G. K. Chesterton on Hamlet

Joseph Schwartz

G. K. Chesterton wrote critical books about a number of authors — Dickens, Shaw, and Browning to name a few. Missing from this list is Shakespeare, about whom Chesterton had planned a book which never got written. We do have, however, many references in passing to Shakespeare and twenty-nine essays on him including five on Hamlet. In these essays one would not expect to find a single systematic critical work, but there is a genuine consistency in them which makes it possible to discuss Chesterton on Hamlet. His analysis of this confounding drama contains splendid insights which will enlarge our understanding of it.

Before reading Chesterton, I felt that T. S. Eliot in “The Problems of Hamlet” (1919) had written the benchmark essay on Hamlet, explaining its failure as a play because it lacked an objective correlative. “The play is full of stuff that Shakespeare could not drag to light” nor turn into art. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” One of the most obvious examples of an objective correlative is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking to objectify dramatically the enormous guilt she feels. The artistry lies in the fit of the external action and the internal emotion. According to Eliot this is what is lacking in Hamlet who “is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear . . . it is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it remains to poison life and obstruct action. . . . We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackles a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know.” This was such a powerful and compelling analysis for me because it explained the failure of the play as a perfectly honorable defeat. No one is expected to be able “to express the inexpressibly horrible.” Few critics have even admitted, concluded Eliot, “that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary” (124-26).

No, says Chesterton as if in response, concentrating in his essays on the character of Hamlet, not on the play, and that tilts the Hamlet problem significantly. “We are so used to thinking of ‘Hamlet’ as a problem that we sometimes quite forget that it is a tragedy . . .” (Alarms 210). Chesterton’s always perceptive Fr. Brown said of Hamlet that every work of art has an indispensable mark—“I mean that the centre is simple, however much the fulfillment may be complicated.” And at the center of Hamlet is “one plain tragic figure of a man in black” (Innocence 90-91). Chesterton’s “Hamlet and the Psycho-analyst” (1923) provides a good starting point. By the time this essay was written the popular press had discovered Freud, and the problem of Hamlet was especially attractive as an illustration of how the Freudian theory could be applied. What was wrong with the method, Chesterton held, was that it could not see the forest for the trees; it is not “simple to see self-evident things.” One does not learn from studying Hamlet the method of psychoanalysis or the way to treat a lunatic. What one learns “is not to despise the soul as small.” The play makes such a powerful argument for largeness of soul that it resists any attempt to diminish man by the application of psychological formulae. “This sort of criticism has lost the last rags of common sense.” After reading the play, it is not Sigmund Freud or Ernest Jones that we remember; it is the enormous vitality and grace of a baffling character who is so interesting that he threatens to swallow the play. Indeed, one might say that Hamlet’s largeness of soul is at the crux of the problem. If he were less “interesting,” he would fit more neatly into his existence as do characters like Coriolanus, Othello, or Macbeth, and the play would be a more conventional artistic success. As it stands, it is intractable — of all his plays the longest, filled with puzzling and disquieting things. Psychoanalysis with its emphasis on the subconscious only seems to be complex. The formulaic explanation it offers is simplistic, ignoring the imaginative truth (largeness of soul) of an intricate, complicated character (Collins 28-29, 49-50).

Hamlet himself, not the play, is the failure because he is immeasurably vaster than any ethical system can handle, even though it is a moral question, not a psychological one, on which the play turns. Hamlet was asked by his father’s spirit to punish a crown-usurper who is beyond the reach of the law: “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murther.” He is a man “to whom duty had come in a very dreadful and repulsive form and also a man not fitted for that form of duty.” Chesterton insists that this was a conflict of which he was conscious “from beginning to end.” It was not a question of the conscious versus the subconscious. Hamlet’s was a struggle between duty and inclination, something in which Shakespeare believed. He had a conscience and it is no good giving him a “complex” in order to escape it. The morality upon which the play is built involves three moral propositions from which modern psychology recoils: “first, that it may be our main business to do the right thing even when we detest doing it; second, that the right thing may involve punishing some person, especially some powerful person; third, that the process of punishment may take the form of fighting and killing. . . . That it actually might be the duty of a young man to risk his own life, much against his own inclination, by drawing a sword and killing a tyrant, that is an idea instinctively avoided by this particular mood of modern times.” War may be a duty and peace a temptation; note the presence of Fortinbras in the play. “The tyrannicide of Hamlet was a duty; it was accepted as a duty and it was shirked as a duty” (Collins 50-51).

