Act Five, Part Five
By Dennis Abrams
And here we are…at the end of Hamlet. Not that it ever ends, really. As Bloom says, “His play of some four thousand lines is Shakespeare’s longest and yet is not long enough. We want to hear Hamlet on everything, as we hear Montaigne, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud. Shakespeare, having broken into the mode of the poem unlimited, closed it so that always we would go on needing to hear more.”
And my guess is, that the next time I read it, I’ll have an entirely different impression – reading Hamlet, I suspect, is not unlike looking into a hall of mirrors…the perspectives change constantly. But I have to say that, thanks in part to you all and to the close reading I was forced to give the play, I fell in love with the play, and with Hamlet himself, harder and more passionately than I ever did. Bloom, I think, is right – it is a “poem unlimited.” – and since Hamlet himself seems to have no limits, neither, in an ideal world, do we.
Before getting to Bloom’s final thoughts on the play, I wanted to share this from the news today – the skeleton of Richard III has been found. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/04/confirmed-skeleton-found-under-city-car-park-is-that-of-villainous-richard-iii.html
And coming up…I’ll be posting on Sonnet # 131 on Thursday night/Friday morning. Sunday night/Monday morning I’ll be posting my introduction to our next play, a comic masterpiece, Twelfth Night. Then, we’ll be back to our regular schedule of posts Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, Thursday night/Friday morning, and Sunday night/Monday morning.
From Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited:
HAD I BUT TIME – O, I COULD TELL YOU
“Our compact with Hamlet is that he will teach us who he is, and so instruct in the mystery, the secret of his charismatic eminence. The mystery certainly is there. John Bayley shrewdly observed that if Hamlet beguiles us, we can assume he charmed Shakespeare also. We come to love what Shakespeare himself loved. Like Falstaff and Cleopatra, Hamlet bewilders me by his simultaneous excess in both theatricality and vitality. The Henry IV plays, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are unlimited poems, and yet seem confinements in proportion to Falstaff, Cleopatra, and Hamlet. We want them to tell us even more than they do, because their power over language is so enormous.
Although critics have pointed out that Hamlet seems to meld Falstaff and Prince Hal in a single consciousness, it is also possible to suggest that everything Shakespeare had composed before 1600 comes together in some aspect of the prince’s nature. All the men and women imagined by the playwright are gathered up into a finer tone by Hamlet’s voice. So profoundly does Hamlet study himself that we can be tempted to overlook how fiercely his ironical study is extended to others, not just all who throng his own play but also those who appear earlier in Shakespeare. It is Hamlet’s triumph over Shakespeare (or perhaps Shakespeare’s transcendence of Shakespeare) that the prince implicitly persuades us he knows more than his creator does.
There are two mysteries of Hamlet: one is theatrical, the other is visionary. The theatrical can be analyzed, though eventually the infinite experimentalism of the drama evades our instruments. But the visionary dimensions of what ought to be an actor’s role trouble even the most rigorous and subtle of minds, like Hume’s and Wittgenstein’s. Hamlet’s tone is itself a vision. His voice testifies that what we see and feel comes from our narcissistic fall into what the hermetists called ‘love and sleep.’ Unloving and awake, Hamlet seems unfallen, not in amoral or theological sense, but as someone might be who, by glimpses, arrives beyond narcissism. By this, I mean the transmuted Hamlet of Act V, who fears a wounded name yet defies augury.
Earlier in the play, a more self-obsessed Hamlet tends to be most brilliantly ironic both in soliloquy and when taunting his gulls: Polonius and the ill-fated Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, wickedly undifferentiated by Shakespeare, thus creating literary space for Tom Stoppard. Since Hamlet kills Polonius (thinking him likely to be Claudius) and sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern off to an English execution, their murders seem ungrateful of the prince, after they have provoked him to such cascades of dark wit:
Polonius: — What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Polonius: I mean the matter that you read, my lord.
Hamlet: Slanders, sir. For the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes pouring thick amber and plumb-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams – all which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down. For yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am – if like a crab you could go backward.
Polonius: [Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. – Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
Hamlet: Into my grave?
Polonius: Indeed, that’s out of the air. – [Aside] How pregnant sometimes his replies are – a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will leave him and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter. – My lord, I will take my leave of you.
Hamlet: You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will not more willing part withal – except my life, except my life, except my life.
