’s corpse, Hamlet interprets his misdeed within the terms of retribution, punishment, and vengeance: “Heaven hath pleased it so / To punish me with this, and this with me” (III.iv.157–158). Though Hamlet has not achieved his vengeance upon Claudius, he believes that God has used him as a tool of vengeance to punish Polonius’s sins and punish Hamlet’s sins by staining his soul with the murder.
Act III, scene iii
Elsewhere in the castle, King Claudius speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Badly shaken by the play and now considering Hamlet’s madness to be dangerous, Claudius asks the pair to escort Hamlet on a voyage to England and to depart immediately. They agree and leave to make preparations. Polonius enters and reminds the king of his plan to hide in Gertrude’s room and observe Hamlet’s confrontation with her. He promises to tell Claudius all that he learns. When Polonius leaves, the king is alone, and he immediately expresses his guilt and grief over his sin. A brother’s murder, he says, is the oldest sin and “hath the primal eldest curse upon’t” (III.iii.37). He longs to ask for forgiveness, but says that he is unprepared to give up that which he gained by committing the murder, namely, the crown and the queen. He falls to his knees and begins to pray.
Hamlet slips quietly into the room and steels himself to kill the unseeing Claudius. But suddenly it occurs to him that if he kills Claudius while he is praying, he will end the king’s life at the moment when he was seeking forgiveness for his sins, sending Claudius’s soul to heaven. This is hardly an adequate revenge, Hamlet thinks, especially since Claudius, by killing Hamlet’s father before he had time to make his last confession, ensured that his brother would not go to heaven. Hamlet decides to wait, resolving to kill Claudius when the king is sinning—when he is either drunk, angry, or lustful. He leaves. Claudius rises and declares that he has been unable to pray sincerely: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (III.iii.96).
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
(See Important Quotations Explained)
In Act III, scene iii, Hamlet finally seems ready to put his desire for revenge into action. He is satisfied that the play has proven his uncle’s guilt. When Claudius prays, the audience is given real certainty that Claudius murdered his brother: a full, spontaneous confession, even though nobody else hears it. This only heightens our sense that the climax of the play is due to arrive. But Hamlet waits.
On the surface, it seems that he waits because he wants a more radical revenge. Critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been horrified by Hamlet’s words here—he completely oversteps the bounds of Christian morality in trying to damn his opponent’s soul as well as kill him. But apart from this ultraviolent posturing, Hamlet has once again avoided the imperative to act by involving himself in a problem of knowledge. Now that he’s satisfied that he knows Claudius’s guilt, he wants to know that his punishment will be sufficient. It may have been difficult to prove the former, but how can Hamlet ever hope to know the fate of Claudius’s immortal soul?
Hamlet poses his desire to damn Claudius as a matter of fairness: his own father was killed without having cleansed his soul by praying or confessing, so why should his murderer be given that chance? But Hamlet is forced to admit that he doesn’t really know what happened to his father, remarking “how his audit stands, who knows, save heaven?” (III.iv.82). The most he can say is that “in our circumstance and course of thought / ’Tis heavy with him” (III.iv.83–84). The Norton Shakespeare paraphrases “in our circumstance and course of thought” as “in our indirect and limited way of knowing on earth.” Having proven his uncle’s guilt to himself, against all odds, Hamlet suddenly finds something else to be uncertain about.
At this point, Hamlet has gone beyond his earlier need to know the facts about the crime, and he now craves metaphysical knowledge, knowledge of the afterlife and of God, before he is willing to act. The audience has had plenty of opportunity to see that Hamlet is fascinated with philosophical questions. In the case of the “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, we saw that his philosophizing can be a way for him to avoid thinking about or acknowledging something more immediately important (in that case, his urge to kill himself). Is Hamlet using his speculations about Claudius’s soul to avoid thinking about something in this case? Perhaps the task he has set for himself—killing another human being in cold blood—is too much for him to face. Whatever it is, the audience may once again get the sense that there is something more to Hamlet’s behavior than meets the eye. That Shakespeare is able to convey this sense is a remarkable achievement in itself, quite apart from how we try to explain what Hamlet’s unacknowledged motives might be.
Act III, scene ii
That evening, in the castle hall now doubling as a theater, Hamlet anxiously lectures the players on how to act the parts he has written for them. Polonius shuffles by with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet dispatches them to hurry the players in their preparations. Horatio enters, and Hamlet, pleased to see him, praises him heartily, expressing his affection for and high opinion of Horatio’s mind and manner, especially Horatio’s qualities of self-control and reserve. Having told Horatio what he learned from the ghost—that Claudius murdered his father—he now asks him to watch Claudius carefully during the play so that they might compare their impressions of his behavior afterward. Horatio agrees, saying that if Claudius shows any signs of guilt, he will detect them.
