The mad Ophelia and the mock-mad Hamlet expressed the poet’s many-sided rebellion against the world’s ordinariness. For there is a kind of normality that is unacceptable, a base, comfortable normality that submits to reality, forgets easily. It is universal because some inner law of economics doesn’t allow us to experience reality to the full, to the depths, at the level of the most profound feelings and meanings. The same instinct for self-preservation in the sphere of the mind protects us from an excessive sensitivity, from the ultimate why and wherefore. Hamlet is the contradiction of that attitude.
We invented his conjectural essay on the syllogism* to bring out a conviction that before the gates of Elsinore closed on him, he had a worldview of a sort, based on faith in the rational order inside man and outside him. He had his own system of values and a ladder perhaps not too high, but with solid rungs on which one could confidently put one’s feet. Apart from indifferent concepts easily kneaded in the hand there were in that system nasty, hard concepts like death, crime, but a few measures could turn even those into bricks supporting a rational and attractive architecture. Man was one of the beings placed highest, tightly incorporated into the building’s structure.
If it had not been for the tragic events that tore the Prince from the mood of study and contemplation, he might have been a bit of a Stoic, a bit of an Epicurean, a bit of an Aristotelian till the end of his life. His father’s sudden death eluded all rational interpretation. It was a fact, a thing that is, a hard, rough object, naked and senseless. His whole artful system was shaken by this experience.
His second experience was the discovery of the crime. To the bitter truth of man’s transience was added the truth about smiling villains, triumphant criminals. Unplumbed human nature opened up before the Prince like an abyss.
Hamlet—and this is a mark of intellectual greatness—rejected the acclaimed recipe of philosophy and did not tread the old path to Nature, by way of soothing indifference and endurance. The cruelty and wretchedness of man infected even nature. The earth seemed to him “a sterile promontory, the brave o’everhanging firmament a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.”
Before Descartes risked his universal doubt, before he began demolishing the foundations, he built himself a cozy little temporary morality not only to avoid hesistating to act when his reason obliged him to be hesitant to judge, but also to live as happily as he could in the midst of those intellectual storms. The Prince of Denmark does not seek any protection. The current of his doubt is religious, metaphysical, moral, not merely methodological.
We meet Hamlet in a negative, skeptical phase. In this phase, definitions and theses are not important. There are situations in which a man should be able to do without a philosophy. There are experiences in the face of which one must discard systems of gentle persuasion and plausible consolations. Hamlet’s greatness as a thinking being resides in his passion for blasting things away, in his nihilistic impetus, in the ardor of his negation, the bitterness of his skepticism.
Thinking is sometimes seen as a form of luxury in life, a narrow little puff of reflection trailing from the forehead. Down below the instincts, senses, and all the other condemned dark forces are seething. Thought is opposed to life as the only form of clarification and justification.
In Hamlet, thinking does not oppose itself to life or any other inner powers. He thinks with his whole life and with his whole person. The fingers touching Yorick’s skull are the beginning of reflection; in Hamlet’s conversation with his mother, thought weeps and bleeds.
What is sometimes interpreted as indecision, in the intellectual sphere as well, is in fact Hamlet’s orientation toward the concrete, the thought form that is an immediate reaction to reality, a response to a situation. That is why the Prince’s soliloquies, in which the dramatization of thought reaches its peak, are as thrilling as the action, if indeed not more engaging. They are woven so subtly of thought’s material that you can listen to them with your eyes closed, even regretting that they are being spoken aloud. If the shallow trace left in one’s consciousness by the recitation of a poem learned by heart or a reading from someone else’s text can be called “thought thought,” then thought that rips up a whole man, wholly absorbing him in the process, with a complete sense of responsibility and risk to the point of questioning himself—such a thought may be called after a contemporary philosopher “thinking thought,” fully and integrally connected to the subject. This heroic form of the intellect as it experiences reality, despite its undulations, its rises and falls, has nothing in common with moodiness, differs from it in depth and authenticity.
Hamlet’s madness is a veil behind which he prepares himself for the decisive trial. It is also a battle: it liberates the strength of one driven into a corner—irony—and permits outbursts of sincerity and truth uninhibited by convention. But just as aesthetic revenge proved powerless, this ploy also lets him down and only makes the Prince reveal more of himself. Even such a capital calf as Polonius discovers the method in this madness, and Hamlet’s main antagonist Claudius is fully aware of the mystification. Hamlet’s gloomy joke, taking a stroll to a grave, his parables about man as pipe and as sponge, that Pascalian paragraph from the words “What a piece of work is man…” to “But to me what is this quintessence of dust?”—all of them make an all too profound sense. It is not healthy common sense but an obsessive thickened form of thought, and for that reason the scenes of performative madness are closest to the soliloquies. The famous soliloquy on the risk of suicide (to be or not to be), cut off by Ophelia’s entrance, turns into an explosive dialogue that despite glaringly obvious difference of tone and an intensified level of cruelty, has the same foundation, the same material of thought and even a consistently arrived at conclusion.
The truly mad Ophelia and the mock-mad Hamlet cross the garden (murderers say there are snakes in it). The Prince watches closely and tensely listens to her words. Ophelia’s eyes are changed, wide, burning, her breath is quickened, she hums a song she would never have dared to sing before. Seeing all this, Hamlet thinks of a philosophy as powerful and authentic as madness. (1951)
Translated by Alissa Valles
* In an earlier essay the author imagines an essay on Barbara’s Syllogism in a trunk of ephemera from Hamlet’s student days.
This essay will appear among several newly translated works in Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Prose, 1948-1998
Zbigniew Herbert is among the giants of modern literature. Little Star fervently urges readers not to stray far from these two books.
Hear Zbigniew Herbert read “Elegy of Fortinbras” (1961)
Hear Seamus Heaney read Zbigniew Herbert
Read “Achilles. Pentheselea,” translated by Joseph Brodsky
Read Adam Michnik on Zbigniew Herbert