The Tragedy of Sexuality in Hamlet
The motive force in Hamlet’s experience lies in his ultimate identification with his father in death and God’s reality, including the implicit, favorable judgment assumed to have been bestowed on Hamlet’s father, in contrast to the present ignoble life of his mother with Claudius:
O, that this too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘’gainst self- slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! Ah, Fie!’ tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed: things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead!
And, so, when Horatio finally breaks the wondrous news of his father’s visitation, the terms in which Hamlet expresses his impatience with Horatio to tell on are all in keeping with this fundamental motivating inspiration motivating inspiration: ‘For God’s love, let me hear’’ (1.11.195).
With the Ghost’s account, however, comes a dramatic reorientation in Hamlet’s view. For from the moment the Ghost begins to reveal himself at the interview, it is established for a start that judgment on Hamlet’s father has not been favorable as Hamlet has supposed, thus greatly complicating and intensifying the grieved pity Hamlet already feels over the loss of his father in death:
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatched:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhoud’led, disappointed, unanel’d:
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not: (1.5.74-83)
The basic cause of the murder of Hamlet’s father is the suggestion of a horrible inhumanity represented by a murder whose significance is that he was “Cut off in the blossoms of his sin. ‘And the phrase is in some way strange.’ Here we get a violent juxtaposition of “sin’’ with the positive qualities invoked for us by the term “blossoms’’. But the significance of the phrase is paradoxical and quite terrible. For the Elizabethans, the ‘nature’ almost always involve the sexual correlative. Here the phrase of the recognition of a power of judgment conveys the sexual optimism of the Elizabethans. The phrase appears to convey the tragic confounding of Hamlet’s aesthetic sense. But the metaphysical events have now revealed to be finally punishable in eternity.
The “Ghost’’ at this point speaks of his “love’’ as being ‘’of that dignity/ that it went hand in hand even with the vow / I made to her in marriage’ which would seem to suggest a ‘love’ that was sound. But, in fact, the Ghost is here referring to his faithfulness: faithfulness on his part does not imply soundness in the relationship; and we learn here that there was Gertrude’s adultery with Claudius, and this implies a relationship between Gertrude and the elder Hamlet no longer sound. But, for Calvin, as for Luther, neither faithfulness nor marriage could ever ensure soundness in the sexual relationship; or as Luther puts it: “nothing can cure libido, not even marriage’’—And the Ghost’s sudden revelation captures indeed all that is most disturbing in the Protestant view, namely that such a significance for sexual love could be known for certain except as a judgment in the other world. It seems to be that Hamlet has treated the sexual problem as if it were a universal affliction. For the effect of this revelation on Hamlet, we must assume, must make of his father’s fate a universal embodiment of the tragedy of sexuality.
Whatever the motivating force of Gertrude’s adultery and the murder is is really an embodiment of profoundest inhumanity. The significance of such lust is to emphasize the lust in all love, involving a murder that is itself a violent arraignment of sexual love, leading to punishment in eternity for Hamlet’s father. In this arraignment we find darker Lutheran view is now brought into further tension with another view that is yet reserved, more indulgent and typically Elizabethan, accordingly which sexual love is innocent, and a normal indulgence of nature to be atoned for and settled through the customary religious rites:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin
Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d:
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head,
O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!
This is a complex implication of some mysterious psychotic disturbance, and we find Hamlet’s later hysterical preoccupation with sexuality. It is how Hamlet’s original sense of the moral-emotional outrage against his father is ultimately experienced. Such hysteria is not to be confused with the “hysteria’’ over his mother’s sexuality displayed in the first soliloquy which has been exaggerated and, I believe, in any case, misinterpreted. The “hysteria’’ expresses that there measures a gap between his mother’s lust for Claudius and the innocent intensity of her sexual love for Hamlet’s father. This distinction is not merely intensified, it is tragically confounded by later revelations about the sexual implications of his father’s murder, and no doubt the outrage is the greater for this. Full and immediate revenge is called by the horror of punishment in eternity. Hamlet brings tortuously pained and tragic accusation against Gertrude in the last scene.
Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty:
Calls virtue hypocrite: takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there: makes a marriage vows
As false as dicers’oaths. O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes (111,4,40-51).
