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The Narrative Tension of Hamlet

by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.
A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling is now available from Amazon Kindle for $2.99, and also available on Smashwords for other ebook formats, including Nook, Sony, and Kobo.
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This review explores how Shakespeare introduces and advances the story through the inner dimensions of his characters, not just what they do, but what they think and feel about what they should do. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, which is full of action, Hamlet has characters who ruminate and go mad because of their conflicted emotions.

Like Romeo, Hamlet exists in a state of narrative tension. Narrative tension is the tension a character feels about resolving or acting on an issue, and the tension that arises when they are blocked from gaining that resolution. Romeo is a great example of narrative tension because every action he takes to be with Juliet -- his ideal of love -- puts him into a deeper state of conflict with his loyalty to his clan. Death is his only release.

A full-length play or novel that lacks a main character in narrative tension isn't a story; it's a chronicle of events that becomes tedious. I've taught workshop where I read the opening page of a story. At the end of every sentence, I stop and ask the attendees what is generating narrative tension in the story. The answer is mostly 'There is no narrative tension.' I stop after one page, but I could go on for a dozen pages (or far more) before the first glimmer shows up.

Narrative tension is also a crucial element in how an audience responds to a play. A central conceit in Hamlet is his desire to avenge the death of his father. Many people in life experience narrative tension around wanting to avenge some wrong or slight, and most people, like Hamlet, think about vengeance and its aftermath.

Because Hamlet does act, in the end, and does resolve his narrative tension, that also takes the audience to a momentary respite of the narrative tension the audience brings to the play. That personal relief of narrative tension is a powerful and welcome experience for play-goers.

Also, a play like Hamlet takes its characters through a full, deep, purposeful range of feelings, which an audience can share, unlike the stew of unresolved and conflicted feelings most people experience. Even Ophelia's madness resonates in a culture where so many people fear their feelings going out of control.

This review uses the Signet Classic edition of the play.

Act One, Scene One

The first scene opens with a changing of the guard, and the line,

"What, has this thing appeared again tonight?"

The 'thing' is a ghost that quickly appears. Shakespeare is a master of what I call Question, Answer, Question. The answer to the question, what is this 'thing' is that it's a ghost, which raises the question, who is the ghost? The play is now set in motion, and that movement continues until the end of the play.

The ghost appears to have the visage of the recently dead king of Denmark, but is it? That these soldiers consider it to be the king means that it won't be Hamlet alone who sees the ghost. If Hamlet were the only one who sees the ghost, that would take the story on a different path.

That the ghost haunts this place raises the immediate question, why? Why is the King not in peace in his grave? The soldiers frame this question. The underlying point here, Shakespeare has given the soldiers a reason to ask this question. Some writers struggle because they have characters talk about an issue or event simply to convey information to the audience, but the reasons for the conversation are artificial and dramatically inert; they are a device for the author to communicate information to the audience, not a dramatic situation for the story's characters to resolve.

The guards then wonder if the hot-headed son of the King of Norway, Fontinbras, might show up soon with an army to avenge his father's death at Hamlet's hands. This raises another question that will be answered during the course of the story. But it also raises the question, is the dead king's appearance a harbinger of this invasion? For example, do the soldiers 'see' the ghost because they desire a strong king to protect the kingdom?

In a comic moment, Horatio tries to find out if the ghost might reveal to him some buried treasure.

The scene ends with Horatio's suggestion to tell Hamlet about the ghost, which raises the question that pulls the audience in to the next scene, what will Hamlet do about the ghost? How will the appearance of the ghost of his father affect Hamlet?

Act One, Scene Two

This scene opens with Claudius, the new king, explaining his marriage to Gertrude so soon upon her husband's death as a means to show the kingdom is strong in the face of the threat by young Fortinbras.

In storytelling terms, a marriage is a cause for characters to redefine their relationships. That is why certain life events -- marriage, death, birth -- are so often a part of storytelling. They force characters to change and deal with their tension around these changes.

Claudius addresses Hamlet with these words,

"But now, my cousin Hamlet, my son..."

Hamlet responds in an aside...

"A little more than kin, and less than kind."

This play on words suggests that Hamlet has mixed feelings about Claudius.

Claudius and Gertrude then question Hamlet about why he is still so depressed about his father's recent death. Claudius says...

"'Tis unmanly grief."

This is an insult. It comes out that Claudius desires Hamlet remain in court and Hamlet has decided to leave, so he's trying to maneuver Hamlet to his own ends.

When the King and Gertrude leave, Hamlet reveals his real feelings about how he sees the world now, 'tis an unweeded garden.' This is a commentary by Hamlet about his inward state and about the sudden marriage of Gertrude and Claudius with a month of his father's death, a world out of balance.

