[(essay date 1971) In the following essay, Alexander assesses three dominant symbols in Hamlet that define the drama's action--poisoning, theatrical performance, and the duel.]
Hamlet is a play of ideas. The problems of Hamlet exist for an audience as the result of the dramatic presentation of a number of complex intellectual and emotional questions. These moral and political problems are realized within the context of a murder story which involves three families, and an entire state, in a deeply disturbing conflict of love and hate. This discord is enacted in physical and psychological conditions which force an audience towards a definition of the terms of courage, honour, and revenge which the characters use as justification for their actions. The spectator's attention is particularly focused upon these problems through the character of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
In a remarkable series of speeches and soliloquies Hamlet, torn by conflicting emotions and divided against himself, asks the tormented and tormenting questions which create the special quality of the play. It is necessary, however, for the critic and the director to observe that the difficulties and doubts experienced by his protagonist are only one of the dramatic methods used by Shakespeare to draw the necessary questions of the play to the attention of his audience. There is a distinction between Hamlet's problems and the problem of Hamlet.
The actors who play any of the characters in Hamlet may bring a wide range of personal resources and experience to the interpretation of their roles. No such licence, however, can be permitted to the company which intends to present Hamlet. They must perform three difficult theatrical tasks supremely well. They must make the way in which the spirit of the dead King walks on to the stage strike the audience as both natural and unnatural. The Ghost must be theatrically acceptable and yet clearly outside normal experience. Their next task is to simulate their own profession and mimic the reception of a court performance as part of the dramatic action. The audience in the theatre must be made to grasp the distinction, and the relationship, between the play and inner-play; between the 'poison in jest' (3 ii 229:2102) played by the actors and the acts of poison performed by the characters. Finally, they must produce a difficult and exciting stage fight. This stage business must be managed in such a fashion that the exchange of rapiers, and the rapid succession of deaths by poison, seem a dramatic and logical conclusion to the Ghost's original revelation of murder by poison.
The dramatist has laboured to establish this connection for his actors. The Ghost gives Hamlet an account of a single death by poison. The inner-play presents the physical act of poisoning twice, once in dumb show and once accompanied by speech. In the final duel four of the main characters die by poison. Shakespeare deploys all the resources of his exceptional sense of theatre, and all the imaginative power of his language, to assist the players...