A Hamlet Interpretation
by F.C. Hunt
When Hamlet returned to Elsinore from school he was suffering from a deep and profound melancholy, seemingly caused by the death of his father, the blasting by his uncle of his natural expectations of succeeding to the throne, and his mother's infidelity to his father's memory. Claudius is painted by the poet as bold, unscrupulous, keen-sighted and resourceful, and Hamlet would have been devoid of common -sense had he not realized, along with the loss of his hoped for career, the grave danger he would be in at his uncle's court should he evince a mutinous spirit towards the new king. His soul had prophesied to him that his uncle was back of his father's death, although his suspicions had not yet been confirmed by his father's spirit. The King had noted Hamlet's dark and melancholy bearing, and evidently with no favorable eye. The deserted son's heart was breaking over the base action of his mother, and he was contemplating suicide. He had intended going back to Wittenberg. Under such conditions the character of Hamlet is introduced to the reader. The King, in the room of the state, had spoken at length to the Queen and assembled courtiers in relation to his plans towards Fortinbras, had dismissed Voltimand and Cornelius, and had granted leave to Laertes to return to return to France. Then he turns to Hamlet and asks abruptly--
The King speaks darkly by the use of the word "clouds," but there is no pretense on Hamlet's part that he doesn't understand the allusion. As a matter of fact, it is quite evident that the King's question is framed by the poet for the express purpose of making apropos, by the antithesis of clouds and sun, Hamlet's equally dark answer, for the young man denies that there are any clouds hanging on him, but affirms that his trouble is the contrary. He counters thus:
As the critics have never yet clearly determined the meaning of Hamlet's answer, the King may well have been set to thinking by this enigmatic retort. What did this melancholy young man mean? It has commonly been thought that was sarcastically playing upon the words sun and son, in reference to having been called son by his uncle in the preceding line by the King--"But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son"--yet it would puzzle us to catch the point in that connection. Hudson thinks the true meaning is best explained by a quotation from Grindal's " Profitable Discourse," 1855, reading: "In very deed they were brought from the good to the bad, and from God's blessings, as the proverb is, into a warme sonne." But what this explanation is , and how it appears from the extract cited, we are left by Hudson in the dark to helplessly grope after.
More than one Shakespeare student has been deeply impressed with the suggestion that in the character of Hamlet is reflected the mentality and experience of the poet at a profound and crucial period of his intellectual development, but when we seek to find the original of these reflections in the life of Mr. "Shagsper of thone part,"we find not a thing to aid us, not even a whisper from the darkness to lead us on. Silence reigns supreme.
But when, in the idle curiosity, or in skeptical hardness of heart, we turn the searchlight upon the life and writings of Francis Bacon, things begin to appear that attract the attention, rouse the mind and make the eye glisten with interest. The young Noverint mentioned by Nash, who was busying himself with the "endeavors of art,"comes into view. The return of a young student from a foreign land upon the death of his father, and the dashing of his hopes and expectations of advancement by a designing uncle, is heard again. The philosophy saturated character of Hamlet finds its natural derivation.
Why was the stamp of melancholy so indelibly impressed upon Hamlet by his creator? It was not observant in the "Hamlet" of Saxo Gammaticus. Was it not because at a time when the "Tragical History," by William Shakespeare, may well have been written, or revised, Bacon had passed, or was passing, through a period of profound melancholy caused by the failure of Essex to procure him the place of Solicitor General?
As early as April, 1593, Bacon was writing to Essex about his fortune and complaining gently of Essex's silence, yet promising not dispose of himself without Essex's allowance, but only part of the letter has been preserved. In September, 1593, Essex wrote Bacon that the Queen was so angry with himself that he found no chance to move Bacon's own suit, but would do so at the first opportunity. In the same month Burghley attempted to place Bacon with the Queen, but she had required Lord Keeper Puckering to furnish her with the names of two other lawyers. On the same day Cecil wrote Bacon about the Solicitor's place, from which it appears that Bacon was then suffering under the displeasure of the Queen, and had been denied access. About the same time Bacon wrote a few plain words to the Queen , asking to be allowed to correct his error and to become "reintegrate" in her favor, stating that he only desired a place of his profession of the law such as younger men than himself had received; that his mind was turning on"other wheels than those of profit," wishing in any event that her majesty should be served "answerably to herself," and craving pardon for his boldness and plainess. As late as November Bacon felt sure he would get the place, for on the 4th of November he wrote, "Good Robin" Kemp from Twickenham--"For my fortune(to speak court) it is very slow, if anything can be slow with him that is secure of the event."
Then on the 28th of March,1594, Essex wrote Bacon of an interview he had had with the Queen in which she had refused to do anything before Easter, and had told Essex "to go to bed" if he couldn't talk of anything else. The next day Essex also wrote Bacon that he had again seen the Queen and was much encouraged. This was answered by Bacon the following day in the now famous letter in which he complained that the delay had "gone so near" that it had "almost overthrown" his health. And we have indubitable evidence that he was telling the truth, for Francis' good mother, the Lady Anne, writing to his brother Anthony on the 30th of July, 1595, says:
"I gave your brother at twice 25(pounds) for his paling, rather to cheer him since he had nothing by me. Crosby told me he looked very ill ; he thought he taketh still inward grief; I fear it may injure his health hereafter."
She writes again to Anthony on the 7th of August, the same year, saying:
"I am sorry your brother with an inward secret grief hindereth his health. Everybody saith he looketh thin and pale. With a humble heart before God let your brother be of good cheer."