Referring to the player’s acting-out of merely fictional grief in the great soliloquy of Act II, Hamlet asks:

. . . What would he do,

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have?

Yet I . . . can say nothing! No, not for a King,

Upon whose property and most dear life

A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?

Hamlet concludes that he is a coward, since he has not “fatted all the region kites / With this slave’s offal.” Hamlet cries out for vengeance then, calling the king a “bawdy villain,” a “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” He realizes at this time that vengeance is indeed called for, and he is not providing it, acting instead like “an ass” who,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must (like a whore) unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A scullion! (II, ii, 576-615)

Hamlet can talk about what he should do, can see clearly that he is a coward, can believe that it is wrong for him to avoid avenging his father — and still hesitate, even while he realizes that he is hiding behind words. Chesterton argues that Hamlet ought to have obliged the ghost of his father, that Hamlet knows this, and that he wishes to oblige him but does not. Perhaps he was repelled by the idea of killing a man who could not defend himself, but, alas, that was the only plan he ever considered. Hamlet, on seeing Fortinbras’ army, clearly asserts again that he has “cause, and will, and strength, and means to do’t.” But he has learned nothing by his delaying tactics to carry out the legitimate charge of his father, and justly accuses himself of being a coward. All occasions do, in fact, inform against him.

“The sort of duty Hamlet shirked,” according to Chesterton, “is exactly the sort of duty that we are all shirking, that of dethroning injustice and vindicating truth.” He denies the duty and is “patient,” not with the patience of the saints but with the kind of patience that paralyzes him — sloth — “accidia and the great refusal.” By failing to punish the powerful, “we soon lose the very idea of punishment.” What Hamlet fails to understand is that punishment as punishment is “a perfectly healthy process, not merely because it is reform, but also because it is expiation” (Collins 51-53). In an essay on quite another subject Chesterton identifies the sad decline of modern England’s view of manliness and good sense as “the spirit of Hamlet when he asks himself the ugly question — ‘Am I a coward?’” (“Hamlet and the Danes” 344).

Hamlet’s duty is a very complex and awesome one. Within the tradition of revenge, he must avenge the death of a father and a king.

Haste me to know it, that I, with wings as swift

As meditation or the thoughts of love,

May sweep to my revenge. (I, v, 29-31)

Claudius says to Laertes regarding the death of his father, “Revenge should have no bounds.” Chesterton’s comment on King Lear is central to this point — the significance of a father and a king, a very important belief for Chesterton and explained at length.

There are certain abstractions very strong in Shakespeare’s mind, without which his plays are much misunderstood by modern people, who look to them for nothing whatever except realistic detail about individuals. For instance, there runs through the whole play of King Lear [read Hamlet] . . . an abstraction which was an actuality of awful vividness to the man of Shakespeare’s time: the idea of the King. . . . King Lear [read King Hamlet] is a man; but he is or has been a sacramental or sacred man; and that is why he can be a desecrated man. Even those who prefer to be governed by the scroll of the law, or by the assembly of the tribe, must understand that men have wished, and may again wish, to be governed by a man; and that where this wish has existed the man does become, not indeed divine, but certainly different. It is not an accident that Lear [read Hamlet] is a king as well as a father, and that Goneril and Regan [read Claudius] are not only daughters [read a brother] but traitors. Treason, or what is felt as treason, does break the heart of the world; and it has seldom been so nearly broken as here. (Collins 87)

The analysis applies with exactness to Hamlet.

Chesterton describes Hamlet as a man “in whom the faculty of action had been clogged, not by the smallness of his moral nature, but by the greatness of his intellect.” He was not, as some critics charged, fundamentally weak; he had elemental force and fire within. “Yet have I something in me dangerous.” To act was important to him. Envying Fortinbras, he chastised himself bitterly for failing to act. But no action was “quite so dazzling and dramatic” as his thoughts.

