A note to the reader: The text of Hamlet is in blue while the text of Phaedo is in red only when the sequence of the line-by-line juxtaposition is preserved. The reference numbers following excerpts from Hamlet and Phaedo indicate their sequential place in their respective texts, standard references are used for all other sources.
~ I ~
Hamlet begins on a “platform” upon the fortification of Ellsinore, just before midnight, as a guard approaches to relieve his counterpart on duty. This changing of the guard at the beginning of the first scene is a microcosm for the entire play in that it reflects the major transitions seminal to the greater story.
Primarily, this changing of the guard symbolizes the succession of rulers in Denmark jointly with the change in prince Hamlet’s guardian or father figure. The backdrop to the main plot of the tragedy being that the prince's uncle, kills his own brother, maries his widow (Hamlet's mother) and consequently becomes head of the royal family and thereby the state.
The theme of violent succession of kings is fundamental to the history of human civilization, and in Hamlet several incidents of regicide are mentioned. The first example is in Horatio's account of king Hamlet killing Fortinbras - a Norwegian king - and seizing "all (those) his lands" and presumably titles:
"...our last king...
Did slay this Fortinbras, who by a sealed compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all (those) his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror." (Hamlet, 48)
King Hamlet is subsequently killed by his own brother Claudius, who is himself killed by his victim's son (and his own nephew, prince Hamlet) at the end of the play, as Fortinbras' son (also his father's namesake) returns in search of retribution for his father’s life and the land his father "forfeit, with his life" to Hamlet's father.
The story of royal succession by blood (in dual meaning of violent usurpation as well as hereditary lineage) returns full circle at the end of the play. This cyclical transition of rulers is central to the plot of Hamlet as exhibited by the changing of the guard in the opening scene of the tragedy.
The origins of this ancient tradition of regal succession in the west are described by James Frazer in the beginning of his colossal masterpiece on anthropology and myth, The Golden Bough:
"No one who has seen the calm water of the Lake of Nemi ['Diana's Mirror', as it was called by the ancients], lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. Diana herself might still be lingering by this lonely shore, haunting these woodlands wild. In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake stood the sacred grove of Diana Nemorensis-that is, Diana of the Woodland Glade. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. In that grove grew a certain tree round which, at any hour of the day and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon. He was at once a priest and murderer; and the man for whom he was watching was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. For such was the rule of the sanctuary: a candidate for the priesthood could succeed to office only by slaying the incumbent priest in single combat, and could himself retain office only until he was in turn slain by a stronger or a craftier. Moreover - and this is especially significant - he could fling his challenge only if he had first succeeded in plucking a golden bough from the tree which the priest was guarding...The post which was held by this precarious tenure carried with it the title of King of the Wood; but surely no crowned head ever lay uneasier or was visited by more evil dreams." (James George Frazer, Abridgment by, The New Golden Bough, 1.)
A point which Frazer designates "especially significant" is that the challenger to the title of the King of the Wood, must first be able to retrieve the golden bough from the tree guarded by the King, therefore the King remains such, as long as he is successful in his role as a guard. Here Frazer describes an ancient example in the symbolism of kings as guards - a metaphor made famous in the classical age by Plato.
The subject of royal succession is prevalent in Shakespeare's canon, with several of his plays along with Hamlet primarily revolving around changes in the leadership of state. The central plot of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, for example, are primarily about the transitions of monarchy, as well as the stories told in the so-called Roman Works, namely The Rape of Lucrece, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare's depictions of royal succession in all of these works, with the exception of Hamlet, have recently been linked to Plato's writing, respectively by Leon Craig (Of Philosopher's and Kings: Political Philosophy in Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear) and Barbara Parker (Plato's Republic and Shakespeare's Rome: A Political Study of the Roman Works)
It is the purpose of this work however, to show that Hamlet too, has a particularly remarkable relationship to Plato's philosophy and that the depiction of the changing guard in the opening scene of this play, as metaphor for the royal succession is a specific reference to Plato’s famous concept of ‘the guardian’ (or the ‘philosopher-king’) from the Republic, where Socrates describes his ideal ruler as follows:
“Inasmuch as philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable (the soul or spirit), and those who wander in the region of the many and variable are not philosophers, I must ask you which of the two classes should be the rulers of our State?”
“Whichever of the two are best able to guard the laws and institutions of our State--let them be our guardians…”
“…It will be possible then, and only then, when kings are philosophers or philosophers kings.”
If examined closely, the correlation in Shakespeare's metaphor of the changing guard in the opening scene for the transition in the monarchy within the greater plot of Hamlet and Plato's reference to the ruler of a state as a guardian in the Republic prove to be more than coincidental, but in fact, as this work in it's entirety will attempt to show, quite intentional.
