By Dennis Abrams
Here we go – the first of the major tragedies. Hamlet. The longest of Shakespeare’s plays, it is also arguably his very greatest (although I’m not altogether sure of that), but undoubtedly a pinnacle of Renaissance culture and a forerunner of modernity. But at the same time, to separate Hamlet from the rest of Shakespeare’s works is to do it (and us) a disservice: this is a sublime work of intellect and art, and the most speculative (and daring) piece of writing Shakespeare ever produced, but it is also, at the same, the most brilliant – and brilliantly self-aware — of plays. Indeed, the play is so lengthy in its most extended version that it is nearly impossible to perform uncut (although I have seen it done), and presents such challenge to its performers that it’s been thought that Shakespeare was writing simply to please himself. (As the Romantic critic William Hazlitt wrote, “We do not like to see our author’s plays acted, and least of all ‘Hamlet’. There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted.”)
But even if Shakespeare was writing Hamlet for himself, this product of the most fruitful and inventive period of his career is an unmistakable theatrical masterpiece, a thrilling drama of revenge and politics that has never been off the stage since it was written. Written on the cusp of the seventeenth century, the play, in the simplest of terms, is a story of brutal Norse revenge translated into a sophisticated Renaissance setting. But it is the character of Hamlet, the most compelling, fascinating, and ultimately unknowable of all Shakespeare’s creations that, I think, brings the play to life and has kept playgoers and readers fascinated and arguing for more than 400 years. As Hazlitt commented, “It is we who are Hamlet,” and as we slowly make our way through this most absorbing and challenging of plays, I think we’ll begin to see exactly what he meant.
It is fitting, I think, for a man whose thoughts echo down through Western culture, that Hamlet’s roots reach back to the beginning of the middle ages. Scholars have been able to trace his story to twelfth century Scandinavia and a history of the Danish people by a writer known as Saxo Grammaticus. Though even earlier sources have been found, Saxo’s Norse saga is the first to treat Prince Amleth, as he is called, as a hero – albeit one somewhat less urbane than his Shakespearian descendent (“Amleth” in fact, means “the stupid one” a phrase that could never be used to describe the genius that is Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The tale that Saco tells could hardly be described as sophisticated: Prince Amleth’s father, Horwendil, is publicly killed by his jealous brother, the evocatively named Feng, who then marries his erstwhile wife Gerutha. The child Amleth craves revenge, but is too young to act, so decides that the only way he has any chance of gaining it is to pretend to lose his wits, thus convincing Feng that he offers no threat. A succession of short shaves and plot convolutions notwithstanding, Amleth makes it through to adulthood and puts into practice his long-held yearning – with the added twist that he succeeds in running Feng through with the King’s own sword. This is politics as the Norse sagas understood them: brutal, violent, and as always, with power and revenge existing side by side.
Shakespeare could have come into contact with this tale in a number of ways, but one of the most fascinating possibilities is that he had a personal connection with the windswept castle of Kronborg, near Elsinore (or Helsingor) in Denmark, where he opted to set the play. A troupe of English actors – among them several of Shakespeare’s closest colleagues – toured the country and played Kronborg in the late 1580s, and it’s more than possible that Shakespeare’s interest in writing about Denmark began from hearing stories about his companion’s experiences there. At any rate it’s unlikely that he read the story of Amleth in the twelfth-century original: his Hamlet is very much a man of the Renaissance.
A version of Saxo’s saga was translated by the sixteenth-century poet Francois de Belleforest, but even if Shakespeare didn’t have access to this version (or the French to read it!), by the early 1590s a play about Hamlet was being performed by the playwright’s own company. Though the text has not survived, critics are confident that a drama they call the “ur-Hamlet” (the German ur meaning, obviously, “original”) was one of a number of exceedingly gory revenge dramas of the period, among them Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus. The reputation of its illustrious ancestor notwithstanding, the ur-Hamlet itself (possibly Kyd’s handiwork) was not well-reviewed by contemporaries. The writer Thomas Lodge had nothing but scorn for it in 1596, describing a play in which a white-bearded ghost – something like nothing so much as an “oyster-wife” on the streets of London – screeched, “Hamlet, revenge.” Perhaps not the most stimulating or promising of origins.
From Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:
“The origins of Shakespeare’s most famous play are as shrouded as Hamlet’s textual condition is confused. There is an earlier Hamlet that Shakespeare’s drama revises and overgoes, but we do not have this trial work, nor do we know who composed it. Most scholars think that its author was Thomas Kyd, who wrote the archetypal revenge play The Spanish Tragedy. I think, though, that Peter Alexander was correct in his surmise that Shakespeare himself wrote the Ur-Hamlet, no later than 1589, when he was first starting as a dramatist. Though scholarly opinion is mostly against Alexander on this, such a speculation suggests that Hamlet, which in its final form gave its audience a new Shakespeare, may have been gestating in Shakespeare for more than a decade.
The play is huge: uncut, it is nearly four thousand lines, and is rarely acted in its (more or less) complete form. T.S. Eliot’s once-fashionable judgment that Hamlet is ‘certainly an artistic failure.’ (what literary work than is an artistic success?) seems to have been prompted by the disproportion between the prince and the play. Hamlet appears too immense a consciousness for Hamlet; a revenge tragedy does not afford the scope for the leading Western representation of an intellectual. But Hamlet is scarcely the revenge tragedy that it only pretends to be. It is theater of the world, like The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost or Faust, or Ulysses, or In Search of Lost Time. Shakespeare’s previous tragedies only partly foreshadow it, and his later works, though they echo it, are very different from Hamlet, in spirit and in tonality. No other major character in the plays, not even Falstaff or Cleopatra, matches Hamlet’s infinite reverberations.
The phenomenon of Hamlet, the prince without the play, is unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Falstaff, and perhaps Mr. Pickwick approximate Hamlet’s career as literary inventions who have become independent myths. Approximation can extend here to a few figures of ancient literature: Helen of Troy, Odysseus (Ulysses), Achilles among them. Hamlet remains apart; something transcendent about him places him more aptly with the biblical King David, or with even more exalted scriptural figures. Charisma, an aura of the preternatural, attends Hamlet, both within and beyond Shakespeare’s tragedy. Rare in secular literature, the charismatic is particularly (and strangely) very infrequent in Shakespeare. Henry V is apparently meant to have charisma, but he vulgarizes it, even as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar did before him. Lear largely has lot it before we first encounter him, and Antony rapidly becomes a case study in its evanescence. So histrionic and narcissistic is Cleopatra that we cannot quite be persuaded by her charismatic apotheosis as she dies, and Prospero is too compromised by his hermetic magic to achieve any unequivocal charisma. Hamlet, first and last, vies with King David and the Jesus of Mark as a charismatic-of-charismatics. One could add the Joseph of the Yahwist of J Writer, and who else? There is Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, the surrogate of his creator’s dreaming old age, and outrageously there is Sir John Falstaff, who offends only the virtuous, but these virtuosic scholars send out so perpetual a chorus of disapproval that they have made the great wit’s charisma appear dimmer than actually it is.
Hamlet’s eminence never has been disputed, which raises again the hard query ‘Did Shakespeare know how much he had lavished upon the prince?’ Many scholars have held that Falstaff got away from Shakespeare, which seems clear enough even if we cannot know whether Shakespeare had anticipated Falstaff’s wild, instant popularity. Henry IV, Part Two, is just as much Falstaff’s play as Part One is, yet Shakespeare must have known that the Fat Jack of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a mere impostor, and not Falstaff the charismatic genius. Can we envision Hamlet, even a mock Hamlet, in another Shakespeare play? Where could we locate him, what context could sustain him? The great villains – Iago, Edmund, Macbeth – would be destroyed by Hamlet’s brilliant mockery. No one in the late tragedies and romances could stand on stage with Hamlet: they can sustain skepticism, but not an alliance of skepticism and the charismatic. Hamlet would always be in the wrong play, but then he already is. Elsinore’s rancid court is too small a mousetrap to catch Hamlet, even though he voluntarily returns to it, to be killed and to kill.
