Luke Thara

The Metamorphosis of Hamlet’s Self-Image. From Whore to Sparrow?

            After Hamlet has agreed to “play with Laertes” at the behest of the king, who has wagered on the Prince’s martial mettle, Horatio, pragmatically sensing a plot, warns and attempts to aid Hamlet by stating, “ If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will / forestall their repair hither and say you are not fit” (V.ii. 178. 194-195).  When Hamlet responds by saying, “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special / providence in the fall of sparrow”, a reader, who understands the denotation of the symbolic sparrow near the end of the 16th century and realizes how antithetical this symbol is to Hamlet’s usual characterizations of himself before being ordered to England, could initially view Hamlet’s seemingly prophetic linkage of himself with a falling sparrow as incredibly incongruous. However, when considering the rapidly shifting way Hamlet represents the world upon his return from English lands, it is only logical that the means by which he represents himself would shift concordantly. 

            At the end of Elizabeth’s reign, it was not uncommon for a star-crossed lover, while entreating his beloved for a kiss, to refer to her as his sparrow. As the 16th century turned, sparrow was thus a term of endearment (OED, 2nd ed., s.v. “sparrow,” 1b). Even though this scene occurs almost immediately after Ophelia’s death and the metaphor undoubtedly on the surface invokes her fall because of the way the word sparrow was understood during Shakespeare’s time, it could be argued that in a much more subtle way Hamlet is prophetically recognizing the necessity of his own fall if he is to avenge his father. But, as a reader, we are invited to wonder why this character, who was capable of referring to himself after hearing a player recount Troy’s fall as “a rogue and peasant slave” that “Must like a whore unpack my heart with words”, is suddenly describing himself as a sparrow, a term of endearment during the Elizabethan Age (III. i. 488-524). 

            From whore to sparrow can be seen as a microcosm for what critics have often bemoaned about the play as being incongruous. In Hamlet’s initial scene, a listener hears him attempting to pull apart opposites in the famous line “A little more than kin, and a little less than kind!” and avoid stratification as a despondent youth, among many other categories, in an attempt to disassociate himself from the rotten state of Denmark (I. ii. 64-116). However, the Hamlet, which does not heed Horatio’s warning, all but resigns himself to the imposition of the auguries and the divine direction of existence where all is interconnected when he says, “Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V. ii. 197-198). Many critics have felt that the Hamlet of Act Five is far too altered post escaping death in England from the Hamlet of Acts 1-4, but it could be argued that the quickness of Hamlet’s transformation coupled with its drastic dichotomy actually validates this metamorphosis, when considering its nature.

            Hamlet is now espousing a latently Christian worldview where divinity regulates the fall of a sparrow or hairs on your head, where men are subject to divine will or the auguries (Luke 12:7). Since the conversion of St. Paul handled ad nausea by theologians, the model for Christianization has historically been a quick process of disposing old mores, espousing Christian ones, and learning to express oneself with Christian tenants. Because Hamlet has Christianized his worldview and the Christian model for doing so matches Hamlet’s metamorphosis, it should be argued that what critics have often labeled as too swift and drastic a shift in Hamlet’s nature is in fact exactly the type of transformation one would expect Hamlet to undergo. The fast and opposite swing of how Hamlet verbalizes his self-image (from whore to sparrow) is also the predictable product of his Christianized worldview.