These Bodies High On A Stage
MICHAEL THOMAS JONES
O blessed Letters, that combine in one,
All Ages past, and make one live with all:
By you, we do confer with who are gone,
And the dead-living unto Counsel call:
By you, th’unborn shall have communion
Of what we feele, and what doth us befall.
-Musophilus, Samuel Daniel
Let us haste to hear it
And call the noblest to the audience.
-Fortinbras, Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Critics love Hamlet not just because it is a masterpiece, but because it is also a play which reveals the purpose of stagecraft and the power of all literature. Critics find so much satisfaction in it because, besides its many other virtues, it reminds them that their job is meaningful. Hamlet impresses upon us the fact that the stories we tell, the letters we write, and the plays we stage are actually important. Books and plays are the ghosts and voices of our fathers: they are the dead teaching the living. To know the truth and to be virtuous, even the king must listen. The plot of Hamlet revolves around literature and play-acting as a means of power, of revealing truth, and of instilling virtue in royalty. The play reminds us why we must treasure the tragedies of the past.
In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is almost entirely powerless—or so he thinks. His feigned madness—a sort of one-man play, if you will—is the beginning of his break from the accepted order of the court, which is in many ways the most deceptive theatre in the whole story. It is, however, his growing power as an actor and writer that allows him to fulfill his destiny as a prince. The major turning points in Hamlet’s personal journey are marked by writing and talk of literature. When Hamlet first meets with the ghost of his father, he comes to the conclusion: ‘Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat in this distracted globe. Remember thee? Yea, from the table of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.’ (1.5.103-111) He then writes down his determination to execute his duty as a prince listening to his father’s instruction.
Everything in the court is fake, and so the only way to reveal the truth is to write a play. Hamlet tells us: ‘The purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, 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.’ (3.2.21-26) Thus, through Hamlet’s writing, the king’s guilt is unmasked.
But Hamlet does not go on to execute justice as he should, because of his self-absorption and fear. Hamlet should be trusting in God, obeying his father, and acting righteously on behalf of the state, but instead he waffles about between hatred and fear. He is afraid that his calling to act like a king will lead to his death—and he is right. But this indecision is what draws him closer to the audience, because we too pass our lives wrestling with indecision over the smallest matters. We feel pity at his struggles, but also relief, knowing that we will likely never have to put our life on the line for the sake of the kingdom. Contemplating his own death fills Hamlet with indecision, most evidently in the play’s most famous soliloquy. But the contemplation of others who are dead fills him with the determination to fulfill his duty: the ghost of his father, the body of Polonius, the skull of Yorick, the legacy of Alexander, and finally the sight of Ophelia’s body all move him towards his end. This brings to mind the medieval practice of memento mori, that is, contemplating death in order to die well. Hamlet’s personal journey is very much an arc where he slowly learns to accept that, as the prince, his noble death is required to remove a murderous king and heal Denmark’s rot.
The final scene of the play begins with talk of one play and ends with talk of another. For the first, Hamlet is explaining to Horatio how he escaped Rosencrantz and Guildernstern: ‘They had begun the play. I sat me down, devised a new commission, wrote it fair—I once did hold it, as our statists do, a baseness to write fair, and labored much how to forget that learning; but, sir, now it did me yeoman’s service.’ (5.2.35-40) The ability to write, though he once abhorred it, is what allowed him to rewrite the message to the English and turn the tables on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In other words, Hamlet is rewriting the very course of the play so that he can return to Denmark and fulfill his duty.
The final metaphorical play lies in the very conclusion of the story. After Hamlet’s death, Horatio says, ‘Give order that these bodies high on a stage be placed to the view, and let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world how these things came about.’ (5.2.419-422) Fortinbras, soon to be king, replies: ‘Let us haste to hear it and call the noblest to the audience.’ (429-430) Horatio continues: ‘But let this same be presently performed even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (437-440) And in the final word of the play, Fortinbras declares: ‘Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royal.’ (441-444) Thus Hamlet’s life and death is turned into an example story for the nobility.
Why is the tragic hero always a noble? In tragedy, there is always something wrong with the royal family, whether incest or murder or a bit of both. The only solution is that most people will end up dead or banished. Tragedies show how any evil within the royalty will be rooted out; otherwise, it would trickle down and poison the whole body politic. Often that scouring requires great sacrifice. Plays, then, within the real world, as well as the fictional world of Hamlet, hold a mirror to nature. They convict the conscience of evil, they remind the ruler of their calling towards virtuous action, and they tell the story of horrible things that happen to royalty when a ruler goes awry.
In the ancient world all the way up to Shakespeare’s day, wisdom literature was often gathered in books called mirrors for princes. These treatises and textbooks were designed to instruct and train the prince in virtuous action and the requirements of leadership, although the range of content can be demonstrated in the gulf between the Book of Proverbs and Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Throughout Hamlet, the audience of each play (literal and figurative) is the nobility. The audience of Hamlet’s literal play is Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet rewrites Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s metaphorical play to save himself, and his audience then is the English king. Finally, the language of theatre at the conclusion is so strong that one is tempted to think that Horatio will be staging a play to reenact what just took place. His audience is the new king, Fortinbras, and other nobles: ‘Call the noblest to the audience.’ (5.2.430) This retelling of the story will reveal the truth, first to the prince but in the end to all, ‘lest more mischance on plots and errors happen.’ (440) Thus the kingdom is unified.
Tragedy becomes a way in which even the common people can participate with the nobility in a shared spectacle, with commoners acting as nobles on stage and likewise receiving as the audience an example of virtuous action. For the common audience, tragedy evokes relief because it depicts wicked or inappropriate rulers chastised at the cost of noble sacrifice. The royal family is that which dies on behalf of the people, on behalf of preserving the social order—this is true for the ancient Greek tragedy as well as Shakespeare’s plays. There is something rotten in Denmark or incestuous in Thebes, and the only way for the balance to be restored is for a lot of the important people to die. And if it weren’t for the stubbornness of some, or the indecision of others, or the sheer malice of yet others, the cost would not be as great to purify the royal family. It comforts the commoners to see a depiction of justice and deadly fate reaching even the most powerful of the ruling class, who in the real world always seem so cruelly insulated from the struggles that the lower folk face.
There is in tragedy a comfort given: that wickedness will not entrench itself, that the good princes will suffer on our behalf because of the evil, and that though many will die, the system as a whole will survive and the unnamed of society will carry on unharmed. We never see much of those who Oedipus or Macbeth or Hamlet rule over because they are in the audience with us. The players on the stage are the rulers, and we are the subjects. They are the teachers out of the past, the voices from the dead, and we the humble hearers. But there is a further power of the stage which the written word lacks: theatre allows us to contemplate the thoughts and deeds of the dead in living words and moving bodies. Tragedy is wisdom given flesh, and the ghosts of our fathers given voice.