Imagination and Realism in Hamlet

Imagination and Realism in Hamlet

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Imagination and Realism in Hamlet

    Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet is a composite of poetic and realistic elements. Which predominates? This paper analyzes the presence of both realism and imagination.


Richard A. Lanham in “Superposed Plays” discusses the poetic or imaginative side of Hamlet:


The real doubt comes when we ask, “What poetic do we bring to the Hamlet play?” As several of its students have pointed out, it is a wordy play. Eloquence haunts it. Horatio starts the wordiness by supplying a footnote from ancient Rome in the first scene, by improving the occasion with informative reflections. Everybody laughs at Polonius for his moralizing glosses but Hamlet is just as bad. Worse. Gertrude asks him, in the second scene, why he grieves to excess and he gives us a disquisition on seeming and reality in grief. The King follows with h is bravura piece on grief. Everybody moralizes the pageant. The Hamlet play abounds with triggers for straight revenge-tragedy response. The whole “mystery” of Hamlet’s hesitant revenge boils down to wondering why he doesn’t go ahead and play his traditional part, complete with the elegant rants we know he can deliver. (89)


The real battle in the play between imagination and realism is forcefully presented by another literary critic. Harold Goddard’s essay, “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” highlights this battle in the play:


Hamlet, the conclusion is, is a failure because the materials Shakespeare inherited were too tough and intractable. Too tough and intractable for what? That they were too tough and intractable for a credible historical picture may be readily granted. But what of it? And since when was poetry supposed to defer to history? Two world wars in three decades ought to have taught us that our history has not gone deep enough. But poetry has. The greatest poetry has always depicted the world as a little citadel of nobility threatened by an immense barbarism, a flickering candle surrounded by infinite night. The “historical” impossibility of Hamlet is its poetical truth, and the paradox of its central figure is the universal psychology of man. (14)


The play opens on the ramparts of Elsinore castle – a very realistic setting. But very soon the imaginative element of a ghost, the likeness of dead King Hamlet, makes its appearance before Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio. Mysteriously, it says nothing, prompting Horatio and Marcellus to leave in search of Hamlet, the prince and their friend, who might be able to interpret this spectral figure.

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Hamlet is meanwhile at a courtly gettogether with his stepfather Claudius, the king, his mother, Gertrude, the queen, the royal chamberlain’s family, and courtiers. Hamlet, deeply grieved over the quick marriage of his mother to his father’s brother, is more idealistic than others in the court. They more truly reflect a realistic presentation in that they could care less about such issues. The first soliloquy occurs when the hero is left alone after the royal social gathering in the room of state. It emphasizes the general corruption of society and the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother – thus expressing a rather imaginatively idealistic outlook on the situation:


O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

     Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

     Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

     His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

     How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

     Seem to me all the uses of this world!

     Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,

     That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

     Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

     But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:

     So excellent a king; that was, to this,

     Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother

     That he might not beteem the winds of heaven

     Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!

     Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,

     As if increase of appetite had grown

     By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--

     Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!—(1.2)


Regarding the prince’s reference to the corrupt world as “an unweeded garden,” Northrop Frye’s “Nature and Nothing” explains the imaginative overtones which the Bard insinuates when he employs imagery from nature:


Nature, as we ordinarily use the term, means the order of physical existence which forms our environment, the objective or external aspect of our own lives, the world of animals and plants and mineral, surrounded with the sea and the sky. Nature means this in Shakespeare too, of course, but always with its imaginative and poetic overtones. (37)


The first soliloquy ends with the arrival of Horatio, the hero’s closest friend (“Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man / As e'er my conversation coped withal.”), and Marcellus, who escort the prince to the ramparts of Elsinore to view the ghost of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, which they have seen. At one a.m. the ghost, ironically a sinner suffering in the afterlife (West 110), reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The Ghost says that King Hamlet  was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests a “restorative” revenge (Gooch 1) by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Hamlet swears to carry out vengeance on King Claudius for the murder of his father.


With the ghost’s revelations, Hamlet will be impacted very realistically by the corrupt world; he “is not to be allowed simply to endure a rotten world, he must also act in it” (Mack 258). He will be forced to maneuver, to manipulate, to do whatever in order to execute the wish of his father’s spirit. To help himself accomplish this, the hero resolves to put on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions – a very imaginative twist to the plot. His girlfriend, Ophelia, is unfortunately the first to experience the hero’s new “madness,” and she is traumatized by his visit. Her father, Polonius, diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate the prince on behalf of Claudius and “kindly, slow witted” (Pitt 47) Gertrude. When they leave him, he speaks his third soliloquy and expresses disgust at his machinations in pursuit of the goal:


Now I am alone.