The trumpets play a Danish march as the audience of lords and ladies begins streaming into the room. Hamlet warns Horatio that he will begin to act strangely. Sure enough, when Claudius asks how he is, his response seems quite insane: “Excellent, i’ faith; of the chameleon’s dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed” (III.ii.84–86). Hamlet asks Polonius about his history as an actor and torments Ophelia with a string of erotic puns.
The players enter and act out a brief, silent version of the play to come called a “dumbshow.” In the dumbshow, a king and queen display their love. The queen leaves the king to sleep, and while he is sleeping, a man murders him by pouring poison into his ear. The murderer tries to seduce the queen, who gradually accepts his advances.
The players begin to enact the play in full, and we learn that the man who kills the king is the king’s nephew. Throughout, Hamlet keeps up a running commentary on the characters and their actions, and continues to tease Ophelia with oblique sexual references. When the murderer pours the poison into the sleeping king’s ear, Claudius rises and cries out for light. Chaos ensues as the play comes to a sudden halt, the torches are lit, and the king flees the room, followed by the audience. When the scene quiets, Hamlet is left alone with Horatio.
Hamlet and Horatio agree that the king’s behavior was telling. Now extremely excited, Hamlet continues to act frantic and scatterbrained, speaking glibly and inventing little poems. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive to tell Hamlet that he is wanted in his mother’s chambers. Rosencrantz asks again about the cause of Hamlet’s “distemper,” and Hamlet angrily accuses the pair of trying to play him as if he were a musical pipe. Polonius enters to escort Hamlet to the queen. Hamlet says he will go to her in a moment and asks for a moment alone. He steels himself to speak to his mother, resolving to be brutally honest with her but not to lose control of himself: “I will speak daggers to her, but use none” (III.ii.366).
In the first two scenes of Act III, Hamlet and Claudius both devise traps to catch one another’s secrets: Claudius spies on Hamlet to discover the true nature of his madness, and Hamlet attempts to “catch the conscience of the king” in the theater (III.i.582). The play-within-a-play tells the story of Gonzago, the duke of Vienna, and his wife, Baptista, who marries his murdering nephew, Lucianus. Hamlet believes that the play is an opportunity to establish a more reliable basis for Claudius’s guilt than the claims of the ghost. Since he has no way of knowing whether to believe a member of the spirit world, he tries to determine whether Claudius is guilty by reading his behavior for signs of a psychological state of guilt.
Although Hamlet exults at the success of his stratagem, interpreting Claudius’s interruption isn’t as simple as it seems. In the first place, Claudius does not react to the dumbshow, which exactly mimics the actions of which the ghost accuses Claudius. Claudius reacts to the play itself, which, unlike the dumbshow, makes it clear that the king is murdered by his nephew. Does Claudius react to being confronted with his own crimes, or to a play about uncle-killing sponsored by his crazy nephew? Or does he simply have indigestion?
Hamlet appears more in control of his own behavior in this scene than in the one before, as shown by his effortless manipulations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his frank conversation with Horatio. He even expresses admiration and affection for Horatio’s calm level-headedness, the lack of which is his own weakest point: “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” (III.ii.64–67). In this scene he seems to prove that he is not insane after all, given the effortlessness with which he alternates between wild, erratic behavior and focused, sane behavior. He is excited but coherent during his conversation with Horatio before the play, but as soon as the king and queen enter, he begins to act insane, a sign that he is only pretending. His only questionable behavior in this scene arises in his crude comments to Ophelia, which show him capable of real cruelty. His misogyny has crossed rational bounds, and his every comment is laced with sexual innuendo. For instance, she comments, “You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” complimenting him on his sharp intellect, and he replies, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge” (III.ii.227–228). His interchange with Ophelia is a mere prelude to the passionate rage he will unleash on Gertrude in the next scene.
Act III, scene ii
That evening, in the castle hall now doubling as a theater, Hamlet anxiously lectures the players on how to act the parts he has written for them. Polonius shuffles by with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Hamlet dispatches them to hurry the players in their preparations. Horatio enters, and Hamlet, pleased to see him, praises him heartily, expressing his affection for and high opinion of Horatio’s mind and manner, especially Horatio’s qualities of self-control and reserve. Having told Horatio what he learned from the ghost—that Claudius murdered his father—he now asks him to watch Claudius carefully during the play so that they might compare their impressions of his behavior afterward. Horatio agrees, saying that if Claudius shows any signs of guilt, he will detect them.
