Temperance in Hamlet


Hamlet is an archetypal tragic hero: high‑born, flawed, isolated from the ordinary folk in his society, yet ultimately their saviour. Like Oedipus he restores health to a sick society, but his death must result from the restorative action. The early Hamlet is virtuous, yet untested. His career will be a process whereby he must move from the paradise of knowledge of good only into the fallen world of man. He must first overcome a defect of passion, then resist the temptations to despair (excess of grief) as a result of his vision of evil and awareness of the general taint, and ultimately triumph by becoming god's agent, his "scourge and minister"; this will be his vocation, and by fulfilling it he adheres to Plato's definition of temperance as "doing one's own work."1 ,

As has often been pointed out, the world of Claudian Elsinore is diseased, disordered—it typifies the fallen world. It is an unweeded garden, and "things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." And the king, symbol of the state, is himself corrupt.

Francisco first strikes the oft‑reiterated note of illness, telling Barnardo that he is "sick at heart." (1,1,8) Indeed, the state, whose chief member, Claudius is an emblem of intem­perance, must reflect his sickness. Early in the play, Hamlet is shocked out of his psychological childhood, realizing that the healthy state of his father's is now "out of joint" and that he must "set it right."

Significantly, Plato's conception of temperance is inex­tricably linked to the quest for health. The discussion of temperance in Charmides, or Temperance is based upon curing Socrates' illness. In fact, to Socrates, "health" becomes synonymous with temperance: man will necessarily be healthy if he attains the state of temperance, for health in the soul must result in health in the body. It is, however, in the Gorgias where one meets with the traditional definition of temperance: self‑mastery, the control of pleasures and appetites in oneself. In the Gorgias we turn from man the microcosm ' to a consideration of the macrocosm. Socrates likens the excellence of the temperate body and soul to the excellence of the state:

Now the excellence of anything, whether it be an im­plement or a physical body or a soul or any living being is not manifested at random in its highest form, but springs from a certain order and rightness and art appropriate in each case ....The excellence of a thing depends on its having a certain ordered beauty....If a disciplined soul is good, a soul in the opposite condition...a soul marked by folly and licence, will be bad....The man who is disciplined will behave with propriety towards God and man....This seems to me the goal that one shall have in view throughout one's life; we can win happiness only by bending all our own efforts and those of the state to the realization of uprightness and self‑discipline, not by allowing our appetites to go unchecked. 2

Aristotle's continence parallels Plato's temperance:

"the continent man, knowing that his appetites are bad, refuses on account of his rational principle to follow them ....The continent man, unlike the temperate man, does have strong and bad appetites."3 However, Renaissance thinkers appear to have used the terms interchangeably, and the most common term applied to the Greek concept of sophrosyne (self‑knowledge and self-­restraint) is"temperance."4 Thus what W.B.C. Watkins says about Spenser's use of the two terms applies equally to Shakespeare:

Spenser loosely calls Guyon Temperance; actually he chooses Continence rather than Temperance, because Aristotelian Temperance (absolute control by reason) is static, while Continence involves struggle with the emotions. Occasionally Spenser shifts from Continence to Temperance: in the beginning the Palmer is constantly at Guyon's elbow to restrain him, for in the Pyrochles and Cymochles episodes Guyon shows more emotion than Aristotelian Temperance allows; he becomes Temperance, generally speaking, when separated from the Palmer and on his own. 5

To this cluster of ideas, one must add an etymological relationship of temperance to time. Leo Spitzer argues that

temperance is etymologically linked to tem us which originally must have designated a segment of time ....The definition of tempus as 'the right time shows its correspondence with Greek kairos—the right measure ...right time….Accordingly temperare would mean an intervention at the right time and in the right measure, by a wise 'moderator' who adjusts, adapts, mixes....Any purposeful activity which proceeds with a view to correcting excesses was called temperare.6

Then too, one thinks here in this context of Northrop Frye's idea of temperance: This feeling for the right time (italics mine) ramifies into all the imagery of The Tempest.…Patience is one of the two virtues personified in the dialogue (in The Winter's Tale); the other is the 'delicate wench Temperance,the central virtue of all comedies, the etymology of which connects it, like the word tempest itself, with time (tempestas) and the distribution of time.

­In Act 5, Hamlet will embody a character whose purposeful activity—the killing of Claudius (and the schooling of Gertrude) will correct the excesses of Elsinore, and thus restore it to health. For Claudius fits perfectly the Socratic definition of the bad soul, and as early as Act 1 Hamlet remarks upon his licence if not his folly, likening him to a satyr in comparison with his Hyperion‑like father. Hamlet's conviction that Claudius is a lecher is reinforced by the ghost's referring to Claudius as "that incestuous ...adulterate beast" (1,5,42).  And the disease motif is made concrete as the ghost describes the effects of the poison upon his own erstwhile healthy body. Immediately following the description of the transformation of Old Hamlet's smooth body to one "most lazarlike with vile and loathsome crust" (1,5,72) the ghost admonishes Hamlet not to permit the royal bed to function as a couch for luxury. Old Hamlet tells his son to act, but also "taint not thy mind."

