Hamlet begins at the open mouth of the Void. Barnardo and Francisco call out to each other and into darkness; they stand atop a guard platform that is naked to the open air and to the night. Every character’s entrance is marked by a series of interrogatives, as characters already on stage try to ascertain the identity of those who are newly arrived and yet unseen. Darkness isolates these men from each other as they stand on the edge of civilization, the place where the solid stones of Elsinore castle open up into the world of night and the supernatural. The nature of the ghost remains debatable: Horatio has initially insisted that the guards’ delusions have conjured the phantom (1. 1. 21), and, even accepting the reality of the apparition, Catholic teaching (ghosts are spirits of the dead coming up from purgatory) and Protestant doctrine (all ghostly apparitions are demons in disguise) hold divergent opinions on the nature and source of phantoms (Garber 12/15). The men have gathered together on the guard platform, which has become a kind of stage within a stage. They have come to see a visitor who is a creature of hallucination, purgatory, or hell. This ghost is coming out of the open maw of night above and around the platform; what is known clings to the battlements, and all else in existence hails from the empty, the unknown, the imagined, the demonic. When Barnardo reports to Marcellus, “ I have seen nothing” (1. 1. 20), the word “ nothing” takes on a number of meanings. He has not seen the apparition; gazing out into the dark, he has barely seen anything at all. But “ seeing” is still phrased in the positive, and so “ nothing” becomes something to see. It is more than absence: emptiness itself exists as an object. He has seen nothing; he is staring out into the Void.
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The Oxford English Dictionary’s list of uses and definitions of the word “ nothing” is striking in that so many uses of “ nothing” most emphatically mean something. Confining examination to those meanings in use in Shakespeare’s time, the list remains extensive and rich: “ nothing” can mean “ a trifling event” (O. E. D. 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” 6a); “ that which is non-existent” (5a); “ not any (material or immaterial) thing” (I.); “ that which is not any number, and possesses neither quantity nor value; the figure or character representing this; nought (4); a person of no note ( 6c). “ Nothing” also denotes “ extinction or destruction” (5b) or “ the final point, stage, or state of the process of destruction” (5c). Nothing’s position is paradox: it is that which does not exist, yet me must name it, invent a numeral for it, use the concept of it as the ultimate point of reference? in graphing mathematical models and equations, the coordinates (0, 0) mark the starting point of all things, the center of infinity. In use, “ nothing” as a concept is constitutive of the real, as what is not helps us to define what is. The word points to the open maw of dark that begins immediately at the boundary where Elsinore castle and the world end, while the borders of “ nothing,” in turn, help to mark the outlines of the world. Yet in Hamlet, “ nothing” is constantly encroaching on the territory of something? its appearance calls attention to the inadequacies of language, the dissolution of action into inaction, the form and formlessness of madness, the void of death.
Polonius’ use of the word “ nothing” illustrates how “ nothing” can be constitutive of concepts and ideas; rhetorically, the word here seems closest to “ not any (material or immaterial) thing” (O. E. D. 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” I.), and in this function it is used as an emphatic reference point. “ My liege, madam, to expostulate . . . Why day is day, night night, and time is time, / Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time” (2. 2. 87-90). “ Were nothing but” is a phrase of being: it means, essentially, what is. “ But” separates the real qualities of the act from what it is not. To expostulate the why of time is “ nothing but” to waste time; the act has no significance or effect other than its waste. The phrase “ nothing but” has been used to isolate the effect of waste as the solitary consequence of a philosophical discussion of time. Here, the boundaries between nothing and something are clear: we can know, according to Polonius, what an act means, and what it does not. Indeed, Polonius shows that thanks to the isolating powers of the word “ nothing,” an act can mean exactly one thing. In Polonius’ world, all is simple, as day is day, night is night and time is time; no barrier exists between perception and reality, concept and object. He uses “ nothing” in a similar way just a few lines later: “? Mad,’ call I it, for to define true madness, / What is’t but to be nothing else but mad? / But let that go” (2. 2. 94-6). Here, Polonius uses “ nothing” to insist on the purity of categories and the transparency of things. “ Nothing” here carries the ring of obviousness, of transparency: madness is nothing but the state of being mad. The word fits the thing; a thing is what it is and its boundaries are marked unambiguously by what it is not. According to Polonius, definitions not only point clearly, via the word “ nothing,” to states of being? they are those states of being. He insists on purity: his definition is not merely of madness but of “ true madness,” maintaining the boundaries between a pure “ mad” and not-mad. When Polonius speaks, he puts forward a world view where cause and effect remain distinct, where brevity is one thing and tediousness another, where categories are pure and contained in impenetrable conceptual boundaries. To describe a thing, one need only say it is that and nothing but that. But “ nothing” is already making trouble: Polonius’ sentences tend to invert on themselves, reducing his statements to meaninglessness. “ That we find out the cause of this effect? / Or rather say ? the cause of this defect,’ / For this effect defective comes by cause” and “ Thus it remains and the remainder thus” (2. 2. 102-105) are two outstanding examples of the hollowness of his sentences and reasoning. His use of “ nothing” means that his definitions are ultimately circular and unstable.