The thrice-uttered ‘except my life’ conveys authentic desperation, which will be raised to the sublime friction with the false college chums, Rosenstern and Guildencrantz (for the sake of variety):
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me.
We cannot play upon him, and we begin to wonder if Shakespeare always can make him speak. Hamlet throughout, but particularly after his return from the sea, knows something we want and need to know, and part of his play’s power over us is that we ransack it hoping to find out the secret. We are ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play,’ wondering if its cunning will prompt us to proclaim our malefactions. Each time I read, teach, or attend Hamlet, I am struck hardest by the prince’s dying intimation of what has been undivulged:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –
But let it be.
Hamlet utters a total of almost twenty more lines after that ‘let it be,’ so that one can experience a certain frustration at not being told part, at least, of what is hinted. We are addressed specifically as audience, reminding us again of how readily this play has forsaken its supposed function of representation and instead has offered itself to us as the thing itself. Hamlet, by presenting himself as an authorial consciousness – by no means Shakespeare’s own – is no longer a part for a player. He is one of us, and yet possesses the knowledge of how we relate to him.
He wants us, the unsatisfied, to exonerate him, lest he bear a wounded name. That wager he goes on winning: you have to be quite an advanced literary critic not to love him, hardly an original observation for me to make. Yet he seems to want to tell us something beyond our relationship to him. He says that he is already dead, an acknowledgement he would have made in the graveyard. Unlike his father, he is not a ghost, but a resurrected spirit about to die, in the pattern of the Jesus of the Gnostic heretics. I suggest that had he time, he could tell us something about ‘the undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveler returns.’
ANNIHILATION: HAMLET’S WAKE
Though Horatio expects Hamlet to be carried directly off to heaven, that prospect seems irrelevant, as does the Ghost’s hellish account of his purgatory. Hamlet the son is not going to heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo, or to any other theological fantasy. He has been there, done that, in his exhaustive drama. The hero of the poem unlimited cannot be envisioned embarking on a final voyage to the imagined lands of the Catholics, Calvinists, or Lutherans. He knows what he taught Emerson: ‘As men’s prayers are a disease of the Will, so are their creeds a disease of the Intellect.’
Hamlet, a bookish swordsman, clearly has read Montaigne, Emerson’s forerunner. Perhaps is carrying the Essays about with him [MY NOTE: I’d like to think that, myself.] when Polonius accosts him. Montaigne advised us not to bother to prepare for dying, because we would know well enough how to do it when the time came. Pragmatically, that is Hamlet’s stance. Silence is the salient aspect of what is coming for all of us, and Hamlet has been anything but a silent protagonist. What can the world do with a silent Hamlet?
For Hamlet, silence is annihilation. Hamlet’s wake, his name, has not been wounded but wondrous: Ibsen and Chekhov, Pirandello and Beckett have rewritten him, and so have the novelists Goethe, Scott, Dickens, and Joyce. Playwrights and novelists will be compelled to continue revising Hamlet, for reasons that I suspect have more to do with our horror of our own consciousness confronting annihilation than with our individual addictions to guilt and to grief.
What matters most about Hamlet is his genius, which his for consciousness itself. He is aware that his inner self perpetually augments, and that he must go on overhearing an ever-burgeoning self-consciousness. Only annihilation is the alternative to self-overhearing, for nothing else can stop Hamlet’s astonishing gift of awareness.
I want to be as clear as I can be about Hamlet’s stance: it is pragmatically nihilist, which does not rule out spiritual yearnings, whether Catholic, Protestant, or hermetist (in the manner of Giordano Bruno, as Frances Yates suggested). Hamlet is a god in ruins, which was Emerson’s Orphic definition of man. To know that you are a fallen divinity is a difference that makes a difference: annihilation becomes a welcome alternative.
Any exegesis of Hamlet takes place within the circle of the play’s endless notoriety: this remains the literary work proper, the thing itself, what first we think of when we consider the experience of the reader, or of the auditor. We are all celebrants at Hamlet’s wake: Russians, Germans, Celts, wandering Jews, Asians, Africans. Universality is Hamlet’s glory, or is it now his stigma? In relation to the prince, we are rather like Hamlet himself in regard to the Grave-digger:
How absolute the knave is. We must speak by the card or equivocation will undo us.
We need the shipman’s card, on which all thirty-two compass points clearly are marked, but no such chart is available to us. Where everything is questionable, we have not just several plays in one, but ultimately a player too equivocal for his plays.