As will soon become evident, the text of Hamlet is an elaborate literary puzzle, which is masterfully encoded with a secret subtext that is deeply rooted in Plato's philosophy. The guards in the opening of the play serve not only as symbols of this secret subtext but simultaneously as the key to it's solution - their role is to protect the secret language from the uninitiated while guiding those who "are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable (the soul or spirit)" to it's underlying meaning.
Although many other references to Plato's Republic appear when one closely inspects Hamlet, it is not however the dialogue with most intimate relevance to the secret language of this play, but only secondary to an intricate relationship with another one of Plato's works, namely Phaedo - Plato's dialogue on the nature of the soul.
Remarkably, as it turns out, Phaedo is structurally and contextually mirrored in Hamlet, when the two texts are compared line-by-line. Furthermore, when Hamlet and Phaedo are analyzed together, they simultaneously refer to specific (mutually relevant) discussions in Plato's other dialogues, out of which, Republic becomes particularly more prevalent. As a result, these tandem references often demonstrate not only Shakespeare's highly skilled use of a special sort of cryptic methodology but his keen insight into Plato's as well, moreover, the two methods turn out to be very similar.
Upon a close analysis of the complex relationship which arises out of the juxtaposition between Hamlet and Phaedo within the larger context of Plato’s other works, particularly the Republic, Shakespeare’s likely motive for this remarkable methodology soon becomes evident.
In the Republic, Socrates refers to an “ancient quarrel” between philosophers and poets, a rivalry particularly relevant to Socrates' own life and one of the major factors leading to his execution.
Socrates states that “There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry; of which there are many proofs, such as the saying of 'the yelping hound howling at her lord,' or of one 'mighty in the vain talk of fools,' and 'the mob of sages circumventing Zeus,' and the 'subtle thinkers who are beggars after all'; and there are innumerable other signs of ancient enmity between them.” (Plato, Republic)
The rivalry between philosophy and poetry indeed precedes Socrates’ quarrel with the tragedians of his day. This conflicting relationship is exemplified in Greek mythology by the identical twin gods of Apollo (the patron god of philosophers) and Artemis (another name for Diana, the patron goddess of poets) who represented the sun and moon respectively. And the moon’s reflective role in this mirrored relationship does not escape Socrates’ reasoning, for he denounces the imitative arts (and tragic poetry in particular) precisely for their reflective natures.
In the Republic, Socrates defends the “rejection of imitative poetry” and states that “the tragic poet is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king and from the truth” he likens their methods of imitation to “turning a mirror round and round” whereby the products of their craft are mere reflections of ideas which are themselves imperfect representation of higher essential forms.
For this reason the tragic poets are exiled by Socrates from his Kalipolis, the ideal state described in the Republic, however he subtly states an exceptional provision to this banishment, as follows:
“Notwithstanding this, let us assure our sweet friend and the sister arts of imitation that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered state we shall be delighted to receive her…” (Plato, Republic)
This is the call, which Shakespeare, as a master of tragedy and a philosopher of equal merit (see Of Philosophers and Kings by Leon Harold Craig), is called to answer. This is the likely reason for what will be explored here in great detail, a unique and highly elaborate way in which the text of Hamlet (most famous of all tragedies) reflects the text of Phaedo (the cornerstone of Plato’s philosophy) line to line, as will be illustrated shortly and throughout this work.
Consider Hamlet’s words in his critique of drama: “To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature… I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.” (Hamlet)
It is important to point out at this time, that what will be described here of the relationship between the texts of Hamlet and Phaedo, is not an imitation as the sort criticized by Socrates and Hamlet, this should be obvious, for - superficially speaking - the stories told in the two texts are very different. The sort of connection between the two texts illustrated in this work is not a superficial reproduction but its conflicting twin (similar in appearance yet opposite in quality, as the metaphors of the sun and moon, or the personifications of Artemis and Apollo) a very intricate, reflective process of fundamental deconstruction and transmigration of the essence of the original into another form, performed with great care and calculation in strict adherence to a particular method of symbolic cryptography.
Consider the contrast, between the two similar yet contradictory kinds of reflection, expressed by Hamlet in his description of Laertes, and the only other mention of a ‘mirror’ in the play:
Sir, his definement suffers no perdition
though, I know, to divide him inventorially would
dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and yet but yaw
neither, in respect of his quick sail. But, in the
verity of extolment, I take him to be a soul of
great article; and his infusion of such dearth and
rareness, as, to make true diction of him, his
semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace
him, his umbrage, nothing more. (Hamlet)
The difference between reflective imitation of “the imitative arts” and the elusive method of philosophic reflection will shortly be analyzed in greater depth, however, it is important to point out at this time, that this fundamental difference is inherently difficult to distinguish, which often leads to its misinterpretation as a contradiction. In the beginning of Phaedo, for example, Socrates is reproached by his interlocutors for turning Aesop’s fables into verse (as well as composing hymns in honor of Apollo), which seem to some of his visitors to be in direct contradiction with his famous rebuke of poets.
