wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Germaine Greer


The intimacy of his contact with them is established from his first appearance as a spectator at Claudius's elaborate performance as king in council, when before he speaks to any character on stage he speaks to the audience. In reply to his mother's questioning of his mourning behaviour, he makes a claim which the audience has no choice but to believe:
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passes show...(I. ii. 77-85)
Thus he places himself as it were between the audience and the histrionic behaviour of Elsinore; the audience recognize him and accept him as belonging to a different order of reality. He will show them falsehood in its endless disguises, but in doing so, because the mind herself cannot be trusted, he will be in danger of corruption and derangement.

After his first soliloquy, when Hamlet emerges as protagonist, the audience acquire a new surrogate onstage, as Horatio comes to tell Hamlet what the audience already know. The intimacy between audience and protagonist is strengthened by the protagonist's display of affection for this silent watcher, to whom as he lies dying Hamlet entrusts his hard-won truth:
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (V. ii. 349-54)
In the third scene of Hamlet, we are shown Elsinore at home; we hear Laertes traducing Hamlet, and Polonius intoning his conventional advice to a son with the principal emphasis upon cunning and manipulation, followed by his attempt to instil the same politic calculation in his daughter. Normally the convention requires us to believe what is said on stage about an absent character unless it is specifically denied, but Ophelia's dimness ('I do not know, my lord, what I should think') and Polonius's brutal cynicism incline us to withhold belief. When Hamlet at his next appearance condemns the general tendency to believe the worst of people, our doubts are justified. The audience, through Horatio, its surrogate, swears loyalty to Hamlet, undertaking to keep faith with him, no matter how strangely he should behave. Again, a Hamlet scene is followed by a scene without him, in which we discover for ourselves what lies behind Polonius's glib, high-sounding morality. We see him paying a spy to defame his own son, so vilely that the snooper himself protests. Ophelia, a spy herself, comes hotfoot to tell of Hamlet's first piece of odd behaviour. Polonius interprets it as love madness; the audience has no reason to respect his judgement. It seems more likely that Hamlet was searching in Ophelia's face for something that he did not find, something which is not to be found in Elsinore.

The disjunction between how the inhabitants of Elsinore see Hamlet and the way the audience experiences him is deliberately maintained, for the audience must learn to disbelieve Elsinore on its own account. They will respond positively to the appeal in Hamlet's love letter to doubt 'truth to be a liar' rather than doubt him. Gradually he is assuming the role of probe, searching the body of Elsinore for the source of its corruption. If we doubt his right to be 'scourge and minister' to Denmark's disease, the play collapses into chaos, but if we forget the danger of sliding into solipsism, which is always present when we trust to our own reason for a guide, we have not understood the nature of the case. The drama of Protestantism in its finest hour was the heroism of insisting upon the sovereignty of the individual conscience.

Hamlet's first diagnostic tool is a play: the neatness of the correspondence of play within play to the play itself is a typical example of the kind of ingenuity that delighted learned Elizabethans. The action that Hamlet mounts is extremely formal, with its elaborate dumb show, its Prologue, and its long speeches in rhyming couplets. What is contained within this stylized structure is the 'occulted truth' that is causing the disease of Denmark. All around Hamlet, Elsinore is presenting feigned actions of a more naturalistic variety, which convey nothing but lies. Ophelia pretends to read, to lure Hamlet into a play staged by Polonius for the hidden audience of Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude summons him to her closet, to play a scene for Polonius. Each time the audience is privy to the set-up, and each time Hamlet guesses right.

The Elizabethan audience knew the conventions of revenge tragedy at least as well as we today grasp the complicated rules of spy fiction. Once Hamlet has raised the suspicion that he knows that Claudius is a murderer, he is in deadly danger, not only of being eliminated by the tyrant, but also of being damned himself. The scourge of God is afterward burned in the fire. In case we should forget this conundrum, the scene where Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius as he is praying helps us to remember it. By failing to kill Claudius, Hamlet comes off the revenge treadmill, and instantly becomes the hunted rather that the hunter. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come yapping at his heels, he cries, 'Hide, fox, and all after.' The audience knows exactly what he means, but his stage hearers are nonplussed. Only Claudius himself, sharing the audience's knowledge, knows what Hamlet is up to. He evades confrontation, preferring to hide and spy as if he were the avenger and not Hamlet. We begin to see that if Hamlet is to redeem Denmark, he will have to die to do it.