Mythic Criticism

Aguirre, Manuel. “Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty.” Review of English Studies 47 (1996): 163-74.


This article seeks “to explore Renaissance changes in the application of a traditional literary metaphor,” sovereignty, by focusing on “the mythical status of Gertrude and, beyond this, to explore the role, and the fate, of myth in Hamlet” (163). Evidence in Celtic, Greek, and Germanic myths, including The Odyssey, demonstrates consistent attachment of significance to the symbols of cup, water, and cloth—commonly associated with female sovereigns. The (re)appearance of these elements in Hamlet creates intriguing parallels and suggests that Gertrude, not Claudius, possesses sole authority to choose the new king. Some myths offer a defense of the charges against Gertrude (e.g., adultery). For example, in myth there appears a tendency to connect sovereignty with marriage/sexual union. Such myths afford an explanation for the immediacy and compression of wedding and coronation in Hamlet 1.2, which conflicts with the modern perspective of chronological order. While “the queen is the life is the crown” through validating traditional myth (169), the increasing realism of the Renaissance causes a loss of meaning and thus a crux in the play: Hamlet, a “realist,” views the Queen’s marriage to Claudius as stripped of symbolic meaning, as only adultery (171). Subsequently, Hamlet “presents the conflict itself between the old and new as embodied in a modern hero’s confrontation with an ancient myth” (174).

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Burnett, Mark Thornton. "'For they are actions that a man might play': Hamlet as Trickster." Hamlet. Ed. Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood. Theory in Practice. Buckingham: Open UP, 1996. 24-54.


This essay's "hoped-for result is to draw attention to a set of relations between the trickster theme in the play and the social, economic and political forces which lend Hamlet its note of specifically Elizabethan urgency" (29). Shakespeare's play conjures "a spectrum of archetypal trickster intrigues" through multiple characters (34): "it "enlists the traditions of the fox, the fool, and the rogue, complicating the expectation that the play can be understood in terms of a diagrammatic relationship between those who trick and those who are tricked" (43). But the focus is primarily on "Hamlet's own tricksy practices" (34). While the Prince "follows in the path of the trickster in choosing words and theatre as the weapons with which he will secure his role as revenger," "his sense of purpose is often blunted, from within (by Claudius) and from without (by the Ghost)"-like the traditional trickster who battles multiple foes of "local or familial networks" (37). Historically, the trickster's "malleable form presented itself as an answer to, and an expression of, the early modern epistemological dilemma" (51). For example, Hamlet raises concerns of religion, succession, and gender, comparable to the "unprecedented social forms and new ideological configurations" experienced while Elizabeth I reigned as monarch (49-50). In a carnivalesque style, Hamlet affords Elizabethans "a release of tensions" and a means of "social protest" through its trickster(s) (50).

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DiMatteo, Anthony. “Hamlet as Fable: Reconstructing a Lost Code of Meaning.” Connotations 6.2 (1996/1997): 158-79.


This article explores how the “nexus” of Hamlet and mythic heroes “links with another analogy between fable and history that involves an unsettling convergence of spirits” (159), how Shakespeare’s audience perceived “the myths’ cognitive potential . . . to have great speculative power” (159-60), as well as how myths are “enlisted but also deeply called into question by Hamlet” (160). A comparison of terminology, imagery, and plot between mythology and the play identifies parallels between Hamlet / Adonis / Orpheus / Vulcan / Aeneas / Hercules and Ophelia / Venus / Dido. While “classical points of contact” suggest a “symbolic coding and an implied range of meanings,” they also locate Hamlet “in a relationship to a specific audience or readership trained in academic recital and exegesis of Ovid and Virgil” (164). Due to the “hermeneutical traditions as they had come to evolve in the late Renaissance,” one must “read myth allusions in Hamlet not archetypically but stenographically” (165). For example, the “acquired double potential of myth allowing it to serve simultaneously as examples of human virtue and vice complexly connects in the play with Hamlet’s anxiety not only about his father’s apparition but also his own thoughts” (165). Is the Ghost a reliable source or “Vulcan (a daimon) forging his son (or a soul) into an agent of evil” (167)? Are Hamlet’s “imaginings” merely “misconceptions” or “the results of a moral contamination” (166)? The analogies between Hamlet’s experience and that of his mythic predecessors “indicate how Hamlet in plot, terms and phrases lingers over a whole range of ancient concerns through which late Renaissance culture both couched and covered over its own ambition and fears” (167-68). “Arguably,” Hamlet “stages the death not only of Hamlet but of the typically Renaissance belief in eloquence as some ultimate civilizing or enlightening process” (172). “The implied cleft between the miraculous possibilities posited in fable and the brute mortality of historical events in Denmark can also be sensed in the play if we consider the contrary influences of Ovid and Virgil upon the myths that the play takes up” (173): Hamlet seems “caught between the Virgilian sublime and Ovidian mutability” (173-74), and “Virgil’s permanent order and Ovid’s flux seem to vie for influence over the play” (174). “By bringing these parallelisms with figures from epic and fable to bear upon the history of Hamlet, the play acts out the tragic pathos that results when history and myth are implicitly revealed to be irreconcilable” (175). “The conflict of myth and history and of art and life is densely articulated through symbolic shorthand in Hamlet” (175).