King Lear has a stop, as does Macbeth; Hamlet does not. We exit believing that Lear has told us everything he had to tell, and that Macbeth has exhausted tale-telling. Hamlet, as seen, tantalizes us with what he has not the time to divulge. If drama takes dictionary definition, it tells a story for performance, one that begins and ends. There is an end to Hamlet but not to Hamlet: he comes alive at the wake. His whoreson dead body, after four centuries, has not decayed.
The Grave-digger, Hamlet’s only worthy interlocutor, blocks the prince’s wit with superb gamesmanship:
‘Tis a quick lie, sir, ‘twill away again from me to you.
The question at issue is: Whose grave is it? Rhetorically, the undertaker wins in this duet, but in truth we do not believe him, for where shall we bury Hamlet? In dying, Goethe’s imitation Hamlet, Faust, declares his satisfaction, and so is satisfactorily buried, unlike Goethe, who speculated that some exemption from dying might be arranged, in the scheme of things, for a consciousness as creative as his own.
THE FUSION OF HIGH AND POPULAR ART
A ‘poem unlimited’ should be the greatest of entertainments, but I have yet to see Hamlet performed, on screen or stage, as extravagantly as it should be done. I hasten to stammer, ‘No! I don’t mean Hamlet the musical!’ What I wanted is a director and an actor who are monsters of consciousness, and who can keep up with that true combat of mighty opposites, Hamlet and Shakespeare. In such a death duel, I would want the actor to side with Shakespeare, and the director to favor Hamlet. Let the actor underplay, even as he is overdirected.
As audience, we thus will confront a protagonist and a director in dubious battle, but that should help emphasize that everything in the play that is not Hamlet himself is peculiarly archaic. The actor will imply continuously that he has been dropped into the wrong play, het feels it will do as badly, or as well, as any other, while the director will maintain pressure to evidence that Hamlet is far too good for this antique vehicle, which could wheeze along with just a commonplace hero (or hero-villain) at the center.
Scholarship has not been able to establish the precise relationship of Hamlet to its key-source, an earlier Hamlet generally ascribed to Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, a great audience pleaser in Shakespeare’s day but dear now only to specialists. I continue to follow Peter Alexander in his surmise that the first Hamlet was composed by the very young Shakespeare himself. Hidden inside the final Hamlet is the ghost of the first one, including the archaic Ghost, ironically played by Shakespeare, perhaps as one more in-joke.
Who, besides Hamlet (and the Grave-digger), can sustain prolonged analysis of the final play. The entire cast are mindless shadows when confronted by the bookish, theatergoing, skeptical prince, who seems centuries later than everyone else, including the audience. We have not caught up to the Hamlet of Act V, because he thinks more comprehensively than most of us can. That Hamlet of earlier acts can be more problematical: can he truly be the maniac moralizer he plays at being in the closet scene, where his sadistic rhetoric is so disconcerting?
I don’t know that anything else in literature gives us so amazing a fusion of high and popular art as the confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude in Act III, Scene iv, which goes on for more than two hundred lines, much of it given over to high Hamletian rant:
Let this bloat King tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. ‘Twere good you let him know,
For who that’s but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a big,
Such dear concernings hide? Who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house’s top,
Let the birds fly, and like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.
Mad in craft indeed, and very dangerous, this Hamlet is at once pre-Shakespearean and postmodern, and certainly at home in the rhetoric of proverb and fable. Rather nastily, the prince informs his mother that telling Claudius of an assumed madness will bring her end also in the general catastrophe, a perfectly accurate prophecy. Such a tirade is addressed both to the groundlings and to the nobility, to delight the former by familiarity and the latter by an easy descent to the communal. Throughout the closet scene, Hamlet mixes high and low rhetoric with the antic glee of a player cutting loose from his playwright, boisterously breaking all the rules of representation:
O shame where is thy blush?
If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,
To flowing youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire.
Reflection makes us murmur that it does need a Hamlet to mouth this fustian stuff, but the staged scene allows no pause for such realization. We go from the manslaughter of the wretched Polonius through the singular reentry of the Ghost and on to Hamlet’s grim prediction that he will explode Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the moon. By the time the prince exits, dragging Polonius’s corpse with him, we are still startled by his casual brutality: ‘I’ll lug the gusts into the neighbour room.’ Melodramatic farce is domesticated in this freest and wildest of plays, where anything may happen, and expectation is invoked largely to be confounded.