The ghost realizes the danger of infection from the diabolical Claudius. Thus from the outset Claudius is linked with the physical, the bestial, while Hamlet is associated with the rational.

When Sir Guyon turns to his palmer after the death of Amavia, he reflects upon the weakness of human nature, and particularly of man's vulnerability to perturbations wrought by pleasure and pain. Amavia and her dead lover Mordant are types of Adam and Eve, but more specifically of distempers of the irascible spirit and the concupiscible spirit. Amavia died of excessive grief, Mordant of excessive concupiscence: "Old sire," says Guyon to the Palmer,"

Behold the image of mortality,

And feeble nature clothed in fleshly tire,

When raging passion with fierce tyranny

Robs reason of her due regality,

And makes it servant to her basest part ....

But temperance...with golden squire

Betwixt them both can measure out a mean:

Neither to melt in pleasure's hot desire,

Nor fry in heartless grief and doleful teen ....


Although realizing that Shakespearean drama is of a dif­ferent order from Spenserean romance‑epic, I hold with Abbie Potts that in Hamlet Shakespeare drew largely upon the Legend of Sir Guyon to substantiate the struggle of its intemperate hero toward the happy mean.9 Indeed, Guyon's lines to the Palmer focus attention on two major areas of perturbation that are.dram­atically embodied in Hamlet. One one hand, the protagonist and Ophelia are tested by "heartless grief and doleful teen" while on the other hand Claudius and Gertrude "melt in pleasure's hot desire." Throughout my discussion of this play about temperance, I shall be less interested in offering verbal echoes to indicate Shakespeare's indebtedness to Book II of The Faerie Queene, but rather, I shall be concerned with showing the extensive dramatic attention given to the various characters' attempts to deal with intemperance , and equally with showing how Shakespeare is not content to praise the attainment of tem­perance alone; indeed, we shall see that in certain respects such a' 'Sage and serious virtue is secondary to the demonstra­tion of magnanimity, or greatness of soul. Abbie Potts states that ...if Hamlet is found advancing in a fashion not more desultory than that of Gloriana's knights toward an understanding of temperance and justice, and thereafter toward the deed it befits him to do, the drama is single and clear ....Many of Hamlet's reflections deal with the control of emotion by the reasoning man as distinguished from the beast that wants discourse of reason. He studies this problem within the diverse phenomena of grief, lust and wrath; we approve his conclusions when they are applied to friendship and love and art; but we think too precisely on the event, i.e., the dramatic retribution, the killing of Claudius, when we shift our ground to rebuke him (in his administration of justice) for a thoughtful nature, which we mistakenly call his tragic flaw.lo

Hamlet's intemperance lies not so much in the concupiscible power of his sensible soul, but rather in his spirited element‑­the irascible power of his sensible soul. We must never forget that the action of Hamlet takes place against an eternal cyclorama. For until the fifth act, Hamlet loses sight of this fact, and consequently, to use Potts' words, he cannot understand the place of temperance and justice on earth. He is tempted to believe that the earth is a chaos. And the player's speech about Pyrrhus' murder of Prism seems to suggest man's abandonment by the gods. In fictive action remarkably parallel to the late action in Elsinore, a king has been murdered, and a queen (most un-Gertrudelike) speaks words which express unassuageable grief. The mobled queen

Run[s] barefoot up and down, threatening the flames

With bisson rheum, a clout upon that head

Where late the diadem stood ....

Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steeped

'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounced

But if the gods themselves did see her then...

The instant burst of clamor that she made,

Unless things mortal move them not at all,

Would have made milch the burning eyes of Heaven

And passion in the gods (2,2,530ff).


The player's words thus call divine justice into doubt (as Hamlet does for much of his career). "Surely such an intem­perate and unnatural act as regicide," the speech implies, "deserves instant punishment." Such speculation parallels the first lines of The Faerie Queene, Book II:


And is there care in heaven? And is there love

In heavenly spirits to these creatures base, [i.e. man]

That may compassion of their evils move?

There is; else much more wretched were the case

Of men than beasts. But 0, th'exceeding grace

Of highest God,.that loves his creatures so,

And all his works with mercy doth embrace,

That blessed angels he sends to and fro

To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe.