He relates...

"It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue."

This is narrative tension. Hamlet cannot accept the marriage, but he can't not accept it. Like Romeo caught between his love of Juliet and his love of his clan, Hamlet cannot easily escape this situation and the emotional turmoil it generates, hence his depression.

Horatio then comes into the scene. When he says he returned to Denmark only for the funeral of Hamlet's father and not the marriage as well, Hamlet mocks...

"Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."

Hamlet is not one to let Horatio get away with a lie.

It comes out that Horatio believes he saw the ghost of Hamlet's father. With what has happened to this point, the audience is fully privy to what this news would mean to Hamlet.

Hamlet decides to join the watch that night.

The compelling question raised here, what will happen if Hamlet sees the ghost of his father? What might the ghost relate to Hamlet? Hamlets wonders if the appearance of his father suggests that...

"Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes.

The questions are becoming more compelling and urgent. This creates rising tension.

Act One, Scene Three

In this scene, Laertes, son of Polonius, speaks to his sister Ophelia. He warns her to not get involved with Hamlet, that...

"His greatness weighed, his will is not his own."

This means that because of his station, a wife will be chosen for Hamlet, often for political or strategic reasons. Polonius comes on the scene, and gives Laertes advice about living in France. It becomes clear that Laertes is a wastrel son. Polonius then discovers that Hamlet has been courting Ophelia. Polonius orders her to stop seeing Hamlet, reaffirming Laertes advice. While Ophelia agrees to break off her budding relationship with Hamlet, this raises the question, does she want to do this? Will she? How will this affect her? The actions in this story always have psychological effects that play out as compellingly as the physical action.

Act One, Scene Four

Hamlet now awaits the entrance of the ghost with Horatio and Marcellus. The ghost soon appears and Hamlet goes off with it against the forceful advice of Horatio and Marcellus, who fear Hamlet will be taken to his death or into madness.

Act One, Scene Five

This scenes open with Hamlet speaking to the ghost of his father, who tells him...

"Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fire,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away."

And... "Revenge this foul and most unnatural murder."

When the ghost leaves, Horatio and Marcellus come into the scene. Hamlet (and the ghost) bid them swear that they will not reveal anything of this night.

The scene ends with these words from Hamlet...

"The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!"

Hamlet has taken on the duty of avenging this father's death, but how? For that, the reader or audience member is drawn forward to Marvellous next act.

Hamlet now knows that Claudius killed his father. What will Hamlet do about it?

That question draws the reader/audience member forward to find out what will happen next.

With struggling writers, opening scenes or an opening act are often used to introduce characters and their backstory, so there's no forward, dramatic movement. This first act clearly introduces this story and advances it.

The questions, what will happen now, happen next, draws the audience forward.

Act Two, Scene One

This act opens with Polonius giving instructions to Raynaldo to go to Paris and find out what the wastrel Laerates is doing. It becomes clear that Polonius imagines all kinds of sins and wickedness Laertes is bound up in, but all he can do about it is brood and send someone to spy on his son.

Reynaldo leaves and Ophelia enters in a fright. She relates that Hamlet came to her in a great state of emotion but unable to speak. It comes out that she, following her father's orders, had told Hamlet to not come to her. Both Ophelia and Polonius interpret Hamlet's actions to mean that he is undone to madness by her rejection.

The Act starts with characters in a high state of emotion. It builds on what has happened previously. Some unproduced plays start each act with no dramatic tension, slowly build to a moment of tension, then start over. It makes the opening of every scene or act dramatically inert.

The audience here is also aware of the real cause of Hamlet's state of emotion. In real life, many people feel 'out of the loop' in terms of understanding the motives of others. Shakespeare allows the audience to feel superior to Polonius, a gratifying experience.

Act Two, Scene Two

Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, to spend time with him and report back to the cause of his depression. Again, the action is driven by a need to know what Hamlet is really thinking and feeling. In this situation, Claudius has an agenda different that Gertrude, which gives the actors different attitudes and subtext to express.

As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, Polonius comes on the scene to announce that he knows the cause of Hamlet's melancholy, but his news is interrupted by two courtiers coming to report that the King of Norway has given Fortinbras permission to march across Denmark to meet and fight a Polish army. Since Fortinbras has threatened to avenge his father's death, this keeps the issue of a war with Fortinbras on the table.

Polonius now relates what he considers to be the cause of Hamlet's madness, prodded by Gertrude who is frustrated by his need to embellish the news with his borrowed, witless witticisms. Polonius offers to have Ophelia meet with Hamlet to prove his theory, but Hamlet then comes on the scene, and the king and queen leave so Polonius can try and prove that Hamlet is mad over rejection by Ophelia.

Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger (procurer) and speaks oddly. Polonius suspects that Hamlet is hiding some deeper truth in his odd riposts, and decides the best course is to get Ophelia on the scene and gauge Hamlet's reaction.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive and Polonius leaves. Hamlet spars with them verbally, trying to get them to admit their purpose in coming to see him, which Hamlet intuits. This deepens his depression, that his friends are in service against him. The scene continues with Hamlet telling his friends...

"I am but mad north-northwest: when the
wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

Hamlet works to confound and confuse his enemies, using his appearance of madness to speak deeper truths.

Hamlet spares again with Polonius, accusing him in veiled language of sacrificing his daughter (the reference to Jeptha). Then the company of players arrive. Hamlet jests with them, then orders them on the next day to do a play about a queen poisoning her husband, adding a speech that Hamlet writes.

When all leave, Hamlet ponders why he hasn't taken stronger action against Claudius. He decides that Claudius' reaction to the play will confirm whether he is complicit in the death of Hamlet's father or whether Hamlet is being tempted by a demon to commit murder. Even thought Hamlet came to the end of act one determined to act, he now wants more proof. Like many people, he swings from certainty to doubt.

This ends the second act, which has revolved around the question, for the other characters, is Hamlet mad from the loss of Ophelia or for another reason? The audience knows the truth and is able to enjoy Hamlet's seeming madness and confounding of his enemies.

The pressing question, will Claudius betray himself during the play, is clearly framed.

Act Three, Scene One

This act begins with the principals arranging for Hamlet to 'meet' Ophelia.

Hamlet enters and does his most famous, oft quoted soliloquy, "To be, or not to be."

Hamlet's deepening state of narrative tension is calling him to deeply examine the meaning of life. This questioning also delays, again, his taking any action, just as the less elevated rumination of ordinary people delay or become a substitute for action, or an end in itself.

Hamlet's advice to Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery." There's an element in this play of Hamlet's feelings toward women becoming darker. Ophelia's response, "O what a noble mind is ere overthrown." She can feel some of the blame for Hamlet's state since she rejected him.

The king decides sending Hamlet to England will deal with the problem. Polonius suggests that Hamlet meet with Gertrude first.

Act Three, Scene Two

The scene opens with all the major players gathering for the play, and Hamlet asking to put his head in Ophelia's lap. He makes bawdy comments to her throughout, suggesting his madness and his feelings toward his mother are darkening.

With Hamlet acting as a chorus, the play begins and continues until the king in the play is murdered. Hamlet can't resist making comments that suggests he sees a parallel to the death of his father. At that, the King ends the play and rushes away. He knows now that Hamlet blames him for his father's death.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern return to tell Hamlet his mother wants to see him. They spar verbally, with Hamlet tired of their probing, until Polonius shows up to tell Hamlet his mother wants to see him as well. When all exit except Hamlet, he broods about what he could do now that...

"Now I could drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on."

Once again he appears ready to act against Claudius.

Act Three, Scene Three

In the next scene, Claudius wants Hamlet sent to England because of the impression his madness is creating in the court, but really because the King now fears what Hamlet will do. Claudius also knows that Hamlet is more popular with the subjects of his kingdon.

Polonius offers to spy on the meeting between Hamlet and Gertrude. As soon as he leaves, Claudius has a soliquy about his brother's murder and that he can't be forgiven for what he's done as long as he's king. Hamlet enters and hears the king in prayer, and holds off killing him lest the manner of his death allows the king entrance to heaven. Hamlet's need for revenge is so great he won't risk Claudius finding peace in death. Or, he's still unable to act.

Act Three, Scene Four

Polonius tells Gertrude that he'll be hiding in her room when Hamlet comes. When Hamlet arrives, he spars with Gertrude and, when she fears he's speaking of killing her, Polonius speaks up. Hamlet slays him by thrusting a sword through a curtain, thinking it is the king.

Hamlet tells Gertrude that she is complicit in his father's death until Gertrude says...

"Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct."

The ghost of Hamlet's father appears and commends Hamlet take care of Gertrude. This leaves open the question of whether the ghost is real or just a projection of Hamlet's.

Hamlet asks his mother to not tell Claudius what Hamlet knows about the death of his father and that she avoid her new husband's bed.

This scene raises questions about whether Hamlet's mother knew about or participated in her husband's murder.

This scene ends Act Three, with Hamlet facing exile (and death) in England, but he is determined to outwit his foes yet. He says...

"For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard."

**********************


The full review of Hamlet can now be downloaded from Smashwords for .99 as a PDF, Kindle, or html. The review is part of a collection that includes reviews of Romeo and Juliet, The Iceman Cometh, The Heidi Chronicles, and Death of a Salesman.

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