A careful reading proves however, that these are misconceptions of blatant contradiction (such as the conflict in Socrates’ criticism of suicide while preparing to drink the poison) within his otherwise flawless logic, a subtle yet all-important difference is expressed in the dialogue of Phaedo, specifically between his actions and those of the tragic poets (or the particular difference between Socrates’ drinking hemlock and the act of suicide).
On the one hand there is the 'thrice removed' imitation or a mere copy of an object; while on the other a (once removed, at most, and arguably an altogether inseparable) reflection of the true spirit of an object or its very form. These seeming contradictions and Socrates’ illustration of the subtle differences which render them non-contradictions after all, make the dialogue of Phaedo an especially poignant defense for Socrates and therefore a perfectly suitable choice for Shakespeare as the intended key to unlocking the mysteries of Hamlet, at the heart of which is a hidden defense for tragic poetry (similar to Socrates’ own choice of Aesop’s fables for his renditions in verse, mentioned in the beginning of Phaedo).
What further makes Phaedo the perfect choice as a template for Shakespeare's unique defense is that it holds a seat of particular importance not only within the canon of Plato's work, but also in the tradition of western philosophic thought in general. This importance stems not only from its historically significant account of Socrates’ death, but even more from the subject matter discussed in the dialogue (the nature of the soul), as well as the structurally complex, methodic (quintessentially Platonic) language used in the presentation of this discussion.
The subject matter under discussion in Phaedo is 'the soul'; and the method of its presentation is a dialogue between Socrates and the attendants of his execution in the final hours of his life, taking place in the confines of a prison cell. The story of this historically significant conversation is being told by Phaedo, a student of Socrates and one of those present at the scene.
Although the dialogue itself begins with a short prelude consisting of a conversation between Phaedo (the narrator) and his interlocutor Echecrates, the narrator's story soon starts at the doors to Socrates' prison, where a guard opens the doors and permits the visiting party to enter.
The symbolism of the guards in the beginning of Phaedo's account and the opening scene in Hamlet are merely the first in the multitude of sequential metaphors which correlate in the juxtaposition of the two texts. The guard seems to serve as an important symbolic element in the beginning of each text and the precise totality of this (largely overlooked) metaphor will be the subject of an ongoing scrutiny in the current as well as subsequent chapters.
The very presence of the watchful guard in the opening lines of Hamlet, seems also to allude to the closely guarded secrets in the language of the play.
As the curtains open on the lone sentinel named Francisco, the story of Hamlet aptly begins at an entrance to a castle and as with any partition that defines the limits of two opposites (by mutual exclusion), the inside as well as the outside (marking the end of one while the beginning of the other), and as the door provides a passage through, the guard here serves the purpose of a lock.
Within the opening line of Hamlet, “Who’s there?” (Hamlet, 1) is the enigmatic essence of the whole play. The nature of this question embodies the very core of guard’s duty – to identify or to fundamentally discern “friend” from “stranger” and is contextually similar to the first line of Phaedo: “Were you yourself, Phaedo, in the prison with Socrates on the day when he drank the poison?” (Phaedo, 1). Phaedo also, is structured in such a way that this first line (as in Hamlet) represents a microcosm of greater meaning within the dialogue. The very first subject of Phaedo’s prologue also deals with the question of "Who were present?" (Phaedo, 17) in the prison when Socrates dies, whether there were 'friends' or 'strangers' with him, and only after asking this, Echecrates proceeds to inquire from Phaedo about what took place and the particulars of the discussion itself.