Hamlet, described by Chesterton as an “isolated star of intellect,” failed because of the greatness of his mind. He was a magnanimous character, but fastidious, melancholic, and purely mental to a fault (Collins 102-03). He almost might be a character in a Maeterlinck play (Collins 65). While the moral greatness of Hamlet has been enormously underrated, paradoxically it is his moral failure which is the central meaning of the play. Unlike Fortinbras he could not take action boldly — openly — to carry out his promise to the ghost. In this, alas, he is like Claudius who argues the otherwise straightforward Laertes out of direct action to avenge the death of his father and to follow Hamlet’s cowardly pattern of indirection. Hamlet, a “moral coward,” condemns himself as weak and melancholic; his remorse for this failure is passionately sincere. Chesterton describes the naked confession of Act II as “a cry out of this very hell of inutility” (Collins 42). Hamlet reaches “nameless” points of greatness and littleness which it is the business of the art of the play to show, things which cannot be found “in any decalogue” nor in “any allegory,” nor in psychology. It is true of Hamlet, as it is of Falstaff, that no name has been found to identify his cardinal virtue. While there is common agreement that he was not fitted for this world, “Shakespeare does not dare to say whether he was too good or too bad for it” (Collins 42-43). I find this final statement to be an astonishing insight into the play.

Hamlet was a moral failure (hence, paradoxically, making the play a success) in that he failed to accept his moral duty and embraced skepticism temporarily to ease his conscience. He was not fit for the world because he embraced for a time what Melville called “the everlasting No.” Like Ivan Karamazov, he could not accept the world’s goodness because he had experienced its badness. To contemplate seriously the idea that not to have been born is a viable solution for soul angst is about as far as one can go in rejecting creation. Not even Lear reached that point. I think Chesterton would agree with T. S. Eliot that in Hamlet Shakespeare wanted to express the “inexpressibly horrible.” Stated simply, Hamlet’s response to the inexpressibly horrible is the cause of his tragic flaw. There is something sinister in Hamlet.

“Somewhere on the highest of all human towers there is a tile loose. There is something that rattles crazily in the high wind of the highest of mortal tragedies.” In contrast to the Medieval mind, the Elizabethan had a dark hint that truth might be found in extremes, “at the extreme edges of existence and precipices of the human imagination” (Collins 34-35). At his worst Hamlet is a violent, egotistical intellectual. There are many dead, including the innocent, because of his terrible nature. He is right to beg Horatio, who loved him, to tell his story. Horatio is his Nick Carraway; it is up to him to say, “They’re a rotten crowd. . . you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” He is the only one who knows what Hamlet said to him at the end of V, ii, the key to the drama. In someone else’s hands, Hamlet’s story would rival that of bloody Macbeth. His treatment of Ophelia and Polonius is shameful. His own ghostly father must thrust himself between Hamlet’s contempt and his mother. He does not slay Claudius when he is praying because he wishes him to go to hell, substituting his eternal judgment for that of God’s. So, too, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed without shriving time at Hamlet’s order. One does not play God, usurping his rights over His creatures, as long as he worships Him. He acts God’s part only after he has become powerfully muddled, having taken the critical step awry. Dr. Samuel Johnson fully understood Hamlet’s intention and greatly disapproved of it fully, that going beyond revenge to contrive damnation for the persons being punished was “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.”

If it appears that Chesterton is being too hard on Hamlet’s “inexpressibly horrible” view of life, consider his detailed explanation of one of his most important beliefs in chapter V of Orthodoxy, “The Flag of the World.” It is central to his understanding of reality that a man must recognize that he “belongs to the world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it.” The essential matter is his “primary loyalty.” Accepting the universe is an act of metaphysical patriotism. To Hamlet’s terrible question “To be or not to be,” Chesterton is confident that St. Thomas Aquinas would have thundered, “To be, that is the answer” (St. Thomas Aquinas 113). When Hamlet expresses his contempt for a rotten world, we can infer that he is a one-time cosmic optimist turned cosmic pessimist. Denmark is Hamlet’s Pimlico; it is not his right to disapprove or approve of it. “The only way out seems to be for somebody [Hamlet] to love Pimlico [Denmark] with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason.” No man is in the position to look at the world as if “he were house-hunting,” as if he had a choice of habitations. As it stands, the world “is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret.” If Hamlet had a “primary and supernatural loyalty” to the world, the ugly knowledge he comes to by recognizing the evil and horror of the world would not have turned him into a moral skeptic. The cosmic oath of allegiance demands that we love being for its own sake. We cannot improve Pimlico/Denmark without that.