HAMLET AS THE LIMIT OF STAGE DRAMA
Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died at age eleven in 1596. John Shakespeare, the poet’s father, died in 1601. At thirty-seven, Shakespeare had lost both. Whatever relation this had to Hamlet has to be conjectural, and was most eloquently propounded by James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in the Library scene of Ulysses:
–Sabellius, the African, subtlest heresiarch of all the beasts of the field, held that the father was Himself His Own Son. The bulldog of Aquin, with whom no word shall be impossible, refutes him. Well: if the father who has not a son be not a father can the son who has not a father be a son? When Rutlandbaconsouthmaptonshakespeare or another part of the same name in the comedy of errors wrote Hamlet he was not the father of his own son merely but, being no more a son, he was and felt himself the father of all his race, the father of his own grandfather, the father of his unborn grandson who, by the same token, never was born…
If Hamlet constitutes, to whatever degree, a meditation upon fathers and sons – and most of us agree with that notion – the context for dramatic brooding on filial matters is observed by the overt enigmas of stage representation. The black prince, a dramatic individual, comes to understand that he has been mourning the idea of fatherhood/sonship rather than the actual King Hamlet, an uxorious killing machine with whom the great soliloquist has absolutely nothing in common. When the Ghost, who seems to have undergone rather minimal character change in Purgatory, glides onto the closet scene, he still demands Claudius’s blood. As in Act I, he is unconcerned with his son’s well-being, but instead becomes alarmed at Gertrude’s psychic condition. The prince, in the Ghost’s view, is to be a sword of vengeance, no more nor less.
Shakespeare, despite much scholarly argument to the contrary, was no lover of authority, which had murdered Christopher Marlowe, tortured and broken Thomas Kyd, and branded Ben Jonson. The poet kept some distance from the ruling powers, and temporized whenever necessary. Are we to believe that Hamlet loves authority? He tries, but it will not work. Even the Ghost, supposed image of the play’s only authentic authority, is soon enough addressed by his son as ‘truepenny’ and ‘old mole,’ and referred to as ‘this fellow in the cellarage.’ Hamlet’s mourning, of which we continue too make too much, has equivocal elements. Like Samuel Beckett, who wrote his own Hamlet in Endgame, the prince is sorrier for humankind than he is for himself.
You cannot reduce Hamlet to any consistency, even in his grief. His drama is limitless precisely because his personality is informed by his own cognitive power, which appears unbounded. Since in Hamlet’s case, the play is the figure, we pragmatically cannot hold this, of all Shakespeare’s dramas, together in our minds. Samuel Johnson, properly puzzled and not enthralled, said, ‘We must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety.’ One agrees with Johnson’s mordant observation; ‘The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose,’ for the plot cannot change Hamlet. Only Hamlet can, by hearing his own formulations, and then thinking himself beyond them. Not just the most experimental of plays, Hamlet is truly the graveyard of drama. Shakespeare escaped from Hamlet to write Othello and King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, but no one else – playwright or novelist – quite gets out of that burial ground. Our deep subjectivity hovers there, its emblem the skull of Yorick.
Iago was the solution that Shakespeare’s genius found to the impasse Hamlet constitutes. The prince would not deign to say, ‘For I am nothing if not critical.’ Iago constructs his own isolation; Hamlet already is isolation. Shakespeare uses Iago to get started again, but with no ambition to go beyond Hamlet, which may be impossible. Even where the prince has only the absurd (Osric) to comment upon, his commentary nevertheless transcends its own prophecy:
A did comply with his dug before a sucked it. Thus has he – and many more of the same bevy that I know the drossy age dotes on – only got the tune of the time and, out of an habit of encounter, a kind of yeasty collection, which carries them through and through the most fanned and winnowed opinions; and do not but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.
Osric here stands in not only for a flock of contemporary courtiers, but for fashionable rival playwrights, and possibly for most of us as well, whoever we are. It is the dramatic placement of the Osric follies that startles: Hamlet is aware he is about to enter Claudius’s last entrapment, in the duel with Laertes. To call his stance ‘insouciant’ would undervalue it. As always, he mocks the play: plot, ethos, contest.
Shakespeare partly answers Hamlet’s irony by an enormous advance in the representations of villains: Iago, Edmund in King Lear, Macbeth. Extraordinary as they are, they do not bruise the demarcations between their plays and reality. Hamlet’s undiscovered country, his embassy of annihilation, voids the limits that ought to confine his drama to stage dimensions.