FRANCISCO: I think I hear them. Stand, ho! Who's there? (Hamlet, 12)
HORATIO: Friends to this ground. (Hamlet, 13)
ECHECRATES: You will have listeners who are of the same mind with you, and I hope that you will be as exact as you can. (Phaedo, 13)
MARCELLUS: And liegemen to the Dane (Hamlet, 14)
PHAEDO: I had a singular feeling at being in his company. For I could hardly believe that I was present at the death of a friend…(Phaedo, 14)
FRANCISCO: Give you good night. (Hamlet, 15)
MARCELLUS: O, farewell, honest soldier:
Who hath relieved you? (Hamlet, 16)
ECHECRATES: Who were present? (Phaedo, 17)
PHAEDO: Of native Athenians there were, besides Apollodorus, Critobulus and his father Crito, Hermogenes, Epigenes, Aeschines,
Antisthenes; likewise Ctesippus of the deme of Paeania, Menexenus, and some others; Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill.(Phaedo, 18)
What, is Horatio there? (Hamlet, 19)
ECHECRATES: Were there any strangers?(Phaedo, 19)
HORATIO: “A pice of him,” (Hamlet, 20)
PHAEDO: Yes, there were; Simmias the Theban, and Cebes, and Phaedondes; Euclid and Terpison, who came from Megara. (Phaedo, 20)
BERNARDO: Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus. (Hamlet, 21)
ECHECRATES: And was Aristippus there, and Cleombrotus? (Phaedo, 21)
MARCELLUS: What, has this thing appear'd again to-night? (Hamlet, 22)
PHAEDO: No, they were said to be in Aegina. (Phaedo, 22)
ECHECRATES: Any one else? (Phaedo, 23)
BERNARDO: I have seen nothing. (Hamlet, 23)
PHAEDO: I think that these were nearly all. (Phaedo, 24)
Compare the first line of Hamlet: “Who’s there?” with the first words from Phaedo: “Were you yourself…” within the larger subject matter of both works, the soul or self. Consider Colin McGills reading into the underlining meaning of the first line of Hamlet and its continuous reiteration throughout the play:
“This is fundamentally a play about the constitution of the self. The play begins with the brief line “Who’s there?” as one sentinel questions the identity of the other. “Stand and unfold yourself,” Francisco demands. Bernardo refuses, evasively responding, “Long live the King!” To Francisco’s “Bernardo?” the other simply replies, “He.” There is uncertainty and reluctance with regard to personal identity in this deceptively simple exchange. The opening question could easily have been asked by Hume or Montaigne, as they gaze into themselves in search of the self; and, as I shall suggest, it is preeminently Hamlet’s question about himself. The question could hardly be deeper or more general: it is the question, “What is the human soul?” When Horatio comes on the scene, there is a similar uncertainty as to who he is: “Say-what, is Horatio there?” Barnardo asks, and Horatio laconically replies, “A pice of him,” (Colin McGill, Shakespeare’s Philosophy, p. 38-39)
The dialogue of Phaedo is the cornerstone of western philosophic tradition on the subject of the soul (or the self) and appropriately begins with the word autos, meaning “yourself”. The questions of "Who's there" in the beginning of both texts of Hamlet (where it is explicit) and Phaedo (where it is implicit in Echecrates' inquiry into whether Phaedo was himself a witness to Socrates’ death) co-occur in their line-to-line juxtaposition (as illustrated above).
Phaedo soon reveals that Plato (the author) was not present at the death of Socrates, yet importance is being placed by Echecrates (in the first and most important line of the dialogue) on Phaedo’s (the narrator’s) presence at the proceedings. This emphasis on the narrator’s physical presence at the scene combined with the allusion to the author’s absence is intriguing because it presents an implicit contradiction to the importance of the “eye witness” account, and is arguably the first paradox of the dialogue in its discussion on the nature of the soul.
A seeming inconsistency emerges out of the importance placed on the narrator's presence in Echecrates' first line: “Were you yourself, Phaedo, in the prison with Socrates..." and the nonchalant mention of the author's absence in the eighteenth line of the dialogue where Phaedo states: "Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill."
Plato's mention of himself in Phaedo, is certainly of great significance, even if presented in an unassuming fashion. The very reason why this seemingly important historical fact (that Plato was not present at Socrates' death) is presented in such a "by the way" manner, in itself contradicts the magnitude of the first line's intended meaning and vice versa. In other words, why is it so important to Echecrates if Phaedo was present at Socrates' death himself, while presumably it should be irrelevant to the reader of the dialogue, that the author (Plato) was absent?
To examine this paradoxical significance of the "eye witness account" further, the means by which Plato mentions himself in the dialogue (by excluding himself out of the story) deserves a closer look.
