Shakespeare, the Ultimate Nihilist: An Analysis of Hamlet’s Story-within-a-story

Note: This is an essay I wrote for a class on Shakespeare, which is now over. 

If one is to look closely at that infamous sketch of Shakespeare, it is easy to see that his face is in fact a mask. While this may be a hint that Shakespeare wanted to hide his true identity, it also accentuates the theme of appearance versus reality that transcends every one of his works. The play Hamlet offers up numerous instances of this trickster theme, but there is also something much deeper in this story-within-a-story, told and manipulated by the supposedly all-around good-guy Horatio; as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “There is no truth; there is only perspective.” In addition to the evidence in the play, many critics assert that the putting up of appearances penetrates the human psyche portrayed in Hamlet much deeper than it seems at a quick glance.

As an example of the overriding theme of appearance versus reality, the authenticity of Hamlet’s madness has been disputed for centuries. Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he plans “to put on an antic disposition,” but there are many instances in the play where his soliloquized motivations do not seem to come from a sane mind (Act I.5, line 175). In many of Hamlet’s speeches “the emotional and intellectual sources of speeches are not self-evident, and to understand these [one is] forced to hypothesize a continuous inner life for the characters of which [one sees] only the phenomenal outgrowths. In sequences of this sort, [one assumes] that the characters themselves are speaking out of some part of their beings that [one does] not see” (Schell). To Polonius, Hamlet’s insanity seems to be very real, and he interprets it quite wrongly to be caused by an obsession with his daughter Ophelia; but Hamlet intended his insanity to be an appearance, to put on a show in order to trick the King Claudius so as to avenge the death of his father. Polonius and Claudius put up their own appearances as well, hiding their true malicious intentions from their family and the court. Hamlet’s Mousetrap, in addition to his ambiguous mental health, is a play-within-a-play, an appearance in itself that dramatizes the truth.

This theme of appearance versus reality resonates throughout the play, but upon further analysis it is revealed that the characters of Horatio and Fortinbras are the only two left alive at the end of the play, meaning that Hamlet is in actuality a story-within-a-story. Hamlet’s last words are to Horatio: “So tell him [Fortinbras], with th’ occurents, more and less, which have solicited — the rest is silence” (Act V.2, lines 340-341). These lines reveal that the entire play that had just been performed upon the stage had been told from the perspective of Horatio, told to the character Fortinbras, and that “it is not always clear who the speaker of certain lines may be presumed to be” (Schell).

While it appears that the character of Horatio is an unbiased narrator, loved by all other characters and best friend to Hamlet, who suspects that he will tell Hamlet’s story as honestly as he can, Horatio is in truth the most infamously unreliable narrator in fiction. Hamlet’s last words in the play have been analyzed under scrutiny by many a critic, and John Russell Brown even offers five distinct interpretations of Hamlet’s final words. His final analysis is that “the rest is silence” is in fact Shakespeare speaking to the audience through the character Hamlet, saying “he, the dramatist, would not, or could not, go a word further in the presentation of this, his most verbally brilliant and baffling hero. The author is going to hide like a fox, leaving all of us standing at a cold scent” (Brown). If one is to read this interpretation under the assumption that it is Horatio telling Hamlet’s story, not Shakespeare, who is in actuality telling Horatio’s story rather than Hamlet’s, then perhaps one can see that Shakespeare is saying “he… could not go a word further in the presentation” of Horatio rather than Hamlet.

Because Hamlet is told from the perspective of Horatio, it is probable that Horatio skewed the events of Hamlet’s story for his own benefit. The events of the play are not what actually happened; Horatio has manipulated the story to cover up his own crime. While this contrived manner of storytelling may boggle the minds of readers, viewers, and critics, it only goes to reassert the theme of appearance versus reality in the play. It sheds a new light on Schell’s claim of the characters revealing their “inner lives” through their speech: that these “inner lives” are principally Horatio’s doing in order to give his manipulated story more credibility. One could go even further and claim that it is in fact Fortinbras who is telling this story, told to him by Horatio, making Hamlet an even more nested and manipulated account of one man’s attempt to uncover and avenge his father’s death, Shakespeare’s trickiest game of medieval telephone.

The critic Alfred Barkov argues that there are more instances in the play that indicate a presence of a narrator besides Hamlet. He analyzes the age of Hamlet throughout the play, as well as the family ties between King Hamlet, King Claudius, and King Fortinbras, claiming that these discrepancies in plot can be attributed to the mind of the manipulative narrator. This narrator is “the main object at whom Shakespeare’s satire is aimed. The hidden intention of that character is the most important composition of Hamlet” (Barkov). This “hidden intention” could perhaps be a crime that Horatio committed, one which he attempts to cover up utilizing Hamlet’s story.

Barkov’s assertion that Hamlet is a satire is entirely plausible, though it is not a satire aimed at exposing and mocking the “hidden intentions” of storytellers; but it is aimed at exposing the fact that storytellers do in fact have “hidden intentions.” For instance, Hamlet conducted the play-within-a-play The Mousetrap with the intention of exposing King Claudius’ crime, and though his manipulation was much more transparent and obvious to the audience and the characters in the play than Horatio’s and Shakespeare’s intentions, it accentuates the theme of appearance versus reality in the play.

The intention of a storyteller differs from one to another, obviously, as each individual has a different story to tell, and in exposing the unnamed intention of Horatio, Shakespeare is in turn explicitly telling his audience that he the author has his own intention by writing this play, as well as all of his other works. However, besides exposing the trickster nature of storytellers, Shakespeare’s own objective remains hidden; though, perhaps his intention was not to portray a message about the human psyche but instead to put on a show of genius that would puzzle audiences for centuries: one enormously complex “Look what I can do!”

To play the character Hamlet is considered the greatest honor, the peak of an actor’s career, and countless interpretations of the character have been performed, from manipulative misogynist to Oedipal manifestation to whiny, depressive teen; however, Horatio still remains in the front row of an audience, laughing at the hidden meaning in his story; and then there is Shakespeare, standing behind him, wearing his goofy, knowing mask. The fact that Shakespeare’s identity continues to remain a mystery goes to show the true genius of the individual who wrote these plays; the trickster saw beneath the facades that people put up to attempt to hide their true selves and wove intricate stories to peel away the layers of human motivation until he could reveal that deep reality is either incredibly inexplicable, or just a big joke. Even if the identity of the Shakespeare beneath the mask is ever revealed, there are sure to be more layers to the genius, and to life, that appear impossible to peel away. 

Works Cited

Barkov, Alfred. “Hamlet: A Tragedy of Errors or the Tragical Fate of Shakespeare?”

Brown, John Russell. “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet.” Connotations 2.1 
     (1992): 16-33.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Pelican Shakespeare, Penguin Books Inc. New York, NY: 2001.

Schell, E. T. “Who Said That: Hamlet or Hamlet?” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 
     1973) pp. 135-146.