An account of blighted love which could be the cause of Hamlet’s complex accusation, feature the relationship between Hamlet’s mother and father as well as the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. So Hamlet’s behavior is not to be explained as a mysterious, fundamental disturbance regarding sexuality, one essentially unrelated to the murder: on the contrary, it is precisely Hamlet’s disposition in the scene to view the nature of this relationship strictly in relation to the absolute, sexual implications of the murder, particularly its implications for the innocence of love. Hamlet is acting on the assumption that all love is lust, when seen from the perspective of eternal judgment, as true of Hamlet and Ophelia as it was of his father and mother.
It is not enough to give a full account for Hamlet’s peculiar hysteria, which seems finally to emerge from the murder’s full paradoxical implications of love. These set in tragic conflict, alongside the absolute knowledge of love as lust, a lingering sense of the fundamental innocence of love. Hamlet’s behavior in the nunnery- scene is ultimately explained by the knowledge that he could not from an eternal perspective have loved Ophelia with the innocence he supposed. The knowledge itself is endowed with the full pain of a tragic discovery conflicting with the more immediate knowledge that he did and still does. This is characterized in the play by the love between Hamlet and Ophelia and that between Hamlet’s father and mother, what the play elaborates as the “rose’’ in love embodying “rose of May.’’
Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia is thus finally bred of Hamlet’s new tragic sense of the original sexual paradox. In this tragic condition, it is evident that there can no longer be much significance for the kind of compromises honesty once treated as an absolute honesty, till the Ghost’s revelation exposed it as compromise, which once settled the paradox by properly subordinating sexual nature to the rites of religion, specifically to marriage. It is with this consideration in mind, that we must approach Hamlet’s new sense of the sexual paradox:
For the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometimes a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.(111.1.111-15)
Here, in Hamlet’s reference to “honesty’’ means “genuineness’’ or “legitimacy,’’ immediate sense of chastity through a statement viewing the conflict between sexuality and chastity implicitly in relation to the conflict between sexuality and marriage as brought out by the murder. By the latter conflict, I mean primarily the limitations of marriage as a means of restraining sanctifying the sexual drive, limitations exposed by the revelations about his fate made by Hamlet’s father but also and more obviously, the sexual considerations which led Hamlet’s mother to violate her marriage to Hamlet’s father thus ultimately bringing about Hamlet’s full tragic discovery about marriage. This last connection makes it inevitable that Hamlet should come to see Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius as a living embodiment of all that marriage has been shown not to be: likewise inevitable that the question of an honest love with Ophelia , which could only be kept honest by marriage.
The ‘union’ and marriage between Gertrude and Claudius have implied a blighted love, not only between Gertrude and the elder Hamlet but also between Hamlet and Ophelia. The union involves the falsification of marriage. Beside this, it represents the violation of one marriage by another; the full effect of the union has to destroy the illusion that marriage necessarily sanctifies love. And this is the limitation of marriage alone before the power of sexuality. “The sexual outrage has been so monstrous and so appalling to Heaven ,that what it threatens is the breakup of the world itself and the immediate precipitation of doom and judgment’’ –claims Hamlet in the rest of his speech. This is more than mere hyperbole. From the representation of Heaven’s face this is emphasized as a prodigious sense of shame , but a sense of shame represented significantly as the last which has compelled it, as “heated visage’’ suggests simultaneously the blush of modesty sexual ardor. The absolute implications of Hamlet’s psychological experience lie here specifically as it relates to his awareness of lust as a universal condition portending judgments for all in Eternity.
The outright hysteria that eventually emerges in Hamlet’s baffled account only yields more point and penetration to Hamlet’s further effort from here to reach out to the basis of a controlling and corrective good lying amidst such a power of lust, which Hamlet desperately assumes must be there in the being in reality, to be touched off, if good is to prevail:
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope. O shame! where is thy blush? (111.4.79-82)
The motivating force behind the plot action in Hamlet is the collapse of boundaries between relationships of individuals, sexes and divisions of public and private love. The primary cause of the breakdown results from the bodily contamination spread through overt sexuality, specifically maternal sexuality. This type of contamination is found as that power of women than men fear. It shows the collapse of the father figure into one another and the subsequent trial of differentiation Hamlet had to undergo to secure his position as a son. Finally, it is shown that the play is a gradual breakdown of necessary boundaries between characters.
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