The text of misreading that Hamlet’s poem contains, it is worth noting, is of a particularly impenetrable quality. The poem’s meaning is lost in the apo ria between an assertion and its implicit opposite, which threatens to cancel it. The declaration that he loves Ophelia is infected by the possibility that he does not love her, the affirmation of the one merely passing into a validation of the other and an impersonation of it, and vice-versa. The deconstructive reflexivity of the unstable signifier “doubt” that creates this aporia is a perfect barrier against the intrusion of legibility into the poem. In a world of hidden intentionality the poem is a declaration of love that reverses and thereby conceals itself—a sign that announces itself by its disappearance. The self canceling design of Hamlet’s poem is replicated by the evasive movement of the last line of the letter that encloses it—“But that I love thee best, О most best, believe it”—a compulsive rhetorical gesture that directs attention away from the fact of his love to an assumption of it, and in doing so obscuring the fact and implicitly erasing it (Bozanich 91). The self-negation of Hamlet’s state ment happens on the verbal and cognitive level, on the level of speech and understanding. Hamlet is unmaking the word and with it, as we shall see later, the world.8 Irrespective of their precise circumstance (whether they were writ ten before or after Polonius’s injunction to Ophelia to rebuff Hamlet), the poem and the letter neither seek nor find any readership with Ophelia or with any one else because, like the other human gestures in the play, love has become one more cipher in a text that refuses to, because it cannot, be deciphered.
In being unable to exist except through and in its own annulment, Hamlet’s dec laration of love affirms subversion as the chief ideology of Elsinore and mis reading as its principal text, and announces his mastery over both. Predictably, the esoteric method of Hamlet’s poem is not unlike the dubi ous style of the other letters that he writes in the play. On the way to England he re-writes Claudius’s order for his execution in such a way that the meaning of the order is clear but not its manner: the justification he offers for the order is deliberately obscure and sarcastic (“As peace should still her wheaten garland wear / And stand a comma ’tween their amities, / And many such like as’s of great charge” [5.2.41-43J). As Jonathan Goldberg has put it, “Hamlet’s skilled hand insures the force of the document, but it does not reveal the writer” (323). Likewise, in the strange letter he sends Claudius announcing his return to England, it is unclear whether his message is contrition or defiance: the let ter’s reference to seeking “pardon” (4.7.46) is mocked by its stilted, artificial language of royalty. In both of these writings, as in his poem to Ophelia, con tent is distorted by the variability of intention. Hamlet’s own remark to Horatio that, even though he used royal handwriting to re-write the execution order, he normally holds it “A baseness to write fair” (5.2.34), aptly describes his penchant not just for illegibility in handwriting but also for incommunicability in substance. The puzzling love poem, in other words, sets the pattern for Hamlet’s enigmatic compositions elsewhere in the action.