By explicitly writing himself out of the proceedings, Plato is masterfully illustrating a very particular phenomenon of self-reference, common in art and similar to those found throughout Shakespeare's work as well (particularly in his sonnets), a poetic and artistic element which Phillipa Kelly calls a "mirror trope". She writes that "painters like Van Eyck use the mirror image to suggest their own presence in a painting - and the painter, by portraying "himself in the form of a miniscule silhouette in the divine eye-mirror, precisely at the vanishing-point of the painting," signifies the infinite. The invisible is made present within the visible. In this way "the mirror…lends itself to self-examination and interior dialogue." (P. Kelly, Surpassing Glass: Shakespeare's Mirrors, 15)
The infinite complexity of perspective quickly arises out of the contradiction presented in the first line of Phaedo. In fact this contradiction is inherent to Echecrates' question even in absence of Plato's explicit exclusion of himself from the list of eye witnesses in the eighteenth line. The reader knows the author of the dialogue to be Plato, yet the story is told by Phaedo, why then is it important to Echecrates in the first line of the dialogue that the account is being told to him 'first hand'? A simpler example of this conflict can be expressed in the fact that Plato is a character in Phaedo's story, who himself is a character in Plato's dialogue. As if two mirrors placed to face each other the roles of narrator and subject could obviously continue to switch places here ad infinitum and thereby exemplify the age old paradox of mirrored reflexivity, much as in the popular quandary of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
Eschecrates' first question is therefore a paradox of self referential, mirrored reflection, which presents conflicting implications.
Phillipa Kelly further describe the inherent conflict of the mirror trope, "the observer," she writes "sees himself mirrored in a multiplicitous, and often self-contradictory, way. What one sees is both familiar and unsettling, emblematically reassuring as well as cosmologically unstable. The physical image in the mirror spins into a kaleidoscope of literary and visual associations, becoming a radically unstable trope of transition. And this is what we find in the multiple reverberations, the echoes, the twists and contortions, the physical and cosmological speculations, embedded in the language of mirrors and reflections." (P. Kelly, Surpassing Glass: Shakespeare's Mirrors, 17)
The transition element arises out of the self-propagating spiraling of conflicting references which cycle back and forth and somehow forward to infinity all the while static in the present and unchanging state. In the first line of Phaedo, "were you yourself...in the prison..." the concept of physical presence of a witness contrasted by the detached experience of the story teller represents precisely this sort of contradiction.
Consider Helen H. Bacon's description of the role Phaedo's opening lines serve in relation to the greater structure of the dialogue, and the complex purpose for Plato's choice of the (detached yet simultaneously and conflictingly undetached) third person narration:
"The opening exchange between Phaedo and Echecrates serves as an introduction to the whole dialogue by establishing a certain tone, both for the scene in Phlius and the scene in Athens, and by indicating time and place, naming the actors and announcing the major themes and figures of speech of the dialogue. After this exchange the recurrence of the vocatives ô Phaidôn, ô Echekrates is enough to indicate a return to this outer frame...the inner frame’s first appearance, which immediately follows, reinforces the effect of the first introduction by mirroring its tone and themes. It serves as a second introduction, setting the stage for the drama that takes place in the prison and launching the discussion...the two frames perform contrasting structural functions. The inner frame articulates the whole course of the discussions, recurring with rhythmic regularity at greater or less length at the end of each section, and providing a transition to the next one. And it brings the drama in Athens to a close with the death scene." (The Poetry of Phaedo, Helen H. Bacon p.4)
Another possible interpretation of the inconsistency in the importance given to the storytellers physical presence at the events portrayed in Phaedo's account at the beginning of the dialogue, can be as a contrast between empiricism and the introspective vision of ideas or “the mind’s eye”. As alluded in the previously mentioned excerpt from the Republic, where the words: "philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable" refer to the distinctively introspective nature of philosophy. This 'sense' which is exclusive to philosophers according to Socrates, is no other than the process of introspection or reflection on the self.
The subject of this unique form of perception predominates in both Hamlet and Phaedo, often simultaneously, when the two texts are superimposed line-to-line:
…But did you ever behold any of them with your eyes? (Phaedo, 90)
My father! -- methinks I see my father. (Hamlet, 90)
Or did you ever reach them with any other bodily sense? (and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything). Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of that which he considers? (Phaedo, 91)
In my mind's eye, Horatio. (Hamlet, 92)
And he attains to the knowledge of them in their highest purity who goes to each of them with the mind alone, not allowing when in the act of thought the intrusion or introduction of sight or any other sense in the company of reason, but with the very light of the mind in her clearness penetrates into the very fight of truth in each; he has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and of the whole body, which he conceives of only as a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of knowledge when in company with her-is not this the sort of man who, if ever man did, is likely to attain the knowledge of existence? (Phaedo, 94)
This uniquely philosophic ability of reflective introspection is of paramount importance to understanding the intended meanings of both these enigmatic works. Furthermore, the very key to solving the encoded language of both Hamlet and Phaedo lies deep within the understanding of what this special sense is and its inseparable relation to the fabric of philosophic language, and ultimately the very nature of the soul itself. To analyze the concept of the "mind's eye" one must look closer at the two possible meanings of the word reflection.
