The time is out of joint.
O curséd spite, that I was ever born to set it right.
How is “time out of joint” and how does the play dramatize Hamlet’s struggle to set it right
This question lies in two parts, one the upset to Denmark and Elsinore, the other the struggle to repair it; each shall be dealt with in turn. From the opening few lines of Hamlet we know that things are not ‘right’ in Denmark. The opening Act of the play is an unfolding litany of portents and signs until in Scene 5 the Ghost tells Hamlet of the murder by Claudius. We have already heard, in his first soliloquy, of Hamlet’s struggles; in this case his depression and suicidal thoughts. This is typical of Hamlet’s struggle in the first part of the play, the struggle is an internal one. It is only later that the struggle becomes an external, physical one. We will also see that Hamlet’s struggle is more than just one of revenge, it also encompasses life over death and love over hate before returning to revenge.
The first line of Hamlet, Barnardo’s peremptory “Who’s there?” when he approaches Francisco’s guard post, rather than the more usual challenge of the guard, tells us that the soldiers are nervous in their duties. When Horatio and Marcellus arrive they also give us signs of upset with their talk of the war with Fortinbras of Norway. Marcellus enquires :-
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week:
What might be toward that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day,
Marcellus’ question tells us that Denmark is a country preparing for war. At the conclusion of his answering speech Horatio tells us that like Rome before the death of Ceasar various harbingers and omens have shown Denmark’s upset to it’s people :-
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
In Act 1, Scene 2 (I.ii) Hamlet is already at odds with Claudius and Gertrude. First he is upset by their asking that he give up his mourning for his dead father–“cast thy nighted colour off”. Then Claudius’ request that he stay in Denmark rather than return to Wittenberg is ignored, his mother’s request is answered with “I shall in all my best obey you, mother”. In fact he probably intends to disobey them both.
At the conclusion of this scene Hamlet’s soliloquy is the first sign we get of his feeling that all is not right. He already harbours suicidal thoughts :-
Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!
We also see that Hamlet already thinks that his mother’s marriage to Claudius is wrong:-
…O most wicked speed to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
In I.iv we have Hamlet being told by the Ghost that Claudius murdered old Hamlet, condemning him to walk at night until the murder is avenged. We also hear of Claudius drinking with a flourish of trumpets, a custom “more honoured in the breach than the observance” as Hamlet puts it. Denmark is governed by an egotistical Claudius reviving old customs for his own aggrandizement. The scene leaves us with Hamlet’s statement that defines the question. “The time is out of joint. O curséd spite that I was ever born to set it right.”
Greer1 puts forward an appealing theory that “The disease of Denmark is not a giant conspiracy but rather a lack of curiosity and concern about matters unseen.” This raises some interesting questions about the action in Hamlet. Why is it that no one seems to be questioning the sudden death of old Hamlet, the marriage of his widow and the taking of the throne by Claudius? Here we have another example of “time out of joint”, a court more caught up with chasing favour than truth.
So it is Act I of Hamlet that tells us how time is out of joint. The King has been murdered by his brother, now married to the Queen and sitting on the throne that may well have been Hamlet’s. Old Hamlet walks the castle as a Ghost suffering torment. Hamlet himself is withdrawn and depressed. The country prepares rapidly for war and other portents have been seen. The court is blind to the wrongs that have befallen the country.
This brings us to Hamlet’s struggle to set it right. When he makes the statement he is certainly referring to the avenging of his father’s death upon Claudius, so the struggle is partially to achieve this end without bringing further harm upon Denmark.
The rest of Hamlet can be seen as moving forward to this action. Hamlet’s struggle is dramatized in two ways, the internal one of belief and resolve and the external one of killing the King, surrounded as he is by courtiers and guards, without proof of some sort. We can also see that the struggle will not be complete until the veil is lifted off the eyes of the court and they see the sudden death and hasty marriage for what they are, the usurping of power by the tyrant Claudius.
While Hamlet is the central character of the play and his struggle the central theme we can separate it out from the efforts of others to thwart him, either wittingly (such as Claudius’ attempt to have him murdered at the hands of the English) or unwittingly (such as Gertrude’s desire to see Hamlet as her dutiful son and Claudius’ dutiful subject).
