I have of late been reading A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy, an old but I am made to understand classic work, though perhaps out of fashion today. Regardless, I find it edifying, though I would like to correct what I think is one small but non-trivial error in his analysis of Hamlet, concerning the scene in which Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius, who is praying.
Here is the relevant passage from Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 132-33):
The incident of the sparing of the King is contrived with extraordinary dramatic insight. On the one side we feel that the opportunity was perfect. Hamlet could not possibly any longer tell himself that he had no certainty as to his uncle’s guilt. And the external conditions were most favourable; for the King’s remarkable behavior at the play-scene would have supplied a damning confirmation of the story Hamlet had to tell about the Ghost. Even now, probably, in a court so corrupt as that of Elsinore, he could not with perfect security have begun by changing the King with the murder; but he could quite safely have killed him first and given his justification afterwards, especially as he would certainly have had on his side the people, who loved him and despised Claudius. On the other hand, Shakespeare has taken care to give this perfect opportunity so repulsive a character that we can hardly bring ourselves to wish that the hero should accept it. One of his minor difficulties, we have seen, probably was that he seemed to be required to attack a defenceless man; and here this difficulty is at its maximum.
Nothing in this is quite wrong, but he overlooks an important aspect of the audience’s response to this scene, or at least of my response. What would be repulsive, were Hamlet to kill the King in this scenario? That the King is defenseless, perhaps, though since the King himself had killed a defenseless man, I am ambivalent about this. But the King is not merely defenseless: he is defenseless because he is praying. And while I am not religious myself, I can appreciate the significance that would have had at this time, and that contributes to making the opportunity “repulsive.”
There is, however, a complication. For the audience has already encountered the King’s conscience in play. Consider this interaction between Polonius and the King in Act 3, Scene 1:
Ophelia, walk you here.—Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.
[To Ophelia, giving a book] Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may color
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this—
‘Tis too much proved—that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.
Oh, ‘tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
Oh, heavy burden!
The King laments the weight on his conscience, the knowledge of the terrible crime he has committed. And yet this sting of conscience is utterly effete, is restricted to within his head. He certainly does not publicly take responsibility for his crime. From such a scene we learn not to sympathize with the King’s apparent moral sense, and when we see him praying, we know it is as false as the apparent remorse quoted above.
Thus to the audience, Hamlet killing the King as he prayed is not a repulsive act: we are fully convinced that the King deserves it. And yet that King’s aside is known only to us, and not to Hamlet himself. It thus remains open to Hamlet to recognize the prayer as genuine, and indeed he does, for he thinks that this prayer will ensure Claudius a place in Heaven if he is killed just then. Insofar as the opportunity has a repulsive element, it is repulsive only because we know that Hamlet does not know what we know: that the prayer is a sham.
Reading on in the essay, Bradley does recognize the importance of the fact that the King is praying, and not merely defenseless. Commenting on the scene in which Hamlet kills Polonius, he writes:
Evidently this act is intended to stand in sharp contrast with Hamlet’s sparing of his enemy. The King would have been just as defenceless behind the arras as he had been on his knees; but here Hamlet is already excited and in action, and the chance comes to him so suddenly that he has no time to ‘scan’ it. It is a minor consideration, but still for the dramatist not unimportant, that the audience would wholly sympathize with Hamlet’s attempt here, as directed against an enemy who is lurking to entrap him, instead of being engaged in a business which perhaps to the bulk of the audience then, as now, seemed to have a ‘relish of salvation in’t’.
If I am right, then the King’s prayer should not appear to any audience (at least, any audience sensitive to the King’s earlier displays of “conscience”) as having “a relish of salvation in’t.” But it will appear so to Hamlet. The audience’s repulsion is, or ought to be, entirely on Hamlet’s behalf. But for ourselves, we are not repulsed.
And still later in the essay, Bradley turns to discuss Claudius, and he explicitly recognizes that “his conscience, though ineffective, is far from being dead” (p. 161). Bradley clearly thinks this softens the character: it is among the evidence presented that “he is not without respectable qualities. And this explains why we have diverged on this point, for I do not think it respectable at all, but rather find it an especially damning kind of mediocrity.