One meaning of reflection is primarily empirical, the other cognitive, yet despite their seemingly conflicting natures the two definitions have many similarities. Merriam Webster's dictionary provides some of the following definitions for reflection: "the return of light or sound waves from a surface" as in "the production of" a "mirror image" or a reproduction in which left and right sides are reversed, also "the action of bending or folding back;" such as in mathematics where it means a transformation in which the direction of one axis is reversed; and finally a "consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose." (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
As will become gradually more evident, the combination of all the possible meanings of reflection are present in their totality here in the discussion on the juxtaposition of Hamlet and Phaedo.
The paramount importance of reflection to philosophic language is embodied in the multi-perspective nature of a metaphor, and a flawless use of such metaphor which methodically transforms from one idea to another while maintaining coherent, functional and relevant meaning, as does the symbolism of reflection itself. Furthermore, reflection in particular is the very act of contemplation on the self in both physical as well as cognitive interpretations and is the very method of philosophy as such.
Phillipa Kelly further writes that "reflection may stabilize an image - you look into the mirror and see the outlines of your self - but in this act it destabilizes, too. It suggests the multiplicity of perspectives from which your self can be known, and the diversity of functions that it serves...this theme continually resonates in Shakespeare's use of mirrors. Language is itself for Shakespeare a powerfully self-reflexive mirror." (P. Kelly, Surpassing Glass: Shakespeare's Mirrors, 22)
It is precisely the perfection and completeness of the words as multidimensional metaphors which can evolve as if alive and self-generating that produces the lattice structure of Plato's philosophic language which (as will be shown) is reflected in Hamlet.
Such perfect metaphors as the guards at the beginning of both Hamlet and Phaedo and the ongoing interactions between the two texts, follow a specific method of mirrored reflections and inversions which interconnect throughout the juxtaposition of the two works. Consider for instance, the contextual connection between the two tests in the notion of the guards of state as 'philosopher-kings' who have the unique ability to sense that which is imperceptible to others, which is precisely the reflective nature of philosophy.
Rodolphe Gasche writes in his book titled The Tain of the Mirror: "By severing the self from the immediacy of the object world, reflection helps give the subject freedom as a thinking being...reflection as the self-thinking of thought, as self-consciousness, has had an eminently emancipatory function. It constitutes the autonomy of the cogito, of the subject, of thought. Liberum est quod causa sui est. Only the subject that knows itself, and thus finds the center of all certitude in itself, is free. But self-reflection in modern philosophy not only grounds the autonomy of the individual as a rational being; it also appears to be the very motor of history as progress toward a free society. Self-reflection has informed all philosophy of spirit...it also constitutes the modern concept of history and is the alpha and omega of political philosophy." (Rodolphe Gasche, The Tain of the Mirror, p. 14)
Consider the symbolism of the guard in the beginning of Phaedo's story, who serves as the very personification of Socrates' confinement in prison. Furthermore, the prison itself is a poignant setting for precisely the sort of discussion that takes place in Phaedo (as alluded in the first question "were you yourself in prison..."), after all Socrates describes the nature of the soul's confinement in the body and likens the body to a prison on numerous occasions in the dialogue.
Although the metaphor of imprisonment will be subsequently analyzed in greater detail as it relates to both texts of Hamlet and Phaedo, it is important to point out at this time that it's relevance to the discussion of reflection on death (or the contemplation of death) as an exercise in the release of the soul from it's confinement by the body (as Socrates prescribes in Phaedo) plays an important role here in the beginning of both texts in their common use of the "mirror trope" as the liberating act of philosophic reflection.
In the Phaedo, Socrates describes death as the final separation of the soul from the body and explains that this release of the soul is governed by certain gods whom he calls "our guardians" and states that they alone have the final say in whether or not to permit this ultimate severance. He further explains that philosophers devote their lives to the practice of this final separation between the soul and the body, by means of self-reflection. As will be illustrated shortly, this conception is very intricately and methodically reflected in Hamlet.
Consider Kelly's description of Shakespeare's use of the mirror trope as "a means of transition" and "displacement...in which the ephemeral nature of self-representation is signaled in the very moment of expression...For Shakespeare, then, the mirror is a trope of displacement that evokes the shifting shape of identity in modes of social exchange." (P. Kelly, Surpassing Glass: Shakespeare's Mirrors, 25)
The "mirror trope" as the element of transition is illustrated by the changing of the guard in Hamlet's opening lines, as symbolism for a transition of monarchy in the play as a whole. This is clearly foreshadowed in the first question of the play, "who's there?". This question, if viewed in light of the current discussion of reflection on the self (as well as the response that follows in the second line which will be considered shortly) presents the idea of a looking glass, wherein one looks at his own image in order to see the reflection of one's self. Figuratively speaking, an inquiry into the very nature of one's own identity.
