‘Rightly to be great’ | Daily News
HAMLET: THE CHALLENGE OF ACHIEVING GREATNESS :

‘Rightly to be great’

 

Hamlet is one who is 'born great'. As he says of himself, he is 'to the manner born' – namely of royal custom and tradition. He is a prince with the right of succession to the throne of Denmark, even if that right has been frustrated. And following the revelation and the invidious commission given him by his father's ghost, he has had 'greatness thrust upon him'.
 
It remains for him to 'achieve greatness' by fulfilling this commission, and that is the raison d'etre of the play. By its end Hamlet does achieve that greatness, but at great cost to himself and those he loves. That is why the play is a tragedy and Hamlet a tragic hero.
 
Perhaps the defining moment of the play comes in Act 4 scene 4 after Hamlet learns of Norwegian prince Fortinbras' military expedition to reclaim from Poland 'a little patch of ground' of little or no geopolitical significance. In the soliloquy beginning, 'How all occasions do inform against me', he contemplates the initiative of Fortinbras 'Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff'd, Makes mouths at the invisible event, Exposing what is mortal and unsure To all that fortune, death and danger dare, Even for an egg-shell.'
 
 
L H Myers, drawing by William Rothstein
It is interesting that Hamlet qualifies Fortinbras' territorial ambition with the unlikely epithet 'divine'. Is he perhaps doing so unconsciously in the growing conviction that his own project, that has hitherto lacked the requisite initiative, is divinely sanctioned? At any rate, he now utters the words that are the turning point of the entire play:
 
'Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw When honour's at the stake.' This is the great question at the heart of the play - “What constitutes greatness of action or performance?” Hamlet, enlightened by the example of Fortinbras, is at last able to provide the answer: it is not 'stirring without great argument' or springing into action without full justification and conviction. It is to be properly motivated by the conviction that one's 'honour is at stake'; not honour in the lesser sense of one's reputation but in the greater sense of one's innate nobleness of character when this is challenged by adversity.
 
Up to this point Hamlet has not stirred because he has felt himself lacking 'great argument'. He is conscious not only of the enormousness of the task before him but of the enormity of the 'spite that he has to put right', that 'something rotten in the state not only of Denmark but of human nature.
 
This has overburdened his 'conscience' to the extent of robbing him of resolve. The emotional impact of the complex issues which he perceives as being involved is too great for him to resolve ethically and morally and to address practically in spite of whatever opportunities are available to him. This is what we were at some pains to explain in the previous two articles in view of the criticism by Eliot et al of Hamlet's supposedly inexplicable emotion and procrastination.
 
Thus the great soliloquy, 'To be or not to be', not only expresses his quandary about whether to live or die. This actually follow upon the initial quandary of whether to act or not to act.
 
As Hamlet himself puts it at the outset: 'Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?' Note how the issue of 'nobility' or 'honour' is already at work in his mind, to be resolved in the later speech referred to above. It is because of his inability to resolve the question at this stage that he bitterly concludes, 'Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, etc.'
 
As we remarked earlier, Hamlet's tragic flaw is his consciousness. He is probably the first 'vessel of consciousness' in literature, and 'Hamlet' the first literary work to feature the human consciousness as the centre of interest rather than 'a chain of events'. Here is yet another way in which Shakespeare has anticipated his successors, in this instance the psychological novel of the twentieth century to which the late style of Henry James had provided the fillip. In Hamlet's case the 'vessel' is in danger of cracking under the pressure of its contents.
 
To better understand Hamlet's predicament, let us refer at this juncture to LH Myers' novel, 'The Near and the Far, in particular the section 'Prince Jali' where the young prince finds himself paralysed by an overpowering awareness of the hollowness of human relationships...'he didn't seem to be taking part at all when it was a question of human intercourse. The true self seemed to be isolated by its own inalienable nature from other true selves. It was appearances that formed the bridge between person and person....To live in and for reality was to dwindle and fade, to accept appearances was to wax fat and strong. It was by cultivating the appearances and illusions belonging to the outer man that you not only offered to others but obtained for yourself a substantial and intelligible being....The more of reality you saw, the less of being you possessed. He, Jali, saw things as they really were, and was, in consequence, practically nothing at all.'
 
This sheds light on Hamlet's problem. He has 'seen' deeply into the status quo upon which human relationships are based and seen how 'rotten' it all is. The foetid, carnal, atmoshphere that his language evokes when he is contemplating his mother's depravity and upbraiding her for it are a clear indication of this. So is the abundance of expletives when he is talking about his uncle.
 
The insight is so horribly clear, the emotion of it all so 'horrible' -(Eliot's term) - that he finds himself incapable of 'being', of taking action in the facilely prompt way that his critics would have him do. And this is where his tragic flaw sets in motion the train of events that make him, the rightful hunter, the hunted. The tentative attempts at action, the 'antic disposition' or madness he feigns to ward off suspicion is so overdone that it actually invites suspicion. The forced harshness of his treatment of Ophelia contributes to her sense of desolation and suicide. And the play he devises to catch the conscience of the king not only does so, it results in a plot against his own life.
 
But the information about Fortinbras' venture and the subsequent discovery of the plot on his life finally gives Hamlet the motivation and sense of purpose he needs. Now he no longer 'lapsed in time and passion' as he had to admit to his father's ghost. He is ready 'to stir and find quarrel' against his proven enemies. He becomes a man of action. He adroitly turns the tables on Rosencrantz and Guldenstern and gets himself re-shipped to Denmark bent on avenging himself as well as his father, redeeming his mother and putting things to rights in Denmark as its rightful king. He is determined, in other words, 'rightly to be great'.
 
And now that he is on the right course he becomes aware of the role of Providence in his affairs. 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends,' he tells Horatio, 'Rough-hew them how we will-'. Later, when Horatio warns of possible failure in the duel with Laertes, he is prepared to entrust himself to that divinity:, 'There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.' Both these statements are paraphrases of the Bible, which Shakespeare knew well, vide Proverbs 16:9 and Matthew 10:29. This God-consciousness has brought a new quality of heroic serenity to Hamlet's mental state and his language. 'The readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?'
 
Yet Hamlet is tragically too late to avert the deadly plot against him by Claudius. His 'rightly great' action in fulfilling his commission costs him his life and also, through no fault of his own, that of his mother. He dies the hero he has become. His consciousness, far from making a coward of him, has made him at the last a hero. As he dies, Horatio fittingly says, 'Now cracks a noble heart.'
 
Fortinbras, coming upon the scene fresh from his success against Poland, confirms that Hamlet, though dead, has achieved the greatness he was born to and had thrust upon him, for he commands: '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.'
 
So Eliot was right in calling 'Hamlet' the Mona Lisa of literature. But in a greater sense that he intended. Leonardo da Vinci's painting is famous not only for the enigma of his subject's expression, it is also recognised as a great work of art. Just as Hamlet is not only the most enigmatic figure in all literature, he is the truly tragic hero of a truly great tragedy.

 

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