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THE KING AND THE BODY

Hamlet. The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body. The king is a thing

(Hamlet, iv, 2, 29)

I can best convey the meaning of these words by a series of mental steps. The sentence is very delusive; it was intended to be so by Shakespeare. As Rosencrantz was supposed to see nothing but pure nonsense in such a statement, being too shallow to understand Hamlet, it was necessary for Shakespeare to put the sentence in such a form that it would appear the same to us, at first blush; thus we should see how perfectly insane it seemed to the two king’s-messengers. At the same time its meaning is perfectly open, and was intended to be open by Shakespeare, to those who had the feeling and insight to understand Hamlet. Let the reader exercise a little patience, therefore, if at first he does not catch it. Afterwards I shall explain what relation it bears to the play as a whole.

The idea that Hamlet is here expressing is as follows:

To a dead man, a king does not exist. The king has no being, is nothing, to a dead man, because the dead man is not conscious of him. But to a live king, a dead man does exist.

Which is to say:

To a dead man, a king is not. But to a live king a dead man is.

Or, in other words:

With the king, a body is. But with the body a king is not.

Or, to use Hamlet's exact words:

The body is, with the king. But the king is not, with the body.

It is all a matter of being, this question of is. And consciousness is what being consists of,

or life.

The reader will at once be reminded of the soliloquy:—“To be or not to be." It is all of a piece with this, even as the play in its deeper aspects, is all of a piece. Let us turn now to the soliloquy

The whole soliloquy, “To be or not to be," is engaged solely with the subject of forgetting. That is to say, not with mere death, as ordinarily understood, but with oblivion. Hamlet's one great desire was to forget. The only way to forget is to die. Hence his contemplation of suicide.

There is but one thing that stays his hand from self-destruction. It is the question as to whether, after death, there may still be consciousness. And therefore memory of things in this life. For if he must remember in the future life, his heart must still ache; and in that case there is no escape in that direction, no inducement in dying. It was not merely his

life that Hamlet would wish to destroy, but his being.

To die; to sleep;
To sleep? Perchance to dream! Ay, there's the rub.

There indeed was the rub to a man with his reasons for dying. His impelling reason for wanting to die is stated at once, first and foremost. It is "the heartache and the thousand and one natural shocks that flesh is heir to." By "natural shocks” he means the shocks to his very nature — his heart and affections and ideals. He had had a terrible insight of the possibilities of human nature. Life had touched him to the quick on all four sides — through father, mother, sweetheart and friends. He had a father whose own brother had murdered him, a mother guilty of incest, a sweetheart who proved shallow and conventional in her love, boyhood friends equally vain and shallow who would spy upon him through selfish motives. All this came upon him suddenly; and being a man of high mental power it gave him a terrible insight of the world as it is. So long as he could remember these things and these people, his heart must ache. The only remedy is oblivion.

In mere "action" there is no remedy for such things. They are simple facts; and of such facts his life must consist, no matter what he does or how successful he might be. It is often wondered why he did not kill the king, console himself with “revenge” and then aspire

to his father's throne. And then what, let us ask. To be a king and live a life of such memories! Such insights!

When there is no remedy for a state of affairs, what can a man ask but to forget it all?

We cannot too tacitly fix upon our minds that in this part of the soliloquy Hamlet is wholly concerned, not with any dread of dying, but with the question as to whether memory persists after death. This is important to our understanding of the play inasmuch as it affects his course of action and shows his trend of thought.

It is next important for us to gather the exact meaning of those lines:

Whether 't is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

There is here no thought or intention of setting to work to straighten out mere affairs at court. A man cannot take a dagger to the shallowness of mother, sweetheart and friend; he cannot kill the crime of his father's brother by simply killing the man. The memory and the facts are left; and life to him must consist of that painful insight and knowledge of the world. Shakespeare here speaks of ending troubles immediately and at once by merely taking arms against them. This means simply

the taking of arms against self suicide; for not by any such opposition to others could his troubles be conquered. But by death, if it brings oblivion, the dagger can conquer all. It might be easy enough to kill a king. But the only way to really wipe a man out of existence is to kill yourself.

In this soliloquy, there is not the least hesitation over the fact that self-destruction

may

be against the law of heaven. It was in the earlier soliloquy that he gave thought to such matters

before the whole state of affairs had beer revealed to him. Here there is nothing of that. He is wholly concerned with the hope that death may end all. Shakespeare has eliminated everything to bring forth in all its depths this one desire. And so the prime concern of this soliloquy is that of forgetting.

With this too short view of the soliloquy, we are in a position to return with a new eye to the "crux” with which we began. The accepted view with all modern authorities is that these words are "intended as nonsense"; or, as the Globe editors say, “Hamlet is talking nonsense designedly.” But let us look at the facts.

Hamlet inadvertently, and not caring much what he did, had killed Polonius and hid the body under the stairs. In this juncture the messenger comes to him from the king and says, You must tell us where the body is, and

and go with us to the king.” Immediately there arose in

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