Act III, scene i
Claudius and Gertrude discuss Hamlet’s behavior with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who say they have been unable to learn the cause of his melancholy. They tell the king and queen about Hamlet’s enthusiasm for the players. Encouraged, Gertrude and Claudius agree that they will see the play that evening. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, and Claudius orders Gertrude to leave as well, saying that he and Polonius intend to spy on Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia. Gertrude exits, and Polonius directs Ophelia to walk around the lobby. Polonius hears Hamlet coming, and he and the king hide.
Hamlet enters, speaking thoughtfully and agonizingly to himself about the question of whether to commit suicide to end the pain of experience: “To be, or not to be: that is the question” (III.i.58). He says that the miseries of life are such that no one would willingly bear them, except that they are afraid of “something after death” (III.i.80). Because we do not know what to expect in the afterlife, we would rather “bear those ills we have,” Hamlet says, “than fly to others that we know not of” (III.i.83–84). In mid-thought, Hamlet sees Ophelia approaching. Having received her orders from Polonius, she tells him that she wishes to return the tokens of love he has given her. Angrily, Hamlet denies having given her anything; he laments the dishonesty of beauty, and claims both to have loved Ophelia once and never to have loved her at all. Bitterly commenting on the wretchedness of humankind, he urges Ophelia to enter a nunnery rather than become a “breeder of sinners” (III.i.122–123). He criticizes women for making men behave like monsters and for contributing to the world’s dishonesty by painting their faces to appear more beautiful than they are. Working himself into a rage, Hamlet denounces Ophelia, women, and humankind in general, saying that he wishes to end all marriages. As he storms out, Ophelia mourns the “noble mind” that has now lapsed into apparent madness (III.i.149).
The king and Polonius emerge from behind the tapestry. Claudius says that Hamlet’s strange behavior has clearly not been caused by love for Ophelia and that his speech does not seem like the speech of insanity. He says that he fears that melancholy sits on something dangerous in Hamlet’s soul like a bird sits on her egg, and that he fears what will happen when it hatches. He declares that he will send Hamlet to England, in the hope that a change of scenery might help him get over his troubles. Polonius agrees that this is a good idea, but he still believes that Hamlet’s agitation comes from loving Ophelia. He asks Claudius to send Hamlet to Gertrude’s chamber after the play, where Polonius can hide again and watch unseen; he hopes to learn whether Hamlet is really mad with love. Claudius agrees, saying that “[m]adness in great ones” must be carefully watched (III.i.187).
“To be, or not to be” is the most famous line in English literature. What does it mean? Why are these words and what follows special?
One reason is that they are a stunning example of Shakespeare’s ability to make his characters seem three-dimensional. The audience senses that there is more to Hamlet’s words than meets the ear—that there is something behind his words that is never spoken. Or, to put it another way, the audience witnesses signs of something within Hamlet’s mind that even he isn’t aware of. Hamlet is a fictional character who seems to possess a subconscious mind. How does Shakespeare manage to accomplish this?
In the first place, Hamlet doesn’t talk directly about what he’s really talking about. When he questions whether it is better “to be, or not to be,” the obvious implication is, “Should I kill myself?” The entire soliloquy strongly suggests that he is toying with suicide and perhaps trying to work up his courage to do it. But at no point does he say that he is in pain or discuss why he wants to kill himself. In fact, he never says “I” or “me” in the entire speech. He’s not trying to “express” himself at all; instead, he poses the question as a matter of philosophical debate. When he claims that everybody would commit suicide if they weren’t uncertain about the afterlife, it sounds as if he’s making an argument to convince an imaginary listener about an abstract point rather than directly addressing how the question applies to him. Now, it’s perfectly ordinary for characters in plays to say something other than what they mean to other characters (this suggests that they are consciously hiding their true motives), but Hamlet does it when he’s talking to himself. This creates the general impression that there are things going on in Hamlet’s mind that he can’t think about directly.
While we’re on the subject of what’s going on inside Hamlet’s mind, consider his encounter with Ophelia. This conversation, closely watched by Claudius and Polonius, is, in fact, a test. It’s supposed to establish whether Hamlet’s madness stems from his lovesickness over Ophelia. Before we, the audience, see this encounter, we already think we know more than Claudius does: we know that Hamlet is only acting crazy, and that he’s doing it to hide the fact that he’s plotting against (or at least investigating) his uncle. Therefore, it can’t be true that he’s acting mad because of his love for Ophelia. But witnessing Hamlet’s encounter with her throws everything we think we know into question.
