So I have read Hamlet. I even have a theory about it, which I shall save for a rainy day to elaborate on, as there have already been enough Hamlet interpretations. This post has to do with the legion, or at least with the portion of them given voice in the Norton Critical Edition of the play, edited by Cyrus Hoy (second edition).
One of the reasons I seized hold of Hamlet (being exceedingly familiar with it already from the Branagh, Zeffirelli, Doran and Olivier films) was due to the enormous appeal of the extra material included, from the phenomenally lame Saxo Grammaticus original to the astute brilliance of Montaigne to the heady bombast of a mere paragraph of G. Gifford’s prose (The reprobate angels are mighty, fierce and subtle… …They be instruments of God’s vengeance, and executioners of his wrath). It’s all good stuff, heartily recommended as the edition of choice for those in the market.
Of course, the biggest attraction was to the “Essays in Criticism” section, taking nearly 150 pages and giving it, in chronological order, to varied interpretations from Johnson and Goethe to Lawrence, Lewis and Rebecca West, these famous names interspersed with literary critics from various time periods. The great glory of the chronological sequence is that it shows, at least in some small measure, an evolution in Shakespearean opinion. This notion can only be measured by the enormity of what is left out and so perhaps it only misleads, but there’s nothing to stop me in making what I can of what Cyrus Hoy included, hence these observations.
One thing that has remained perpetually in state is the fault-finding Hamlet brings out in critics. Of late, the critics have simply fallen over themselves attempting to justify the flaws they locate, so concerned with defending the play you’d think it were the true testament of God Himself. Back around the early 1700s, however, the modern worship of Shakespeare had clearly not yet come into being. The problem as John Dennis understood it was that Shakespearean tragedies have no educative value as “the guilty and the innocent perish promiscuously…” One wonders how they would have qualified as tragedies were it otherwise…
For an anonymous gentleman in 1736, the play’s failure did stem from Hamlet’s madness but his answer as to its cause was childishly simple: without the delay there would be no play and it was only the mixture of plotting constraint and the author’s ineptitude that left us with Hamlet’s problematic madness. Even Samuel Johnson concurred and offered no solution – the problem was one of Shakespeare’s, no explanation required.
Later (starting in the 1770s), attempts were made to define Hamlet’s slippery nature and it became admirable that Shakespeare was not content with a simple revenge tragedy and instead made the prince and his suffering the main story. “The problem of the play” vanished for a time, replaced by empathy. Goethe felt so strongly about the character that to read his take you’d think he’d invented Hamlet himself.
From then on came a time of worshipping Hamlet as a hero…yet his ineffectiveness and his callous treatment of Ophelia clearly barred his way to ordinary heroism and so his advocates displayed some hesitation, lighting upon his intellect and moral sensitivity as worthy of praise. Ophelia, that other ideal, was for the longest time treated as by Laertes, as a flower of innocence withered by the too cruel winds of life. It took Rebecca West stepping up to the plate in the 50s to deliver a new verdict of Ophelia as cheap, disreputable and certainly no suicide. West had a similarly hard-nosed opinion of Gertrude – the queen was simple-minded, facile and dull, not poorly written. You can argue the point, but West’s decisive logic cannot be denied.
Not every essay included focuses on character. Several aim for the technical minutiae casual fans are sure to overlook. What purpose is served by the player king’s speech? See Harry Levin for the answer. Is the five-act version divided at all the right points? Harley Granville-Barker says no. What did Hamlet and revenge tragedies mean to the Elizabethan public? Consult William Empson for details.
There’s not too much of that type of speculation. Most Hamlet scholars keep the focus tightly fixed on Shakespeare and his characters, though some of the most memorable arguments are made by those willing to step back a little ways. In the 20s, D.H. Lawrence used Hamlet as a springboard for messianic proclamations about the Renaissance mind and how it is overcome. In the 60s, C.S. Lewis contemplated whether it is Hamlet the character or rather the spiritual state he voices that so thoroughly commands our attention. He spoke of death as the theme of the play, just as G. Wilson Knight had done thirty years earlier. Knight had far less sympathy for the prince than Lewis, but while his interpretation of Hamlet as a carrier of doom had flaws (notably in his championing of Claudius’ nobler attributes) it was strongly argued and must be commended as Knight seems to have been the first man to really take the hero to task for his myriad unpleasantries.
One particular take is conspicuously absent. I’m not talking Harold Bloom here, I’m talking Jung. Ernest Jones brought the Freudian read to the table in 1949 but in a curious exclusion the Jungian read does not appear. A pity.
I’m not going to mention every essay compiled but will finish up with the final three included and the academic nosedive that is given every evidence of occurring somewhere between the mid-60s and the mid-80s. Here is a sample from the former era in the words of Arnold Kettle:
Hamlet’s new view of the world he lives in is, essentially, the view of the world of the most advanced humanists of his time. It rejects as intolerable the ways of behaviour which formed the accepted standards of the contemporary ruling class. The basic view of man of the feudal ruling class had been, in theory, a metaphysical one which saw man as a fallen creature seeking to win redemption through submission to and service of God, in practice a highly conservative one which saw each man as having a specific, appointed place within existing society, and wisdom as acceptance of this fact. Within this view abuses of responsibility – tyranny, cruelty, murder – were theoretically condemned but in practice sanctioned by political custom. There was no lack of all three in Elizabethan England. The revolutionary nature of Hamlet’s view of the world is that he sees tyranny and murder and inhumanity not as unfortunate abuses but as the norm and essence of the court of Denmark, not as blots on a society he can accept but as integral parts of a way of life he now finds intolerable.
