The Hamlet Effect

Image by Michelle Gia, Flickr, Creative Commons

The active properties of sharing – what it means to be bound to others through the common experience of a textual/dramatic artifact.

By Dr. Holly Crocker
Professor of English
University of South Carolina

Until very recently, I have avoided writing about Hamlet. With the occasional exception, I have also avoided teaching Shakespeare’s most famous play. I might have casually referred to this avoidance as “The Hamlet Effect.” My reasons for ignoring one of the Anglophone world’s most recognizable cultural scripts fall somewhere between intimidation and resignation: with so much cultural investment, from learned commentary to popular reference, I’d long thought there was little “undiscovered country” (3.1.81) left in this well-turned terrain.[1]

What I’d failed to appreciate is the value of a text that is as widely shared as Hamlet. I had neglected to contemplate the active properties of sharing, of what it means to be bound to others through the common experience of a textual/dramatic artifact. I had accepted the text as given to me, rather than thinking through aspects of Hamlet that might not cohere with the play’s overarching focus on the young prince’s struggle. The most urgent of these aspects, now that I’ve finally returned to the play afresh, is the play’s treatment of those characters Hamlet deems disposable, or those characters who muddle his attempts to find moral clarity about the vengeance he seeks against Claudius. Ophelia is one such character, but, as I discuss elsewhere, the gendered dimensions of her psychic undoing make her death a point of shame in the play (“something is rotten in the state of Denmark [1.4.67]).[2]

The demise of other characters—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example—is not afforded the same degree of moral heft.[3] Because they are presented as fawning and insincere, the deaths of Hamlet’s school chums only index the growing disarray of the Danish court. Because Hamlet sees them as disposable, in other words, their deaths do not count in the same fashion as others’. In this vein, no character suffers the indignities of Hamlet’s disregard more strikingly than Polonius. To say that the old man is tedious is to offer an understated characterization of the young prince’s attitude towards the senior counselor: “This counselor / Is now most still, most secret, and most grave, / Who was in life a foolish prating knave” (3.4.188-89). Over the years, much ink has been spilled about his role: his proverbs echo teachings of the ancient rhetorician Isocrates, but scholars remain divided over whether these are just a tired recirculation of worn adages that every schoolboy might have known, or an upright deployment of respectable wisdom that a prudent father and counselor might have endorsed.[4] There is evidence that his counsel is still valued, since his instruction is frequently cited out of context: “[T]o thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.78-80). It is only when this guidance is attached to Polonius that its wisdom becomes suspect.

This devaluation is directly traceable to Hamlet’s mistreatment. After Hamlet kills Polonius, he disappears the old man’s body, unleashing a series of events that result in the play’s cascade of deaths. Without a body, the inability to mourn draws Laertes back to Elsinore. Hamlet’s continued disrespect for Polonius drives the young man into a moral cycle of vengeance that is not too far removed from that of the play’s titular protagonist. Ophelia’s destruction, too, proceeds directly from her former suitor’s disrespect for her deceased father’s remains. She unravels in a scene that underscores the wrongs done to Polonius’s memory:

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies; that’s for thoughts…There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. (4.5.173-4; 178-81)

The grief of Polonius’s children is not widely shared. His foolishness supposedly excuses his murder, so much so that Saul Bellow icily if wittily remarked, “One of the nice things about Hamlet is that Polonius gets stabbed.”[5] As the old counselor’s dishonorable death affirms, certain bodies are not just “ungrievable,” to use Judith Butler’s way of putting it, they are socially and ethically dispensable.[6] Pondering how the play convinces audiences to overlook Hamlet’s trespass opens a different vista on the play’s moral landscape: it produces a different “Hamlet effect.” The play’s focus—which has rightly attracted critical focus—is on the development of a certain form of subjectivity, what Katharine Eisaman Maus investigates as “an unexpressed interior and a theatricalized exterior.”[7]

This emergence is not enabling; instead, Polonius’s murder uncovers its ethical costs. The ghost presses a specific mode of action, of being in the world, upon Hamlet; and, though the aggrieved son knows he might be damned by what the senior Hamlet’s specter demands of him, he is obligated to take on the role of revenger anyway. To redress a murder he must become a murderer, in short. The play justifies Claudius’s death by detailing his duplicitous treachery, but the moral poverty of Hamlet’s position is revealed with Polonius’s unceremonious dispatch.

The tragedy of this play, then, lies in the ways that we are sometimes asked to assume roles that will destroy us as moral beings. It is a critical habit to detect greatness as a byproduct of Hamlet’s revenge. Yet if we look more fully at the retribution that embroils the young prince, there is little evidence to suggest Hamlet’s self-awareness makes up for the fact that his vengeance cheapens the lives of others. The play might present those others as relatively insignificant. But when we are conscripted into centralizing the importance of one life over another, we should pause to examine the stratagems that have been worked upon us.

