What’s Aeneas’ Tale to Dido doing in HAMLET?

So this in intended to help prepare you to more smoothly weather Hurricane William, that imminent inundation of essay collections, exhibits, events, and bobbleheads, currently being cobbled together by beef-witted rampallians the globe round and set to reach your browser, doorstep, or public space on or about April 22nd of the present year in coincidence of the 400th death day of Shakespeare. Among the more interesting ways of marking the occasion will be Spymonkey’s production of all 74 onstage Shakespearean deaths (75 if you include the fly killed in Titus Andronicus), and Hogarth press’s release of retellings of the plays by some seriously acclaimed novelists, including Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson. Oh, and Benedict Cumberbatch is gonna be Richard III (and apparently is his 2nd cousin 16-times removed?). Now, you might remember it was not even 3 years ago that the gears of the Bardological-industrial complex similarly cranked full throttle (yikes I think that’s a mixed metaphor but can’t tell, oh well!) — on that occasion it was to commemorate his 450th birthday — but please don’t question whether such hoopla is necessary: just remember how much Shakespeare means to those whose livelihoods depend on Shakespeare meaning so much.

So, since it’s been determined by the powers that be that we mark the occasion, we must confront the fact that it seems every person more intelligent than us has already overworked all facets of his oeuvre; every dimension of his plays — be they political, theological, scatological, psychoanalytic, feminist, or otherwise — has already been talked to death in a way more intelligent than we could ever. So what is there left for us to do? Not much, perhaps. But then again perhaps our need to say something new about Shakespeare is no different from, for example, the need of every lover has to hunt for the positively unprecedented manner in which to describe their beloved eyebrow, of every dyer to recoil in their own way at their own death, of each frolicking flower-hunter to flavor each new springtime a little different. We’re human beings too, after all, and have voices and bodies so why not use them! Although: while we cannot imagine life without spring, life without love, life without death, we certainly can imagine that had Shakespeare’s papers burned or he had succumbed to typhus at age ten, the world would still more or less resemble the one in which we inhabit. Surely English majors could find something else to read. So why can’t we simply drop the Shakespeare tradition? After all, going to his plays is not the most interesting thing in the world. In fact, most of the time it’s so dreadfully boring. You almost always know what’s coming, and much of the drama of the play is so remote from us, with all its talk of princes and constables and honor and yada yada its hard not to feel sometimes like we’re just going through the motions with it.

So how can one make Shakespeare fresh? It’s a person problem, but a profitable protip proffered by prominent patriarchs of post-modernism is if you want to make something meaningful to you you’ve got to go hunting around the margins. Find the less-known parts of things and turn them into importance. Some very strong Shakespeare-inspired works of recent memory employ this tactic: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for example, recasts two minor characters into the main attractions of the Hamlet story. Or Nabokov’s Pale Fire (which I mentioned in my last piece and will surely mention again), inspired by Timon of Athens, which few have read or probably heard of. The local theater here in Minneapolis, the Guthrie, is currently putting on Pericles, another of his lesser-known plays. It may seem like we’re just looking for scraps after all the good bits have been eaten, but perhaps it’s our lot to be bottomdwellers of history, and we need nourishment after all, too, so what else can we do? And in fact I think we’ll find that Mr. Shakespeare has pocketed us some of his choicest insights in the least expected places. Plus it’s much more fun too to do fresh analyses of minor characters, say Rogazine or Curio, than to hash out another grand character study on Juliet or Hamlet. Of course, there’s a danger that in focusing on out-of-the-way details and minor characters you only end up tackling out-of-the-way and minor problems, and so the exercise turns into mere eclecticism or intellectual back-patting. Therefore, while one should certainly enjoy the excitement of parading around with newly found fauna, always keep in mind the central questions while one’s off trawling through the backcountry. Like: What is Shakespeare suggesting about the meaning of life? How does the meaning of this passage or character affect my life? It’s always good to incorporate into your toolbox the questions the work in question asks too. Since this is a post on Hamlet, we’ll keep in mind the question, asked by Bernardo, that Shakespeare writes as the opening line of that play: “Who’s there?” (Yes, turns out Hamlet is little more than a piece of the longest and more cruel knock-knock joke in Western history).

So in that spirit I was to read with you one of my favorite lesser-known passages in Hamlet: Aeneas’ tale to Dido. I request your patience as I go through a number of characters, words, and circumstances that will almost certainly be unimportant to your life after you stop reading this. But I hope it won’t be too wearisome as I think this passage offers clues to help answer two important questions in the work as a whole 1) why doesn’t Hamlet off Claudius from the get-go? and 2) What is Hamlet’s strategy regarding Ophelia? Thinking about these will, in turn, help us think about revenge and relationships in the abstract, which may or may not be of interest to your own lives (hopefully the former is not).