Yet largeness alone is not the full problem; King Lear is Shakespeare’s widest psychic cosmos, but it is deliberately archaic, while Hamlet’s is the last archaic role in all of Shakespeare. It is not just that Hamlet comes after Machiavelli and Montaigne; rather, Hamlet comes after Shakespeare, and no one yet has managed to be post-Shakespearean. I hardly intend to imply that Hamlet is Shakespeare, or even Shakespeare’s surrogate. More than a few critics have rightly seen the parallel between Falstaff’s relation to Hal, and Shakespeare’s to the noble youth (probably the Earl of Southampton) in the Sonnets. Moralists don’t want to acknowledge that Falstaff, more than Prospero, catches something crucial in Shakespeare’s spirit, but if I had to guess at Shakespeare’s self-representation, I would find it in Falstaff. Hamlet, though, is Shakespeare’s ideal son, as Hal is Falstaff’s. My assertion here is not my own; it belongs to James Joyce, who first identified Hamlet the Dane with Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died at the age of eleven in 1596, four to five years before the final version of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in which Hamnet Shakespeare’s father played the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.
When we attend a performance of Hamlet, or read the play for ourselves, it does not take us long to discover that the prince transcends his play. Transcendence is a difficult notion for most of us, particularly when it refers to a wholly secular context, such as Shakespearean drama. Something in and about Hamlet strikes us as demanding (and providing) evidence from some sphere beyond the scope of our senses. Hamlet’s desires, his ideals or aspirations, are almost absurdly out of joint with the rancid atmosphere of Elsinore. ‘Shuffle,’ to Hamlet, is a verb for thrusting off ‘this mortal coil,’ where ‘coil’ means ‘noise’ or ‘tumult.’ ‘Shuffling,’ for Claudius, is a verb for mortal trickery; ‘with a little shuffling,’ he tells Laertes, you can switch blades and destroy Hamlet. ‘There is no shuffling’ there,’ Claudius yearningly says of a heaven in which he neither believes nor disbelieves. Claudius, the shuffler, is hardly Hamlet’s ‘mighty opposite’ as Hamlet calls him; the wretched usurper is hopelessly outclassed by his nephew. If Shakespeare (as I am convinced) was revising his own Ur-Hamlet of a decade or so before, it may be that he left his earlier Claudius virtually intact, even as his Hamlet underwent a metamorphosis beyond recognition. There is in Claudius’s villainy nothing of the genius of Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth.
Shakespeare’s Devil, Iago, father of Milton’s Satan, is the author of the tragic farce The Jealousy of Othello, and His Murder of his Wife Desdemona. This play, by no means identical with Shakespeare’s Othello, is only partly embedded in Shakespeare’s tragedy, because Iago doesn’t finish it. Frustrated by Emilia’s balking of his last act, he murders her, and then refuses all interpretation: ‘From this time forth I never will speak word.’ Hamlet, an even more metaphysical dramatist than Iago, writes his own Act V, and we are never quite certain whether Shakespeare or Hamlet composes more of Shakespeare’s and Hamlet’s play. Whoever Shakespeare’s God may have been, Hamlet’s appears to be a writer of farces, and not of a comedy in the Christian sense. God, in the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Job, composes best in rhetorical questions. Hamlet is much given to rhetorical questions, but unlike God’s Hamlet’s do not always seek to answer themselves. The Hebrew God, at least in the Yahwist’s text, is primarily an ironist. Hamlet, certainly an ironist, does not crave an ironical God, but Shakespeare allows him no other.
Harry Levin, brooding on this, aptly described Hamlet as a play obsessed with the word ‘question’ (used seventeen times), and with the questioning of ‘the belief in ghosts and the code of revenge.’ I would want to get at this obsession with questioning a little differently. Shakespeare’s principal departure from the Hamlet of legend and of history is to alter, quite subtly, the grounds of action for the prince. In the Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus and in the French tale by Belleforest, Prince Amleth from the start is in real danger from his murderous uncle, and cunningly feigns idiocy and madness in order to preserve his life. Perhaps in the Ur-Hamlet Shakespeare had followed this paradigm, but little remains of it in our Hamlet. Claudius is all to content to have his nephew as heir; rotten as the state of Denmark is, Claudius has everything that ever he wanted, Gertrude and the throne. Had Hamlet remained passive, after the Ghost’s visitation, then Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself would not have died violent deaths. Everything in the play depends upon Hamlet’s response to the Ghost, a response that is as highly dialectical as everything else about Hamlet. The question of Hamlet always must be Hamlet himself, for Shakespeare created him to be as ambivalent and divided a consciousness as a coherent drama could sustain.”
From Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare:
“It has been said of Hamlet that something in his genius renders him superior to decision and incapable of act, and it has been pointed out that he dominates the busiest of all known plays. Both are right. His antic disposition has been analyzed as a symptom of abnormality and as a device for seeming made. Neither theory is without support. He has been called the best of men and the worst of men. One judgment is as just as the other. Opinions have differed as to whether his deepest attention is engaged by the murder of his father, the marriage of his mother, the villainy of his uncle the King, the senility of Polonius, the apparent perfidy of Ophelia, the reliability of Horatio, the meddling of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the manliness of Fortinbras. Any of them will do. Scarcely anything can be said that will be untrue of this brilliant and abounding young man, the first crisis in whose life is also, to our loss, the last.
It has been said of the play “Hamlet” that its best scene is the one in which Horatio first sees the ghost, or the one in which he tells Hamlet of it, or the one in which Hamlet himself sees it and swears his friends to secrecy, or the one in which Polonius bids farewell to his son and warns his daughter away from the prince, or the one in which Ophelia reports Hamlet’s disorder, or the one in which Polonius explains it to the King and Queen, or the one in which Hamlet, entering with a book, seems to Polonius to support the explanation, or the one in which Hamlet discovers the intentions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and discourses to them of his misanthropy, or the one in which he greets the players and conceives a use to which they can be put, or the one in which Ophelia is loosed to him while the King and Polonius listen as spies, or the one in which he addresses the players on the subject of their art, or the one in which the play he has planned breaks down the King’s composure, or the one with the recorders, or the one in which Hamlet cannot kill the King because he is praying, or the one in his mother’s closet when Polonius is stabbed and the ghost walks again, or the one in which he makes merry over Polonius’s supper of worms, or the one in which he watches Fortinbras march against Poland, or the one in which Ophelia sings mad songs and rouses her brother to revenge, or the one in which, while Laertes plots with the King, the Queen reports Ophelia’s death, or the one in the graveyard, or the one with Osric, or the one at the end which leaves only Horatio and Fortinbras alive. Any of them will do. For all the scenes in “Hamlet” are good, and relatively to the play as a whole each one in its turn is best.
The two absolutes are related. Neither the hero nor his play can be taken apart. The joints are invisible. The character of Hamlet would appear to be no character at all because a name cannot be found for it, or – which is the same thing – because too many can be found. Yet no reader or beholder of the play ever doubted that Hamlet was one man, or doubted that he knew him better than most men. He is so singular in each particular, to paraphrase Florizel’s account of Perdita, that all his acts are kings. He is alive to the last syllable, and where there is so much life there is no blank space for labels. So likewise with the tragedy of which he is the heart and brain if not the whole moving body. There is no best scene in “Hamlet” because it is not made up of scenes; it is one situation and one action, and though like any whole it is composed of parts there is no part whose tissue can be separated from the rest without the sound of tearing. “Hamlet” is a highly organized animal, sensitive and thoroughbred, each of whose sinews overlaps another, each of whose tendons tightens some extremity, and all of whose blood-stream is necessary to the unique, quick life which even the quietest movement expresses.”
From Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary:
“The bibliography of dissertation and studies devoted to Hamlet is twice the size of Warsaw’s telephone directory. No Dane of flesh and blood has been written about to extensively as Hamlet. Shakespeare’s prince is certainly the best known representative of his nation. Innumerable glossaries and commentaries have grown round Hamlet, and he is one of the few literary heroes who live apart from the text, apart from the theatre. His name means something even to those who have never seen or read Shakespeare’s play. In this respect he is rather like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. We know she is smiling even before we have seen the picture. Mona Lisa’s smile has been separated from the picture, as it were. It contains not only what Leonardo expressed in it but also everything that has been written about it. Too many people – girls, women, poets, painters – have tried to solve the mystery of that smile. It is not just Mona Lisa that is smiling at us now, but all those who have tried to analyze, or imitate, that smile.