To Spenser, things mortal do move the gods; only to the dramatist Shakespeare, it would be too facile to respond like Spenser, "There is care in heaven." The play, however, is affirmative, and we shall return later to canto 8, and more specifically to Spenser's "flying pursuivant" (an angel who watches over Guyon) in the context of the ghost as divine angel of retribution. The player's "Pyrrhus speech" moves Hamlet to criticize his own defect. of passion:

Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Is it not monstrous that this player here,

But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,

Could force his soul so...

That from her working all his visage warmed,

Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect...

And all for nothing!

What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba

That he should weep for her? What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion,

That I have? ....

Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across?….

Who does me this?...

'Swounds I should take it. For it cannot be

But I am pigeon‑livered and lack gall

…or ere this

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave's offal (2,2,576ff.).


At this point Hamlet is incapable of conceiving of a via media between the Pyrochlean "waxing wood" of Pyrrhus and the deficient passion or absence of spirited action at plagues him in this speech. The fury which Hamlet here endorses reveals his own naturally intemperate nature—he is natur­ally given to extremes, both of grief and wrath. He specu­lates that had Pyrrhus his own "cue for passion" he would "drown the stage with tears ...cleave the general ear with horrid speech/Make mad the guilty and appal the free" (2,2,572ff.). It is not until after the confrontation with Laertes at the graveyard that Hamlet finally manages to act in a consistently temperate way. Until then, when he conforms himself to his role of scourge and minister of divine justice, he is rather more like Aristotle's continent man—one with very real perturbations, and for whom it is a great struggle to keep emotional equilibrium. Throughout, he compares himself to Horatio, the temperate man, the second syllable of whose name implies rational governance. In this regard, the Hamlet‑Horatio relationship, though admittedly much more than allegorical, suggests that of Sir Guyon and the Palmer, the former representing the questing agent of God's justice, who in order to fulfil his vocation must attain and then retain temperance, while the latter suggests the constant inspiration of embodied reason. Indeed, Hamlet looks upon Horatio as an ideal example of tem­perance:


Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice

And could of men distinguish her election,

S'hath sealed thee for herself, for thou hast been

As one, ín suff'ring all, that suffers nothing,

A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards

Hast ta' en with equal thanks; and blest are those

Whose blood and judgement are so well co‑meddled

That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger

To sound what stop she please.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 hearts,

As I do thee (3,2,65‑76).


Thus we see that Hamlet consciously aspires to temperate behavior. He sees that the temperate man is proof against the buffets of fortune, and significantly he tells Rosencrantz in the next scene that he is no pipe:


Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery .... 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me (3,3,379).


This speech can most fully be understood when related to the Player King's speech which deals with fortune and man's (particularly woman's) inability to stand against deterministic Fortune. Before the speech Hamlet had lamented the inconstant nature of woman: ("As brief as woman's love), and his doubts as to woman's ability to remain temperate is reinforced by the Player Queen, who says, "For women's fear and love holds quantity/In either aught or in extremity."(3,2,177‑8) What follows thematically anticipates much of the matter in Troilus and Cressida. Here, Hamlet's ideal of temperance as a guarantor of imperviousness to fortune is to be confron­ted with another view—the realistic. The melancholy king listens to the Player Queen's Cressida-like avowal of constancy: "Such love must needs be treason in my breast./In second hus­band let me be accurs't/None wed the second but who kill the first" (3,2, 160-162).  Ironically, the Player Queen, like Cressida, conceives of herself as a member of the company of the constant, the idealists, and disdaining the crew of time‑servers and inhabitants of the world of commodity or "thrift": "The instances that second marriage move/Are base respects of thrift, but none of love" (3,2,188‑90).  Her use of the word "thrift" here makes us think of Ger­trude's infirmity of purpose in hastily remarrying, as Hamlet had mordantly referred to "thrift, thrift, Horatio," in his ironic reference to funeral baked meats being so recently prepared as to "furnish forth the marriage table." The Player Kings's next speech meditates upon the distance between human ideals and human actions:


I do believe you think what now you speak,

But what we do determine ofte we break.

Purpose is but the slave to memory,

Of violent birth but poor validity,

Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks on the tree

But fall unshaken when they mellow be.

Most necessary 'tis that we forget

To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.

What to ourselves in passion we propose,

The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.

The violence of either grief or joy

Their own enactures with themselves destroy.

Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament,

Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.

This world is not for aye, nor tis not strange

That even our loves should with our fortunes change

For tis a question left us yet to prove

Whether love lead fortune or else fortune love.


