“Ay, there’s the rub.”

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

I do not know whether it was his expression of worry about nightmares or his verbal sparring with Freddie about his perceived madness, but something about Will in “Potage” reminded me of another sensitive hero in the midst of a hopeless personal crisis: Prince Hamlet of Denmark. 

TL;DR: King Hamlet is dead. His brother Claudius inherits the throne and hastily marries the king’s widow, Queen Gertrude—much to the distress of Prince Hamlet. An encounter with his father’s ghost, who names Claudius as his murderer and orders Hamlet to seek vengeance, sends the young prince into an emotional tailspin. Unable to resolve his mixed feelings about the ghost and his repeated failure to act, an increasingly erratic Hamlet kills councillor Polonius by mistake. Claudius plots to kill Hamlet. Hamlet crosses paths with the Norwegian army. Everyone dies. (If you only ever watch one staging, I highly recommend the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 production starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart.) 

In his article “Hamlet Then Till Now,” Harold Jenkins describes Shakespeare’s protagonist as “a virtuous prince with a sensitive soul in a situation of great distress, which is aggravated by the very fineness of his feelings, which undermine his resolution and so bring him to a failure which is nevertheless a sign of his superiority “(37-8). Sound like anyone familiar? 

I observe many parallels between Hamlet and Will. Personality-wise, the characters are analogously hyper-emotional, introspective, and altogether disconsolate. They also exhibit a similar flair in expression. In “Potage,” for example, Will describes his attempts to empathize with Hobbs as “like talking to his shadow suspended on dust.” Whether in prose or iambic pentameter, Hamlet regularly speaks in just as lyrical a fashion. Just look at how he reveals himself in Act 5, scene i:

What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane

Story-wise, Hamlet and Will also experience a similarly isolating internal conflict around the act of killing. Both mask the emotional distress that follows with dark humor, playing into rather than fighting against others’ negative impressions. “Miss Lounds,” Will threatens, “it’s not very smart to piss off a guy who thinks about killing people for a living.” “‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Hamlet questions Polonius. “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me” (III, ii). 

Plagued by ghostly encounters and vivid nightmares, the failure to reconcile the irreconcilable within themselves ultimately causes mental instability and potential madness. “Yet have I in me something dangerous,” Hamlet warns Laertes (V, i). “There’s something wrong with me,” Will confesses to Hannibal in “Trou Normand.” Whereas Hamlet’s melancholy stems from his reluctance to avenge his father as promised, however, Will’s derives from his distressingly positive response to killing Garret Jacob Hobbs. All the same, Hamlet fears the loss of his immortal soul; Will, his humanity. 

The parallels between Hamlet and Will also extend to how the audience experiences them. In “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation,” Bennett Simon identifies “uninterpretability” as a central problem of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The play “is replete with themes of misunderstanding,” laying traps that “leave not only its characters but also its readers in doubt and indecision.” (711). More than 400 years after his creation, Hamlet remains relatively unsolvable. The seemingly endless effort to decipher Hamlet reminds me so much of my own quest to understand Will. My ever-evolving probe of his character is arguably what keeps me most intellectually invested in the series. What is the nature of his psychopathy, and would it have emerged without Hannibal’s influence?

Given the characters’ similarities, perhaps we might apply scholarship about Hamlet towards Will. Simon and Jenkins identify four paradigms of analysis: Hamlet as “unambivalent hero” (Simon 708), the “man of the exquisite feelings” (Jenkins 37), an example of the Oedipus complex, and “not merely as representative man but as a man in relation to some supreme world-ordering power” (Jenkins 44). Simon offers an additional modern theoretical framework: Hamlet and trauma. He explains,

The shattered assumptions in trauma include that one can trust those nearest and dearest, and that one can count on the stability of the ground beneath one’s feet. The “container,” the potential space in which one lives, no longer holds. Interpretations of events become constricted or chaotic or both. Numbness oscillates with lability and incomplete control of one’s emotions. One of the main effects of trauma is a difficulty in deciding whether what is going on is real; there is a defensive oscillation between “This couldn’t possibly be true” and “Oh, my God, if this is true, then my whole world is shattered” (712).