This is also the case with Hamlet, — or rather, with Hamlet in the theatre. For we have been separated from the text not only by Hamlet’s ‘independent life’ in our culture, but simply by the size of the play. Hamlet cannot be performed in its entirety, because the performance would last nearly six hours. One has to select, curtail and cut. One can perform only one of several Hamlets potentially existing in this arch-play. It will always be a poorer Hamlet than Shakespeare’s Hamlet is; but it may also be a Hamlet enriched by being of our time. It may, but I would rather way – it must be so.
For Hamlet cannot be played simply. This may be the reason why it is so tempting to producers and actors. Many generations have seen their own reflections in this play. The genius of Hamlet consists, perhaps, in the fact that the play can serve as a mirror. An ideal Hamlet would be most true to Shakespeare and most modern at the same time. Is this possible? I do not know. But we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking how much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us.
What I have in mind is not a forced topicality, a Hamlet that would be set in a cellar of young existentialists. Hamlet has been performed, for that matter, in evening dress and in circuit tights; in medieval armor and in Renaissance costume. Costumes do not matter. What matters is that through Shakespeare’s text we ought to get at our modern experience, anxiety and sensibility.
There are many subjects in Hamlet. There is politics, force opposed to morality; there is discussion of the divergence between theory and practice, of the ultimate purpose of life; there is tragedy of love, as well as family drama; political, eschatological and metaphysical problems are considered. There is everything you want, including deep psychological analysis, a bloody story, a duel, and general slaughter. One can select at will. But one must know what one selects, and why.”
And finally, back to Bloom, from Hamlet: Poem Unlimited:
“Hamlet is part of Shakespeare’s revenge upon revenge tragedy, and is of no genre. Of all poems, it is the most unlimited. As a mediation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world’s scriptures.
Contrary, doubtless to Shakespeare’s intention, Hamlet has become the center of a secular scripture. It is scarcely conceivable that Shakespeare could have anticipated how universal the play has proved to be. Ringed around it are the summits of Western Literature: the Iliad, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Macbeth, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, The Brother’s Karamazov, Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time, among others. Except for Shakespeare’s no dramas are included. Aeschylus and Sophocles, Calderon and Racine are not secular, while I suggest the paradox that Dante, Milton, and Dostoevsky are secular, despite their professions of piety.
Hamlet’s obsessions are not necessarily Shakespeare’s, though playwright and prince share an intense theatricality and a distrust of motives. Shakespeare is in the play not as Hamlet, but as the Ghost and as the First Player (Player King), roles he evidently acted. Of the Ghost, we are certain from the start that he indeed is King Hamlet’s spirit, escaped from the afterlife to enlist his son to revenge:
If thou didst ever thy dear father love –
The spirit does not speak of any love for his son, who would appear to have been rather a neglected child. When not bashing enemies, the later warrior-king kept his hands upon Queen Gertrude, a sexual magnet. The graveyard scene (V.i) allows us to infer that the prince found father and mother in Yorick the royal jester:
He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now – how abhorred in my imagination it is – my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips I have kissed I know not how oft.
Hamlet is his own Falstaff (as Harold Goddard remarked) because Yorick, ‘a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,’ raised him until the prince was seven. The Grave-digger, the only personage in the play witty enough to hold his own with Hamlet, tells us that Yorick’s skull has been in the earth twenty-three years, and that it is thirty years since Hamlet’s birth. Yet who would take the prince of the first four acts, a student at the University of Wittenberg (a German Protestant institution, famous for Martin Luther), as having reached thirty? Like his college chums, the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet can be no older than about twenty at the start, and the lapsed time represented in the tragedy cannot be more than eight weeks, at the most. Shakespeare, wonderfully careless on matters of time and space, wanted a preternaturally matured Hamlet for Act V.