So let’s introduce the speech and figure out “Who’s there?” in it. In Act II, scene ii, following the arrival to Elsinore of the players, Hamlet speaks to the First Player, saying:

I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was
 never acted; or, if it was, not above once; for the
 play, I remember, pleased not the million; ‘twas
 caviare to the general: but it was — as I received
 it, and others, whose judgments in such matters
 cried in the top of mine — an excellent play, well
 digested in the scenes, set down with as much
 modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there
 were no sallets in the lines to make the matter
 savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might
 indict the author of affectation; but called it an
 honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very
 much more handsome than fine. One speech in it I
 chiefly loved: ’twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido; and
 thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of
 Priam’s slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin
 at this line: let me see, let me see — 
 ‘The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,’ — 
 it is not so: — it begins with Pyrrhus: — 
 ‘The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
 Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
 When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
 Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
 With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
 Now is he total gules; horridly trick’d
 With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
 Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
 That lend a tyrannous and damned light
 To their lord’s murder: roasted in wrath and fire,
 And thus o’er-sized with coagulate gore,
 With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
 Old grandsire Priam seeks.’
 So, proceed you.

So let’s see what takes place: The speech Hamlet wants the actors to perform is “Aeneas’ tale to Dido.” Aeneas was the Trojan prince made famous in Virgil’s Aeneid for founding Rome. Aeneas tells this story to Dido, the Queen of Carthage with whom he stays and falls in love while journeying from ruined Troy to then-unfounded Rome. The story he tells is from the Trojan War; it is a story of revenge. Pyrrhus, son of the slain Achilles, hides in the Trojan horse before killing Priam, the king of Troy and father of Achilles’s murderer Paris. Hamlet performs only the first third of the tale, the part that describes Pyrrhus hiding in the “ominous” Trojan horse. Hamlet ceases the story at the point when Pyrrhus seeks out Priam, and the First Player continues to story to describe Pyrrhus’ killing of Priam and the grief of Priam’s wife, Hecuba. Got all that? Good.

This scene is a complement to the more famous “Mousetrap” or “Murder of Gonzago” scene that comes in Act III, scene ii. In the “Mousetrap” scene, you’ll recall, Hamlet writes a scene into a play that he has the players perform for the court; he sits in the audience and watches the reaction of Claudius and Gertrude to the action, which is about the murder of nobility in Vienna and eerily resembles the murder of the king, Hamlet’s father, that has just happened in Denmark. Before the “Mousetrap,” Hamlet had given now-famous advice to the players to “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue….” So whereas in that scene, Hamlet is himself partial playwright as well as an audience member while giving council about acting, in this scene about Aeneas and Pyrrhus he gives counsel about writing and audience membership but becomes a partial actor. I hope that makes clear how the two scenes are mirrors of one another. Furthermore, whereas the “Mousetrap” action looks back into the past at a murder, the Aeneas speech looks into the future at what Hamlet is supposed to do: take revenge. But the nuances of Aeneas’s tale to Dido, as Hamlet pronounces it, make for intriguing parallels as well as incongruities to his own situation. Going off of the question “Who’s there,” we should ask, who is Hamlet more like there in this story, Aeneas or Pyrrhus? Let’s make a quick chart:

How Hamlet is like Aeneas

o He is the hero of the story in which he appears
o He is tasked with creating a new order in Denmark; after the destruction of Troy, Aeneas is divinely appointed to found a new city in Italy (Both are in the situation Matthew Arnold described as “between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born”)
o He has lover, Ophelia (Aeneas has Dido)
o Both seem to be avoiding the task appointed by them

How Hamlet is like Pyrrhus

o He is visited by the ghost of his father and told to avenge their death (Pyrrhus is visited by Achilles’ shade)
o Both attempt deceptive forms of revenge (the Trojan horse trick and whatever Hamlet is attempting)

So it seems like Hamlet is aware he shares traits of both characters. He must go about restoring political order while also carrying out the vengeance of his father. But what he’s done is depict the act of revenge in about as horrible light as one can make it. Pyrrhus is inhuman, covering himself in black paint and red blood so that his outward appearance matches his inner hellishness (there is an irony to this matching of outer appearance to inner hatred since Pyrrhus is inside the Trojan horse, famous for its deception; but it Aeneas’ telling, at least, it is an “ominious horse.” But Hamlet cares about his soul’s innocence. He is unable to summon the same level of hate, to match his inner feelings to the outward action he has to perform. Hamlet refuses to play the roll he is cast as, that is, the protagonist of revenge tragedy.

In fact, even in the end Hamlet never actually avenges his fathers’ death. Sure, he kills Claudius. Actually, he kills him twice: once with a poisoned sword and once by making him drink poison. But this occurs only after he himself has been killed by Claudius’ scheme, and after his mother has already drunken from the poisoned cup. So he’s not avenging his fathers’ death, but rather that of himself and his mother.