While Polonius uses “ nothing” to show the transparency of categories and the knowable qualities of things, Hamlet says “ nothing” in the same scene and refers to the inadequacies of language and himself, and the permeability of the barriers between categories. His use of the word destabilizes the boundary between what exists and what does not, between “ nothing” and reality. Referring to a player’s ability to counterfeit grief, Hamlet cries out in amazement that the actor was able to create such feeling out of nothing:
“ Nothing” here seems to denote comparative insignificance or unimportance (O. E. D, 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” 3a). Hecuba, as a person, has had no intimate contact with the actor. “ Nothing,” in this case, is a starting point, a catalyst for the imagination and art of the player. But the word “ nothing” is meant to downplay Hecuba’s significance, reminding us that she is a character, a bit of fiction and unreality. Here, Hamlet becomes self-referential theatre, as an actor playing a fictional character asks what another character (an actor playing an actor playing a character) would do if he were in the first character’s place. This moment of self-referentiality turns Hamlet into a strange bridge between fiction and real man, between character and audience: by speaking of his own position in terms of motive and cue, he brings himself down to the level of Hecuba; he is a character, “ nothing.” But perceiving his words on a different layer, the audience sees a real man dismayed by his own life’s inability to live up to the models provided by art. Transformations occur in multiple directions: Hamlet, by comparing his real self to the player and finding himself wanting, distances himself from “ nothing,” from the insubstantiality of fiction and unreality. At the same time he calls attention to the artifice of theatre and his own status as a fictional character, but by proclaiming that his own life does not fit with set artistic formulas Hamlet aligns himself with the audience.
Hamlet next denounces the inadequacy of his own words: ” . . . Yet I, / A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak / Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause, / And can say nothing? no, not for a king. . .” (2. 2. 543-546). And yet, in loudly denouncing his own lack of speech, Hamlet is saying something. He does mourn for his father with words; he certainly has not said “ nothing.” Contradicting himself just a few lines later, Hamlet denounces his own excess of speech: “ Ay, sure, this is most brave, / That I, the son of the dear murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words / And fall a-cursing like a very drab . . .” (2. 2. 560-4). He begins by saying that he can say nothing, and then he denounces the inadequacy of language itself. Action, in this case, is a necessary part of his filial duty. To talk is nothing; language is nothing. Strangely, Hamlet compares himself to a whore, an occupation not known for its reliance on language. The use of “ whore” here seems to emphasize the cheapness of words (whores have a “ nothing” quality in the sense that they are considered insignificant people (3a), and in seeking revenge their only recourse is cursing), but Hamlet has used the most carnal and bodily of occupations in his simile. The whole soliloquy deals very muddily with the “ nothing” of fiction, imagination, and abstraction becoming real, concrete, and carnal, while Hamlet himself is paralyzed, paradoxically, by wordlessness and by too many words, by inaction. Appropriately, he resolves at the end of the soliloquy to use a play to unveil Claudius. In the same speech, Hamlet has first called a fictional character “ nothing” of significance and then resolved to use art as a strategic weapon against his father’s murderer. No wonder that Hamlet cannot make Polonius’ confident distinctions between real and unreal, art and life. Throughout the soliloquy, categories are always destabilizing and blurring with their supposed opposites.