Because, let me hasten to add, I point to Hamlet’s ethical deficiency not to condemn Shakespeare’s play. I’m convinced, in fact, that Shakespeare calls us to notice the young prince’s loss of moral bearing. Indeed, the proper response to the play’s conclusion is included within the play text itself: when Fortinbras encounters the grisly scene of death at the play’s close, his bewildered reaction furnishes an ethical model: “This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death, / What feast is toward in thine eternal cell / That thou so many princes at a shot / So bloodily has struck!” (5.2.308-311). That we have been witness to the escalation of violence that leads to this horrific tableau should caution us to attend more carefully to moments when what seemed like simple, even straightforward, reprisal might become more complicated, compromised, or even corrupted.

If we think something like the events Hamlet dramatizes could never happen to us (wherein the ghost of one’s murdered father demands vengeance)—well, okay, we are probably correct about that in the particulars. But we are often called upon not to care when certain lives are rendered disposable, and there are plenty of instances in our digital world where what initially seems like straightforward retaliation gets out of hand. For the latter, one need only think of the practice of Internet shaming, some of the most high-profile cases of which have gone viral through social media. Even after time passes, we might dimly remember Justine Sacco, or the “racist AIDS joke-/South Africa-woman,” as one of my friends called her, or Lindsey Stone, or “the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier-rude gesture-woman,” as she’s known to some of her online enemies. Jon Ronson is chronicling these cases, which seem new for their ability to reduce a person to a single online trespass.[8] We might agree with internet columnist Archibald Perkins, who entitled her response to Ronson’s New York Times feature, “I Don’t Feel Sorry for Stupid White People on the Internet,”[9]; nevertheless, to treat these lives as if they don’t matter, despite, or even on account of, their bare, fumbling foolishness, is to restage the collectivizing disregard that Hamlet cultivates to excuse his act of rash violence against Polonius.

It is not as if these people are murdered. But, as the shame-and-troll cycle of Internet culture spins out of control, lives are ruined. Some of these lives are lesser, we might think, because they are racist, sexist, or just unbelievably stupid. Shakespeare’s Hamlet cautions us against espousing this attitude: it is not that we shouldn’t call out inane or wrong ideas—Hamlet is not mistaken to view Polonius as tedious, pompous, and overbearing. He errs, however, when he acts as if Polonius’s very life doesn’t matter. Shakespeare’s play shows us the violence inherent to a particular strain of folly, which, in no small irony, dangerously derives from moments when we are morally right, ethically just.

Hamlet is right in his conviction that his father’s murder needs to be redressed; his uncle Claudius is, as Hamlet exclaims, a “Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain!” (2.2.557-58). His mother Gertrude, too, needs to be recalled from moral blindness, since her “o’er-hasty marriage” makes her at least casually complicit in the treachery that led to her husband’s replacement (2.2.57). Hamlet feels just in his conviction “That one may smile and smile and be a villain” (1.5.109), because he is just in this conviction. He goes astray, however, because of a funny little trick of being in the world, one that he’s probably more subject to than the rest of us, and one that the short-storyist George Saunders put best in a commencement speech to Syracuse graduates in 2013: we are all, Saunders explains, “born with a series of built-in confusions,” the most devastating of which, I would say, is the belief that, as Saunders puts it, “we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really).”[10] Now, if you are the protagonist in a drama entitled The Tragedie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, you perhaps get more slack than the rest of us in pursuing your life as a self-centering endeavor.[11]

Yet, and as I want to emphasize, Shakespeare’s play cautions us against seeing ourselves in such terms. When we do, at minimum we miss out on the lives of others, even if we are right in our conviction that those lives are foolish, or ethically diminished in their outlook or conduct. At worst, we find ourselves responsible for the destruction of those “lesser” lives. Sam Biddle, the Gawker blogger who originally retweeted Justine Sacco’s disastrous “joke,” revisited his part in her online shaming:

The internet is a mountain, and if you climb that mountain, waiting for you at the top will be the person with whom you need to make peace. I climbed my mountain and a woman named Justine Sacco was there.[12]

A year earlier Biddle had, without much thought, he claims, retweeted what he knew was a poorly worded missive by Justine Sacco: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding I’m White!” What Biddle could not have known, even if he recognized her tweet as one that would generate outrage, and therefore traffic, is that Sacco’s post would misfire so colossally that it would garner its own hashtag with a global following of enraged internet users. Calls for Sacco to be fired were the least of it: by the time Sacco arrived in South Africa, several hours after she posted what many took to be a racist tweet, there were people waiting at the airport to take her picture—all the better to witness the moment as she was publicly humiliated. As Biddle recounts it, what had started as casual condemnation of an inarguably stupid, arguably racist, remark had provoked a worldwide chorus of jeering, sometimes abusive, shaming.