In other words, Hamlet can no longer base his values and actions on the accepted assumptions of the conventional sixteenth-century prince. He ceases to behave as a prince ought to behave and begins behaving as a man, a sixteenth-century man, imbued with the values and caught up in the developing and exciting potentialities of the new humanism. The words which Hamlet comes back to in his deepest moments of need and trouble are the words man and friend.
Straightforward, informative and thought-provoking, am I right? The next essay is by Margaret W. Ferguson and begins in this fashion:
“The letter killeth,” said Saint Paul (2 Cor. 3:6). His words can serve as an epigraph – or epitaph – to my essay, which approaches some broad questions about the genre of Shakespearean tragedy by exploring the connections between certain techniques of wordplay in Hamlet and a process of dramatic literalization that is associated, in this play, with the impulse to kill. In the early part of the play, Hamlet frequently uses language to effect a divorce between words and their conventional meanings. His rhetorical tactics, which include punning and deliberately undoing the rhetorical figures of other speakers, expose the arbitrariness, as well as the fragility, of the bonds that tie words to agreed upon significations. His language in dialogues with others, though not in his soliloquies, produces a curious effect of materializing the word, materializing it in a way that forces us to question the distinction between literal and figurative meanings, and that also leads us to look in new ways at the word as a spoken or written phenomenon. Hamlet’s verbal tactics in the early part of the play – roughly through the closet scene in Act III – constitute a rehearsal for a more disturbing kind of materializing that occurs, with increasing frequency, in the later part of the drama. This second kind of materializing pertains to the realm of deeds as well as to that of words; in fact it highlights the thin but significant line that separates those realms, while at the same time it reminds us that all acts performed in a theater share with words the problematic status of representation. This second type of materializing might be called performative, and since in Hamlet, in contrast to the comedies, it almost always results in a literal death, it might also be described as a process of “incorpsing” – to borrow a term that is used once in Hamlet and nowhere else in Shakespeare’s corpus.
I have read that paragraph several times and I still can’t tell what she means by “materializing the word.” The second paragraph is even longer and just as obtuse and the essay proceeds for roughly sixteen pages in this manner. This is the only part of the Critical Edition I did not read as no argument can be worth such bad writing and deliberate obfuscation. Literary criticism, as I understand it, should reach out to the layman and try to further respect and appreciation of literature. Ferguson’s failure, the first in the book, is so total that it alarms me.
Jacqueline Rose, in the same era, at least wrote in a sensible manner but her essay suffers the same lack of concision, going on for nearly twenty pages with extensive citations and tackling T.S. Eliot’s critique of Gertrude, male disapproval of female sexuality, the Freudian read, Shakespeare’s “creative femininity” and Measure for Measure…and to what end? “Failure in a woman, whether aesthetic or moral, is always easier to point to than a failure of integration within language and subjectivity itself. If we try to read Shakespeare in terms of the second, however, it might be possible to lift the onus off the woman, who has for so long now been expected to take the responsibility and to bear the excessive weight.” Twenty pages to build up to that argument, scarcely an argument at all, twenty pages of such padding that to reach the finale quoted one is left only with the outrageous sense of “wait, that’s it? That is really all you had to say?”
Still, that’s only two rotten eggs out of twenty-three essays (I’m not a Freudian so Jones was only good for a laugh, but he wrote in the interest of clarity and is thus let off the hook). Luckily, Cyrus Hoy did not choose to end the edition with this twin defeat but instead with William Empson’s ‘Updating Revenge Tragedy,’ where clarity and concision make a triumphant return. Empson examines the Elizabethan Age, the previous revenge tragedies and the political issues of the day, all in the interest of discovering what practical influences Shakespeare might have had in the creation of his play. It’s a brave limb to go out on and persuasively argued. Moreover, it’s interesting to read about.
For the play itself, I will say this: Perhaps it is the best play ever written. Perhaps not. However, it is certainly alive. So many contradicting interpretations! Film upon film, each with its own version of everyone from the prince down to Osric; makeovers running the gamut from Tom Stoppard’s absurdity to young adult fiction to John Updike’s patented adultery examinations. Hamlet invites interaction. It is play and poetry worthy of deep cogitation, but then it is also cynical comedy, bloody melodrama and mainstay of pop culture. Should you find fault, take it lightly or be intoxicated by the beast? You can almost do all three at once. Hamlet is worth getting to know because once you get involved it can go on forever in an absolute jungle of variations. Alas, such worthy texts as War and Peace and Waiting for Godot do not come with that option. There may be as many ways to enjoy Hamlet as there are moves on a chess board and I can certainly recommend the Norton Critical Edition as one of them.