Hamlet and Phaedo both begin with the question of identity. In Hamlet, a guard asks for the individual approaching his post to identify himself, while in Phaedo, Echecrates inquires about the identity of the witnesses to the final hours of Socrates' life beginning with questions pertaining to the narrator's own presence at the scene. The question "who's there?" therefore, embodies a deeper philosophic theme of ontology, which are predominant in both texts.
Similar importance is given to this particular sort of inquiry in Shakespeare's other tragedies as well. Leon Harold Craig points out that "in both [Macbeth and King Lear], that most basic of philosophical questions – ‘What are you?’ – focuses attention on the central issue of each play, being asked of the witches in Macbeth (1.3.47) and of the multipersonae Edgar in King Lear (5.3.118)." (Leon Harold Craig, Of Philosophers and Kings p. 23)
The question asked in the first line of Hamlet, "who's there?" is likely intended also to foreshadow the puzzling nature of the supernatural visitation depicted in the play. Particularly important is the enigmatic identity of the ghostly apparition in the first scene (much as with the identity of the three 'wayward sisters' in Macbeth). The ghost, of course, turns out to be that of king Hamlet, returning from the dead. The question "who is Hamlet?" subsequently predominates the first act and is arguably the principal paradox of the entire play, whether asked in regard to the son, the father or the ghost, all called by the same name.
Within the present context, of the opening scene in Hamlet, the question is being asked by an approaching guard named Bernardo of a watchman presently on duty, named Francisco.
The two names Shakespeare chooses to use for these guards together resemble the names of a character from Welsh mythology, a deified hero named Berndigeidfran (meaning Bran the Great) familiarly known simply as Bran. Compare the name Berndigeidfran to the names of the two guards in Hamlet, Bernardo and Francisco.
Bran is a legendary king of Britain, and a patron god of bards and poetry. A few other elements in Bran's story point to his potential relevance here in the present discussion of Hamlet.
In Welsh mythology, it is told that Bran possessed a cauldron which brought dead soldiers to life. Consider therefore the ghost of a dead king, dressed as a soldier, returning from the dead. Furthermore, the first line of Hamlet: “who’s there?” could also allude to a particularly paramount ancient riddle of identifying a god by name.
Robert Graves in his book on the Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth or The White Goddess, writes that “the story of the guessing of Bran’s name is a familiar one to anthropologists. In ancient times, once a god’s name had been discovered, the enemies of his people could do destructive magic against them with it.” (The White Goddess p. 49)
In The White Goddess, Graves examines the secret cryptographic language that prevails throughout the tradition of poetic composition. He discovers a common theme going back in history to the earliest known poems wherein bountiful information is elaborately encoded.
Robert Grave's preliminary description of this Theme matches the general plot of Hamlet exactly:
"The Theme, briefly, is the antique story, which falls into thirteen chapters and an epilogue, of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year; the central chapters concern the God's losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride and layer-out. The poet identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird." (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 24)
Graves' "thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry - 'true' in the nostalgic sense of 'the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute'. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remodel or falsify the myth to justify the social changes. Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic, and under their influence a rational poetic language (now called the Classical) was elaborated in honour of their patron Apollo and imposed on the world as the last word in spiritual illumination: a view that has prevailed practically ever since in European schools and universities, where myths are now studied only as quaint relics of the nursery age of mankind" (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 9-10)
Graves places poets at the very top of primordial society, and explains that the biggest blow to this ancient hierarchy was heralded by Socrates and his followers.
"One of the most uncompromising rejections of early Greek mythology was made by Socrates. Myths frightened or offended him; he preferred to turn his back on them and discipline his mind to think scientifically: 'to investigate the reason of the being of everything - of everything as it is, not as it appears, and to reject all opinions of which no account can be given.'" (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 10)
Although Robert Graves' account of Socrates' stance as a turning point in history of the ancient quarrel between philosophers and poets can be easily supported from Plato's dialogues alone (yet this would be done by ignoring subtle evidence of the contrary in other or same dialogues), this critique however, is unapologetically partisan. Robert Graves was a staunch poet, a self-described servant of the Moon-goddess and this is expressed in his very biased depiction of Socrates as her enemy:
"Socrates, in turning his back on poetic myths, was really turning his back on the Moon-goddess who inspired them and who demanded that man should pay woman spiritual and sexual homage: what is called Platonic love, the philosopher's escape from the power of the Goddess into intellectual homosexuality, was really Socratic love...Her revenge on Socrates - if I may put it this way - for trying to know himself in the Apollonian style... She ended his life with a draught of the white - flowered, mousey - smelling hemlock, a plant sacred to herself as Hecate (As Shakespeare knew. see Macbeth, IV, 1, 25.), prescribed him by his fellow - citizens in punishment for his corruption of youth. After his death his disciples made a martyr of him and under their influence myths fell into still greater disrepute, because at last the subject of street - corner witticism or being 'explained away' by Euhemerus of Messenia and his successors as corruptions of history." (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p. 11-12)
Graves' account is as factually and symbolically correct as his assessment of its irony is biased and partisan. He takes a side in an ancient trial depicted in Plato's Apology which is still vigorously debated today. Socrates' accusers have a strong case, which accounts for the persistent understanding of Socratic censorship of poetry and music even by his followers (from contemporary to current), this particular matter is taken up in the dialogue of the Phaedo, where Socrates' is confronted by his visitors with rumors that he was composing poetry while awaiting his execution, his defense is appropriately subtle, as it is at the heart of Plato's dialogue on the nature of the soul, and for this reason often missed.