Though we speak of act and scene divisions, and later in this little book I will center upon the final act, these are not Shakespeare’s divisions, since all his plays were performed straight through, without intermissions, at the Globe Theatre. The uncut Hamlet, in our modern editions, which brings together all verified texts, [MY NOTE: I’ll talk more about this later in the week], runs to nearly four thousand lines, twice the length of Macbeth. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the prince’s role (at about fifteen hundred lines) is similarly unique. Only if you run the two parts of Henry IV together (as we should) can you find a Shakespearean equivalent, with Falstaff’s role as massive, though unlike Hamlet my sublime prototype speaks prose only – the best prose in the language, except perhaps for Hamlet’s.
The Tragical Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke stands apart among Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays, quite aside from its universal fame. Its length and variety are matched by its experimentalism. After four centuries, Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality, just as Hamlet himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed. I think it is wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do. I have been willing to call such a stance Bardolatry, which seems to be only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare.
How should we begin reading Hamlet, or how attend it in performance, in the unlikely event of finding the play responsibly directed? I suggest that we try to infer just how the young man attired in black became so formidably unique an individual. Claudius addresses the prince as ‘my son,’ meaning he has adopted his nephew as royal heir, but also gallingly reminding Hamlet that he is a stepson by marriage. The first line spoken by Hamlet is, ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind,’ while the next concludes punningly, ‘I am too much in the sun.’ Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually may be Claudius’s son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude? His notorious hesitation at hacking down Claudius seems partly from the sheer magnitude of his consciousness, but they also may indicate a realistic doubt as to his paternity.
We are left alone with Hamlet for the first of his seven soliloquies. Its opening lines carry us a long way into the labyrinths of his spirit:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew…
The First Folio gives us ‘solid flesh,’ while the Second Quarto reads ‘sallied flesh.’ While ‘sallied’ could mean ‘assailed,’ it is probably a variant for ‘sullied.’ Hamlet’s recoil from sullied flesh justifies D.H. Lawrence’s dark observation that ‘a sense of corruption in the flesh makes Hamlet frenzied, for he will never admit that it is his own flesh.’ Lawrence’s aversion remains very striking: ‘A creeping, unclean thing he seems…His nasty poking and sniffling at his mother, his traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable.’ Though Lawrence’s perspective is disputable, we need not contest it, because Lawrence himself did: ‘For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go…and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence.’ We can sympathize with Lawrence’s ambivalence: that ‘a creeping unclean thing’ should also be ‘as sincere as the Holy Spirit’ is the essence of Hamlet’s view of humankind, and of himself in particular.
The central question then becomes: How did Hamlet develop into so extraordinarily ambivalent a consciousness? I think we may discount any notion that the double-shock of his father’s sudden death and his mother’s remarriage had brought about a radical change in him. Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother, and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling, nurtured by Yorick, yet fathered by himself, an actor-playwright from the start, though it would not be helpful to identify him with his author. Shakespeare distances Hamlet from himself, partly by appearing on stage at his side, as paternal ghost and as Player King, but primarily by endowing the prince with an authorial consciousness of his own, as well as with an actor’s proclivities. Hamlet, his own Falstaff, is also his own Shakescene, endlessly interested in theater. Indeed, his first speech that goes beyond a single line is also his first meditation upon acting:
These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a many might play;
But I have that within which passes show…
In some sense, Hamlet’s instructions to the actors go on throughout the play, which is probably the best of all textbooks on the purposes of playing. Hamlet is neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but an enthusiastic and remarkably informed amateur of the theater. He certainly seems to have spent more time playing truant at the Globe in London than studying at Wittenberg. The Ghost exists, murmuring, ‘Remember me,’ and we hear Hamlet reminding the Globe audience that he is one of them:
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe.
Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack my Heart with Words, for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something. For Hamlet, the play’s the thing, and not just to mousetrap Claudius. At the very close, Hamlet fears a wounded name. I suggest that his anxiety pertains not to being a belated avenger, but to his obsessions as a dramatist.”
Many different approaches…
And with that…we’re ready to start.
Our reading: Hamlet, Act One
I’ll be posting on a daily basis, shorter posts pertaining to Act One this week…and we’ll start Act Two next week. Please respond with your questions, comments, arguments…let’s make this a discussion, not a soliloquy by yours truly.