Something we usually take without question when we read revenge tragedies is that revenge is justified. “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” is all the reasoning we usually need. Likewise, no one ever has any qualms that Macbeth doesn’t deserve the spearing he gets from Macduff. Actually, considering how much umbrage contemporary readers occasionally take at the occasionally outdated moral codes of Shakespeare’s world, and considering how unpopular the death penalty even for murderers is among certain segments of the population, it’s kind of surprising that people aren’t more troubled by the genre.

So to answer popular query: Why doesn’t Hamlet just kill Claudius already?, First, we need to ditch the canard that it’s because Hamlet is a weak-willed, passive procrastinator. Consider all the things he does: puts on a play, acts, duals pirates, makes a bunch of jokes, breaks up with his girlfriend and kills his girlfriend’s dad. I’d be feeling pretty good about myself if I accomplished all that in one weekend (er, well, except those last bits). Instead, his depiction of Pyrrhus reminds us quite simply that killing people is wrong (especially when your main evidence that the target is guilty is that a ghost from hell told you so). Releasing the kind of rage he would need to off Claudius furthermore wouldn’t put the political situation of the Danish kingdom in good shape right on the eve of it being invaded by Norway.

A further reason this speech is revealing is for what it suggests about Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. Hamlet *accidentally* begins the speech by saying “The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,” before correcting himself to “The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms.” In fact, the Hyrcanian beast was used as a description not of Pyrrhus by Aeneas but of Aeneas by Dido after he abandoned her to found Rome (thus fulfilling the mission bestowed on Aeneas by Jupiter). So Hamlet seems to be signaling his awareness that for some reason in order to do what he needs to do he needs to break things off with Ophelia. Why might that be so? In order for Pyrrhus to do his task, he has to go all in on it. Similarly, Aeneas has to in order to found Rome and thus has to abandon Dido. Hamlet suggests somehow his plan of trying to restore order to Denmark requires Ophelia no longer be involved with him.

Hamlet must surely know though that Dido kills herself after being spurned by Aeneas, so he must suspect that a similar fate may befall Ophelia when he leaves her. The “get thee to a nunnery” scene sandwiches itself immediately after the Aeneas speech and before the Mousetrap play, so we must read it as an attempt for Hamlet so try to somehow convey to Ophelia what is at risk of happening. This seems counterintuitive considering it’s the speech in which he’s meanest to her, but if one were to read the scene again carefully, perhaps one could detect some secret hints he plants to her to let her know he’s speaking in some sort of code (recall he knows he’s being watched by Polonius the whole time so can’t just tell her what’s up). Assuming all this is true, that leaves us with two questions: could he have done a better job of trying to save Ophelia? Or, if he did signal to her adequately the situation, perhaps she didn’t in fact kill herself but was murdered?!

There’s an interesting contrast between the dilemmas of Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet spends most of the play actively trying to ditch the differing identities that have been forced on him: son, king, lover, student, friend, citizen, etc…. Ophelia, on the other hand, seemed to be perfect comfortable with the roles she had, but one-by-one has her roles — daughter, sister, lover — taken away from her forcibly as the characters around her all leave her. No longer grounded, she isn’t able to form her own identity and seems to go crazy. She could have really used a Horatio, but instead had no one she could talk to and so eventually lost the power of speech altogether.

As shouldn’t be too surprising, Shakespeare suggest that a healthy person will be able to balance responsibility for their own roles as well as maintaining individuality. The answer to the “who’s there” posed at the beginning of Hamlet seems to be answered in Act V, scene i when Hamlet emerges out of the graveyard shadows and declares “This is I, Hamlet, the Dane,” thus affirming his responsibility not just for his own identity but for his position as a son and as a political actor. What causes him to arrive at this realization? That would take much longer than I feel like typing or thinking about now but the crucial scene is seeing probably seeing his own death warrant signed by Claudius when he’s on the boat to England.

So anyway, hopefully these admittedly half fleshed-out thought will start getting the gears turning in your own head about Shakespeare as his dead anniversary marches closer. I still didn’t really answer the question of what’s Hamlet to us? What’s Pyrrhus? What’s Priam, why does any of this matter. Like the question posed by James Joyce in Ulysses: what does the ten-year wanderings of Odysseus around the Aegean have to do with Leopold Bloom’s day-long wanderings around Dublin over two centuries later, or Bloom’s wanderings to our own? Something, for sure, although to say what exactly that something is is to ask more than one can usually produce.


I’ll tickle your catastrophe

The door goes knock knock

The cow goes moo moo

Twinkling rivulets of red blood

Trickle towards my shoe shoe

That’s gonna leave a mark

I think in my head

But this was the poison I picked

And it was delicious.

Lights crowd bows loud

Do we exit stage right

How long till he’s myself

These clown feet itch