The speech continues, and in a remarkable anticipation of Ulysses' speech on time as a fickle‑host, the Player King observes that love doth "on fortune tend." And in the close of the speech, he observes resignedly that

"Our wills and fates do so contrary run/That our devices still are overthrown,/Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (3, 2, 221). These words ring true to Hamlet, who just after hearing them, ironically answers Gertrude's criticism that the lady doth protest too much, with the ironic thrust, "0 but she'll keep her word [not to remarry]. And his bitter remark that "they do but jest, poison in jest" attests to his feelings of despair over woman's infirmity of purpose. He clearly feels that Gertrude's hasty remarriage is proof of skittish will

in womakind. Moreover, we know that he idealistically sets himself above those of womanish will. However, it is not simply Gertrude's intemperance that makes Hamlet doubt most human beings' capacity for temper­ance, since Claudius seems to embody another aspect of intemperance—excessive concupiscence: He regards him not only as a lecher, but as a drunkard, and disgustedly refers to his keeping wassail "as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down"(1,4,10). As he meditates on Claudius' concupiscence he resembles a typical scholar inveighing against intemperance. His attitude is that of John Donne in his poem, "To Sir Edward Herbert at Julyers" or, as Potts points out, his


...words about the 'o'ergrowth of some complexion/Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,' remind us of Spenser's second Book, with its siege of the House of Alma by the legions of the five senses, and the assistance given to Sir Guyon by the Palmer Reason, whose sermon on the 'affections' contains the same trope and similar phrases:

In their beginning they are weake and wan

But soon through suff'rance (grow) to fearfull end;.

Whiles they are weake betimes with them contend:

For when they once to perfect strength do grow,

Strong warres they make, and cruell battry bend

Gainst fort of Reason, it to overthrow.11


Hamlet is only too aware of human limitations—his own included. When he points to the vicious mole in nature (an excess or defect) he merely echoes good Renaissance orthodoxy, and one sees in his speech traces of Aristotle, particularly in his references to inculcating either virtue or vice through "habit. But it is possible to see in this speech Hamlet's limited appreciation even of temperance. For the classical virtue alone, he seems to imply will be found lacking against the fact of man's seemingly inevitable tendency downwards. His thinking here anticipates Troilus' pessimistic vision of a world where "there lurks a still and dumb‑discoursive devil/That tempts most cunningly" (T.C. 4,4,90‑91). Like Troilus, Hamlet is painfully aware that

Something may be done that we will not;

And sometimes we are devils to ourselves

When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,

Presuming on their changeful potency. (T.C. 4,4,94‑97).


Yet, lest one view Hamlet's reference to "the general censure" as an admission of the sovereignty of Fortune, one need only remember Guyon's fainting in the Cave of Mammon—a symbol of the inadequacy of temperance unbuttressed by grace. The general censure may well suggest God's censure of all men for the "particular fault" of Adam. For even if man be pure and even if his virtue be "as infinite as man may undergo," he will take corruption. This is an orthodox Anglican article of faith. Temperance, though necessary, is not alone enough to combat man's original flaw. Grace must also be added. That Hamlet eventually realizes this is indicated by his alluding to the "divinity which shapes our ends/Rough hew them how we will." In fact, rashness (when

God directs the rashness) is seen to be superior to behavior predicated upon extreme rationality: "Our indiscretion serves us well/When our deep plots do pall."

Moreover, this speech brings us to the theatrum mundi leitmotif that has been running through the play. Divinity "shapes" our ends; God is the celestial dramaturge, and no matter how amateurishly

the servant of God acts, no matter how rough‑hewn the earthly player's role, it is finished by God. Indeed, the term "rough‑hew", like the verb "shape" is a term appropriate not only to the artisan, but to the playwright, and is defined thusly: "to block out in initial form." Thus one sees the notion here of a kind of partnership with God, a notion seen previously in Richard II, where the decent Bishop of Carlisle says,.

The means that heavens yield must be embraced

And not neglected. Else heaven would,

And we will not: heaven's offer we refuse,

The proffered means of.succor and redress (R.II,3,2,29‑33).


One soon begins to see that Hamlet conceives of his life as part of a grand celestial drama, with himself as God's scourge(to Claudius) and minister(to Gertrude),while Claudius is an agent of Satan, typologically a near‑relative to Cain (with whom he is explicitly linked, not only by fratricide.) This Satanic link is enhanced by Old Hamlet's calling him a serpent (1,5,36). Hamlet justifies his role in, the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and by extension, Polonius):


Their defeat

Does by their own insinuation grow.

'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

Between the pass and fell incensed points

Of mighty opposites (5,2,58‑62).