Ophelia’s relationship to the word “ nothing” is particularly painful. The girl tells Hamlet that her own thoughts are neutral or insignificant. When Hamlet asks Ophelia what she thinks, she replies “ I think nothing, my lord” (3. 2. 106). Later, “ nothing” will be used once again to describe her mental state, as she thinks nothing that is fully intelligible to others. Here, “ nothing” also refers to the female genitals (Norton, p. 1710), with the vagina linked to the figure 0. “ Thing,” slang for the penis, also reminds the audience of the etymology of “ nothing” (Norton, p. 1710), providing a series of obscene jokes: nothing, no thing, nothing. In this series of randy puns, having no thing means you have nothing, i. e. having no penis means you have a vagina. Hamlet’s bawdy assertion that “ no thing” is “ a fair thought to lie between a woman’s legs” (3. 2. 107-9) shows again the ways that “ nothing” is used in a constitutive function. Woman, as a category, is formed here in terms of what she does not have. Ophelia is not an active participant in this punning; instead, she is the half-aware butt of Hamlet’s dirty jokes. “ Nothing” is what lies between her legs, “ nothing” is what lies between her ears (“ I think nothing”), and “ nothing,” in the sense of an unimportant or powerless person, is what she is. She will become the victim of Elsinore’s intrigues, lacking Hamlet’s phallus and consequently Hamlet’s potential ability to protect himself. The obscene puns return when Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death: when she drowns, the girl is bedecked in a garland of flowers that shepherds have named after male genitals (5. 1. 141, Norton 1740). “ Nothing,” in this earlier passage with Hamlet, foreshadows Ophelia’s doom. After Ophelia goes mad, her words reflects her basic powerlessness: Horatio informs the queen that “ Her [Ophelia’s] speech is nothing” (4. 5. 7). Horatio, trained in philosophy and in the categorizations of Renaissance thinking, relegates her ramblings to the realm of nonsense. In that they are not coherent or cohesive statements, they become “ nothing,” comparatively worthless or insignificant (O. E. D. 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” 6a), possibly with an additional meaning of “ nothing” in that they represent the final stages of dissolution (5c) as Ophelia’s mind completely deteriorates. And yet here Ophelia’s words and gestures finally strike near some of the events at Elsinore: to Gertrude, she hands fennel and columbine, symbols of flattery and marital infidelity (4. 5. 177). Responding to her ramblings, Laertes remarks, “ This nothing’s more than matter.” (4. 5. 172). “ Nothing” here suggests that Ophelia no longer plays by the rules of how and what to communicate in civilized society and Elsinore. Speaking nonsense frees her to speak a version of truth, though without much significant effect on events.
“ Nothing” and its meanings play themselves out heavily when Hamlet’s father appears to Hamlet again in Gertrude’s bedchamber:
The ghost has appeared again, but this time only Hamlet sees him. The ghost’s origin must once again be questioned: delusion? purgatory? hell? Are both ghosts “ nothing”? without any material or immaterial substance? Is the first ghost “ real” and the second ghost, as Gertrude insists, “ nothing?” Both possibilities leave many unanswered (and unanswerable) questions. Gertrude’s claim seems almost too sure, as if she is trying to convince herself: “[I see] Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.” In this play, with Elsinore’s shadowy halls and intrigues, the Queen’s claim that she sees “ all that is” is patently ridiculous. “ Nothing” has appeared here in four consecutive lines. Even if the room is empty of a “ real” ghost, Gertrude’s claim to see nothing does not stand in her favor? one basic example of a “ nothing” she fails to perceive is the very real absence of her first husband. The emptiness of her own marriage bed, so rapidly filled, is the “ nothing” she most definitely has not seen and does not permit herself to see. Hamlet’s father has become a “ nothing,” a nobody, a person of no note (O. E. D. 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” 6c), quickly forgotten by his wife and avenged with maddening slowness by his son. He is also “ nothing” in that he is nowhere, gone into the void of death; he is of the “ nothing” that denotes “ extinction and destruction” (O. E. D. 2nd edition, s. v. “ nothing,” 5b). He appears out of nothing when he comes to Gertrude’s bedchamber, and he retreats to it when he walks back out through the portal, whatever or wherever “ it” may be. We are returned to the first scene, where the battle tower stands surrounded by darkness. This time, it is Gertrude’s bedchamber standing in a known center, and Elsinore’s dark halls form the surrounding world of the unknown, of ghosts, of nothingness from which phantoms appear and. to which they return. In asking if she sees something, Hamlet is also asking his mother to verify his sanity, but her answer, hinged on so slippery a word, provides no certainties for him. Hamlet asks his mother if she truly sees “ nothing,” but “ nothing” in the play stands as the locus for a whole set of slippages into intellectual chaos, powerlessness, infidelity, forgotten husbands and fathers, madness, the unknown, and death.
Throughout Hamlet, “ nothing” is a real presence, a force or concept constantly shaping and destabilizing categories, relationships, and events. The play’s most famous moments deal with a nothing that is the absence of what is known: as Hamlet asks what it would be not to be, the ultimate opaqueness of death is fearsome enough to make him go on living. It is too much for the prince to stare Nothing in the face. Later, in the play’s most famous tableau, Hamlet literally stares at an embodiment of Nothing as he holds Yorick’s skull. The skull’s eye sockets are without subjectivity, empty of their tenant organs and the mind that saw through them; they contain, in a word, “ nothing.” But from their hollows something maddeningly elusive stares back: simultaneously a presence and an absence, as haunting as Hamlet’s own dead father, and opaque as the darkness that envelopes Elsinore. Part of the play’s power is in this substantive “ nothing,” a portal of slippage that relentlessly destabilizes what is known and what is knowable.