     O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

 [. . .] Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

     That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,

     Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

     Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,

     And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

     A scullion! (2.2)


While the prince has been ruminating over how to establish the king’s guilt, Ophelia has been agreeing to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. At the time of the “chance” meeting, Hamlet is already feeling quite low, and perhaps even contemplating suicide – a most realistic attitude for this idealistic hero:


To be, or not to be: that is the question:

     Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

     The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

     Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

     And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

     No more; and by a sleep to say we end

     The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

     That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation

     Devoutly to be wish'd. (3.1)


When the hero suspects Ophelia’s collaboration with others as a decoy or lure for himself, he is completely alienated from her: “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Shortly thereafter, the hero, an actor himself  (Rosenberg 63), redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet. With Horatio and Hamlet observing the king’s reaction, Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder of his brother. Consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge and deadly realism floods the play:


Tis now the very witching time of night,

     When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out

     Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,

     And do such bitter business as the day

     Would quake to look on. (3.2)


En route to his mother’s room, Hamlet passes Claudius kneeling in prayer in the chapel, but refrains from killing him because the king’s soul might not go to the punishing flames of hell (Kliman 155):


Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

     And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;

     And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:

     A villain kills my father; and for that,

     I, his sole son, do this same villain send

     To heaven. (3.3)


The disconcerted hero continues on to his mother’s room. While conversing with her, the very emotionally upset Hamlet reacts hastily to a spy (Polonius) behind the arras and runs him through with his rapier. His mother’s tears and the bleeding corpse on the floor cast a realistic hue over the scene. The killing of Polonius, plus the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows the king murdered King Hamlet, cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England with an unsuspecting escort (Madariaga) -- where the Prince will be put to death (so realistic that it hurts). Hamlet laments the obstacles to his revenge:


How all occasions do inform against me,

     And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,

     If his chief good and market of his time

     Be but to sleep and feed? (4.4)


In the meantime, the realistic developments continue to crop up: Ophelia loses her sanity because of the rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France to avenge his father’s death and sister’s insanity; he allies with Claudius to scheme Hamlet’s death (The prince has been kidnapped by pirates en route to England and is now returning to Elsinore). Ophelia dies by drowning and, following her burial, Claudius and Laertes implement their plan to kill the hero either by poisoned rapier or by poisoned drink. The queen drinks the poisoned cup, and both Laertes and Hamlet are fatally wounded by the foil. As he dies, Laertes has a conversion to his former upright mode of conduct and reveals Claudius as the villain – a bit of imagination by the Bard! Hamlet dispatches him promptly – without a soliloquy: “The point!--envenom'd too! Then, venom, to thy work.”


An imaginatively beautiful burial for the protagonist is prescribed by Fortinbras:


Let four captains

     Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;

     For he was likely, had he been put on,

     To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,

     The soldiers' music and the rites of war

     Speak loudly for him. (5.2)


It has been shown in the above review of the tragedy that the play is a mixture of both imaginative and realistic elements. Which predominates? Perhaps it may be helpful to read the comments of Harry Levin in the General Introduction to The Riverside Shakespeare:


During the later eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s interpreters practiced what Bernard Shaw liked to call “Bardolatry.” They all but deified the Bard of Avon because he was the creator of so many characters who could be treated as if they were human beings – could be identified with, psychologized over, arraigned for moral judgment. Shakespeare’s full-bodied realism, as opposed to the more formal characterization of continental drama, meanwhile triumphed over the barriers of verse translation. (2)


It would seem that Shakespeare’s realism is remembered as the more dominant of the two features considered in this essay. But Robert B. Heilman in “The Role We Give Shakespeare” indicates how the Bard’s rich imagination is the cause which gives the effect of universality of appreciation to his work:


Shakespeare has both feet on the ground; but in him the common ground is transfigured, revealed in a new dimension; nothing is too mean for him, but the mean itself is raised to a supernal plane. Shakespeare is the ultimate all-purpose book, with imaginative breadth and depth, for a humanity not limited by age or sex, immediately open to all who will read (a view not entirely shared by the caste of professional interpreters). (12)




Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.


-       - -, ed. “William Shakespeare.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 1996.


Frye, Northrop. “Nature and Nothing.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.


Goddard, Harold. “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951.


Gooch, Bryan N. S. "Review of The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 5.1-6


Heilman, Robert B. “The Role We Give Shakespeare.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.


Kliman, Bernice W..  “A Television Interpretation of Hamlet.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Hamlet: Film, Television and Audio Performance. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. P., 1988.


Lanham, Richard A. “Superposed Plays.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Rpt. from The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. N.p.: Yale University Press, 1976.


Levin, Harry. General Introduction. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.


Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Yale Review. vol. 41 (1952) p. 502-23. Rpt. in Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.


Madariaga, Salvador de. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” On Hamlet. 2nd ed. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1964. p.14-16. N. pag.


Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.


Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1992.


Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995.


West, Rebecca. “A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Court and the Castle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957.

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