Ransacking Hamlet is a losing process. If, as with an open box, you could turn the entire play over and empty it out, its scattered contents would defy reassembly into the spunkily coherent entity that goes on sublimely transcending the sum of its components. The malaise that haunts Elsinore is not the unrevenged regicide, or the other corruptions of the shuffling Claudius, but the negative power of Hamlet’s consciousness. Of all Shakespeare’s subtle ellipses, Hamlet is the crown. No two directors, critics, actors, readers, auditors ever can agree on the center of Hamlet’s being. Victor Hugo, always infectiously outrageous, saw Hamlet as a new Prometheus, presumably thefting the fire of divine consciousness in order to augment the genius of humankind. Scholars scoff at Hugo; I revere him. Though one wonders, How can you be a Prometheus in a cosmos devoid of a Zeus? Unsponsored and free, Hamlet longs for a mighty opposite, and discovers he has to be his own. He inaugurates the situation in which each of us has to be our own worst enemy.
Is that the stuff to be quarried by dramatic art? Hamlet, Goethe remarked, already is a novel, but so is what scholars call the Henriad: Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. Falstaff, like Hamlet, is a cosmos too vast for stage representation, as Lear may be also. But Hamlet the play, while it has fostered many novels, ruggedly seems something other than novelistic, though that something has little to do with revenge tragedy. Hamlet’s self-enmity is not Dostoevskian or Conradian-Faulknerian. Despite his musings, he is the least likely of suicides, unlike his imitators Svidrigailov, Decoud in Nostromo, and Quentin Compson.
Like several critics before me, I have located the dramaturgical crisis of Hamlet in the closet scene – which, however, I do not interpret either as family romance or as another play-within-the-play. Hamlet, so individual everywhere else, is absolutely bizarre in his language as he confronts his mother (as we have seen), tub-thumping away like an American televangelist denouncing sin. Shakespeare threw away all decorum of diction by inventing Hamlet, who will not ever shut up or confine himself to courtly conventions.
Since Hamlet is perpetually revived on stages everywhere, palpably it works as a ply, though by all rational standards it should not. Every production that I’ve seen thins the complexities out, wishing them away. We set limits upon the poem unlimited, thus warding off what it is in Hamlet himself we cannot assimilate, an apprehension of mortality a touch too sharp to bear:
O that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.
Hamlet, in the graveyard, jests on ‘Imperious Caesar,’ but all of us are Adamic, earth to earth. Commonplace as a reminder, this would be intolerable if we had to maintain it in consciousness constantly, for all our remaining moments. Staged with fitting force, Hamlet would be drama transfigured to a death march.
THE END OF OUR TIME
As an archetype of the artist, Hamlet has been identified with a range of incarnations from Jesus Christ through William Shakespeare on to Oscar Wilde. Amiably outrageous, these identifications (and others) will continue: much of literature since the later eighteenth century emanates from strong misreadings of Hamlet. It is difficult to conceive of Goethe, Chekhov, or Joyce without Hamlet. Dostoevsky, Ibsen, and Proust turned elsewhere in Shakespeare, in search of a nihilism less ambivalent than Hamlet’s since a residual idealism in the prince tempers the bleakness of his quest for annihilation. Pirandello, who continually rewrote Hamlet, may be the central modern playwright, as Eric Bentley argues, yet Beckett still seems the end of our time, even in these opening years of the twenty-first century. Endgame has more to do with Hamlet than with King Lear, and probably qualifies as the most creative misreading of Shakespeare’s notorious play in the later twentieth century.
THE HERO OF CONSCIOUSNESS
The history of the inward self has been written by many scholars and psychologists working from an extraordinary variety of perspectives. The Dutch psychologist J.H. van den Berg, in his The Changing Nature of Man, traced the birth of self-inwardness to Luther’s essay on Christian freedom (1520). Protestantism is certainly relevant to the augmentation of self-consciousness, which become both a supreme value and a terrible burden in Romanticism. I suspect, though, that Hamlet, more than Luther, was the prime origin of Romantic self-consciousness.
Can even Hamlet, the genius of Western consciousness, find his way back from his knowledge of the void to a second and higher innocence? I do not find what Blake called ‘Organized Innocence’ even in the Hamlet of Act V. Only Hamlet’s mind can defend against its own terrible force, and the unrelenting theatricalist in him refuses to cease indulging in dramatic irony. He will not allow himself to forget that he is another staged representation, even as we refuse to bear that always in mind.
