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In his famous speech, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth[…]” (II.ii.280), Hamlet illustrates an Elizabethan fusion of medieval and humanist ideas, perhaps lost on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but not on E.M.W. Tillyard. Tillyard, in The Elizabethan World Picture, says that “what is true of Hamlet on man is in the main true of Elizabethan modes of thought in general” (4). This assertion is unprovable, but to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet in light of Tillyard provides at best an explication of Elizabethan thought and at worst an interesting point of view. Such a reading finds Hamlet not merely pontificating on the state of man and universe, but manipulating this orthodox view in order to decieve those who hold it.
Hamlet goes out of his way to demonstrate his depression to his two schoolfellows. “‘I have[…]lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises'” (Ii.ii.280-1) he tells them, a sure sign of melancholy’s depressive side. It goes “heavily” (II.ii.281) with his disposition, another warning, for melancholy is associated with earth, the lowest and heaviest element (62, 69). “‘[T]he earth seems to me a sterile promontory'” (II.ii.282-3), he adds, a practically subversive statement. “[T]he world and its contents had been made for man[…] [i]ts great variety and ingenuity were indeed testimonies of the creator’s wonderful power” (Tillyard, 80), and the ingrate Hamlet is calling the planet “sterile”. He is fully aware of the implications in his speech; he calls the world a “goodly frame” (II.ii.282), an incongruous description given his alleged state of mind. His next statement follows the same pattern: “this most excellent canopy the air[…]appeareth[…]a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” (II.ii.283-6). Hamlet sees the normal air as being corrupted and swampy, but he also conflates it with the “o’erhanging firmament” (II.ii.284). The firmament is the sphere of fixed stars; hence Hamlet is speaking not only of sublunary air but of the ether, a better kind of air, clear and pure, and in so doing he is calling the substance of heaven itself “pestilent” (Tillyard, 39). Still, he describes the air as “brave”, “most excellent”, “majestical”, and “fretted with golden fire” (II.ii.283-5).
Hamlet makes an abrupt transition from describing the cosmos to characterizing mankind, moving directly from the “foul and pestilent congregation of vapours” to “‘What a piece of work is a man!'” (II.ii.286) This movement makes more sense if looked at as a correspondence from macrocosm to microcosm; Hamlet does not pick mankind as an arbitrary important object on which to shine his worldview (Tillyard, 91). Hamlet calls man “like an angel…the paragon of animals” (II.ii.288-9), prompting Tillyard to assert that this statement “is in the purest medieval tradition[…]what man was like in his prelapsarian state[…]between the angels and the beasts” (4-5). The Quarto punctuation, although Tillyard does not use it when he quotes the speech, assigns the quality of “apprehension” to angels, which fits Tillyard’s characterization of angels as “linked to man by community of the understanding” (28); the Folio aligns angels with “action”, thus referring to the Angel angels, the messengers and errand-boys of God (Tillyard, 41). At any rate, Hamlet is brimming with praise for man, calling him “noble in reason” (II.ii.286-7), which quality is indeed the most noble that man possesses (Tillyard, 28); “infinite in faculties” (II.ii.287), as both the medieval and modern minds would agree (Tillyard, 4); “in form and moving[…]admirable” (II.ii.287-8), which he is not, although as the “paragon of animals” he should logically be (Tillyard, 29). And yet for all this, Hamlet calls man a “quintessence of dust” (II.ii.290), harking back to the creation of Adam and the baseness from which even prelapsarian man comes, and claims that “man delights not me” (II.ii.290-1) ; Hamlet is making sure that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get the idea, but not sounding terribly depressed.
Hamlet is like a patient explaining his symptoms, full worried that, as Prince, his own disorders bode ill to the state and cosmos; he seems to reflect his own ill state in his description of the world as contagious and dull. He is being partially truthful; Hamlet does see the world as “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” (I.ii.133) but the illness, in his opinion, is not in himself. The correspondence at work here is the influence of the body politic (Hamlet Senior’s murder, Gertrude’s marriage, and Claudius’ semi-usurpation) on the macrocosm (the “sterile promontory”), at least according to the microcosm (Hamlet). Hamlet is the only member of court to notice this disruption; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak cluelessly about the great evils that would befall the state if Claudius were to die, distraught that “when [majesty] falls/Each small annexment, petty consequence/Attends the boisterous ruin” (III.iii.20-22). Knowing that these courtiers are Claudius’ spies, Hamlet plays up his melancholy, exaggerating its signs in order to make it appear a textbook case of melancholy adust, the result of his own corrupted humors, and not the sign of a greater evil (Tillyard, 70).
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