The mighty opposites are of course Hamlet and Claudius. These victims are bit players in the divine drama being acted out, and one thinks here of the most thoroughgoing depiction of theatrum mundi in the play, and to this reader at least, the thematic heart of the play: namely Hamlet's advice to the players in Act 3, scene 2. For here the common notion of life as a play is implicitly expressed, but in addition, it is associated with the attainment of temperance, the attain­ment of which must occupy the player's full attention. It is but a short way from Hamlet's admonition to the Elizabe­than players to an extrapolation of his words into a succinct statement of a life‑philosophy:


Speak the speech ...trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and ...whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. 0 it offends me to hear a rob­ustious periwig‑pated fellow tear a passion to tatters .... I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant ....Pray you avoid it (3,2, 1-13).


Given the presence of so much theatrical imagery, it is not being overly ingenious to suggest (especially in light

of Jaques' famous use of the motif in As You Like It, and , since the motto of the Globe Theater itself was todos munus histrionem) that Shakespeare is using such a speech symbolically.12 Hamlet is able rationally to vouch for the need to attain temperance in one's acting (behavior in life), but it is only by Act 5 that we feel he has been able to school himself adequately to consistently adhere to the practice of such theory. Just as playing's purpose, "both at the first and now, was and is, to hold‑the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3,2, 19-22) so Hamlet draws a verbal portrait of the ideally temperate man in Horatio's presence, mocks and repeats Osric's words as if to conform to the desire to show "scorn" its own image, and also shows Gertrude her own vice by not only telling her of her transgessions, but by forcing her to look at herself in her glass. For with respect to Gertrude, Hamlet acts as minister, that is, he, like Ulysses to Achilles, or the Duke with Angelo, attempts to describe her action, thus acting as a mirror through which the intemperate will see themselves and take steps to reform. Only to the unreformable such as Claudius does Hamlet show no clemency, acting as instrument of divine punishment or heaven's scourge. True to his concept of life as a stage wherein virtue and vice are reflected, Hamlet urges Gertrude,  "Come, come, and sit you down.You shall not budge./You go not till I set you up a glass /Where you may see the inmost part of you ..../And let me wring your heart; for so I shall/ If it be made of penetrable stuff, /If damnèd custom have not brassed it so/That it is proof and bulwark against sense(3,4,18ff.).


Having prayed for temperance so that he can control himself and not murder his mother, Hamlet now acts as God's instrument here—to show vice its own image, and just as his earlier speech had counselled the players not to "o'erstep the modesty of nature" (3,2,21), so he now tells Gertrude that her actions blur "the grace and blush of modesty,/Call virtue hypocrite ...and sweet religion make/ A rhapsody of words.(3,3,40ff.) His description of thraldom to sense seems to result in Gertrude's regaining self‑knowledge. Then Hamlet, who thinks Gertrude has been a victim of Satanic power ("What devil was it/That thus hath cozened you?" (3,4,76) places himself in a role similar to Guyon's, that of rescuing intemperate souls from the snares of Acrasia's Bower of Bliss, and he at least appears to succeed in instilling shamefastness into Gertrude's soul: "These words," she says, "like daggers enter into my ears"(3,4,95). And it becomes evident that he sees himself quite decidedly as God's agent and minister, since he urges Gertrude "for love of grace" to "confess[herself to Heaven/Repent what's past, avoid what's to come"(3,4,149ff). And that Gertrude appears to accept Hamlet's portrait of herself is indicated by her repentant mien and her vow not to tell Claudius of Hamlet's crafty madness: "Be thou assured if words be made of breath/And breath of life, I have no life to breathe/What thou hast said to me (3,4,197‑8).

The allusion to the need for sense and secrecy as well as the possibility of Gertrude's "breaking her own neck down" tends also to support the notion that Gertrude here enters into league with Hamlet; Claudius' dangerousness having already been implied. Moreover, that she is now genuinely aware of her sin is established by her speaking of her "sick soul, as sin's true nature is" (3, 5,17). Then too, her refusing Claudius' request that she not drink, and her warning to Hamlet that the drink is poisoned indicate that she has finally been won over to Hamlet's side.


Potts makes the important point that had Hamlet been a hero of merely Senecan ancestry he would not have inter­rupted his chastisement of Claudius in order to school his mother: "the purging of the Queen is necessary to the catharsis of the tragedy. Here the Ghost must help ....He whets the almost blunted purpose of Hamlet as an avenger…and he bids Hamlet step between his mother and her fighting soul."13


She then continues:


Furthermore, it may be said that the Ghost in Act 3 differs from the Ghost in Act 1 in a way suggesting

that to his memory of Senecan ghosts Shakespeare adjusted Spenser's 'flying pursuivant,' (2.8.2‑4)...

between the Spenserian "faire ‑young man,/Of wondrous beautie" and Hamlet's picture of his father there is

an impressive likeness.14


However, Potts offers little more than verbal parallels to sustantiate her claims and misses the opportunity to strengthen her idea of the ghost as a ministering angel by failing to cite Hamlet's plea at the entry of the ghost in Gertrude's closet: "Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings/You heavenly guards: What would your gracious figure?(italics mine)" (3,4, 94-95).  Moreover, his description of the ghost does much to allay our concern lest he be an agent of the devil:


His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,

Would make them capable.. Do not look upon me

Lest with this piteous action you convert my stern effects.