A man must be interested in life; then he could be disinterested in his views of it. “My son give me thy heart”; the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand. (Orthodoxy 66-71)

Hans-Georg Gadamer’s idea of claim (anspruch) is a revealing gloss on “The Flag of the World.” The world has a claim on Hamlet which does not prevent him from reforming the world on condition that he never abandon it (Gadamer 126-27, 358-61). It is like the claim of faith on him which Hamlet recognizes with such calming certitude in his conversation with Horatio (V, ii). In Chesterton’s view one must hate the world enough to want to change it and love it enough to think it worth changing. “Can [Hamlet] look up at its evil without once feeling despair?” This is the critical question. When Hamlet in the great soliloquy considers non-being, he enacts Chesterton’s cosmic anti-patriot who “may be said, without hesitation, to be a traitor,” the suicide being defined by Chesterton as “a man who cares so little for anything outside himself, that he wants to see the last of everything.” The suicide defiles life because by killing himself he kills all men. He destroys the world spiritually because he does not have a link with being. This makes him capable of “smashing” the whole universe. “It is the ultimate and absolute evil” — inexpressibly horrible (Orthodoxy 69-72).

Nevertheless, his tragic flaw is only that; it does not define him. Hamlet, says Chesterton, is also a “most lovable and even peaceable person, as a rule” (Collins 133). He is great-souled, noble, and possesses a powerful mind. No one in the play speaks ill of his character, not even the usurping king: “. . . he was likely, had he been put on / To have prov’d most royally.” While Hamlet is skeptical, he is not finally a skeptic. His faith is sorely tried because “time is out of joint,” and he cannot see then that the world is good. Even at his lowest point, however, he asserts that man is a magnificent piece of work made in the image of God (II, ii). Chesterton describes the noble speech “What a piece of work is man” as an act of faith — more, “a definition of faith” (Collins 61). We can infer that Hamlet was finally the kind of optimist Chesterton described himself to be, because in the midst of intolerable evil, he found more good than evil. To use Gadamer’s term again, faith has a “claim” on him as is demonstrated in that conversation with Horatio (V, ii). “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will —.” Since there is a special providence for the sparrow, “the readiness is all . . . Let be.” This acceptance scene is a magnificent touchstone of the Christian idea in literature. Hamlet had been so wrapped up in his personal life that he cared little for anything outside himself. He came up against the inexpressible horror of life and thrust himself into the destructive element. He could not look upon colossal evil without being tempted to despair. What Hamlet learns is that one could be “at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world.” Like St. George he can, under these terms, shake his sword at the dragon as if it were everything. God is separate from His creation, Hamlet learns, as he tells Horatio, making it possible to love the world without trusting it, without being worldly. In Chesterton’s words, “We do not fit into the world.” Hamlet was, as he thought, in the wrong place, but he discovered it was the only place which gave him the opportunity to journey to his true place. Man is “at once worse and better than all things” (Orthodoxy 78-80).

Hamlet was “not a weak man fundamentally.” His strength was “rusted and clouded” by inaction and inhibited by “the greatness of his intellect.” Because he was the kind of man “for whom ideas were adventures,” he was “top-heavy” (Collins 42). T. S. Eliot was, however, correct in part. Hamlet is a puzzle because we must infer his measureless idealism throughout the play. It is not shown to us; there are no flashbacks that allow us to see Hamlet in the good days before he experienced cankerous evil. It must be accepted as a given that as a result of his experience he could find no outlet for his idealism in a world out of joint with the purposes of its creator: weary, stale, flat, unprofitable, rank, gross, and grown to seed. Something, indeed, is rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet could find nothing commensurate with his capacity for wonder. His mind and heart must have been in a constant turbulent riot, fascinated and baffled by an ineffable universe. Chesterton says that he was filled with “nameless points of greatness” [italics added], wonder, and idealistic passion while the earthbound clock ticked away. It seemed that nothing could satisfy his yearning imagination, blasted as it was by the deadly familial evil he discovered. For all of this he paid a high price, the highest, for being, so to speak, too good for the world.