Simon interprets Hamlet’s melancholy and possible madness as a response to trauma. Trauma over the dissolution of his family, the revelation of his father’s murder, Ophelia’s possible betrayal—not to mention the general environment of secrecy and deception. His feigned “antic disposition” (I, ii) then serves as a way for Hamlet to indirectly express his horror at not only what his father’s ghost asks of him but also his growing inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. “Work with victims of severe trauma highlights how it may be impossible to put parts of the story into words at all,” Simon writes. “These memories will then be experienced nonverbally, encoded, perhaps, as bodily experiences” (713). In other words, Hamlet disassociates, “intermittently more unhinged than he realizes or wishes to be” (Simon 714). 

Will is unquestionably traumatized by his empathy disorder, but initially maintains sufficient mental stability. Killing Hobbs, however, irrevocably destroys his “container,” as Simon puts it. Will can no longer entirely differentiate himself from the murderers he pursues—an uncertainty that engenders severe emotional distress. Similar to the Hamlet of Act I, in “Potage” Will first attempts to displace his melancholy through an “antic disposition.” If Freddie believes him insane, then he will act insane. Jack be damned. As with Hamlet, this deliberate performance allows Will to deny concerns about his deteriorating mental state and loss of humanity. Affecting manic behavior gives him a fleeting sense of control over the overwhelming chaos. 

Will may not feign madness quite like Hamlet, but he does employ similarly enigmatic language in conversation with those he hopes to conceal his trauma from. When Abigail asks him if killing someone, “even if you have to do it,” feels bad, Will replies, “It’s the ugliest thing in the world.” What is “ugly,” exactly? The act itself, or the way taking a life makes him feel? Will leaves the judgement open to interpretation, even to himself. As Polonius says in an aside about Hamlet, “How pregnant sometimes his replies are” (II, ii). 

But when does the show stop being an act? “Shakespeare makes Hamlet’s madness a question for all the characters in the play—including Hamlet himself,” Simon argues. “Each one gives an explanation commensurate with his or her self-interest, but does not really know” (714). Similar questions consume the main characters in Hannibal, Will in particular: Did he get “too close” to Hobbs? Has his empathy corrupted him? Made him a murderer? Season one Will, however, faces the added challenge of an as yet undiagnosed autoimmune disease. The struggle to order his mind becomes exponentially more difficult when his brain is medically on fire. 

We will see, however, that curing his physiological ailment does not answer these questions the way Will perhaps hopes it might. His trauma and uncertainty continue to plague him until—like Hamlet—he comes “to possess a calm reflectiveness” (Simon 718). How does either achieve such a dramatic transformation? Tragically, the serenity that both Hamlet and Will feel seems to come from an acceptance of death—if not a resignation to die. 

P.S. Scholars have spent centuries puzzling over Hamlet, and I have squandered countless hours thinking about Will, but we must not forget that they are hardly the only characters in either text to experience trauma. Hamlet is actually the primary cause of Ophelia’s, first by cruelly denying he ever loved her and then by murdering her father. “Potage,” on the other hand, is arguably more about Abigail’s suffering than Will’s. And as with Hamlet and Ophelia, Will’s hands are far from clean in that regard—to mix Shakespearian metaphors. I readily admit that my intense focus on Will too often distracts me from considering other characters. I hope that, with future viewings, I might redirect my attention more towards Abigail in particular.

Jenkins, Harold. “Hamlet Then Till Now.” Shakespeare Survey 18. Cambridge University Press, 1965. Cambridge Collections Online. 

Simon, Bennett. “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation.” American Imago 58.3 (Fall 2001): 707-722.

2 thoughts on ““Ay, there’s the rub.”

  1. Pingback: A Wild Hunt | Read the Rude

  2. Pingback: Gives You Well | Read the Rude

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