Unlike Oedipus or Lear, Hamlet never seems victimized by dramatic irony. What perspectives can we turn upon Hamlet other than those he himself has revealed to us? Hamlet’s power of mind exceeds ours: we haven’t the authority to regard him ironically. For all his brilliance, Oedipus the King – and not the blind wanderer at Colonus – is contrived by Sophocles to know less than the audience does. Hamlet’s unique relation to the audience does. Hamlet’s unique relation to the audience is just the reverse: he knows that he knows more.
Thomas Carlyle, who esteemed Shakespeare above all other thinkers praised what he called the poet’s ‘unconscious intellect,’ meaning by ‘unconsciousness’ that ‘the healthy know not of their health, but only the sick.’ Carlyle, absurdly unread these days, may have erred, very subtly. Health and sickness are not contrasts in Hamlet: he is sick, after all, only north-by-northwest, and I do not believe in his madness, the antic disposition of a great ironist. Perhaps Falstaff, Cleopatra, and Lear emerge from Shakespeare’s ‘unconscious intellect’; Hamlet and Iago do not.
If you think your way through to the truth, then you must die of it: that Nietzschean interpretation of Hamlet, which once pleased me, now also seems subtly wrong. It is dangerous to affirm that Hamlet himself is the truth; Christian believers would regard that as blasphemy. Yet I do not know what else to call Hamlet; there is a god within him, and he speaks: ‘And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’ Hamlet’s is the most refined of all Adamic dusts, but remains the old Adam and not the New: essentially dust.
We go back to Hamlet because we cannot achieve enough consciousness, even at the expense of a sickening self-consciousness. In the Hebrew Bible, David is a new kind of man, as is his descendant, Jesus, in the Greek New Testament. Hamlet marks a third newness, secularized and destructive. Shakespeare, playing with the limits of stage representation, shows an ironic awareness of the unprecedentedness of his creation. The Hamlets, father and son, must share the same name, though they possess nothing else in common. Are we certain we know everything the prince means in his early exchange with Horatio?
Hamlet: My father – methinks I see my father –
Horatio: Where, my lord?
Hamlet: In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
Horatio: I saw him once; a was a goodly king.
Hamlet: A was a man, take him for all in all:
I shall not look upon his like again.
There is more awe than love in that judgment, and a great wisdom in ‘take him for all in all.’ Hamlet’s explorations in consciousness turn upon the question ‘What is man?’ which in him is not an Oedipal concern. Perhaps it is the invention of ambivalence, as we have come to know it. Hamlet seems himself as nothing and everything, like his creator Shakespeare, famously regarded by Jorge Luis Borges as no one and everyone. We read or attend Hamlet and bring our own ambivalences with us, but the prince alters and deepens them. When he dies, our modified ambivalences, now set upon him, ring the hero in an aura that is a kind of taboo. Hamlet has bruised the limits for all of us in carrying out his embassy of death. If we remain in a harsh world where, with Horatio, we will draw our breath in pain, it is because we are not yet ready to accept Hamlet’s judgment that the obliteration of consciousness is an absolute felicity. He departs before us, unforgettable as disturbance and icon.
HAMLET AND NO END
Goethe, though secure on his German Olympus, never got over Shakespeare, or Hamlet. At sixty-six he wrote the essay ‘Schakespear und Kein Ende!’ or “No End of Shakespeare!’ This ambivalent performance was prompted by Goethe’s botching of Romeo and Juliet in his own translated travesty, which is hideously inadequate to the vibrant original. With Hamlet, no fresh botching was necessary; Goethe had been rewriting it all his life, and was still at it in the Second Part of Faust.
King Hamlet’s end is reached quickly enough: we don’t like the Ghost, and we would have liked the warrior-king still less. Yet none of us can discover the limits of Hamlet’s consciousness, nor can we compel Shakespeare’s ‘poem unlimited’ to stay inert long enough so that we can contemplate it fully as an aesthetic artifact. As this is the last of my twenty-five brief chapters, I intend to devote it to surmise. What was it in Shakespeare, as poet-dramatist and as person, that broke loose in Hamlet and in Hamlet? What was he trying to do for himself, as creator and as creature?
