Mural based on Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' in Venice Beach, California, USA (photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)Mural based on Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' in Venice Beach, California, USA (photo (c) Ulrike Boehm; all rights reserved)

The Great Scenes and Soliloquies

'Tis now the very witching time of night ...

Act III, Scene 2 (Hamlet).

The "play within the play" has come to its cataclysmic end. The Players are gone – without even so much as a stage direction for the when and how of their exit. The as-yet remaining business between Hamlet and his illoyal schoolfellows has been taken care of, again confirming Horatio as Hamlet's sole true friend and ally. And finally, at his request, all the others have left the Prince alone with his thoughts.

As at the end of several other scenes, it is thus again through his eyes that we cast a look back on our most recently-concluded experience – as well as forward to what is ahead. And the timing of these our insights into his perspective – at the end of Act I, Scenes 2 and 5; of Act II, Scene 2; now, at the end of Act III, Scene 2; as well as later, at the end of Act III, Scene 4 and (at least according to the Second Quarto) also Act IV, Scene 4 – that timing is no coincidence, for these are the plot's most pivotal moments: In Act I, it is the instant when we, the audience, and Hamlet, our hero, are first brought onto the same anticipatory level with regard to the unholy meaning of the Ghost's appearance, then the subsequent confirmation of those anticipations, and also the end of the play's first major temporal sequence. In Act II, it is the expression of Hamlet's now fully-developed inner torment, joined with a first inkling as to the Players' importance. In Act III, it is the disastrous end of the "play within the play" itself, and a little later, Hamlet's confrontation with his mother and its equally disastrous "side effect" – Polonius's death. And lastly, in Act IV, it is Hamlet's sole (albeit indirect) encounter with Fortinbras, his exit from Denmark after a reaffirmation of the all-important code of revenge, and the end of the play's second major temporal sequence. Notably, however, although one would then almost naturally expect the tragedy to also end with Hamlet's death (and with his famous last words, "The rest is silence"), it does not: because life goes on, and because there is a hand-over to Hamlet's heir yet to take care of. Only when that is accomplished, we are indeed sent home – and sent to contemplate what conclusions we ourselves, being in the position of that heir, would draw from what we have learned.

But at the moment we're not there quite yet. At the moment, we still have plenty of bitter business to go through. Indeed ...

Arnold Boecklin: Island of the Dead - first of five versions (1880, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA)Arnold Boecklin: Island of the Dead - first of five versions (1880, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA)

'Tis now the very witching time of night,

It is now dead midnight; the time when the night is at its blackest and most unholy.

When churchyards yawn,

When churchyards come alive, and the dead start to walk the earth – as did the Ghost of Hamlet's father not so long ago. (And he might yet again ...)

Coppo di Marcovaldo: Hell (ca. 1225-1274, mosaic, Baptistry, Florence, Italy)Coppo di Marcovaldo: Hell (ca. 1225-1274, mosaic, Baptistry, Florence, Italy)

and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.

When Evil permeates the world, in manifold unseen ways.

Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

Now not only Claudius is capable of unspeakable, unholy deeds – now even Hamlet himself knows he can commit them. For this night's evil doings are not over by a long shot ... (and yet: the one deed that he in fact should be doing is delayed once again!)

Soft! now to my mother!

His sudden self-reminder constitutes a break in both the tone and contents of the Prince's thoughts – and yet, its very placement in the direct context of all those prior references to the presence and impact of Evil in the world tells us that more horrors are still in store for all of us. And they do not relate to Claudius ...

John William Waterhouse: The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother (1878, Sotheby's Collection, England)John William Waterhouse: The Remorse of the Emperor Nero After the Murder of His Mother (1878, Sotheby's Collection, England)

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.

As a matter of fact, this doesn't sound good at all. "The soul of Nero" – the Roman emperor brought to the throne with the help of his mother, who had married his predecessor Claudius (!) with the specific purpose of replacing him with her son (not before Claudius had adopted young Nero), only to then find herself murdered in turn on her son's own orders. The emperor infamous for his immorality, pomp, and downright mad grandstanding, culminating in the annihilation of half the city of Rome by fire with the idea of replacing it by something even more spectacular; an act he was quick to blame on the Christians. The emperor who, when all his court had turned against him, committed suicide on the same day when his former wife Octavia was murdered – also on his orders. – And while Hamlet insists that he is not like Nero, while he speaks of his own "firm bosom," I think in fact he is anything but certain that he would be able to resist the forces of evil right now.

Georgia O'Keeffe: Black Iris (1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA)Georgia O'Keeffe: Black Iris (1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA)

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.

Given the actual course his confrontation with Gertrude will take, this is a remarkable resolution indeed. So he won't let allow himself to let his mind be corrupted? So there is a threshold between cruelty and unnaturalness that he will not cross? Sure ...

My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites –
How in my words somever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

But you just wait and hear what exactly he will come up with. And he's really got to explain to me how he he can possibly reconcile this with his father's commands. Remember "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught"? – So he won't let his soul consent to give his words to Gertrude "seals," huh? Well, he sure will be giving us a damned convincing performance suggesting the contrary. And what about "Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her"?! Doesn't that mean his father was telling him to leave Gertrude alone entirely? – Hamlet, the Prince of broken resolutions ... however firm they may have sounded.