Hamlet’s Water

C.B. Robertson
Dec 5, 2017 · 8 min read

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a masterpiece of a play by any measure, but the depth of its genius eluded me until I began rereading it recently. A few of the passages stuck out to me which, in combination, make the play look to be among the most spiritually profound dramas ever written.

The fifth act opens with several clowns with spades (grave-diggers) preparing to bury Ophelia, and arguing over whether or not they are to bury her in a Christian manner or not, since she had drowned herself.

Later on, Hamlet arrives at the scene, and inquires of the grave-diggers how long a body will last in the ground before succumbing to decay, and the digger responds eight years, with tanners lasting nine:

Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his trade, that
he will keep out water a great while; and your water
is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body.

Water has long been a powerful symbol in literature: rains denote cleansing, the equality of mortality, and the rebirth of Spring. Baptisms also denote rebirth, while rivers and oceans connect people, denote the unknown, potentialities, and broadly speaking, the unconscious. But here we have an eroding kind of water, the sort that might carve a canyon, or a body.

My reading is that Shakespeare is hinting that our Princely hero is going to be faced with a choice between action and inaction–life or death. The cause of inaction, decay, and death would be dwelling too long in the corrosive water of the unconscious.

This connection may seem like a stretch, but Hamlet’s famous soliloquy makes it clear that the play is fundamentally about this choice.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

If the solution were not clear enough, the soliloquy ends with an explicit conclusion.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action…

So, what is the moral of the story? In a manner of speaking, it appears that it is to be a tanner. Repetition and action–perhaps in a trade–are ways of lasting, and of keeping out the water, during life and even after death. The great antidote to the will-eroding current of introspective consciousness and the paralysis, stagnation, putrefaction, and death which follows, is action. Ideally ritual of a kind, but any action will do. The use of actors to free Hamlet from his own self-doubt becomes a sort of symbolic pun, and a metaphor for the cure to paralyzing thought.

This is all relatively well-understood, but what of the water?

To begin with, it is worth remembering that Ophelia drowned. Her final line before she kills herself uses “rue” in a clever double entendre, conjuring the verb — to regret — through the use of the noun: a flower which is used as a pain-reliever and occasionally as an abortive agent.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end

Regret of her spurned love for Hamlet? Or regret for her father’s death? It is hard to tell, in her sing-songy state of sanity (or lack thereof). Perhaps it is the ruing itself — the dwelling and stewing upon her own feelings — that Shakespeare is implying she ought most regret.

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears

Elsewhere, we learn that King Claudius plans on sending Hamlet to England, a trip which could be made possible by Hamlet’s passive inaction, and would literally place Hamlet out over the water, with nothing to do but contemplate.

Hamlet, of course, does not sail to England. After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet is confronted by her brother, Laertes.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the eponymous Odysseus is a war-hero whose journey home is delayed 20 years by wanderings and shipwrecks along the sea. Odysseus’s father’s name is Laertes, which makes Hamlet’s duel with Laertes a symbolic battle against Odysseus’s real master: the ocean itself. In the Odyssey, the ocean is merciless, malevolent, and powerful beyond all mortals. Although traversable, it is as dangerous as a poisoned sword. Yet there is nothing personal in this danger, and by engaging combat with it, Hamlet comes to his own end, yet simultaneously finds peace with his adversary.

It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom’d: the foul practise
Hath turn’d itself on me lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again: thy mother’s poison’d:
I can no more: the king, the king’s to blame.

[…]

He is justly served;
It is a poison temper’d by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.

Finally, there is the death of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who dies after drinking poison intended for Hamlet by Claudius. Poison, aside from being a liquid, works in the same insipid way that thought corrodes the sanity and life of the protagonist. Deftly dodged by the hero, it nevertheless claims the life of another character who has been forced to face their own actions and motivations, and cannot bear the challenge.

This may all sound far-fetched, except that the watery symbolism used to convey this point — the dangers of obsessive rumination— is shared across a broad range of literature.

A river separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, in both Greek mythology and in the oldest story we have, the epic of Gilgamesh, wherein the protagonist’s contemplation of death drives him to the ends of the earth in an unsuccessful pursuit for immortality. The myth of Narcissus and the pool depicts the same danger of excessive introspection in a more direct and literal manner: Narcissus, enraptured with his own beautiful appearance in the pool, leans in too far and drowns. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator’s story of his journey up the Congo River (paralleling the story’s real setting on the Thames) describes a story of discovering human nature, as alluded to in the title. Huck Finn’s and Jim’s journey up the Mississippi is a journey through the heartland of America and the relations between its people, making Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an introspective journey into the heart of America itself.

And who can forget Dumbledore’s warnings to Harry Potter, about the pool-like mirror of Erised?

Men have wasted away before it, not knowing if what they have seen is real, or even possible […] It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

Like the pool in the story of Narcissus, or the watery mind of our Shakespearean protagonist, the Mirror of Erised is recursive; it reflects back the image of whomever looks into its depths. A similar device — Dumbledore’s aptly-named pensieve—allows the user to remain lost instead in memories, rather than dreams. Both devices are windows into the souls of people, but especially the soul of the one gazing inward… yet unlike the Mirror of Erised, Harry and Dumbledore primarily use the pensieve as a tool to avoid, rather than to pursue, the dangers of contemplation and rumination.

This? It is called a Pensieve. I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.

Like many heroes, Hamlet comes up from his combat with introspection alive, if only briefly. He submerges, becoming insane by all appearances, but emerges cleansed in his own mind — having finally seen, understood, and acted upon his father’s death with clarity — and in doing so, cleansing Denmark itself of the corruption taking root in the Royal house.

In other words, he emerges baptized.

Thomas Foster describes this process in his excellent book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, specifically in the chapter titled “If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism.”

See this in symbolic terms. A young man sails away from the known world, dies out of one existence, and comes back a new person, hence is reborn. Symbolically, that’s the same pattern we see in baptism: death and rebirth through the medium of water. He’s thrown into the water, where his old identity dies…

So what do we make of this? Water is both a powerful danger to be feared as well as a necessary agent of changing ourselves. We don’t want to stagnate and rot like a corpse, after all.

Shakespeare provides a hint of an answer to the balance in how we might approach this difficult subject of introspection, by way of the grave-diggers.

Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes, — mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

The language is cryptic and moralizing, spoken as it is by a character who comes across as possibly autistic (“How absolute the knave is! we must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us”), but it conveys a kind of approach to life which does not free us from danger, but protects us from unnecessary hazards: don’t go looking for trouble, but be braced for the water that may come for you. Prepare yourself for the careful thought and introspection that circumstance may be require of you, and do not run from it, for someone who only acts, and does not think at all, is barely a human.

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.

Rather, the goal is to become familiar with but separate from them: a sailor, navigating through the currents of life, able to swim, but sailing for the sands of home. We are to act, to venture out over the face of the water, not gazing down into ourselves, but forward, with our eyes on our destination. So long as we maintain our focus, we will not be lost.

And if we are not lost, there is at least a chance we will not drown.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.