Hamlet intervenes chronologically between As You Like It and Twelfth Night, high comedies with which it shares more than it does with Othello, King Lear, or Macbeth. Hamlet himself is a master comedian, like Falstaff, Rosalind, and Feste. The play’s most famous image is the prince contemplating the skull of Yorick, the royal jester. If it is anyone’s play besides Hamlet’s and the Grave-digger’s, it is Yorick’s whose Ghost should have returned in place of King Hamlet’s.
Yorick has been dead for twenty-three years, and is still unforgiven by the Grave-digger, as a ‘whoreson mad fellow,’ a royal who poured a flagon of wine on the Grave-digger’s reverend head. Hamlet’s spiritual father, Yorick would have been of more use to his onetime playfellow than is Horatio, straightest of straight men. But Yorick is dead, doubtless gone to Arthur’s bosom with Falstaff, and Hamlet reigns alone as monarch of wit in a witless kingdom.
Hamlet’s isolation, as I interpret it, is Shakespeare’s own. There is a tradition, which we ought to honor, that Shakespeare went to his deathbed after a night of serious drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, who had come up from London to Stratford to cheer their old friend. They went back the next day; he died.
Who was Shakespeare’s closest friend? Certainly not the great bear Jonson, whom he had bested in the wars of wit, and probably not the genial Drayton, but in truth we just do not know. Shakespeare seems to have been a gregarious loner, the most preternatural of observers and of gleaners. Like his Hamlet, he was a questioner. Harry Levin usefully observed that the word ‘question’ is used seventeen times in Hamlet, far more than in any of the other plays. What does Hamlet not question, in this tragic farce?
Something, doubtless Claudius, is rotten in Denmark, and yet Hamlet has nothing of the rancidity of Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. Though he is both dangerous and conniving, something in Hamlet remains normative, almost wholesome. Of Shakespeare’s affection, however disinterested, for this protagonist-of-protagonists, we need not doubt, though everything else in the play is doubtful. How can it contain Hamlet, who tolerates no confinements?
Of Hamlet’s peers in Shakespeare, Falstaff and Rosalind precede him, while Iago and Cleopatra come later. The passion of Lear belongs to another order of representation, as does Macbeth’s trafficking with the night world. Most scholars wince or guffaw when I assert the normativeness of Falstaff: highwayman, eating-and-drinking machine, perhaps confidence man above all. But wit is normative in and to Shakespeare, and Falstaff is wittier even than Rosalind and Hamlet, and slyer beyond Iago and Cleopatra, and Shakespeare is benignly, endlessly sly.
Rosalind is the normative center in Shakespeare: good will, charm, the innocence of languages at its most intelligent, benignity that refuses power over other selves. Hamlet, in a history or a comedy, would have delighted in Falstaff and Rosalind. But he has been placed in a poem unlimited masking as revenge tragedy, where his isolation is absolute. Something in Shakespeare seeks isolation for his most gifted protagonist, so as to test his own limits at dramatic representation. The poet found he had no such limits.
What did Shakespeare the person find? Not a confrontation with the tragic muse, since he went on first to Twelfth Night, and entered tragedy again only after the death of comedy in the dark triad of Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. I think he found himself and recoiled from the finding. There is no end to Hamlet or to Hamlet, because there is no end to Shakespeare.
He had discovered the nature of the selfsame, the full secret of how to represent an identity. Perhaps he has vindicated his own powers if, (as I believe) the much earlier Hamlet of the late 1580s was his also, but he was not much concerned with vindication. It is true that the dying Hamlet fears he will survive as a wounded name, and some of the Sonnets feature Shakespeare’s own anxiety at something like that. But the Sonnet sequence is hardly a monument of anxiety, and it designedly blocks any clear entry to Shakespeare’s own inwardness.
Falstaff, in his novelistic inwardness, is one way into Shakespeare’s center, Hamlet is another. Shakespeare will not let Falstaff die upon stage. The greatest of comic geniuses dies in Mistress Quickly’s account in Henry V. Hamlet dies an extraordinarily extended death: it takes nearly sixty lines from the fatal wound through ‘the rest is silence.’ There is no reason it could not go on for six hundred lines: Hamlet would continue to dazzle us. His play of some four thousand lines is Shakespeare’s longest and yet it is not long enough. We want to hear Hamlet on everything, as we hear Montaigne, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud. Shakespeare, having broken into the mode of the poem unlimited, closed it so that always we would go on needing to hear more.”