Then what I have to do

Will want true color—tears for blood (3,4,126‑29).


Thus by now we have seen both aspects of the ghost— the earlier stern insistence on punishment for the incorrigible as well as meek insistence on pity for the repentant, and Hamlet is so convinced of the rightness of the ghost's "cause" that he feels moved to speculate rhetorically that even inanimate nature would share it. Indeed, the ghost's concern for the queen clearly links him with the Spenserean heavenly spirits who "may compassion of [man's] evils move."


As well, if life is a play, a movement to meaning, then the fools like Polonius or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those whose ambitions catch them up in the tangles of policy seem to be the referents suggested by Hamlet's admonition, "And let those that play our clown speak no more than is set down for them."  By taking too much upon themselves (as do Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their meddling), they interfere with the "necessary question of the play ...then to be considered. That's villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it" (3,2, 37-40.). The necessary question of the play is the high moral and ethical considerations which must be examined by the major figures Hamlet and his antagonist, the satanic agent, Claudius, who continues his evil machinations. In what Keats called "the vale of soul-­making" the materialist concerns of the fools like Polonius are of little eschatological concern. The play metaphor continues as Hamlet speaks of certain players who "neither having the accent of Christians...have so strutted and bellowed that I had thought some of nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably."(3,2,32ff.) Increasingly Hamlet sug­gests a kind of moral touchstone. He is saying that man must try to view his life as a work of art, that he must move through life with grace. Hamlet's role in the celestial drama is to "set right" the times. Like Prince Hal, perhaps Shakespeare's most explicit exemplar of temperance according to Rolf Soellner  Hamlet must also "redeem time." 15 Early in the play he laments his assigned role, but by Act 5 he has accepted his role, and his demeanor after the graveyard scene is one of quietness. His attaining serenity of spirit is, however, not easy. He must first overcome excessive grief, the perturbation that killed Spenser's Amavia, and which kills Ophelia. Faced with calamities which parallel those suffered by Ophelia, Hamlet is tempted by the blandishments of Grief:

"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 heartache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished (3,1,56‑64).


Earlier he had lamented the Everlasting's fixing "his canon 'gainst self‑slaughter"(1,2,131). Potts points out that Spenser's House of Alma (F.Q.II,11,15) and his Book of Temperance (2, .2,1) were both "goodly frames" (compare Ham­let's "this goodly frame the earth"); and yet at the very height of his task Sir Guyon has Hamlet's experience:


When suddenly a grosse fog overspred (c.f. things...gross in nature)

With his dull vapour all that desert has

And heavens chearefull face enveloped,

That all things one, and one as nothing was

And this great universe seemed one confused mas (2,12,34).


For Spenser, the body, the House of Alma, is the sub­ject of admiration and pity alike (2.9.1 and 21.7‑9):


Of all God's workes, which do this world adorne,

There is no one more faire and excellent;

Then is mans body both.for power and forme,

Whiles it is kept in sober government ....

But 0 great pitty, that no lenger time

So goodly workmanship should not endure:

Soone it must turne to earth; no earthly thing is sure.


Potts notes:


The mode of the dramatic imagination can scarcely be better observed than in a comparison of these lines with Hamlet's amplified exclamation for the bewilder­ment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (2,2,316‑22) .... Hamlet's progress from physical distaste and a puzzled will to right princely action has two phases: not only must he as a playwright control his passion by his rea­son ...as a thinker he will seek to understand the nature of conscience, which remits him to suffering in the mind rather than violence ....Moreover, we should note that Spenser's Despaire matches Hamlet's list of good reasons for suicide, promising "Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,/Ease after warre, death after life" (1,9, 40).


What the gravedigger says about a hypothetical situation which would have absolved the drowned Ophelia of guilt applies also to Hamlet: "But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself"(5,1,18‑19). Hamlet, who takes arms against a "sea of troubles," is engulfed by them. He dies in his own defense. The clown's words play once more in another key, the meditation on human history, and end with the notion of equality before death and thus reinforce Ham'let's acquiescence in the unfolding of the divine play. He is the agon who must overcome temptations to yield to death and to murder. By overcoming them both he recalls the Ren­aissance notion of difficultà._One sees in Hamlet now an almost medieval contemptus mundi attitude which depreciates the value of life's play per se, but which rather emphasizes the way one plays his role: whether in short, he imitates humanity well or abominably. Hamlet's own serenity of spirit contrasts with Laertes' ranting (and recalls the advice not to saw the air too much): says Hamlet,"What is he whose grief/Bears such an emphasis?" and even when Laertes grabs him by the throat, Hamlet keeps his equanimity: "I prithee take thy fingers from my throat/ For though I am splenitive and rash,/Yet have I in me some­thing dangerous" (5,1,262ff.).