Sacco’s life as she had known it was destroyed. Biddle returns to his part in this drama because he regrets the damage his unthinking act caused. As he explains, he had to apologize to Sacco, because, even if he’d convinced himself that his act was just, he couldn’t look at her and not feel sorry for the ruin he brought upon her. Truth is, what Biddle did was not wrong: Sacco tweeted her remark, after all. But Biddle’s reflective revisitation should cause all of us to pause before we casually subject another person to shame, even that which is deserved.

Like the many with whom we share our digitized world, we are not at the center of a drama of vengeance or retribution. When we see stupid things or unjust things—even criminal things—our task is not to define ourselves in response to those things. This is not to say that we should not respond. We should practice justice, and see injustice in our midst punished. But we shouldn’t extract purity of self by doling out punishment (even deserved punishment) against others. Our identity should not be defined in relation to punishment, revenge, or shame. The harder task, rather, is to figure out how to go on being open to the lives of others, even in a world that does not reward or even justify such behavior. Hamlet’s first tragedy is his loss of openness. Because he is at the center of his own revenger’s-plot, he cannot see those around him as deserving of his regard. When Polonius asks him, “What do you read, my lord?” he responds, “Words, words, words” (2.2.190-91). Words are never just words, especially in a world where digital culture makes what we say ephemeral and indelible at once.

This slight is casual, but it is a prelude to the devastating violence that follows. “The Hamlet effect,” as I’m sketching it, then, is the distillation of self that results from punishing others. Hamlet wants to be seen as a revenger, as someone who pursues the righteous path of retribution against corrupt others. Yet, one of the things Shakespeare’s play shows us is the ethical insufficiency of pitting a solitary, self-centered individual against any number of others. When we define ourselves in this way—as the just actor extracting vengeance from the corrupt—we lose what made us good in the first place. When we pursue the punishment of another, we should do so with the awareness that we will be sorry for what we have had to do. Sam Biddle, the Gawker blogger I mentioned earlier, comes up against this uncomfortable reality: when he hears from Justine Sacco, six months after his retweet set off an international storm of Internet shaming, he says “There was a ghost speaking directly into my Gmail inbox.”[13] When that happens, when ghosts press us about committed wrongs, we should accept the charge, but not the identity, that goes along with righting the wrongs in our midst.


  1. All references to Hamlet, hereafter cited parenthetically, are to Hamlet, in The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus. (New York: Norton, 2008), 336-424.
  2. I discuss Ophelia’s treatment in my book-in-progress, The Matter of Virtue: Women’s Ethical Action from Chaucer to Shakespeare. My thinking is informed by the ground-breaking arguments by Lynda Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA 97 (1982): 325-347; Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), 77-94; Sandra Fischer, “Hearing Ophelia: Gender and Tragic Discourse in Hamlet,” Renaissance and Reformation 14 (1990): 1-10; and R.S. White, “Jeptha’s Daughters: Men’s Constructions of Women in Hamlet,” Constructing Gender: Feminism in Literary Studies, ed. Hilary Fraser and R.S. White (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1994), 73-90.
  3. Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), is filled with action that doesn’t register because it is not part of the central protagonist’s consciousness.
  4. A debate over Polonius’s rhetorical stature broke out in the 1950s. Josephine Waters Bennett started all the fuss with her article, “Characterization in Polonius’ Advice to Laertes,” Shakespeare Quarterly 4 (1953): 3-9. Responses included O.B. Davis, “A Note on the Function of Polonius’ Advice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 7 (1956): 275-76; G.K. Hunter, “Isocrates’ Precepts and Polonius’ Character,” Shakespeare Quarterly 8 (1957): 501-06; and Elkin Calhoun Wilson, “Polonius in the Round,” Shakespeare Quarterly 9 (1958): 83-85.
  5. Quoted in Catharine R. Stimpson, “Polonius, Our Pundit,” American Scholar 71 (2002): 97-108 [99].
  6. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 128–51; Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2009), 1–32.
  7. Katharine Eisaman Maus, Inwardness and Theater in the English Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 2.
  8. Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (London: Riverhead, 2015). Excerpts from the book, which offer different takes on Sacco’s and Stone’s stories, appear as: “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life,” New York Times Magazine, February 15, 2015, p. MM20:; and “’Overnight, everything I loved was gone’: the internet shaming of Lindsey Stone”:
  11. This is the play’s title in the 1623 First Folio.
  13. Ibid.