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Fike, Matthew A. “Gertrude’s Mermaid Allusion.” On Page and Stage: Shakespeare in Polish and World Culture. Ed. Krystyna Kujawinska Courtney. Kraków: Towarzystwo Autorów, 2000. 259-75. [Originally printed in the-hard-to-find B. A. S.: British and American Studies 2 (1999): 15-25.]


This essay proposes that “the mermaid allusion—a powerful nexus of mythological and folk material—enables a new perspective on Gertrude’s speech and the play” (259). Gertrude’s description of Ophelia as “mermaidlike” (4.7.176) in the drowning report “evokes a whole tradition from Homer’s sirens to mermaid references in Shakespeare’s own time” because sirens and mermaids were conflated (and “interchangeable”) by the Elizabethan period (260-61). While the Christian Church linked “both images to the temptations of the flesh” (261), natural histories, literary works, travel literature, popular ballads, and reports of “actual mermaid sightings” all contributed to Elizabethan’s perception of a mermaid (262): “eternally youthful,” “beautiful,” embodying “the mystery of the ocean,” and possessing an “alluring” song (263). Although “the first lines of Gertrude’s speech do have unmistakable resonances with mermaid lore” (265) and “mermaid lore supports the possibility that being spurned by Hamlet may be a cause of both madness and suicide" (266), “it is her [Ophelia’s] divergence from the myth that is significant” (264). For example, legend held that a mortal male could trick a mermaid into marriage by stealing her cap; but, in Hamlet, the pattern “is reversed”: Hamlet gives Ophelia “tokens of their betrothal” which she returns to him in the nunnery scene (264). The implication is that Ophelia “is not a mermaid shackled to a mortal husband because of a trick, but instead a young woman who knows her own mind and frankly brings the symbolism of her relationship into harmony with the loss of emotional warmth” (364). Rather than a derogatory description of a chaste Ophelia, the mermaid allusion “echoes a native folk tradition of misogynistic insecurity” (267) and “participates in Hamlet’s larger image pattern of prostitution and sexuality” (268). In addition, the mermaid’s human/beast duality “suggests not only the danger of feminine seductiveness (Ophelia, Gertrude) but also the rational call (Horatio) to epic duty (the ghost)”—symbolically merging the two extremes that Hamlet struggles with in the play (270).

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Lieber, Naomi Conn. “Hamlet’s Hobby-Horse.” Cahiers Elisabethains 45 (Apr. 1994): 33-45.


Drawing heavily from Michel Foucault’s “subjugated knowledges,” this article analyzes Hamlet’s “complex arrangement of personal-political and traditional-transitional concerns, encoded in the mnemonic of the remembered/forgotten hobby-horse” (34). A brief history of the hobby-horse (the fertility ritual of pagan origin that was later performed only on theater stages) highlights the importance of “those practices by which a community defines and knows itself” (36). Social identity is closely contingent upon rituals, which operate “in a framework of relations” and “constitute the enacted double of the social structure itself” (37). In Hamlet, the erosion of rites (e.g., Gertrude’s “o’erhasty marriage,” Ophelia’s “maimed rites”) desolves identities and distinctions in Denmark—even time is out of joint. The “unease, confusion, danger, indefinition, liminality” (38) evident in the play’s first scene must be corrected by Hamlet, who seeks “not simply revenge but clarification, demystification” (39). Unfortunately, Hamlet cannot completely repair the damage: with the Prince’s funeral ceremony, “the wrong rite is performed,” and, with the absent ceremonies for Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes, the “neglect of ritual that has propelled this play from the start continues through to its end” (40). Hamlet’s mention of the hobby-horse allows Shakespeare to accomplish “the double feat of anamnesis both for the traditional dance and for Hamlet’s father” (40). His reference also permits remembrance of the hobby-horse, signifying “homeostasis contested by its suppression, while its remembrance signifies a resistance to change” (42).

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Uéno, Yoshiko. “Three Gertrude’s: Text and Subtext.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 155-68.


This essay examines “ambiguities inherent in Hamlet, or gaps between the text and subtext, with special attention to Gertrude’s representation” (156). Rather than possessing autonomy, the Queen exists only in relation to Claudius and Hamlet; she also refuses to choose between the two men, revealing “her malleability” (158). Hence, the lack of critical appreciation of Gertrude seems understandable. Although the closet scene should offer the greatest opportunity for insight into Gertrude’s character, it leaves too many unanswered questions: does she know of Claudius’ involvement in Hamlet, Sr.’s death? Is she guilty of infidelity with Claudius before this murder? Further uncertainties are raised by the scene’s presentation of two Gertrudes: “Gertrude herself and the Gertrude seen from Hamlet’s perspective” (161). Such confusion leads today’s audiences to share in Hamlet’s confrontation “with the disintegration of reality” (162). But the original audience at the Globe may have had the advantages of after-images, preconceived notions of Hamlet informed by myth and legend. A survey of plausible literary sources (e.g., Historiae Danicae, Agamemnon, Histoires tragiques), with emphasis on the evolving “transformations of Gertrude,” presents “a wide range of variants” that Elizabethan audiences may have drawn on to resolve the ambiguities struggled with today (166).

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