The play metaphor continues in the next scene. The idea of partnership with God in the celestial drama takes on further force when after speaking of the "divinity that shapes our ends," Hamlet continues:

Being thus netted round with villains

Or I could make a prologue to my brains,

They had begun the play. I sat me down,

Devised a new commision, wrote it fair(5,2,29‑33).


Hamlet is now in tune with a shaping heaven: "Why, even in that was heaven ordinant."(5,2,48) He regrets that he had allowed himself to fall into a "towering passion" at the graveyard. Now he is reconciled to the working out of his fate: "A man's life's no more than to say 'one'." The relative importance of this life pales when compared to the eternal life. Hence, after the meditation on human mortality at the graveside, after tracing Alexander's progress until it ends as dirt to stop a bunghole, he again implicitly contrasts moral with material riches. Pointing to the waterfly Osric, he says that he is "a chough, but ...spacious in the possession of dirt." The denigration of temporal goods is apparent in Hamlet's use of the perjorative "dirt" rather than "land." Moreover, Hamlets reveals his proximity to the attaining of temperance, directly alluding to sophrosyne when he says "to know a man well were to know himself"(5,2,140). Hamlet, like Samson Agonistes, is of a different camp than his antagonists, and like Samson [and Cordelia] he is readying to "go about" his Father's business. And too, like Samson, he must wait for the right time—the kairos—to come before he can act successfully. Hamlet is contrasted to the mere time‑server Osric, who seeks not to sound the real meaning of life.  Hamlet, on the other hand, has found it.


The distinction between the time‑servers and those who hold to higher values has previously been made by L.C.

Knights. What he says about Henry IV,II applies as well to Hamlet:


...allied to Time in this play is the conception of overriding necessity ....Necessity is a fact generally accepted by all the political characters….All are time's subjects ....Time's subjects are men compelled because they are followers of self‑interest or policy that works only 'on leases of short‑number'd hours.' And it is because they accept the times—the world's standards ...the shifting patterns of warring interests that they are ruled by Time, that it is impossible for them to see the temporal process as other than absolute. 'L et time shape and then an end." It is against this Falstaffian remark that Hamlet stands.


As Frederick Turner points out,


Hamlet has found that freedom consists not in repudiation of his earthly nature and temporal environment, for  this deprives him of the power of action; it lies rather in the embracing of the motives and limitations of his condition, their recognition, and their use .... Now he seems to have accepted an idea of Providence as something whose purposes are greater and more mysterious than he is able to deduce from his experience ....He can begin to co‑operate with a beneficent providence ....As soon as he is able to say ' ...there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow', seeing a mysterious order in humble things rather than a terribly clear order in great things, he is able to co‑operate with it ....He has been able to separate the chaotic darkness of his own soul from the mysterious darkness of the purposes of heaven. The nightmare is not the timeless world itself but his apprehension of it. Hamlet has regained his faith; in particular his faith in Providence as the effect on time of a beneficent timeless world. And this faith in Providence is justified: time, which at first had seemed disrupted by the appearance of the Ghost, and later the stumbling‑block and insurmountable limitation of his revenge, no sweeps Hamlet into his victory with enormous momentum.17


That Hamlet has indeed regained his faith can be seen in his quiet acceptance of the fencing match, despite misgivings: "I am constant to my purposes; they follow the King's pleasure. If his fitness speaks, mine is ready; now or whensoever, provided I be so able as now" (5,2, 146). It is tempting to suggest that Hamlet is being consciously ambiguous here with reference to the "King". It is at least possible to see a desire on Hamlet's part to await the King's (God's) bidding here. We are, however, on firmer ground when we cite Eleanor Prosser's interpretation of Hamlet's speech where he defies augury Hamlet's tone is wholly serene and confident ...and his words clearly place his new orientation in the context of Christian faith. The references to 'a special providence,' 'the fall of a sparrow,' and 'readiness' would have been immediately recognized by the Elizabe­thans ....The speech admits of only one translation: 'God's will be done. Amen.' In it, Hamlet surrenders his will to Divine Providence ...to the 'special providence' that is ordained for each individual ....In his infinite love, God has ordained a plan for every man. Man cannot know that plan. [One thinks here of the Player King's and Ophelia's parallel speeches—'Our thoughts are ours / Our ends none of our own', and 'Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.] He can only, by an act of faith, lay hold of the promise that God knows the plan to be good. And the plan includes his own death.18