In a book entitled Plato's Defense of Poetry, Julius Elias explores this very subtlety. In the opening paragraph he writes:
"The title of this book is supposed to be provocative. Everybody knows that Plato attacked poetry, or at any rate the poets, and undertook to eject them from the Republic (X, 607C) unless someone could show that they could be defended after all, in which case they might be let in again. The argument apparently rests on a fairly simple-minded version of the imitation theory, but to make poetry Platonically acceptable it would not suffice to demolish this: we shall have to meet the more sophisticated objection to inspiration, intuition, enthusiasm (being filled with the god), ecstasy (being outside or beside oneself) as well...Any number of Plato's readers and commentators have been bowled over by the severity and on occasion, the bitterness of the attack, and many of them have taken the denunciations at face value. Most commentators, however, have been even more impressed with the manifest genius of Plato himself as poet, and have tried one way or another to reconcile the apparent contradiction. A common way of approaching the problem is to say that Plato was attacking bad poetry and irresponsible poets, but that he left room for good poetry, namelessly his own. Such an argument is acceptable as far as it goes...but it is rarely well articulated within the framework of Plato's metaphysical, epistemological, and political/ethical theories." (Julius A. Elias, Plato's Defense of Poetry, p. 1)
In his book, Elias explores Plato's cannon for a resolution to the apparent contradictions in Socrates' teachings on poetic myths. He finds that "the fundamental objection is outlined in the methodology of the Phaedo and Republic: a limited and conditional reliance on phenomena is perfectly permissible and inductive generalizations from empirical data are not without merit in Plato. He is no mere a priorist...but the probabilistic and hypothetical character of such generalizations certainly is stressed. In particular, their hypothetical character is something to be overcome by showing them to be theorems deduced with logical certainty from 'higher hypotheses'. A series of such hypotheses of increasing generality and comprehensiveness ultimately converges on the One, if Plato's programme is to be realized. The poets (in all artistic media), like the sophists and rhetors, do not rise from the surface of appearance; they offer reflected images of appearance, not a penetrating illumination of reality - in Yates' striking phrase, they are a mirror, not a lamp." (Julius A. Elias, Plato's Defense of Poetry, p. 4)
Shakespeare understood this methodology, as evident in the subtle references to the Phaedo and Republic intricately woven into the subtext of Hamlet - his own defense of poetry. As Robert Graves himself attests, yet again one-sidedly, observing only from the perspective of a poet:
"...poets can be well judged by the accuracy of their portrayal of the White Goddess. Shakespeare knew and feared her...He shows her with greater sincerity in Macbeth as the Triple Hecate presiding over the witches' cauldron, for it is her spirit that takes possession of Lady Macbeth and inspires her to murder King Duncan; and as the magnificent and wanton Cleopatra by love of whom Anthony is destroyed. Her last appearance in the plays is as the 'damned with Sycorax' in the Tempest." (Robert Graves, The White Goddess, p.426)
Unfortunately Graves does not completely see the accuracy of Shakespeare's logos, just as he misses Plato's mythos, and therefore gives no mention of Hamlet where Hecate is named in 'the play within the play' of the third act, as in Macbeth in association with poison. The 'accuracy' Graves refers to (like the 'methodology' Julius Elias finds in Socrates' illusive defense of poetic myth) is expressed in its cryptic subtlety.
As the guards presented in the beginnings of both Hamlet and Phaedo, the secrets of the primordial poems analyzed by Graves were also protected by the characters of mythological guardians, such as Dog, Roebuck and Lapwing. These characters in the ancient stories served not only as symbolism for the cryptographic methods of these poems but also as clues to their solutions, and the cauldron they were guarding was in essence a mirror, a standing pool of water being the first source of reflection expressed in myth (most famously in the story of Narcissus).