Hamlet’s struggle is also about life and death, as much as revenge. Throughout the play we see him struggling with his own mortality and death wish as well as the death of Claudius. I have already mentioned his first soliloquy in I.ii after talking to Claudius and his mother; this is where the play also introduces the theme of Hamlet’s mortality and struggle for existence, even before he realises his father was murdered. In III.i we once again see Hamlet solilouqize on his own mortality, “To be or not to be”. Hamlet is struggling with the seemingly enormous task that confronts him and asking himself if it would be easier to “his quietus make with a bare bodkin.” Hamlet is aware of the enormity of his task from the first; in I.v after the Ghost has laid upon him the need for revenge he says to him “What else? And shall I couple hell?”. Hamlet knows the struggle will not be simple.
In the soliloquy in II.ii after his meeting with the Player we see Hamlet berating himself for his lack of action :-
A dull and muddly-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing–no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Hamlet is also doubting the veracity of the Ghost :-
…The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and melancholy–
As he is very potent with such spirits–
Abuses me to damn him.
Here we have a dramatic demonstration of Hamlet’s internal struggle, in this speech he is convinced of the need for action (and upset at his own lack of resolve) while moments later doubting the truth of the ghost, and therefore the need to revenge his father.
At the end of III.ii Hamlet has what seems an ideal opportunity to kill Claudius. Hamlet has recently been persuaded of Claudius’ guilt by his reaction to ‘The MouseTrap’ and he is unarmed and unprotected as he kneels, seemingly in prayer. The scene plays out thus :-
…And am I then revenged
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
[He sheathes his sword]
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hint.
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no salvation in’t,
Hamlet tells us that he cannot kill Claudius at this point, his soul would go to Heaven. We can see Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius at this point in two ways, depending on our view of his reason for failure. If we take Hamlet at his word this is a dramatic example of the physical difficulties Hamlet faces in killing Claudius; finding him unprotected but thwarted for other reasons. This could also be an excuse, an outward show of Hamlet’s lack of resolve in his revenge. The playwright then underlines this dramatic point with irony; Claudius’ kneeling as if in prayer does not believe his words go up to heaven “Words without thoughts never to heaven go” and so we, the audience, can see Hamlet’s assumption, and therefore excuse, is false.
In the next scene, III.iv, we see another dramatic example of Hamlet’s struggle.
Gertrude What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho!
Polonius [Behind] What, ho! help, help, help!
Hamlet [Drawing] How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!
[Makes a pass through the arras]
Polonius [Behind] O, I am slain!
Gertrude O me, what hast thou done?
Hamlet Nay, I know not: Is it the king?
Gertrude O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
Hamlet A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Gertrude As kill a king!
Hamlet Ay, lady, ’twas my word.
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune;
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger.
Here we have Hamlet, only moments after declining to kill the King seemingly at prayer, attacking someone he believes to be Claudius. This would seem to confirm Hamlet’s excuse in the previous scene, but the playwright is once again underlining Hamlet’s struggle with a question for the audience. Could Hamlet do this because he can kill someone he cannot see, while unable to kill someone kneeling unarmed before him? However we answer the question we once again see Hamlet thwarted in his revenge by circumstance, this time of mistaken identity. The killing of Polonius further stalls his struggle as he must flee Denmark for England.
This scene also dramatises Hamlet’s struggle between the love and anger he feels for his mother; as he berates her for the sins of both herself in her ‘incestuous’ marriage and those of Claudius in killing old Hamlet the Ghost arrives to remind both the audience and Hamlet that he has been ordered to leave Gertrude unharmed.
In Act V we see laid before us the tragedy of Hamlet’s struggle. Already we have had Polonius killed because Hamlet could not harness resolve and circumstance to kill Claudius earlier; in this Act we see Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude and Hamlet himself mortally wounded before the death of Claudius. In a finally irony Hamlet kills Claudius as much for the poisoning of his mother as for the death of his father. It is left to the man of action, symbol of good, Fortinbras to finally take the helm and “set it right”.
We have been shown that Hamlet is a man of thought, and his thoughts get in the way of action. As Sir Laurence Olivier2 says in the prologue to his 1948 film version of the play, “This is the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” In the final analysis that may well be Hamlet’s struggle.
1 Germaine Greer, Shakespeare (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986), p. 58
2 Laurence Olivier(Director), Hamlet (Rank Film Distributors, London, 1948)
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. London:Macmillan, 1957.
French, Marilyn, Shakespeare’s Division Of Experience. New York:Summit Books, 1981
Greer, Germaine, Shakespeare. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1986
Kott, Jan, Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London:Methuen, 1695
Olivier, Laurence (Director), Hamlet. London:Rank Film Distributors, 1948
Rowse, Alfred Leslie, The Annotated Shakespeare. London:Orbis Publishing, 1978
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet. London:Macmillan Education, 1973