Chesterton concludes that Hamlet was “a great soul, great enough to know that he was not the world. He knew that there was a truth beyond himself; therefore, he believed readily in things most unlike himself, in Horatio and his ghost. All throughout the play we can read his conviction that he is wrong. And that to a clear mind like his is only another way of stating that there is something that is right.” Although he gets lost in “his melancholy and purely mental world,” he does not sink “through door after door of a bottomless universe” (Collins 103). Hamlet’s final discovery was not to measure the truth by himself. Shakespeare “dares not tell us” whether Hamlet is too good or too bad for the world because he shows us that the tension between two such judgments is the very substance of a play so interesting that T. S. Eliot called it the Mona Lisa of literature. The objective correlative in Chesterton’s reading is precisely the play itself (not an object or event within the play) where Hamlet is suspended between two opposing passions, the depth of the one always increasing in a devilishly reciprocal way with the depth of the other, trying his best to keep both lively. Things are hopeless, yet one must never stop trying to make it otherwise. The emotion as well as the objective correlative are discovered in the very act of creation — the making of the play itself and our re-making of it as we see/read it. Hamlet achieved that moment of poise which saved him when he murmured “the readiness is all,” making his peace with the world just before leaving it. And then, of course, he was ready to confront and defeat the agents of inexpressible horror, Claudius and the duped Laertes. Having reached such poise, he rejects Horatio’s warning. Then, face to face with death, he pushed aside all his evasions and, putting on his manhood, he acts. In death’s shadow one comes to know what it means to be serious. The truth about Hamlet, Chesterton says, is that he is not a weakling, which is to miss the point of his greatness; “but to call him a triumphant hero is to miss a point quite as profound” (Collins 43). Chesterton, I think, would have found T. S. Eliot’s best comment on Hamlet to be not in his essay but in his own dramatic effort to write a Hamlet for our time in The Family Reunion. Agatha says there of Harry/Hamlet:

What we have written is not a story of detection,

Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.

It is possible that you have not known what sin

You shall expiate, or whose, or why. It is certain

That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle

In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness

And so find expurgation. It is possible

You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,

Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.

Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,

Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen

To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer.

(Reunion 275)

Chesterton, himself, wisely concentrated on Hamlet as a character who is not unintelligible to a willing audience; his being an enigma actually helps us understand what a profound mystery life is.

Hamlet really is a problem play because at the end of it one is really in doubt as to whether upon the author’s showing, Hamlet is something more than a man or something less. . . . . This hearty and healthy doubt is very common in Shakespeare; I mean a doubt that exists in the writer as well as in the reader.

(CW, XI, 446)


1. In contrast to Chesterton’s direct confrontation with the inexpressibly horrible in Hamlet, George Lyman Kittredge, the most famous of the Shakespeareans contemporary with Chesterton, robustly denied the evidence. I take him to be a typical case. “It would be absurd,” he wrote, “to take this passage literally” — Hamlet’s order that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be “put to sudden death, / Not shriving time allowed.” Hamlet could not do such a thing, Kittredge insists. Although Hamlet says in his “diabolical outburst” that he will not kill Claudius until the moment of his death will be his damnation, Kittredge insists that Hamlet does not mean it since he cannot act the butcher. Only an assassin would have struck the unaware Claudius; “these diabolical sentiments are not Hamlet’s sentiments.” It is also impossible, continues Kittredge, to believe that Hamlet actually forces the dying Claudius to drink the poisoned wine he had prepared for Hamlet; “anything is better than to make Hamlet force the king to drink it” (Kittredge, xv, 285, 297).

2. Chesterton’s emphasis on Hamlet’s idealism, the point upon which his sense of the horrible so critically depends, may have come in part from his reading of A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). In his December 22, 1904 review in The Daily News, he praised it lavishly as rare, excellent, admirable, profound, simple, and strong. Bradley leaves us interested and unsatisfied in the best sense, since he sends us away thinking (Collins, 159-62). While Bradley recognizes without blinking Hamlet’s cynicism, grossness, and hardness, he strongly emphasizes his idealism — the soul of a wishful poet who had unbounded faith and delight in a world both good and beautiful. Hamlet’s language in describing such a world swells into ecstasy. “The world for him was herrlich wie am ersten tag . . . .” This must be balanced against his disgust with life and his apathy. Hamlet is not Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, but of them all it brings “home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity” (Bradley, 95-108).

Works Cited

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1959.

Chesterton, G. K. Alarms and Discursions. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1910.

___. “Hamlet and the Danes.” In The Crimes of England in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton V. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987.

___. George Bernard Shaw. In The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton XI. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1959.

___. The Innocence of Father Brown. New York: John Lane Company, 1911.

___. Orthodoxy. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company – Image Books, 1959.

___. St. Thomas Aquinas. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

Collins, Dorothy, ed. Chesterton on Shakespeare. Henley-on-Thames: Darwen Finlayson, 1971.

Derus, David L. “Chesterton as Literary Critic,” Renascence 25.2 (Winter, 1973): 103-11.

Eliot, T. S. The Family Reunion. In The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971.

___. “Hamlet and his Problems,” Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt and Brace Company, 1950.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd. rev. ed. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Leigh, David J. “Chesterton and Modern Drama.” Renascence 28.4 (Summer, 1976): 171-80.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. G. K. Kittredge. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1939.