And as late as October of that year Francis must have been still suffering, and had probably received the Queen's final negative, for his mother wrote again to Anthony on the 21st of that month:
And was it not Hamlet who also had this same "inward secret grief ?" who said--
"But I have that within
which passeth show
These but the trappings and the suits of woe."
Evidently the same Bacon, but not the same good mother. Bacon writes of the good memory of his father, of his kinship to the Lord Treasurer, of Essex's own favour, the recommendation of the councillors, the lords, the judges, and the master of the rolls elect. He was, as he said, "voiced with great expectation," and Hamlet was the "expectancy and rose of the fair state." In this same letter Bacon refers to his treatment by the Queen as an "exquisite disgrace" and states that he has determined, if the Queen rejects him, to "retire with a couple of men to Cambridge, and there spend my life in studies and contemplations," and he begs Essex's pardon for troubling him "with my melancholy." And again he writes Essex, hoping the Queen would not leave him to "pine here in melancholy." And it is Hamlet, another melancholy philosopher, who wants to go back to Wittenberg to his studies, but is refused by the crafty King and severely lectured. May 1st, 1594, Bacon writes his cousin, Robert Cecil, to move his father to "lay his hand to the same delay." Cecil lays the blame on Essex, but is sorry to see Bacon "so gravelled." Faulke Greville, Bacon's old-time friend, had been appealed to, and, after talking with her Majesty, had written Francis on the 17th of June,1594, of the "gracious inclination" she had shown towards him, and offered to wager 100 pounds to fifty that Bacon would be her Solicitor. Again Bacon wrote direct to the Queen from Huntingdon on the 20th day of July. In the early part of 1594, Bacon had intimated to Essex his intention to travel abroad. This came to her ears, and she promptly vetoed that intention. She probably laid down the law as Claudius did to Hamlet:--
Bacon had written Anthony on the 25th of January of that year that he was going to "make the best with those small things" he had and "sing a mass of requiem abroad." He had also asked leave of Cecil to answer in writing the speech of the Queen on learning of his intention to travel. In this letter Bacon says:--
"I told his lordship of this purpose of mine to travel, accompanying it with these very words, that upon her Majesty's rejecting me with such circumstance, though my heart might be good, yet mine eyes would be sore, that I was not an impudent man, that I could face out a disgrace; and that I hoped her Majesty would not be offended, that 'not able to endure the sun, I fled into the shade!'"
Is it now hard to understand Hamlet's enigmatical retort to the King--"I am too much i' the sun?" The royal sun of Denmark, like that of England, was becoming uncomfortably hot the the young man. As the sonnet says, "Sometime too hot the eye of Heaven shines; and while Bacon was proposing to seek the shade of a foreign country, the "melancholy Dane" was doing identically the same thing! And both proposals were promptly vetoed by their respective sovereigns! The figuring of royalty by the sun was a favorite metaphor with Bacon, and he uses it repeatedly in letters and other writings. Having in his letter to Cecil used to such good effect this imagery of fleeing to the shade from the too hot sun of royalty, he repeats it in another letter to Essex. He says:--
I am very sorry her Majesty should take my notion to travel in offence; but surely, under hr Majesty's royal correction, it is such an offence as it should be an offence to the sun when a man to avoid the scorching heat flieth into the shade."
The truth seems to be that the Queen never did forgive Bacon for his independent action in the matter of the subsidies in the Parliament of 1592; and after torturing him for four years, she at last gave Fleming the solicitorship, "to the surprise of the public and the deep felt mortification of Bacon and of his patron and friend, Lord Essex." It is not suprising that when Elizabeth died no songs in her praise came from the pen of Shakespeare.
The delay that Bacon was experiencing in his efforts for advancement to the Solicitor's place racked his very end. He was " in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes; he was poor, and through his brother Anthony was trying to borrow two hundred pounds form his uncle, Killegrew. It was the crises of his life. Upon the Solicitor's place hung his freedom from poverty, and what was far more important, a position of security and influence where he could more safely and effectively carry out his world wide plans of a "Universal Reformation" and of laying " great bases for eternity." Bacon felt that he was born to set a crooked world straight, but it was a task to make melancholy the bravest spirit , and from his tortured soul might well come the cry of Hamlet, that other world-reformer:---
Advancement Bacon must have, and the phono-graphic Hamlet immediately repeats,
And right here Hamlet gives up another puzzle, for Rosencrantz very naturally asks:--
"How can that be, when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark?"
Here is a fair test of our Baconian reflection theory. Bacon would very probably have said, "Yes, the Solicitor's place some time in the future may be very good, but it's this delay that's killing me now." And then Hamlet beautifully sidesteps the whole issue by his puzzling answer to Rosencrantz in the words:--
"Ay, sir, but while the grass grows-- the proverb is something musty."
What a tantalizing young man, to be sure! Just the half of the proverb omitted that would have disclosed the hidden thought. That is a sly trick of Shakespeare, but we happen to know the whole proverb. Here it is:--
"Whilst grass grows doth growe, oft sterves the seely steed."
It is the very delay we expected, and the reflection again comes back true. The 1603 Quarto has nothing of this "too much i' the sun," of Hamlet's "lack of advancement," nor of the proverb of the "seely steed." They are all additions found in the published Quarto of 1604, and which are thought to have been written about 1594, at a time when Bacon was, coincidentally, hunting the shade at Twickenham. Query: Could Shakespeare have been one of the "good pens" Bacon had with him about that time?
See article : Francis Bacon & Hamlet