Here Hamlet resembles Milton's Samson. Indeed their situations are parallel. Both, after long struggle to gain mastery over the impulse to excessive grief and suicide, sur­vive long enough to bring divine justice to bear upon man. Just as Samson survives to pull down the Temple of Dagon upon the enemies of God and also upon himself; so too does Hamlet survive long enough to pull down the Claudian Bower of Bliss, losing his own life in the process. What Angus Fletcher says in another context applies also to Hamlet: The vita activa is one of ...trial and discovery... The hero may not long remain in the temple ...he must 'turne againe/Back to the world.20


To use a Miltonic phrase, the temperate person must "earn rest", and one cannot earn rest by submitting to the iras­cible passions, especially to despair. Thus Amavia's error is clear (and so is Ophelia's), for she tells Guyon to "leave, oh, leave off, whatever wight thou be,/To let a weary wretch from her due rest.(1,47) Hamlet, like Samson, through refusing to take his rest until after he has fulfilled his divinely‑appointed role, is able to perfect the divine plan. His words to Horatio, "Absent thee from felicity"(5,2,346) indicates a new found conviction of a heavenly resting place, and Horatio's "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" places Hamlet's career in proper perspective. Hamlet has committed himself to what Fletcher calls the temple "the place which arrests the ordinary unbroken duration of temporal flow, and which excludes the chaotic, profane world," or what he calls "the labyrinth." In keeping constant to this purpose, Hamlet provokes one critic to suggest that Horatio "like us" is overpowered "by the final, fully‑tempered, beau­tiful magnanimity, transcending death, of his prince."21




1Plato Charmides ed. T.G. Tuckey (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968), p. 92.

2 Plato Gorgias ed. W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1960), p . 117 .

3Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics ed. W. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), p.64.

4Helen North Sophrosyne: Self‑Knowledge and Self‑Restraint in Greek Literature

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1 ). North invariably translates sophrosyne as temperance.

5W.B.C. Watkins Spenser and Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Walker‑de Berry, 1961), pp. 168-169.

6Leo Spitzer Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963) , p.83.

7Northrop Frye  A Natural Perspective (New York: Columbia Univer­sity Press, 1965 ) , p.153 .

8Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene, Book II  eds. R. Kellogg and 0. Steele (New York: Odyssey Press, 1965) p.243.

9Abbie Potts Shakespeare and the Faerie Queene (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958). Potts offers many verbal echoes which help substantiate her claim that Shakespeare used F.Q.II to help provide a moral framework for Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida.

10 Ibid. p.130.

11 Ibid. p .132 .

12E. Curtius European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York: Pantheon, 1953) , p .139 .

13Potts, p. 135 .

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid, p.141 .

16 L.C. Knights  Some Shakespearean Themes and An Approach to Hamlet (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996, comb. ed.), p.52,

17 Frederick Turner Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) p.52.

18 Eleanor Prosser Hamlet and Revenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), p. 232. .

19 Angus Fletcher The Prophetic Moment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971). Fletcher distinguishes between places of order, which he designates as "temples", although they may include such places as Spenser's Mt. of Acidale. They are distinguished from the worldly "labyrinths." The latter are objective correlatives of tychê the untimely (associated with chance and fate.) The former are associated with temperance and kairos. One thinks here of the distinction between form and matter as well.

20Ibid., p.50.

21G.R. Elliott  Scourge and Minister .(New York: AMS Press, 1965), p.204.




Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Curtius, E.K. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, New York: Pantheon, 153.

Elliott, G.R. Scourge and Minister, New York: AMS Press, 1965.

Fletcher, Angus. The Prophetic Moment, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Frye, Northrop. A Natural Perspective, New York: Columbia University Press, 195.

Knights, L.C. Some Shakespearean Themes and An Approach to Hamlet, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966.

North, Helen. Sophrosyne, Ithaca: Corn ell University Press, 1966.

Plato.  Charmides, ed. T.G. Tuckey, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1968.

_____. Gorgias, ed. W. Hamilton, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

Potts, Abbie. Shakespeare and The Faerie Queene, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958.

Prosser, Ellen.  Hamlet and Revenge,  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. in Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G.B. Evans, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Soellner, Rolf. Shakespeare's Patterns of Self‑Knowledge, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.

Spitzer, Leo. Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1963.

Turner, Frederick. Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Watkins, W.B.C. Shakespeare and Spenser, Cambridge, Mass.: Walker‑de Berry, 1961.