Does Hamlet mean what he says to Ophelia? He says that he did love her once but that he doesn’t love her now. There are several problems with concluding that Hamlet says the opposite of what he means in order to appear crazy. For one thing, if he really does love her, this is unnecessarily self-destructive behavior. It’s unnecessary because it doesn’t accomplish very much; that is, it doesn’t make Claudius suspect him less. His professions of former love make him appear fickle, or emotionally withdrawn, rather than crazy.
Is Hamlet really crazy or just pretending? He announced ahead of time that he was going to act crazy, so it’s hard to conclude that he (coincidentally) really went mad right after saying so. But his behavior toward Ophelia is both self-destructive and fraught with emotional intensity. It doesn’t obviously further his plans. Moreover, his bitterness against Ophelia, and against women in general, resonates with his general discontentedness about the state of the world, the same discontentedness that he expresses when he thinks no one is watching. There is a passionate intensity to his unstable behavior that keeps us from viewing it as fake.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to ask this question: if a person in a rational state of mind decides to act as if he is crazy, to abuse the people around him regardless of whether he loves those people or hates them, and to give free expression to all of his most antisocial thoughts, when he starts to carry those actions out, will it even be possible to say at what point he stops pretending to be crazy and starts actually being crazy?
Act II, scene ii
Within the castle, Claudius and Gertrude welcome Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s friends from Wittenberg. Increasingly concerned about Hamlet’s erratic behavior and his apparent inability to recover from his father’s death, the king and queen have summoned his friends to Elsinore in the hope that they might be able to cheer Hamlet out of his melancholy, or at least discover the cause of it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to investigate, and the queen orders attendants to take them to her “too much changed” son
Polonius enters, announcing the return of the ambassadors whom Claudius sent to Norway. Voltimand and Cornelius enter and describe what took place with the aged and ailing king of Norway: the king rebuked Fortinbras for attempting to make war on Denmark, and Fortinbras swore he would never again attack the Danes. The Norwegian king, overjoyed, bequeathed upon Fortinbras a large annuity, and urged him to use the army he had assembled to attack the Poles instead of the Danes. He has therefore sent a request back to Claudius that Prince Fortinbras’s armies be allowed safe passage through Denmark on their way to attack the Poles. Relieved to have averted a war with Fortinbras’s army, Claudius declares that he will see to this business later. Voltimand and Cornelius leave.
Turning to the subject of Hamlet, Polonius declares, after a wordy preamble, that the prince is mad with love for Ophelia. He shows the king and queen letters and love poems Hamlet has given to Ophelia, and proposes a plan to test his theory. Hamlet often walks alone through the lobby of the castle, and, at such a time, they could hide behind an arras (a curtain or wall hanging) while Ophelia confronts Hamlet, allowing them to see for themselves whether Hamlet’s madness really emanates from his love for her. The king declares that they will try the plan. Gertrude notices that Hamlet is approaching, reading from a book as he walks, and Polonius says that he will speak to the prince. Gertrude and Claudius exit, leaving Polonius alone with Hamlet.
Polonius attempts to converse with Hamlet, who appears insane; he calls the old man a “fishmonger” and answers his questions irrationally. But many of Hamlet’s seemingly lunatic statements hide barbed observations about Polonius’s pomposity and his old age. Polonius comments that while Hamlet is clearly mad, his replies are often “pregnant” with meaning (II.ii.206). He hurries away, determined to arrange the meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia.
As Polonius leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, and Hamlet seems pleased to see them. They discuss Hamlet’s unhappiness about recent affairs in Denmark. Hamlet asks why they have come. Sheepishly, the two men claim they have come merely to visit Hamlet, but he sternly declares that he knows that the king and queen sent for them. They confess this to be true, and Hamlet says that he knows why: because he has lost all of his joy and descended into a state of melancholy in which everything (and everyone) appears sterile and worthless.
Rosencrantz smiles and says he wonders how Hamlet will receive a theatrical troupe that is currently traveling toward the castle. The trumpets blow, announcing the arrival of the actors (or “players”). Hamlet tells his friends they are welcome to stay at Elsinore, but that his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” are deceived in his madness. He is mad only some of the time and at other times is sane.
