HAMLET: THE STAMP OF ONE DEFECT
By Felipe de Ortego y Gascaor more than 350 years
has been one of the theater's most successful plays. Morehas probably been written about Hamlet, the Prince, than about any other figure inliterature, for the play is enshrouded in a mystery of words about politics, theology, andmorality in Elizabethan England.
It is true that we cannot hope to know what Shakespeare knew or thought. But the moral truththat seems to emerge from Hamlet is that man is oftentimes no more than "a pipe for Fortune'sfinger to sound what stop she please." Hamlet is a tormented man in conflict with Fate, Society,and himself, and is tortured by a nagging malady, "Some vicious mole of nature," that breaksdown the "pales and forts of his reason."Elizabethan men of learning and intellectual curiosity no doubt pondered the phenomena of mental disorders. Cardan's Cornforte, a book of consolation traditionally associated with Hamlet, points out that a man is nothing but his mind: if the mind is discontented, the man is disquietedthough the rest of him be well. Hamlet is such a man, disquieted and melancholic, suffering fromthe stamp of one defect: the impediment of memory.Today, we have discovered that memory is a sensitive, delicate, and still unplumbed functionof the brain. Memory, like a slate, is sometimes wiped out completely or partially, dependingupon the kind of damage to the brain or the intensity of the psychological shock. Psychiatristsindicate that psychological memory blackouts can often be restored in reasonable lengths of time. Some cases, admittedly, remain baffling. My purpose is not to make a medical diagnosis of Hamlet, but rather, to point out that Shakespeare created, in the world of the play, conditions that precipitated a mental strain on Hamlet that he could not endure. Thus, the play is not just thestale plot of a disinherited Prince nor just the muddled controversy about the manifestations of the supernatural, but the intriguing dramatic idea of a man caught on the horns of a supernaturaldilemma and trapped into inertia by the stamp of one defect. It is the dramatic value of the defectthat is important and not the defect itself. I propose therefore to evaluate the dramatic value of Hamlet's impediment and to show how much it accounts for in the play.
Why did Hamlet not succeed to the throne upon his father's death? From Ophelia we learn that atone time he was "Th'-expectancy and rose of the fair state." This is perhaps the most glaringanomaly of the play. It is unlikely that Hamlet was simply disregarded because he was deemedtoo young and unproved in war. Therefore, the facts of the succession must be plumbed to thefull.To be sure, the Denmark of Saxo Grammaticus was a barbarous and primitive country, butwe can almost be assured that Shakespeare did not have the Denmark of Saxo Grammaticus inmind in the play but the Denmark of his own day.The right of succession in feudal Europe fell to the eldest son, or to the eldest daughter (as inthe case of Mary and Elizabeth) where there were no sons to continue and where queens were
From Shakespeare in the Southwest: Some New Directions, Tony J. Stafford, Editor, El Paso: Texas Western Press,1969