(Note: This post has been edited as of 2:16 PM Eastern on 31 Oct to clarify an insufficiently detailed paragraph concerning Hamlet's "antically brutal and cruel" behavior towards Ophelia.)
Piqued by a PBS airing of a taped version of Kevin Kline's production of the play (not a production for the ages by any stretch, but a mostly respectable one nevertheless with Kline in the title role), I've spent the last few days with that paragon of plays, Hamlet, a work I've not engaged in earnest for decades now.
The first thing that struck me was how much of the dialogue I remembered verbatim. Had it been a piece of music I'd not heard in decades but remembered verbatim there would have been little cause for surprise. I've a quirk of brain circuitry that simply works that way without any conscious effort on my part. No such quirk exists for me when it comes to words which, no matter how impressive, seem not to take root in that fashion, although I unerringly remember their sense. My conjecture is that there's something about the language of Hamlet (and of Macbeth as well, for which I found the same holds true for me) that registers unconsciously in my brain as a kind of music, the words taking on the characteristics of musical notes, figurations, phrases, etc., and so activate that quirky memory circuitry of mine in tandem with whatever circuitry is responsible for retaining the sense of the words.
What next struck me, or, rather, struck me afresh, was what an oddity is Hamlet's charge to Horatio and Marcellus on that windswept battlement (or so I imagine it) just subsequent to Hamlet's interview with his father's ghost, to which charge Hamlet makes them swear obedience; an oddity that Shakespeare makes a central element of the play:
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know'; or 'We could, an if we would';
Or 'If we list to speak'; or 'There be, an if they might';
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me:this is not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,
At this point in the play we might assume that Hamlet has some unspoken strategic plan in mind to avenge his father's murder which requires he assume an "antic disposition" in order to carry off; a plan we'll learn the details of later. But as we later learn, not only does Hamlet's feigned madness have no strategic value to him vis-à-vis the accomplishment of his vengeance, but apparently was never imagined by him to have had such value even as he declared his intention to act it out (he never speaks of it again in this connection, either to others or in soliloquy, nor at any time gives so much as a hint of what he might have had in mind originally as to its purpose). Further, as we later discover, in its effects it actually works against him could in fact only work against him in the accomplishment of his vengeance.
What could Shakespeare (or Hamlet, for that matter) have been thinking? One rejects immediately as preposterous the idea that Shakespeare willy-nilly carried over from his original source material primarily an ancient Danish chronicle (in French translation) compiled by one Saxo the Grammarian, from which a now lost play was made that had a popular run in London a few years before Shakespeare took pen in hand to make his Hamlet the device of the avenging hero feigning madness, and then attempted in Hamlet to make of it the best he could even though it didn't really fit his reworking of the plot.
As I've said, the idea is just too preposterous to entertain. In that original Danish chronicle (and the now lost play based on it) the feigning of madness by the hero (Amleth, by name, of which Hamlet is an anagram, and an almost homophone) does indeed serve a central and clear strategic purpose in the hero's avenging of his father's murder. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, however, that feigned madness serves Hamlet no such purpose, nor is it even treated as part of some well-conceived plan gone bad. In Hamlet, the hero's feigned madness seems, at best, well, simply logically and dramatically superfluous, even pointless, albeit marvelously colorful, in terms of its serving some central purpose in Hamlet's plan to wreak vengeance on his father's murderer, if indeed plan he ever had.
Nowhere in print reference materials to hand nor on the Internet can I find a discussion of this curious business. The intent behind Hamlet's announcement of his future feigned antic disposition as well as his later acting out of that intent seems, in terms of the intent itself, to have troubled neither scholars, readers, nor play-goers, but seems to have been received and accepted by them as something that needs neither examination nor questioning, which, given the gazillions of words spilled in analyses of Hamlet and Hamlet, is itself a fairly curious business. Not even the great A.C. Bradley, I discovered, in his classic, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), thinks the question of intent worthy of discussion or even mention.
Well, that last gave me instant pause. Surely, I must be missing something; something no careful reader ought to have missed. And so I began my examination of the play anew to see whether I could discover for myself what that something might be by consulting the sole authority on such matters: the text of the play itself. And what I discovered is that the original intent behind Hamlet's announcement of his future feigned antic disposition is discernable, but neither that intent nor his acting out of it serves any clear or central strategic purpose in the accomplishment of his vengeance. Both, however, serve a single and singular tactical purpose, the key to which is to be found in Hamlet's soliloquy which follows immediately his father's ghost departs his company on that windswept battlement.
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
Hamlet is here not merely swearing that from this point forward he will have but a singleness of purpose until vengeance is done, but that he will literally not even so much as think on anything else.
There's, however, a single impediment to his making good this self-sworn oath: Ophelia. What's to be done about Ophelia? Or more properly, what's to be done about Hamlet's love for Ophelia; a love already declared (to Ophelia), and a love we've every reason to believe from Hamlet's own words in Act V is absolutely genuine and deeply felt, and, from the implication of Ophelia's own words in Act III, and some of the songs she sings under provocation of her now disordered mind in Act IV, a love that's returned, or, rather, wants to be or would have been returned in kind by Ophelia had Hamlet's declarations of love proved honest, honorable, and true and not what her brother and father had made it out to be.
But Ophelia is a pure, innocent, unworldly child. Hamlet can't make her privy to what he's learned from the ghost; cannot even so much as hint at the appearance of the ghost. In short, he can't enlist even her ear for solace in the dread business before him, much less enlist her help in carrying it out. And so he must make an end to this love both for his own part and for Ophelia's if the ghost's
...commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of [Hamlet's] brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter....
What to do?
Put on an antic disposition, that's what; so antically brutal and cruel (to Ophelia) that Ophelia will learn to be repulsed by his mere presence, and that will be an end of it for them both. Or so I take it Hamlet imagines. And why not merely brutal and cruel (which would accomplish the same end) rather than antically brutal and cruel? So that after the deed of vengeance is done, and Hamlet has no further need to wipe from his mind his love for Ophelia and hers for him, he can say to her, mutatis mutandis, as he did to her brother, Laertes, in Act V,
Was't Hamlet wrong'd [Ophelia]? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong [Ophelia],
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
And so Hamlet sets about being antically brutal and cruel towards Ophelia in the only acting out of his antic disposition in the entire play which is other or more than the mere bandying about of wild, cuttingly witty, purposefully ditsy, or maliciously toying one-liners with various of the play's other characters, which bandying about serves Hamlet no purpose whatsoever in the accomplishment of his vengeance except to further confirm for Ophelia while she lived the genuineness of his madness. That his feigned antic disposition also might work to the detriment of that accomplishment and, worse, is something which the distraught Hamlet apparently didn't think through, and with tragic consequence.
Bradley says that in the matter of Hamlet's love for Ophelia he (Bradley) is, "unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of some of [Hamlet's antic] words and deeds [addressed to her]," but declares that on two points there can be no reasonable doubt: 1) that "Hamlet was at one time sincerely and ardently in love with Ophelia," and 2) that "[w]hen at Ophelia's grave Hamlet declared,
I lov'd Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.
he must have spoken sincerely," and that Hamlet used the past tense, "lov'd", "merely because Ophelia was dead, and not to imply that he had once loved her but no longer did so."
Would I venture to suggest that perhaps Dr. Bradley (who would have disagreed with my above thesis) might have been able to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of all Hamlet's antic words and deeds addressed to Ophelia had it been clear to him whence and for what purpose they issued?
Well, perhaps even I would not dare go so far.