Polonius enters to announce the arrival of the players, who follow him into the room. Hamlet welcomes them and entreats one of them to give him a speech about the fall of Troy and the death of the Trojan king and queen, Priam and Hecuba. Impressed with the player’s speech, Hamlet orders Polonius to see them escorted to guestrooms. He announces that the next night they will hear “The Murder of Gonzago” performed, with an additional short speech that he will write himself. Hamlet leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and now stands alone in the room.
He immediately begins cursing himself, bitterly commenting that the player who gave the speech was able to summon a depth of feeling and expression for long-dead figures who mean nothing to him, while Hamlet is unable to take action even with his far more powerful motives. He resolves to devise a trap for Claudius, forcing the king to watch a play whose plot closely resembles the murder of Hamlet’s father; if the king is guilty, he thinks, he will surely show some visible sign of guilt when he sees his sin reenacted on stage. Then, Hamlet reasons, he will obtain definitive proof of Claudius’s guilt. “The play’s the thing,” he declares, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (II.ii.581–582).
If Hamlet is merely pretending to be mad, as he suggests, he does almost too good a job of it. His portrayal is so convincing that many critics contend that his already fragile sanity shatters at the sight of his dead father’s ghost. However, the acute and cutting observations he makes while supposedly mad support the view that he is only pretending. Importantly, he declares, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (II.ii.361–362). That is, he is only “mad” at certain calculated times, and the rest of the time he knows what is what. But he is certainly confused and upset, and his confusion translates into an extraordinarily intense state of mind suggestive of madness. .
This scene, by far the longest in the play, includes several important revelations and furthers the development of some of the play’s main themes. The scene contains four main parts: Polonius’s conversation with Claudius and Gertrude, which includes the discussion with the ambassadors; Hamlet’s conversation with Polonius, in which we see Hamlet consciously feigning madness for the first time; Hamlet’s reunion with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the scene with the players, followed by Hamlet’s concluding soliloquy on the theme of action. These separate plot developments take place in the same location and occur in rapid succession, allowing the ausdience to compare and contrast their thematic elements.
We have already seen the developing contrast between Hamlet and Laertes. The section involving the Norwegian ambassadors develops another important contrast, this time between Hamlet and Fortinbras. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the grieving son of a dead king, a prince whose uncle inherited the throne in his place. But where Hamlet has sunk into despair, contemplation, and indecision, Fortinbras has devoted himself to the pursuit of revenge. This contrast will be explored much more thoroughly later in the play. Here, it is important mainly to note that Fortinbras’s uncle has forbidden him to attack Denmark but given him permission to ride through Denmark on his way to attack Poland. This at least suggests the possibility that the King of Norway is trying to trick Claudius into allowing a hostile army into his country. It is notable that Claudius appears indifferent to the fact that a powerful enemy will be riding through his country with a large army in tow. Claudius seems much more worried about Hamlet’s madness, indicating that where King Hamlet was a powerful warrior who sought to expand Denmark’s power abroad, Claudius is a politician who is more concerned about threats from within his state.
The arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the most enigmatic figures in Hamlet, is another important development. These two characters are manipulated by all of the members of the royal family and seem to exist in a state of fear that they will offend the wrong person or give away the wrong secret at the wrong time. One of the strangest qualities of the two men is their extraordinary similarity. In fact, Shakespeare leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost entirely undifferentiated from one another. “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,” Claudius says, and Gertrude replies, “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” almost as though it does not matter which is which (II.ii.33–34). The two men’s questioning of Hamlet is a parody of a Socratic dialogue. They propose possibilities, develop ideas according to rational argument, and find their attempts to understand Hamlet’s behavior entirely thwarted by his uncooperative replies.
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
(See Important Quotations Explained)
The other important event in this scene is the arrival of the players. The presence of players and play-acting within the play points to an important theme: that real life is in certain ways like play-acting. Hamlet professes to be amazed by the player king’s ability to engage emotionally with the story he is telling even though it is only an imaginative recreation. Hamlet is prevented from responding to his own situation because he doesn’t have certain knowledge about it, but the player king, and theater audiences in general, can respond feelingly even to things they know to be untrue. In fact, most of the time people respond to their real-life situations with feelings and actions that are not based on certain knowledge. This is what Hamlet refuses to do. His refusal to act like he knows what he’s doing when he really doesn’t may be construed as heroic and appropriate, or quixotic and impossible. In either case, Hamlet’s plan to trap the king by eliciting an emotional response is highly unsound: Claudius’s feelings about a play could never be construed as a reliable index of its truth.